Embracing Ambiguity

Rich Marin

My good friend and riding buddy, Rich Marin, writes a daily blog post/newsletter called The Old Lone Ranger.  Rich is highly disciplined and writes 1,000 words, every day.  Rich and another friend, Philip Richter, inspired me to start my newsletter.  Philip’s site and blog is the Turtle Garage.  On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Rich’s post was titled “Getting Big Enough. It again made me recognize and appreciate different ways people look at the world.  While ostensibly about his size and the sizes of people in general, toward the end of the piece Rich crossed into a discussion about the changes 2020 and COVID have brought to our world, the disorientation and unpredictability of things and reactions to that.  You can read his full post here.

The part of his post inspiring this response is:

“And yet, who among us does not know people who surprise us with their ability to handle the whirlwind in ways that startle us. I know people who get frazzled in steady states, but who blossom and thrive in chaos. That seems counter-intuitive and almost inexplicably unnerving, but it’s true. I attribute it to a phenomenon I observed long ago in someone close to me. I concluded that I am a linear thinker for whom logic adds clarity. This other person did better handling chaos than order. They were random thinkers, people who could sense patterns rather than reason through sequential logic. I am certain I hit on a very real attribute characterization with this observation.”

While fairly certain Rich is not talking about me, I thought, “Well, I resemble that remark.”   One of the many things Rich and I have in common is being self-aware. But my trait of tolerance for ambiguity and desire to keep pushing ahead in times of uncertainty was something I only became aware of later in life.  Even after becoming aware of it, years passed before the implications of how it might affect my career dawned on me. Eventually, I figured it out after leaving the stable cocoon of employers like AT&T, CDC, and IBM and into the world of early-stage tech startups.  I was finally professionally fulfilled in this environment where the arrival of new technology or a competitive announcement could require an overnight reassessment of every assumption about our business.

In his post, Rich observed that some people “get frazzled in steady states.”  Frazzled wasn’t how I would characterize my feelings.  My dissatisfaction when working for large, “steady-state” companies was frustration with the agonizing slowness of getting anything done, the number of people required to buy-in before moving forward, and my colleagues overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo and rabid fear of upsetting the apple cart.  So, maybe it was frazzled, but it felt more like frustration, numbness, and exhaustion to me. It was probably why I only lasted about 5 years each in these big companies.  The daily grind of working with people who did not appear to care or understand the key drivers of the business and what we needed to transpire to move forward drove me crazy.  Working side by side with people who got their professional fulfillment from an ability to leave the office at precisely 5 pm every day with an absolutely clear desk, is what eventually did me in.  And just so we are clear, not everyone in large organizations behaves or thinks this way, and certainly not Rich Marin.

It was just six months after leaving IBM that my recognition of the “Aha moment” Rich describes occurred.  We were living in Croton-on-Hudson, NY.   I was acting as the half-time VP of Marketing for a start-up in global trade in Connecticut and had a consulting contract with a venture firm in New York City and spent one day a week there.  Many evenings I’d attend events on what to do about this new, weird, chaotic, nebulous, and probably powerful new thing called the Internet. It was at that point I realized professionally, for the first time in my life, I was completely happy, satisfied and thrilled with my job. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning.  It was non-linear, unstructured, totally lacking in certainty, and yet, in my mid-40s, I was finally doing what I was good at.

To be fair to myself, earlier life circumstances had forced me into a professional life of only working for large companies. The risk to my family of not having health insurance was too high. My health history and what insurance companies viewed as adverse “pre-existing conditions” made me uninsurable, except when bundled into a huge group policy only available through large employers. I remember riding the train back from the city one afternoon, staring out the window at the cakes of ice floating in the Hudson River and thinking how if every one of my current income sources were to instantly dry up, I would be able to find something else quickly, and it would probably be better than what I was doing now.

I spent the rest of my working life with early-stage start-up companies.  While far from dependable in the long-term sense, my work was always satisfying and gratifying. I hated to lose and felt real angst and fear when we’d run out of options and had to close up shop.  But even then, I knew I was doing the right thing.  Rich is correct about the new pressures coming from a world seeming to be constantly evolving, complexities of the web and where to go for reliable information, and a polarized political landscape that keeps getting worse even when we think it is already as bad as it can get.  Rich concluded that the biggest challenge may be to find something that isn’t changing. He may be right, but I’m not sure it matters to me.  While I may not thrive on ambiguity, I’ve learned to get comfortable with it.  Perhaps he’s right – it’s my nature.

TV Top Pick #12: Dirty Money (Netflix)

I found DIRTY MONEY, a new series on Netflix, shortly after watching the amazingly funny Netflix send-off of 2020 called “Death to 2020.”  If you’ve not watched it yet, do so. Death to 2020 resulted in at least a half-dozen belly laughs and more subtle snickers than I could count.  But now onto Dirty Money.

