Archive for the God is in the details Category

On May 25, I began a serious “listening” approach to the Bible.  (More on that what that means, later.)  And for the first time in my life I have been able to make daily Bible reading a sustained habit for more than  a couple weeks.  In 55 days, I’ve missed just two; and each of those two came with a near physical sense of being deprived.  So far I’ve made it through just two books — Romans and 1 Corinthians.

Here’s what I’ve heard.  (Note:  these are my lessons; I make no claims, not yet anyway, that they should be yours — see #11, #12, and #30.)

  1. That Christian life is all about “the obedience that comes from faith.”  (Romans 1:5)
  2. That “service” is about enslaving myself to His will.
  3. That the key to reading the Bible is doing so with a “listening heart.” (1 Kings 3:9)
  4. That the response to “troubling” parts of the Bible is neither rejection nor identification of contradiction or obsolescence.  It is to listen harder for God’s will.  It is not to substitute my judgment or my learnedness for His.
  5. That I show our repentance by our constant striving to obey.
  6. That it is the striving to obey that matters, not “getting it right” 100% of the time.
  7. That step 1 of faith is believing.  That step 2 is, having believed, to trust.  That step 3 is, having trusted, to strive to obey.
  8. That I’m still profoundly ignorant of what the Bible says.
  9. That beying the law is not to put ourselves right with God, it is to point out to us how we are sinners.
  10. That taking a listening approach requires me to regularly stay silent, to refrain from speaking, because I do not yet know enough to claim knowledge or illumination.
  11. That the lessons that come from reading the Bible are first and most importantly lessons for me, my own belief, my own conduct.
  12. That I must be sure of what God intends for me before I go out preaching “thou shalts” to others.
  13. That I serve God not to prove myself worthy, but because He is worthy.
  14. That while I can claim to be a seeker of wisdom, I cannot claim to be wise.
  15. That obedience = listening.
  16. That one of the biggest temptations I face remains the idolatry of my own work.
  17. That I am not the potter, but the pot.  And pots do not question the potter.
  18. That faith that is firm is also patient. (Isaiah 28:16, GNV)
  19. That obedience must be a stance of faith, not of fear.
  20. That trusting God means trusting the speed He chooses.
  21. That there are three required acts of faith:
    1. Realizing our salvation is by Him.
    2. Striving to obey His will in all things.
    3. Repenting when we fail.
  22. That  I must look at the Bible first as a man of faith, and only second as a man of scholarship.
  23. That the solution when something in the Bible seems “wrong” or “contradictory” is to look deeper, to pray, to be patient.
  24. That two things take precedence over obeying “human authorities”:
    1. Preaching the Lord’s Gospel.
    2. Avoiding a decrease in the credibility of one’s witness to that Gospel.
  25. That against the loving of God and His Gospel, the value of coins is trivial.  And that includes the value of coins unjustly taken by the state (or by others).
  26. That there are (at least) four locations of the Great Commandment in the Bible:
    1. Matthew 22:37
    2. Matthew 12.30
    3. Luke 10:27
    4. Deuteronomy 6:5
  27. That the “commons” is a place of shared faith.
  28. That I can use knowledge of historical context to understand the motives and rhetorical choices of the man called Paul.  However, I cannot use it to speak to God’s intent for us.  Only prayer, obedience, and submission can reveal God’s intent.
  29. That the route to salvation and Truth lies in who I follow, not in who I am tempted to not follow.
  30. That the Christian life is lived in personal relationships.  A personal relationship with God, and personal relationships with other individuals.
  31. That, as the Word of God, the Bible has multiple layers of meaning.  That, as a result, several translations each have part of the Truth.
  32. That I should not judge others, but instead concentrate on not putting stumbling blocks in the way of their obedience of God.  (Romans 14:13)
  33. That living in Christ is about mutual edification.  (Romans 14:19)
  34. That idolatry of human wisdom is still idolatry.
  35. That compared to the wisdom of God, the reason of man is bare foolishness.
  36. That if you’ve never believed yourself really smart, you can’t truly feel the depths of your own ignorance.
  37. That whoever wants to boast must boast only of what God has done.
  38. That anything built on something other than God’s foundation is nothing.
  39. That having a clear conscience does not require innocence, only an unwillingness to judge.
  40. That the problem with sexual sins, what makes them sins, is pride and idolatry:  pride in my judgment; worshiping the sexual instead of God.
  41. That moneylending isn’t the problem; that moneylending in the temple is.
  42. That if I worry about having been wronged, about my position in the world, am I not putting God somewhere other than first?
  43. That sexual practices are sinful because they put a temple of the Lord to use for something other than God’s glory.
  44. That while Paul’s positions on gender are historical, God’s are not.
  45. That having knowledge brings with it greater responsibility for temperance in its use, for the actions I take is an example to those of lesser knowledge; and part of pursuing the glory of God is not adding to my brothers’ temptations.
  46. That there is a difference between having a freedom to act, and the appropriateness of acting.
  47. That the more I fill the glass that is my mind with thoughts of God, the less room temptation can find in it.
  48. That I should affirm others when they strive to please God, even if I disagree with their view of what God requires of us, even if I think their reading of the Bible is flawed  (1 Corinthians 10:25-33)
  49. That rushing about and worrying about getting things done takes attention away from the glory of God.
  50. That successful collaboration depends on the roles played by the less capable, the less diligent, and all the other “lessers.”  The lessers are not barriers to be overcome or cancers to be excised, but necessary parts of the body needing honoring and including.
  51. That the opposite of inclusion is not exclusion, but excision.
  52. That the last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

So I believe.


