Over the holidays this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia for the first time with my wife and our family from her side. We visited 3 cities/countries in 2 weeks: Hong Kong, Bali, Indonesia, and Manila, Philippines. Each of these locations left a marked impression on me, and over 4 blog posts, I plan to recount some of the lessons and experiences I took away from the trip.
For this first post, I’ll talk about our first extended stop: Bali, Indonesia.
Visiting Bali at the end of December may seem like a foolish move at first because it’s the rainy season. The weather prediction was 100% chance of rain at all times throughout our 5 days there. We got lucky, though, and had the opportunity to explore the island unencumbered, experiencing the full beauty of the land and the culture. I have to say, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
What struck me most about Bali, though, is the culture, particularly, the way it blends so many different cultures introduced over the course of centuries to produce a unique identity. It is an impressive illustration of how culture evolves through interactions with other cultures. According to what I was told, the original religion in Bali was animism, the belief that there is life in all things. (Across the island, you will see statues wearing skirts/kilts and trees covered in wrapping paper as a sign of respect for the life in each of them.) Due to a long tradition of trade and relations with China, though, Balinese animism included the belief that there is good and bad in all things, as well, that there is no way to eliminate what is bad, so you must strive to diminish and control what is bad, but recognize that it is always there. (There is an interesting HBR article that applies this same principle to business, arguing that with every solution you apply to a business, you create a new problem, which is not something to worry about, but to recognize and embrace: https://hbr.org/1998/05/evolution-and-revolution-as-organizations-grow.) Then, India began to interact with Bali, and Hinduism was brought over. A few hundred years later, Buddhism followed as it took root in India. These conflicting belief systems led to division and discord until the three religions were unified into one. Balinese Hinduism, the dominant religion in Bali today, is the result, which incorporates animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This approach of unification rather than expulsion provides insights for not just societal, but also organizational change. Similar to how Bali was able to integrate the rituals, practices, and even beliefs of disparate religions into one, organizations are capable of integrating the systems, approaches, and assumptions of disparate strategies and people into one.
This trip was also an opportunity to try new things. I don’t mean the food (although that was delicious). I drove a motorcycle for the first time on this trip as it was the cheapest and easiest way to get around. And after taking a break for more than a decade, I went scuba diving again with my new brother-in-law. For years, I have avoided diving for no particularly good reason. The ease with which we were able to book a tour and I was able to pick up the habits again surprised me. While 40 feet under water, I remembered that there are two basic rules to diving, which if you follow them, you will likely end up fine. They also apply to most situations in life: Keep breathing and don’t panic.
Side Note: One day, the manager of our house took us to an art school his friend runs to teach the traditional Balinese painting to youth. It is an incredibly laborious technique that involves 4 drafts of a work before it is finished, and the final product is unique in its representation. Gabrielle and I bought a painting that one of the instructors was working on at the time, and the before and after pictures illustrate the effort that went into it.
I am heading back to the United States after a brief trip to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Students For Liberty Objectivism Seminar featuring Yaron Brook and Dr. Robert Graff who fielded 90 minutes of questions from the audience, only ending when the room’s reservation came to an end.
I had the opportunity to meet some incredible individuals. I had previously met Louis Lo, the founder of Hong Kong SFL when I visited Hong Kong over the holidays (more to come on that later), but this trip was a chance for us to talk in more detail about the future of Hong Kong SFL. It was also a chance for me to meet some of the other leaders of the group some incredible supporters of their work.
It was a reinvigorating trip that I left me with two profound take-aways.
The first is the bootstrapping attitude of the Hong Kong SFL’ers. I believe this has been key to their success so far and bodes well for their future. Here are three examples of what I mean:
(a) The team of students ran a professional seminar. They had a sign up sheet at the front of the room to track everyone who attended. There was a videographer and photographer documenting the entire event, with time set aside to get a group photo. They had books and pamphlets promoting both SFL and Objectivism available for everyone both at the front of the room and on seats. And, perhaps most importantly, there were signs for the event posted around the campus to promote it; they did not just create a Facebook event – they actively promoted it through old school tactics that take time and effort, but have a track record of success, something that one does not see nearly enough these days.
