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Depression is a Bitch [Part 1]

My last entry was almost 6 months ago.  There’s been no lack of thoughts or ideas.  No lack of motivation to continue understanding what’s happening around me.  But there was a deep sense that I wasn’t at my best self and that this was an activity which I would only do when I could put quality work forward.

Generally speaking, writing these entries is a weekend activity for me.  I’ll wake up, go through my morning routine, and then sit down with my laptop and write out something that’s on my mind.  It was common to start at 9 or 10 in the morning and not wrap up until the mid-afternoon.  I found it really valuable in organizing and testing my ideas.  I also really enjoyed the exercise of articulating my thoughts.

But…  As my professional life continued to go sideways, so did the rest of my life.  The more I think about it, the further back it probably goes.

Chapter 1

I was all but kicked out of my university half way through my second year.  My grades were decent, but in my position as dorm president, I had a habit of standing up to university authority when they overstepped their boundaries and started negatively impacting the lives of students.  Through a series of university judicial charges, bans, and fines, they made it very clear that I was unwanted at that school.  So I left.  But after 18 months, I took it as a personal challenge and decided to go back and take my degree through sheer academic effort.  I did.  I excelled and it left me optimistic for a bright future where talent, effort and focus would lead to great things.  I even skipped my convocation to hit the job market ahead of everyone else.  I managed to graduate into the great recession.  The job market was barren.  I took what I could get.. I was hired as a management trainee for enterprise rentacar doing customer service and washing cars in a suit for $13/hour.  In one of the world’s most expensive cities.  Not ideal, but if I could make manager, everything would get better.

Chapter 2

Enterprise Rentacar was hemorrhaging money in my area so they decided to cut costs.  Within 12 months, most of the area’s top paid employees were constructively dismissed.  That included my manager, also a close friend of mine..  In that transition, I was offered a job managing the second largest location in our group, a mid-sized airport branch.  It required me to move about 4 hours away and I wouldn’t get my promotion until I arrived, but they insisted I would be rewarded by taking one for the team.  I discussed it with my dad, and we decided it was the best career move available to me.  2 months after I moved, my dad died.

Chapter 3

Within the month following my dad, my girlfriend left me for another guy, I tore my shoulder pretty bad, and corporate management was now telling me that I would have the responsibility of a manager, but only the title, pay, and recognition of an assistant manager.  They said that corporate policy prevented them from authorizing a promotion at this time.  2 months later, they moved another assistant manager to the branch who was under the impression that they would get promoted.  2 months after that, the original manager who was on an indefinite maternity leave decided to come back.

Chapter 4

Without much going right in my life, I put all my focus towards the small inheritance my dad left to his 3 kids.  My dad made it my responsibility, so it became the most important thing in the world to me.  As I started to look for work, the investment firm who handled my dad’s funds took an interest in me.  So did a wealthy business man who was looking for a protege to mentor as he shifted into a soft retirement.  The portfolio which my dad made me responsible for is probably the single biggest reason why I chose the bank.

Chapter 5 

The bank (RBC) was introduced to me as the hardest thing I’ll ever do, but that if I can make it through the first 4 years, it’s worth every ounce of effort.  I was warned about the high failure rate, but was also told that failure was a result of laziness, ego, and not following direction.  Little did I know, the failure rate was about 95% for those who didn’t arrive with an already established book or source of clients.  I also learned that following the process meant maintaining a status quo which was ineffective, severely out of date, and not in the clients’ or public’s best interest.  Regardless, I worked harder than I had ever worked before.  Weekends was a given.. late nights were a given.. holidays were a thing of the past.. whatever I could do to increase my chances of success.  It didn’t seem to matter though.  Expectations were $10M of net-new assets per year, by far the highest in the industry.  In year one, I did $7M.  In year 2, I was up to $16M.  By year 3, management had determined that I wasn’t worth keeping.  In year 4, I realized that a far better path was joining a more senior team who wasn’t subject to short-term sales targets and could actually focus on providing wealth management services to their clients.. what I understood the job to be, and what I excelled at.  After a great deal of effort, I joined a top 5 team with expectations of taking over the book once the senior advisor retired in 5-10 years.  It was the best possible deal someone like myself could’ve landed.  1 month after I moved and joined the new team, the senior advisor told me that management had a target on my back.  A month after that, I was fired.

Chapter 6

I left the bank on a Monday and while leaving the office, my stubbornness and sense of competition took over.  I refused to be beat and committed myself to having a new job by Friday.  Then I went and bought an ounce of weed.. mulled it over.. and realized that was a terrible idea.  For the first time in my life, I had committed everything I had to being successful at something – and it failed in spectacular fashion.  All the hours I put in.. all the money I spent.. all the relationships I didn’t prioritize.. all for naught.   I used to think that I was so capable, that I could be successful in any environment.  This proved otherwise and it was important to understand why.  Eventually, I realized that if I was going to stick to my values and be a person of integrity, there were some environments which would tolerate me and some who would celebrate me.  It was now my responsibility to find the latter.

Chapter 7

I eventually found work with a small cannabis shop which had won a series of awards for being the best retailer around.  With cannabis legalization on the horizon, it occurred to me that there was a significant amount of opportunity here.  At first, I worked with them in building an expansion plan which would see them go from one store to a national chain.  Then we needed to raise capital, so I put that together too.  Eventually, I told the company I was looking to earn a leadership role within the company, preferably the CEO seat.  The founders were a husband and wife team who spent most of their time minding the store or doing non-profit work, creating a great opportunity for someone to come in and mind the back-end of the business.  For the first several months, everything was pretty good.  The happiest I’ve been in a long time was when we had 45 days to prepare for a pitch competition. I worked 15 hours a day, 7 days a week to make sure that every aspect of the business was presentable to investors.  I even stopped smoking weed because it was just getting in the way of something I loved doing.

But then legalization was delayed and regulations became uncertain.  This spooked investors and a lack of investors stressed out the founders.  I tried to tell them that we didn’t need the majority of funds until after legalization and that they didn’t need to stress, but it fell on deaf ears.  I tried to bring a business coach in to help streamline communication and roles.  They suggested that we design our roles around our personal interests, skills, and capacity.  That meant giving me more of a leadership role in the company.  They were reluctant and the recommendations went nowhere.

