It’s better to try

Seth Godin writes:

…if the cost of finding out [whatever you need to find out] is a phone call, make the call. No need to spend a lot of time planning how to call or when to call or which phone to use when execution is fast and cheap.

The digital revolution has, as in so many other areas, flipped the equation here. The cost of building digital items is plummeting, but our habit is to plan anyway (because failure bothers us, and we focus on the feeling of failure, not the cost).

The goal should be to have the minimum number of meetings and scenarios and documentation necessary to maximize the value of execution.

The key idea is that “when execution gets cheaper, so should planning.”

Now, this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean “don’t do things intentionally” or “just act for the sake of acting”. What it means is that it’s easier to try things, and the financial/reputation cost for trying new things tends to be incredibly low.

A small example is a company embracing videoconferencing when consensus dictates the need for a conversation versus 10 business days of communication to schedule meetings to talk about issues that might already be moot.

The purpose of meetings is to talk through how to do things. Since we often won’t really know until we try, it’s often better to try than to plan.

‘You can’t love something you don’t know’

David McCullough, Pennsylvanian and historian, wrote a few years ago:

“People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively,” Mr. McCullough argues. “Because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.” The great teachers love what they’re teaching, he says, and “you can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.”

Where are we now? Teachers majoring in “education” (theory), then graduating and becoming the head of a fifth grade classroom—all with no particular depth in any of the subjects to be taught. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

I don’t think passion can be taught. I think it flows out of us naturally; it’s like energy. A teacher either has zeal, or a teacher doesn’t have zeal. She either knows her stuff, or she doesn’t. And a third grader will know. It’s instinctively obvious to any child when an adult is in her element, in charge, not to be messed with, to be paid attention to, to hang on every word, to respect.

But that’s where we are today. We’re all being taught to be generalists in a world that’s rewarding specialists. Anyone can know a little about a lot. Few can really walk you through much with depth, and with ease.

Teacher 1: “The Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest on the eastern front. X happened, then Y happened. Some say this about it, others say that.”

But what was life like for the German soldier, huddling at night amidst mortar and chaos and an anonymous death?

Teacher 2: “Let me tell you how this soldier’s death in Russia broke his family in Munich, and about the life of his son growing up fatherless in the fringes of the Iron Curtain after being raised to believe Hitler was a savior.”

We don’t get “Teacher 2” when we let our schools be dictated to by Middle States and other accrediting agencies.They require schools to hire only certified teachers. And a certification program isn’t typically something a real historian, or a real businessman, or a real science lover either gains real knowledge from or has time for.

So we get Teacher 1, and a world where many teachers deserve provide as much information (or less) than what’s found on Wikipedia, etc. In the society we’ve built, too many teaching positions should be automated.

But the conversation really shouldn’t be about online learning or automation. It should be about asking whether our teachers are in love with what they’re teaching.

Pass/fail

When I was in Washington late last month for Michael Novak’s funeral, I stayed at the Marriott in Foggy Bottom. It’s functionally a part of George Washington University’s campus.

After arriving on Friday night, I looked at what was nearby for dinner and ended up grabbing a sandwich from Carvings, a small deli around the block. It was a beautiful night, still in the mid-60s after a day that cracked the 70s in late February. The twilight was hanging in the air, and students were enlivening the streets and windows. On the way out I picked up a copy of The Hatchet, GW’s student newspaper.

The cover story was an uninteresting feature on their outgoing president’s global fundraising tour. Inside, an opinion piece by Sky Singer was more interesting. Headlined, “GW should let underclassmen take classes pass/fail,” Sky writes: “When I was a freshman … I felt hesitate to take classes I knew nothing about but thought might be interesting. The worry that I would fall behind on completing my requirements and the stress of maintaining a strong GPA during my first term dissuaded me from trying things outside of my comfort zone. But looking back on my first couple of years at GW, I wish I had taken the time to explore more classes and subjects I was not exposed to…”

I think this is absolutely right, and something I’m adding to my wishlist for Penn State. Our colleges have become far more administrative and credentialistic in their nature, and I’m sure what Sky describes at GW is a reality among most young people. When young people stay in their comfort zones and avoid interesting but intimidating subjects, the humane and liberal arts aspects of their education suffer.

Penn State was once at the forefront of radically rethinking what it meant to be a college-educated citizen, blending the liberal and “mechanical” arts to encourage the development a more comprehensively-educated sort of person. If students are taking simple courses to maintain a stellar GPA, their degree diminishes in its value.

Why not something as radical as a “first semester pass/fail” policy to encourage curiosity, boldness, and discovery?

Catholic social teachings

In the latest Legatus magazine Andreas Widmer writes:

What makes business leadership Catholic?

…knowing and implementing the Church’s social teaching. Many business leaders are surprised to learn that the Church’s rich social teaching didn’t start with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891); it goes back to Sts. Thomas and Augustine, the Church Fathers and the apostles. It goes back to the radical charity that Jesus himself described in John 13:35: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.”

As scholars have studied, meditated upon and lived Christ’s social teachings through the centuries, they’ve synthesized them into nine basic classic principles:

  1. Human dignity: Men and women are made in God’s image and destined for eternal life.
  2. Justice: This cardinal moral virtue consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and to neighbor.
  3. Social justice: Groups and individuals must receive what is rightly owed them.
  4. Common good: All the conditions in society must allow individuals and groups to reach their fullest human potential, both in this life and the next.
  5. Solidarity: This is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.
  6. Subsidiarity: Social functions should occur at the lowest possible level so that individuals and groups have a true sense of purpose.
  7. Universal destination of goods: God gave the good things of the earth to the entire human race, not just a select few.
  8. Charity: Charity disposes us to love God above all creatures for Himself, and to love ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of God.
  9. Preferential option for the poor: Charity requires us to place the needs of the poor before our own.

