In Praise of Talking to Strangers, Gun Safety, and Pheromone Blink 182


In September, 2014, I returned from Europe on the QM2.

While working out in the gym I noticed that a man lifting weights next to me was covered head-to-toe in tattoos.

I said, “Great tats,” and asked if I could look at them. He said, “Sure” and for perhaps 15 minutes he showed them to me and explained what each meant.

I asked him what he did and he said he was a drummer. After gigging in Europe he was returning to the States and liked traveling by ship because the rooms were so sound-proof that he could practice without disturbing neighbors.

After he excusing himself he left for dinner. Another man who had been watching us said this to me, “I’m the drummer in the ship’s orchestra and that man is my hero. Do you know who he is?”

I said that I did not, and he said that I’d been talking to Travis Barker, whom he considers the greatest drummer who ever lived.

When I got home I looked up Travis on Wikipedia and was very impressed by his accomplishments. I also learned that another reason he preferred ships is because from childhood he was deathly afraid of flying, imagining he’d die in a crash one day. And then, on September 19, 2008 he was only one of two survivors of a plane crash.

The ship’s drummer had been stalking Travis and hadn’t yet worked up the courage to speak to him. I too had once been deathly afraid of speaking to strangers but in 1970, at age 18, I’d begun hitch-hiking. Talking to strangers comes with the territory and the unwritten contract of the road is that while the ride might be free you have to be more interesting than the radio.

One of my proudest moments as a parent came decades ago when we asked our son in the first grade what had happened in school that day.

He said, “A policeman talked to us, but he’s stupid.” We asked how so, and he said, “The policeman said drugs are bad and we shouldn’t talk to strangers. He’s stupid because some drugs are good and everyone is a stranger until you talk to them.”

I’m reminded of this story because yesterday my now-adult son sent me a link to a promotional video for a new show where Sasha Baron Cohen tricks pro-gun lobbyists (and the congressmen they keep in their pocket) to show their true colors by convincing them to support a program to give automatic weapons to toddlers.

If you are charged with raising toddlers into adulthood (or training lobbyists and congressmen to be humans) then I offer these three rules regarding talking to strangers:

  • Talk to strangers because everyone is a stranger until you talk to them.
  • Don’t be an idiot.
  • Don’t be evil.

You might think that not being an idiot and not being evil are good rules that can be assumed without saying.

But, apparently I’m wrong.

As evidence, consider watching the promotional video for Showtime’s new show.

And while you do, look for the reference to Blink 182.


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.

Fat chance.

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.

Continue reading “”

Is Cheating by Colleges Just Another Clever Marketing Ploy?


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.”

Continue reading “Is Cheating by Colleges Just Another Clever Marketing Ploy?”

Hiring in a Dysfunctional Job Market

business people conflict working problem, angry boss argue scream to colleague businessmen and women serious argument negative emotion discussing report meeting at outdoors cafe during the lunch.

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.

Continue reading “Hiring in a Dysfunctional Job Market”

If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done

Red Alarm in the black bin. 3D rendering
Red Alarm in the black bin. 3D rendering

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

Continue reading “If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done”

The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all

i want more, 3D rendering, rough street sign collection

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”

To get a job, write your story instead of a resume

woman-writing-in-diary-1055085by Brooke Allen 

I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.

Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files. I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.

Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.

Lead a thoughtful life

The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.

Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.

Get your story straight

Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.

Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In your case, you are in the middle. Continue reading “To get a job, write your story instead of a resume”

How to find a calling instead of a career

Young nun in religious conceptby Brooke Allen 

In my Quartz piece, To get a job, write your story instead of a resume, I talked about the value of finding a purpose in your work, and suggested that in order to do that you reflect on your life and write your own narrative. I talked about how economics is about the scarce resource, and in this age of abundant goods, services, and knowledge the scarce thing is a reason to do what we do, a purpose.

You don’t want a job, or a career; you want a calling

That story was about how to get a job, but you don’t want a job. You don’t even want a career. What you want is a calling. This point is made eloquently in Aaron Hurst’s book The Purpose Economy that is coming out April 2.

The people who say they only do their jobs to pay the bills are the people who are working without a purpose—and they are the ones you want to hire last and fire first. People who say they want a career are often worse. They don’t care about doing the job; they care about how the job will advance their career. I don’t like to hire people who want careers; I want people who want to do the job.

But the people who say, “I cannot believe they are paying me to do this” are the ones who I want to hire first, pay the most to, and hold on to for dear life. These are the people with a calling who would do what they do anyway regardless of who is paying them and how much.

Previously, I talked about how to get a job. Now let’s talk about how to get rich bringing work and workers together with a purpose.

First of all, what role are you going to play in the market? An employer might do a better job of hiring, but the market for their innovation is limited to just them. A job seeker might do a better job finding work, but once they land a job they will do that job and not try to monetize their approach.

Innovation comes from the intermediaries

If sellers or buyers in the stock market find a better way of investing then it is in their best interests to keep it secret. But if brokers find a better way it is in their best interests to sell it to everyone. That is why, for better or worse, the brokers do all the financial innovation in the securities markets. Continue reading “How to find a calling instead of a career”