CategoryLearning

Know What Matters: Baseball, Boundaries and the Astonishing Beauty of Things

The poet Robinson Jeffers[1] worried that people increasingly failed to engage with the world or to appreciate nature, that we had become blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” around us. When I read Jeffers or Wendell Berry, or watch a baseball game or observe my wife and daughters tease each other or gossip or laugh together, I think about the importance of being present and aware in all phases of life. 

In a practical sense, this idea speaks to the benefits of knowing what matters more and what matters less when making decisions about what to do, where to look and how to enjoy the day.

Tools and Toilet Paper

Baseball helped organize my life. Growing up, when my family moved to a new town, my parents would sign us up for local baseball, basketball or soccer leagues to keep us active and help us meet other kids. Sports taught me discipline, the power of practice and importance of teams. In college at MIT, I played baseball with a group of guys that were especially attuned to and interested in what it took to be successful on the diamond.[2]

Professional baseball scouts often grade and profile players based on five “tools” central to success: the abilities to hit for average, hit for power, run (speed), throw (arm strength) and field. The elusive “five-tool players” are the superstars, the household names of each era such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout.

That means the application of expertise also requires knowing where to look. As a forest industry researcher, I sometimes support due diligence, when one firm looks to buy another, in whole or part. When touring manufacturing facilities in the past, I always looked in the bathrooms to see if they stocked toilet paper, if the hot water worked, if the floor was clean. Cleanliness in the bathroom, and in the shop, indicated that management cared about its employees and increased the likelihood that the facility was well run.

Understanding what matters also involves awareness of context. As Larry Schiamberg[3] wrote in the preface of his textbook Human Development, thinking about our situations and relationships “requires attention to the progressive interaction and mutual adaptation of human beings…throughout the life span.” Consider the example of a young couple working to develop its “own family structure” over time. Key stresses include sex, finances, and parental interference. 

In the end, them’s the basics: your bed, your bank account and your boundaries. And when something unplanned, unwanted or unexpected affects them, it destroys trust and erodes relationships. 

Conclusion

Each field and phase of life has its pain points and astonishing realizations. Elevating awareness and appreciation of the moment enhances gratitude, encourages simpler approaches, and diminishes the need to be at the center of things. In fact, knowing what matters, where to look and what to ignore puts our attentions towards relationships and taking joy in how things work.


[1] Jeffers sometimes gets quoted in articles related to my research in forestry; he was active in the environmental movement in the 1940s and 50s. 

[2] This led to me writing a book – Beaverball – about my experience on the team and one of our (few) winning seasons.

[3] Retired Michigan State University professor and my father-in-law. Yo, Pops, what’s up? 🙂

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.

Train or Hire? Both.

During my career in forestry, I learned that managing trees is about managing people. Forest resource managers and timberland investors are also human resource professionals. The work gets done through building productive relationships and teams.

As with a baseball coach, a manager “off the field” continually seeks opportunities to upgrade the skills of the team and develop younger talent for future roles within the organization. This requires a clear understanding of your objectives (“begin the end in mind”) and an assessment of whether or not the needed skills and abilities already exist on your team. Once we identify the gaps, then we can decide how to fill them.

To Train or Not to Train

Robert Mager, in What Every Manager Should Know About Training, specifies training for situations where, one, we identify things that people cannot do and, two, they need to be able to do these things to perform in their role. This framework, while obvious, acknowledges the existence of other ways to improve performance. Examples include coaching and feedback, and performance aids.

Coaching and feedback help us reinforce and enable wanted behaviors. If a member of your team does something well or poorly, tell them. They want, and deserve, to know, and it tells them that you’re paying attention. Sometimes they simply need a little guidance, a sympathetic ear or a resource.

Performance aids, to quote Dr. Mager, “cue people to do their jobs right.” Like a vetted checklist, a good aid reminds people to do the things they already know how to do. As a benefit, simple tools or aids can also reduce the need for excess training.

Train or Hire?

At Forisk, our forest industry research firm, we hire AND train OR outsource once confirming the need for additional capacity. When hiring, the person must, first and foremost, share the values of our team and then have the aptitude and interest to build skills that align with the needs of the business. In our experience with human beings, it simply does not work the other way around. 

When you hire a good person that fits the values of your team, it becomes a worthwhile no-brainer to invest in training. Internal training has, at times, important advantages. When people on the team develop and deliver the training to colleagues for firm-specific skills, it grows them as managers and leaders. In those situations, the entire team gets better.

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Note: in addition to the cited and linked sources, this post includes ideas from the article “Here’s How to Assess an Organization’s Education and Training Needs” by Brooks Mendell and Amanda Hamsley Lang.

How to Read the News and Articles

When reading anything, we want to prepare our mind. Mindless reading is like mindless eating. Be intentional and discerning in reading and application. Consider this simple approach for assessing the quality, credibility and relevance of what we read: ScanRead and Relate.

  • Before reading, scan the article or white paper to check its title, source, date, author name and bio (if there), figures and picture. This gives a sense of the rigor and shape of the article. It also answers, “is this current?”
    • I scan books, journals and magazines, too, and check the table of contents. This gives me a better feel for the material and its potential relevance.
  • While reading, focus on the theme and main ideas. Where does the supporting evidence come from (e.g. data, research, interviews, opinion)? 
  • After reading, relate the “value” in the article to your interests or objectives. Ask, “how is this relevant to me or my firm?” 

We don’t need perfection in our reading. However, we do benefit from intention and discernment. If we’re chilling on the porch with Beaverball or Family Circle, that’s one thing. If we’re reading a national newspaper, a proposal or a white paper, we gain time and advantage with a systematic approach.

Thinking Through Risk and Uncertainty: Contemplating the Coronavirus

“Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable…Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.”

from “Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble”

The coronavirus presents two specific risks to most of us. One, we transmit the virus to someone vulnerable (older, ill, or immunocompromised). Two, we or someone we love gets sick or injured in some other way and can’t access the health care system because it’s overwhelmed. These risks highlight the interconnected nature of the situation. Our individual choices affect others.

Given the risks, how do we contemplate a path forward?

We know what we don’t know.

This is a numbers game. And the numbers will get worse before they get better. In forestry, for example, trees planted years ago give us the forests we have today. Waves of trees can grow in massive booms. Foresters call this “a wall of wood” or “the pig in the python”.

With the coronavirus, the spreading that occurred silently weeks ago gives us the infections we have today. We don’t know the infection rate, which makes it difficult to know the pervasiveness, speed and, ultimately, decline of the coronavirus. What tells us we can return to normal? When we have smog alerts or forest fires or car crashes or hurricanes or food poisoning, we have metrics and indicators that signal “all clear!” Why? Because we have data.

We don’t know what’s knowable.

It does not matter if this situation is better or worse than people think, thought or said; it just is. And currently, we don’t know what “is” is. We can’t yet touch the bottom of the pool because we don’t know how deep the water is. We need data, and data requires testing. Each and every failure to deliver, offer, conduct, collect and communicate the results of a test reflects a small crime and failing in this battle.

Anything short of complete, ruthless transparency obscures our ability to know what is knowable, develop plans and support each other. From here, we can chart a path for our teams and help people make decisions for their local situations.

We know what to do.

In forestry, we have systematic approaches that apply generally to situations requiring clarity for making decisions. First, work to understand the local situation, as it varies by region and market. Second, question the data to understand its quality (e.g. seek trustworthy sources such as Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). And third, make (phone) calls to know what’s knowable and confirm that people have what they need to follow the simple practices we know work well.

With a clear sense of where we are and how things work, it’s easier to organize our teams and get moving. This gives purpose to our work and confidence in the process with an eye towards the future.

For those interested in a further discussion of strategic thinking (and how the coronavirus affects the forest industry), click here to read a five-page white paper.