Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Meaning(lessness) of Life

A paradox to consider: we speak of time as being a precious commodity, but also as a nuisance.   We find that we have too much time on our hands, but in other instances we feel that we have too little.   Is this merely a an academic meandering, or are there practical implications to this duality in our perception of time as a commodity?

Perhaps the most undesirable time are the scraps of time that are spent waiting for something else to happen: you arrive at the doctor’s office on time for an appointment, but the doctor is running “a few minutes” late, so you are relegated to the waiting room.   Ten minutes pass, then twenty, then half an hour, then longer – and your irritation grows with each passing moment.  Most often, this delay is inconsequential – there is nothing else on your schedule and you had no better use for the time.  It’s simply the sense of being trapped for an interminable amount of time that creates irritation.

But even when the time is know, it is a nuisance.  Let’s say that you don’t arrive on time, but instead fifteen minutes early, and the appointment takes place at the proper time.   What do you do with those fifteen precious moments of your life?   Fiddle with your phone, pick up a magazine and read an article you’re not interested in, or make small-talk with your fellow temporal prisoners?   

Nothing that you do during this time is particularly meaningful or pleasant.   You usually don’t have the equipment to do something worthwhile, there isn’t time to leave and come back, there are few tasks that fifteen minutes is sufficient to complete or even make meaningful progress, and you often cannot give your full attention to something for the risk of missing your turn.

Daily life is riddled with these scraps of time – when you are ready but it is not yet time to go, when you have arrived and it is not yet time to start the activity you came for.  Our “standard” daily routine is arranged to minimize scraps of time, but any activity outside the usual is often accompanied by these “not yet” moments of waiting.   Think about a day when you must travel by airplane and check into a hotel for a meeting the next day – practically the entire day is spent waiting on something to happen.

There is also the time we spend in activities that are not meaningful in themselves, but are done in preparation for more meaningful things.   Take the travel example, the entire day is spend in activities that are not meaningful except as a means to do something else – the meeting that will happen the next day.   Or consider college education, which is four years of activity that is merely in preparation for getting a job in which you will do meaningful things.

And even on the job, are the things you do every day really that meaningful?   They are routine duties, done to earn a paycheck.   Does balancing the ledgers or counting the stock have a meaningful impact on the life of the worker?   Aside of receiving his wage, is there any motivation to do these things, or to do them well?

And even for meaningful work, is it meaningful to the worker?   Let’s say you are the doctor that others come to see, or a surgeon who daily performs life-saving procedures.   Aside of the salary you receive, is this meaningful work?   It is certainly meaningful to the patient – but is it meaningful for you?

It was not my intention here to go on a nihilistic rant, though it seems to be headed in that direction.   All of life is not meaningless, and there are in fact meaningful moments where the things that we do have an impact on our lives in some significant way.   But most of life is spent on those moments in-between – when we are waiting for something to happening, preparing to do something, or doing something that is valuable to someone other than ourselves.

None of these moments in time are meaningful, and as such most of them are entirely undesirable.  We may take some satisfaction in the good we do for others, and we may even take satisfaction in finding some way to pass the time – but the moments in life that are precious to us, those for which we seem to have not enough time, tend to be few.

As a general principle, paradoxes do not exist.   When you seem to have encountered one, you must check your premises.   And the flaw in the premise of the paradoxical value of time is that it is a commodity – that one second is the same as the next.   And in this regard, time is not a commodity: some moments matter, some don’t.  In all, I’m led to the conclusion that most simply don’t.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Newness of Personal Finance

In my studies of personal financial management, it has occurred to me that money and wealth are relatively new things.   Human beings have roamed the planet for about 200,000 years, developed agricultural settlements perhaps 10,000 years ago, and have only been handling money and wealth for about 100 years.

In the modern day, 92% of people (in the US, a developed economy) have checking accounts, and 76% of them hold investments (stocks, bonds, etc.) though generally only in their retirement accounts.  So money and investing seems entirely normal, but things were not always thus.

During the early twentieth century, only 8% of the (US) population lived in towns and cities. Even as late as the 1950s, 45% of the population was still rural, living in isolated agricultural communities that, in an economic sense, had not changed much since the advent of agriculture itself.

