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The Age of Wonkery

By Shlomo Maital

   In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, April 11, David Brooks supplies a crucial insight.

     Once the thinkers of the world were intellectual foxes. In Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, they had many many ideas and challenged all of them.

     Today? We have wonks.   They are hedgehogs. They have one BIG idea. And they sell it ferociously, regardless of the facts.  In truth — they have given up thinking. 

     As Goethe observed, thinking is better than knowing (i.e. foxes are better than hedgehogs),   but …looking is best of all. And wonks do not look (at the facts).   Nor think about their Pablum ideologies.

       So – we are doomed to live in the Age of Wonkery. Not too good for humanity.

       Here is how Brooks frames it:

“People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with. That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.   In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.”

Brooks does not say this but —   not only is President Trump a super-wonk but – he has peppered his so-called administration with similar super-wonks, who are not troubled by facts.   And in upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere, we see rising political parties featuring wonkery at its extreme (e.g. get rid of foreigners, anyone not like us, that will solve our problems).

     What does this mean for thinking people? Continue to fight. Challenge unsupported ideas. Build on facts. Dig up the facts. Think through issues. And above all embrace complexity.   Wonks simplify…violating Einstein’s rule, simplify as much as possible – but not more so.   Life is complex. Truth is complex. It cannot be reduced to a single variable, a single formula.    

   Wonks succeed because people are confused by complexity and want simple formulae.   Don’t give in.   Embrace complexity as a way of embracing truth – and fight back.

Middle Class Blues: A Different Narrative

By Shlomo Maital

middle-class

   We are hearing endlessly about the struggling blue collar workers and the oppressed middle class, sinking into debt, losing jobs, struggling to stay afloat. We hear Donald Trump play on their fears and grudges.

     There is another narrative, one given in today’s New York Times by David Brooks. It is about resilient workers and middle class people, who adapt, shift jobs, lose one and gain another, learn new skills – and stay afloat, endure and even prevail. And there are lot of them.

     Here is how Brooks describes one such case:

   A few weeks ago I met a guy in Kentucky who’d lived through every trend of deindustrializing America.   He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.   Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career.

So, how did he piece together a career?

   His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go.   He thought he’d just come in quietly on his final day, clean out his desk and sneak away.   But word got out, and when he emerged from his office, box in hand, there was a double line of guys stretching all the way from his office in back, across the factory floor and out to his car in the lot. He walked down that whole double line with tears flowing, with the guys clapping and cheering as he went.   We hear a lot about angry white men, but there is an honorable dignity to this guy.   Some of that dignity comes from the fact that he knows how to fix things. One of the undermining conditions of the modern factory is that the workers no longer directly build the products, they just service the machines and software that do. The bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread.” But this guy in Kentucky can take care of himself — redo the plumbing at home or replace the brake pads.

And what was his ‘narrative’, his story, told to himself? One of betrayal, exploitation, deprival, social inequality?   None of that.

   It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities. ….

I adjusted. Made the best of what was possible. Lived up to my responsibilities.   This is a narrative that I believe is far far more representative of the working middle class, than the Trump “I’m-a-victim” narrative: “Washington screwed me, so I will vote for a scoundrel, because he expressed my anger, even though he hasn’t a clue about what middle class life is about.”  

People are basically resilient. They bounce back. And the ones with integrity do not cast ballots for those who cynically exploit the worst qualities among us – avoiding personal responsibility for our own fate.

 

How to be Passionate..and Compassionate

By Shlomo Maital

compassion

I once surveyed a group of 50 Israeli chip designers, gave them a list of key qualities that were important for innovators – and asked them to rank them.   To my surprise, “resilience” came up first, by far. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from failure, adversity, disasters, and continue on to your goal. It requires a great deal of mental toughness.

   Today’s New York Times column by David Brooks (Aug. 30) has many useful insights into this subject. “Making Modern Toughness” begins by quoting a common perception: “Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.”   Kids in earlier days were tougher, many of us in the older generation say.

     Brooks has second thoughts. “….let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness. There was a greater tendency in years gone by to wall off emotions, to put on a thick skin — for some men to be stone-like and uncommunicative and for some women to be brittle, brassy and untouchable.” The result, Brooks claims, was in some cases alcoholism or depression.

     So, if we rethink toughness, for the modern age, for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what do we get? What does Brooks suggest?

     “The people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.   Such people are, as they say in the martial arts world, strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.   There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness.”

