Frustration Effects and Curse of Optimality

Let’s say you have a project to staff with three available roles: a leadership role P with power, a sexy role S with opportunity for high public visibility, and a grinder role G with a lot of tedious schlepping. For logistics reasons, the partitioning of the work is not negotiable. You have three people with whom to staff the project: Alice, Bob and Charlie.

You chat with each, and it’s clear they all have the same preference order of roles: P>S>G, which means there’s no way to satisfy them all perfectly. All three believe they can do all three roles well enough. So you sit back, think through how good each is at each role, make up a little table like the one below,  crunch some numbers and assign roles: Alice gets power, Bob gets the sexy role, Charlie gets the grinder role. Your configuration has a nominal value of 5+4+2=11 points, and is the best you can do among all possible configurations.

Skill\Person Alice Bob Charlie
Power  5  4  3
Sexy  3  4  1
Grinder  3  4  2

Unfortunately, each also has an unknown motivational drop-off element to their personalities, due to which their commitment and productivity drops by at least a certain fraction for every degree removed from most-preferred role. So how does that change the actual outcome?

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Frictional and Structural Unknowns

In labor economics, frictional unemployment is when people are in between jobs, looking, and will most likely find one.  They are unemployed for a time because search and matching are not efficient in the labor market. Structural unemployment by contrast, occurs when there is an oversupply of people looking for a certain kind of work, because of some disruptive factor such as technology change.

I do meeting observation work on occasion for clients, and it recently struck me that something similar happens when a group of people are debating a topic, attempting to reach some sort of rough consensus and decision.

Frictional unknowns are things that should be said, and could have been said by one or more participants, but remain unsaid because meetings are loosely coordinated collective intelligence mechanisms rather than systematically coordinated ones like courtroom proceedings.

Structural unknowns are things that should have been said, but could not have been by any participant because the necessary viewpoint is systematically absent in the conversation. This need not be restricted to obvious things like the female viewpoint being missing in an all-male meeting. Anything from a particular language being used, to a dominant vocabulary, to the shape of the room, can create structural unknowns.

So frictional unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed in a discussion due to inefficiency, while structural unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed because there are no employers for them.

Understanding this distinction is very useful for fixing ineffective meetings. In practice, the frictional/structural distinction matters a lot more than Rumsfeld’s known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown three-way distinction.  The latter is conceptually useful. The former is useful in live situations.

Frictional unknowns can be addressed by modifying processes, but structural unknowns can only be fixed by either bringing new people into the discussion or via creative breakthrough in a participant’s private thought process.

Inside the Miscellaneous Folder

In any workflow taxonomy for classifying anything from individual to-d0 lists and desk drawers to countries and large corporations, there are things that require more trouble to classify than they are worth. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll achieve a 80-20 split, where 20% of the taxonomy captures 80% of the action in clean-edged ways, and the remaining 80% that contains the 20% of special cases, outliers, exceptions and so, can all be lumped together under something analogous to a folder marked “miscellaneous.”

Every organization scheme, if it is useful at all, handles a dynamic flow of action. The action enters through some equivalent of an inbox, evolves at varying rates through the taxonomic scheme, and exits through some equivalent of an archival scheme combined with a trash can. Between entrance and exit, the flow divides itself into the ordered part of the organization scheme and the miscellaneous folder.

For a corporation, the inbox is usually the sales pipeline and the miscellaneous folder is often the CEO’s office. For a country, it is a mix of domestic and international economic, political and military “issues” that converge on the governance apparatus in the country’s capital. In the case of the military, the “miscellaneous” folder is often the special forces.

We recognize the need for the organization scheme to evolve with the flow it is processing, but it is usually hard to operationalize this basic idea. Here’s are some basic principles.

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Forged Groups

In the military, they have a saying: soldiers don’t fight for causes or countries, they fight for the guy next to them. Why would you die for the guy next to you?

It takes a very special kind of extremely cohesive grouping to sustain the kind of punishment that warfare dishes out. There is absolutely no reason to believe that members of a random group, without ties of kinship or race or shared political values for instance, would be willing to die for each other.

It turns out that what makes people willing to die for each other is actually the pressure of war itself. Facing death together means being reborn together.  The metaphor of fire and forging is apt.

The cohesion has to be manufactured. The result is forged (as in metallurgy, not fraud) groups. How do you create forged groups?

