Commencement Address – Fall 2019

~1800 words, ~9 min reading time

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. However, I am hopeful that what I say may have some positive impact on you today, even if you don’t remember a word a decade and a half from now. Reflecting on this sense of hopefulness, it felt appropriate to make the theme of my talk the value of hope.

To explore the idea of hope, consider this story from ancient Greece, recorded by Hesiod …

After Zeus ascended to claim kingship over the gods and men, the Titan Prometheus – who had sided with Zeus against his fellow titans – was convinced that Zeus was a tyrant – Zeus probably deserved this reputation, as he decided to deny humanity access to fire. In response, Prometheus snuck to Mount Olympus – home of the gods – and stole fire, which he brought back down to earth to be shared with humanity.

Zeus, naturally, was not too happy about Prometheus’s rebelliousness, and set the Olympians about crafting revenge. Working together, they created the woman Pandora, who was gifted with a sealed jar – often mistranslated “box”. Inside that jar lay burdensome toil, sickness that brings death, diseases, and a myriad of other pains.  Pandora was offered to Prometheus’s foolish brother Epimetheus as a wife – despite Prometheus’s warnings to never accept a gift from Zeus, Epimetheus accepted her.

On being accepted, Pandora opened the jar, scattering the evils contained within across land and sea. Only one thing remained in the jar: Hope.

Now, there are a number of interpretations of this myth, especially centered on this question – what is the significance of hope remaining in Pandora’s jar?

Here’s my suggestion: Hope is at hand, ever near, and hope is in our control. While we have little choice but to face a number of troubles in this world, we can choose to face them with hope in hand.

When I graduated from high school and from college, I received cards containing a passage from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are going to be opening cards with the same passage sometime soon, if you haven’t already. The passage goes like this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And this passage sounds very nice, but I fear that, taken out of its historical context, it loses a great deal of its meaning. When considered in context, Jeremiah has a lot to tell us about what hope means.

The situation was this: Jeremiah watched as his home was invaded by Babylon, and he watched as the Babylonians carried many of the nobility and skilled workers off into exile – leaving only a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

In short, things weren’t looking good. But, things were even worse than it first seemed, as there were two emotional forces fighting against Jeremiah, and his message of hope. It turns out that this “graduation card” passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to the exiles in Babylon. The beginning of that letter encouraged the exiles first, to settle in their new home in Babylon, and, second, to seek to prosper there.

This two-fold encouragement suggests that there were two temptations that the exiles were falling to.

The first temptation was one of denial. One set of exiles, driven by wishful thinking, was just waiting to be sent back home. Thus wishful thinking was paralyzing. A second set of exiles were tempted to despair. That is, they accepted the reality that they were in exile in Babylon and would continue to be, but they felt no drive to prosper under these circumstances. Thus, we see two enemies of hope: denial and despair. And both of these prevent us from taking action.

Hope – true, active, invigorating hope, hope that drives us to courage, requires that we first recognize our circumstances, and then choose to act out of a belief that our actions will improve things. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways–either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Psychologist Charles Snyder suggests that hope consists of two elements – which Scott Kaufman has dubbed the “will” and the “ways” of hope. That is, hope contains, first, the will – the determination – to achieve goals. Second, hope includes the “ways” that the goal will be achieved.

A number of studies have shown that those with hope – that is with a sense of determination and a belief that they have multiple ways of achieving their goals – are more successful, even when you control for other factors influencing success. Students who have a sense of hope when they start college are much more likely to perform well and to graduate, despite what their high school GPA, IQ, or ACT scores might suggest. Interestingly, Kevin Rand found that performance in law school is better predicted by a measure of hope than by your LSAT scores.

Now, you may be thinking that this all sounds great, but that you’re just not a very hopeful person by nature. After all, not everyone can walk around with a smile on their face all the time, feeling totally in control of the world around them.

To you I say: choose hope!

Now, this may seem silly to just tell you to be hopeful. But, it turns out that doing exactly that can make a difference. Psychologist Rebecca Goerres found that simply telling people to be hopeful led them to perform better at divergent thinking – the kind of thinking that includes brainstorming – that is, thinking up multiple ways to tackle a problem or handle a situation. And remember: one of the key elements of hope is believing that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. What better way to do that than to actually discover those multiple ways!

