Review – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

by Ross King, published 2013

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known far and wide as Florence’s Duomo, took nearly 150 years to construct, beginning in 1296 and ending in 1436 with the completion of its massive dome under the direction of capomaestro Filippo Brunelleschi. The quinto acuto arch of the dome was an engineering marvel constructed without stabilizing buttresses and without a wooden centering to hold it in place as it was built. It defied the imagination of the civic leaders responsible for building the cathedral at the time and the methods and architectural rationale behind it were made purposefully obscure by the paranoid and secretive master “Pippo”.

Fast forward over 500 years of history and the principles by which the dome was constructed appear to be no less mysterious. From the post-war era onward numerous attempts at magnetic imaging and other sounding methods have been made to try to ascertain the precise materials and methods used with most returning a Magic 8-Ball-esque  answer of “Reply hazy, try again.” Many lesser domes had been constructed in earlier history in the West and the East, but Brunelleschi’s dome was the greatest span and the highest height achieved since the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and before that the Pantheon of Rome. Few have attempted anything nearing its proportions since and it seems apparent from the text that even if some modern had an inkling to they’d be hard pressed to figure out how to accomplish it without “cheating” in some way by use of innovative new materials or other supportive techniques.

But the grandiosity and secrecy of the dome’s construction is just one of the many wonders involved. Another is that Brunelleschi was not a trained architect but a goldsmith. Of course, goldsmiths of his era were considered the master craftsmen and technicians of their time (the book mentions how most significant architectural works in the West predating the Florence cathedral failed to record the name of the architects responsible for designing and raising them, so lowly was their perceived status) and the task before Brunelleschi was not simply to design the dome but to coordinate its construction via teams of specialized handiwork guild members as well as to manage the logistics of supplying the building materials, much as a film producer is responsible for pulling together writers, actors, financiers, set locations, film teams and so on. Still, it seems to demonstrate the virtuosity of the man’s mind that he was responsible for building something which was essentially an amateur attempt given his background.

Another wonder of the raising of the cathedral and the dome is the fact that this was one of many simultaneous grand public works built over the time. The city had organized a well-financed oversight committee, the Opera del Duomo, led by the most esteemed woolen cloth guild (a key pillar of Florence’s economy and regional importance), the Arte della Lana, which hired contractors to complete the cathedral and numerous other churches, sculptures and edifices around the city. Today we might think of an economic boom period lasting a decade but it seems that Florence’s skyline was littered with cranes, booms and scaffolds for the better part of two centuries.

Besides innovating architecturally, Brunelleschi also created numerous ingenious tools and machines to aid the construction process. One was an enormous ox-powered materials hoist which rose to the height of the roof of the cathedral from the floor of the nave and had changeable gearing such that the ox team could raise and lower materials in a controlled fashion without being removed from harness and changing direction, an enormous time savings over the life of the project. He also invented specialized cranes, pulley systems and other machines for traversing materials across the expanse of the open dome while it was under construction. Getting multiple hundred-ton slabs of marble, hardened timber beams and iron chains and clasps up the 20-story height of the cathedral was only half the battle as once there they needed to be moved across numerous axes in a precise, controlled fashion before being lowered into place, all while gusts of wind, rain and sometimes even snow obstructed the workers’ efforts.

As impressive and awe-inspiring as structures like Santa Maria del Fiore are and were, I couldn’t help thinking about the monumental waste of these projects compared to alternative uses for the materials and labor and ingenuity involved. Most of the space created by the cathedral is empty by design– this heightens the sense of majesty of the house of God. And this is partly why the building was so complex and expensive to create. The mere fact that the people of this era could construct something like this is a demonstration of their wealth, organizational capabilities, technical know-how and culture of productivity. I just wonder if they weren’t filling up multiple city blocks with empty temples made of the finest construction materials, what could they have built instead that isn’t there?

Ironically, it was these “wasteful” decisions that are the primary source of Florence’s modern tourist economy, so in that sense it was a far-sighted decision by the early city masters to invest in their descendant’s future well-being. And some have even made the case that the splendors of Florence’s Renaissance urbanity were enough to protect it from destruction during World War II.

Florence in the Renaissance was something like New York City today, a wealthy center of commerce and banking, confident in its own power and influence, a great patron of culture and the arts and continually raising great structures in honor of itself. But whereas you can walk amongst the streets of Florence today and see a Medici palazzo or a fine church built half a millenium ago, it’s hard to imagine walking the streets of New York City five hundred years from today and finding the remains of yesteryear still standing and still full of wonder and delight.

 

Review – The Blue Bottle Craft Of Coffee

The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes

by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, published 2012

It seems that coffee might best be appreciated by a mathematician when one considers how many various ways the factors of coffee production can be manipulated prior to it being poured into one’s cup. For example:

  1. Arabica or robusta species? Which varietal?
  2. Where was it grown? (Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Hawai’i…) At what altitude? What were the weather and soil conditions during that crop?
  3. How was it processed? Dry or wet? Organic?
  4. Is it single-origin or a blend?
  5. How was it roasted? What temperature? How long? Starting and stopping moisture? Time to first crack? Second crack?
  6. How were the beans ground? Coarse? Fine? Hand grind or motorized?
  7. How was the coffee brewed? Pour-over? Espresso? French press? Cold brew?
  8. Black or with condiments? Whole milk or heavy cream? Butter? Sugar? Spices?

It may be that only true professionals can discern meaningful differences between one cup and the next when it comes to certain degrees of some of these variables, but nonetheless they’re there and on a gross basis they’re meaningful. Coffee from Ethiopia is different from coffee from Costa Rica. Pour-overs have different profiles than coffee that has been French pressed. Even the temperature of the water and the time of extraction matter within each brewing method.

Coffee is a global commodity, but the Freemans’ book makes it clear that coffee nonetheless defies commoditization for those looking for an individualized, craft experience. One can endlessly explore the world of coffee by twisting these knobs and pulling these levers.

Something about coffee seems delicate after reading this book. One grower profiled had 6,000 trees on their plantation which each yield only a pound of green coffee. A talented human harvester can clear about 2 pounds worth of finished coffee per hour from the trees. We’re not talking about shaking pounds of fruit with one bump like an orange tree here. And coffee goes stale quickly after roasting and even more speedily after grinding. With all the time and intermediate steps between planting and drinking, one could easily ruin the essential qualities of their coffee with simple mistiming or lack of coordination. Brew a minute too long, swirl the water in your pour over a little too fast, and something sublime is lost forever, replaced with tasteless mediocrity.

It is surely an art to do it well!

The discussion around organic certification on coffee also caused me to pause. Organic is not a perfect measure of quality or nutrition by any means when it comes to food, and organic farming practices have some of their own problems. But all else equal, we’d rather not ingest the pesticides if we can avoid it. Yet when it comes to coffee (and wine, “biodynamic”), I haven’t thought twice about insisting on organic sources. This is an odd oversight on my part because it’s probably even more important given that the act of extraction in coffee making virtually guarantees that residual chemicals end up fully dissolved in a readily-digestible concoction, but even more so because for most people coffee is a daily habit so you are being exposed constantly rather than periodically. Unfortunately, this is one place where the market isn’t keeping up. I think on average at my local coffee shop there is one organic offering for every ten or twelve types of beans presented.

James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee and author of the coffee sections, makes it clear that most people in America drink bad coffee each morning. Their sins are many and born of ignorance mostly, convenience secondly. They use automatic drip brewers, pre-ground (stale) coffee, unfiltered water, incorrect temperatures for brewing, unkindly ratios of water to coffee grounds and, worst of all cases, “pod coffee” (K-cups, Nespresso, and so on).

To take back the pride of good coffee, to create one’s own coffee ritual and to further develop the art of the craft, he recommends a basic setup for the novice:

  • electronic gram scale
  • thermocouple thermometer
  • conical burr grinder
  • swan-neck kettle
  • single-cup pour-over dripper + filters

There are many preparation methods detailed in the book but I was surprised to learn that he recommended the simple pour-over as the first and best technique to master. He also recommends making coffee one cup at a time– a difficult task for a family man trying to mass-produce breakfast! Most interestingly, while he believes you can have a delicious cup of coffee with any kind of bean and roast that has been properly farmed and processed, he recommends single-origin light roasts, black, for the cleanest presentation in the pour-over method.

It’s easy for me when reading a book like this to focus on the “recipe” and ignore the “principles”. Freeman offers a number of rules of thumb and general guidelines but the key idea is personal experimentation and discovery within extreme bounds. Water that is too cold or too hot is just never going to produce good coffee, but water between 205F and 190F, to personal preference, will produce personally-satisfying coffee. It is not about what is objectively best but what is subjectively delicious to you.

