Archive for April, 2008


Just Say Yes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how people shouldn’t be afraid to say no. Now I’m wondering why people can’t just say yes. Example: Teenagers have gone nuts with the dating ritual. The other night while working, I heard a ruckus in front of my home. A peak out the window revealed three teenagers piling wheels on my front lawn. Perplexed, I wondered what was happening until I saw the sign: “Yes, I ‘wheel’ go to the dance with you.” Once informed that the person they were looking for didn’t live here anymore, they packed up their wheels, moving on to the right house, I assume.

The word yes is powerful all on its own. Why do we insist on wrapping it in a bunch of nonsense? Politicians are particularly skilled at avoiding a standalone “yes.”

Beyond the power of the word, “yes,” there’s also the potential of what can happen when one embraces the word. I was reminded of this when Chris Brogan pointed me to The Moth Podcast and the performance by Elna Baker, “Yes Means Yes?” (you can subscribe on iTunes). She explores what happens in her life when she starts saying, “yes,” and her experiences prove that life takes interesting turns when one looks for opportunities to say the magic word.

How much thought do we give to what we’re saying yes or no to? How much of our lives have we put on auto-pilot? Even more thought-provoking, why do we focus so much attention on areas that carry relatively little weight in the big scheme of things? Like the dating scenario I described earlier, when did asking for and agreeing to a something become so complicated? Why can’t we just say yes (or no)?


Know Thy Opponent

Recent research indicates that more than company profits fuel the stock market.

In a new study [John Coates] reports that traders who start the workday with high testosterone levels make more money on that day than their low-testosterone colleagues do. A hot day on the market sends their levels of the natural steroid up even more, Coates says; under the influence of their own hormones, they start to take bigger risks in hopes of bigger rewards.

Classical economic theory assumes that people make financial decisions in a rational way. But Coates’s finding is part of a growing body of work explaining why, in reality, they often don’t: they’re at the mercy of their biology. This school of thought helps illustrate how economic trends can get out of control, ballooning until they burst. It also suggests one reason why central banking is so tricky: policymakers don’t often take hormones into account. “[Former Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan spent his whole career trying to control economic bubbles,” says Coates. “I don’t think he realized he was up against steroids.”

…Anecdotally, Coates says that during his Wall Street days he thought that “women traders didn’t seem to be as affected” by irrational exuberance. A 2001 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics backs up that observation. “In areas such as finance,” it found, “men are more overconfident than women.” As a result, male stock traders tend to do more buying and selling than female traders do. Each trade costs money, and over the long term that money adds up. In the final calculus, according to the 2001 paper, it’s men, not women, who underperform. (link)

This study highlights one of the overlooked aspects in the gender debate: men and women DO respond to things differently and acknowledging these differences does not make one a gender basher. I know there are individuals who are resistant to this part of the gender equality debate because they feel it undermines their position.

The idea that recognizing the validity of an opponent’s position is a bad thing has hindered so many issues. Employees vs. companies, Israelis vs. Palestinians, citizens vs. governments, rich vs. poor. When we’re in a fight, why are we so unwilling to see the other’s side? Doing so doesn’t require that we agree 100% with our opponent. If anything, knowing and acknowledging the other side’s position puts one in a position of strength. Isn’t knowledge power? When did we decide that this wasn’t the case?


Love, Hate, and Indifference

Dagny Taggart where are you?If, as Elie Wiesel says, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” I wonder why some people inspire equal parts adoration and loathing. The current presidential race, for example, highlights the almost 20-year love/hate affair the American public has with the Clintons. Individuals seem to either love Hillary or despise everything she represents.

Ayn Rand

Hillary is hardly the first person to inspire such strong feelings. History is littered with individuals who generate powerful emotions, both positive and negative. Without realizing it, I stumbled onto one of the more divisive figures when I was 11. An aunt, only six years older than I, was a fan of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Wanting to follow in her footsteps, I located a forgotten copy of Rand’s Anthem in my middle school library. At my age, the philosophy portion went right over my head, but it didn’t stop me from moving on to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

I know there are critics who have no liking for Rand’s writing, and I’ll admit to skipping over some of the individual soliloquies. However, on the whole, I enjoyed the stories for themselves, philosophy aside. I loved The Fountainhead because the main character, Howard Ruark, was an architect, a career I planned to pursue until the realities of calculus and physics intruded. In Atlas Shrugged, I found myself wishing I was the strong female lead, Dagny Taggert. I quietly enjoyed rereading these books throughout high school, even if I didn’t totally understand them. My classmates had no idea what I was reading, and the only comment the books seemed to generate was related to their size. Then, I got to college.

Why Hate?

In my philosophy 101 course, I asked about Rand’s role in modern philosophy. My professor made no effort to conceal his loathing of Rand and also made it clear he thought less of me for asking the question. His reaction made me curious and eventually led to a research paper I did on Rand’s life in a writing course. While I don’t subscribe to or agree with all aspects of Rand’s philosophy, I’m still baffled by the anger often directed at Rand, which takes me back to Mr. Wiesel.

