Stacking the Bricks Podcast
EP41 - Questioning Our Assumptions with David Dylan Thomas
In this episode…
This week I'm stopping by The Cognitive Bias Podcast with David Dylan Thomas to riff on a topic we're both very passionate about: the intersection of ethics and capitalism.
Dave is one of the best people I can think of to talk to about this because as a designer and a strategist, He spent a lot of his career thinking about the implications of bias on our work as creators.
And one of the things I've heard Dave talk about over and over and over is how so many of the ethical problems we face in business today might actually be designed problems that we can better solve. And in some cases only solve. If we first understand to the cognitive biases that those problems are rooted in.
Dave has spent so much time thinking about bias that he literally wrote a book about it called Design for Cognitive Bias, about how to understand the impact of biases on our customers, our teams, even ourselves.
The book is amazing. Everyone who makes things should absolutely read it.
Back to ethics and capitalism. Seemingly opposing forces. Right?
Well, in this episode, we're going to be talking about:
- the impact of survivorship bias on the kinds of businesses that people start and grow
- the relationships that exist between money and power
- and a very unexpected segue into an episode of the nineties TV show dinosaurs that I promise is more relevant than you could possibly imagine.
If you enjoy this conversation, I highly recommend going and checking out. Dave's aptly named Cognitive Bias Podcast for other similar in-depth discussions with industry experts, and then go back and check out these super bingeable back catalog of his 5 to 10 minute episodes where he explores one bias in each one. It's truly a treasure trove of how our we're human brains work.
But now, and here, I hope you enjoy this wide ranging discussion about the get rich quick scheme that we call America with David Dylan Thomas. Here we go.
Alex Hillman: What is up brick stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this week I’m stopping by the Cognitive Bias podcast with David Dylan Thomas, to riff on a topic that we’re both pretty into – the intersection of ethics and capitalism.
Now, Dave is one of the best people I can think of to talk to about this because as a designer and a strategist, he spent a lot of his career thinking about the implications of bias on our work as creators. One of the things I’ve heard Dave talk about over and over and over is how so many of the ethical problems we face in business today might actually be design problems that we can better solve – and in some cases only solve – if we first understand the cognitive biases that those problems are rooted in.
Dave has spent so much time thinking about bias that he literally wrote a book about it called Design for Cognitive Bias, about how to understand the impact of biases on our customers, our teams, even ourselves. The book is amazing. Everyone who makes things should absolutely read it. You can grab a copy from the link in the show notes.
But, back to ethics and capitalism – seemingly opposing forces. Right? Well, in this episode, we’re going to be talking about the impact of survivorship bias on the kinds of businesses that people start and grow, the relationships that exist between money and power, and a very unexpected segue into an episode of the nineties TV show Dinosaurs that I promise is more relevant than you could possibly imagine.
If you enjoy this conversation, I highly recommend going and checking out Dave’s aptly named Cognitive Bias podcast for other similar in-depth discussions with industry experts, and then go back and check out these super bingeable back catalog of his five to 10 minute episodes where he explores one bias in each one. It’s truly a treasure trove of how our weird human brains work.
But now, and here, I hope you enjoy this wide-ranging discussion about the ‘get rich quick’ scheme that we call America, with Dave Dylan Thomas. Here we go!
David Dylan Thomas: I think one of the things that your book and my book have in common is they’re all about questioning assumptions. And one of the things I’ve taken away from a lot of our conversations is that there are many business assumptions that we don’t realize are assumptions. We think, Oh, this is how you do business. It’s written in stone, it’s inherited wisdom. That’s just how you do it. And one of the things I’ve always found interesting is how you’re able to point out. Well, no, actually that’s a choice. You made a choice to raise money that way. You made a choice to make your money off of this, as opposed to that.
So, in writing the book what do you think are some of the common assumptions people trying to get into business make that they don’t even realize are assumptions?
Alex Hillman: There’s a couple that come to mind very quickly. The first one is where money comes from. A big part of that is because we’re living in the 21st century where there’s a cultural narrative that the first step in business is to have an idea and then go sell that idea to an investor. That is a way, but in all of history of all of business, that is the vast minority of the ways that businesses are created. That’s even the vast minority of the way the businesses are created today. It’s just the dominant narrative. And so, what’s interesting to me is the fact that not only is that the dominant narrative, but it also shapes the kinds of businesses that people believe they can or should create, especially with their first business.
People leave a full-time job and then go into some venture funded rocket ship. It’s like going from middle school to fourth year med school, you didn’t even do organic chemistry, you are going to be lost. And if you succeed, it will be because you got very, very lucky and that’s where survivorship bias and things like that start kicking in.
David Dylan Thomas: Yeah, totally. Because I think that’s one of the key ones. You talk about the dominant narrative, like the dominant narrative drives a lot of those assumptions. You mentioned survivorship bias. I talk about this in the book. One of the stories I tell is about Abraham Wald who was a Austrian Jew in the 1930s, who fortunately made it out of Austria in time and came over to the States and was asked to help with the war effort.
One of the things they wanted him to do was look at a bunch of airplanes that had been shot up and they wanted to figure out, how should we arm these planes better so they don’t get shut down so much? He was in a room full of scientists, and most of the scientists were like, “Oh, well, you see where all the bullet holes are? You got to put more armament there.” He said, “That is exactly where you shouldn’t put more armament. You need to put it in all the places you don’t see the bullet holes”.
What he realized was they were looking at the planes that made it back. He was worried about the planes that got shot up so bad. They never came back. They were looking at the survivors, what were essentially success stories. And he was like, “No, you need to be about the people who lost.” I think about that a lot in terms of entrepreneurship, because you’re right. There’s a handful of companies that made a big swing and made a whole lot of money for their investors and now we celebrate them and we celebrate their wealth. We do not talk about the millions of companies that failed. We don’t talk about the millions of companies that succeeded without ever becoming the size of Google. So yes, let’s stay with survivorship bias for a minute.
Alex Hillman: Yeah. I think it’s a really, really interesting and really pervasive problem in a lot of business. The fact that business is this also like kind of public sport in modern times where people spend a lot of time reading about what other businesses are doing and it’s sort of like armchair quarterbacking, right? You think that by watching Sunday football every weekend, that you could be a professional football player and most people who watch football every Sunday, don’t actually think that, but in business, a lot of people do, which is scary!
David Dylan Thomas: Yeah, and I think that what I keep coming back to there as problematic is the glorification of wealth part of it, right? Like when do we consider a business’s success? When it makes money? It’s to the point where, and our, association of business with money, which again is a choice, is so strong that if you put a briefcase in a room where you’re having a meeting, people will act more competitively than if it were a backpack. It is primal how much we associate the idea of business with the idea of money. I think that is going back to that dominant narrative. That’s the thing we celebrate about business, but the thing is, that’s not the only thing, that’s not our only option. I think that as we’re teeing up the conversation of what does ethical capitalism look like? That feels like a key component to me.
Alex Hillman: I think you’re right. And again, I think, I mean, money is such a challenging thing to talk about. There’s a lesson in The Tiny MBA that is one of the most responded to, which is if I were to give you the assignment to using only the resources you have right now, make $5,000 in a week. How does that make you feel? Not, how would you do it? That’s what people expect. How does it make you feel?
That last line apparently throws people for a loop because they want to respond with a “Here’s what I would do” and I’m sort of forcing them to interrogate, “How does it make you feel?” and different people feel a different way and the reason I put that lesson in there is because I think people don’t stop to think about how money and money-related challenges, let alone opportunities, because those are two sides of the same coin, make them feel.
