Humans to Rocket Scientists

Humans to Rocket Scientists

Mary Roach opens her book Packing for Mars with the following:
“To the rocket scientists, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”
Packing for Mars is all about the science of space that doesn’t get talked about. The news covers rocket launches, successful missions, journey’s to asteroids, and space vehicles on other planets or beyond the solar system entirely. Popular culture celebrates astronauts, sometimes asks about the food they eat, but rarely addresses the end products of that food. Roach dives into the particulars, asking the difficult and sometimes gross questions that someone has had to ask in order for human beings to become a spacefaring civilization. As the quote above shows, the most difficult aspect of this journey into space, at least for the engineers, has been figuring out how the challenges of navigating space when you take people along for the journey.
Humans, and living creatures in general, are amazing. We are incredibly adaptable to almost any situation we find ourselves within. Space is no different. We can live in a tiny hunk of metal floating without the effects of gravity thanks to our incredible adaptability skills. However, that adaptation and the effects of our environment on our living bodies has created incredible challenges for engineers who need to keep people (and mice and plants) alive. Throughout the book Roach shows not just how adaptable humans are, but how challenging it is to keep a living being alive in a reasonable way in space, and all the miraculous, and sometimes gross, innovations that have been developed along the way.
Collective Conservatism

Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.

 

In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,

 

“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”

 

In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.

 

Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.
Performance and Mood

Performance and Mood

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic, but it comes at a time when companies are starting to radically re-think the work environments they set up for their employees. I worked for a time for a tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw first hand the changing thoughts in how companies relate to their employees. Every day wasn’t a party, but companies like the one I worked for were beginning to recognize how important a healthy, happy, and agreeable workforce is to productivity and good outcomes as whole. The pandemic has forced companies to think even more deeply about these things, and some blend of remote and office work schedules will likely remain for a huge number of employees. Hopefully, we will walk away from the pandemic with workplaces that better align with the demands placed on people today, and hopefully we will be more happy in our work environments.

 

Research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggest that adapting workplaces to better accommodate employees and help them be more happy with their work could have huge positive impacts for our futures. Regarding tests for intuitive accuracy, Kahneman shares the following about people’s performance on tests and their mood:

 

“Putting participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.”

 

Our mood impacts our thoughts and our thinking processes. When we are happy, we are better at making intuitive connections and associations. If we need to be productive, accurate, and intuitive, then we better have an environment that supports a relatively high level of happiness.

 

If our work environment does the opposite, if we are overwhelmed by stress and must deal with toxic culture issues, then it is likely that we will be less accurate with our tasks. We won’t perform as well, and those who depend on our work will receive sub-par products.

 

There is likely a self-perpetuating effect with both scenarios. A happy person is likely to perform better, and they will likely be praised for their good outcomes, improving their happiness and reinforcing their good work. But someone who is unhappy will likely have poor performance and is more likely to be reprimanded, leading to more unhappiness and continued unsatisfactory performance. For these reasons it is important that companies take steps to help put their employees in a good mood while working. This requires more than motivational posters, it requires real relationships and inclusion in important decisions around the workspace. In the long run, boosting mood among employees can have a huge impact, especially if the good results reinforce more positive feeling and continued high quality output. Changing work schedules and locations as forced upon employers by the pandemic can provide an opportunity for employers to think about the demands they place on employees, and what they can do to ensure their employees have healthy, safe workplaces that encourage positive moods and productivity.
A Craving for More

A Craving for More

There are two traits of humans which were great for ensuring our survival as a species tens of thousands of years ago that combine today in ways that don’t always have good consequences for our lives. The first is that we are highly adaptable. We can adjust our lives and our focus to survive in such extremes as the isolation of zero-gravity space-station environments or in the unimaginable density of Kowloon Walled City. We are geared toward adaptation for survival in many unique, diverse, and challenging circumstances. The second trait, which once complemented but perhaps now is more of a problem given our adaptability, is that we become bored. We are not content to sleep for 20 hours a day like a lion, and as social creatures we are compelled to engage with others in a pursuit of construction and growth.

 

The dangerous result of these two traits is a constant craving for more. We adapt to the lives we have, become bored, and desire more. It is hard to be content and feel as though our lives are enough. We could always have more stuff and bigger and better things. We could always do something different, something new and exciting, and interact with different people. While we might be able to survive in a small space with few items and few of the modern technologies that we take for granted today, once we have those things, we quickly begin looking around at what else we could have, what other things we could use, and what could be better about the time and space we occupy.