Tidying Up Our Library

Today I tried to sort through a number of reading lists I keep on Amazon.com in order to find a few new things to read.

I failed. Quickly.

A minute amount of arithmetic can show us why. If I dropped everything else of interest to me and developed greater discipline than I’ve exhibited in the last several years and devoted all of my free time each day to reading, I might, possibly, get through all of the titles I’ve accumulated in my lists in about… five years.

Five years straight of regimented reading. And of course these titles were accumulated over a period of about five years, so by the time I finished, I’d have my reading for the next five years ready to go. An endless fight, I could make my way through the stacks until life itself exceeds me and I succumb to my war wounds, surrounded by loved ones and my unread materiel.

Trying to sort these potential odysseys, I became overwhelmed and soon the books sorted me. How did I get here? What am I really trying to do? What is the point?

Every book I’ve encountered and subscribed to my lists (there are 22, by the way, starting with “American History”, ranging through “Farming & Ecology” and ending with “Social Science”) represents a hope for mastery and wisdom. Each represents one human being’s life work, in many cases, or at least a component piece of a corpus representing everything they’ve learned about a specific area of human inquiry they’ve devoted their energies and attentions to understanding.

So I grabbed them by the bushel, the box, the bundle, and stuffed them into 22 unique intellectual genuses for my future edification. Are you seeing the problem here?

This is intellectual hoarding on an epic scale. And each hope hides a dying regret, that I didn’t learn all of this sooner or at some other time in my life.

There may have been many opportunities to learn everything there is to know about Ancient Roman social and political and philosophical history; of EO Wilson’s sociobiology and studies of ants; of comparative studies in global religious traditions and the historical implications for host societies; of the supreme importance of mycelia (read: mushrooms) for soil health in one’s home garden or the world at large; of what the Founding Fathers really meant by the words they wrote in the Constitution and why the US really is a unique and special polity on the world stage.

But I didn’t. And I have to learn to accept that fact and let all these possible, potential, unrealized versions of me go. I know 80% more about philosophy than the average yokel, but I will never truly know Nietzsche. I made it this far without such arcane wisdom and I’ll have to see if I can make it a bit further.

It’s hard for me to let go of all the time I spent finding this stuff, though. In some weird combination of the sunk cost fallacy and the labor theory of value, it seems like because I spent all this time and had all these dreams it’d be a shame to just, hit the delete key, and watch these lists get disappeared out of some internet memory bank.

Instead of wholesale, scorched earth reset, I am considering utilizing Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” principle. I will scan my list and imagine, briefly, pulling each of these titles out of a freshly delivered Amazon.com box and holding it in my hands, feeling its weight and staring at the cover in person for the first time. How do I imagine myself feeling in that moment?

If I am ready to forget whatever it was I was doing the split second before the package arrived because I am too eager to sit down and begin reading, this title is capable of “sparking joy” for me. It touches something of my true essence, my actionable values, and a case can be made for keeping it on a shortlist for purchase if not ordering it immediately.

Everything else is getting torched. If it doesn’t spark joy for me now, it might spark joy for me never. It would be wasteful to maintain the delusion that I’m going to get to it one day and worse still to make the mistake of actually buying it. Then, Amazon’s inventory investment problems become my own. And I have no retail platform!

Some might suggest that there is value in maintaining a personal library. Here’s a recent picture of mine:

This is not every book I’ve ever owned nor every book I currently own. Sadly, I have more books than this and in more places than this. Many have been read. Some never will be. If the idea that I’ll eventually read all of these books is insane, the notion that some are worth keeping for re-reading or reference is marginally less connected to reality. Who has time for this? I don’t.

One of my greatest joys in reading has been discovering books and chasing down my own rabbit holes. Maintaining a library says something like, “One day, someone in my family or one of my friends or someone who cares about me is going to be really excited to chase down all my old rabbit holes like I did.” That day isn’t coming, but one in which your loved ones, a friend or someone who cared about you (maybe because they’re being paid to haul away your garbage and remains) tosses your books in the dump, is. It’s vanity to collect books as if it represents some important intellectual legacy you’re preserving for others.

That being said, maybe as part of family governance there are a select few titles that the patriarch (or matriarch) insists family members become familiar with as part of a shared family intellectual culture. That seems reasonable. But in the photo above, such selections would probably be able to fit on an individual division of one shelf at maximum.

Besides losing some nice wall art, you would gain some space if you stopped having a library and copious lists of books you’ll never actually read. You might also gain some freedom and satisfaction. What does it do to your soul to carry all that stuff you’ll never do and all the knowledge you’ll never have stuck in books you’ll never read, to carry it around in the back of your mind, day after day? What limitations do you set on yourself here and now when you spend any amount of time punishing yourself for what you aren’t yet but might be one day?

So, just let it go. If it’s important, if it’s you, it’ll come back to you one day when you go looking for it.

More Thoughts On Silver Spoon Kids

The following are more thoughts and notes from our reading of Silver Spoon Kids.

When you die, you will leave behind your money but most importantly your values; which will be most important to your children and their quality of life? It seems a major mistake many financially successful families make is they spend all their time and energy trying to provide the first resource and give little if any attention to the latter. As the parent of one friend quipped about the inheritance he planned to leave behind, “I’ve done my part.” And as my friend observed, “What does that mean, and what are we supposed to do about it?”

According to the authors, there are five primary ingredients to consider if one endeavors to raise responsible, emotionally healthy affluent children:

  1. demystify money
  2. understand fundamental psychological principles of human development
  3. clarify concept of personal values (parent)
  4. parents’ relationship with money
  5. money messages that are modeled for children

Money itself is not “the problem”, but rather the problem is money unaccompanied by values.

A generational problem that faces families whether they are financially successful or not, but which is especially easy to overlook as important for the affluent, is that all parents face different sets of challenges; strategies that may have been appropriate (with money) in one set of circumstances may be damaging when affluence is a factor. So it isn’t enough for parents who struggled to make money to leave their kids with the same attitudes and perspectives they had before they had money, and it also isn’t enough to assume that just doing the opposite, or worse, scolding, terrifying or otherwise being neglectful towards children with regards to money, is going to address the issue.

Passing on values from parent to child requires repeated interactions over many years and some families don’t have (or make) time for this repetition. If the getting of money is demonstrated to be a more important value for a family than the coming together to talk about its meaning, guess what the children learn from that? Guess what children learn from any parent who is not present? Answer: whatever the hell they want, and nothing good. You can not parent from a distance.

Engaging in real conversations with real people (like their parents) is how kids mature emotionally and become socialized. It isn’t realistic to expect children to become reasonable and responsible about money without an example of reasonable, responsible attitudes about money being modeled for them that they can interact with. Affluent or otherwise, kids need their parents to be their for them to grow up right. This is a fundamental principle of child development.

Consistency of routines and experiences is a big part of transmitting values and socializing children effectively, ie, taking the same family vacation to the same place each summer (depth rather than breadth). So it’s less important WHERE you vacation or HOW you vacation but rather THAT you vacation, and that you do that over and over again so children can count on it and grow through the experience.

One goofy example from the book that stood out to me as a mistake not to make in terms of prioritizing values: a well-to-do family found their “dream house” early on in the family formation process. In order to afford this “dream house”, mom had to go back to work and earn an income outside the home. Somehow she was able to make enough to help make the mortgage AND to hire an au pair to help look after the kids. The result: a beautiful home empty of a real family to live inside of it. This is putting the cart before the horse. The author’s didn’t say this but that is my read on the situation.

Another point raised in the book is that lecturing kids about money isn’t effective. Besides the fact that no one likes being lectured to and few tune-in for such treatment, the simple fact is that the transmission of values requires repeated interactions with multiple nuances on the same subject for the knowledge of the observer to become intuitive. Kids take their cues from thousands of interactions with you, from listening to what you say and observing what you do in a wide variety of situations. It is the furthest thing from a “one and done” Birds & Bees-type conversation to get habits, disciplines and attitudes about money across.

In terms of understanding child development, one of the truly crucial discoveries has been the importance of children forming a secure attachment with attachment figures while they’re young. Without this bond, children tend to experience all sorts of emotional difficulties as they go through different developmental stages. Dysfunctional relationships about money are just one thing. You can solve all kinds or problems in your family, money and more, simply by consciously creating the conditions for secure attachments to form between children and parents.

Many affluent parents fret about their children being able to navigate the risks of the wider world. The key here is to help children develop the capacity for self-regulation, and self-regulation is rooted in secure attachments to parents. Children who have developed the capacity for self-regulation tend to exhibit increased emotional resilience when dealing with adversity and tend to do well in social relationships as they grow older.

Secure attachments require empathic communication– helping children to feel seen, heard and understood. Affluent parents should be investing in RIE classes with their infants and young children and NVC seminars with their adolescents and teenagers, they have the means and time to do so and it will pay dividends throughout their life.

