I think we need to make 2012 a year of learning – but, it won’t be easy.
I believe in life-long learning. I am a big fan of every effort to keep learning. Our monthly First Friday Book Synopsis is designed to whet the appetite of such life-long learners. I like to read, I like to hear new things, read new ideas, “stretch” a little.
But – do we actually learn very much? (Do I actually learn very much)? Not all that much, I suspect.
(Quick – find me a dozen people who believe that Jerry Jones has learned anything in recent years about more effectively running the Dallas Cowboys).
I wish it were otherwise. I wish that we learned, and then did these new things we learned. Now, some new learning is easy. I have learned/can use most of the apps on my iPhone. I can do a couple of things around the house that I could not before. But, for the most part, though I read words, and can “recite back” the concepts, I still pretty much function the way I have been functioning for quite a while (as in, years!). I haven’t changed much – I haven’t learned much.
These thoughts always bring me back to the great quote by John Henry Newman: “To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have learned much.” But what really prompted this blog post was this paragraph, which I read in Tyler Cowen’s blog post The Danger Of Storytelling, (from his TED talk):
One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they’re the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse.
So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, (emphasis added) like “I bought this book. I won’t be Predictably Irrational.” It’s like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It’s why there’s such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that’s maybe the bigger fallacy. It’s just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They’re the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It’s the people that realize, “I don’t know anything at all,” that end up doing pretty well.
Look again at these words: “I bought this book. I won’t be Predictably Irrational.” How many books have you read, and at the end of the day, you tell yourself (deceive yourself?): “Well, I’ve learned the stuff in this book,” – but, you don’t actually implement any of the wisdom that you read in the book?
Maybe we all need a new discipline: when we finish reading a book, attending a seminar, attending any presentation, watching any TED talk, then — right then! – we set aside a chunk of time – a noticeable chunk of time – and ask, “so, what will I do now with this new information/insight/wisdom?” And then, write it down, and start doing it. And keep doing it. Quit being irrational; quit ridiculing your team members; quit being so self-centered… quit the bad things, and then add the good things.
Without this “after we’ve learned” step, then, in reality, we haven’t learned at all… Without this next step, then learning is just an illusion.
Tyler Cowen is an “infovore.” An economist (he wrote The Great Stagnation – a terrific, provocative book!), he reads more than anyone else that I know of (I think he may even read more than our blogging colleague, Bob Morris. And that’s saying something). Mr. Cowen travels a lot, and he always has a stack of books with him. When he finishes with a book he simply leaves the book on the bench/table at the airport for some lucky (if the book is good) or unlucky (if the book is not so good) soul to find. He makes quick judgments, and if a book is not worth reading carefully, he discards it pretty quickly.
I have just read the first sections of his book: The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy. Here are a few key excerpts:
In bad economic times, people…engage in more projects for self-improvement and self-education.
To thrive in an era that produces and devours information like never before, you need to become more adept at finding, sorting, and absorbing ideas, news, and all kinds of data. The age of the infovore has arrived.
Coping with information involves both cognition and overt behavior.
The book will help you understand how we need to order (“categorize”) our intake of information. And the book reminds us that, for so very many people, reading, processing information, creating systems to quickly retrieve information – these are at the top of the job skills needed for this information economy
If we are infovores in an infovore world, we ought to aim at getting better at it. This book can help.
We’re going to be hearing a lot about jobs in the coming days. We should have been hearing about it more, a whole lot more, but there have been too many fires to put out. And the bad news is they are not out. They are not contained.
(I intend this metaphorically, but at this precise moment, here in Texas, there are literally too many fires to put out).
I have already put the new Tom Freidman and Michael Mandelbaum book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, into my schedule for the First Friday Book Synopsis. It is about a lot, but especially about “where will the jobs be?” — beginning with: “where have the jobs gone?” (Listen to in interview with Freidman, just under 8 minutes, with transcript provided, here.)
And just last night I presented my synopsis of The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, And Will (Eventually) Feel Better by Tyler Cowen. A short, brilliant book, Cowen asserts that:
All of these problems have a single little-noticed root cause: We have been living off low-hanging fruit for at least three hundred years. We have built social and economic institutions on the expectation of a lot of low-hanging fruit, but that fruit is mostly gone.
Low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century: free land, lots of immigrant labor, powerful new technologies… Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think.
That’s it. That is what has gone wrong. (emphasis added).
In other words, we’ve been riding off the past…
And in the book, he deals with the “problem” of the internet – a brilliant “invention,” yet one that may not ever create enough jobs. Some more highlights from the book:
The internet is wonderful, but it’s not saving the revenue-generating sector of the economy.
More and more, “production’ – that word my fellow economists have been using for generations – has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor… In other words, the new low-hanging fruit is in our minds and in our laptops and not so much in the revenue-generating sector of the economy.
…the big technological gains are coming in revenue-deficient sectors. “To put it simply, only after 500 million members, and in very recent times, did the debate stop over whether Facebook can make a lot of money.”
• the arrival of the automobile = millions of jobs
• Facebook = users do the work; a relative miniscule number of jobs created
Online Industry Employment Levels
Google – 20,000
Facebook – 1,700+
eBay – 16,400
Twitter – 300
At the gathering last night, where I presented my synopsis of The Great Stagnation, a very sharp, very successful gentleman, walked up afterwords, and said this (paraphrased, from memory): “I have looked and looked at this, and I simply do not see an answer.” Of all the issues I have written about on our blog through our few brief years, the question that has kept me up at night more often than any other is this: where will the jobs be?
Here’s Friedman’s answer (from the interview):
There’s kind of a hankering today, when is Ford going to put in that 50,000-worker factory in my city again? When is Intel going to come, Paul Otellini? Folks, it’s not going to happen because those factories now are all incredibly roboticized(ph), automated, and they are capital-intensive, not labor-intensive. We’re not going to have a 50,000-person factory in your town. What we need are 50,000 people, a thousand of whom are starting jobs for 10 people, 50 of whom for 100, 100 of whom for 30 – that everybody needs to be starting something.
Yes, of course, he is right. We need to start a lot, a whole lot, of new start-ups… But, look at Facebook – a pretty successful “start-up.” And, look at how many people Facebook employs. Not.that.many!
And, besides, it takes a special kind of person to start something that is successful enough to employ others over a long haul. This is not all that easy!
But, we may have no other choice. Because, where else will the jobs be?
That question has not gone away – it only keeps getting louder, more urgent…
“The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party – the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012,” Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor said in an interview that aired Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Huntsman: GOP can’t become ‘anti-science’ party
Yes, that might be a losing approach to those who want to win an election.
But it is far worse than that. It is a losing approach to the future.
I am reading The Great Stagnation: How America Ate all the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better by Tyler Cowen. It is a terrific, short read. It started as an e-book, then was published as a hardcover. The premise is clear, and understandable. The easy stuff, the “low-hanging fruit,” is all finished. Growth and recovery will be harder, much harder, and slower, in coming years. It is a fascinating read.
One of his main points is that we must elevate science to accomplish this. Here’s what he says:
Raise the social status of scientists: I’m all for the generous funding of science, at whatever levels are appropriate, but I also know that’s not enough. If we are going to see further major technological breakthroughs, it is a big help if people love science, care deeply about science, and science attracts a lot of the best American and foreign minds. The practice of science has to yield social esteem, and teams of scientists should have a strong esprit de corps and feel they are doing something that really matters.
He observes that when Norman Borlaug died in 2009, “most Americans still did not know who he was… In my ideal world, Borlaug would have a much higher social status than he did.” (Borlaug’s work with crop yields is credited with saving up to one billion lives. Remarkable!)
Even a casual observer can recognize that scientists – scientists who have spent years studying subjects such as climate change – are ridiculed and attacked by many because of their conclusions. When we are so politically divided that one side comes across as “anti-science” (and this charge is leveled at them by one of their own candidates), then it is pretty tough to maintain the “social esteem” of scientists. And we need genuine innovation, and many scientific breakthroughs, more than ever.
I think Cowen is on to something important. Don’t you?
My wife’s mother read the newspaper. I mean she really read the newspaper — from cover to cover. (She passed away last summer). When she would visit us, in Los Angeles and later in Dallas, the Sunday paper was a big challenge for her. She would sit in the chair, and tackle that massive stack of sections — much larger than the Sunday papers she received in her home town of Abilene, Tx. It took her a long time, but she plowed through each section. When she finished, she would let out a sound that was a cross between relief, accomplishment, and exasperation. And she would say simply: “finally!”
I thought of this as I read two posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, In Praise Of Not Finishing Books, springing from an article in The Washington Times by Kelly Jane Torrance, referencing Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economics professor, from his book “Discover Your Inner Economist.” (Read these here and here and here).
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
No matter what you choose, though, you’re bound to run into the same problem eventually: What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don’t like a book? You could spend your entire summer slogging through it. Or you could take the advice of a prominent economist who simply advises: “Give up.” Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economics professor, makes the suggestion in his book “Discover Your Inner Economist,” which shows how to use economic reasoning to improve your life. Scarcity is one principle — a lack of attention and time keeps us from being as cultured as we’d like. We should ask ourselves if reading a book we’re getting little out of is the best use of scarce resources.
This is a pretty good principle to follow for a number of business books. I have stated more than once that many business books are not worth reading — they are worth having read. There is no virtue in reading for reading’s sake. The virtue is in learning (I’m speaking here of reading books as part of our “work/development.” There is always virtue in reading for enjoyment. But most people choose authors other than business book authors for such reading).
Here’s another quote from the article:
“Don’t slog your way through books just so your reading list will conform with other people’s ideas about what’s hot or what’s smart. Find the books that compel you from first page to last.” Don’t take these readers’ words for it. A no less august reader than Samuel Johnson declared, as Mr. Cowen quotes in his book, “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”
This is one ofthe values provided by the First Friday Book Synospis. We read the books, all the way to the end, so that you can save and invest your precious reading time for other books. Or, we let you know that “this book” is worth the investment of your time.
I think the honesty of these articles is true, and refreshing. Some books really are worth “quitting on.” (And no, I’m not about to name names or titles!)