Review – 1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years

1,2,3…The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers 3rd Edition (buy from Amazon.com)

by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011

A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.

As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.

As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?

That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.

Choice

Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.

The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.

But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.

One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.

Similarly,

When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.

Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”

Feelings

Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.

As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)

With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.

Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.

The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.

But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.

Limits

Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:

“I want you to be gentle.”

“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”

“I don’t like it when you run away.”

We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.

Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?

This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.

Building Confidence

Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.

There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.

The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.

It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.

Presentism

Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.

How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.

Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.

Sleep

Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.

Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.

Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.

The “S word” – Sharing

Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.

Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?

Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.

In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!

Tantrums

If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.

Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.

Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.

Toilet time

The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:

  • having dry diapers for longer periods of time
  • letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
  • showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
  • wanting to wear underpants
  • disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers

The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.

Eating and weaning

Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.

Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.

Toddlers like to have choices.

Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.

One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.

Successful parenting

It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.

I’ll let that one settle in on its own.

It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.

It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.

Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.

Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)

Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?

Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.

This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.

Enjoying your child

Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”

A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.

4/5

 

Reflections On My Time At Stanford’s d.school

I’m reflecting a bit on my time at the Design Thinking Bootcamp at Stanford’s d.school. I plan to follow up this post with my thoughts on the question, “What is design thinking?”

First, I recorded some items on some note cards handed out to us at the end of each day to aid our memory and reduce our many thoughts and experiences down to the essential items of action or questions for further consideration. Here is what I wrote on each card.

Day 1

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Creating an attitude where failure [of new ideas] and disagreement are acceptable and encouraged
  • Rejecting the vanity of requiring omniscience before action can be taken

Day 2

Today, we did this:

  • faced rejection and awkwardness to find complete strangers who were excited to tell us about their experiences and themselves
  • accepted feedback gracefully as an opportunity to improve our offering and refocus on what problem we’re really solving

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Stop worrying about surveys, start speaking directly with our users
  • Focusing on emotions conveyed through story-telling
  • Emphasize breakthrough solutions, not incremental improvements

A question I still have:

  1. What’s the best way to break the ice with a user?
  2. How to know what experiences matter before the problem is known?
  3. When to abandon an interview versus dig deeper?
  4. How long does this process take to cycle through to a solution?

Day 3

Today, we did this:

  • Built low-resolution prototypes
  • Took them into the field and used them as excuses to have conversations with strangers about feelings

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

find reasonable excuses to have deeply personal discussions with our customers

A question I still have:

  1. How do I identify the right problem to work on?
  2. Who is going to help me with this?
  3. How often should we be doing this (design thinking work)?
  4. How long will it take to reach a conclusion?

Now that I’ve shared some of my daily reflections, I want to make some notes about my overall impressions and reflections of the experience.

As I discussed with one of the coaches at the d.school, I believe we are standing on a “burning platform” in our business due to technological and competitive dynamics and it’s imperative we take these risks seriously by thinking about radically different ways of doing business, up to and including finding a completely different business to compete in. Therefore, I had one over-riding goal in attending the Design Thinking Bootcamp: gain a toolset that would help our organization think about the challenge we face differently than we think about it now, and design a radical solution.

Along with that larger goal came many smaller goals about specific areas of our existing business where we perceive an opportunity to radically innovate.

Going into the program, I thought that the program was going to mostly revolve around these specific business challenges and I would be working, almost one-on-one, with design thinking coaches to learn how to apply design thinking to our challenge. I imagined that what I was primarily gaining was an individual insight that I could hopefully share or train our larger organization on as needed when I went back to base.

I had done some research ahead of time and was aware of some of the things we’d be doing in the course of the program:

  • going out into the field to do interviews with “users”
  • working on a design challenge for a sponsoring major corporation
  • doing team-based thinking games to explore different aspects of design thinking

I was apprehensive (in a “good” way) about the interviewing because it is one thing from my previous operational management experience I liked least or felt least comfortable with– actually talking with our customers. Most of my interactions with customers were defensive in nature, trying to calm down someone we had pissed off through process failure or other failure to live up to their expectations or our commitments. I didn’t have much experience or confidence in just talking to people to try to gather insights about how to make business better in a proactive sense. This was a skillset I very much wanted to gain and was ready to do uncomfortable things to master.

