Sizing the slices

How much time do we take to bake a pizza compared to working out the even-ness of the distribution of various ingredients on the pizza and then slicing it all up into sufficient slices to be shared around the table. And why does that matter. So it matters when there are different people involved in baking the pizza and thinking about the size of the slice they will be getting later. There may be some putting different topics and determining how evenly distributed they should be and so on. And then there’s the guy determining how the slices are cut. And then maybe some kind of system determining who gets which particular slice. Maybe that is by a ballot or random system.

And yes in case you’re already suspecting, I’m thinking about the economy. An economy where people are obsessed with trying to secure a bigger slice for themselves will not behave very optimally to enlarge the overall pizza. Because their energies are caught up in the distribution process; then resources aren’t quite properly allocated. The best approach is to maximize the size of the pizza before splitting it up. But the challenge is that the way we determine the split can affect how to maximize the size.

And then how do you deal with people in the overall scheme of things, who genuinely has very little to contribute to the size of the pizza but is very much part of the overall process? Do you exclude them from the distribution? How are they going to affect the others who are productive? And if you do include them, will you be disincentivizing those who are contributing a lot more to producing the pizza?

As an economy moves from the early stage developments to more mature stages, and with more specialised industries and niches in the economy, these questions will crop up more often. What we need to do is to take a stance on which direction and how we want our markets to be headed. And what would we sacrifice to make that work.

Sprinting downhill

I was 13 when I met this senior in my Secondary school (it is kind of like a combination of middle school and high school in Singapore) who taught me that I need to open my strides when sprinting downhill. I had to pass my 2.4km run but it was a point in my life when I was a little overweight and not exactly a fast runner.

The distance was not long enough to win out just purely by stamina, and yet not short enough to be completed with just a crazy dash. It was challenging, especially when we have to run a course that included some elevation at different points of time. It was hard to maintain a consistent pace when running up and then downhill but because I was slower uphill, I needed a way to gain more ground downhill when logically, one could be faster.

So I learnt that opening up my strides allows me to cover more distance even as the gravity was pulling me down. Every step forward kept me from falling while taking me closer to the finish line. It was a great feeling, though my lungs were screaming for air, I could keep my leg muscles going.

There are points of life when a lot of work you had done previously have taken you to a point of elevation. You’ve been putting in the hard work, and built up to that point but there hasn’t been any results yet, you don’t seem anywhere close to the finish line. Perhaps you’ve prepared yourself to that point where you can now sprint downhill, where the force of gravity could take you to the finish line with a lot more natural momentum even if it may still take efforts.

Are you ready for the sprint downhill?

Independence of time

Time is something we experience through our memories but because we measure it, time became independent. Independent of our experience such that it goes by whether we feel it or not. And we then treat it as a resource to use or to waste. Yet it slips by even when we don’t use it, so we consider it wasted. Or is it?

Was time ever ours? And in trying to use it, and pressured to use it well, do we end up rendering our experiences empty and meaningless instead? And when we have a looming deadline we think time is short and there is always so much to do.

What we have to do is given by ourselves though. And if we had gone the other way around and measured time by the work we do instead, will we actually get more out of time rather than get things out of shorter time?

So should we treat time as independent from our experience or to let it be something that is there only because we experience it? Much to ponder.

Broken systems

In any civilisation, you’re in a system; so there are rules to follow, structures to abide by, and hence a sort of order emerges from the system. Of course the order can be disorderly but you get my drift. When however, certain realities don’t line up the way they do in a system, we think that it is broken.

I’m not too sure about that. Sometimes, we think that a system is broken because it is leading to an outcome which we don’t desire nor think is desirable. Whilst the designer or perpetrator of the system may agree with you on the outcome and results, they may not think the system is broken.

The reason being that their key objectives for the system does not align with yours. What you think as an undesirable outcome may be an unintended but necessary consequence of the system; and the results which you don’t agree with may not even be part of the consideration.

And that is the challenge when one works within a system. It is terribly difficult for a system to start paying attention to a new attribute that is worth looking at when measured against the values that inherently power the system. Effectively, the conversation goes like this:

You: ‘Hey system, you need to start looking more into the environmental damage you are causing while trying to make profits!’

System: ‘Ah, environmental damage. Does looking into it generate more profits?’

You: ‘Well, the point is thinking about we are trading-off environmental sustainability in our process of profit. Maybe we can rethink about the way we make a profit?’

System: ‘Sure! Come back to me when there’s a profitable way to reduce the environmental damage. Meanwhile, we carry on with what works.’

The reason we are facing climate change is not really because the system is broken but because the system we designed is working perfectly well – it is just trying to solve a completely different problem than the one we are facing or trying to get it to solve.

The only way is to establish new rules and new ways of doing things, of structuring our lives, our companies and our economy. This is why Enea Consulting, where I work at, has combined efforts with Isabelle Kocher de Leyritz to form Blunomy.

For now, the branding might still feel very foreign to an Asian mind, the URL quite strange (is the firm French or Malaysian?), the fonts on the website feels a tad bit too avant garde for the liking of the general masses. But the message, the intentions and planned actions are clear. We understand that the systems are not broken but they are simply not designed for the challenge that confronts us today. That is why we are not here to fix the system; we need new ones to replace them.

Just to reiterate that views presented here are entirely personal and do not represent the stance of any organisations I’m employed by or have any affiliations with.

Downward counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred. I’ve no doubt this is a sign of intelligence and it is a residue in our ability to project forward into the future. After all, if you can imagine the different possible futures, you could also imagine different possible pasts.

The question is whether the content of your counterfactual thinking is upward or downward. In other words, do you think the reality could have been better or do you think things could have been worse? People could be more positive when they consider that something worse could have happened rather than the actual outcome. In that sense, downward counterfactual thinking is actually a habit or strong mental re-frame that helps improve our well-being.

Nevertheless, the mind tends towards negativity because it sticks more than the positive. What I think is interesting is that different positions we are in can cause us to have inclination towards upwards or downwards counterfactual. It is interesting how being in second place encourages upward counterfactual thinking more than being in third place – just because you only have one person in front of you. So there are some kind of defaults that our counterfactual thinking drifts towards.

That’s not to say you can’t change your defaults. Part of my coaching practice especially around mindset shifts is exactly about that.

What are prices for? II

Can prices make the world better? Perhaps one could argue that it already did! Yet for the first in history, putting a price on something free could very well allow us to step into a future that’s remarkably better than the status quo. And that’s the price on carbon.

For the longest time; perhaps for far too long, emitting carbon dioxide is free. To be fair, when we breath out, we emit carbon dioxide. But that is through the food, grown during our lifetimes. One may argue of course that cows belching and the dairy industry creates a lot more greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane as well.

Brushing food industry aside, let’s ask ourselves how a carbon price makes the difference. By charging industries for burning fossil fuel and emitting carbon dioxide through whatever industrial processes, we are saying that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it should rightly be stored in minerals and in the ground as oil, gas and coal is harmful to the world. We are saying that people ought to pay a price for releasing the carbon dioxide in the air and causing climate change.

The issue is that we all live in a single atmosphere but the carbon price is different everywhere and we allow people in their own countries to somehow set this price or a regime to manage this price. And then we call it a carbon tax. Or in other places, we put a trading system around it and the traded price becomes the carbon price. There are times when prices work better when they are different in different places. But perhaps not this time. The fact carbon is free or much less costly in one place but not another is just going to encourage more gaming of the system.

The world needs to set a price, and really align on it. There is nowhere in the world where it is cheaper to emit carbon in terms of the environmental and climate costs.

What are prices for?

The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing

Oscar Wilde

I don’t think this is the first time I’m putting up this quote. But I’m just wondering today. What are prices for? Why are there prices for things? What does a price mean? If anything at all?

Prices are signals from the perspective of economics. The level that clears the market; where demand matches supply. A high price or low price doesn’t really mean much. It’s unclear if the prices reflects costs of production because there can be market power driving margins. Besides, when storage costs are expensive, a producer might be keen to sell excess supply at lower than production costs.

But prices drives behaviours; they create some kind of incentive to produce, to trade, to buy, and sell. It is some kind of benchmark against which we evaluate our preferences. Because we’d try to figure out if something was ‘worth the price’. And so the market moves; and people try to justify prices with attributes, features, emotional storytelling. And prices in turn drives those stories, emotional expression and comparisons.

What do you do with slack?

I recently spoke to a financial advisor. Not an independent one, just from a firm who was not tied to a single insurer. The idea is getting the best deal, the most competitive deal. This is a marketing business, about serving clients, reaching people. That’s a shame because financial planning should be about brains and not how much you like someone.

But maybe I’m ahead of myself because if brains mean to be able to optimise very well, lowering premiums as a share of overall risk cover, or increasing cover while keeping to the same levels of premium, then it’s not always that good. We need slack in the system. People who might be idling at any one time you sample the workspace. You need to ensure there is breathing space, chattering space, ideation space.

We pay for slack all the time; do you use up all your mobile data and telephone call minutes every month? Do you boil only enough water for a single pot of tea each time? Slack is not a bad thing and over-optimisation creates risks. Perhaps the risk is small but there is always a trade off to be made.

Dancing with controversy

Some people want to start a conversation putting people on defence – often using controversy. Why did you name your child after an unsavoury character in history? Are you really making your guest wash their feet before entering your house? Why does your company logo look like it is plagiarized from this other firm?

First, why do they do that? It could be a power play; or just banter done poorly. Often you can’t really tell their intention. In fact, you are not responsible for their intention, only themselves. While you might want to read into their intentions and craft some kind of story to set your mind away from the mystery, you never really know. So better to choose a story that favours you and your intended response.

Second, how should you respond? Now this part is on you. Regardless of the other party’s intention, you now have to be concerned about your own intention and the message you are trying to project. Returning it with banter or trying to laugh it off may work – but does it reflect your identity? Maybe you want to be gracious and simply acknowledge your feelings towards it. “That was hurtful, let’s move on to more productive topics.” or “From the sound of your question you’ve an axe to grind; I’d appreciate if you help me get away from that axe”. Just putting it out in the open, gently calling out what the other party is doing can be very powerful.

Finally, don’t dwell on it. Move on and direct your energies and enthusiasm towards something else. Controversy is such because people are unable to look beyond disagreements or to boil it down more to the fundamentals. They are such also because of the distractions around the topics which makes people less willing to confront the issue at hand.

Tyranny of rush

I had accepted a project with the understanding the timeline would be four weeks but then because of the client’s management schedule they decided they need the deliverables in two weeks. That was impossibly rushed and so we tried to keep the scope leaner and push ourselves to deliver. It wasn’t a good experience and I found the quality control difficult through the process even when I wanted to give my best. The result was huge amount of stress, pressure on everyone and potentially bottled resentments.

Urgency is a weird thing, it grabs you by the neck and forces you to do this and that without much thought at the risk of being choked. It causes great discomfort and as much as it is a good motivator of action, it doesn’t always allow actions to be directed thoughtfully. It is very much a tyrant and one who forces everyone to bow down to its will.

Often I found it hard to get out of this tyranny once it grabs me. Mentally, it captures even my time of rest and attempts to go through natural recovery. Physically, it prevents me from engaging in other activities which takes me away from its will but would soothe my body. I wonder how we can respect urgency less especially in societies that are already fast-paced and relentless.

Because if we don’t break its hold, it will eventually break us.