What makes Dirty Money great is each one-hour episode packs a full documentary movie.  The level of research, quality of the writing, visuals and skills of the interviewers are some of the best you will find on television today. This is genuinely in the same league as 60 minutes and similar top-notch documentary efforts.  I found the characters show-cased in these highly compelling stories, down-to-earth, real and articulate.

Each of these stories has two sides, and they do an incredible job of presenting both or at the very least, having both sides fully articulate their rationale for what they are doing.  In the Payday episode, I started with admiration for the drive and determination of an entrepreneur who built a business, then began seeing the impact his business model and approach was having on the lives and personal situations his business actions caused his customers. Then I see the entrepreneur fighting for his rights.  As the guy who trained him to race put it: “If you’re racing in a series, and there’s a big thick rulebook for white drivers, and a tiny little rule book for Native American drivers, you’re going to start hiring Native American drivers.” At first I admired his ability to have found a loophole to exploit, but then you realize that the loophole is illegal, and you see the gyrations the company has to go through to hide the way in which it cheats, and then they take you back to where you see precisely how little people are deceived and ripped off and the impact on the company and its employees.  It goes back and forth, with a bit more being revealed in each scene.  I suspect some will end up siding with the victims and others with the company founder.  That says more about you and your values than the people in the film.  Rotten Tomatoes reported 100% of critics gave the series a positive review.

The series has two seasons, with six episodes each.  They can be watched in any order.  So far I’ve watched the following ones.  Here are a few brief comments on each.

Season 1, Episode 2: Payday.  About Scott Tucker and the Payday loan business he builds from scratch, but then loses when he crosses the legal line.

Season 1, Episode 5: The Maple Syrup Heist.  The great Canadian maple syrup heist is about how (and why) someone manages to steal thousands of barrels of maple syrup. Unlike most crime dramas, this one really happened.

Season 2: Episode 1: The Wagon Wheel.  I bank at Wells Fargo Bank.  After watching this, I want to switch banks.

Season 1: Episode 3: Drug Short. Tells the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and is one of the best stories in this 12 episode line up.  This is an amazing story, remarkably told.  Were it not for a relatively small discovery and a failure of a company to quickly notice it and cover it up, no one would ever be the wiser.  You will learn about some of the built-in checks and balances with public companies.

Season 1: Episode 6:
The Confidence Man.  If you’re a big Donald J Trump supporter and don’t want to know any more about him, you might want to skip this one.  The episode chronicles Trump’s long business career, before he became a politician, in great detail. It charts most if not all of his business initiatives and results – where he did remarkably well, and the areas in which he did not. It also provides new insight into how he manages, some of his special talents and capabilities.

Season 1: Episode 1: Hard NOX.  This is about the Volkswagen emissions scandal.  As an owner of one of the TDI engines targeted in this story (ours is in an Audi Q5 and Audi is owned by Volkswagen), we’ve dealt directly with the results of this scandal.  Again, the story of what Volkswagen did and how they were exposed is absolutely riveting television. This episode is one of the key reasons I am so high on the series.

Season 2: Episode 3: Slumlord Millionaire.  This documents the rise of Jared Kushner from an heir in a prominent real estate empire to a top White House advisor.  Make no mistake, this is one exceptionally smart young man and the country will be hearing from him for years to come.

Four non-fiction book favorites from 2020

Reading books is an addiction which began for me in grade school and only in my busiest years have I not been in its clutches. You will learn my top four non-fiction books for 2020 in this newsletter, but not before I make you wade through the story of how I became a reader.

By the end of third grade at Lincoln School in Fairmont, MN, I suspect I’d not yet learned to read. Maybe a wee bit, but not very well, certainly. I have reproduced my third grade report card chronicling my failures and my teacher’s recommendation to repeat third grade. My parents, sensitive to the trauma I would undergo the following year as my classmates moved on and I remained with a group of younger kids, transferred me to what was then called a “parochial school” – a church sponsored school. Starting in this new school in the 3rd grade (again) had no noticeable stigma as all the kids were new. What was different was what had happened over that summer.

In the summer of 1959, following my grade 3 failure, I began playing with a neighborhood kid a year older whose parents allowed him to have comic books. This was way cool, as comics were not allowed in our house. I loved reading them, except at first, it was hard to figure out the words in the bubbles above the various characters’ heads. Remembering “sounding out” exercises from school and with my friend’s help, by the end of the summer I was reading pretty well, albeit just comics. My mother noticed my interest in comics and, while she refused to buy Superman, Batman, Archie or Donald Duck, she found “Classics Illustrated,” a publisher who took “stories by the World’s Greatest Authors” and turned them into comic books. Soon I’d read and re-read A Tale of Two Cities, Lorna Doone, The Man Without A Country, The Virginian, Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, Silas Marner, Lord Jim and many others. I still have 17 of these comics in decent — although well-read-condition. When I got older, I felt compelled to read the full novels, and in some cases I did.

