Why The Resource Based Theory Of Management Explains Everything About Us

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Thursday, 8.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Since scarcity is the basic economic problem, if it does not exist then there is no reason for my economics course. Devoting time to the study of how people use limited resources to fulfill unlimited wants and needs should help us to discover how to best utilize the resources we have at our disposal. – Kurt Bills

I’ve been told I shouldn’t tell you this – but I’m going to anyway. And I bet you won’t guess what it’s all about.

At this time of year the holiday movies come out and at some point you will see Santa writing a list and he’ll be doing that with a dip pen, perhaps a quill. Certainly not a ballpoint or even a fountain pen. As I write everything with a decades old editor, the chance to experiment with centuries old writing technology was one that I couldn’t pass up. And as in our material age we have amassed everything in the world at one point or another, I found a crumpled bag in the loft with an assortment of calligraphy nibs, pen holders and ink.

Of course, it’s not enough to just use a dip pen – you also need to find out a bit about these instruments and their history. And in doing that I stumbled across Ted Bishop and his essay on Virginia Woolf and her inks. It turns out that you can make ink at home, Bishop has the recipe on his site, all you need are gall nuts, a growth ok oak trees, gum arabic, ferrous sulphate and wine and you’ll be writing using the ink of Shakespeare. The dip pen that you’ll use to write with is a symbol of the act and the seal of the US Copyright Office, which I have very loosely copied in the picture at the start, showed a dip pen lifting off the paper symbolising that your copyright came into existence the instant you fixed your idea on paper. It’s now been replaced with a boring “c” thing that has no history to it.

But history matters. But in what way – how do you go about studying the past and what is in it? In Bishop’s essay he talks about realizing that when he looked at Woolf’s work earlier he had focused on the literary aspects of it, without worrying about how it was physically constructed. He has a quote by Anthea Callen, from the book Bright Earth: Art and the invention of color by Philip Ball, that goes “Any work of art is determined first and foremost by the materials available to the artist, and by the artist’s ability to manipulate those materials”

Now this is a statement that is obvious and also very deep. I wonder if there is a term for that, something that is both intuitively right and carries the burden of huge meaning. If you generalise that statement and put it into management speak and you can bear the dilution of the language that comes with doing that you get something on the lines of, “Any work depends first and foremost on the resources available to the worker, and by the worker’s ability to work those resources.”

When you look at the world through this lens it starts to become clear that people who have achieved great things achieved them because they had resources and were able to work them. That’s obvious. Bill Gates was born at the right time to the right parents and had the right resources available to him and was able to work those resources to build the business that made him one of the richest men in the world. What’s less obvious is that Gates was also restricted in his options of what to do, he probably had little choice but to go on and get rich. He probably wouldn’t have fared well trying to be a basketball star or a local city counsellor on the fast track to becoming President. Unless he had the right resources and knew how to work them.

This rule applies to you and me. What are the resources we have and how do we work them? I have spent the better part of my life, three quarters of it so far, trying to do what is expected of me. As I said at the start of this post I’m still being told how to act and be. And that has worked, to some extent, but it’s also been a bit like swimming against the tide. It’s only when I stopped doing that and started working with the resources I had – the ones I knew how to work – that things have started to become easier and simpler and clearer.

And then, when you think about it, this observation applies to everything else. If you’re looking at your business, the options you have depend on the resources available to you and your ability to work those resources. Learning a new skill, trying a new method, experimenting with a new approach – everything you do comes down to resources and capability and you have to have both if you want to do anything. So, if you don’t have one or the other, the first job is to go out and get them and then you can start doing something and making something of your life and business.

That’s not the answer people want, is it? They want the shortcut, the hack, the quick way, the rocketship – not the long plod to Dullsville. But here’s the thing. When you slow down and stop trying so hard you might get the time to see what’s really important. And if you see what’s important you can focus on that and do it well and you’ll end up being successful, and if you’re not successful you’ll at least be happy; and if being happy is not being successful then I’m not sure you know what success really is.

Coming back then, to the dip pen, do you think it went out of fashion because it was supplanted by something better? I think you’ll probably agree that it wasn’t. The things that came later, washable ink, biros, cartridge pens, and all the other stationery we love, are more convenient, less messy, but really what’s happened is that we don’t really see the need for writing any more. We scribble notes to each other and type everything that matters into a computer somewhere. And that’s a loss – with all that choice we’re leaving behind the mark-making capabilities that marked us out as human. We’re leaving them for better, smarter stuff but for some of us the choice is really not about one or the other but both-and. Learn how to use computers and write your own code. Learn how to use a dip pen and make your own ink.

Because it comes down to resources and capability, and the more you have of those that matter to you the more likely it is that you’ll be able to do what makes you happy.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is The Real Problem We Have In Understanding Each Other?

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Wednesday, 8.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Literacy. noun. The condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.

We forget just how hard it is to learn something for the first time. That steep learning curve, the one that seems almost vertical. Is it even really worth attempting? If you have never played an instrument and decided to pick one up today how long do you think it would be before you gave up and went back to doing the things you know how to do? Not very long, probably.

Maybe this gives us a clue as to why people find it hard to understand one another. Maybe it comes down to language. We know that a person who speaks only English will find it hard to talk to someone who speaks only Tamil. They probably end up creating an intermediate language, a mix of signs and sounds that help them get across what they mean. Now, this might seem obvious when you think of real languages – but you often find that the same kind of issues crop up when people speak the same language, but differently.

For example, engineers, accountants and lawyers might look at the same situation and think and say very different things. One might talk in terms of lengths and volumes, another in terms of costs and allocations and the last in terms of risks and liabilities. They’re each saying things that are rich and meaningful to themselves and only a little better than gibberish to the others. And the reason for that is we’re not born knowing how to understand each other. We’re also not born into some kind of sinister society that wants to control how we think. We’re just in a situation where the inefficiencies of language show up in day to day misunderstandings.

I figured the way to explore this was to find papers that looked at the problems people face with language learning and came across one by Ferguson et al (2011) that looks at how English is the dominant language of academic publication and whether this disadvantages non-native speakers. Is it just because the English ruled over much of the world and is this a result of linguistic imperialism, the transfer of an oppressor’s language to everyone else?

