Random finds (2018, week 26) — On ageism and the myth of the ‘wunderkind,’ curiosity and the (un)examined organization, and the case for beauty

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Lochside House, by HaysomWardMiller Architects, is one of RIBA’s National Award Winners 2018, given to buildings across the UK recognised as significant contributions to architecture. (Photography by Richard Fraser / HaysomWardMiller Architects)

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Blowing ones own trumpet… “@marksstorm has the best links: a great curator” — Stowe Boyd

Ageism and the myth of the ‘wunderkind’

In last week’s Random finds, I wrote how recruiters continue their search for candidates who can fall into line.

“Our culture may outwardly celebrate ‘disruptors’ and glorifies entrepreneurs, but in most of the workforce, it is safer to hire people who follow and obey rules, not least because organizations generally aren’t comfortable with rule breakers,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argued in Recruiters overrate these job skills, screwing over everyone.

Conformity isn’t the only bias in recruitment. There are many, subtle and not-so-subtle, and ‘ageism’ is one of them.

In an interview with Catie Lazarus, which is part of The Atlantic’s series Exit Interview, Gordon Rothman, a multimedia producer who lost his job at CBS in a mass layoff, tells he very often sees signs that companies are looking for someone younger. “Ads ask for ‘digital natives’ and people who ‘live, eat, and dream social media.’ On occasion, I get past the anonymous algorithms of an online application and actually score a meeting, but experience silence afterwards. Companies get advice like ‘Hire someone on the way up, not on the way down.’ I am probably not on the way up,” he says in The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Force of Ageism.

Rothman believes that behind this ageism is the assumption that the greater energy, drive, and willingness to work will come from younger applicants. This, however, touches upon another myth, namely the myth of the Silicon Valley ‘wunderkind,’ which is actually dispelled by a new studies.

According to an article published by KelloggInsight, How Old Are Successful Tech Entrepreneurs?, many in the tech sector are biased toward the young. “There’s this idea that young people are just more likely to have more valuable ideas,” says Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy at the Kellogg School. Examples of this bias are Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that “young people are just smarter,” or the $100,000 fellowships that Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel hands out each year to bright entrepreneurs — provided that they are under 23.

But is this notion accurate?

No, says Jones. “If you look at age and great achievement in the sciences in general, it doesn’t peak in the twenties. It’s more middle-aged.” Even Nobel Prize winners are having their breakthrough successes later and later in life, he found in earlier research.

But maybe Silicon Valley is an exception to this rule?

Not according to “a new study, Jones, along with Javier Miranda of the U.S. Census Bureau and MIT’s Pierre Azoulay and J. Daniel Kim, use an expansive dataset to tackle that question. The researchers find that, contrary to popular thinking, the best entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged. Among the very fastest-growing new tech companies, the average founder was 45 at the time of founding. Furthermore, a given 50-year-old entrepreneur is nearly twice as likely to have a runaway success as a 30-year-old,” KelloggInsight writes.

These findings have serious implications, not only for aspiring entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley’s tech industry, but also how we think about age in general.

Knowing this, how can we combat ageism?, wonders Chip Conley, who took up an ‘encore role’ in his mid-fifties when he returned to the workforce as a senior exec with Airbnb. “I was twice the age of the average employee and reporting to cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky, who was 21 years my junior,” he writes in an article for Harvard Business Review.

“In many industries, especially in technology, you may feel ‘old’ at 35 — even though you might continue to work full-time until you hit 75. The 40 years between may feel like a run-on sentence that could use some punctuation — especially in a world where more of us are living to 100,” he writes. Conley’s solution is what he calls the ‘Modern Elder’ — “someone who marries wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to learn from those younger.” Adding, “There is a generation of older workers with wisdom and experience, specialized knowledge, and unparalleled ability to teach, coach, and council who could pair with these ambitious Millennials to create businesses that are built to endure.”

“The attitudinal change necessary for Modern Elders to flourish needs to start with our language,” he argues. “It’s time to liberate the word ‘elder’ from the word ‘elderly.’ We associate the elderly with being older and often dependent on society, and yet separated from the young. On the other hand, society has historically been dependent on our elders, who have been of service to the young. Given that someone who is moving into a retirement home today is, on average, 81 years old, we have many productive elders in our midst who are growing whole, not just old.

Ageism is one of the few ‘isms’ that ultimately affects us all. As deeply divided as we are politically and culturally today, the eventual arrival of elderhood is a condition that unites us. It’s time we embraced age like any other type of diversity. Wisdom precedes us and will succeed us. The Modern Age needs Modern Elders.”

Curiosity and the (un)examined organization

“If people can be wise, why not organizations?,” Tod Martin, the president and chief executive of Unboundary, wonders in ‘The (Un)examined Organization,’ which was first published in The Alpine Review, N°2 — Returns (2013).

Photography by Michael Kenna, a British photographer who “has scoured the world’s landscapes to capture their silent guardians.” Many of Kenna’s shots involve long exposures of 10 hours or more, underscoring his relationship to time and waiting. “Time is a luxury. It’s a luxury not to have to do something, just to stand, to watch, to experience, and not to always have a full agenda and a busy schedule. It allows you to wander off in your mind,” Kenna said in a recent interview with Graeme Green.

If people can be wise, why not organizations?

We all know an individual — more than one if we are lucky — who has something beyond knowledge. More than being smarter, they simply seem to know what’s right. It is not as easy to say the same about organizations. Which is odd because organizations are nothing more than human constructs. It makes no sense that organizations would have less access to wisdom. If anything, it should stand to reason that they would have more.

Where wisdom comes from is an important question for an individual, but even more important for an organization or enterprise. That’s because we’ve come to expect more and greater things from enterprises. A smarter planet. Environmental sustainability. Capable, lifelong learners. Whether it’s a corporation, a nonprofit, or a civic institution like a school or university, we want to believe that these enterprises represent our best collective effort.

So, here comes the question: Are organizations growing wiser?

Ignorant intelligence

One of the most reassuring things of late has been discovering that Columbia University teaches a course in ignorance. Stuart Firestein, who designed and teaches the course, believes that ignorance is more important than knowledge. In an interview with Casey Schwartz of the The Daily Beast, Firestein spoke about how college professors are vomiting out facts to students in exchange for payment. He realized, though, that in his actual work on neuroscience, facts were the most unreliable part of the whole operation. “We don’t know bupkis,” he tells Schwartz. “We should be talking about what we don’t know, not what we know.” Firestein seems to be the latest in a long history of smart people reminding us of an important Socratic idea: knowledge is not wisdom.

Yet that enduring Socratic idea flies in the face of the ‘data-information-knowledge-wisdom’ (DIKW) sequence that technology promotes, and that most enterprises have come to believe in. Most organizations seem convinced that wisdom is just the outcome of a better algorithm. Big data will save us — which is why technology is now positioning big data as the next great natural resource. David Weinberger, best known as the author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, has taken the DIKW sequence to task, both in a Harvard Business Review blog post back in February, 2010 and more recently in his latest book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

Essentially Weinberger’s point is that Moore’s Law has the world awash in data, which has created the need to justify the value of our ability to capture and store so much data. At first, the sequence was simply that data begets information. Then when Alvin Toffler warned us all of information overload in Future Shock, the sequence got extended so that information begot knowledge. The result is degradation, not elevation, of centuries-old understanding of what constitutes knowledge, and knowledge’s relationship to wisdom. Weinberger is adamant that knowledge, being simply the higher value we extract from information via algorithm, “is pretty far from what knowledge has been for its 2,500-year history.” Perhaps we have entered an age where we’re satisfied with wisdom that really is just the most valuable, actionable information we have, derived from algorithms that see patterns that human experience is less able to recognize. Or perhaps we’ve entered this new age without being completely conscious of how we’ve altered what’s considered wisdom, or what we’ve lost. That makes it hard to know if organizations are growing wiser, because we might have let what we mean by wisdom change. Like an overweight society easily satisfied with convenient, processed food, enterprises ‘might be comfortable and satiated thinking of actionable information that has high market value as knowledge — or even as wisdom.’

Outsourcing curiosity

John Seely Brown, a researcher who specializes in organizational studies with a particular bent towards the organizational implications of computer-supported activities, believes that our information-only diet is the cause of one of our major disabilities: tunnel vision. Our unhealthy relationship with information limits what we can see. Organizations tend to become more and more interested in what they’re interested in. While that kind of intense focus sounds good at first blush, its consequences over time are not so good. It robs an organization of peripheral vision, pushing out of view things that are almost always vital to meaning and understanding. The result is decisions or designs that cause at least as many problems as they address.

Brown seems like yet another modern voice reminding us of an important Socratic idea that wisdom is fed by curiosity. And yet, most enterprises seem to operate by the proverb, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’

Curiosity is stifled in most organizations. Sometimes without thinking, organizations prevent their own people from looking up and out and making sense of the world. That can be as simple as not being open to new ways of looking at things or as luddite as limiting — or denying — access to the Internet, as in the practice in many organizations, especially schools. There are numerous ways that organizations reinforce their prevailing wisdom by strengthening the walls of the tunnel that blind them to a wider view.

Curiosity is also often outsourced. Rather than incorporating people’s perspective within its own walls, organizations ask outsiders to be curious for them. These are organizations that end up research rich, but insight poor. They come to know the world around them in an abstract, arms-length manner at best. Curiosity can also be channelled into expertise. Without question, expertise can be a good thing. After all, we hope for the care or services of an expert in many situations. The problem is that pursuit of expertise alone often isolates and insulates. Think of expertise as producing stronger branches and a weaker tree. Rather than producing a wiser organization, too often organizations that reward expertise end up with a fragmented and compartmentalized culture, as people pursue narrower, deeper tunnels rather than an integrated, holistic perspective.

It’s tempting to dismiss Socrates’ hyperbolic humility when he says that it is wiser to know you don’t know rather than believe you know when you don’t. Organizations do so at their own peril, though. They have an even greater capacity to live in the reality that they construct than do the individuals who make up the organization. Enterprises, institutions and alliances have a powerful ability to construct meaning — often widely shared meaning — even when that meaning doesn’t correspond to the world around us. It’s as if organizations have the ability to bend light in a way that makes reality disappear.’

Incuriosity in perpetuity

The idea of an unexamined life not being worth living might well be Socrates’ best known. His belief in living an examined life — a life in pursuit of true wisdom through curiosity — was so strong he went to his death in defense of it. We might do well to ask ourselves if the unexamined organization is worth perpetuating. Does it deserve to go on? Many of us put the best hours of our best days into organizations. Day after day, week after week, year after year. And yet, so many of our organizations leave us with a widening delta between expectation and experience, vision and reality, hope and fear. What if we’ve managed to sequence DNA correctly, but sequence wisdom wrong? What if wisdom is not a step up from knowledge, but a step down from the nature of the universe? Or a rope bridge between the two? Will incurious organizations using better algorithms on bigger data really make that step or span that chasm?

For Socrates, understanding what we are was the first task. What he did was to persistently and ruthlessly question the ideas and concepts we rely on ‘every day and seldom think about. He believed that a good life came from the peace of mind of doing the right thing. The right thing, to him, came from rigorous examination, not social codes.

There are very few organizations today living examined lives. Their immortality may be what robs them of the need. But it also robs them of the wisdom they could have.

The case for beauty

“We all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls.” — Octavia Hill (1838–1912)

In a world where the drive for economic growth is crowding out everything that can’t be given a monetary value, Fiona Reynolds, the former Director-General of the National Trust, proposes a solution that is at once radical and simple — to inspire us through the beauty of the world around us. If adopted, this alternative path forward, which she eloquently lays out in The Fight for Beauty (Oneworld Publications, 2016), could take us all to a better and more beautiful future.

In this polemical call to arms, Reynolds shows what people can achieve when they fight for a cause in which they believe — passionately, persuasively and bravely, and often against the relentless drive for economic growth which is suffocating the ‘money-can’t-buy things’ our future depends upon. The Fight for Beauty holds important lessons not only for other social movements but also businesses, as she explained in an interview with Director (2016):

“Beauty is the framework about how you can do things really well. We cannot survive as humans by material benefits alone. We are using resources as if we have three planets, not one … And at some point, we are going to hit some crunch issues about our fundamental survival. Any business needs to have spiritual wellbeing as well as the material practicalities … there are jobs to be done, things to be produced, but beauty creates this unique value which makes something succeed.”

More recently, Alan Moore, who helps businesses discover their own unique beauty, met Fiona Reynolds at ‘her’ Emmanuel College in Cambridge. “If we mean ‘beauty,’” she tells, “we talk in words that are very ‘jargonistic.’ So, for example, we talk about ecosystem services or natural capital or biodiversity, instead of nature, beauty, wildlife. I think … we are hiding almost behind a frame of economics, but losing the spiritual value that beauty … brings into the debate. We have written [beauty] out of the script.”

She also feels there is a tension between the things people value in their lives and the system we are operating in and which excludes some of these values, such as compassion, beauty, love or care. It’s not people themselves that have a problem with seeking or engaging with beauty but “it is the system that has become too ‘economistic’ and narrowly conceived,” she tells Moore. “Beauty isn’t just an aesthetic thing. It is about a total perspective on the quality of life and the things that matter to us.”

You can watch the 10-minute conversation on Vimeo.

Here are some contemplations from final two chapters, Urbanisation and why good planning matters and The case for beauty.

“Beauty is not a luxury we can have only when we are rich; it is a way of shaping the changes we need and want so that they make a positive contribution to everyone’s lives, as well as protecting the things and places we most value. To succeed we need to be clear about our objectives: and beauty, sustainability and genuine public engagement must be at the heart.

In less than two centuries Britain has been transformed from a rural to an urban nation. Many countries elsewhere in the world are on the same journey, but travelling faster. With more than eighty per cent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, we have to devote more energy and commitment to making them beautiful, satisfying and human places to live in as well as efficient, prosperous and thriving engines of a new sustainable economy.” (page 302)

“The unashamed championship of beauty in its own terms and for its own sake has become muted. Indeed beauty has so little traction in official discourse that it has become invisible.

The state described as ‘economism’ — the belief that only the economy really matters — is not the preserve of government and decision-makers. We are all prey for it. We have become consumers, not citizens, ready to be swayed by marketing messages and with an unrealizable desire for instant gratification. We have become used to mediocrity in the places where we live and the products we use. We have become somewhat embarrassed by the word ‘beauty,’ believing it to be either elitist or so indefinable that it is not useful.” (page 308)

“But beauty is more than a service to us. It fulfils something in us that other things cannot, and it enriches our lives in all kinds of unexpected and vital ways. Because beauty is a perspective, not a transactional experience. As Keats said: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ It is a way of looking at the world. Of valuing the things that are priceless: the inspiration of a work of art, a beautiful view, a swallow in flight, breaths of fresh, clean air. In a world where most of us are realistic enough to know that we are unlikely to get much richer, beauty drives the experiences we seek out: the places we go to, the things we surround ourselves with, and the values that make our lives worth living. We live in an era where fewer of us are driven by religious imperatives, but we are not lacking in spirituality, nor the capacity to be moved to strive for better things. Beauty can give shape to that yearning, and as Ruskin intimated, ultimately a search for beauty also helps us to respect the needs of other people and other inhabitants of the Earth, today and in the future.” (page 311)

“So what would those who want to continue the fight for beauty do? As we have seen, protecting beauty id about whether we do things, how we do things and the quality of what we do. So we should talk about beauty, and the value what it offers us. And above all we should act as if beauty matters, and draw on it to improve the quality of our lives. We should seek things that make us happy rather than always consuming more. And we should look after the natural beauty — land, nature and natural resources — on which our future depends. In the process we will find that restoring confidence in the word ‘beauty’ will help us. If people believe we are striving for beauty it will help reduce fears of the unknown, seek solutions that people find appealing, and relieve tensions by seeking a future in which everyone has a stake.” (page 312–313)

“But to achieve a better future depends on beauty mattering enough to shape both the debate and our decisions. Because we have choices about whether and how we respond to new imperatives, and whether we accept the responsibility of changing our lives to protect the interests of those who will follow us. As Muir said, our choice must be ‘Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.’” (page 313)

And also this …

“Sit still, slow down, and let the boredom in,” Chuck Leddy advises in In praise of boredom

“This [fear of missing out] and need for digital stimuli may sound harmless, like being addicted to air, but it’s not. We are losing our ability to focus, to cogitate, to think deeply, to make good choices, and to remain calm in the face of boredom.” Yet, “[s]lowing our brains down is hugely important for our ability to focus on what matters most in life, including being creative,” Leddy writes.

“We need to be okay with boredom, to sit still with it. We don’t seem able to sit with anything these days without reaching for the next shot of stimulation. Sit with your joy, your pain, your fear, your anxiety, your dreams, and yourself. Sit with your family and friends when they need you. […] Be fully present for yourself and others. Be here now. Stop reaching for your smartphone to find stimulation–you don’t need it, and it’s hurting your ability to think, to create, to listen to yourself and others, to focus on what’s important (your own life and the lives of those around you).”

“At a time when the Agent Theory — the idea that our duty is to change the world according to our demands rather than to contemplate its gifts — has so thoroughly taken over, it’s not surprising to learn that silent retreats, promising deceleration, have become increasingly popular in recent years. For example, to avoid burnout in South Korea, ‘ the most overworked nation in Asia,’ some South Koreans are willing to live in monastic cells no more than 53 square feet for a week. They relinquish their cell phones, wear blue uniforms, receive food through an open slot, and agree to being locked into their cell (while also being notified of how they can unlock the door if need be),” writes Andrew Taggart in Why you never have enough time, a history.

“But while this type of exercise may give people a glimpse into contemplative stillness, alone it is not enough. Nor, on its own, is the Slow Movement, which urges us to slow down the pace of everyday life. As soon as one returns to our ‘acceleration society’ and its rhythms, so do the regular, frenetic patterns expressive of the Agent Theory. And riding the schizophrenic seesaw between being an agent throughout most of the year and being contemplatively still or going more slowly in brief, intermittent intervals is no way to live. It is a picture of painful incoherence.

After countless philosophical conversations over the years with individuals working in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and beyond, those for whom ‘time famine’ is their default mode of being, I’ve come to believe that what must be discovered instead — and this is no easy thing — is the contemplative stillness that exists beneath any pace of life, whether fast, fluctuating, or slow, that sense of abiding peace that T.S. Eliot once so beautifully called ‘the still point of the turning world.’ How to find that abiding peace, that ground of Life, really is the question.”

According to Ephrat Livni, the secret to a meaningful life is simpler than you think.

“In the Eastern philosophical tradition,” she writes, “there’s yet another simple answer to the difficult question of life’s meaning — a response that can’t be articulated exactly, but is sensed through deep observation of nature. The sixth-century Chinese sage Lao Tzu — who is said to have dictated the Tao Te Ching before escaping civilization for solitude in the mountains — believed the universe supplies our value.

Like [Casey Woodling, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina], he would argue that goals are insignificant, and that accomplishments are not what makes our lives matter. But unlike Woodley, he suggests meaning comes from being a product of the world itself. No effort is necessary.

“Instead of reflection, Lao Tzu proposes a deep understanding of the essence of existence, which is mysterious. We, like rivers and trees, are part of ‘the way,’ which is made of everything and makes everything and cannot ever truly be known or spoken of. From this perspective, life isn’t comprehensible, but it is inherently meaningful — whatever position we occupy in society, however little or much we may do.

Life matters because we exist within and among living things, as part of an enduring and incomprehensible chain of existence. Sometimes life is brutal, he writes, but meaning is derived from perseverance. The Tao says, ‘One who persists is a person of purpose.’”

“You think I’m insane?” said Finnerty. Apparently he wanted more of a reaction than Paul had given him.
“You’re still in touch. I guess that’s the test.”
“Barely — barely.”
“A psychiatrist could help. There’s a good man in Albany.”
Finnerty shook his head. “He’d pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” He nodded, “Big, undreamed-of things — the people on the edge see them first.” ― Kurt Vonnegut in Player Piano

“American firm Bates Masi Architects took cues from vernacular architecture for this Hamptons home, which consists of sharply gabled forms wrapped in oversized shingles,” Jenna McKnight writes on Dezeen.

“To create an intimate yet spacious home, the [architects] turned to vernacular building traditions. For centuries, the [Hampton] area was dominated by farms established by English settlers. A common building typology was the ‘connected farm,’ which consisted of a main residence linked to smaller structures that were added over time. Each volume, while sharing a design vocabulary, had a distinct use.”

“Similar to connected farms, the home features a limited palette of materials. Inside, [o]ak floors and wooden cabinetry were used throughout in order to create a sense of unity. On the exterior, cedar shingles, which are ubiquitous in New England, were scaled up and used to cover walls and roofs.”

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“So much time is expended on the crafting of a CV. It is something that summarises our past, the schools we attended, the qualifications attained, the organisations worked with, the roles fulfilled. It is a record of selected facts, facing backwards, destined for the archive. It allows little space to present who we are and what we can do. An artist, at least, can show a portfolio of their work, making it as varied as they wish. They have images as well as words at their disposal.” — Richard Martin in Show your map

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