Uncharted Insider - July 2021
On data diets, the nuances and challenges of consequentialism, the rise of vertically integrated foundations, and what it means to make permanent commitments to each other.
Welcome to the July edition of the Uncharted Insider. Do you know someone who should subscribe? Forward this email and they can subscribe here.
- We received 344 applications for our Economic Inequality Initiative (77% people of color, 63% women or non-binary founders), and we’ve spent the last month conducting due diligence. We’ll be selecting our cohort in mid-August.
- We announced our newest cohort focused on reimagining the US food system (in partnership with Chipotle's Cultivate Foundation). Check them out here.
- We launched a new version of our website.
On Data Diets
I count myself a devoted disciple of Michael Pollan, the author of numerous books on humans' relationship to food and plants. In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan suggests that after decades of counting calories, obsessing about nutrients, and being whiplashed back and forth with contradictory studies on how salubrious (or deleterious) the latest fad is, it’s time to arrive at the simplicity on the other side of all this complexity. We’ve descended into needless details about proteins, carbs, and nutrients when first principles will serve us better, which is why he offers up a simple mantra: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I sense that for many, after years of being mired in so much complexity, we’re seeking simple principles to guide our relationship to our food.
But as we land on this simplicity with our relationship to food, we are still stuck in the middle of complexity when it comes to our relationship to data. We’re in the counting calories stage, and we’re obsessed with capturing and tracking everything: steps per day, number of times we turn over in the middle of the night, the trends in energy usage of our fridge, if we’re braking soft enough to warrant a discount on our auto insurance. This is the age of “more is more” with our data, and we’re binging on it. I imagine that our relationship to data will follow our relationship to food, and we’ll settle on first principles after going through a long season of being obsessed with an inexorable quest for optimization. Until then, data disorders will become as popular as eating disorders. If you’re interested in this frontier, check out this exceptional podcast on the strategy and history of Whoop, the wearable heart-rate monitor that is intended to be worn 24/7/365 so we can optimize every minute of every day.
Like many, I eagerly consumed Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist last year, and I found it to be excellent in the way that it struck the balance between vulnerable memoir and didactic how-to book. Kendi is a consequentialist, choosing to evaluate if a policy, action, or behavior is racist not on its intent, but on its outcome. He argues that when we examine intention, we’re focusing on the perpetrator, not the victim. Better, he notes, to center those impacted by racism than those who perpetuate it. I like this approach because it places the spotlight where it needs to be: on those impacted and on the outcomes themselves. After all, it’s a fool’s errand to ascertain one’s intent, and our zeal for uncovering intent keeps us from more productive conversations on how to change outcomes. But this consequentialist approach has a few challenges in practice that are worth exploring:
- Ambiguity: Consequentialist ethics is predicated on the idea that we are capable of determining the consequences of an action. But it’s far more difficult to accurately evaluate consequences when there are so many variables. Cutting funding to police departments might reduce police brutality but might increase crime, and perhaps it’s not exactly clear if that policy decision reduced or exacerbated racial inequities. Consequentialism requires clarity about cause and effect when our messy reality often doesn’t provide those clear-cut answers.
- Time horizons: Evaluating the consequences of something changes as the timeframe changes. You might have heard of the Chinese proverb about the farmer who refrains from making a value-judgement when bad things happen by saying “We’ll see.” In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff examine how protective parenting approaches can have positive consequences in the short-term by keeping little kids safe but negative consequences in the long-term by rendering children ill-equipped to be independent thinkers who embody resilience in the face of setbacks.
- Emotional approaches: When we move away from intent and towards consequences, we let those impacted define the consequences of an action or behavior. But what happens when their determination of the consequences is misguided or driven by fleeting feelings and hot emotions? In Adrienne Maree Brown’s outstanding book We Will Not Cancel Us, she points out that not all conflict rises to the standard of “trauma” and our conflation of the two is counterproductive for those working to build power in the movement to advance racial justice. The Coddling of the American Mind cautions that the currently popular belief of “always trust your feelings” has led us to cancel ideas and people simply because we find them to be unsavory or offensive. Consequentialism as an ethical framework makes sense only when we don’t make mistakes when judging consequences.
As we shift from measuring intent to measuring outcomes and consequences, we need to hold ourselves to high standards: in terms of the sophisticated tools we use to measure impact, the intellectual humility to recognize when we can’t prove causality, and in the ways we guard against getting hijacked by our aversion to short-term negative consequences. To use the thick/thin language of Tressie Cottom, there is risk in the consequentialist approach leading to the thinning of thick, necessary, and uncomfortable conversations that have unpleasant consequences in the short-term but have edifying, constructive consequences in the long-term.
New Trend: The vertically-integrated foundation
I’ve noticed a trend recently when talking to a number of mid-size foundations that more and more are becoming operating foundations, where they run their own programs, launch their own social enterprises, and spend more of their dollars in-house on initiatives of their own design. I anticipate this trend will dramatically change the ways foundations and nonprofits interact with each other over the next 10 years. What is the best part of this and the most concerning?
What big trends are you seeing? What insights have you had? What are some major learnings in the last month in your work?
One of the most powerful ways we can learn is by 1) gleaning the insights from those around us, and then 2) compounding those learnings over time. And so I announced a new section to the Uncharted Insider a few months ago called Compound Insight, which shares key learnings, patterns, trends, or insights from the community of readers of this monthly letter. Simply share any big ideas or learning using this link, and I’ll select a few to publish in the next Insider so this community can continue to compound learnings from each other.
Regarding last month’s section on Artificial intelligence:
"One of the best entry points I've seen [on artificial intelligence] is the documentary on Netflix called Coded Bias. Here is the synopsis: CODED BIAS explores the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s discovery that facial recognition does not see dark-skinned faces accurately, and her journey to push for the first-ever legislation in the U.S. to govern against bias in the algorithms that impact us all."
Meredith Dreman, Morgridge Family Foundation
Can you help?
This month, I’m looking for introductions!
- We’re looking to be connected to the leadership at Black Lives Matter
- Do you know Tracy Gary from the Tipping Point Fund
- Do you know anyone at Women Move Millions?
- Do you have a connection to someone senior at Bridgespan?
- Do you know someone who is an expert in NFTs and other intangible assets and the future of NFT-based wealth building?
What I am reading
- The power of disagreement. How the Wright brothers used disagreement as their secret weapon to innovate faster than the experts. Here.
- Why Facebook is fundamentally a "metaverse" company and what it means for the future of human connection. An interview with Mark Zuckerberg.
- How a hip-hop producer became a famous Black art collector, revolutionized the way artists are collecting royalties, and is bridging the worlds of hip-hop music and Black contemporary art. Here.
- The narratives underpinning Silicon Valley and what it portends that investors are increasingly telling their own stories. How big money and big tech are telling big stories.
- The 25 richest Americans have an effective tax rate of 3.4%. How billionaires use sophisticated strategies to avoid taxes.
When I was growing up, my best friend lived five doors down from my house. From kindergarten through high school, I would often eat an early dinner at Peter’s house only to walk home and eat a second dinner with my family. This was the weekly routine on Eudora street in Denver all throughout the 90s and early 2000s. College took us to different places, but Colorado pulled us both back home, and Peter and I rekindled our friendship five years ago, not long before he met Christine. Since then, the dinners have continued; last year Peter and I took our moms out on a double-date, and Peter, Christine, and I have shared many dinners together as they’ve built a life as partners. A few years ago, I was sitting at their dinner table one night when they surprised me by asking if I would officiate their wedding. I spent months preparing, asking them about their vision for their marriage and what big story they wanted to speak to the world by being together. After many COVID delays, the wedding finally took place a few weeks ago, and I watched as they exchanged vows. We don’t use the word “vow” that often, and I think it’s because there are few promises in our lives that we’re willing to consider unshakable. In a world full of change and flux, it is something to revere when people make permanent commitments to each other. Here’s to lifelong commitments and childhood friends.
Taking the long view,