Granted, “money” has existed for longer than that but it was not part of daily existence for the vast majority of people.   Most people lived on self-sustaining estates, producing and handling the goods they consumed without engaging in trade.   Only the heads of estates and the merchant class routinely engaged in trade that would require the use of money.   

And even when money found its way into the hands of the working classes, it was seldom held for very long.   The worker’s wages were paid to landlord, grocer, clothier, and other vendors – sometimes the same day they were received, but seldom longer than a week.  Few people amassed wealth, and living hand-to-mouth was considered entirely normal.

Therefore it has only been since the 1950s that people have worked in professions in which they are paid in money, and had sufficient income to have money “left over” at the end of the monthly consumption cycle.   It was only since the 1980s, with the creation of personal retirement accounts (IRA and 401k) that most people became involved in investing, or even considered the necessity of saving money to pay for their own retirement.

So it is little wonder that people are so woefully unskilled at managing money and investments – it is something that is very new to most people, and not something that they can learn from their elders (even their grandparents lived in the hand-to-mouth age).  Given that the academic world is disdainful of financial topics and discussion money is considered a social taboo, there are few venues through which a person can learn to manage their money and investments.   

We are, for the most part, ignorant primitives doing our best to handle some new and unfamiliar technology without any instructions or guidance, and no established authorities that are willing or qualified to guide us.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Drawing the Line

In the context of professional relationships, there are clearly defined boundaries for interaction – lines that it is socially inappropriate to cross, given the context of the relationship.   In general, these boundaries are drawn by functional necessity: if any interaction is not functionally necessary to success are the professional encounter, then it is inappropriate to the professional relationship.

This may be considered a function of economics: the time and effort that a person must spend in a professional encounter represents a cost that is laid out for whatever benefit is derived from the contact.   On the business side, we seek to minimize the amount of time employees spend serving customers in order to maximize the efficiency of the funds spent on wages.

This is also considered from the customer side as well, though the “hassle” of service is seldom monetized, people do consider the amount of time they must invest in a purchasing or service encounter.   It is not that they desire quickness, but they abhor wastefulness of their time.   

Hence it is desirable to both sides for the professional encounter to be as brief as possible.

Of course, this is a rather inhuman method of measuring the value of an interaction.  While those on the business side would be entirely satisfied by a minimal and sterile encounter between their front-line employees and the market, the “market” is composed of human beings, social creatures whose functional needs may be met by an encounter with an automaton, but whose social proclivities require something more than the bare necessities of a functional encounter.

The question is: where to draw the line?

On one extreme, an encounter with a sterile and officious service provider is unpleasant – and while such an encounter is very respectful of the customers’ time, it is an affront to their humanity.   On the other extreme, an encounter with a service provider who is overly social becomes equally loathsome – friendliness is pleasant, but if it is overdone, it can become overbearing and customers expect a certain professional distance from those who serve them.

One factor is likely the duration of the service: when making a retail purchase, it would be very awkward for the checkout clerk to engage customers in extended conversation.   But when getting a haircut, it would be equally awkward for the barber or stylist not to engage in conversation with the customer.

Another factor would be whether the service is recursive.  One generally does not expect a waiter to be overly friendly, but a customer who has lunch in the very same restaurant every workday and sees the same waiter five times a week will accept and perhaps expect a greater degree of social interaction with the service provider.

Another factor might be the nature of the product.  To provide assistance, a service provider must have a better sense of the context in which a product is used: a clerk at a grocery store might ask what meal is being prepared and how many are being served, one at a clothing store might ask about the occasion for which an outfit is being purchased, one at a hardware store might ask about the home and lifestyle of the client.   Arguably, these are functionally necessary questions for the service, but there is often a but of non-functional conversation that arises in due course.

Another factor is the level of service required or desired of the service provider.   In the previous example, a customer might welcome a higher level of service from the grocery clerk, who might presume to offer advice about the meal that the customer is preparing.   In other instances, the customer does not welcome such advice – he knows what he wants and just needs help finding an item.

