Archive for the on the other hand Category

Academics love to talk about excellence.  You can bet that as terms start all over the country in the next month, convocations and lecture halls are going to be full of people proclaiming its importance and its connection to the education tasks being embarked upon.

Yet even if we agree to the silly distinction that used to be made between “liberal arts” and “vulgar arts,” and look at just the liberal arts, that which one would think would be the province of academics, even if we look at the century (the 20th) where American higher education reached its pinnacle, what do we find?

The greatest American poet of the twentieth century was an insurance man.*
The second greatest American poet of the twentieth century was a family physician**.
As to poetry coming out of the academy? Sell, can one say obscure, pedantic, self-absorbed?  Even, ahem, boring as hell?

And the greatest 21st century American philosopher?   He was a longshoreman***.

The smartest, most creative person I’ve ever known was a plumber who never went to college****.

Four is too small a sample to generalize upon.  But you’ have to admit, they’re three examples to get you wondering.  If higher education is not the place where the best of the best are to be found, should it be the place that we look to when we seek to credential “excellence”?

_________________________

*Wallace Stevens
**William Carlos Williams
***Eric Hoffer
****My dad

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I wish I had more time to spend on marketing research.  I keep thinking of things that need measuring but never seem to find the time to develop the metrics.

Take the term I use in the title of this post:  “time to cliché”.   It may be a WOT (in both “Wade original term” and “wot?????” senses), but I’ll leave to those less lazy than I the task of  searching for prior use.

I get an awful lot of email that isn’t technically spam, but might as well be for all the likelihood of my opening the messages.  (For me, the technical definition of spam is something like “unsolicited, without offering double-opt out, etc.”)  It might as well be spam because the subject line tries to pull via cliche.  Using phrases like:

?    ”free web summit”
?    ”"double your …”
?    ”the secrets to …”
?    ”official notice”
?    ”save up to…”
?    ”how to … Now!”
?    ”you’re invited…”
?    ”only XX hours left”
?    ”I don’t usually do this, but …”
?    ”I blew it…”

And the same is true for the teaser copy on the snail mail solicitations…
?    ”urgent update”
?    ”final
?    ”official correspondence”

And so on.

Now, I understand that these cliches are used because they worked in the past.  And, direct response being what it is in the Internet age, abandoned when they don’t pull enough.  That I’m still getting all of the above means they probably are still working to some extent.

But it’s amazing how quick they become tired and unproductive.  Take the first one.  I’ve been offered more web summits than there are peaks in the Rockies, Himalayas, and Andes combined.  “double” and “secrets” and all the others — instant trashing.

And it happens faster and faster all the time.

And I don’t think its just me finally developing better bullshit filters.  I’m still pretty gullible, after all.  But I think individual pieces of language are getting worn out faster and faster.  Scroll down your inbox (if that’s where you keep your clutter), or though your email trash before you hit “empty” — look at all the phrases that bring forth that delete key in your mind….and think about how recently it was that the same subject line phrase would have pulled you into opening the email.

For years I’ve taught about the dangers of cliché in writing.   But a hidden assumption of that teaching was that it takes awhile for something to become a cliche, a while during which the word or phrase has social or economic value.  How should one approach the use of cliche when the half-life of meaning begins to resemble that of a transuranic element.

I don’t think the answer is obvious anymore.

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A few days ago I posted for the first time on the blog of perhaps my favorite science fiction writer, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.  (It’s either him or C. J. Cherryh, I go back and forth.)  Mr. Modesitt had posted about an Economist study about the effects of the Internet on social relationships, and the thread got my Gen-Y-apologist knee jerking.

I started by pontificating, “First, not reading tripe (i.e. most newspapers) could be evidence of sanity on the part of the populace rather than the opposite. Even could I abolish sleep, I only have 168 hours a week to work with; whyever should I spend it on what passes for newspaper reporting today?”  And then went into a way-too-extended discussion of Tocqueville on American associationalism.

But it got me thinking about the reading of newspapers.  (Modesitt is a favorite author because he always makes me think!)  After all, despite my comment about “tripe”, I do subscribe to a daily newspaper.  So why do I subscribe?  What do I read?

Today’s Gazette — formerly known as the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the paper now bills itself as “An Independent Newspaper in Iowa’s Technology Corridor” — is in three sections.

Section A — state news mostly, plus editorials, weather and obits.  The section takes just seconds to scan.  I read about four paragraphs about our idiot governor’s idea to run a passenger train from Iowa City to Chicago — a train that would travel at a leisurely 79mph and take 5 hours (assuming Amtrak went against its usual practice and ran on time).  Obits — well, I’m getting old enough that i check these periodically, a tiny bit of evidence that social relationships still matter. Glance at weather — more thunderstorms.  Lovely: my neighbors and I have been helping each other out all weekend after Friday brought not one, but two, hailstorms with quarter-sized hail.  (Actually baseball-sized a few miles southeast of here.  Yech.)  The rest of the section — scanned headlines and done in under a minute.

Section B — sports, national/world news.  When younger I would have spent some time on sports pages — now, the only thing I notice is that last weekend was the British Senior Open and that I’d never heard of the golfer who won it.  The national/world news — under a minute, and that was a waste of time.

Section C:  “Accent”, comics, classifieds.  Haven’t read comics in years.  Classifieds I rarely look at, but I looked at them today — looks like a pretty healthy section, actually — lots of social interaction there.  Though I suppose it doesn’t count since its the social coordination of markets at their best.  (Craigslist, E-bay — all they do is drive us apart, say many know-everything critics.)

And “Accent”.  Well, I suppose it used to be called “human interest” or some such.   Most of the stories today are about health.  One about 72 year-old yoga practitioner.   The rest — basically articles about scientific studies, health risks, what the smarties think us dumbshits should be doing.  Funny thing, isn’t it, the section of the newspaper that one might imagine celebrating social relationships, building them, encouraging them, is doing very little.  There’s a single editorial  about a dad re-uniting with his sons after 3 decades.

Counting writing this blog, I’ve spent about an hour with today’s paper.  I expect that if I had spent an hour randomly surfing the internet I would have seen more, not less, evidence of social relationships being built/developed/strengthened.

How about you, Iterations readers?  How much time do you spend with newspapers?  And what do you spend it on?

Me, tomorrow I expect I’ll be back to “15 minutes or less”.  And to wondering why I keep the subscription.

(p.s. If you want to check out Mr. Modesitt, there’s a link to his website in the blogroll at right. In my opinion, he has a better understanding of economics than just about any science fiction writer out there, even those whom I’m more ideologically simpatico with.)

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Is eating escargot obscene?

I’m fond of pontificating about the “economic way of thinking.”  About how there are only half a dozen ideas that matter in my principles course, but these half dozen are critical.   That were these few ideas understood by even half the voting and consuming population, we’d be free of 99 percent of the idiocies that come out of the White House and the Congress, out of the corporate executive suite, and out of academic faculty meetings.

Okay, I wax hyperbolic.

It would only be 93%.

Of the half dozen ideas, number one for me, by far, is the notion that all choices have opportunity costs.   (So much so that “opportunity cost” is the only term whose definition I insist every student memorize, the only concept I guarantee will “be on the exam.”)

But number two, and the one most likely to get me labeled as an apologist and worse, has to be the virtues of market-based trade.

And, if truth be told, I am an apologist for trade. At least if you use apologist in the way it has been used to describe C S Lewis writing about Christian belief in books like Mere Christianity.  I am an apologist if an apologist is someone who, having spent a great deal of time thinking about the reasons for his belief, makes no apologies for believing as he does.

I am well aware that markets are economic institutions with flaws.  But I have thought long and hard about the arguments for and against, and, in my unapologetic opinion, it’s not even close.  Markets win.

Today I want to give part of that apology.  And I’m going to start from a place of trading which would appear to argue against my claims of virtue:   the expensive restaurant.

In a recent post I spoke of my trip to Grand Rapids.  Perhaps the most memorable part of that trip were the two meals I had at a fancy restaurant called the 1913 Room.  Now if you’ve ever seen the prices of high end meals in places like New York or Los Angeles or Miami or London, what I am about to reveal about my charges to American Express those two evenings won’t surprise you.  But unless you are a serious foodie, what I spent will likely appall you.

The first meal, eaten alone over a period of two-and-a-half hours, ran with tip to $167.47.  The second, taken in the company of several other foodies who, having heard my stories of the first, invited me along for another go, took over 4 hours.  And set me back a cool $209.58.

Two meals.  One person.  $377.05.

Now, when I relate this amount to friends, family, colleagues, I generally receive three responses:

Response #1:  Are you nuts???

To this one, I can only say, probably.  Lots of people have interests that cost them over $350 that I consider borderline nuts— traveling to Nascar races, say, or filling a basement with workout equipment or going to the opera. I’m no less nutty.

Response #2:  Isn’t that rather extravagant?   Again, I have to say, probably.  Especially given my income level and my net worth.   I’ve never been particularly good at holding on to my money, and this is further evidence on that proposition.  With my income level, it’s very extravagant.

Neither of these first two criticisms bother me. Each time I chose how much to spend, I did so fully cognizant of the personal consequences of the choice.   Bluntly put, if it turns out that it’s a dumb thing for me to have done, if it was extravagant, *I* bear the costs.  I’m the one who may have to pay interest on my Amex card until the meal is fully paid for.  I’m the one who has people thinking I’ve got dumb hobbies.  I’m the one who doesn’t get to spend that $350 on books or groceries for several weeks or on real estate or on whatever.

But there’s a third response I’ve received, and that one does bother me.

It’s the response that says spending $200 on one meal is obscene.  That says I’m morally flawed because I’m conspicuously consuming when people are being laid off, when children are starving in Kenya, when there are hundreds if not thousands of ways of spending that money that would be better for the world.

Am I morally flawed?  Of course.  My belief in that proposition is at the center of my Christian faith.  (If I were not morally flawed, I would not need Jesus and His grace.)

And I have to admit that yesterday, when I watched part of a “Feed the Children” infomercial, I felt a bit guilty for not having more funds to give.  Gluttony is a sin.  Extravagance is not a good character trait.

Extravagance isn’t just bad for my bank balance, it’s bad because it is an offense against God.  To me this is the truth a fortiori under Response #2.

But when I, or people like I, get accused of obscenity, it’s not just a variation on Response #2.  It’s rarely that criticism from Christian theology.  They’re not claiming I offend God by eating escargot de la bourgourgnine, bison sous vide, and filet au poivre.

No, they’re claiming an offense against society.  Against the economy.  Against my fellow man.

And *that* argument reflects both bad economics, and bad moral philosophy.  It’s the kind of argument that has yielded the continuing economic idiocies of mercantilism and that encourages the judgmentalism of Phariseeism.

It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on economically when I buy that meal.

Take the escargot, for example, the only item I actually ordered on both visits.

Response #1 is obvious:  “Snails?  Are you kidding me? You *are* nuts, Wade.”  :)

And, all I can say, is, if you’ve never had good escargot (and this restaurant’s version is the best I’ve ever had), you don’t know what you are missing.

So is Response #2:  “Five snails.  A bit of garlic and lots of sizzling-hot butter.  Ten bucks plus tip???”  Well, I consider myself an above average cook.  And I’m not afraid to try things in my own kitchen:  Despite living in  Iowa, I’ve done sushi.  But I’ve never tried to do escargot.  But, still, it’s a point.  Two bucks a bite is, well, two bucks a bite.

But response #3?

Look closer at what goes into getting that escargot to my plate.  You need a waiter.  And not just a guy in a white shirt and black pants, but someone who knows enough about food to answer any questions or make recommendations about “exotic” food, and someone who can coordinate multiple complicated orders simultaneously and still get that dish in front of me at just the right time as not to disturb either my dining pace or the conversations at our table.

And then there’s what has to happen on the other side of the kitchen door.  The undercook who probably was tasked with the dish’s primary preparation.   The person who checks each dish before it goes out.  The chef who ensures that the snails are of the proper quality, who wanders the kitchen ensuring quality control, who writes (and rights) the recipe.  The dishwashers who ensure that all the dishes are clean and available.

And I haven’t said anything about the sommelier, about the people who are removing the plates as I and my dining companions finish, about the bartender, about the maitre d’restaurant.

And that’s just the people at the 1913 Room.   What about the people who harvest the snails?  Who package the snails?  Who transport the snails between place of harvest and place of purchase?  Who provide the fuel for that transport?  Who churn the butter?  Who make the pans in which the snails are cooked?  Who glaze the dish the snails are served in?   Who clean the napkins and tablecloth stained with the butter that drips off between dish and mouth?

When I paid the 1913 Room for my snails, I traded my $10 for all those other services.  To get to the point where I could get the snails and all the rest of the meal for $200, hundreds of trades had to take place.  And each and every one of those trades could only take place if each party to the trade felt that the trade would make him/her better off.  Waiter, sommelier, maitre d’, farmer, truck driver, oil refiner, dairy employee, all the rest — every last one of them traded something of less value to him for something of more value.

And therein lies the problem with an awful lot of arguments against “conspicuous consumption.”  When I consume my escargot (which with all that butter, trust me, cannot be done in secret!), I’ve got dozens, no hundreds of collaborators.  If you want to judge what I do as immoral, fine.  But can you judge me without similarly passing judgment on all those collaborators?

Because that’s what they are.  I didn’t hold a gun to their heads and say “feed me fancy snails.”  Heck, apart from the waiter and a couple others, I couldn’t tell you even the first name of any of the people involved.  No, each of them decided they wanted to be waiters and chefs and truck drivers and all the rest.  They decided.  Not me.

And when you add in all those interconnected decisions, it’s no longer obvious that the $200 meal is a socially bad thing.    Not unless you are willing to go beyond saying “Wade is wrong” to saying “All those collaborators in a system that serves snails to idiots like Wade are also wrong.”

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty arrogant about some things.  Pride seems to be a real occupational hazard from having taught economics for the better part of two decades.  But my arrogance pales compared to those who decry conspicuous consumers on the “simple” grounds of wasting resources, etc.

Feel free to call my hobbies silly.  Feel free to call me extravagant.  Feel free, even, to point out the virtues of temperance and the evils of worshiping snails instead of God.  Feel free to call me an idiot.  Each of those criticisms have merit.

But don’t judge my consumption of snails as a social evil unless you can back up a claim that you know better.

And not just that you know better than me.  That takes no work at all.

But better than those hundreds of people in the snail supply chain.  Better than the thousands of people in the supply chains of napkins and dishes and black pants and wine and … well, I hope you get the point.

And if you think you can back up *that* kind of claim about the social coordination of value,  then I’m sorry.   Er, apologetic.

Because I’m afraid you may have an even bigger problem with hubris than I do.

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When I was a kid, our peace on evenings and weekends was often disturbed by a ringing phone.  My father did, among other things, plumbing and heating and appliance repair.  And so if a furnace went out or a water pipe sprung a leak, we’d get a call.

