What Can We Learn from Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens is remarkable. He’s the coach of the Boston Celtics. Before that, he coached the Butler Bulldogs. Some people consider him to be the best basketball coach in America. Why is he held in such high regard? Well, of course, it’s because his teams win. But it’s more than that: it’s because his teams win against teams with superior talent. In other words, his teams win because of him.

Other teams win because of their coach — sometimes. Some teams win in spite of their coach. And some teams lose because of their coach. But Mr. Stevens’ teams log more wins because of their coach than other teams — at least that’s what the evidence suggests. Mr. Stevens is that good.

So what’s the difference? It’s important to know because the skills are probably transferable. In other words, the same qualities are likely to yield similar outstanding performance in other arenas, whether they be in business or nonprofits.

From what I’ve been able to discern, here are some of the keys to Mr. Stevens’ success: Continue reading

What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

For Many People, the Tariff Debate Is a Distraction with Potentially Dire Consequences

If you’re confused about President Trump’s trade policies, I suggest you revisit the transcript of a March 2011 interview, where Mr. Trump put forth his views clearly and succintly. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, most economists don’t like this reasoning, not one bit. They think it’s ludicrous for people to pay more for products and services than they’d have to pay if the market was allowed to find an equilibrium unencumbered by tariffs and other trade barriers. In other words, why pay $2,000 for a sofa made in North Carolina when you can purchase an equivalent one made in China for half that price?

Understandably, though, people who’ve lost they jobs to foreign producers see it differently. Being unemployed, or severely underemployed, tends to frame most issues in a deeply personal way. Their concern is jobs, plain and simple. They don’t much care whether shoppers at Walmart will have to pay more.

This is a gross oversimplification of the issues, of course. Economists could and have written entire books on the subject. But people tend to see issues in pretty simplistic and stark terms. Nuances and complexity don’t count for much when your job is at stake, whether you’re a domestic worker or a foreign one who’s making products for the U.S. market.

The one thing most people can agree on is the need for fair trade. And, admittedly, many of the trade rules aren’t fair by any reasonable standards. It’s not that some people and companies, including Americans (including most consumers who have good jobs), haven’t benefited from the rules as they are. They have. But that’s merely an acknowledgement that, no matter what the rules are, there are always winners and losers.

From my perspective as someone who may be retiring soon, the tariffs aren’t a welcome thing. My income will be relatively fixed (depending on my investment returns) while the costs of goods will increase due to these new taxes and the inevitable upward pressure on prices, and downward pressure on quality, caused by less competition and imbedded structural inefficiencies.

But, of course, the tariffs may be welcome to some people, namely, those who may secure jobs that are supplanting imports. However, the number may not be significant, and they may be dwarfed by the number of people who lose jobs due to retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries. Even without the offset of lost jobs, the number added may not be as significant as some people believe.

The reason is simple: technology. Robots and computer-assisted machines and processes already have displaced many workers, including many of the workers who mistakenly think they’ve lost their jobs to foreign workers. And this phenomenon is just getting started. It’s likely to spread farther through the ranks of both blue and white-collar workers no matter what happens with tariffs.

Which brings me to my main point: young people shouldn’t be distracted by the tariff debate. Rather, they should focus on that which they can control and influence, namely, their own learning, knowledge, and skills in the context of a world in which more and more human activity will be taken over by computers and computer-assisted machinery, no matter what tariffs are in place.

This transformation has huge implications for people. No one can be sure how it will all play out; however, it’s likely it will result in a further stratification of workers and even less equal distribution of income and wealth.

When I was teaching, I tried to challenge my students to address this question when choosing a major and potential career path: What will you be able to do that computers won’t be able to do better? Not only today, but in the decade ahead.

American workers’ stiffest competition in the years ahead won’t come from China: it will come from digital technology. Mr. Trump’s mindset is stuck in the 1950s. When you’re a 71-year-old billionaire, there is little risk in that. If you’re in your 20s and aren’t a billionaire, there is a whole lot of risk.

The aging Baby Boomers who are hostage to mindsets formed in the 20th century will be consumed by debating the president’s policies. The smart young people of the 21st-century will focus on the things they can control. And will be preparing for a future than will look very different from the past.

When You Look Around, Something Isn’t Right

This post by David McWilliams, an Irish economist who was traveling to Southern California for a conference, got me to thinking:

Evening just arrived in California and I’m always struck by how old people are doing manual/service jobs like waiting on tables at airports in the US. It doesn’t seem right to have really quite old people standing around all day. V harsh system. Does this strike you too?

Yes it does, David.

Surely you’ve noticed it, too: all the older people doing jobs that teenagers and young adults used to do. I notice it in the grocery store. In fast food and casual restaurants. At sitdown restaurants. At coffee shops. At Walmart, Target and Costco. Everywhere you look, older people are working low-skill minimum wage jobs that used to be taken by inexperienced youth.

And yet we’re told everything is good. That unemployment is near historic lows. The stock market is at or near historic highs, not only in nominal terms but also in valuations. Homes prices are high — sky high in some places. In short, the financial and real estate markets tell us things are great. It’s only when you look around that something seems off.

The takeaway here, Vera, is that this economy — and, likely, the economy of the future — values so-called knowledge workers and pretty much treats everyone else like trash. Indeed, some people at the bottom of the labor pyramid — those low-skill workers with  few options — make only the federal minimum wage, which is presently a paltry $7.25 an hour. For a full-time worker (40 hours per week), that’s only an annual income of $14,500, assuming no days off for vacation or illness.

And yet we’re a rich country. Just look around. People live in houses worth millions. Some of our executives make hundreds of millions a year in compensation. New graduates of certain colleges and programs enter the workforce making six-digit incomes. And yet we can afford to pay people only $14,500 a year?

It’s no wonder older people are working these menial jobs. They’ve never had a chance to save or get ahead financially. They’re stuck in a labor rut that has no upward mobility. They lack the smarts and skills that the market is rewarding in this technologically driven era and so they’re treated like trash. It’s unconscionable, yet few seem to be bothered by it.

Given your parentage, it’s likely you’ll end up being a knowledge worker that the market values. It’s unlikely you’ll be stuck working night shifts at Walmart stocking shelved for $11 an hour. But consider this: Is something wrong with a system that rewards some so lavishly while treating so many other hardworking people so harshly?

I think there is. And if we don’t address it, I think we’ll all be worse off because of it.

Is “Follow Your Passion” One of the Great Lies?

“Follow your passion,” many people say. But is such a blanket recommendation sound?

I’ve never thought so. And neither do some other people.

I know that many people are interested in what billionaires think, for obvious (although perhaps faulty) reasons. So here is a link to an article about what Mark Cuban has to say about following your passion.

Cuban puts it succinctly, “One of the great lies of life is ‘follow your passions.'” Follow the link it you want to know why he feels that way.

Stupidity Recorded for Eternity

Noted journalist Glenn Greenwald recently tweeted:

Now that every stupid, offensive, transgressive comment of young people are recorded on the internet, need standards for how long they count.

He added:

Most who are 36 would be horrified by things they said at 19. This is the 1st generation where youthful stupidity is recorded for eternity.

This is the world in which you’re entering, Vera.

Mine was a gentler, more forgiving world. About the only thing that seemed to live for eternity was some inane comment we may have scribbled in a classmate’s yearbook. And let’s face it, unless you were to become rich and famous, it’s unlikely those comments would see the light of day. And even if they did, they were unlikely to be as toxic as many of the things youth post today on the Internet.

The standards for dialogue have dropped and dragged our youth with them. I can’t believe some of the things people will write about their professors, coaches, fellow classmates and others. All sense of decorum seems to have flown out the window.

But you don’t have to participate. You don’t have to share things with the public that may end up haunting you for the rest of your life. You can be more discriminating. You have a choice.

I get the problem, of course: a teenager or someone in their early 20s may lack the experience and judgment to make sound decisions when it comes to matters such as this. That’s true, which is why one should err on the side of discretion. And not sharing.

Let someone else embarrass themselves. Let someone else establish a reputation as a fool or idiot. Just don’t let it be you.

This may seem like odd advice from someone who shares with the public his writings to you. Note, however, I’m in the late stages of my life, not the early ones. There is less at risk. Moreover, despite the degree to which I do share, there is an awful lot I don’t.

The litmus tests for me are:

  • Would it unnecessarily hurt someone?
  • Would the information cause a loved one to feel responsible in a way that I don’t think is helpful to anyone?
  • Would it be gratuitous and serve no useful purpose?
  • Is my opinion well grounded, or is it something I’m basically pulling out of my ass?

Certain things are appropriate for my journal, not my blog. And still other things may be appropriate only for my inner thoughts, never to be shared with anyone.

One very practical thing to remember is that prospective employers and colleges routinely check applicants’ “digital footprints” — that is, what the applicants reveal about themselves to the world on the Internet.

Some of us leave a very large footprint. And that footprint frequently ends up being the reason for a rejection by a prospective employer, client or institution.

Some may say they don’t care. That’s fine. But, at a young age, are you really in position to make such a decision? Is it that essential to share things that are likely to limit your future options?

In some cases, it might be. But it is obvious to me that in quite a few cases it’s merely a product of bad decision-making. Or of thinking your opinion matters more to the world than it actually does. Most of the time, no one else really cares, and our opinions are pretty irrelevant.

