Shut up and keep thinking

This time, something went wrong with the uploading of media on the Word Press server, and so I am publishing my video editorial on You Tube only. Click here to see and hear me saying a few introductory words.

I am trying to put some order in all the updates I have written for my research blog. Right now, I am identifying the main strands of my writing. Still, I want to explain I am doing that sorting of my past thought. I had the idea that, as the academic year is about to start, I could use those past updates as material for teaching. After all, I am writing this blog in sort of a quasi-didactic style, and a thoughtful compilation of such content can be of help for my students.

Right, so I am disentangling those strands of writing. As for the main ideas, I have been writing mostly about three things: a) the market of renewable energies b) monetary systems and cryptocurrencies, as well as the FinTech sector, c) political systems, law and institutions, and d) behavioural research. As I am reviewing what I wrote along these three lines, a few distinct patterns of writing emerge. The first are case studies, focused on interpreting the financial statements of selected companies. I went into four distinct avenues with that form of expression: a) companies operating in the market of renewable energies b) investment funds c) FinTech companies and, lately, d) film and TV companies. Then, as a different form of my writing, come quantitative studies, where I use large databases to run correlations and linear regressions. Finally, there are whole series of updates, which, fault of a better term, I call ‘concept development’. They give account of my personal work on business or scientific concepts, and look very much like daily reports of creative thinking.

Funny, by the way, how I write a lot about behavioural patterns and their importance in social structures, and I have fallen, myself, into recurrent behavioural patterns in my writing. Good, so what I am going to do is to use my readings and findings about behavioural patterns in order to figure out, and make the best possible use of my own behavioural patterns.

How can I use my past writing for educational purposes? I guess that my essential mission, as an educator, consists in communicating an experience in a teachable form, i.e. in a form possible to reproduce, and that reproduction of my experience should be somehow beneficial to other people. Logically, if I want to be an efficient educator in social sciences, what I should do now, is to distillate some sort of essence from my past experience, and formalize it in a teachable form.

My experience is that of looking for recurrent patterns in the most basic phenomena around me. As I am supposed to be clever as a social scientist, let’s settle for social phenomena. Those three distinct forms of my expression correspond to three distinct experiences: focus on one case, search for quantitative data on a s**tload of cases grouped together, and, finally, progressive coining up of complex ideas. This is what I can communicate, as a teacher.

Yet, another idea germinates in my mind. I am a being in time, and I thrust myself into the time to come, as Martin Heidegger would say (if he was alive). I define my social role very largely as that of a scientist and a teacher, and I wonder what am I thrusting, of myself as a scientist and a teacher, into this time that is about to advance towards me. I was tempted to answer grandly that it is my passion to discover that I project into current existence. Yet, precisely, I noticed it is grand talk, and I want to go to the core of things, like to the flesh of my being in time.

As I take off the pompous, out of that ‘passion to discover’ thing, something scientific emerges: a sequence. It all always starts when I see something interesting, and sort of vaguely useful. I intuitively want to know more about that interesting and possibly useful thing, and so I touch, I explore, I turn it under different angles, and yes, my initial intuition was right: it is interesting and useful. Years ago, even before having my PhD, I was strongly involved in preparing new material for management training. I was part of a team lead by a respectable professor from the University of Warsaw, and we were in scientific charge of training for the middle management of a few Polish banks. At the time, I started to read financial reports of companies listed in the stock market. I progressively figured out that large, publicly listed companies published periodical reports, which are like made of two completely different, semantic substances.

In those financial reports, there was the corporate small talk, about ‘exciting new opportunities’, ‘controlled growth’, ‘value for our shareholders’, which, honestly, I find interesting for the sake of its peculiar style, seemingly detached from real life. Yet, there is another semantic substance in those reports: the numbers. Numbers tell a different story. Even if the management of a company do their best to disguise some facts so as they look fancier, the numbers tell the truth. They tell the truth about product markets, about doubtful mergers and acquisitions, about the capacity of a business to accumulate capital etc.