Most of these calls have blurred together in my memory.   One, however, though it was something like 40 years ago now, I remember the short call, and its aftermath, as if it were yesterday. After my telling him that Dad was not home, the caller said, simply, “Have him call Joe Jones [not real name].  It’s urgent.”  When my Dad got home later that evening, and I told him of the call, he said something rather uncomplimentary and, rather emphatically, went back to what he was doing and did not call the man back.

This was unusual, even extraordinary.   Dad invariably called people right back, even when he knew it might be something unpleasant on the other end of the line.

And Joe Jones wasn’t anyone I knew or even heard of before.  Living in a rural village as I did, I generally recognized the name at least of almost every evening caller.   And most of the time, I had at least a youngster’s notion of which people pleased or annoyed my parents.  But this Jones guy, I’d never heard his name before.  Or after.

All I know is, he and my Dad didn’t agree on the definition of “urgent.”

Covey and others have pointed out how toxic and counterproductive the urgent can be in our lives.  Much better than I can.

But why is it, do you suppose, we keep getting trapped by our notions of urgent?  Why is it, do you suppose, we so seldom treat the urgency of the Joe Joneses of the world the way my father did that evening?  Why was it that my father’ refusal that time was his exception rather than his rule?

Because, if you think about it, most stuff that we claim as urgent really isn’t.

Oh, sure, when a furnace goes out on a below-zero January evening, that’s pretty urgent.  When floodwaters are rising, putting off filling sandbags for an hour is a bad idea.

But for most of the stuff we ask of others, if you think about it, hoy, mañana, it really makes little difference.

Somewhere in the mess that is my house I have a cassette of someone, Ted Hughes perhaps, reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  As with that forty-years-past phone call, one line from the reading sticks in my mind, that refrain from “A Game of Chess.”

“Hurry up, please, it’s time!”

No.  It isn’t.

“Urgent.”  It really should be a four-letter word.

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Dealing with an aging parent has no end of frustrations.  Yet with those frustrations come some unexpected positive consequences.

For me, many of these unexpected benefits have been “lessons about time management” and “lessons about learning how to say no.”  Even though those lessons do not always help with the “dealing with Mom” part of life, they have and will be valuable in the other parts of my life.  I.e., “work.”

Here’s an example that fits both categories.  My mother has always been a bit of a nag.  With her decline in memory, however, she has become the epitome of the impossible-to-satisfy micromanager.  Not only does she nag, but she constantly interrupts.  There are many days that, once she rises, I can count on not having an uninterrupted 15 minutes until she goes to bed.

But the purpose of today’s post is not to whine about my frustrations.  I do that too much as it is, and the reality of her aging is that no amount of ranting or whining or yelling about unfairness is going to change things. That’s what the first part of the Serenity Prayer is all about.

No, this post is about a positive that has come out of that frustration.  I’ve learned, in a deep way that I probably should have realized long ago, something about why deadlines work.   I’ve learned that a major component of my deciding to take a project on is whether the client or “boss” imposes a deadline.

I’ve realized that I can handle deadlines.  Even ones that are somewhat earlier than I’d prefer.  But what I can’t handle is the combination of “when you can” and “now”.

Give me your deadline.  If I think it impossible, if I can’t make it, I’ll tell you.  If ex ante I underestimate the effort a project will take, I’ll burn as much of my midnight oil as I can to get it done anyway.  And the necessities of trying to balance care-giving with all the other stuff have actually made me much better at that ex ante estimation, and much better at saying no when that estimate says the deadline is impossible to meet.

You’re much more likely to be screwed, though, if you don’t give me a deadline.  Because I’ve got too much going on — and, knowing me, I’m always going to have too much going on — that your wants are going to get shunted aside.  Over and over.

And that’s going to happen no matter how much you nag me.   All the nagging does is get everyone’s blood pressure up.  Yours goes up, because I’m not helping you.  And mine goes up, because-I’m-really-busy-and-everything-takes-four-times-as-long-when-I’m-constantly-being-interrupted.

Yes, I know.  What took me so long to figure this out?  Well, when you find as many things interesting as I do, it’s really, really hard to say no.    I’ve always been juggling a lot of balls.  If truth be told, I *like*juggling — in a way that’s what interdisciplinarity, true interdisciplinarity of the sort of been working at for my entire adult life, is about.  Juggling.

And, unlike most people my age, I’ve never had the kind of 24-7 relationship with a dependent before.  I’ve never come close to the parenting thing.

But now the juggling is constrained.  Now asking me to do something interesting isn’t enough to get my effort.  No matter how good my intentions are.

So now, when a client or colleague comes to me with a new project, no matter how exciting that project sounds, I ask another question:  When do you need it by?

And I insist on a mutually satisfactory answer, one that does two things:

1.  It’s a deadline I’m sure I can meet.

And:

2.  It says you’re not going to bug me unless and until that deadline is about to pass with the project unfinished.

Otherwise, my answer to the project will be no.

Give me a deadline.  Then stand aside.  Or expect disappointment

I can’t tell my mother to go away.  But, and this is another lesson I’ve learned in these months of increasing interruptions, you’d be surprised how many non-Moms can be told to go away.

Give me a deadline.  Then stand aside.

Or go away.

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140 words or less?

