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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

integrity, intelligence, and energy

What do architect (and nanotech molecule C-60 namesake) Buckminster Fuller and investment sage Warren Buffett have in common: Stay with me—you’ve already tolerated one of my own neologisms; Simplexity (ie. taking complexity out of a large capex-intensive manufacturing system and putting into the chemistry recipe where the molecule is the device—to change the economics of manufacturing). Now, tolerate one coined by Buckminster Fuller—Tensegrity.
Last week I ended my column with Buffett’s management rule of thumb, "In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you."
Well, Buckminster Fuller invoked a similar principle in architecture, one that led to the geodesic dome for which he is noted (and which would later be compared to the molecular configuration of 60 carbon atoms shaped as one—with properties both stronger and lighter than steel, and dubbed a Fullerene).
Fuller called it Tensegrity. And like Buffett’s hiring heuristic, it was about intelligence, integrity and energy. The neologism combines “tension” and “integrity”. The structure he described is made up of three or more rods held in place by a network of tension wires. No rods touch any others. The tension can’t exist without the rods and the rods aren’t supported without the wires. The integrity of the entire structure is recursive and it yields a beautiful kite-like structure useful in architecture and design. In Fuller’s own words: “the structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors.”
Hear that sentence uttered in a different breath in an adjacent context and you might think: markets.
In Fuller’s design stability and integrity comes from tension. In markets’ stability also comes from tension. Tension between market participants and tension within the mind of any given market participant.
When tension between market participants dissipates, you get diversity breakdown and that leads to cascading effects and large swings. When everyone is thinking the same thing—say, running for the exits, only a few make it out alive.
Within the individual market participant’s mind, objectivity and different ideas form a latticework that’s stable. I preach on this platform for the pursuit of a stable latticework of mental models, drawing from diverse disciplines. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Speaking of tension, and the spotlight on tension as current events play on the global stage, Harvard Psychology guru Daniel Gilbert wrote a wonderful piece recently on the psychology of revenge. In his words, “Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.”
He quotes research that shows how people react in conflict situations.Specifically, you’re most likely to remember why you did something (the cause of your actions) and what led you to do it as well as the consequences of your adversary’s action and what your response was to it--than to understand it from their point of view. There’s a good reason: we can observe what other people do, but not what we do. And conversely we can know what we were thinking but not what other people were—since thoughts are inside our respective heads. Thus, the “why” we might attack is more dramatic to us than the actual attack. On the flipside, other people’s attacks are more dramatic to us than their reasons for attacking.
The other thing with revenge is how fair it is. Retribution is usually deemed fair if it’s proportionate, but not otherwise. As Gilbert says, “an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not”. More research revealed that if you and I sit across the table from each other and take turns pressing on (and giving pain to) our respective thumbs—we can’t help but do it disproportionately—even when we are told to respond with precise counter pain. Why? The pain we feel always seems more dramatic than the pain we give. Again, we feel what we feel and know what we think, but it doesn’t map to what you feel or you think. The subjects in the researchers’ test on average applied 40% more pressure than they just received. In reality, the cycle of “violence” creeps and gets escalated even though both sides think they’re just matching the other one.
Gilbert explains, “the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.”
Consider this and think about the biases and grudges you hold and how you may have inadvertently escalated them even though you thought you were acting fairly. The world might be a mildly better place...



Tuesday, August 08, 2006