As I started to work seriously on my PhD, and I started to sort out the broadly spoken microeconomic theories, including those of the new institutional school, I suddenly realised the connection between those theories and the sense that numbers make in those financial reports. I discovered that financial statements, i.e. the bare numbers, backed with some technical, explanatory notes, tend to show the true face of any business. They make of those Ockham’s razors, which cut out the b*****it and leave only the really meaningful.

Here comes the underlying, scientifically defined phenomenon. Financial markets have been ever present in human societies. In this respect, I could never recommend enough the monumental work by Fernand Braudel (Braudel 1992a[1]; Braudel 1992b[2]; Braudel 1995[3]). Financial markets have their little ways, and one of them is the charming veil of indefiniteness, put on the facts that laymen should-not-exactly-excite-themselves-about-for-their-own-good. Big business likes to dress into those fancy clothes, made of fancy and foggy language. Still, as soon as numbers have to be published, they start telling the true story. However elusive the management of a company would be in their verbal statements, the financials tell the truth. It is fascinating, how the introduction of precise measurements and accounts, into a realm of social life where plenty of b*****it floats, instantaneously makes things straight and clear.

I know what you can think now, ‘cause I used to think the same when I was (much) younger and listened to lectures at the university: here is that guy, who can be elegantly labelled as more than mature, and he gets excited about his own fascinations, financial reports in the occurrence. Still, I invite you to explore the thing. Financial markets are crucial for the current functioning of our civilisation. We need to shift towards renewable energies, we need to figure out how to make more food in sustainable ways, we need to remove plastic from the oceans, we need to go and see if Mars is an interesting place to hang around: we have a lot of challenges to face. Financial markets are crucial to that end, because they can greatly help in mobilising collective effort, and if we want them to work the way they should work, we need to assure that money goes where it is really needed. Bringing clarity and transparency to finance, over and over again, is really important. Being able to cut through the veil of corporate propaganda and go to the core of business is just as important. Careful reading of financial reports matters. It just matters.

So here is how one of my scientific fascinations formed. More or less at the same epoch, i.e. when I was working on my PhD, I started to work seriously with large datasets, mostly regarding innovation. Patents, patent applications, indicators of R&D effort: I started to go really quantitative about that stuff. I still remember that strange feeling, when synthetic measures of those large datasets started to make sense. I would run some correlations, just because you just need a lot of correlations in a PhD in economics, and vlam!: things would start to be meaningful. Those of you who work with Big Data probably know that feeling well, but I was experiencing it in the 1990ies, when digital technologies were like the grand-parents of the current ones, and even things like Panel Data Analysis, an analytical routine today, were seen as the impressionism of economic research.

I had progressively developed a strongly exploratory manner of working with quantitative data. A friend of mine, the same professor whom I used to work for in those management training projects, called it ‘the bulldog’ approach. He said: ‘Krzysztof, when you find some interesting data, you are like one of those anecdotal bulldogs: you bite into it so strongly, that sometimes you don’t even know how to let go, and you need someone who comes with a crowbar at forces your jaws open’.  Yes, indeed, this is the very same that I have just noticed as I am reviewing the past updates in that research blog of mine. What I do with data can be best described as sniffing, rummaging, playing with, digging and biting into – anything but serious scientific approach.

This is how two of my typical forms of scientific expression – case studies and quantitative studies – formed out of my fascination with the sense coming out of numbers. There is that third form of expression, which I have provisionally labelled ‘concept forming’, and which I developed the most recently, like over the last 18 months, precisely as I started to blog.

I am thinking about the best way to describe my experience in that respect. Here it comes. You have probably experienced those episodes of going outdoors, hiking or running, and then you or someone else starts moaning: ‘These backpack straps are just killing my shoulders! I am thirsty! I am exhausted! My knees are about to explode!’ etc. When I was a kid, I joined the boy scouts, and it was all about hiking. I used to be a fat kid, and that hiking was really killing me, but I liked company, too, and so I went for it. I used to moan exactly the way I have just portrayed. The team leader would just reply in the lines of ‘Just shut up and keep walking! You will adapt!’. Now, I know he was bloody right. There are times in life, when we take on something new and challenging, and then it seems just so hard to carry on, and the best way to deal with it is to shut up and carry on. You will adapt.