In any case, remember that all of us will say or do something stupid in our lives. More than once. If we’re lucky, and smart, evidence of that stupidity will not live forever on the web.

So, You’re Going To Be a Doctor

Vera, a couple of weeks ago your grandmother and I looked after you when you parents had some business to attend to. You were interested in the protective guard I was wearing on my left arm, the one a surgeon had recently cut open to install a plate and screws. I removed the guard so you could see the incision, which by now had had the sutures removed. You were quite curious and not the least bit scared or queasy about it. You touched the site of the incision, now closed and in the process of healing further.

Because of your surprising interest, I then showed you my shoulder, where a different surgeon had repaired fractures with even more hardware, requiring an even longer incision. The incision isn’t pretty (actually, it’s considerably worse looking than the arm), but, again, you had a curiosity that was compelling. You asked if you could touch it. I said, yes, wondering what was going through your mind.

I then remarked that, given your interest, perhaps you should become a doctor. I asked you if you wanted to be a doctor when you grew up. Without hesitation, you said, Yes! I said you’d have to share your new career plans with your parents when they returned home.

Quite a while later, we heard the garage door. When the door to the kitchen opened, you took off to enthusiastically greet your parents as you always do. It was then I heard you tell them: “I’m going to be a doctor!”

I feel I should receive a fee for this career counseling. You and your parents have avoided hours if not years of struggling to find your chosen career. At 27 months, you already have yours in hand, thanks to me!

I realize, of course, that it’s possible you will change your mind. I also realize there is no way a 27-month-old could understand what the job entailed. Or what she was actually saying for that matter.

That said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if you did become a doctor. I always thought it would be interesting and rewarding to be a doctor — a profession in which you get to help people and make the world a better place on a daily basis. I never had the memory to handle all the terms, nor the interest in memorizing all that stuff that would be required, but in a way I wish I had.

As a lawyer, I helped people and companies. But it wasn’t the same. I didn’t save lives. I didn’t find cures or heal. My contribution paled in comparison to a doctor.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t many other career paths that afford opportunity to satisfy one’s cognitive appetite and make a real contribution. There are. Even in the law, there are such options. But I never went that direction.

My addition to affirmation and economic security that comes from professional success led me to a law firm that accepted only those at the top of their class. In return, they paid well and gave us the opportunity to handle interesting, complex matters. I liked that. But nearly all our clients were businesses. Everyday people couldn’t afford our rates.

I wish I had recognized my addiction at an earlier age and worked to overcome it. But, as with so many things, it seems things are easier to spot with age.

In any case, Vera, it doesn’t matter to me what you choose to do when you grow up. I just hope it’s something you enjoy and that you’re good at it, and that it enables you to make a contribution to the world.

Most of all, I hope you do it for the right reasons.

Misguided Loyalties

James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to prison yesterday (for more than three years). And was fined $200,000. His offense: helping VW defraud the U.S. and violate the Clean Air Act by evading emissions requirements with diesel-powered vehicles by rigging software to cheat.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, said Mr. Liang is a “good and decent person.” He added, “[Mr. Liang] blindly executed a crime because of a misguided loyalty to his employer.”

I don’t doubt it. Not for a minute. I’ve seen it often.

I’ve even visited fellow employees in prison for their misdeeds (price fixing). And worked hard to keep others out. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Usually, transgressors don’t get caught.

The common denominator in most cases is what Mr. Nixon observed: misguided loyalty.

I’ve always been amazed by what people are willing to do from a sense of loyalty to their employers. Of course, it’s not always based in loyalty. Sometimes, it’s out of fear: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, fear of being ostracized.

Most of the people I’ve observed transgress in a serious way are what I’d call
“good and decent people.” They were just willing to do things for their employers that they’d probably not have been willing to do for themselves.

I’ve never made excuses for people who cross the line. Each of us makes decisions about how to live our lives. What risks to take. What injury to inflict on others. If you make bad decisions, don’t expect others to make excuses for you.

Mr. Liang decided to conspire with others to help his employer in deceitful ways that hurt others. And the environment. It was a choice. He was one of the unlucky ones. He got caught.

To whom and what do you owe your loyalty, Vera? These are questions you’ll face in life.

Take these questions seriously. They’re not unimportant. Indeed, our answers define us. They may even affect where and how we spend our future (e.g., in prison and in shame).

I’ve had the privilege of working with some people who owed their loyalty to virtue, honesty and respect for others instead of a man-made creation we call a corporation or instead of money. One that comes to mind is a former colleague who now lives in Alabama. He took such questions seriously. He is a “good and decent person.”

But he’s so much more than that.