Unintended Consequences of Messing with Complex Systems

Ecosystems are complex. When you try to intervene and “fix” one discrete part of an interconnected ecosystem, you’ll likely incur unintended and unpredictable consequences elsewhere. An ecosystem can be a biological community; it can also refer to a large company or even an entire economy. I love Arnold Kling’s metaphor of a country’s economy being like a rainforest. It’s a metaphor that should humble any policymaker who thinks he can simply turn a knob here or a knob there to shape economic outcomes.

In a recent episode of Econtalk on free market environmentalism, there’s an interesting story about wolves in Yellowstone. When wolves were taken out of Yellowstone park, all sorts of weird things happened. A very cool 5 minute video summary (with some beautiful imagery) explains.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books. More books.

1. The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health by John Durant. A good introduction to all things paleo. I’m largely convinced that bad carbs are bad for you, and I’m trying to move to a more meat-heavy diet.

2. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection by Ethan Zuckerman. Ethan is a longtime deep thinker on issues of the internet, and in his first book, he provides his usual astute analysis of what it means to live in the digital age. I enjoyed his emphasis on globalization and how that’s shaping our identities.

He makes some sobering observations about Americans’ lack of interest in international news. More broadly, he emphasizes that for all the talk of globalization, many trends still end up being local. Americans mostly fly to places within 900 miles of their origin point; Europeans mostly fly within Europe; Japanese within Japan; and so on. “The infrastructure of air travel is global, but the flow is local.” That applies to many things, Zuckerman argues. I lost focus in the second half of the book — there’s not one clear thesis that drives the book — but the early chapters were worthwhile reading.

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3. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak. Hilarious. Just hilarious. One of the more entertaining collection of stories I’ve read — some as short as a few sentences long, some as long as several pages. You may not have heard of Novak, but you probably know his work from The Office and The Mindy Project (a very funny show). He’s a smart guy and the seriousness of some of the points he makes can catch you off guard amidst all the ha ha ha.

4. Terrorist by John Updike. A highly enjoyable novel that came out after 9/11, full of Updikean one-liners, with a plot that moves right along. While serious Updike watchers I don’t rank this among his very best novels, it’s hard to go wrong when you can enjoy paragraphs like:

“She has left undone the two top buttons of her paint-smeared man’s work shirt, so he sees the tops of her breasts bounce. This woman has a lot of yes in her.”

Or:

“Loving parents; a happy though not quite conventional marriage; a wonderful only child; intellectually interesting, physically untaxing work checking out books and looking up subjects on the Internet: the world has conspired to make her soft and overweight, insulated against the passion and danger that crackle wherever people truly rub against one other.”

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

61UbQXxc-iLAfter posting an excerpt of John Williams’ novel Stoner, I knew I had to read the entirety of the book itself. I did, and it totally delivered on my high expectations.

The protagonist, named Stoner, is an unglamorous professor at a small university in rural America. The story focuses on his life, his family, his petty academic disputes, his affair, his love of language, his career ambitions (or lack thereof). Nothing crazy happens. It is simply the story of a reasonably straightforward life as lived by one particular man. He accumulates quite a bit of wisdom along the way — wisdom that is shared on nearly every page with beautiful writing.

Is Stoner’s life a failure? Perhaps. He wrestles with those questions near the end of his life. They are some of the most moving scenes of the novel, and provoked quite a bit of reflection on my part. Sadness is the emotion I felt more than anything as I neared the finish of the book.

Here’s the NewYorker.com’s review titled “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” Below are my favorite excerpts from the book (all direct quotes).



He became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows.

Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

She had been taught to look forward to some betterment of that condition, but the betterment had never been very precisely specified. She had gone into her marriage to Horace Bostwick with that dissatisfaction so habitual within her that it was a part of her person; and as the years went on, the dissatisfaction and bitterness increased, so general and pervasive that no specific remedy might assuage them.

he spent his wedding night apart from his wife, his long body curled stiffly and sleeplessly on a small sheet. Her body was lax and wanton in its naked sprawl, and it shone like pale gold. William came nearer the bed. She was fast asleep, but in a trick of the light her slightly opened mouth seemed to shape the soundless words of passion and love. He stood looking at her for a long time. He felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness, for he knew that no longer could the sight of her bring upon him the agony of desire that he had once known, and knew that he would never again be moved as he had once been moved by her presence. The sadness lessened, and he covered her gently, turned out the light, and got in bed beside her.

They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother. That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

“Lust and learning,” Katherine once said. “That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” And it seemed to Stoner that that was exactly true, that that was one of the things he had learned.