 

Our pursuit of more is in the spirit of ensuring our survival and improving our lives, at least evolutionary there is reason to believe that this is where the pursuit of more originates. But, rather than actually making our lives happier, richer, and more fulfilling, the pursuit of more can leave us feeling hollow and insufficient. As Seneca wrote about indulgences in Letters From a Stoic, “you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

 

So while we may recognize that having wealth, money, and stuff isn’t necessary for our happiness, our brain is pushing against that reality. Our brain becomes accustomed to the nice things we have, and starts to look for more, even if we thought we were content with the lives we have. It is important to be aware of how these two separate positive impulses (adaptability and boredom)  that evolved with us humans combine in a way that can be quite negative today. It is important that we recognize and think about how grateful we are for the things we have, and that we consider whether we really need more, bigger, better, and newer things, or if we are just being driven toward an impulse for change. By pushing back against these two impulses when we have reached a reasonable level of success and security, we can do more with our lives to have a positive impact for the whole world, rather than just doing things that will give us more stuff. We can still channel our ambition, but we can do so wisely, in a way that is as likely to benefit all of society, and not just benefit our own lives until we get bored again.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.

Making Global Local

The first time I heard about globalism was in an English class as a freshman in college. Since that time, globalization has gotten a lot more attention and has come to represent people’s fears about automation and job loss, but also people’s ambitions as new markets across the world become more accessible to trade and innovation. Whether we like globalization or not, we must acknowledge the way that markets and societies are changing so that in our own minds globalization doesn’t remain the mysterious boogeyman that it so often is today.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss globalization and how our cities and metropolitan regions, as opposed to our states or federal institutions, are the most well poised to adapt to an increasingly globalized market and supply chain. The also ask what it means for civil institutions to adapt and change to globalization writing, “The connection between globalization and localism as an arena of enhanced civic action has not been as well explored as the general theme of global economic change and populism.”

 

Since 2016, we have been asking ourselves why a global wave of populism seems to have overtaken normal political processes in the US and UK. Why authoritarian leaders have seemingly become so well entrenched in Turkey and Russia, and why so many people across the globe are willing to protest traditional and seemingly rational governments. What we have not looked at as closely, is how local level leaders can make a huge difference on a global scale and how cities and metropolitan areas can shape policy that influences people’s lives at a greater scale than what we see with movements by populists and authoritarians.

 

Individual states in the US are reversing marijuana policy against the will of the Federal Government. Individual cities are designing their own immigration policy contrary to the demands of the Federal Government. And industries clustered in metropolitan areas are not waiting for new laws and regulations to make decisions that will impact people living within the US and across the globe. The scale of action is local, and that means that cities are the ones who set the agenda for globalization, rather than the larger state governments or federal institutions. How this will ultimately change those larger civil institutions is still a mystery, but in my opinion, local action can dismantle the energy and grievances of populists and authoritarians. Local action can drive economic performance and growth, pacifying the unrest we see at national levels. Globalization might be a phenomenon that connects networks and places all over the Earth, but its effects are felt locally, and good local management and innovation can help make globalization a positive and constructive force.

Competing in a Global Economy

“While competing in this global economy requires new thinking, many cities continue to pursue zero-sum economic development strategies that subsidize stadia and steal businesses rather than incent innovation,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in The New Localism. Our world’s globalized economy scares a lot of people. Add to globalization new technological innovations and the automation of a lot of jobs, and we find threatened people, threatened cities, and threatened industries. The proper response to such threats is adaptation and change, but a more common human reaction is fearful recalcitrance. Rather than go through reinvention, rather than develope new skills, and rather than embrace new changes, cities, states, countries, and the people within them double down on the familiar and the known, using policy to entrench themselves in the familiar jobs of yesterday.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “These strategies are rarely aligned with smart education and workforce strategies that give workers the technical skills they need to succeed in growing occupations. And reinvestment in neighborhoods, downtowns, and water-fronts still has a long way to go to make up for decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and decentralization.” 

 

Stealing jobs, offering tax incentives to get companies/sports teams to move, and passing policy which prevents companies from automating away common jobs is not a strategy built for success in a globalized world of changing technology. To be competitive in a world where companies can move easily, where ideas can take root anyplace, and where jobs and technology are changing the way we work, cities and governments need to find new ways to build human capital and new ways to get innovative ideas into the economy quickly. Approaching the world and the economy as a zero-sum competition prevents innovation and encourages the short term thinking that leads to the poor strategies mentioned above.