   In short: “True mental toughness that entrepreneurs and innovators need desperately come from the passion of believing fervently in a goal or mission. That that passion, too, is driven by compassion, by caring for others, and by the desire to change the world for them. In this way of thinking, grit, resilience and toughness are not traits that people possess intrinsically. They are not tools you can possess independently for the sake of themselves. They are means inspired by an end.   …. We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.”

   I begin all my classes by asking students what their true passion in life is. Many do not know. They have not been asked that question, nor have they tried many different things to find out experientially. But often parents push their kids to ‘get on with it’, rather than try things.

        When are people really tough?   Brooks writes, “People are really tough only after they have taken a leap of faith for some truth or mission or love. Once they’ve done that they can withstand a lot.”

         Have you taken that leap of faith?   Changed your job, your profession, your destiny?

       “We live in an age when it’s considered sophisticated to be disenchanted,” Brooks notes.   “But people who are enchanted are the real tough cookies.”

           Innovator! Be enchanted. Find your enchantment. If you do you will be able to undergo an almost unlimited amount of adversity. That’s toughness, of the right kind.

Pittsburgh: Rises from the Ashes

By Shlomo Maital  

Pittsburgh

In today’s International New York Times (July 3), David Brooks makes an important observation. The political battleground in the U.S. and other countries has until now been: big government? Or small? Too much government? Or too little? This is changing, in the wake of Trump and right-wing nationalist parties in Europe.

   The core issue, he says, in the coming decade, will be: open or closed? Open society, to trade, ideas, immigrants, information? Or closed society, with a big wall, protectionism, tariffs, and ‘immigrants not welcome’ signs?  

     Globalization began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9 1989. The unification of the two Germanys accelerated the European Single Market and boosted global trade. But the benefits of free open trade, which have been enormous for Asia, accrued mainly to the wealthy and better off, who make money from money. Blue collar workers in the West lost their jobs, as manufacturing migrated. This silent majority is no longer silent. And their pain has become a central issue in politics, in the post-Trump era.

       Brooks, like all good columnists, leaves his office and goes out into the field, to see first-hand. He visited Pittsburgh. My sister lives in Pittsburgh, and I’ve been visiting her regularly since her marriage to Chuck, my late brother-in-law, a Pittsburgh optometrist, in 1952. I saw first-hand the smoky steel mills along the Monongahela River and saw the terrible pollution that coated Pittsburgh with a layer of dust. I saw them disappear, as Pittsburgh reinvented itself to become today’s modern high-tech city, financial center, healthcare center and home to a great university, Carnegie-Mellon. As Brooks observes, Pittsburgh today is amazing, with sparkling clean air, great restaurants, cultural events, an old train station rezoned into restaurants and shops…   a stark contrast to many other rust-belt cities, like Cleveland, OH and Gary, IN, which have not done the same.

     But nonetheless, Pittsburgh too has its community of losers, those who lost high-paying steel jobs in the heyday of U.S. Steel.   Globalization may have produced net gains for Asia, and even for the U.S., but those gains were very very unevenly distributed, and the winners did not in the least compensate the losers.   After a long delay, the losers are now generating a political reaction and near-counter-revolution.

     It would be a shame if the benefits of globalization were reversed, simply because our political system was too lazy, stupid and short-sighted to realize that somehow, we have to find a way to help those who lose from it.   Maybe a good place to start is Pittsburgh, as Brooks notes, which lost thousands of steel jobs and eventually created thousands more of service jobs.

     I think we should recall China and its amazing Great Wall, stretching for some 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers),  completed around 1400-1600.   The Great Wall kept out the Manchus and kept China whole and safe, at least in part. But it also kept out the world and led to 500 years of stagnation in China’s economy.   Modern China has been a huge winner from globalization, because it has been smart enough to know how to reap the benefits.   We should challenge other countries, especially the U.S. and Europe, to state: What is your strategy for evening the playing field, NOT globally but WITHIN your own country, to help those who have lost well-paying jobs to free global trade?   Because if you don’t shape such a strategy quickly, you may find that politically globalization is no longer viable and is replaced by protectionism and modern Great Walls.   Trump’s “build a wall and make them pay for it” will replicate itself elsewhere, if we do not act soon and wisely.