This is very much what I experienced as regards thinking and writing. When I started to keep this blog, I had a lot of ideas to express (hopefully, I still have), but I was really struggling with giving an intelligible form to those ideas. This is how I discovered the deep truth of that sentence, attributed to Pablo Picasso (although it could be anyone): ‘When a stroke of genius comes, it finds me at work’. As strange as it could seem, I experienced, and I am still experiencing, over and over again, the fundamental veracity of that principle. When I start working on an idea, the initial enthusiasm sooner or later yields to some moaning function in my brain: ‘F*ck, it is to hard! That thinking about one thing is killing me! And it is sooo complex! I will never sort it out! There is no point!’. Then, hopefully, another part of my brain barks: ‘Just shut up, and think, write, repeat! You will adapt’.

And you know what? It works. When, in the presence of a complex concept to figure out I just shut up (metaphorically, I mean I stop moaning), and keep thinking and writing, it takes shape. Step by step, I am sketching the contours of what’s simmering in the depths of my mind. The process is a bit painful, but rewarding.

Thus, here is the pattern of myself, which I am thrusting into the future, as it comes to science and teaching, and which, hopefully, I can teach. People around me, voluntarily or involuntarily, attract my attention to some sort of scientific and/or teaching work I should do. This is important, and I have just realized it: I take on goals and targets that other people somehow suggest. I need that social prod to wake me up. As I take on that work, I almost instinctively start flipping my Ockham’s razor between and around my intellectual fingers (some people do it with cards, phones, or even knives, you might have spotted it), and I causally give a shave here and there, and I slice observable reality into layers: there is the foam of common narrative about the thing, and there are those factual anchors I can attach to. Usually they are numbers, and, at a deeper philosophical level, they are proportions between things of reality.

As I observe those proportions, I progressively attach them to facts of life, and I start seeing patterns. Those patterns provide me something more or less interesting to say, and so I maintain my intellectual interaction with other people, and sooner or later they attract my attention to another interesting thing to focus on. And so it goes on. And one day, I die. And what will really matter will be made of things that I do but which outlive me. The ethically valuable things.

Good. I return to that metaphor I coined up a like 10 weeks ago, that of social sciences used as a social GPS system, i.e. serving to find one’s location in the social space, and then figure out a sensible route to follow. My personal experience, the one I have just given the account of, can serve to that purpose. My experience tells me that finding my place in the social space always involves interaction with other people. Understanding, and sort of embracing my social role, i.e. the way I can be really useful to other people, is the equivalent of finding my location on the social map. Another important thing I discovered as I deconstructed my experience: my social role is largely made of goals I pursue, not just of labels and rituals. It is sort of dynamic, it is very much my Heideggerian being-in-time, thrusting myself into my own immediate future.

I feel like getting it across really precisely: that thrusting-myself-into-the-future thing is not just pure phenomenology. It is hard science as well. We are defined by what we do. By ‘we’ I mean both individuals and whole societies. What we do involves something we are trying to achieve, i.e. some ethical values we seek to maximise, and to balance with other values. Understanding my social role means tracing the path I am moving along.

Now, whatever goal I am to achieve, according to my social role, around me I can see the foam of common narrative, and the factual anchors. The practical use of social sciences consists in finding those anchors, and figuring out the way to use them so as to thrive in the social role we have now, or change that role efficiently. Here comes the outcome from another piece of my personal experience: forming a valuable understanding requires just shutting up and thinking, and discovering things. Valuable discovery goes beyond and involves more than just amazement: it is intimately connected to purposeful work on discovering things.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

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[1] Braudel, F. (1992). Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The structure of everyday life (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press.

[2] Braudel, F. (1992). Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th century, vol. II: The wheels of commerce (Vol. 2). Univ of California Press.

[3] Braudel, F. (1995). A history of civilizations (p. 178). New York: Penguin Books

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