Purdah – A Rule That Aims To Stop Officials From Prejudicing Voters.

An approach that the US could benefit from, too.

These are trying times for voters in the US and the UK. Stateside, Americans must contend with the rise of Donald Trump. Across the pond, British citizens are preparing to vote on whether to leave the European Union, known as Brexit.

Trump’s unlikely rise to prominence and the Brexit vote are each driven by many of the same issues—nationalism, xenophobia, and a pervasive sense of economic impotence. But as a dual citizen of both the US and the UK, I’ve been struck by the vast differences in how each of the countries campaign. Nowhere is this difference more pronounced than in the UK’s convention of the purdah, which goes into effect today and limits what government officials can do and say for the four-week period before UK citizens head to the polls on June 23rd.

Purdah is a Persian word that means “curtain” or “veil.” Also sometimes referred to as the “period of sensitivity,” it describes “the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place.” So although prime minister David Cameron is on the record as being against the UK leaving the EU (despite, illogically, calling for the referendum himself), from this point forward he will not be able to use his office to enact any policy or publicity that might sway the public.

Meanwhile, during the general election in 2015, official guidance stated that ministers were expected to postpone “decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might … take a different view from the present Government” and “not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality.”

Stephen Fisher is a sociology professor at Oxford University’s Trinity College who studies elections. He says the purdah convention is reflective of a larger approach to British elections that is starkly different from America’s. You can find a hint of that disparity, he says, in the language used in each nation.

“There is a calmer approach to the way that elections and political competitions are conducted in Britain compared to the US.”

“In the US you ‘run for office’ and in Britain you ‘stand for election,’” Fisher says. “There is a calmer, less dynamic, and less frantic approach to the way that elections and political competitions are conducted in Britain compared to the US. There is a longer cycle and different electoral law, and there was traditionally much more of a sense of [having] large periods of time when people weren’t focusing on trying to win the next election.”

The purdah was passed relatively recently in 2000 as part of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. However, according to Dr Andrew Blick, a lecturer in politics and contemporary history at Kings College London, “the idea that ministers should not abuse their position to serve clearly party political ends long predates 2000.” The purdah does not apply to designated campaigners—so candidates can still be on the stump right up until election day. Rather, it applies to government ministers and departments, local authorities, and bodies funded with taxpayer money, excluding the BBC.

The purdah is not the only restriction on UK elections. The Electoral Commission limits campaign expenditure within what is called the “regulated period.” In the case of the Brexit referendum, this period began on April 15th, 10 weeks before the vote. Any individual or group who spends more than £10,000 campaigning for one side must register and report their spending. During 2015’s general election, meanwhile, the regulated period was just under 12 months. Spending limits were capped within that time frame for both sides.

The idea that voters should have time to debate and contemplate issues without hype from politicians is novel to my American ears.

Fisher says that in practice, one of the most tangible outcomes of the purdah is that it inconveniences the government, which can’t push policy along as effectively when it’s in place. For this reason, David Cameron attempted to prevent a purdah from being applied to the upcoming referendum. But the idea that those in power should not be allowed to put the full machinery of the government behind their own election aims is a hugely refreshing departure from the near-constant election chatter in the US.

It’s important to note that the purdah doesn’t apply to the media. It’s hard to judge with any certainty the effect that silencing government and civil servants has on the ensuing media coverage in the run-up to an election. Fisher posits that the restriction tends to cause a “front-loading” of government reports, such as Monday’s Treasury report, which warned of “immediate and profound shock to [the] economy” if Britain votes to leave. Regardless, the idea that voters should have time to debate and contemplate issues without hype from politicians is novel to my American ears.

In recent weeks, the US media has indulged in self-flagellation over the idea that they “created Trump” by giving him endless free publicity ($2 billion worth, according to The New York Times). But a more compelling explanation for Trump’s rise may be that he is the inevitable product of a political system that is more focused on campaigning than governing.

Trump is the inevitable product of a political system that is more focused on campaigning than governing.

US election cycles have stretched to become a two-year bloodbath. If you consider what political scientists call the “rule of anticipated importance,” Trump benefited from a long period where he could convince the electorate of how much he mattered. In that time, there were also comparatively few restrictions on what he could spend.

