Wildflowers and everything but

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.” – Thomas A. Edison
“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein
Many years ago in a country far, far away, Skip Battle, the CEO of Ask Jeeves, asked me to be a member of an advisory committee. One of the things that we discussed in this advisory committee was what sort of a culture we wanted to create for the company, and I remember arguing very strongly for two things: 1. That the company be a meritocracy and 2. That you could not impose a culture on an organisation.
Culture comes from the top, it is learnt, and it can be changed. But you can’t change it by dictating it, any more than you can tell someone to respect you and have them obey you.
You think your team is lazy and unmotivated? Well, maybe they’re feeling disempowered. You think they’re whining? Maybe you’re not listening to their needs.
Now, I used to read The Economist regularly. I no longer have as much travel time in which to do so but it has shaped the way that I think, no doubt, as have my parents, my education at St Paul’s, my time at Berkeley, my friends, my jobs, a bunch of things. I am in favour of free flows of labour. I understand that economic behaviour is not rational, and I have a series of books that explain some of the reasons why. I think the markets have uses, but that they are imperfect.
I believe information wants to be free, that you have to be careful about incentives, that most people are fundamentally good. But there are some things, structures, and ways of thinking that are just an anathema to me.
This weekend I was up on wildflower country with my friend Jo. On Saturday we did a bunch of things ranging from checking flowers in a field to listening to the Cape Town Philharmonic in a church in Mamre to visiting a museum that contained a bunch of apartheid-era items. Jo was wondering at one point as we were wandering around how it was that such a thing could even exist. I get that. I also totally get how it did exist, and still does in some ways. I’m glad I wasn’t born in Burma or Sudan or Ethiopia or Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia could be ok, I guess, unless you were unlucky enough to be born female. Then again, in China or India, if you were female you might not have been born.
Yeah yeah yeah the world is unfair, right? Sure it is. But some of us have it better than others, and I am constantly grateful for my general health, for whatever gifts I have in the common sense, intellect, and human relations departments, for my education, and for the family support both emotional and financial that enabled me to move out of the house as a semi-capable young adult who could then have some wild successes (mostly work-related) and some wild failures (mostly not work-related).
Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve been thinking about BEE (Black Economic Empowerment, a topic I know a thing or two about from my time at Heart). BEE is a national act designed to move wealth into the hands of the groups that were disadvantaged under apartheid. As with any such tool, it’s laudable in its aim, blunt in its implementation, and has had some mixed successes.
It causes public outrage as when Woolies posts job ads that blatantly exclude whites from applying then bungles the response on social media.
It causes wasted capital by requiring all companies over a certain size to donate money to investment in the community which is so outside of most of their core competencies that the due diligence done is often lacking.
It could be a lot worse; it could be a full-on quota system like the caste-based one that India had (or has, not sure, I haven’t been paying attention). Affirmative action was a huge debate when I was at Cal. My experience, from teaching in the writing center, is that a good number of the kids from poorer school districts (usually African American or some type of Hispanic) struggled to construct English sentences properly. Crafting a well-researched essay with a thesis statement was far beyond them. NOT beyond their intelligence; beyond their training.
A huge topic of national discussion at the moment is the situation with the Lonmin mine workers’ strike. There has been violence, some deaths, Julius Malema is getting involved, Zuma’s opponents are criticising his response, calling it his Waterloo. The usual political stuff. Someone was saying the other day that she was sorry the workers weren’t paid a very high wage but guess what, unemployment is high and there are plenty of people willing to take those jobs if they are not.
My friend Craig, who used to run a McDonalds before he taught me most of what I know about the thinking of minimum wage staff, once espoused a similar view. Minimum wage should be low so as to incentivise people to upskill themselves and get better jobs. Can be hard if you have to work two jobs to be able to buy groceries for your family, but plenty of immigrants to America work their damn tails off doing just that without complaint. Behind one of my dearest friends’ success is her working class parents’ sacrifices.
I’ve talked before about a sense of entitlement being an issue. It’s something I struggle with myself; probably we all do. What’s my point? It’s that when we focus on the symptom and ignore the cause, we’re unlikely to accomplish what we want. There’s a lot that I like about BEE. There are some things that I would change.
But BEE is a red herring. South Africa is more a meritocracy than not. Sure there’s corruption. That happens everywhere, maybe a little worse here than some places, but better than many others. Bottom line though, the formal economy functions pretty well. But in a meritocracy you need people with the desire, the mindset, and the educational background to work their way up. You also need to be willing to play by the cultural norms that rule …. For better or worse. It’s like a job. You must adhere to the boss’ whims. That’s part of the culture bit.
The education system needs to be better. I don’t know enough to comment about whether it’s getting better, worse, or staying the same. But perhaps more important than that, mindsets need to shift. My friend Sne is case in point. This kid grew up in the Eastern Cape where they have to share schoolbooks among children. That’s bad, sure, but what’s worse? His family, other adults, his teachers all told him that he would never amount to anything so he should not bother trying. He’s soon graduating from Stellenbosch and is publishing a book. HOW he managed to do this, I don’t know, but hats off to him.
We humans are strange. We see that small actions won’t really solve the problem. But we are realistic enough also to know that the kind of large changes that would do so are far too difficult or long-term to accomplish, so we just throw our hands up in despair and do nothing. Or, we drink. Been there, done that, got the t shirt. I hate to lose or fail as much as the next person but if I’m going to spend my time I’d rather take responsibility and do it in a way that I think has a good chance of succeeding than throw my lot in with something that is ultimately going to waste my time, energy, goodwill, reputation, etc.
I know it’s foolish to make other people’s problems my own, and there is truth in the ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ aphorism. The older I get the more I recognise the wisdom in ‘God helps those who help themselves’ as either a universal truth or a good form of crowd management. Pick your poison. But the tragedy of the commons also exists. I guess as I become fully and I mean FULLY enmeshed in my new job which is so different from the old one I’m experiencing a bit of … I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s not guilt. It’s not apathy or frustration. Maybe longing?
Maybe the country air gets me thinking big thoughts. On the way back from dinner on Saturday (I had a chocolate milkshake! Shhhh!) I stopped the car in the middle of the road to the farm where we were staying. The stars were amazing. Makes you feel really, really, really small and unimportant.
Was thinking of that Bill Belichick quote again. We do all have defences. I wonder if it’s the case that where we spend all of our time trying to make people think a certain thing about us is where we actually feel most vulnerable. It’s easy to impose a quota system on the University of California, when the fundamental weakness is bad schools in poor areas. Take that metaphor and apply it as you will.
And speaking of Bill Belichick: oh my word that Arizona Cardinals game. First the Cardinals have it wrapped up and are running the clock down. Then they fumble it. Then the Patriots have a lock on the win … and they run the clock down, fourth down field goal attempt and Gostkowski misses a 42-yarder after making two previous attempts at 52 and 53 yards, respectively. I’m happy I can stream the Patriots. Just not happy when they don’t execute properly.
The best plan in the world can fail on execution. Always keep that eye on the ball, and do your best to win.
  • “You look tired.” – Kim (and that one observation accomplishes more than all the nagging in the world ever could)
  • “A bed. That’s a bed. That’s not a bed. Is that a bed?” – Ellie
  • “It’s a bit of a lottery, this life.” – Jo


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