An interesting developmental concept shared in the book was Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Child Development, which suggests there are key developmental goals for each major stage of a person’s life:

  1. Birth to 1yr; trust
  2. 2-3yrs; autonomy
  3. 4-5yrs; initiative
  4. 6yrs-puberty; industry
  5. adolescence; identity
  6. early adulthood; intimacy
  7. middle adulthood; generativity
  8. later adulthood; integrity

The first stage, trust, is about developing secure attachment with caregivers. The second stage, autonomy, is the process through which the child comes to understand their existence and capability for survival independent of their parents, primarily the mother. The third stage, initiative, is where the child becomes increasingly self-directed in their learning and play, making their own decisions about how they want to spend their time and what experiences they want to have. The fourth stage, industry, is a time where the child becomes conscious of their ability to be productive and to make a helpful contribution to their social circle (their family). The fifth stage, identity, is when the child is entering personhood and begins to contemplate who they are, what their values are and what meaning they want their life to have. The sixth stage, intimacy, is the necessary precursor to repeating the genetic cycle through pair bonding and family formation as the person learns to grow close enough to another person to form the intimacy necessary for procreation, but also to develop tight enough bonds with others in general that they can become secure within society. The seventh stage, generativity, represents not only procreation and the populating of a new generation but also the peaking productive energies of adults at home in terms of their creativity, work output and intellectual and social contributions to others. The eighth and final stage, integrity, is a reflective period in which most of us will hopefully be able to look back on our lives and feel content that we lived our life according to our most cherished and esteemed values. For some who realize they have been living a lie or not living up to their own expectations, this can be a very painful time indeed, and it is particularly so when surrounded by younger family members who are attempting to form secure bonds, discover their identity, attain initiative and engage in industry or sort out their own identity, when the model before them is a big, fat hypocrite or pathetic loser! Think ahead and don’t become a person filled with remorse by the eighth stage, life catches up to you.

Thinking back to the example of the family that prioritized their home ownership dream over having mom home with the kids, this quote stood out to me:

In the best of all possible worlds, at least one parent is financially able to be a full-time mother or father during the first year.

Of course, the authors were quick to qualify this right afterwards by assuring the reader that, while ideal, you can still raise a good family without this (yeah… but it’s not ideal, which is the whole point). But what I think is most important about this concept is that the ability of family to actually be together is itself a huge Standard of Living value that most people overlook, especially people seeking or experiencing affluence. It’s like they’ve got the fancy house, the nice car, the swanky clothes, the expensive eateries and the ‘gram-able vacays, but they don’t think to spend their affluence escaping that trap of impoverished families mentioned earlier in the book: the inability to afford the time to be together. What would the world look like if more affluent families put that value first and foremost in their family planning strategy?

Why affluent parents should avoid protecting their children from life’s miseries:

Frustration is inherent in any learning process, affluent families should not try to shield their children from this; avoid using affluence to take away the child’s struggle. Children who are not permitted to struggle and succeed often develop a sense of inferiority.

Another key piece of advice I have almost never heard any affluent family engage in purposefully (although all kinds of families will get here in an unintended shouting match or something like that!):

Tell your child about some of your mistakes and some of your failures.

Why? Because it’s valuable for affluent children to know that even their parents, who mostly succeeded in life, screwed some stuff up along the way and still arrived where they did. It takes the pressure off and makes it more realistic to consider “being human” as an option.

In describing personal attitudes about money, the authors described our money relationships existing along three dimensions: acquisition, use and management. Every person has a unique combination of attitudes regarding these three factors, and each person can be either overly conservative or overly risky in regard to each (or skewing toward one of the extremes).

When thinking about the second dimension, use, an important question to consider is:

Does your family have a sense of what is “enough” and why?

For people who think they never have enough money to be happy, maybe what they really are experiencing is a deficit of values, or a failure to align with them in terms of their choices:

People who live in accordance with their values enjoy happy lives; children who live in accordance with their values enjoy an identity.

The authors describe the phenomenon of children who are fully absorbed with their own kind of “Keeping Up With The Joneses” competition for material possessions and status. I refer to this as “social metaphysics” and it seems from the author’s experience that it occurs when children do not have their own values to anchor their observations and experiences in. As a result, they end up referencing other people rather than themselves when trying to arrive at judgments.

And back to the modeling idea:

Our behavior around money tells our children more about our money values than anything we say. Our children may accept our money values or they may reject them, but we guarantee you that they won’t ignore them.

Besides being a hypocrite, you can also make the mistake of saying NOTHING about money with your kids. But that’s a big mistake, too:

Giving money the silent treatment not only robs your kids of the skills needed to manage it, but it can also result in emotionally unhealthy attitudes toward it.

As one estate planner put it “no device that I can draft will make up for lessons that weren’t learned as a child”.

To help your children develop their own consciousness about money, employ reflective discussions with your child which involve asking questions about what, when, why and how to help them form an opinion and reflect on their own wishes and ideas, the foundation of abstract thinking.

Age-appropriate discussions about money

Here are some specific strategies the authors recommend for discussing money with children at various ages/developmental stages:

Ages five and under; we strongly believe you should limit your preschool child’s exposure to television advertising because of her natural “wanting” tendency; what preschoolers can and should learn is the concept of saving, around age three, use the exercise of depositing a fixed sum in a jar each day before allowing it to be spent at a future time, establishes the connection between giving money and getting something return after waiting for money to accumulate; also can discuss the difference between “need” and “want” and illustrate through concrete examples such as food for dinner versus ice cream for dessert

Six to twelve years old; it’s good to start kids on allowances earlier rather than later, let the kids make budgeting mistakes when they’re less likely to engage in emotional battles over insufficient funds; kids as young as eight can be taught to budget and select from among alternatives if you take the time to explain the process; when talking about money, talk in terms of choices and consequences (tradeoffs, also, basic economic concepts?); open a savings account at a local bank and include the child in the process, discussing how it works and what it’s for

Thirteen to eighteen years old; address issues such as the cost of a given item versus its value to the individual, what constitutes an “overpriced” product or service and the idea of setting and adhering to a reasonable budget; giving a teenager and unrestricted credit card simply teaches them to spend; they should be encouraged to budget for longer periods of time, for the entire month or even a school quarter or semester; involve your children in the research process behind a major purchase, let the teenager evaluate product quality and price via internet research and make a recommendation

And here is a list of helpful “Money Dos” for those not inclined toward negativity and things to avoid:

  • do be honest
  • do connect the concept of money with that of responsibility
  • do help them understand that there are limits on spending
  • do acknowledge your child’s negative feelings about money and wealth
  • do treat their questions with respect

Allowance is a hot topic amongst the affluent and some are skeptical because it seems like “socialism” or a “handout”, but an allowance only has a negative effect if parents refrain from dispensing values along with the money according to the author’s research. Instead, view an allowance as the child’s rightful opportunity to share an appropriate portion of the family’s resources. As a more global concept, perhaps families should have a Family Bill of Rights as a family governance tool, and allowance and other money/wealth rights and responsibilities should be outlined in this document. Ie, “As a member of the X clan, you have the RIGHT to Y, but also the RESPONSIBILITY to provide/do Z.” This helps build a distinct family culture around money and other important family values and norms. If your child is going to become a responsible adult, he needs to know that privileges and responsibilities will be inextricably linked throughout his life. As a member of the family, your child should share in both the privileges and responsibilities that go with his membership.

Determining what’s appropriate (as far as size of allowance and what it can be spent on) is a process you should share with your child; by communicating allowance parameters you are communicating a rationale that contains your values. You’re also treating your child as a responsible, serious person regarding money, which is how you want them to think of themselves as they deal with it.

If you establish an allowance or some other means of financial support, stick to it. Rescuing sends the worst money message possible; the link between hard work and additional pay is a good one, as it demonstrates that you are the one who can save yourself. If your kids get stuck in a money hole, offer them ways they can go above and beyond to earn additional resources to bail themselves out. Create a list of special chores with a specific dollar amount attached to each; don’t keep this list a secret. But don’t turn money into a game. If you use money to control your child’s behavior, you will raise an adult who is controlled by money.

Later in the book, the authors spend some time talking about the importance of diversity and learning to appreciate and accept (it is implied) people without affluence. They say, “we must learn to help our children value people for their character, who they are, the obstacles they have surmounted and what they have accomplished with their lives”. I think the intent was sincere here but I can imagine your average progressive becoming enraged with this reasoning– what about people who don’t have much character, who haven’t managed to surmount their obstacles because they’re too big, onerous or unfair, or who otherwise have simply been stomped into the ground in life and can’t keep up? How is this not a recipe for failing to value those who have failed?