For instance, the loudest critics still generate attention for the individuals or causes they dislike the most. What would our world be like if we showed indifference to the people and the things we didn’t love? How would it change the marketing appeals made to consumers? What about parents and teenagers? How much of the behavior is driven by the idea that the kids know the parents hate it? Indifference carries a power of its own, one that we often overlook in our search for solutions.

Flexible Indifference

Indifference leaves us with the time and energy to put into the things that actually counter the people and the causes we don’t agree with. Subscribing to indifference also leaves you room to change your mind, to refine your opinion. While love can be equally blinding, hate carries its own peculiar baggage. From my experience, it’s incredibly difficult to back away from hating something, less so to fall out of love. If the world only appears black and white, love and hate make sense, but the shades of gray that invade my daily life have made it clear that I need the option of indifference.

(Image by NickStarr. Some rights reserved.)


Words for a Cause

Many of the most popular causes in the world have a word problem. In particular, I wonder if proponents of global climate change would face less resistance if the words global warming had never been associated with their cause. This post isn’t about the validity of the cause but rather what’s happening because of the words associated with it.

For instance, it’s April 13 and there’s still several inches of snow on the ground where I live. Spring has been colder than previous years by several degrees, delaying planting in my farming community and increasing comments about how the global warming people must have got it wrong. For the world as a whole, the words global warming fail to entirely explain what’s happening, making it easy for opponents to push back.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of accuracy and the ability for words to remain flexible. Perhaps these two goals seem contradictory, but I believe that the most accurate words leave room for day-to-day realities and allow causes to gain authority. What would happen if the words global warming were no longer relied on to describe climate events around the world? What if proponents only used global climate change? Isn’t easier to defend such a position versus the too narrow definition of global warming?

One can argue that if the words are too broad their impact is lessened. Again, it comes back to a question of accuracy. It also becomes an issue of whether one is willing to take the necessary time to find the best words. How many causes, products, service, etc., do you know would benefit from using different words?


Painful Knowledge

We often hear that knowledge is power, but do you ever miss the time before you knew something? For example, on days where I’m debating post options, I sometimes wish I didn’t know about blogs. It would mean one less thing to worry about in a day. However, it would also mean forgoing the pleasure of a well-written post and the potential conversation created.

Chasing after knowledge is a balancing act because it comes with an equal opportunity for positive or negative consequences. I remember as a young child, about six or so, that I overheard my mom on the phone discussing the divorce of a family friend. I didn’t really understand what divorce meant, but I knew that it was something adult, almost taboo.

While playing with this friend’s daughter, she made me mad, claiming she knew something I didn’t. I decided to trump her and proclaimed her parents were getting divorced. As you can imagine, the chain of events that followed was less than pleasant. This early lesson in the power of knowledge was painful for everyone involved and has stayed with me my entire life.

I wish I’d never learned about the divorce, but here’s the reality. The knowledge in and of itself isn’t bad, but how I chose to use the information was, and for me, that’s the lesson. How do you use your knowledge?


Using the Right Tools

The last few weeks I’ve had cause to give thanks to Norman Breakey. He invented the paint roller, a tool many of you have an intimate acquaintance with. By tweaking a basic idea (the paintbrush), the roller takes a previously tedious task and speeds up the process. A potential user requires minimal retraining in order to take advantage of the roller’s benefits over a paint brush in large areas. However, while a roller takes care of the big spaces, there’s still a need for the paintbrush. The small areas, areas with detail, require the lighter, more specific touch of a paintbrush.

For example, if I tried to paint the wall right by the ceiling with the roller, I usually got wall paint on the ceiling, requiring touch ups. When I took the time to trim out the edge with a paint brush, touch ups were rarely required. My experience has shown that using the right tool at the right time can make all the difference in the final results. I’ve seen a similar thing happening online.

Does Facebook or Twitter work for every situation? Drilling down even further, does every aspect of your life belong on Facebook or broadcast via Twitter? I’ve wondered about our willingness to embrace every new tool as the answer to both real and make believe problems. Even more curious is our continued search and expectation for new tools.

The initial excitement over tools like Facebook and Twitter diminishes as people become familiar with the quirks. Then the questions and criticisms become louder and more frequent. Calls for the next version, the next tool begin almost immediately, raising the question that Noah Kagen highlighted last week: “When is something good enough Not to change?”

Over time, tweaks to the paint roller have made it easier to move, but the basics stayed the same because the underlying idea had lasting value. Maybe that’s the other question we need to ask about the tools we use, Does the underlying value have staying power that holds up over time?



A Break Until Monday AKA When Internet Service Resumes

I’m in the midst of painting/cleaning/moving this week, so writing fresh content is highly unlikely until I get my new Internet service next Monday. In the meantime, I encourage you to read some of my favorite earlier posts if you haven’t already. I’d also love to hear what your favorites are if you don’t see them listed. Thanks for your patience. I promise I’ll be back to active posting next week.

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April 2008
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