Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

As a child in school, I used to make silly mistakes while solving problems in subjects like Mathematics, Physics etc. Typically, I would work out the solution but at the very end do something stupid (the equivalent of adding 2 and 3 to get 6) and get the final answer wrong. I vividly remember one of my teachers admonishing me once, and urging me to focus hard on the problem till it was fully solved and resulted in the correct final answer. "Life gives you no marks for wrong answers, even if your approach and method are correct" he declared in the soft but authoritative tone of a mentor who has seen a lot in life. "Remember, it is all about the final answer!" he added, with an indulgent smile, eyes twinkling benignly behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, and a slight wag of his index finger. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, and a very useful lesson that has helped me in confronting and overcoming many challenges in life. Many. Not all. Definitely not some of the more complex ones - the ones, for example, dealing with human relationships in the face of adversity, where there is no "correct final answer".

On the sports field of the same school, I kept hearing this one homily: "It's not about winning or losing, it's about playing the game to the best of your ability." As I grew older, I noticed that they typically said this to those who came second (or third) in the race. Winners are seldom told this; they are only congratulated and given a medal. I used to get quite confused by what appeared to be mixed messages, to my impressionable and naive mind, and I was too young to even identify the source of my confusion. All I could see was that it was the trophy, bright and shiny, that everyone coveted - be it for academic excellence or sports, and the system was set up to award medals and prizes to the one guy who topped the class, and to make everyone else want that, somehow, anyhow. While I could see why it had to be that way in some cases, I wondered why this seemed to apply to just about everything else in life.

As an adult, I have come to recognize the boundaries of the simplistic models we sometimes use, in our naivety, to understand, describe and deal with the complex challenges of life. Life is not a mathematics test and nor is a 100 meter sprint. Both of these have a beginning and an end, simple rules and clear targets to achieve, and a finite number of possible outcomes. Yes, life does consist of situations that closely resemble either an exam or a game or both, but it also consists of other situations that really don't. It is essentially our need for cognitive fluency - our resistance to complexity that makes us force-fit all situations into a zero-sum model. Life, on the whole, is just not a zero-sum game, but we make it look like one because it makes it easier for us to handle. And that's where we make the mistake that Einstein cautioned us against with these words of advice: "Make things as simple as possible but not simpler". The zero-sum model is neat, simple and lays out clear rules for winning and losing, and so we go ahead and use that as the basis to model all human endeavour. In the sphere of education, all the systems we have set up for evaluating our children's performance are based on the zero-sum model. (Exceptions, though they exist, are too few to be statistically significant.) We have extended the ostensibly resounding success of this model into our adulthood as well. We wage war to resolve conflict, since war leads to decisive victory. We compete in free markets for market share and growth, edging out our rivals. All the systems we have created at work (performance measures, KRAs and KPIs, RoI, quarterly results) and at play (scoring goals, scoring runs, bettering the timing of the world's best athlete) are zero-sum models. Message: Achievement, not Effort, matters.

What we have not recognized is that this has resulted in creating a culture of over-achievers, as I have argued in a previous post. And a culture that silently encourages Jugaad, as I have argued in another previous post. If you can't win by staying within the confines of the rules of the game, then bend or break the rules so you can win. Because only the final answer counts. It is precisely this culture - of winning at any cost - that has led us, the human race, to the brink of collapse as evident in the 3 major global crises the world is still reeling under, as a glance at the global economy, the environment and socio-political landscape will testify. We are where we are, in each case, because a small number of over-achievers have been playing to win a zero-sum game, to meet their own narrow goals. Zero-sum is the reason why we use wars to work out conflicting needs between two groups of people, instead of trying to achieve congruence of different agendas through negotiation and diplomacy, in a spirit of partnership, tolerance and mutual respect. The bravado associated with winning wars, the drama, the romance, the glory ... all make us pooh-pooh earnest attempts at a peaceful positive-sum resolution, which the uber macho alpha prime male stereotype would mock at as the approach of wimps. On the contrary, it is war that is the refuge of the weak, as the strong will only look for peace.

Few events in recent world history have brought out the contrast in these two approaches (particularly in the area of global diplomacy / foreign policy) more starkly than the two Presidential campaigns in the United States last year. We saw the conservative business-as-usual approach, albeit with some modifications in a few areas, and the "other guy's" strategy that was radically different, since it was based on inclusiveness - an intent to actively engage with allies and a willingness to negotiate unconditionally with adversaries, even with those that were historically considered to be enemies. It is not as though the latter is unprecedented in the history of the United States (or of the world) but to a lot of minds, caught up as we were in the panic of the crises of our current time, and in part due to the outrage expressed by the incumbent Party, it seemed like a revolutionary approach. When Obama was elected President, I considered it a testimony to the American people's resolve to adopt a dramatically different position on the world stage and to actually lead other countries and communities to a world of peaceful co-existence. However, reactions from most people - Republicans as well as Democrats, Obama's supporters as well as detractors - when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, have led me to believe that Americans elected him President simply because they thought he was the only guy who could save them from the financial mess that his predecessors had left behind - essentially a domestic issue. It wasn't really a mandate to him to go implement his vision of world peace, as I realize now. Sadly, a significant proportion of the American population displays a "don't know / don't care" attitude towards the rest of the world, not realizing the long-term impact of that attitude. Several political analysts and commentators have been criticizing Obama in the last few months for having "apologized" to the world for America's hubris and imperiousness in the past, for trying to build bridges with the Muslim community, etc., claiming that such moves have diluted the leadership position of the United States. It's a pity that they do not realize that what he has been trying to do, in fact, is to restore the U.S. to its former position of glory, but in a way that is different from what their simple, zero-sum minds have been trained to think.

Leadership comes with privileges, no doubt, but it also comes with accountability. Americans must realize that if they expect their country to lead the world by the same democratic principles as they expect their President to lead their country, then they must acknowledge that their country is as accountable to the rest of the world as their President is to them. This includes responsibility for world peace, considering America's position as a military mega-power and its hegemony in most other areas 'that matter'. And this peace cannot come by taking an "us versus them" approach (where quite literally, "us" = "U.S."), which for several years has been the fundamental plank on which American foreign policy was built. Obama's most significant contribution towards world peace has been in initiating moves that are already shifting the "us versus them" paradigm, and this is not something he started working on only after he became President. When it comes to world peace, there is no exam, no top score, no super-bowl, no tape at the finish line to breast ahead of others and no final answer. Peace is characterized by the absence of conflict, which comes from the de-escalation of tension, which in turn comes from the birth of hope among affected parties - the hope of working out a win-win resolution. Positive-sum, not zero-sum, outcomes. And again, there is no finality to it, no single event or milestone, the accomplishment of which can qualify as having achieved world peace forever. War is different from peace, in this respect. Start World War III and you will get a final answer - the end of the world, and nothing can be more final than that. On the other hand global peace is like nirvana: you continuously work towards it but you may never attain it. But that doesn't mean you give up your effort. And so it all comes down to effort and attainment.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to several people, including, as Rachel Maddow painstakingly points out in this video clip, some whose efforts towards world peace have ended in failure (Woodrow Wilson / League of Nations), some whose efforts did not bear fruit till several years later (Desmond Tutu / ending of apartheid in South Africa) and some whose efforts have yet to make any significant impact to disrupt the status quo (Aung San Suu Kyi / democracy in Myanmar). Why then single out Obama? After my initial post at my mini-blog on Friday, a few hours after the news about Obama's Nobel Prize broke (during which few hours I valiantly and more or less single-handedly defended the decision in various debates - actually, diatribes - that erupted on mailing lists and social media), I thought it prudent to back off a bit, let the dust settle over a couple of days and wait for second thoughts from observers, analysts and commentators. I would expect that Obama supporters, at the very least, look for the silver lining in all this, like Michael Moore. Especially if they are American, to whom my question would be: "What are *you* doing to support your President?"

Meanwhile, Elinor Ostrom and Olive Williamson were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Since I did not know enough about them or their contributions, I decided to do some research. "Let's find out who these people are and what the heck they have DONE to deserve this award, considering that they haven't achieved anything by way of ending the global economic crisis", I said to myself sotto voce, parodying the same line of reasoning that critics took in challenging the Nobel Peace decision. Interestingly, I found an article by Ostrom titled "Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action", which addresses the classic Prisoner's Dilemma in game theory, and which also carries a paragraph that starts with:
"Changing the rules of the game to turn zero-sum games into non-zero-sum games may be one way to describe the arc of civilization for the past 8000 years"
I smiled as I read that, since a lot of this is pretty much the kind of thinking underlying the core values and principles that my little fledgling business venture is based on. I even have a downloadable FAQ (right click to download) that talks about playing to win versus playing for win-win (on Page 4, in the answer to the last question on Page 3). My own solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma has always been to stay silent and take the least cost approach for both parties taken together, and I've always wondered as to why on earth anyone should want to exercise any other option. Most economists expect that the "rational" decision of an average human would be to betray the accomplice, which is an indication of how deeply steeped in zero-sum thinking we all are.

I shall end this rather long post (and thanks for staying with me till here) with my own paraphrasing of the Serenity Prayer - Dear Lord, grant us the capability to win zero-sum games, the skill to negotiate a win-win in positive-sum partnerships, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen to that!

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