Wandering Into Wisdom

This blog chronicles the knowledge, insight and wisdom I encounter every day as a leadership consultant, executive coach, educator, father, friend and citizen. This site is dedicated to my father, Louis (Jack) Laughlin, who passed on to me an appreciation for wisdom. A special thanks to my friend Isaac Cheifetz, a businessman and journalist, who helped me understand the value of blogs and encouraged me to write one.

Scientific Proof*

People tell me all the time that most scientists don’t believe in God. They always look a little puzzled when I ask them if they know any scientists. When I was an undergraduate one of my biochemistry professors turned to us in the middle of a lecture and said, “Any of you that think this all happened by chance should reconsider.” My favorite quotation website has thirteen quotes by Albert Einstein about God. As far as I know, Darwin never said that his work on the “Origin of Species” caused him to question the existence of God. I wonder what scientists these people are talking about.

Fast Enough*

It seems that the faster things become the less patience we have. What happens to that moment of bliss when we first experience something faster? Copy machines, computers and speed limits all got faster, but our impatience always seems to stay one step ahead.

Detection vs Prevention*

I know someone who learned the hard way the difference between fraud detection and fraud prevention. Their bookkeeper was allowed to fill out checks but not sign them. When they caught her forging checks she tearfully told them that she knew she would eventually get caught but the money was gone so she couldn't pay them back. After the owners fired her they decided to lock up the checkbook and fill out checks themselves. They haven't lost a dime since.

Technical Adoption*

Consumer behavior theory offers a framework to develop a personal strategy for technological change. Early adopters embrace new technology in its infancy. They brave high prices and unreliable designs for the privilege of being the first. Majority adopters accept a new technology after it becomes reliable and economical. As long as it's useful and reasonably priced, they don't mind adapting to a new technology. Late adopters accept a technology only after the previous technology is no longer available. They minimize the cost of making the transition. Once you know your comfort zone, you can determine when a new technology is ready for you.

A Desirable Destiny*

There's an old adage that, “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” But for what opportunity should we prepare? Our desires push us toward one future while our destiny pulls us to another. This paradox leads many to worry that their lives appear more like a list of random events than a well executed plan. In the end, our experiences become significant, as does our fulfillment, when we recognize our fortunes rather than force our future.

Living on Purpose*

Philosophers throughout history have struggled with the role of purpose in our lives. Although there are a mountain of self-help books about living a life of purpose, many of them sound more like a life of self-importance. In the following quote, Joseph Campbell questions the need for deep meaning in every aspect of our lives. “I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

Priorities*

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” Card titled "Priorities" by Successories

Addicted to Drama*

I watched the news last night and realized the level to which they dramatize everything. Drama sells. Politicians know about the power of drama and that war is the most dramatic of all human endeavors. If they want our support, they make a case for war. A chemical dependency counselor once told me that discomfort with serenity is one of the biggest challenges for addicts in recovery. It seems that they are just as obsessed with the drama surrounding their addiction as they are with the substance itself. In a way, serenity is anti-drama. Given the human cost of all this drama, a little more serenity might be good for all of us.

Just Being Honest*

We’ve all heard an inappropriate comment followed by, “I was just being honest.” We could suggest these people also make sure their statements are relevant, necessary, factual, sensitive, mature…you get the idea. Dorothy Nevill had it right when she said, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

Burned Out*

Steven Berglas, author of “Reclaiming the Fire,” makes a useful distinction between burnout and exhaustion. Although the symptoms appear similar, boredom and lack of meaningful work drive burnout. A vacation may cure exhaustion but it might actually exacerbate burnout. Berglas prescribes stimulation, not relaxation.

Our Frog Died*

There’s an old proverb that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and heat the water slowly it will boil to death. I wonder if we’re boiling to death when it comes to news about greedy financiers. Bernard Madoff is accused of running a ponzi scheme through his financial company that could be the largest financial fraud in history. Investigators estimate losses of up to fifty billion dollars. A year ago we would have thought, “That’s a lot of money.” Today, we might be too numb.

Letter to The President Elect*

As an undergrad in the 1970’s, I worked in a lab filled with graduate students doing renewable fuels research. Then the oil markets improved, and the research stopped. The recent decline in oil prices could cause us to repeat that scenario but the situation has changed. The world oil supply is half gone, global demand is fifty percent higher and our ecology won’t survive the use of the remaining reserves. I wish I had some brilliant ideas or easy answers. I don’t. I hope the President Elect retains his commitment to a future-oriented energy policy. I will help others understand the need to support these efforts. Sent to Obama's team via change.gov.

It's Marginal*

I paid significantly less for gas yesterday than I did a few months ago. About 60% less. Let’s take a look at what’s driving such a dramatic change. Supply and Demand – The shrinking world economy has caused the demand for oil to decrease while production capacity remains unchanged. Price Elasticity – Oil prices are relatively inelastic in the short term so we don’t buy more oil simply because it’s cheaper, which keeps demand low. Marginality – Although the consumption of oil has only declined a couple percentage points the price has decreased about 60%. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. Think of a freeway that becomes a parking lot at 99% capacity but allows traffic to flow sixty miles an hour at 95% capacity. So what about the future? Experts all agree that we have used about half of the world’s oil reserves so prices will increase dramatically in the long term. Better buy that hybrid after all. See update for this post titled Will It Never End.

Improved Parenting*

There is a moment in time when we realize that, despite our best efforts, we have become our parents. As parents there is a corresponding instant when we realize that our children have become just like us. In the end, the best way to improve our parenting might be to improve ourselves, since our children are liable to become us.

Evaluation or Affirmation*

When I ask my wife to look at these blog posts I want an objective evaluation so I can make improvements. When my son asks how I like his latest drawing I offer compliments and encouragement because he’s looking for affirmation. I have learned to pause when people ask my perspective so I can determine if they want my evaluation or my affirmation. I have also learned to be clear about which I want before I ask people's opinion. Potential contestants for American Idol should consider this carefully and, if they want affirmation, walk away.

External Sources*

A friend of mine who spent most of his life as a minister says that communities grow from the outside in rather than the inside out. Those that attract and nurture new members not only grow their numbers, but grow their understanding of society, their community and ultimately, themselves. Communities that focus inwardly stunt their growth, in all those same ways.

Fix or Forget*

One of the key discussions I have with executives is whether to fix or forget things. Whether it’s an underperforming employee or an ineffective program there is rarely a simple answer, but any analysis contains the same three basic questions.

Worth - What would it be worth if you could fix it?
Cost - What will it cost to make it work?
Likelihood - What is the likelihood it will improve?

Then make a decision and move on.

Who's In Charge*

One of the key principles in psychology is that intellect rules over emotion in mentally healthy people. The three conditions when emotion rules over intellect are mental health disorders, substance abuse and adolescence. This makes adolescence a normal period of psychosis, which any parent will confirm. The other two conditions account for the vast majority of the material for the TV show Cops.

Island Hopping*

In World War II the Allies used a strategy in the pacific theater called island hopping. They skipped over enemy occupied islands that didn’t have strategic importance for the invasion of Japan. The Japanese abandoned many islands without a fight after the Americans passed them by. I recently spoke to someone who used a similar strategy to deal with an entrenched coworker. Her colleague consistently missed the deadline for a critical report but insisted on doing it anyway. Rather than continue the battle to get the report on time she decided to do it herself and let her coworker merrily duplicate the effort. Sometimes it’s better just to go around.

You Can't Hold It Forever*

How many times have you tried to stop an unwanted behavior only to have it return with a vengeance? Like holding your breath, at some point you involuntarily gasp. One option is to find a new pattern of behavior that eliminates the old one. I have a friend who wanted to lose weight but simply couldn’t stop eating late at night. He tried popcorn, carrots and simply not eating, all to no avail. He finally resolved his unwanted late night snacking by going to bed early.

Powerful Quotes*

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." Abraham Lincoln

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." John Acton

"The Autocrat of Russia possesses more power than any other man on the earth; but he cannot stop a sneeze." Mark Twain

2500 Years*

The riots in Athens continue as members of the anarchist movement react to the shooting of a teenager by police. They would like to see the current government overthrown because of its corruption and inability to resolve economic issues. Athens is the birthplace of democracy, which means they’ve been at it for about 2500 years. One wonders how long it takes to get it right. In the end, maybe it’s not the form of government but the quality of leadership that matters.

United Nations Inc*

I was having lunch with a friend of mine in the Cargill cafeteria and noticed two gentlemen at the table next to us speaking French. It reminded me of my international assignments when I worked with people from all over the world. The media and politicians malign corporate culture as cold and inhumane but one has to wonder what the United Nations could learn from multinational corporations. We worked with people from all over the world in an environment of respect, acceptance and cooperation.

Into The Future*

A better understanding of, and comfort with, television appearances contributed to John F. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy’s use of televised addresses also changed the relationship between the president and the people. Obama’s use of the internet paralleled Kenney’s use of the media in his campaign victory. In addition, his website, change.gov, invites all of us to contribute thoughts and ideas to his team. This gives him an incredible e-mail list to speak directly to those who participate.

Greatly Disciplined*

In Jim Collin’s booklet “Good to Great and The Social Sectors” he points out that both financially driven businesses and mission driven non-profits rely on discipline to achieve greatness. As I watched Obama’s weekly address on the internet, I was struck by his commitment to bring results oriented discipline to government programs. I don’t know if he will pull it off but I sure like that he’s going to try.

It Takes a Village*

One of the kids who takes the bus with my children has no siblings and both his parents work, so he comes over to our house quite a bit. He’s basically a good kid but we have to monitor and guide him as if he was our own, which can be a hassle at the end of a long day. As my wife and I talked about why we take him we realized that we don’t do it to help out his parents but to help him become a healthy, productive member of our community. At my dad’s funeral a number of young men came up and talked about how he was a second father to them. Our house often had kids from the neighborhood hanging out at the kitchen table talking to my mom or dad. Children need communities to raise them just as much as they need families.

Mirror Mirror*

I had lunch with an old friend today who I haven’t seen in years. We picked up right where we left off and quickly caught up on our most recent adventures. We just shrugged at each bit of news and told anecdotes of how we seemed headed in that direction years earlier. What struck me was that he could see my path and potential much better than I could, and visa versa.

I Got The Power*

People in powerful positions with malicious intent can cause great pain and suffering. People with an inadequate appreciation for their position's power can unintentionally cause just as much destruction. I once heard a story from an executive who innocently commented on the new color of a freshly painted wall during a plant visit. He noticed on the subsequent visit that they had repainted the wall the previous color. He wondered how many other aspects of the company’s operations he had unwittingly impacted. He realized the danger in his lack of appreciation for the breadth and depth of his authority.

What's Next*

We live in a suburb of Minneapolis where maligning meteorologists is a local sport. Making forecasts of any kind is a complex and difficult task, but one way to assure failure is to assume change in only one factor. People predicted hard times for institutions of higher learning because of decreased birthrates at the end of the baby boom. So why have college costs gone up so much in recent years? Do the laws of supply and demand not apply to academia? Although, as predicted, the number of students graduating from high school has decreased the percentage of graduates going to college has increased so much that college enrollment has actually gone up. Now the number of students graduating from high school is increasing again, just as my kids are ready to go to college...great.

Ideology vs. Humanity*

Although history recounts many inhumane acts perpetrated during times of conflict it also records acts of humanity and compassion. In 1914 some of the soldiers on the front lines of the war in Europe agreed to a Christmas cease fire. There are stories about playful verbal exchanges and soldiers tossing food and tobacco into enemy trenches. Unfortunately the war went on and many of those young men died. More recently, a Dutch warship on patrol to combat piracy off the East African coast rescued a boat full of heavily armed Somalis who had been adrift for days after their engine died. After the Dutch sailors disarmed them and sunk their boat, they gave them medical attention, food and water. Maybe we should put world leaders together in a situation they can only survive through collaboration and then let them decide how to resolve our differences.

Today*

"Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present." Babatunde Olatunji

Here is a common variation of the quote. "You can't change Yesterday but you can ruin Today worrying about Tomorrow."

Just a Nickel*

I remember a neighborhood garage sale quite a few years ago where I learned one of my best lessons about consumers. One of the neighbors put some items out for free which went untouched the first day. The second day one of the older, wiser, neighbors went over and changed the sign to 5¢. Everything was gone in about an hour. It seems that anything for free is junk but a bargain is a bargain.

Personality or Prison*

Experts disagree on how much of personality is genetic but they all acknowledge that a significant portion is formed by our environment and under our control. Our personality is certainly not a prison. Martin Seligman did research comparing optimistic and pessimistic personalities and discovered three areas where optimists perceive things differently than pessimists.

Permanence, see negative situations as temporary
Personalization, focus on outside forces that contribute to failures
Pervasiveness, narrowly view a problem’s impact on the rest of life

Seligman proposes that an individual can become more optimistic by choosing to look at their situation like an optimist. His research also correlates an optimistic orientation to higher levels of success in performance based activities. It certainly couldn't hurt.

Who's Minding the Store*

Most experts agree that inadequate regulation of the financial industry caused a significant portion of our current economic troubles. The media has pointed to credit default swaps as an example of one such problem. In simple terms a credit default swap is like mortgage insurance that covers your lender in case you default on your mortgage. Well, imagine if the whole neighborhood could take out insurance on your mortgage, and get paid if you default. Now multiply that by tens of trillions of dollars on all kinds of securities, not just mortgages. Then see what happens when a lot of people start to default on their securities. Now ask who pays.

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