As I adjust to blogging, I find that I’m struggling with time management. Presently, the many other activities of my life present me with a hefty list of competing demands, and I’ve concluded that while I’d prefer to present a steady stream of exploratory essays that it’s simply not feasible for me at this time. So, while I still intend to send the essays out, it will have to be at a slower pace.
But while I’m not at all pressured to ‘feed the beast’, I do appreciate it when the other blogs I enjoy produce their output more frequently. Furthermore, there are times when the embryo of an idea pops into my head and I jot down a little note to remind myself to write more about it later. But later never comes, or when it does I’ve lost either the thread of the thought or the motivation to explore it in depth. Sometimes the thought connects a lot of seemingly disparate concepts, and sometimes it’s just a petty or banal ‘insight’ that I think I should add to a little list of ‘wisdom’ (your mileage may vary) I’m compiling for my children.
So, I figured I’d start an ‘aphorwisdom’ series, to serve both as note-taking and ‘wisdom’-recording device as well as something to stimulate conversations. Aphorisms, such as those of La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, and Don Colacho are sometimes appropriately obscure and mysterious. But, again, I consider these ‘first draft’ brainstorms, and I like to explain what motivates my thinking so that others may suggest improvement. Anyway, here we go:
We complain the most about not doing enough of what we do the most.
Motivation: In any American organization you will often hear constant complaints about insufficient ‘proactivity’. An example would proceed as follows:
We don’t anticipate problems and prevent them. Or if we do, we can’t summon sufficient motivation to enact reforms unless and until the failure-mode of the system is revealed by a crisis and a catastrophe ensues. We are therefore always fighting the last war, always investigation and reacting to the last mistake.
You could expand this with book-length detail. And you would be right! Except you would also be wrong.
Because when I talk to foreigners who have interacted with Americans in my line of work, especially those who have been or presently are embedded within American government agencies, they are quick to identity what are, from their perspective, our many faults and strengths. And most of them, especially East Asians, compliment Americans by saying, as compared to how things work in their own nations and with their own countrymen, that Americans are remarkably proactive. In exactly the ways Americans think they are not.
I would guess the answer to this particular paradox lies in two things:
- Particular Sensitivity. If members of a group tend to prefer more of anything, they will produce more of it while simultaneously experiencing intense demand for even more. If Americans feel the lack of maximum proactivity with more force than, say, the Japanese, then they will both be more proactive while still remaining more dissatisfied with their level of proactivity. A very clean person will think their house is dirty at a far cleaner level than the average person thinks is very clean. They will complain about insufficient cleanliness to the extent they are not empowered to dictate that things be as clean as they would like. This strange preference curve will likely lead to overemphasis on this one subject. To over-investment of proactivity with importance, over-estimation of its improvement-producing potential, and to the exclusion of allocating attention and resourced to other strategies. Which leads us to…
- Comparative Disadvantage. If members of a group tend to be poor at alternatives, they will insist on more of what they are, relatively speaking, better at. So, for example, Americans are pretty poor at reactivity. That is, when we are responding to things for which we were unprepared, and for which no one has planned, trained, or procured deployable supplies, we are not always able to rely on acculturated tendencies to automatically and spontaneously coordinate and synchronize individual behavior patterns (Spontane Gleichschaltung) towards collective altruism. Like a bee. An bee-hive doesn’t have to be very proactive. The workers have ideal colony-protecting reactions. Bees probably sit around complaining their reactions aren’t good enough and should come up with some better reactivity. “Bee reactive” (ha) is their favorite corporate buzzzzword (ha). A decent example could be the USG’s response to Katrina (ugly at times) vs. the Japanese response to Fukushima (more noble, at least on an individual basis).
There a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem causality-direction problem here. Americans have a tendency to obsess about proactivity because we are culturally awful at reactivity. Or are we bad at reactivity because we overemphasize proactivity? The law of diminishing returns would lead me to believe that one usually gets more mileage out of reallocating from an obsession to an indifference, but there are also certain social and political … constraints … and it you can’t get certain people to fend for themselves and help others during an emergency, then all you’ve got to rely upon is ‘more
In the American context certain professions are expected to be better at proactivity. We hope engineers can test for and simulate various failure modes and avoid them in design. We recognize that engineering safety often progresses through a series of disastrous mistakes, but we expect that they not be easily foreseeable mistakes. Military planners also learn by horrible mistakes, but only get ‘one bite at the apple’, so they really try to go through as many branches and sequels as possible before the fog of war neutralizes all their efforts. You can rebuild a bridge better if it falls down because of a design bug. You can’t replay WWI. Which is a big deal, because none of us can even imagine what the world would be like today had Kaiser Wilhelm II had won or even pulled out a stalemate and cessation of hostilities. And that was less than a century ago.
But your most likely interaction with a professional who who pay to be proactive for you is with your attorneys, because they are the ones who are present at the commencement of a transition and who are writing and scrutinizng the precise terms dictating the details of reciprocal responsibilities in the new future relationship. You really want them to be able to use their creative imaginations, see all the ways things can go wrong (including how the judges might decide to arrogate the authority to reinterpretation), and prevent them before they have a change to occur.
But you simply can’t predict everything, or express your predictive intentions unambiguously. If you are a car insurance company and you promise to protect ‘occupants’ of insured vehicles in general language, you will need to define ‘occupy’. You are tempted to say ‘within’, but your lawyer is trying to be proactive and hypothesizes all kinds of squirrely exceptions. What about convertibles with the top down? Are you ‘within’. Maybe not. What if you’re just stepping in or out of a car and are somehow injured? You weren’t ‘within’ it at the time. Or on the open top of a double-decker tour bus? Or riding in the bed of a pick-up truck (illegal now, but it wasn’t always)? What about riding behind someone on a motorcycle?
Oh this is difficult. You might come up with this mouthful to define ‘occupying’:
In, on, entering or alighting from
Not bad. But ‘on’? Uh Oh! If the vehicle hits a pedestrian, who lands ‘on‘ the hood and suffers injury, is she also covered under the policy as an ‘occupant’ of the vehicle? Judge Kethledge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit says “absolutely, she is an occupant by the very terms of the contract.”
Which is typically absurd. Bet State Farm’s lawyers didn’t see that one coming. I also bet that someone vented that they should have been more proactive about it.