Anticipating the future and making sure you’re prepared for every possible outcome is a vital and critical skill that’s honed through years of observation, but it’s never too late to learn. If you allow yourself to look at the patterns and the varying behaviors at play, you can put yourself in a much better position to face what comes next. Dr. Vikram Mansharamani is a global trend-watcher who shows people how to anticipate the future, manage risk, and spot opportunities. Together with Dr. Diane Hamilton, he discusses what steps one can take in anticipating the future. No matter where you are or what you do, it’s important to take this step back to see what’s ahead, and with the help of Dr. Vikram and Dr. Diane, you’ll definitely be able to find your way there.
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Dr. Vikram Mansharamani. Dr. V is the global trend watcher. He’s the Harvard University lecturer and investor. He’s the author of multiple books. You might know, Boombustology. What you don’t know is he’s got a new book and I’m excited to talk to him about Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. We’re going to talk to him about all kinds of things.
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Anticipating The Future With Dr. Vikram Mansharamani
I am here with Dr. Vikram Mansharamani and he is a global trend watcher who shows people how to anticipate the future, manage risks, and spot opportunities. You’ve probably known him for his first book, Boombustology. He’s got a new book, which I’m excited about. Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. It’s so nice to have you here, Vikram.
Thanks for having me, Diane. I’m thrilled to be with you.
I know you’re lecturing at Harvard and you do so many different things and you used to lecture at Yale. I know you advise Fortune 500 CEOs and you do all these fascinating things. I looked up some of your videos. I want to talk about some of the things you talk about, but I want to get a little background on you. Let’s start with you telling me how did you get to this point and what made you want to be this Harvard lecturer and author? Give me your background a little bit.
Thanks for asking, Diane. It’s been a somewhat unintentional trajectory. What do I mean by that? I’ve been true to following my own interests and I found that over the course of whether it was education back in college or initial jobs after or grad school or even to the present, I have lots of different interests. Rather than apologizing for them, I decided to embrace it. This is a theme that during the course of our conversation will come out, but I didn’t like being put in a box. I didn’t want to be an economist like my undergrad professors were encouraging me to become, and so I studied multidisciplinary subjects such as Ethics, Politics, and Economics. I studied East Asian studies.
I went into Finance, which had nothing to do with what I studied, but that was okay because I was interested in it. I did that. I went to grad school. When I went to grad school, I realized something that I’m sure lots of your readers probably feel also, which is when you have broad interests that conflict with a particular position you may be put in, it’s uncomfortable. When I went to grad school, I wanted to get a PhD to learn how to think for myself, how to develop knowledge. The problem is most PhD programs try to channel you into being narrow and very deep. That’s almost the essence of a PhD program. What I ended up doing was I ended up going to MIT because they had a PhD in the topic of innovation.
I thought about that and I said, “What is innovation?” Innovation, a little bit of economics, psychology, politics, strategy, finance, a little bit of everything. That’s like the way across as the ones. Anyway, long story short, I am a multidisciplinary guy. Eventually, having one activity in my professional life also was not appropriate. I figured I could teach, I could write, I could speak, I could do a bunch of different things because I enjoy doing a bunch of different things. There you go. That’s the long-winded answer to your question.
That’s so funny because I teach, I write, I speak, I totally love all of that because as we talked about before, my focus is on curiosity. I can’t think of anybody more curious. I’m curious about what you wrote your doctoral dissertation on. How did you ever pick?
I will tell you that this is a true story. No one’s ever asked that. I’m thrilled you did because I’d love to tell the world this story. I started my PhD in innovation at MIT. In the first year, like a kid in a candy store, I immediately started studying what I found fascinating, which had nothing to do with innovation. I was there at MIT and I was like,” They’ve got this defense industry focus, they’ve got a security studies program, defense politics.” This was right in the wake of 9/11. I ended up inadvertently getting a Master’s degree in International Security Studies. I finished my doctoral classwork the second year. At that point, truth be told, I didn’t think I was going to finish the PhD. I basically said, “I’m done. I’m out of here. I don’t want to be an academic.”
One of my professors was very encouraging and said, “What do you enjoy? What’s fun for you that we can maybe do a research project around and have you look into a topic that’s interesting?” I had come back from Las Vegas. I might’ve been out there with some friends for a long weekend. I came back and I said to him, “I love Las Vegas. I do. I love everything about Las Vegas. I love the gaming. I love the hotels. I like fancy restaurants. The pools are great. I like the entertainment. I like the shows. Everything about Las Vegas, I love.” He said, “Why don’t we do something about the gaming industry?” I said, “Now we’re talking.” I ended up writing my dissertation about the gaming industry, specifically how they were able to use a lot of data collection to differentiate how they treated their customers. If I was smarter about this, I would have called it big data. I studied big data before it was called big data. It was a story about big data and how casinos were using it.
If I go to a casino, do they know that it’s me at the slot because I put my card in or didn’t put my card in either way from facial recognition or anything, whatever they’re doing now? Will it give me a better chance or worse chance of winning?
The first thing I’ll tell you is they are constantly evolving. My data on what the right thing to do at the casino or how to think about it is years old. Let’s start off with that premise. Years ago, if you’d walked into a casino and you were going to put a little bit of money in a slot and give it a quick whirl, I would have told you do not do it at one of the casino slot machines that are at the end of a big hallway. If you’re walking, the ones that are closest to the walkway where people put their money, those are the least payouts. Instead, find your way deep in the back corner in some weird spot. Try one there. They had a marginally higher payout so you’d have a better chance of one of those. There are all sorts of other little tidbits. My data is old here, so it’s probably not worth relying on.We need to understand when certain perspectives are useful and when they need to be supplemented. Click To Tweet
I could see I would be very interested in listening to your lectures because you touch on so many different interests. That’s what I’m trying to instill in my students and in the companies where I work. You said you didn’t like to be put in a box and I didn’t like that either. When I first wanted to write a book, my agent wouldn’t mean to be Suze Orman basically and write about finance and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that.” I’m very much interested in all these other things and I never did write that book and went in another direction. It sounds like you go in a lot of different fields, which is hard to do, to have the depth that you have. Let’s talk about your first book before we go into the last book up because it got so much attention with Boombustology. What were you trying to do with that?
This is a nice segue from the studying lots of different things into studying one. What I ended up doing with that was after I got my PhD, I did finish it, I went back into the world of finance rather than seek an academic job. I decided I didn’t want to be a tenure track, research-oriented faculty member. One of my real mentors down at Yale University where I did my undergraduate work said, “You’ve got your PhD, you should teach. I know you enjoy interacting with students.” I said, “Great, I’d love to.” He said, “What do you want to teach about?” I said, “I’m fascinated by financial bubbles and I’m fascinated by them because we look at them the wrong way. It’s either an economist or a psychologist or a finance person who’s looking at them, but no one crosses disciplines in thinking about them.”
What happened was I started teaching a class on the topic of financial bubbles down at Yale University and the topic was better described as Liberal Arts meets Finance. What I did was I said, “Here we’re going to have a microeconomic perspective and a macroeconomic perspective, but we’re also going to study the psychology literature around herd behavior, groupthink, and how that can impact a financial bubble. We’re going to look through the lens of politics and see how politics can impact prices with subsidies, tariffs, taxes, what have you, and how that can shift supply and demand. We brought in biology frameworks of an epidemic model. What if you thought about a financial bubble? Instead of as a financial bubble, think of it not as a social phenomenon, but instead is effectively an epidemic that’s infecting a population.
How many people are day trading more and more? As you see it spread through a population, can you get your arms around the potential likelihood of it ending? It’s funny to be talking about the epidemic model now, but I was studying models like that and applying it. Culture. How does a country’s culture, whether it’s Confucian or Western, impact their likelihood of developing financial bubbles? Moral hazard. How do societies organize around the treatment of those who lose versus those who win? I thought about all these different things and ultimately that turned into a book because it was based on the course I was teaching.
That’s interesting because I’ve been writing about perception quite a bit and you’re talking about a lot of the things that tie into perception in the business world of what makes us successful or not. My way of defining perception in the business world is a combination of IQ, EQ, cultural quotient, and curiosity quotient combined into this process of making decisions. How important is our perception when we’re talking about looking at business in general?
I’ve seen some of your thinking on that. It’s absolutely spot on. The one thing I’d say is I’ve also looked at RQ, the Rationality Quotient. There are some Canadian professors that have done some work on which is about effectiveness. It’s not emotional intelligence. It’s not intellectual or books smart. It’s this something else that they’re struggling to get their arms around called RQ. In any case, you’re hinting at what I believe is one of my real big messages that I have in the last book, as well as this new book, which is every single perspective is biased and incomplete. As a result, we want to use multiple perspectives to understand what’s going on. It’s almost impossible to get a full view from one perspective only.
What’s the cost of that? I’d like to tie it down for people. If you have this single perspective, this biased, incomplete perspective, what’s the cost?
It depends on what we’re talking about. There are different types of problems that one faces. There are different types of decisions that one faces. If it’s a complex scenario that you are navigating through, in that case, I’m going to suggest there’s probably a high cost of having a single perspective going into that challenging situation. Whereas if it’s a relatively simple or straightforward situation, then that single perspective is useful. What you’re getting at, which is in my language, I talk about experts and managing experts and thinking about experts. In some of those contexts, you could probably describe an expert as a single discipline person or a single perspective person. That’s okay. I’m not suggesting experts are bad or it should be dismissed. I’m not suggesting single perspectives are bad or should be dismissed. We need to understand when those perspectives are useful and when they need to be supplemented.
I love the book Range because of what you’re talking about. I’m thinking that when we’re talking about costs, how does this tie into communication, engagement expense, soft skills, all the things that they’re having, problems with innovation not becoming innovative if you lack this ability to recognize the importance of perception?
What you’re getting at is a little bit of creativity and imagination almost, thinking broadly, widely, and empathetically. By the way, Range is great. In fact, there’s a section of my new book about empathy, so I would love to go there. First of all, David Epstein is fabulous. He’s a friend. I talked to him for almost an hour one time. He and I’ve shared ideas a lot because we think in some similar ways. Financial costs. We have to invest in this investing in being broad. It doesn’t have to be a high expense, but it does need, it does take time and money to think broadly. When we’re talking about developing creativity, imagination, and the investment of time and therefore a little bit of money, one way to do that is to read fiction and watch scenarios.
One of the things I suggest is to navigate uncertainty. You want to think in terms of possible futures. Part of that means reading broadly, widely. That takes time and costs money. The classes I was saying, one of the things we’ve done and one of the cases that I’ve taught about for five years is the risk of a global pandemic. I started teaching that in 2016, ‘17. We have the students watch the movie Contagion. I haven’t read novels about things like this and it changes the way they think. Years ago, students were dismissing this as Hollywood drama. None of my students now dismissed it as a Hollywood drama.
With your latest book, you touched on that. Right at the beginning, you talk about the Ebola epidemic in your description for your new book. I want to get into that. Before we leave this, I want to know if what other movies or something you’d suggest. I noticed you mentioned Wag the Dog in one of your talks about when you’re talking about Chinese stability, that type of thing. Were there any other movies that you think everybody should watch to help them understand what you’re trying to get through with your writing and your speaking and all that?
There’s a whole bunch of them. In fact, there’s some rambling on in this next book about how to think about the future and scenarios that we think are very low probability but could have a gigantic impact and are therefore worthy of thinking about. One of the things I’ve lately been interested in is studying the risk of earthquakes and big earthquakes. There’s that movie San Andreas which visualizes very viscerally what could happen. There are some serious, thoughtful writers that are writing about how these huge earthquakes happen roughly every 150 years. We’re overdue for a big one on the West Coast. It’s scary, but thinking about it now will get you ahead of it if it does come.
Obviously, Contagion is one I thought was useful and I’ve used that. One that I found, we teach it in the novel form, but of course students will figure out if there’s any movie and find it, as every good, capable student will do. One novel I’ve taught is Never Let Me Go. Apparently, the students tell me there’s a movie. I recommend the novel, but some were like, “There’s a good two-hour version of his novel in the movie format.” There are lots of good ones. Armageddon with Bruce Willis because it’s got this focus on this remote, weird scenario, but I love that stuff. It helps you to think differently.
I know a lot of people don’t like it. I’m like, “How could you not like that movie? It’s got great, funny lines in it.” What I’m trying to get at when I talk about the costs and all this stuff, we all can embrace the fact that the successful people are curious. If you have one biased opinion, you’re not going to have the full picture and you might make incorrect assumptions that lead to poor decisions. What I found hard in my research was finding a lot of good research that tied it down to if you aren’t curious, it’s going to cost you X, Y, Z or this number of dollars in engagement or this number for communication. Do you have case studies you share in your classes of how maybe incomplete picture, lack of perception, that thing, and the company has cost them money?
That’s so hard, Diane. The reason is it’s a fuzzy assessment here. I don’t think you can attribute direct, specific, precise dollar amounts when asking that question. Failures of imagination often, at least the biggest ones, the most dramatic ones, have gigantic costs. 9/11 was deemed a failure of imagination. I talked to a public health expert who described the pandemic as a failure of imagination. When these have gigantic numbers associated with them, but there’s also a gigantic number of people who failed to think broadly or widely.
The perception right now of the epidemic, you turn on Fox, you turn on CNN, you get different perceptions of how bad it is and whether what we should be doing. Should we be staying home for protection? Health people think one way, the economics people think we’re crashing the society. How do we get the “right answer?” I don’t know if there is one. How do we get to that discussion where people aren’t so passionate to the point where they start attacking each other?
One of the strategies that I’ve recommended across the board in my consulting and advisory work, talking with students about career decision-making, etc., is for sure always take the devil’s advocate position and think through the opposite of what you’re hearing. See whether that resonates a play. A decision without debate is not a decision in my eyes. There was no choice. It’s not a decision. I love this quote from Alfred Sloan, the former Chairman and Executive at General Motors. I don’t have the exact quote, but the essence of it was he’s sitting around their corporate boardroom and they’re about to make a tough decision and everyone agrees with them. Rather than move for a vote or move forward with his decision, what he says is, and I’m paraphrasing, “Gentlemen, since we are all in agreement, I propose that we adjourn right now to give us some time to find some disagreements so that we can learn what this decision is about.” That’s why it’s useful. The people who were devout religious watchers of Fox, I tell them to turn on CNN or MSNBC. My friends that watch CNN or MSNBC, I said, “You’ve got to watch some Fox.” You should watch different perspectives.
There’s a lot of research that it will reinforce what you think if you keep watching the same thing, that we could keep picking the same thing. Don’t people want to sometimes open up their minds to other perspectives? You don’t have to agree with the other side, but to be aware of it. Many of us are getting so polarized. Are you seeing more of that?
Yes. Unfortunately, we’re living in these filter bubbles. That’s part of what I’m trying to get across here in my new messaging, which is you’ve got to look through these things that are channeling your focus. You’ve got to understand that you’re being focused and that you’re in these echo chambers or these filter bubbles or what have you. Something like 90% of the news that filters will recommend for you, they’ve determined you will likely agree with. You start getting a distorted worldview.
I can’t think of the name of the movie that showcased how that happened with Facebook trends in the election process and how we are around exposed to all these messages that’ll help push us in a certain direction. It ties in to some of the work I did with curiosity of what limits our curiosity, which was surprising when I did my factor analysis and everything to determine the different factors that we came up with. Technology was one. As I think about it, what it is, is the over or under reliance of technology. I noticed in the quotes in your new book, you said that we’ve stopped thinking for ourselves because we’re following our GPS device or we’re doing all these things. How do we make the balance better in terms of not under or over-utilizing technology?
It’s a good word that you use, Diane, to say balance because that’s the essence of what we’re getting at here. I use the word experts, but you can insert technology here. You want to keep experts or technology on tap but not on top, meaning not over-reliant but not under reliant either because there’s value there and we want to utilize and harness that to the best we can. Part of that is what is reclaiming control and remembering that we are the decision-maker and that all of these forms of expertise, whether they’re embodied in technology or in the form of a human expert, they are, by nature, limited, biased and usually living in a silo. If they’re living in a silo, they cannot see the bigger picture or the context of the decision you want. Use them for what they’re useful for. That’s the advice I tend to give.Everybody is living in their own little filter bubbles. Click To Tweet
You give a lot of great advice in your book and you’re talking about how we’ve outsourced too much of our thinking that we’ve questioned our autonomy. You have examples from businesses, sports, everyday life. Is there a business or sports example or any example you want to give about how are we questioning our autonomy?
Here’s a great example that will illustrate not only a loss of autonomy but also the problem of silos and relying too much on a specific expert. Diane, imagine you go to your doctor, your doctor says to you, “Your cholesterol levels are creeping up a little bit here. I’m nervous about it. We want to get you on a cholesterol-reducing medication, a statin. We’re going to do that. It’s totally safe. It’s good. It works. I’m on one. In fact, all of my cardiologist peers, we’re all taking them. There’s very little downside. We’re all doing it. It’s the best Pfizer’s version of it. Lipitor was the bestselling drug of all time. The only reason it was because it worked. This is something we highly recommend and the data is that high cholesterol equals higher risk of heart attacks and there’s very good data that shows taking a statin will lower your cholesterol. We think this is a no-brainer.”
I don’t know you that well, but my guess is you’d probably say, “That seems reasonable. The cardiologist, he’s the expert. He’s taking it himself. The drug is the bestselling drug of all time. This is great.” You take it. Sure enough, your cholesterol levels fall and cardiologist claims victory. You think it works, it’s wonderful. It’s all good except then you go over and you see an endocrinologist. Your endocrinologist is saying, “I’m not liking what I’m seeing here with your insulin levels, insulin resistance, blood sugar levels. You’re looking a little prediabetic on me here. I’m not sure, but we may need to think about whether you’re at risk of diabetes. You’re seemingly developing a higher risk here.”
The reason is because these statins can interfere with insulin. By the way, I’m not suggesting a cardiologist would ever mislead anyone. They’re not. That’s the thing. There’s no poor intention here. In that silo, he claimed success. The unintended consequence is seen in another silo because the endocrinologist says, “Insulin resistance is potentially developing,” and that comes with a higher risk of a heart attack. The net result is statins, although they lower your cholesterol, do not prevent the risk of a heart attack from being elevated.
I was a pharmaceutical rep for fifteen years and called on cardiologists and our company made statins. I didn’t sell the statins. I left at the time when ours was coming out, but I studied it before I left. It’s funny when you bring up that example because I have all these years of experiences with doctors. What a lot of patients don’t recognize is how much doctors rely on the salespeople to tell them what works. Some of this data, and you know as being a researcher, you could pretty much make a study, say a lot of different things. What they do in the pharmaceutical world is they’ll take a sentence from a study that makes the drug look extremely effective and do an entire marketing campaign about that one sentence where thousands of other words didn’t say anything great.
We’ve got this limited knowledge. We’re back to that limited knowledge. As you said, you go to another expert. It’s like when in real estate, you hire a mold inspector, he’s going to find mold. You go to wherever you go. You go to these specialists. I want there to be the TV show house guy that knows all these things that tries hard, but we don’t have that in society. Of course, that guy, he’ll kill you. He doesn’t care, we should find out his answers. Hopefully that you get somebody who doesn’t do that. How do we get people to be knowledgeable enough and yet, as we’re talking about range, do we need to have some people who are specialized? Should some people or should everybody have range? What’s your thought on that?
We definitely need specialists. We absolutely do. At the end of the day, I would suggest to you if God forbid someone had needed brain surgery, you want to bring surgeons. You’re not going to a general practitioner at that time. You can take an extreme example and you say, “We need specialists and we need experts and we need those that are narrow, deep and focused. We also need to all have some degree of breadth. These need to coexist. It’s seemingly contradictory, but we can be broad and also have a couple of areas of expertise. I’ve spent a lot of time studying financial bubbles, etc. I also think about politics and other things. There are some people that are referred to as the T-style person, someone who’s broad but also has an area of depth. Other people said, “You can be a Pi person,” like the Greek letter, two areas of depth, and then a lot of breadth on top of it. I don’t think it’s either/or.
I meet a lot of people. People will make the comment, “I know enough to be dangerous,” or “I don’t know what I don’t know,” or there are these phrases out there. It’s hard to know what you don’t know and know who to go to. Right now, we’ve got a lot on the internet, but then you don’t know how much of it is accurate and if you’re trying to get data-driven, self-reliant thinking, as a PhD researcher, you and I, we had to learn what was peer-reviewed and what were more reliable types of things, but the general public, what advice would you give them?
It’s hard. There’s a lot of noise out there and to find the signal within that noise. The best advice I have is don’t rely on any data points. Triangulate. There’s a chapter of the book which is triangulate using multiple data points to see if you can get your arms around it. There’s another statement that I make, which is don’t go seeking second first opinions. Seek out independent second opinion. Don’t lead the witness is another way to say it. If you think you’ve got something here like, “I’m worried this may be true. Let me go present it to someone else.” Not as, “Do you think this is also true?” Maybe you present it a different way and potentially see if the person goes in the other direction. Don’t seek out confirmatory evidence, which has the natural bias we all have. Seek out evidence that suggests you’re wrong. That’s going to help you uncover where there could be misleading data.
There’s a lot we need to do to be more in control of what we think for ourselves. A lot of it we go, “I’m going to rely on this person.” We have to be proactive in what we’re eating, what we’re consuming. Everything in our lives, there are a lot of people who don’t want to think that hard and they rely on others. Do you think that we would have been more proactive to the COVID crisis? Is there a way that we need to change what we’re paying attention to or are we going to always be freaked out that the next asteroid is going to hit the Earth if we do that?
I’m not worried about that yet. What I would say is one thing that we didn’t touch on here, which is related to what you’re asking here. It’s important to understand how the people we work with are incentivized. What are the expert’s incentivization schemes, if you will? Warren Buffett says it fabulously, which is, “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.” You’ve got to get the incentive schemes. One way about it is experts, advisors, and providers of information and guidance, they all can help you with tasks, but you are on a mission. You need to put together the correct set of tasks to accomplish your mission. Don’t let them define a mission because they’re going to define their mission-based upon what it is that incentivizes them. It’s not bad that people have incentives. We need to know what they are. One of the things I suggest is ask. If you’re working with someone who’s giving you this great advice, as I say, how are you compensated? How are you making money here? Most of us are mature enough to understand that everyone needs to make a little money. This is a system. We’re all participants but understanding the incentive structure is useful.
It brings back to the doctor thing that we were talking about the pharmaceuticals. I was thinking when I was selling a migraine medicine, I was telling a doctor about how you paint a picture when you’re in sales. Your patient’s going to call you in the middle of the night. If you take this med, they’re not going to have the migraine. They may not call you if you can keep them from going to the ER.” He looked at me and he said, “I don’t care if they go to the ER. That comes out of somebody else’s budget. That’s fine.”
That’s the silo problem.
Doctors are businesses and a lot of people don’t recognize that. When you want to go to a doctor, I have a lot of people who say, “I don’t want to take any medications.” I go, “Why are you going to the doctor for little things? You don’t go to a slippery place unless you want to slide. If you go to a doctor for certain things, you’re going to get medications.” I’m not anti-doctor, I’m married to a doctor, and I think they’re very important. We have to realize that it’s a business. All of the people I talked to who think about doctors don’t put it in that perspective. I love the thinking that way, but we don’t teach people to think like that. How do you help people in your courses to think more in that respect? You mentioned watching television shows and movies and things like that. Do you do a lot of case studies?
The way the class I’m teaching right now is structured and there’s a framework, there’s a methodology which imbues a large portion of all the cases. Yes, we do use cases, but it’s a class that I’m teaching on systems thinking approaches. I’m taking the philosophy from the engineering of systems thinking, which is about feedback loops that you do this in this domain and it’s going to produce an impact over there in that domain. It is going to potentially come back and affect us here or affect some third place that comes back. We do a bunch of system mapping, but the idea is how does your focus shift when you start thinking about consequences outside of your silo. How does the stuff that you imposed outside of your silo come back and affect you? That’s the framework. It’s systems thinking. There’s a lot written about how to think as a systems thinker. We use that framework. The cases are big, grand human-level challenges. Pandemics, food vulnerability, climate change, energy dynamics, human migration and refugees, technology and jobs, big cases like that.
When you talk about food, I would love the video you were talking about how when people have more money in their pocket, they put more meat in their mouths and the impact that that has. Can you talk a little to that? I thought that was an interesting discussion, what you were talking about in that video.
What I’ve done is I did a whole bunch of research. This was years ago where, not to get too technical here, but I did some analysis of the data of animal protein consumption per capita, which is meat eaten per person and GDP per capita. I looked at it through 80 countries datasets that had lots and lots of data broken out by different types of meat, adjusted for culture, religion, etc. What I concluded very simply was there are tipping points that when a society hits somewhere in the $3,500 to $5,500 of GDP per capita, suddenly meat consumption per capita skyrockets. It starts going up very rapidly. That has a huge impact on the environment, on the demand for food, greens, etc., in all different ways.
That’s the essence of the argument. I go through it and I say, “Think about it this way. If you had a family of four, let’s imagine some Asian country and the family of four are currently unable to afford food, so they have four bowls of rice in front of them. Over time they generate a little more income. They said, “Now it’s time to put some chicken on our rice,” and they put chicken on their rice. Eventually, they get more money, they go to pork. Eventually more money, they get to beef, and then they get some more variety. That migration you might think is simply economic. The cost of chicken, the cost of pork. What if we thought about it in terms of the agricultural impact? Here, if we think about the fact that the chicken has to eat also, what you learn is that a chicken for every pound of chicken you consume, the chicken consumed roughly two pounds of grain and feed.
The four bowls on the table, if you stop and think about it effectively as twelve bowls of rice on the table when they put chicken on it. It’s one bowl for rice, two for the chicken, effectively three if we assume for a second that the grains are all equivalent and the chicken’s eating rice. If you go to pork, it’s twenty bowls. If you go to beef, it’s 36 bowls. My argument is that you found the increasing meat consumption could ripple through the entire agricultural value chain rapidly if and when that happens. What we’ll see is not a linear increase, like we’re seeing an income. We’ll see an exponential increase in the demand for grains.
I thought it was interesting because the grains need water and sunlight, soil, fertilizer. You go into those, fertilizers, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and it seems like it’s dropping a pebble in the water and everything around it is being impacted to some extent. You don’t think about these things. I’m looking at the impact that we didn’t recognize what this COVID situation is going to do. We were talking about the social dynamics and the population of the world and who’s growing and who isn’t and who’s aging and who isn’t. I was thinking as I watched how you said that India population is booming, but you also mentioned that Japan is aging rapidly. I’m curious, with this COVID, with the aging population in Italy, it wasn’t a great thing for them. Were you foreseeing all this when you were talking about this in your classes about how COVID is impacting not one thing, but everything else?
We do talk about that. Part of the pandemic case that I’ve taught for years is we look at how public health situation can result in political chaos, social structures, breaking down, how demographics comes into play, how education gets impacted, how information flow gets distorted. How all of these dynamics can and likely do happen in these moments of crisis particularly if they’re lingering or chronic crises feelings. If something’s going on and seemingly going on and on and you get overwhelmed by the information, then you start getting even misinformation mixed into that information. It becomes critical to manage all that. I’ve talked about that and written about that a little bit and definitely teach about that. That’s important to understand. These things can have impacts that are ripples. That’s a good description.
You have a big following of some of the financial stuff that you’ve written. I know because LinkedIn listed you as the number one Top Voice for Money, Finance, and Global Economics in 2015, 2016 and in Worth Magazine, your profile is one of the 100 Most Powerful People in Global Finance. We haven’t even touched on the financial.If you're living in a silo, you won't be able to see the bigger picture at play. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting because we started with my varied interest in multiples. There’s a reason I didn’t write my next book about finance. I wanted to broaden and take it to a way of thinking rather than finance. I’m happy to talk about finance.
What is your favorite part to discuss in finance? I have worked as a loan officer in real estate and different financial realms. I’m curious, what is your main appeal? What do you like to focus on when you deal with finance and money?
The part of finance I found most fascinating was the emerging markets and the frontier markets. Over my years as a practicing investment manager, I had the real joy of traveling to lots of places in the world. I had adjusted this analysis for the Department of Homeland Security. I was renewing my TSA precheck. They said, “Let’s do all the countries you’ve been to.” I pulled out the passport and the old passport and ran through it all. I’ve been to 78 countries which was fun. That was the part of finance I enjoyed because that was not the trading of assets between each other and trying to, “I make a penny, you lose a penny,” that kind of stuff.
This was bringing investment dollars into countries in Africa or allowing capital from savers that had money to get deployed where there would be a good return because they’d build a bridge over a river in India. If they didn’t have that bridge, they had to walk twenty miles down to the bridge and come back. You can imagine how that improves the quality of lives, etc. That was one aspect that was exciting to me, the global nature of finance and the impact it was having. If you could generate a return by helping people and you can do good and well at the same time, that sounds like a real win-win.
I can’t even imagine going to that many countries. It’s amazing. After reading The Hot Zone, you still have no problem getting on an airplane. I should have never read that book. I think about it when I get on planes.
You’ll love this, Diane. Here’s an interesting tidbit for you. August 2014, the Ebola crisis is going pretty strongly in Sierra Leone and maybe Liberia. I get an invitation to come to Ghana and spend some time with the senior leaders of the country and some others and give a speech at an event. I said, “Sure, I’m going to go.” Ghana doesn’t have any Ebola. It’s fine. There’s a nonstop flight from New York City. It goes right into Accra. I go there. The Ebola thing is still getting worse. On my way back, I was supposed to get on the plane that goes from Accra directly to JFK. I learned by asking questions. That’s another thing. Ask lots of questions when you don’t know. I said, “Where does this plane go? It goes back and forth. JFK to Accra?” They said, “No, it does a triangle. It goes JFK to Accra. Accra to Liberia. Liberia, back to Accra. Accra back to JFK.” I said, “You’re saying the plane I’m going to be getting on is going to be coming from Liberia?” They said, “Yes, but we clean it.” I was like, “No.” That’s not a risk I want to take. It was probably irrational, honestly, because Ebola is a fluid bound disease. Unless I was touching people or sharing fluids, which I would not be doing, probably limited risk on a plane. Nonetheless, I changed my flights and went on the KLM flights or Amsterdam on the way home because I didn’t want to deal with it.
I remember being on a flight with my husband once and they said, “Is there a doctor onboard?” Of course, he has got to help. We get into first-class sometimes in a bad way, to help somebody up there, but he’s going to help them. It’s scary to travel now. I wonder how this is impacting your speaking and things that you do.
Very big, in fact, in a meaningful way. For 2020, I was on track to do probably 40-plus keynote talks at different events and stuff like that. In March 2020, probably half of them canceled outright. Probably half of the remaining postponed and said, “We’re going to reschedule it hopefully in the fall.” The remaining quarter said, “Let’s do it virtually.” I’ve been doing a lot of virtual events and that’s been going relatively well. I taught my class at Harvard virtually the second half of the semester. A lot of time on Zoom, a lot of time on Webex, etc. I’ve gotten proficient with it. It’s impacted in a meaningful way. By the way, I don’t think it’s coming back as quickly as some people think.
When do you think it will come back?
It depends what you mean by comeback first of all. Let’s talk even with restaurants. Do you want to go out to a restaurant that the host is going to have plexiglass in front of him and then you’re going to get taken to a table by someone who’s wearing a mask? You’re going to have a mask on. They’re going to have you sit at a table. Every other table or every third table is going to have people and they’re going to have space between them. The waitress or waiter is going to hand you these disposable menus. The sommelier is going to have a mask on and gloves. They’re going to open a bottle of wine for you and they’re going to pray it with Lysol or something before leaving it on the table.
They’re going to sanitize it every time after you get up and before another person sits down. This doesn’t sound like an appealing process. Take out, sure. I can imagine that there will be a slow comeback. Think about when the next time you want to get on an airplane is going to be. To go to an event, you’ve got to get on an airplane, go to an event, sit in a crowded ballroom, eat off a buffet line that everyone else is going down. Even sleeping in a hotel room. Do you want to sleep in a hotel room when you don’t know if it was sanitized the night before and you don’t know who was in there?
I’ve worked in a hotel and I know sometimes that scares me with how much they clean. The whole thing, it’s challenging. I’ve taught online for many years. I like to teach online instead. I’ve never been a huge restauranteur, but I am a big movie fan, and watching it in a movie theater is big and that’s been hard giving that up. Like you, I’ve been doing my speaking. I know Verizon and some of the companies I work with, they’re doing a lot of their speaking engagements virtually. A lot of people who speak like we do have had to adjust. I love being on Zoom and that, but that to me is great because I’m not traveling and it’s a nice alternative.
One thing I’d tell you is a lot of people have been asking me about, “Harvard teaching, what does that look like online? Do you think it’s going to go back?” I will tell you, and while a place like Harvard would never ever have taken classes all online proactively, it’s the fact that they did has taught us a lot of things on the faculty here. One of the things I can tell you with reasonable comfort is at least my class, which is discussion-based, using whiteboards, a little bit of teamwork, etc. Meaning we’re not using labs. I don’t have to physically do it.
I would suggest the class is taught as well perhaps even better online than it was in class for a couple of reasons. Number one, I can put breakout groups together on Zoom and let them have their own whiteboard and recording, which is great. They all feel at liberty to interact with each other. You can monitor if there’s an overwhelming personality. That’s helpful. Secondly, there’s no cross-contamination across students. If I have one work in this corner of the room and the other, and they hear each other, I can do polls where they know who’s raising whose hand. There are some things that are better. It’s not all better because the in-person stuff is good and develop relationships, but it’s not all bad.
I prefer it, anytime I don’t have to drive and park. As a student, I always love that. It’s a challenge, some of this is what’s going on, but a lot of it can be better. I saw California state universities are all going to be and that the only issue that you hear with that so much is new students wanting the experience of the school. There are going to be drawbacks for certain people. For somebody like me, I’m all in for everything being online. I’m loving that part and I’m sad it’s for that reason. What you do fascinates me and I was looking forward to this because I know that you’ve appeared in Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes, New York Times. You’d list the publications you’re in them. I was very excited to hear your perspective on so many things that I’m interested in because I’m a highly curious person too. Thank you so much for sharing all this. If anybody’s interested in following you or getting your book or learning more, is there something in place that they can find you? Are there any links you’d like to share?
Do you have your students call you Dr. M? I’m curious.
Dr. V is what they go with. I don’t know why they went with that, but that’s what they all stuck with for some reason and I go with it. It’s fine.
I figured it would be a little bit easier. My students call me Dr. Diane, so I guess they do like to go with the first. It’s so nice of you to be here and thank you so much Dr. V.
Thanks very much, Diane. It’s a real pleasure.
We’d like to thank Dr. Vikram, Dr. V, for being here. We get so many great guests. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamilton.com. We’re on iTunes, iHeart, Roku, you name it. You could find us just about everywhere. If you want more information about Cracking the Curiosity Code book or The Curiosity Code Index Assessment, all of that information is at CuriosityCode.com or at DrDianeHamilton.com. If you drop down the Curiosity menu, you could find it in both places. I hope you check out that information. I hope you join us next time.
- Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence
- Never Let Me Go
- The Hot Zone
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About Vikram Mansharamani
Dr. Vikram Mansharamani is a global trend-watcher who shows people how to anticipate the future, manage risk, and spot opportunities. He first gained widespread attention with the release of his first book, Boombustology, which provided a framework for spotting bubbles before they burst. Since then, he has been a frequent commentator on issues driving disruption in the global business environment. His ideas and writings have also appeared in Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times and a long list of other publications. The 500 million member Linkedin network listed him as the #1 Top Voice for Money, Finance and Global Economics for both 2015 and 2016 and Worth Magazine recently profiled him as one of the 100 most powerful people in global finance. Millions of readers have enjoyed his unique multi-lens approach to connecting seemingly irrelevant dots. He also regularly advises sovereign wealth funds, endowments, foundations, and family offices on how to manage their allocations in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. He is the author of Think For Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence.
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