Monthly Archives: November 2007

Vassar’s Silly Tips for How to Improve Self-Esteem

Ah, if only I were a Vassar College student, I could have access to their wonderful mental health clinic, where I would discover self-esteem improving tips such as:

– Identify the people you feel intimidated by. Learn to be assertive with them.

– When you fail at something, say: "That’s okay. I’ll do better next time."

– When you’re feeling blue, say: "It’s okay. I will be alright."

– If your day was rough, relax in the evening or as soon as you can.

– When you try something new and don’t catch on right away, give yourself credit for trying.

How sweet! How original! How helpful!

If you want real tips for how to improve self-esteem, check out these useful thoughts.

Best, Best, Best: Books of ’07

I love books, and I love the "best of" lists that come out at the end of each year. Amazon.com’s worthwhile blog Omnivoracious: Hungry for the Next Great Book has a useful round-up of the recent NYT "Top 10 Books of 2007" list. I’ve heard of all of them. I’ve read none.

I’ll be posting my ’07 book roundup in a few weeks.

###

Apologies for the light posting, a stomach bug has taken hold. Fear not, new, original content is coming soon to a blog near you.

Children of Overbearing, High Stress Parents Hit Singles and Doubles

Most of my Asian friends in school had parents who put an extraordinary amount of stress on them to achieve academically. As one of my Chinese-American friends put it, “My mom is your typical psycho Asian parent — tons of pressure, enormous expectations for straight A’s.”

The other day I was wondering how these Asian children — now in their teens — might turn out as adults. And how any child who has ultra strict parents will fare.

My sense is that children who must perform under the whip in their childhood go on to hit a lot of singles and doubles in life, to use baseball terminology, but rarely hit a home run. In other words, intense childhood pressure for achievement produces solid performers in life, but rarely greatness.

What overbearing parenting ensures is that your kid probably won’t devolve into drug use or be a complete fuck-up. They’ll follow rules, respond to basic rewards and punishments, go through the formal schooling system. Their 11pm curfew and “no dating” restriction might make them socially miserable in high school, but they’ll probably study more, go to a good college, and enter the real world with discipline and an ability to deliver under pressure, both mighty important skills. A lot of these kids probably go on to be really good lawyers, doctors, or teachers.

Then there are the parents who offer a longer leash. This is a minority of parents. These parents emphasize independence: they’re fine letting Johnny run around outside without supervision, or sit in his room by himself. They rarely exact severe punishments (grounded for three weeks!) or bubbly rewards ($500 if you get straight A’s!). Come adolescence, they tell their kids it’s time they made their own choices.

The kids I know who are products of the long leash usually fall into two camps: they’re the drug addicts (or whatever) or they’re the brilliant, creative, and relaxed world-changers.

To steal from our earlier discussion of hedgehogs vs. foxes in business, you might say that the “overbearing parenting style” has a high expected value but low variance, whereas the “hands-off independent style” has extreme outcomes on either end of the distribution curve.

So, I can’t say I blame the stereotypical Asian parenting style, or any parent who chooses to be a tyrant until their kid is age 21. On average, your kid will do better. But he probably won’t be a legendary figure in history. Do you agree?

(hat tip to Chris Yeh for helping brainstorm this idea)

Speakers I’ve Heard This Semester

"Any sentient being who likes to play with ideas knows all about the Athenaeum at Claremont." – Carl Schramm

At Claremont, four nights a week, every week of the year, notable speakers come to dinner and give a speech in an intimate setting (the Athenaeum). Unlike at large universities, where big names draw thousands of people, here any student gets one-on-one time if he desires it.

Here are some of the folks who’ve visited Claremont this semester, with my notes / impressions.

Bono, lead singer, U2; co-founder, advocacy organization DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa)

He was a passionate if somewhat unpolished speaker. But he spoke from the heart. I was impressed with his sheer energy and how he conveyed his feelings on poverty without sounding overly nanny-ish. Of course, from a policy perspective — how he wants to solve the Africa problem — he’s bankrupt. From a motivational perspective, though, impressive.

William Kristol, founder & editor, The Weekly Standard

I had dinner with him as well so got a good sense for how he thinks about things. My notes: a) Kristol is super smart with an extraordinary grasp of political history; his speech is peppered with references to random elections and politically significant events from the past, b) he’s convinced we’re in a "new era" and the current political circumstances are "unprecedented", c) Iraq, a war for which he was one of the main intellectual cheerleaders, has the potential to get back on track and be worthwhile (a minority view), d) Kristol is expected to tow the conservative line on everything, and for the most part he does. I like unpredictable thinkers and pundits — hard to find in political journalism.

Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer, The New Yorker; author of book on global warming

Not very impressive. Typical ultra pessimism on global warming — nothing new here. I’m sure she’s a good reporter. But as a speaker, not so much.

David Talbot, founder, former editor-in-chief, Salon.com; author, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

Boomers miss JFK. Period.