Not really, the authors argue. The thing about any language is that just being a native speaker doesn’t mean you’re any good at using that language effectively. Literacy is much much more than speaking a language at home. It’s about reading, certainly, but it’s also about writing. And the ability to read and write well is not something innate – you get it through a formal education and by spending a lot of time practising.

And it’s this point that is probably the one that matters most. If you want to be good at something you have to stop and ask yourself just how much time you’ve spent learning and practising this thing. You will naturally do that if you’re talking about Tennis or playing the violin. No one expects to be good at those things immediately. But if you’re asked about strategy, or invited to work through a brainstorming session you think you can jump in and do as well as anyone else. After all, how many times have you watched the telly and thought you could do so much better than the numpties on there?

When it comes to academic papers a lack of language skills is rarely the problem – it’s the lack of academic skills that results in your work being rejected. If you haven’t designed your study well, can’t tell your story and don’t know what readers are looking for, then it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a native speaker or not. Your work is still rubbish and will stay rubbish until you get better – which comes with time and practice.

Now, what the authors also point out is that if you’re a non-native speaker you do face additional difficulties writing in a foreign language. Your ideas may be sound but your expression may need some work. In the 1995 film A Walk In The Clouds, the character Alberto Aragon says, “Just because I talk with an accent doesn’t mean I think with an accent.” It’s easy for native speakers, however, to focus on the errors and not on the substance of what someone is saying. Conversely, I’ve noticed that speakers of one language are much more conscious of “getting it right” and strain to produce sounds that they think are authentic rather than just having a go and trying to talk to each other.

The difficulties people face with communicating in the same language and different languages parallel the challenges that come up when we ask people to use a method or approach that we’ve devised. For example, I’m interested in Soft Systems Methodology and have developed a method to work through a problematic situation and gain an appreciation of what’s going on. There are other people who have come up with approaches to visual thinking that use different techniques and ideas. What we’ve created is a sort of language, one that models ideas and relationships – related in the sense that drawing is at the heart of both languages but different perhaps in our approaches to sense making using drawing.

We will have some difficulty getting our points across if we try and use our methods to explain rather than trying to see how the other person is doing the same job. But it’s worse for the participants who are trying to get their heads around the intricacies of the visual language and the ideas they are trying to explore. You can see how these situations can very quickly lead to confusion. “We need a common language,” someone will say eventually, and that’s one answer. But it’s not necessarily one that improves things. For example, you might say we need a common metric that an engineer and finance person can use to talk about a project – something like a discounted cash flow that lets you work out a net present value. “Good,” says the engineer, and computes one. “Ah,” says the accountant and asks what answer you really want, because the value can be anything you like if you mess around enough with the assumptions.

I think the takeaway here is something like this. If you come up with a way to do something, think about it as if you’ve invented your own language. Maybe it helps you think better but eventually if you want to work with someone else you need to translate your thoughts into a language you can both understand. Or, if you want to be really forward thinking about this, translate it into the other person’s native language. But whatever language you use the fact is that you’ll need to spend time and effort getting literate at it, first being able to read and write, and then being able to do both well. There are no shortcuts.

Now, the actual point of the paper was to ask whether the global dominance of English was a bad thing. The conclusion they head towards appears to be that you do need a common language for scientific discussion and English happens to already be that language. You might not like it and you might want to change it but it’s simply so embedded into the way everything works that it’s just going to keep being used. It’s not really going to be British English or American English but just English and some people will get exercised about whether you should keep a “u” in or out of a word but it won’t really matter either way.

What that means for visual thinkers and methodology creators and engineers and lawyers and finance professionals is that you can do your thinking in whatever way helps you think best. If others are willing to play with you using the language you prefer, then great – knock yourself out. When you explain it to others, however, just do it in plain English.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Ferguson, G, Pérez‐Llantada, C, and Plo, R, “English as an international language of scientific publication: A study of attitudes,” World Englishes 30, pp. 41‐59 (2011).

Why Should You Get People Talking And Thinking About Things?

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Tuesday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness. – Julia Ward Howe

I am all for speed. Quantity counts. And it sounds like there is evidence that a strategy based on quantity is a good one. Why would fish lay millions of eggs otherwise? Why is the entire reproductive process based on the dispersion of far more seed than will ever find fertile soil? When you really think about it, is there anything more wasteful than nature itself?

Then again, maybe we’re at a point where we need to be the opposite of wasteful, where we need to think more slowly, take our time and consider all the options and look at things from multiple points of view. But that’s so ridiculously hard and takes so long to do and costs so much – surely we can just get on with it?

I came across a paper by Gregory, Hartz-Karp and Watson (2008) that talks about using deliberative techniques to work with a community and develop policy. So what are these? Well, it’s when you use techniques and methods that give people the chance to reflect on what’s happening, discuss stuff with each other, ask questions and think more deeply about the situation and problem at hand. But why would you do that? Because doing this is how people see things from different perspectives and perhaps even change their minds or adjust their positions.

The fact that much of the world, especially right now, operates in a completely different way, is so obvious that it doesn’t need pointing out. We jump to conclusions instead of reflecting, shout rather than discuss, stay silent rather than question and act rather than think.

Now, we know that we don’t use deliberative approaches in most situations. What you see, most of the time, is people sit down and come up with ideas. They they put these out to consultation and then they get responses from the public and then the people in charge agree or disagree with these responses and the policy gets made and published. It’s an efficient and low-cost way of doing things and that’s why it’s used a lot.

Gregory et. al (2008)’s paper tells you many of the things you need to think about. How do you get a diverse group of people to participate in your session? Select some or all randomly. How long does it have to be? Longer than you think – people need time to work on this. Do you do it every time? No – it depends on the situation. Is it meant for small or large groups? Yes. Do you do quantitative or qualitative evaluations? Yes. Do you involve experts or the general public? Yes. How much do you tell people? As much as you can. How do you get people to trust your process? Well, that’s hard. Have you been honest with them before? If participants start to feel like this is all for show then they’ll quickly get disengaged and sceptical about the whole thing.

