The Kaepernick Affair: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently caused a stir when he decided not to stand for the national anthem. He said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

It matters not whether I agree with him or not. It matters not whether you agree with him. But how we respond to Mr. Kaepernick’s decision to exercise his right to free speech in this manner matters a lot. Continue reading

Families Aren’t Perfect But They’re the Best Thing We Have

“Older adults who have more family — or close relationships to their family — in their social network live longer, according to a study presented this week at the American Sociological Association’s 111th annual meeting in Seattle. However, having large groups of friends or close relationships with friends doesn’t prolong your life.” (The surprising thing that can shorten older people’s lives, MarketWatch)

So if your goal is to live as long as you possibly can, I suppose you should spend more time with family and less time with friends. How’s that make you feel? Continue reading

Hypocricy Is the Norm

We live in the West (one of the Mountain States to be exact). There is a lot of agriculture to our north and east. In fact, when we drive to visit you, Vera, we drive past thousands of acres of corn, wheat and soybean crops. And past ranches with countless heads of cattle.

Farmers and ranchers tend to be conservative. Extremely conservative. Many of them don’t like government. They want it small and out of our lives. Or so they say.

Indeed, Kansas elected what many people consider to be an extreme right-wing governor. Their choice is arguably having disastrous economic consequences for their state’s economy, but they stuck with him and re-elected him once. Kansas folk are that conservative.

They say they stand on principle. But that’s hogwash. Conservatives are every bit as hypocritical as anyone else.

The most recent example is the plea by farmers and cheese producers for a government bailout. And, sure enough, they’re going to get one. The federal government will purchase $20 million of cheese products it doesn’t need, all for the sake of providing a handout to the ag industry.

It’s not an isolated circumstance. Farmers and ranchers have gotten the benefit of many government bailouts and handouts over the years. And they’ll get more in the future.

Does that mean they’re bad people? No. Does it mean they’re being hypocritical? You bet.

They may not be any more hypocritical than the rest of us, but perhaps they are. I don’t know and I don’t care.

The point is, though, you can’t accept people’s words and votes at face value. You have to examine their actions. And see what their true values are.

The same goes for us. We have to be careful that the gap between our rhetoric and actions doesn’t get too wide. Authenticity demands no less. And if we’re not authentic, what are we?

We Live In an Irrational World

I like to think I’m rational. To a degree, I am; to a larger degree, I’m not. Neither is anyone else.

It took me a long time to realize this. It’s scary how slow I am to learn certain things. It makes me think I’m stupider than I like to think. I suppose no one likes to think they’re stupid. Indeed, studies reveal the vast majority of us think we’re above average. The fact of the matter is, for most of us our brains don’t have to work overtime to fool us. We are much better at rationalizing our decisions than making rational decisions.

When I worked at Bridgewater College, I had a vice president tell me I was the most rational person that person had known. I didn’t say it, but I thought to myself, how ironic? My decision to accept the offer of the board to become their president was one of the most irrational decisions I’d ever made. Perhaps I seemed rational because college campuses are some of the most irrational places in our culture. There, sentimentality reigns.

My list of irrational decisions would be long. I’m not proud of it; in fact, it’s embarrassing. They expose me for what I am: a bundle of emotions, biases, preconceptions, and self-delusions.

If you want to understand the psychological explanations for all this irrationality, I suggest you begin by reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There is a lot of other research on the subject. Suffice it to say that, the more you read, the less confident you will be in your own rational capabilities. And the more concerned we’d be with people who claim to make decisions from their gut or by intuition.

Irrationality is a major impediment to being a good investor. In the current phase of my life, I spend quite a bit of time studying investments and making related decisions. Warren Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger (like me, a lawyer by trade), has said his goal is to become the most rational person possible. Since taking over responsibility for my own investments, I can understand his point more fully. It’s not easy being completely rational. We bring so many preconceptions and biases to the table that get in the way.