But what if Trump had campaigned in a climate that had an aim of civic impartiality? What if running for office wasn’t a money-raising contest, and campaigning mid-way through a sitting president’s term was viewed as counter to the nation’s best interests? In that alternative scenario, I have a hunch Trump’s main assets—storytelling and deep pockets—might not have gotten him so far.

The debate around Brexit has certainly been fervent and, at times, ugly. But at least it hasn’t been long. The date of the referendum was only announced in February, giving the saga just four months to unfold.

Given the seemingly endless slog of the US election, it’s hard not to yearn for a similar spirit of electoral restraint in America. Until then, I’ll be counting down the 164 days until November 8th.

MaxCo Advisors, May 2016

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20 Misused English Words That Make Smart People Look Silly

We’re all tempted to use words that we’re not too familiar with. If this were the only problem, I wouldn’t have much to write about. That’s because we’re cautious with words we’re unsure of and, thus, they don’t create much of an issue for us. It’s the words that we think we’re using correctly that wreak the most havoc. We throw them around in meetings, e-mails and important documents (such as resumes and client reports), and they land, like fingernails across a chalkboard, on everyone who has to hear or read them. We’re all guilty of this from time to time, especially myself.

When I write, I usually ask an editor friend who is an expert in grammar to review my articles before I post them online. It’s bad enough to have a roomful of people witness your blunder—it’s something else entirely to stumble in front of many others. The point is, we can all benefit from opportunities to sharpen the saw and minimize our mistakes. Often, it’s the words we perceive as being more correct or sophisticated that don’t really mean what we think they do. There are 20 such words that have a tendency to make even really smart people stumble.

Have a look to see which of these commonly confused words throw you off.

Accept vs. Except

These two words sound similar but have very different meanings. Accept means to receive something willingly: “His mom accepted his explanation” or “She accepted the gift graciously.” Except signifies exclusion: “I can attend every meeting except the one next week.” To help you remember, note that both except and exclusion begin with ex.

Affect vs. Effect

To make these words even more confusing than they already are, both can be used as either a noun or a verb. Let’s start with the verbs. Affect means to influence something or someone; effect means to accomplish something. “Your job was affected by the organizational restructuring” but “These changes will be effected on Monday.” As a noun, an effect is the result of something: “The sunny weather had a huge effect on sales.” It’s almost always the right choice because the noun affect refers to an emotional state and is rarely used outside of psychological circles: “The patient’s affect was flat.”

Lie vs. Lay

We’re all pretty clear on the lie that means an untruth. It’s the other usage that trips us up. Lie also means to recline: “Why don’t you liedown and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lieis something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay. It’s more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is—you guessed it—lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.”

Bring vs. Take

Bring and take both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another, but the correct usage depends on the speaker’s point of view. Somebody brings something to you, but you take it to somewhere else: “Bring me the mail, then take your shoes to your room.” Just remember, if the movement is toward you, use bring; if the movement is away from you, use take.

Ironic vs. Coincidental

A lot of people get this wrong. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s not ironic—it’s coincidental (and bad luck). Ironic has several meanings, all of which include some type of reversal of what was expected. Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but clearly means another. Situational irony is when a result is the opposite of what was expected. O. Henry was a master of situational irony. In his famous short story The Gift of the Magi, Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each character sold something precious to buy a gift for the other, but those gifts were intended for what the other person sold. That is true irony. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s coincidental. If you drive up to the mountains to ski, and there was more snow back at your house, that’s ironic.

Imply vs. Infer

To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. As a general rule, the speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.

Nauseous vs. Nauseated

Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles. Still, it’s important to note the difference. Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea. So, if your circle includes ultra-particular grammar sticklers, never say “I’m nauseous” unless you want them to be snickering behind your back.

Comprise vs. Compose

These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language. Comprise means to include; compose means to make up. It all comes down to parts versus the whole. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: “A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves.” When you use compose, you put the pieces first: “Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.”

Farther vs. Further

Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther,” but “I have nothing further to say.” If you can substitute “more” or “additional,” use further.

Fewer vs. Less

Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted; use less when referring to a whole: “You have fewer dollars, but less money.”

Bringing it all together

English grammar can be tricky, and, a lot of times, the words that sound right are actually wrong. With words such as those listed above, you just have to memorize the rules so that when you are about to use them, you’ll catch yourself in the act and know for certain that you’ve written or said the right one.

