Round Two on Science Based Culture

A few days ago, I started a thread here. The basic idea was to begin a dialogue about a project that I would like to see develop. The vision is to create a new priority for Estonia’s future. Not to change people, but to focus attention on something and make it even better.

So what is that thing? Estonians are good at science. For a lot of reasons, science and Estonian culture go together. My vision is to use that natural link more effectively. To get more people involved in developing our scientific prowess and using it for society. For innovation and policy making.

The first step is to start talking Do people like the idea? Well, I have been doing that talking now for a week or so. And universally, I get an enthusiastic thumbs up. I expected that. But I got something unexpected as well. I also found that folks in other places are going very cool stuff along the same lines. In other words, there is a lot to share here. And that is always good news!

More later!


Pass the Neutrinos Please

This is the final post in a thread I have developed here over the last week on “symbolic value”.  The reason I am focusing here is to see if we can identify key elements of stories that are “larger than ourselves”. Why? Because these stories unlock our capacity to create value in what we see around us. Without them, to be blunt, life sucks.

We have identified 2 elements (1) invitations to transform and (2) revealed beauty. Big, big stories deliver both. But that is not enough to make a story engaging. We need one more element.

To see that, consider the poor, little neutrino. We discovered these little buggers back in the 1950’s. And while we can’t see them, they are all over the place. We don’t notice them because most of the time they pass through matter. Indeed, trillions of these flow through your body every second. They fascinate physicists, but not the rest of us.

Until, that is until they affect us. That is, until they put things in motion that concern our day to day lives. This “putting things in motion” is the third element of stories that are bigger than ourselves. In The Hobbit, it was Gandalf’s visit to Bilbo Baggins. In Nicholas Nickleby, it was the death of Mrs. Nickleby. I could go on and on. But in every great story, an external force puts things in motion.

This is true in real life as well. And we need it. Clark reflected on this when he discussed the odd attraction that barbarism has for some who live in civilized settings. They are bored. Ironically, Clark noted, they cannot imagine the far greater boredom they would experience without civilization.

So there can be too much beauty, too much transformation unless these occur within an engaging framework that has a discrete beginning, middle and end. And if we overload the story that we live with too much, we overload our capacity to live it. So, on the micro level, it is wise counsel to engage in work and stop frequently. These stops create the opportunity to create more manageable stories.

Where does this leave us? Lafley & Martin argue that developing great strategy is a matter of making the right choices that enable you to “play to win”. This game starts with the question “who do you want to be?” Not on your own, but with respect to others? That means, what value do you want to create for them? Well, we see here that this “value” is symbolic. Creating it means understanding what we choose to do in light of what is greater than ourselves. And the above helps to see how we talk about that.


FOLLOW UP – Here is a nice example of an invitation to transform can fall short of engaging us, if it does not start a story. It is a thought experiment — thinking of how New York (the city) might be made self-sufficient with respect to food and power. This invites us to re-think the value of everything around us. But will we actually take steps to do any of this stuff? The thought experiment only gets exciting if we believe that we can and might.

Next Stop: Wonderland!

This is the third post in a thread about “symbolic value”. That is the value we give our experiences. From a business perspective, predicting shifts in symbolic value is a key to optimizing investment. In terms of living, building symbolic value is a key to finding the good life.

We left off with an old, old idea. It is that the inner self actually craves connection to something bigger and more awesome than the self. From this perspective, attempts to “dominate” or “impose one’s will” are acts of frustration (like Citizen Kane) rather than diabolical cleverness. By way of contrast, connecting to larger stories provides a feeling of calm and certainty.

It is not my intention here to define which stories should inspire you. I am not evangelical. But I am curious what any such story looks like. How we can recognize what is great about them. Why bother? Well, look at it this way. If we know what we are looking for, we know it when that value is transposed into what we see and do and most important, what we create. In other words, we participate more effectively in value creation. We lead rich lives.

So what are these elements?

