The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues

Thinker at Columbia University

By: Brooke Allen

This piece is a response to Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.

The problem with talking about Intellectual Virtues is that it can give intellectuals the feeling they are virtuous when they are just talking.

Colleges might not think of themselves as being in the business of teaching virtues (like honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, wisdom, and love of the truth) but the fact is they can reinforce or squash good instincts. For example, a student I know wrote a college admissions essay that began with a graphic description of the earth under attack by aliens when he, as super-hero, arrived to save the day. His essay concluded by saying he wanted to go to college to save the world.

Three years into college I introduced the student to the Heroic Imagination Project (www.HeroicImagination.org). Its founder, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, wrote to the student asking how they might work together to change the world. The student wrote to me, “I’d rather not change the course of history than risk changing it for the worse.” I cannot tell you how imagined courage become timidity but I can tell you when and where it happened.

Question: How can the people at colleges do a better job teaching courage? Continue reading “The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues”

What I want to say to the richest kids in the world

Right now some of the richest kids in the world are meeting at something called the Nexus Youth Summit. Their last powwow was at the White House and now through July 26, they are meeting at the United Nations.

According to its own website: “Nexus is a global movement of 2000+ young people from over 70 countries working to increase and improve philanthropy and impact investing by bridging communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship.” The “community of wealth” contingent includes some of the richest young heirs on the planet; people worth millions and in some cases billions.

Here is what I want to say to them and you might as well listen in.

Your wealth isn’t your fault

As you know, being born rich is like being born beautiful—it is not something you accomplished but more like winning a cosmic lottery. The poor and the plain imagine life would be wonderful if they were but rich and beautiful, and our advertisers seem dedicated to perpetrating this myth. But you know wealth and beauty is no guarantee of happiness or even success. Be secure in the knowledge that you are not responsible for what happened before you were born and do not let the judgments and desires of others get you down.

The world does owe you a living

My dad used to tell me, “The world doesn’t owe you a living.” What he meant was that I’d have to work for what I got.

But what he didn’t talk about was how money works. You see, money is debt, and if you have a ton of money then the world does owe you what it takes to live. The world might even owe you a fancy car or a yacht

You probably know this already, but when I do something or sell something the money I get in return is an I. O. U. drawn on all of us. When I walk into McDonald’s with enough money in my wallet for a Big Mac, then I am owed that hamburger, and when I pay with my money now, McDonald’s is the one owed something; perhaps by employees who provide labor or the factory that grows its food. I’m 61 years old now and I’m living on my retirement savings and that money-in-the-bank simply means the world owes me a living without me having to work any more.

If you are born with enough moola to keep you in hamburgers and houses for the rest of your life then you are born with the world owing you a living. That’s not a crime; that’s just a fact. As I said before, it isn’t your fault.

But you are wealthy only if people poorer than you say so

Reflect on the fact that while you are born being owed a living, nearly everyone else is born owing you one. That was, after all, what my dad was saying; I would have to earn the money others would pay me. But later, even if I accumulate plenty of money, if the people who might do my bidding decide to go on strike then I am not rich no matter how much I have in the bank. Protesters and pundits can rank us by beauty or wealth, but whether we divide ourselves into quintiles, deciles, or the 1 and the 99, the fact is we are all in this together. Whether we admit it or not, the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich. We don’t all need to like everyone we meet, but we need to care about each other if this puny thing we call humanity is to survive.

Money should buy freedom, not chains

I am named after my dad’s uncle, Brooke, who dreamt as a child that he would one day dig for gold and become rich. When he grew up he went to the Philippines and did precisely that. But his money did not buy him freedom when the Japanese took his mines and threw him in the Santo Tomas internment camp. They took his wealth but they did not break his spirit; and he did not yearn for renewed wealth but for freedom.

All my dad ever wanted was to be a sculptor. But having children derailed things for a while. From fine art, he moved into commercial art, advertising, marketing, marketing management, and finally management consulting. Then, in my senior year in high school he gave me $500 toward college and then went back to sculpture full time.

As he gave me that money, he said, “Money should buy freedom not chains.” He explained that with money you should be able to do all the things you can do without money plus the things that take money. But for many people money buys chains because they start wanting even more money and they forget about all the things they can do that don’t need any money at all, like watching a sunset or loving a child.

Choose what you want wisely, and denominate your wealth in freedom to yearn, not in dollars you earn.

Money can buy some happiness, but it ain’t much

In that same conversation, my dad said, “It is easier to make money doing what makes you happy than to buy happiness with the money you are paid for doing what makes you miserable.”

Making a boat-load of money isn’t easy whether you like doing what it takes or not. Making lots of money is mostly luck, which is something the lucky mistake for skill and the unlucky imagine must involve cheating. As my career arc took me from mathematics and programming through finance and eventually into hedge-fund management I can report that the key to making money is to do what makes other people happy. If you want to make a pile of dough then do what makes the rich even richer. If what makes you happy is playing video games or watching old movies on basic cable, then all I can say vis. a vis. getting rich is, “Good luck with that.”

The wisdom in my dad’s words comes from the fact that it is very hard to buy happiness when you spend your days making yourself miserable. People who live for the weekend might be two-sevenths happy. You can do better than that.

Besides, happiness is overrated

Ask most people and they will say, “All I want is to be happy.”

On the surface it is hard to argue with happiness, but two things don’t sit right: 1) Happiness is kind of selfish, 2) Happiness is kind of meaningless.

I can hear my dad saying, “Great, so you’re happy. Whoop dee doo. What about everyone else?” Beside’s, happiness is a feeling, not a fact—you can learn to be happy sitting there doing nothing. Indeed, once you learn to master happiness, pretty much everything else is a distraction from being happy. Try it right now; set your worries aside, relax, and be happy. See, you can do it. And if it didn’t happen then practice setting your worries aside and relaxing because that’s the secret to happiness.

But, I prefer satisfaction to happiness. You buy satisfaction with effort, and it is in effort that I find joy—even more than in accomplishment. I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about so you might want to consult an expert. Consider watching this TED video by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania about what positive psychology has to say about the topic.

You need a purpose

Everyone needs a reason to exist, and the ironic thing is that the closer you are to starving, the easier it is to feel a sense of purpose: If you and your family will die next week unless you do something about it today then you’ve got your work cut out for you. But if you and everyone you care about will be just fine no matter what you do then now you have the makings of an existential crisis.

A financial adviser once told me that he doesn’t dispense financial advice so much as give parenting tips to rich people. He says, “Eventually you can become so wealthy that you must work for the benefit of people you will never meet, and then you will have to choose between people you will never meet who are alive today and people who you will never meet who will inherit your wealth.”

I cannot tell you which way to go, but I can recommend a quote from Rabindranath Tagore who said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Feeling useless sucks. The cure is to be of use.

Start with a dream rather than a purpose

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, the famous “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch who had terminal cancer at the time he recorded it. Randy was the co-founder (along with Jesse Schell) of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ever since 1963, when I had Mr. Reiur in the sixth grade, I knew I was meant to be a teacher. And I still feel that way, even though I have no training in the art. I did not even have an idea of what I was meant to teach until 2004 when my eldest was getting ready to leave home and I began asking everyone what he would need to know that he wouldn’t learn in college. I collected 220 responses but the short answer is, “Everything.”

Now I knew what to teach (everything) but I had no idea how to teach it.

Although I found Randy’s Last Lecture inspirational, I found the key to realizing my purpose in Jesse Schell’s textbook, The Art of Game Design wherein he presents 100 questions to ask yourself about the game you are designing. He begins with questions like: What is the essential experience of my game? Is my game fun? What problems does my game ask the player to solve? and so on.

As I worked my way through the book it slowly dawned on me that if I substitute “game” with “life” nearly all the questions apply to designing a worthwhile life. And his book ends with question #100—which he calls The Lens of Your Secret Purpose—“To make sure you are working towards your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters: Why am I doing this?”

I wrote to Schell and said that I think the secret of his book is that it was really about designing a life, and he responded, “Heh—you figured out the secret of the book, all right!” I drove to Pittsburgh and interviewed him and you can see that here. I tried to convince him to write a book on designing a life and he said, “I’m too young; I’ll write that when I’m 60.”

I was about to turn 60 so I thought I’d give it a shot, and I began by putting together a pretty good set of questions, which you can find at Q54Club.org. As with Schell’s book, I leave the question of purpose for the very end because if you imagine you need to have a purpose to your life before you can do anything significant then you’re likely to never get very far doing anything whatsoever. But if you start by doing things that both interest you and are of value to others then usually your purpose will reveal itself to you. Your purpose can be like a jigsaw puzzle where you don’t know what the finished picture will look like in which case you can only start trying to fit pieces together and see what materializes.

Another reason to leave purpose for later is because if you don’t have integrity, good values, strength of character, skill, and an understanding of how the world works, then a sense of purpose can be dangerous. This is particularly true if you happen to be wealthy; the misguided fantasies of the poor seldom amount to much but if you have enough money and a desire to feed a nation facing drought then if you don’t know what you are doing you might end up bankrupting all the farmers and doing more harm than good. The poor can afford to learn by their mistakes but they cannot afford to learn by yours.

Don’t sweat purpose. Work up a sweat doing hard work for people wiser than you. Your purpose will come once you’re strong enough.

Poor people do not begrudge the wealthy their riches; they begrudge them their cowardice

Another friend of mine became a financial adviser to the wealthy and he told me that the thing he was most surprised to discover is that the rich are afraid of their wealth. People with nothing will take risks and hit it big but once they have money in the bank they will do everything they can to avoid losing it. This well known psychological effect is called loss aversion, and while it might have had survival value back when we were evolving, these days our species gets hurt when the rich get scared.

Since Yesterday, the 1930s in America is a very readable history of the Great Depression. In it, author Fredrick Lewis Allen (not a relative) explains why the rich came to believe the poor wanted to confiscate their wealth and the poor came to despise the rich. He says, “For the rich and powerful could maintain their prestige only by giving the general public what it wanted. It wanted prosperity, economic expansion. It had always been ready to forgive all manner of deficiencies in the Henry Fords who actually produced the goods, whether or not they made millions in the process. But it was not disposed to sympathize unduly with people who failed to produce the goods, no matter how heart-rending their explanations for their failure.”

When times get tough, the rich need to act as shock absorbers because they can bear risk the rest of us cannot. When the poor are out of work, the rich cannot go on strike. Being of use during hard times is the main reason to be rich. When you think of a better reason then tell me, but until then this is the best one I’ve found.

If you are lucky enough to have an existential crisis, then that is the point of your wealth

I was raised to be irreligious and as a younger man I would envy friends who would react to setbacks with confidence that God has plans for them and all they have to do is figure out what they are.

I am still irreligious but I’ve discovered a trick… You don’t have to believe in God to imagine that he exists and that he has a plan for you. Do that, and when you find that plan—as you shall—it does not necessarily mean you have unearthed evidence God exists. It means that we humans are meaning-seeking machines, and we find what we seek, be it a God, a purpose, or a pattern in the plot of a stock price.

A good multipurpose reason to exist is to be of use to people like yourself. Even if you aren’t screwed up, some of your peers sure are. Helping them will help you more than merely helping yourself alone. (See: The Problem with Rich Kids.)

Less wealthy people might imagine that when rich kids get together at places like the United Nations for things like the Nexus Youth Summit it is to plot world domination or at least compare notes on the best places to moor a yacht.

I suspect that is not what you are doing.

My guess is that you’re trying to help each other solve the predicament you are in, and I see that finding a purpose is on the agenda. Bravo!

Tell me what you think

I don’t really know what happens at Nexus because my application to attend was denied; apparently only a very limited number of spots are available to people over 40. That’s OK—I can handle it—after all, yours is a “youth summit.” Besides, my generation didn’t trust anyone over 30, so you’re making progress of sorts.

It doesn’t matter because if you are reading this then I’ve gotten to tell you what I think anyway, and if you write back then you get to tell me what you think. Your response will turn this sermon into a dialogue, and it is more important that we communicate than where we do it or over what drinks.

One last thing

Given how much you are owed by the world, you might ask if you owe the world anything.

You do.

You must strive to be the best possible version of yourself that you can be. We all owe that to each other and to ourselves. All other species follow this mandate and those among us who are born better endowed are not exempted from living up to their potential just because they have more of it. You must do your part because we humans are humanity’s only hope. With the possible exception of our house pets, all other species are too busy being the best they can be and they don’t have time to care if we pull through.

This story first appeared in Quartz on July 24, 2014.

To save Wall Street, start with better parenting.

Boy in amazement holding money on white background
by Brooke Allen 

This past February, I retired from finance. Although I intend to continue to study the markets and write about them, I have no intention of ever working in the securities industry again. This makes it easy for me to talk to you about what I think is going on and what needs to be done.

I worked at Merrill Lynch as a computer consultant in the mid-1980s, and from 1986 through 1992 I was an employee—first doing research and later creating and running trading desks in New York and Japan. After a brief stint at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo, I returned to the US in 1993 to work as a consultant to a couple of large Wall Street firms. In 1995, I built and ran a statistical arbitragetrading desk for the US branch of a medium-sized Canadian securities firm.

This February, at the age of 61, I retired from that job of 18 years. I can honestly say my time at that Canadian firm was the best of my entire working career and unlike anything I experienced at any other Wall Street firm. At first I could not put my finger on the difference, but at a Christmas party an elderly co-worker from South America I’ll call Eduardo told me he’d been wondering about the same thing. “I have figured it out,” he said, “The word is ‘decent’ and my theory is that in Canada they raise their children to believe that it is more important to be decent than to be rich.”

Although I’m US born-and-bred, both of our sons went to college at McGill in Montreal. That gave me an opportunity to meet plenty of Canadian young people, and if I suggest Eduardo’s theory to their parents, a typical response would be, “Of course I want my children to be decent; who wouldn’t?”

Real engineers understand ethics in a way financial engineers do not

Andrew Lo was the keynote speaker at the 2010 annual meeting of the International Association of Financial Engineers. Lo heads theLaboratory for Financial Engineering at MIT and his talk was titled: “WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous to Your Wealth!” He explained that a mistaken belief that financial markets can be treated the way physicists treat the natural world leads economists and financial engineers to a false sense of precision that can have disastrous consequences. You will find a very watchable version of his talk here, and if you love equations then you will find plenty in his 71-page paper here.

I came ready to ambush Lo, and after his talk I held up a slide rule and said, “Despite the fact that I brought my slide rule and my pocket full of pens, and that I’ve been using math in this industry for three decades, I know I’m not an engineer. And I know people who are engineers–some of my best friends are engineers–and I don’t think there are any engineers in the world of financial engineering.” I said the distinction between us and real engineers is that we don’t take responsibility for our actions and hold ourselves to the same ethical standards. I asked, “How come the other engineers don’t say, ‘What are you doing to our name?’?”

Continue reading “To save Wall Street, start with better parenting.”

How to give me a negative reference on LinkedIn

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By: Brooke Allen (you will find my LinkedIn profile here.)

Be aware that on LinkedIn you cannot give me a negative reference unless I approve it.

This is bad news because if it is impossible for you to say something negative, then the positive things I might allow you to say must be taken with a grain of salt.

I want you to give me a fair and balanced reference so others can have an accurate picture of who I am, and I want you to let me know what I’m doing wrong and how I can improve.

But before you give me a negative reference let us establish a few ground rules. Let’s begin with:

Motivation – Why do you want to say what you do? Why do I want to hear it?

Familiarity – How well do you know me and my work?

Rationality – Are you basing your statements on facts and valid reasoning?

Let’s analyze each in more detail…

Continue reading “How to give me a negative reference on LinkedIn”

Give us your tired, your poor, your overly-automated.

DefaultWayIsInhumane

Deborah Branscum just wrote an article in Medium Backchannel: Our Hiring Process is Broken. Can a Hackathon Fix It? It talks about her experience of a new approach to hiring that my partner, Noah Goldman, and I are pioneering that we’re calling Staffup Weekend. You can see a photo of the attendees, a report on the event, and a video of Deborah here.

This story appears to be a hit because my inbox is flooded.

People writing appear to fall into a few categories that we list below (along with the response you should expect as soon as we can get to it):

  • I have an opinion. (Noted.)
  • I have a complaint. (Noted.)
  • I want you to help me get a job. (Give us time to work on a story offering advice for the masses and then if that doesn’t do the trick then please write again. In the meantime, please: Read my advice for job seekers on my website, follow me on twitter, check out our company (BetterWorkWorld.com), and go to Staffup Weekend where you can sign up for our newsletter and learn about future events.)
  • I want you to help us hire better. (Let’s schedule a call ASAP.)
  • I want to make money doing what you do. Can you help me be a competitor? (Absolutely. If enough people do what we do then we don’t have to do it. Tell us more about yourself.)
  • I want you to look at our software that makes everything easier so people don’t have to get involved. (Maybe later. Please read our response to one such a software developer below.)

Hope this helps. More later.

Brooke

BrookeAllen.com

Here is my response to a reader who wrote: “I invite you to visit our website and get a general feel for what we are about.  Essentially, we offer a software solution backed by solid Industrial Organizational Psychology and vast experiences working with high performance clients.”

Thank you for writing. 

I have copied Noah, my partner in Staffup Weekend. He might have time to evaluate your software. Right now, because I am the only one of us mentioned in the article, I’m busy fielding requests from people who want us to help them hire rather than help them develop product in competition with us. Continue reading “Give us your tired, your poor, your overly-automated.”

Want passion? Look for something that makes you angry.

WomanWithHair

Whenever I speak at colleges I begin by asking, “Why are you here?”

This catches the students off guard and after batting the question around for a bit someone says, “To find my passion.” The rest agree and they imagine they are done with the topic.

But I am not done with them.

I ask them to define “passion” because if you cannot say what a word means then you are shooting the shit rather than answering a question.

So they discuss that for a while longer and eventually settle on some variant of, “I don’t know what passion is but I’ll know when I have passion for my work because I won’t have to motivate myself to do it.”

“Really?” I say, “Where I come from we have a word for that, and it is ‘like’ as in ‘I like my job.’ But I know I am passionate when I do something even though I hate every second.”

“Why would anyone do a job they hate?” someone asks.

I want to say, “It might be because you have bills to pay and you don’t want to live off your parents or the state.”

But, instead I say, “I don’t know. Why did my dad lie about his age so he could enlist a year earlier than allowed by law to become a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes while the Japanese shot at him? That was something he hated to do, but he did it anyway, and he did it because of something called passion.”

At this point the class looks flummoxed but intrigued. Continue reading “Want passion? Look for something that makes you angry.”

How to hire good people instead of nice people

TwoSigns

Usually, employers rapidly scan the resume of each job applicant looking for relevant education, skills, and work experience. They select 10 candidates for telephone calls, invite three in for interviews, and hire the one they like the best.

This is a bad way to hire because at best it gets you nice people.

You don’t need nice people.

You need good people.

Good and nice are not the same thing. The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable.

Nice people care if you like them; good people care about you. Nice people stretch the truth; good people don’t. If you tell a nice person to do something evil, they might do it because they do not want to upset you; a good person will refuse to do it.

You might think you are a good person, but you are fallible, so if you want to avoid inadvertently doing something evil you must surround yourself with good people, not nice people.

How do you separate the good from the nice? If you do what I do, it will be a piece of cake. Continue reading “How to hire good people instead of nice people”

You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.

I went to college in 1970. By 1974 I had a degree in mathematics and experience hitchhiking  to every state of the union except for Alaska and Hawaii; perhaps 30,000 miles in all.

I learned more about how to live from those experiences than anything I learned in a school. Here is the story of what I learned from a man in the pick-up truck who took my girlfriend and me from central Minnesota to just west of Fargo, North Dakota.

Had I not learned this lesson my life would have been very different; not only would I have been much less inventive I would not have had the courage to stand up to some of the shenanigans I saw during the 30 years I was on Wall Street.

I’ll call him Jeb. I don’t remember his name, but during Prohibition he used to bootleg whisky, so Jeb sounds like a good bootlegger’s name, don’t you think?

He said the pay was good and it was exciting work because the cops were always chasing you, but it wasn’t very intellectual. The only creative thing he learned was the Bootlegger’s K-Turn. He left the Interstate for a side road to show us how it is done. I’ll draw it for you: Continue reading “You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.”

I Insist We Call Each Other Perchildren

TwoBrookes

To be clear, this is a call for humor when dealing with a serious subject.
I do not mean to offend. Seriously.

I was born a male with a female name

You cannot believe the kind of childhood trauma I went through and the only way for me to avoid post traumatic stress is for you to change your ways.

In order that you not trigger unfortunate emotions in me I must insist that:

  • You must refer to me as a perchild and I will do the same for you.
  • Rather than use MR (for “mister”) and MS (for whatever that stands for) we must henceforth use PC (for perchild, of course).
  • You must use the pronoun FF when referring to me in the third person because I do not self-identify as binary but rather nothing less than hexadecimal.

I will explain these terms but first I will explain why I insist that you change for my benefit and for the benefit of all the other miserable perchildren who suffer in ways you cannot fathom.

My Horrible History

I was bullied as a child.

You have no idea what kind of wounds can be inflicted on you if an adult imagines you were bullied as a child. When I was young the children I had fun with made fun of my name because I dressed like a boy and my name was Brooke.

My parents called this “teasing” and they said they were having fun with my name, not making fun of me.

I believed them then.

Today, I am enlightened and see that my parents were in cahoots with the bullies. Now, Continue reading “I Insist We Call Each Other Perchildren”

How to write if you cannot concentrate.

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Jack Rieur was the most wonderful teacher I ever had and perhaps the best teacher anywhere on the planet and for all time. I first met him in 1963 when he was my 6th grade teacher and we have kept in touch ever since.

Sure, he covered the state mandated syllabus, but what he really taught was that the world was something we go out and live in and not read about in the classroom. And learning was fun; the most fun you can ever have. And if you pay attention you can learn from life itself and the point wasn’t that there was a test at the end of the semester but later in life you had to teach others because the human race is not a race to the finish but a relay race where near the finish line we must pass the baton.

For example, he taught geography not from the book but from the slides he took personally when he visited all the places in the book. Here is a picture I took of him back when he was a spry 89-year-old in front of the 79,662 slides he used in practicing his craft and that have since been digitized and stored by the Archives at the Consortium Library. I have been to more than 40 countries so far and have set up housekeeping in a few (and I’m no where near done). Had I not had him I might have run the risk of having gone to Canada once and seen a few other countries for a few hours each on a cruise.

He died this last August but his spirit lives on in me. For example he came to my rescue just now when I was stuck writing one thing and I got unstuck by writing something else.

Mr. Rieur’s other name was Jack but he insisted his sixth grader’s call him Mr. Rieur. It was not a matter of respect for age but of class. You only got to call him Jack if you became a teacher too. Well I have approached raising my children and managing my businesses and all my writing as a teacher, and so I think I have earned the right to call him Jack posthumously. However if you have done none of those things then please call him Mr. Rieur out of respect.

How to write if you cannot concentrate.

People tell me that they cannot concentrate long enough to write anything coherent that isn’t trite or a cut-and-paste job of things off the web, which doesn’t count anyway.

I say, “So?” Continue reading “How to write if you cannot concentrate.”