Of course, there is no way to become completely rational. Humans aren’t constructed for total rationality. Inside our thought processes are embedded all kinds of experiences that, for better or for worse, we extrapolate and generalize. And inside our DNA is embedded millennial of survival biases and mental shortcuts. Unfortunately, some of these are more pertinent to years long gone; they don’t necessarily translate well to 21st-century living.

I also wonder if irrationality is a defense against what might otherwise seem to be a sense of purposeless and insignificance. Most of us desire to find meaning in life. Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as being insignificant. Yet perhaps that’s where rationality would take us. Perhaps it’s too disquieting a place to live for most of us.

But perhaps we expect too much.

Sometimes I think the main contribution of religion is the concept that none of us is the center. Despite what we might say we believe, we do in fact view the world from our center. But how rational is that? Not so much I suspect.

I wonder what the world would look like if rationality reigned. Not that it’s ever gone to happen. It won’t. Or at least not in my lifetime.

As Kahneman’s work and its progeny have persuasively shown, we make irrational decisions even when we’re aware of the internal biases and predispositions that pull us from rational thought. So, knowledge and self-awareness are not antidotes for what ails us. I wonder how the academics who think education is the be-all and end-all of everything wrap their heads around that.

Yet I can’t help but think knowledge and self-awareness help. But is such thinking grounded in reality or my own self-delusional tendencies?

Accepting the fact I’ll never be completely rational yields at least three byproducts, I suppose. First, it undermines one’s confidence, which, if I’m honest with myself, is probably a good thing.

I tend to be overconfident — too smug about the soundness of my judgment and decisions. A little less confidence is probably a good thing.

Second, a realization of my own irrationality engenders a healthy dose of humility. I could use more humility.

Finally, it makes one less impulsive and more contemplative, slower to make decisions. Decisions made in haste tend to be flawed. Some have to be made quickly. Others don’t. Taking one’s time is probably a good thing.

I don’t know what my life would have been if I’d been as rational as I thought I was. It would have been different, that much is sure. Better or more interesting? That is far from certain.

What I do know is that I would have tried harder to see problems from a different perspective. I’d given more consideration to the perspectives and opinions of others. I’d been slower to reach conclusions. And I’d been less dismissive of others. I’d also be a better investor.

What else would I have realized at an earlier age?

  • The power of propaganda – I minimized the power of propaganda earlier in my life. I had the misguided impression that humans were more rational than we are. The past 15 years have demonstrated the power of propaganda beyond anything I could have imaged during my naive young years. It’s one of the things that scares me. Where it could take us is anyone’s guess, but it’s not likely to be a good place. It rarely is.
  • The threat posed by arrogance – People who don’t understand the limitations of the human mind are particularly dangerous. Their arrogance can lead people astray under the guise of decisiveness and strength. That’s one of the paradoxical aspects of humanity: our perceived strengths can sometimes be our greatest weaknesses.
  • The power of rationalization – Rationalization usually appears as rationality. But they’re very different things. I realize that today. When younger, I would have said I knew it. But I truly didn’t. Perhaps I still don’t perceive the differences to the degree I should.
  • The art of persuasion – My misconception about the power of rational thought limited my effectiveness in certain roles. If I’d better understood better the art of persuasion and the means to get people to think and act as you want them to, I’d been more effective and accomplished more. Every college student should read the books by Robert B. Cialdini. Unfortunately, most don’t. Why? Because most academics think the world is a more rational place than it really is.

So here I am, at the ripe age of 61, with the relatively new-found awareness of the depth of my own irrationality, determined to embrace Charlie Munger’s goal of becoming a rational person. Is it achievable? Not entirely. More completely? I don’t know. That’s the strange thing about the human mind: its power of deception is vast.

But I do think I’d have been a better decision maker. And a better CEO. And husband. And father.

If you want to be a good decision maker, Vera, be mindful of the illusion of understanding. Don’t fall for the idea that the world is more rational than it truly is.

Getting Ready for School

I had a lot of good times in college. It’s where I first learned I could compete on a larger stage. It’s where I had some great social times. It’s where I first experienced getting drunk (which, at the time, seemed quite enjoyable). It’s where I first experienced the power of inspiring teaching. It’s where I discovered I truly liked the law.