I haven’t been blogging much the last several weeks.

Part of it’s been the distractions of the usual suspects: dealing with the needs of my 87-year-old parent; my lifelong penchant for avoiding work whenever possible; my propensity for getting distracted by dog and household tasks.

And part of it has been the need to put some extended work in on three major projects: (i) following through on a long-standing promise to help a novelist friend and client put together his website; (ii) doing my job as “Vice President of Marketing” of the Economic and Business Society and help it get ready for conferences this April in Grand Rapids and in May 2010 in Braga, Portugal; and (iii) readying several additions, too often postponed, to the Iterative Listening website, additions that I want to have up absolutely no later than Christmas.

Even more, though, I’ve been grappling with the “Technology and Education in the 21st Century” project. That project, initially started with the aim of publishing a book on the needs of economic higher education in today’s world, has morphed in a major way.

Oh, the book part is still on the table (Click here for a reasonably current picture.) I feel more every day that I’m on to something, and that the book needs to be done. And while there is a part of me that worries about getting as much of it done as I promised in my college sabbatical application, another part of me is yelling that I need to get more of it, maybe even all of it, done before returning to the classroom full-time.

But it isn’t just the book anymore. It’s about how I redo every one of my classes from the bottom up. It’s about how I’m retraining myself as a teacher, cleaning the garage out and trashing all the accumulated clutter from twenty-plus years of teaching. It’s about how one synthesizes “in school” higher education needs with “out of school” needs for business and professional education. It’s … well, it’s a whole lot of stuff that has to be put together and kept from exploding like an overinflated balloon.

But the biggest reason is that I’ve been contemplating a major addition to the topics of conversation. My last post, Nov 21 on judgment, was an example of what is going to be coming. And coming, I expect — no, I hope — with a good deal of regularity.

In one sentence: I am going to be much more transparent and vocal about my Christian believing.

For all its importance, religious belief is something that a lot of us prefer to compartmentalize and separate from the rest of our lives. Every Christian churchgoer past the age of, say, 15, has heard dozens of sermons complaining of “only on Sunday” worship, yet virtually all of us think “business” and “religion” should be kept separate.

I would venture a guess that, did I poll 1000 experts on “starting a new business” or “how to succeed in business,” 990 of them would tell me to keep God completely off the blog and the rest of the company web site. (The other 10 might allow me a vague bit of “Christian commitment to service” or some such wherever it is that I post the company’s mission, places like here and here.)

So, it isn’t a step I’m taking lightly or without a great deal of contemplation on the costs and benefits. And, yes, prayer, too.

But I am taking it, and I have no intention of taking it tentatively. Because if I believe, as I do believe, in the utter essentiality of the Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” [Mark: 12:30-31]), I have no business trying to separate things.

For some reason, I don’t think He who said to a disciple, after the disciple had asked to be excused to bury his father, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” [Matthew 8:21-22], is going to be particularly impressed by my relegating my own following to non-business hours. Being a Christian is more than just admitting that I am one or saying that “my prayers are with you” when an occasion for sympathy presents itself. More than saying “Happy Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday of November or “Merry Christmas” at the office Christmas party.

Oh, I’m not planning on a lot of hellfire and damnation sermons. That to my mind leads too easily to violation of the “Judge not” teaching. With my legal and professorial background, it’s already hard enough to resist my natural propensity for scribe and Pharisee mode. Though I believe in the inevitability of God’s judging, I find grossly offensive and hubristic the rantings of all who would profess to know others’ fate when that day comes. It is, to my mind, one of the greatest shortcomings of “organized” Christianity.

Nor do I intend this to be a place where I’m actively seeking to persuade my non-Christian readers to convert to the true faith. I consider myself an evangelical, as someone who wants all to believe in Him; but I can’t do the TV preacher hard sell. I just look ridiculous thumping the Bible that way.

No, my witness is my own life. How I go about striving to follow His teaching, and shape my life as I think he wants me to shape it. How my actions and beliefs change as I listen to His teachings. The example I set, or fail to set, with my own belief.

And how I credit God for that life and that belief. How and when I bring Him up in conversation, online and off. How I admit His presence in and into my life. How, if I have any good ideas they come through Him; and how, if I have bad ideas, they come despite Him.

Because even though God won’t be mentioned in every post — far from that — He, capitalization and all, is in all of them.

He always has been. And it’s time I admitted it.

Long past time.