As we got closer to legalization, I lined up a friendly investment from the largest cannabis company in the world.  It was all the financing the company would need to build out its next 8 stores.  Around this time, the founders started to question what I did for the company or if I was even needed.  I had the distinct impression that I was no longer part of the inner-circle.  Maybe this had something to do with their passion for social justice and the fact that I’m a straight white male who drives an SUV and used to work at the bank.  Maybe it was their suspicion for my rational approach to business when everything in their world was a matter of emotions.  Maybe it was their tendency to look at the business as their property instead of looking at it as an organization of people who are working together, trying to solve a problem.  Or maybe it was me declining to start our meeting with healing crystals for the second time in 2 weeks.

Whatever it was, they came to me and said that they wanted to enjoy themselves when they came to work and they were spending most of their time stressed out.  They thought I was the cause.  Apparently, I just wasn’t their kind of people.  I listened, I apologized, and I made a real effort to try and ‘soften’ my edges.  This included spending a long weekend at a ranch, doing mushrooms for the first time as an adult, talking to my ‘softer’ friends, and reading up on the issues I was facing.  It wasn’t enough.  Within a couple months, I was no longer employed.  They even tried to remove me from the board, but had to stop when they were reminded that all the funding came through me and is only accessible while I”m part of the company.

Chapter 8

This lands us at Dec 1 of 2018.  Just like when I had left RBC… personally broke.. somewhat dejected.. but with my eyes on redemption.  I was a major part of building one of the best cannabis retailer in the country.  On the verge of cannabis legalization, this seemed like a rather valuable skill set.  Things could be worse.

Something I had finally learned is that I’m not willing to compromise my values for my career, so finding a place where there’s an alignment of values is paramount.  As such, I thought I’d take some time in finding that fit this time around.  Between December ’18 and April of ’19, I applied to over 200 jobs, participated in dozens of phone interviews and several in-person interviews.  That was on top of all my warm-network activity.  By the end of it, I had been considered for everything from Chief of Staff at a publicly traded company to a Chief Operating Officer of a small start-up.

It was quite the experience.  I learned about the gig-economy and how health plans, let alone dental is getting harder and harder to come by.  I learned about how recruiters are incentivized.  I learned how the head of HR is there to sell strong candidates on the company in the same way that strong candidates try to sell themselves.  And I definitely learned about the imbalance of power between the interests of those looking for work versus those looking to hire.  I didn’t take a job until April 15th of this year.  Not because I was being picky, but because it was the first job officially offered to me and I needed an income.

Chapter 9

The job that I ended up taking was with a cannabis retailer that I had been trying to stay away from.  I didn’t agree with the way the CEO carried himself and was not interested in his business.  However, they were the only company who made a real offer.  Even if it was only a 3 month contract, the compensation was fair and it was an industry I wanted to continue in.  Could be worse.

I was brought in to help with a capital raise and do some market analysis.  We launched the raise a couple weeks in and I quickly found out that current shareholders, who we were going back to for more money, were not very happy with how things had gone.  As it turns out, the company had raised $8M to open 15 stores by the end of 2018.  Now in 2019, we had 2 stores, no money, and needed another $6M to open up another 9 locations.  The capital raise fell flat on its face as almost every existing investor declined to put more money in.  As a result, the CFO I was working for became increasingly agitated.  Eventually, he asked me to mislead potential investors for the sake of closing more investment dollars.  I told him it wasn’t a good idea and stood my ground on ethics and business practices.  The following week, I was told that if I wasn’t comfortable doing these kinds of things, my contract wouldn’t be extended.  I brought this to the CEO and HR who both sided with me, but ultimately said that they weren’t part of the conversation and would have to talk to the CFO as well.  The CFO met with me the following week and told me that the unsuccessful capital raise has forced him to re-do the budget and they no longer have funds for my position.  That was 4 days before my contract ended.

Chapter 10

For the fourth time in my young career, I had found another employer who was at odds with my values.  The realization that I was consistently being forced to choose between my values or my career… was just a really dark place for me.  My values are who I am.  If I compromised those for someone else, in exchange for money… I just can’t.  I’d rather get off the ride entirely than live my life like that.

Upon reflection, it’s like I had the potential to be a tremendous employee.. but despite my best efforts, couldn’t find the right employer.  I had the potential to be a great entrepreneur but lacked the resources to do it.  It was like I had all these gifts.. but no one to give them to.  All this potential, but without purpose.  And if I’m not useful.. if I’m not meaningful.. if I have no purpose.. why am I needed?  Why should I continue to consume the world’s resources if it’s all for naught?  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if I just removed myself from the equation?

I don’t think I’m the first one to have those thoughts.  I suspect they’re more common today than ever before.  And for those reasons, I’m grateful for the experience.  I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m no longer missing the forest for the trees.  It’s remarkable how much you can learn in the dark places of your mind, especially once you shine some light.  Even if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, the compassion I’ve learned for my fellow human being has made this entire experience worth it.

Taxing the wealthy won’t work. A cryptocurrency might. (Part 2)

Taxes are for putting money in the hands of the government, not the citizens.

The more taxes the government collects, the more resources they control.  The more resources they control, the closer we get to the original problem: too many resources in the hands of too few.  I think that just about all of us agree that there needs to be a more functional distribution of resources but it’s not as simple as taking resources away from the wealthy.  Especially if you’re shifting those resources to the government and not the people.  Let’s not forget that we have a government which is more likely to see value in socialism for corporations than socialism for citizens.

If our goal is to put resources back in the hands of more people, maybe there’s a more direct approach.. A way to accomplish that outside of the government.  Maybe there’s the potential for a currency which bypasses tax and simply redistributes itself without the potential for a corrupted middle-person like the government.  Perhaps a cryptocurrency with an automated distribution curve that ensures nobody ever receives less than a basic cost of living.  Because how does that benefit the society as a whole?  They require inefficient social assistance programs which require tax dollars anyways.

A lot of people see how much we’re struggling right now and think that it’s because wages need to rise.  Well, that might not help if the cost of living continues to rise more quickly.  What we really need to do is recognize that income is only relevant when compared to what we spend our money on.  We could all be billionaires and it would mean nothing if the average home cost a trillion dollars.  We need real a benchmark.