It’s also where I had the freedom to spend my days as I decided to spend them without seemingly arbitrary parental direction and constraints. It was a liberating time. A time of exploration and new experiences. A time of growth.

It also was a time of waste and anxiety. I was forced to take courses that had no value to me. I had to do stupid homework assignments that served no purpose other than to satisfy someone’s belief there was inherent value in busyness. I had to sit through boring lectures. I had to get up for 8 o’clock classes (a really dumb idea for 18-year-olds). For the first year and a half, I had to live far from the girl I loved.

For good or bad, these experiences helped form me. To this day they inform my views of education and teaching and, more importantly, learning.

So here I am decades later preparing for school. For fun I teach one or two college courses a semester. I say for fun because it is fun and it’s something I don’t do for the money. I am concerned, however, about those people who have to do it for the money. Colleges take advantage of adjunct faculty. They’re paid a pittance. Every semester I think about the newly minted Ph.D.s who are trying to launch their careers, often burdened by mountains of student-debt, and wonder how or why they do it. And I wonder how college administrators and trustees get comfortable taking advantage of an entire group of people. But I digress.

I said I do it for fun. But I suppose there is another reason. I like a good challenge. And teaching is a challenge — teaching done well, that is. Anyone can “teach” a course, but it takes more to teach it well. It takes a lot of thought and planning. And superb execution. And a genuine compassion for one’s students.

I lived through some great teaching in my childhood. I also survived a lot of very bad teaching. The challenge for me is to do it well. Very well.

I love the challenge.

So in one week my class begins. There hasn’t been anything in life I take more seriously. Yet it never feels burdensome.

The anticipation is building. I’ve never met the students who’ll be taking my course. They’ve never met me. And they’ve probably never experienced a class like the one they’re about to experience.

I almost wrote “my class.” But it’s not mine. It’s theirs. It’s theirs just like the learning will be theirs.

I’ll be the guide, the listener, the mentor, the questioner, the seasoned, battle-tested warrior, the storyteller, and, from time to time, the entertainer. But the students are the ones who truly matter. Whether this experience that is about to unfold will be valuable and impactful depends entirely on what happens between their ears and in their hearts. My simple task is to help ensure magic happens there.

I hope a lot of magic occurs in your life, Vera.



The Ideal Presidential Candidate

We have our candidates. The table is set for the election. But I, like many people, am far from excited about our choices. As usual, I’ll be voting for the least bad choice. Sometimes, that’s a close call. This year, it isn’t even close; it’s an incredibly easy decision. Yet I still long for something better. I still long for the ideal candidate.

So what would the ideal candidate look like? From my perspective, he or she would be: Continue reading

Hopeful Signs

I think we are up to our waders in you-know-what. I’m not going to recite any of the you-know-whats here. I’ve mentioned some (but not all) of them in prior posts. Suffice it to say I think the situation is serious — perhaps, from a financial and political standpoint, even dire.

That said, I remain incredibly hopeful. I prefer hopeful to optimistic because what we call optimism is too often untethered from reality — mere wishful thinking if you will. Too often it takes the form of a naive, childish outlook — a don’t worry, be happy persona.

Sometimes one should be worried (or perhaps concerned is a better word, as your great-grandmother prefers, Vera). Sometimes we need to acknowledge the clouds and gathering storms and work our butts off to prepare and avoid some of the disastrous consequences that might otherwise ensue.

Pure optimists aren’t very good at that. They’re generally the ones who get blindsided and take the full brunt of the blows.

So the whole optimist-pessimist dichotomy doesn’t appeal to me. Nonetheless, if I had to claim one or the other, I suppose I’d claim both, in the model of Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Hope, on the other hand, is a concept more to my liking. At least for me, it doesn’t deny reality. Hope isn’t afraid to talk about the clouds and to confront risks and danger. But it does so with full awareness of what shines behind the clouds. Hope, you see, allows you to see the sun through the clouds.

I see the sun. Here are some of the reasons why: Continue reading