Then, of course, you have the knotty problem of whether all this talking actually leads to anything, does it result in better outcomes? And that’s very hard to tell because you don’t know what would have happened if you didn’t do what you did. Maybe the consultation would have been quicker and cheaper and got to the right conclusion.

But then again, what’s “right”? Is there any real, objective “right” sitting out there, just waiting to be discovered. Or is everything contingent – depending on the situation and the people involved and the only thing that counts is making things better for the people that are there and affected by what’s going on.

Let’s look at the big example of this whole thing – the law as it works in most countries. We think of the “law” as a thing, as something absolute. But it’s really a bunch of rules worked out over decades argued over for centuries. The law seemed like an alternative to getting out your sword and fighting everyone else who disagrees with you. Instead you grudgingly make your case and try to get people to work with you. The law emerges out of all these interactions and the way a people think they should act and think is then written down in words that are rarely enough but that are better than the alternative, which is shouting and punching.

Now, you need to ask yourself whether the reason courts take so long is because they want to take time to deliberate or because they are lazy and don’t know how to do things quickly. And it’s probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. The courts have one thing in mind and lawyers have another and the whole thing is at one level a search for fairness and truth and at another level a game where the person with the best argument can try to win. Is there any real way to test whether a law does its job – whether it works and improves the situation?

Christian and Griffiths (2017) may ride to the rescue on this one. Old laws are probably better ones because they’ve lasted this long without being thrown out. And you can expect them, using Bayesian statistics, to last at least as long as they have lasted so far. In a rather nice example of this the oldest law on the statute books is the Distress Act of 1267 that essentially says that the only way you can get compensation for damages is through a lawsuit in a court. In a previous paragraph I thought that avoiding a fight might be the reason we have the law and it turns out that’s the case – the purpose of the law was to outlaw feuds. What this tells us is that in the year 2773 we will probably still have courts and lawyers and will file a lawsuit if we think we’ve been wronged. The courts will survive.

What this tells us is that old approaches that are still around and being used are probably good ones. New ones that haven’t been tested much will probably be around for as long as they have been so far. So that latest management fad – before you really devote yourself to following its every mandate ask yourself how long it’s been around. And if its a short while you have nothing to lose by waiting a little bit longer. On the other hand, if it’s been around for a while you can probably trust that it works.

History, it turns out, is actually a pretty good teacher.

I mentioned that I was planning to start a programme of research and that’s why my writing is now a little more formal when it comes to references and ideas. One aspect of this is that I’m trying to find a research question, something that I can look at a little deeper. And I think there’s something in this space – where you have lots of methods and ideas that people come up with and then a history of methods and approaches that are so ingrained in the way we live that we don’t perhaps stop to think about the fact that they were once new and different and something about them meant that they survived. Did they survive because they were lucky or because they were good? How can we tell?

I think I might want to look at history and community in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Judy Gregory, Janette Hartz-Karp, and Rebecca Watson, “Using deliberative techniques to engage the community in policy development,” Australia and New Zealand Health Pol- icy, p. 5:16 (2008). https://anzhealthpolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-8462-5-16.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, p. Harper Collins (2017).

How To Engage Your Community

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Monday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Memes just show that people are engaged about something. A meme is just a little inside joke for a group of people that care about a certain thing. – Anthony Fantano

It’s hard to tell the difference between something that is real and something that just looks real. This time of year we’re reminded of that quite a lot. What’s real and what’s not real about the holiday season – the spirit, the gifts, the sleigh, the beard. And what’s important to remember is that just because you can’t see something that doesn’t mean it’s as real as everything else. If you’re confused about that just remember that feelings (which you can’t see) are just as real as noses and toeses. This is not something I have ever been very good at, which is perhaps why I notice it more now.

In my last post I wrote about the tension between research and really knowing what you’re talking about versus just writing. There’s another source of angst which has to do with whether you should keep going or tear it all up and start again. I mentioned that I was getting fed up of WordPress – or at least, I was fed up with the idea of having a big, bloated resource and was wondering whether I should throw it all away and start again with a simple text file. What do you think? Should I?

Now, the answer to that question is in a book. But before we get to that let’s take a short diversion. I’m planning to start a research degree. I always wanted to do it but it seems like the right time now and it’s in an area that I am interested in so I have to make that happen over the next few months. And if you’re going to do research you have to start doing things properly, keeping track of what you read, the ideas that you come across and what you think of them. That’s what I’ve been doing, more or less, with this blog, but not deliberately, not intentionally. More when I can really, given that the Internet is this huge landscape littered with diamonds hiding in swamps.

So, I have to keep track of where the diamonds are by getting better at tracking references. So, I’m going to maintain references as I go along at this page and refer to them in the blog as you would do with normal parenthetical or Harvard referencing. For stuff that isn’t a straight link anyway.

That’s probably going to slow me down as well. Typically, I keep writing until I run out of time or steam – and that tends to work out at around a thousand words. I also try and work on a concept at a time, trying to cover it in the post. What that probably means is I miss a lot out that I could go through if I slowed down, if I looked deeper and worked through the idea. After all, what’s the rush? Which is where we finally come back to the book – Algorithms to live by – which you will find in the references page and try to answer the question.

The question, in case you’ve forgotten, is should I keep using WordPress or throw it away and start again with an html website? How long do you think I’d keep going with the two methods? Well, Christian et. al. (2017) have an answer. In the absence of any other information I’ll keep going for as long as I’ve gone so far. The WordPress site will still be there in another four years. The html site – well, at present you can expect it to be around for another month. (And I’ve used my first Harvard reference on the blog- intentionally anyway)

Now, the point of this post, a few hundred words back, was to think about engaging a community, a group of people who have something in common. So I suppose you have to start by thinking about what we mean by engaging people. Is it the fact that they are in one space, or does it have to do with the fact that they can say what they want to say. Are social media spaces communities or are they megaphones for some and lonely islands for others? And what does it mean to intentionally engage people – what are you trying to learn and do and change as a result?

At this point I don’t know what the answer is to the question – or for that matter, what the question is in the first place. So we need to start somewhere, anywhere, and see what’s going on.

And the place I’m going to start is with Gaver et. al (2015), in which the authors discuss their “Energy Babble”, an “automated talk-radio” that gets content from many sources and creates a radio show with synthesised speech and music. The problem they’re trying to address is how to get people to use less energy. You might think that the answer is in technology that tells you what you use so that you can use less, but it turns out that such an approach can’t cope with social complexities, whether individuals are ready to change, and different situations that need different solutions.

The way the authors got to the Energy Babble idea was through a design phase – one where they engaged with people in a playful, creative way, something termed “ludic design”. They also used “speculative design” which is a way of experts and designers working together to look at possible futures. The authors are clear that they didn’t go into the project with a plan of what to mae but they wanted this to come out from the interaction and engagement with the community.

So, now we have the thing with “proper” research – once you lift the lid on something you start seeing all kinds of points in every sentence. That’s the point of doing a literature review, I suppose. Anyway, the researchers came up with engagement activities based on the idea of cultural probes, a way of giving people something like a diary or an activity where they record what they’re doing or feeling so that you can understand them better. These included things like creating your own front page for a magazine or newspaper, coming up with annotated timelines and rich picture type activity. What this led to, over time and after analysis, was an appreciation of the kind of approaches people were looking for, for example going and seeing what others were doing, being really activist about the whole thing and sharing knowledge and information. All this eventually turned into the Babble.

The interesting thing, the most interesting thing about this idea, is that it’s not useful. It’s not utilitarian, like a technology. Instead, it’s role is to say something like “You don’t know what you need to know yet.” What all this boils down to, really, is that people keep working out what they think they have to do through the conversations they have and you have different levels of engagement depending on how they communicate.

There’s this idea in there that I should follow up – in DiSalvo, C. (2009). Design and the Construction of Publics. Design Issues, 25(1), 48-63. – that a public forms around an issue. So, maybe if you’re trying to engineer a community, you need to start by asking yourself what issue is there at the centre of whatever it is that you’re trying to create. So, how do you figure out the issue or make it more obvious? Well, you can think about the future, you can think about the past or you can talk about it a lot and see if something comes out of it. Climate change is an example of the first approach, the ongoing impact of slavery is an example of the second and what we’re going to do about anything at all is an example of the third.

We need to carry on with exploring how to engage people then – because that’s really what talking it out is all about. So we’ll carry on with this in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

p.s. I tried an experiment for a bit writing in American English rather than British. Not sure it had much real impact but since I might want to use this content for institutions where I live I think I’ll go back to the local language for a while.

It’s easy enough to write a script to replace all the changes to localise for somewhere else anyway!

What Happens To People Over Time When It Comes To Relationships?

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Sunday, 8.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met. – William Butler Yeats

I’m reading Algorithms to live by by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths and it has some very interesting ideas. As an aside, I’ve started a shadow blog which is a simple site and you’ll find book notes for this book there.

One of the things we know about groups and friendships is that it really comes down to the amount of time you have free. When you’re a kid, there’s all the time in the world. If you meet another kid and you have something in common, anything really, you can play for hours. As you get older you have less time, the days are filled with important things and so you have to often decide whether you do something new and meet new people or spend more time with the people you already know well. And that time equation leads us to naturally select and focus our attention, over time, on the few people that we know well so that we have fewer people in our circles the older we get.

This problem falls into a category that Christian and Griffiths might term Explore vs Exploit – do you spend your time trying to find new people and connections or do you spend time with the ones you know. Getting the balance right is tricky and it does get harder as you get older. They point out that going to college is an exciting time for young people, because they get to meet new people. Going to an old age home is often a scary and unwelcome thing for older people, even though they will also get to meet new people. The newness is there, the only thing that’s different is how old the person is that’s experiencing the newness.

For a long time the relationships people had were within a few miles of where they lived. That’s still the case now, probably brought into sharp relief by the effects of the pandemic. When you can’t go anywhere the people closest to you geographically are the ones you are going to spend the most time with. At the same time the pandemic has also shown us how easy it is to connect with others a long way away using the technology we have now. That’s not new if you have been using the tech for a while – email really was the first major app to do this for us – but it’s brought this to general attention. But, of course, you have to think of the kind of change this is creating. Is it one way, where we get told stuff by one person or is it interactive, where we get to participate and engage with others?

The research in the area of friendships is sparse, but we know that having friends is good for you. There are differences in the way men and women approach friendships, with men often doing things together and women talking together. You have age-stage characteristics, as single people, young adults, families with young children, older adults and so on deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Physical communities create opportunities for interaction – events, parties, balls. If you want people to meet and get on and create the friendships that form the network of a community you need to bring people together. And it’s the same with an online community or a community of practice. A regular cadence of meetings and interaction is required to get people involved. You usually need a core group of people that commit to making this happen and you need to make it easy for people to come and try it out and see if they like the vibe and then participate some more or move on.

One of the questions you have to ask yourself is whether you try and make this happen or whether you just let it happen. For example, if you have a blog do you actively comment and participate? Do you try and respond to everything and jolly people along until you get to a critical mass of comments and then it happens by itself? Or do you go the other extreme and turn comments off so that you can focus on your content and interact with people on your social media feeds or via email. Derek Sivers, for example, has a simple blog with a comments engine that seems to work pretty well.

I suppose really when you think about this topic it comes back to how you use your time. The more time you spend with someone the better you get to know them and the greater the chances that you will think of each other as friends. And that takes us back to the Explore vs Exploit conundrum. When you have time and a few friends then go and explore, find new ones. When you have less time and good friends, spend time with them and build those friendships.

There’s a lot of angst that comes with these situations. You have to decide when to engage, when to withdraw. You have to worry about how you’re perceived, how you come across, whether people like you or not. This Algorithms book is really quite useful because as I read it it’s giving me ideas and answers about how to approach these situations. If you’re wondering about new groups, for example, the answer is to try them out, early and often. Once you find a group that works for you, then stick with it. How long should you keep looking before you make your decision? The answer is 37% of the time you give yourself – say you give yourself a month – 30 days to find a group. After 11 days of participating stick with the next best one you find.

Now, let’s look at something a little different.

