An ankle knock and 2 truths

I picked up a knock on my ankle during a game of soccer 3 weeks ago. I think I was caught between attempting to defend a ball at pace and pulling my leg away to just let the ball go through. The save definitely wasn’t worth it and I think I subconsciously knew that. I just didn’t react fast enough. :-)

It was tender during the first week and has been steadily getting better. But it still isn’t fully recovered 3 weeks later.

It is a helpful reminder of two truths:

(1) It is very easy to take good health and a functional body for granted.

(2) It takes time, patience, and effort to fix a problem with our health. It is a lot easier to ruin than it is to build.

In our health and in our lives.

Constructiveness ratio

I saw this tweet wishing for “An Anti-Acknowledgments section of a research paper for the people who tried to stop your progress.”

It got me thinking about a hypothetical constructiveness ratio.

Our constructive ratio = (No. of projects we engaged with where we’d make the acknowledgments list) / (No. of projects we engaged with where we’d make the anti-acknowledgments list)

Higher the better.

Reframing the elevator problem

I came across this example in an interesting article on problem reframing on HBR.

Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem.

When asked, most people quickly identify some solutions: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift. These suggestions fall into what I call a solution space: a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about what the problem is—in this case, that the elevator is slow. This framing is illustrated below.

However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple measure has proved wonderfully effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at—namely, themselves.

The mirror solution is particularly interesting because in fact it is not a solution to the stated problem: It doesn’t make the elevator faster. Instead it proposes a different understanding of the problem.

I was guilty of missing an opportunity to define a problem right recently. The challenge with skipping past this step – even in cases when it feels like the problem might be obvious – is that we lose the opportunity to reframe the problem.

That in turn means we miss a bevy of possible solutions – like putting up mirrors! – we’d never consider otherwise.

Internal confidence and Will

“Internal confidence comes from insight and proficiency” | Will Smith

I read Will Smith’s autobiography recently. It was refreshingly honest, vulnerable, and insightful. I appreciated this simple and powerful approach to thinking about confidence. It can’t be faked. We need to earn it.

The book had many such insights from Will’s career. His success as a rapper, then television actor, and then movie star had all the ups, downs, and challenges you’d expect. The common thread – outside of the usual doses of luck – was a sometimes-ridiculous amount of drive and grit. Will and his loyal team (many of whom have worked together for over 20 years) get an A for effort.

I also appreciated the refreshing honesty and vulnerability about his insecurities. The first few chapters of the book felt like it could have been written as an explanation to what might have driven that infamous Oscar slap.

I came away with many reflections about the nature of fame and success and the trade-offs that come with it.

One of the books of the year.

The Ocean Cleanup Project – 100K kilos

7 years ago, I wrote about Boyan Slat’s ambitious plan to clean up plastics from the ocean.

Yesterday, the Ocean Cleanup team shared that they had cleaned up 100,000 kilos of plastic from the oceans (video in this tweet). They’re now all set for the next milestone – 1 million kilos.

Boyan has been at it for over a decade – since he was a 16 year old high school student. Over the years, they’ve built a team that is leading the way on cleaning up plastic from the oceans – reducing the chances of microplastics entering our ecosystem.

It is incredible work and an amazing story – one that drives home the importance of sheer grit and persistence after committing to a worthwhile problem.

Thank you Ocean Cleanup team. And thank you Boyan.

Rough and early

A friend shared – “When you show people something rough and early, they can see the potential.

When you show people something polished and finished, you often find them seeing the flaws.”

This is one of those ideas that holds often enough to resonate – even if it doesn’t hold all the time (but then again, what piece of wisdom does?).

Keeping a sense of humor

As time passes, I’ve become more convinced that keeping a sense of humor consistently is one of the most transformative habits one can have.

I love that the phrase is “keeping a sense of humor.” It is indeed something we can choose to keep with us as we deal with the ups and downs of life. It a practice that helps us keep perspective, reminds us of the choices we have between stimulus and response, AND lightens the mood while we’re at it.

A true 3-for-1.

Humor transforms anger and annoyance into amusement and thus converts sticky situations into funny ones.

As a “fight fire with fire” type person, keeping a sense of humor is far from a strength. It is, however, one that I realize I must keep working on.

And most importantly, it is one I want to get better at.

The macro environment in Jul 2022 – a synthesis

I’ve been thinking about the macroeconomic environment in the US of late and shared the update below as part of a weekly update I send at work.

(1)  What is happening?

(i)  We are in a “bear” market with a >20% hit to equities – with more significant hits in tech stocks – but it is also important to view this market with some perspective

At some point in the past months, you’ve seen a chart that looks something like this. 

There is no question that those decreases are significant – a 75% decrease in stock price will require a 400% increase to get back to previous highs. But, instead of us focusing on that, I’d like to show a different view. 

Warren Buffett once said that his favorite market valuation indicator is the total value of the U.S. stock market relative to what the U.S. as a country produces, otherwise known as Stock Market Cap to GDP. So let’s take a look at that. This chart tells us something different – on aggregate, we’ve gone from very overvalued to somewhat overvalued. In short, what seems like a totally crazy market movement is just a journey to normalcy. 

(b) There is also a large increase in inflation and the consumer price index. It is this increase that is the cause of the worry. Inflation is higher than it has been in 40 years. 

This increase in prices will have many ripple effects – one with consequences to the labor markets is early retirees from 2021 ad who moved out of the market early deciding to come back to work in 2022. 

The Chart

But the most consequential of these is the Fed’s response by increasing interest rates. 

(c) A combination of the decline in stocks, high inflation, and rising interest rates has resulted in two kinds of effects we’re seeing plenty in the news – (a) hiring freezes and (b) impact to private markets 

(a) One the one hand, you’ve seen headlines like this signaling hiring freezes

The key takeaway is that every leader is being cautious about their approach going into the next 12 months given the uncertainty in the macro environment. 

(b) On the other, we are also seeing significant changes in the private markets (which typically follow public markets with a slight lag)

Here are 3 telling stats (the first 2 are thanks to Pitchbook’s VC report)- 

  • IPOs cooling down: There were 183 VC backed IPOs in 2021 and 108 in 2020 (with the pandemic related slowdown between Mar-May). There were only 22 in the first half of 2022. 
  • Lots of M&A: While Mar-Jun 2022 saw the lowest exit value since 2016, exit counts remains high. This means we’re seeing lots of deals <$500M as start-ups run to shelters and acquirers take advantage of bargains
  • Significant valuation write-downs: As is expected given the public market takedown, we’re seeing significant write-downs in start-up valuation

(2)  Now that we’ve talked a little bit about what is happening, let’s ask why? 

Again, let’s cover stocks, inflation, and the impact to hiring/private markets in the same order. 

(i) From a historical perspective, stocks and commodities have gone up whenever central banks print money 

For a more detailed primer, Ray Dalio’s video on “Principles for dealing with the changing world order” is a great watch. 

Overall, when the central bank prints trillions of dollars in response to a crisis, the value of paper money falls and the value of stocks rise. 

(ii) Inflation shocks are typically caused by a rise in demand increases and supply costs

We experienced a bit of both in 2020 and 2021. With all the wealth flowing into the economy with stimulus gains, there was more income to buy goods (vs. services which suffered given social distancing mandates). Production had slowed given the pandemic => we experienced a pandemic-driven supply chain crisis. 

We’re also seeing more of that in 2022 driven by a new variable -> The Russia-Ukraine war. That’s both because the European Union is very dependent on Russian gas….

…and the world is dependent on both countries for wheat (a staple food) – among other things. 

(iii) Given these forces, the caution in the market makes a lot of sense 

There are two reasons for this caution: 

  1. When interest rates are low, borrowing is cheap. When borrowing is cheap, the story of the future matters a lot more than the story of now. However, when borrowing becomes expensive, we have to be very discerning about our investments given the opportunity costs. So, it makes sense that everyone is collectively turning the dials toward profitability over growth. This was especially the case in tech – as start-ups and crypto benefited tremendously from huge influxes of cheap capital
  1. There’s uncertainty around how the next 12-18 months will pan out. So, if you’re a start-up burning lots of money, survival is first on the agenda. 

(3)  What comes ahead?

(i) Nobody knows (it’s important to start here)…

Here’s a recent quote that helps explain this best – “I think we now understand better how little we understand about inflation.” | Jerome Powell, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve / probably the most consequential person on the planet with respect to global financial markets.

(ii) There are reasons to believe we’re at the cusp of a possible recession or stagflation where we see stagnant growth and inflation combined. 

This is a consequence of the significant increase in interest rates. More interest rates -> more interest costs to pay off. This typically results in a slowdown in growth.

Borrowing creates these cycles – more in Ray Dalio’s excellent video on “How the economic machine works.” His recent LinkedIn article explains why stagflation is the likely result of the Fed’s recent moves. 

In his words – 

“Central banks should: 

  • use their powers to drive the markets and economy like a good driver drives a car—with gentle applications of the gas and brakes to produce steadiness rather than by hitting the gas hard and then hitting the brakes hard, leading to lurches forward and backward.
  • Keep debt assets and liabilities relatively stable and, most importantly, not allow them to get too large to manage well. To do this they should not allow interest rates and availabilities of money to be either too good or too bad for the debtors or the creditors. 

By these measures central banks policies have not been good.”

(iii) But, that said, there are reasons to be optimistic thanks to one piece of the puzzle potentially coming back to normal – supply. 

As you can see manufacturing order backlog globally is coming down after highs in 2021.

The price of GPUs/specialized chips – as an example of an issue – is getting back to normal

Inventories are growing after a significant dip in 2020 and 2021.

And oil prices – which have been elevated – are on their way down. 

The big question then – has inflation peaked at 9.1%? If these indicators hold, there is a chance that will have happened. And that will signal a significantly more optimistic shift in how we think about the situation. We’ll know more next month. 

(+1)  What does this mean for us?

Switching back to an internal lens, here are the 3 things that come to mind – 

(i) It helps to keep perspective

The correction in stocks so far has just taken us back to where we were in late 2020. It’s crazy to think just how much stocks rose in the past 2 years. This correction is long-term healthy.

And it is just a blip on a 30 year horizon – one among a collection of similar dips. 

So, keep calm, maintain perspective, and stay diversified and safe out there.

It makes no sense

I was watching a video by Ray Dalio on “The Changing World Order” recently. Our 4 year old caught some of it and came to me and asked – “Why are you watching this? It makes no sense.”

My response was along the lines of – “Just because you don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.”

I realized after saying that this lesson was a helpful reminder for me as well. “It makes no sense” may often just be a result of my lack of understanding.