Lady Gaga – Revisited

By Shlomo Maital

Gaga

In 2011 and 2012 I blogged about pop singer Lady Gaga twice.   Once about her passion and connection with her fans (she records songs after long exhausting performances, capturing the intimate link with her audiences) and once about her foundation.   Apparently even serious NYT columnists like Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks share my interest.   Today’s International New York Times has a wonderful David Brooks column about Lady Gaga, who was given an award together with Sophia Loren, Herbie Hancock and other main-line celebs.

   Lady Gaga’s speech was tearful.   She recalled her childhood.   “I suppose I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wantedto be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe what passions liks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.”

   Brooks expands on what it means to be passionate. “[People with passion] somehow get to the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have the freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive and deadening. There’s even sometimes a constant recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react.”

   “Gaga is nothing if not permanently out there; the rare celebrity who is willing to portray herself as a monster, a witch or disturbing cyborg — someone prone to inflicting pain. Gaga is her own unique creature, whom no one could copy.”

     I think we can all learn from this flamboyant pop singer known as Lady Gaga (whose real name is Germanotta).   Be yourself. Be fearless. Try things. Get through the fog of fear and uncertainty to the otherwise, to the shores of Creativity Land. Be like Gaga. It’s worth a try.

 

High School Tech: What Schools COULD Become

By Shlomo Maital

High Tech High San Diego

   In another wonderful column, David Brooks (NYT Oct. 16) describes a documentary film, Most Likely to Succeed, by Greg Whiteley, in which San Diego’s High Tech High is featured, started by San Diego high tech and business leaders.   I can do no better than to quote Brooks’ words:

  Greg Whiteley’s documentary argues that the American school system is ultimately built on a Prussian model designed over 100 years ago. Its main activity is downloading content into students’ minds, with success or failure measured by standardized tests. This lecture and textbook method leaves many children bored and listless.

     Worse, it is unsuited for the modern workplace. Information is now ubiquitous. You can look up any fact on your phone. A computer can destroy Ken Jennings, the world’s best “Jeopardy!” contestant, at a game of information retrieval. Computers can write routine news stories and do routine legal work. Our test-driven schools are training kids for exactly the rote tasks that can be done much more effectively by computers.

   In High Tech High….There are no textbooks, no bells… Students are given group projects built around a driving question.     One group studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory. Another group studied diseases transmitted through blood, and made a film.   “Most Likely to Succeed” doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence. There are some great emotional moments. A shy girl blossoms as a theater director. A smart but struggling boy eventually solves the problem that has stumped him all year. In the school, too, teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

   Brooks is not uncritical of High Tech High. In this blog, I have also made the point that in order to foster creativity, you cannot discard the hard tough discipline of mastery – mastering old knowledge, while thinking about how to create new. Brooks echoes this thought.

     The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.   “Most Likely to Succeed” is inspiring because it reminds us that the new technology demands new schools. But somehow relational skills have to be taught alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.

   This is worth repeating. Innovation is INTELLIGENTLY breaking the rules. In order to break the rules intelligently, creatively, first you have to learn them. You have to know physics, to engineer wonderful new devices. The key is, can we teach physics, without ruining the creative spark in those we teach?  

The Purpose of Life?  Little Things Mean A Lot

By Shlomo Maital    

Little Things    

In a recent blog, “Disney Theory of Life” (April 14),  I referred to David Brooks’ New York Times column about the purpose of life.   I offered my own theory,  based on the Disney World mantra, “Make People Happy”.

     In today’s New York Times, Brooks returns to this theme and quotes emails he received from readers.    “I expected most contributors would follow the commencement-speech clichés of our high-achieving culture:  dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world.  In fact,” notes Brooks, “a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.”

     Examples?    Kim (apparently a therapist):  “Now my purpose is simply to be the person who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis”.   Terence:   “big decisions have less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”   Hans:  “At age 85, …I am thankful to be alive. If there is one thing that keeps me focused, it’s the garden. Lots of plants died during the harsh winter, but, amazingly, the clematises and the roses are back, and lettuce, spinach and tomatoes are thriving in the new greenhouse.”

      So, bottom line?    Follow the wise advice of a woman I read about (probably in the excellent AARP retired persons’ magazine):   “Ask yourself each morning, when you wake:  what will I do for others today? And what will I do for myself?”     And, as you fall asleep at night, ask yourself, “what did I do for others today?  And what did I do for myself?” 

      A kind word?  A helping hand?  A smile?    Little things, tiny things.  They add up to something really big.   They give real meaning to our lives, one day at a time.