Right now, our poorest people receive so little support and so few opportunities, that their environment does a better job of keeping them where they are as opposed to helping them rise above their circumstances.  That needs to change.  Our baseline should be an environment that lends to creating successful people, not one which holds them back.  Based on that, being poor would mean that you could still afford: A comfortable living space, healthy food, quality clothing, transportation, broadband internet and a smart phone, education, savings, and a disposable income.  Imagine that, our least fortunate being given every opportunity to make something of themselves and live a good life.  Do you have any idea what that would do to our nation’s productivity?  That alone would increase the nation’s average IQ by double digits and slingshot us into the next industrial revolution.

Lets’ say that the average income needed to produce that lifestyle was $50,000 per year.  Sounds steep?  In 2018, total household wealth topped $100 trillion.   That’s about $300,000 each across 350 million people.  If it only costs $50,000 per year in resources to ensure that someone has every opportunity to become their most productive self, that’s starting to sound like a downright brilliant investment.  As they spend that $50,000 in resources throughout the year on things like rent, or professional services, or education, or eating out, those resources simply flow to others within the economy based on free market principles.  This still leaves plenty of resources left over for a strong middle class, and plenty still, for the most productive geniuses among us.  And let’s not forget that when the lower and middle class have savings and a disposable income, they can invest in the great ideas of others, whether that be big companies they like, or good friend with a great idea.

If you could tie that distribution curve to a basic cost of living and a basic standard of living.. with the idea of promoting competition with a well resourced diversity of thought, and reaping the rewards of a meritocracy of ideas.. I think it could absolutely be something special.  But it’s not without it challenges.

When I come up with an idea like this, one of the first things I ask myself is how I would undermine it.  Generally speaking, if I could, then someone else would.  Like how would someone buy into this cryptocurrency?  If it’s like any other foreign exchange, what would prevent someone from buying 1 dollar of the currency, and then having it topped up to $50,000 through an automated rebalancing while they keep the rest of their money in USD?  How would the currency even know who to rebalance it to?  And how exactly are you ranked in this distribution curve?  I don’t see how this would work without other pieces in play.

One of my most successful strategies in devising solutions to problems is thinking outside the box.  I know it sounds cliche, but I also think it’s relevant.  When we’re talking about a functional and effective distribution of resources among a population, just about every solution we’ve come up with includes making adjustments to the current tax system.  That means using the government as a mandatory intermediary and decision maker.  Considering that the government has managed to rack up $22 trillion in national debt with no plans of reducing it, maybe that’s part of the problem.  Maybe they’re part of the box that we have to think outside of.  But what if outside the box is uncharted territory?  Well… a blank canvas usually requires some innovation and a willingness to create something new.

For a cryptocurrency to functionally redistribute resources across it’s users, it would have to know who they are.  It would need a fair and accurate mechanism to evaluate their merit to determine  the level of resources they should have access to.  I’m tempted to say that’s a whole new set of problems… but perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it.  Perhaps it’s a whole new set of solutions… ones which together, form a new platform for organizing wealth.  Perhaps we’ve taken our current platform to the limit of it’s efficacy… a society in which we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Perhaps next up, we can devise a system which cares about the price of nothing, because it understands the value of everything.

While not without its challenges, this concept has one rather remarkable advantage.  A currency like this, if feasible, could be remarkably popular among the masses.  If they chose to adopt that currency in a mainstream manner, it would destroy the value of the USD.  The top 1% who would avoid a currency like this at all costs, would see the value of their estates drop dramatically.

Taxing the Wealthy won’t work. A Crypocurrency might. (Part 1)

I spent 4 years working at a major bank in a role that effectively made me the personal CFO for wealthy families.  It was my responsibility to coordinate all things finance, from their investment portfolios, to their tax planning, to their wills & estate.  I really enjoyed what I did, and I only worked with clients that I chose to take on, so I really liked my clients too.  Most of them were the ‘top 1%’ but almost all of them had come from humble beginnings, worked super hard, succeeded at their craft, were good to their families, and did plenty of philanthropy.  If you didn’t know how much money they had, you’d have little conflict calling them good people.   But in having worked so hard to get to where they were, and having little to no confidence in government spending, they weren’t interested in handing over their hard earned money back via tax dollars.  For that reason, just about every client had a full tax plan done for them by high level accountants and tax lawyers.  We used to counsel our clients that avoiding taxes is legal, while evading taxes is illegal.  There were some grey areas, but we encouraged them to avoid those too.  Even so, they barely paid any tax.

It was while I was working at the bank that I also first discovered just how uneven the distribution of wealth was.  I grew up in a poor neighborhood so I generally assumed that everyone around me was always better off than I was, and I was just in the process of catching up.  But then I found this YouTube video:

 

Using data from 2009, it painted a very real picture of how wealth is allocated in today’s America.  As soon as I saw that, I knew that this was a very real problem and started trying to figure out what I could do to help.  I knew that the lack of financial literacy in the bottom 90% was a big factor so I started holding financial literacy seminars in my neighborhood and teaching a finance class at my old high school.  The data was collected in 2009.  I was teaching these classes between 2013 and 2015.  Today, things are much worse.

And I’m that much more motivated to come up with a solution to the problem.

When you see how much wealth the top 1% control, most people would agree that it’s an issue but I don’t think people fully understand why.  Wealth is not the same as money.  These billionaires don’t have billions of dollars in the bank.  Cash is understood to be an asset, and if it’s just sitting around, it’s losing ground to inflation.  So people tend to keep as little cash as possible, and leave the rest of their money sitting in a diversified portfolio of assets.  For the billionaires, that’s real estate, businesses, stock portfolios, gold, art, and just about everything in between.  The problem has little to with how wealthy they are or how much money they earn, it’s about how much of the nation’s resources they control.

One of the fundamental concepts within capitalism is competition.  When capitalism is running as intended, there’s a diversity of thought, a competitive market place of ideas, and those who can execute on the best ideas tend to win.  When the best ideas we can come up with are what become the businesses of our economy, we all win.  But that’s not what we have today.  What we have today is a failed capitalist state.

I’m someone with no shortage of business ideas and people often ask me why I don’t start my own business.  Well… people usually save up for that right?  Work a decent paying job for while, save up some money and open a business right?  Well, in an economy where 80% of people are living from paycheck to paycheck, I guess saving up to start a business isn’t exactly an option that’s available to everyone.