I woke up this morning and before I even logged on, I realized I had screwed up yesterday.  I was tempted to lie and say that my reference to the “150 character limit” of Twitter was a typo.   But no one would believe me anyway, and, besides, a mea culpa offered a better blog opportunity.  (Thanks again to Mark for  pointing out the error and demonstrating, again, just how quick error correction happens in the Internet age.)

The error wasn’t a typo.  It simply reflected the fact that I’m not as far along Internet-wise as I need to be.

I got the length limit wrong.  Because while I believe that Twittering demonstrates an essential skill for the flat world, I don’t Twitter much.

Yet.

Because, to be honest, I’m just not very good at it.

Yet.

When you spend most of your adult life acquiring the skills of the verbose, it takes more than a little effort to shorten things up.

For me, learning to speak in bullet points was the first step; learning to reduce things to a page or less in the manner of executive summary was the second.  And now I’m more or less on the third step, learning to write a short email.

And of course, there’s the regular falling off the wagon.  “A few bullets” can quickly explode into several pages in the corned powder of an academic-in-recovery.  The executive summary remains the hardest part of any report for me to write, and write well.  And anyone who reads here knows I have real trouble keeping blog articles under 1000 words.

Too, David’s comments on my last post crystallized something for me.  I’m used to seeing words as making arguments, as existing for persuade.  And persuasion of an educated person should only take place after the presentation of evidence.  And presenting evidence within 140 words is hard enough.  In 140 words?

But “persuasion” is more than argument.  Persuasion is also becoming interested, being provoked into thinking differently.  And those parts of the process ought not to be focused on evidence.  In fact, are less productive if they are.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity….these things come about because people refuse to worry constantly about the “can’ts” and the “what if’s” and the “what about’s”?  Because they only insist on evidence at particular parts of the process.

So  back to Twitter…well, can I just say it scares me and leave it at that?

No?  Crap.

You’re right.  I can’t.  And neither can you.  Because, and I can guarantee that 90+% (probably 99+%) of academics are going to disagree, being able to Tweet well is at least as important a thinking skill as being able to write a term paper.

No, I’ll go farther.  It’s a more important thinking skill.

Writing term papers, writing reports — those are skills of an entry-level tiny-cubicle employee.  One with no more career upside than Milton Waddams in Office Space.

Tweeting?  Tweeting is a skill of project managers.

No, of CEOs.  CEOs have to be good at weighing evidence, of course.  But they also have to be good at seeing opportunities and judging well in the absence of evidence.

And in a world of constant technological and cultural change, where three strategic moves have to be made before evidence on one is in, it’s a skill more valuable than ever.

Much as I enjoyed Stephen Root in his role as Milton, I’ll give you one guess whether I think we should be emulating his approach to skill development.

So, excuse me.  I’ve got to cut things short.

I’ve got to go follow some CEO tweets and see if I can figure out how they do it.

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Back in my days of being a callow lad, I was pretty darn good in the accounting classes.  Took two years of it in college and pretty much was at the top of all the classes.  But I quit because, well, to be honest, because I found accounting incredibly boring.

(Generation Y isn’t the first group of young people to be easily bored.  They’re just less willing to put up with it than us oldsters were back then.  You’d never catch a Gen Yer doing something boring for 2 years.)

Of course, I grew up.  And I eventually realized that accounting (or accountants, anyway) weren’t really as boring as I had thought when I was 18.  However, I had discovered some things that I liked a lot more, things like women and history and women and single malt scotch and England and women and Jack Daniels and …well, you get the picture.  And so the skills languished and then atrophied.

Eventually I found myself in a position where I had to pay attention to accounting again.  Namely this Iterative Listening business thing.

Except it was harder than I remembered it being back in 1976.  And while it wasn’t boring, it was a major pain in the ass.  So I did what any self-respecting lazy bastard would do — I procrastinated and ignored and avoided the hard stuff as much as I could.  Avoiding the financial accounting bits of course meant that I ended up going through a lot more money than I thought I had.  Not that frugality has ever been something I’m regularly accused of, but when you’re life plan involves taking a year off from work with no salary followed by a second year sabbatical at half salary, well, that wasn’t really very bright now, was it, Wade.

Fortunately, the laziness on the financial side didn’t really damage things all that much.  For while I could have got by with spending less, almost everything I spent money on provided long-run value.  Even though some of those books and workshops and webware proved not to aid short-run cash flow as expected, they are going to be of substantial help down the line.

In short, I got lucky.  Money’s going to be a bit tighter than it would have had to be, and the paranoid part of me says I may have increased the odds of triggering IRS nosiness down the line, but by and large the financials from 2008 are okay, and 2009 should be better.

Where my accounting avoidance screwed me up, however, was not with financial accounting, but cost accounting.

There’s no small irony here, since it is in cost accounting that the accounting and economic mindsets are most compatible.  Financial accountants count historical costs; cost accountants (also known as managerial accountants) count opportunity costs.  Or as an economist acquaintance of mine once sneered, cost accountants are smarter; they listen to economists.  So where I screwed up was in not listening to what I teach.  Good grief.

Here’s the story.  (Or, if you will, my excuse.)  Call it “what I learned while redoing my business plan.”