I’ve been working on book length projects since March this year – and this is the third project that I’ve started. I’m refining a process of writing, getting used to spending a certain amount of time circling around a topic and getting to grips with its complexity – rather than randomly writing about whatever seems interesting at the time.

I’ve giving myself permission to create “shitty first drafts”, which is really what these pages are. I’ve learned along the way that writing in paragraphs is important – because it makes life much easier when you’re later trying to pull stuff together. I’ve also been a little conflicted about the importance of writing versus research. You can write more when you’re working through an idea from first principles, but the research does give you a framework so you don’t repeat things that have already been done. But then again, a lot of research is behind walls and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to use that but at the same time you’re not going to change the past and if there is good stuff locked away, does that mean you shouldn’t use it?

So, I was wondering whether the problem was my book topic this time – is community something that’s hard to get to grips with – or is it that I’m writing in a vacuum, at the limits of my knowledge and I really need the research to help me out? I was wondering whether I should abandon the idea or abandon the process.

So far, I think I’ve been writing on an important topic but without the structure that research gives me. So I’ll keep going but just with a bit more rigor and we’ll see where that takes us. My first two projects will probably stay unfinished until I can get the sentences sorted into paragraphs, but we’ll see where this one goes. Perhaps it’s a practice session to get things ready for the next one.

Okay, in the next post we’ll look at engagement. What makes the difference between an active, engaged community and a passive disengaged one?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Getting The Mix Right

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Thursday, 9.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together. – Malcolm Forbes

What do you really think? What is it that you believe? Have you even stopped to wonder why you believe the things you believe? Surely everyone thinks like you and has a similar view on life? After all, thinking in any other way must be unnatural, because you don’t do that.

You really have to build up an exposure to the unfamiliar if you want to appreciate it. And that makes it a little tricky because being comfortable with diversity is not something we’re born with. It’s something we pick up if we have a diverse environment around us.

Of course, when it comes to organizations and institutions there’s something you can do about the environment. And it makes good business sense to be diverse. Research from McKinsey suggests that companies that have high levels of gender and racial diversity perform better than average while those that are less diverse tend to be laggards. The reasons for this are complex, but probably come down to the fact that diverse companies also have forward thinking policies that attract and retain better talent and that leads to a “virtuous cycle” of increasing returns.

So diversity is a good thing but how do you go about increasing it at your organization? Well, a little like action on your climate impact it’s a top down thing – action from the top is needed if you really want things to change.

I’ve summarized my understanding of McKinsey’s recommendations in the diagram below.

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You need to start with data, and see what the current situation looks like. It’s unreasonable these days to have the top leadership of a company all look the same. But it’s the same thing at every level of society. If you have a panel at a conference where there is no diversity, it’s something that gets noticed now, commented upon. It’s hard to argue that there is no one other than the people on there that’s qualified to go on as well.

The thing, however, is that leadership in these issues comes from the top. There has to be buy in from the Chief Executive down otherwise nothing is going to happen. But when the executive team decide that they want to make a change and when they are visible and vocal in telling you what they want then the machinery of the organization starts to grind.

The next step is to set targets, clear ones, logical ones. And this is where we run into a conundrum. Top down targets are almost always a bad thing. If they could be met, then why haven’t they been met already? If they can’t be met, will people game the system, let in poor quality people because they need to hit their targets?

Well, the only way to deal with that is to understand how to manage variation, how to measure and monitor and understand the difference between doing things because they improve the situation and will therefore show up in the results, and doing things because they let you show that you’ve got the results. The difference is between making the numbers and making up the numbers and it’s very easy to get confused about the difference between the two things.

We might need to come back to targets another time, but it’s time to think about what you’re going to do differently. And it can’t be one thing done the same everywhere – that’s the whole point of diversity, you have to look at things differently. You need to go and talk to the kind of people you don’t see in your organization and understand why they don’t make it there and what you need to do to make a difference. You need ambassadors, interpreters, translators – because until you have people like that in your organization it’s a foreign language to you. So you probably need some help from people who’ve been there and done it before.

You need to be able to watch what’s going on, make sure there is activity of the right kind happening, because it’s only by doing stuff that you’re going to change anything. And if the data tells you that things aren’t changing that’s probably because there are barriers inside your organization, not visible ones necessarily, but the ones in people’s minds, the kind of things that slow down change, hinder movement, get in the way. Blockers.

If you do all these things, will things change? Well, it’s hard to say but it seems quite likely that if you don’t address these issues then you won’t change. And that could be a problem, it probably will be a problem – not one that you will see straight away but if change is being stopped in your organization rather than just not being actioned, then that’s a corrosive thing. You have people actively working to do the wrong thing and that’s not right – it’s more than not right, it’s tending towards being evil and that sort of thing eventually rots you from the inside.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go a long way by having no scruples and doing everything you can to maintain your power. History has shown many examples of people who have done just that. But the good news from history is that such regimes eventually end – not because great forces are arrayed against them but because small voices speak the truth and the truth can only be ignored for so long.

In our personal lives and communities there are no such top down mandates, nothing pushing us to do anything differently than we do now. So, it comes down to us to learn about these things for ourselves. We’ll be exposed to it one way or the other, through the news, the media and through increasingly diverse stories for children and adults. We can see that happening and it’s a good thing.

But some people are going to be scared by the changes and they are going to lash out and try and get things to be like they were before.

But that’s not going to happen.

Perhaps because as you get to know other people better you might even become friends. So how might that work in this day and age? What’s the difference between then and now?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Need Different Approaches At Different Levels

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Wednesday, 7.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Four Levels of Comedy: Make your friends laugh, Make strangers laugh, Get paid to make strangers laugh, and Make people talk like you because it’s so much fun. – Jerry Seinfeld

I’m discovering Seinfeld, like many other people, I’m sure, on streaming. He’s funny, he’s still relevant – because even though many things have changed people haven’t and we still have the same issues. And he explores them in a funny way. Is it witty, sardonic, a particular genre of humor? I don’t know… but it makes for good watching.

