The Book Stack – September 2013

September 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

My September books brought so many amazing learning experiences, not to mention the discussions they generated with family, friends, colleagues and even one of the authors.

Financing Our Foodshed by Carol Peppe Hewitt

Let’s start with the winner of the prestigious Most Dog-Eared Book of the Month Award. Thank you Carol Peppe Hewitt for writing Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money, a collection of 22 stories on North Carolina food entrepreneurs (farmers, bakers, restaurateurs and the like) to whom Slow Money NC has introduced local financiers eager to fund sustainable local eating ventures.

IMG_20130929_124805Mainstream investing has become overwhelmed by the opportunity cost heuristic, guided by the simplistic question, where can I make the most money as quickly as possible with the least risk? 

This is not entirely bad, and I’m not quick to cast moralistic aspersions on using capitalism in pursuit of profits. There’s a place for that, and there always will be. But it brings to mind the notion of hypertrophy, this glitch in evolution’s system by which nature allows (for example) a male ibix to grow horns so large, its neck cannot support the weight. Yet those large horns have become a proxy for virility, and the females are programmed to mate with him whose horns spread widest. And so this glitch propagates through the generations with the genes of big-horned ibix begetting even bigger-horned ibix until an entire species is handicapped with antlers with all appeal but no function. I can imagine the big cat mountain predator eager for this easy prey. Given enough generations of reproducing those big horns, the hypertrophy glitch will bring doom to that gene pool.

It’s not that big horns are bad, but there is such a thing as too big.

So it is with capitalism and opportunity cost. It’s not that it’s bad, but there can be too much.

In chasing the biggest-dollar, fastest-bang, lowest-risk return, we put all our resources into high-scale enterprise that promises crazy riches while we starve our local entrepreneurs of the capital they need to get off the ground or grow. Herein lies a hypertrophy risk in our investing system. We chase the promise of the next Facebook (that big-horned ibix) while ignoring the small-scale businesses that create happier, healthier, more sustainable local economies.

The weight of that imbalance threatens to topple us.

Carol and Slow Money NC are trying to address this imbalance at the place of its quickest impact: our local foodshed. She is matching people with small amounts of money to lend to local food entrepreneurs who need working capital to grow. This is a beautiful embodiment of my Enough Project concept. These investors are glad to exchange big-dollar, fast-bang, low-risk returns in order to put a modest slice of their own wealth to work helping the local businesses that feed us. Investors might put $5,000 into a project, charge a two percent interest rate, and wait a couple years to be paid out. But they get to help create a sustainable, local food economy in return.

Crazy, yeah?

I love it! Carol’s book shares so many stories of the good, bad and ugly in this approach. And I’m eager to help her bring it to Raleigh. I’ve asked her to identify a project here I can support as part of my Enough Project, and I’m hopeful to start investing (and, of course, writing about it) in the next few months.

Give and Take by Adam Grant

Next: Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant. My friend Stephen loaned this to me, and by the time I got through the first few chapters I knew I needed this for my own library. It took every ounce of restraint I had to stop myself from dog-earing his book, so I ordered my own copy and bent it up real good.

In a nutshell, Professor Grant reduces the world’s population into “givers” and “takers.” (Actually, there’s a third, “matchers,” but let’s keep this simple.) Givers give with little expectation of return. They give of their time and they give favors with some sense of karmic benefits in the long-run, but no requirement of a quid pro quo. The author argues that this class of people generate such goodwill over time that they are more likely to rise to the top of their professions and earn the respect of their peers and clients while winning more friends to boot.

Takers are the opposite. They only give with the expectation of getting something back, and they’re unlikely to give you the time of day until/unless they believe you have something of value to offer them. We might think that these sharks represent the high-achievers of most professions, Grant argues that takers burn their bridges and – over time – create so much ill will that few people want to work with them anymore.

Grant challenges this notion that man’s natural way is one of pure self-interest. He draws from a rich body of social psychology literature to demonstrate the ways we’re driven by belonging to a group, contributing to it, and serving purposes that reach much higher than our immediate self-interest.

While Adam Smith is best known as the guy who gave us the invisible hand of self-interest, Grant reminds us that the father of economics thought more broadly about those things that motivate us, quoting Smith with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, although he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

One cannot read this book without asking, which one am I? While we all want to identify with a story’s protagonist (of course we’re all good guys!), if I’m honest with myself I have no trouble identifying case after case after case in which I’ve been far more of a taker than a giver. My introspective self sees plenty of room for improvement.

But most interesting to me is that it gives a useful construct for considering people around us. Is that guy a giver or a taker? I don’t think it’s that hard to determine whether someone fits into one category over the other. The book makes me want to be more of a giver than I believe I have been, and it also makes me want to associate more with givers. I made a similar resolution about three years ago. I had spent too much time around jerks when it finally dawned on me that I didn’t have to hang around those people. Why bother investing any of your time with people who tear others down? I want none of it. Giver vs. Taker is a more useful construct, I think, and it’s one that I hope to convey to my daughters as they start figuring out the kind of people with whom they want to associate.

By encouraging more givers, Adams highlights in Chapter 8 (“The Scrooge Shift”) how giving begets more giving and givers create more models for other givers to follow. This is especially true when givers don’t provide sustenance to takers. In a game theory exercise, Adams illustrates how we can expand the number of givers out there through more giving while curtailing the amount of taking behavior by refusing to reward the jerks.

IMG_20130929_095040Enough by John Bogle

Next: Enough: True Measures of Money, Business & Life by John Bogle.

Lest we ever consider our ideas original, always remember to get input from others. Case in point: as I was discussing my Enough Project idea with a very smart lady in Durham last month, she was quick to highlight this book. Up to that point I was riding high on my horse, thinking this “Enough” framework was actually novel. And while it was original in my brain, many other people have reached similar conclusions based on similar source material.

This books presented a good chance to learn about John Bogle’s journey as the founder and long-time CEO of Vanguard funds. He cites the same Kurt Vonnegut poem that served as this eureka source of inspiration for me, but he takes it in a direction consistent with his own intense interest in reforming the mutual fund industry. From this comes many nuggets of insight. Among them:

We have moved to a world where far too many of us seemingly no longer make anything; we’re merely trading pieces of paper, swapping stocks and bonds back and forth with one another, and paying our financial croupiers a veritable fortune. In the process we have inevitably added even more costs by creating ever more complex financial derivatives in which huge and unfathomable risks have been built into the financial system…

The essential truth, then, that sums up each of these inarguable points: On balance, the financial system subtracts value from our society. [Emphasis mine.]

This is a matter of constructive capital versus passive capital. When we put capital to work in businesses that use it to buy material, hire people, expand an assembly line, conduct research, etc., our capital is being used for constructive purposes that help our economy. But most of our capital is used in passive ways. When we put our savings into the stock market, that money is passive…moving from the hands of one investor to another with lots of middlemen in between taking a piece of the action. The businesses themselves don’t see any of it; it’s not constructive capital. The money simply flows through the ether, moving accounts from one investor on bets whether a particular stock will go up or down. And there are trillions of dollars stuck in this purgatory.

Again, I don’t condemn the markets. They have a place, and I’ll be the first to argue that the place should be prominent. But my image of the big-horned ibix comes back to mind. How much of our money should be tied up in passive investments all over the world while there is such need for constructive capital that can do good close to home?

Moving on…

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I read Elie Wiesel’s Night in college. It was harrowing, and I remember sharing his sense of despair, wondering how anyone could keep faith after experiencing the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. And then we have Viktor Frankl, who also survived the camps and knew many of the same terrors. Yet his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaningfinds a conclusion that is the polar opposite of Wiesel’s. He came out of the camps with hope and belief.

Indeed, he plumbed the experience to develop the concept of logotherapy, a piece of which says that the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering is as much a reason for living as anything.

Here are a couple quotes which resonated loudly with me:

The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

 

…it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to “be happy.” But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy…

Being a Better Leader by Ari Weinzweig

Finally, there is Zingerman’s again. My fascination with this Ann Arbor enterprise knows few bounds as I finally completed Ari Weinzweig’s A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader.

Here’s what I’m taking away from this wonderful collection of essays: Energy can transform a business; it can separate the good business from the bad; it can be a competitive advantage. That all sounds so new-agey, and Ari confesses this much. But upon some contemplation, I just think he’s right. Just as capital, materials, buildings, and intelligence help make a company successful, so does positive energy.

As I’m researching companies in my community for the Enough Project, this theme rings true over and over again. Energy counts. Authenticity counts. This Generation Y – the Millenials – is bringing a potent and disruptive force to the business world. And I think every established company, no matter how large your scale or how big your advertising budget, is susceptible to the disruption. The Millenials are crazy smart, they are simultaneously idealistic and realistic (I’ll leave it to you to resolve the cognitive dissonance of that paradox), and they understand that consumers are people, not automatons that will be swayed by the cheapest price and the market message yelled loudest.

They know that people respond to authenticity and meaning and that the response is growing. They know that good energy counts. They know good design counts. They have an intuitive sense for building brands that resonate.

And while they’re looking to pay the bills and make a little extra, they aren’t looking to hoard profits like the business people that precede them. (Ah yes, that was a plug for my Enough Project concept.)

They’re building companies that do all of these things.

We’re entering the most exciting phase of business in my lifetime, and it’s being defined by the Millenials. This is a good thing. (This is a great thing!) And they have some excellent models to follow from trailblazing forefathers, not the least of whom are Ari Weinzweig and his partner Paul Saginaw.

Whew…that’s a lot of writing about my reading. Now, let’s look forward to October’s reading plan. I’ve set aside these five books:

October Reading List

Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow by Chip Conley. I picked this one up at Zappos HQ in Las Vegas a couple months ago and it’s been sitting in the stack. Tony Hsieh (Zappos CEO) keeps a small bookstore stocked with his personal recommendations. After a tour of their call center, I grabbed several and have started working through them. I’m deep into this one already and am fascinated. I haven’t spent much time thinking about Maslow since Psych 101 in college. The author, founder and CEO of boutique hotel firm Joie de Vivre in San Francisco, is making a compelling case that most businesses get stuck in the base of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, satisfying only the most elementary needs of employees, customers and shareholders. This is not enough, he argues. Peak companies aim higher. They tap into aspirational desires, too.

This is timely reading for me. We’ve been thinking a lot about the ways we interact with customers and prospects at my current company. Are we content highlighting the pain that we can solve for them, or should we aim higher? Should we try to connect to what excites them more than what scares them.

Building on September’s dog-eared winner, I’ve added two new books to the stack. First is Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered by Woody Tasch. Woody inspired Carol’s thinking for Slow Money NC, and I find myself compelled to dig into the source material for whatever topics excite me. We also have Elizabeth U’s Raising Dough: The Complete Guide to Financing a Socially Responsible Food Business. Elizabeth was kind enough to reach out to me a couple weeks ago to discuss a new venture she’s supporting. In that back and forth she shared that she has had the privilege of knowing the Zingerman’s team in her role as executive director of Finance for Food. I’m eager to dive into her book, a travel guide of funding options for food entrepreneurs.

And then we have our re-read category, those books whose pages I’ve already turned but whose wisdom I seek again. Here we have Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. I finished this only a few months ago, but there’s so much in there worth understanding that I feel it’s already time to revisit.

Finally, there’s Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose. I finished this two years ago with a library copy, but I wanted it for my personal library, too. I expected to pick it up from the Zappos bookstore after my call center tour in Vegas (I’ll write an essay about that experience some day), and was surprised to find that Tony intentionally kept his own book out of his own store. My tour guides thought it was a humility thing, but I was disappointed nonetheless. I mentioned to them seeing a few boxes of the book when we passed near Tony’s desk on the tour. In keeping with Zappos reputation for delighting customers, one of them ran back to the desk, grabbed a few copies, and gave them to me and my colleagues. These Zappos folks walk their talk!

I remember that the book provides a primer on the social science literature covering happiness and purpose (thus the title), so I think there will be compounding learning benefits of reading it back-to-back with Seligman’s Authentic Happiness.

It’s an ambitious October reading schedule, but I’m hopeful I can balance it with family, work, and writing demands. I’ll share my thoughts on each around Halloween time.

Paul Dryden

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