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Hacking Grand Narratives

Grand narratives are probably the most frequently mentioned subject in reactions I get to Tempo, even though I carefully restricted myself to individual narratives in the book. Apparently the urge to apply narrative models to collectives is irresistible. Several readers have gone ahead and sort of hacked the narrative models I discuss in Tempo, and applied them to grand narratives. To be frank, I don’t completely understand most of these attempts. I know of applications to unconventional crisis response, the political process in Honduras, the history of Western art, and the history of debt/finance.

But as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am treading carefully here.  I’ve learned something from each hacking attempt people have told me about (do share if you’ve tried this sort of thing), and I’ve made two experimental attempts myself: applying the model to 19th century American business/technology history and on a smaller scale, to software projects. I am starting a third experiment: applying narrative analysis to wannabe-Silicon-Valley tech hubs like Boulder and Las Vegas. But overall, I am not satisfied that my models (or anyone else’s) are good enough yet.

But let me try and lay out the problem here, and have you guys weigh in.

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Trigger Narratives and the Nuclear Option

We use the phrase nuclear option rather casually as an everyday metaphor for highly consequential, irreversible and consciously triggered decisions. But chances are, you’ve never actually considered how the actual nuclear option is managed. The turning of this one little key — the picture is of an an actual nuclear trigger —  is easily the most analyzed decision in history. The design of the decision process around it is one of the greatest feats of narrative engineering every accomplished. That the trigger has  (knock on wood) not been pulled since World War II is an engineering accomplishment comparable to the Moon landing.

The nuclear option is the most extreme example of a special kind of decision narrative that I call a trigger narrative: one built around a major decision requires an explicit triggering action after all the preparation is done: things like proposing marriage, submitting a manuscript to an editor or issuing a press release. Not all major decisions are framed by trigger narratives, but for those that are, the nuclear trigger narrative has much to teach.

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Does Culture Eat Strategy for Lunch?

In Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, Shawn Parr at Fast Company makes an extremely seductive argument. Though he doesn’t mention it, this type of analysis goes back to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Except that Mahan does not fall into this trap of concluding that culture matters more than strategy.

I don’t mean to pick on Parr’s article in particular, but it is representative of a lot of very well-intentioned, feel-good writing about strategy that seems to be appearing these days. Parr’s is one of the more solid ones. Here’s an excerpt.

Get on a Southwest flight to anywhere, buy shoes from, pants from Nordstrom, groceries from Whole Foods, anything from Costco, a Starbucks espresso, or a Double-Double from In N’ Out, and you’ll get a taste of these brands’ vibrant cultures.

Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation. A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates. Employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy. Performance-oriented cultures possess statistically better financial growth, with high employee involvement, strong internal communication, and an acceptance of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve new levels of innovation.

You could summarize this emerging school of thought as “focus on people and strategy will take care of itself.”  It is not a superficial and careless error, but one made by thoughtful and serious people who do give such matters serious thoughts. It’s not all Kumbaya (though admittedly, this particular article that I am riffing off of is rather Kumbaya-ish). It is a logical consequence of following the dominant school of strategic thinking today.

You fall into this trap if you fall into the Jomini-Porter tradition of strategy, which is a very procedural and structuralist model that decouples the human and non-human elements of strategic thinking.

If you follow the Clausewitz-Mahan-Boyd tradition, which does not make such an artificial separation of people and non-people parts of strategy  you will not make this kind of mistake.  In the Clausewitz-Mahan-Boyd tradition, strategy is about human insight operating on chaotic shared mental models, seeking special, unfair advantages to exploit. The resources you have available, and the strengths and weaknesses of those resources (people and culture included), naturally get accommodated in this model.

To get a sense of a more sophisticated way to make “people and culture” arguments around companies like Zappos or Southwest, it is useful to look at a much more thoroughly studied example.

Mahan’s Analysis of Sea Power

Mahan’s analysis of the naval race between the French, the English and the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries reads such situations right.  He notes that for a few decades, during the time of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (the very capable minister of Louis XIV), France made progress on all matters naval with leaps and bounds. For a while, the English and Dutch felt very anxious indeed.

For a while, the French were actually far ahead of their competitors in the sophistication of their naval technology (remember, during this period, Continental, especially French, mathematics and engineering were still well ahead of English).

