All posts by Stephen

Usufruct

Sometimes, upon waking some image or word will sit brightly illuminated on the stage of my mind.

The other day, the word, “usufruct” was mysteriously there.  I knew not what it meant… it just seemed familiar and very relevant to the shifts underway in my life these days.

I looked it up on Google:

u·su·fruct
noun
ROMAN LAW
  1. the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.

So, here I am facing a birthday whose last digit is a zero, happy in my job, but feeling pretty stultified by the obligations of mortgage, marriage and family.  I am more than half way through my days here on earth and now I can see the beginning of fresh eyes developing on my rental of this material substance and space.

Usufructus

 

I am also seeing my days not so much as building blocks to be maximized or wasted on the path toward some accomplishment in life; education, work, marriage, family, et cetera;  I am beginning to see my body less as a needy carrier for my mind and more as a temporary opportunity to move through and sense the material world. In these thoughts, I am reminded of an old favorite, Theillard de Chardin‘s, Hymn to Matter.

For the first time ever, I am looking at this body, these moments as sources of usufructus (enjoyment).

Am I becoming more like Zorba the Greek?

 

Who knows what the future holds… I do find myself spending a lot of my imaginal life moving over the Mediterranean toward islands scented with salt, herbs, citrus, and olives.

Form: Static purity or dynamic flow?

It just occurred to me that I have been pursuing Form in business and life as a static purity to be obtained by stripping away all that is unnecessary, akin to this and Platonic solids.

But, after this week of dynamic change and refocusing at work, I’m coming to realize that Form is probably more accurately seen as the aggragate across time and space of a dynamic flow around geometric points.  Like this and this.

Yvon Chouinard, CEO of Patagonia, sees this too: the focus on the immediate flow v. focusing on the purity of the end state, nicely summarized here.

This approach certainly feels more free, easy, and invigorating than focusing on grinding toward an austere future perfection.

Note taking tips – Notes matter

As I sit in business and board meetings, I notice that few people take notes.

Note taking as a path to success

I wonder if they have better memories than I do, but then,  I realize that they have been trained, like most of our society, to let content wash gently over them and pass by un-noted, un-synthesized, un-digested.

One of the most powerful differentiators I’ve found in life, both in academic and professional settings is the skill and habit of taking clear notes.

I came across an interesting piece in the Atlantic recently re: note taking with some important tips and perspective on note taking.

If civilization is based on learning from and building upon the best thinking that’s gone before, then note taking must be one of the keys to building or at least fighting entropy in our civilization.

I do not agree that the best notes are taken on a PC.  I may be old school, but I can write/draw/think much more quickly with pen and paper than I can with a computer.  If some hand-written notes turn out to benefit from digitization later, I can quickly dictate them into text using my Android phone.  Capture and synthesis the most difficult and valuable part of the process, digitization falls far down on my list of priorities.

The last point in the Atlantic article mentions note’s usefulness in court, but I find them useful in any setting where differences in recall or opinion might creep in.  The power of the scribe is a well-known and very useful phenomena, essentially, the person who creates the written record (notes, legal agreements, historical interpretations, etc.) have a special power over the written record of the event.  Harold Innis has an interesting perspective on the power of the scribe through history and in the refinement or entropy of our current civilization.

I came across a very simple implementation of the ideas from the Atlantic article in the Cornell Note Taking Method.

Duly noted!

 

Malcolm Gladwell: Albert O. Hirschman and the Power of Failure : The New Yorker

“Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where his heart lay.”

Working from within can be a long, messy,  frustrating process; but, of course, the insights, leverage, and potential satisfaction gained may be worth the effort.

http://m.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/06/24/130624crbo_books_gladwell?currentPage=all

Iron sharpens iron

When sharpening, a few variables produce the desired result:

  1. The quality of the sharpening steel
  2. Angle of approach
  3. Pressure

Most large group education uses:

  1. a lowest common denominator sharpening steel (so no one gets hurt),
  2. a sharp angle (a rigid, methodical approach)
  3. high pressure (homework, drill, grades and standardized testing).

I use the finest quality sharpening steel (Aristotle, Plato, Newton, Jefferson, Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau)

An angle of approach suited to you, today.  

What will light the fire of curiosity and love of learning right now?

Low pressure, in fact, my life’s work is to create a safe, exciting bridge between your heart and mind and the great hearts and minds of our civilization.

What steel have you found most formative in your sharpening process?

I’d love to hear in comments below.

John Cleese on Creativity

Advice on creativity from the master of so many things, John Cleese.

Essentially, give yourself time in creatively open mode.  Here are five keys:

1. Space –  away from the trivial urgencies of “normal” life.

2. Time – about 90 minutes is ideal and a clear endpoint will create a useful forcing function to focus your endeavors.

3. Playfulness – don’t short-circuit your creativity by jumping to a decision.  Linger in creative discomfort until  you must decide so that the best ideas have time to rise up through the molasses of your mind. Stay in the what if and why mode as long as possible. Try to determine when you must decide before you start into the creative process so that you can avoid deciding before you have to.

4. Confidence – to be playful with what if’s, illogic, and seemingly wrong ideas knowing that a better solution is more likely the longer you can linger there.

5. Humor – is the fastest way to move from “closed” (rational, decisive, task-focused) mode into “open” (relaxed, playful, creative) mode.

Watch for yourself and for  your creative endeavors:

Specialization Fails Business Leaders

Buffet and Munger

The division of labor leads to specialization leads to great efficiency, but probably not in the case of business leadership.

Charlie Munger has a fascinating perspective on educating business leaders that were excerpted on Farnam Street.

In my experience, history was the ideal course of study in preparing for business leadership.  It is, essentially, the study of causation, including analysis of all possible contributing factors, not just the engineering, psychological, technical, or cultural variable sets.

Of course, in business, studying history often takes the form of case studies.

Has over specialization and turf protection blinded business leaders to larger issues and insights that case studies of business success and failure might reveal?

How could analysts pushing collateralized debt obligations not see the house of cards they were building?  Were they missing the forest for the trees because their education and the culture they worked in were overly specialized?

Munger’s wisdom not only makes sense, it has earned him (and Buffet) some real dollars.

 

Building Demand While Killing Brand

Marketing leaders often see their task as stoking demand by building awareness and desire.

“Make it sexy!”

“Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

“Forget the features, sell the benefits.”

“WIIFM!”

Glossy photos, glowing copy, a firm, smooth close.  Bring ’em on home, Marketers!

Nothing happens until someone sells something.  The art of creating desire; nothing would sell without it.  How else could we possibly meet this year’s top line goal?

Putting these popular ideas into practice might drive short-term demand, but they will kill your brand in the long-term.

The problem is, according to Joyce, in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, art that creates desire alone is pornography.  In the end, pornography is never satisfying, it’s the ultimate bait and switch.

Your customers expect much more from their experience with your products and services.

Customers hope for an experience of the sublime, something just short of pure heaven; not only in the product we doll-up for our catalogs and web pages, but from every interaction with us.  They don’t  click onto your site hoping to find something mediocre, they don’t order your product in hopes of getting something passable.  No, when customers interact with us, they hope, deep within, to experience the sublime.

We’ve all grown used to accepting better than usual, but our hope still smolders in our subconscious driving us onward.

Our deepest hope might be to find some proof that perfection of Form, a truly sublime experience, is possible.

Companies who have figured this out develop seemingly magical loyalty (Apple) and often cash to match (Apple).  Steve Jobs told Walter Issacson, “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto. I’m deeply moved by what that culture has produced, and it’s directly from Zen Buddhism.”

Of course, Joyce approached aesthetics and the sublime from a Catholic/Thomist perspective but the pursuit of the sublime, by Japanese Zen Buddhists or Irish Catholics shares some common characteristics:

Thomas Aquinas‘ aesthetics can be summarized as pursuing the following:

Integrity and perfection: Integritas sive perfectio

Harmony or due proportion: Consonantia sive debita proportio

The brightness or clarity of Form: Claritas sive splendor formae

Of course, Form emerges from the fundamental belief of Platonic Idealism, that the idea of the thing, its form/whatness/quiddity/essence is more real than its material/thisness/the particular  object before you.

A circle is a good example.  In theory or form, it is :

A round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed center.

In the material world, a  perfect circle has never been created… even in the most precisely machined material manifestation, one atom might be out of alignment and keep that particular manifestation of circleness from meeting the idea of circle that we can easily describe and imagine.

You might say, “I see circles all the time, get real.”  Well, that’s been said before:

Antisthenes: Plato, I see particular horses, but not horseness.

Plato: That is because you have eyes but no intelligence.

The best marketing and brand leaders understand the relationship between desire and the sublime, between pornography and art, between real products/real people, and Form.

Steve Jobs certainly did, and look where it took his products, his company, and his balance. sheet.

I imagine him not missing his money because now he’s happily joined the world of pure Idea.