[The following is something I posted this morning on the PackerChatters blog.  I'm reposting it here for two reasons.  First, and obviously, because I think it's important and worth saying more than once.  Second because while by the rules of that board any extended "religious" discussion is verboten (and, in my opinion, rightly so), my feeling is that there may be one or more people there who might want a forum to do so.]

One unfortunate consequence of the Internet and its enabling of cheap information transmission is that it allows us to practice certain sins in public that normally only get practiced in the privacy of our minds.   Sins of thought.

No, I’m not talking about pornography.

I’m talking about the kind of sins that, when we do take them public, we encourage each other to do the same.  The kind that our very doing of them rationalizes in the minds of others their imitation.  The kind that, whenever one of us commits them, we increase each other’s propensity to do the same.

No, I’m not talking about Michael Vick’s offenses against dogs.

I’m talking about the sins of the person who publicly uttered the following on the pages of PackerChatters yesterday.

Michael Vick before he entered prison was a despicable human being, an abuser of innocents. One I wouldn’t want to be associated with, and one which I wouldn’t want anywhere near the Green and Gold. If upon his release from prison he is still a despicable human being, I still wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

Were he sufficently repentant, were I convinced that he were no longer a despicable human being, I would like to think that I could and would change my position. But merely because he served his time? Not a chance.

I’m posting this response to my own post, and risking the ire of Larry and the mods for violating the “no religion” rule, because I find I must.  For few words that I have put out onto the Web in recent months have bothered me more after the fact than this paragraph.  And in particular the three word phrase I used thrice, “despicable human being.”

I believed then, and still believe now, that Michael Vick has acted despicably.  But there is a difference between labelling an act as despicable and labelling the committer of those acts as a despicable human being.  One speaks to the morality of particular choices.  The other speaks to the moral essence of a person.

And, as a Christian, I ought not be doing the latter.  As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:1, I ought not to be judging the character of my fellow man, for in so doing I violate the greatest of His commandments.  I arrogate to myself something that is the province of God, and God alone.  Or, if you want to take the “Christian theology” bit away, I commit an offense against the nature of our humanness by ignoring my inability to comprehend it.  As one of my favorite writers, Brennan Manning, once put it, “No one at this table has ever seen a motive.  Therefore, we cannot suspect what inspired the action of another.”   We are, all of us, guessing when we speak of the moral character of Michael Vick, Brett Favre, Ted Thompson, or each other.

And when I make such a judgment publicly, as I did above, I’m legitimating the practice.  I’m encouraging each of you to the same.  I’m giving you license to surrender to the temptation to judge.

Think about it.  Be honest.  How many of you, when you read my words originally, reacted with your own moral judgment of someone else’s character.  Perhaps you judged Michael Vick’s character, thinking something along the lines of “Yes, he is a despicable human being.”  Perhaps you judged mine:  “What a goody-goody, moralizing prig that Iowa is.”  Perhaps you judged an abstract class of people like “football stars” or “black athletes” or “sanctimonious Christians.”

I’m betting that, many of you succumbed to the temptation, the temptation that my words put out there for you.  Yes, I know, you’re still responsible for your own choices to succumb, and for the path you follow afterwards (whether you make your own judgment public or not, e.g.), but I am responsible, too.

Because, much as I might like it otherwise, words of judgment uttered publicly are not “just words”.  That they are uttered on a sports bulletin board where others daily do the same does not excuse my doing so.  My words still have moral consequences, and I should not forget that.   Incitement to riot is an offense.

As a Christian, I ought to have known better.  I should have remembered that it is not my job to judge Michael Vick’s essential character any more than it was the Pharisees job to judge the essential character of tax collectors, prostitutes, and the other social outcasts that Jesus loves.

Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.

I know some of you may find this “Christian” stuff of mine offensive and inappropriate to the board. (And perhaps those who wish to discuss or debate or flame the “religious” part of this, instead of doing so here, do so by coming to my own blog at, where I’ll be posting this comment as well.)

I am hoping that the moderators will tolerate this crossing the line of mine.  But I will understand if they do not.  For I find cannot apologize for doing so, nor can I promise never to do so again. While do not believe I need to disclose all my private sins publicly, it is different when the sin in question has been a public one.  Then, for good or ill, I feel I must.

As another Christian once put it,  “Hier stehe ich.  Ich Kann nicht anders.  Gott helf mir.”


Since June 2007 I’ve been on leave from my full-time teaching gig.  And it’ll be another ten months or so before I return to my spot at the front of the room in Olin 101.

While the leave has been bad for my short-term finances, it has done wonders for my intellectual and mental health.  For a long list of reasons, none of which I’m going to go into in this post, I needed some time away and I needed it badly.  So badly that it was even worth putting up along the way with that one 12-month stretch when my “income” totaled a mere $1,000. (In the mystery that is typical of Wade’s lifetime approach to personal finance, I had set up the first year away as an “unpaid leave”; only when the second “sabbatical” year kicked in did my paychecks start again.)

But the point of this post is not to whine about my finances either.  Doing things the way I did them was my choice all the way and, if I had the opportunity to do it over again, I still would have done the “unpaid year followed by sabbatical” thing.  The debts I ran up, doing my part to ensure the low savings rate America is known for?   Looking back, I might have kept them a bit smaller, but not significantly so.  No matter how annoying/scaring that debt balance looks right now, I prefer it to the alternative.  So, I’m not going to go off on a whine.

No,  the point of this post is to highlight one reason why that leave has been so, so valuable.  Because, lets be frank, most people in the working world don’t have the luxury of leaves that tenured college faculty like I have.  Most people if they want extended time off from their day job must quit their job (and its income) with no promise of gainful employment after the leave period is done.  Most people reading this blog don’t ever get the choice that I had back in 2007 and that I will get again if I stay with my current employer another six years or so.

And that’s too bad, because, I am utterly convinced we’d be better off if they did.  And I don’t just mean individually better off in terms of the leave-taker’s mental health.   I mean better off in terms of aggregate economic wealth.  Overall productivity would be higher, there would be more creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.  And GDP would soar.

Put it another way:  I’m in no way advocating this (or anything else) as a federal spending program, but if the feds offered $75,000 each to, say, 10 million workers and told them to take a year off without “gainful employment”, and offered them with no strings attached whatever, I’m betting that the net benefits of the program would exceed the net benefits of the ten-times-bigger financial bailout that Congress just passed.

Because the greatest benefits of my leave to date, the ones that have already justified my incurring of that major financial “hit”, were not the ones I wrote down when I asked for the leave and sabbatical.   I still expect to get the outcomes I described on my application — outcomes involving the book I’m writing on education, yes.

But the big benefits?  The really big benefits?  The ones that are really going to impact the quality of my teaching?  The ones that are really going to improve what my students and colleagues take away from my scholarship and my lectures?

All those big benefits are coming from places unexpected.  Places like this blog.  Places like launching a copywriting business in September 2007 whose connection to my “professor” life was rather tangential, only to see that business morph in a matter of months to a focus on educational products and services, a focus that means it will be intimately connected.

In a matter of months, I went from thinking I’d have to choose between my love of teaching and my entrepreneurial aspirations, to realizing that the only way I was going to be as good at either as I wanted to be is if I could somehow find a way to do both.

Both “Professor Wade” and “Iterative Listening, LLC” are going to survive the leave.  Neither is going to be what I envisioned them as back in mid-2007.  Both will be better.  Far better.

And they will be better because my extended leave gave me the freedom to morph.  Or, to be more  precise about it, the leave helped me see that I had that freedom.  When I was working full-time (and for anyone who wants to be a good college professor, “full-time” means 60-80 hour weeks year-round), I didn’t have the freedom to morph or even see the possibilities for morphing that I might have had.

Here’s just one example of the unexpected benefits that can come from the freedom an extended leave can give.  I was sitting in my favorite recliner earlier today, my dog sleeping in my lap, not having done much all afternoon except grumping about the Packers’ poor performance and sipping a bit of Jack Daniels and Coke.   And I realized that I had never been able to articulate one of my biggest, yet previously hidden reasons for spending my life in higher education:

Spend time in the academy, especially if you focus on teaching, and you can get a lot of Wow! moments.  The kind of moments that happen when you see someone do or say or think something really amazing.  Colleagues.  Students.   People who write the stuff you get to read in summers and spring breaks.

And as I sat there I got to thinking back.  Thinking about people like Jody and Ross and Jon and Amber and Deirdre and Sadad and Ed and Catherine and Russ and Wayne and Storm and Brian and Brian and Tyson and Scott and Matt and Mark and Luke and John and hundreds more who have given me “Wow!” moments since I first stepped in front of a class in the fall of 1987.

And I realized how often those “Wow!” moments were wholly unexpected consequences of being in the academy.    How often the people providing the Wow! were not the A students or the professors most published.  How often they were the people labelled “slacker” or “lazy” or “dumb as a post” or “not very bright” or “not much of a student” or half a hundred other negatives.

Sure, some of the above list, did I ask my Iowa, Kirkwood, Central, or Luther colleagues about them, all would agree that they are amazing people.  But others?  I’d hear, “Him?  He was a total brick”; “Her?  She was a ditz”; “Those two?  Those were the dumbest/laziest/worst students I’ve ever seen.”

And because I’ve had the luxury during this extended leave of not only spending more Sunday afternoons in the recliner with my dog, but of ramping up my reading, I realized how my experience with the Wow! in the academy was just the tip of the iceberg.  How many Wow!s being brought forth out there are not being brought by the people everyone recognizes as disgustingly smart and observant and all the other good stuff.   They’re being brought out by the deviant and the socially challenged and the “not very bright” and the “lazy” and all the rest.

At least if teachers and “responsible elders” like me don’t get in the way first.

Now I’m a big believer in the value of the Wow!  The more Wow! as a general rule, in my opinion, the better.

And so, one of the unexpected results of this extended leave of mine is  going to be revision of how I approach my own enabling of the Wow!  It means that one of the (unplanned) things I’m going to be doing in the months remaining of my leave is finding better ways to stay out of the way of those who create the Wow!

I’ve realized that if I want to be that better teacher, I’m going to have to find new ways of short-circuiting myself on those occasions when I’m tempted to label a student as “lazy” or “not very bright.”  (Because it isn’t just my colleagues that have used that label.)

I’m going to have to find new ways of putting my students in a position where they can bring forth the Wow!

And, because I have the luxury of that leave, ten more months where the bastard parts of the academic life aren’t going to keep me from my recliner and thinking about the Wow!, I’m betting that I’ll find some of those new ways.



Imagine yourself as 20 years old, experiencing the following when you go to the first day of a new class:  The professor comes in, sets his notebook on the front desk, and starts by saying to you, “Good morning.  My name is Wade Shilts.  This is Economics 130:  Principles of Economics.   I know more about economics than you do.  The purpose of this class if for me to tell you what’s important for you to know about economics, and for you to learn to think about economics like I tell you to think.  So listen up and do what I say.”

How would you react?

Get angry?  Be appalled?   Look for a way to drop or switch classes?  Consider this Shilts character to be an arrogant asshole?  Walk over to the dean’s office and complain?  Complain to your parents?  Vent with classmates in the dorm and via text message?  All of the above?

Yet if you look at what literary critic types might call the “subtext” of word choice by the great majority of professors and “top teachers” over the course of the term, the above scenario would be just about right.  If you don’t believe me, buy a parabolic mike, violate a few civil liberties, and eavesdrop on the conversations at faculty meetings and the faculty mailroom.

We’re the professors.  We know, therefore we profess.  You’re the students.  You don’t, therefore you listen.

Think I’m too harsh on myself and my colleagues?

Well, look carefully at the each pair of sentences below.  And ask which set is closer to the way of speaking of most college- or university-level teachers.  (Or, if like me, you are a teacher yourself, which is closer to the way you talk in class.)

Pair #1:

  • Here’s how to do it.
  • Here’s what you need to learn.

Pair #2:

  • Here’s how we’ve done it.
  • Here’s what we’ve learned.

Now, some might ask, aren’t you just playing word games here, Wade?  Isn’t it “merely” a matter of semantics?  Is there really a difference between the two?

Yes, there is a difference.  A big one.  Semantics aren’t “mere,” because words do make a difference.    There’s a difference between telling people what to do/learn using sentences in the present test and telling people what has been done/learned using past tense sentences.  Each sentence in the second pair has an implicit “so far” or “up to now, anyway” at the end.

The teacher who talks about “how to do it” is emphasizing conformity, suggesting not only that we’re doing something in a better way than before, but that we’ve discovered the best way for doing it.  Not only is the teacher suggesting to the student that the teacher’s thinking is better than what the student’s thinking was before the teacher enlightened him, the teacher is saying to the student that the teacher’s thinking is not something that the student can improve on.   The student is encouraged to believe that the teacher’s wisdom is, as it were, as good as it gets.

On the other hand, the teacher who talks “how we’ve done it?” is emphasizing the historical character of his understanding.  He’s acknowledging that his way is from the past.  He’s   implicitly admitting that the future (i.e., what the student does) may offer improvement over that historical understanding.

If the present tense of “how to do it” emphasizes conformity, the past tense of “how we’ve done it” provides fertile ground for innovation.   The student is encouraged to think, “well, maybe there is still something new to be learned here.”  The student is enticed into wondering, “And what we have learned so far is importance because…??”

And let’s face it, today’s 20-year-olds are too street smart, too self-assured, to accept our arguments that “you need to do/know this” just because we tell them so.  If anything, our taking such an imperative stance is likely to have the kind of result that my hypothetical speech above would were I so dumb as to use it to open my semester.  The 20-year-old isn’t going to be convinced by the argument from tradition just because it is accompanied by credentials.  He just isn’t.

Too much of our word choice as teachers works to keep students from asking questions of “So?” and “So what?”  The questions we ought to be encouraging them to ask.

I know, I know.  “So?” and “So what?” questions can be very annoying when you’re standing up at the front of the room after having spent years accumulating your knowledge and expertise.  And they tend to get raised at the most inconvenient of times.

But “So?” and “So what” are exactly the kind of questions today’s students must be adept at asking and finding good answers to if they are to survive in prosper in the world of the 21st century.

Part of the teacher’s function is to make people uncomfortable, to get students to realize that answers to the important questions are often uncertain and ephemeral.  And, unfortunately, students are going to consent to being made uncomfortable only when they first see us willing to make ourselves uncomfortable first.


Ninety percent of everything today will be outdated tomorrow.

I love “90 percent” rules.  But before I go any further, be clear that any 90 percent rule is usually primarily a metaphor, not anything approaching a precise empirical claim.

I have to start with this disclaimer because I don’t, not today anyway, want to get bogged down on questions like “where’s your proof?”   If if makes you feel better, I’ll admit that I have zero proof.

