All posts are my own opinion and do not represent any organization I am affiliated with.

From Russia with Dreams

I recently finished reading Garry Kasparov's Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Garry is a chess grandmaster and was the world chess champion from 1986 to 2005. He is the guy who famously lost to IBMs Deep Blue computer in 1997. His book mostly talks about events in Russian history focusing on the rise to power of Vladimir Putin. Garry's perspective and writing are very thoughtful and if you are interested in modern Russin history I highly recommend reading it.

One quote from the book about the Russian mentality has stayed with me "[In Russia] thinking people do not aspire to self-realization." Self-realization being "fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one's character or personality."

The quote struck me with a sharp contrast to American mentality and particularly The American Dream. The Dream being, a path to better one's life through hard work and determination. It makes me sad to think of how many people in the world are not able to dream with such audacity. In many people's plans, the first part of building a better life is leaving their home country for a place more like the United States. A place where personal growth, through hard work and determination, is a realistic possibility.

Today I'm not taking for granted my privilege of being able to build a better future for myself and my loved ones in the country where I was born. Along these lines, I'll leave you with one of my favorite speeches from Warren Buffett.

Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You're] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren.

What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world? Do you want men to push around females? It’s a 50/50 chance you get female. If you think about the political world, you want a system that gets what people want. You want more and more output because you’ll have more wealth to share around.

The US is a great system, turns out $50,000 GDP per capita, 6 times the amount when I was born in just one lifetime. But not knowing what slip you get, you want a system that once it produces output, you don’t want anyone to be left behind. You want to incentivize the top performers, don’t want equality in results, but do want something that those who get the bad tickets still have a decent life. You also don’t want fear in people’s minds — fear of lack of money in old age, fear of cost of health care.  I call this the “Ovarian Lottery.”

My sisters didn’t get the same ticket. Expectations for them were that they would marry well, or if they work, would work as a nurse, teacher, etc. If you are designing the world knowing 50/50 male or female, you don’t want this type of world for women — you could get female. Design your world this way; this should be your philosophy. I look at Forbes 400, look at their figures and see how it’s gone up in the last 30 years. Americans at the bottom are also improving, and that is great, but we don’t want that degree of inequality. Only governments can correct that. Right way to look at it is the standpoint of how you would view the world if you didn’t know who you would be. If you’re not willing to gamble with your slip out of 100 random slips, you are lucky!

Buffet quote text source:

Work Backwards

David Brown reminded me of a great piece of advice a couple weeks ago. Advice that in and of itself is totally obvious, in retrospect. It is: work backward. Start with picturing the result you want and in your mind work back to the present. Visualizing the path and thinking "what can I do now, to get closer to this goal?"

The mental exercise can result in many possible paths for achieving an outcome. I believe it is important to not just pick one of those paths and stick to it without any deviation. As new information is learned the best path always changes. Dynamism is important. The exercise is more useful to get a range of possible ways to achieve an outcome.

When I can visualize realistic paths to a goal, something that once seemed impossible and lofty feels attainable. This helpful for me to establish confidence in the things I am doing today.

Small World

I work at an organization that operates all over the world. Which means that whenever we read about a tragedy, no matter where it is, our thoughts immediately go to "are all of our people ok?" There is almost nowhere in the world where reading about an event doesn't evoke the question and a nagging sense of worry. It is kind of profound to have this sort of connection to the greater world.

Think about this: You hear about a tragedy that directly affects a hundred people across the world. What is the chance you know somebody involved? Probably not all that high. But what is the chance that you know somebody, who knows somebody involved? Much higher. There is this idea that everyone in the world is connected to everybody else with a maximum of six degrees of separation. Meaning you would very likely know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone involved.

As the world becomes more connected the estimate of six degrees of separation is lowering. Research from Facebook in 2016 shows that the number may be as low as 3.57 degrees. The days of a big world where problems are too far away or don't affect *us* are gone. Everything now affects everyone, with the degree of directness increasing. I'll probably find myself in conversations saying "what a small world!" more and more often.

What is going on in your world?

Greetings have always been interesting to me. They are the starting point for communication. Good greetings provide a basis for meaningful and rewarding conversations. While bad ones more often lead to transactional interactions or unengaging small talk.

For a while, the two most common greetings I have used are "What's up?" and "How are you?" My favorite, at least in theory, being "How are you?"

It is a wonderful thing to know how the people in my life are actually doing. Though for whatever reason casually revealing how you are doing, unless you are doing great, is against the social norm in the United States. Additionally, because the greeting is so common, the question is usually given no real thought and the response is a rehearsed "Great! How are you?" Just a pushing back of the underlying socially uncomfortable question to the person who asked it, with neither side intending to give an answer.

Because I find this unsatisfactory, lately I've been trying out new greetings. With the goal of finding one that more often leads to meaningful conversation.

A greeting that I have found particularly satisfying is "What is going on in your world?"

This one often works well because, while we are not very comfortable casually talking about emotions in the United States, we are comfortable talking about the good and bad things going on in our lives right now. This is a great starting point for having a discussion about things that actually matter. In contrast, the starting point when asking "How are you?" is an emotional question. Because of the stigma attached to casually discussing emotions, an honest answer is often avoided and the conversation redirected to a petty chat.

"What is going on in your world?" is also a partly empathetic greeting. By asking about what is happening in *your world* it is recognized that the person has an entire universe of things going on in their mind and conveys an honest interest in hearing about some part of that world.

Moving On

I stopped writing every day a few weeks back. The decision to stop was fueled by a couple different things.

  1. Writing daily was much more frequent than the cadence I was at before. Resulting in quality, direction, purpose, you name it, getting lost.
  2. It stressed me out. I don't like talking unless I have something to say. Some people might disagree with this statement about myself :)
  3. Burnout. With lots of other stuff going on I didn't have the mental energy to keep up.

So, I'm moving on from that resolution and not going to write every day. Instead, I'm going to write like I did before about once every week. Only about things I think are worth sharing.