Lessons from the heights His Airness couldn’t reach

michael-jordan-barons

At the pinnacle of his powers, the most electrifying athlete to ever set foot on a basketball court decided to forego millions and deprive fans of two years of his prime to develop into a decent minor league baseball player.

What lunatic trades greatness for mediocrity? How hilarious is it that Michael Jordan actually played baseball? How both awesome and frustrating would it be if LeBron decided to play football next season?

While there is no shortage of critics, Jordan remembers those baseball years fondly. He was forced to pour countless hours into refining fundamentals.

“I gave dedication to the game of baseball a true effort. I wasn’t there making money. I wasn’t there endorsing any product. It was truly for love of the game… I had the freedom to make a choice, and no one seemed to understand that. That I can walk away from the game and not worry about the stardom, the money. Those are all monetary things that don’t mean much to me in a way. I play the game because I love the game. If I don’t have a purpose I walk away from the game.”

Michael-jordan-dunkWork ethic is not what kept MJ from reaching the majors. Talent wasn’t the problem either. It was repetitions; while he’d shot a million free throws over the previous twelve years, his counterparts had taken a million swings.

Through entering a medium in which he looked up and saw superiors even he couldn’t jump high enough to touch, His Airness grew to appreciate the altitude he’d reached at basketball. Trying his luck at a different mountain inspired memories of his younger self’s toils back when clouds hid the summit of Mt. Basketball.

“I was on a pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that. And I think that’s what minor league baseball did to me… I think the whole process was a learning experience for me. Being out here makes it more exciting to get a fresh start with what I’ve known and what I’ve learnt over the years.”

To me, the most inspiring thing Jordan ever did was to give up his throne to build himself from scratch at something new. Despite incomprehensible peer pressure and financial motivation to maintain his reign atop basketball’s food chain, he lived for himself. Having played baseball, he now owns an experience that adds spice and perspective to his life.

Most of us aren’t Michael Jordan at anything. But we have our comfort zones. And braving the uncomfortable and building new angles to ourselves – while often humbling and difficult – keeps lives from becoming stale.

Variety of HobbiesThere are infinite ways in which people derive joy, each of which has a unique flavor. The more hobbies one learns, the more experience one has on the forms pleasure might take. The wider one’s net of pursuits, the more people with whom one might connect. The more activities one tries, the more one understands and develops one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ability to learn. And the more pleasures a person knows, the more fulfilling endeavors one might share with and teach one’s loved ones.

Last year, I couldn’t swim two laps without stopping to gasp for air. But I wanted to become a triathlete, so I needed to build my swimming ability from scratch. By the holiday season, my endurance was solid, but grey-haired women on kickboards were still passing me. Through the swimming portions of subsequent triathlons, I grew an appreciation for how courageous it is to enter a competition knowing you’re not very talented. Because visibility is so poor in open water, faster swimmers would crawl over me and toss me like a rag doll when passing me.

SpecializationWhile unpleasant and, from a competitive standpoint, my worst leg, after completing triathlons I have been proudest of my swim performance because building my swimming ability has taken the most work. Capitalism tells people to do what they’re best at relative to others. What comes easy, however, isn’t always what people find fulfilling. When the goal is accomplished, that awareness of all those little steps makes that end result feel great even if it only takes a more talented person one step to travel the same distance.

What’s doubly impressive about Jordan is that he returned to basketball arguably a better player – winning three consecutive NBA titles – than when he retired. What’s inspiring, however, is that effortless maintenance of refined crafts is not unique to MJ. For the 3-4 years after a former #1 squash player retires, he still regularly beats top 30 players. Thanks to the hours logged between the ages of 8 and 10, I’m still a God at Tetris. If you’ve figured out how to party, partying less doesn’t render you significantly less good at partying. And it might even make you better.

Earlier this summer, a friend relayed the following career advice, “Be careful what you get good at because it’s what you’ll do over and over again.” Capitalism encourages specialization. A carpenter does not receive a raise for improving as a sommelier.

What’s even sadder is that, as this free time contracts – usually when a person gets older and is saddled with increased professional and domestic responsibilities – allotting the hours to developing a new hobby, a new angle through which to derive pleasure, becomes increasingly exhausting. In a way, Jordan had more leeway than the rest of us; at age thirty-two he had already made his fortune and put together a Hall of Fame career. But for those of us with more typical career arcs, the twenties are a prudent decade for self-expansion.

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The Rise of the Live Chicken… in Business

Decentralization Blog Pic - Empowerment

Earlier this month, a college classmate of mine, Jack, astutely wrote,

 “There’s an interesting link between many successful startups that gets surprisingly little attention. It was a foreign concept before the rise of the Internet, and now I believe it is one of the driving forces behind the growth of Airbnb, Uber, Teespring, Postmates, Patreon, Verbling, and many more. Companies can now empower people to create their own jobs.”

 The most well-known companies mentioned above are Airbnb and Uber, whose business models veer from the status quo in their respective industries in a strikingly similar fashion.
Airbnb is part of the ‘temporary lodging’ sector and competes foremost with hotels. Hotels provide a branded platform, usually buildings, and they sell goods, ‘rooms in which to sleep.’ Uber is a company in the transportation sector and competes foremost with taxi companies. Taxi companies provide platforms, branded cars and professional drivers, and the service they sell is ‘car rides.’

Decentralization Blog - AirbnbAirbnb and Uber also provide branded platforms – mediums that connect supply and demand for ‘rooms in which to sleep’ and ‘car rides,’ respectively. But, in contrast to their competitors, the supply-sides within these platforms, not Airbnb and Uber, own and sell the desired goods and services.

Exemplified by Uber and Airbnb, a new kind of business model is revolutionizing many sectors, notably energy and manufactured goods. Globalization, the Internet, and digitally-enabled automation are transforming business models in a manner that decentralizes production and, thus, empowers the individual.

The Clunky Present – Selling Butchered Chicken

The dominant model at present for the energy and manufactured goods sectors is for companies to both provide the platform and sell the good or service. Large centralized power stations feed current into long high-voltage transmission lines to sell electricity at a lower cost than local generators could offer. Massive conglomerates, such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Ikea, wield their economies of scale and efficient supply chains to dominate the manufactured goods sector.

To use an analogy, companies provide the chicken, butcher it, and all the value for the customers manifests in how this butchered chicken is cooked and consumed.

The Nimble Future – Selling Live Chickens

In the burgeoning decentralized model, however, companies are creating the platform, so that individuals can own the valued good or service that is produced and potentially sold.

In this model, companies provide live chickens, and value for customers manifests in the eggs laid.

Hen-eggs

Electricity

The upspring of microgrids and rooftop solar panels is catalyzing the electricity sector’s trend towards decentralized generation, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) foresees this trend gaining steam for the foreseeable future.

Microgrids are localized energy systems – fueled by natural gas cells and often renewables – that can operate independently from the broader transmission and distribution grid when needed. Thus, when the broader grid experiences power outages and/or high prices, the microgrid is sheltered and microgrid operators and owners profit from saving money via lower prices, not needing to stop activity that requires electricity, and even selling the electricity produced. Goldman Sachs and Princeton University operate on microgrids, and these were two of the only places in the New York/New Jersey area to sustain power throughout the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.

Decentralization Blog - SolarAt an even more localized level, rooftop solar panels are a growing source of distributed electricity generation. BNEF’s June 2014 2030 Market Outlook forecasts that, by 2030, “renewables will command over 60% of the 5,574GW of new [global] capacity and 65% of the $7.7 trillion [global] power investment. Rooftop solar PV will dominate, taking up a fifth [1,073GW] of the capacity additions and investment to 2020.”

Even today, consumers in many locations can make a return on investment above 6% (real) by installing a PV system and operating it for a 25-year lifetime. In other words, producers of solar panels do not sell electricity; instead, as do Airbnb and Uber, they manufacture a platform that enables owners to sell this good and generate profits.

As costs decline – BNEF believes that “from at least 2020, [policy and/or financial] support will no longer be necessary for [solar] PV build, thanks to a significant decline in costs” – this profitability will increase. Thus, in addition to solar’s social and political benefits – a clean, renewable fuel that is not imported from the Middle East or Russia – it promises to become an increasingly economically prudent fuel source that empowers individuals. And individuals have proven quick to capitalize. In Germany, the country with the most advanced solar progress, individuals and small businesses own over half of all renewable electricity capacity.

Even though solar provided only 0.3% of global power generation in 2013, terror-stricken traditional electric utilities – in both the US and Europe – have been forced to fight for their lives via anti-solar advocacy and/or business model adaptation. BNEF projects solar generation to increase to 6% in 2030; a level which will render utilities that refuse to adapt from traditional models structurally obsolete.

Manufactured Goods

Similarly revolutionary, MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld and many others believe a nascent stage of the ‘digital fabrication’ era is upon us. According to Gershenfeld, “Digital fabrication consists of much more than 3-D printing. It is an evolving suite of capabilities to turn data into things and things into data. Many years of research remain to complete this vision, but the revolution is well under way.”

Decentralization Blog - 3D PrintingAmong the benefits of digital fabrication – which include improved personalization capabilities, waste management, and cost-minimization – is individual ownership of production (similar to solar panels, Uber, and Airbnb). Digital fabrication suites function as platforms through which individuals may design, produce, and sell tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them. This state of affairs, according to Gershenfeld,

“Will challenge traditional models of business, aid, and education… Integrated personal digital fabricators comparable to the personal computer do not yet exist, but they will… Scientists at a number of labs (including mine) are now working the real thing, developing processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into whatever structure they want. Unlike 3-D printers today, these will be able to build complete, functional systems at once, with no need for parts to be assembled. The aim is to not only produce the parts for a drone, for example, but to build a complete vehicle that can fly right out of the printer. This goal is still years away, but it is not necessary to wait: most of the computer functions one uses today were invented in the minicomputer era, long before they would flourish in the era of personal computing. Similarly, although today’s digital manufacturing machines are still in their infancy, they can already be used to make (almost) anything, anywhere. That changes everything.”

What Does This Mean?

I foresee this trending “Live Chicken” business model – building the platform that enables users to sell the end-use good – influencing impacted sectors and society at large in the following ways:

Decentralization Blog - New School

Decreased importance of supply chains in microeconomic economies of scale

Without digital fabrication, economies of scale will retain importance for producers of physical value-creation platforms, such as solar panels. However, when I own a digital fabrication suite that enables me to print my own solar panel, the value of SolarCity’s supply chains will erode. Rather, the new market for solar panels will be structured more like a grocery store than a restaurant – selling ingredients, not ready-to-eat meals – and I would purchase the digitized solar panel code that creates the most productive panel with the cheapest recipe.

Many companies, such as Uber and Aibnb, with this “Live Chicken” business model are and will be Internet-based, however. For these companies, scale manifests in the quality and size of one’s strategy, programming, and marketing forces, rather than bulk-purchasing and efficient manufacturing and transportation.

A boom in self-employment

To quote my friend Jack again,

“Companies can empower people to create their own jobs.  This is a huge deal and has major implications.  Job creation gives employees livelihoods, it gives companies champions who fight to make them succeed, and it gives economies legs to stand on.  For employees, it used to be the case that to get a job, you had to be hired; now you don’t.  Companies now have the ability to create jobs not only internally but externally, and they can increase the size of their workforce much more quickly.”

This source of jobs is increasingly comforting as fears mount regarding robots causing mass structural unemployment as they replace humans in labor-intensive jobs that have potential for automation.

Increased need for organizational platforms

Decentralization - StressThis “Live Chicken” business model will multiply the options people will have regarding employment, production, consumption, and, more generally, how people spend their time. The combination of “Live Chicken” business models empowering the individual and progress towards an “Internet of Things” – the ability to control tangible objects via Internet-enabled remote controls – in a broad swath of sectors will raise expectations regarding the number of ways the average person must be functional.

I foresee a warm reception for tools simplifying this increased complexity, such as Apple’s “HomeKit” – a single app used to remotely control a fleet of smart in-home devices, such as thermostats and security systems. With HomeKit, Apple is pioneering development of the “Internet of Things” in the home energy management context.

In Conclusion

An increasing number of companies in a wide variety of sectors are profiting big time through creating platforms that enable customers to create and sell valued goods and services. If this trend continues, companies will see to it that you, the individual, are empowered in countless new contexts. Just know that with great power comes great responsibility. And with more options comes more choices. And with more choices comes more FOMO.

Finding Kokomo

THE BEACH BOYS ARCHIVE IMAGES

It’s a miracle the Beach Boys are cool. They’re a glee club with a pitch somewhere between soprano and alto.  Not one of them is notably handsome or edgy, and in album covers they wear dorky shirts and sweaters.  Shouldn’t a band named “The Beach Boys” be tanned with sun-lightened hair? Shouldn’t they be comfortable without shirts?

But somehow they’re legends at being cool.

Twangy and electric, their tone is closer to that of an 80s pop band than to their 60s contemporaries.

As are their lyrics.

Bob Dylan’s songs – such as “Hurricane,” in which he describes the injustices done to an African American boxer – became anthems of the Civil Rights movement.  The Beatles’ music promotes peace over war[1] and open-mindedness towards drug use and other social phenomena.[2]

By contrast, in their 1963 hit “Catch a Wave,” the Beach Boys weigh in on the “is surfing just a fad?” debate, arguing that it’s not just a fad because “it’s been going on so long.”

Beach Boys 1

Dylan and The Beatles look like high school dropouts, then they shock you with the poignancy of their commentary on relevant issues.  The Beach Boys look like prep school class officers and shock you by choosing inane subjects rather than projecting their intellects.

After the success of Surfin’ Safari (1962), there was still so much to say about surfing that they were compelled to follow with not only Surfin’ U.S.A (1963) but also Surf’s Up (1971).  Together, these albums have 11 songs with some form of the word “surf” in the title and more, such as “Catch a Wave,” which extol surfing.

This association with surfing is critical to the band’s coolness. As is their association with California during a period when the state was less accessible to the East Coast and still a mysterious, sun-drenched dream.

But the Beach Boys transcend because of the maturity with which they focus on the positive experiences of youth. They’re light, smooth, and digestible. A typical song of their’s lasts fewer than 3 minutes. They avoid sex, money, and politics, and nothing about them tries too hard.  Where even is Kokomo? Is it real? Do you know anyone who’s been?  All I know is that I want to go when they sing about it.

Many other bands that sing almost exclusively about being young connect to adolescents through passion but lose adults with their lyrics that lack perspective.  As a sophomore in high school, I listened Bon Jovi’s Crossroads every night before going to bed. Now, his superlatives make me cringe.  I have a soft-spot for him the same way I have one for Saved by the Bell – as entertainment I once enjoyed but with which I no longer connect.

The Beach Boys, by contrast, focus on “girls” instead of “love.” “Surfing” and “cars” instead of “life.”  Their romantic songs focus on dancing and skipping school rather than hyperbolizing sentiments. They focus on activity rather than wisdom; their songs project wanting and doing things, not knowing them. Their sophistication when conveying youth stems from the simplicity with which they evoke verbs whose actions adolescents are better than adults at performing.Beach Boys 5

As a result, even when the Beach Boys were gaining fame, their fan base comprised as many adults as adolescents.  Adults – old enough to “say good night and stay together,” and old enough to know that being married doesn’t necessarily mean being happy – reminiscing about the painful constraints of high school love while rocking out to “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.”

Between the ages of 5 and 15, my family would drive 11 hours from DC to Wild Dunes, a South Carolina beach town near Charleston, for our annual week of summer vacation.  The kids didn’t enjoy talk radio.  The adults didn’t enjoy pop music.  And the only old music all the kids liked was the Beach Boys.  So for about 150 hours of family car time, the 20 Good Vibrations album played on repeat.

More so than any other entertainment I consumed as a child, my connection to the Beach Boys has yet to fray.  I once admired them as a group of older kids who sang about things I wanted to do when I was older.  Now I see them as a quirky misfit among their contemporaries; with a unique sound, brilliant brand, contagious positive energy, and sophisticated simplicity, they veered from the formula of the times and still managed to become superstars.

I’m lucky to have built a connection when I was young with a band that both sings about youth and that I haven’t outgrown.

When I close my eyes to the Beach Boys, I retreat to the little place I know that’s like Kokomo.  I see Carolina’s beaches and swamps and the silhouettes of mosquitoes under street-lamps while I taste that fresh-grilled Atlantic shrimp.  Red after playing tennis in the afternoon heat, I press a cold can of Mellow Yellow to my cheek.  I shiver in the over-air-conditioned Piggly Wiggly as I scan the boogie boards, excited as only a child can be.

And sometimes I even go to a dance lookin’ for romance, see Barbara Ann, and think about takin’ a chance.

 

[1] Ex. “Revolution,” and “Give Peace a Chance”

[2] Ex. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”

The Definitive Athleticism Index: Ranking Your Favorite Sports

Athlete Bodies

What’s the most athletic sport? The answer is certain to ruffle feathers.

It’s an ego thing.

People want the sports they’ve played to receive sufficient respect.  Because having dominated a “more athletic” sport makes you “more athletic,” right?

And some sports just hate each other.

Baseball vs. Lacrosse gets members of both parties riled up.  In many high schools, these sports are played in the same season: spring.  It frustrates a baseball player when the guy who would start as the Varsity Short Stop decides to play lacrosse.  It eats away at a lacrosse player that baseball is more popular to the national media, thus rendering subjective lacrosse’s image as the “coolest spring sport.”

Soccer vs. Football is another feisty one.  Again, high schools play these sports in the same season: fall.  Football players are big and strong and use hands.  Soccer players have endurance and use feet. This rivalry boils down to America vs. the World. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Football is America’s top darling and played nowhere else.

Female Athlete Bodies

One reason this pride-fueled banter gets so heated is that there will never be a definitive Athleticism Index that proves arguments wrong and forces begrudging admissions of defeat.  Any methodology would leave holes for prodding. There are too many arbitrary assumptions.  How do you compare the importance of strength, speed, and coordination when defining “athleticism”?  What’s the “more athletic” type of speed, sprinting ability or endurance?

Despite all that’s arbitrary, using scores for concrete metrics to assess sports’ athleticism provides a baseline. The Sopher Index is intended to start conversations, not end them.

Without further ado, the Sopher Index’s “Most Athletic Sport” goes to…

(drumroll)

… It’s a tie!

Ice hockey and rugby both notch 146 points (out of a possible 230 points).

Athleticism Index - Total

The bronze medalist is boxing (138).  American football[1] (132.33), basketball (127), soccer (127), mixed martial arts (125), tennis (119), lacrosse (117), and water polo (117) round out the top ten.

The bottom five sports – out of 38 total – are bowling (48 points), equestrian (41), curling (38), Nascar (28), and archery (22).

Male Athlete Bodies

The Sopher Index measures athleticism using 27 variables belonging to the following five categories: Coordination (70 possible points); Speed (50); Strength (40); Mental Fortitude (35); and Miscellaneous (35).  Variables are listed below by category, with the amount of possible points in parentheses:

1.)  Coordination (70): Balance & Body Control (15); Hand-Eye Coordination (10); Footwork/Foot-Eye Coordination (10); Mastery of Technique (10); Flexibility (10); Involves a Ball, Puck, etc. (5); Hitting Targets (5); and Not Conducted on Solid Ground (5).

Athleticism Index - Coordination

The most controversial part of this exercise is justifying how variables are weighted relative to one another.  “Balance & Body Control” carries the most weight because it’s the most universal type of coordination. One needs a certain level of balance and body control to crawl and walk. While surfing and smashing a full-extension top-spin forehand are completely different activities, balance and body control is a uniter. Foot-eye and hand-eye coordination are weighted equally; sports heavy on footwork and those that involve throwing and catching neutralize each other. “Mastery of Technique” measures the importance of refined mechanics.  Technique is essential for serving a tennis ball, driving a golf ball, and performing a pirouette, but less vital when racing a car. “Flexibility” is self-explanatory, and relatively more important in sports, such as gymnastics and ballet, with intense body gyration.  “Involves a Ball” and “Not Conducted on Solid Ground” are proxies for the requirement to learn an instrument through your sport.  In hockey, these instruments include your stick, skates, and the puck.  “Hitting Targets” is the most popular type of finesse coordination, but it only counts for 5 points because it’s also folded into hand-eye coordination and whether a sport has a ball.  In fact, there is overlap among all the variables. For example, balance and body control folds into the other five.

2.)  Speed (50): Sprint (15); Endurance (15); Quick Reactions and Reflexes (10); Types of Movement (5); and Ability to Change Directions (5).

Athleticism Index - Speed

This category’s variables are weighted higher the more general the skill.  Sprinting speed and endurance are the two rawest forms of fast, whereas quickness and types of movement are more refined versions.  While all require athleticism, the refined types of speed require a foundation in the general types, so the refined types are relatively less important in this index.

3.)  Strength (40): Max Core Strength (5); Core Muscle Endurance (5); Max Arm Strength (5); Arm Muscle Endurance (5); Max Leg Strength (5); Leg Muscle Endurance (5); Ability to Give a Hit (5); and Ability to Take a Hit (5).

Athleticism Index - Strength

There are two major types of strength – maximum capability and muscle endurance – and three regions of the body to be strong – core, legs, and arms. Each type of strength and region receives an equal weight in this analysis.  In addition, sports with hitting involve a different, disorienting type of strength – mental, technique-based, and heightened pain threshold.  So the abilities to take and give a hit receive equal weights to all the other variables in this category.

4.)  Mental Fortitude (35): Role of Strategy (10); Intensity of in-Game Mental Engagement (10); Teamwork (10); and Morale (5).

Athleticism Index - Mental

The brain is an often underrated athletic organ. Out-thinking the opponent is essential to many sports, and labor-intensive and exhausting.  For this index, “Role of Strategy” is a proxy for preparation – the importance of watching film, developing a game plan, eating and sleeping properly, etc. “Intensity of In-Game Focus” measures the consistency, duration, and extent to which the participant must be alert at game time.  In boxing and MMA, a momentary lapse of concentration equates to a devastating blow to the chin.  Whereas in American football, plays last 5-10 seconds, there are 30 second breaks between plays, frequency of substitutions means many players don’t play every down, and the offense/defense is only on the field half the game.  In baseball, you might be in left field for 2 hours and only see two fly balls. “Teamwork” measures how team-oriented a sport is.  Sports that involve more teamwork are tougher mentally because they involve harnessing egos and uniting multiple minds around strategies and goals. Lastly, in some sports, such as golf and baseball, “Morale” is disproportionately important. For this analysis, “Role of Strategy,” “Intensity of in-Game Focus,” and “Teamwork” are weighted equally, while “Morale” receives half the weight because, while important, it’s folded into the other three.

5.)  Miscellaneous (35): Global Popularity of the Sport (25); and Physical Barriers to Entry (10).

Athleticism Index - Misc.

A sport’s global popularity is the most heavily weighted variable in this index, and it is a proxy for the filtration of a sport’s talent pool.  It’s more difficult to become the best at a sport played by more people. When competition is stronger, the game evolves to a more refined state requiring more impressive athleticism.  More people in the world play soccer than any other sport, so its score is 25. Basketball is second place with 23.  While global popularity is this category’s driver, scores for NFL quarterback (21), running back (20), and defensive end (19) are inflated by about 4 points each. Why? Because I’ve read NFL combine scores.  These guys are freaks. Even if NFL football doesn’t have bowling’s global popularity, the NFL talent pool is more filtered.

Sports with high barriers to entry are those that cater to specific body types.  For example, volleyball, rowing, and basketball cater to tall people.  Football and hockey cater to big people.  For this analysis, having a high barrier to entry helps the sport’s score.  If a sport has a high concentration of people with bodies that are suited for that game, it does not mean these athletes are less suited for other games.  It just means these athletes are better suited for one more game than the typical person and, thus, more athletic in a way. Strong counter-logic does exist, however: If a game caters to a specific body type, the population that could get good at the game shrinks, so the talent pool is less filtered.

Kiwi’s and Canadians better make good lawyers.  As they’re the big winners, I expect they’ll be the ones defending the Sopher Index!

[1] American football is tricky to measure because the positions on the field require differing skill sets. For this analysis, American football’s score is the weighted average of running backs, quarterbacks, and defensive ends.  These are three of the most athletic positions on the field, so I fear football’s score may be a generous. Other sports that are comprised of weighted averages are skiing and running.  Skiing’s score averages downhill skiing and cross country skiing.  Running’s score average the 100 meter dash, the mile, and a marathon.

 

The $1.5 Million Euro Parking Space

Swans

At this firm, we comply with Swiss law. A bank’s mandate is to grow its clients’ wealth, not to police how this wealth is used, acquired, or taxed.

Following this lesson in business ethics, the firm’s compliance director – a chipper, lean, and maternal French Canadian woman in her mid-50s whose bouncy voice and silver bangs radiate positive energy – opens the stack of portfolios on her desk and begins presenting her daily routine.

“Here, we don’t want dirty money. So I perform background checks on prospective clients and review current clients’ sizable transactions to ensure against money laundering and other criminal activity.”

She waits for me to nod, then continues her wholesome chirp.

“Look here.  This man sold his yacht’s parking spot on the Riviera for 1.5 million Euros.”

***

The account manager beckons Come-in-come-in with his non-phone-holding arm, so I enter and slump at a seat.

“Move to England for 8-10 years, then return to Canada with your Swiss money. Claim you made that money in England.” The account manager mouths two minutes in my direction, straightens his spine, and moves a hand through is full head of silver hair.  Lean, fit, and about 5’7” or 5’8”, he’s the less energetic but far smoother version of the compliance director.

ScroogeTwenty minutes later, the account manager orders wine, 30 Franc (1 Swiss Franc was about USD$1 at the time) appetizers, and 75 Franc entrees for the two of us on the sun-deck at his favorite week-day lunch spot.

After firm handshakes and broad smiles with other men in suits, the account manager’s attention shifts to me.  At a conversation lull, I ask why he advised the nervous man on the phone to move to England.

“You see, Swiss banking secrecy is on its final limb.  The American government is hounding us to become more transparent. We operate as if there are 10 years left. So legalizing the 95% of the money we manage that’s been hidden from governments – and, thus, un-taxed – is an important part of our work.”

***

“So what do you do for the firm?”

“Some very very very wealthy Arab men. They trust me. Their money follows me.”

Another week on the job, another casual 300 Franc mid-day lunch.  This time my benefactor is an impeccably dressed Pakistani. Pressed black Italian suit with thin cream pinstripes covering a starched cream-colored button-down shirt – his maroon tie and mocha shoes, which match his complexion perfectly, are the only articles of clothing that are neither black nor white. A man in his mid-70s, he’s lost most of his hair; yet, he manages to groom what’s left and polish his scalp in a tasteful manner.

Money. That’s the image this man projects. That’s what he talks about.  Those who have it are the people he admires.  He’s endearingly polite and awkward. He opens doors for others, his head-bobs and hand gestures are jerky, there’s an unnatural pause before he speaks, and he cranes his head forward with a static gaze when he listens.

handmade chocolatesThis man enjoys discussing what he loves, not why.  While elegant, there’s a void where substance should be.  His style is antiquated. I’m sure he has no idea how to use a computer. While presentation may have been the name of the game 30 years ago – when he built his Arab clients’ “trust” – today’s connectivity and big data analyses expose lack of substance.

He proclaims his love for American literature and states that my grandfather was “a very very very good man.” I’m sure they barely knew each other, but embellishing positive sentiment is what people in Switzerland do. After attempts at other subjects hit premature dead ends, conversation circles back to money.

At the end of the meal, I convey a similar degree of gratitude I’d expressed to the other four co-workers who had taken me to lavish lunches. While the lunch was a treat for me, it was arguably even more of a treat for him. The ability to pay for lavish treats is why he’d made all that money in the first place.

***

Upon arriving a little before 9am, I turn on my computer, check my email, and scan espn.com, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal headlines.  Between 9:30am and 10am, I crack open my French textbook. The firm pays me 4,000 Francs/month to study French, procrastinate, and consume chocolate croissants while observing swans dance on a glassy lake upon which the sun’s reflection hurts my eyes.

I receive an email from my college roommate. He’s a counselor at a summer camp for an orphanage in Ethiopia.  He functions as underprivileged children’s exposure to Western culture.  He teaches them English and sports, and he organizes their days so that the lessons/fun mix is optimized.  And he learns from them.  He improves his ability to interact with young children, and he exchanges laughs and smiles with accepting villagers who have nothing but are happy anyway.  They teach him cultural dances and expose him to how the developing world operates.  Of particular note are Ethiopian construction sites.  In the USA, scaffolding is metal. In Ethiopia, it’s sticks glued together with gum.  His room is hot and sticky, and he sleeps on a cot.  Connecting to the Internet requires miles of driving down unpaved roads to a nearby hotspot.

I receive second email from a different friend spending his summer building a hospital and introducing vaccines to a small village in Sierra Leone.  The deterioration of his personal hygiene is a lowlight – he sweats constantly and never showers.  The laziness of his co-workers is another lowlight – even when provided resources they refuse to build the hospital in a timely manner. But at the end of the summer, he will have contributed to healing the maladies of villagers for generations to come while having encountered the inefficiencies of the developing world.

Swiss SceneryMy response to both emails evokes the glamorous land of chocolate shops, swans, Italian suits, casual 300 Franc lunches, and 1.5 million Euros parking spaces. The pristine world in which bankers work 9:30am-5:30pm and make millions.  And where scenery for sunset jogs sets fresh water streams and massive pastures beneath an Alpine horizon.  Like my impeccably dressed Pakistani co-worker, I project elegance, but there’s a void where substance should be.

This void stems from selfishness. From consuming without contributing.  A depressing day for an asset manager is when he loses $1 million for a client who has $40 million in the bank. It’s $1 million that would have languished in a vault – not built hospitals for villages in Sierra Leone or connected orphanages in East Africa to the Internet.

I try stretching capitalist theory to embellish the asset manager’s contribution.  The world needs asset managers. People need to be confident they can retain wealth once they’ve acquired it.  And getting rich is a contribution in and of itself! The wealthy spend more, and every dollar spent trickles down and multiplies throughout the economy.  Indirectly, the asset manager feeds the poor through his diligent pursuit of turning $40 million into $41 million.

Perhaps this logic is valid on a large scale.  But, on an individual level, I have trouble convincing myself that Mr. 40 Million would spend more if he became Mr. 41 Million. And even if he would, this contribution is too abstract for me – it’s not observing the hospital you helped build or listening to an eight year-old Ethiopian girl speak the English you taught her.

I work at an environmental NGO now. Everyone wishes paychecks were higher – snarky catch phrases, such as “that’s why they pay us the big bucks,” are commonplace. Budgets are tight, and pursuing grants from private donors who dedicated their careers to accumulating wealth is core to our organization’s existence. Daily conversations, however, revolve around the creation of incentives to reduce deforestation and wean the world off of coal far more often than around personal wealth.  And it’s inspiring to work alongside people who are more focused on the global influence of their work than how their work will impact bonuses.

Ball Room DanceI don’t hate finance, and I love money. It makes life cozy, and I want a lot of it.  I want to consume, and I judge people who spend at an unsustainable rate. And my Swiss co-workers from the summer of 2010 treated me with kindness.  But obsession with wealth can be costly.  It can deprive one of a sense of citizenship – how one can claim he made the world a better place, beyond tax-exempt charitable donations.  Furthermore, wealth obsession can instill a mentality that prizes elegance and prices over substance – preference for the $30 can of beans over the $25 sushi platter.

I’m unmarried with zero dependents and at least 40 years from retirement; the NGO salary is more than enough for me.  But as I get older, I foresee this state of affairs might no longer be the case. What’s frustrating is that luxury and public service, from what I’ve experienced so far in my brief career, has been either-or, not both-and. I tip my hat to those in lucrative professions who are fulfilled by their contribution to society.

Counter Culture Travel: The Heart of Darkness Tour

HoD Sunset

“You see me, my pimpin’s in 3-D. I take ya ta places you only see on TV.”

~ Ludacris, Pimpin’ All over the World

Fine French cuisine tastes just as delicious outside of France.  Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s, and Monet’s works are found in museums all across the United States, not to mention the Internet.  The same animals witnessed on an African Safari or Amazonian trek are consolidated in zoos, and the National Geographic and Discovery channels enable observing these animals in their natural habitats.

HoD Essay CondescendSo why do people travel?  Vacation that’s a refreshing respite from daily activities does not need to include travel. Is it simply to fulfill a personal fantasy – to flaunt money while casting oneself as exotic?

“Sex – The poor man’s polo” – Clifford Odets

In Goodwill Hunting, the village sage, Sean Maguire, begins to answer this question when confronting the brilliant, impudent, and troubled protagonist, Will Hunting, about the flaws of his arrogant persona.

You’ve never been out of Boston.  If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him – life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.  You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.

To Sean, traveling is about expansion of personal tastes and perspectives resulting from the integration of sensory details – beyond what’s controlled by the eyes and ears – to how one perceives a place.   It’s about walking with a map in one hand and a camera in the other through Parisian streets and experiencing cigarette-smoking, espresso sipping fashionistas peer at you, judgingly, through tinted shades.  It’s about dribbling a soccer ball, shirtless, down sun-drenched Ipanema beach, drinking out of a coconut while watching freakishly athletic Brazilians play soccer volleyball as women in string bikinis pass you on either side with an ocean dotted with surfers HoD Essay 3in the background.  It’s about sweating on a mountain bike in Alberta, and breathing in air that’s as fresh as the view is pristine.  And it’s about learning your 67 year-old mom still has the guts to hike up a 2.5-mile canyon trail lined with precipices. Or that your bilingual roommate is liquid smooth with the Spanish ladies in Miami.  It’s about a place, and how you make that place your own.

The travel experiences above are easy to romanticize.  Both in the moment and when reflecting, the wholesome beauty is relentless.  I’d argue, however, that experiencing the fruits of the developed western world yields diminishing marginal returns regarding expansion of perspectives; after a certain point, going from one nice place to another expands one’s tastes, alone. One’s knowledge of fine wines.

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Type 2 fun“: An activity that is only fun after you have stopped doing it

The most immersed I’ve ever been in a non-Western culture came this past summer in Japan. Few people spoke English, and almost as few were literate with Latin numerals.  Getting from point A to point B was a pain – I was white, deaf, dumb, illiterate, alone, and, thus, easy to take advantage of.  Descending Mt. Fuji, I couldn’t understand any signs and hiked 6 kilometers in the wrong direction. The only reason I didn’t catch hypothermia that night was because my charades were good enough to convince a drug store clerk to call a cab driver who ended up driving in $90 dollars worth of circles before “remembering” where the train station was. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, I’d booked a bed in a $10/night downtown capsule hotel. Sound-proof walls for my 6 x 4 x 3 laundry machine of a capsule would have been nice, and not just to buffer snores – the hotel was located in the heart of the red light district, so many of my neighbors were shacked up with prostitutes all night.  Many of the most memorable parts of that trip were not fun.  But the opportunity to not have fun was fulfilling.

And I realize that there are many places far more different from the USA than Japan. Places where childhood education entails learning how to heard cattle to an oasis or train birds to kill foxes, not HoD Chris Jeon Libyamemorizing multiplication tables.  Jurisdictions where democracy is a foreign concept; where brainwashed residents believe their tyrant rulers are deities. To optimize travel’s value on a personal level – to expand perspective, not simply taste, as much as possible – experiencing these less comfortable destinations is imperative.  

So in the spirit of Chris Jeon, the UCLA math major (picture above) who traveled to Libya towards the end of his 2011 summer vacation because he “thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” – and named in honor of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a harrowing boat trip down the Congo River – I present the pinnacle of a counter-culture vacation: The Heart of Darkness Tour.

Heart of Darkness Tour

During this three-stop journey, activities beyond eating and sleeping in hotels with armed guards are limited.  The goals would be three-fold:

(1) Interview locals about first-hand accounts of depravity;

(2) Experience a breed of fear that’s foreign to anyone who’s never been deployed for war; and

(3) Witness as much of the chaos as possible without getting raped and/or murdered.

“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

HoD Kindu MapDestination 1: Country – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); City – Kindu (or anywhere else in eastern DRC)

Summary: Kindu is a jungle town located in east-central Congo on the Congo River, where more rape and murder has occurred over the past two decades than anywhere else on the planet.

Logistics: October 5, 2014: Flight from Dulles (IAD) to Kinshasa (FIH), with a stop through Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) – 21 hours and USD$1,000.  With the assistance of a travel agent, book a roundtrip flight from Kinshasa to Kindu.

HoD Kindu 1

Heart of Darkness (HoD) Resume:

“I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

(1) DRC was recently home to the The Second Congo War (1998-2003), often referred to as the “African World War”, in which 5.4 million people died, making it the deadliest war since World War II.  According to 2009 estimates, 45,000 people per month may still be dying in Congo, and 76% of people have been affected by conflicts.

(2) DRC ranks 154th out of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(3) The prevalence of rape and sexual violence in eastern Congo is considered the world’s worst. During the war, an estimated 200,000 women were raped; and, even since the war, large parts of society deem violence and sexual enslavement of women and children as normal.

HoD Mogadishu MapDestination 2: Country – Somalia; City – Mogadishu

Summary: Children are forced to torture and execute their parents here. Picture a slow and painful apocalypse. Mogadishu is the closest thing to hell on earth.

Logistics: Fly from Kinshasa (FIH) to Mogadishu (MGQ) on October 12th 2014 with layovers in Ethiopia and Djibouti – 19 hours and USD$1,500.

HoD Resume:

“But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

HoD Essay Soldier(1) Tied with Afghanistan and North Korea for dead last, out of 177 countries, on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(2) In the words of Conciliation Resources (2010), Somalia’s 2 decades-long conflict “has mutated from a civil war in the 1980s, through state collapse, clan factionalism and warlordism in the 1990s, to a globalised ideological conflict in the first decade of the new millennium.”

(3) In the words of Wikitravel: “Mogadishu still remains very dangerous due to high petty and violent crime rates… The city also remains in great danger of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who manage to get past the security checkpoints around the city.  Walking the streets of Mogadishu remains very dangerous, even with armed guards.  Tourists are emphatically discouraged from visiting Mogadishu.”

HoD Sana'a MapDestination 3: Country – Yemen; City – Sana’a

Summary: Yemen is a poor, dusty, desert country where terrorism and Islamic extremism reign supreme and 85% of the population is addicted to qat, a narcotic stimulant.  Water scarcity and civil unrest are serious issues.

Logistics: On October 20th, 2014, fly from Mogadishu (MGQ) to Aden (ADE) with a layover in Istanbul – 18 hours, USD$1,000. On October 21st, 2014, fly from Aden to Sana’a for USD$100.  On October 26th, 2014, return to Dulles from Sana’a – USD$900, 24 hours.

HoD Resume:

“It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

(1) Yemen ranks 163rd of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(2) In the words of Wikitravel: “Travel to Yemen is strongly discouraged due to a state of severe political crisis, as well as a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence, and general lawlessness.  Terrorist groups actively target tourist groups, with targeted suicide bombings and armed ambushes occurring yearly since 2007.”

(3) A desert country with naturally scarce fresh water resources, the nation’s addiction to qat, a water-intensive narcotic, stresses water resources even further and makes decision-makers even less rational.

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In conclusion, the Heart of Darkness Tour might not be fun in the moment, but it is certain to expand the surviving traveler’s global perspective.  Far more so than determining whether your favorite part of France is the fine Parisian dining, skiing in the Alps, or sunbathing along the Riviera. But don’t worry.  The Heart of Darkness Tour is still expensive, so people can still hate you for it. Even if they’re not jealous.