So, putting unpleasant questions like proof aside, what’s the point of the “90 percent” metaphor in my lead sentence?

The point is in two parts.  First, one of the unavoidable consequences of economic change is obsolescence.  That’s part of what the late Joseph Schumpeter was trying to get across with his own metaphor of “creative destruction.”  (Alas, Schumpeter remains one of those dead geniuses who people in the economics professions honor by not reading.  The author of the metaphor of “creative destruction” is read even less than the author known for his metaphor of the “invisible hand,” and Smith is almost never read.)

But back to the point.  Change, no matter how valuable it is otherwise, brings with it obsolescence.  Period.

But Schumpeter’s observation is not the end of the story, merely the first act.  Which brings up part two of the point I want to make:  Given that change means obsolescence, what does it mean when change is rapid and accelerating?  The changes of the “agricultural revolution” were spread over several centuries.  The changes of the “industrial revolution” were spread over several decades, perhaps a century.  But the changes of more recent revolutions take a decade or less and then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in yet another revolution.

Take me.  I bought my first computer in 1986, one with 512K of memory and a whopping 20M hard drive.  Fifteen years later, I was on number six or seven, and I was in a different world.  In 1986 I didn’t have WYSIWYG.  I was doing word processing on a black screen and doing statistics at the command line.  I still used phone and snail mail as my primary communication.  In 2001, I was surfing the web, my email inboxes were well on their way to being hopelessly cluttered, and I was still touting the virtues of going to the library first and the Internet second for any serious research needs, and I was just buying my first cell phone. In 15 years, the world had changed.

And then there’s today.  The world has changed again.  Indeed, I think it has changed not just once but two or three times.  It’s only changed once for me because, as the 1986 and 2001 stories above should make clear, I am not often on the cutting edge.  My adoption of a PC lagged the early adopters by at least half a decade, as did my moves to email, surfing, and the cell phone. (And I still only vaguely know how texting works on the later.)

But today’s world is clearly a radically different world than the world of 2001.  (And, despite the stories that are all over the place this time every year now, the changes I’m talking about have very little to do with the tragedies of 9/11.)

Here’s one example.  My email inboxes (I have, at the moment, probably six or seven email addresses I use at least once a month) are hopelessly cluttered.  And so, for months, I’ve been talking about spending some time cleaning them up and setting them up so that everything from everywhere goes into a single inbox and then filters into an easier-to-keep-a-handle-on set of mailboxes.  But, largely because they are such a huge mess, and because I know just enough about how email is set up to fear what the rationalization of mail is going to entail, I’ve keep procrastinating.

But you know what?  It turns out that my email mess is sort of like the mess in my garage.  It’s annoying to look at, and I’m sure there may be mice exercising their biological imperatives in some of the boxes, but it simply doesn’t have to be a very big priority right now.

Because, while I was letting that inbox get out of control, I’ve also found myself moving on to another generation of information technology.  A generation increasingly dominated by Googling, mindmaps, blogs, personal messaging, RSS feeds, LinkedIn, Naymz, …and, probably really soon, Twittering and Yammering.

I don’t think I’ve worked at the command line twice in the last year (and each time, I’ve had to spend a good deal of time just figuring out how to get to the command line).  Research for me now starts, and often ends, online.  So does 90 percent of my shopping, and I’ve just read that Amazon has started delivering food, so how long might it be before I stop making those 90 minute trips to the supermarket?

I’m still nowhere near a “first adopter” of the new.   If you think I am, just take the links I’ve started to provide in my “1000 cool things” postings (or the older ones found in my blogroll at right) and follow them…and then follow the links those sites go to….and do this for a couple of iterations.  Be a human Google-bot.  You’re going to discover just how far out of touch I am with the particulars of today’s changes.

But before you do that, I want you to do something else.  Scroll back to the details of the changes between 1986 and 2008 that I’ve highlighted above.  Now take a walk around your house, or let your mind wander on an imaginary drive around the streets and sidewalks and malls of your life, and think of all the “big changes” in the last 22 years that my little recitation completely and utterly missed.

And then start thinking about how often those big changes have meant you have had to throw other things, the obsolescent things, out.  Things that are now cluttering our landfills or wherever our trash ends up.  And, more importantly, think about how your failure to throw those things out mean you now have not only have closets, attics, garages, and U-Store-Its full of obsolescent physical stuff, you also have a brain that keeps short circuiting because it can’t let go of all its obsolescent ideas.

In the end, that’s the point of the 90 percent rule with which I started.  In a world of rapid and accelerating change, one of the most important skills we need is knowing how to throw out the trash.

So please, let me know what you come up with.  Because that’s a skill I have never had.


Let’s play with some numbers for a bit.

Number #1: Between 50 and and 100.

I’m a big reader of books. Like most Boomers that read, I still prefer books to online reading. I surf more and more all the time, but I still like books. Lots of them. If I don’t read at least one book a week, and preferably two, I’m out of sorts with myself. And so the first number represents the number of books I read in a year.