Now, decades later Seinfeld has made it to the Harvard Business Review. I point to McKinsey as the example of a consultancy firm, the people that invented consultancy as we now know it. I devoured their stuff on presentations and analysis five years ago. I still think they’re very good, I like what they’ve done with animating their visuals. But I also think that some of their approaches are still from the eighties, at least outwardly and there has been some stuff since then which might be useful to use in consultancy. The Harvard Business Review asked Seinfeld if he felt that hiring McKinsey would have helped him refine his business model.

He first asked who they were. Then he asked if they were funny. And no, if they weren’t funny he didn’t need their help.

Being funny is like having the power to look at things differently, using another lens, with a new perspective. And that’s valuable, incredibly so. Terry Pratchett had the power to do that, weaving everyday practical knowledge and management theory into his fantastical stories with a side of funny. Then again, if you’re funny, people take you less seriously and the really important stuff you’re saying passes them by.

Because things matter in different ways depending on context. For example, if you decide to do something different today – rearrange your room, for example, that’s fine. You’ll move your bed to the other side of the room, change the living room around and then get on with your day. If you charted the amount of disruption on a graph, there would be a little spike and then things would settle down.

Now, if you rearranged your team’s working environment there would be a bit more disruption, an argument or two perhaps, some unhappiness. If you did it to a group there would be a lot of discussion and angst and people would be worried about what this meant about them and their roles. And then with a community – what if you came along and decided to close down a few roads or build a bypass. That would bring out whole groups of people, supporting, protesting, complaining.

Now, would you use the same methods to resolve a disagreement with yourself about whether the radiator should go under the window or across the room as with a community working out whether a wind turbine should be in one location or another? You know instantly that the answer is no, but that doesn’t stop us thinking that because something works for us it will work for everyone else. Because we successfully did things our way it will work for the rest of society.

I think Margaret Thatcher was one of the people that was famous for saying she would run the business of government like her dad ran a corner store. But a corner store is not the same as the economy of a country and it took some time to work out the difference. From a country’s point of view some things matter more than other things. For example, right now people are stealing billions, it seems, from public funds designed to help people out. But at the same time the only thing keeping society going is the belief that things will be sorted out, that we’re still in control. The second people start to worry the toilet rolls sell out.

So what we’ve learned is this. You can make big, dramatic changes in your own life but at the level of government it’s much more about talking about what you will do than any real doing. And the doing you do is more in the way of nudging, about trying to make small changes because the ripple effects of what you do ricochet up and down the system – the bigger the system the less certain it is what will happen when that butterfly flaps its wings.

What we need to learn to do, as we engage with and try to build communities, is work out what works at different levels. Leaders go in and rock the boat, they want to bring in their approach, change everything, turn it around. And that often ends making things a little worse.

To really get a sense of what this means read these words from CNN’s analysis on the Biden transition.

“Multilateralism, diplomacy, quiet competence, scientific rigor, inclusivity, collegiality between top officials, respect for civil servants, the intelligence community and a welcome for immigrants are in.

Bashing allies, populism, nationalism, White House backbiting, despot coddling, ring-kissing Cabinet meetings, political hacks running spy agencies, and downplaying politically inconvenient threats – like killer viruses – are out.”

You can have a huge disturbance for a while and then people start to realize that it takes effort to keep the peace – and it takes effort whenever you have to deal with anyone other than yourself. After all, most of us can get into an argument in an empty room.

The thing that you have to see is that rules, policies, processes are a way of moderating the amount of action you take at different levels. Rules need to emerge to cope with the complexity of the situation you are in. You don’t need rules to decide what to do at home – although thinking about it, there’s a decent change that things like Feng Shui emerged to help large joint families live together with fewer arguments.

Rules that work at one level, for example at a family football kickabout, will not work at a higher level like a league game, which needs a referee to enforce them. And at national and international levels, rules are actually laws, and there is an entire profession that makes it their duty to try and sort things out.

This lack of understanding of levels is really what causes a problem between them. For example, you have to sign this huge license agreement when using any software. It’s just not appropriate because the level at which the corporation is acting is different from the level at which you, as an individual, are using the software. That’s why I personally, for anything I use that matters to me, don’t use commercial software. The copyleft of the FSF is what matters to me.

The takeaway here is really that you need to look at communities and the rules they operate and ask yourself if they are appropriate for the level at which they are operating. The smaller you are the fewer rules you need. The larger you get, the more you need but you also need to watch how you apply them because each time you make a change you disturb things and they need to settle down before you go forward. That’s why the law is slow, not because it doesn’t want to help you but because if it goes fast it could make things worse.

Okay… now that we can see that rules should emerge when needed rather than be imposed from one level onto another let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

The First Duty Of Government Is To Protect Its Citizens

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Tuesday, 7.51am

Sheffield, U.K.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin

In my last post I was wondering about what drives people to gang up against others. What makes one group dislike or fear another, to the point where they take action and attack the other. And what can you do about this?

What’s happening right now?

The most powerful culture shaper we have is the power of story. And stories, these days, are told through media, film and TV and streaming. We hear about diversity in media, people bemoaning the lack of representation in what we see on our screens. Increasingly, however, what you do see is diversity. In fact, it probably makes you stop and think, perhaps even comment.

For some of us it’s a little strange seeing people like us on the screen. It’s odd seeing them in public life outside the confines of our own cultures. People making a difference, barriers breaking down, to the point where we notice and feel the need to comment.

And comment people do. There is a backlash from people who are threatened by this, by others daring to find a space, a place, to seek to be represented and shown to others for who they are and what they stand for and how they live – which, for the most part, is like most other people.

And so you have this phenomenon, something like two streams of hot and cold water mixing. But what’s happening is that the mixing happens where the two streams meet. And that’s a good thing – but then you also have this strange phenomenon of the hot water and the cold water further away rushing backwards, rushing to get away and seek its own kind.

Segregation happens all by itself too

This is not the best analogy, and a much better one is the Shelling Model Of Segregation that suggests that people naturally move to places where there are others like them. Over time this results in segregated societies. This has been demonstrated with taxi movement studies where taxis that serve one kind of population in a city rarely cross into another population’s territory. You often think of segregation as something that was imposed on another group by a dominant group – but it’s something that’s happened over time because of the way people are as well.

So that leads to an interesting thought. When media is diverse and you have a choice, then will people opt for diverse media or will they flip channels or streams to segregated ones? Will their implicit preferences come out in their choices of where to spend their attention?

Now, this will come out in the data, of course, because everything is logged. We know what shows are watched in what proportion. We know what books are read and so we also know what genres and profiles will make the most money and that will drive commissions and advances and the economy of the market for media and content.

People will complain about the differences, about how it’s not fair and that everyone should get a chance. And while you might think that they’re whinging and they should be grateful to be given a chance, these complainers, these people that ask for fairness are doing something very brave and something very important. They are standing up and asking for equality, something many of us will never have to do or have the guts to do. Their complaining, their noise is what makes others pay attention and then, often reluctantly, make changes that make life easier for the rest of us.

And that’s because it’s not really about good or bad, better or worse, one or the other.

It’s about familiarity

What people mean when they say something is intuitive is usually that it’s familiar – it’s something they’ve seen before and are comfortable with it. Your house seems intuitive to you because you know it inside out, you know where everything is and where to find what you want. To someone entering your house for the first time nothing is familiar, they don’t know where the bathroom is, where you keep the tea or how to turn on the heating.

It’s the same with culture. If you want to get comfortable with someone else’s culture then you have to learn about it. Immigrants know this, and that’s why they learn about football in the UK and baseball in the US – even if they think these are crashingly boring activities. And because you aren’t going to go out and find people who are different from you (remember that segregation is happening all the time) the media has to bring the culture to you. And eventually you will be comfortable and, if you’re not, your children will. And so will their children. And everyone will get on.

And that’s a scary thought

We have a long history of thoughts that tell us that if you want to get on with me you need to be like me. Historically it’s been about religion, more recently it’s been about race and even more recently it’s been about nationality – and religion again. Populist movements prey on people who still hold these ideas – they stoke up fear about how one group is losing its culture, how what they have is being watered down or lost to a new group who are taking over.

Because there is a very real challenge here. Most of us want to be left alone to do our own thing. We want to live our lives, free of strife, doing whatever we think is best for us – as Professor Higgins points out. If we could do that all would be well. And then here come these pesky thought police telling us what to think and how to live and how dare they.

And there is no answer really to this problem, for one simple reason. Society – this group of humans do not hold absolute values. There is no good or evil or true or false when it comes to people – there are always shades of gray and complexity and difficulty and what one government choose to do to keep its citizens safe is the opposite of what another would do and hopefully the better idea wins but sometimes it doesn’t.

Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance points out that the values you hold often come down to what is convenient to hold. And that’s just life.

After all, even Google seem to have forgotten their injunction, Don’t be evil.

But that’s still a good mantra to have.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

p.s. This project is heavy going, far too much stuff that requires thinking. I’m going to keep wading through it anyway, because I said I would but I’m not enjoying it that much so far. In the next post, we’ll look at how rules emerge.

What Is The Purpose That Joins A Community?

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Sunday, 9.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of life is a life of purpose. – Robert Byrne

It’s impossible not to think about one side and another at this time. Opposing factions, good versus evil, diversity versus conformance, the differences that lie between sections of society and sections of humanity. This duality is so much a part of the lives we live that it’s hard to imagine an alternative, consider any other way of doing things.

What really, when it comes down to it is the difference between the extreme left and the extreme right? I don’t know enough about either to really dig into this but that isn’t going to stop me having an opinion. After all, it never really seems to stop anyone else.

For one reason or another I’ve been exposed to more of the left/right worldview than I would normally come across. I think it boils down to the collective versus the individual – equality for everyone versus your right not to wear a mask if you don’t want to. I’m aware that it’s never really that simple but these two big categories seem to capture a lot of the angst that’s floating about these days.

Start with principles. End with games

At the start of each movement is someone with an idea, Marx with communism, Adam Smith with the invisible hand. And then people build on these ideas, commenting, believing and acting, until eventually you have another movement, something happening, a new belief system. And then, over time, the belief system gets guardians, rituals, temples and then one day the belief dies and the shell, the carapace remains, looking like it did the day before but hollow inside.

It’s impossible not to comment on a certain election and individual, so I’m going to have to point in that direction. Here is a story of a person who came to power promising to help the forgotten many, the people progress had left behind. The people who had jobs and security and lost it when the world moved on to new ideas and different ways. And he surfed on a wave of anger because people who had something and then lose it feel the loss and pain more than people who never had it at all.

He had his time, did things his way, focused on the people that put him in power and said the things that they wanted to hear, flattered and pleasured his audience and did things others wouldn’t. And some people love him for that and others hate him and I don’t know who is right and wrong but you cannot deny that he is popular with his group.

But all of it has been about games, playing games to get things done. And now playing games to keep going, to regain territory, to look alive, to build resources for the next game. Principles are easy to state, easy to come up with and then the game starts. And eventually, very quickly, players forget the principles and focus on the rules and what they have to do to win and at one point, one time they have to decide whether they step over the line; whether they play to play well or play to win and whether the principle matters or whether the winning matters and when the winning wins, that’s when you lose your soul and the principle at the core, the belief rots away and dies.

Flames have to be relit

When you look at large, established groups then – the big parties, the big religions, countries and counties and states – what is it that holds them together? The one thing they all have in common is ritual, they know the importance of conditioning, of socialization, of songs and anthems and texts – the pillars that hold up the structure of belief, the walls that keep out the others.

The history of these movements is that of a flame, a burning torch that first gives light, which is then interred in a holder. Unless the flame is fed it eventually goes out and all that is left is the holder. That’s why all movements need recruits, new people who can hold and pass on the flame. And there is always a battle within each individual, a battle between their belief in the flame and their desire for power and, over time, the desire for power tends to win.

What do people do?

Well, they speak out or they stay silent. Or they use the process. Games are not a bad thing because they also allow those people who do not have natural advantages, the charisma, the charm, the patter of some, to create rules that give them an equal voice. That is the purpose of politics, to give you a chance to express your views and make your case and appeal to the voters, to the people. And you agree to abide by the will of the majority. Or do you?

