Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Being a Keeper of My Brother's Mental Health

The more I think about it, mental health isn’t a personal health problem, where it’s solely our own responsibility to make healthy choices and “get fixed” if our mental state is unhealthy. it’s something for which we have a reciprocal responsibility with others. When it comes to mental health, maybe it’s better - and more accurate - to think about it as something for which we are our brother’s keeper.

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Letter from the Future: A Marriage Tool

This was an exercise I learned from a great coach I had the luck to work with as part of a class during my MBA. Robyn and I have kept up with it every year or two since then. Here are the instructions. You could do it by yourself, but Robyn and I dedicate an hour or so and do the exercise together.

Letter from the Future: Instructions

  1. Get a few pieces of paper and a good pen.

  2. Find a comfortable place to sit, and try to eliminate distractions like TV, music, etc.

  3. Get a watch / timer

  4. Write the date at the top of the page that is five years in the future. So if today’s date is January 1, 2019, write the date as January 1, 2024.

    1. You don’t have to do 5 years exactly, but the point is to choose a date a few years into the future.

  5. Set a timer

    1. You’re going to go hard, so try for at least 15 or 20 minutes. Robyn and I find that we extend the time to 25-35 minutes most of the time we do this.

  6. Write a letter to yourself about the life you are living in 5 years

    1. Rule - don’t ever let your pen stop moving for the whole time. If you can’t think of what to say, just scribble until your brain kicks in with a new idea

    2. Rule - be very specific. If you’re at your desk drinking coffee talk about what kind of coffee. If you’re talking about a new job that you just got, talk about the name of the company and your specific duties. If you just came in from playing in the backyard with kids, be specific about what you were doing. The point of this exercise is to have a vivid image of what your life is like 5 years from now.

    3. Rule - Talk about whatever you want, but try to give a full picture of life. Not just family, not just work, not just leisure, etc.

    4. Rule - Write until the clock stops

  7. Talk about your vision with someone you care about. For me, it’s Robyn. If you’re not married you can still do the exercise. Be sure to share it with someone, if you feel comfortable, that really knows you and can ask you probing questions.

  8. Do something fun, you’ve earned it!

Temperature Check: A Marriage Tool

I often look forward to Erik’s annual e-mail. One year, several years ago, he asked a question about relationships. I wrote him this letter. It’s a tool Robyn and I learned about from our wonderful friends Jeff and Laura. It’s something we’re religious about and it’s worked for us. We’ve missed our weekly temperature check less than 5 times in our whole relationship, I’d estimate.

Hope it’s helpful to you.

June 12, 2014

Robyn and I set aside time every week to talk about our relationship. We setup a structure, called temperature check, that we modified from some great friends of ours - they are married and have a kid. It's worked well for them. This check-in happens every week on Sunday...it's something we have committed to. You don't have to do it weekly, that's just the pace that works for us.

Anyway, we take turns sharing on each of the following topics, in this order. We also alternate who speaks first for each topic on a weekly basis:

1 - Appreciations: We talk about what we've been appreciating about the other recently. These could be small (e.g., I appreciate that you swept the floor) or large (e.g., I appreciate that you stayed up with me all night when my family's dog was sick). We always use "I messages"..."I appreciated it when you..."

2 - Issues: We talk about issues that we're having. It could be a self-issue (e.g., I'm having a hard time staying up so late), an issue about the other (e.g., I'm worried about how stressed you are at work), or mutual (e.g., I think we're not spending enough time with our families). Or it could be anything else. The key is, these issue can't be humongous. When we have bigger issues we say, I have this issue, let's set a time to talk about it. Temperature check is not designed for huge conversations, it's a check-in. Hopefully if you bring up small issues early, you have fewer big blow-ups.

3 - Requests for Change: We talk about small requests for the others. Keyword - small. (e.g., could you please not use metal utensils on teflon pans) That example is smaller than our average, but you get the idea.

4 - Other stuff: It's often easy to forget that your partner has his / her own stuff going on that affects them. We take the end of temperature check to catch up on all the news from other spheres of life outside our relationships. Work, family, ideas we have, societal issues we're thinking about, books we're reading, friend news...whatever. It's nice to know this stuff because it contextualizes where your partner is coming from and what external factors are affecting your relationships

5 - Logistics: Finally, we discuss logistics for the week. Different meetings, social plans we have, grocery lists, whatever. It makes sure we have time to spend with each other and we both have the right expectations about the other's activity and stress levels. It's a chore, but it prevents us from squabbling about little stuff.

A note: Remember about all this, it's really important to create a safe environment to have this discussion. Listen actively, don't allow distractions, commit to it every week, and empathize with the other person. Temperature check is useless if it's not a completely open and safe forum.

Hope this helps!

My Hopes for You Kids

When all you kids are grown up, there are many things I hope I don’t pass on to you.

I hope you don’t get my short height, or uncontrollably growing hair. I hope you don’t pick your nose or intermittently chew with your mouth open. I hope you don’t worry as much about what others think of you or be as beholden to pleasing others, as I am. I hope you don’t have as much youthful arrogance as I did. I always wanted to go on a road trip of the western national parks with your Dada, but we didn’t get to it in time before he passed away. I want to be around much longer, and I hope you don’t have to live with a regret like that.

I hope it doesn’t take you as long to realize how important family is in your life. Perhaps even more, I hope it takes you less time than it took me to open your heart to God.

I hope you don’t get my receding gums or my weak hips. I hope you don’t get my dreadful fear of being alone. I hope you don’t get gout, high cholesterol, or diabetes. I hope you don’t get my knack for verbose answers to simple questions. I hope you don’t get my outdoor allergies or my anxieties about failure. I hope you don’t get my temper or my weakness for fried potatoes.

Most of all, I hope you don’t get my tendency to obsesses over my imperfections, like I am doing now. I hope that if I try with my whole heart, that I can prevent you kids thinking that you’re not enough or not really that good at anything, like your pops does. I pray with my full heart and soul that you believe that what you’ve been given is enough, and that it is special.

Which leaves me in a predicament. Because I know that what you see me doing is what I will pass onto you. I can’t just hope not to pass these liabilities onto you, I have to change some of them. And the hardest change for me is self-worth: really believing that I have at least a few special gifts to pass onto you.

And so while I outline the things I hope I don’t pass to you, I must also try to tell you about at least a few parts of me that I do hope to share with you. Because I must learn to believe something of myself for you all to believe something of you.

I hope you get my curiosity and penchant for asking questions. I hope you get my openness to seeing the good in people who are rough around the edges. I hope you get my patience and love of a good bass drop. I hope you get your Dada’s honesty and your Dadi’s energy. I hope your mother and I can pass on at least a few lessons on how to build a strong, loving marriage. Perhaps most of all, I hope I can pass on the habits of reflection, spending time in nature, and reading.

My hopes are not enough, but perhaps they are a good start.

Book Summary: Stubborn Attachments, by Tyler Cowen

A summary of Stubborn AttachmentsA Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, by Tyler Cowen.

Overall, this book was a quick, no-frills read with a style that individuals who follow Tyler’s Marginal Revolution blog will find familiar and newcomers will likely find refreshing and concentrated with substance. The work is a valuable outline of the well-known economist’s philosophical orientation. Readers may or may not subscribe to Tyler’s argument, but it is clear to understand, well argued, and above all intellectually honest. I personally found it persuasive.

Keep reading for a summary of the key ideas (as I see them) and the questions I would ask the author were I to share a meal with him.

Summary from Amazon / Book Jacket

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth, in particular, has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun. If we want to continue on our trends of growth, and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for societies that come with it, every individual must become more concerned with the welfare of those around us. So, how do we proceed? 

Tyler Cowen, in a culmination of 20 years of thinking and research, provides a roadmap for moving forward. In this new book, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, Cowen argues that our reason and common sense can help free us of the faulty ideas that hold us back as people and as a society. Stubborn Attachments, at its heart, makes the contemporary moral case for economic growth and delivers a great dose of inspiration and optimism about our future possibilities.

A summary (in my own words)

Creating sustainable economic growth does the most good for humanity (in the long run), so our society should be focused on improving the sustainable economic “growth plus” rate (note: Tyler argues that common measures of economic growth to not reflect welfare appropriately, which is why we need a “growth plus” metric). Consequently, focusing on increasing the sustainable economic growth rate, so long as it does not violate human rights, undermine societal stability, or create environmental destruction is a moral imperative. To do this, we must place much more emphasis on the needs of people who will live in the distant future.

An outline of essential ideas (in my own words)

  • Chapter 1: Tyler makes two “philosophical moves” in this book

    • Don’t take productive economies for granted

    • Rethink moral distance - value future people much more than we do now

  • Chapter 2

    • “Wealth Plus” is extremely important because wealthy periods are when quality of life increases for all people

    • “Wealth Plus” tends to make people happier

    • A lot of happiness studies are flawed because of expectation changes

  • Chapter 3

    • We should maximize the sustainable growth plus rate because that is the greatest way to make everyone better off in the long run

    • There is an important constraint: don’t violate human rights

  • Chapter 4: Tyler argues in detail why we should have a much greater concern for future persons than we actually do

  • Chapter 5

    • We should redistribute (wealth), to a point…for as long as it increases the sustainable economic growth rate

    • If we are optimistic about the future we should redistribute relatively less (because we should deploy capital to where it creates the most growth)

    • If we are less optimistic about the future we should redistribute relatively more (because we can’t use our wealth after the world ends)

  • Chapter 6

    • We are most likely wrong about the long-run consequences of our actions but that shouldn’t paralyze us

    • We should adhere to a common-sense morality (Tyler explains what that is)

Questions I would ask the author (were I to share a meal with him)

I think your view is persuasive, but I find it incomplete. Perhaps that’s intended given the scope of the book. A major shift in thinking is required of a society that subscribes to your point of view, namely that we should value future persons more. How does that actually happen? How do you take “society” where it is and change the thinking of institutions and individual people so that they are more future oriented? How do you make today people care about future people more than they currently do (and then put their money where their mouth is)?

There’s one area that I’d also like to dig deeper. You discuss times in history where high sustainable economic growth rates have lead to lots of quality of life improvements that we value today. In other words (and loosely in your words) we are better off in the long run when we increase sustainable economic growth, even after accounting for uneven gains from growth in individual cases. We are better off because there is less suffering and senseless death, as well as art that’s created and other things of beauty. And this is true.

But is that even a complete picture of what we really want? Isn’t the real dream to have the freedom to pursue our own aspirations and dreams? Couldn’t it be that it’s not the growth in wealth that really creates happiness but that wealth simply creates the space for us to freely pursue the activities which make us happy and give us meaning? Wealth / growth may be a fantastic proxy, but isn’t it merely an enabler of our real aspirations?

I’m reminded of a time I was with my cousin sister in India. We went to a poor neighborhood (in a car, because she is a doctor and relatively wealthy) to purchase some firewood. I do not know whether this neighborhood was considered a slum by Indian standards, but most Americans would probably assume it was a “slum” if they saw a picture.

Nevertheless, she said something to me that has regularly echoed in my head since and will continue to, “they are happy because they have God.” Wealth probably does make enlightenment easier, but isn’t that enlightenment (or whatever spiritual / philosophical term you want to use) the real goal? I’m not disagreeing that wealth isn’t really, really beneficial, but haven’t we missed the point if we increase the sustainable economic growth rate and don’t achieve the mindset we need to actually value the improvements that the growth brings and have fulfillment? As you said, happiness studies are flawed because of expectation changes, but in real life the impact of our expectations and our mindset matters a lot. Isn’t meaning, enlightenment, and our mental orientation at least half the ball game? Isn’t your framework incomplete without a discussion of enlightenment and meaning?

Finally, I think it’s worth unpacking the specific role that different individual and institutional stakeholders have in increasing the sustainable economic growth rate. If the society is a complex system (I think it’s safe to assume that it is) I don’t think we can assume that to achieve a societal increase in the sustainable economic growth rate, individual people, companies, or countries should try to increase their individual sustainable economic growth rates as there are probably systemic dynamics which lead to unintended consequences when those agents act at scale.

Put more specifically, what is the role of individuals, governments, civil society, clergy, politicians, parents, etc. to increase the sustainable economic growth rate? Everyone has a role to play, surely, and what are everyone’s roles? Are there any types of stakeholders where there is a leverage point to really take advantage of? Are there any counterintuitive conclusions about any of those stakeholders’ roles?

The two ways I can think of to develop a feeling of care for the distant future

In his recent book titled Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen argues that we should care much more than we do about the distant future (among other things). It’s so interesting and honest a book I plan to post a review later this weekend. 

But for now, a question I have been ruminating on for many months now - how do I develop care for the distant future?

All I can come up with are the following two. Can you think of any other mechanisms to develop care, or a stubborn attachment if you will, for the distant future? 

The first mechanism is love. When I think of and look at my son, my heart becomes open. I don’t want to leave him in a world with tons of problems. I want to make sacrifices for his future. (And for the future of his spouse, friends, and neighbors).

And because I know Bo will love his kids, I love and want to make sacrifices for them too. And because my grandkids will love their kids, I love them and want to make sacrifices for them, and so on.

My love for my son, translates into a love for many generations after that. A love so strong that it transcends generations is one way to develop a concern for the distant future.  

The only other way I can think of to develop care for the distant future is beauty. There are some things, I think, that are so beautiful and so pure that they are worth something priceless. These things are probably different for different people, but are things like art, truth, God, family, sport, nature, music, and freedom. But it is an understatement to call them things, because they have more gravity than that. They are ideas that transcend a moment in time, because they are intrinsically meaningful.

These intrinsically meaningful things are such special creations that perhaps we just want them to exist in the universe, even long after we’re gone. We care about the distant future because we simply want these beautiful, intrinsically meaningful creations to exist in perpetuity.

I happen to agree with Tyler that we should care much more about the distant future than we do. Which is why I think it’s important to think of the messy, tactical question of the ways we can develop that sentiment. 

Why do you hate meetings?

I’m on a quest to find out why meetings are so bad. Why do you hate meetings? 

Some theories: 

  • They’re very long. Can we accomplish the same goal in a shorter time? 
  • They meander. What are we trying to accomplish here?  Is it compelling, or even clear?
  • The people. Is everyone prepared? Do we even have the right people here? 
  • The organizer. Leading a good meeting is a skill. Does the conveyer have that skill?

Perhaps most importantly is why so we have meetings in the first place, what could we do to accomplish just as much (or more) without so many meetings? 

Some theories: 

  • A process for making decisions is not clear. We have to meet if decision authority is split, or, debate is required. 
  • Information is asymmetrical. We have to meet if (or do we?) if information needs to be shared. 
  • I don’t trust you to do your job. We have a meeting for “accountability.” (This is humourous, because meetings make it difficult to do our jobs!)
  • Working through a problem. We each have something to bring to the table that is not easily activated without human-to-human contact. This is a great reason to have a meeting.
  • Efficiency. Borrowing from Paul Graham, meetings are efficient for managers, but not for makers. 
  • Hierarchy. If someone with higher ranks asks you to attend a meeting, you have little choice to skip.  

Why do you hate meetings? When are meetings totally worth it? What’s the best meeting you’ve ever had? What’s the worst one? 

H/t to Liz for the point about split decision making, I never thought about that.  

Halloween

I had forgotten why Halloween is so much fun. No SATs, no homework, no music classes, no pressures. It’s just a night where you run around in a costume and get candy. It’s care free.  

On Halloween, kids get to be kids.  

A 10 minute reflection that changed the trajectory of my life

The hardest part of this exercise is being honest with yourself. But if you can do that, even 10 minutes may substantially change your life in the long run. I know because it has changed mine.

I had the good fortune of working with a coach during my last semester at Ross. Kathy introduced me to this very simple exercise:

  1. Get a piece of paper and pencil
  2. Draw a line down the middle
  3. Label one side, “How I define success” 
  4. Label the other side, “How society defines success” 
  5. Fill out the page as honestly as you can

The difficult and unwritten 6th step of this exercise is choosing which side of the page to live by - and actually sticking with it.

But you can’t choose a side unless you know what the difference between them is. Showing me that there was a difference was how this exercise changed my life in a big way. 

Hit me with a gosh darn carbon tax

I could probably generate much fewer carbon emissions than I do. Robyn and I could carpool at least once a week. I could invest more in insulating our home. I could probably travel on planes less.

Why don’t I? Because I don’t feel the pain. I need to feel it to change my behavior. Please, hit me with a carbon tax.

Catastrophic climate change may or may not happen. But why risk it? And even if the catastrophes never fully happen, we’re already suffering from the respiratory consequences. 

So I ask, could someone please hit me with a carbon tax?