 

The only way to truly adapt to the changing globalized world is to innovate. Protectionism leads to eventual disruption and greater anger on the part of the people whose industry and jobs are being disrupted. Those who lose out to automation without any training or skill development to help them adapt are understandably frustrated, but the proper response is not to dig our heels into the dirt to pull back on innovation and change. The proper response is to embrace change and help people innovate and learn alongside new technology, new jobs/industries, and new institutions.

Policy Innovation and Diffusion at the City Level

During my Masters in Public Administration, I had a seminar class about theories of the policy process. One of the theories that I enjoyed was policy innovation and diffusion theory in which a policy introduced in one jurisdiction gained traction and was subsequently introduced and adopted within another jurisdiction. Networks, physical proximity, and other characteristics of jurisdictions influence whether or not a policy is likely to diffuse to a new jurisdiction. Policy can diffuse vertically, moving up from counties to states to the national government (or backward) and can diffuse horizontally across cities in a state or sates in a nation or across nations on Earth.

 

In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss diffusion at the city level. They argue that, “New Localism reflects a new horizontal rather than vertical mechanism for societies to solve hard problems.” Most innovation and diffusion research that I studied in the United States was related to states. The question is usually, if a state adopts a new law to address an issue, what factors make it likely that other states will or will not adopt a similar law? And how many states need to adopt a regulation before the federal government institutes the regulation nationwide? States have historically been the main laboratories of democracy, but Katz and Nowak suggest that in the future they will not be. Rather than having a state adopt policy and filter that policy down to the counties, cities, and local governments for implementation, it is cities that are now the ones experimenting with new policy.

 

“Cities are constantly crafting new ways to address challenges that are urgent, immediate, and often highly visible. Solutions that are concrete imaginative, and tested on the ground do not stay local for long. Instead, they are adapted to other cities’ situations, tailored to the different economic and social starting points and the fiscal conditions of different cities.” 

 

A big piece of new localism is its non-partisan nature. Flood drainage, snow removal, and local zoning ordinances are not Republican or Democrat issues, they are local issues directly relating to the lives of citizens. This allows people who might otherwise disagree with each other to come together and cooperate to find solutions to the immediate problems of a locality. Focusing on local strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) allows local stakeholders to develop long-term plans and to find innovations to novel problems. Once these solutions have been identified and implemented, city leaders, especially people in the business community, can share their insights and solutions with groups from other cities. These policy innovations diffuse horizontally from city or metropolitan region to other cities and metros. State governments are not the ones innovating. Cities are developing the new networks and innovations that diffuse across state lines, across the country, and even across national boarders. Each solution is adjusted and tailored where appropriate for local contexts and in line with local SWOT analysis. This local problem solving and horizontal city level diffusion is the best current answer to global challenges and problems and to improve the lives of people through new innovations.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.

Perfection

When we think about what we want, the solution to a problem, how the world should be organized, or what we expect for many other things, we often think in the world of perfection. I don’t really know whether striving for absolute perfection is a net positive or not, but there are definitely some negatives that we should consider about striving for perfection.  Author Ryan Holiday explores this idea in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. Specifically, Holiday looks at the path our lives take and asks whether we should be expect a perfect path to our version of success, or whether we should be happy with a path that turns and changes as we get from point A to point B. In regards to pragmatism and realism, Holiday writes, “you’re never going to find that kind of perfection. Instead, do the best with what you’ve got.”

 

Holiday’s quote reminds us that we must not always compare our lives to the imaginary perfect version of our lives that we see reflected in tv shows or other people’s Facebook feeds. We won’t always have all the answers, and we can never predict how our life will turn out, so rather than hold ourselves to some sort of ideal perfection, we should do our best to move forward, aware of the world around us and the opportunities we have to improve not just ourselves, but everyone. The key to accepting the reality of our lives and our journey is flexibility. Being able to adjust to changes and accept that some goals are going to be more realistic than others, or at least to accept that some pathways will be more realistic than others, will help us find more content and be more engaged on our journey.

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about politics, I have returned to school for a masters in public policy, and I think this idea is one that we need to put toward our politics. We all envision a world were politics are simple and the country works in a smooth and straight forward manner. The perfect idealism in our head however, is not exactly possible. In the United States we have 330+ million people, and assuming that our narrow and limited political idealism is going to fit for all 330 million is a naive mistake. I recently read John Rauch’s book, Political Realism, and he discusses the ways in which our perfect ideology stunts the action of the government, because it puts our elected officials in a place where they cannot act to compromise, because perfection is the only approved outcome in politics. Beginning to see that perfection is unrealistic, and that striving for it can be cataclysmic, will help us begin to advance and make changes in our politics, and in our lives.