Who are we to college admissions?

What is your positioning? What is your strategy in this application? I asked my intern who was applying to certain colleges. I’ve been called upon to put up a reference for this young colleague and I really wanted to help, as best as I can.

So me being the strategy consultant I am, asked those questions. It drew a blank. And of course, it was a little confusing for someone fresh out of A Levels to think of “strategies” around college applications. Or maybe not if you’ve so much help and advice from those who have gone before you. That, I feel, is exactly what those families with resources are able to equip their younger ones with.

Maybe I was wrong, that we need a strategy or positioning because the only positioning should be to be ourselves. It will take more excavation of ourselves and asking who exactly are we rather than artificially creating a persona we must fit into. In being able to “position” our application as much as possible as being true to ourselves, might be the most precious thing you can give to the college admissions office.

Decarbonising the economy

Lifeforms on earth are mostly about carbon; mostly made up of it. The problem with our economy is not that we need carbon to get things going but that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as “value” in the economy is created. That is only natural to the extent that we as humans burn similar fuels and produce the similar byproduct. It almost seem like we cannot really escape from that.

We have been moving energy around from one form to another in order to get work done since prehistoric times. In some sense, the fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at higher concentrations really cause so much potential catastrophic harm to life on earth is a demonstration that perhaps the “work done” by humans is too much.

Perhaps it is time for us all to just pause, and recognise how much we truly really need in this world. Have we recognised that our attempts at relentlessness in the wrong direction can turn really disastrous?

Mental breaks

My latest break away from work lasted about 2.5 weeks. It was a time of disconnecting almost completely with work. I think the whole cycle of disengaging, disconnecting deliberately and then re-engaging is a natural cycle of things. And the rhythm that our biology needs.

The cycle of waking up and sleeping, the seasons, the waves of busyness and then lull. These are patterns etched in nature, patterns we should be honouring.

There is no question that when you’re driving in the opposite lane from the design of traffic that you’d eventually end up in an accident. But unfortunately we are not clear about how we should be honouring our bodies and our minds. Consider what is stopping us from taking a genuine break, one that is not accompanied by anxiety or guilt or the compulsion to be “productive”.

Mysterious Benedict

I rarely talk about stuff on the media because I typically don’t consume so much entertainment through the mainstream media. It has become incredibly splittered though. Thanks to Netflix, Disney Plus and other streaming services that are all now starting to create their own content and populating their own channels.

So I was watching The Mysterious Benedict Society which at first appeared like a show with quirky characters, turned out to be extremely delightful and well executed aesthetically. The thought that went into the script and the manner the mysteries unfolded step by step was brilliant.

What is interesting is that so much of it of course covered very universal themes of truth, friendship, what intelligence meant and philosophy around independence. Children books and stories always tend to have such amazingly deep and yet simple truths it’s a waste that not more adults read them.

Some similar titles I’d suggest would be The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time.

Opportunity cost II

Interestingly, it was around this time a year ago when I wrote about opportunity costs and my mind recently dwelt on this topic again while reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He talks about the opportunity cost of distraction, and of course, social media. He reminds all of us to think about the true cost of spending time and attention on social media.

Simply speaking, there is two. First is of course the time spent that could otherwise be used on more productive things. ‘Keeping in touch’ with thousands is known to be not just technically but cognitively impossible. So interactions on social media can at best be very shallow even if there’s rich engagement with a select few whom you are already interacting beyond the confines of the internet. So these online interactions are probably not adding that much to your relationships and the time can be better spent cementing the relationships within the family especially those living in close quarters.

The second opportunity cost is a little more subtle. And it has to do with the fact that social media trains our attention span to become even shorter and creates lots of little dopamine hits which really fools our system and cause us to lose the capacity for ‘deep work’ – the kind that requires more intense concentration and a persistent expenditure of intellectual and cognitive resources in order to achieve results.

I think these are incredibly valuable food for thought.

Life is kind of messed up

Do you live life or does life live you? People think of this general notion of the various milestones and pathways in the passage of living as “life” and “live that out”. We would take ownership of a life that was prescribed for us, constructed by others, expected by society. And we put upon ourselves more and more constraints. I’m not talking about actual commitments, just perceived ones.

Steve Job shared his perspective of this in a 1994 interview that was recorded and I think it sums up perfectly why it is important to rewrite our stories. Not just as an individual, but also as a generation.

Meta falling

I struggle with Meta’s value creation model; it takes people’s attention, passing it to those who value it, and makes off with the money in return. They then mine for more attention, more screen time, more private data to get more value. This sounds compelling but if their interest remains diametrically opposed to the large user base they boast of, it’s doomed to fail at some point.

Why not focus on long term value that is sustainable, aligning their own interest with the users’ interests. Collecting a fee from companies to provide identity verification services based on user data without handing over private data. Or collecting subscription fees to help users protect their private information and allow it to be securedly shared with treasured connections?

There are ways for Meta to reinvent itself to be a giant worthy of its position amongst the tech firm. Just exploring the metaverse isn’t going to be enough.

Thinking about money

We are not all self-sufficient. We rely on our butchers for meat, bakers for bread, and blacksmiths for bronze. Okay maybe not so much the last point. But we need things others produce and create. And our own creations? We can’t survive on them alone. But there are others who want what we produce? Don’t they?

And so we create promises; if you produce this for me, I’ll produce this for that guy who wants this stuff and he’s gonna produce for another girl who wants this other stuff, who’s good at producing yet another thing which actually you sought after. So now you take my promise and your needs are as good as fulfilled when you produce for me. Money is that promise; it is the promise of value for our labour, the promise of fulfilment of our needs.

Then as humans, we realised if you can promise that whole cycle of bartering executed with money, then you can promise a barter with the future self, or future wants, etc. So from the promise of inter-spatial movement of products and services, we move to the promise of inter-temporal movements. This creates a new dynamic because promises age as time passes. Time will tell the quality of the promise; and that will manifest in terms of the value of that promise as time passes. Alas, born the concept of interest.

And because at any point of time, there is going to be lots of overpromises, failure to fulfill them; the system has to make good of it. So when there is overpromising, the value of promise also falls over time. That is where inflation came from. Money in itself has really no value; but the legal tender provides a tool by which government enacts and extracts taxation. This is important because it keeps an economy demanding the instrument as opposed to just using another, more established currency. Taxation as a form of revenue is ultimately more effective to keep the money system from destabilising; compared to just using seignorage as a means of revenue.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation with a friend about Bitcoin. He thinks that using excess energy such as those which would be wasted through flaring, venting of gaseous fuels, or from curtailment events of intermittent renewable energy can be used to mine bitcoins. That way, the energy otherwise wasted is converted to a form of value. It is used to do some kind of work in the bitcoin network, facilitating transactions, securing it.

I am not sure how practical this is but the idea is appealing on the count that we are actually creating a new value stream rather than have mining capture and squander existing energy resources. If bitcoin mining becomes such a “flexible” load in the energy system, it’ll prove incredible value in highly practical ways.

Metric and outcomes

A metric is a good way to hold one accountable for certain outcome. And if you want to set some common indicators of performance that people can agree on, then you can get on with focusing on achieving some degree of the outcome.

The challenge again is Goodhart’s Law where setting a particular measure as a target for certain outcomes make the measure become a poor one. This tends to be rather pronounced in economics, whether you’re thinking about GDP, interest rates (specific ones like LIBOR), even CPI for inflation and so on.

When businesses are measured on their success by profit metric, we forget that they are there to serve the community, to provide goods and services people need and demand for, to improve people’s lives and give them more choices. Those are the outcomes we want. The ability to generate profits merely allows them to continue generating good outcomes.

Likewise, we want to make money to be able to support our families, our (reasonable) lifestyles and maybe free up more time for leisure. But when money becomes tied to your identity, like the way profits have been tied to the identity of businesses, then your ability to provide for your family cease being a good measure of what you’re trying to achieve in life.

We need to focus on the outcomes and ditch the metric when the time for that comes.

Enjoyment & collection

When I was young I collected stamps. And I think I still have a massive stamp collection lurking somewhere. I’d collect lots of stamps from my family’s mails, and my relatives, even distant ones would know I was collecting and give me a whole bunch of them. I wasn’t so discerning and I collected a lot of repetitions, and they looked good when I lined them up.

I’d spend hours soaking, extracting them from the paper they were stuck to, and then drying them out in the sun. I figured it was easy to process when you can stick the wet ones on a plastic sheet and leave it out to dry. By just twisting the plastic sheet when the stamps are mostly dry, you could take out the dried stamps easily. And that process itself was interesting. Never mind the actual stamps. They were nice to look at, the designs were interesting but I never did study them so much in detail – I did not know the history of each of those series, nor how they intertwined with history of the countries they were from. There were commemorative editions which helped me discover things about foreign lands and culture. But that was all the curiosity I had about my stamp collection. I was enjoying it; there wasn’t a checklist I was benchmarking myself against and hunting for that ‘rare stamp’ or to complete a particular ‘collection’.

As far as I was concerned, my collection was always complete, and never complete, at the same time. The thing about us in the modern world today is there’s always something more we want to complete our lives, that we forget to enjoy our lives for what it is today. I need to consider more of my stamp collecting days.