(b) For years, the possibility of SFL expanding into China has seemed to be nonexistent. However, SFL in Hong Kong can serve as a foothold to begin work in the mainland, as well. Events and resources from Hong Kong SFL can introduce the ideas to other Chinese students at first. Once we find the right students, the Hong Kong students I spoke with suggested that the Chinese government may even support the establishment of groups that promote free market ideas (political and social liberty would be more difficult). The positive reason is that the Chinese government is trying to learn about free markets and move the economy in that direction. A more sinister reason could be that the government would prefer formal organizations espousing free markets and liberty that are easier to monitor than underground activity. It is far from foregone that SFL can/will expand into China, but I am leaving Hong Kong with the belief that it is possible for the first time.
(c) Perhaps most impressive: When I met with Louis on my last trip, I asked him at the end, “What can SFL International do to help you more?” He had already launched groups at several campuses, produced a myriad of promotional materials like banners and shirts, and run his first seminar. His response was perfect: “I know I should ask for more money to help what we’re doing, but I don’t want us to rely solely on SFL International.” That is the kind of attitude that makes a great leader.
The second is a reflection of the role of Objectivism in the 21st century. I came to the liberty movement through Objectivism. I still consider myself to be an Objectivist today, although, admittedly, a heretical one. I openly criticize Rand and hold views that many think are antithetical to Objectivism, such as that selfishness is not an Objectivist virtue and that in spite of using him as a rhetorical foil, Rand heavily depends upon Immanuel Kant’s arguments and ideas. I often find myself being reminded of the strength of the general Objectivist worldview, though, and the value it holds for leading a moral and meaningful life. During the seminar, Yaron pointed out that all too often, the people who do the greatest good in the world, the people who create the greatest value, are lambasted for doing so in a way that does not sacrifice themselves to others. Bill Gates did more to benefit humanity through Microsoft than any nonprofit has ever accomplished in history, yet it wasn’t until he pledged to give away most of the money he made while doing so that he was heralded as a “moral” individual. While Millennials are more interested in pursuing business and entrepreneurship than any generation before, there is still the widespread belief that for-profit activity, i.e. making money, is fundamentally evil, for which businesspeople must atone. Yet, for-profit activity is the greatest source of good in the world. That business is a fundamentally moral venture is not espoused nearly enough. Rand may have gotten a number of important things wrong, but Objectivism can and does offer powerful insights for the 21st century.
I remember dancing to “Changes” with my sister and father I was a kid. Our Dad would play Bowie often, and whenever this song came on, we couldn’t help but get together and just dance. It was our anthem growing up. It’s the song I plan to dance to with my sister at her wedding.
David Bowie’s music is timeless. What Bowie seemed to know more than anyone else was that he, himself, was not. He lived his life with full knowledge of its finitude. He was brilliant, creative, transcendent. When he discovered he was about to depart this world, he became more productive than ever.
Neither he nor his art seemed to belong here. Even though he is not with us any more, what he did will last for eternity. We should not only appreciate his art, but learn what we can from his life.
“Mr. Bowie was his generation’s standard-bearer for rock as theater: something constructed and inflated yet sincere in its artifice, saying more than naturalism could. With a voice that dipped down to baritone and leapt into falsetto, he was complexly androgynous, an explorer of human impulses that could not be quantified.” ~ “David Bowie, Star Whose Fame Transcended Music, Does at 69” by Jon Pareles in the New York Times, January 12, 2016
I just finished reading Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser as part of my holiday reading list. It's one of the Zappos Library List recommendations on strategy. You might be wondering: Why would Zappos recommend a book on how cities are organized to inform a business' strategy? Brian Robertson actually gives us the answer in his book, Holacracy. The first time Brian met Tony Hsieh at a conference in 2012, Tony commented that whenever a business acquires a new employee, the marginal productivity of the company tends to go down. In contrast, whenever a city acquires a new citizen, the marginal productivity of the city tends to go up. Why is this? And how can companies be structured more like cities to make people more productive rather than less by joining the company?
Glaeser offers a deceptively simple answer: Cities are hotbeds of human collaboration, both for generating ideas (along the lines of Matt Ridley's argument that progress comes from ideas having sex) and producing things (e.g. building new products and starting companies). Cities succeed when they provide more opportunities for collaboration in the right ways, and fail when they stop being centers for collaboration. The same can and ought to be said for businesses: the more successfully companies foster collaboration to produce ideas and things, the more successful they will be in general. However, there is one critical difference between cities and companies: companies have a particular goal they are striving to achieve and align all activity towards. Cities have no overarching goal that they are directing all action toward. Effectively applying lessons from the success of cities to companies will require important adjustments around this limit, but there are important lessons to derive from cities still.
Here are my top 5 take-aways from Glaeser's book: