Thursday, December 17, 2009

Success: Bill Gates v. the Dalai Lama

The more we study the science of success, the more we realize how critical it is to define it. Only then will we know whether we've reached it... or whether it's the kind we even want.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book Outliers, asserts, unconventionally, that success is not about how hard we work or how much we overcome - sure, those are important - but rather about where we come from, specifically, (1) the year we were born and (2) the status and history of our family. The answers to those two questions will predict stratospheric success more than anything else.

But while Malcolm's explanation of success is unconvential, his definition of it is not. He frames success as does conventional wisdom - along the lines of money, power, fame. Bill Gates is clearly a success. So are the Beattles. Both examples in Malcolm's book.

But what about the Dalai Lama? That is to say, are there not other measures of success, alternatives to money, power, fame? What about happiness? or fulfillment? or inner peace?

Well, those things are simply harder to define. How exactly do we define happiness? How do we use it as a benchmark to determine the degree to which someone has it? With money, it's easy - How much does someone make or have in the bank? But with happiness, it's nebulous at best.

This is a measurement problem. There's no way to measure happiness like there is to measure money. Where there's a measurement problem, there's a credibility problem. And where there's a credibility problem, people don't buy in.

Malcolm could have written a book about success defined as happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace - in fact, we would have loved to have read it - but he might have had a problem with readership buy-in, and ultimately, book sales. In a world - or at least, a country (America) - that defines success as how much money we accumulate, power we amass, and fame we attract, low book sales would have been a problem.

This entry is not meant as a critique of Malcolm's book (we really liked it) or his values (we suspect he's a good person). We simply use his book as a reference point and catalyst for thought and conversation.

We'd love to hear from you. Do you buy-in to this alternative definition of success? Or do you think it's just a rationalization of reality? Put another way: Are you drawn to the type of success achieved by Bill Gates or the Dalai Lama? Comment here or write us at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: “Dreams from My Father” (Barack Obama)

(Originally posted by The Popped Kernel on

“Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar.” When the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) made this claim in October 2009, we were suspect. But after reading Barack Obama’s first book, we were not.

“Dreams from My Father” is a powerful book. That it comes from an American president, even more so.

This does not mean we don’t have criticisms of the book. We do. But first, what we liked.

The first part of the book – “Origins” – should be required reading. Period. Beautifully written and insightfully observed, it’s a universally human story about identity – Obama’s own and others’.

An incredibly rich passage of “Origins” – and reflective of the book’s seasoned soul – comes near the beginning. Obama is describing his maternal grandfather, a white WWII veteran from Kansas who decided to move the family out west to Hawaii:

“He would always be like that, my grandfather, always searching for that new start, always running away from the familiar. By the time the family arrived in Hawaii, his character would have been fully formed, I think – the generosity and eagerness to please, the awkward mix of sophistication and provincialism, the rawness of emotion that could make him at once tactless and easily bruised. His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War II. Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.”

The passage has a human frailty and honesty about it, a certain poetry. That it comes from a politician is both surprising and refreshing. Obama credits his grandfather’s spirit, as described in the passage, for the family’s move to Hawaii, a move leading his mom to his dad and ultimately leading to Obama’s torn existence and storied journey to the White House.

The next (and last) two parts of the book – “Chicago” and “Kenya” – are not as impressive. Obama’s writing becomes tired – what once was profound now feels flowery. (Perhaps it’s all profound but that too much depth fatigues.) The story also strikes us as less engaging – what once was timeless insight is now more descriptive of events. At this point in the book, it’s who Obama is that keeps our attention, not the book itself. If you’re not an Obama fan, or don’t care to be, you don’t have to read these sections. But if you’re interested in knowing how Obama developed his political chops (“Chicago”) and how he uncovered pieces of his identity in Africa (“Kenya”), then do.

Acute observers of Obama have noticed a man torn between lofty ideals and grounded realism, between the glory of greatness and the humility of service. This book is a subtle reflection of that – perhaps an internal tug-of-war between his instinct for full transparency and his ambitions for political office. You get the sense he wants to share an unfiltered version of his story, but also that he’s holding back in some respects – not in the beginning so much as once he reaches “Chicago.” There’s a level of personal depth that he simply loses as he takes us beyond his college years. He begins more to report than to reflect. Perhaps that’s what dries out the book – this shift from insightful reflection with universal implication to deflective reporting with mildly interesting vignettes.

Are we being too harsh on the last two parts of the book? Maybe, but only because the first part is so darn good. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that President Obama is one heck of a writer, arguably the most powerful – in political and literary terms – since Julius Caesar.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What Prevents Prevention?

In our last entry, we protagonized the power of prevention, not just in healthcare, but also in strengthening national security. In this one, we identify three reasons why preventionist policies typically fail to gain enough traction to take hold (and ultimately work).

1. It’s invisible. Support is difficult to develop for something that is invisible. Prevention, by definition, addresses a problem that, whether yet developed or not, we certainly cannot see (and one we’ll never see if prevention is effective). Look no further than the climate change debate in America to quickly grasp this concept. We can’t see or hear or feel climate change in any real, personal way, so we debate its very existence, instead of ways to prevent it. Heck, look no further than your own reaction to the following preventionist statement: In 2011, we will need to invest just as much into Indonesia than into Iraq. If that sounds outlandish to you, then you’re part of what prevention is up against.

2. It’s inefficient. Because prevention is invisible, we have to focus everywhere all the time to prevent disaster from striking. For the body, we must focus on all of its parts (i.e., the organs and bones and muscles and other internal tissues), not just the pain points. For national security, we must focus on all the regions of the globe, not just the Middle East. Focusing everywhere, all the time, is simply inefficient. Our resources are better directed towards something “real,” particularly in a world of competing and consequential priorities. At least that’s what is required to get people to agree to spend time and money on it.

3. It’s incomplete. For such inefficiency, prevention is still not a panacea. It will likely always remain just a piece of the solution, not the whole. The capacity for, and willingness to use, force will remain an effective deterrent. It must underwrite any effective prevention campaign. In healthcare, prevention can’t exclusively eradicate cancer once somebody has it. In national security, prevention can’t exclusively fight extremism once it’s developed. In both cases, we have to bring in the heavy artillery to help combat the problem. It’s easy to just believe “this is the way it is” and use that belief as reason not to pursue prevention more holistically than we already do.

Now What
How do we overcome the barriers to effective preventionism? Is it as simple as persuading a critical mass of people to agree to the merits of it? And if so, then how do we do it?

We’d like to hear from you. Do you agree with the notion of prevention as effective policy? If not, why not? If so, why isn’t there more of it? And what can we do to see more of it in official policy? Comment below or email us at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Healthcare and Afghanistan: 2 Problems, 1 Solution

Healthcare and Afghanistan. We’re on the eve of history for both issues. In fact, they very well could ultimately define the Obama administration. And as different as they are, the approach to bettering both might be more similar than you think. Prevention.

In healthcare, prevention leads to longer, healthier living, at a fraction of the price. This is well documented. But less agreed upon – or even much discussed – is that the same can be applied to national security. That is, the more sustained goodwill we pour into a country, among its people, the more we prevent a costly disaster, in lives and resources, at their hands in the future.

Can you imagine if the US had continued its assistance to Afghanistan in the late '80s after the Soviets withdrew? That is, continued attention, financial and otherwise, not on guns, but on roads and schools and good governance? The Taliban would not have been able to flourish in that environment. Al-Qaeda would not have found safe haven there. 9/11 would not have happened.

And in cases where the US has actually pursued preventionist policies, the outcome has been positive. We see it in parts of eastern and southern Africa as well as Indoneisa.

As we’ve written in this blog before, channeling Bill Clinton: “We can be made more secure by eliminating inequality…. 10-20 countries in eastern and southern Africa… many of them Muslim… love the US.” This, at a time when the US has lost significant credibility internationally. In these countries, nobody has been thinking about Al Qaeda. Why? Because “we have cared whether their kids live or die.” Clinton is referring to America's generous African policies under Bush (that is, America's pledged financial support in the fight against AIDS and other diseases).

Across the ocean into Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, ill-will towards America had reached alarming proportions in 2005. America’s approval rating was 38%. But after the tsunami, American assistance and goodwill blanketed the country, driving the approval rating up to 60%. In the same period, Osama bin Laden’s approval rating went from 58% to 28%.

With such drastic shifts in poll numbers, you can bet that bin Laden’s recruiting efforts amongst the world’s largest Muslim population suffered a major blow. We can only imagine how bin Laden might have gone from salivating over Indonesia as fertile ground for his network to perhaps averting it altogether. Can you imagine if the same thing happened in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Somalia or Sudan?

If prevention has proven effective and less costly (in the long term) than the alternatives, then why don’t we do it? We’ll offer some perspective on that in part II of this entry (in the coming days). But for now, let’s turn our attention to what Obama says tonight about Afghanistan. Might prevention play a role in his plan?