“In today’s innovative world…”

The teenagers whose essays I read think we live in a phenomenally innovative time. Smartphones. Computers. The internet.

Yes, this all happened in the last 50 years.

In the 50 years before that we landed on the moon, split the atom, came up with the bomb, made cars and film widely available and saved countless lives with penicillin.

Are we living at the end of an empire?

A thought experiment.

There is a nuclear war in morning. The capitals and major cities are all gone. You happened to have been visiting your aunt in Castle’elsewhere, a cute provincial town, and remained alive and well.

In the wake of the war, you realise that life will never be the same. There is an army barracks that remained unharmed down the road from your aunt’s house. The commanding officer is used to taking orders and is awaiting them. They aren’t coming. Your cousin just returned from the neighbouring Castle’nowhere and said that people have started looting the local shopping centre. Someone has to take charge and you’re not in the habit of relying on others. You win the trust of the commanding officer and now have an army at your disposal – although not much else.

What is the first thing that you do?

thought experiment philosophy

I would find food for the army. My particular Castle’elswhere happens to be in Ireland. We have milk and beef galore, and even some barley and rapeseed oil. Some artisanal cheese. Guinness and Jameson. But the ports are all in tatters and it will be a while until we will manage to import food. Scurvy is a real threat: there is no vitamin C on this island.

I am now Commanderina-in-Chief Martina and I have an army of malnourished men whose teeth will soon start falling out and their clothes are wearing thin. A man who used to grow a few carrots for himself arrives at my doorstep and explains that he can provide a steady supply of carrots, rich in Vitamin C. Let’s call him Captain Orange. Captain Orange is the only man in the country who had the foresight/luck/interest in growing carrots – and the ports are still closed, so he has no competitors. Captain Orange soon becomes a very rich and powerful man as he has something I need to retain my power. I make a deal with him that we should only supply a certain amount of carrots, enough to keep the army healthy and as for the general population we need to supply just over the scurvy-threshold because if we supply more that, it will weaken our power and if we supply less, there will be riots. Power, eh.

how does power work thought experiment

Back to the real world.

This got me thinking of the Googles and Facebooks – the multinationals in Ireland. The lads here aren’t the programmers/engineers that would be able to solve ubercomplex problems (I imagine they are mostly in California). They are human resources, corporate social responsibility, account managers, etc. In the event of such a near apocalyptic event, of what use are the official skills of the majority of these people?

During my short stint in a multinational, I used to always wonder how come there are so many people literally busy doing nothing, or something I simply didn’t understand. Making slides about making slides and trackers about other trackers.

The multinational is Captain Orange. They come to the government and tell them that they have what the government so needs to keep the population just over the (first world) poverty line: jobs. Not just in Ireland, but in lots of places. By moving to Ireland and paying let’s say 10,000 people wages to do nothing  corporate back/middle office jobs, they still save money on tax. By coming to other countries they will gain something else: the points isn’t that Ireland is a tax haven. The point is about solving problems. As Arthur Schopenhauer used to say, talent hits a target no one else can hit and genius hits a target no one else can see. Yes, we all know their product is phenomenal. But the real problem they solve, and the reason they have so much clout, isn’t what it seems. Genius, not just talented. The more enduring the problem and the more efficacious the solution, the more leverage you get.

The next thing I wondered about were our first world problems. Are we living in an age that’s analogous to the end of the Roman empire?

  • Tremendous centralisation and its cousin globalisation.
  • Society is tearing itself apart: different camps of Westerners seem to have more in common with other “tribes” than with each other (just think Clinton supporters vs Trump supporters). Diversity of thought is good, but this is diversity of non-thought. Most of these people aren’t pro x, y, z, they are anti a, b, c.
  • Research is mass produced for the sake of being published and isn’t really coming up with anything hugely new or even worthwhile.
  • The buildings of today look worse than the buildings of 100 years ago, even accounting for survivorship bias. Same with music. Same with art.
  • Lack of innovation. True monopolies: the two main credit card companies, call them V and M, are basically the same entity in their business practices, they interchange staff and outsource to each other in different countries. And they are also indispensable as far as the state is concerned. They aren’t the only example, of course. We neither incentivise innovation, nor do we have as burning a need for it. And then we wonder where the inequality comes from.
  • Changes in sexual behaviour: described pretty well by Gary Wilson

I am by no means saying that things are worse today than they were 100 years ago. But it is a different environment: where do we go from here?