And the important thing to remember about this number is that it is way out on the right hand tail of the population distribution, more than one standard deviation from the mean. There are a heckuva lot more people out there who read one book a month or less (far less), than there are people who read at least one book a week.

Number #2: Between 5 and 50.

This number represents the number of people you listen really closely to. People whose knowledge and opinions and ways of thinking matter most to you. Your family, your best friends, your mentors, your bosses, the people you see as role models, your key acquaintances.

In practice, number #2 is a pretty small number for most of us, probably a lot closer to 5 than to 50. On the other hand, in our hopes and dreams, the number we wish we could pay more attention to (if we only had more time and we didn’t have all the crap of our lives to deal with) is probably closer to 50 than to 5. The number of people we want to keep in touch with regularly is, for most of us, an order of magnitude bigger than the number of people we manage to keep in touch with regularly.

Number #3: 5.

Imagine you’re one of those people included in #2 above for me. Suppose I think what you do (being a lawyer, an engineer, an economist, whatever it is that you are) or how you do it is important to know more about. I’m not interested in being you, but I do want to know more about what you know about. I’m seriously interested in exploring and discovering your “subject,” but I don’t really want to go to a bunch of boring lectures or pay a thousand bucks or more to take a good college course on the subject.

So I ask you the following question: What are the 5 most important books for me to spend some time with?

Oh yes, and they have to be the kind of books I’m not going to want to get rid of after I’ve read them once. The kind of books that I’m most likely to want to keep after “the class” is done, or even recommend them to my other friends.

Now, let’s put the numbers together and see what they reveal.

Most people who would teach (whether they teach high schoolers or college students, graduate students or professionals in the “for profit world”) believe that reading is a good thing. Most of us love to recommend books to read (or websites to spend time on). And most of us, if asked to come up with the most important 5 books for a newcomer to our field, would struggle in deciding which 5.

But if you change your perspective and look at it as the recipient of the recommendations does, you realize that even staying with a short list of recommenders, you quickly find yourself getting way more recommendations than you can ever possibly follow.

If I only listen to 10 other people, their reading recommendations are going to comprise between 50 and 100% of my reading for the year. And since my first choice in reading is invariably going to be what *I* think is important, not what anyone else thinks, not even my best friend, I’m going to end up paying attention to a small fraction of what those 10 people are recommending.

And guess what, most of those who appoint themselves our teachers aren’t going to be on our list of 5-50 people we listen to as a matter of course.

I and my fellow teachers complain a lot about how little of our assigned readings our students actually read. Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised by how little of our assignments they read, but by how much they do.

Because we’ve done very little to convince them that we belong on their list for #2. And, invariably, we don’t make assignments from our top five books. We use overpriced textbooks that no one wants to keep after the course is done. We use “surveys” written in the most boring of passive voices. Instead of offering them the written equivalent of 5-star restaurant cuisine, we “recommend” the equivalent of Spam®-flavored pablum.


He was the smartest person I’ve ever met.

He was also the wisest. He never went to college, but he was a craftsman at everything he did. His fundamental morality ensured that that craft was always used to ensure he did more for his clients, friends, and family, rather than abused to hide his shortcomings and his errors. His was not the route of “as little as possible.” His was the route of “more than is necessary.” He was a compassionate conservative before that term became part of the vernacular and made us wonder whether it was an oxymoron or its practitioners were morons.

Oh he wasn’t rich. And he got taken advantage of by those with lesser skill and lesser ethic.

Including me.

Yet, every major mistake I have made in the last 32 years, and God knows I’ve made no shortage of real doozies, could have been avoided had I observed and listened more carefully to him in my first eighteen. It has been over three decades since he died, and I’ve only just begun to realize just how much better my decisions would be, did I only first ask, “what would he say?” and listen for the answer.

In each of the circles I travel — education, copywriting, technology and creativity, business organization and development — there is much talk about the value and importance of mentoring. But the real mentors, the mentors that matter, are those we watch. Those we listen to with more than ears. Those we listen to for more than instructions of the “how to” and “how I’ve done it” sort.

The true mentors don’t teach us by their talk. They don’t teach us by their success. They teach us by the demonstration of their character. By the wisdom so deep that it is revealed by more than their words and the size of their adjusted gross income. By the wisdom that permeates their posture and everything they do.

Oh, I don’t expect I’ll ever do everything his way. Though I have inherited his artist’s soul, I didn’t inherit the abilities of his hands or the precision of his mind. Though I flirted with conservatism in my twenties and thirties — with the utter bankruptcy of modern socialism and liberalism, how could I not? — I do not expect to become a conservative again anytime soon.

And, unfortunately, I doubt I’ll ever share his passion for hard work. Work is something done for others, and I’m too chronically self-absorbed to be that giving.

I’ve spent too much time listening to the facile words, bank balances, and political power of others. I still find it too easy to take short cuts.

No, I’ll never be him.

My loss.


I’ll never be asked to give a commencement addresses. Such things are for men and women of perceived great accomplishment. Accomplishments of the sort — political power, bestselling novels, great wealth accumulation — that are for some reason absent from my resume.

And don’t get me wrong. Great accomplishments are important. Without them we wouldn’t have a lot of the magical things we have in today’s world. (Or a lot of the evil things we have, but that’s a cheap shot, and one not just aimed at the Hillarys and Dubyas of the world.)

But the everyday sort of activity — the sort done by those of us among the great unmentioned — that is even more important. Of the 26 million or so businesses in the American economy, 99 % are small businesses with less than 500 employees. And most of them are of businesses with 20 or fewer. The unremarked-upon small entrepreneurs who wear ill-fitting clothes and have cheesy commercials on late night television (if they advertise at all) and remember their employees at Christmas.

Or the average teacher or the average craft worker or the average janitor.

None of these are going to get invited to give commencement speeches.

Greatness, much as you or I might dream of it, of “making it big,” is overrated.

And as an objective of public policy, its downright dangerous. Political systems naturally favor the powerful — its one of their great flaws. The more we emphasize the great among us when we are talking about institutionalizing mechanisms for social change, the more we concentrate that power. And the more likely that everyman and everyman will fail to have the quality economic impact a growing system must have from them.

Be clear: I’m not talking in favor of some feel-good socialist mentality here. De-emphasizing greatness is not the same as emphasizing mediocrity. Exactly the opposite. When a society defers its decisionmaking, its creativity, its innovation, to the experts and the celebrities who hit it big, that is when mediocrity among the great unmentioned increases.

Few ideas are as bad as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” That way lies deference to the promulgation of 70,000 pages of “helpful” federal regulations a year by the experts at the alphabet soup of agency and department following the recommendations of blue ribbon task forces and study groups.

That way leads to interference and corruption and stifling of innovation of the small, everyday, un-remarked-on sort. The great among us — the kind of people who speak at commencement addresses — tend to be distant from the concerns of the everyday innovator. They don’t have to face the choice between hiring $100/hour accountants and lawyers or trying to do their Subchapter S tax returns and trying to just figure out which of those 70,000 pages apply to them.

Celebrate not the greatest. Celebrate the everyday. And leave them the hell alone.


There’s something magical about a construction site.  I find myself watching the one next door a bit each day.

Now many who gawk at construction sites tend to have an opinion about better ways to do things.  I don’t, for the fact of the matter is I know next to nothing about putting a building together.

As I watch, though, I’m amazed at the detail of the information those on site must master.  Think about it — the tools that must be mastered, the understanding of materials from concrete to styrofoam to copper pipe to kinds of gravel and dirt, figuring out angles and distances, coordinating suppliers and employees, accounting for rain, drainage.  Electrical. Plumbing.  Air conditioning.  What about electrical and plumbing for those who are working on the site.  Using skip loaders and trucks and trailers and surveyor transits; knowing the limitations of each…and how to exceed them.  And on and on.

Second rate economic reporting constantly focuses on the biggies — taxes, oil prices, presidential white papers, and the rest.  But if you want to understand the complexity of the economy, you need to look at interrelationships within it, not at “key sectors” or such nonsense.

I live in Iowa.  Farm state.  Not surprisingly, a lot of public policy talk emphasizes agriculture and its needs.  But if you look at the national economy, agriculture makes up less than 1.5 percent of overall GDP.  Frankly, focusing on “saving” or “protecting” the 1.5 percent of anything makes little sense to me.  Isn’t it more important to think about what’s going on in the other 98.5 percent?

To be sure, the percent of “Iowa” income that is agriculture is bigger than that, but I’m betting that if you dig into the state statistics, you’ll find that the bigger — much bigger — proportion of Iowa’s economy is the one labelled “non-agricultural”.

The same goes for gas.  Gas is just a fraction of the economy.  You want to keep the economy healthy, it isn’t about protecting those who buy and sell gas.  It’s about ensuring that the people in the rest of the economy continue to work and interact together in productive ways.

Am I saying that agriculture is unimportant or that gas is unimportant?  No.  Both are part of the economic web.

But they are just a fraction of the web.  And it’s the whole web that matters, not just this little section of it over here or over there.

I’m amazed at how much the carpenter has to master.  I have a hard time imagining being able to do what he does, to be able to coordinate his needs with the needs of lumber companies, fellow carpenters, plumbers, the electric company, gawking neighbors, and a hundred others beyond his gas supplier and his grocery store.

Next time someone tells you that the country’s going down the tubes because of rising gas prices, ask them to list all tasks they do where “using gas” is less than 5 percent of the task.  Or all the people they have to satisfy whose “needs” are 95 percent or more of things other than gas.

You’ll find two things:

1. The list of tasks where “using gas” is less than 5 percent of the task will be pretty much their entire task list.

2. The list of needs where “gas” is less than 5 percent of the need will be pretty much their entire list of needs.

The details matter.  ALL the details.  Not just the one or two that the political candidate or talk radio is shouting about.

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