Margins

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This week I thought that I would take a different tack than I have taken in previous weeks in part because I am stuck, as you can see on my last post.  I don’t really have any answer for where I should invest my time, which is really all that I can control.    I have a tendency to keep going over and over a problem expecting a different output, looking for things that I might have missed, but that is often unfruitful.  I have often found that when I am stuck on a problem that the answers do not reside withing the problem as it is framed.  More concretely, if a bridge buckles under its expected load, you can go over the calculations and see if there were errors in how the force was supposed to be distributed.  There may be some error there, but after checking the calculations, it is more likely that there was something unplanned which caused the bridge to buckle, a force, such as a hurricane, ship crashing into a pylon, earthquake or some other unintended variable which caused the bridge’s downfall.  In that spirit.  I am going to consider a few of the things that are not related to the central questions that I am asking.  Perhaps the answers reside there.

I should say that to the best of my ability, I compose all of these posts in one sitting without reference material, outline, and often without proofreading.  Apologies to the reader, but I hope my ambling walks are not too hard to follow. To the extent possible I hope that the theme of these posts provides them a coherence that they lack in terms of structure.

That’s the prologue, here I start.

Margins
Its a funny word, it hasn’t much changed over the centuries from the Latin.  It simply means edge in Latin, but it has taken on many other meanings.  As I hope I will show.

Margins on our Lives
My rector once said “Your day off is like the margin on a page.  Without the margins on a page all of the lines would blur together, and it would be very difficult to move to the next line.”

Based on the last couple of months of working 80% I believe that there is some truth in this.

I should probably talk, I think for the first time about the primary impetus that I had for going 80%.  Prior to ‘Peanut’ there was ‘Button.’  This is the name of the little baby (boy, don’t ask me how I know, it’s just what I believed to be true) that was lost late last year.  We didn’t get to meet Button, we had him, were excited to have him, and then grieved more than I thought was possible when he left us.  Button was the primary reason I went 80%, or at least the catalyst thereof.  Here is a small vignette.

We were sitting in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, waiting for our turn to hear about whether we had definitely lost him, or if there was something else wrong, and I kept getting work Emails.   These Emails were from on of the teams that I support.  They basically requested that I violate the rules to make some changes that would make the team look better, though it wouldn’t actually change the revenue to Google, and would actually hurt the sales bonus of the teams in question.  The error could be corrected later, but not until the end of the quarter.  To me, this was a question of form over substance and of simple right and wrong.  I stupidly started replying to these Emails, and went back and forth, back and forth with these sales leaders, and consistently told them the same thing.  This really made me mad.  It made me so mad, in fact, that I wasn’t able to be fully present with my wife as we were both anxiously waiting for our turn with the midwife.  At one point, probably one of the points where our lives hinge.  I looked down at my phone to send another note, looked up at my tired and sad wife, and thought to myself.

“What the hell am I doing?”

I had allowed my work to start consuming my life.  After that little bit of perspective I began to think about all of the other ways that my work had started to consume the values that I hold more dear.  I had found myself starting to worry about how I would be perceived rather than whether I was doing the right thing.  I had started to worry about things like promotion.  I thought back to a time, not long before when I had gotten some M&Ms in an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) on a particularly nasty patrol and thought that I had basically won at life.  This little moment revealed to me that I didn’t have the margin that I needed on my life to worry about the things that were important. I felt like I needed to deliberately shoot myself in the foot, reduce my time commitment at work and reject the career-values that I had started to embrace.

So, that’s the backstory.  Has it happened?

Mercifully, I can honestly say that it has.  I have been able to start learning about non-profits, double-bottom-line businesses, and simply spending more time supporting my wife.  Taking a deliberate step away from the crowd, from the people who largely seem to think that success in life=being a director at Google has provided me with tremendous perspective on my work.  It has, ironically, probably made me better at my job than I was before because I have more analogies to draw from, and a bit more equanimity.

So where has this time been going?

The Marginalized
This was where my exploration of where to start investing my time and money came from.  In parallel with the thought investigations that I have been doing here, I have been looking at various businesses and nonprofits with missions that I thought I might be able to support.

Here are a few:
Freedom House: this is a charity that helps women who have been trafficked into Australia out of that life.  I am going to see if I can help them with a bit of financial modeling in the short term, and potentially provide employment for some of these women in the long term. I am trying to work with Helpling on this as well.

Team Rubicon Global: This is a one of a kind organization that helps veterans use the skills that we learned in the military to help with disaster relief.  I worked with them while I was living in New York City. I helped set up some of the hurricane relief shelters on Manhattan. They are trying to start their first Australian branch, and I am trying to see if I can help them find the funding they need to get started.

Thank you Water: This is a great double bottom line business based in Melbourne that helps provide clean water in the developing world for every bottle of water that you buy.  I am working to see if we can get Google to stock the water, but because we have outsourced our food to someone who outsourced their purchasing, getting another brand of water in our refrigerators is like pulling teeth.

Settlement Services International: This is an organization that handles the cases of recently arrived refugees from the UNHCR and those who merely found their way here.  I would love to see if there are some technical problems that we can solve, some money that we can raise, and long term.  I would love to employ some of the people who are looking for a fresh start here in Australia.  This is more than just my penance for the work that I did in consulting.  As a migrant myself, I just wish these people had the same chance I did.  They didn’t choose to be born where they were.  Here is an article I wrote about that.

I have also been in touch with the people at Small Giants, New Gen, and the Atlassian Foundation to see if there are ways that we can work together.  Things like hack-a-thons, outright funding, and my personal time are things I would love to give more of.   I have also been looking at small businesses to buy where I think I might be able to provide the kind of entry-level jobs that refugees and people who have been trafficked need.

The more time that I spend looking at the marginalized here, the more time I wish I had.  This leaves me with a bit of a quandary.  Much of the value that I can provide to these places if my virtue of my proximity to a bunch of kind-hearted engineers, and the salary/time flexibility that Google gives me.  If I reduce my time at Google still further, then I become less valuable in some regards, if I increase my time at Google than I become less valuable in other regards.  If I increase my combined contribution inside and outside of Google, then I eat into my:

Margin of Safety
(you like how I worked that in there, I think it was pretty clever).  I had a good chat with my friend Kiel the other night.  He too is a Columbia Business School grad, he was visiting Sydney, and we shared a meal and some beer.  He made this great point. The amount that we are able to give to others cannot exceed what we are able to spare.  Logically, this is flawless.  You fundamentally can’t give something that you don’t have.

I have been very grateful for a piece of advice that I received when I was nineteen and living in Atlanta.  A furniture salesman-come-friend advised that I should always base married life on just one income, not on two.  Inevitably, one of the two of us would step out of the labor force and need to find a new job (he’s right, at roughly 5% unemployment this means that in a 20 year career one whole year will be out).  I took this to heart and it has saved me a tremendous amount of heartache.  We always bought or rented smaller houses than we could afford, had lower payments on just about everything because we depended on this.  Most mercifully, it allowed me to do what Kiel pointed out.  It allowed me to give of my time, and money to causes that I thought were worthwhile because I had the time and money to give.

The unfortunate thing here is that it’s pretty limiting.  I don’t have a lot of money to give, and my surplus time, even with my extra day off doesn’t exceed ~12 working hours per week.  While I can’t do much about the time there is something that I could do with the money to increase my impact.  I could follow something like the advice that Donald Trump gave.  I read a book that he wrote while I was in Afghanistan. He talked about the virtues of leverage or in old-time speak

Buying on the Margin (See how I did that again, damn, I think I’m smart)
I could lever myself up and buy a business or a house on a margin, much like stock investors did before the great depression, and home investors did in America before the financial crisis, but this leverage cuts both ways.  If you buy a ~$1M house like many Americans did in 2007 on a margin of 10 to 1 loan to principle with a 5% interest rate.  You are loving life when your investment increases by 10%. You just made ~$50K (the $100K capital gain less the ~$50K in interest).  This cuts both ways though.  You really hate life when the housing market tanks (though we obviously know this is impossible because the housing market is special in America and never tanks…oh wait…), and falls by 10%.  You just lost your principle and are now in debt by ~$50K.  If it falls by 20%, then…gulp….~-$150K.  Trump thought this was really clever because the jerk could exploit the tax system and deduct the interest on these loans as they grew, re-lever the assets, and then when the whole damn thing came crumbling down he could declare bankruptcy as his companies did four times…(what a ‘winner’).  [Oh, by the way another truth about Trump, he made a lot of his money in casinos, colloquially known in statistics as places that tax people who can’t do math, or more accurately, those who often are the least educated and poor people in society, what a legacy…]

Who are the truly marginalized if this is the context?  It is not those who never had the capital to start out with, not those who had the capital, tried to increase their impact through leverage, and then lost it all?  It seems to me that the laws are largely already in place to protect those who would like to lever themselves up (interest deduction), and then fail (bankruptcy), but we have precious little in my home country, and across the globe for those with no assets to start with.  I would like to help them.  I am tempted to borrow a bunch of money to start a business, or put together a stupid app so that some equally stupid venture capitalist can lend me the money, but then I know that will then work for my creditors, that I will lose the margin on my life, that I will not be able to focus on the marginalized because they are less efficient, and that I will be eating into my margin of safety.

Is it possible to make a double-bottom line business where you take care of your suppliers, employees (ideally those who are marginalize), and customers without buying on a margin and starting with shaky foundations?

Now that’s a tougher question I would love to answer, not in the abstract, but in the real world.

Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.





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