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"Dupont Circle North Entrance" by Ben Schumin, via Flickr Creative Commons, Copyright CC BY-SA 2.0 

Keep it real

My last post asked readers to experience countries in disarray. This week we will discuss ways in which we can become more aware of reality closer to home. Why is this important? Because this blog deals with power and with how to become better at anticipating (and strategizing how to overcome) adversity. And the main reason why the privileged few (most readers of this post) fail to foresee trouble ahead in business, leadership, and life is because they are shielded from the reality of the many.

Successful and wealthy people naturally set up, or curate their lives in ways that blind them to the tough realities most others experience. Let us engage in a basic thought experiment: think of a normal day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. Now let’s identify the ways in which your life differs from the one experienced by most people. We can call it the daily bubble (see illustration below).

If you wake up and have a cook or domestic worker take care of your meals, cleaning your home and getting your children ready for school, your morning is definitely very different from that of most other people. Then comes the moment you step outside your house to go to work. If you have a driver, if you drive, or (privilege of privileges) you happen to walk to work, that is a far different experience than having a long commute in shoddy public transportation. Then, once you get to work do you have an office or a cubicle or desk in a bullpen? In other words, do you spend most of the day in close physical proximity with others so you can hear about or commiserate with their challenges? Finally, do you also have an assistant who does those things you think you lack the time to do or (worse yet) that you think are beneath you? An assistant often becomes a gatekeeper who curates reality for you.

Let’s be clear: this post is not meant to make you feel bad about your success. Far from it. It is meant to make you acutely aware of the blind spots that naturally follow when you succeed and lead others. Nothing in this world is free of challenges, and success brings many problems, including isolation and a loss of perspective.

In my career one of the most refreshing experiences was learning that the regional CEO of a company I worked for took a moment every day to hand wash his coffee mug and some dishes in an office kitchen. Maybe he was posturing, but I don’t think so. In a modest way he was trying to do something mildly uncomfortable, and he was sending the right message too. If you reach a point in your life or career when you think that any amount of physical labor is beneath you, you are in trouble.

Use public transportation as much as possible. In fact try to board a bus, not the subway. You will meet a different demographic there and overhear troubles you would not hear from more affluent subway riders. Plus, public transportation exposes you to cockroaches, rats and other vermin (that is certainly the case in NYC). This shows you what people have to deal with.

The grounding effect and the insights you get using public transport hit me since I started doing it again here in the US. Living in Bogota I never stepped inside a bus to go anywhere. I drove or walked (mostly walked) to work. And I had plenty of domestic help. I was separated from everyday reality by a thick layer of people and stuff. And it took me that much longer to understand politics and life in that country. The time in my career when I best understood a nation was when working as journalist in Caracas where I took the overcrowded, non-air conditioned subway to work every day. It was also a time when I most frequently talked to multiple people, from the street vendor to the government minister and it helped me really gain the pulse of political life in that country.

No matter how wealthy or busy you happen to get, there is always time to wash some dishes and ride the bus. You will better understand reality and people, and will become better equipped to foresee adverse times.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

This past week I decided to re-read “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2010), originally written in 1989. The book details the era in the 1980s when the Wall Street firm Solomon Brothers created mortgage bonds and transformed the bond market in the process. These years were the necessary precursors to the 2007-2008 subprime mortgage crisis which knocked the world upside down. Lewis was a young bond salesman at Solomon back then, and the book tells the funny and unnerving reality of Wall Street he experienced and which eventually made him a world famous non-fiction writer. Since then, Lewis has penned other memorable business and finance bestsellers like “The Big Short” and “Moneyball”.

Liar’s Poker also provides a window into how bond traders and bankers with incredible pay packages would lose perspective as they climbed up the corporate ladder at Solomon and ended up neglecting those below them, the firm’s best talent, the people who helped make the firm’s wealth possible in the first place. It was the young and hungry novices who would often know more about the complex financial products the firm was selling than their bosses and handlers. As expected, Salomon became very poorly run and ceased to exist when it was acquired by Citigroup years later. There is a lesson here about perspective and keeping things real.