Another thing I was concerned about on a personal level was sustaining my energy throughout the program, especially when considering the suggestion that food might be hard to come by. Some of the early material I received in preparation for the week seemed to imply that meals would be light and limited and we’d often be on our own. The Wolf was concerned for me, and the first question she asked when I checked in after Day 1 was “Are they giving you enough to eat?”

I am happy to report that the experience was much higher touch than I would’ve thought. We were fed ENDLESSLY– breakfast, lunch and dinner with oversupplied snack stations throughout the day and dessert offered at lunch and dinner. The food was high quality and diverse from a local catering operation and the snacks were gourmand. I never went hungry and it was clear the program coordinators put a lot of time and attention into this specific detail, not to mention all the others. “Class sizes” were small, typically 1 coach for 5 team members, plus other support staff and coordinators. We had a group dinner scheduled in San Francisco one night and had nice tour buses to shuttle us back and forth when we went out into the field. Overall, it was an extremely comfortable experience from a material standpoint.

The instructors were amazingly high energy and genuinely interested in their students and their learning. That was actually one of the things that was most challenging for me. Design thinking seems to require a lot of emotional energy, and by the time I got home I was drained. Imagine being super excited about everything for 12 hours a day for 4 days. Imagine sustaining this energy with people you’ve never met (I mean the strangers we interviewed, not just the team members in the program) and conveying the sense that the wacky stories they’re sharing are SUPER exciting and SUPER interesting as you interview them for twenty minutes at a time.

Maybe some people can sustain that for weeks, months or even their entire lives, but I can’t. I crashed when I got home, hard.

On the Monday after my return I was to begin my Post Program Design Project. The idea was that between 8am and 12pm, Monday through Wednesday, I would attempt a small design project from start to finish: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. There were 2 team calls scheduled for 1 hour at 9am on Tuesday and Wednesday to check in and support one another in creating ideas and processing feedback. Otherwise, in 4 hours each of three days you were expected to interview your own customers/users, define a test user to design for, come up with ideas that might make their life more wonderful, create a crude prototype and then role play using it with more customers/users.

I ended up doing the interviews but found it was a lot more challenging to do when the people in our organization that I asked to assist me weren’t really bought in and didn’t really understand how the approach “works” like the people I had teamed up with at the d.school. The interviews went okay despite that, but when it came to defining, ideating, prototyping, I lost my motivation and decided to “quit” rather than make excuses as to why I couldn’t get my project done.

This is probably the most frustrating part of my experience at the d.school, and the biggest lesson I could learn! It was frustrating for me because they made it quite clear before we left that making excuses and not getting the Post Program work done was for losers– in developing a “bias toward action” it is important to jump right in to trying what you learned in your own business, even if you end up sucking at it or it feels funny. This didn’t seem to give me much room to maneuver once I hit some speed bumps and started wobbling, so I just fell over.

On the other hand, experiencing a painful failure and getting back up on my design thinking bike (as I plan to, anyway) helped me think about the other important principle, which is that failure is okay and is part of learning. I now realize I need to sell what I’ve learned a lot better than I did and can’t assume people will rally around this approach just because the organization sent me off to a training program for a week. I also understand that I CAN do what I thought/think is uncomfortable and speak to real “users”, and I have some confidence in the idea that there are real insights we can gain from that effort if we work diligently and find the right people to design for. My initial failure has been a good reminder of the meta-principle of design thinking, which is that everyone can get better by iterative improvements.

My experience at the d.school was wacky and weird, fun and tiring, engaging and challenging. At one point it felt like being back in kindergarten, making macaroni art and playing make believe as we constructed these goofy prototype scenarios and then played them out with each other, with strangers on the street and for our fellow d.school teammates for feedback and evaluation. In the short time I was there I did not come across any “profound” solutions to burning platform business challenges (my own or others) and I realize I can’t expect that kind of resolution from a week long program or from my amateur tinkering with this new found knowledge. Design thinking isn’t a miraculous process, it’s an innovative process.

I’ve got a bit of travel ahead of me over the next few weeks, so I won’t get an opportunity to “do” much design thinking in the meantime. But it is rooted in my mind now and I am thinking differently than when I left for the training. My plan is to try to identify a lower-difficulty challenge our organization could work on and find a few people who are highly motivated to learn and practice a new approach with me. From there we can further test the principles and hopefully design an implementable solution that will be the tangible evidence of value needed to bring it to a wider organizational audience and signal that it is time to move on to bigger challenges.