Well what about getting a loan from the bank?  Well the bank isn’t interested in giving people opportunities as much as it’s interested in guaranteeing that it’ll get it’s money back.  Businesses don’t have any guarantee of success, so they’ll ask for a personal guarantee.  Since most aspiring entrepreneurs today don’t have savings let alone assets, the banks aren’t interested in lending money to them.  For those who have scraped enough together to own their own home, the bank will gladly lend you the money to start a business.  They’ll also take your home if your business fails. 80% of small businesses fail within the 5 years year.

What about getting an investment from friends and family?  Well most would want to see you put your own money in first. If you’ve managed to do that, you need friends and family who have enough money to make a high-risk investment into your venture.  If you have both, chances are you’re closer to the 1% than you think.

What about getting investment dollars from a venture capital firm?  Well most would like to see a business that’s up and running already.  If you’ve managed to get that far and have one of the few businesses they’d like to invest in, they’re likely to take a predatory stake in the company to mitigate their risk.  Congratulations, you’ve just circumvented the control that the top 1% has on our nations resources… by begging them for money, and then giving them a significant part of your business, on their terms.  This is all wrong.  When the top 1% control the vast majority of the country’s resources, they get to choose where that wealth goes and who has access to it.  When you can’t compete without resources, that reduces competition.  When there’s no ability to compete, people are less inclined to come up with great ideas… because it’s just too hard to get it past the idea phase.  And that.. is a failure of capitalism.

So how do we fix it?

Some would think that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, so why don’t we just tax the wealthy?  How about a 70% tax rate on income over $10 million? Or a tax on their assets? Or change the tax brackets… or something!  When I see these ideas being put forward, I’m hearing someone who is working with the right motivations, but the wrong understanding.

A 70% tax rate on incomes over $10 million? Easy, just don’t pay yourself more than $10 million in income in any given year.  When you’re a billionaire, your entire life can be structured as a company expense and you have very little need for personal income.  A tax on assets?  Easy, just move the ownership of the asset into a structure which isn’t subject to tax.  None locally? All good, just move them off-shore.  I don’t think the general public or the politicians appreciate just how well the tax system is designed for wealthy people who don’t want to pay tax.  I wonder how that happened…

I think that when the general public sees this behavior, they get upset.  Us normal people who are barely getting by are forced to pay our taxes, while these rich people who have more money than you can spend aren’t paying their fair share.  Well.. why is that? I don’t think it’s just greed.  Why would so many of the world’s high profile billionaires be giving away so much of their money if they were so greedy?  At least part of it is that they don’t trust the ability of the government to spend effectively.  All things considered, they’re probably right.  If the government were to confiscate all the wealth from all of America’s billionaires, it would cover government expenses for less than a year.  It’s like making a donation to a charity and finding out that most of that money goes to the people running the charity and not the cause which the charity is supporting.  I can’t help but think that the wealthy know that the government works the same way and avoids giving them money because of it.  At least with philanthropy, you have a little more control over how that money is spent.

The reality is that our current tax system is so complex and filled with so many loopholes, that the wealthy will always find a way to avoid paying taxes.  And if we make things prohibitive locally, there’s no shortage of countries which are willing to show preferential treatment to someone who is willing to bring billions of dollars with them.  Think about Amazon’s approach to finding a new ‘HQ’ and hunting for government subsidies.  To make it worse, it’s these same billionaires who are funding the elections of what are supposed to be *our* elected representatives.  That means that laws and regulations will continue to shift to their favor.  There’s a joke that if American’s didn’t have estate tax, the wealthy would never pay tax at all.  Well, it should come as no surprise that politicians, including our current president, are keen to eliminate that estate tax.

The first solution I had to this problem was tax reform.  A complete overhaul of the system that would make taxes simple and easy to file on your own.  Something that was so easy and obvious, that there would be no room for loopholes.  I think there’s probably a way to do it… but it’s not something I’m capable of figuring out right now.  Too complex.  So what do I do when things are too complicated?  I make them less complicated.

The real special sauce behind capitalism is a meritocracy, where the best ideas get the most resources.  We want someone like Elon Musk to have all the support and resources he needs because what he’ll build with them will likely benefit us all.  But not all of us are like Elon, and some of us have to give up a little, so someone like him can have a little extra.  And it’s not because we think he should have bigger houses or fancier vacations.  The little bit that each of us gives up, goes to someone developing things like solar energy, or electric cars, or space travel… because when they do, all of us win.  So for all us to be best off, there must be an unequal distribution of resources.  But how do we create systematic inequality, which truly benefits everyone?

What about a crytpocurrency?  One which had a distribution curve built into it, and automatically rebalanced itself?  What if the currency itself always assured that those on the low end of the spectrum could always afford a standard cost of living, and those on the high side received more resources than the average person?  And that our best and brightest generally had everything that they needed?

Wouldn’t that be something… I’ll take a crack at mapping it out in Part 2.

Educating the Next Generation

I’ve had a storied academic history.  As a kid, I was always told about my ‘potential’.  When shifting from elementary to high school, I applied to a ‘mini school’ for smart kids and was denied.. probably for not being smart enough.  I went to the high school that the rest of my friends went to and by the next grade, had enrolled in their advanced program.  My grades were generally below average and might have had something to do with my reluctance to study for anything.  I was the type who went to class, paid attention, and participated… and that was usually enough to get by.  By grade 12, I was down to 2 advanced courses, history and biology.  The wager was that it would be easier to get into university with good grades from the standard classes than average grades from advanced classes.  The bet paid off as I averaged mid 80s, and I was headed to university.

In my first year of university, I barely managed to stay off academic probation with a GPA of 1.8.  The work wasn’t difficult, I just wasn’t that interested.  There were certain courses that I did quite well in, like business or psychology, but then there were others like calculus that I failed twice after skipping most of the classes, doing none of the homework, and barely studying for the exams.  I left university after my second year for a combination of reasons, including: a lack of funds, a lack of interest, a lack of focus, a bar fight, and a soured relationship with the university.  When I got home that summer, I ended up making a fair bit of money.. enough to postpone any thoughts of finishing school.  Fortunately or unfortunately, that job showed me that business is what I wanted to do, and I knew that getting a business degree was a good place to start.  So I returned to school with a renewed interest after a couple years.  With a renewed focus, I performed accordingly.  I took business and psychology courses exclusively and was among the top of my class when we graduated.  That included taking that calculus course on my own during a summer semester and finishing with a 90+.