However, I really liked their take on the importance of inculcating the value of philanthropy, because I think they did a good job of connecting the developmental values of philanthropic activity to the patterns mentioned earlier in the book. Instead of just making some lame moral argument that you’re a bad or incomplete affluent person without having a conscience that goes beyond yourself (smuggled premise), they made the logical, self-interested argument that the thought processes and actions required in philanthropic activity are conducive to building genuine identity, self-esteem and concrete and realistic notions about wealth. Here are some quotes:

We are deliberately not using the word charity, but philanthropy, a desire to help mankind, encompasses all forms of activity and endeavors that help make the world a better place in which to live.

Philanthropy helps build a sense of accomplishment — “I’m helping others” — while counteracting the sense of superiority or privilege that can inhibit industry.

Assisting others confers a sense of mastery over life, by giving of themselves and their time, children find a satisfying answer to the question “Who am I without my family’s money?” Equally important, philanthropy provides teenagers with an activity that can be shared with the entire family.

Philanthropy demonstrates that they are not just the recipient of giving but have the capacity for giving as well

Philanthropic endeavors contradict this notion of a meaningless existence.

That really got me re-thinking the subject and considering how to weave it into our own family tapestry on this topic.

And they suggest philanthropic behavior can begin young, and should:

Writing a check to charity is too abstract a concept for a four or five-year-old. Young children have difficulty dealing with abstractions and need concrete experiences.

Speaking of philanthropy, what can make the world a better place than screwing over lenders, divorcees and their grasping lawyers? That is one reason I hadn’t fully considered for setting up a trust to protect family assets even if your affluence isn’t “substantial”:

One valuable aspect of putting money for children in a trust that is often overlooked is that it doesn’t just help protect the child from the money, but it protects the money from creditors, bankruptcy court and ex spouses in divorce proceedings.

No idea how timely this advice is as the book was written in 2002 and things may have changed, but one thing I’ve noticed about estate planning is that by nature, tax rates change but the rules and structures of long-term oriented tax avoidance vehicles like this rarely seem to do so in tandem.

Questions to ask yourself when forming a trust:

  • for what purposes would you be distributing money to your kids if you were doing it yourself?
  • what would you like to see your children and grandchildren do?
  • what are you afraid might happen to you?
  • what might they do with the money that would disappoint you?

Like the comments about an allowance, the authors have a word of warning about thinking that a “trust fund kid” must necessarily be spoiled:

Affluence, if handled properly, allow your child the opportunity to become anything they want. if you raise a child with a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility, she will want to do the best she can do no matter what career path is taken or how much is in the trust fund.

Trust funds actually seem to serve as an incentive for children who are entrepreneurial but might be a disincentive for children who work as employees

And the final parting shot in the book as the authors look forward toward the social horizon:

It is going to become increasingly vital for us to find money heroes and communicate their stories to our children.

…because our kids are increasingly surrounded by easy access to impressions of bad actors. Facebook was 2 years away when this book was published but they saw the trend nonetheless through the insipid example of TV and movies.

Our Money Narratives

As described in our review of Silver Spoon Kids, the following are the individual “Money Narratives” for the Wolf and I, as well as our thoughts on a new “Money Narrative” for our own immediate family. The book recommends constructing these stories based upon reflections from asking the following types of questions:

  • What is your earliest money memory (ie, the first important purchase you made)?
  • What did you learn from your father/mother about money?
  • What are some of your family stories about money (ie, the time grandpa was really cheap, or your aunt made a ridiculous purchase)?
  • What kind of financial education did you receive growing up?
  • What were the big emotional issues around money in your family?

The Lion’s Money Narrative

Looking back on my childhood, I find myself puzzled by my family’s simultaneous desires to acquire money and wealth while desiring that it not change them in any meaningful way. What good is striving after money if you’ll live your life essentially the same way with it as you would without it (maybe plus a bigger, nicer house, a fancier car and a more comfortable vacation experience)? We didn’t spend a lot of time openly talking about money in our family, and when others noticed our wealth, it was an uncomfortable and sore subject. I remember being bullied for being “rich” in grade school which confused me at the time because I wore the same clothes and ate the same lunch and rode the same kinds of bikes that other kids at school did. And it hurt because I didn’t think it was true (we never used that word to describe ourselves inside the family) and I didn’t think I had any control over it– why persecute me for something my parents did?

It’s all the more confusing to think of where those kids came up with it. They must have heard it from their parents. And their parents must’ve interacted with my parents and somehow, despite my parents trying not to let their success change them noticeably, it did. When I shared the fact that I was being bullied, I remember being told, “We’re not rich, we’re just well off. And it’s none of their business.” Not very helpful advice for a young child dealing with these social issues! I learned a few things from that experience: that money could be dangerous even if you weren’t “rich”, and that even if I or my family were “rich”, I didn’t deserve it and was a worse person for having it. As an adult, that lesson has lingered and I’ve struggled at times with a sense of being happy with what I have, whether that’s been a lot or a little or something in between!

A positive aspect of wealth that I learned from observing my parents is that it can be used to help others. We’ve helped out friends and family members when they’ve found themselves in a tight place. And while we’ve enjoyed many nice vacations, a good fraction of those included friends or relatives joining us at family expense. It has informed my own sense as an adult that if I have the capability to provide for others with less in some situation, I can do that without either party making “a thing” of it and instead just focusing on the opportunity for mutual enjoyment.

Sadly, I did not get much financial instruction growing up. I observed my parents being budget-conscious and balancing a checkbook back when that was something you had to do (they still do this although I’ve encouraged them to set up an electronic account management system many times) as well as reviewing utility and credit card bills to ensure there were no erroneous charges. But aside from having my own bank account to collect gift monies and being encouraged to operate lemonade-and-cookie stands or hold summer jobs as a youngster, I wasn’t taught much about how to make money or how to manage investments. Looking back on it, I don’t think my parents had anything to teach. My dad got swept up in the excitement of the Tech Boom in the late 90’s and I remember him coming home one day crowing about the wild price action in his AOL stock, and then coming home dejected the following week when it had just as unexpectedly crashed. I would watch Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser on PBS on Friday nights with my dad, but we never talked about it and I didn’t fully understand what they were discussing on the show or what the stock market was. I didn’t realize I could invest in stocks on my own until well into college when I discovered the works of Benjamin Graham, somehow without ever hearing about Warren Buffett! Certainly no one ever sat me down and taught me the wonders of compound interest and the importance of getting an early start for a lifetime of successful investing.

And the greatest single source of wealth in our family, our privately owned business, was considered a taboo subject for dinner table discussion because my mom didn’t want her children to feel pressured to be a part of it. Conflicted is definitely a polite way of putting our family’s relationship with money, although on the whole I seem to have picked up a few healthy attitudes and habits because I’m a big saver, abhor the use of debt and credit and have no misgivings about money growing on trees or magically replenishing itself with use.

The Wolf’s Money Narrative (as transcribed by the Lion)

Part of my family’s culture involves exchanging red envelopes full of money on special holidays or in recognition of significant life events. My earliest memories of money are receiving lots and lots of these envelopes, so much so that they filled up an old Swiss milk chocolate candy jug I used to contain them and overflowed the brim! I didn’t understand why I was getting this money or what it was for but I wasn’t going to complain. I mostly just saved the money because I received so much more than I had wants or needs despite growing up humbly.

I learned from my mother that money is not for spending. You work really hard, you earn a lot of money, save it all, don’t spend it, don’t enjoy life. Money is hard to come by. I learned from my father you work really hard, you don’t earn a lot of money, you don’t spend it, and you don’t enjoy life. And that’s not what he told me, that’s what I gathered from observing him. And you let your wife or the smarter person of the couple manage it for you.

Everyone in my family worked really hard, but none of them made enough to feel satisfied. They never explained how much they’d have to make to feel satisfied. And they didn’t seem to have time to enjoy their money anyway because they were always working too hard trying to get more of it!

Money was not a numerical, quantitative thing, it was just some abstract concept.

I spent all of my red envelope money on totally inconsequential things once I realized I had the ability to spend money as a teenager. I didn’t think about what I needed, I just thought “I have money, I guess I’ll spend it”. I wasn’t a conscious spender. My parents never taught me anything, so I just followed my impulses. I didn’t know what we were hoarding money for so I figured I’d just spend it. I wish someone had told me what money could be used for so I could’ve been more thoughtful about the way I decided to spend it back then!

Some things I admired about my family’s attitude toward money is that they saved it. It takes a lot of discipline to save money and not to take vacations or be tempted by material things. The only unethical thing about money I remember is that my uncle gambled a lot of money and this was embarrassing for the family. It was considered wasteful. It was taking risks but not on a sure thing. Tempting fate. Casinos are not seen as having honor and integrity, so it’s frowned upon to be seen there.

I had an accounting class in middle school, but I didn’t learn budgeting until I got married and the Lion taught me. He was also the one who taught me about retirement savings, IRAs and investing.

One big emotional issue about money growing up was that I learned my extended family helped pay for my college education so I wouldn’t have debt. It was very touching and as a result I feel obligated to return the favor by treating elder family members to meals and travel.

When I think about my own affluence, I think “What affluence?” It’s hard to view our position as actually mine, that it doesn’t really belong to me because my husband is the breadwinner and I am the homemaker. That being said,  I feel good about it, I feel lucky. I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a privilege to not have to worry about money and feel taken care of. That is not the way I remember growing up in terms of money.

Our New Money Narrative

We want to demystify money in our family and treat it with transparency. We also don’t want to fool ourselves or others about what money means to us, how we acquire it, how much we have and what we plan to do with it. Our plan is to talk about money early and often with our children and as much as possible find age appropriate ways to include them in family money management.

Just as we find activities for our Little Lion to contribute to the household well being, often tasks he himself comes up with after observing us, such as sorting laundry piles, sweeping the floors, assisting with meal prep and clean up, etc., we will look for ways he can be part of our money economy in the family.

At the present stage, when we buy something we let him hand over the means of payment and sign any receipts as necessary, so he understands that to get goods and services from others we have to pay for them. As our children grow, we will include them in dinner conversations about how work is going and where we stand on our budgeting. When it’s appropriate to provide them with an allowance, we’ll introduce them to the concept of budgeting and help them to develop ideas about how they can generate their own income beyond their allowance. We’ll also talk about savings and delayed gratification and the power of compound interest over time to help them conceptualize the tradeoff between some now or more later.

As a family that plans to homeschool, we’re particularly interested in the ways we can integrate math and financial literacy into real life activities. Grandma Wolf has a seasonal baked good distribution business and we look forward to sending the Little Lion to be a (paid) apprentice on her route from time-to-time, learning about marketing and customer service, costing and profit calculation and the value of a hard day’s work. We’ve also thought ahead about stock investing and portfolio management for an enterprising youngster with savings. We see no reason why our children can’t learn about investment selection and management in their adolescence and be in a position by their teenage years to fully research and manage their own portfolio of business interests. This is also appealing because it’s a way for our children to “follow their parents” into an activity and one where we can model the behaviors because we’re doing them ourselves.

We don’t want to give our children the impression there is anything shameful about having money, getting money or talking about money (or even wanting it!) We also don’t want to give our children the impression that simply having money or being able to get it makes a person valuable by itself. Life is complex and money is just one means and one end to be sought in a productive, interdependent life. That being said, we intend to have honest and frank discussions with our children about why some people have a lot more than others and why some people have a lot less– and the answer is not just “luck.” This may seem controversial or a way to invite social problems with children struggling to understand the nuances of life, but we see no way around acknowledging these fundamental realities. Some people are poor for a reason and some people are massively wealthy for a reason.

We are also giving great consideration to the concept of “philanthropy” versus “charity” in our family values surrounding money and wealth. We’re skeptics of “charity” generally and our children will not see us shipping checks to everyone who comes begging or has an emotional story to tell while we pat ourselves on the backs and feel good regardless of impact and outcomes. They also won’t get the impression that we feel guilty or a need to “give back”, or that giving away or gifting money is the only way to make contributions to their community or humanity. If “philanthropy” really does entail any act or service that makes the world a better place to live for everyone, then we will help our children to understand that being the best people they can be, putting their talents to their best use and living lives of principled striving for their conception of the good are all philanthropic endeavors that make the world better off, as also are donating to public and private causes they feel passionate about, serving in leadership roles in public and private life, giving their time and physical presence to various organizations and efforts and so on.

In summary, we want to raise our children with an awareness of money and wealth, a desire to make their own contribution to the family’s stores of value in their various forms, and with confidence that they can make their own contribution through their thinking and efforts. And with this stable foundation and sense of themselves, we want to see them go out boldly into the world around them, wherever that might be, and help others to build wealth and security of their own.

Review – Silver Spoon Kids

Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children

by Eileen Gallo, Jon Gallo, published 2002

Growing up, I’ve personally witnessed conflicted family dynamics surrounding money. My parents are “successful” as the term connotes in this book, and their goal for their children (myself and siblings) was to create plans and structure for sharing their success with them while trying to avoid the risk of ruining our motivation, realism and personal attitudes. To summarize it in a pithy way, it is the quest to find a way for family wealth to “Have an impact, without an impact.” Somehow, we were to all benefit from family wealth while living as if it didn’t exist.

I’d say it’s been hit or miss, so far. All of their kids turned out morally in such a way that the average friend, neighbor or community member would think to refer to them as “good people” (if I may be so bold as a member of the sect!) But struggles or lack thereof with personal identity, sense of purpose, motivation, etc. vary from person to person and area to area. And at present, a minority of the children are in any position to know what to do with their parents’ wealth in the event of their demise. We might just chalk this up to genes and the randomness of life, but Silver Spoon Kids offers some child development background and family socialization dynamics that provide evidence these outcomes are anything but purely random.

While the authors (a husband and wife duo in the fields of estate planning and family therapy, definitely toll collectors on the highway of family misery built by poor planning) offer a summary of 4 major family money practices they consider essential for parents to master to inculcate responsibility in the second generation, I’d summarize my biggest takeaway from the book in a single sentence as follows:

When it comes to transmitting family values to children, especially concerning money, there is no substitute for parents investing their own time and attention in the relationship and modeling the values themselves for their children.

Most of the cringeworthy examples of “what not to do with kids and money” cited in the book are a result of some kind of avoidance of this elementary wisdom. Either the parents think they can get away with not being there for their kids, or they think the kids won’t notice when they say one thing and do another. It seems that good parenting on the topic of money is identical to good parenting on any other topic. That stands to good reason because child development is not rooted in “things” but in human evolutionary social biology!

So that’s my one-sentence elevator pitch on what this book is about. But here is the 4 point summary of essential practices the authors share at the end of the book:

  1. Understand the theoretical underpinnings; learn about normal stages and behaviors in child development and let this awareness inform your approach to discussing money with your children
  2. Live your values; to live your values, you must first know them, so take time to articulate what is important to you about money and why and make sure it doesn’t remain a secret to your offspring
  3. Teach your child about money through word and deed; don’t be a hypocrite, don’t be silent and don’t expect your kids to just magically arrive at the same conclusions and habits about money (if you think they’re good!) that you have without actively engaging them in the topic in age-appropriate ways
  4. Raise a giver rather than a getter; help your children understand that money comes and goes and there are important aspects to where it goes beyond just where it comes from; emphasize the ways in which money can make all people better off and give your children opportunities to find meaning in being a resource for others

Is this book of interest even if you don’t expect to be wealthy? Yes, because you can still spoil your kids without affluence. Again, the reason is because child development and human social dynamics are a constant of human nature rooted in evolutionary biology, rather than dependent upon material “things” coloring each person’s individual circumstances. Here’s an instructive quote I underlined in the book that describes what’s going on:

Can your children develop a secure attachment if you are with them for only limited periods of time? Interestingly, this same problem is faced by many low-income families, especially those with a single parent.

Yes, interesting indeed. Most of the symptomatic ills of the lower-classes are connected to the notion of parents who are over-taxed versus their available resources (time, money, health, etc.) But affluent families can create the same symptoms in their children by behaving the same way struggling lower class families behave– spending more time at work than at home, expecting children to raise themselves, neglecting to share values (or healthy values) with their kids and so on.

One helpful exercise in the book for getting a grip on family culture surrounding wealth is the development of a “Money Narrative”. It involves creating a short story about one’s early and personal family experiences surrounding money after reflecting on questions such as:

  • What is your earliest money memory (ie, the first important purchase you made)?
  • What did you learn from your father/mother about money?
  • What are some of your family stories about money (ie, the time grandpa was really cheap, or your aunt made a ridiculous purchase)?
  • What kind of financial education did you receive growing up?
  • What were the big emotional issues around money in your family?

The Wolf and I have been discussing this and we’re going to share our Money Narratives in a separate, follow-up post.

An interesting theme from the book is the way in which money is not special or unique in offering parenting challenges, but is simply another vector for making poor parenting choices in general. For example, the authors talk about the importance for children in experiencing struggle in the process of mastery, both because it is inherent in learning experiences and necessary for an individual to learn that they can not achieve mastery without a period of struggle as an amateur, but also because children who do not struggle do not achieve mastery, they are simply rescued by the adults around them. You can rescue someone by doing their homework for them or you can rescue them by paying off their credit card bill. It isn’t money that is “spoiling”, it is the rescuing.

Another item the authors placed emphasis on was the need for including philanthropy in the family culture surrounding wealth and money. I am a skeptic on the mainstream practice of charity. I was pleased to see the authors discount “charity” specifically in favor of “philanthropy” as a broader term encompassing any activity aimed at making the world a better place for mankind to live in. I also appreciated that they disclaimed simply writing checks or disbursing financial resources to organizations and instead talked about the importance of physically serving, in person and with one’s time and skills, and of making this a family activity. The discussion overall was thought-provoking and has given myself and the Wolf some homework to do in thinking about how we want to more closely integrate philanthropy in the core of our family values.

There’s more of value in this book, even if it is, to me anyway, mostly just Good Parenting Common Sense at this point. I’ll organize my remaining notes in a separate follow-up post for easier perusal by those interested in going deep.

Review – Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown, published 2014

This past year I’ve been exploring topics related to the concept of mastery. It is so tempting for me to try to be interested in everything I come across and consequently it’s a real challenge to be selective and commit to being a master of only a few things. Essentialism was recommended to me by a friend and it’s a great concept inside of an okay book.

The key to essentialism, which is a combination of the ideas of prioritization and mastery, is to be conscious of tradeoffs. One has to develop a habit of asking, “What will I NOT do in order to get this done?” Progress in one aspect of life can only be made at the expense of denying progress in all the others.

The author teaches at Stanford and implements the empathy-based design thinking approach in his essentialism advice. In this case, he offers several techniques for building empathy with yourself– to gain clarity about your purpose, to acknowledge physical limitations (primarily sleep) necessary to making sustained progress and to engage in free-spirited play to unlock creative thinking and avoid self-reproach. And like a design thinker, he advocates a kind of Minimum Viable Product approach to making progress on your priorities. Don’t set your sights on one big effort, or assume that you can define the endpoint of your efforts before you get there; start with a rough idea of where you think you want to go and think of the next tangible iterative step you could make to progress. In so doing you’ll develop confidence and motivation to keep moving forward.

One thing I enjoyed most about the book were the numerous pithy quotes at the masthead of each chapter and sprinkled throughout the text. I might copy a few of them into the blog after I finish writing this. On the other hand, the book is also another disappointing amalgamation of pop business and productivity stories, name-dropping and “stuff my friends did that I thought was worth including in my book” that deny this book a chance to enter the pantheon of classics, aside from the fact that it really offers nothing new on this subject other than the marketing of the idea.

The four-part structure of the book, Essence, Explore, Eliminate, Execute, has the clear “focus-flare” cadence of the Design Thinking toolbox’s Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Essence sounds like Empathize, Explore sounds like Define, Ideate sounds like Eliminate and Prototype/Test sound like Execute to me.

In thinking about the message of focusing on what’s really important, I made a note in the margin on one page which said, “if it feels like I can do anything I want with my life, it’s ironic because I will in fact only do one of those things.” If that’s true, and I think it is, it would be better to figure out what that one thing is sooner rather than later lest I risk wasting a lot of my time on what turns out to be non-essential.

Notes – What Is Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) Theory?

Several months ago, a friend of mine introduced me to “Jobs To Be Done Theory” (JTBD) via the free work of an entrepreneur named Alan Klement called When Coffee and Kale Compete. The JTBD framework is part of a growing base of entrepreneurial knowledge in the innovation space with key similarities to things like disruptive innovation (The Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen) and Design Thinking practice. These approaches to entrepreneurship focus on empathy as a methodology for understanding the psychological motivations and needs of a potential customer rather than on their demographic characteristics or profile data. Solutions are designed to help the customer make progress rather than being built around features or functions; in this way business people might be surprised to find out that “coffee” and “kale” can be competitors in helping a person make progress on “get my morning started right”, whereas in the traditional product design space an entrepreneur might be more focused on “how to build a better cup of coffee for 18-35 year old women.”

As Klement says in the introduction,

I want to help my customers evolve themselves. I shouldn’t study what customers want in a product. I need to study why customers want.

He describes a JTBD as consisting of three elements:

  1. job is your struggle to make a change for the better
  2. The to be part denotes that overcoming that struggle is an evolutionary process; it happens over time
  3. The change is done when you overcome that struggle and have changed for the better; there are things you can do now, that you couldn’t do before

These jobs originate inside people, not inside things. They have to do with motivations or states of mind, that is, they are psychic not material in nature. And there are many potential strategies for helping a person to accomplish that transition from one state to another, which is why it is possible to envision disruptive solutions that redefine the categories by which product or service competition occur.

Klement helpfully summarizes some principles of JTBD theory:

  • Customers don’t want your product or what it does; they want help making their lives better
  • People have Jobs; things don’t
  • Competition is defined in the minds of customers, and they use progress as their criteria
  • When customers start using a solution for a JTBD, they stop using something else
  • Innovation opportunities exist when customers exhibit compensatory behaviors
  • Solutions come and go, while Jobs stay largely the same
  • Favor progress over outcomes or goals
  • Progress defines value; contrast reveals value
  • Solutions for Jobs deliver value beyond the moment of use
  • Producers, consumers, solutions and Jobs, should be thought of as parts of a system that work together to evolve markets

He works through a number of case studies to illustrate these principles. The methodology in each case study focuses on interviewing customers to get verbatims about how they reason about what problem they’re trying to solve and what solutions they’ve tried in the past and present. The emphasis is on revealed preference, determined by actions, rather than stated preference, determined by marketing surveys or hypothetical scenarios. By unpacking these statements rather than making assumptions, the entrepreneur can work to understand the mindset of the customer and how he sees himself struggling to make progress in a particular part of his life.

Klement later discusses two well-known case studies in the disruptive innovation literature, Kodak and Apple (iPhone vs. iPod), and reinterprets the story through the JTBD framework. With this, we see that Kodak’s business was annihilated not because they were complacent and didn’t see how technology would make their product irrelevant, but because their focus was on optimizing a particular solution (traditional film) for a particular JTBD rather than focusing on that JTBD itself and trying to ask what is the best way to help customers make progress on that in light of changing technology. In contrast, Apple took a very profitable product, the iPod, and thought about what kind of job it was fulfilling and what was a better way to do that job, the iPhone, rather than thinking about how to build a better iPod. This is because “no solution for a JTBD is permanent.”

One thing I found challenging in trying to digest this new framework was identifying the JTBD itself. Klement offers a few guidelines for deciding if you do NOT have a JTBD defined properly:

  • Does it describe an action?
  • Can you visualize somebody doing this?
  • Does it describe “how” or “what” and not why?

If the answer is yes, it is likely not a JTBD because JTBDs are emotional and represent psychic states. They are ways people experience their own existence and how they progress from one state of existence to another, they are not the thing that makes the progress themselves. Sometimes these JTBDs are exceedingly obvious. But a lot of the time, they’re subtle and can only be defined with confidence after a long, empathy-driven process of interviewing and conversing with customers to better understand what they think they’re trying to do. This is hard work! The JTBD framework is certainly not a quick or easy fix to the dilemma of how someone with an entrepreneurial bent can design great new products and services that meet peoples needs.

The book is chock full of case studies and deeper explanations of the basic components summarized above. I highlighted and underlined various meaningful passages that I won’t bother typing into these notes because they’d be too out of context to add clear meaning to a reader; besides, I read this book earlier this year and didn’t get to write up my notes until now, so I can’t even remember with some of them why I found them impactful at the time.

Alan Klement offers free consultation services and aspires to help people on a paid basis as well. I have spoken to him a number of times as I have read his book and attended the Design Thinking Bootcamp to share thoughts and ideas about the JTBD framework, especially as it applies to personal design challenges I am exploring in my own business. He informed me that he is working on a revised and re-organized 2nd edition which he plans to release soon. I will likely revisit the book then and consider publishing further notes and thoughts about the JTBD framework as I become more familiar with it and even work to use it in my own design challenges in the future.

A Tale Of Three Video Game Players

This past week I attended an event peopled mostly by engineers. Many of the engineers were trained as mechanical engineers but now work in companies on the forefront of engineering science– data and software-driven companies.

A topic that came up with several participants was the woeful state of education systems in the US, but not for the standard lament of their failure to properly teach the “STEMs”, but because of how efficient they are at killing creativity and the spirit to tinker, two things every engineer considers to be key to their mindset and personality.

Related to this lament were concerns about young people and screen time. There is a belief, backed by a lot of scientific study, that screen-based activities such as TV, video games and social media, breed passive minds because of their overstimulative effects. These engineers were concerned that many children will miss an opportunity to become creative and mechanically-oriented because their formative childhood years are increasingly dominated by interaction with media that treats them like a malleable consumer rather than a tool-wielding, problem-solving creator.

I share this overall concern, partly based in logic, partly based in my browsing of the scientific literature and partly based off my own personal experience. It has informed how we’ve approached the use of screens in front of our Little Lion– short story, we try hard not to use them at all in his presence, and frequently discuss how our habits and routines will need to change as it gets more and more difficult to use them only in his absence.

However, talking about this with the engineers got me thinking about three people I knew when I was younger who were video game players who all ended up with different life outcomes.

The first person I remember as a video game player growing up spent a lot of time playing games. Most of the times I visited him at his house we’d end up in front of the TV, usually with me watching him play something I didn’t have or that he was better at than me (an archaic form of the “Let’s Play” phenomenon). This went on for multiple video game generations, from the Nintendo SNES to the Nintendo 64. Over the course of our friendship we spent hours accumulating in days in front of the TV, playing games.

We also played outside a lot– handball against his garage door, riding bikes around the neighborhood, meeting up with other kids and hanging out. This friend was in Boy Scouts and was frequently found on camping trips on the weekends. He eventually made Eagle Scout. And he played team sports as a child, mostly soccer, until high school when he became an accomplished water polo player.

The second person I remember did not play many console games when we were younger. He was the first person who introduced me to PC gaming. I distinctly remember the weekend his family purchased an extremely economical “eMachines” brand PC with a Celeron-processor (read: slow) and a copy of the already almost decade-old Civilization II game. We stayed up until 2am, mindlessly punching keys trying to figure out how the game worked, for whatever reason we never thought to try reading the manual even though we were good enough readers to have done that. When we finally figured it out we were so excited we stayed up another 3 hours feverishly playing the game until we were so exhausted we passed out on the floor in the study where the PC was situated.

This person also introduced me to the card game “Magic”, and later in the era of the Xbox and complicated networking technology he was known for hosting Halo LAN-parties where he’d talk several other people into bringing their Xboxes and TV screens to his house where up to 4 supporting 4 players each could be networked together for a raucous neighborhood get together.

We, too, spent a lot of time riding our bikes around town together, he was also a Boy Scout and eventually an Eagle Scout, competed in soccer and other sports while younger and water polo in high school. Throughout his childhood he was extremely mechanical, building and racing offroad RC cars and RC gliders, camping and helping his parents rebuild and maintain an International Harvester Scout truck.

The final person I remember as a gamer growing up probably spent the least time overall playing games of the three, but it was definitely part of his life. I remember the time he brought his SNES over to my house and how jealous I felt seeing all the cool games he had that I did not. We also spent a lot of time riding around the neighborhood on our bikes, but a bit more aimlessly than the other two. With him we’d ride around until we found some mischief to get into, while for the first two bikes were a means of conveyance to other destinations and activities we were into.

He played soccer and basketball as a youngster, and in high school he did some cross country and track before giving up on team sports and, to some extent, giving up on his studies as well.

What happened to these three individuals who all played video games growing up?

The first one graduated high school with an excellent GPA after excelling in our school’s “magnet” math and science program. He was accepted at Stanford where I believe he studied engineering and may have continued playing water polo. He was hired by Accenture, the consulting firm, and I think has had a lucrative and enjoyable career.

The second one also graduated high school with an excellent GPA and also excelled in the school’s math and science program. He was accepted at MIT and studied mechanical engineering. I believe he went into a specialized mechanical field and has also had a productive and enjoyable career so far. Both of these guys are married and have families of their own now.

The third guy was a slightly sadder story. He seemed to burn out before high school ended. I don’t think he ever made it to college and last I had heard, he could be found around the beach on his skateboard with a very long beard and the nickname of “Jesus” because of his appearance. He may have even spent some time in jail for some pretty minor stuff I’d call “mischief” or “bad luck” rather than some kind of anti-social or menace to society kind of antics.

What I find interesting about all of this is that I never would’ve thought of the impact of video game exposure as children to their life outcomes until I had spoken to some of these engineers. Truly, what seemed to be more consistent in terms of impacting the drive and personality of each of these guys was their family lives. The first two guys grew up with siblings, their parents stayed married and they had what I’d call strong family cultures and values, even though they were slightly different from my own.

The third guy was a latchkey kid whose parents stayed together but it seemed like an awkward pairing and he’d regularly ridicule them behind their backs. It’s not clear what values their family had or that they even got through to their son about them.

Early video game exposure didn’t seem to stop the first two guys from having other interests and being mechanical and outdoorsy (Eagle Scouts) nor athletic (water polo, a terribly demanding sport). They seemed to be creative and had strong engineering minds (math and science outperformance) despite the stimulating effects of video games.

I don’t think I’d blame video games for “Jesus’s” life going down the tubes, either. As I mentioned, he played games but probably spent the least time with them. He was a decently intelligent individual and certainly didn’t struggle with math and science as subjects, he just didn’t seem to care much about them, school in general, or even apparently his life.

What I take away from all of this is that video games and screen time may not be “good” for a child’s development and may be distracting or counterproductive in terms of generating a passive vs. active mind and a consumptive vs. productive approach to stimulation. But looking at these anecdotes, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that video games or screen time necessarily would prevent a person from achievement in these areas.

More likely, natural ability mixed with a supportive family environment and complementary family values and lifestyle choices seem much stronger influences over future engineering talent and ability than how much time a child spends with screen-based gadgets.

What Is Design Thinking?

This post is a follow-up to some earlier posts about my recent participation at Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp program. I want to reflect on what I think I know about the “design thinking” approach. I am not an expert or a scholar and I haven’t even read any books on the subject! This is my attempt to process my experiences, not to be authoritative.

As I now think about design thinking, I believe it is really three things:

  1. a specific process for generating new product and service ideas centered around “user experience” (ie, emotion)
  2. a general approach to being creative and innovative, particularly when working in a team
  3. a mindset, attitude or philosophy of psychology which addresses known cognitive biases which prevent people from accessing their natural creativity

I want to tackle these in reverse order.

The Design Thinking mindset

Everyone is and can be creative.

When I say design thinking is a mindset, I think about how much of what I’ve learned centers on the idea of putting oneself into a creative frame of mind. We seem to have both a creative mind, which is open, limitless, imaginative, fun and even a bit wacky, and a critical mind, which is narrow, realistic, fear-based, serious and deeply rooted in the known and knowable.

Design thinkers talk about the “Yes, and…” attitude, taking ideas offered by others and building upon them, rather than trying to shoot them down or explain why they’re wrong or off target. They separate the act of generating ideas from the act of evaluating ideas. They emphasize how we need to understand failure as an opportunity to learn, and to let go of control or thinking you can predict outcomes.

This is really a different way of experiencing life psychologically from what most people know. It’s not just about being positive, though the professional design thinkers I encountered were more positive on average than most people I know. It is an entirely different way to process one’s experiences and infer meaning from them.

Most of the time, most people are trying to avoid making what they perceive to be mistakes, and are looking for the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish a specific goal. But design thinking sets that aside. Mistakes are a part of learning and are to be embraced. It’s not that one purposefully makes mistakes, it’s that what a mistake is is not certain until it’s made and when it’s made, it is accepted as valuable data that shows us what doesn’t work.

And it’s not that design thinking looks for the longest, most expensive way to accomplish a specific goal, it’s an attitude that the destination is not obvious at the outset and so some serendipity is required to make the journey. When I was working on a design thinking project with a co-worker upon my return from the program, they were baffled by my line of questioning in some of the user interviews we conducted– we know what problem we’re trying to solve and how we intend to solve it, so why aren’t we asking people about that? I was taking the conversation anywhere but there, because as I understood it, the problem and what we think is the solution is just a place to start, but the true mindset we want to create is one of open consideration that we’re actually trying to arrive some place very different than the land we think we know.

A general approach to creativity

The mindset mentioned above is indeed a major component to the general creative approach design thinking represents. Without putting yourself into the right mental state, you have little hope of generating the breakthrough creative leaps the design thinking approach is known for.

A related concept is paying attention to space and materials when engaged in creative work. If you want to do different work and think different thoughts, you must physically work differently. Don’t sit at your keyboard, stand up in front of a white board. Don’t keep the ideas you’re ruminating about in your head, write them on colorful sticky notes and splatter them all over the walls so you and your compatriots can fully consider them. And don’t, by any means, think you can find all the answers in your office or traditional workspace– you absolutely must go into the field and talk to real people to find out what they think, rather than assume and guess at the thoughts, experiences and emotions of demographic strawmen.

I might have put this into the mindset area but another important principle is the “bias toward action.” This means not overthinking things and instead trying things. Come up with an idea, and then play with it, try it out on people you come across, see how they react. It rejects the idea that something must be perfectly engineered before it can be shown to other people. Seek “good enough” to get the major point across and go from there.

Design thinking certainly seems to offer tools and value for the individual designer, yet I think it emphasizes teamwork. There is an embedded belief that the individual is never as creative by himself as he is being creative in front of other people trying to do the same thing. Using that “Yes, and…” attitude, a group of people working creatively can work themselves into a motivational frenzy and the energy and random nature of exchange and +1 can take them to territory they don’t otherwise have a map to reach. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t contiguous.

One reason design thinking advocates doing and trying is that it’s a cheaper way to fail, and failure is seen as inevitable. Because humans are not omniscient and are extremely unlikely to come up with the perfect answer the first time, it is easy to predict that it will require multiple attempts at creativity and implementation to get to the final form that works as a solution (if even the problem itself isn’t transformed and reinterpreted along the way).

As a result, there is an emphasis on failing quick and often and not building a lot of cost into failure. Design thinking says that crude mockups and models of intended products or feature sets and the use of play-acting or imaginative role play is enough to try an idea out, get feedback and change. When you’re new to it, it seems a bit ridiculous, a bunch of grown adults essentially playing dress up and putting on a show for one another. Even more ridiculous is trying to get perfect strangers on the street to play along.

But this frugal approach allows you to try a lot of ideas quickly and cheaply. And if you get interesting or unusual reactions, you are gathering the exact data you would’ve wanted to get from focus groups, market surveys, etc.

An interesting aspect of all of this play is that it is highly experiential and is used as a tool to connect with people’s past experiences. That is what design thinkers are after– what is a real experience someone had in the past, and how did it make them feel, and how can they make them feel that same way with a new experience they’re trying to design into a product or service?

A specific process for generating user experiences

So that is some of the philosophical ideas behind design thinking. What we learned was also a specific process with 5 main steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The first step involves conducting live empathy interviews with “users” a euphemism for a person who might ultimately be the user of a product or service offering you are thinking about creating. Using a “probe”, which in our case was a set of flash cards with a variety of emotions and a prompt such as “Think of a time when you last X, sort these cards in the order of how strongly you felt each emotion”, the design thinker has an excuse to begin talking to strangers.

It’s easy to fool oneself into believing that the conversation is about the probe/prompt, or about the design problem itself, but it’s not. The goal of the conversation is to get people talking about themselves, sharing experiences and specific memories along with the emotional states they triggered. When those experiences are found or those emotional states are identified, certain transitions can be used to keep digging deeper, such as “You said you were feeling Y, can you tell me about another time you really felt Y?” or “You mentioned Z, can you tell me about a specific time you did Z?”

When doing empathy work, the DTBC recommended the following:

  • Engage with the probe
  • Notice surprising decisions, awkward pauses, facial expressions
  • Follow up and ask “Why?” about the things you notice
  • Seek stories and ask about another time they felt or behaved this way

By capturing strongly felt emotions and the real experiences that generated them, the design thinker is able to move to the second step in the process, which is to Define the user. This is different than what is commonly done in standard market research by studying demographic data, because demographic data is broad, general and based on averages, whereas the design thinking “user” is specific, real and quite limited in their profile. An example of a user definition might be something like this:

“We met Paul, a graphic designer living in the city who fantasizes about running his own dairy farm whenever he eats cheese, his favorite snack”

Paul here is not a demographic profile. He’s a real, quirky dude (that I made up) with a strange contradiction between where he lives and what he fantasizes about, for example. Defining the user typically follows a process called Point of View, which looks like this:

  1. We met… (user you were inspired by)
  2. We were surprised to notice… (tension, contradiction or surprise from their interview)
  3. We wonder if this means… (what did you infer?)
  4. It would be game changing to… (frame up an inspired challenge to solve without dictating what the solution is or might be)

Whether you had a specific design problem when you started, the Define step and the Point of View process can either help bring more clarity to what your problem might really look like, or it might uncover an entirely new problem you had never actually thought of solving before.

The next step is to Ideate. Ideation is the brainstorming part of the design thinking process and most calls for teamwork. You start with a simple prompt, such as “How could we X for Y so they can Z?” You then start coming up with ideas and “Yes! And…” each one as they’re created to add to it or add another idea it inspired. The goal at this stage is not to critique or rationalize ideas but to simply create as many as possible. You’re not after “one idea” you could implement, or the one that is the final solution. You don’t know what that would be, and coming up with only one simply means you have a high chance of discovering later on you’re wrong and picked the wrong horse to bet on.

One technique for coming up with greater volume of new ideas is to use constraints. The constraints could be real but are usually arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, such as “Each idea must cost $1M to implement” or “Each idea must involve technology to implement”. By focusing your creativity tightly around a special constraint you can actually be more creative within that specific domain because your mind is forced to think about the problem from a new angle.

A similar technique is to think about the emotions involved for your user and think of people or organizations or places that those emotions are strongly tied to, then to ask yourself “What would that person/organization/place create for this user?”

When you come up with a large quantity of ideas, you can then move to the next step which is to prototype one of them. As discussed earlier, prototyping is crude. First, the DTBC recommended a role play. Take your idea and set a scene, define the roles involved in playing out the scene to demo the solution selected and improvise within the role play as you try it out multiple times.

Once you’ve role played, you can actually create a crude prototype and other props to do the role play with users. You want to test one key function at a time, so your prototype includes the following information:

  • Product/service name
  • Target user (the one you defined earlier)
  • Intended impact (what does it change for the user?)
  • One key function (this is what you’ll demo/test in the field with your role play)

Materials like cardboard boxes, construction paper, glue, saran wrap, markers, pipe cleaners, PVC tubes, etc. are all sufficient quality for the purposes mentioned. What’s more, they’re cheap and just about any physically able person can design with them.

You’re now ready to take it to the field and Test. But here’s the trick! The Test is really the first step, Empathize. And the prototype is really your probe. It’s all an elaborate ploy to get people talking to you some more, but this time with a slightly more concrete circumstance and with the goal of eliciting that precious experiential and emotional feedback in connection to a real product/service you’re thinking about creating.

Over these 5 steps, which can cycle with as many iterations as necessary to find a worthwhile problem to design for and an exciting solution to create (as defined by user feedback), the innovator is going through what the DTBC refers to as “flare and focus”. In the first step, you flare out your ideas and thinking in new and unusual directions, remaining open to new possibilities and experiences you had never thought of or encountered before. When you begin defining your user, you are focusing on something specific about them you’ve noticed, something concrete that can inspire your design. When you ideate for that user’s dilemma, you’re flaring again, trying to get wildly creative with the belief that no idea is a bad idea. Then you select an actual idea you’re excited about and focus again by developing a specific prototype to demonstrate it to the user. And when you test, you flare out and open up to new reactions and possibilities and begin the cycle anew.

Throughout this flaring and focusing you want to keep your eye on your alignment assessment– how close is your “frame”, the way you’re thinking about a problem that needs solving, to your “concept”, the specific solution you have in mind for solving the problem? Your frame and your concept might both change or only one change as you iterate. You might find your frame is sound but your concept is off the mark, or that you actually have a really interesting product or service but you haven’t quite found the right user who would benefit from it.

Some hallmarks of frame and concept alignment in the form of user feedback are:

  • “Thanks! Is that all you need from me?” indicating the problem or solution do not seem relevant or inspiring to the user
  • “You know what you guys could do that’s a REALLY good idea?” indicating that the user is experiencing relevancy but doesn’t think what’s being offered would work the right way
  • “So is this available for purchase? What does it cost?” indicating that the team has a frame and concept which are closely aligned and verging upon being ready for market

Conclusion

I think there is something to Design Thinking and I am interested to learn more. I am trying to internalize some of the attitudinal or mindset ideas which I think can be helpful in many domains beyond that of creating new product or service ideas specifically. I like a lot of the general processes, tools and techniques for generating creative ideas and tackling solutions to problems from unique angles. I especially like the idea of questioning whether you have the right problem (frame) in the first place!

One application I am considering is using design thinking principles within my family. How might common family problems be resolved differently with design thinking principles employed? What kind of family life or activity could be designed with design thinking?

The concept of designing for a specific user is also challenging for me to consider. As is focusing on real, past experiences rather than future hypotheticals– design thinkers throw out as unusable any speculation about how a person WOULD behave or WOULD feel in a given anticipated situation because it isn’t certain, whereas how they did feel in a specific experience from the past is known.

I plan to read a bit more on the subject and try to rethink some of the organizational problems we face in our business from the mindset of design thinking. Despite my initial failure to complete my Post Program work, I want to use Design Thinking to find a breakthrough, game changing solution rather than find some kind of incremental progress. If our future and existence as an organization truly hangs in the balance, incrementalism can only delay the inevitable, whereas a paradigm shift could offer not only a survival strategy but a way to actually thrive.