Cheers to the best communicators of 2018

It is immensely human to want to be understood, and a great skill to be able to make oneself understood by wide-ranging audiences. This end-of year post is a hats-off edition for those who take complex, multifaceted topics that otherwise appear unknowable and clearly describe the inner workings of our world in layman’s terms. Four communicators in four fields have been especially influential and necessary.

Four fields have outsized impact on our working present and future: finance, management, science and technology. With the 10 year anniversary of the financial crisis just past, the importance of financial liquidity as the lifeblood of our economy is palpably understood by our businesses. And if strong financial conditions offer a tailwind, good management readies a business to benefit in the near-term. At the same time, science and technology are changing the nature of work day by day. Previously manual jobs like automotive assembly now require a technical literacy that demands that each person arm themselves with the latest technical knowledge. Thus, a knowledge of finance, management, science and technology makes for one capable business leader.

Four experts in these four fields have continually contributed to the public’s ability to grasp big and small ideas with clarity. And the winners are…

Best financial communicator: Felix Salmon of Axios

Felix Salmon’s daily articles on Axios and weekly podcast, Slate Money, complement each other with punchy clarity and practical insights that are both local and global. He speaks directly to the lightly-financially literate American and to the globe, as he covers trends in other large economies as well as struggling economies. He reads what would be tea leaves to most and makes financial indicators approachable. His frequent podcast refrain is to interrupt jargon-laden explanations from co-hosts and say “explain that in English.” Britain-born, he proves we don’t always need to be divided by a common language.

Best management communicator: Adam Grant, author

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who has written three books on how to drive personal and professional success. Beyond his famed insights from Give and Take, which show that generosity towards others can drive your own success, he’s gone on to create a podcast called WorkLIfe, in which he interviews entrepreneurs, employees, and companies to unearth practical advice to improve our work lives. He is a prolific tweeter and poster on LinkedIn, where he offers bite-sized daily advice for the business leaders of today.

Best science communicator: Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for the better part of 2018, a testament to his famed ability to generate both wonder and create scientific understanding among his audiences. He has a foundational interest in encouraging curiosity and methodical discovery, which makes the everyman feel he or she can, with careful pursuit, know the unknown.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

By Neil de Grasse Tyson

Best technology communicator: Wired, technology magazine

All of Wired Magazine deserves recognition for making complex topics with broad social implications, from the blockchain to ag-tech, easily digestible (no pun intended), with the implications unpacked. Wired humanizes and empathetically portrays the thinking and motivations of the entrepreneurs seeding some of the mega tech trends that are rippling through society.

In summary…

Thank you for an insightful 2018 to the brilliant communicators who have synthesized the most important mechanics and trends in the four fields that are the pillars of modern business. Cheers to you!

The Index Card Summary of “Wait: the Art and Science of Delay”

There is a famous military mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, thoughtfully unpacks the benefits of taking one’s time and the contexts in which it is most important.

The Index Card Summary

Partnoy’s key takeaways boil down to three points:

  1. We should wait as long as possible to act, to ensure we have the maximum possible information.

  2. To be able to wait as long as possible, you need to be able to execute quickly.

  3. Doing things quickly comes with a cost to quality, which you can mitigate by becoming and expert.

Partnoy provides the reasoning, methods, and frameworks for taking on the challenging task of slowing down to achieve better results.

1. Why wait?

Because it is optimal. Partnoy posits that humans are hardwired to react quickly, as part of our inbuilt fight or flight instincts. Modern society taps into this wiring, tempting us to react instantly to its many demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both our biology and our technology. Waiting as long as possible ensures that you have the maximum possible information available to inform your next decision.

2. Making time to wait means executing quickly

In the ideal world, you would spend much less time executing and re-executing. You would optimize outcomes by minimizing execution time. OODA is an effective framework for developing a strategy without reacting too hastily.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) framework requires the decision-maker to observe the changing environment and process the disorder occurring before deciding how to act. One can act fast without necessarily acting first. Act too quickly, and you may provoke a problem that would have otherwise gone away. Further, if you spend too much time acting (e.g. building a presentation), you have less time to observe (e.g. calibrate the actual project needs and goals).

3. To keep quality high during fast execution, become an expert

Novices and experts are two extremes on the experience spectrum. Whereas experts can act quickly based on the muscle memory of prior experience, novices may be better off not acting at all. For example, time pressure does not impact grandmaster chess players in the way it impacts novice chess players. Under time constraints, grandmasters make few mistakes whereas novices make many.

However, there are times when even experts should wait. Importantly, novel circumstance can still arise in one’s sphere of expertise. Medical professionals face this challenge often.

The considered take

Partnoy is one of the few voices in the modern world telling us to wait. We’re in an era of high-speed internet, one-click orders, two-day shipping, high-frequency trading….the list goes on. Partnoy counters our culture by making the case that waiting is optimal.

I appreciate that Partnoy makes the important distinction that artful delay and procrastination are not the same thing. This means that you need to define what “waiting as long as possible” means in your own context. In many businesses, on time is late and early is ontime. So, for example, waiting until the final hour to submit an application online, and then hitting a computer glitch, could leave you out of luck.

Partnoy also underscores that rushing when you are not an expert will not produce good results — making it all the more important to accurately assess where you are at in a skill set and allocate execution time accordingly. So how does one become an expert? A few ideas:

  1. Spend a lot of time thinking through how to do something in a deliberate manner, so that when the time arrives, you can execute quickly.

  2. Use checklists, which can force you to pause, be more systematic, and reduce errors. 

  3. Pursue deliberate practice so that you are trained in the skill you care about.

As Partnoy summed it up, the essence of modern intelligence may be knowing when to think and act quickly and when to think and act slowly.

Christmas Tree Arbitrage Redux

Does the fact that you are on the corner mean that you can corner the market?

Previously, on Christmas Tree Arbitrage …

Since our 2016 article on Christmas tree arbitrage opportunities in local markets, we added the backstory of supply & demand based on planting and harvest cycles affected by prior recessions. This year, we peal back two more layers of the onion: the entry of e-commerce into the market, and the temporal aspect of pricing.

Decades ago Christmas tree shopping in New York was simply a story of street corner competitors. Then came the chain stores, like Whole Foods and Home Depot. And now, enter stage left the biggest player of them all: Amazon. Yes, this season e-commerce is in the Christmas tree market.

Amazon is testing a new thesis on tree shopping: delivery to your door trumps walking to the corner. Aesthetic items used to be squarely in the “try before you buy” category, which only brick and mortar can provide. But our consumer behaviors continue to evolve with the proliferation of e-commerce options, and Amazon thinks the time is now to give e-trees a try.

As Christmas tree prices have remained somewhat elevated following last year’s shortage, Amazon’s pricing of $109 + free delivery is actually a steal! Whole Foods is playing an even more competitive pricing game (likely riding the Amazon wholesale cost advantage), with pricing starting at $35 for a 6-foot tree on Black Friday Weekend. Compare this to the guy on the corner selling $120 trees, and it may be worth the extra avenue of carrying making your husband carry your freshly cut pine – and it’s an excuse to walk off the turkey!

But perhaps you want to optimize for distance walked more than price, and are interested in supporting tree farmers directly. In that case, you can also save some money by buying your tree from your corner vendor in mid-to-late December, rather than early December, when tree demand is highest.

Personally, even at ~20% off, I’m not convinced that buying a Christmas tree blind is a better experience than bundling one up that I’ve examined, checked the moisture levels of, and chatted with a farmer about. I want to know the sustainability policy of his or her farm, and that my tree is locally sourced, 100% organic, free range, cruelty free, and fair trade. I want to be reassured that it had a loving upbringing with a good family. And even if Amazon got all that right, if they are really serious about the e-tree game, I’d want a generous return policy, so that I can order three trees in different sizes, compare them, and return the extras.

Happy tree shopping!