In the year or three leading up to beginning my leave in June 2007, I had grown quite frustrated with the day job.  Not with the subjects I teach, and certainly not with the students, but with the other stuff.  The administrative stuff, the bureaucratic stuff, the political stuff, the political correctness, and so forth and so on.  And, to be honest, I was just real tired, having taught essentially without a break for 2 decades.

So I was looking for something different to do.  Preferably something that would not just cover my bills, but make up for all the years of working for a salary that was less than I was really worth.  Blah, blah, and blah.

So whether it was frustration, greed, self-absorption, or the alignment of planets (and lets not forget the always tempting laziness), I was looking for easy solutions.

/enter gratuitous aside mode

A non sequitur here:  Gen Y’s propensity for believing in easy solutions may be the single greatest barrier to getting them to listen deeply in lots of situations.   They are not the first ones to believe in easy solutions (I remember once thinking that Veblen’s idea of a guaranteed income was a good thing), but unlike earlier generations, they live in a time when easy solutions have an unprecedented ability to prevent success.

/exit gratuitous aside mode

So where was I?  Oh, yes, looking for easy solutions.

And because I was looking for easy solutions, I wasn’t careful enough about counting opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is, to mind, the single most important idea in economics.  And, by inference, the single most important idea applied in cost accounting.

But while it is easy to memorize the term’s definition (“the opportunity cost of any future action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action”), putting that term to use can be anything but.   For one, you have to identify that “next best opportunity.” And for another, you have to make a value judgment.  Opportunity cost isn’t an objective thing.  Sorry.  It’s a value judgment, all the way down.

It’s “what is my time worth?”   And, apart from the obvious — it’s worth more than zero, since I’ve got someone who’s willing to pay me for it; and it’s worth less than $20 million dollars a year, since no one is willing to pay me that much — it’s really, really hard to determine.

Now I’m a believer in the argument of Adam Smith and his successors that markets coordinate individual values.  That money prices, more or less, give a fairly good estimate of the value of most things.  Or at least a better estimate than you are likely to get from most college professors or U.S. Senators.

But, you see, the thing is that you get those “fairly good” and “better” estimates only if you are really careful in putting the prices together.  How you connect them in your story of supply and demand and of …wait for it … opportunities foregone.

I’ve often thought, usually after getting annoyed by comments from non-departmental colleagues at a faculty meeting, that I’m going to install a mental  “Mute — not worth listening to.” switch installed for anyone who has not taken at least one principles of microeconomics class, and throw the switch whenever they start to say something about the economy.

My resolution rarely lasts long — invariably, later that day I will make my own muddle of things in class or in a discussion with a college and realize that, well, maybe it takes a lot more than one class to be worth listening to on matters economic.

And, as I reflect back on the first 17 months of Iterative Listening’s legal existence, and the 18-36 months that preceded its formation, I realize again just how easy it is to get distracted.  How easy it is to forget the lessons of econ class and cost accounting class.  How easy it is to forget how hard it is to get opportunity cost right when you’re trying to plan the future.

Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, I thought my choices were three:  stay teaching, do the consulting thing, or write copy.  Teaching — well I was tired of that, so that really didn’t look like something I wanted to be counting as my next best choice.  Consulting, well, that had a cool sound to it, but what exactly was I going to consult about other than the stuff I was teaching, and I was tired of that so why count that either.   Especially since it takes a long time to get consulting business built up, even when the economy isn’t in a recession/downturn/plague of locusts.  That left copywriting, and the claims of good copywriters about the six figure careers to be had by anyone with a willingness to work hard and write powerful language.  Claims written, of course, by those with top command over the language and its power to pull on emotions like frustration and fatigue and all those other things.

Claims that need to be, but don’t manage to get, attached to the right opportunities foregone.

Don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a rip on those who sold me on emphasizing copywriting in the years leading up to, and during, the first six months or so of Iterative Listening’s existence.  It can be a lucrative profession indeed.  And I can’t tell you how much I learned after Bob Bly hired me to write an e-book on how to make money writing copy for small business.  Not just about copywriting, but about marketing in general, about small business, about how to run a small business, and a lot of other things.

And I still believe — emphatically — that if you follow the advice I wrote in that e-book, you will have a very lucrative career as a small business copywriter.  Since I’ve re-entered the business world I’ve adopted as one of my goals to always strive to give 10X value.  That whether it’s a information product I’m considering making, a job I’m offering to do for a consulting or copywriting client, or something for my academic career, the goal is the same.  To have the recipient of that product or that job or that academic task believe he or she has received value at least ten times bigger than what they gave up to get me to do it.  I don’t always make it — no one can always do 10X.  But it’s what I aim for.  And I believe, emphatically, that Copywriting for the Small Business Market exceeded that goal by at least an order of magnitude.

My business today is no longer focused on writing copy for small business.  I will still write copy, and I’m definitely still striving to serve small business, but Iterative Listening is no longer following the specific business model outlined in that book.

But not because I believe there’s no money to be had. Far from it.  I believed then, and I believe now that the revenue potential of that niche (small business copywriting) is much greater than my actual niche (listening consulting and listening information products).  Even if you add my future teaching salaries to the latter.  And especially in the short- and medium-term (i.e., for the length of time my revised business plan covers, namely, from 2009 through 2012),

And my out-of-pocket costs would be substantially lower, too.  One of the reasons copywriting is so attractive to so many people seeking to change careers is that it requires very little out-of-pocket expenditure.

No, I’ve not moved into consultancy because the money is going to be better.  I’ve moved into consultancy because my return, net of my opportunity costs, is going to be higher.  Because the value to me of what I’m receiving this way is greater than the value to me of what I’m giving up.

So what has any of this to do with my rediscovery of cost accounting and my having “screwed things up” by avoiding the accounting hard work before?

Because it reminds me that, in the grand scheme of things, maybe the screw up wasn’t quite as bad after all.

Because while opportunity cost remains this hard thing to apply, while mistakes in its application (or forgetting to apply it at all) are easy to commit, it’s also a forgiving sort of hard idea.

Because when you apply the idea well, you do it by looking forward, not back.  Look at the adjective that modifies “action” in the definition I gave you up above:  “the opportunity cost of any future action is….”  Or, to use the slightly different definition which I prefer, one that places that future-ness into the verb rather than relegating it to an adjective:  “The opportunity cost of any action will be the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action.”

As I’ve worked the last couple months on redoing my business plan, this time paying much better attention to accounting for opportunity costs, I’ve had to project forward.

And that means I’ve been able to say, “I’m 50, here’s my choices….” To ignore the part of me that wants to dwell on the wrong turns along the way, the wrong turns that took me a bit astray at 48 and 49.  I can still accentuate the real benefits received because of those mistakes, the benefits that are choices — but for my mistakes — wouldn’t be today’s choices.  But I don’t have to worry any more about what has passed.

Doing a new piece of cost accounting prods me to put the past behind (I’m not re-doing an old calculation. I’m new-doing a different one.)

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost reminds me how pointless it is to dwell upon might have beens.   It reminds me there’s no way we can get to the world of what might have been.  It reminds me that there’s no way I can change what’s past.

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost means you are thinking of opportunities foregone.   But doing it right means thinking only of opportunities not yet forgone.   Only of the opportunities you get to choose whether to forego.  You.  Get.  To.  Choose.

And getting to choose is cool.

Economics has a reputation for being “the dismal science.”  Yet when I think of the economists I admire most for the clarity of their thinking — Adam Smith, Paul Heyne, Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey, Ed Kaschins — I don’t see dwellers on the dismal.

I see great optimists.

All are critics of shoddy thinking, to be sure.  Inveterate pointers-out of the “yes, but’s” of economic life, absolutely.  But optimists for all that.  Big ones.

And I see people who feel the idea of opportunity cost in their bones.   Who will still screw things up (though far less seldom than I will, or you will), but who always come back on track.

And enjoy themselves, and the world, immensely as they do.

Opportunity cost.  Idea of Choice for optimists.

Cool.

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It sort of hurts to admit this, but “listening habit” is an oxymoron.

What, you ask, aren’t you the guy who’s always going on about the value of listening?  The one who has just posted two long essays on the need for a listening mindset?  The one who, for crying out loud, calls himself “the listening PhD”?

Yep.  Yep again.  And a third time, yep.

But I’m not contradicting myself.  Really.  Here’s why.

Listening is about thinking.  Thinking about what others are saying.  Thinking about why they’re saying what they’re saying.  Thinking about what they are thinking.

It’s “Listen. Think. Repeat.”  Not just “Listen. Repeat.”

But what’s a habit?  It’s repeating-without-thinking.  It’s hitting the snooze button twice every morning.  It’s commuting by the same route every day, and getting to work each morning with no memory of the intervening 10 or 45 minutes.  It’s reciting the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday without thinking about the meaning of “hallowed” or “Thy kingdom come.”  It’s flossing before bed every night.

Indeed, one of the great virtues of a habit is that you can do it without thinking.  Imagine what it would be like if you had to lie there in bed with that damn alarm blaring and think first about how one goes about hitting a snooze button, if you couldn’t just unthinkingly flop your hand down on top of the alarm and roll into the pillow for another 5 minutes.  Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t do part of your daily commute on autopilot and instead had to pay attention to everything like you did when you were taking driver’s ed?

Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t sometimes just let the liturgy work on your subconscious as you communed with the Almighty?

Imagine what it would be like if you had to think about what was between each of your teeth?  Habits can be not only good, but essential to sanity.

But when it comes to thinking, habits are all about rounding up the usual suspects.  Habits drive you down the thinking roads you’ve been a hundred times before.  The road of hearing what you want to hear.  The road of asking the same questions every time.  The roads where you don’t have to acknowledge your particular hot buttons or biases, and so you remain captive of them.   The roads where everything is focused upon you and your beliefs and your questions, not upon the beliefs and questions of the person you purport to be hearing.

The listening problem isn’t one of failing to hear.  If it was, deaf people like Helen Keller, Thomas Gallaudet, or Marlee Matlin wouldn’t be such great listeners.  The listening problem isn’t people failing to hear.  It’s people failing to pay attention.

And paying attention requires thinking.  To the extent you aren’t thinking, you aren’t paying attention.

Oh, I don’t have a problem with someone who says we should be in the habit of paying attention.  Of course.  You need to regularly pay attention.  That’s why you see me ranting about the “listening mindset.”

But you can’t pay attention the same way every time.   Not if your goal is truly listening.  If it’s the same every time, at some point it’s not going to be paying attention any more.  It’s got to be different, tailored to the particular moment and to the specific person being listened to.  You can’t just say, “It’s 10 a.m. and time for listening.”   You can’t listen to a student named Yusuf or Brandy the way you listen to your sister, and you can’t listen to your sister the retired lawyer the way you listen to your sister the preparer of today’s breakfast.

That’s why I’m writing an e-book tentatively titled, 47 Techniques for Effective Listening (hoped-for release August or September) even though there are only five “guiding principles” in “The Listening Paradigm” (a white paper coming out sometime this spring).  Effective listening is not reducible to five habits for to-do lists, bullet points, and meeting agendas.

I wish it were.  My own marketing job a heck of a lot easier, and that would be wonderful for the cash flow.  I join those ripping off Stephen Covey’s and publish my “Seven habits for highly effective listening.”

But it isn’t.  The tools of listening must be chosen anew every time, not put on autopilot.

If you want to think of carrying your listening toolbox around all the time as a “habit,” fine.  As long as you remember that that toolbox will do you good only when you open it and take something out.

Something that is going to be different every time.  Sometimes it’ll be a hammer or a crowbar, sometimes a jeweler’s loupe, and sometimes a diamond micro-scalpel.

Something particular to the moment.

Something non-habitual.

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I began this essay at 3:45 a.m. because someone turned the thermostat up too high and the air in my house has begun to resemble the inside of one of those food dehydrators Ron Popeil used to sell on TV about that time of day.

But as I was tossing the blankets aside to get water for my parched throat and turn the thermostat down again, I realized that I have been dealing with thermostats a lot of late.  About three weeks ago I had to put several hundred dollars into my aging Saturn  because of, in part, a faulty thermostat.  And  week ago last Thursday night, I was finding places in the snow on my deck to put a refrigerator full of food because *its* thermostat had gone wacko.   And the next night I was disposing of some spoiled produce because my improvised iceboxes in the snow lacked thermostatic control.  And now tonight and my house’s ancient hot water heating system.

The thermostat is an amazing little device.  One of those hundreds of silent little technologies without which advanced economies would be impossible.  The kind those who think economies can be planned have no clue about.

Because anywhere where there’s a need to regulate temperature, there’s a possible demand for a reliable thermostat.  And if you dig into the machines in those environments, it’s a good bet you’ll find one.

And when you start thinking about all the places in your vehicles, machines, homes, offices, and factories, where thermostats and associated devices are quietly doing their thing day after day after day, it’s pretty amazing.

Oh, my checkbook isn’t particularly happy right now, since it’s had to deal with two of the rare failures in the space of a couple weeks.  And this morning I wish I had had a fancier thermostat in my heating system so I could have stayed sleeping sleeping.  But I’d rather have to replace a thermostat or three than have to replace a car or a refrigerator.

However essential, however amazing, the component, there remains a difference between having to replace it and having to replace the system of which it is part.

And therein lies the ominous part of the story.   The amazing innovations of the information age are increasingly system innovations rather than component innovations.  Cars and refrigerators rather than thermostats.  Indeed, the frequency of system innovations is what makes 21st century technological change qualitatively different from the technological change of earlier periods.

It’s ominous because, no matter how amazing the technology, components do break down.  Components that, like thermostats, are not cost-effective to repair.  Components that the repair person just removes and replaces.  But when it is systems that are innovating, replacement becomes as unlikely as repair.

It’s often going to be too expensive.

Think of the components inside your computer.  Components like storage technologies or memory chips or even power cords.   If one of those components fails two years on … do you expect to be able to just replace them like I’ve been replacing my thermostats?

Or are you going to end up replacing the whole computer?  And it’s software because, well, guess what, the old versions are not just not supported.  You can’t even find them on eBay or Amazon.

The thermostat in my house is probably nearly as old as I am.  But the 3.5″ floppies piled on my bookshelf have a decade before they’re going to be old enough to drink, and the SuperDrive on my MacBookPro is still a couple years away from nursery school.  And how long before both of them go the way of the 5.25″ floppies from grad school buried in my attic archive — unusable unless one of the equally ancient PCs I’ve got stashed (somewhere) still works and I can remember how to use the DOS version of Wordperfect or Stata.

Yes, the cost per bit of computing power has fallen to a really small amount.   But you don’t get to buy computing power by the bit.   You don’t get to buy a thermostat that fits your house.  The only thermostats available are the ones that are used in the heating systems of domed football stadiums and nuclear power plants.  A thermostat that probably costs more to install in your house than buying a new house.

I’m a big fan of the 21st century, its entrepreneurs and its technologies.

But it’s Achilles heel may prove to be a lack of sufficient replacceable components like thermostats.  And too often expecting consumers to replace computers, cars, houses, and other entire “systems.”

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts