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.

Filtering by Category: Morality

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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What is good vs. How to become a good person

The most important ethical question I grapple with is not what is good, but rather how to become a good person, especially amidst cultural pressure. In our times, distinguishing those questions is essential.

A lot of the moral philosophy I’ve read in the past focuses on the what. What is right conduct? What is good? How does a good person behave? All this is important, but it is theoretical. The most practical I’ve seen this line of inquiry get is contemplating how to create or manage an ethical society.

I don’t often read ideas about how to turn this question inward and focus on the how for an individual person. How do I, a frail, imperfect, falliable, and mortal being become more good than I am now? The first question of what is descriptive, the second question of how is reflective. And more over, I think if one contemplates how to actually become a better, more ethical person, they must also consider what right conduct is and what a good person does. The question of how encapsulates the question of what.

This perhaps pedantic point matters a lot, I think, because of the times we live in now. Individuals hold much more power than they did even a hundred years ago because each of us now have access to much more knowledge and many more tools to inflict harm on others if we so chose (e.g., weapons, a social media megaphone, transportation, networks of people). It’s not just the ultra-rich or members of high society that can strongly impact others’ lives. As a result, we must all  become good people, because if we do not we are much more capable of causing serious harm.

The times we live in also make actually following through on our notions of right conduct harder. Why? Because we have so much more exposure to social pressures from other humans (e.g., via social media, global travel, news media, the internet) than any other time in history. We have to parse through many more messages that try to persuade us to act and think in a certain way than any of our ancestors did. Listening to our own hearts on what is right and what is wrong and actually walking that walk, is a heck of a lot harder when there’s a cacophony of thousands of other voices in your ear at all times.

In this post, I’m merely pointing out the question of how and trying to give a few reasons of why that question is important. But even though I’m tapping out on answering that question in this post, I do have some ideas.

I’ve been working on this question of how for over a year now. The first part (in very rough form) of my answer to the question of how one becomes a good person is here. If you care about the question of how to become a good person, I’m eager to hear your own reflections or have you share a guest post on this blog.

 

The Little Quits and Moral Indifference

When I’m on a challenging run, it’s so easy to give up in a hundred different ways. I might pass by our house on a loop 1/2 mile before my goal distance and just think that it’s okay to end early. I might say, I am not going to walk until the stop sign but start walking 1/2 block before I get there. The easiest way to give up is thinking, “I’ll go running tomorrow” and never getting out the door in the first place.

And as I was running today, I realized how many other small, relatively inconsequential moments there are to give up on what I know I probably should do. And it’s not just when running. There’s probably an opportunity to have one of the little quits on most of the decisions I make in a day.

Do I really have to take the trash out right now? Nah. Do I have a second to check the news between meetings instead of staying focused? Sure. I haven’t talked to so and so for years, do I need to call them to console them on their grandmother’s passing? Nah, I can probably just post on their facebook wall. Can I cheat on my diet for the second time this week? Yeah, and to justify it I won’t cheat once for all of next week…I pinky swear.

And so on and so on. There are so many opportunities for little quits. And I’m fairly embarrassed to admit that upon actual reflection I make so many little quits. So many.

There are also opportunities to quit on hugely consequential decisions. Big quits are things like…

Should I fire this person? Nah…maybe I’ll just give them one more chance. Should I get out of this dysfunctional relationship? Nah…maybe they’ll change next time. Do I need to change jobs? Nah…maybe I’ll give it another 6 months. Do we need to abandon this strategy for our company? Nah…maybe if we give it more time things will get better.

What’s interesting is that we probably don’t make big quits fast enough. For example, my father in law advised me once that in his career, every time he had to let someone go he’d wished he had done it sooner.

Little quits really don’t matter much, individually. The problem is for every big decision there are probably several hundred little ones. So as it turns out, over the course of a lifetime little quits may matter more (in aggregate) than the big ones.

But here’s the important point, and it’s kind of a few logical steps out from little and big quits but stay with me.

For a long time - probably for 20 years now, at least - I’ve struggled with the question of the nature of humans. Are we born good or are we born evil? Are most people good, or are most people wicked? Am I good or am I wicked?

On my run today, and thinking of how many times I’ve made little quits - even just on runs - over my lifetime I realized that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This whole time, I should’ve been asking about indifference. Are people good, evil, or just indifferent? Do people care about whether they are good or evil? If I really looked at my decisions and my behavior, am I good, evil, or indifferent?

The fact that I make so many little quits, suggest to me that the enemy of good may not only be evil. Indifference may also be the enemy. Why? Because little quits - and the fact I make so many of them - are lazy. They aren’t evil - little quits are too inconsequential for that - but they are demonstrations of the fact that I think it’s okay to let myself off the hook on the little stuff. It’s a signal that the past of least resistance is okay.

But the thing is, it’s not really okay. In aggregate, little quits are not evil. But in aggregate, they aren’t good either.

I am interested in becoming a good person and living in a community of good people. Maybe you are too. If you are, maybe our challenge isn’t ridding ourselves of wickedness. Maybe the real challenge is ridding ourselves of the little quits and the indifference that they represent.

Meaning of life

If we assume our human lives have some deeper meaning, I think it’s not only reasonable but important to be curious about what that meaning is.

The short answer is, I don’t know. And by that I mean, I really don’t know. 

But I’m damn sure it’s not anything like these: 

  • Treat others poorly
  • Put my own needs over others
  • Try to be better than everybody else
  • Hurt others or the natural environment
  • Take more than you need
  • Lie if it is convenient

If my assertions are true, and the meaning of life definitely is not one of those, how much more do we need to know?

What we'd presumably have in common with space-faring aliens

I've been trippin' out over the Fermi Paradox lately. Indeed, it's hard not to. And I've been contemplating - if we were to encounter a space-faring alien civilization in our travels across the universe a few hundred years from now, how similar would they be to us? More similar than we'd want to admit, I think.

They'd probably have senses to detect different things like we do, like light, sound, touch, and others. Maybe their senses wouldn't be exactly the same, but they'd have to have some way of understanding the world around them. They'd probably have discovered and developed some of the same materials that we have, after all, the types of elements in the universe are fixed.

They'd probably have some mechanism in their bodies for capturing, storing, and expending energy. Their bodies would probably have some sort of waste or disease. The universe after all, is not efficient and it is certainly prone to random mutations. They'd probably have some mechanism for reproduction.

If they were space-faring explorers of the universe, they'd probably have a large population. After all, it would be difficult for a single alien or small group of aliens to develop the technology needed to explore space. As a result, they'd probably have some sort of language and some set of social issues arising from many beings having to live and work together.

Surely, it is captivating to think about an alien race's similarity or dissimilarity to us, but here's what gets me. Despite how much we have in common with an alien race, we have much more in common with other humans.

Our emotions, psychological biases, our notions of beauty, art, and God...something, even many of those things have got to be unique. I'd hope that our full humanness is not something that could be replicated by aliens. Human life is special.

At the same time, let's assume that we never find any other space-faring alien civilizations. That even more so makes me believe that humans are special. We could be the only life in the universe that's left. And even if we aren't alone in the universe, we may be the only civilization that ever explores the universe.

So whether we are alone in exploring the universe or whether we aren't, I can't help but think that human life is special. Which means we are all special beings, endowed by God with something magnificent. Which makes me wonder why we treat each other so badly sometimes. I just don't get it.

To whom would your life's work be dedicated?

To Nakul, who in death teaches me every day how to live. If I were to ever write a book of significance, Nakul is who I would dedicate it to. He is my brother, my teacher, and my inspiration.

If you were to write a book of significance - meaning one that you put your heart and soul into - to whom would you dedicate it?

---

A friend from school, Heather, pointed out the dedication in our Professor's text book. The dedication in his textbook is here:

Afuah_Textbook

Afuah_Dedication

An ethics lesson from the Shawshank Redemption

One of my favorite quotes from any movie is from the Shawshank Redemption. In the film, the character played by Tim Robbins (Andy) says you either "get busy livin' or get busy dyin'." It gets me every time. [Here's a link to the video clip]

It's obviously an inspiring scene, but it also brings an interesting observation about human behavior to light - we have a hard time staying where we are.

Andy suggests that as we go through life, we can't stay at the same equilibrium indefinitely. Rather, he says, we either get better or get worse. There's no such thing as staying where you are.

And so it is with acting ethically. I do not think ethics is as simple as drawing a line in the sand saying "I will not cross this line". If that's how we chose to manage ethical behavior we will always lurk toward acting unethically. In real life, it doesn't work for ethics to be a standard.

Rather, ethics is a practice. We have to constantly strive to be more ethical and live our ethics more fully. It's something we must work on every single day. If we don't do that, we'll surely become more unethical as time passes.

Ethics isn't something that can be maintained as a status quo. We must either get busy being more ethical or get busy being less ethical. There's no in between.

Why society depends on love

I thank God everyday for the unconditional love I have in my life. I'm so lucky to have a girlfriend, family, and friends who love me even when I do stupid things or am sinful. And yes, it feels good to be so loved, but there's a societal benefit to that love as well - it tames my human instinct for greed. I, like anyone else, have impulses that I'm not proud of. Let's take business school as an example. Being in business school, I've learned a lot about how to make money. As a result, I've developed a strong ambition to make money, make impact, and make things happen. On the one hand, this ambition is important because it compels me to act and give effort toward things. On the other hand, it compels me to take, and take ruthlessly.

If unchecked, this ambition will become greed. I know this to be true, because it's a theme that runs throughout history. I am not immune to this the fallibility of human nature.

And that's where love comes in. It checks my ambition and greed.

The love that Robyn, my family, friends, and even strangers sometimes, give me is not something I feel afraid of losing. I feel secure in it and know it is there to catch me when I am at my lowest. It's something I can lean on.

That love is enough for me to be happy. Even if I'm not successful in my career or in other pursuits, having and giving love fills me up. Because I have and give love, I do not have to worry about replacing the space it occupies with money, prestige, or power.

This is good, because when money, prestige, and power become an end in themselves, it makes us do funny things. It makes us behave unethically and robotically. At best, the lust for money, prestige, and power stress us out. At worst, that lust will drive us to madness.

Even though, I think hippy-dippy interpretations about love in society are bit superficial, I think those that talk about society needing more love are on to something. Love isn't just something that's nice to have as an individual. Because it's a calming force that tempers greed and the darkest parts of our humanity, love is something society depends on.

 

Allying / Coming Out In the (Private Sector) Workplace

Friday is National Coming Out Day and I wanted to soapbox a bit on behalf of allies everywhere as a result. I also picked up a nifty bracelet from the Ross Out For Business Club after signing the "Ally Pledge". Thanks peeps. ---

I had a work experience where I thought I couldn't be myself and it was the most stressful time of my life, to date. I even wrote a business school essay about it. It was TERRIBLE. I was always stressed, becoming less healthy, and I wasn't performing at my best. I felt incredibly lonely and was losing hope that my situation would ever get better. I thought about quitting or taking a transfer, often. My situation wasn't even that extreme.

The more I talk to friends, classmates, and colleagues now, I find that everyone feels this way at some point or another. The chorus of people I talk to agree that it is a terrible feeling that is dehumanizing. Yes, dehumanizing.

If I felt that way for superficial reasons (e.g., I wasn't doing the sort of work I liked, my sense of humor wasn't accepted, people thought I was a goofball), I can't imagine what it would be life to feel compelled to hide your sexual identity or something equally personal. I'm guessing it'd be about a thousand times worse. As a result, I don't think we should ever let someone feel compelled to hide their sexual identity. It's hurtful and it's not fair.

I don't think those who identify as L, G, B, T, Q, or even an Ally should feel unsupported, either, because coming out can be such a hard process anyway. On the contrary, because it's so hard (and might subject the person coming out to emotional, career, or even physical harm) I think any ally needs to be an extremely, visible, and active one. A quiet ally might as well not be an ally.

We owe it to our friends, family, and colleagues to be supportive allies precisely because being out is really hard. And after spending some time in private sector organizations, it's broken my heart to see friends (who I deliberately call friends, they just happened to be colleagues) have to hide parts of who they were. I know the relief of being able to talk about my wonderful girlfriend with my friends from work or school (which you can't do if you're not out). It makes you feel good when a caring supervisor asks you about why you're smiling when they know you went on a first date the evening before (which you can't do if you're not out). All my older colleagues (without exception) loved talking about their kids and to take that away from someone is hurtful and a damn shame (afterall, baby pictures are adorable!).

More than that, if we're not supportive allies, our LGBTQ friends may suffer in their careers - maybe because they aren't chosen for a project, because their life circumstances aren't understood, or any number of other reasons. As allies, we can't let anyone feel like they have a reason to think that a colleague who happens not to be straight is any less talented or employable than anyone else. On the contrary, diverse perspectives (whether from sexual orientation, race, SES, educational background, career history, interests, location, anything) make business better. Speaking from a place of "profit maximization", teams can't afford not to have different flavors of people on them and have those differences be open, visible, and usable.

So today, while eating my peanut butter sandwich in an empty classroom I say to my friends, whatever flavor of human they are: I support you. For those who happen to L,G, B, T, Q or any type of sexual identity, I'm your ally. I'll try my best to be a good one.

--

PS - Special thanks to my friend Gabriel for reminding our class about the Ally Pledge!

Business Must Do Good

Earlier this week, I penned a post titled, "Can business do good?" which I wrote in response to a bit of disillusionment I was feeling about the profit-maximizing vibes I've felt in business school and a near radio silence about the role of business in society. To be fair, I'm only in core classes now, but it's still disappointing...at least to me. Earlier I took the approach of being a gadfly - being critical without offering an alternative point of view. I'd like to present that alternative, more provocative point of view: business must do good. Not business can do good, not business should do good, but business must do good. Here's why I think so:

The Metaphor To have a healthy body, one must eat a variety of foods, at least in the long run. Let's say you grow your own food and you need fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins to be healthy. Say you run out of fruits in your refrigerator, and you're hungry and the store is closed. So you eat vegetables, grains, and proteins. Say you don't eat fruits for a week. You'll still probably be okay, though you like fruits. You just go about your activities and you have lots of grains and proteins. You don't worry...you just keep eating.But say it's been several weeks. Now, unfortunately, you're starting to feel weary. You really need the nutritional value of the fruits. You start to catch more colds and generally feel malaise when walking around. But uh oh, now you're out of vegetables too. This only makes things worse and you start to feel worse whenever you get sick. Thankfully, grain is still cheap and easy to grow. Your ability to eat meat, however, is fading because you're less and less able to work hard in your garden to grow the things required to support livestock. In fact, your family tells you to stop raising and eating meat…saying you should focus on growing and eating grain.

The problem is, your body is less and less resilient the more you eat only grain. There's no telling how you'll react when you get sick. You'll probably respond very badly to ailments and will probably have to go to the hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital is expensive and it will take you a long time to pay off the bills…especially if you go back to a diet of grains after you're released.

The Metaphor, Explained This is a metaphor for how I think society works. We consume a lot of different types of value: economic, social, civic, and spiritual (grain, vegetables, meats, and fruits, respectively). And we can subsist on one type of value, perhaps, for a long time. The consequence is that it makes our society - the living organism that it is - weak and more unable to respond to shocks.

Economic value, much like grain, is easy to grow in a variety of climates and is reasonably consistent across the globe. It provides energy. It's satisfying and makes you feel temporarily at ease. It's easy to measure and store. It doesn't spoil quickly. It fills you up.

Civic, social, and spiritual value are much like vegetables, fruits, and meats. Everyone has different preferences with those kinds of value. They are harder to classify and they decompose much more quickly. It takes getting used to them to like them. They don't always fill you up as quickly as grain, so they seem less important to eat.

But these types of value are needed, much like in the example of the farmer, to have a healthy society. We need a mix of value being created to be able to prosper, I think. To put it into the nomenclature of a 4 year old and his parents…we need to eat our vegetables, which is to say that we need to create value beyond that which is economic to have a healthy society.

Note that there's a difference between the vehicle creating value (e.g., business, government, non-profits, hybrid organizations, informal organizations, etc.) and the value that those vehicles create. For example all these types of organizations creative a mix of value (e.g., non-profits create economic, social, and civic value…as do the rest of the value creating vehicles I've mentioned). I'm concerned with the value that's created and consumed, regardless of the vehicle that creates it.

The Argument For Why Business Must Do Good I'd contend that business is the vehicle that creates the largest amount of value in society (not necessarily the most important value…just the most). Think about how the largest companies have more assets and people associated with them than some nation states. They also make the resources of non-profits look like pennies on the dollar. This is especially true because government has become weaker in the past several decades, in no small part because of the influence of business interests.

I'd also contend that the majority of the value that businesses create - especially in this unfortunate era of shareholder capitalism - is economic value. When it comes to civic, social, and spiritual value, businesses might even consume more than they replenish.Because they are the greatest force in creating value of all kinds, and they are severely skewed in the type of value that they create, I'd contend that businesses must do good. Let me even reframe this notion…I contend that businesses must create economic value, but at very least also leave behind more civic, social, and spiritual value than they consume. If their net value creation leaves our stocks of value (e.g., the total amount of social, economic, civic, and spiritual value) lopsided, our society will be unhealthy.

They way I see it, in the long run if business does NOT do good, our society will collapse. Which is to say that if their net value creation doesn't preserve the balance and growth of civic, social, spiritual, and economic value, our society will collapse. As a result, I'd contend that business must do good.

The Corollary I don't think the other value creating vehicles that exist (government, non-profits, churches, etc.) are off they hook. They ought to help in striking the balance of value that's needed. I don't implicate them here because they're proportion of value creation is smaller and they're more conscious of the balance they need to strike (in my humble opinion) than is business.

I strongly believe, also, that we are all much better off when these stocks of value are in balance because they create synergies when they interact together. In other words, when these stocks of value are in appropriate proportion, our total amount of value grows bigger and faster than it would if our stocks of value were lopsided.

Can business do good?

I've been in business school for just about two weeks, and I already sense a major cultural difference from my undergraduate studies. The focus on profits is palpable. People defend the maladies caused by business, sometimes rightfully and sometimes wrongfully. Business is all about the results and getting things done. Today in a class we started talking about the financial crisis. Let me repeat that, the financial crisis. I asked a question along the lines of, "where was the SEC?" After about two comments, my professor quickly ended the conversation because we were starting to talk about politics.

It perhaps was a foul to talk about that in statistics. But, shouldn't politics and morality be exactly what we should be talking about in a business school classroom? Aren't the effects of business on society and morality strong enough to prevent an outright aversion to political discourse?

I'm not asking for business school to be a public policy classroom. But I am appalled with the seemingly unending focus on profit maximization and the creation of economic value. Without being willing to teach that there are reasons to tame shareholders' interests, I don't know how we can expect that business will do good for society unless it happens to be convenient. The way business schools seem to be now make me think socially responsible business might actually be a gimmick.

Maybe I was expecting too much to have my moral positions challenged and refined in the classroom. Maybe it will still happen. But until then, a question lingers on my heart and mind:

Is business that truly does good even possible?