During that time, I’ve learned a great deal.  Including that being knowledgeable and performing well in academics are not the same thing.  During my first two years, I set an unofficial record for fewest classes attended and still managed to finish with a GPA in the 2.5 range.  It wasn’t because I was smart, I was because I knew how to study and how to test.  For most classes, I could skip the lectures and course readings, and simply memorize the chapter summaries and vocabulary.  It left gaps but with most tests being multiple choice, a bit of analysis and probability would usually get you in the 70s.  Reflecting on it now, most of these courses relied heavily on memory.  I learned to memorize things back in high school for biology but learned how to apply those skills elsewhere.  Unfortunately, things that I memorized while cramming for an exam were almost always lost just as quick.  Maybe not entirely, but the strategy wasn’t designed around long-term retention.

Perhaps there’s some rhyme and reason to things which are easy to remember and things which aren’t.  If you learn a detail and know where it fits in your larger understanding of things and the variety of things it connects to, it’s easy to remember.  If you’re just looking to memorize a list of details that’s isolated from your core understanding of the world, not so easy.

It would be interesting to see how much of the modern curriculum is based in memorization and I wonder if enough attention is paid to establishing the foundation for these facts to be absorbed more easily.  Either way, I can’t help but think that memorization is going the way of long division.  There was a point when I was a kid where elementary school teachers would tell me about how important it was to know how to do long arithmetic.  Curious about why this was valuable when we had calculators, I had to ask.  They would say something to the effect of, what happens when you don’t have a calculator?  Thinking back on it now, I can’t say I’ve ever found myself in a situation where I needed to do math and didn’t have access to a calculator.  I haven’t a clue how to do long division anymore and I’ve never once felt at a loss for it.

I think we’re evolving.  For decades, if not centuries, if not millennia… people with remarkable memories were among the most capable individuals.  They had the ability to draw from a larger database of knowledge than most of their peers, and as long as they filled it with useful things, they were remarkably useful.  Once the written word and the printing press came along, it wasn’t just about your memory, but your ability to find good information worth memorizing.  But here, in the information age, everything has changed.

Today, I walk around with a magical device in my pocket which provides me with a portal to 99.9% of all knowledge within the known universe.  Within this portal exists search engines which help me locate the information I’m looking for.  Within the results of those search engines exists all kinds of information, waiting to be understood and converted to knowledge.  And these magical devices are available to just about anyone.  This has revolutionized the way we gather and access what we need to know.  And I don’t think we fully appreciate that just yet.

How much of a school’s curriculum is teaching kids what to think? How many of us were trained in the art of memorizing facts to be repeated at a later date, preferably when someone has asked asked a question to which that fact is an appropriate answer?  Like while watching Jeopardy.  That’s how to look smart isn’t it?.  But what if we took the best (human) Jeopardy player of all time and matched them up against an average 15 year old with a laptop, internet connection, and a solid grasp of google?  The 15 year old might be a bit slower but beyond that, I’d probably bet on the 15 year old.  Without a doubt, the knowledge contained within Wikipedia, let alone the entirety of the internet would be considerably more vast and detailed than what any single mind could retain.  Thinking about it differently, our collective digital brain represents just about all of human knowledge, far more than any one person could ever compete with.

Where a single mind can still compete quite effectively though, is with recalling that information quickly.  Someone asks you your birthday, you can spit it back out almost immediately.  If someone asks you when Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is, good chance you’ll need a few seconds on google.  But in a practical world, when does one need to recall specific details of this nature in less than a few seconds?  Is it possible that in this practical world, the skill of being able to find new information and understand it quickly becomes more valuable?

I’m watching the world tear itself apart right now and I can’t help but ask myself why and try to understand what I’m seeing.  Something that I’ve observed, is that many people seem to be done learning.  Old people can’t be bothered to learn how new technology works while young people can’t be bothered to learn history.  Men won’t take the time to learn about the struggles that women go through while women won’t take the time to learn about the struggles that men go through.  The religious crowd isn’t interested in learning new perspectives while the atheist crowd isn’t interested in learning about why people still seek religion.  Hedge fund managers aren’t interested in learning about social impact and social justice warriors aren’t interested in learning about capitalism.  Politicians aren’t interested in learning how to serve the people while the general population isn’t interested in learning how the government works.  With access to more information than we’ve ever had, why have so many of us decided to stop learning?

I suspect that the search engine will go down as one of the most remarkable tools ever created by humans.. but it just wasn’t enough.  If you do a google search for Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and get 5 different results on the first page, what then?  Well hopefully you had memorized that date from American History class back in middle school.  But if you hadn’t, that’s when you need to apply your skills of critical analysis, research, pattern recognition, and logic.  You know… learning.  But what if you don’t have those skills?  I don’t remember any classes in school called logic or critical analysis.  I don’t even remember anyone even offering detailed explanations on either.

I think that for a long time, academia has been about the memorization of facts which were deemed historic and relevant, in the hopes of creating a framework of future understanding.  They were teaching us what they thought we should know.  The problem with that though, is that the people who decided which facts were historic and relevant had their own biases and misunderstandings.  Even worse, because of how they were presented, these frameworks became rigid.  Within a rigid framework, it becomes more difficult to evolve and adapt to new environments.  Also within these frameworks, people seem more likely to reinforce the walls than to question how their foundation was built.

What this all seems to boil down to for me is that many of us have either lost our sense of curiosity, or lack the tools to explore it.  There’s no shortage of people who would like to tell us what to think or how to feel, but without an ability to explore it ourselves, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t?  If we fall into the habit of trusting people because we like what they’re saying, all we’ve done is fallen into an echo chamber.. a place where curiosity and learning is carefully restricted to reinforce an existing perspective.  How do we get around all this?  The answer seems to always be the same… education.

I think we need to revolutionize our approach to education and the first step will be supporting a child’s innate sense of curiosity with the tools to learn.  Teach them everything we know that will help them discover the world for themselves and let them choose their own path.  I don’t think it benefits anyone to have teachers reciting facts to groups of students, with the hope that they’re listening, will retain the information, and will then find it useful some day.  What if teachers became facilitators which helped students develop the skills which in turn, helped them form their own understanding of the universe.  Give them the compass of truth and reality, give them the tools of critical analysis, debate, logic, and research, and set them off on their own adventures.  Prepare them to rise above the obstacles we couldn’t see beyond… and all that good stuff.