       Here are the words to the lovely song, Little Things Mean a Lot,  

Blow me a kiss from across the room

Say I look nice when I’m not

Touch my hair as you pass my chair

Little things mean a lot

 

Give me your arm as we cross the street

Call me at six on the dot

A line a day when you’re far away

Little things mean a lot

 

Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls

Champagne, sables or such

I never cared much for diamonds and pearls

’cause honestly, honey, they just cost money

 

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way

Give me a shoulder to cry on

Whether the day is bright or gray

Give me your heart to rely on

 

Send me the warmth of a secret smile

To show me you haven’t forgot

For always and ever, now and forever

Little things mean a lot

 

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way

Give me your shoulder to cry on

Whether the day is bright or gray

Give my your heart to rely on

 

Send me the warmth of a secret smile

To show me you haven’t forgot

That always and ever, now and forever

Little things mean a lot

 

And, here is the link to Kitty Kallen’s lovely rendition of it. http://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/kitty_kallen/little_things_mean_a_lot.html

Feeling Empathy for Others: It’s Not Enough!

By Shlomo  Maital

   empathy

   In a recent blog, I recounted NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof’s story about his high school chum, Kevin, who died recently after sinking into poverty and despair:

   In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    Kristof, in a later column, reports that he got immense flack from readers for this column.  They said, it was Kevin’s own fault. He brought it on himself.   Those hard-hearted readers lacked empathy, he notes. 

    So do our leaders. It’s no wonder. Did you know that half of all members of the U.S.  Congress (House and Senate) are millionaires?  How can they feel our pain, our middle-class pain? 

     We need leaders with empathy.    Empathy – feeling the pain of others – is built-in to our physiology.  We have ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to feel what our counterpart is feeling at a given moment, not just pain, but joy, embarrassment, grief, happiness.  But over time, we can easily turn off those empathy neurons, and rationalize them away.

    But even strong feelings of empathy, I feel, is not enough.  I found David Brooks’ NYT column, written over three years ago, in Sept. 2011:

    Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.   There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. 

   In other words:  It’s not enough to feel empathy toward others.  You have to ACT on your feelings and do something about it, even something small and symbolic, at least once in a while, so that your empathy muscles do not wither.

     In our recent book Cracking the Creativity Code, we list 10 brain exercises to develop creativity.  The first of the 10, and most important, is “Act, Don’t Gripe”.    If you see something wrong, injustice,  try to fix it, take action, at least once in a while.  I know a friend, who always, as a matter of principle, gives small change to homeless and those who beg on the streets, even ones who are clearly running a scam. 

    I wish we had political leaders who were middle class working people.   We really don’t.  Until we do, it’s up to us.   Sharpen your feelings toward others.  Develop your empathy.  But don’t leave it at that.  Try to act on it.   If more people did that, maybe we wouldn’t even need to bother with those millionaires in Congress.

Why Capitalism is (Not) Committing Suicide

By Shlomo  Maital

Brooks

    David Brooks has another superb column in the weekend new York Times.  Titled:  The Ambition Explosion, he quotes work by sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote in 1976 that “capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.”

    Add to that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate wealth, corrupting democracy with it, and you have two huge reasons for its demise.  Right?

    Perhaps not.   My wife and I are returning home today from a long trip, which included mainland China.  There, I found highly ambitious young people, full of aspiration and amibition,  some working as waiters while studying, and one,  who started a vending machine business while working one of seven jobs and studying for his B.A.   “For instance” is not a proof, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it sure convinced us.

    Brooks cites what he thinks is the real Achilles Heel of capitalism – not the lack of ambition, or even wealth concentration, but the lack of real meaning!  

        “The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.”

      In the end, the ‘toys’ you buy with great wealth – like Lamborghini’s, we saw a dealership for them in Hong Kong and it was active and profitable —  do not in themselves provide meaning or satisfaction or fulfilment.  So what does?  Some try philanthropy.  Others, social entrepreneurship. 

      Make meaning, not money, counsels Guy Kawasaki, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and Macintosh guru.  For young people  —    at the start of your career, define your legacy and your life goals, goals that will at the latter end of your life give you satisfaction and make your life meaningful.  THAT will make your boundless talent and ambition focused and directed toward a worthy goal.   It will also keep capitalism from committing suicide through sheer boredom.   Listen to what Brooks counsels: “Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.“ 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

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