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Reflection and Action

Speaking with a great group of people the other day, we spent a lot of time on the necessity of deeper reflection for the purpose of expanding our internal locus of control.

Frankly, I’m encouraged that this Zen-like approach to life and work is proliferating (quietly, slowly, marginally). If nothing else, the humility of acknowledging the logs in our own eyes is refreshing.

At the same time, I’m deeply aware that all the major spiritual, contemplative, and socially active traditions teach that the ultimate purpose of contemplation is action. The goal of going into or working on ourselves is neither to withdraw from the world nor to perfect ourselves, but to discern how, as ever-imperfect people in an ever-imperfect world, we can nevertheless make things better.

Our culture could benefit from more reflection, and for many of us that’s the first necessary step.

But what the world really needs is more and better reflected action.

15 Percent Better

This is one of the best, most freeing concepts I’ve come across in a while: there’s always an opportunity to make things 15 percent better.

As it was introduced to me, the rules of the game are that anyone can ask for, offer, or accept a “15 percent” suggestion anytime — with no expectation that it’s either perfect nor implemented verbatim.

Great feedback is a generous and effective thing to offer, and it’s in everyone’s power to give.

***

HT Lisa and Rick

Santa’s List

I remember at least one Christmas as a kid when I went through a toy catalog circling all the toys I wanted and starring the ones I really wanted.

There were way too many of both, and I’m not sure I actually got even one. (And, for what it’s worth, I can’t remember any of them and probably didn’t miss much in the long run.)

The lesson, of course, is that listing and naming priorities is fun, but listing priorities in order is hard.

Once you listen for this in our public-policy “debate,” you’ll hear it everywhere: most people are trying to circle or star another toy in the catalog.

Of course we’d all like to get everything under the tree. But that almost never happens. The trick isn’t so much to raise awareness of the entire catalog as to get the most meaningful presents delivered.

“I’m Sorry”

Someone told me a poignant story the other day.

She lives in Ireland, and sometimes works with people in prison there. Not so long ago, she said, one of these people said to her: “You’re American? I’m sorry.”

I don’t have any more context, either, and of course I’m tempted to jump to a conclusion, too — yes, everything is awful, or how could someone say such a thing?

But stick with it: how does the sentiment strike you? And, without debating in detail, what’s the insight in it?

Precarity

Assume, for a moment, that 2021 does not instantly recover the old normal.

Assume, further, that the old normal never fully comes back. (It never does.)

How would you want society to look, feel, and function if things are more like they are now than like they were (or seemed to be) a year ago — for years into the future?

A lot of people have made a lot of big bets this year: new houses, new jobs, new kids, and more. Many others are waiting to see what happens.

But if you assume that many of the contours of the current situation are sticky — that some knowledge workers remain in (or return to) cities while others settle into their new semi-urban lifestyles, while “essential” workers of all stripes work ever harder and faster to reach the creator/consumer classes — then you’d really want to rethink education, health, and tax policy, wouldn’t you?

Back From the Brink?

I finally caught up on a recent essay in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos entitled “Pulling Our Politics Back From the Brink.” [HT to the FT’s Swamp Notes newsletter.]

It’s absolutely worth reading for at least three reasons:

First, it offers a strong recapitulation of the history of (reasoned) argument, paranoia, partisanship, violence, and entertainment in American political life — all of which are dramatically exceptional in comparison to any “peer” country, and most of which are unfamiliar to the average citizen.

Second, it’s frank about the risks. Not only are we awfully divided, but the country is awash in weaponry in a way that’s essentially unprecedented. The perceived stakes keep getting higher, the tolerance or appetite for violence keeps growing, and there’s now some level of orchestration from the very top.

Third, it’s practical and hopeful, citing and summarizing both a commission report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that includes 31 achievable proposals for a rejuvenated (and less violent) politics and some new sociology that argues that it’s possible — though not preordained — that people can rescue their political culture.

History rhymes, and we’ll soon see if we’re in something more like the antebellum or the Gilded Age. Here’s hoping we can indeed pull back from the brink.

Luxury

A four-day weekend is pretty luxurious anytime.

In the midst of a pandemic, the further unstructuring of time is in some ways even better.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy some quietude this weekend, relish it.

Riding the Transition Trade

Presidents have a lot less influence on the stock market than is commonly thought (or written), but certain macro actions have clear effects.

Clearing the path to a transition is one of those, and it’s the best thing the president has done for “his” market in months.

There are a lot of ways to take this news (beyond whatever it might be doing to the First Ego):

  • In terms of what it might say or imply about the relationship between political and economic power
  • In terms of the elusive “certainty” executives and investors are always searching for
  • In terms of the conclusions everyone’s jumped to about what life will look like with Janet Yellen as (presumptive) treasury secretary

My hope is that all this heralds a tacit bargain that begins to unwind what Rana Foroohar recently described in the FT as U.S. executives’ “deal with the devil.” In essence, the new bargain should say:

  • No, the pitchforks aren’t coming out. We’re not going to dismantle capitalism in toto, and there’s still going to be plenty to go around in terms of profits and wealth. That’s the kind of “certainty” on offer.
  • However, the price — and there’s always a price — is a long-run systemic adjustment in favor of innovation, competition, and workers. If the casino is going to stay open much longer, all the action can’t remain at one table.

It’s probably safe to say that we’ll never get a better (less costly, better justified, more acceptable) opportunity to make meaningful changes than the first half of 2021. Let’s get down to business.