The first one is what I would call “an invitation to transform”.  Like when Alice stepped into the looking glass and got an invitation to a totally different reality. Here is a fun image of what that might look like

The key here is great stories invite us to transform what we see and hear around us. We are freed from the mundane fixed quality of definition – that a chair is a chair is a chair, forever a chair. It is a chair because we make it so and it is no longer a chair if we stop believing in the idea of “chair”.

This is a distinctly human craving. And it is a craving only grows stronger as we appreciate how little of the universe we are capable directly experiencing through our senses. The idea is not new. Plato laid out this out in his allegorical cave story long ago. And its appeal is as strong as ever as we learn that the universe is (borrowing a phrase) not only stranger than we thought, but more strange than we can imagine.

Any examples from our lives? I don’t want to persuade you to take over any given story. But it is fun to see how some talk about invitations to transform. Here is an example. Fred Wilson spells out the invitation to transform that the internet offers in a recent post. He quotes from a Nick Denton interview in Playboy Magazine.  And here is Nick’s key thought.

DENTON: The internet is it for this century, maybe the next one too. (emphasis added)

And why?

DENTON:  … When you have an innovation as profound as the networking of sentient beings.… Those delusional futurists who talked about Gaia, the planetwide intelligence? They were spot-on. It’s totally happening, and everything else comes out of that.

We cannot see the effects of the internet on a day to day basis. But Nick argues that these effects are real and profound. They are so big that it may take a century or two to figure out how to use this new capacity. So as you go about your business today, look around you. What invitations do you see to transform?

And is that the only element? I think there are more. The second one is what I would call the “flush of beauty”. That is next!


Going Inside

This is the second post in a thread about something I call “symbolic value”. In my first post, I argued that people act upon the symbolic value of what they perceive around them. I call it symbolic because it is value that we create because of whom we want to be. Value in this sense is inward to outward, not outward to inward.

We are supposed to understand this. It is why the ending to the 1941 Orsen Wells film Citizen Kane is so creepy. The fabulously wealthy Kane went on a gargantuan buying frenzy to get the “best” of everything, and died alone and miserable.

The rather heavy handed moral of the story (and for all of his gifts, Wells tended to be a bit heavy handed — except in his 1949 film “The Third Man”)  is that Kane willfully refused to listen to his inner self. This deep character flaw destroyed the symbolic value of everything he touched. A modern Midas. Yikes! We don’t want to go that route!

So we might agree that it is dangerous to ignore the inner self, living in its inner world. But how does the inner self develop such powerful emotional context? If you have read your psychology, ego is the word we use to describe this. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, the inner self demands to be the hero of our life story.  The meek and humble as well as the grand and mighty are all heroes inside.

This offers valuable marketing and sales insight. See and respect what is heroic to the inner customer choosing which laundry detergent to purchase and you will have a chance to sell your product. This is easy to say and hard to do well, as Lafley & Martin make abundantly clear in their business strategy book, “Playing to Win“. I never imagined that selling laundry detergent was so complex.

This is important stuff if we want to become strategists. It is also important if we just want to lead a good life. If we must be the hero of our stories, how do we develop that role? How do we direct our inner heroism? Or at least, how can we become more mindful of our the health of our inner heroic self? These are age old questions.

Off the top of my head, the best film that brings this out is Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, made back in 1983. The “locals” in the film are easily heroic, while the modern businessmen visiting their village as a potential investment site are seemingly lost in a fog of their ambition. The ending scene captures the sadness of one of these businessmen when he must return to the big anonymous city – his “home”, an apartment in the sky where he lives alone

In the old days, we tended to the inner self by reaffirming our loyalty to certain heroic stories around us. These were the stories of the king, the church, and later of revolution, art, or whatever. According to Clark, this loyalty to stories greater than the self produced the genius works of western civilization. Simon Schama takes up the same idea in his series “the power of art”. Here he tries to awaken loyalty to artistic effect via the work of Mark Rothko.

But Clark was not satisfied with the modern storyline. He called it “heroic materialism” and said that this is not enough to inspire mankind to new greater civilizing adventure. I sympathize with this view. It is a glorification of things but not the symbolic value of things. It is the context for heroism in Rothko’s portraits of … nothing.

So you might ask, what stories these days bind the inner self? What stories are worthy of the loyalty of our inner selves? Well, before we say anything about this, consider the problem. Our orientation takes us in exactly the opposite direction.

We are encouraged to achieve “mastery” as a goal in itself, and might gleefully use a “cheat sheet” to get there. Indeed, Dan Pink argues that achieving mastery of anything is highly motivating. And we are encouraged to achieve “mindfulness” by controlling our unruly impulses. There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves. But notice how they are geared to raise up the self, not to help us identify what is greater than the self. They ignore the question, is the self in the abstract the ultimate? Is the ultimate inner adventure to dominate or to connect? Or put more directly, why is the self alone so damned fascinating? Do we dare entertain the thought that perhaps it is not. There is a certain poignancy to the suicide note left by the actor, George Sanders.  In relevant part it says

Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.

So, here we are. We have incredibly powerful inner worlds. Each of us has these at our disposal. And we ignore them at our peril. Our inner selves drive our sense of symbolic value. But despite our modern sophistication, we do seem to lack an organizing storyline or storyline type that our inner selves would embrace and makes connection more meaningful.

Can we do better? Well, that is next in this thread.


Assessing Again?

Oh oh! I sense a thread coming on! It is about how to connect with people more efficiently. But not in a way that you might think! Read on!

More commonly, a psychologist might check if you are “obsessing again”, not “assessing again”. We obsess when we get nervous. But when do we assess?

If you read business strategy books, you would think that we should do it all the time. Business thinking is all about what someone else will buy tomorrow. And the only way to make an educated guess about that is via analytics. We should assess what we might offer, what people need and will pay for, how well we can produce and deliver it compared to others, and whether it is worth the bother. And hopefully, this will generate options to make us fabulously rich … errr … or at least richer than people we don’t like.

So do we actually do this? Most of us have at least a vague sense of what we are good at. But we tend to fall down when it gets to the second step. Just what do people need? What are they willing to pay for? Yikes! I have a hard enough time answering these questions for myself! And to mere mortals like us, it seems to require genius in order to match answers from step two in order to invest in designing stuff to produce. Jobs did it, but they say he produced a “reality distortion field” around him. Oh, dear. Perhaps he was an alien. So, sad to say, for the rest of us, it is easy to fall into a rut.

But why is that second step so hard? Here is the simple answer. Because our “needs” do not arise from the material stuff around us. We don’t really need a new car or even a new bottle of shampoo. Those purchasing preferences are relative to our situation at a given moment. We may want them more or less depending on other factors, but we don’t need them.

So if the things themselves don’t drive people, what does? At the extremes, this is not all that mysterious. Rich folks want symbols that confirm their status, and they are willing to pay ridiculous sums for them. Like €50,000,000 for an apartment or €10,000 for a handbag. To be denied proper status is far worse than eating hot dogs for breakfast (which indeed, might be ok if everyone else only got bread and water). Poor folks want symbols that confirm their hopes and they are willing to pay more than they should for them. So even generic packaging for mundane household goods make outrageous claims of style and performance. And the rest of us? I would argue that we all purchase symbols more than the thing itself.

This is why step two is challenging. Just how does one assess the symbolic value of an item for sale? It is not something that we learn in school. Indeed, it is somewhat of a taboo to assert that we don’t buy stuff for rational purposes. But if you doubt this, you might ask yourself why so much advertising is based on emotion.

Instead, we can see from the above examples that the symbolic value of purchases depends on the inner world that the buyer is trying to construct for himself or herself. So how do we construct these inner worlds? If we had that secret, we could anticipate what people might be willing to buy and how much they would be willing to pay.

And that is next in this thread! Stay tuned!