But when Colbert broke with Louis, the naval capability eroded within a generation or two, and would not be revived again until Napoleon, a century later (with equal lack of sustained success; as Nelson’s victories would prove).

Mahan concludes that the fundamental difference was in the presence of a robust seafaring culture in the Netherlands and Britain that went all the way down to commoners. And in Britain, it was also a military naval culture (rather than the very mercantile one of the Dutch) led by a nobility that actually knew what it was doing, and threw up great naval commanders frequently, unlike in the French case, where the nobility viewed naval appointments as rent-seeking opportunities, and strong leadership emerged less frequently.

This cultural difference, in turn, grew out of the fact that France is a large, pleasant country with many affairs on land, while Britain is a relatively miserable little archiepelago, whose inhabitants have been historically more eager and willing to get the hell out and take to the sea. Note the very concrete characterization of culture here, in geographic terms. It isn’t about feel-good and ultimately empty abstractions like “respect” but a richer, ethnographic characterization of differences. Happy? The French were possibly much happier during this period, in their lovely country. They didn’t itch to run away to sea.

But the lesson here isn’t that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” The lesson is that culture is what allows you to double down on a successful strategy. You still need the non-cultural parts of strategy to create an opening. You will not be able to double down on all openings.

Strategy Subsumes Culture

I have posts coming up, looking at examples like Southwest in more detail, but the basic point I want to make is that winning is still about human insight looking at chaotic realities (Clausewitz’ coup d’oeil) to find those opportunities and unfair advantages that, if pursued with vigor, turn into success entirely disproportionate to effort.

Culture is about the capacity to sustain that victory for longer-term rewards. In the Golden Age of airlines, before Southwest turned it into a game of budgets, many airlines had equally great cultures (watch Pan Am or read the once-famous Coffee, Tea or Me? books).

Take away the elements of Southwest’s strategy (short-hop, quick-turnaround, single aircraft type, non-assigned seating) and you just get a bunch of happy employees who will soon cease to be happy as the company’s profitability plummets, their jobs get exposed to risks, and disengagement sets in. There are plenty of examples of happiness-focused companies that promptly failed because they were not pursuing the right kinds of opportunities.

What do I mean by strategy subsumes culture?

I mean that culture is merely another variable in the chaos of inputs that you must organize and think through to craft your strategy. If you are looking for a quick in-and-out strategic opportunity, where you hope to make a killing in a month and have no intention of sustaining anything, culture does not matter. If you are looking for an opportunity big enough and long-lasting enough that you can build and grow a company to exploit it, culture matters a great deal.

On the flip side of the coin, you can say that culture renews strategy. Think of it as a yin-yang symbol (the black fish is non-culture parts, with a white eye of culture, and the white fish is culture, with its black eye representing non-cultural elements).

Culture Renews Strategy

If the opportunity is a really long-term one, spanning multiple lifetimes, you will need to think about leadership succession planning, since every big strategic opportunity depreciates in value and expires within a certain period of time, unless it is bolstered  by smaller strategic moves that renew and revitalize those options.

These renewal/revitalization moves come from the minds of talented strategic thinkers, who in turn arise with sufficient frequency only in the right kind of culture. Apple is an example of a company that might well be crippled if it turns out there was no cultural capability in place for renewing strategic talent. Just as naval geniuses cropped up more frequently in Britain than in France, product-visionaries will need to crop up with more frequency at Apple if they are to sustain their current edge.

This specific function of culture — to renew strategic capability — is often ignored. As with the article I am riffing on, a lot of thinking about culture focuses exclusively on operational culture in the rank-and-file, and aspects like morale and disengagement.

Often there is a trade-off between this aspect of culture (which is about making people happy) and the other aspect: routinely producing great strategic leadership (which is about making people smarter and more clear-eyed).

You over-optimize for happy employees and you are in danger of not generating enough leaders for tomorrow, because the talented leaders are exactly the ones who will get annoyed by happy-employee-itis and leave for more challenging games.

On the other hand, if you over-optimize for throwing up great leaders, and brutal internecine competition will erode the happiness culture so that operational capabilities suffer.

It is a delicate balancing act.  Yin can devour Yang or vice-versa.

People or Process is a Strawman Debate

When talking about such things, you will often encounter a people-versus-process debate, which is also a consequence of Jomini-Porter style thinking. Jomini-Porter thinking not only separates people (and therefore culture) from the other variables, it focuses on codified processes and models for the non-people/non-culture part (like Porter’s five forces and value chain models) over insight into the state of play of fluid and open realities.

This is a strawman debate in the Clausewitz-Mahan-Boyd school, since culture is subsumed within strategy, and strategy is more about insight than process.

One of the few commentators who has recognized this in recent memory is Jim Collins of Good to Great fame. His famous “bus” principle is the right way to frame the people vs. non-people components of strategy:  Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and then decide where to go. Nowhere in this bus metaphor is any mention of processes or lean six sigma. Those do matter (in creating operational discipline, which is critical at certain phases of a company’s exploitation of a market opportunity), but not at this level of full-lifecycle thinking.

This principle completely finesses process-thinking and proposes the right trade-off. The shared mental model you build will be the source of whatever strategic insight you choose to pursue (“where to go”). This shared mental model depends on having the right people at the table, having the right kind of vigorous conversation.

A terrible group will paint a useless picture that suggests bad opportunities. Napoleon might have been great at strategic insight, but chances are, he also had the right people on the bus, painting fertile pictures for him to ponder.

Steer, Ready, Fire

I like various permutations and adaptations of the phrase ready, aim, fire to think about decision-making between the extremes of pure contemplation and pure action. Playing around with this phrase led me to this 2×2 (I seem to be thinking a lot in 2×2 form these days). I’ll connect the dots in a minute.


Aiming versus Feedback

The apparently logical sequence, ready, aim, fire describes a feedforward model. You get your mind in the right place, then you figure out how to be effective (aim can map to waterfall planning at any level), then you take action.

The phrase ready, fire, aim, preferred by the action-oriented in uncertain and dynamic environments, is a response to the analysis-paralysis that can happen if you try to get to ideal starting conditions and perfect information before starting to act.

The absurdity of aiming after firing can only be resolved via appeal to the logic of iteration and feedback. You converge on the successful course of action through feedback from failed actions. This works well as a motto for startup types and others who believe in the release early and often, and fail fast approach to projects.

Then there is the phrase, ready, fire, steer. I am not sure who came up with that one, but I’ve heard it attributed to Paul Saffo.  This replacement of aim with steer suggests that real-time feedback and control can be continuous. It is the logical limit of iterating faster and faster. Heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles are perfect examples.

The Role of “Fire”

The variant ready, fire, steer made me wonder about why fire is even necessary. Within your basic firearm metaphor, firing gives you all your momentum (kinetic energy) in one big dose. Of course, you also have whatever positional advantages (potential energy) you possess.  It maps well to situations like getting investment in a startup, coming into a trust fund, or using a rocket to launch satellites.

But there are also cars and airplanes, with more continuous energy-generation models. There are also renewable energy models like sail ships, and models that create a net surplus of energy, like a solar car with more energy than it needs.

These don’t need a fire step. You could do with just ready, steer thinking (or ready, start, steer if you insist). A lot of bootstrapped business models would qualify, as you use tiny or zero cash investments to get started, and nurture cash flows slowly to get where you want. You may be accumulating a surplus of cash or attention that you can conserve for later use.

It takes a lot more foresight to work without the boost of a fire stage, but in return you get more control and efficient use of resources, in cases where the fire represents borrowed energy, provided on terms that you don’t like.

In fact, you can often dispense with ready as well. The idea that you need a ready, independent of information preparedness is more psychological fiction than reality. While you are contemplating doing anything, your readiness level changes over time, even before you adopt any sort of intention. As you process relevant information, your situation awareness may increase or degrade in quality, and you may become more or less oriented.

Ready really only matters in situations where there are decisive go/no-go thresholds defined by irreversible (or very expensive to reverse) actions, such as quitting your job or getting married, but ready as an internal state doesn’t really capture that. You’ll never be really ready. But as a continuously-changing state, your readiness may cross a minimum threshold associated with a given irreversible decision.  That threshold is set by external conditions.

This means that you start steering the moment even a tiny amount of readiness bubbles up into your consciousness. After that, the feedback process that is steer automatically moves your readiness level along.

So steer is really at the heart of it all. Continuous feedback control of energy, using information.

Ready is useful to add in where there is an important, unavoidable and irreversible decision inside the decision process.

Creating an Opening

Fire can actually come at the end as well, and this is the case that interests me the most these days .

In cases where you maneuver for an opening starting from unfavorable conditions (ready, steer), you could be accumulating a surplus capacity for action while waiting for a good opportunity to use it.

This could be a purely passive wait, or you could be actively trying to engineer an opening through “set up” moves.

This accumulating surplus might be money, information, a slowly-grown marketing asset like a blog, or going to night school to get a degree. Or it might simply involve waiting and watching for environmental conditions, trending in a certain direction, to hit a threshold.

Within a large corporation, this could be a matter of making specific allies and accumulating a strong position around a currently unattractive business asset (such as a dog of a product that people think cannot do well in the future, or a sales region that nobody wants) and waiting for, or engineering, a way to work it.

For example, there was an optimal window of time for streaming video businesses to be launched, based on falling bandwidth costs. If you were in that business, you’d have been wise to adopt a ready, steer hold-and-accumulate strategy, waiting for your moment to fire.

Today, the emerging sector of 3D printing is in the wait zone for many people: once the technology becomes sufficiently cheap and some basic technology to exploit it has emerged (such as stable, cheap and easy to use software for generating designs), a lot of people are going to jump in.

Bootstrapping to Big

Since ready has to do with crossing externally-determined irreversibility thresholds more than being in some mystic state of perfect readiness, the steer, ready, fire sequence is great for maneuvering to create an opening, and then triggering an irreversible action that requires a burst of informed energy. This is what is typically referred to as a go-big-or-go-home moment.

One application of steer-ready-fire thinking is bootstrapped businesses that intend to grow big at the right time. These days, we’ve somehow bought into the illusion that bootstrapping is for lifestyle businesses and that you need professional investors to go big.

This is obviously false. If you steer to ready with sufficient foresight, carefully build cash-flow assets, and  wait for or create the right opening, you can bootstrap and go big. Many big businesses before the 1940s were grown in precisely this fashion. Before investment banking  became a big business in its own right in the 1870s in America (and later, the sub-sector of venture capital in the post World War II era), big fortunes — including those of the two biggest Robber Barons, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller — were built through this sort of bootstrapped, leveraged model. There were times when Rockefeller in fact had more capacity to move the markets from the outside, than his famous finance contemporary, J. P. Morgan, had on the inside.

Stepping back a bit, what’s common to all these approaches to thinking about decision processes is the interplay of energy and information in some abstract sense (where energy can be money or marketing potential for instance, in our running startup sector example). Acting with either too much or too little information, given your energy levels, is inefficient.  Having neither information nor energy is of course a stable situation.

Mindfulness is when energy and information dance together well. Note that you don’t necessarily have to keep them balanced at a specific moment. You can store both. So you might wait for energy to catch up with information, or vice-versa. Or you can accumulate both and unleash a ferocious burst of mindful action driven by a store of heavily-informed energy.

Sudden Actions, Entropy and OODA

That last part (accumulating both energy and information to enable sudden movements) took me a while to get to. For a long time, I was unable to reconcile sudden, high-power movements with the idea of mindfulness because I was fixated on the thought that mindful actions are necessarily smooth actions. They needn’t be. Jerky movements have a role to play in our world.

But there is a deeper level at which “slow” and “smooth” matter. This is where an abstract notion of entropy is relevant. Slow, smooth actions cause low increases in entropy. Quick, jerky actions cause high increases in entropy. Unfortunately, you cannot always work with low-entropy behavior because there is a lot of messiness in the outside world — the world that you don’t completely control. The smaller and more closed your world, the more you can approach the idea of working purely with slow, low-entropy actions.

This is why readiness is best thought of in relationship to irreversible-action thresholds determined by external conditions. In thermodynamics, isentropic processes (those that don’t increase energy) are reversible. Entropic processes are not.

When you unleash a sudden action, entropy will increase. In decision-making terms, it means you’ll trigger action that is so fast that you cannot process the information being generated by feedback, so it will effectively act as noise. But there are situations where you know enough to know that this chaos you are unleashing will mostly favor you. This is reflected in the attitude that “I think it will all work itself out.” Eventually, when the dust settles, you will be able to get back to a more mindful engagement with the situation.

And of course, there will always be net entropy increases even after the dust settles. Being mindful about this realization is the same as accepting the inevitability of death.

Of course, this extended thermodynamic metaphor needs to be carefully applied in abstract situations, but I believe the correspondence is a very close one. This thermodynamic metaphor, and the interplay of ready, fire, aim and steer in various permutations and combinations, is one approach to understanding how Boyd’s OODA model really works.

Smart Money and Dumb Money

You can extrapolate this sort of thinking to larger groups and organizations, and think about how energy (usually money in the human world) and information are distributed within a organization and the environment it operates in.  You can talk about whether energy drives information or vice-versa.

In larger systems of people, power distributions often emerge out of the interplay of energy and information. Smart money represents information in control of energy. Dumb money represents the converse situation.

In the world of dumb money, entrepreneurs must chase investors. In the world of smart money, investors court entrepreneurs. Why?

In entrepreneurship, smart money is often used to refer to investment from people who can also provide information and advice. This is actually not particularly smart money. If an investor holds all the cards — money and information — what exactly does the entrepreneur bring to the table besides talent? That sort of relationship defines employment, not investment. Truly valuable information comes from unlikely places. Information from well-known sources, such as seasoned investors or former entrepreneurs, is unlikely to be particularly special or exclusive.  It is in fact likely to be common knowledge — it will help you lower costs of doing business, but not provide a competitive advantage.

A collaboration between a party with too much energy, and one with too much information, is fraught with tension. It is very hard to merge the two in mindful ways. One party is impatient and the other party is frustrated. Meetings between parties with unbalanced and complementary assets, who are also mindful about what they have and what they need, are quite rare.

The result is that power dynamics are triggered while things are sorting themselves out. This is one reason I advocate a slightly evil philosophy. Engaging the world outside your personal control means dealing with all this. Trying to be purely good is like trying to work with just smooth, slow, isentropic actions. It is just not workable when there are transient openings and irreversibility thresholds in the environment.

So it isn’t just individuals who have to gradually become more mindful decision-makers, gradually lowering the amount of sloth, impatience and frustration in their thinking. Organizations have to do it too. I can think of many frustrated, slothful or impatient organizations and groups, ranging in size from married couples to Fortune 500 companies and entire nations.


A Proposed Grand Narrative for the History of Debt

Despite my deliberate focus on individual-level narratives, the urge to apply the narrative structures discussed in Tempo to groups is irresistible to some people. This is interesting, because I personally have been wary of going there. I am not quite satisfied with how the models bootstrap up to group and grand narratives. But I am sort of happy that people are testing the ideas out in domains for which they weren’t really designed. If it works out, I’ll hopefully be able to build out the theory further.

Stefan King liked the Double Freytag as a way to structure the story of Western art. Critt Jarvis seems to believe it can help make sense of the ongoing political story of Honduras.  And now Julio Rodriguez is making a bold attempt to tease out the narrative structure in David Graeber’s book, Debt: the first 5000 years.

Check it out: Towards a Grand Narrative of Civilization.

The title is ambitious, but I think justified. I’ve read an extract from the book, and Graeber makes a convincing case that the story of debt is the story of civilization. So I think Julio is justified in going hunting for the main narrative arc within the book.


The End of the Parade

A foundational concept in twentieth century sociology is the cohort, a group of people starting  something (such as life, employment or college) at the same time. Our view of the human world is based on the idea of cohort-based groups marching (theoretically) in lock-step through life.  From grades in school to leagues of increasing skill-levels in sports to career paths within corporations, our world is full of groups navigating the world to the sound of the same drumbeat. If all the world is a stage, the larger drama is a parade of cohorts marching, dancing or straggling along drunkenly, but rarely breaking ranks.

Something very interesting is going on with cohorts today. The parade is ending.

Cohorts used to last as coherent social units all the way from high school to retirement. Now they fall apart within a few years of college. Different  patterns of organization take over very quickly. To understand what’s going on, it’s useful to think in terms of the metaphor of racing and what happens to different start-time cohorts. Last year, I ran a series of five  5k races, and observed some very entertaining sorting effects, which I captured at the time in this sketch of my anecdotal observations (and unkind judgments):

Something very similar to this is happening in the human drama. If you’ll forgive some hyperbole, the global drumbeat is faltering. Cogs and mavericks alike are struggling.  Cogs are wandering around wondering what to do with themselves. Mavericks are so used to defining their identities in terms of breaking ranks and following the beat of a different drum, that they too are struggling with a world that is not framed by a parade. Increasingly, there is nothing to rebel against.

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