It’s not about teaching people what to think, it’s about teaching them how to learn.

A Brief Thought on the Self

Any time I’ve had the chance to look up at the stars on a clear night, I would start to lose my sense of self.  There was something about appreciating where I was in the grand scheme of things to help feel like I was just part of the universe.  After reading Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I couldn’t help but understand why I felt that way.  Within a 14 billion year old universe, for just a brief moment, the right amount of stardust mixed together in exactly the right away.. and here I am.

Since then I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about my sense of self.  I may have stumbled upon a rather interesting understanding of how a sense of self exists within all life.  I’m going to try and connect those dots here.

I suspect that the core programming of all life, is self-preservation.  I also think that this programming manifests into different behaviors based on what we understand to be the ‘self’.

Consider the reptile, equipped with a reptilian brain.  This brain is programmed to fight, flight, and f*ck.  That is, it fights and flights to preserve its own life, and it f*cks to preserve the life of the species.  Without this basic programming, survival of the individual self or of the species would not be possible.    But the reptile brain isn’t very well equipped to understand the self as being more than the individual, hence why reptiles are more than capable of eating their own young.

Now consider the limbic brain, something that connects all mammals.  This part of the brain developed on top of  the reptilian brain as reptiles evolved into mammals.  This likely had to do with mammals being responsible for raising their young while reptiles tend to hatch from eggs and make a mad dash for dear life.  This means that the limbic brain had to develop a sense of self which included its off-spring.  This programming is what motivates parents to put their lives on the line for their children… a sense of self that extends beyond the individual and to the family.  I suspect that this sense of self can be extended as far as one’s entire tribe and may explain elements of today’s culture war.

Now consider the neo-cortex, or the brain that connects all humans.  This is the part of the brain that lets us think logically and abstractly.  I would suggest that these are the best tools for truly understanding one’s self and their surroundings..  And perhaps it’s through these tools that Buddhists arrived at this idea that there is no self.  Or how Bill Clinton arrived at the quote that selfless and selfish are really the same thing when we understand how interconnected we all are.

There are more bacteria cells in my body than human cells.  Does that make be more bacteria than human?  Or are the bacteria cells in my body not part of my body?  If so, could I survive without them?  Drawing the line between what is you and what isn’t you, isn’t so easy when you actually understand what you are.  And even if we did decide that everything that was within your physical body was the ‘self’, could that ‘self’ survive on its own?  Without human contact, our minds tend to go.  Without this ecosystem of life around us, our bodies wouldn’t survive.  I think there is relevance and significance to the physical self, but the more I think about it, there’s a greater understanding available to us here.

A pattern that I see, is that the more capable we become of understanding ourselves and our surroundings, the more likely we are to expand the self beyond the individual self.  That may suggest that the highest level of understanding, includes a definition of self which encompasses the entire universe.  We’re all just stardust anyways, are we not?

 

Schultz 2020

A couple years ago I got involved with a cool little cannabis company.  It was retail, and very early stage, but it had a ton of character and was being done really, really well.  As I was preparing them for a capital raise, I had to create a quick comparison with an existing business that others would recognize.  We landed on, ‘the young Starbucks of cannabis’.  I figured that if I was going to make a bold claim of that nature, I had better know that company inside and out.  Part of that was reading Howard Schultz’s book, Pour Your Heart Into It.  

I actually listened to it while on a mini-road trip and I was immediately a fan of the guy.  He had true humble beginnings.  His path did not lack adversity.  And his success did not cost him his humility.  In hearing how he approached the obstacles he faced throughout his career, you could tell that he was a person of integrity and strong values.  Not just a smart person, but the kind of person who uses their smarts to try and make life better for others.

When Donald Trump ran for president, a lot of people were saying that getting a business mind into the White House was a great idea and that Donald Trump was an ideal candidate.  I think that someone who truly understands the fundamentals of business is capable of running an organization of any shape or size.  I also think that those who are most capable of running a government are not in politics.  I had actually been hoping to see a great business mind in the White House for years but I also knew that Donald Trump was not that person.  His approach to building and running businesses (into bankruptcy) was not transferable to building and running a government.  I still think that Hillary would’ve been a far more competent and far less corrupt leader than Trump, but it still shows that the American voter is looking for a change from the status quo.  They can sense that the talent pool within the political system is thin and that our best and brightest operate in the private sector.

Over the last 3 years or so, I’ve paid a great deal of attention to American politics.  Far more than I ever had in my life.  And in order to keep up, I had to learn a ton about how things work.  And like many of us, it led me to a place where I wanted help create change for the better.  I think Howard Schultz has ended up there as well.  He’s been asked about running for office various times over the years and in most cases, he’s suggested that he’s interested but not that interested.  My impression is that he was motivated to make the world a better place but that he would rather do that through Starbucks and his charitable work than attempt to navigate the corrupt landscape of politics.  But that all changed when Trump came along.  Schultz sees what I see, and it means that his sense of responsibility to make the world a better place now weighs more heavily on him than his desire to stay out of politics.

When I say that both Trump and Clinton were terrible candidates, people ask me who I would vote for or who I would want to run.  For the last two years, I’ve been saying Howard Schultz.  The guy actually grew up in the projects so he knows what it means to come from humble beginnings and what it takes to rise up out of those circumstances.  In Starbucks, he built a world-class organization that made a name for itself by treating its employees really well.  As an individual, he’s demonstrated that he’s a person of character and integrity.  And the bonus, if he ran, I was pretty sure it would be as an independent.

Well, a couple days ago, Schultz was interviewed on the news and he told the audience that he was considering a run in 2020.  Fuck ya.  Not just that, but that he was going to run as an independent and a centrist.  He called out both parties for doing more politicking than governing and I expected no less from the guy.  As a real life billionaire, he’s capable of funding his own campaign and doesn’t need to hitch himself to any special interests.  And that seems to be ruffling some feathers.