This suggests that hope feeds on itself. Simply telling people to be hopeful results in them doing those things that justify that hopefulness.

Now, I know that many of you are facing challenges of which you’re painfully aware. I also know that all of us will face challenges of which, like Jon Snow, we know nothing. But, in hope, we can say not just that things will get better, but that we can make them better. This sentiment is beautifully captured in this poem, author unknown. It reads:

Look to this day,

For it is life,

The very life of life.

In its brief course lie all the truths

And realities of your existence;

The bliss of growth

The glory of action, and

The splendor of beauty;

For yesterday is but a dream

And tomorrow is only a vision,

But today well lived makes

Every yesterday a dream of happiness

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

In this passage, we are reminded that, each day, we are given the opportunity to act anew. The opportunity to live that day well, and in so doing move us forward toward the vision of hope that is tomorrow. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence – Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Now, let me share some statistical reasons for hope about the world in which we live. Within your lifetimes, you have seen tremendous improvements – though we are often unaware of them.

According to the World Bank, in 1999, 28.6% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty – living on just $1.90 per day or less. The most recent data suggests that percentage has fallen to just 10%, even after adjusting for inflation.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless in the US has fallen by about 15% over the past 20 years.

According to FBI data, the number of reported violent crimes in the US has fallen by 20% in the past 20 years – which, given the increase in population, means that violent crime rates have fallen by about 35% over that same time. Property crimes have fallen even more than that.

According to the UN, life expectancy in the US has increased by about 2 years since 1999.

According to the US Census Bureau, median household income in the US, after accounting for inflation, has increased by about 3% since 1999, despite the fact that we faced a serious financial crisis halfway between 1999 and today. If you measure from the depths of the financial crisis about 10 years ago, median household income has increased about 13% in that time, again after accounting for inflation.

In brief, in the past 20 years, we have gotten safer, healthier, and wealthier – and this increase in wealth has extended to the homeless in the US and the extremely poor around the world. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that everything is getting better. But, in the time you have been alive – or even less than that – we have made some significant strides toward solving some of the serious problems that we have faced. Problems remain, yes. And some problems are getting worse. But, we should keep in mind that we have a great track record – and that should give us reasons for hope.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I am going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you hopeful about the future? Do you consider each new day as an opportunity to build toward the vision of a better tomorrow? Do you recognize that there are multiple ways to bring about that tomorrow?

Do you cultivate hope in yourself? When you see problems, do you resist the twin temptations of despair and denial, and instead choose to imagine solutions?

Do you cultivate hope in others? Do you remind those who surround you of their own successes, of their abilities to overcome the obstacles they have faced?

As you go through life, you will face uncertainty. You will face troubles. You will face obstacles. In those times, think back on the things that you have accomplished. Think back on this day, and look to the future with a renewed faith, and a hope that, together, we have and will build a brighter tomorrow.

Thank you.

Did Disney Really Underestimate Day 1 Demand for Disney+?

~400 words, ~2 reading time

It’s a common refrain. Before release: “New service/game/etc. coming out!” “Lots of pre-orders!” Day 1: “Site is slow and crashing!” “Underestimated demand”, etc.

The question: is it really reasonable for us to conclude that these companies, which are SO GOOD at estimating demand most of the time suddenly suck at it – ON A REGULAR BASIS, even when they have great data about what demand is going to be?

I submit that the best answer is “no”.

A few assumptions that I’m making here: (1) Day 1 demand is unusually high. (2) Setting up temporary servers that you won’t need in the long term is costly. (3) Companies believe that very few customers are going to punish them for poor performance on Day 1.

Put these all together, and you have an obvious interpretation of the situation. Disney+ estimated how many servers they’d need on an ongoing basis, and has that much capacity ready to go. (This follows from #2 above.) Now, they know this isn’t enough for Day 1 (#1 is something they can predict), so that there will be server problems – poor performance, crashing, etc. – on Day 1. But, that’s okay. The company isn’t really going to be worse off (#3). Yeah, there’s some PR that they’ll have to deal with, but that’s okay. They can always pull an EA, and offer people some free stuff (that’s how I got SimCity 4) – maybe put some movies they “didn’t plan to” on the platform, or offer people a free download of a specific movie through Google Play/Amazon Prime/iTunes, as long as they redeem in the next week. The point is that these are manageable, fairly cheap options compared to preventing the problem in the first place.

Now, there’s another possibility as well: it might be that Disney DOESN’T know how much long-term demand they’ll have. BUT, if it is costly to set servers up and then take them down, it might make sense for them to deliberately work UNDER the needed long-term capacity for the first couple days, so that they can get a better idea of what they should do.

Traditionally, manufacturers overproduce a bit – after all, if you run out of your good, customers will often just buy from a competitor that DIDN’T. (So, assumption #3 wasn’t true.) However, in a world of strong intellectual property protections and strong brand loyalty, that concern fades.

Fall Commencement Address 2018

~2400 words, ~12 min read time

What follows is the text of the Commencement Address that I gave today, December 16, 2018, to the graduates of Kent State University’s Stark Campus.

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. So, it is with a certain sense of what I will call “humble realism” that I approach this talk today. It seemed appropriate, then, to talk about the value of humility.

To demonstrate the value of humility, I hope to make three points – first, arrogance is destructive. Second, humility leads us to a realistic view of ourselves. Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

Before we get too far, let us consider what humility is and, first, what it isn’t.

The following list clarifying what humility is not comes from Dr Larry Osborne.

Humility is not low self-esteem. We have another name for that. Low self-esteem. In the words of the Dalai Lama “there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit – which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.” So, humility does ask us not to have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves. But, it certainly does not require that we have an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves, either.

Humility is also not a lack of ambition. One can seek to accomplish great things – and still do so with a sense of humility. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as saying “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”

Humility is, thirdly, not downplaying our own accomplishments. There is nothing humble in claiming to be bad at something that you actually do well. There are only two possibilities here. Either you are delusional, and don’t realize your own strengths. Or you are dishonest, and simply want to cover them up. Neither delusion nor dishonesty are part of humility.

So, humility is not low self-esteem, a lack of ambition, or downplaying our own accomplishments. But, what is it?

The best definition I could find comes from a very scholarly source. Urbandictionary.com. No, I’m serious. Urbandictionary.com offers this definition: True humility is to recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be. To be humble is to serve others and be for their good as well as your own. To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses. We’ll come back to these – but let’s first look at the opposite of humility: arrogance.

How easy it is for confidence – which is not a bad thing – to be twisted into arrogance. The arrogant, then, demand credit for all the wonderful things they do – and somehow find a way to shift blame away from themselves whenever their plans go awry. Once arrogance takes this turn, it, in turn has morphed into something else – fear. As the wise Jedi Master Yoda reminds us – Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And this is true – the arrogant person becomes afraid that, if people don’t know their accomplishments – or if people discover their failings – then their value as people will be diminished. Then, all it takes is not receiving credit for something, and the arrogant person lashes out in anger – is overcome by resentment, and begins plotting revenge.

Imagine with me, if you will, a hypothetical city filled with arrogant people – people who are continuously seeking credit for themselves, and seeking to shift blame to others. Let’s call this hypothetical city… say, Washington. What can we expect Washington to accomplish? I suggest that the best answer is “little to nothing”. So, why is that?

I’m an economist – and my wife can assure you that I’m an economist 24 hours a day, whether she likes it or not – so I can’t help but fit a little of that into this address. One of the most basic principles of economics is the division of labor. That is, we can accomplish more if we divide up tasks according to people’s relative abilities to do them. But, when each person is consumed with a desire for credit and fear of blame, cooperation – which is really just the common word for the division of labor – becomes impossible. And, without that cooperation – that division of labor – it is remarkably difficult to accomplish any complicated task – even the making of something as simple as a pencil cannot be done without an astounding amount of cooperation. I dare say that a society filled with such arrogant people will find itself paralyzed by continuous conflict and a lack of productivity. Such a society will destroy itself – unless it can live parasitically off of another group of people – a group of people that is more interested in accomplishing a goal than in receiving recognition for doing it – and, as such, is willing to cooperate to get the job done.

Arrogance – and the dangers that accompany it – is nothing new. There’s a reason that so many religious and philosophical systems – spanning time and civilizations – warn of the dangers of arrogance.

Solomon – one of the Kings of ancient Israel – is reported to have said that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”

Jesus warned his disciples that those who exalt themselves would be humbled.

Aesop shares a number of fables about the dangers of arrogance. I’ll share three:

Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?’ While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, “Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction.”

A gnat settled on the horn of a Bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise, and inquired of the Bull if he would like him to go. The Bull replied, “I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away.”

A deer was drinking from a river and began to admire his antlers. He then began to think about his hooves, and he wished his hooves were as big and majestic as his antlers were. To the deer’s surprise, a hunter appeared and fired an arrow, barely missing him. The deer took off into the trees and realized that he was able to get away only because of his small, nimble hooves. He realized how truly great they were, but as he was looking at his hooves, his antlers got caught in some tree branches. The hunter caught up to the deer and just before he met his fate, he lamented his love for his antlers and wished he should have realized how great his hooves were sooner.

Having seen that arrogance is personally and socially destructive, let’s turn then to consider humility. First, the fact that humility requires that we have a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The philosopher Socrates showed the virtue of humble realism in this story, which I paraphrase from Plato: The story goes that Socrates went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who was wisest – as, knowing his own ignorance, Socrates wanted to learn. The Oracle declares that Socrates was the wisest person in Greece. Not believing this – after all, Socrates knew that he knew nothing – Socrates visited people of various occupations – politicians, poets, craftsmen – but he found that everyone else lived under a pretense of knowledge – that is, they believed they knew things that they did not actually know. Socrates – and he alone – recognized what he did NOT know. And, so Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle was right. For, while Socrates knew nothing, he was at least aware of that fact.

True humility requires that we recognize both our strengths and our weaknesses. In this facet, humility is a form of clarity of perception reflected in the Delphic maxim “gnothi sauton” – “know thyself”. If we truly know ourselves, we will recognize that we have often been wrong – or at least I have. This should lead us to a more tolerant view of those we disagree with. This does not mean that I have no confidence in my beliefs – if that were the case, I would change them. Rather, it simply means that we recognize that we may not be 100% right on all of them – and we’re not quite sure which ones we got wrong.

True humility requires a recognition that – regardless how good we are, we can always be better. One of my college friends recently told me that he had come to two realizations in life. First, he would never be good enough. Second, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t better than everyone else. I think if we reverse the order, we discover humility. Humility asks us to recognize that, even when we are better than everyone else, there is still room to be better still.

Can you look at yourself and your accomplishments objectively? Can you see the things you have done the way that other people would see them – with all of their flaws and glories? If so, you are on the path to a humble realism.

Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

True humility requires that we take on the role of a servant. I’m guessing this story is fictional, but it, none-the-less, is a good illustration. In the early days after the United States was born, a rider came across a group of soldiers trying to remove a tree that had fallen across the country road that the rider was traveling. The rider noticed that one soldier was standing aside, doing nothing, and asked the man about this. This person clarified that he was the corporal – so it was his job to give the orders. The rider accepted this fact, got down off of his horse, and helped the soldiers. With his help, the tree could be removed and the road cleared. After this, the rider walked up to the corporal and said to him “The next time this happens, just ask the Commander-in-Chief for help” – for the rider was none other than President Washington, himself. True humility asks us to serve others – regardless our relative positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a leader is a bad thing. On the contrary, leadership often places you into a position where you are able to serve more broadly – as long as you have the strength of character not to let the position go to your head.

Many of the ancients – from Laozi to Jesus to Muhammad – suggest that humility is rewarded with exaltation – and often leadership.

Humility is so central to Islam that even the term “Islam” can be translated approximately as “humility” or “submission”. And the Qu’Ran declared that “Success comes to believers who humble themselves.”

Jesus tells his disciples not only that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but that the reverse is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Laozi says “I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be generous; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.”

Why do so many – across time and civilizations – see a connection between humility and being exalted to a position of leadership? For the answer to that, I turn to a more modern source.

This past October, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses”. Why is that? Because humble leaders are more successful at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people are more aware of their own weaknesses – sound familiar? – are more eager to improve themselves, and – here is a key – are appreciative of others’ strengths.

Putting these pieces together, a leader that displays humility recognizes the value of working as a team – so that each person can show their own strengths, and that each person – including the leader – can minimize the effects of their own weaknesses. It is no wonder then, that those who are humble would find themselves lifted up into positions of leadership.

I am convinced that each of us can change our own little corner of the world – and for the better – if we follow three rules. Let us do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I’m going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you overly sure of yourself? Do you find it difficult to admit when you are wrong or make a mistake? Do you find it difficult to respect people who disagree with you? Are you upset when you don’t get credit for things you do? Do you look for others to blame when things don’t go as they should?

Are you realistically aware of your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you look at your accomplishments objectively – as if they were accomplished by someone else? Do you recognize when others are better than you are in certain tasks or traits, and try to learn from them?

How do you serve those around you? Do you seek to build teams, helping each person you come into contact with discover their own strengths?

Do you do justly? Do you love mercy? Do you walk humbly?

Again, congratulations, and all the best as you walk the path that lies before you.

Thank you.

Lessons from Bullet Journaling

~500 words, ~3 min read time

I started using a bullet journal back in early April in an attempt to have some kind of organizational system that would actually match what I wanted. I made some mistakes along the way, but on the whole I like the bullet journal method. So, here are some lessons I’ve learned in the past couple months.

(1) Choose your size wisely – My first attempt at using a BuJo failed because I tried to use a standard sized composition book. This was too big to fit in my pocket, so I could only carry it if I was bringing my briefcase, or if I specifically decided to carry a notebook with me. This was inconvenient, so I stopped using it. This time around, I chose a small notebook – about 3.5″x5.5″ (like this), so roughly cell phone sized. This fits in my pocket with my phone, and is FAR more convenient. At the same time, I’m sure many would find the thing cramped.

(2) Dedicate enough space for your index – My notebook has 131 pages in it. But, I only dedicated 34 lines to an index at first. Surprise! I ran out of lines in the index, so now I have a secondary index around page 80. Dedicate a line per page, just to be safe.

(3) It’s okay to be simply functional – I’ll be honest. I am not artistic. So, my BuJo is not pretty. Mostly, it’s a dated task list with a few pages of checklists. That’s it. But, it works for me.

(4) Don’t dedicate a page to each day ahead of time – I should have known better. The BuJo guidelines on Bulletjournal.com say this. I had used a Franklin Covey page a day planner for years. I should have known that with a dedicated page per day, many pages would be basically empty while others would be full. Poor planning.

(5) Don’t rewrite your to-do list every day. It’s easy to flip through the Daily Log and find what you need to do. Just migrate at the beginning of the month and you’ll be fine.

(6) A BuJo is not a productivity strategy. It is simply a tracking system that is beautifully flexible. But, you still need a separate strategy for how to deal with the information you store in it. But, in my experience, a BuJo can pair extremely well with Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow. I suspect it would also work well with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but I always found GTD too undirected to motivate me. Now, not everyone needs a system for dealing with tasks. I find it very useful, as it removes the mental load of having to figure out what to do. But, as always, it’s up to you and what works for you.

(7) Use checklists for routine tasks. I have 3 checklists: a yearly, a monthly, and a daily. I prioritize in that order, making exceptions in the evening’s  for particularly pressing tasks.

Welcome to Prof E’s Blog! – Expectation Formation

Welcome to my new blog! I’m going to include a smattering of whatever I happen to be thinking about. So, no promise of any unified theme – but, you’ll probably see a few common topics:

  • Economics (especially in the Austrian tradition)
  • My kids
  • Quakerism (mostly of the evangelical variety)
  • College Teaching
  • Eurovision

Enjoy!