Monthly Archives: October 2013

Good is the new “greed”

“We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.” – Gordon Gecko, Wall Street, 1987

ImageIt has been over a quarter of a century since Gordon Gecko made his grand declaration that “greed is good”, summing up Wall Street not just for the hedonistic 1980s, but for the foreseeable future…

But cynics be warned, there is a new girl in town!

Durreen Shahnaz has been many things in her life – the fourth-born daughter of a middle class Muslim Bangladeshi family, the first Bangladeshi female investment banker on Wall Street, founder of oneNest, an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, a proficient Indian Classical dancer…

Oh, and the founder of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX Asia), the world’s first social stock exchange.

IIX Asia is, put quite simply, an organisation that aims to connect “Impact Investors” with “Social Enterprise”.

It is important to note that Impact Investment is quite different from Socially Responsible Investment. This is a more proactive approach; you are not simply avoiding investing in companies whose activities you do not support (eg animal testing), you are looking to truly put your money where your mouth is and invest in companies whose core business provides social and/or environmental value (eg Sun-eee, a company providing renewable energy to rural areas in Cambodia).

However, make no mistake, this is no altruistic exercise – investors are also looking for financial ROI. The absolute worst case scenario for investors is that their investment returns their capital, with many delivering at or better than market rates.

The definition for Social Enterprise (SE) is similarly specific:

  • Positive social impact is the company’s primary reason for being (as opposed to a Corporate Social Responsibility program)
  • The business model must be one of sustainable growth for all stakeholders
  • The business must have a market orientation (ie responds to customer wants and needs)
  • It can operate as a not-for-profit or for-profit entity, but is not a charity

The idea of a social stock exchange is a total win-win scenario: with the exposure to Impact Investors and access to capital a social stock exchange supplies, these amazing companies can enjoy the financial growth they require in order to make a real difference in their communities. On the investor side, standardisation of reporting on social impacts and increased transparency offers a confidence not currently provided by the traditional stock exchange where a number of SEs are already listed.

The really encouraging thing is that this idea has legs… long ones!

Prof Shahnaz reports that trends indicate an increased interest in this sort of investment opportunity. Socially responsible investment has grown over the past 15 years from $0 to $7 trillion. Impressively, IIX Asia currently sits at just below $100 million, but projects growth to $0.5 trillion dollars in the next three years.

The IIX Asia was launched in 2012 in partnership with the Stock Exchange of Mauritius, allowing for expansion throughout both Asia and Africa. A second social stock exchange has also been launched in the United Kingdom. That covers a large chunk of the world, but what about the rest of us?

I feel that this is a really exciting idea and one that could form part of an economic solution for many social issues.

Here in Australia, for example, we are currently grappling with how to best address the issue of climate change. While I realise that this idea of a social stock exchange doesn’t completely solve the problem of how to reduce carbon emissions, it may contribute in a positive way by enabling more environmentally focused SEs to get off the ground and helping investors to more easily vote with their wallets and choose to invest in companies who are supporting these goals.

As it turns out, Gordon was more right than he knew – we are all a part of the free market…

and our choices have impact.

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Giving: As good as it gets

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

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The other day, as I drove my daughter to Kindergym, I had the fortune to catch Margaret Throsby interviewing Sylvie Guillem on Radio National.

It is a true pleasure to listen to Sylvie speak. She is so intelligent and has the kind of mellifluous voice which I imagine only a French ballerina could possess. She spoke on all manner of things to do with dancing and performance, but one particular thing she mentioned in passing really struck me.

Sylvie talked about “giving”.

When describing her experience of performance, she said,

“I give to an audience… the audience comes to receive and I am here to give”

This simple idea, the desire to give pleasure to her audience, is what enables her to push her body and mind to the absolute limit and deliver those incredible performances she is so famous for. (Just check out that “6 o’clock” move she’s pulling off in that photo!)

It was one of those things that makes you sit up a bit straighter and pay attention. For just a moment, I saw the concept of “work” quite differently.

I am ashamed to admit that, perhaps like some of you, I tend to look at most kinds of work as something foisted upon me – an utter inconvenience and drain on my time and energy. As a Mum I catch myself too often thinking “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than build one more thing out of play dough”…

I don’t think I am alone. Way too often, we front up to our “work” (whether this be at an office or within the home) not with a sense of giving, but with a sense of entitlement. “Show me the money!” we cry, often expecting a reward just for showing up, let alone giving a great performance.

What would happen if we just plain forgot about the endgame (money, recognition etc) and just delivered that A-grade performance for the art of it; for the delicious satisfaction of a job well done?

We have all heard the old adages “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and “money cannot buy you happiness”. These concepts collide in social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn’s recent study.

The two things in her presentation that really stuck out for me were

a)      once you earn around $75,000 per annum, money stops having a significant effect on your happiness – this falls way short of the millions most of us think will have us spinning on an Austrian mountain side singing “The hills are alive…” à la Maria Von Trapp.

b)      spending money on others creates a greater sense of happiness than spending on yourself.

The above study is just one amongst the many you can readily find hailing the benefits of generosity. Most seem to agree that people who give of themselves are happier, healthier and more satisfied with life in general.

This is because giving to others leads to lovely feel-good things, like a rush of Endorphins – fighting stress and boosting your immune system, a tap into a positive feedback loop (those that give feel happier, so are more likely to give) and being socially more engaged and accepted (well duh – who doesn’t like someone who is generous!?!)

So all this giving is making you happy (yay!)… BUT, the fun doesn’t stop there!

The funny thing about happiness is that it makes you more likely to DO. The one thing you can probably observe fairly easily about really interesting and successful types is that they often

a)      are very happy

b)      work very hard indeed.

Not always things we put together in our modern lifestyle!

So the theory goes like this.

Instead of:

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We can reinvent the wheel:

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In that case, I am off to give myself fully to playing with and teaching my kids, because as a Mum that’s my “work” and today I am not just going to “get it done”, I’m going to do it superbly and with great enthusiasm. I am sure that my little audience of two will give my performance a rave review… and that just might make me happy!

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OMG: What if there was a church and God wasn’t invited!?!

“Not believing in God is one thing, but the more interesting question is: how can we use humans – who are designed for meaning in their lives, and for self‑improvement – to really help each other… and then to help other people?”

– Sanderson Jones, co-founder of The Sunday Assembly

ImageAustralia’s 2011 census shows that 26% of Australians identify as non-religious. Curiously, this is significantly higher than figures reported for both the US (16.1% *) and UK (15.05% **).

The ABS (Assumptive Bureau of Statistics) also asserts that the number of non-church-attenders is possibly much higher, considering the great many people who identify as religious, yet do not actually attend a church regularly.

Now I should say, I do not attend church. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should if they do not share in that church’s faith or simply because anyone (even me!) told you to…

I must say, however, that there is compelling research to suggest that you will live longer, happier and more social lives if you do.

According to the results of these studies, regular church attendees tend to:

  • live longer (around 2-3 years)
  • display a more positive outlook on life (some reports even suggest lower levels of depression)
  • enjoy and utilise larger social networks for support
  • have a stronger sense of responsibility to their community
  • volunteer more than any other group (even in non-religious charities)
  • be less likely to smoke, drink or engage in fist-fights!

As Dr Ruth Powell, Director of the National Church Life Survey has said,

“You start with belonging. You start with relationship. You start going to church because a friend says, hey, this is a place that’s helped me in my life… It’s a good community to be part of.”

Even so, Australia’s public life is increasingly hostile towards religious figures and their followers, considering 69% of us are still committed enough to tick the “Christian” box in the census form.

There seems to be an increasing pressure for a more secular society in this country. Parents lobby for no more reference to religion in our public schools. There are calls for Parliament to stop opening each session with the Lord’s Prayer. We may no longer safely wish colleagues a “Merry Christmas”, with many workplaces suggesting the more widely acceptable “Happy Holidays”. People even complain when well-meaning assurances of “you are in my prayers” come their way in a time of crisis.

According to Dr Powell, the place of the church in Australia is being “renegotiated” with a “society that is saying ‘you are not relevant, you are not useful, I do not trust you’.”

For my own part, I find myself (as an agnostic non-church-attender) frequently asking what we are (or should we be) replacing our church attendance with, in order to gain the same sense of community responsibility, engagement and support? What about our ethical frameworks? What will drag us away from our materialistic values?

One possible answer arrives in the form of The Sunday Assembly. This is the church that didn’t invite God to the party. A self-proclaimed “celebration of the one life we know we have.”

Living by the motto “live better, help often, wonder more”, co-founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans hoped to create “a place where you can just recharge, think about all the good things that you have on offer in life.”

Attendees can enjoy all the benefits of a church community without subscribing to any particular deity or text. It is a veritable Pick-n-Mix of ideas and ideals, music and meditation, all the while delivering the essential ingredient of “belonging”.

A typical service, much like the more traditional religious variety, is organised around a theme – examples include “Goals”, “Gratitude”, “Beginnings”, “Happiness” and “Easter for Atheists”. The order of service goes thusly:

  • Each session begins with a song
  • Often a guest will give a talk on the theme
  • more music
  • a discussion involving the congregation
  • a meditation component
  • a collection (to cover room rental)
  • an address
  • final song

You can read more in their public charter on the Sunday Assembly website.

It all sounds pretty great to be honest: enjoy all the benefits of a church without the guilty aftertaste. Kind of like the fat-free frozen yoghurt of the worshiping world.

Interestingly enough, it seems the Assembly shares more than a passing similarity to the Christian Church – politics will still rear its ugly head. A Great Schism has already occurred, with the New York chapter recently announcing a split – those who wished to pursue a more purist Atheist bent (now named The Godless Revival) and the original Assembly members who wished to remain true to the “inclusive” nature of the group.

Despite this (somewhat minor) dispute, this “I can’t believe it’s not Christianity” version of church certainly seems to be spreading as easily as a blended vegetable oil butter substitute. There are currently regular Assemblies held in the US (New York), UK (London, Brighton and Bristol) and Australia (Melbourne). In addition, the leaders have been contacted by some 300 individuals across the globe wishing to start up Assemblies in their local area.

This idea of a Godless church could potentially fit the bill for many people who seek that sense of belonging, with slightly more spiritual nourishment than your gym membership or investment club affords.

It does raise the question though… if one attends these kind of Assemblies, would you still tick the “No Religion” box when Census time rolls around?

*Due to the American shutdown, I had to get my US figures from the CIA World Factbook website – the latest info is for 2007.

**This figure is from the 2004 Focus on Religion published on the UK Bureau of statistics website.

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Words of the Wise

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” – Oscar Wilde

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How true, Mr Wilde.

Although, today I would like to share a few pieces of advice that have been of great use to me:


“You are not the “Every-man” (or woman)”

This was advice given to my Advertising class by one Mr Richard Buddle. He was urging us to remember that advertisements have target markets which may not always include ourselves. This advice, however, is applicable to so many other situations – it is always helpful to remember that not everyone is like you. In fact, probably nobody else is. In some ways, this is the root of all tolerance and understanding.


“90% of people are shits. Try to be part of the 10%”

This one is my Dad. He says loads of things that are really useful and inspiring, but this one comes up for me every day. Just a plain speaking reminder to do the right thing by yourself and by others – and to do this because that’s the kind of person you want to be.


“The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

This is Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Obviously it wasn’t delivered to me personally, but I just think this is gold. So often we want people to be a certain way, despite the fact that they keep telling us otherwise. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) change people – we must accept who they are and decide what role they might play in our lives.


“It’s good enough for Jazz”

Not exactly advice, although I use it that way! This was a brother of an acquaintance playing in a Dixie Jazz trio. His trumpet wasn’t cooperating with the idea of being in tune, but they needed to get on with the gig. I use this phrase to remind myself not to be such a perfectionist and that sometimes “near enough” really is good enough. Unless (as Billy Connolly points out) you’re a pilot.


“Never underestimate the strategic value of doing absolutely nothing”

This is another Dad-ism (maybe he should have got his own post?). This is not an excuse for inaction, but rather his version of “fools rush in”. A “wait and see” approach is often advisable; let the facts reveal themselves so you have the whole picture and things often turn out for the best.

What advice have you received that was truly useful? Do share!

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Wrong Direction: when bad interview questions happen to good people

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire

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During a recent radio appearance, Zayn Malik of One Direction “fame” (being apparently one of the “other” One Direction members ie not Harry Styles), refused a list of interview questions via his PR rep, leading the interviewer to cut the interview off before it began:

“Hi Zayn you’re a very busy guy. I want to talk to you but I can’t do that…no X Factor, no pranks….well that’s about going to do it. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and continued success for the future.”

While I am, of course, devastated that I will now never know who Zayn’s celebrity crush is, I can understand his reluctance to face yet another who’s who of the “who cares” list of celebrity interview questions.

I am somewhat disappointed, however, that the interviewer could not muster the neurons to think up some original question ideas!

To help him out, I have compiled a list of backup celebrity interview questions for future such emergencies. However, since I cannot get onto Zayn for you, I shall interview myself instead.

(Feel free to share your answers to these questions also!)

 

YNU: So Carolyn, if I gave you an Elephant where would you hide it?

C: Well, I think the obvious place is Parliament: it would blend in with all the other elephants in the room…

YNU: What is the first thing you remember wanting to do with your life?

C: I wanted to be an architect, but then I found out you don’t get to keep all the houses you design.

YNU: What kitchen utensil would you be?

C: Hmmm… a vegetable peeler, so I get to see what’s going on below the surface of things…

YNU: Who is the person you trust most?

C: Myself – you never know what anyone else is really thinking!

YNU: What is the worst idea you ever had?

C: I once thought up “Pizza in a Jar” – the toppings would be layered in reverse order so you could spread them on the pizza from the base up… the only excuse I have is that I was 11 years old.

YNU: What was the first thing you ever got paid to do?

C: My sister and I used to make newspapers for our parents on weekends – a couple of times they gave us 20c for it. My (bossy) older sister was the Editor (naturally, she got to write all the stories) and I was Art Director (I was “allowed” to draw the pictures and word puzzles).

Non-parent payment, however, would have to be singing – I sang at a few weddings as a kid.

YNU: What is your life philosophy?

C: Have you noticed that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards?!?

YNU: How much cash do you have on you?

C: $1.60… but $1 of that is my ‘trolley dollar’ for supermarket shopping… so I guess only really 60c. The most expensive thing I can do today is post a letter.

YNU: If you were a multi-millionaire, how much money would you be prepared to gamble?

C: I am cautious by nature, so $200 would be my limit no matter how rich I was!

YNU: Do you have a secret talent and what is it?

C: I am really good at picking plot endings in movies and TV shows. It diminishes my enjoyment, but I still get a kick out of it when I am (usually) right!

YNU: Which punctuation mark best describes you?

C: I would have to say a full stop – I like to have the last word.

And on that note…

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Could You Be Suffering From Emotional Diabetes?

“When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination…
I can’t get no satisfaction…”

– Rolling Stones

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My Dad is famous for ranting about a lot of stuff, but at least twenty times a day it is about sugar…

Not so much the crystalline deliciousness that makes porridge edible – although that is part of it – but more so “emotional” sugar.

This is Dad’s way of complaining that we (as a society) watch too much crap TV, are too glued – make that grafted! – to our mobile phone screens, read too many advertising-laced magazines, play too many neuron-melting computer games, engage in too much superficial social media, listen to music with no meaning and discuss celebrities as if they have a starring role in our social lives… just generally persist with engaging in activities that do nothing to nourish us, but provide only a temporary “sugar rush” that leaves us (emotionally) fat, lazy and stupid, but also empty and insatiably hungry for more.

He’s right, of course (as all fathers always are about these things). It seems that the pleasure principle rules and our relatively easy (survival-wise), yet increasingly time-pressured lives often see us reaching more often for a convenient “cookie” than the proverbial “chicken soup” for our souls.

The mind, like the body, uses “sugar” for energy. A certain amount is fine, even quite good for you; a release from the stresses of daily life. The problem arises when we marinate in the information equivalent of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs 24 hours a day – the mind doesn’t know what to do with the excess sugar. This can eventually result in a meltdown…

There will come a day when we cannot absorb one more news report about Miley Cyrus, not one more banal “tweet” about someone’s dinner plans for tacos, not one more commercial radio jockey commenting as an “expert” on political issues, not one more episode of “Australia’s Next Top Bachelor Thinks He Can Dance With the Stars in the Big Brother House”…

This “mind Maccas” will leave us bloated and sluggish with an overdose of useless information. One day we may all let out a collective shudder, make a little whirring noise and shut down completely, our brains atrophied from lack of use!

Our “sugar” addiction is going to make us sick. In fact, I would go as far as saying that we are all at risk of developing Emotional Diabetes.

How will you know if you have developed Emotional Diabetes? You should be alarmed if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling tired and weak (often caused by lack of sleep associated with constantly checking one’s phone in the middle of the night for a text/Facebook status update/tweet etc)
  • Increased thirst and hunger (caused by consuming too many intellectually empty “calories”)
  • Blurred vision (eyes crossed from trying to keep up with the thousands of images, sound-effects, messages, mindless chatter and contradictory ideals that assault our senses every moment we are conscious)
  • Mood Swings (caused by riding the emotional roller coaster of highs and lows from your sugar hits and crashes)

But it is OK… I don’t think the damage done is irreversible.

We simply need to treat our minds with the same respect as we should our bodies; nourish them with a steady diet of great ideas and exercise them with the effort of original thought.

The problem is not that we seek pleasure, it is that the pleasures we seek are all too often passive and external. There is no sweeter satisfaction than the fruits of endeavour; we need to learn to create more than we consume so that we may all leave this world a more bountiful feast than we found it…

In that way maybe we will all finally get that “satisfaction” Mr Jagger was going on about?

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Loopholes and Lunarcy: Moon “Mine”-ing and Helium 3

“We are going to the moon, that is not very far. Man has so much farther to go within himself.” – Anaïs Nin

It’s the stuff of science fiction film; The Earth’s energy resources are drying up, so we turn our eyes to the universe and what hits our eye like a big pizza pie?

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Not just a sci-fi concoction, Helium 3 is relatively rare on our blue planet, but rake up and boil just the first three metres of the Moon’s crust and you have more energy than an Energizer Bunny.

Sure, there are some kinks in the process that need more than a little ironing out, but with no radioactive nasties created during the fusion process and an efficiency rate of around 70% (beating coal and natural gas electricity by 20%) Helium 3 really could be the perfect clean energy solution of the future.

Of course, perfection won’t come cheap. While Helium 3 may be “all that” on the energy front, the cost of mining, heating and transporting the stuff back to Earth will add up to one very expensive power bill for the end-user. No matter. We have enough coal to last us at least another 100 years… so, we probably don’t have to worry about it, do we?

Well, that’s not very forward thinking…

And in any case, lunar mining is not as far off as we may think. Some experts say less than a decade away. Indeed, Russia hopes to have a permanent Moon base by 2015 with mining operation to begin in 2020.

Here’s where I get a little worried…

Surely the ones to get their hands on the controls of this lunar mining business will become some sort of super-power. What are the implications of one single group having total control of such a precious and lucrative resource? And who, exactly, owns the Moon anyway?

That second question I can answer… sort of.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that no country can own the Moon. But in the mother of all loopholes, it says nothing about individuals.

Enter Dennis Hope. Down on his luck in the 1980s, Hope came up with an admirably unique solution to his cash-flow problems. He decided to build his own property portfolio – nothing unusual there, except that the property he decided to take ownership of was a bit out there. Like, outer space.

He wrote a letter to the United Nations stating that he owned the Moon and that he planned to sub-divide and sell off large chunks. Whether through misadventure or (as I am inclined to think) total disbelief followed by wild fits of laughter, they never replied.

Now President of the Galactic Government, Hope has since sold one acre lots of the Moon’s surface area to some 4 million or so customers. You can purchase an acre yourself online at the Lunar Embassy website. At around $23 US (not including Lunar tax) it’s the cheapest real estate in the known universe!

President Hope is not especially supportive of Moon mining and would likely be an annoying road block in the business model. Indeed, when China wanted to build a moon base on his “property”, he threatened that without a licensing agreement, their craft would not reach its destination!

Despite his overwhelming confidence about his ownership, I am reasonably sure that legal experts will likely win the point that President Hope cannot actually own the Moon (or the rest of our solar system which he also lays claim to). So despite an amusing detour from my point, we are none the wiser about who really owns it (sorry about that).

So if no one owns the Moon, how do we determine who gets to own and sell the Helium 3? I guess, unless we can make some sort of worldwide cooperative project work, we must adhere to the strict and very sophisticated rules of “Finders Keepers”.

With the US, China, Russia and India all interested in launching Moon mining missions in the near future, an international move might be in order for those of us who want to be closer to the ones holding that particular conch shell…

You know, I hear Russia is nice this time of year…

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