In my second shot at 3rd grade, I still hated school, refused to pay attention or cooperate. But a librarian at the school introduced me to Jack London’s novels (White Fang, The Call of the Wild, To Build a Fire) and then to a whole shelf filled with historic fiction. I began tearing through the entire lot. I discovered I could hide a book behind a notebook, out of sight of the teacher, and read throughout the school day, only looking up toward the teacher when I turned the pages. While I could read, I still stunk at school and hated it.

In high school one semester they offered a class in speed reading. That class, along with typing and driver’s ed, were the only classes where I got decent grades. But then, in the 11th grade, two teachers took an interest in me. From one I discovered the debate team and theatre, completely changing who my friends were, and from the second, a single comment changed my life: “You know, you write very well. You should come help us on the school paper.” From C and D grades in 10th grade I made the dean’s list in the 11th, and when I transferred to Mayo High School in Rochester for my senior year of high school, I left the bad student persona behind and spent grade 12 as an A student.

In college I found time to get through my assigned textbooks while adding what my student colleagues were reading as “recreational literature.” I remember devouring The Lord of the Rings books, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and anything by C.S. Lewis. My roommate at the time, Lloyd Schley, was a philosophy major and introduced me to new books and writers. Although having read Huxley, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Vonnegut and Voltaire in my high school Humanities class, Lloyd expanded my philosophical novel list extensively: Hermann Hesse (Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha), Camus (The Stranger, The Fall), Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and Huxley (After Many a Summer). These were before hitting me with harder stuff from Bertrand Russell, Being and Nothingness, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil), his favorites. I got lost on Nietzsche. I think Lloyd wanted me to read them so we could argue. Whatever the rationale, it worked.

Out of school, in my twenties, I started to care about my job and how well I was doing. I re-read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a host of self-improvement books from Napoleon Hill, Zig Ziglar and about how to sell and manage. I’d just bought my first motorcycle and so loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

In my thirties, at Control Data, there was one area in which I was insecure. To work in the group I led, you were required to have an MBA to even apply. I wondered if anyone knew I had no advanced business degree. Books like In Search of Excellence, anything by Peter Drucker, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and Megatrends by John Naisbitt became my instructors. CDC would later hire Naisbitt as a consultant and he and I became friends. I also listened to audio tape training programs. One of my favorites was William Oncken’s Managing Management Time. It was a brilliant treatise on how to be effective in large organizations and I listened to it over and over. He was a brilliant speaker and hilarious, and his techniques for bothering to do only the work that mattered as a manager, helped me a great deal. For entertainment, spy novels were the rage and I loved all of John Le Carre’s books as well as those by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Graham Greene, Ken Follet and Frederic Forsyth. My friend David Barnett this year recommended John Le Carre’s autobiography and it was a delight to read. This was also the period in which I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and from there fell in love with anything Douglas Adams wrote.

My forties and fifties stuck mostly along the lines of the above, but added skilled Scandinavian writers like Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q series) and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books. I’ve read everything Christopher Moore has written although I’m especially fond of The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bloodsucking Fiends, and a host of other humor writers. I recently feigned shock and surprise to my good friend and riding buddy Kevin Brown, a former minister and theological seminary graduate, when he admitted he’d never read Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

So, now I’m retired. I no longer read business advice books. Over the past year I’ve given away over 250 business and investment books, some dearly loved. I now re-read favorite classics and find new authors. I still love fiction and probably pick it up more often than non-fiction. This coming year I will re-read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as I hear they’re making a movie or series about it. My nephew Robert has got me re-interested in Science Fiction and so I’m well into several multi-book epics like The Expanse series.

You made it this far, so you deserve this, my list of the four best non-fiction books I read in 2020. It goes without saying I recommend each highly.

  1. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (He also authored The Map That Changed the World, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness & the Love of Words and many others.) A master story-teller, Winchester uses precision as a lens to examine history beginning in the Industrial Age. I found the book impossible to put down. I read it earlier in the year and recently listened to it again. I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well. Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes.
  2. Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and their Battle for Speed and Glory, by A. J. Baime (He also authored The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, Big Shots: The Men Behind the Booze). Technically, I may have read this in 2019, I forget. It’s still one of the best page-turning history books I’ve ever read. And they made the movie “Ford vs. Ferrari” staring Matt Damon and Christian Bale from this book.
  3. The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis (He also authored Moneyball, The Big Short, The New New Thing, and Liar’s Poker)
    I’ve read several other Michael Lewis books, and along with Malcolm Gladwell, he makes highly compelling stories of seemingly dry, complex subjects and events. In this book he explores the spider web of concepts influencing human judgement and decision-making and errors in the human psyche. He makes the research of Tversky and Kahneman interesting and their odd friendship relatable.
  4. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols.
    I started this book in 2020 and am still reading it, but got more than half-way through in 2020, so am including it here. While scary, it’s very good, never preachy. Unfortunately, this is highly accurate reporting on where things stand right now. If Nichols is going to make recommendations on how we get out of this mess, I’ve yet to see it. But I’ve still got two chapters to go.

For every non-fiction book, I probably read ten fiction stories. So, that list is considerably longer and I’ll save that for another post. If you liked this post, let me know. I know many people don’t read books anymore, but I still love them, although I’m just as likely these days to listen to a book via digital audio as read it. I just don’t fly as much anymore, where I tried to read a book per flight. Here are four quotes from the above books:

“…the inherent properties of matter start to become impossibly ambiguous.”
― Simon Winchester, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

To take control of this materialized energy, to draw the reins over this monster with its steel muscles and fiery heart—there is something in the idea which appeals to an almost universal sense, the love of power.”
― A.J. Baime, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans

When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”
― Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

“…the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”
― Thomas M. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

And now that report card.

TV Top Pick #8: The Glorias

When I was growing up, the name Gloria Steinem was mostly used derisively by many in my family, if she was mentioned at all. This 2020 documentary movie, shows how childhood experiences influenced this iconic writer, activist, and organizer for women’s rights.  Irrespective of how you feel about her politics and causes, I highly recommend this remarkable directorial achievement. Four actresses play Steinem at various ages and she appears as herself, too.  It’s the best biographical documentary I’ve ever seen.

Before telling you more about this film on Amazon Prime, let me share what it was like for me to meet this movie’s director, Julie Taymor.  Unlike my friend, Rich Marin, who knows so many film celebrities (both those in front and behind the camera), my brushing shoulders with individuals in this profession has been rare, although it’s happened a few times and has always been memorable.

In 2000 I was invited to speak at the TED (Technology, Education, and Design) annual conference in Monterey, CA.  My company was commercializing collaborative filtering software and making waves in the Artificial Intelligence technology circles because of our software’s uncanny ability to predict people’s preferences.  I was invited to TED to explain how it all worked.  Then as now, TED was a big deal and  attracted an exclusive crowd. I will never forget mounting the stage with its amphitheater seating and seeing that my eyes were exactly parallel with people sitting in the sixth row, and I was looking directly into the faces of Jeff Bezos, Walt Mossberg, Mitch Kapor, Bill Gates, and other notables, as they waited to hear what I had to say. I felt more stage fright in front of this assemblage than any other audience I had ever addressed.

Each session of TED was similarly structured.  The TED staff arranged for all speakers in each segment (typically 4-5) to sit together in the front row making it easy for us to take the stage without walking over other people.  We sat in order of how we’d be called to the stage.  I was the second speaker and Taymor, who would speak third, was on my left.  In position well in advance of the session’s start, we had a few minutes to introduce ourselves to each other.  When Julie Taymor told me her name, I had no idea who she was, but we had a nice conversation about the weather, our previous day’s flight, etc.  After I’d given my presentation, I returned to the same row, but at the opposite end, and listened to her talk.  Taymor focused on the challenges she faced in converting one of the best-loved films ever, Disney’s The Lion King, to the stage.  Of course, I was mesmerized by her talk – how she was so intimidated by the task of competing on stage with an animated film, where they “could do anything – if it could be drawn, it could happen.”  Also, how she hit upon the one thing the movie couldn’t do, which was to show things in three dimensions, giving her the idea to move the action off the stage, over and through the audience, creating a live theatre experience that thrilled millions and played on Broadway for 21 years. It went on to become one of the most popular musicals in the world, with 100 million people seeing twenty-five global productions of her play. I also recall being exceptionally happy and relieved that it was not I following her onto the stage.

Unsurprisingly, the movie of Gloria Steinem’s life is brilliantly done and I loved it.  It was easy for me to see Taymor’s fingerprints all over it. Not only does it tell a wonderful and inspiring story of a woman who dedicated her life to the causes she believed in, but it does so using four different actresses playing her at different times in her life. Other biographical documentary filmmakers have used multiple actors to play a single individual, but never have I seen a director bring all those actors into the same scene and have them interact with one another. I found it to be a stunning effect, ingenious and creative and so like Taymor.  If your politics are more conservative, you may not be as intrigued by watching her campaign for women’s rights, the ERA, transgender rights, and other causes as some will be. But there’s a good chance you will like it anyway. It is a fascinating study that weaves memories of her youth, her parents, and early life experiences into a believable and memorable human being. As I commented in another film recommendation, be sure to watch this if, by any chance, you have daughters, or if you had a sister… or a mother.  Then you should be sure to watch it.