by: Brooke Allen
Peter Pichler of Stockholm is one of the wisest, most productive, rational, scientifically trained, and humane people I know. He is also one of the best computer programmers around. When I’m in Sweden I seek him out the way a novice seeks a sensei.
One time he told me that when he is stumped he consults the I Ching. I was flabbergasted, and asked, “How can you believe in such mystical rubbish?”
“I don’t believe it has power of divination.” he said, “I do it because it works. It helps me start thinking differently when I’m in a rut.”
One evening, while waiting for a bus, I complemented him on how much he is able to accomplish and yet he always seems to have time for me.
He said, “No problem. Time is infinite.”
I said, “How can that be. I feel like time is running out.”
He said, “Believe time is infinite and you will see that it is.”
The bus came and I said, “I have to go.”
He said, “Or you could take the next bus.”
I wrote and asked if he believed that time was infinite because he thinks there is an afterlife. He responded, “That seems unlikely.”
I began believing that time is infinite and, behold, it is.
There is enough time for everyone and everything that is important – until there isn’t; which turns out to be exactly the right amount of time – no more or no less.
by Brooke Allen
In February of 2014 I retired after 30 years of navigating the moral minefield that we call Wall Street.
I was looking forward to a stress-free retirement.
My problems began when I spent the month of August, 2014 in Edinburgh for the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The summer I was there 23,762 performers from 51 countries put on 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.
The month started out well. My wife and I rented a centrally located flat with five spare beds that were soon booked with friends and relatives who wanted to visit for a few days each.
The first week was awesome because we got to spend time with European friends we hadn’t seen in years.
Things went downhill rapidly. We were taking in five or six shows a day and the effort of getting worked up to host each new set of guests was exhausting. Ten days into the month I was beginning to slip into depression.
Then Robin Williams died.
Robin Williams was loved by all those who knew him and his work. His death cast a pall over the Fringe.
What’s more, I was overdosing on entertainment.
I felt as you might if you eat so much cake you begin to choke on it. If I attended a less-than-stellar show I’d say to myself, “Well, there went an hour that I’ll never get back.” I spent a good deal of each day asking myself, “What am I doing here?” I wanted to bail but felt trapped because our entire month was booked with guests who expected to have a good time.
I wrote to a friend who just had a newborn child die. I asked him if he knew anyone in Edinburgh with whom I could have a serious conversation. He responded that he did not, but he forwarded a letter his wife and he had sent to their friends asking them not to try to cheer them up following their child’s death. They said, “We feel like we have been thrust deep into the fire of self-discovery.” He quoted Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist philosopher: “There are so many ways that have been dreamed up to entertain us away from this moment.”
My friend’s letter put my circumstances in perspective. Did I really have anything to complain about? Of course not.
Perhaps my problem was that I needed to engage with my environment differently. It occurred to me that the serious conversations I needed to have were with the people all around me who were working so hard.
I identified the first person I wanted to speak to from the catalog of shows. Phil Jupitus stood out not only because he is well-known but also because he seemed engaged with the Fringe more than most. Not only was he performing separate shows as a comedian and a poet, he was also teaching himself painting by copying masters at museums around the city.
I caught up with him at one of the national galleries and explained what I was going through. He understood immediately and recommended the book,Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman. He helped me see that the Fringe wasn’t about me. It was a trade show and workshop and it did not exist for the audience; we were merely extras in a far larger drama. The Fringe was for creators, not consumers.
I decided to put my internal critic to sleep and engage with people rather than judge them.
Where Else Can You Work So Hard?
The first person I talked to was a 27-year-old man handing out fliers advertising a show.
I asked him, “How are you?”
He said, “Fantastic.” When I asked him how so, he said, “I work 11 months a year and save every penny. Then I blow it all at the Fringe.” He explained that he’d been putting on shows at the Fringe for four years and every one of them lost boatloads of money.
I asked how that could make him feel good. He said, “I am performing in two shows a day, crewing on two more, and the rest of the time I hand out fliers. When else do I get to work 18 hour days for 28 days in a row?”
That’s when it hit me. As a retiree, I did not miss having an income. I missed working really hard at something that won’t succeed if I don’t give it my all.
I’m Not The Only One Depressed
Next, a smiling young woman handed me a flier and began talking up her show.
I looked her in the eyes and asked, “How do you feel?”
She stared at me for about six seconds and then burst into tears.
She said, “I feel terrible.” Then she explained that she had to quit her job and used all her savings to bring her show to Edinburgh. People would glance at her flier, say “This looks like it sucks,” and throw it in the trash. She said, “That’s me they are talking about.”
I told her I’d go to her show if she would let me take her to lunch afterward. She readily agreed.
I was only one of three audience members, and although her show hardly sucked, it wasn’t very polished. At lunch she told me that she was living on packet soup and this was the first time she’d eaten at a restaurant in many months.
I asked her if she felt like quitting and she explained that it is an Edinburgh tradition that even if only one person comes to see you then the show must go on. And if you have no audience at all that’s even better because nobody is judging you. Once I got to know a little bit about her I became impressed by her courage, and that blinded me to her faults.
Fringe As Therapy
The third person I talked to was another young woman who was exuding enthusiasm. I asked her how she felt and she said, “Wonderful.”
When I asked her why, she said, “Because we’re not very good, and that’s OK.”
She explained that she’d been suffering low self-esteem for a decade and had tried every form of therapy she could find: Freudian analysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, reiki, acupuncture – even fortune telling and astrology.
Then someone said, “You don’t need therapy; you need to go to the Fringe.”
She said it was working. She wrote a show and she (plus two friends) took it to the Fringe. They were learning not to take other people’s harsh judgments to heart and how to treat themselves with kindness.
I took my whole family to her show, and I can tell you it was good – but not great – and that is why it worked on so many levels. Had they been better performers the lesson would have been lost.
Self-expression & Participation
I’m also doing a lighthearted show called: (Cut the Bullshit) Len Bakerloo Speaks Truth to Power. I was inspired by my 30 years on Wall Street, where every single employer I’ve ever worked for has either gone bankrupt or been bailed out by taxpayers due to a scandal or malfeasance.
I will show you that the most harmful bullshit isn’t the bullshit others spew but the bullshit you believe. I’ll teach you how to uncover beliefs that can harm you and I’ll show you how to speak truth to power. Every attendee will get a copy of my Cut the Bullshit Game to take home and play with friends.
(Note: If you did not go to Edinburgh you could have caught my show in New York at 59E59 Theater on July 12, 13, and 19, 2016.)
This story first appeared in Bootsn All on June 13, 2016.
by Brooke Allen
Should “caveat emptor” be the operative philosophy when colleges market to students, or should they hold themselves to a higher standard than, say, a drug dealer?
Emory University confessed that for 11 years it has been fudging data it sent in for U. S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings. The publisher said that, “Our preliminary calculations show that the misreported data would not have changed the school’s ranking in the past two years (No. 20) and would likely have had a small to negligible effect in the several years prior.” (Read the article here.)
This second confession by U. S. News only serves to prove that their ranking methodology is deeply flawed. Since integrity is such a major part of character, confessed cheating should drop you to Dead Last in the rankings, and a cover-up should get you barred altogether pending review by the accrediting authorities.
Of course, despicable behavior by colleges may be just another clever marketing ploy intended to send a message to the vast pool of students who embrace cheating: “Come here; you are our kind of people.”
I sent my children to college so they could be exposed to a diverse set of value systems different from our own, but this is not what I had in mind.
Shame on you all.
For 2 decades, I have made a living deploying mathematical models to find hidden value in the securities markets. This is a difficult problem because these markets are very efficient, meaning that it’s very hard to do better than just showing up and stating your needs. Consider the stock market: If you want to buy a share of Microsoft stock, you can have your order filled within seconds, knowing that you are within a penny or two of the best price on the planet and that every share is identical to every other one.
On the other hand, you can spend months looking for the best house, because the real-estate market is inefficient. Each house is different, and you won’t fully understand your needs until you begin looking. Your reward for investing time in the search is the pleasure of living in a much better house than one you could find in an afternoon.
As employers, we are also in the market for human capital, which is even less efficient than the real-estate market. Many of the best people are almost impossible to find.
Searching résumé databases is tedious and yields few qualified candidates who are available right now. Recruiters are expensive, often add little value, and shy away from recent graduates and the unemployed. College placement offices are more interested in getting us to their career fairs in May than in finding candidates who meet our current needs.
Even the most targeted ad generates a flood of résumés from people who have not researched our company or prequalified themselves. Who can blame them? Employers often treat hiring as a process of elimination in a numbers game. A day spent researching a firm, crafting a letter, and customizing a résumé is wasted when a hiring manager or human resources (HR) person spends only a few seconds glancing at them.
Yet an inefficient labor market isn’t such a bad thing for those who are willing to dig a little deeper. Such a market can reward well-spent effort in ways that efficient markets don’t. I would like to share with you some of the ways my colleagues and I have approached hiring in a rather dysfunctional labor market.
We begin by advertising as broadly as possible—with a very general job description—hoping for a flood of résumés, which we immediately ignore.
Instead of poring over each submission (or scanning each one for 9 seconds), we automatically respond to everyone with an extensive description of our group, the firm, our industry, our needs, career prospects, physical location, commute, work hours, and so on. We avoid selling ourselves and err on the side of full disclosure, with particular emphasis on the problems and risks we face. In short, we arm our applicants with the information they need to eliminate us from their consideration.
We close by asking those who are still interested to write a letter making their case.
As we wait for their responses, we read those résumés as time permits, looking for exceptional candidates who we fear might not take the next step. We send them encouraging notes saying things such as, “Have you thought about how the Principal Components Analysis you’ve done might apply to stock market data?”
Typically, 10% to 15% of initial applicants send the requested follow-on letter. Of those, perhaps half make a case worth investigating.
We still might have a dozen or more candidates, so rather than scheduling interviews, we might hold an open house with beer and pizza or some other ice-breaking activity. Most appreciate the fact that we give everyone a chance to visit rather than eliminate three-quarters of them based on a résumé and a letter. We encourage them to talk to each other and swap job leads. This allows us to see how they interact. Continue reading “Hiring in a Dysfunctional Job Market”
by Brooke Allen
I’m terrible at doing what people tell me I should do, but I still get things done. I’m not sure why this is, but here is my best guess:
I manage my desires more than my time.
In high school, I never seemed to find time to do homework I didn’t want to do. It got so bad that in 1969 my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Foster, told me that if I did one single homework assignment, he’d base my grade on my tests—meaning I’d get an A. But if I continued to do absolutely no homework, he’d base my grade on the homework and give me a zero.
So I decided that if I was going to do only one homework, I would make it suitable for hanging in a gallery. I spent a big chunk of my savings to buy a mathematical font attachment for my parents’ IBM Selectric and I typeset my answers. In my dad’s sculpture studio I was able to use fixative to emboss my answer sheet and mount it on a wooden backing that I carved by hand. Mr. Foster was so thrilled that he wore my homework around his neck the entire day. Other teachers saw it and they all demanded one homework from me, too. Damn!
To this day, before doing something I don’t want to do, I try to transform it into something I’m eager to do. For more on this I refer you to that great 20th century philosopher, Mary Poppins, who said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and—SNAP—the job’s a game!”
Don’t do hard boring useless things
My friend, Ken Caldeira, runs a very productive lab at Stanford. He once told me that many academics get bogged down with really hard esoteric problems nobody cares about, even the researchers themselves. He told me he only wants projects that are fun, impactful, and easy.
If someone is paying you to do hard boring useless things then you need to have a conversation with your boss. If you are a student going into debt to have people give you hard boring useless assignments then perhaps you’d be better off dropping out.
You don’t need to finish what you start
Recently, a successful businessman told me that a few years ago he was diagnosed mid-life with ADHD. This helped explain why his personal and business life was such a mess; he was always starting things but he never finished them, and that would drive everyone around him nuts. Continue reading “If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done”
by Brooke Allen
More than twenty years ago, I developed a powerful approach to negotiating that goes beyond “win-win.” It involves starting by offering the most and asking for the least. It works extremely well, but I was unable to explain why until I read Wharton professor Adam Grant’s excellent new book Give and Take.
Adam identifies three types of people: Takers try to get as much as possible from others, matchers seek an even trade, and givers contribute without expectation of return.
Previously, I’d thought of things more in terms of debt and honor.
My parents raised me to believe that borrowing and then not returning is the moral equivalent of stealing. Put in the language of giving and taking, borrowing is a form of taking where I get what I want now and put my honor at risk in the future. Repaying my debt later only elevates me to the status of matcher, but not giver.
Eventually, I came to see that getting paid a salary in advance of delivering value is a form of debt. In 1992, I accepted a job that came with a bonus guarantee. Almost immediately, the unit I worked for was disbanded and they paid both the guarantee and a severance. It was the first time in my career that I was paid more than I delivered, and I felt I was left with a debt I could never repay. That is when I changed how I negotiate contracts.
The typical approach is for both sides to demand something unreasonable—but not let on that they consider it unreasonable—and then negotiate a “compromise” in the hopes that you will end up closer to your side than the midpoint. Even when the final agreement is declared a “win-win,” this approach backfires because it begins with acts of unreasonableness, selfishness, and distrust.
The next time I had to negotiate a contract, it began in typical fashion with a prospective employer sending me a lopsided agreement and asking me to counter-propose. I said I was incompetent to do that and suggested they write a new contract as if they were me, putting in everything that would be in my best interests, and then taking out everything they would never agree to. Since that would be the best I could get, I would accept it subject to agreement on compensation.
We started with base pay. I wrote down the least I would work for and asked them to write down the most they would offer a perfect person, irrespective of whether I was that person or not. If when we exchanged papers, their number wasn’t higher than mine then we could stop there and save time. Their number was twice the best base pay I had ever received in past jobs, and my request was for $0. I explained that my goal is to live a debt-free life, and therefore I wanted to give value before receiving compensation. Continue reading “The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all”