Anderson Cooper, journalist, CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper 360

The man who asked "tough questions" during Katrina! Anderson came across as affable, thoughtful, and yes, gay. (Apparently he has a thing for black men.) I have nothing against Anderson or CNN, but I’ve never thought as highly of TV journalists as print ones because on TV your looks and charisma matter too much. This means the sorting of talent is not exclusively driven by journalistic talent. Anyway, his overarching point: "Follow your bliss." On a young person’s dream of going into politics: "I think you should become a real person before you become a fake one."

Ronald Fogleman, four-star general (retired), Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

He’s obviously reached the pinnacle of success in the military world, but he didn’t address — as I hoped he might — when military strategies cross over to the civilian world and when they don’t.

Peter Wehner, speechwriter for George W. Bush; head of Whitehouse think tank "Office of Strategic Initiatives"

Extremely impressive presence: thoughtful, humble, open to ideas different from his own, eloquent. Wehner was in the inner circle at the White House up until August ’07. With a front row seat in some of the important decisions made by the federal government, Wehner had loads of insight. I asked him about Matt Scully’s article and he said there are inaccuracies; unlike Scully, he thinks Michael Gerson is gracious and modest. He talked about the importance of hearing a range of perspectives, so I asked him about the perception that the White House is insulated and that Bush is surrounded by yes-men. He challenged that perception, saying, for example, they often invited outside policy experts, public intellectuals, and pundits to the White House, even if these outsiders disagreed with official policy.

Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor, The New Republic, contributing editor, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly

He writes and thinks about every topic under the sun. He spoke about global warming. I chatted with him before dinner, during dinner, and then listened to his speech. Very impressed. On global warming he says there is a scientific consensus, but it’s narrower than some think. It is: 1) the world temp has increased by one degree, 2) humans have had something to do with it, 3) the earth will continue to get warmer. Until someone can make a profit off environmental problems, there won’t be action. The global energy sector is huge: 5% of energy is bigger than all of IT or telecom. We need to impose stricter regulations on fuel efficiency and other things. Then internalize the environmental problems. Then attach a price to it. Then there will be innovation.

Carl Schramm, president, CEO, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; co-author, Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism

The Kauffman foundation is the largest organization in the US (and the world?) devoted to studying the economic effects of entrepreneurship. They do lots of good work on studying and promoting the importance of small business, free markets, etc. I was shocked to learn that their endowment is some $2 billion, making it 30th largest foundation in the U.S. Yet it seems they operate mainly as a think tank (and less a direct grant giving org). How many think tanks have such a large endowment?!

Jabri Asim
– former deputy editor of Washington Post book review, author of a book on the word "nigger"

He offered an interesting history of the n-word (nastier than many think) and concluded that while we shouldn’t ban the word altogether, it should be used sparingly and never in the casual way people in the street use it.

Ronald Heifetz – co-founder, Center for Public Leadership, director, Leadership Education Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Leadership is more an activity than a character trait. This is all I remember. Not impressed, even though Heifetz is a big name in the field.

Neil Budde, vice president, editor in chief, Yahoo! News; founding editor and publisher, The Wall Street Journal Online

He believes in the maxim that we tend to overestimate short term impact of new technology and underestimate the long term impact. Same could be said for the effect of the internet and blogs on the news industry. No one really knows what’s going to happen in terms of newspapers, news consumption, the web, etc. He’s bullish on the Yahoo alliance with local newspapers, though he didn’t provide any more detail on what has so far been a rather vague concept.

Richard Peterson, managing partner, Market Psychology Consulting; author, Inside the Investor’s Brain: The Power of Mind Over Money

He’s at the leading edge of neuro-economics. An interesting field worthy of study for any investor.

Orhan Pamuk, Nobel laureate in literature (2006)

Awesome thoughts on writing, books, Turkey, and life. He read a bit from his Nobel Laureate speech:

I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Sam Zell on “Business Ethics”

Connie Buck has a fun profile of Chicago mogul Sam Zell in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Zell is a worthwhile study for anyone in business, particularly anyone who’s interested in the newspaper / media industry. A couple months ago Zell bought the Tribune Company (owner of the L.A. Times). The best quote of the article comes from Zell during the Q&A session after his speech to a business ethics class at the University of Hawaii:

…Someone in the audience asked Zell whether, in the current environment, “where some seem to be doing almost anything to be profitable, does not the concept of ‘business ethics’ seem to be an oxymoron? And do you accept that there is a concept of greed? And how would you define it?”

“Jesus Christ!” Zell replied. “I mean, would you like a pulpit as well? I mean, when does the indictment come out? I mean, are people in the business community different from you, or you, or you?” He pointed angrily at the questioner and others nearby. “C’mon! We’re talking about weaknesses and we’re talking about strengths! Are human ethics an oxymoron? I don’t think so. Neither do I think business ethics are an oxymoron. It’s real fun to take a shot at the business community. After all, those motherfuckers are getting all the money, right? But let me tell you something: I’ll put my work schedule against anybody you know, including you, and I work my ass off every day! The idea that somehow or other the business community is full of all these greedy characters—you should see the greed in teachers’ unions! You should see the greed in any political organization! Business is made up of a whole group of individuals, and within that group there are straight people, there are not-straight people, and then there’s a whole bunch of us in the middle, who some days are straight and some days we’re not.”

Amen, Mr. Zell, amen.

Conflicted Identity as Commonality in America

Andrew Sullivan’s cover piece "The Case for Barack Obama" in the latest Atlantic contained these interesting sentences:

To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything—this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. Obama expresses such a conflicted but resilient identity before he even utters a word. And this complexity, with its internal tensions, contradictions, and moods, may increasingly be the main thing all Americans have in common.

Could be. A "mongrel" sense of self as the predominant form of identity is a case G. Pascal Zachary makes forcefully in The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge. I finished it yesterday and recommend the book to anyone interested in globalization, cosmopolitanism, and hybrid identities.

Giant Panda Fact of the Day


  Originally uploaded by nilsey

According to 201 Questions About Giant Pandas…pandas spend 98% of their time either sleeping or eating, leaving 2% for "wondering and enjoying."

That’s Jim Fallows on pandas in the December Atlantic. A good life, huh?

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Know Where the Dumpsters With Free Food Are

Learn to live cheaply. Learn to live like an animal. One thing we had going for us is we all spent a lot of time in grad school, and long periods of grad school teach you how to live well on a low budget. That’s good training for becoming entrepreneurs. It’s easier to have a high-risk tolerance when you know where the dumpsters with free food are.

That’s David Holthouse’s advice to entrepreneurs in this Fortune interview. Holthouse recently won the MacArthur genius grant.

One weird thing I’ve noticed in college is how some people are obsessed with "staying classy". Is not this college? Aren’t you supposed to wear torn sweatpants and drink cheap beer? Aren’t you supposed to figure out what frugality means?

If you have a silver spoon jammed up your ass, and thus skip the frugal, cheap living part of being 18, 19, 20 years-old, you probably won’t internalize the mindset that Holthouse talks about above, and you probably won’t be a very good entrepreneur as an adult.

(hat tip to Matt Huebert)

How Driver’s Ed in China is Telling of Larger Philosophy

Though I think chatter about when China is going to knock off America as the world’s superpower is kind of silly — we’re moving toward a multi-polar world and when America recedes, as it undoubtedly will, the power will be spread around — it’s nonetheless interesting to compare how the two countries are trying to compete.

One big thing America does better than China, it seems to me, is celebrate creativity and experimentation in its school system. The Chinese school system –and yes, I will gladly generalize about a billion people! — seems incredibly focused on churning students through the standardized test system. Chinese students are under enormous pressure to get really, really good at following rules. The American system, while dancing alarmingly closer to this kind of attitude, still in theory promotes creativity. Students are taught it’s OK to invent and rebel.

How China teaches driving — more Chinese people are taking to the roads — is a good example of this difference in philosophy. Peter Hessler, in the Nov. 26th New Yorker, reports on Driver’s Ed China-style. It’s not available online but summarized by today’s WSJ:

The steps needed to get a license sound rigorous and standardized but emphasize arcane theory over practice. The mandated 58 hours of training involve drilling students to perfect hard tasks such as driving on planks barely wider than the car’s wheels. Students have little training on the roads themselves.

Mr. Hessler says the written test’s emphasis on bizarre driving conundrums shows China fitting its road rules to its neophyte drivers and traffic, rather than the other way around. The questions in the study book — which cover topics such as what to do if a car breaks down on a train track — "didn’t teach people how to drive, it taught you how people drove."

Drilling students to perfect hard tasks, arcane theory over practice. Sounds like many classrooms. I think Hessler’s line that the system "didn’t teach people how to drive, it taught you how people drove" could be changed for the education system: "it didn’t teach people how to think for themselves, it taught you how other people have thought."

The point here is the only way America will compete against China’s vastly larger numbers is to teach its students how to think creativity and be leaders and rule-creators, not rule-followers. China’s going to provide hundreds of thousands of excellent middle managers. The world still needs founders and CEOs.

***
Peter Hessler is as good of a "go-to" person on China as anyone. His book River Town is masterful, and Oracle Bones an impressive follow-up. James Fallows is also an excellent perspective on the country given his many years living in and thinking about Asia.

Which Traits Increase Value Nonstop?

In today’s Wall Street Journal an article titled Tough CEOs Often Most Successful, a Study Finds ends with this provocative paragraph:

Messrs. Street and Smart say it may be that some of the "soft" traits are best in moderation, while the value of "hard" traits increases nonstop. A certain amount of flexibility makes for a better CEO, for example, but too much can shade into indecisiveness. By contrast, any extra persistence might be a boon.

True. We usually talk about the traits best in moderation as most fall in this category. Persistence, though, is certainly an example that increases value nonstop. What are others? It’s hard to think of traits which do not have a backstop in terms of helping your cause as a CEO.

Maybe ethics / morals, though I would argue this still has a dimension of moderation, since business requires making hard calls and there isn’t time to run each and every decision past ethical philosophers.