First you had Trump that managed to embarrass himself more effectively in one tweet than any dig from Schultz would have.  Trump started by saying that Schultz didn’t have the guts to run for president.  Weird flex considering that if Schultz does run, he starts the game 1 – 0 against Trump.  Then Trump takes a shot at Schultz’s intelligence, claiming that he himself is the smartest person in America.  Meanwhile, what Trump was referencing was when Schultz said that he’s not always the smartest person in the room.  From what I’ve observed, this is what smart people say when they’re being modest and it’s often because they’re smart enough to spent time with even smarter people.  Finally, Trump tries to wrap it up by establishing dominance, asking if Schultz has paid him his rent for the Starbucks location inside Trump tower.  Cringe-worthy.

What I saw from Trump was expected.  Trump’s tactics are reminiscent of a bully on a playground.  He starts with, “you don’t have the guts to play here”.   Then he teases him and calls him stupid.  Then he brags about something that’s clearly a lie.  Then he makes  play for his lunch money.  Straight off the playground.  And if Schultz has any political strategists already on board, they’re loving it.  Trump plays the role of the bully well, but he’s a shadow of himself when it doesn’t work.  It’s also why I don’t think you should protect kids from bullying as much as you should prepare them to overcome it.  Schultz was no stranger to bullies growing up and has dealt with bullies of all shapes and sizes in the private sector.  If someone of Trump’s character is easy pickings for someone like me, Schultz is going to eat him alive.  I really do think that of all the potential candidates that may run against Trump, Trump would fear Schultz the most.  Fortunately for Trump, there’s a good chance he won’t make it to 2020.

While that was Trump’s reaction, the republican reaction has been more muted.  I don’t think they know what to say just yet.  The republican national committee seems to have thrown their full weight behind Trump which seems a bit suspicious given his current poll numbers and impending proceedings.  I guess we’ll see how that turns out.  But either way, right wing media has been more focused on the democrats response to Schultz’s announcement than anything.. and perhaps rightfully so.

The Democrat’s response to Schultz looking into a 2020 presidential run has been a giant, steaming pile of horse shit.  Every democrat that I’ve seen speak on this, including some top brass, has been strongly against Schultz running for president.  As they’ll tell you, it has almost nothing to do with his policies or his credentials, and everything with him running as an independent.  As they put it, the greatest concern is defeating Donald Trump and by introducing a popular independent candidate, you risk ‘splitting the anti-Trump vote’.  They’re afraid that Donald Trump has 40% of the voter base on lock, and that if you split the remaining 60% of voters between Schultz and a democrat candidate, you end up with another 4 years of Trump.  Fuck that.

From what I understand, one of the biggest flaws in American politics is a 2 party system.  It’s an effective duopoly of American democracy.  One in which *both* parties have demonstrated that they are deeply corrupt and beholden to special interest groups.  One of the best things we could do for democracy is to have elected representatives who voted exclusively on what their constituents want, rather than voting along party lines or voting for special interests on promises of future campaign contributions.  This change isn’t only grass roots, in large organizations, it happens from the top down.  But how would we accomplish that it costs a billion dollars to run for president and most people can only access that kind of capital as a democrat or republican candidate?  99.9% can’t, and that’s the point.  That’s why it’s a duopoly.  That’s why every president in the last however many years has been produced by one of two organizations.  It’s why no matter who’s in office, nothing ever seems to change.  And we’re now at a point where it all desperately needs to change.  And the democrats are now the ones trying to stand in the way.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened either.  This is literally what happened with Bernie Sanders in 2016.  Bernie was a better candidate than Hillary and he was certainly a better candidate than Trump.  The democrats thought Hillary was a stronger candidate and did what they could to give her the party’s nomination.  Considering that Bernie is an independent, I wonder if someone from the democrats approached him before he decided to run and encouraged him to run as a democrat instead of as an independent.  You know, because of how important it was to not split the anti-trump vote.

Things are a bit different this time though.  Trump is the dumpster fire that everyone predicted and it’s left the republicans in a tight spot.  Trump has solidified about 20% of voters into a cult of personality who, right now, would follow him off a cliff.  As long as Trump stays out of jail, keeps yelling at immigrants, and the economy keeps growing, he’s probably their only candidate for 2020.  Meanwhile, democrats had their blue wave during the midterm, and bunch of new blood in congress, and Pelosi is just starting to flex her muscles.  They’re primed for a big comeback in 2020 with a broad selection of candidates from career politicians to career politicians.  As far as they’re concerned, 2020 is theirs to lose.  The problem with that though, is that this isn’t about them.  It’s about the country.  And the people.  And the democratic process.  And they’re treating it like trying to win a big, 4 year government contract.  Fuck that.

Right now, my full weight is behind Schultz.  This notion that we should avoid putting our best leaders forward because it might reduce the chances of a democrat candidate beating a republican candidate sound remarkably undemocratic.  First and foremost, both political parties are playing divisive politics and catering to the more vocal and extreme ends of their base.  Most of us are not represented by these individuals and together, we represent the silent majority.  We are people who might lean left or right, but generally speaking, hold a balanced view.  It’s people who are here that realize that good and bad ideas can be found on either end of the political spectrum.  And that despite all our differences, we have far more in common with one another.  Someone needs to step up for the silent majority.. and represent reason.. and common sense.. and community.. and being good to one another again.  Right now I think Schultz is our best chance at giving those people a voice.

The second reason, which should be obvious, is that Schultz has just as much of a chance to take votes off of the republican candidate as it would with the democrat one.  Most people who voted for Trump did so because he was a challenge to Washington’s status quo.  They wanted an outsider with a background in business to come and shake things up.  They wanted it so desperately that they didn’t bother looking too close when Trump said he was exactly what they were looking for.  If Trump goes down in flames, which I bet he will.. his base sure as hell won’t be voting for a rank and file democrat.. but I could certainly see them voting for someone like Schultz.  Someone who isn’t afraid to stand up to the ridiculous politics of the left, I think that’s going to mean a lot for them.  Someone who can go on to Fox News and lay down the boom as a self-made billionaire who was the CEO of a fortune 500 company.  I think there’s a strong contingency in the Trump base who would love a guy who did all that.  And if they had someone they trusted to root for, who was also telling us that we all gotta get along with one another if we’re going to make any progress… I think things get a lot better.