Disintegrate The School System! (#SchoolReform, #politics, #economics, #community, #education, #policy)

Recently I read a post on Bill Gates’s blog, Gates Notes, about some nifty new public school concept he was impressed by. He made a throwaway comment about how important it is to bring rich and poor, black and white, etc. etc. together in the public schools, which is a laughable call coming from him because he has chosen to do the opposite with his own children.

In reading this post and following some related links, I came to understand that this “integrated schooling” concept is a real movement in Progressive circles. In fact, a Google search inadvertently led me to a blog, IntegratedSchools.org, written by a young woman in California who sees herself as a privileged, educated, middle class white woman who thinks that people like her should voluntarily “integrate” their children into nearby failing public schools in order to be the change.

I think putting your own family at risk for one’s principles like that is laudable, at least compared to the alternative of loudly mewing for more government involvement to fix the perceived problem, which inevitably means forcing everyone to go along with what you think the solution is, even when they don’t see the problem and wouldn’t agree with you on the solution. But the more I read her blog, the less I understood her motives for doing this, besides being ideologically pure and consistent. I could not discern any meaningful educational advantages to be gained by purposefully putting her children into underperforming schools, whatever the cause for their underperformance may be.

It got me thinking about my own views on educational ideals. I’m not convinced segregation is the problem, or even a problem. And I’m not sure I’d prioritize whatever it is she has prioritized with this choice rather than, say, a quality learning environment by any reasonable standard. I tried to think about what principles are important to me, and what to call them. It was hard, because a lot of words have become taboo in the “debate”, I think through the purposeful efforts of the Progressives who currently dominate it.

For example, segregation is purportedly what we have now, a school system which purposefully and forcibly (by legal connivance) separates school children into rich schools and poor schools, white schools and non-white schools, performing schools and failing schools, the haves and the have-nots. If you are against segregation, this imagined policy and its outcomes, then you are not just for de-segregation, you are for integration! In other words, the opposite of segregation is not de-segregation, it is de-segregation and integration. The Progressives claimed two words when they only needed one, and in so doing they combined separate concepts in a purposeful manner. Some people may not think the policy of segregation is a good, but they might also think that there are other ways to “integrate” (that is, combine into a larger, meaningful whole out of constituent parts) society besides a program of radical egalitarian levelling– quota systems, equal funding, equal access, equal this, equal that. Taking away words and jumbling up concepts means taking away options and limiting the debate, it’s a classic false dichotomy aimed at dividing and conquering.

If you’re against integration, it must be because you’re a segregating, secessionist racist! If you want to be part of a united America, you’ve got to do it our way, there is no other choice. This is how the logic goes when the debate is so confined.

So I need another word. And it needs to be provocative. And it needs to be meaningful to my program and principles. And I think I’ve got it: disintegration.

“Uh oh!” you might be thinking right this very moment, “‘Disintegration’ sure sounds like the opposite of ‘integration’, and we know integration means being pure and good and not a racist, so if you’re against that, then that seems to leave you in a pretty untenable spot…” But I don’t mean to throw a negative prefix on a word and call it a day, no, as an integrationist of letters and words and meaning, I seek to call attention to the whole word and the violence of it itself. I don’t want to oppose integration, I want to break apart the system completely! Start over. New ideas, new forms, new values.

When you think “disintegrate”, think about “Set lasers to stun”, but instead of stun, they go all the way to dissolve.

My slogan, then? “Disintegrate the school system!”

Here is why this best represents my principles. The school system in this country is not failing, it has failed. It could never have accomplished what it purportedly set out to do, that is, to provide a uniform level of education in core human knowledge and key civic values to all students regardless of background, ability or need. It was bound to fail for two reasons: (1) the goal was and is unobtainable, under any conceivable system that doesn’t involve divine intervention and (2) it being a political system funded and operated by government, it was bound to become another plaything of the political process and in so doing to be used and abused and confused by it, utterly so. The first reason is most devastating on a theoretical level and explains why it never should’ve been tried. The second reason is most devastating on a practical level and explains the specific reason it has become as corrupt and destitute an institution as it has become.

It is a bad idea and it is time to sweep it away, not try to save it by sacrificing ever more people and values for it. It can’t ever do anything but disappoint us, let’s be rid of it already. Let’s put this beast down, stop feeding it.

I want to live in a world without a public school system, at least in my country. That’s my ideal. I also imagine this world would see less concentration of resources, enrollment, and concern, into agglomerations of large schools, rather than smaller schools, more numerous, less risky. Why, for example, must some of the 1,200 students enrolled at the junior high school I live across the street from drive or bike several miles, while other students walk a few blocks, to get to school? Why do 1,200 students need to go to one place to learn when they just get broken up into 20 or 30 student class units once they arrive? Why not place more classrooms in those students’ own neighborhoods and save them a trip? And maybe build more of a sense of community along the way? Is there something more real about a community that consists of people within driving distance of one another, versus one that consists of people within shouting distance?

Calling for integration means buying into this premise of centralizing students and centralizing control. I don’t want to put more resources, more students and more control in the hands of lawyers, union lobbyists, state education supervisors, local school boards and district superintendents. I want to live in a world where schools get sorted out between parents, their students and their hired teachers… and only a handful of any of those at one time.

I want to know every other kid my kids are going to school with, and I want to know their parents. I want to know how they’re raising them, and what their values are. I want to know their life experiences and what they do for a living and why. I want to know if they live their lives with passion or if they’re going through the motions. I want the teachers to be people that willfully work for us because they think it’s the best opportunity they can get, and who we willfully agree to hire because we interviewed a lot of applicants and these people stood out. I want to be able to fire these teachers with the consent of the other parents (and students!) the moment we think it’s not working out. And I want to be able to raise their pay and promote them (to the extent there is a hierarchy) when we decide they deserve the recognition for their accomplishments.

I don’t want to wait 2 years, or 4 years, to hope “my candidate” gets elected, and hope he takes the time to make my concerns about how my school is being run seriously enough to do something, in coordination with all the other politicians with differing goals and masters, and wait for his efforts to trickle down to changes in my school perhaps a decade after my children have graduated from it.

If I think my school needs more resources, I’ll put more in, and encourage the other parents to do the same. If I think it needs less, I’ll encourage the school to make do with a lighter budget. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone feels like they’re being held hostage to everyone else’s perspective. “The schools are underfunded and are children are suffering for it!” “Property taxes are too damn high and I don’t get any benefit for what I pay!” This is madness with no solution that makes everyone happy. If there was one, we’d have figured it out several decades ago. It’s time to try something else.

So, I want to disintegrate the school system. Zap! Gone. And I’m planning to put my money where my mouth is, just like my zany Progressive blogger compadre. I’m going to start by pulling my own kids out. We’ll take it from there.

Review – Father, Son & Co. (#family, #business, @IBM)

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.

3/5

Review – Totto-chan (#nonfiction, #books, #Japan, #education)

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.

5/5

Review – Good To Great (#business, #investing, #review)

Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t

by Jim Collins, published 2001

The G2G Model

“Good To Great” seeks to answer the question, “Why do some good companies become great companies in terms of their market-beating stock performance, while competitors stagnate or decline?” After a deep dive into varied data sources with a team of tens of university researchers, Collins and his team arrived at an answer:

  1. Level 5 Leadership
  2. First Who… Then What
  3. Confront The Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
  4. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity Within The Three Circles)
  5. A Culture Of Discipline
  6. Technology Accelerators

The first two items capture the importance of “disciplined people”, the second two items refer to “disciplined thought” and the final pair embodies “disciplined action”. The concepts are further categorized, with the first three components representing the “build up”, the ducks that must be gotten into a row before the second category holding the last three components, “breakthrough”, can take place. The entire package is wrapped up in the physical metaphor of the “flywheel”, something an organization pushes on and pushes on until suddenly it rolls forward and gains momentum on its own.

This book found its way onto my radar several times so I finally decided to read it. I’d heard it mentioned as a good business book in many places but first took the idea of reading it seriously when I saw Geoff Gannon mention it as part of an essential “Value Investing 101” reading list. I didn’t actually follow through on the initial impulse until I took a “leadership science” course recently in which this book was emphasized as worth covering.

I found G2G to be almost exactly what I expected– a rather breathless, New Age-y, pseudo-philosophical and kinda-scientific handbook to basic principles of organizational management and business success.  The recommendations contained within range from the seemingly reasonable to the somewhat suspect and the author and his research team take great pains to make the case that they have built their findings on an empirical foundation but I found the “We had no theories or preconceived notions, we just looked at what the numbers said” reasoning scary. This is actually the opposite of science, you’re supposed to have some theories and then look at whether the data confirms or denies them. Data by itself can’t tell you anything and deriving theory from data patterns is the essence of fallacious pattern-fitting.

Those caveats out of the way, the book is still hard to argue with. Why would an egotistical maniac for a leader be a good thing in anything but a tyrannical political regime, for example? How would having “the wrong people on the bus” be a benefit to an organization? What would be the value in having an undisciplined culture of people who refuse to see reality for what it is?

What I found most interesting about the book is the way in which all the principles laid out essentially tend to work toward the common goal of creating a controlled decision-making structure for a business organization to protect it from the undue influence of big egos and wandering identities alike. In other words, the principles primarily address the psychological risks of business organizations connected to cult-like dependency on great leaders, tendency toward self-delusional thinking and the urge to try everything or take the easy way out rather than focus on obvious strengths. This approach has many corollaries to the value investing framework of Benjamin Graham who ultimately saw investor psychology as the biggest obstacle to investor performance.

I don’t have the time or interest to confirm this hypothesis but I did wonder how many of the market-beating performances cataloged were due primarily to financial leverage used by the organization in question, above and beyond the positive effects of their organizational structure.

A science is possible in all realms of human inquiry into the state of nature. Man and his business organizations are a part of nature and thus they fall under the rubric of potential scientific inquiry. I don’t think we’re there yet with most of what passes for business “research” and management or organizational science, but here and there the truth peeks out. “Good To Great” probably offers some clues but it’s hard to know precisely what is the wheat and what is the chaff here. Clearly if you inverted all of the recommendations of the book and tried to operate a business that way you’d meet your demise rather quickly, but that is not the same thing as saying that the recommendations as stated will lead in the other direction to greatness, or that they necessarily explain the above-average market return of these public companies.

I took a lot of notes in the margin and highlighted things that “sounded good” to me but on revisiting them I am not sure how many are as truly useful as they first seemed when I read them. I think the biggest takeaway I had from the book was the importance of questioning everything, not only as a philosophical notion but also as a practical business tool for identifying problems AND solutions.

3/5

Review – Losing My Virginity (@richardbranson, #entrepreneurship, #books, #review)

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

 

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Viriginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

3/5

Review – Free Capital (#investing, @guy_thomas, #millionaires)

Free Capital: How 12 Private Investors Made Millions In The Stock Market

by Guy Thomas, published 2011

A methodical review of investors and their strategies

The greatest strength of “Free Capital” is its organization and layout– it’s truly like visiting an expertly-designed website in that the author has organized his investor interviews by four major descriptive categories:

  • geographers; top-down investors who begin with a macro thesis then look for companies and financial instruments which will benefit from that trend
  • surveyors; bottoms-up investors who start looking at individual companies and then sometimes check to see what kind of macro conditions might affect them
  • activists; investors who tend to get personally involved with their investments, taking large stakes and developing a close relationship with management
  • eclectics; people who don’t really fit any mold, but might be day-traders, value investors, sometimes activists, etc.

Within each categorical section are profiles of 12 (in total) investors that Guy Thomas spoke with, many of whom are anonymous, most of whom he came into contact with via investor message boards he participates on, and all of whom are UK-based and have managed to grow their capital into millions even over the last decade or less.

Though many were once employed by others and some came from financial backgrounds, all are now independent, full-time investors who live off of their investment returns and it is this kind of self-directed lifestyle and the resources which are needed to finance it that primarily lend themselves to the book’s title.

What’s really great is that in each chapter, Guy Thomas begins with a quick “tearsheet” profile of the investor’s strategy, key phrases, holding period, etc., then neatly organizes the interview material into background on the investor’s life and development as a financial person, outlines their strategy, experiences and any particularly demonstrative coups or failures they’ve enjoyed (or suffered) and finally and extremely helpfully, summarizes all the material again in a table at the end with the major themes or ideas explored for quick reference.

As if this weren’t enough, Guy Thomas has written a lengthy (and for once, interesting) introduction to the book that serves as a combination summary of the main themes of the book as well as a how-to manual for those looking to get the most out of their reading. Thomas is correct in suggesting that the book can be read all the way through as a complete work, or explored at random based on what, if anything, sounds interesting to the reader.

It’s touches like this that show a thoughtfulness on the part of the author that leave the reader painfully aware of their absence in comparison to many other books in the genre. Frankly, it’d be nice if authors and publishers took Thomas’s lead on this point!

My favorite part: inspiration

I was excited to dig into the book in part because a friend had mentioned it to me and had commented favorably on it. He said a lot of the material covered wouldn’t be original but that I might find it inspirational to read other people’s stories of how they got where they are.

Maybe it’s where I am in my life right now, maybe it’s the subtle suggestion my friend made planted in my mind, or maybe it’s the shining spot for the book but the inspiration was one of the most important things I took away from the book. Some of the profiles were admittedly unhelpful (such as the day-trader, an investment style I can’t see any point in) or just not interesting to me (a few of the investors followed research processes I don’t have the time or motivation to emulate), but there were a couple I identified with, which made me feel empowered and hopeful about myself as I read them.

I particularly liked the two named investors, John Lee (who is a dividend-oriented value investor of sorts) and Peter Gyllenhammar (who bankrupted himself twice before hitting his stride and amassing his current fortune). I believe all of the investors lives and experiences illustrated this point well, but these two in particular were examples of the phrase “Patience is a virtue.” If a man can dust himself off after two bankruptcies and still make something of himself he can probably do just about anything given the time and the patience. Seeing as how I haven’t suffered personal bankruptcy (yet) I felt greatly advantaged to learn from this example of perseverance and triumph over failure.

Wise aphorisms

Another theme oft explored in “Free Capital” is the role simplicity plays in good investing. To that effect, I found a lot of great investing ideas captured in brief, simple aphorisms that made them both easily digestible and sufficiently memorable to make use of them myself in my own deliberations. Some examples include:

  • Good investing “requires only a few good decisions” (a helpful reminder given the way many seem to imply that a true investor is marked by the numerousness and hyperactivity of his ideas)
  • An activist is an investor who goes looking for trouble
  • “Quiet freedom is itself exotic” (in this way, independent investors lead quite adventuresome and even exciting lives!)
  • Exposure to some chances can only arise through deliberate and possibly unpopular and eccentric choices
  • Investment skill consists in not knowing everything, but in judicious neglect: making wise choices about what to overlook
  • Freedom is like income that cannot be taxed
  • To make good decisions, you need to look actively for reasons not to buy a company. And then invest only in those where you can live with the reasons
  • Time is a limited resource with strongly diminishing returns. The first hour you spend researching a company is much more important than the tenth hour
  • If an investment decision requires detailed calculations, you should pass, because it’s probably too close
  • The sun shines even on the poor man

Also of note is the author’s book-companion blog, which goes into a bit more detail on some of the investment themes captured in the book and which I’ve found to be a good supplement to the reading seeing that I was still interested to learn more even after I put it down.

Conclusion

“Free Capital” is a unique offering. It has a styling and organization that many books in its genre lack and I hope this effort is continued in any future titles from the author. And it treads original ground in profiling anonymous, “everyman” successful investors that no one has heard of yet who have interesting stories, experiences and lessons to share all their own. We can all learn from more than just Warren Buffett, after all.

It’s not without its flaws, of course. As the author himself states, the book doesn’t cover losing investors, people who took some of the risks investors profiled took, and failed, or who took other risks that didn’t turn out right, and then explores what lessons can be learned from their shortcomings. This probably could be a worthwhile book in itself, as there is a growing literature on “failure studies” and as the first lesson every investor must learn is “don’t lose what you’ve got”, learning of common mistakes to avoid could be helpful. Additionally, as an avid deep value (Benjamin Graham) guy myself, I could’ve done without the day trader and some of the other guys who seem like GARPy, momentum-based swing traders with short time horizons and questionable “value” metrics.

But those are minor quibbles and things that Guy Thomas could easily rectify by simply writing us more great books to read! Overall, “Free Capital” was entertaining, at times enlightening and best of all, extremely gracious with my free time as I read the entire thing in just three or four hours. Given the focus on the value of time in the book, I appreciated the fact that I could digest the meat of the book and walk away with some great insights to help my own investing… and still have time left in the day to get other things done!

4/5