A lot of it comes down to something that happened in your life. We’ve got baggage for everything and whether it has something to do with your relationship with money growing up, your parents relationship with money, the kinds of people who you spend most of your time around all of those things. I think everyone has a relationship with money that needs work. I think that’s the thing to recognize here and I think maybe that’s at the heart of this question about ethical capitalism is, it’s not money – bad, business – bad. It’s is your relationship with money possibly undermining your goals and values as a person and a contributor to society?
If you can get those two things lined up with each other, I think you’ve got a shot, but that requires you doing some inside work before you do any outside work. The things that drive peoples success tying back to sometimes very warped and broken relationships with money, and the things that cause people to struggle or self-sabotage can be the exact same things It’s not that the trauma, if we want to call it that, is inherently bad. It’s sort of like, well, what do you do with it?
David Dylan Thomas: What I was actually gonna say was that I feel like financial planners should either have the skillset or be paired with someone who has a skill set to sort of interrogate your psychological relationship to money because if you can’t get over that, even if the financial planner has wisdom about you should invest your money this way or that way, you will never follow that wisdom if the underlying psychological issue driving your behavior on money, isn’t addressed. I feel like it’s a combination like you gotta work the whole person.
Alex Hillman: Yeah, totally. I mean, since we’re already here, I feel comfortable – I haven’t talked a lot about this publicly, but you know, one of my own personal motivators in business and why I choose to run the businesses that I do and the way that I run them is because I have experienced precariousness around money and it motivated me to learn how money in business works with the motivation of, I never want to go back there. That can be expressed in a really dangerous and unhealthy way or a really positive, healthy way. I think for me, the difference is going to come down to, I think where power takes over because money and power are so tightly intercoupled.
I think about a quote from my other business partner, Geoff DiMassi, my business partner at Indy Hall, a quote, he said years ago that summed up a feeling that I had, but said it much clearer, which is “The number one reason to gather power is to give it away.” If your reason to gather power is to hold onto power and you have an unhealthy relationship with money – if you become a politician, if your reason is to gather power and give it away, and you have an unhealthy relationship with money, it could drive you in the direction, which I think expresses a lot of my career, which is to find ways to create sustainable businesses and then add a layer of make sure that somebody else who’s going through this, doesn’t have to learn it the hard way like I did.
David Dylan Thomas: What we are talking about here is responses to trauma, right? And I feel safe assuming that 99.9% of Americans relationship with money is trauma informed. Whether that’s too much money, too little money, and is related to power too. It’s worth noting the relationship between money and power is also a choice. Some societies decouple them more than others. Some societies like ours, depends on the day of the week.
There’s a time in American history where ANP tries to have a monopoly and the government shuts that shit down. And then Walmart does the same thing, 80 years later and gets a tax break. There’s some pendulum swing in there, but the point is that too is a choice. I feel like if you do not deal with that, it will express itself in unhealthy ways.
Alex Hillman: I’m so fascinated by the either ability or willingness to look at everything and go, there’s a choice here. I think the root of your book and your work is that we have this psychological wiring to acknowledge that yes, everything is a choice, but we’ve chosen certain defaults. They call them biases, and that helps us skip over the impossible number of choices to make. I think the question becomes in any given area or discipline, today we’re talking about business, but this could be literally anything, is how do you define the choices in your work, in your day, in your life, in such a way that you have at the very least a reason or an excuse, but ideally a habit or a pattern of checking in with them and going, “This worked before, this still makes sense?”
That is something that we are so bad at that, and then you couple that with American individualism and the only lens we’re able to check in with it is like, “Well, is it cool for me? I don’t give a crap about how it’s affecting anybody else as long as I’m cool. It’s cool.” And so you have to add that other layer of cognitive overhead of like, all right, I’m good. Am I hurting anybody else on purpose or by accident? Yes? No? Anybody?
David Dylan Thomas: I feel like where this is kind of heading while we’re doing full disclosure and whatnot, last year when I got the deal to make the book was the same month I got diagnosed with clinical depression and I started doing antidepressants and therapy, which glad I did it then because try going through 2020 without that. But one of the key insights very early on was moving from this self-punishing, am I a good, bad person? Every interaction has to be a trial on that to a values-based approach to decision-making, which is okay, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I think my values are. How close am I living to that? That becomes the thing you check in on.
I feel like capitalism, the way we practice it is much more about money is a way to make me feel good about myself, money is a way for me to solve problems. Money is a way for me to get what I want; it is very ego-driven and it’s a way to make me look good. Versus here are a set of values. Some of those things, money can help with, some of them they cannot, but whatever I’m doing, I’m checking in with the values and not with the balance sheet. I think that is a potential way to think about what does ethical capitalism look like? Just take the words. Is it ethical? Ethical is very much about, or at least one version of ethics, is checking in with your values.
Alex Hillman: There’s a writer – his name is Umair Hacque, he writes for Harvard Business Review, he’s written a number of books that I think it’s always about really what you’re talking about, which is I think the book that first expressed this idea was his book Betterness and what he basically broke down was most of the way we look at economics through a business lens is pretty similar to a profit and loss statement – we’re making money, we’re losing money. But if we look at things from an ethical lens, from a betterness lens, it needs to look a bit more like a balance sheet. You can bury a lot of bodies in a P and L, but when you’ve got a balance sheet, you’re looking at a much more full spectrum detail work.
So you can see if you have assets and there’s growth over here, but we’re also leaking out the bottom of the ship over here. And I think part of what the notion here is when he breaks on that balance sheet, he goes we need a balance sheet that considers if we’re measuring growth in terms of financial capital – and losses, for that matter – we also need to have a line for social capital, knowledge capital, human capital, trust capital, so on and so forth.
If we only look at the financial capital, our economy looks roughly like it looks today. If we a provide a balance sheet that not only encourages, but makes it so we can’t ignore the losses in the other portions of the document, so we have to calibrate the whole thing. Well, now we’re just talking about incentives, right? That’s where you can start applying design principles to an economic system that say, all right, if you’ve got gains over here, but losses over here, but there’s no incentive to address the losses – again, that’s how we get 2020. But if you have put incentives in place to address the losses before they undo the good of the gains, then you not only stop the losses, but you reframe the gains and who the gains are good for and things along those lines.
I’m not saying any of this is easy, but it’s the kind of tools and the kind of thinking that allow individuals and businesses to do this work at all. One of the interesting things about Betterness – and this book came out, I don’t know, six or seven years ago, every case study that he includes in the book shows a business addressing one aspect of that balance sheet, so to speak, that includes not just financial capital, but social or knowledge, but he couldn’t find a single business that addressed all of them. I think that’s notable. It just shows how difficult it is. Does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Absolutely not. But I think the reality we’re digging ourselves out of a pretty big hole here. What I don’t know is for an individual or a business who’s trying to make up for the deficit that we’re in, I guess the big question is, where do we start? And the best answer I can come up with is fucking anywhere, man!
David Dylan Thomas: Well, I think it’s anywhere and everywhere because I think the same thing is true when I think about energy. It’s sort of like this binary of oil, not oil, and it’s just sort of like, okay, what’s going to replace oil? It’s sort of like, everything. It’s about five different things and depending on where you live, one of them is going to be way more profitable than the other. And by the way, we’re getting to the point where it’s way cheaper to do solar than it’s ever been before. I think that was what’s interesting to me about that though, especially, is the word balance, in balance sheet. I feel like that’s antithetical to American consumerism. No one wants you to stop spending money when you reach a certain point, no one ever wants you to feel full. I want you to keep eating. I want you to buy more cars. You bought an iPhone last year. I want you to buy another one this year.
Balance is kind of antithetical, but there’s a biological metaphor I keep coming back to, which is one of the things I learned – this is the benefits of being married to a neuropsychologist – one of the things I learned about cancer is a concept called angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is one of the most horrible yet bad-ass things that cancer does. Certain kinds of cancer will actually send out signals and make it so that blood vessels that were formerly going to useful organs will redirect and now go to the cancer, or it will form new blood vessels to feed itself. And I can’t help but think of Walmart, Google, Facebook, the oil banks, any company that goes to the government and lobbies for changes to the operating code of the country that will benefit them and basically get blood flow that might’ve been going to the environment and make it, you know what, it’s better if it goes to us.
To me that notion, and a cancer’s mission is simple. Get bigger and have more cells. I think about that mission statement versus the mission statement of every other organ in the body, which is do my job, keep us alive, work in harmony with all the other parts of the body.
Alex Hillman: Yeah. And if you take that metaphor to everything – but we’re talking about business today – and what happens there is they’re going to, because of the economic forces choose the free or cheap version rather than the paid version. Now we get into the area where we’re trading privacy, security, data and all those kinds of things for $10 a month for an email account.
Thankfully there’s the beginnings of a movement where businesses go, no, I’m willing to pay 10. Can I pay 20? And value that privacy because they’re realizing what they were giving up all along, but we are so, so early in that movement and the forces are so strong that I think it’s going to take more than just the same cultural narratives that got us to this mess to get us out. We need to use the same tools that got us here to get out, but we’re going to need more. We look at this growth at all costs and growth for growth’s sake, mission that we put businesses on and especially the venture funded end of the spectrum.
There’s a reason it looks like cancer – because it is. If you think of cancer as a design pattern, rather than a biological system, we’ve engineered economic cancer, which is terrifying, but I think it also proves out when you start thinking about how the secondary and tertiary effects of that economic cancer of venture funded businesses affect the rest of the economy.
A business that never touches venture funded money, likely buys or uses products or services that are venture funded. And back to your point about working in harmony. I think about the difference between the way people view business now, this probably is the most illustrative part of my core ethos of business, is the phrase ‘it’s just business’ when it comes to doing something ethical or not just be like when I do something that is not in a mutual best interest, but only in mine and not in yours and somebody goes, “it’s just business” I go, “No, it’s not. We’re humans first.”
The fact that that is a mechanism enough to be a meme or a trope is frustrating to me. Whereas if we have a situation where people start looking at business and business culture, like it was a couple of hundred years ago where instead of going to a grocery store or a restaurant, you went to a market or a bazaar and you bought meat from your meat vendor, you bought your cheese from the cheese vendor. You bought your bread from your bread vendor. Each of them get a little slice to take home and support their families. Meanwhile, I get to make a bad-ass sandwich and I think this is a bit of a nod or a nudge in the direction of localism.
I think back to your point about balance, localism and globalism both can be imbalanced. I also think they have the potential to create really interesting harmonies that we haven’t fully explored. How do I be a global citizen and contribute to a global economy while still creating a sense of priority on my local community? Can that be done? Of course it can be done, but not while Amazon has unchecked power to strip out the built-in incentives that I have to shop local, you know what I mean?
David Dylan Thomas: Yeah, and in terms of the hole we’re digging into, let’s just face facts. Part of the reason we skew towards efficiency over human value is that the vast amount of the wealth this country was built on was built off of theft, theft of land and theft of humans. Nobody wanted to pay for shit. They didn’t want to pay for the land. They didn’t want to pay for the labor. And so people got used to the idea of, and extending to the North as well, remember, slavery was a business, which meant people were investing and making capital and buying debt and doing all the things you do with Google and Amazon and all the other stocks and bonds that are out there. So, all of it was how much money can I make without paying anything. It was people trying to get away without paying for shit.
Alex Hillman: Are you saying America is a get rich quick scheme? You’re not wrong!
David Dylan Thomas: Digging out of that hole after you’ve been doing it for 400 years is hard!
Alex Hillman: That’s so true. So, so true.
David Dylan Thomas: But I think that, you know, again, trying to carve out what does ethical capitalism look like? I think one of the things that it looks like pay for your shit.
Alex Hillman: I think a piece of that becomes learning how to make stuff again. That’s something where, you know, I’ve brushed up against the business world many times as a person with creative skills and I feel like this comes up as a theme among people who are, we could categorize as the blacksmiths and candlemakers and bakers of today. We still have those people, but now we have that element of craft. I feel like that’s a part of the community that we’re a part of, are the folks who are those craftspeople when it comes to technology design, user experience and software, but also communication, marketing, and so on and so forth.
What I’ve brushed up against is when people who don’t have those creative skills are in business, I can’t help, but look at them and go, what do you do? But be here to extract. And I know that’s not always true. And I know that’s not always fair, but I think it’s a perspective that a lot of creative people have and it’s why a lot of creative people don’t get into the business part of business, because all they see in business are people who only do the business and don’t do the making. They go, “Well, I don’t want to be that kind of slime ball”, instead of looking at it from the perspective of, “I own the means of production and if I add to that, the ability to make money. Now I can win on both fronts? Interesting!”
None of this is an antidote by the way, but it’s just sort of this broader observation of these two worlds appear at odds with each other, when in fact they are just the missing pieces of each other, which is, what love story doesn’t start that way?
David Dylan Thomas: So capitalism and art meet, cute. So something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I’ll road test this with you for a sec, but I think a lot about the difference between speculation-based capitalism and value-based capitalism. What I mean is there’s money you make when you want a chicken. “I’ve got a chicken, I give you the chicken. You give me money. The end.” Then there’s I want to buy a hundred chickens, so I’m going to ask this guy for a loan. Someone else is going to look at that loan and say, “I bet you a hundred dollars he isn’t able to pay it back.” So now he’s just going to speculate on top of that. Then someone else will say, well, I bet you that that company is going to make another $10. So I’m gonna invest, and you can see piling and there’s really horrible graphs that show you how much money in this country has made from actual exchange of real value versus how much money is made on money and transactions of money and “financial instruments” and it’s a million to one ratio.
So, what does capitalism look like if it’s actually just “Do you want a chicken? Here’s a chicken” versus “How much you want to bet that 10 chickens from now he’s made this much money.”
Alex Hillman: Yeah. I mean, this is where among the reasons I’ve struggled with the investor driven side of the business world, the vast majority of it is speculative. It’s all speculation. Even participating in the stock market feels weird because as we’re seeing today, the stock market is not a representative measure of the economy – for hopefully obvious reasons. If anything, the fact that it’s growing, the way that it’s growing, I think is only illustrative of exactly the point that you made is it takes a certain amount of capital to participate in that system and therefore, that system is designed for speculators as an end game. It’s designed to not just grow, but to grow in a way that keeps the people who aren’t already in, out.
Even the design choices around all the weird language that happens in the stock market, ‘puts’ and ‘calls’. Log into a stock ticker and try to understand it without somebody telling you what it is – that’s not an accident. Talk about design choices.
David Dylan Thomas: Oh yeah.
Alex Hillman: I think you have to look at every piece of the system where the people who are already wealthy play to speculate and turn their money into more money. Again, this is not to say I have anything against investing as a mechanism, but to your point when we’ve got so many layers, abstracted away from the exchange of value, I think we kind of have to expect it to turn into…there’s so many layers of separation, there’s no, ‘there’, there anymore. What’s rooted, it’s a reality. At this point, literally nothing. So yeah, of course it’s going to get weird. If it’s run by the people who already have the power and the money, it’s going to get weird in their favor.
David Dylan Thomas: I think that there’s literally research to point to the idea that there’s an experiment where you basically give people the opportunity to cheat. I think it’s like cheat on a test or something. It’s one situation where there’s like a literal cash reward for whatever the experiment is and another where it’s sort of like tokens and the people who are dealing with the tokens are more likely to cheat. The more you abstract away from actual cash, actual physical tender, the more people are willing to cheat and what is more abstract in the stock market?
Alex Hillman: For me the line between the stock market and going to the casino look exactly the same. It’s making bets on things that I have no control over the outcome of unless I’m intentionally manipulating the system, which means I either am doing something that is, or should be against the rules, or the rules that allow me to manipulate it or set up so the only people like me who already have the power can manipulate them.
That’s where things like shorting and puts to calls and all those kinds of things come into play is those are designed to let you manipulate the system in that way. Again, it all comes back to if you start there – and this is where I get scared about, you know, this year, we’re hearing about everybody sitting at home and they’ve got their stimulus check and they opened up a Robin Hood account on their phone and now they’re goofing off on the stock market for the first time – and making money by the way, which good on them. But if they do that without the fundamental understanding of economics of the businesses that they’re treading on, we’re going to end up in a pretty terrible place – somehow, even worse than the place we already are because we’ve got people whose entire foundations of their relationship with money and their entire understanding of how money flows into their bank account and out of their bank account is driven by that speculative market. It becomes very hard. There are no longer incentives for them to ground that in the business fundamentals of exchanging value, goods, and services for money.
David Dylan Thomas: Yeah. And there’s definitely a relationship to power there too. I think one of the things to talk about in the book is sort of how incentivization follows the money. Usually it leads to bad outcomes and you end up in situations where even if the system is broken, it’s a no one’s best interest to point it out. I talk about this with like online advertising and how there’s no real evidence that an ad you used that was like you paid for on Google is performing better than just organic search because of a thing called selection effects. It’s certainly not in the interest of the person selling the ad to point that out. And it’s actually not in the interest of the person buying the ad – if they’re getting a big marketing budget – to point that out.
So, my favorite iteration of this is when you had the whole TikTok thing where TikTok folks managed to trick the Trump rally into thinking more people were going to show up then actually did. Someone was pointing out the actual mechanics of that trick were easy to spot. This was not some clever hack. This was pretty…take five minutes. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening. But they also pointed out that it was in no one’s best interest to tell Trump that these numbers were inflated, because Trump created an incentivization where the only thing that matters is his success and loyalty is the only thing that matters.
Alex Hillman: Also he can lie his way out of whatever the numbers are, he’ll say what he thinks they are.
David Dylan Thomas: Exactly, and so even if they did spot that this was all inflated, it was in no one’s best interest to tell him that. It was no ones best interest to say it to anyone. So it incentivizes thinking that way, incentivizes to your point a lot of like, well, if I’m not making money off of an actual exchange of value, I have every reason in the world, now that we’re just living in land of just make believe, to just make believe.
Alex Hillman: I think that’s where Amy has a really great blog post. It’s called Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups Than You and the story of this article comes from watching an episode of a show called Mastercrafts, it’s a BBC show. It’s British bake-off, but with blacksmiths, we’ll call it what it is. And while she’s watching this, she’s realizing the sort of character archetypes of the players of this show and the big difference between the people who succeed and fail are the people who are less disambiguated from reality.
We live in a world where we live through one or more layers of disambiguation. Everything we’re talking about – money and capitalism is just one example. Our version of capitalism is layers – and depending on who you are and how you interact with it – more and more and more layers deep disambiguated from that initial core exchange of goods or services for money.
You can look at anything that’s happening in the world, but for the moment, we’ll look at America, everything’s happening in America right now that to a person who is grounded in reality, looks completely insane is because the people who are doing and saying the apparently insane things are many layers disambiguated from reality. It’s who they have contact with. It’s where they have contact with those people. It’s what information and sources, the more layers there are, the easier it is to get unhooked from reality and to lose it to maybe the point where you don’t get it back. And that’s scary.
The question here – or maybe there’s two – is like, how do we as people and how do we, as designers of these systems, make sure that we’re designing systems that don’t systematically unhook people from reality by progressively disambiguating them from the things that actually matter. Let’s stop the boat from leaking, and then also have a conversation about what do we do about the folks in the boats that sank? And I know you’ve said this a bunch of times, on this podcast and surrounding your books, because like whatever happens on November 3rd, we still have a large portion of America that voted for Trump the first time and is going to vote again. What do we do about that?
David Dylan Thomas: I think you’re absolutely right. I think about things like, for example, It’s common farming practice. You need to let fields lie fallow before you can plant again, there’s a lot of things that go along with that. That is like hard one from folks who worked the land and if the land didn’t produce, they were on the hook. Then you look at modern farming practices, which are more about just plan as much as you can and just completely destroy the land and don’t worry, we’ve got enough that it doesn’t matter. That is being divorced from consequences. I can do all of these things and never have to feel the consequences and it results in very destructive behavior. It’s easier to engage in destructive paper when you’re not in touch with that. So I think about wherever you live, whatever the median income is, I want you to ask yourself how many people living under that did you talk to in the design of this product, in this policy decision and whatever that thing is. I will bet you dollars to donuts, you have not talked to, you’ve probably not run into one person in this week who lives below that median and in Philadelphia, it’s $27,000 per capita income. I can guarantee you in the past two, three weeks, I don’t think I’ve had five words with anyone who made less than $27,000. I am divorced from reality and I think most of us are.
Alex Hillman: Yeah. No totally true. This reference wouldn’t make sense on any other podcast except for this one, but I know your love of media, re-watching, the show Dinosaurs from the nineties, the Jim Henson Muppets one – I’m getting some nods – a) That how was ahead of its time in a lot of ways, like the topics that it covered were really, really smart and very, very pointed how they did it. There was an episode that what you were saying about the, ‘but there’s always more’ conversation, there’s an episode about this, where for those of you who don’t know the show, it’s sort of like a nuclear family of dinosaurs in like a sixties to eighties sitcom format and the husband and wife it’s their anniversary and so for their anniversary, the husband goes and gets this delicacy of a food called a grapdelite. So the grapdelite’s are alive, they’re going to eat the live food.
These grapdelite’s are sitting on the counter at home, waiting to be eaten for anniversary dinner and Robbie, the teenage son comes home with a homework assignment from the teacher and the question is, why did dinosaurs rule the earth? Robbie’s like, “cause we’re big” and the grapdelite’s are like, “Well, that’s not a really good answer. Why do you think that’s a good answer?” He ends up in this kind of like bordering on theological debate with dinner.
The grapdelite’s give Robbie the metaphor of a bunch of grapes and they say,”Okay, let’s say these grapes are all the grapes that are left in the world.” And Robbie’s like, “Okay, cool”, and they’re like, “You’re hungry. You want to eat grapes”. Robbie’s like, “Okay” and he eats the grapes, eats the grapes and they go, “Now let’s say you want grapes tomorrow.” And Robbie’s like, “Well, just go to the store and get more grapes.” And they said, “Well, that’s not possible because those were the last grapes in the world and you ate them.” And Robbie’s like, “I don’t understand. There’s always more.” And they’re like, “We’re the last two grapdelite’s on earth. If your parents eat us tonight, our species dies out”. Existential crisis.
That’s why this show works. It’s good. But I mean, what’s amazing about it is Robbie then takes that essay that he writes based on the lesson from the grapdelite’s to his teacher, explains the grape metaphor and the teacher’s like, “F there will always be more grapes.” And I think the story here is the people who are in the positions of authority that we look up to, live in this dominant world, where there’s always going to be more grapes. It was really good and very relevant, somehow extraordinarily relevant to today’s conversation.
David Dylan Thomas: Well, it’s an eternal theme. I think that is as good and dystopic, a note to end on.
Alex Hillman: If you enjoyed that episode – and I hope you did – I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.
I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.
And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following on a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to StackingtheBricks.com.
I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!
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