UPD:

On a recent walk, I took these two pictures from the same place:

decline of the western civilisation

The above pier was built in 1821. Look dreamy.

western civilisation coming to an end

The structure closest to us was built in the 1980s. Looks dystopian.

When they dig up our stuff in 5,000 years, what will they say?

Millennial corporate office workers and their transgender bathrooms

I wanna be the very best

Like no one ever was

– Pokemon opening titles

As part of my Christmas escape from routine, I’ve been trying to read more. After the off-putting Ego is the Enemy and the chilling American Tragedy , I stumbled upon an interview with Simon Sinek. He talks about how millennials are difficult to deal with in the workplace and attempts to explain how this is a product of our upbringing in a cautious non-accusatory manner. It’s kind of fun to watch because the set up is clearly intended for dialogue, whereas Sinek goes off into a suspiciously well-structured 15 minute TED talk while the poor host nods along.

millennials in the workplace

Sinek says millennials are accused of being entitled, narcissistic, unfocused and lazy.

He remarks on the fact that corporate purpose and bean bags aren’t cutting it. He talks about the reasons. According to him, there are four.

1. Parenting

According to Sinek, millenials have been subject to “failed parenting strategies”.

Sinek postulates that millennials were repeatedly told that we could have anything we wanted and that we are special.

I guess our parents belong to the generation when toxic compulsive positive thinking really took off, so that would make sense. “Just wish for it – and it’s yours”.

Sinek argues that we got into honours classes not because we accomplished enough, but because our parents complained. 

I am not so sure about this mammy getting us things. If anything, if I had been born 20 years before, my mammy would have had an easier time calling in favours and getting me into a position I didn’t deserve. This is just an impression too, but to me, the world seems more equalised and transparent – at least in education, in Europe.

The underlying premise of Sinek’s argument is that millennials are different due to these 4 causes, but he doesn’t really provide any evidence to say that, beyond the obvious, these reasons are unique to our generation – and thus their explanatory power is questionable.

He argues that participation medals (8th best…) corrupted us. When millennials meet with reality, where coming in 8th doesn’t bring all that validation it did before and mammy can’t get us a promotion, we immediately question our specialness, feel we’re inferior and blame ourselves.

I do recall moving from Moscow to Dublin (for the n-time by in my teens), after not having really lived there for 2 or 3 years, which on that scale is forever, finding that

1. Maths is a dark art to most people

2. Everyone has a medal in something.

At that point, I had barely ever won anything. I recall talking to my dad and wondering how these mildly impressive people were top this and top that. I even talked to my classmate about the dissonance. My dad explained the reality of the differing attitudes in education:

in the West, medals are used for encouragement, and they don’t mean the same thing or serve the same function as the medals of my former Russian prodigy classmates.

My friend took a different approach – together with our other friends, she gave me a little trophy that said “Official Trophy Girl” and my name. That was my first trophy. Sinek clearly knows what he’s talking about.

millennials in the workplace simon sinek

2.Technology

Sinek’s argument is that our Instagram-filtered highlight reel lives raise the standard to the point that unless you are exactly perfect, know exactly what you are talking about, you shouldn’t talk. So when we do talk, we come to out uber-experienced boss and lecture him or her on how it’s done (while having no clue and even less insight). The 2 factors above work against out self-esteem according to Sinek.

Instagram and other social media are very naturally selecting.

I would argue that whatever harm is done through participation medals, it is probably shaken out of us by the cold reality that our ramens need to be quite good before people start liking and replaying them.

He explains how technology is addictive and introduces dopamine. He makes the grotesque comparison of alcohol and social media. Sinek states that the relationships we form are superficial and we’ve no coping mechanisms other than a dopamine hit from the likes on Facebook. He makes a very sweeping assumption that almost everyone is addicted to social media.

Yes, possibly.

However, weren’t there other ways to get hooked on dopamine before? It doesn’t have to be alcohol. Has he heard of Dungeons & Dragons? Maybe, Counterstrike? Back to back episodes of Sabrina on Nickelodeon?

Here, his argument is quite weak . There’s nothing to say that we are more addicted with poor coping skills – compared to any other generation.

millennials lack purpose simon sinek

3. Impatience

We live in a world of instant gratification: Amazon next day delivery, Netflix binges, Tinder dates: “swipe right – I’m a stud”. He argues that the meaningful things (confidence, impact, etc) are slow and meandering.

Again, all of this is true. But was it ever any different? Obviously, it wasn’t Amazon-related, but there were other ways to get instant gratification. For example, fast food is all about instant gratification – and millennials don’t really binge on that at least. Perhaps, impatience is just part of being young. This quote attributed to Socrates reveals so much about the timelessness of the nature of youth:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

why millennials suck

4. Environment

Sinek says that the corporate environment takes more interest in the numbers rather than the personal development of their employees.

First, that’s normal.

Corporations owe it to their shareholders, not their employees – that’s the premise of capitalism.

Yes, there is CSR, etc, but they are very much at the margins of corporate life. In fact, there’s nothing necessarily evil about the financial purpose, as at least in theory financial gain is a reflection of the usefulness of something to society – albeit through the prism of a supply and demand intersection.

However, it’s not the act, it’s the cover up. The fact that corporations so often come out with unfalsifiable statements that seem to want to please everyone and stand for nothing as their “values” and “purpose” is really off-putting. Working there makes one feel like a low-ranking accomplice of a gargantuan fraud – without even the freedom to admit it.

The thing that is actually going on here is that the entitled whiney millennials “ruin everything” are specifically the corporate office workers. In generations that came before, fewer people worked in offices of big corporations. Now that there are sufficient numbers of young corporate workers, the generalisation has been spread to millennials as a whole.

In these large corporate institutions, millennials don’t know their boss. Their actual boss is a hedge fund who owns the shares. The person they call their boss is just a slightly more senior employee, who has 10% more of an idea why they’re doing what they’re doing than the poor millennial. There’s no actual real work to do. Going around with balloons for people’s birthdays and making presentations – even pulling all nighters while at it – makes people feel unfulfilled and trapped. There’s no genuine purpose beyond the obvious financial one. That’s the clincher. Justin Bieber knew what to sell to his audience [his recent tour was called Purpose].

I suspect that millennials who are out there chopping wood aren’t as morally dissatisfied as the corporate office worker millennials. Now that wood is chopped, but that presentation you made is probably never going to make any difference – to anyone, anywhere, ever. And you worked so hard to make it into that position – good grades, college, years of delaying gratification – only to end up making dead presentations. You were promised that you would be making an impact. Yeah.

Second, Sinek also assumes that it is the responsibility of a corporation to develop and help the personal growth of employees – which is a bit too invasively brave new world for me. Certainly, my experience of corporate life was that acting like everyone else and generally participating in group think was part of the job. There wasn’t the group of nerds to rescue me this time.

millennials in the workplace video

There’s no real mobility and or even a promise of real success in corporate life. So no wonder we’re out there – overeducated and whinging about issues other people feel are outlandish. Bob Geldof’s recent soundbite about transgender bathrooms is an example. My points isn’t about LGBT.

My point is that you can laugh all you want, but transgender bathrooms give people something they can fight for that is meaningful to them – as it makes people feel significant, makes them feel they made a difference and belong to a group. This is what’s actually missing for millennials.

This phenomenon occurs where religion plays a minor role in one’s upbringing, as was the case with millennials.

Young people who lack a purpose and a sense of belonging can very easily be swayed by politicians into things like violent nationalism.

We’re seeing something in that vein in the recent political developments.

Another threat comes fro the fact that millennials seem to glorify working in corporations – especially if they are tech-related like Google or Facebook, because for years we were taught that that’s the best work there is.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but for some of us the veneer of corporate glamour is stopping us from making honest assessments. Remember, “if it’s repeated – it’s true“; that’s just the human brain.

I wonder if it was different for other generations. Yes, corporate office work wasn’t as big a phenomenon, but how did people get through it without complaining as much as the millennials? Maybe, it was quite a prestigious thing in and of itself – providing the feeling of being special. Now it’s pretty standard. A long time ago GS Elevator came out with a tweet that there aren’t many jobs out there for which you actually need a degree. Cynical as this tweet is, the first year of a corporate graduate programme is likely to confirm that assertion. Getting the most educated, most competitive people and putting them into that environment is a shock to them. Perhaps this didn’t apply for the generations above us who enjoyed their careers more than the millennials as there were fewer people with degrees.

It is also quite possible that it was all the same for previous generations – and their parents also told them that they were lazy, entitled and all the things millennials are hearing. It’s simply their turn to complain.

On the bright side, it has become cool in our generation to be an entrepreneur. While the seasoned entrepreneurs go on about how this romanticised view of building businesses is toxic, I feel it is good to encourage non-bet-the-farm entrepreneurship at least. Or even freelance. It is creative, it has as much purpose as one wants and it is both self- and socially-serving.

Most of all, millennials, myself included, should remember that there’s no use in waiting for someone to come along and give us this magical real purpose we so crave. It is up to us to make our own purpose.

*If none of this makes sense – and you happen to like video games, try Stanley’s Parable. Whoever made the game must be the great-grandchild of Descates and Huxley’s first cousin. They understand corporate life better than those who created it.

millennials in the workplace video simon sinek

You may also like:

Confessions of a career-switching millennial

Millennial ENTP studies

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a very sobering piece on the nature of employment

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Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

What the internet will look like in 10 years

Only about 40% of the world’s population have an internet connection today. The largest group are the Chinese with 0.72 bn users, but only 52% penetrance (i.e. only 52% of the Chinese population have access to the internet). With that, certain services are off-limits to ordinary Chinese people. The countries with the highest penetrance include rich European countries such as Iceland and Denmark (it’s cold and dark outside – so no wonder). Interestingly, the English speaking world – US, UK, Australia and so on – hover around 80-90%. This means, in Ireland for example, 1 in 5 people aren’t online. I find that hard to believe. [Source: Internet Live Stats]

As the internet becomes cheaper and more accessible, we are likely to see large influxes of users from India and China. With a population in India of nearly 1.4 bn the penetrance is only 35%. Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan also have huge populations with relatively low penetrance.

While it would seem obvious that there is a huge part of the internet that I have never seen, I wonder what way the online world will change as more people join. Without any judgement on whether it is good or bad, the internet that I know is dominated by white English speaking people. I am also familiar with the Russian province of the web – it is much like the English one, only in Russian. They also lack certain services, such as eBay, etc. However, they replaced it with their own homegrown analogues.

The Economist recently said that for those who spend a lot of time in both China and the West, using online services from the West in like going back in time. WeChat is something else apparently. Musically is another Chinese creation and has taken the West by storm.

I wonder what the internet will be like in 10 years. I think there will be even more video – including through VR. My cousin recently came back from holidays and instead of showing me photos – showed me a bunch of 360 video clips. Video is taking over the world. In my own experience of Facebook advertising, the cost of a video ad versus a text ad is out by at least a factor of magnitude. I think that the West will lose some of it’s domination over the internet. If the next Facebook is from somewhere like Shanghai, it’ll be very interesting. It sounds silly, but the only thing that has really taken over the West that isn’t Western is Pokemon – at least in my echo chamber. The fact that it is so popular is a net gain for all of us. It carries with it a culture and a philosophy that’s a bit different. We’re a smaller population than India and China, so our network effect isn’t as strong. Having said that, there is not only freedom of speech – but freedom of what we choose to hear on the internet. A great example of this was seeing the reaction of those who though that Brexit and Trump were impossible. While the internet does result in what Taleb called a monoculture, it still allows for resonant echo chambers. Good or bad, they are a natural way to segment the internet. Probably though, more internet will mean more globalisation.

There will come a point when the internet will be replaced by something related, a bit like home phones and TVs were replaced by smartphones and social media. I wonder what way VR will come into our lives. Perhaps, I will be sitting in a set of slick glasses walking around a virtual Prado as my driverless car is going… Actually, I wonder where it will be going if I can get anywhere through VR and drones can deliver everything else to me.

what the internet will look like in 10 years

Time, Socrates and Taleb

N.N. Taleb has to be one of my favourite thinkers of our time. He has taken uncertainty – the root of all evil to so many people – and mathematically explained why it’s not such a bad things at all. In fact, in certain circumstances, we can benefit from uncertainty by being what he calls antifragile. WordPress just underlined this word in red, which is disappointing. It’s a concept that should spread widely.

He sometimes posts one liners on Facebook that then generate a lot of discussion. His most recent:

“The tragedy of our time is the monoculture of ideas: all ‘thinkers’ are forced to believe the same bullshit.”

Not that I am trying to meta-prove him wrong, but I disagree. It’s not the tragedy of our time. It has almost certainly always been that way. Ever since I first heard Socrates talking about youth, I’ve been highly sceptical of any remarks that proclaim that our time is somehow unique. Arguably one of the most powerful minds of all times said:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

It’s quite fascinating really. You’d swear he was talking about the kids now – with their latest iPads. However, he said this sometime during 5th century BC.

It would be too sweeping a statement to say that nothing ever changes, but it’s fair to say that human nature remains fairly constant – which is what Taleb’s comment is addressing. I don’t think that that’s a pedantic reason to disagree with him. I think we’re so prone to see ourselves as unique and special that we forget to learn from history.

UPDATE: So I left a brief comment to this effect on Taleb’s post; my first time to do so. And then – he replied! He replied to only 2 comments of over a hundred (the other one exposed him as a Russian spy), so I feel a bit like the sensei at the top of the mountain talked back. His comment was: Globalisation. That’s an interesting take on it. On top of globalisation, there is also the internet – so the monoculture gets even stronger. I guess there is an interesting point arising out of this discussion: our propensity for herd mentality is made even worse by the internet. 

It’s difficult to meaningfully stand out when the way to get heard is through the network effect.

human nature doesn't change

The dangers of laser-like focus

Passion and focus are spoken about all the time. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or it’s not right for you.” All the heroes of our time – mostly in tech – are known for their relentless focus on their passion. It probably culminates in the now near-mythological figure that is Steve Jobs.

the dangers of focus

I am highly distractible, but when it came to something I consider important – I’ve always been the kind of person who locks on – and that’s it. A certain degree of fanaticism was involved in many of the projects I pursued. When I was a medical student, the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of medicine. When I did HIIT, I really did it – stars in my eyes and all. Even this – I said I would blog every day.

In my experience, it’s a double edged sword. Focus is always avoiding the completeness of the present moment. We trade awareness for a hope of a better future. It’s still puzzling to me how one can be purely mindful and make plans, but our culture certainly tells us to make lots of them – and don’t forget the assorted to-do lists to go with it.

Even forgetting about mindfulness, focus is dangerous: focus on the wrong thing – and it’s a real problem. I’ve obsessed about the things that most girls obsess about: boys, weight, nice things. I am in my 20s, so it’s quite forgivable. Still, having the kind of personality that locks onto things, it’s tough to get out of a focus-rut once you are in it. It’s not OCD, but the word tormenting seems appropriate. My only medicine for this has been mindfulness – or a rude awakening from the real world. I much prefer the former.

For those of us who are super-focused, or those reading all of this advice to be laser-focused and wishing that they could be like that, remember that it comes at a price.

being really focused