Performance Review

The underlying problem is that all performance reviews (especially corporate ones) tend to be costly and arbitrary. Deloitte have a new approach that intends to simplify the process by asking 4 questions:

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus (five point scale)
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team (five point scale)
  3. This person is at risk for low performance (yes/no)
  4. This person is ready for promotion today (yes/no)

I like the idea but not the questions chosen (they are too hierarchical). Mine would be something along the following lines:

  1. Does this person excel at their job?
    • For example, is there documented evidence of other people attempting to learn from them?
  2. Is this person a pleasure to work with?
    • For example, would you look forward to making a transatlantic trip with them?

I recently became aware of the concept of a Personal Boardroom. I think it is a good way to recognise whether you have an effective support network, and to identify why your career may be stalling. The idea is that you should have people in your life – with whom you are in regular contact – that perform each of the following roles:

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The Krupnik Medal

As an educator it’s a real priviledge to have the opportunity to engage with so many ambitious and intelligent students. My colleagues that teach on PhD programmes tend to have lists of their former students (I even appear on one!) but working in a business school means that I don’t produce future academics. I do, however, look on with pride when I see the achievements of former students in their professional careers.

A Krupnik Medal (🏅) is my way of saying “well done!”

Krupnik Medal holders:

To nominate someone, or reconnect, email me!

Boxsets

Last updated: April 2017

I consider myself fortunate that my young adult life coincided with the emergence of the boxset. When the kids go down the wine comes out! My aim is to provide recommendations based on how intense you want it (your internal engagement); and how exciting you want it (a more external feeling); and how daunted you’re willing to be in terms of the time commitment. The reason Sopranos, West Wing and House of Cards don’t feature is that I’m yet to start them. In truth, my main motivation is to promote some older boxsets that many people haven’t seen – i.e. Oz, and The Lakes.

The chart below shows the overall ranking:

The score is = excitement X intensity, although at some point I should weight it in the direction of intensity. Maybe 40/60. I’m not sure.

Each axis is superficially on a 5 point scale, with minor adjustments around a 0.5 gradation. Crucially, I re-calibrate all of the scores whenever a new series enters the list.

Here’s to the (joint) lead:

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Family & personal development

This essay is the first part of a trilogy on human flourishing.

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“Freedom… is the opportunity for self-discipline”

~ attributed to a French person by Dwight Eisenhower

2016 marked my 10 year wedding anniversary and that marriage is the central pillar of my social identity. It is where family and friendship coincides, and the basis upon which the meaningful relationships I have are developed.

I thought that having children would make me more selfish, because I’d be focusing my efforts and attention on propagating my own genes rather than considering humanity as a whole. I realise, however, that being a parent makes me a role model, and this encourages me to become a better person. It means that when I see distant tragedies I feel greater empathy than I did before. Children mimic behaviour and setting a good example outweighs instruction. While parenting is a selfish act, it can lead to personal development.

I also thought that the circle of life meant that I care for my children because my parents cared for me. And then my children would care for their children and so on. Upbringing passes from one generation to the next, with the gift of “becoming a grandparent” being sent back in return. That’s not really a circle though, more of a straight line. Indeed recently I’ve seen how much support and care my grandparents required, and how your duties as a child revert back to your parents when they age. Providing grandchildren isn’t your ultimate gift to your parents; it is being there.

I believe that the thread of ancestry to descendants isn’t self-involvement, it’s self-realisation, and this essay collates some of the books that I’ve read in pursuit of being a better father, husband, and son. As I move through the 4 stages of life the content will develop.

I. Father

“There are parts of the cultural heritage of a society that are more effectively transmitted through the family.” FA Hayek, 1960, p.90

When both of my children had turned three it seemed to be a real turning point in terms of their development. At three they can (by and large) – talk; talk to adults; sleep at night; dress themselves; feed themselves; go to the toilet by themselves. You can leave them in a different room without fearing that they’ll die. Horizons open.

When they were growing up I organised their photos into these categories: Newborn (birth – 2 months old); Baby (2 months – 1 year); and Toddler (1 year – 3 years). When they both turned 3 I went through those albums and made them a printed collection. 

When they were younger, my job was to keep them alive. To survive. But increasingly I understand that physical development (i.e. weighing, measuring, testing) has taken a back seat to their emotional and mental development. It’s incredible to watch this all happen on a daily basis. It frightens me that my daughter’s problems have transitioned from “Daddy I banged my knee” to “Daddy my best friend has spread a rumour about me and people are calling me names”.

Before having my own children I adhered to Bryan Caplan’s “selfish” school of parenting (which ties nicely into free range kids). The idea is that:

  • Not being stressed is the biggest gift you can give your children.
    • Chapter 12 of Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox, seems like an excellent guide to diagnosing and dealing with chronic stress.
  • If you’re the type of parent who worries about good parenting, you’re almost certainly already a good parent.
  • Most of the factors that drive children’s future prospects are outside of your direct control.

Tim Harford’s Messy has a great chapter on openness and adaptability, with plenty of lessons for parents. I particularly like the comparison between ladders and climbing walls. Because ladders have rungs in the same direction, and an equal distance apart, they stop our thinking. This is why climbing walls (or better still, trees) are so much better. They require more mental engagement. They are messier, and more dangerous. But since children adjust for risk such dangers can be confronted.

When the kids are getting fractious with each other it can be hard to encourage them to play nicely together. One strategy I take is to interject myself as a nuisance, and provide them with an even bigger problem. Since goal harmony beats team harmony, their behaviour improves. (Think about any Hollywood film where a group of people who dislike each other are faced with, and overcome a common problem. “Team building” programmes that provide a group challenge is therefore a bit misleading. It’s the imposed goal that does the work, not any improved dynamics of the team). Give children shared goals and watch them prosper.

I also think it’s dangerous to view your role as a parent in terms of a debate between the forces of nature and the forces of nurture. Really, it’s neither, because:

“we can be active agents who in part control how those interactions play out…it is the individual who is the agent of action” (Mischel, p.278)

Whilst Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am”; we might say “I think, therefore I can change what I am” (p.278). This ties in nicely with my article, “Only Individuals Choose“.

So I believe in self-improvement, and want to cultivate that in my children. But I also recognise that reading to them of an evening is largely for my benefit, and my love of books and reading is part of a far broader set of abilities that will impart themselves on my kids in various multifaceted ways…

We should strive to simplify childhood.

And I don’t feel ashamed of “Dad jokes”:

The sibling relationship is an important one, and only superficially amounts to bullying. I see it more as a form of testing boundaries of love and engaging in counter signalling.

  • To our friends we are nice (with signals such as asking them how they are, sharing our food etc).
  • But with our close friends we take the piss, trip them up, because only friends would find that funny.

Teasing with siblings is the ultimate bond of security and love because only a confident peacock can cut off their tail. It isn’t that we can “be ourselves”, but that we can test elements of ourselves in a safe environment.

Just before my daughter’s 5th birthday I attempted to do the classic Marshmallow Test (see The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel). Interestingly, I failed! I found it too difficult to leave her on her own, and stopped it after just 5 minutes. I then set up a camera for my son (he’d turned 3 a couple of months before) and managed to get to 10 minutes. The kids seemed better at it than I was! The test is as follows:

  • Set them up in a quiet room with a bell, a plate with 1 marshmallow on it, and a plate with 2 marshmallows on it.
  • The instructions are: If you want to eat a marshmallow you need to ring the bell to call me back into the room. I will be close by and we can stop whenever you want. However if you don’t ring the bell, and wait until I come back into the room myself, you can have 2 marshmallows.
  • The standard test is for 20 minutes. As mentioned, without a monitoring device I found this unbearable!

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 19.59.00The “test” is one of self-control, which is an important prerequisite for independence. But the purpose of the experiment is not really to categorise your child. It’s not about trying to measure the extent of their self-control. It’s more about seeing how they cope with situations that require self-control, and then using that as a basis to develop their skills. (Note that like many seminal psychological studies the marshmallow test has failed to replicate. Variables such as household income may underpin self-control and later performance, and in certain situations (e.g. low household income) a focus on present resources is perfectly sensible. I don’t think this undermines the usefulness of the test, it merely shows that we should exercise caution before making too many causal claims).

Generally speaking, self-control is easier when we cool the present and heat the future. Being hot makes us react quickly to emotional stimuli, and triggers our feelings. Babies are often “hot” in this sense, responding to immediate and stressful conditions. And from an evolutionary perspective this was very important for dealing with danger. The cool system is slower to operate, more reflective and aids rational and strategic thinking. It is only fully developed in young adults, and is not the natural way to deal with pressure. But in situations where you want to exercise self-control, the crucial thing is to recognise the need to move from hot to cool thinking. Mischel mentions how:

  • Create a distraction (my daughter did this by finding a notepad and drawing a picture).
  • Make the focus of your attention more abstract (i.e. think of the shape, or the colour, rather than the feel or the taste).
  • Imagine that you’re looking at a picture, rather than the real thing.
  • Ask what someone else in your position would do.
  • Sing to yourself.
  • Have a mantra.

Ultimately what these have in common is that you’re generating cognitive distance between yourself and the temptation. You can heat the future by imaging the pleasure you will get from achieving your goal. (Another option is chunking. Split an extended commitment into smaller periods with rewards at whichever intervals required to keep on track).

Recipe for ensuring success

    1. Track progress (ensure it’s done in a visible, prominent place)
    2. Celebrate milestones
    3. Use encouraging posters
    4. Involve other people (either as company or for encouragement)

Young children do not have well developed causal reasoning, and this is perhaps why negotiations are so fraught. I try to make clear “If/Then” scenarios (e.g. “if you don’t eat your dinner then you won’t get any pudding”, or “if you eat your dinner then you will get pudding”) and then follow through. I find that if a threat isn’t credible (e.g. “if you don’t stop crying then I’ll leave you here” or “if you don’t tidy your room then we won’t go to the zoo”) your bluff will be called. Writing down an “If/Then” scenario makes me more likely to follow through, and generate credibility.

Self esteem is how you view yourself in comparison to others. Be careful of allowing innate feelings of jealousy and insecurity drive your self esteem. Remember that all humans are created equal.

Self confidence is what you believe you are capable of doing.

According to Temple Grandin, “observant teachers can tell the difference between a massive fear reaction and the calculated use of bad behaviour to avoid tasks the person does not want to do” (Thinking in Pictures, p.175). I must not be an observant teacher, because  I can rarely tell whether my kids are genuinely scared of something or simply trying to get out of a task. Perhaps they’re such good actors because they’ve convinced themselves…

Do our children see us being hard on ourselves and exercising delayed gratification? It’s hard, because a lot of our gratification (in my case a glass of wine and a boxset) comes when they’re asleep. But we should demonstrate it. Indeed the main objective is to make good behaviour an intrinsic goal, so we’re not rewarding behaviour but seeing that behaviour as a reward in itself.

“If you aren’t consistent and are tough on your children but lenient with yourself, there is a good chance they’ll adopt the self-reward standards you modelled, not the ones you imposed on them” (Mischel p.225)

Don’t hot house but do provide a focal point for learning. It’s your job to ensure it isn’t stressful but give them an attainable target and watch them flourish as they rise to meet it. Kids love a goal. 

1457786562-20160312Make sure you set tasks that get progressively harder. Yes, it feels good to iron your shirts for the week and you deserve a beer at the end of it. But are you improving? (No!) This is why playing a musical instrument is such a good means of development – as you get better it doesn’t get easier. The challenge progresses with your abilities. The same thing applies to games such as Lego.  So do things that have the potential for unlimited growth. Then you can avoid the Narcissism Epidemic by focusing on the pursuit of success and not protection from failure.

As they get older, don’t worry too much about screen time.

Teach kids about moral dilemmas, which “arise when two legitimate moral values clash” (Brooks 2015, p.258). They are not mere dilemmas.

If you have a mere dilemma, however, and can’t decide which option to take try to pre-live them both. Our instinct is to favour our present self’s opinion of what ones future self should want to do. Rather, we should recognise that our future self will be pretty similar to our present self, and if something wouldn’t be enjoyable today, we shouldn’t commit to doing it down the line. “When my graduate students are fortunate enough to have more than one job offer and are tortured about their decision, I suggest that they imagine, as concretely as they can, living life in each job, one full day at a time, as if the job were happening now” (Mischel, p,133). If the prospect of doing an activity in a few days time doesn’t excite you, don’t commit to it in the distant future.

I have two concrete examples of advice I acquired from having read Mischel.

  1. My daughter was given a speaking role for the school nativity and expressed concerns about having to talk in front of everyone.
    • I showed her some videos of me doing public speaking and explained the process by which I learnt how to do it (i.e. I shared similar worries in a similar situation)
    • We practiced in front of a smaller audience of adults
    • We spoke about breathing as a way to remain calm
    • In other words the way to deal with phobias is to allow them to watch someone they trust encounter the problem in a calm, step-by-step manner, and then follow them.
  2. My son would often have tantrums where he’d seem unable to calm down by himself.
    • I took a photo of him and asked him to explain what he saw. This provided a little distance and engaged the cooler part of his brain.
    • When it comes to tantrums – don’t isolate or punish just try to talk them down and show them how to calm down.

Finally, Mishel (p.251) provides some dimensions for what constitutes character (which is what we do when no one is watching, or “an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good” (Brooks 2015, p.53)). I think it’s useful to reflect on whether you can find good examples of each of the following:

  • Self-control
    • Focus on the goal – “I paid attention and resisted distractions”
    • Temper control – “I remained calm even when criticised or otherwise provoked”
  • Grit – “I finished whatever I began”
  • Optimism – “I stayed motivated, even when things didn’t go well”
  • Zest – “I approached new situations with excitement and energy”
  • Social intelligence – “I demonstrate respect for the feelings of others”
  • Curiosity – “I wondered whether…”
  • Gratitude – “Thank you”

In ‘Cinderella Ate my Daughter‘, Peggy Orenstein mentions a study that compared New Year’s resolutions of girls at the end of the nineteenth century with those at the end of the twentieth century (p.140). This is an example from the past:

Resolved: to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wonder. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others

Compared to:

I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can… I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.

I found David Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character‘ to be a useful resource (although I didn’t like feeling as if he was trying to convert me, and I think he uses economic thinking as a strawman – individualism isn’t necessarily atomising, see my chapter in this). The main conflict of vision that underpins it is whether you believe that humans are risen apes, capable of anything we wish to achieve (and that our pure heart is the best guide to realise what that is); or fallen angels, capable of greatness but constantly having to strive against ourselves.

Our brains evolved for the relevant tasks of survival and the phenomenal pace of technological and social change imply that our instincts won’t always be correct.

  • There’s an elephant in the brain. Robin Hanson’s point is that we are a PR machine for ourselves, attempting to rationalise and explain our behaviour. The “elephant” in our brain is the mental flaws we pretend not to be aware of – the contradiction between what we say about ourselves and our actions. Revealed preference can go a long way.
  • There’s a chimp in the brain. Steve Peters uses a nice analogy of how the “chimp” part of our brain, responsible for survival, can dominate our “computer” and “human” parts. The chimp is geared toward quick, clear, emotional decisions with little regard for long term implications. We can tell if the chimp is in control if we’re doing things we don’t want to do or feeling things we don’t wish to feel. The problem is that chimps are quicker and stronger than humans so in real time we can’t wrestle control. Instead, we need to put systems in place that reduce the chimp’s impact. The chimp isn’t us, we don’t have to follow it.
    • Let the chimp out every now and then, speak honestly and openly in a conducive environment.
    • Box it – rationalise your behaviour and train the chimp to accept the human point of view
    • Reward it – bribe the chimp to let you complete a task with the offer a future treat.
    • Distract it – engage in an activity (e.g. counting to 10) to give your human time to get involved.

According to Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun, there were 6 societal ills:

  • Lack of physical fitness
  • Decline of initiative and enterprise
  • Decline of imagination
  • Decline of craftsmanship
  • Decline of self-discipline
  • Decline of compassion

If you aim to please others, or to win, you are destined to fail. The best aim in life is personal excellence, which means “doing your best, regardless of the standard that you achieve” (Peters, 2012, p.261). Personal excellence is always achievable, but never a given. Doing your best is different to achieving your best. You can fall short of an attainable goal, but if you do so make sure it’s due to bad luck or the excellence of others, and not through a lack of planning and commitment. If you don’t do your best, you’re not trying.  Your confidence should stem on the parts you control, and not on the outcome. When you take an exam you can place your confidence on the fact that you will do your best. That’s better than placing your confidence on your ability to get a high score. The former can relax and calm you. The latter will drive anxiety and fear.

II. Husband

Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols. [Leon Wieseltier’s wedding toast to Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power (see Brooks 2016, p.176)]

  • Follow the strengths of your resume virtues – what it says on a CV
  • Focus on the weaknesses of your eulogy virtues – what people would say at a funeral

I’m sympathetic to the concept of the “mental load”, as explained here. The gist is that husbands may believe that they share in the workload by offering to help, but this reinforces the view that it is the wife’s responsibility to organise. But in the same way that free-riding can often be at route a disagreement about the value of the task, we should avoid the assumption that there’s a fixed amount of “work” that needs doing. In other words a prior conversation needs to occur about whether an activity needs to take place. And if it does, an agreement about roles and responsibilities. This is crucial because otherwise an attempt to share the mental load may in fact duplicates it. The key factors are:

  • Develop better routines – to paraphrase WH Auden, routines are not monotony they are in fact a sign of ambition. They “provide the scaffolding with which you can build your best life” (Tim Farris).
  • Better communication. Talk about where you are on the love map.

Remember that romance is cheap. I was reading a list of the most romantic holiday destinations and one mentioned Paris,

… it’s not known as the City of Love for nothing. Grab a baguette, some Brie, and a bottle of wine, and have a romantic picnic by the Seine – yes, drinking outside is legal.

So that was our 10th wedding anniversary (albeit followed by a trip to the Caveau de la huchette).

Read novels: they refine our ability to understand other people and enlarge our experiences.

Don’t read novels: they turn us into psychopaths.

I think I’m a better husband when I am alert, relaxed, and communicating well. To improve these things I find value in the following:

  1. Have sleep plan. Nothing prepares you for the tiredness of being a parent, and when we had two children both under two I felt permanently knackered. Being tired makes one irritable and unable to think clearly. A sleep plan will always be far easier for men to achieve than women (because they tend to be the first responders) but a sleep plan meant that I now enjoy getting up before 8am. It has become a normal part of my routine and this has helped massively. (If you struggled to wake up early, The Chimp Paradox has good advice on how to get out of bed. It involves the distraction of a countdown that links voice to action. So, for example, on 5 you wiggle your toes, on 4 draw back the sheets, on 3 sit up, on 2 get out of bed, on 1 raise two hands in triumph. “Reasoning with the Chimp about getting out of bed generally doesn’t work. Blocking the Chimp from thinking can be used in a lot of different scenarios with good effect” (Peters, 2012, p.66)).
  2. Don’t commute. As Eli Dourado reports: “In a survey, Kahneman and Krueger find that commuting is one of our most unpleasant experiences. Happiness research suggests that although you can adapt to most negative shocks in your life, you can’t adapt to a long commute. Long commuters are more likely to divorce and less likely to exercise. Adding 20 minutes to your commute leads to as much job dissatisfaction as a 19-percent pay cut.”
  3. Mindfulness. The basic principle is highly compatible with being a secular hermit and I try to find time for sporadic meditation. I like the Headspace app so much I no longer feel that I need it. Diet and exercise is also crucial for this.
  4. Understand the distinction between introverts and extrovertsSusan Cain’s book on introversion has had a big impact on me, and Chapter 10 focuses on the communication gap between different personality types. What I found especially useful is instead of debating which activities to do, talk about what it is about a specific activity you do or do not enjoy. This opens up the potential for modifying an activity in a way that makes it mutually tolerable (or perhaps even beneficial). The example in the book is that Greg is outgoing and Emily is more pensive. He wants regular big dinner parties with lots of guests, and she wants a quiet night in. Their solution is to hold an event only once a month; with buffet style food (i.e. not sit down); and Emily isn’t obliged to mingle. A regular date night is a good communication facilitator because it involves alcohol but doesn’t involve children. (David Freeman has written a great article on his experience in a leadership position at the ONS, as an introvert).
  5. Find a vocation – which is a “problem addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy”. You don’t find that by looking within and finding your own passion, you must look without and consider what life wants from us (see Brooks, 2015 p.266)
  6. Have a purpose. The simply act of starting each day with a short written list of objectives  gives you direction and a sense of achievement. Ensure your purpose is aligned, or better still, shared with your partner.
  7. Don’t attribute bad intentions.
  8. Take time for each other. It’s easy to be busy but being busy is a decision. We make time for priorities (note we don’t “find” time) and should treat the most important people as a priority. Be careful about making your partner the residual claimant for your time. Most of us run out of time.
  9. Consider accelerators and brakes. Adding accelerators won’t work if the problem is the brake

The four red flags of a relationship are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

Be wary of depression, “hunger leads to eating and satiety, fear leads to flight, lust leads to sex. But sorrow is an exception. Sorrow doesn’t direct you towards its own cure. Sorrow builds upon sorrow” (Brooks 2015, p.226). And according to Samuel Johnson, “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment”.

I grew up placing a premium on integrity, and almost seeking situations in which to demonstrate the righteous path. I remember a professional situation where I had a choice to make. One option was to do what I considered to be the right thing. But it would have a negative impact on other people. I chose the former, and commended my courage. However, Brooks (2015, p.160) uses an example from Mary Anne Evans:

Yes, she had an obligation to follow her individual conscience… but it was her moral duty to mute her own impulses by considering their effect on others and on the social fabric of the community…. By the time Mary Anne Evans became the novelist George Eliot, she was an avowed enemy of that kind of stark grandstanding

I used to have a blase attitude towards sin, equating it to doing something “naughty”. But Brooks (p.56) shows a plethora of examples that demonstrate how dangerous our (inevitable) sins are for the social order.

Guilt, blame and regret are important emotions that tell us when we’ve done something wrong and need to make amends. But once we’ve recognised this, and shown suitable remorse, they’ve served their purpose. “Living with guilt, blame or regret is a terrible stick that will destroy any chance of happiness or constructive living. Think carefully if you are using these against yourself and ask what purpose they serve” (Peters 2012, p.266).

Finally, we should complete the Proust Questionnaire over a nice bottle of wine.

III. Son

Always take your job seriously, never yourself

My parents are fit and healthy and I’m thankful. We go on physically demanding holidays and I cherish my time with them. I have seen my grandparents age, and recognise the closing chapters of a life well lived. That experience made me want to learn more about the end.

I highly recommend Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The goal of modern healthcare is to keep the elderly alive and safe but this is usually because we shy away from difficult conversations about what quality of life is important to them, and what tradeoffs they are willing to make. Because we often delay this conversation until it’s too late, we care for the elderly in an intrusive, expensive, and unsatisfactory way. Some steps to mitigate this:

  • Talk early and often about care home desires (my prediction is that “being put in a home” will become less of a problem over time as the elderly in the future will be more likely to associate care homes with university halls rather than a military barracks)
  • Have a living will or advanced healthcare directive.

There is also good guidance for dealing with trauma (Brooks 2015, p.100):

  1. Show up – provide a ministry of presence.
  2. Never compare – this situation is unique, and it isn’t about you.
  3. Do the practical things – e.g. make lunch, tidy, get affairs in order.
  4. Don’t minimise what is going on – platitudes aren’t necessary, and sometimes things aren’t for the best.

The sensitive person: “just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct” (p.101). As Montaigne recognised, we don’t have to learn how to die:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do the job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

So don’t worry.


Updated: January 2020

Secular hermit

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The sum of evil would be much diminished if men could only sit quietly in their rooms

Pascal (see Huxley 1954[2004] The Doors of Perception, Vintagep. 25

According to many, the early hermits were the desert fathers, and are therefore associated with Christianity. But there is a deeper and more widespread spiritual affinity for becoming (not necessarily permanently) detached from society – a walkabout is a contested example from Aboriginal culture, and I assume there’s similar for Native Americans.

I use this page as a think space for a secular hermit manifesto, and I define a secular hermit in the following way:

  • Hermit: thirst for solitude
  • Secular: not supernatural

(1) Intellectual foundations

My secular hermit philosophy is based on three separate movements: (i) scholasticism; (ii) introversion; (iii) Paleo.

i. Scholasticism

Many religious practices had hidden (i.e. evolutionary) meaning, for example Kosher laws and fasting were effective ways to reduce infection. Using them as religious rituals ensures their widespread coordinated adherence, and therefore made them more likely to work. Having said this, there’s obviously lots of religious superstition that is high cost and serves little benefit. Hence we should be open minded about why traditions emerge, utilise the ones where we can understand the value, and drop those that conflict with our scientific explanations.

In Lubov Bazam’s ‘A History of Belarus’, the author outlines the progressive, positive impact of Christianity (p.60). To build churches you need skilled professionals – architects, masons, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths, etc. A new social stratum, the clergy, is formed, which leads to literacy, education, literature and painting. Monasteries became hubs for the spiritual lives of people, for schooling, and the copying and translating of books. Historically, religion served as the focal point of thoughtful enquiry. Universities took over.

I believe the link between monasticism and academia is pretty clear. Both involve the study of sacred texts, a detached physical space to think, and ascetic practices (such as silence and in many cases the abstention of physical intimacy…). I found it very moving that almost immediately after publishing this article, I learnt that Edward Hugh had passed away,

The economist, born in Liverpool to a Welsh family, never hid the fact that he had wanted to live in a monastery, and this small Empordà hamlet of 60 inhabitants came rather close to this idea of having a place to reflect, read, and write. Satellite television and the internet allowed him to remain connected to the world, while Escaules gave him the peace he needed to work.

My “Thoughts on Administration” makes a conscious effort to integrate monastic practices with programme management. I am a fan of management but working with a team should be seen as a conscious opportunity to develop other people. If you don’t want to coach, then don’t take on such responsibility. Also, I try to be an institution builder, not an organisation builder. This makes it easier to respond to sunk costs, and although your output will be less visible you can actually have a deeper impact.

“Rest for a scientist, Vavilov said, should be regarded as another way of furthering creative work” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber, p.137

Even economists have started to take mindfulness seriously.

ii. Introversion

Quiet (Susan Cain, Penguin 2012) is an excellent survey of introversion. Introverts often feel pressured into conforming with a society that seems built on extrovert principles. The book helped me to understand my own introversion and gain strategies to deal with it. It also gave me confidence to shape my social interactions around my preferences, and to communicate better with friends. (I also strongly recommend Create your own Economy (Tyler Cowen, Dutton 2009) which ventures more into the autism debate but makes a compassionate argument for why OCD tendencies should be better understood and the value they serve). See “Caring for your introvert“. According to the autistic animal scientist (and advocate) Temple Grandin, “It’s clear that the genetic traits that can cause severe disabilities can also provide the giftedness and genius that has produced some of the world’s greatest art and scientific discoveries… there is a reason that disabilities such as autism, severe manic-depression, and schizophrenia remain in our gene pool even though there is much suffering as a result” (Thinking in Pictures p.217). She continues, “after all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie whoi chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves” p.122)

As Tim Harford says in Chapter 3 of Messy, “People flourish when they control their own space”. It’s all about autonomy. The chapter is called “Workplaces”.

iii. Paleo

How to be healthy? How about:

  • Get vaccinations
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drive while drunk, distracted, or tired.

Finally, there’s many points of tangency between being a secular hermit and the increasingly popular Paleo philosophy. For a general overview I recommend John Durant’s book, The Paleo Manifesto. I don’t follow a Paleo lifestyle strictly but I do make marginal changes in that direction. Here’s what works well for me:

Diet  Exercise
        • The NHS’ Eatwell guide is my starting point.
        • As little refined sugar as possible
        • Fat is fine
        • Maldon sea salt goes in most things
        • Here are some simple substitutes that I make to move in a more Paleo direction:
          • I don’t understand Bullet Proof coffee but breakfast is usually just coffee, maybe a natural yoghurt as well. On the odd occasions I have toast or cereal that counts more as a brunch.
          • Bureaucrats drink beer or wine at lunch and fall asleep, but since coffee generates alertness it is “the drink of commerce” (Liss, D., (2003) ‘The Coffee Trader’ p. 15 and “the elixir of enterprise” (Bernstein, W., (2008) ‘A Splendid Exchange’ p.249).
          • Kerrygold butter instead of margarine
          • Tortilla wraps instead of bread (“I can walk away from their bread, not needing it at all… I can go into the forest and survive there on mushrooms and berries” Father Ferapont, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’)
          • Wine instead of beer
          • Alcohol is fine (1-2 drinks a day are better for you than zero)
          • Cake on birthdays and major festivals only
          • Full fat milk: be like the peasants of Vologda, who “will not thin their milk even if the world is being destroyed around them” (Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber)
        • I like the Paleo pyramid (and Durant, Ch. 8) but also recognise the  environmental impact this has. So I’ve shifted towards the advice in this New York Times article.
        • I do still eat meat and agree with Durant’s point that creating a niche market for ethically sourced meat would do more for animal welfare than boycotting it entirely (p.270). Discomfort with killing animals for meat seem to reflect more our discomfort with death generally than concern for animal rights. Breeding animals for slaughter is a lesser concern to me than animal suffering. As Temple Grandin (in Thinking in Pictures) argues, “when slaughter is conducted properly, the cattle experience less stress and discomfort than they experience during handling procedures in the veterinary chute” (p.180). A meat eating guideline would be:
          • Make animal welfare part of your buying decision
          • Eat animals with low pain thresholds (e.g. fish, insects)
          • Eat invasive species
          • Eat nose to tail
          • Try lab grown synthetic meat
        • There has been a lot of discussion about the downsides of processed meat. I found this guide by Cancer Research UK very helpful.  (short answer: cutdown but don’t beat yourself up)
        • If you can’t resist junk food or a late night snack just throw it all out. Systems > will power
    • Walk where possible (i.e. < 30 mins) – “it quiets the mind without silencing it completely. With the volume turned down, we can hear ourselves again” Weiner, 2016, p.59
    • Opting for stairs instead of lifts/escalators (and never standing on escalators)
    • Swimming (front crawl)
    • Pilates
    • Cycling
    • Trail running (wearing one layer less than is initially comfortable)
    • Turn down the thermostat
    • Be cool – “far more calories are used to heat the body than to move it” (Durant, p.216)
    • (You should also take cold showers but I am too attached to very warm ones)
    • Annual 10km Monster Race or 5km bubble Rush or Parkruns
    • SUP (my goal is to SUP on a canal)
    • Going barefoot as much as possible
    • Polar bear dips on New Year’s Day
    • At some point I want to learn the Tummo Technique and perhaps get a standing desk for my study (see The Economist)
    • Get enough sleep

A key thing to realise in terms of the balance of diet/exercise is that increased exercise backfires when used as a justification for treats. Cutting calories is therefore a more effective rule than exercising more.

If people are open to the upsides of alcohol I’m sure there’s a plethora of other drugs that could form part of a mentally healthy lifestyle. Such as mescaline, as Aldus Huxley said,

What is needed is a new drug which will relieve and console our suffering species without doing more harm in the long run than it does good in the short. Such a drug must be potent in minute doses and synthesizable. If it does not possess these qualities, its production, like that of wine, beer, spirits and tobacco will interfere with the raising of indispensable food and fibres. It must be less toxic than opium or cocaine, less likely to produce undesirable social consequences than alcohol or the barbiturates, less inimical to heart and lungs than the tars and nicotine of cigarettes. And, on the positive side, it should produce changes in consciousness more interesting, more intrinsically valuable than mere sedation or dreaminess, delusions of omnipotence or release from inhibition.

Huxley 1954[2004] The Doors of Perception, Vintagep. 40

It’s easy to use weather as an excuse not to get outside, so I like the phrase: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. In England this is mitigated by the fact that so much bad weather is rain, and rain does curtail a lot of outdoor activities. And we need to avoid the temptation to blame our clothes. Hence my mantra is: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.

Durant (p.231) suggests that for short periods of time in the sun suncream is unnecessary. Indeed applying it can be dangerous because it will prevent the warning signs that damage is occurring without actually stopping it (i.e. it’s better to feel burnt and get out of the sun than to feel bronzed and stay in it). For sunbathing use a broad spectrum cream that blocks UVa and UVb.

I’d love a standing desk but I need depth when I’m working and elevating it would be ludicrous. If only there were a standing desk that folds down…

An addendum to the “exercise” plan is a sleep plan. I try to nap and also have a sleep plan based on this cartoon:

_64420550_sleep-illustration-final

Showers are ok before bed provided they are low power and hot (to trigger your natural thermoregulation process). I am a big fan of the Gro clock and it’s amazing how many years it’s taken to suspect that an adult version might be useful as well. I do appreciate a key difference in that the former intends to make morning a binary issue, whilst the latter does the opposite. But still, it’s about the light – make sure that nightlights are yellow (i.e. sunset) and only use blue tones for morning.

I also have an evening alarm clock – my watch beeps at 9:30pm which is a signal to avoid electronic devices, stop consuming food, and consciously start winding down.

I intend to do a monthly 20 hour fast using the following schedule:

FullSizeRender

And as best as possible, declutter.

(2) Advice for social interaction

Here are some steps on how to become more of a secular hermit:

  • Don’t be afraid to ghost
  • Avoid phone calls
    • A phone is fine for interacting with complete strangers (I quite enjoy battling with customer services and sabotaging nuisance calls), and I enjoy phoning my parents and siblings. However, generally speaking, the telephone is a horrible way to communicate. You miss out on social clues and have to think quickly (see Cowen 2009, p.72). It’s also very hard to say “leave that with me and i’ll think about it”, and so a business call in particular can generate tension (I’d love to see experimental evidence on negotiations conducted via phone vs. face to face). Over the phone I am concentrating on not committing to something I don’t want to do, and therefore I find it very difficult to establish where mutual gains are.
    • In addition, you are left without a record of what has been said. If like me you follow up a business call by taking notes and sending agreed to do lists over email, the call is a waste of time.
    • Having said this, if you are frustrated that emails aren’t being responded to, have an urgent query, or are hitting a stalemate, picking up a phone is usually the mature and sensible thing to do. But if face to face and email contact are options, I struggle to see the purpose of a telephone call.
  • Don’t be afraid to eat alone. The South Korean term is Honbap. I call it Going Solo.
  • Social media: Facebook started out as a way to track down acquaintances (the first rival that it killed was Friends Reunited, after all) but is now like calling home (it really is about “updating” friends and family). Twitter is the type of side-to-side conversation that occurs if you’re in the pub (Cowen 2009, p.78). You just shout a few things, a couple of people might respond, and a few more will listen to it. Message boards are like a pub when you’re drunk. They are perfect for in jokes/banter but also confrontation and love ins (depending on whether you’re an angry drunk or happy drunk). I use all three regularly.
  • I don’t believe in the cloud (“not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral: hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place”, (Gleick 2011, p.395)) – instead I opt for a well-ordered vault.
    • My backup strategy is threefold: (1) a constant USB link to a hard drive; (2) a wireless link to a WD My Cloud. These two steps protect me from me two biggest concerns (that I accidentally delete a file and need to recover it, or that my computer gets stolen). Since I don’t feel fully protected against the risk of a natural disaster (i.e. if my study floods or burns down my wireless back up would be affected), I (3) copy an annual backup onto a portable drive and store it in my office. This seems a more reasonable strategy than using a fireproof safe. All three are WD products and they integrate seamlessly with a Mac. They are much better than Apple’s own products.
    • This quote from Arcadia terrifies me:

      “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”

    • I keep all of my photos within Photos for Mac, categorised into albums and folders for each year. I don’t believe in a “Photostream” and shake at the thought of having a single image outside of my purview. My computer is well ordered and I spend a lot of time filing electronic and physical documents. I’m fighting against a tide when it comes to photos, but I have a system that I like:
      • A selection of photos from some albums are posted onto Flickr and shared with friends and family (and all of my photos on Flickr must be in an album).
      • An even smaller selection of photos are shared on Facebook. I make use of the albums in Facebook, but I “keep” them in Photos

Thus I don’t shed as I pick up, at all. I don’t have a stream in the cloud, I have a well-ordered reservoir in a vault. For me it is: archive and share.

(3) Travel & epistemic architecture

The advantage of travel is that when you move between time zones, you lose touch with each. Consider this account of the Trans-Siberian railway:

“In the great, monotonous spaces, the measures of time are lost; they cease to have any force, cease to have any meaning. The hours become formless, shapeless, elastic like the clocks in the paintings of Salvador Dali. Moreover, the train passes through various time zones, and one should be constantly adjusting the hands of one’s watch, but what for, what is there to gain by this?” Kapuscinski, R., Imperium, (Granta, 1994) p.32

Or Rachel Polonsky,

Russian literature is full of trains, because (like prostitutes, who also populate the literature) they bring together places, social worlds and life stories that would otherwise never touch. Trains are vehicles of plot and destiny, adventure and tragedy, surprising thoughts and conversations, uniting the squalid and the sublime, iron and plush, making intimacy possible across the great reach of space” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber

My idea of heaven is sitting down with a few cans of lager and a good book right here (or here):

I think I found this on Twitter, but can’t remember where. It’s a beautiful photo!

“Something about train travel – the rocking motion and the passing scenery, there for you to admire or ignore – lends itself to creative breakthroughs” Weiner, 2016, p.175

In 2018 I took the Caledonian sleeper before the new stock came online, and loved it. See ‘An Ode to the Night Train‘.

The key ingredients for travel are the mode of transport and the hotel room (see My Guide to Travel). Whilst train journeys are my preferred mode, they are usually prohibitively costly. So my staple is to pass through airport and hotel. These spaces are much maligned, but I love them.

All the time, and especially at home, we all have a mental “to do” list. Even if not tempted to do anything on this to do list, we must still spend mental energy deciding not to do it. One way to escape this pressure is to find a neutral territory where there isn’t much that we can do. Airports, the plane itself, and hotels perform this function admirably. The decor is uniform and predictable and you could be anywhere. But that is the point. That is their beauty. Their neutrality is sophisticated because it wipes clean your mental fatigue and allows you to concentrate and focus on the book that you’re reading, or the thought process you have. It is very hard to replicate this at home, when the burden of “other things to do” is so strong. And it’s almost impossible to replicate it at the office, when interruptions are expected (and note that interruptions per se aren’t productivity killers, it’s the anticipated threat of an interruption). I’ve always recognised that I am at my most productive late at night (typically 10pm – 3am) or when there’s few students or staff on campus (i.e. after classes or during holidays). I’d previously attributed this to being a night owl, but now realise that these are times when the potential for interruption are lowest. Once you enter the airport/airplane/hotel realm the potential for interruption falls dramatically.

These days the constant connectivity of social media and email means that a chief source of potential interruption is your phone. So recognise that flight safe mode works on the ground as well. I routinely turn it on if I know there’s little chance of a genuine emergency (e.g. if I’m at home with my wife). If I need to keep a possible communication line open I’ll use “Do Not Disturb” (and ensure that close family would still come through). If not at the match, my preferred method of watching Everton games is to turn flight safe mode on at 3pm and then wait until the 10pm extended highlights without knowing the score. Routinely disconnecting every Saturday is a nice way to find focus on other things (such as writing, or spending time with family).

On average I make a foreign work trip once a month and this isn’t enough to be productive. So I supplement the airplane/hotel room dyad with train/coffee shop. When booked in advance off peak train journeys are cheap and quiet so every month I try to take a 1 hr + journey with a book. There’s a very good independent coffee shop near where I live but my go to place is Starbucks. Starbucks is brilliant – loads of chairs, good coffee (and flat white pioneers), subtle design, not chaotic, great app and loyalty programme. I love it.

“For me, cafes are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” The food and drink are irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere – not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intelligible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.” (Weiner, 2016, p.16)

Ultimately, though my travel dream is to spend time on a container ship. I first had the idea when I saw Michael Palin “repeat a day” on Around the World in 80 Days, and it combines two of my passions in life – global trade and detachment. There’s a fascinating photo-journal called “Live and Work on a Container Ship” (via Things Organized Neatly):

For almost five months now, I have been living and working as a deckhand on a 906 foot container ship making 57 day runs from New York to Singapore, while hitting many ports in between. We are importing/exporting goods from the Middle East, Asia, and America. As I am writing this we are making our way through the Gulf of Aden on what will be my last trip. Here is a little description of what its like to go to sea in the merchant marine.

I thought the photo of the Emma Maersk was mind blowing, but take a look at this:

6a00d83451620669e20133f33242af970b-pi


Updated: May 2018

Personal finance MOT

john_vernon_lord_ant_grasshopper


In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Source.

See Martin Wolf’s re-telling of the Ant and the Grasshopper as a modern fable here.


I endorse Chris Dillow’s four general principles of investing:

  1. Live within your means. The safest way to get rich is to save. How you invest your savings – cash, shares, gold, whatever – is a secondary consideration, unless you are really silly.
  2. Minimize taxes and charges. Most people can save tax-efficiently through ISAs and pensions, and should do so. Also, don’t be tempted by high-charging funds – they are usually not worth it. And if you hold shares directly, don’t trade much.
  3. Remember that high prices, on average, mean low expected returns. Don’t jump on bandwagons.
  4. Remember G.L.S Shackle’s words: “knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms.” Don’t pretend you can see what’s coming. And don’t pay others in the belief that they can do so. The essential fact about the financial world is risk (and/or uncertainty). The key question is: what risks are you prepared to take, and which aren’t you? This paper by John Cochrane discusses this well.

I also like Harold Pollack’s attempt to put financial advice on a 4×6 index card:

Photo by Harold Pollack

Photo by Harold Pollack

I also like this investment philosophy from Jim O’Shaughnessy.

Many people will say that they want to take more control over their current spending and future financial security, but often find it difficult to actually achieve this. I’m not mega wealthy, and am not promising you riches. All I can offer is a process by which you can gain a better understanding of your personal finances.

You probably don’t have time to follow these steps now. So find a date a few weeks or months from now and put it in your diary. Don’t shift it. Treat this seriously. Do it when you have time…

Start

Picture yourself at 65, and make it as vivid an image as possible – not so much what you look like, more where you are and what you are doing (for more see Chapter 9 of this book). A large reason why people are careless with their financial situation (and constantly undermine their future happiness), is because we’re conditioned to focus on immediate rewards. But we need to shift perspective and think about what actions your present self needs to take in order to make your future self happy. What resources do you need to deliver to your 65 year old self? Picture your children at 20. What do you want to be able to give them? Don’t adjust your future goals to meet your financial resources. Adjust your present behaviour to hit your targets.

Practice self-control and delayed gratification. If you want to watch a movie, try waiting a few days. Treat it as a reward.

Create your own version of my Personal Finance MOT (download a PDF here).

  • Fill in the date at the top left – do this at least once a year.
  • Go through your last 6 payslips and use your typical (i.e. not including bonuses) net (i.e. after tax) income. Unless bonuses are a significant part of your regular income treat them as a bonus and save them. This goes in the “In” box (top left). Make sure you include a total.
  • Then look at your outgoings. All of the sections in the thin black boxes should be summed together in the box where it says “Out”. There’s probably some categories that I’m missing out, and so use it as a basis. Check your direct debits to make sure there’s nothing that you’re regularly spending money on that isn’t being captured here. There will be lots of expenses that aren’t on this list (e.g. food, clothes, etc), but I find that if you try to be too exhaustive it becomes arbitrary. These are all essentials and are a lower bound of monthly outgoings.
  • Use a blue pen to complete it. As you can see for the mortgage entry write there is a row underneath to write down the provider in the left half and the amount in the right.
  • If there are any bills that are paid annually fill in the amount in green (and there is space below to add the renewal month). Divide each green number by twelve and sum together in the separate box called “monthly equivalent”.
  • Finally, your wealth is captured in “Shake it all About”. These can be estimates but if it takes a long time to find a current balance then perhaps that’s a problem. (Although if you’re checking them more than once a year that may also be a problem. Set it, and forget it). The dotted line signals that the top part is current wealth, and the bottom is the current value of savings that will be accessible to the children when they’re older. For many people most of their wealth is tied up in housing, so you can add the current value of your property less the outstanding mortgage. But I’d keep that separate to the main wealth calculation (it’s hard to shake about).
  • The two grey boxes are some metrics:
    • Months of imports covered is =(wealth/out). It shows how long you can keep spending money at the same rate if your income dried up.
    • Savings as % of income is =[(wealth/in*12)]*100.
    • Include your personal and employer’s contribution to your pension. Make sure you max out any matched contribution and have a figure as hugh as you can afford (>25%)
    • Total wealth is the sum of “Shake it all About” and house equity.

Some general comments:

  • Get a good credit card. Make sure you pay it off each month but make sure you’re getting rewards for spending. An easy way is to link it with Airmiles.
  • For advice on what type of pension, life insurance, savings vehicle are appropriate for you consult a professional financial advisor (this is helpful). If you don’t think it’s worth paying a few hundred quid to sort out your financial future then you’re an irresponsible idiot!
  • It is really important to start saving early. “Someone who starts saving at the age of 21 and then stops at 30 will end up with a bigger pension pot than a saver who starts at 30 and puts money aside for the next 40 years until retiring at 70“. Also look at the calculators here.
  • Have a look at the interest rates you’re paying. Make sure that you pay off your most expensive loans first (you don’t want the “loans” box to outgrow anything in the “shake it all about” box).
  • Act as though the Efficient Market Hypothesis is true (see the second half of this article). The best investment strategy is a low cost well diversified index fund. Vanguard are the original and remain the best.
    • I use the FTSE Global All Cap index
    • The Lifestrategy 100 is more UK based, which reduces exchange rate risk

Charity

I don’t enjoy being asked to make donations to charity, and not solely because I’m a tight, selfish bastard. It’s because it’s a form of bullying – you are put under social pressure to make a quick decision.

My response is to have an articulated approach to charitable donations, which serves as a defense mechanism and means I can avoid treating each request as something that requires my attention. I prefer to have a charity rule, rather than have to judge each request on its case-by-case merits. In a nutshell here it is:

charityPerhaps some points of explanation and elaboration are in order:

  • I believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is through economic liberalisation. I find the empirical and theoretical evidence compelling, and devote my career to pursuing it. This sounds glib and self-satisfying but writing a book about the power of markets is my chief contribution. Economics is my Ikigai and when my children ask my what I’ve done to make poverty history, my response is “public education”. And I sleep well at night.
  • Of course, I can do more. However I’m very concerned about inefficiencies within the charity sector. Since they exist largely outside the profit and loss framework that I deem to be the cause of the success of markets, it is to be expected that they are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies. I suspect that the charities I’m most familiar with, are not necessarily the most important. I suspect that the causes that generate most media coverage, are not necessarily the most pressing. So I try to discount charities that have good branding, good PR, and are emotionally draining.
  • I think it’s important to have direct debits to charities that you believe in. I set a percentage of my income that I feel is appropriate and split that between a few well known charities. One is focused on democracy and basic human rights. One is focused on humanitarian assistance and medical aid. If another charity wants me to contribute to them, they’ll need to convince me either that (i) they are more deserving than a charity I currently support; or (ii) I should increase the percentage of my income I assign to charitable giving. A Tithe requires 10%, but I already donate more than that to the UK government to administer charitable giving on my behalf. So I don’t give 10%. Less than that. If the state shrank, I’d give more.
  • I never donate based on cold calling, be it at home or in the street. This is a rule and the more you encourage me to break it, the more resolute I will be. Don’t bully me!
  • I regularly make donations of clothes, toys, DVDs etc to my favourite local charity shop.
  • Whenever I bet on beliefs I suggest to donate proceeds to charity.
  • I am not as skeptical of government-to-government foreign aid as most free market economists, because I believe that even with large scale bureaucratic inefficiencies the end result could still be beneficial. If for every £1 that gets sent abroad 50p is lost to bureaucracy, 25p goes to prop up a bad regime, and only 25p goes to intended recipients; that may be better than 0. But there’s important incentive effects that should be considered.
  • As an alternative to foreign aid, I’m delighted that the practice of giving cash transfers is generating more coverage. The economic logic is simple, and it seems that it’s working. Yes, they may spend it on booze. But as Chris Blattman points out this pessimism and paternalism is pretty unfounded (do read that whole article). Other good articles on cash transfers are this one and this one.
  • There are also important incentive effects with direct charitable giving. I don’t give money to beggars or homeless people. It’s not because I believe that they’re most likely to be under cover police officers. But if there are rents, I expect rent-seeking. I also expect beggars to invest resources to acquire prime begging locations. And I don’t want to encourage self-mutilation. I assume that any dogs I see are borrowed or rented, and whilst I am tempted to give warm clothes or a cup of tea I find this to be too much hassle. That sounds awful, but I also try to place more weight on the needs of starving people in underdeveloped countries than those where I live, so I don’t feel too guilty from walking on by.
  • I try to tip generously, but mostly when abroad. In many countries the service providers you encounter – taxi drivers, waiting staff, housekeepers – will be on low incomes, and so it’s directed at deserving people. This is a nice way to administer cash transfers. But in richer countries tipping is a horrible practice and I favour an automatic 15% service charge that gets split at the discretion of senior management.
  • I have an annual budget to use for friends that ask for sponsorship. I don’t keep a close record but this generally means that if it’s someone dear to me I will sponsor. This is a nice way to ensure that I have a wider range of giving than if I chose the charity myself.
  • I don’t wear ribbons and resist social media gimmicks. The fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge involved nominations and a deadline involved an amount of peer pressure that I consider to be a form of bullying. I find such expressive gestures self-satisfying and hollow and believe that genuine charity should be understated. Having said that, I’m also aware of evidence to suggest that the more public people are about their charitable activity, the more it encourages other people. Which is why I wrote this post. (Indeed just after writing it I went into town and would have ordinarily bought a Starbucks coffee. Instead, I realised that I’ve fallen below my voluntary “Tithe” and set up a new Direct Debit).
  • Don’t conflate environmental concerns and other forms of “doing good” with charity. Avoid virtue signalling, which occurs when you value the image your project more than the solving of a problem. As an example, What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong. And understand the benefits of packaging before lamenting the costs.

If you’ve never given a cash transfer before, I recommend https://www.givedirectly.org. Here’s what I used to think of charity.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is community work, and I’ve often wondered if I’ve used shyness as a mask for selfishness. However Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character’ reassured me that we shouldn’t overstate community involvement. He says, “community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life”. He provides an example of asking a headteacher how her school teaches character, and the response was the number of hours of community service. According to Brooks, “when I asked her about something internal, she answered by by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself”. It isn’t a massive leap to consider “how can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I”. He says (p.133),

Today, when we use the phrase “public-spirited,” we tend to mean someone who gathers petitions, marches and protests, and makes his voice heard for the public good. But in earlier eras it meant someone who curbed his own passions and moderated his opinions in order to achieve a larger consensus ands bring together diverse people.

If you struggle to find the balance between donating 80% of your income to charity and retraining as a doctor to work in a children’s hospital in Africa, versus doing nothing, I recommend ‘Stubborn Attachments‘ by Tyler Cowen. In particular, may this passage reassure you:

fullsizerenderOr, as George Eliot ended Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

 

Decision making framework

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When struggling to make a decision a simple first step is to create three columns and list:

  • Reasons in favour
  • Reasons against
  • Further information required

I like the advice from Jack Reacher,

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you can do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analyse the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself  a better chance of getting through to the other stuff late.

The following is a great template for requesting decision rights within an organisation:

  1. Describe the authority that is being requested
  2. Provide a background and summary of the value proposition
  3. Outline the objective with the strategic fit
  4. Prepare an economic summary with the base case, as well as other plausible scenarios that could make the project much better or worse
  5. Identify they key value drivers
  6. Describe the key risks and mitigants
  7. List alternatives considered and why they’ve been ruled out
  8. Project the timeline for future steps

See Koch, C., 2015 Good Profit, Crown Business

And all those points should be evidence-based. Not necessarily extensive, but easily digestible. As management guru Joey Barton points out, three key points are “the limit of relevant, easily digestible information”.

Rejection

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In May 1997 I applied for the Everton managers job, and received a nice reply from Peter Johnson. Over the next few years I decided to apply to as many Premier League managers jobs as I could, and eventually built a collection of rejection letters. I rediscovered them in November 2015 and here they are:

I still live in hope.

Update: here’s my pitch for the Everton job 2016

 

My Guide to Travel

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I make a solo trip around once a month and have created a set of routines that serve me well. I find travelling to be an important component of being an academic because it provides time and space to concentrate and reflect (i.e. travelling helps me to be a secular hermit). Some of the advice below is a little haphazard, but it’s a work in progress.

(1) Packing

For very short trips I’ll use a hold all but for anything more than 3 nights I’ll take my Rimowa Topas. This has the benefit of holding everything I need (i’ve used it for 2 week beach holidays) but small enough to fit as carry on if necessary. This can be handy if there’s a queue for bag drop but I prefer to check it. I’ve only ever had my suitcase go missing once and so I wouldn’t keep critical documents in it, but they are hassle to carry around with you (especially if you like to spend time at the airport). I very rarely clear customs before the bags are at reclaim so I don’t feel that checked baggage slows me down. And for connecting flights it makes things significantly easier.

If you’re going to a conference don’t forget:

  • Non iron shirts – not because you don’t need to iron them (you do), but because they take less time to iron than normal ones
  • Running shorts (for working in the hotel room, or running)
  • Swimming trunks (hotel will usually have a pool)
  • A decent bar of soap
  • A bluetooth speaker
  • Tea bags (I used to hate green tea or fruit infusions but now I take a stash of tea bags that don’t require milk)
  • Plug adaptor

I carry a charging station whenever I have a bag with me. The main items are a spare battery (handy for on the plane) and charging cables. This is all you need because usually there’ll be a USB socket in the back of the TV. However I love the design of the Mu classic and the phone charges much quicker from a wall socket. I tend to think that an adaptor is not worth the added hassle but perhaps Mu can change my mind. I also include a small torch for blackouts.

A good wash bag should be light and adapt to the contents. There’s no point having a bulky item of luggage that is only half full. I pack the following:

  • Toothbrush (don’t forget a cover).
  • Travel size toothpaste
  • Razor (you don’t need shaving foam/cream)
  • Indigestion tablets
  • Aspirin
  • Deodorant
  • After shave bullet (note I refer to is as an “after shave bullet” rather than a “perfume atomiser”)
  • Chewing gum/mints
  • Cuff links
  • Contact lenses – switching to daily disposable ones has made a big difference because you don’t need to pack contact lense solution, and can swim in them

Note that all of these items are easy to duplicate. Therefore have them in your wash bag and keep them at home. What is the point in having to remember to pack and unpack your toothbrush before and after every trip? Duplicate!

(2) The airport

Yes, I know Tyler Cowen’s advice that if you’ve never missed a plane it means you’ve spent too much of your life at airports. But I do not understand this because time at an airport is highly productive. As Craig Mod says,

You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport.

Airports are outside any conventional time zone and so embrace this detachment. They are one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to have a pint before 10am. Embrace this! I plan to arrive 2 hours before my flight – even if I’m checked in, have my boarding card, and taking carry on luggage. For most people 30 minutes at home is better than 30 minutes at an airport, but once you pass security anxiety drops. Those extra 30 minutes you could have spent at home are fraught because you need to remember to remember your passport; consider traffic; wonder about queues, etc. Once you’ve cleared security you can relax. I don’t use lounges and am perfectly happy to just buy a coffee, find a seat, put on ear/headphones, and read a good book. For most people a 2 hour arrival is plenty of time, but I only do this if it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the airport; it’s a small airport; I know there won’t be a pleasant cafe beyond security; I’m really tired.

(3) The airplane

Try to stick to one airline. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

I need an aisle seat. Not just so that I can get to the toilet easily (which incentivises me to drink more water, which is good) but it also means that I can go for a walk to stretch my legs (also good). BTW it’s usually fine to use the toilet when the seatbelt sign is on and here are some excellent tips for getting more legroom.

Obviously if you are in an aisle seat you should be sympathetic to letting people get out. I will sometimes try to sleep and have no problem at all with being woken. The problem I have is people who are constantly getting things from their bags in the overhead locker. Those people are inconsiderate and evil. Even before having kids I was sympathetic to parents travelling with infants. Although they should stay in Economy.

What to wear on a flight:

  • A hoody is cosy and protects your head against unhygienic seats, but if you won’t wear it at your destination it is too much hassle. In which case wear a baseball cap. Or both.
  • A gilet is a clever way to have small items like mints, earphones and a mobile phone close to hand whilst being seated – you can get them for < £20.
  • Avoid a cold/sore throat from the poor quality cabin air by wearing a lightweight neck warmer.
  • High quality comfortable noise cancelling headphones are a must.

Embrace no wifi and read:

  • I like something light for takeoff and landing – The Economist, The Week, The Spectator, or New Statesman. Not a newspaper. I do not want newsprint on hands. The in flight magazine is usually a worthwhile backup.
  • Then a book. If you like kindle fine but I don’t get it. Who reads so much that they can’t carry hard copies? I often read “big” books. But I won’t get through more than 2 on a trip, so they are not prohibitively cumbersome. Even on a 2 week holiday pre kids I would get through 3 or 4 books, but someone else would have one I wanted to read. Books are portable. Durable. Enchanting.
  • Or, I may be reading some academic articles. I can see the point of an e reader then because a stack of papers is heavy. But I like to take notes in the margins, and I enjoy the process of throwing away articles once I’ve read them. So even if your hand luggage is a burden on the outbound journey, it will be much lighter on the return.

Or, just watch a movie. Apparently Baz Luhrmann began planning his screenplay for ‘The Great Gatsby’ whilst necking wine on a train through Europe. It reflected this speed and dizziness. I watched it whilst necking wine on a plane over the Pacific, and with proper headphones and a dark cabin I find the audio and picture quality perfectly engaging.

I’ve also started listening to more Podcasts whilst flying. They can be a good way to get through a drama series.

(4) Hotels

Try to stick to one hotel chain. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

The mark of a good hotel room:

  • A bath wide enough to shower in
  • Electrical socket on the desk and on the bedside table
  • A desk lamp with a switch on the base of the lamp (not on the wire, hidden behind the desk)
  • Blackout curtains

In terms of security I bring a door stop with me.

(5) Transport

Uber is a game changer for domestic transportation. Whilst I don’t mind using public transport it can be almost impossible in the US, and I think it’s wrong to be insensitive to being ripped off on the grounds that you’re using expenses. When reliant on local taxis I’d often prefer to stay at the hotel, but Uber have made it cheaper and easier to get around. Critically they have removed the cultural uncertainty regarding appropriate fares and tipping; reduced suspicion about appropriate routes; avoided the need to carry cash; and lowered prices.

I totally agree with Michael Jennings’s account of “Why a traveller loves Uber“.

(6) Hospitality

I have a reputation for being demanding when I am a visiting lecturer but I am nothing compared to the amazing set of instructions that Richard Stallman sends his hosts. I have simple preferences (e.g. a working shower, mineral water) but put great weight on them being satisfied. One of my preferences is alone time. As Stallman says,

Many people assume that because I am traveling, I am having a vacation–that I have no other work to do, so I can spend the whole day speaking or meeting with people. Some hosts even feel that they ought to try to fill up my time as a matter of good hospitality. Alas, it’s not that way for me.

There are a few cities that I travel to frequently and will often try to spend time with friends. But there is an odd tendency from some cultures to feel obliged to “entertain” you, or to treat your whole schedule as theirs. If I’ve been in a classroom all day I may need the evenings to respond to emails and do other work. Learning that a mysterious person will be at my hotel room at 9pm to take me for dinner is my idea of hell.

When abroad I like to tip, and always leave a tip when I check out of a hotel room. If I’m not sure what an appropriate tip is I use the price of a pint of beer in local currency as a good benchmark.

If you want a mantra, here’s mine. Top line is when I’m leaving the house, bottom for when I’m leaving the country. Tickets usually means “have I added my boarding card to Passbook?” Money includes foreign currency. Passport includes ESTA/visa. Easy!

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I am a creature of habit and get great benefits from the epistemic shortcuts of returning to the same place year after year after year after year after year after year. And recently I realised that I struggle to recollect anywhere that I’ve only been to once. It was only on my second trips to Perth, Bucharest, Turin, Sofia and Minsk that I felt I could piece any of those great cities together in my head. There is something about a return visit to confront your first impressions, and permit yourself a passage of time and circumstance, that makes it a necessary part of travel. It means you can’t get too far ahead of yourself, dipping in and out and passing through. For me, at least, I need to relate a city to my own past experiences.

Finally, when travelling, go that little bit further. I’ve realised that many of my most meaningful travel experienced are when I’ve ventured slightly farther than my original plans. In 2014 I visited Atlanta and on a whim decided to rent a car and drive to Montgomery. It was exciting and felt like genuine adventure. When I visited Minsk in 2018 I took the time to jump on a train north. It gave me an additional reference point, heightening my understanding of the country, and providing an opportunity for independence. As much as I love the routine of travel described further up the page, all the more reason to seek out the circumstances for surprise.


Updated: September 2018