For their life together that summer was not all love-making and talk. They learned to be together without speaking, and they got the habit of repose; Stoner brought books to Katherine’s apartment and left them, until finally they had to install an extra bookcase for them. In the days they spent together Stoner found himself returning to the studies he had all but abandoned; and Katherine continued to work on the book that was to be her dissertation. For hours at a time she would sit at the tiny desk against the wall, her head bent down in intense concentration over books and papers, her slender pale neck curving and flowing out of the dark blue robe she habitually wore; Stoner sprawled in the chair or lay on the bed in like concentration. Sometimes they would lift their eyes from their studies, smile at each other, and return to their reading; sometimes Stoner would look up from his book and let his gaze rest upon the graceful curve of Katherine’s back and upon the slender neck where a tendril of hair always fell. Then a slow, easy desire would come over him like a calm, and he would rise and stand behind her and let his arms rest lightly on her shoulders. She would straighten and let her head go back against his chest, and his hands would go forward into the loose robe and gently touch her breasts. Then they would make love, and lie quietly for a while, and return to their studies, as if their love and learning were one process.

He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes, and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt.

They told themselves and each other that they were closer than they ever had been; and to their surprise, they realized that it was true, that the words they spoke to comfort themselves were more than consolatory. They made a closeness possible and a commitment inevitable.

…the old tender sensuality of knowing each other well and with the new intense passion of loss.

But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.

He could not think of himself as old. Sometimes, in the morning when he shaved, he looked at his image in the glass and felt no identity with the face that stared back at him in surprise, the eyes clear in a grotesque mask; it was as if he wore, for an obscure reason, an outrageous disguise, as if he could, if he wished, strip away the bushy white eyebrows, the rumpled white hair, the flesh that sagged around the sharp bones, the deep lines that pretended age.

Sometimes Edith came into the room and sat on the bed beside him and they talked. They talked of trivial things—of people they knew casually, of a new building going up on the campus, of an old one torn down; but what they said did not seem to matter. A new tranquillity had come between them. It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been. Almost without regret he looked at her now; in the soft light of late afternoon her face seemed young and unlined. If I had been stronger, he thought; if I had known more; if I could have understood.

Gordon smiled and nodded and made a joke; but Stoner knew that in that instant Gordon Finch had withdrawn from him in such a way that he could never return. He felt a keen regret that he had spoken so of Dave Masters, the defiant boy they both had loved, whose ghost had held them, all these years, in a friendship whose depth they had never quite realized.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.” And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else? What did you expect? he asked.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

Econtalk on The Alliance and Future of Work

masthead_econlibHaving raved about Econtalk just the other month, and as a long time listener, it was a particular delight to be invited to go on the show and talk, with Reid and host Russ Roberts, about The Alliance and the history of LinkedIn. We also talked about whether you can explore the meaning of life while in the working world, and I predicted that the ethics of cognitive steroids will be hotly debated in the years to come. The show is an hour long.

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The Alliance is on the New York Times bestseller list for the fourth straight week. Thanks for the support. If you’ve read the book, please leave an Amazon review.

If you work at a company and are thinking about how to implement the ideas in your organization, drop me an email and join the LinkedIn group.

Book Review: Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

51A5HB0xY6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some months ago, I was driving, listening to the audiobook of Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, a collection of short stories. I got home and pulled into the parking space for my apartment. It was nighttime and quiet — all the neighbors were asleep. I turned off the engine but kept the key in the ignition so the battery would power the audio system in the car. I switched off the headlights. I sat in my car, engulfed in darkness, and took in the rich voice the narrator until the story came to an end. They is. They is. They is.

The story, “Bullet in the Brain,” which ends that way, is one of the best in the collection. It’s funny and tender, and in how the message is delivered, quite innovative I thought. Your life flashes before your eyes–Wolff transforms this hackneyed thought into something original.

Another favorite is “Down to Bone,” about a son tending to his mother on her deathbed. He darts out for a couple hours to tidy up the agreement with the funeral home. When he returns, the mother has so deteriorated that she thinks he is her father. “Daddy,” she says. “It’s all right,” the son says. “I’m here.” Realizing that “he no longer knew how to be a son, but he still knew how to be a father,” he tells her: “Everything’s fine, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be fine.” She whispers back, “Daddy…You’re here.”