Another factor is the degree to which the product relates to the esteem (social or self) of the purchaser or owner.   It can be generally observed that service at high-end stores is more “personal” than service at low-end stores.   Hence buying an expensive pair of shoes at a boutique is a far more social encounter than buying a cheap pair at a discount retailer.

At this point, I’m getting the sense I may have scratched the surface of a topic that goes much deeper than a blog post will accommodate – and likely there’s need for study in the domain of social psychology.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Common Practices Aren’t Best Practices

It pains me, still, that imitating the competition is still rampant even in innovation efforts.   Inevitably, someone says “let’s see what other companies are doing” as a means to generate “new” ideas, generally followed by the insistence that it’s “new to us” when someone points out the obvious.  And all too often asking if any other company is already doing something similar is the first sign that an innovative idea is headed for the scrap heap without any further consideration.

The same problems arise at most firms – their attempt to distinguish themselves leads instead to the practice of imitating one another, and doing so mindlessly.   As a consequence, the common practices in any industry are seldom based on an examination of the results they achieve, but merely on their being done by others, on the assumption that they wouldn’t be doing something if it weren’t getting good results.  

Not only are the common practices adopted without question, they also tend to be practiced without question.   There is no question of their foundations, no research into their soundness, and no testing of their performance.   They are adopted without inspection and perpetuated without validation, often in spite of evidence that they are unproductive or even harmful.  This is not merely egregiously unwise, but reckless.

Compounding the problem, many firms turn to agencies and design firms, who have even less knowledge of their industry or their customer, to show them the way.   There is a great deal of bluster and precious little knowledge in these firms, yet their opinions seem to be regarded as reliable advice from reliable professionals – until the numbers come in sour, and then the firm hires a different agency to repeat the same cycle.  And given the recent shortening in executive tenure, even the decision-maker who engaged the firm is long gone by the time the damage is done.

But back on topic, the common practices of an industry may not yield good results at all, and even if they happen to be based on sound reasoning, it doesn’t mean they are practicable or applicable given the unique nature of your firm, goals, and market segment.    No-one can say for certain what will work for a given firm, and often it is not questioned whether it had positive results elsewhere.  The result seems to be the death of innovation, while under the banner of innovation we see a frenzy of imitating with reckless abandon.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Customer as a Brand

Consider this: every customer is his own personal brand, and his non-functional purchasing criteria (those that pertain to the social and psychological aspects of consumption) may be understood as curating activities.    That is, the customer has a brand that he wishes to uphold, or one that he wishes to modify, and selects products as a means to associate himself to brands that correlate with the desired perception of his own personal brand.

This may be more or less true of any product – where consumption is conspicuous, it is assumed that nonfunctional qualities play a more significant role because they impact social esteem.   But even products consumed in private impact self-esteem, and in this regard the latter may be more significant.

Where brands attempt to go beyond consumption and convince individuals to advocate on their behalf, the alignment of the brand to personal brand becomes even more significant.  A person will carefully consider which brands align to the desired personal brand, and will not espouse any brand that does not satisfy both social and psychological criteria.

Wrongful promotion, like any unwanted social advance, results in a negative reaction – the more aggressive the assault, the more aggressive will be the defense.    Where a brand is seen as ill-fitting, promotion can only cause it to become undesirable, even repugnant, to an individual who feels the brand does not align with his own.

There are also no universal qualities of brand.  Even those that represent youth, wealthy, sophistication, or other qualities with widespread appeal do not necessarily correspond to personal brand.  Status-seekers may wish to “pose” with a brand that represents qualities they do not possess, but most people are not so narcissistic and instead seek brands that correlate with their own true brand, or a brand that is only slightly and plausibly elevated from their present station.

And finally, it’s worth remembering that the maker does not determine the qualities of his brand – it is the perception of the brand by the market that causes it to have those qualities.   The individual who seeks to align with a brand is not seeking a relationship with the maker, but with other individuals in his society, regardless of whether they are consumers of that same brand.

The customer chooses the brand of the product, and it is that individual’s personal brand that creates the perception of the product brand among other prospects.   A product that is used by or otherwise associated with the “wrong kind” of person is the wrong brand, regardless of what the maker wishes the brand to represent.