#MentalNote · Education · Politics

The Psychology of Cults

Like most of you, I watched the assault on the Capitol Building with disgust and sadness. For starters, the Capitol Building, when I lived in DC, was right down the street from my apartment. I could feel the enormity of the building every time that I passed it. You see, the Capitol Building is way more than just a building where the US Legislators pass laws. It’s a symbol of one of the three pillars of our government. It’s a standing testament to an enduring idea crafted by our forefathers and passed on from generation to generation.

While we all can agree on some of the main drivers that led to what we saw last week, there’s an underlying belief system / mental state that allowed people to be driven to insurrection. I’m going all the way back to my undergrad for this analysis… One of the toughest but most satisfying classes I’ve ever taken – Advanced Political Theory.

During the class, we studied less about politics and more about psychology, geography, sociology, and history. My professor loved using the analogy of cooking. “Most of your education has been focused on the meal, but if you want to become a chef that makes these meals, you have to respect the ingredients and techniques that put the food on the table.” he’d say. It felt like a defense against the dark arts class… for the Harry Potter fans out there.

We spent a lot of time talking about the psychology of the electorate and what drives people into a tribe-like mentality. We also spent time discussing how tribes can sometimes resemble cults. I had to dig to find my notes but my professor mentioned five truths we should be aware of when structuring in and out-groups and how they can easily turn into cults. For our use, we should be aware of these five truths if we are going to repair The United States and come out better on the other side of this.

* I’m in no way excusing what extreme Trump supporters are doing. I’m just highlighting five truths we should think about if we want to break people free of cults. Also, this isn’t just a US problem. “Radicalization” can happen within religion, politics, socially, etc. These truths tend to hold in all areas.

  1. Life is inherently comfortable and human being’s existence (specifically in the west) is focused on chasing comfort. Cults/Tribes provide comfort in an uncertain world. The world has changed so quickly in such a short time due to globalization, liberalization, and economic shifts. People are being left behind in this changing world and that can be leveraged to drive discomfort. Think about the rhetoric that has been used and what a lot of supporters mention. “Trump hears us.” “We feel forgotten but we now feel seen” Being listened to and remembered creates a level of comfort that can be manipulated if it’s not coming with the best intentions.
  2. Democrats vs Republicans created an in and out-group which that leads to us vs them framing. For some reason, our political affiliation has become one of the most salient parts of our identity, specifically for those who find themselves on the MAGA side of the spectrum. My hypothesis is social media has stripped away location, skin color, economic background and its become the great equalizer for the delivery of ideas. This isn’t to say that these attributes aren’t there, based on social saliency theory, specific attributes just rise to the top. As a result, it’s easier for people to create their own reality because they are talking with people that view their life through the same lens which also reinforces the idea of being heard and a sense of comfort.
  3. Cults tend to deal in absolutes. They provide an absolute way of looking at the world which helps create a more stable foundation. Think about it this way, the world is super complicated with many moving pieces. Some would say it’s even more complicated with the rapid change we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Cults tend to abstract complexity and provide simple explanations of why things are the way they are. This is normally easier to digest and manage for the person who wants to sort through an ever-changing reality. Now abstracting complexities is not all that bad but the process tends to make irrational jumps in logic and truth to create a more simple reality. This is why conspiracy theories and “fake news” is so essential to an absolute perspective. Conspiracy theories provide the framework for abstracted complexities and the fake news defense serves as a moat for any facts that may refute the conspiracy theories and the larger abstracted truth.
  4. Cult leaders are black belts in mind control. Let’s be frank. Trump is a master seller. He used this skill to catapult himself into the real estate industry and several of his other ventures. He leveraged his master skill to get the right people to vote for him back in 2016 and then brought out even more people in 2020. By reinforcing everything we’ve mentioned above, he’s used tactics like brainwashing (reinforcing lies by constantly saying them) and driving paranoia throughout his ranks. Trump did a great job of convincing people that the other (Everyone against him) and/or the government is out to get them, but his rallies and his group can provide safety. Once someone concludes that the “other” and country cannot keep them safe, they begin to worship and put all of their faith in the person who provides comfort and protection.
  5. Cults tend to focus on total control and less on optionality. If you’re controlling a person’s reality, allegiances, perspectives, and mobility, you might be leading a cult. Seems like control was an under-current for MAGA and a lot of Trump rhetoric. As a result, a subgroup of people answered the call to storm the Capitol Building in DC and other legislative buildings throughout the United States.

Once again, this isn’t to excuse. To use my professor’s analogy, we need to understand the key ingredients that led to the food we’re forced to serve. Even in this explanation, I’m sure you can see some areas where the private sector and the US government can drive reform to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

#MentalNote · communication · History · Leadership · Movies · Technology · venture capital

Overcoming Collaboration Trauma

I try to write and post by Friday but this topic had a lot of angles and research involved so I thought I’d take the weekend. Here we goooo.

Collabo

Earlier this week, I was on a call with a group of black founders thinking of collaborating in a major way. (More details to come) During the meeting, one of the founders said something that I’d never heard before. “ As we work together, we have to understand that many of us have “collaboration trauma” and we need to be cognizant of that as we find new ways to collaborate.”

After the meeting, I went down a rabbit hole trying to figure out if there was any information out there on collaboration trauma and I used my google-fu to find research or articles mentioning collaboration trauma. I couldn’t find anything significantly substantial.

Taking a step back, I walked through my experiences with collaboration to better understand what they meant….Some background for those who still wonder what I do for a living.

  1. I work at Kohactive as a product manager. I help companies build software products for internal and external usage. Yes, that is me on the first page.
  2. I teach at General Assembly as a part-time instructor – I teach product management twice a year.
  3. I invest and advise early-stage startups at the intersection of technology and impact at tiphub.vc
  4. I assist my father with his ventures in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Kenya.

Collaboration, in most of my work, is essential to unlocking significant value for the parties involved. But with certain areas, there’s a lot of structures that are repeatable and trustworthy which makes collaboration easier.

For example, as a product manager at Kohactive, there are processes and methodologies in place for me to leverage to ensure I’m working well with designers, engineers, users, customers, etc. I rely heavily on those processes to make sure there’s maximum collaboration.

As an instructor, there’s a standard norm of teacher/instructor to student. I spend most of my time navigating that predefined role in order to create a positive experience for students. On my end, I look at it as getting paid to learn about different industries.

With tiphub, there’s a lot of collaboration opportunities but this is where most opportunities fall through. Most of the time, I’m caught taking meetings / having conversations that make me feel like I’m stuck in a power struggle. I feel like there’s someone who is trying to finesse me or I’m getting the better end of the transaction.

Working with my father is a total crapshoot. Sometimes it hits and sometimes we get burned. But over time, there are wins.

Epiphany: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Prisoner’s Dilemma came to mind as a great mental model to think through strategies of collaboration. (I finally get to show I learned something in econ class.) Here’s a quick rundown:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a subset of Game Theory that explores the incentives for collaboration between two actors. It was originally framed in the 1950s with this scenario:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison
  • If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

There’s a ton of research on this but one of the best examples of the prisoner’s dilemma is in the movie Dark Knight. Just to give a little more context, during the movie, activities facilitated by the Joker cause two ferries, one full of prisoners that Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon locked up and the other full of other people, to escape the city on a boat.

While sailing off, the two ferries lose all power and their engines die. Both ships realize there are explosives all about the boat, and they both find detonators. It is at this time that the Joker’s voice is heard over the loudspeaker of both ferries, and he informs them that they are part of a social experiment. The detonator on each boat is for the other boat.

One ferry must press the button and destroy the other boat by midnight, or else the Joker will destroy both boats. This drags out for a while, but eventually, people in the ferry decide not to blow the other boat up.

If you’re interested- here’s the scene in how it plays out at the end:

Probably on the top 10 list for best movies of all time, this scene encompasses so much.

The Joker, as he’s swinging back and forth, said, “Until their spirit breaks completely.” (keep this in mind, we’ll need it later)

One of the major areas of research in the prisoner’s dilemma is focused on incentives for collaboration. This is best evaluated in a matrix.

The dominant strategy for a player is one that produces the best payoff for that player regardless of the strategies employed by other players. The dominant strategy here is for each player to defect (i.e., confess) since confessing would minimize the average length of time spent in prison.

The payoffs make sense in different scenarios. For example, imagine playing 100 rounds and you don’t know how the person will interact. Tit for tat might become the more effective route.

In reality, there are ways to skew outcomes for effective collaboration. For example, #nosnitching law in the streets ensures you understand what to do if you end up in a cooperate/ defect scenario. Standards and norms, in certain scenarios, set up the way we should play the game. In my work life, instructors vs students roles encompass norms that help us understand the best way to collaborate. Even in product management, agile sprints, user stories, wireframes…etc, all of that are tools to engage in more cooperative outcomes for stakeholders.

As I start to look in other areas, specifically in finance and business development, there’s a lot of tailwinds to effective collaboration. For example, there are fewer norms around cooperation when you’re figuring out how to create untapped value. There’s less trust. And in low trust environments, people tend to operate in their own best interest and have no real incentive to collaborate.

This takes me back to what the Joker said in the clip; “Until their spirit breaks completely.” He was responding to Batman’s assertion that people are inherently good and will choose to cooperate over and over again. I believe Joker was onto something, at a certain point people would get fatigued from cooperating and not getting the same incentive as they should. They lose trust in the game and eventually decide to set up a new game with better players, or they play a whole different game.

Collaboration Trauma

Often times black founders who are building startups in the tech space are operating in low trust environments for several reasons:

  • A smaller amount of resources: Less than 1% of venture capital goes to Black founders. (To give you perspective, there was 34 billion USD of venture capital investments done in 2020 Q1) Most founders are in hyper-competition for resources. So the incentive for collaboration might be misaligned.
  • Knowledge/ information asymmetry: Black founders in tech are operating in spaces where they have been systematically shut out. As a result, the knowledge of the processes or communities that help facilitate trust and increased likelihood of cooperation is not available. Ultimately, black founders in tech end up in less cooperative scenarios.

I’m sure there are other industries where this happens. I’m sure there are other groups that are shut off from opportunities in way that leads to, as the Joker described, a broken spirit. This is the trauma that many disenfranchised groups carry with them when they think about collaboration.

So how do we fix it? Well at tiphub, we’ve definitely identified this problem and we’ve started to realize transparency is one of the largest impediments to collaboration. So we’ve really been focused on how we can work on exposing things we normally wouldn’t think to share. For example, we have a playbook where we walk through every process about our company and how and why we make decisions. If you want to read more – read here .

We made our playbook open source. We’re also going to start releasing data on our programs and benchmarks to everyone. A lack of transparency and process is the best way to ensure collaboration is difficult. We’re on a mission at tiphub to increase our success rate by sharing already existing frameworks and making sure everyone has the information needed to increase trust and collaboration.

If we’re going to increase the likelihood of more equitable collaboration in our organizations and interactions, we have to look for those spaces where there’s gray area and work to bring process and transparency as much as we can. If we don’t, we’ll continue to stifle collaboration and perpetuate less optimal outcomes.

#MentalNote · History · Politics · startups · venture capital

It’s Time To Build Pt. 2

Marc Andreessen, one of the co-founders of Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a timely piece during the height of the US COVID-19 crisis. Titled It’s Time to Build. It’s essentially a call to arms for builders to focus on creating a better reality where we’re prepared for tomorrow’s challenges. It was a collective call to create a more conducive environment for builders and sounded like a call to get back to what made the United States great; making and creating. 

Fast track to George Floyd’s death and we’ve seen a significant outpouring of support and collective action around ending racism and destroying racist institutions. Now more than ever, there’s an awakening to the fact that black people are suffering from systems built to disenfranchise and systematically ensure they’re held down. We’re at a pivotal point globally. We’ve all seen the decentralized protests around the world demanding change and justice for George Floyd and others who have died at the hands of those sworn to protect them. People, now more than ever, want to tear down and rebuild these institutions. 

As we think of building and tearing down institutions we should make sure we’re focused on building a more inclusive type of institution. The only way we’ll really achieve the promise of a future where there’s equality for all is to ensure everyone is in the workshop as we’re building. We know this is currently not the reality. Black people lag behind on most indicators that would lead them to be in the rooms to be a part of this building process. In venture capital, for example, where the rubber meets the road when it comes to building, the stats are abysmal. For those who aren’t familiar with the venture capital space, here’s some data to provide some color:

  • 77.1 percent of founders were white—regardless of gender and education.
  • Just one percent of venture-backed founders were black.
  • Women-funded startups received only 9 percent of investments.
  • Latino founders made up 1.8 percent of those receiving funding, while Middle Easterners totaled 2.8 percent.
  • Asians were the second most-backed group, making up 17.7 percent of venture-backed founders.

From Ratemyinvestor.com 

We can’t build this new reality if there’s this much inequality in the venture capital industry. I don’t think individual actors are deliberately enforcing inequality – I believe the “system” of risk capital is flawed and perpetuates actors to not act in an equitable way. Venture capital is just one example. There are disparities in healthcare, education, job creation, urban development, and etc. Everywhere we look, there are systems that disproportionally affect black people, and most of the time, for the worst.

If we aren’t careful, we’ll build on the same bias and power structures and we’ll be back in the same spot 20 years from now wondering how we got to where we are. 

#MentalNote · History

Some Thoughts On This week 5/29/20

  1. This is a cycle. A black person dies. We get angry. The law intervenes. We assume justice comes and then it doesn’t. How do we break the cycle?
  2. There are several definitions of justice. Most relevant to this situation, – the administering of deserved punishment or reward. Justice in the legal sense makes sense but morally, especially around situations of murder, justice as a transaction doesn’t seem to be equitable.
  3. As black people, we need a new social contract with the United States. For those unfamiliar, social contract theory, made famous by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. Between COVID / police violence, and economic downturn, there’s probably no better time than now.
  4. These news cycles are Jimmy John’s fast now. Wasn’t it just a week ago that Joe Biden had that gaff with Charlamagne on Breakfast Club? Are people still mad at him? Honestly, it feels like it was weeks ago.
  5. Joe Biden is going to have to put an avengers (endgame) level team together if he wins in November. Between international diplomacy, domestic affairs, a pandemic, an economy that is about to collapse, and a gutted government, he’s going to need people who can execute on day one.
  6. In moments like this, I feel an immense sense of hopelessness. What can I do to really change this world or stop things like this from happening? I’m reminded of a message from Robert F Kennedy –

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work
to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be
written the history of this generation… It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Also gotta throw a Tupac/Wale quote here as well.

I’m not saying I’m going to change the world. But I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world

#MentalNote · Learning

Ideas That Changed My Life

A couple of months ago, I read Ideas That Changed My Life by Morgan Housel, a Partner at the Collaborative Fund. I thought I’d make my own list as a reflection exercise.

Life is suffering

Rough one to start off a list with. Buddha once said that “Life is suffering”. A more pessimistic and often times wrong way of looking at this that life is nothing but suffering. What Buddha means, or at least what I think he means is if you have to accept suffering as much as you accept the happiness in your life. The more you accept that you’ll suffer, the less likely you won’t feel as entrenched in the situations that cause suffering. A great practical example is working out. I work out and I feel sore after I’m done. Underneath it all, my muscle fibers are breaking themselves apart to become stronger in the long run. If I want to enjoy my gains in strength, I have to accept the soreness and discomfort that comes with it.

Understanding life is suffering opens life up to a bunch of new opportunities. It decreases fear of the unknown and allows people to take more risks. It also allows you to maintain a stoic outlook on things that happen to you in life.

You can’t change things outside of your control, but you can change your attitude.

This saying takes from the stoic practice of being a micromanager of your thoughts and feelings like the only thing you can really control. Honestly, by following this practice, I’m always surprised by what happens but always enter a situation with the knowledge I can manage my thought and emotions more than I can dictate the outcome.

Real happiness comes from trying to be the best version of yourself

The real happiness is in growth. Imagine all times you’ve struggled through something or learned a new skill and then seen growth in that activity. Challenging yourself to continuously grow to the best version of yourself is one of the few areas where you can achieve true happiness.

Innovation happens at the intersection of traditionally unassociated areas.

The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures is a book written by Swedish-American entrepreneur Frans Johansson in 2004. In this book, Johansson describes that disruptive innovation often comes from people who are not in that specific industry and the biggest innovations happen at the intersection of unrelated areas.

This idea provides a process/map where people can find brilliant ideas…Most of the time it’s in a totally random place where most wouldn’t think to look.

You’re a walking miracle

The probability of human birth alone is close enough to zero. The idea that your body didn’t give up on you as many ways as it could, or the fact you survived the day to read this is a testament to miracles. Your existence continues to compound in improbability until you grow old and pass on.

Remember how special you are is super important but it also helps you realize how special those around you are and how lucky they are to have you in their life and for you to be in theirs.

Belief is one of the most powerful tools we have as humans

The power of belief is a testament to the power of the brain and mindset. We can trick our brains into doing things just by believing a couple of fundamental truths, for better or worse.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Perfect is an unattainable, ever fleeting benchmark that really doesn’t exist. Good, most of the time, is enough and perfection gets in the way. This resonates as a product person. They’ll never be the perfect time to launch or the perfect time to refactor, or the perfect set of features. At the end of the day, just get out there. You’ll be better with an executed good rather than waiting on an ideal perfect.

80/20 Rule

I didn’t believe the 80/20 rule but it just proves to be a universal truth. For those who are unaware, 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results. This has wide crossing implications but it comes into play when you focus on where to allocate time and resources. Think of businesses, for example. Let’s take Google. Search and Ad business accounts for about 20% of the company and accounts for around 80% of Alphabet/Google revenue. Even personally, when you work out, the last set when you’re tired account for a majority of your gains. I’ve found this to apply in nature, society, life, etc.

Visualize The Worst-Case Scenario

Sometimes we fear the unknown and it festers in our brain which leads to uncertainty, doubt and a lack of confidence. Something I learned from a professional speaking class that made a lot of sense is imagining the total failure of speech/situation. What are the steps you take or don’t take to get to that situation? How do you feel? What happens as a result of the worst-case scenario coming to bare? Visualizing the worst that can happen reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Littlefinger:

“Don’t fight in the North or the South. Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”

Littlefinger – Game of Thrones

I’ll write a follow up next year…….