Third, and perhaps the biggest reason.. is dishonesty.  You have the democrat brass coming out of the wood work sternly telling Schultz not to run because it’ll improve the chances of Trump being elected.  Bullshit.  You don’t want Schultz to run because it’ll decrease the chances of a democrat candidate taking office.  And not just in 2020.  If Schultz gets in there and does a good job, he’s getting another 4 years.  And within that 8 year period, as we learn the lessons of identity politics and learn to embrace our individuality… what happens to the relevancy of the two-party system? How many others run as independents?  How many of us in hindsight want nothing to do with the political tactics of the democrats and republicans?  Howard Schultz winning the 2020 election could quite possibly be the death of the 2 party system in America and that could easily be the best thing to happen to American politics in the last 100 years.

 

Making Sense of the Noise

As someone who has had an excess of free time on their hands over the last two years, I’ve put a fair bit of effort into keeping track of what’s happening in American and global politics.  It started back in 2016 during Trump’s campaign.  Before that, I made a point of avoiding politics and the news.  During the election, my two primary news feeds were the Google app and Facebook.  It was really interesting to see Facebook get as political and dis-informational as it did.  I managed to get into a variety of debates before I chalked it up as a lost cause.  Even the Google feed wasn’t great.  I had to find a better way of staying informed.

I guess you could say I took an interdisciplinary approach to figuring out what was going on.  I read philosophy books to get a better understanding for the fundamental concepts of things like democracy and morality.  I read an astrophysics book to try and connect the small to the big.  I read psychology books to better understand why people do what they do.  I even read a neuroscience book to understand how and why people think the way that they think.  And all the while, I was consuming about 10-20 news articles a day.  That was probably on top of another 10-20 search queries a day, just on random things I wanted to know.

It was a lot of information, and it didn’t happen quickly, but I eventually started to piece it all together.  There are certainly gaps in my understanding of what’s happening as I’m missing key pieces of information.  But for what’s on the public record, I got a pretty good handle as to what’s going on.  My friends have actually started to tease me for it but they also use me for updates so I think my efforts are appreciated.

One of my friends asked me the other day what my process is for making sense of all this noise. She wanted to know what sources she could trust, or where she should be looking, or anything to help make things a bit more clear.  I’ve given that some thought and I’ve tried to isolate the algorithm that my brain uses to go from data to information to knowledge.

Step 1: Find a platform that effectively aggregates news sources and stories according to your preferences.  Personally, I’ve found Reddit to be most effective.  It’s open platform means that voices of all shapes and sizes are on there.  I can check in on what the far right thinks about a major event, and then just as easy, check in on what the far left are saying.  I’ve found that these communities, when not censored, provide some great insight into what people are thinking and feeling.  While far from perfect, there’s also a degree of accountability within the community and that makes for some solid fact checking.  After I curated my home feed, I was able to receive an effectively unlimited feed of interesting data.  It’s extremely easy to navigate as well since it just shows up as a scrolling feed of headlines, pictures, and videos.

Step 2: Scan the headlines.  I’ve found that most news reports these days contain one new relevant data point, surrounded by filler.  The filler is usually a summary of previous reports leading up to the the current report, and it’s often filled with biased commentary.  And for each new data point being reported on, dozens of publications will write a story on it.  Being able to scan headlines for key info not only keeps you from reading redundant material, it also helps you stay focused on the facts.

Step 3: Does the article provide a question or an answer?  I’ve found that a common approach to filling in the news cycle is asking the question that we’re all thinking, and trying to answer it with no new information.  Something to the effect of, “Robert Mueller Probe to End Soon?”.  We’d all like to know the answer to that question and your headline would suggest that you know something we don’t.  But you never do.  The reality is that if any reporter or news outlet had factual information that indicated when the Mueller probe would end, it would be a story in itself and breaking news.  I tend to filter out the questions, unless it’s one I haven’t asked myself before.  What I’m really looking for while scanning these headlines is answers.

Step 4: Verifying new information.  The first thing I look for is who’s reporting on it.  If the same event is being reported on by all major outlets, there’s a good chance that it happened.  Next step is jumping into one of the articles and looking for the quoted material and who it’s sourced from.  Almost every article will be referencing the same quote so you don’t really have to worry about the bias of the reporter unless you start reading their commentary.  Once you know what was said and who said it, you see how that fits into your larger understanding of the situation.  If it fits in neatly, in it goes and your understanding of what’s happening has grown.  If it doesn’t fit in neatly, it’s time to figure out why.

Step 5: Analysis.  When a headline or quote fits neatly into what I already know about what’s going on, it’s like adding a collectible to your collection.  In most cases, I knew what I was looking for, I was already looking for it, and I knew exactly where it would go once I found it.  But now and then, a new piece of information doesn’t fit neatly into what I already know and I now have to figure out why.  Sometimes the information is incorrect, sometimes my understanding of the situation is incorrect, and sometimes it’s somewhere in between.  Regardless, the process is always the same, to dig in until I understand what’s going on.  More often than one might expect, it leads me down some rather deep rabbit holes.  These journeys can take me through a variety of sources, including news articles, Wikipedia articles, scientific studies, historical texts, and plain old books.  Until I understand it, it doesn’t get added to my understanding.  I’d like to think that one of my most valuable skills in this process is being okay with leaving things in the maybe pile and not jumping to conclusions.

Step 5: Adoption.  Once a new data point is verified and it clicks into place, I move on.  I don’t mind having to go back and undo some of that work because something isn’t what I thought it was.  I’ve found that the conspiracy theory crowd have a hard time seeing the bigger picture because they get stuck on the validity of key details.  It’s like the scientific consensus, you don’t need to be 100% certain to move on, just 99%.  If someone presents new evidence that doesn’t align with what you previously thought?  Sweet.  Time to go figure out why and learn something new.

 

It would seem as though the filtering process that I’m applying to my data feed is an elaborate IF statement.  If the new data passed my verification process, I add it to my programming.  If it doesn’t, I analyze further.  If it’s because the data is corrupt, I identify it as such and set it aside.  If the data proves to be valid, I perform a self-diagnostic to understand why it conflicts with my existing programming.  More often than not, it’s my existing programming which needs to be updated to accommodate for the new data.  Sometimes the self-diagnostic can’t find anything wrong with the data or the programming, in which case it’s identified as such as set aside for further review.  Every once in a while, I’ll get an update which helps me make sense of something that was set aside for further review.  Then, even that piece of information gets tucked away neatly where it belongs.  Maybe a bit methodical, but I gotta say.. seems like a good way to go about things.