Best of the blog

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Meta

Here are posts with the highest page views:

Lessons from Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday: On the Peter Thiel – Gawker lawsuit. Themes of how societal progress happens, the extent of free speech, a more pragmatic approach to the news, and the important of endgames.

Collected Thoughts on Amazon: Logistics and customer expectations, recent forays in healthcare, and potential vulnerabilities including eliciting desire and quality control.

Lessons from The Box by Marc Levinson: The fragility of powerful ideas, interactions in complex systems, and leverage.

Lessons from The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro: The ultimate underdog story, the tension between ends and means, being a professional son, and end goal as a decision-making tool.

Lessons from Scott Norton of Sir Kensington’s: Battle between contentment and exploration, life as an adventure, and growth through acquisitions.

Here are my own favorites:

Lessons from Niki Nakayama: Letting go of the ego, learn the rules to break them, proving others wrong as motivation.

Lessons from Skin in The Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Show me what’s in your portfolio, the tyranny of minorities, how to own a person in the modern world.

Personal Asymptotes: Natural growth limitations, becoming world class, reflection.

Lessons from The Fish That Ate The Whale by Rich Cohen: End and Means, regulation as a moat, don’t trust the report, and chutzpah. 

Rafah Ali: The MVP Doesn’t Actually know sh*t: Coordination as innovation, ninjas, asking the dumb questions, and bringing the best together.

 

Week 10: Lessons from my Internship

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Internship / Saturday

This summer, I’ve had an amazing experience as an intern at Oars + Alps, a Men’s skincare company, in Chicago. I worked on problems and analyses related to Operations, Product Development, and funding.

For the last post on my internship, and as the last post on this blog (at least for a while), I thought I’d write down some lessons for myself and others who will be interns next year.

Don’t be a nuisance

I think your number one responsibility as an intern is to not be a nuisance. It’s a basic point but I heard from friends whose offices had problems with interns being disruptive.

Mistakes will inadvertently happen when you push your boundaries. But make sure you recognize when you are totally out of your depth. Ask for help from an expert. This drawing helps:

Beachhead-vs-Problem

You might be able to attack the beachhead, but you need others to solve the main problem.

Impact is good, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the daily operations of the company or team you’re at.

Do what only you can

It’s easy to sell yourself short when you’re a first or second year undergrad. But realize that you can offer something unique – an outside perspective.

Often, teams need an outside perspective to shake the molds of everyday routine. You can provide this.

If you can couple this with a relatively rare skill, something like the ability to create interactive models in Tableau or use 3rd-party packages on R, you become pretty valuable. This coupling of skills is usually pretty attractive for a team.

It’s all about the people

This is a fitting last lesson for the blog because it is by far the most applicable. Despite everything I learned about how a business runs, my most lasting memory will be about the people I worked with. They helped me at every turn, guided me to others when they knew they didn’t know the answer, and provided me with some great life advice. I’m immensely grateful to them for an amazing experience.


And with that, it’s a wrap! I want to thank everyone who was on this journey with me. I hope you learned something by following the blog for the summer. You can check out my reflection on the whole process here and the best of the blog here. 

Summer in Chicago: Air & Water Show

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Chicago / Friday

This was the thing I was excited about the entire summer.

I woke up early, took the packed El Purple and then Red Line, and then I walked to North Avenue Beach. Spread out my picnic towel and chuckled as my fairer skinned friends struggled with sunscreen.

At 10AM, the show was underway.

The 60th annual Air & Water Show was headlined by the Air Force Thunderbirds and Parachute Team Golden Knights. On a warm sunny day no less!

Here are some interesting factoids I picked up from the City of Chicago website:

  • The majority of planes flying in the show take off and land at the Gary Jet Center in Gary, Indiana.
  • Some of the military planes fly in from bases around the mid-west. They time their flight to fly over the show at an exact moment.
  • 14 federal, state and city agencies work together to put the show on safely each year.
  • All pilots perform stunts over the water in a set safety area. When a plane does fly over buildings, it is merely doing so in its flight path to return to the show area or the airport.
  • On average, 2 million people view the show annually.
  • At 60, the Chicago Air and Water Show is longest running free show of its kind in the United States.
  • In 1959, the show cost $88 dollars to put on. Today, with the help of generous corporate sponsors like Shell, Boeing, American Airlines, WBBM Newsradio, ABC 7, The Chicago Tribune, Oracle among others help to make the show possible and FREE to the public.
  • When the show was held at Lakeshore Park between Ohio and Oak Street beach, Lake Shore Drive was sometimes closed.
  • Also at Lakeshore Park, the Golden Knights didn’t have a beach to land on so they landed in the Water. Chicago Park District Lifeguards fished them out of the water.
  • Herb Hunter (“The Voice” of the Air and Water Show) used to fly in the show before becoming the show announcer over 20 years ago. For many years he flew the USAF KC-135.

It was so cool!

Here is a video by Jordon Horwitz on YouTube:

Super cool!

 

Reflection on writing every day for 60 days

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Meta / Miscellanous / Thursday

When I started this blog, it’s main objective was to “catalogue things I am learning.”

It turned out to be a lot more than that. I want to talk about some of those things today.

To write is to think

This summer, I’ve realized that the best way to develop rigor in you thinking is to write. This is because even though a decent portion of the writing on this blog was semi-structured in my mind already, you need a lot more precise when you’re putting words together. You need to be sure about the meaning you’re conveying and anticipate any questions – and answer those questions. This forces you to deal with the issues yourself. While humanities students might be able to do this with ease, I had to struggle with it initially until about Week 4 when I got the hang of things. It’s been a skill-building exercise all along.

The more the merrier

It’s also been extremely collaborative thanks to the Wednesday posts written by my peers. Thanks to Sami, Priya, Josh, Zach, Aditya, Taylor, Shreeansh, Rafah, James, and Jayden! It has not only helped me look at my experiences through their lenses, but has been a great way to catch up with people

I’ve also enjoyed the offline conversations the blog has generated – I’ve enjoyed how the debates on some of the more controversial concepts like the The Tyranny of Minorities has really pushed my thinking.

Perhaps most heartening were comments like “My girlfriend reads your blog every single day and she really liked how you …” and “I read the last day’s post on the way to work every day.” As someone who didn’t share a lot of his thinking, these definitely motivated me to push through on days when I didn’t feel like writing anything.

I also appreciated how at least a few of you enjoyed the drawings. I’ll put up a gallery of these drawings along a list of the most viewed posts when I’m done with this week.

Habit forming

In yesterday’s post, my friend Jayden talked about how “nudging” can be used as a core component of forming new habits.

I think this whole blog was a big nudge for me to write and think more. I’m a big fan of mini-experiments of 2-3 months (a whole year seems daunting). This allows you to see if what you’re doing is sustainable. I will definitely continue to do this kind of writing although I’m not sure about the frequency with which I can put out stuff during the school year.

One must also consider the absence of things. Last week, I came across this Instagram post by Kevin Rose (who I wrote about earlier in the summer) about creating new things:

Screenshot 2018-09-05 19.28.48

Credit: Kevin Rose

In the absence of this blog, I suspect many of those hours after work would have gone into watching Netflix or endlessly browsing Twitter. I’m glad that it was nudged towards way more productive ends!

This has been an amazing ride and I thank everyone involved. I’m looking forward to finishing strong with the last two posts. After that I will post a “Best of the Blog” post and a gallery of all the drawings I made.

Jayden Rae: Working in the country’s ‘slowest’ workplace

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guestpost / Wednesday

Before you read what Jayden has to say, let me start by introducing her. Jayden and I went to boarding school together. I am always struck by her ability to back her words with action in environments which are heavy on “discourse” but lacking in doers. She might also be one of those rare people who you gain more respect for the more you spend time with them. She’s now a fourth-year undergraduate student at McGill University in Montréal, Canada and she spent her summer working on policy and data analytics at the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change in Toronto.


 

I entered my summer job with the government well aware of the stereotypes of government employees: inefficient, overcompensated, free-riding on the tax-payer’s dollars, slow to adapt to technological change. My four months working at the Ministry of the Environment both challenged and confirmed these expectations. In this post, I’ll focus on two innovative approaches to public policy I was exposed to in the Canadian public service.

Since I first heard about the field of behavioral economics I’ve been interested in how it can be applied to environmental policy. After all, daily individual actions directly impact the health of the environment such as littering, using plastic bags, or driving cars. Is there a way that we can prompt individuals to be more reflective, and think more considerately about their actions, so that they can make better choices? Can we encourage people to change their habits?

Some recent research suggests that we can. A study by Ohtomo and Ohnuma found that when the cashier at a supermarket asks customers “do you need a plastic bag?” or, “would you like to purchase a plastic bag?”, the number of customers who accept the plastic bag decreased substantially.  This non-coercive and non-monetary intervention achieves a positive outcome, and entails virtually no financial burden for the company involved. Noble Peace Prize winner Richard Thaler calls this phenomenon of encouraging people to make certain decisions “nudging.”

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Footsteps leading to a garbage bin in Copenhagen as a gentle ‘nudge’.

The Ministry of the Environment has historically been a regulator in the traditional sense. If you pollute a river with a toxic chemical, you get a fine as punishment. In the USA, the conspirators in the Volkswagen emissions scandal received multi-year prison sentences. In the eyes of the regulator, harming the environment should be treated as a crime. However, many companies will simply pay the fine, face the PR hit (if their actions make it to media), and continue business as usual. Now policy makers are thinking more deeply about human psychology and economic incentives to understand how we can avoid harms to the environment in the first place. To see this new way of thinking about changing human behavior being discussed in the government was a pleasant surprise.

The second spark of innovation I experienced in my summer job was the application of business intelligence and analytical tools to understand the impacts of government programs and policies. Often, people specializing in policy and data work independently from one another, separated by their respective affinities for qualitative and quantitative data. However, a lot of software is made to make impact analysis relatively fast and simple for people with non-technical backgrounds.  I was initially hired to work on policy, but I spent the majority of my summer working with mass amounts of data to analyze and visualize program outcomes in a program called Power BI. With a new government in office, they wanted an evidence-driven report to demonstrate the impacts of a $7.5 million-dollar fund spent on grassroots level environmental programs across the province.  I think I was given this task because my supervisors believed that all young people are coding wizards (I was at least 17 years younger than the median age employee), but also because they truly want to train policy-oriented people in data science and analytics. We have all heard of government programs and policies that have failed because they weren’t based on evidence, and they weren’t continually evaluated to determine if they were achieving successful results. Business analytic software is one way to get insights into true impact, and will can contribute to more informed decisions.

The two innovations I observed and experienced were refreshing and encouraging, but I also learned to keep my expectations realistic. The government is a slow institution. Innovative ideas often start small, at a low level, and it takes a long time for new ways of thinking to be broadly accepted and adopted. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point wrote about the 150 rule. He suggests that once there are over 150 employees, the institution becomes less socially functional, and efficient. As one of over one thousand employees working in an organization this summer, I can attest to the difficulty of feeling like your work is contributing. But, I found that in an institution dedicated to a particular issue – the health of the environment- there is a certain amount of genuine concern and passion that drives people’s work ethic. I’m not sure that this intrinsic motivation to work for the greater good is found in every organization, and it allowed me to see beyond the attributes of government that made me skeptical in the first place.


Thanks Jayden! As always, you’re off the beaten path and have come back with some thought-provoking insights. Policy can often be the art of converting individual actions into a collective good so I find this idea of combining habit-building and “nudging” to be really interesting. I hope the reader got as much out of it as I did. 

Lessons from Lyndon Johnson

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Books / lessonsfrom / Monday

Welcome to the last week of A Summer of Learning! I’ll write more of a wrap up post later in the week but I just wanted to say how thankful I am to those who have followed me on this blog through the summer.

But before we bid goodbye, we still have this week! Today’s post is a combined post for Monday and Tuesday. This is because I learned about the person (I talk about lessons from people on Monday) – President Lyndon Johnson – from a series of books (Books are on Tuesday) by Robert Caro. I’ll make sure that the post is meatier than usual to compensate for this. 


If I were to write a book like Words I wish I wrote, I am convinced that about 50% of it would be covered by phrases from Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. They are easily the best books I have ever read.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born to one of the poorest families in a town that belonged to one of the poorest parts of the US. But even as a kid, as he was working on paving one of the first roads coming into his native Texan Hill Country, he would tell his friends and co-workers: “By God I’ll be President one day!” It’s difficult to plot the path on the political ladder with an end goal that requires so many variables outside your control. But Lyndon Johnson plotted that path.

And he reached the top.

In his hungry grab for power, he left in his wake lessons that all of us should be aware of. Let’s dive into them.

Ends and Means

Perhaps the question that comes to my mind the most while reading the series is this: What do I think about Lyndon Johnson?

On one hand, he did a lot for the country and it’s people. On the national level, he is perhaps the most pivotal figure inside the government (MLK being the most pivotal outside of it) that rammed through the series of Civil Rights legislation in the decades after World War II in his roles as the Senate Majority Leader and later as the President. In doing this, he did what Kennedy couldn’t despite a Harvard education and far better rhetoric. On a local level, he brought electrification to the most desolate parts of west Texas. As a school teacher on the Texas–Mexico border, he taught the poorest children and insisted that they learn English. He stayed day after day after school ended – with no obvious political or financial gain to be had – to cultivate these children of day laborers. Lyndon Johnson, in other words, cared.

But on the other hand, he probably stole most of the elections he won as a Congressman and Senator. He lubricated the wheels of politics with corporate money at a scale not seen at the time and was in many ways a pioneer of expensive corporate-financed campaigns. He treated his wife like a member of his staff, constantly berating her in front of friends and family. He didn’t have an ideology – except that of unbridled personal ambition. He emotional manipulated men in power into believing that he believed whatever they believed. He used his political position to influence the sale of radio spectrum in Texas – spectrum that he bought to enrich himself. That’s quite a long rap sheet – even if you ignore the disasters that was the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Historical figures often have a complicated legacy but I think the idea that you should whatever is necessary to gain power with which you can then help people is not entirely convincing to me. But if LBJ was not President, we almost certainly would not have seen the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted into law.

Of course, there is no right answer to this. It is a deeply personal decision and one that changes from scenario to scenario. But it is important to be cognizant of one’s place on this spectrum of ends and means as it’s easy to keep going on a nefarious path if you convince yourself it’s for a greater good. More often than not, the greater good is just a mask for something more selfish. Taking a big picture of this spectrum also might allow opportunities to see if there is a way to align the ends and means so that they are not in conflict.

Being a professional son

One of the qualities that allowed Lyndon Johnson to level up in the game of politics was his ability to identify the networks of power and get to their main nodes. In college, he became the college president’s assistant after writing a flattering article about him in the college newspaper. When the college president would talk to students in an informal setting, LBJ would be at his feet, listening earnestly. It was this over the top deference that earned him the nickname “professional son.”

And his career as a professional son didn’t end in college.

When he was a Congressman in the House, he became a mentee to the Speaker of House and fellow Texan Sam Rayburn. Sam Rayburn was the seat of power in the House but was lonely and wished that he had “a towheaded boy to take fishing.” A fleeting marriage aside, he was extremely lonely. LBJ capitalized on this loneliness. He started inviting Rayburn to his house for meals on weekends – days when Sam Rayburn was even more lonely than usual because he was not at the Capitol. With help from his wife, he became a professional son again. Rayburn – a person who didn’t help anyone if it clashed with his integrity – helped Johnson no matter the ethical dilemmas.

In the Senate, he again recognized that “Richard (Dick) Russell was the power”. Dick Russell was the senior Senator from Georgia, a member on key Senate committee like Appropriations and Armed Services, and a leader of the Southern bloc – a group of Confederacy states. LBJ schemed to get on the Armed Services committee in order to spend more time with Russell. Dick Russell had the same problem that Sam Rayburn had – he had no sons or family. So, the Johnsons became his family and Lyndon Johnson became his son. It was due to Russell that LBJ became Senate Majority leader before the end of his first term in Senate – a feat that is astonishing in a Senate where seniority (time spent in the Senate) was the only criteria by which you got powerful positions.

I think most of the readers are not one to suck up to someone just to get their help. But there are less nefarious lessons to be learned from LBJ’s tactics. One would be to identity the sources of power in an organization and try to learn from them to fast track your learning. Another is to identity what people lack in their lives and try to fulfill those desires. This doesn’t have to be in a selfish way – it could take the form of complimenting someone on a characteristic that you know they are conscious and not 100% confident about.

This is a lesson that can turn into a slippery slope really quickly so again, it’s important to keep in mind where one is the slope and not cross lines you are not okay with crossing.

End goal as a decision-making tool

When you have a clear idea of where you want to be in life, it becomes much easier to use that as a filter for decision-making. It boils down everything to a simple question: “Does this help me achieve my final goal?” If yes, do it. If no, don’t do it.

Lyndon Johnson’s ultimate goal was to be the President of the United States. With this in mind, he knew what he had to do. Became a Congressman, then become a Senator, then run for President. He ultimately had to run as a Vice-Presidential candidate on the Kennedy-Johnson ticket because the country was not ready to elect a Southern President (not until George Bush senior would that be a thing). But he knew the steps to take because he knew the end goal.

He also knew what steps to avoid. When he was a member of the House of Representatives, a friend of his offered a dirt-cheap deal on an oil farm in Texas, he refused because “it would kill him politically.” He had only ran elections in Texas until then, and even if he ran for the Senate, being an oilman in Texas would hardly put a dent in his campaign. It was then that his friends realized the true scale of his ambition.

It’s difficult to admire Lyndon Johnson. It’s even more difficult to dismiss him. He was a pivotal President who would be remembered as the greatest leader of the liberal public since Lincoln were it not for the dark spectre of Vietnam. During the toughest periods of the Vietnam War, there were thousands of protestors outside The White House who would chant, “Hey hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Even after his Presidency when he moved to the Johnson Ranch in Texas, he would speak of “that terrible song.” But the ability to define an audacious goal when you are a nobody, and work towards that goal, chipping away at it bit by bit, is inspiring indeed.