One of the most visible failures of a recent coalition government was of the party that chose to compromise in the larger interests of the nation. They went back on their promises to their core voter base because they thought they were doing the right thing for the country as a whole and they were eviscerated in the next election. Politics is not about doing what is right for everyone. It’s about making the case for your group and working to advance its interests. If you go into coalition and there are things you fundamentally disagree on with your partner – the thing to do is not change your beliefs but focus on the smaller list of things you do agree on. The rest will have to wait until the next time you all go back to the polls.

There are no trump cards

As I think through this situation what seems increasingly clear is that there is no real resolution, there is only reality. The reality is that if you believe in something you have to make your case, go out there and make your point, and you will need all the skills needed for any other kind of organizing activity, resources, people, opportunity. Running a movement, being in politics, holding a belief – these are all matters of business, about worth and value and resource and cost. If you’re not willing to pay the price don’t do it.

Most of us don’t. Which is why we’re the floaters, the people who the core believers have to attract to their ideas.

This leads to an important lesson for community builders. There are people who will agree with what you have to say. Direct most of your efforts at helping them work together, with resources, communication and knowledge. Spend some time helping people that are interested and open to your ideas learn more and help them decide if they want to work with you. Ignore everyone else, especially those that have a go at you. Push only your message. If you start to attack others you’re giving them oxygen.

In the end your community’s value will be judged by what it does. Think of the communities you know – political, religious, commercial, philosophical. They are all based on ideas. Some have survived for centuries and enriched the world. Others have drenched it in blood. What made the difference was what people were willing to do for their group.

Why are people willing to do things in the name of their group, their organization? Does it have something to do with safety?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Is The Act Of Connecting So Important To Us?

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Saturday, 8.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. – David Maraniss

I wonder if our information processing capabilities are no longer relevant, whether, in fact the peripherals we have are increasingly redundant, much of the time. They’re still important when it comes to the matter of survival but for everything else they seem rather unfit for purpose.

That seems vague, so let me explain.

We are visual creatures, taking in the vast majority of information through our eyes. The other senses, hearing, smell, touch, taste complement and support eyesight – but being able to see is hugely important. When it comes to survival, anyway. If you can see your food from a long distance or spot a predator then you’ve just increased your chance of living longer. If you interact with another person and can read their expression clearly, including the micro-expressions that tell you how they feel, then you know what to do next – run, fight, find a room. Our senses have evolved over time to help us tackle the basic business of finding food, avoiding danger and reproducing ourselves. They have not evolved to deal with other kinds of information.

Our brain has, however, in the meantime been busy building the processing capacity to deal with things like language and abstract thought. But it has had to work with the peripherals connected to it – your eyes and ears in particular. Since we can’t change those, what humans have done is create technology to augment our senses. Children don’t realize this but that first time they picked up a book was the first time they became augmented by technology, joining a race of augmented humans.

And from there the technological opportunities to augment ourselves only increases, until we can now capture and reproduce increasing amounts of sensory information. We’ve got the hang of sight and sound, and people are busy working on touch and smell, and taste isn’t that far away either. What this eventually means is that there is no need for us to go to Mars, no need to leave our rooms, when we can experience everything that is everywhere simply by transferring the sensory experiences to where we are rather than transferring ourselves to where the experiences happen to be. Which sounds dreadful but convenient – in the end we’ll all be fat, but happy.

I was listening to a session on Bogdanov, a Russian thinker I hadn’t come across before, whose idea of a perfect society seemed to include the concept that all humans would think the same way if they lived more equally. In practice, we seem to end up with extremes. Many people go with the easy route and adapt the world they are in. Others go to the opposite extreme and go to where the experiences are. So you end up with one group entertaining the other, the daredevils climb the mountains and go to the Arctic and the rest of us sit on our sofas watching they do that.

But life lived alone in a room is no life at all – as humans we are desperate for connection, we crave community. Can you imagine the excitement of people in the 80’s when they first had a blinking terminal in front of them – where they could connect and interact with people anywhere in the world? That era is history but you can still experience it. You can connect to bulletin boards (telnet dura-bbs.net 6359) or connect to a Usenet group (slrn –nntp -h olduse.net) and get a flavor of what it’s like.

We are a world away from that, free from concerns about bandwidth and data transfer and eager to pass on more and more. And this creates a problem – one of sensory overload. When a flood of information hits your senses you have to start filtering, blocking out what’s not necessary to you can focus on what’s important. You have to start selecting tools that help you amplify or dampen information without letting those filters getting in control of how you think.

The failure to manage those filters or, more precisely, the lack of knowledge on how to use them is leading to an interesting, perhaps dangerous shift in the way people form communities today. We need to watch what’s happening in the US, as the most visible phenomenon of community building through filters – where you have a cult of personality building around an individual that will be sustained for years, perhaps generations by self-sustaining communities of interest. In plain English, people who believe what’s being put out there will cluster and share information that supports what they believe, whether it’s true or not and make decisions and react in ways that are consistent with their beliefs. In more authoritarian states this process is also happening, just under state control rather than naturally.

When this happens, when people are fed a diet of information that is unchecked, unchallenged and untrue, what option to they have other than to believe what they get? Where are the opposing views, the critical reflections, the evidence or the facts? Well, there’s no capacity left to deal with that information. If you receive audio, video, textual information on all your channels telling you one thing, with algorithms recommending more things similar to what you looked at before, then how do you find anything new, anything else at all?

There are two things you can do.

Stop stuff getting in – retreat, turn off the inputs, go back to the basics, pick up a book, write without being connected to the Internet, think instead of being told what to thing.

Actively look for diverse views – search out alternative discussions, opinions, look for facts and evidence and make up your own mind.

These things are hard to do. We are wired for survival, wired to take in information and decide whether to fight or flee. That’s our natural reaction to things.

Then again, our brains have evolved, being human is also natural. Living in communities, accepting diversity, being able to resolve differences is something we have to do. It’s something organisms in ecosystems evolve to do, to find a niche and a place and a space – and it’s something that humans choose to do. We can choose to live together or choose to fight.

I wonder what we’ll choose to do?

Let’s look at that next – what reason might we have to accept differences rather than fighting them?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh