Thursday, December 16, 2010

So What's an Entrepreneur?--The Sequel

I met up with Peter Worrell, Managing Director of the Bigelow Company, on a cold December day a few weeks ago at his office overlooking Portsmouth Harbor.  Despite a frigid wind whipping off the water, downtown Portsmouth was decorated for Christmas and bustling with shoppers.  
Pete's bio states that "Worrell has a particular interest in the intersection of psychology and finance and its relevance to building value in private capital markets."  In fact, Pete is a hugely accomplished M&A guy specializing, as does all of Bigelow, in addressing the particular (and often idiosyncratic) needs of the owner-entrepreneurs of privately-held companies.  

But Pete is also a serious academic, working hard to understand what makes entrepreneurs tick, and more importantly, what makes them successful.
As proof, in 2009 he published a paper which outlined the strengths of successful entrepreneurs.  The paper was conceived while he was attending the University of Pennsylvania in a psychology graduate degree program under advisor Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., who works on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and on optimism and pessimism. 
What says "entrepreneur" better than “learned helplessness” and “depression,” eh?  (Indeed, before I make too big a mess of Pete’s excellent work, a good summary of some of the paper’s key findings are on the Bigelow website here.) 
Pete worked with 200 seasoned, successful entrepreneurs and expert advisors (answering for successful entrepreneur clients) who completed an online survey measuring their character strengths, consistency of interest and persistence of interest.  These were people who had owned and operated businesses, created tens of millions of dollars of value, and employed hundreds of people over their working lifetimes. 
Now, think fast: What are the top two or three characteristics of successful entrepreneurs?  (Note that this is a very different question--"What is an entrepreneur?"--that we tackled earlier.)  Creativity, right?  Passion.  Focus. Risk-taking.
Here's the truth. Of 24 character traits, Pete’s survey found these to be the top five among successful entrepreneurs:
1.  Authenticity--speaking the truth, presenting oneself in a genuine way, without pretense.  This ranks far above the general population. (Pete: Some are "candid to the point of being blunt.")
What’s that you say?  Worked for one of those before?  Still pulling out the shrapnel?
2.      Leadership--encouraging a group to get things done while maintaining good relations within the group (which was also far above the general population).

3.      Zest--approaching life with excitement and energy, and the best predictor of "work as a calling."  Of the top measures, this characteristic shows the single greatest gap between successful entrepreneurs and the general population.  Because of zest, Peter writes, "The most successful entrepreneurs persist and adjust long after others might rationally call it a day."

4.      Fairness (about in line with the general population).

5.      Gratitude--being thankful for the good things that happen, which is also a predictor of life satisfaction.  (This is just slightly above the general population.)

Successful entrepreneurs show, by these strengths, Pete concludes, that they are strongly "outwardly focused."
The bottom five characteristics of the 24—which is not to say they are unimportant, but that they are less (and often far less)  important—are (24) religiousness/spirituality, (23) forgiveness/mercy, (22) creativity, (21) love of learning, and (20) appreciation of beauty.
I might point out that 19, 18 and 17 are self-regulation, modesty and prudence.  Except for creativity, does any of this “bottom list” surprise you?  
The other thing I learned from Peter’s work is that the single quality that may most distinguish successful entrepreneurs from everyone else is grit.  "Grit is perseverance and passion for long-term goals, working strenuously toward challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress."
Against the general population, entrepreneurs score high on grit and exceptionally high on "persistence of effort."  In fact, grit predicts the accomplishment of very high challenges among very high achievers better than self-discipline or intelligence.
And one other thing Pete discovered about entrepreneurs: “Profit motivated?  Hardly. . .They are more often occupied with trying to build sustaining organizations, ones that have longevity beyond themselves as mere individual owners."
I can think of lots of uses for this information, the most obvious being that an entrepreneur who knows himself or herself well could build a surrounding team that insures these key characteristics are well represented.
My thanks to Peter Worrell for a great piece of research, and taking the time to discuss it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Are These People?

I took the Amtrak Acela Express from Boston to New York City last week. 

If you've ever ridden the Acela you know that most of the train is Business Class; seating is four seats divided by an aisle, two and two.

Boston is the start of the route to New York, which eventually winds up in D.C.  So, getting on at 6 a.m. in the morning is nice--each car is clean and completely empty.

And that's where my sordid tale begins.

The stops between Boston and NYC include two more near Boston, one in Providence and one in Hartford.  A passenger would therefore presume, especially on a morning commuter train, that other folks--and lots of other folks--would board throughout the ride.

So, a thoughtful rider, which is what I (mostly) am, takes a seat near the window, drops a single tray for his computer, and acquires precisely one seat's worth of terrain, knowing that a seat-mate will come along soon in Boston or Providence.

That's when I looked across the aisle only to see Ms. (Soon to Be)-Talking-Loud-on-the-Phone.  She is sitting in the aisle seat, has pulled down her own and the inside tray, scattered her files and electronics all around, and, in the process, constructed a charming little moving office.

In other words she's bought one ticket, claimed two spaces, and positioned herself in such a way that you'd need a crowbar to claim the seat next to her.

So what happens at the first stop?  An (easily) 300 lbs. guy gets on and, of course, sits next to me.  Now, I have nothing against big and fat, but I have much against cramped and paralyzed.  My right arm is squished tight and my elbow jammed in my solar plexus so that my "a-s-d-f" still worked beautifully but my "semi-l-k-j" was crossways to the keyboard.

I could have taken a plane from Logan and had this.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, Ms. You-Know-Who is starting to rattle on about "underlying platform performance" and lord-knows-what-all.  I can taste the bile rising in the back of my throat. 

(Wait.  That was the Starbuck's coffee without enough milk, but you know what I mean.)

Squish.  "They never call the Helpdesk till it's too late."  Scrunch.  "Maybe we should do an offsite and figure out their core competencies."









Now, if I were a minister and this were a sermon, something good would happen right about now.  It would turn out, for example, that the guy I was sitting next to was a famous guitarist for some band my kids know and he would give me backstage passes and autographs to bring home.  Or he'd be some kind of angel financier looking for a CEO to run his Historical RFID company for three months before selling it to Google.  Meanwhile, Ms. Just-Send-Them-The-Software-Patch-and-I'll-Bill-Them would have, say, Courtney Love get on the train and force herself into the adjacent seat.

Alas, I am not a minister and this stuff does not happen.  To me.

At some point my enormous friend gets up for food and I am able to unfold my ribs, but I have learned in our brief interchange that he has no phone, nothing to read and (honest to goodness) doesn't know why he's going to New York City.  Truly.  

So where is this going?  Well, there's a place for people like Ms. Keeps-Both-Seats-All-the-Way-to-NYC-While-I-Suffer.  Not in my circle of friends, but surely in business.  She has a kind of protective gauze around her brain that makes her impervious to normal human impulse and consideration.  And she projects a kind of force field that is to be reckoned with.

That kind of fearless cluelessness leads to a personality that can often get things done where others cannot.

At least, I cannot. 

This is a person who thinks she was born on third base but has actually been running around lost in right field most of her life.  This is a person omnidirectionally obtuse, and happily so.

So, as the train pulled into Penn Station and my sternum recentered itself, I thought, people like this are obnoxious to be around but, to their credit, can be phenomenally useful in the right situations.

And, hence, can be used.

You know who you are.  On second thought, you don't have a clue who you are.  But we'll use you when we need you.  We'll put you in situations where angels fear to tread and you'll be successful.

It'll be sweet revenge, and worth every bit of the ride from South Station to Penn Station.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Catching an Edge

So this is how it happens.

It's the third or fourth day of your ski vacation.  It's been fantastic.  Superb conditions, long runs, no crashes.  This particular morning, had the snow not been so perfect, you might have rested your weary bones in bed and gone out for a late brunch.

Instead, you are on the slopes by 8, dodging the snowboarders and practically skiing up to the chairlift.  Again and again.  By 12 noon your stomach is growling but the lines are so long at the restaurant below that you just keep skiing, ignoring the burning thighs and desperately cold little toe.

Finally, at 1:30, you come off the mountain and head for lunch.  Feeling great.  You are king of the mountain.  You are Jean-Claude Killy.

And because of that, today is the day you finally go for the fries.  And the chocolate chip cookie.  And the hot chocolate, which courses through your veins like sap in spring.  (Whoa.)

And you think. . .Perfect day.  Time to head back, jump in the hot tub, take a nap, and have a great dinner.  Except someone, usually an offspring, begs to go back on the mountain.  "Just a few more runs." 


So, you stick your feet back in the hell that is your ski boots, bundle back up, and head for the lift.  Up you go.  Down the slope you start. 

But this time the sun is low and your old eyes can't see the terrain so well anymore.  Those damnable skiboarders have scraped the hillside to ice in little patches everywhere.  And that old hot chocolate is now coursing through your veins more like molasses in the dead of winter.  Your legs are so tired.  Your feet hurt.  Your tummy is pushing against your ski pants in a way that it didn't in the morning.  So you relax. 

And that's when it happens.

That's when you catch an edge.

That's when, with one boot now above your shoulders, your life flashes before your steamed-up goggles and you find yourself--if  you are lucky--in four feet of soft snow, ten feet left of and twelve feet below the ski run (that you mastered so handily this morning).  Among but not a part of the aspen and pine.

I used to have a Chief Operating Officer who would wonder, whenever we were in a bind, if we were on the verge or on the edge.

This question has, at least for now, been decided for you.  Indeed, if you really are lucky, both skis are still visible and within crawling distance.

And that's when you know, beyond a doubt, the most profound of life's few essential truths: You should be in a hot tub somewhere.

From now on, you swear, you will "know thyself" and  never catch an edge again--on the ski slope, at home or at work.  Tired is tired.  Done is done.  Retreat is not dishonor.  Men and women must have their cave and their cot and their mental-health day and their long weekend and even their occasional sabbatical.

Because, as Groucho might have said, a cold toe is a cold toe, but a great hot chocolate is still just a drink.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

So What's an Entrepreneur?

I was working on my book about entrepreneurs the other day when I had a brilliant (though tardy) insight: It might be a good idea to actually define the term.  After all, "entrepreneur" is used endlessly in the press, academia and in conversation, and we simply take it for granted that we're all talking about the same thing. 

But we're not.  Not even close.

Suppose I have a great job with IBM and can see my career path unfold over the next decade.  One day I decide I hate my boss.  So I quit my job, borrow money from my family, friends and 401K, mortgage my house, and open a McDonald's franchise in suburban Boston.  I have many a sleepless night.  If I'm unsuccessful I'm bankrupt and probably have to beg IBM for my old job.

Am I an entrepreneur?  After all, I'm willing to take on incredible risk.  I've put skin in the game.  I'll start my own business, work like a dog, and be my own boss.  Isn't that being an entrepreneur?

My bet is that many, or most people would agree.

I know that Scott Shane, author of The Illusions of Entrepreneurship (2008) agrees, writing that "I use. . .definitions of entrepreneur and entrepreneurship. . .most closely aligned with common sense. Entrepreneurship is. . .“the activity of organizing, managing, and assuming the risks of a business or enterprise.”

I enjoyed Shane's book, but found this definition of entrepreneur so broad as to be unhelpful.  In fact, by his own admission, it's hard to find anyone in the workforce who isn't, or won't be, an entrepreneur:
First, entrepreneurship is as a very common vocation, much more common than our myths suggest. . .In 2005, approximately 13 percent of people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 74 were in the process of starting a business.  In fact, each year in the United States, more people start a business than get married or have children.  And as much as 40 percent of the U.S. population will be self-employed for some part of their work life! . . .
The typical American entrepreneur is a married white man in his forties who attended but did not complete college. He lives in a place like Des Moines or Tampa, where he was born and has lived much of his life. His new business is a low-tech endeavor, like a construction company or an auto repair shop, in an industry where he has worked for years. The business that the typical entrepreneur has started is a sole proprietorship financed with $25,000 of his savings and maybe a bank loan that he guarantees personally. . .It. . .employs one person— the founder—and it isn’t innovative and has no intention, or prospects, of growing.
When most people say "entrepreneur," they are unintentionally describing a 40-something married white guy launching a low-tech endeavor that isn't innovative and probably won't grow.

Take the example above of the new McDonald's, the same location in suburban Boston, but this time it's launched, owned and operated by McDonald's Corporation.  Its placement is the result of a careful market study that shows, despite other McDonald's in the area, that this one can make money without cannibalizing nearby stores.  In other words, total McDonald's revenue in the area should increase.

Is that entrepreneurial?  It has precisely the same impact in the market as when our former IBMer does it on his own, creating precisely the same competitive dynamics and serving precisely the same consumers.  In fact, given the company's experience, it's likely McDonald's will make fewer mistakes, grow faster, and be more successful--a better "entrepreneur," as it were.

But here we get push back.   Having McDonald's simply open another restaurant seems hardly entrepreneurial.  Once a wildly entrepreneurial business, McDonald's is now simply repeating a formula that it's already perfected, in markets where it already does business?

You see the issue?  One person's entrepreneur is another person's Bacon Double Cheeseburger.

It Always Ends With Schumpeter

That's when I decided I'd better begin at the beginning.  That would be Richard Cantillon (1680-1734), an Irish-French economist who coined the word "entrepreneur," saying that entrepreneurship entails bearing the risk of buying at certain prices and selling at uncertain prices.  That's a good start, but still pretty much captures anyone who has gone into business.   A bit later, Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832), a French merchant and economist, added that an entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.

Now we're getting somewhere. 

But it wasn't until Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) that I had the breakthrough I needed.  His 1934 work, The Theory of Economic Development, considers entrepreneurship something that disrupts market equilibrium--say, by offering something novel, or in a novel way, or in a novel place--and is the essential ingredient in moving an economy forward.  Schumpeter says entrepreneurs can come from any function and any type of company so long as they practice the carrying out of new combinations.

By new combination, Schumpeter describes some very specific activities:

  1. Introducing a new product, or new quality product
  2. Introducing a new method of production, or of handling a commodity commercially
  3. Opening of a new market, whether or not the new market has existed before
  4. Exploiting a new source of supply of raw materials or half-manufactured goods, whether the source already exists or not
  5. Introducing a new way of organizing any industry
Schumpeter's definition makes it crystal clear why new combination--or what we might call today innovation--is so closely affiliated with entrepreneurship.  Without it, we may be launching a business, and we may be taking on risk, and we may show great courage and have many sleepless nights, but we're still not being an entrepreneur

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985), Peter Drucker echoes Schumpeter: "Entrepreneurs. . .create something new, something different; they change or transmute values." This makes them different, Drucker says, than most new businesses.

Based on Schumpeter, I've elected as a shorthand definition the following: 

An entrepreneur combines resources in a novel way to disrupt the status quo of a market.

This might involve intent, but it might not; I believe I will be able to describe at least one remarkable entrepreneur in my book who had no intention of being entrepreneurial. 

Being a successful entrepreneur may involve certain personality traits, but it is not uncommon to have a single person involved in a series of business ventures, only some of which are tried, true and traditional, and some of which are entrepreneurial. 

Being an entrepreneur may involve taking on risk, but it might also be largely risk-free: Malcolm Gladwell's Feburary 2010 article in the New Yorker quoted a recent study by two French scholars who claim that an entrepreneur "occupies a 'structural hole,' a niche that gives him a unique perspective on a particular market. . .[and] looks for partners. . .who undervalue what they sell to him or overvalue what they buy from him in comparison to his own evaluation.  He moves decisively. He repeats the good deal over and over again, until the opportunity closes, and—most crucially—his focus throughout that sequence is on hedging his bets and minimizing his chances of failure. The truly successful businessman. . .is anything but a risk-taker. He is a predator, and predators seek to incur the least risk possible while hunting."
It's not intent, it's not personality, and it's not risk 
that defines an entrepreneur. 

It's offering an innovation that alters the status quo.  Leibenstein (1968) called it an entrepreneur's ability to destroy pockets of inefficiency.  That makes sense to me, and is different than simply opening another auto parts store, gas station, bowling alley or fast food restaurant.  

Do you know who are brilliant at finding entrepreneurs?  Venture capitalists. 

Shane writes: 
Since 1970, venture capitalists have funded an average of 820 new companies per year. These 820 start-ups—out of the more than 2 million efforts to start businesses in this country every year—have enormous economic impact. 
In 2003, companies that were backed by venture capitalists employed 10 million people, or 9.4 percent of the private sector labor force in the United States, and generated $1.8 trillion in sales, or 9.6 percent of business sales in this country.  
In 2000, the 2,180 publicly traded companies that received venture-capital backing between 1972 and 2000 comprised 20 percent of all public companies in the United States, 11 percent of their sales, 13 percent of their profits, 6 percent of their employees, and one-third of their market value, a figure in excess of $2.7 trillion dollars. 
Between 2003 and 2005, venture capital-backed start-ups made up 23 percent of the companies that went public.  In short, almost all of the value generated by start-ups comes from this handful of firms.
Here's the bottom line: The definition of entrepreneur begins and ends with market impact.  We care about entrepreneurs for one and only one reason: They offer an innovation that disrupts an economic flow.  It's an outside-in view that cuts through all the clutter and eliminates the drama.  

That's an especially good thing to remember when someone asks, "What does it take to be an entrepreneur?"  It's not passion.  It's not risk-taking.  It's not being an extrovert, and sometimes not even intent.  (Some of America's most influential entrepreneurs didn't even see it coming.)  And most of all--as much as I like 40-something white guys launching barber shops, dry cleaning stores and fast food restaurants--if we confuse it with "people starting businesses," we draw all the wrong conclusions.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Steampunk in Pictures at the Charles River Museum of Industry

The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation sits on the former site of the Waltham Watch Company in Waltham, MA, one of the wonders of 19th-century American industry.  It's not far from the spot where Francis Cabot Lowell founded the first textile mill in America to manufacture cotton-to-finished cloth in one building, another wonder of American ingenuity.  In fact, if nearby Bunker Hill and Lexington/Concord are hallowed ground for the American Revolution, this spot in Waltham would be hallowed ground for the Industrial Revolution.  

Along with its textile and watch exhibits, the Museum in October launched Steampunk Form & Function--an Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry which celebrates art, imagination and industry.  (If you are unfamiliar with steampunk, Wikipedia has a good summary here.  If you have some time over the upcoming holidays and want to sample a steampunk novel, begin at the source with William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.)

I've captured a few images of this fun exhibit from a recent visit, and would encourage you also to visit the Museum and support this important historical site.

It's easy to see why this spot along the Charles River, not far from Boston, attracted industrialists.  Besides reliable water power, the entrepreneurs who founded the Waltham Watch Company were also seeking "clean air" (predecessor to the clean rooms we require for manufacturing), something hard to find in the rapidly-growing, smoky and filthy urban centers of mid-19th-century America.

A view of the Waltham Watch (and successor) site.  This now houses light industry, offices, artist lofts, the Museum and other uses compatible with its suburban neighborhood.

And off we go. . .

One of my favorites: a Steampunk Trans Foraminal Image Perambulator With Stand, something no home should be without.

This is a very cool pinball machine where a winning score creates life, something that is done from time to time (as is alchemy) in steampunk novels.

Better than a Harley.  Seat-warmer standard.

Just the new keyboard you need for Christmas.

Or maybe this steampunk iPhone docking station?

Or perhaps this steampunk clock for your mantel?

And what child wouldn't want a steampunk Etch-a-Sketch under the tree?

There's lots more, including additional steampunk exhibits (and lots of good background material), the Museum's superb watch exhibit, and great demonstrations on how the old factory distributed power among its machines.  Elln Hagney and her team do a terrific job maintaining and growing the Museum, even as they continue recovering from a foot of floodwater earlier this year.

One last one. . .

Eat your heart out, Lucille.

The Museum even has steampunk music available, and our tribe picked up a CD on the way out the door.  It wasn't exactly my or my wife's cup of tea (as we discovered on the drive home), but it sounds as if it's being loaded onto teenage MP3s around the house even as I write. . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Looking for the Happy Eight-Footers

Earlier this month the Boston Globe printed a glossy magazine insert entitled "Top Places to Work 2010."  Inside, segmented into "large, midsize and small," were dozens of companies ranked by the engagement and contentment of their employees.

These sorts of articles come out on a regular basis--top places to live, top lawyers, best schools and pizza and podiatrists--and are clearly designed to increase circulation and drive business to advertisers. Consequently, we shouldn't take these lists seriously, though the winners undoubtedly do.

In this case, the Globe invited 1,160 employers to participate.  236 companies had enough critical mass to complete the process to the point where confidential surveys were offered to 133 thousand of their employees, 82 thousand of whom elected to participate.  Criteria included Direction (confidence in leadership), Execution, Managers (listening, praising, etc.), Career (opportunity), Conditions, and Pay/Benefits.

That seems like a pretty good list, though I cannot help but think about the Acura service manager who badgers me in person, by phone and by email for ratings of "10" on the survey Acura corporate inevitably sends after one of my visits to get the oil changed.  I'm not sure I even know what a "10" oil change is.

Of the winners of the Globe survey, one company offered unlimited vacation. Another free catered lunches, Fridays off in the summer, an iPod for every new employee, and a "kegerator"--a refrigerator that dispenses beer from two kegs on Friday afternoons.  One arranges for a tricycle to deliver local produce every Thursday in the warm weather months.  Another placed a masseuse and manicurist on site.  Who wouldn't be happy with those sorts of benefits?

Height and Benefits: A Quick History

Bear with me for a moment.

In 1800, the average native-born American white male worked six days per week, ten-hours per day on the farm and averaged 5'8" tall, a full two inches taller than his English counterpart.  Some of this height advantage was from living in a dispersed population where contagion wasn't as devastating to the population.  Most, however, was likely from eating better food, especially more protein.  Of course, by modern standards, nobody in 1800 had a balanced diet.  If our 60 hour-per-week, 5'8" ancestor lived in the North, he/she ate lots of beef and wheat, and in the South tons of corn and pork.  All of this came with plenty of milk, cream and butter.  As one historian summarized, this diet was "monotonous and constipating."

Now, cast ahead about 140 years to World War II.  The average native-born American white male enlisting in the Army was--guess?--5'8" tall.  No change in 140 years.

Though, in fact, a funny thing happened on the way to WWII.

It was called the Industrial Revolution.  It meant the growth of high stress, smoky, dirty, dangerous factories and urban areas.  And part of this so-called "urban stress" was nutritional.  People on meager wages tended to pay their rent before they bought good food.  Reliable logistics from farm to city were still being invented.  

What happened?  The average height of the native-born U.S. male population fell by nearly two inches from 1800 to a low point in the 1880s, and did not recover to 5'8" until the 1920s.

At the same time--as you might expect--male life expectancy declined from about 47 in 1800 to 41 in 1850.  Women had it even worse; as a group, they went from 48 to 37.1 years--and undernourished women carrying smaller babies was probably the most direct link to a shorter population. 

A Short History of American Capitalism adds:
The evidence so far indicates that females began to experience nutritional stress earlier than men during a downturn and were less likely to show improvements in an upswing. . .Social class and occupation also played a large part in the decline. . .In all studies without exception, the positive relationship between social status and physical stature has been consistently documented in various societies and at different times. . .
Out of nine industrialized capitalist countries, the United States experienced the longest decline in stature—sixty years.  The antebellum years constituted the bulk of this period. . .Growing inequality of wealth combined with rising food prices, and the falling birth weights of babies of poor women suggest that the quality of life may have decayed for the lower classes.
Clearly, when Americans made their move from farm to factory in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, they found working conditions tougher, sometimes much tougher, than on the farm.  And good, plentiful protein was harder to come by.  At the Chicopee Manufacturing Company, a Massachusetts textile mill that began operating in 1823, the average workday began at 5 a.m. and lasted until 7:30 p.m. with two half-hour breaks for breakfast and dinner.  13.5 hours of daily industrial misery.  Cotton fly filled the air, permanently damaging lungs.  Heat was oppressive.  Dangerous machinery sat everywhere.  When England limited children to 48-hour weeks, a factory manager complained that it became hard to get anything done.

Today, the average height for an American male is approaching 5' 10".  

Back to Today

Imagine, now, if you were employed by one of the Globe's "Top Places to Work."  Unlimited vacation.  Free catered protein.  A kegerator!  If poor work conditions and nutrition make you shorter, what would Top Work Conditions, Copious Protein and Beer Every Friday do for you?

You should be, what. . .about eight feet tall?!

Next time I'm in Boston, I'm finding the happy eight-footers walking the streets, following them to their offices, and dropping off a resume.  Those are clearly the companies we all should be working for.  Besides, this 5'8" stuff is for the birds.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm Off the Future. . .

. . .at least for a while, anyway.  All of this future shock stuff is wearing me down.  No robots mowing our lawn.  No jetpacks.  No "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" popping out of the wall.  Just doom and gloom.  Friend Jerry sent me an email after my last Armageddon post telling me to get the heck offline and visit the mountains.  I think he was politely telling me to stop worrying (and maybe get a life, too). 

Still--no jetpacks.  Weren't we supposed to have jetpacks by now?

Nonetheless, for reasons best explained at some future date, I've been plowing through most every credible thing I can get my hands on concerning forecasts of what the world will look like over the next 50 years or so.  This includes Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, George Friedman's The Next Hundred Years, and now, Laurence C. Smith's The World in 2050.

This latest by UCLA's Professor Smith is a terrific book.  He tells compelling stories, deals in data and facts, and tries hard (though with only modest success) to be anything but an alarmist.

Let's start with the bear.  In 2006, a hunter on Banks Island, 2,500 miles north of the United States in the Canadian Arctic, shot and killed a polar bear.  But it was a small, odd polar bear with patches of brown on its back, paws and nose, and rings around its eyes.  The shape of the face wasn't right for a polar bear, either.  Off went the DNA sample and back came the results: this was a half-breed, the product of a grizzly bear father and a polar bear mother.  A first.

Think about that for a moment.  Don't you just wish National Geographic had been able to film that little tryst in the wild?  It reminds me of something that happened to my roommate at 33 Dunster Street in Cambridge my first year in business school.  (We weren't able to get that on video, either.)

Another pizzly (grizzlar?) was found this year.  That means it was more than a one-night stand.  The grizzlies and the polars are breeding.

(Not to get too far afield, but if this can happen, don't you think it might just be possible--contrary to what most anthropologists tell us--that the Neanderthals didn't die out but simply bred-in with the dominant Homo erectus?  I mean, could that have been any more intimidating then a wayward grizzly stumbling upon a fetching lady polar bear?  And there's a really good joke here that I can't tell, cause this blog is rated PG, but it starts "a lady Neanderthal walks into a bar". . .and the punch line is: "They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!")


It might also explain certain aspects of the Tea Party, but I digress.

Anyway, grizzlies are not the only thing moving north.  A 2003 global inventory found that, on average, plants and animals are shifting their ranges about six kilometers toward the poles, and six meters higher in elevation, every decade.  Spring is coming to us, on average, four days earlier every decade.  As Smith writes, "If these numbers don't sound large to you, they should.  Imagine your lawn crawling north, away from your house, at a speed of five and one-half feet each day."

The result, the megatrend here, is important: Smith believes that the northern quarter of the planet--a "New North" lying roughly above 45N (think Minnesota and N. Dakota)--will be a place of "increased human activity, higher strategic value, and greater economic importance than today." The winners in this scenario (Smith calls them "Northern Rim countries" or "NORCs") will be the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  Most of those places are already pretty nice places to visit and live, so in a sense, the strong are going to get stronger.

All of which is the (very) long way to the point of Smith's superb book, which is a thought experiment.  There are four ground rules: No Silver Bullets (technology will improve in increments), No WW III, No Hidden Genies (a meteorite impact, a pandemic, etc.), and The Models Are Good Enough (focus on robust conclusions, not the outside limits).

There are also four Global Forces (with great associated discussions) that Smith puts in play: Demography (ridiculous growth and rapid aging), Natural Resources (ridiculous consumption growth), Globalization, and Climate Change (think halfbreed bears and moving lawns, but there's other compelling data here).  Spinning through all this is technology, of course.

Smith then describes what happens as each of these Forces evolve.  He talks about the rise of megacities and the fact that we are adding one complete Seattle to the planet every day.  He forecasts that we will have 9.2B people on earth in 2050, and that for every 100 born, "fifty-seven will open their eyes in Asia and twenty-two in Africa, mostly in cities."  He compares the elegant way Singapore has created healthy growth with a place like poor old Lagos, Nigeria.  He shows that water-rich Norway has 82,000 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person while Kenya has just 830.  He suggests that rising temperatures could leave the Southwest U.S. with a "drought worse than anything ever seen in modern times."  (In fact, he quotes experts that believe we are already eight years into such a drought.)  He reasons that "stationarity" (the notion that natural phenomenon fluctuate within a fixed envelope of uncertainty) is dead; from personal experience, I think we've had three "hundred year floods" in our town in the last decade.  He shows that we are already locked into global warming--it's just a question of degree.  He projects that by midcentury the Lyme-disease tick will be all over Canada and smallmouth bass will live in the Arctic Ocean.  (In the last 40 years Atlantic warm-water species have pushed northward 700 hundred miles.)  He writes that skinny polar bears are, for the first time, eating one another.

He predicts that 15% to 37% of the world's species will be committed to climate-change extinction by 2050, marking the sixth great extinction on earth.

So now I'm thinking, maybe the Singularity ain't such a bad thing after all.

Smith ends with a few words of hope, but I think he's just being a good guy, like telling someone who is about to ride a barrel down Niagara Falls that you'll buy them dinner when they reach bottom and dry off.

I do take some solace in the fact that all of Roosevelt's best economists tried to forecast life in the United States a generation ahead in the 1940s and completely missed the Baby Boom.  That television was supposed to put movies out of business.  That 19th-century minds were fearful that horse manure would smother 20th-century cities.  That the local weather people never get the snowfall amount on my driveway correct.

Still, based on Smith's narrative, my best advice is: Buy a home in Frostbite Falls, preferably in the path of a glacial run-off, and put all your money in pharmaceutical stocks.  And, when the Singularity comes knocking and asks if you'd like to live forever, take a day or two to think about it.

Anyway, I'm off the future for a while.  Maybe back to the mountains, Jerry.  Maybe get a life, or at least focus on the present great one I've got going.  Stay tuned.

(P.S.--"They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!"  Ha.  Sometimes I just crack myself up.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Weekend in Armageddon

I'm a little depressed this morning.

Every Saturday I read Peggy Noonan's column in the Wall Street Journal, and, generally speaking, find that the sky is falling somewhere that she's visited.  Mostly it's falling on Democrats, but it's falling for sure.  And usually I don't think twice about it because I grew up on Chicken Little and know it all ends well.  However, she kind of laid it on the line this weekend when she wrote that "We are in a crisis.  Our spending is ruinous, the demands of government are too great. . .We have only a short time to fix things, we have to move now."

So, we've got that Armageddon scenario going for us politically.

Then, my other favorite Jeremiah, Thomas Friedman, goes to bat every Sunday and often piles on a dose of technological and geopolitical Armageddon.  This Sunday it was the good folks in India lecturing us on the American dream.   Amazingly, when they talk they sound just like a Tom Friedman book, as when a "few Indian business leaders want to ask the president. . .Didn't America export to the world all the technologies and free market dogmas that created this increasingly flat, global economic playing field--and now you're turning them against us?"  Meanwhile, an Indian journalist wrote that our country has "worn-out infrastructure, [a] failing education system and lack of political consensus."  Another says we've lost our self-confidence.  Another wonders if we're going to cede our leadership to China.

All of which pales, frankly, in relation to the coming Singularity.  We tackled Ray Kurzweil and his followers just a while ago here.  Kurzweil says things like, "At the onset of the twenty-first century, humanity stands on the verge of the most transforming and the most thrilling period in its history. It will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity."

I'm here to say that I'm not sure I like any of this.  I can't decide if I'd rather have economic collapse, or be lectured to by non-Americans about the American dream, or allow my brain to turn to molten jello, or stand on the precipice of an era when we no longer even know what it means to be human. 

I have either seen the Four Horseman of the American Apocalypse this weekend, or I have seen the way modern mass media and publishing place absolutely everything on the brink to boost circulation.  

Either way, I'm going for another cup of coffee this morning. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Kinds of Inspiration

We held a Board retreat for the New England Historic Genealogical Society this glorious fall week at the historic, (and some say) haunted Colonial Inn in Concord, MA.  During the retreat we launched discussion around updating our strategic plan, a discipline (despite all the noise about strategic plans being dead) that has been extraordinarily beneficial to the Society over the last two decades.

This is mostly because, also in the last decade, good ol' traditional genealogy has gone digital, global and Hollywood, been IPO'd and social-networked, and today has some of its largest players giving away content for free.  It's like Alex Haley's Roots on a six pack of Red Bull.  The upshot is that non-profit players have either reinvented their business models, or they've simply given up and gone away.  Unfortunately, there are more examples of the latter than the former.

NEHGS is bigger, more stable, more digital and more Hollywood than it's ever been, and poised to continue its growth.  It also maintains a healthy paranoia because it's dancing well, but dancing with elephants.

But that's not why I'm writing.  After all the planning work was behind us, we had the opportunity to explore Concord, including Battle Road and the Old Manse, built for Concord's Patriot Minister, William Emerson.  It's the home where William's grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote his essay Nature and, later, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his early short story collection, Mosses from an Old Manse.   It's also the home of a funny story about inspiration.

First, a walk to the Old Manse via Battle Road, a metaphor for both history and strategic planning. . .

 Here's the Old North Bridge, essentially in the backyard of the Old Manse, and the Daniel Chester French memorial to the Minuteman. . .

And here's our National Park Ranger explaining the details of "the shot heard round the world". . .

Now, we turn to the Old Manse and our story of inspiration. . .

Here's the view from the front. . .

Now, here's the second story room from which Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature. . .Emerson had his desk pushed against the wall with the two windows. . .

So that he could drink in the view of nature as he wrote, an inspiration for his ideas. . .

A few years later, newlywed Nathaniel Hawthorne occupied this room, intending to draw the same inspiration for his writing as Emerson.  However, Hawthorne found looking out the window at life beyond the Manse a complete and utter distraction to his creativity.  So, he asked friend Henry David Thoreau to build him a (rather pitiful) writing desk on the other side of the room so that he could look away from the busy outdoors and draw his inspiration from. . .a plank in the wall?

It apparently worked, as Hawthorne hammered out Mosses from an Old Manse and went on to rather distinguished writing career.

Two extraordinary talents, two very different kinds of inspiration.