Weekend Reads: Facebook, Tribalism, and the Search for Meaning
Here I go again. In search of meaning. This quest emerges every now and then, usually spurred by something I’ve heard or read. But not always. Sometimes it just materializes.
The first time it happened (at least as far as I can recall) was in early 2010 after I listened to “The Parent Trap” episode on the popular US radio show This American Life. The stories that day centered on parents setting accidental traps for their children. Act One, “Letter Day Saint,” tells the story of Rebecca, who was 16 when her mother, Elizabeth, died of cancer. Before she died, however, Elizabeth wrote a series of letters to her daughter to be opened, one at a time, on Rebecca’s birthday, for the next 13 years, and on her wedding day. Many contained advice on how to live. Rebecca recalls:
“For example, when I decided I didn’t have the confidence to go to medical school and I wasn’t going to do it, the letter that year basically said, ‘You need to find ethical expression in your work.’ [. . .] There was just no way I could have become a banker in the setting of these letters. Not that bankers don’t have ethical expression. But for most of college, I think I had this enormous sense of purpose that I had a responsibility to do something meaningful. Both to me and to other people.”
I had left The Financial Times the year before the episode aired, and the words “ethical expression in your work” stuck in my mind. I was fixated on finding meaningful work — and figuring out what “meaningful” meant to me.
Fast forward to last week: I was scrolling through my newsfeed when I clicked on an article that included a slide presentation. I snapped the screenshot below. (The material is adapted from “How to Build a Meaningful Career,” from the Harvard Business Review.)
— Lauren Foster (@laurenfosternyc) October 11, 2017
It was as if the thought bubble above my head had been projected onto a slide.
That got me going again — back down the rabbit hole of “meaningful work” and meaning in life.
It also got me thinking about a TEDx Talk I watched recently and the prosaic question we often feel obliged to ask when making idle conversation: “What do you do for a living?”
Does that really tell us anything important about the person? It’s about as useful as the question that always baffled me when I first arrived in the United States — especially since it was often one of the first things someone would ask — “What school did you go to?”
Lalin Anik, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, believes the better way to start a conversation is by asking, “What gets you up in the morning?”
When you ask, “What do you do for a living?” Anik says, most people respond with a short description of their jobs. This “puts them and the ensuing conversation in a box that can give participants a belief there’s nothing new to learn about other people.” But when you ask, “What gets you up in the morning?” the conversation can end up taking a wholly unexpected — and more meaningful — turn.
- Continuing in this vein, Celeste Headlee, a radio host and writer, would like to see us all become more considerate conversationalists. The first step is to become aware of “conversational narcissism,” or “the desire to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.” Headlee knows a thing or two about holding better conversations: Her 2015 TEDx Talk on 10 ways to have a better conversation has garnered over eight million views. (TED)
- Speaking of TEDx Talks, a friend recommended I watch “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford. So, I did. It’s all about applying design thinking to your life. I enjoyed his take on what he calls “dysfunctional beliefs” — dysfunctional belief No. 1: “What’s your passion?”; No. 2: “You should know by now”; and No.3: “Are you being the best possible version of you?” The talk also exposed me to the concept of a “gravity problem.” Burnett has co-authored a bestseller on this approach with Dave Evans. This is how Evans explained a “gravity problem” to Shankar Vedantam, host of Hidden Brain:
Dave Evans: I happen to be a cyclist, and I’m getting older, so I’m doing that thing of putting on a little extra weight. And it’s starting to bother me, so if I said, “Shankar, I’ve got this terrible problem. It’s gravity.”
Shankar Vedantam: It might sound ridiculous, but Dave says . . .
A lot of people are in fact dealing with a problem that’s just like gravity.
So let’s say your problem is that you desperately want to be a musician, but you can’t make any money doing that.
That’s not a problem. That’s a fact.
Dave says, “Once you accept that fact, you can find ways to design your life around it. You can figure out how to live on much less money while being a rising, starving musician.”
Or I could ask the question, since I’m never going to get to be a professional musician, “How can I craft a lifestyle that keeps my income going while making my avocation, the thing I do for love not money called music, as satisfying as possible?” That’s a life I could design.
This is the heart of design thinking. It isn’t about becoming your perfect self. It’s about looking very honestly at your circumstances and asking what room you have to maneuver.
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
- As a logophile, I relished “Delightful Definitions: 8 Words and Phrases We Should Use Again.” (Signature)
- Krista Tippett, creator and host of the public radio program and podcast On Being, is up there with Terry Gross and Charlie Rose as exemplars of the art of the interview. In a recent episode, Tippett sat down with Nobel laureate and author Daniel Kahneman to talk about “Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other.” (On Being)
- Haven’t you always wanted to know “Why Do Smart People Do Foolish Things?” (Scientific American)
- In a recent TED Radio Hour episode, Guy Raz explores ideas about manipulation. (National Public Radio)
- Quite possibly my favorite headline from recent weeks: “Love in the Time of Robots.” (Gabriel García Márquez’s acclaimed novel Love in the Time of Cholera was my first introduction to the genre of “magic realism.”) This piece of reportage focuses on Hiroshi Ishiguro, a builder of “beautiful, realistic, uncannily convincing human replicas” — or androids — that he uses to study the mechanics of person-to-person interaction, although “his true quest is to untangle the ineffable nature of connection itself.” (Wired)
- Far and away the most fascinating — and terrifying — article I have read in a while: “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.” (Guardian)
- In praise of a little less “balance” in our lives. (The New York Times)
- “One of the simplest — but admittedly hardest — things you can do is learn to not give a [darn].” So says Robert Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University and expert on “the art of avoiding [jerks].” (Vox)
- Ever wondered who invented “zero“? (The New York Times)
- In a tweet, Lionel Barber, editor of The Financial Times, calls “What Facebook Did to American Democracy: And Why It Was So Hard to See It Coming,” “a deeply-researched and important read.” I agree. It is also a disturbing read. To give you a flavor, Alexis C. Madrigal, who wrote the piece, quotes a Max Read article: Facebook is “[l]ike a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize [. . .] Not even President-Pope-Viceroy Zuckerberg himself seemed prepared for the role Facebook has played in global politics this past year.” (The Atlantic, New York)
- Another long read, this time on the crucial issue of tribalism, courtesy of Bob Seawright: “’I’m Joining a Cult!’ (Said Nobody, Ever)” (Above the Market)
- And finally, a short, vicarious vacation complete with raw landscapes and sleek architecture: “In Norway, the Journey Is the Destination” (The New York Times)
Enjoy your weekend.
If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe to the Enterprising Investor.
All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Ellica_S