Tobias Wolff is one of the living giants of American literature. Here’s my review of Old School. Here’s one of my favorite parts of This Boy’s Life. Here’s my rave of In Pharaoh’s Army. Here’s a quote of his about how everything comes to an end from a list of some other favorite lines of books. Here’s how Wolff has complimented George Saunders

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I like short story collections in audiobook format. If you’re not digging a story, you skip to the next. In a normal book, if you listen to it as audio, and you lose interest, it’s hard to swap out to a new one. The big downside to audiobooks is you can’t underline or take notes. For Our Story Begins, I bought a paperback edition so I could do that, after I had listened to it.

Charlie Rose on The Alliance

Reid was his usual brilliant, friendly self on Charlie Rose the other week. It’s a good 30 minute conversation about The Alliance, Silicon Valley, biology, and more.

Movie Review: Boyhood

Boyhood, the new movie out from Richard Linklater, is now on my all-time favorites list. It’s an extraordinary film for several reasons. First, as a practical matter, it was filmed over 12 years with the same actors, shooting a few days each year. To see a 6 year old boy grow up on camera to the point where he heads off to college — along with the maturation of his parents over those formative years — is something that’s never been done before. (7 Up is a documentary, which has a similar setup, but that’s a documentary.) I can only imagine how difficult it was to finance and orchestrate the logistics for such a production. The payoff was huge — the benefits of a long term vision and long term investment.

Second, it’s a story in which “nothing happens” — life just unfolds. No one gets killed, no one wins a prize, no one undergoes life-alterting highs or lows. Instead, the characters simply grow up, and confront the trials and tribulations that characterize normal middle class life. It’s not a blissful existence, to be sure. Adolescence is hard. Divorce is hard. Earning an income is hard. Empty nesting is hard. Linklater captures just the right moments to refresh our understanding of childhood and of growing up. The moments are subtle, but deeply moving.

Third, I had a great deal of cultural nostalgia watching the film. If you grew up in the 90’s, lots of little things resonate, from the songs that are played (Sheryl Crow, anyone?), to cultural events (like the release of the Harry Potter books), to the general post 9/11 pre-Great Recession milieu.

All in all, highly recommended.

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Other good movies I’ve watched recently:

  • American Beauty. A classic for so many reasons. As relevant a take on the doldrums of middle aged suburban American life as ever.
  • Like Crazy. The most realistic portrayal of romance I’ve seen in a long time. Sad, tough, moving.
  • Side Effects. A gripping thriller on an important topic: physiatrists and Big Pharma.
  • If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Good documentary on eco-terrorists. I wasn’t familiar with the history of the ELF so I found it both informative and ethically provocative.
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Beautiful scenes of India and an affecting portrait of how one can spend one’s golden years.

Talking with Jeff and Reid About The Alliance

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with Reid Hoffman and Jeff Weiner (CEO) at LinkedIn, in front of employees. We talked about The Alliance and took questions from the audience.

Here’s a full video of the chat. Here’s the 25 minute highlight reel (and embedded) below.

“The Must-Read Book of the Summer”

Two weeks in, here are some of the interesting reviews of The Alliance:

  • Mike Bloomberg: “The Alliance offers useful strategies for combating this kind of complacency and creating environments where innovation flourishes. As the authors explain, it all comes down to people.”
  • Arianna Huffington: “The Must-Read Book of the Summer That Could Change the Way We Work…What’s also great about The Alliance is how it gives concrete ways to implement these ideas.:
  • Josh Bersin (Deloitte): “The big value of the book is that Reid and team clearly make this point: 21st Century Management is different. We need to engage people from the very beginning of their work life, tap into their collective intelligence even after they leave the firm, and build alumni networks to create an extended network as our ‘alliance workers’ move on.”
  • Daniel Pink (Author of Drive, Whole New Mind, Free Agent Nation): “A smart, fresh, (and occasionally bracing) look at the evolving relationship between the bosses and the bossed. It’s a terrific and accessible read that provides business leaders with both insights and tools to handle a world in which talent is paramount.”
  • Brad Feld (VC at Foundry Group): “The book, and the concept, is tightly written and extremely readable. The book is an appropriate length – there’s no fat here – just substance.”

If you’re a manager or work with managers, would love to hear your feedback. And thanks for picking up a copy at Amazon, B&N, Hudson’s bookstore in the airport, or anywhere else!

Visual Summary of The Alliance

We published a 60 slide slideshow that expresses the essence of The Alliance and Tours of Duty. Check it out on Business Insider. The combination of visuals and text works really well, I think. It’s already trending heavily on BI (500,000+ views).

Thanks to Ian Alas for all his hard work on creating this deck.

Update: Here’s the deck on Slideshare and embedded below. More than one million views on Business Insider.