Worth referencing from time to time…

Where did fake news come from?

I wrote the following in September 2012, and am sharing it in light of the “fake news” controversies of the moment:

I believe the news and most of television has become poisonous to our culture. Our parents grew up in the fading days when Cronkite was the embodiment of news, and when “straight reporting” was almost never laced with opinion. Functionally, not ever in the public consciousness. There was news, and then there were others on other shows who might comment on the news.

We don’t even pretend what we’re doing today is lacing the “news” with “perspective” — we know it’s all just spin.

Let me explain. I watched Mitt Romney’s convention speech last night. He delivered a fine speech, of the type that for much of it made me proud to be an American because he spoke to some of the best qualities of what we try to be as a people. I expect Obama will make me similarly proud for much of his own convention speech. They’re speeches. They’re trying to explain themselves to us in a way that makes sense. It makes sense that we should feel proud about our country and our electoral process when we hear them.

And within seconds of the speech ending, whatever network we’re seeing them on springs into action. What surprised you in this speech tonight? Where did he succeed in connecting with undecideds? Where did he fail? How much will this move the needle? And on, and on, and on. And on.

We might watch a quarter hour of either soaring or grounded rhetoric. We might be feeling like we’re right to think brightly about ourselves, and our future. And within maybe two minutes we’re being brought low. We’re dragged along through the cliquishness of contemporary news; the clucking-hen culture that wants to talk about what the talk will be about, and wants to think about what the thought will be about. It’s all become so meta as to become unreal.

I remember reading in one of Peggy Noonan’s books years ago (I think it was in What I Saw at the Revolution) where she spoke about a marked change she witnessed in America between the 1980 and 1984 elections. The questions reporters asked were the same: What do you think of the candidate? Will you vote for him? What don’t you like? etc. In 1980 many of the answers were straightforward: I like him; my family’s always been Democrat; I wish he was stronger on X policy. By 1984 the answers had become echoes. Americans were now answering by saying things like, “Well I saw CNN said X about him, and the New York Times said Y,” or “He’s five points behind in the polls so people don’t think he can win here.”

Americans went from citizens with opinions to third-rate news commentators, sharing what they had come to understand as the prevailing opinion of the moment over any particular opinion of their own. More “this is how I’ve heard things are playing out” than “this is what I think.”

And who did this to these people? Noonan doesn’t say, but I think that the news media created these conditions. It’s alright to feel good about things without having them so analyzed as to have the effect that we watch a speech we liked and that elevated us and yet end up leaving the room more cynical and sour than we entered it thanks to the “news” commentary that ran before, after, and sometimes during its delivery.

Everyone will have an opinion. The one thing that once set journalists apart is they were people who wouldn’t have opinions. I said in the beginning that I think news has become a poisonous force because I believe it’s not so often simply informing viewers as damaging our ability to think, because we now have to think about what we’re thinking about.

The cocktail parties are where journalists once had opinions, not the primetime slot. In elevating themselves they’ve abused the public trust. They’ve corroded their profession.

Americans will be asking themselves some form of “What are we all doing here?,” more than ever.

Fake news

The world gets neither better nor worse… just different. I’ve heard some formulation of this over and over and over applied to all variety of subjects in conversation with people who would rather recite a trite saying than engage even a thought experiment. The Christian is obligated to concede the world was better before the fall; that things have genuinely “gotten worse.”

This short snippet of a conversation with Bill O’Reilly in 2012 hopefully can serve as an example of things “getting worse” in America:

I’ll go so far as to suggest that listening to this conversation is like hearing a grown man talk with a boy. There’s the paternalistic desire to impart perspective and come to agreement, and the boy’s desire to be heard while ignoring the voice of authority. And hell, if anyone in journalism deserves authority it’s someone like Ted Koppel or his predecessors:

“I think that ideological coverage of the news, be it of the right or be it of the left, has created a political reality in this country which is bad for America. I think it’s made it difficult if not impossible for decent men and women in congress, on capitol hill, to reach across the aisle and find compromise. And if we can’t do that, Bill, we’re going to be in, and we have been, I think for the past few years, in a terrible situation in this country… It [cable news media] is a business and it’s operating as a business, and once upon a time you and I actually thought journalism was a calling.”

To understand how journalism could be a “calling” rather than simply a career requires an understanding of vocation. The traditional conception of vocation is understood through the Latin as a calling or summons. What Ted Koppel raises is this: Are we elevating, simply maintaining, or degenerating in the quality of our news? Who are the sort of people called to the profession of “journalist” today? How are they serving their neighbors?

Practical v. practicable

An important distinction from G.K. Chesterton in his book St. Francis of Assisi:

If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.

Even a basic reading of the life of St. Francis makes you appreciate his desire to act; for prompt effort and energy. I think in this way he could be called a patron of our era, even if we’re often unsure what we’re acting to achieve.

Meanwhile, Chesterton’s core point stands even a century later: to be practical shouldn’t mean to be pragmatic. Our organizing principles (whether personal, familial, national, whatever) have to be clear before we can talk about what’s “practical,” because practicality is simply our response to what’s necessary. Often the necessary things are the least practicable, yet seeking to bring about a necessary thing is a damned practical thing to do.

And don’t you love that about Chesterton? He’s so pithy and we’re so longwinded in stating the same things.