MaxCo Advisors, May 2016

The Importance Of Breaking Free Of … Yourself

By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, Harvard University

 

We know countless students who entered college thinking, “I’m going to figure out who I am, and then make my life plan, and hopefully have an impact on the world.” After all, it’s how you were raised, and it’s the message you heard — from your parents, from school counselors, from the culture at large — about how to have a good and flourishing life.

But now that you’re graduating, you might be wondering if you did all you were supposed to have done. You haven’t figured out your calling. You haven’t found your passions. You haven’t found yourself. Instead, you are taking a gap year. You’ve taken a job offer but aren’t sure it’s for you. You’re headed for law school even though you really didn’t plan on being a lawyer. Rather than feeling liberated by a four-year search for your true self, you ended up feeling anxious, oppressed, and constrained by it.

Our recommendation: Read Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and other great Chinese thinkers who lived thousands of years ago, because they have the real liberation you are looking for.

For instance, instead of embracing your self, Confucius urged, overcome your self. Break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.

Don’t feel pressured to make firm plans for the person you think you are now and will be years hence. They will box you in. You will wake up decades from now wondering how you are living a life decided on by who you believed you truly were when you were 21 years old. Instead, keep living life for the as-yet unknown person you will keep on morphing into; keep the possibilities open.

This is why, when students encounter Chinese philosophy, they are often relieved to learn that there was a group of thinkers who thought hard 2,000 years ago about the very same things on their own undergraduate minds.

These philosophers had keen insights into human psychology. What they discovered sounds bleak at first. They saw us for who we are: messy creatures, full of contradictions and anxieties, petty jealousies, complicated feelings, ambitions, hopes, longings, and fears.

Not only that, they saw us each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

That’s why the Chinese philosophers would have found our penchant for thinking of the self as singular and true, something we dig deep to discover within, as incredibly dangerous. We think we know ourselves, what makes us tick: that we tend to blow up over small things, or that tests make us anxious; that we are perfectionists or slobs. But when we define who we are, we are all too often labeling ourselves according to these passive patterns, unhealthy ruts, and automatic rote reactions.

Our philosophers’ ideas were supremely doable. One of the most important things they suggested was to engage in rituals, of all things.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “How could rituals be liberating?”

Engaging in rituals in a Confucian sense, though, is transformative. Confucian rituals — or “as if” rituals — come from the small conventional things we do all the time. When you pass a friend on the street and smile and say hi as if you weren’t just stressing over a bad exam grade you got, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual . When you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something your annoying cousin said, but instead respond as if what she said was insightful, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual.

Yes, these moments go against our authentic, true feelings. They can feel fake, or like we’re being nice for politeness’ sake.

But Confucius saw value in such rituals — if we do them ritually, and not rotely —precisely because they go against your authentic, true feelings and thus have the potential to allow you to become a different, and a better, person for a brief moment. The more you consciously engage in such moments the more you cultivate yourself. You train yourself not to always act true to yourself, in order to behave better.

And such pedestrian moments throughout the day are not the only chance we have to break from who we really are. You can also actively choose other ways to go against your idea of what is really you.

As you grew up your parents, and you, paid attention to what you were good at, and you learned how to play to your strengths. By now you know that you like videogaming or museums, math or music, you hate track but you love soccer. You learned to narrow down and focus on your interests and strengths, to choose your classes and extracurriculars carefully and plan things out in order to move efficiently towards the future.

But by focusing down on what you are good at or what you love in order to hone your strengths and interests, you ended up inadvertently doing something else: training yourself to cut out other things that could lead you in all sorts of unprecedented, unpredictable directions. Instead of being directed and efficient, you end up closing yourself off from new experience.

The way out is to deliberately go against the focused, the narrow, or what you love. Intentionally seek out things you don’t love, aren’t good at. Pay attention to interests you think you have no time for; choose experiences precisely because they are so not you.

The point is not to develop well roundedness, nor is it to develop expertise in a new area. The point is to get in the habit of expanding your perspective and expanding your life. It’s to practice constantly engaging in anything that that forces you away from the constraints that come from living as a singular, authentic self. You’re opening yourself up to living life as a series of breaks: breaks from your true feelings, your true interests, your true strengths.

The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break from yourself, you will continue to grow and change. As you cultivate your goodness, it slowly becomes second nature and radiates outward. Your kindness, rooted in the mundane and everyday, extends from the family and friends around you to town, region, nation, world.

That’s why our Chinese philosophers would say: don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation. Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself. This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.

This post has been adapted from the authors’ new book, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,”

To Be Truly Happy, Will You Always Need Something More?

What’s the sign of a life well lived? If you were to judge by LinkedIn resumes alone, you might be impressed by prestigious job titles and accolades. But in person, the importance of these formal achievements quickly fades away. Regardless of career success, there can be something very dispiriting, almost lifeless, about someone who moves without strife through the ranks of their organization. Nobody’s deepest yearning is to be a decently-salaried professional whose only goal is to get a table at a trendy restaurant.

Whether we’re striving for a new job, more meaningful relationships, or personal enlightenment, we need to actively want something more in order to live well. In fact, neuroscience shows that the act of seeking itself, rather than the goals we realize, is key to satisfaction.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. All mammals have this seeking system, says Panskepp, wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This means animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves.

Panskepp notes in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that the rats do not seem to find electrocution pleasurable. “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation,” he writes. Instead of being driven by any reward, he argues, the rats were motivated by the need to seek itself.

The human desire to seek can help make sense of studies showing that achieving major goals, or even winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness. But our drive to look ahead needn’t cause a permanent state of dissatisfaction, as seeking is itself a fulfilling activity. Evan Thompson, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, says that the entire field of philosophy can be seen as an expression of this seeking impulse. Rather than coming up with a philosophical answer and then resting, content with the solution, Thompson says many philosophers would say the quest is an end in itself.

The same is true, he points out, for the arts and sciences.

If you’re an artist there are always new modes of expression, new things to create and communicate. The world isn’t fixed, it’s always changing, so that means you have to create anew in light of the changes,” he says. “I don’t think any good scientist thinks one day science will come to an end. Science is about questioning, new ways of looking at things, new devices. That’s entirely open-ended.”

The innate human desire to seek means that we can never truly feel that every desire and wish has been met. There will never be an end to the to-do list, future goals and plans, the things we want to achieve and see. But the fact that we don’t have everything we want is exactly what makes life so fulfilling.

MaxCo Advisors, May 2016

The Small Tweaks That ​Turn​ An OK Life Into A Great Life

For those lucky enough to live in peaceful, plentiful societies, life should be great. But because we’re all human, and everything—every hardship, annoyance, and problem—is relative, we often go through days beset by feelings of sadness, worry, and stress.

We each have our own ways of bringing joy into life. The daily ritual that can’t be compromised; the tweak that makes a massive difference to how you feel. I read recently about a media website that crowd-sourced its readers and employees, and shared a guide to a day that’s much, much better than just OK. And here’s a promise: none of this advice will require you to move house, spend a lot of money, or wake up really early.

Morning

  • Wake without an alarm

The dark of a January morning; a piercing wail that shocks you out of too-short sleep; the insistent, tyrannical “snooze” button function. Every morning for most of my life I used an alarm to wake, thinking there was no other option. But then I met my partner, and found he rejected that moment of morning pain, brief and forgettable though it is. Training yourself to wake without an alarm isn’t difficult. I’ve done it for years. It requires routine, and not being exhausted. The pay-off: waking every morning with no sense of panic or shock. Highly recommended.

  • Start the day with something hot and truly delicious

From Australia’s flat white to India’s chai, there are coffee and tea drinking traditions in cultures across the world. Culturally and spiritually, these drinks are important. A well-made cup of coffee is so far removed from a watery, lukewarm, or otherwise bad one that it makes the difference between your spirit lifting, or staying right where it is. Don’t compromise.

And please, use the right cup. A mug should be big enough for a satisfying brew, and ideally made of china or porcelain, which keeps the drink hotter. An espresso is inexpressibly better in an espresso cup.

  • Put on comfortable shoes

We’ve talked a lot recently about shoes. They’re political, especially if you’re a woman. And they’re the most important things we wear when it comes to the way we move and feel. Painful shoes are a misery, and comfortable ones a joy.

  • Mitigate your commute

Commuting can make us very unhappy, and today, it’s really unnecessary, but for many, though, it’s unavoidable. So how can you tweak it? Walking or cycling can make the necessity a pleasure, and for some it’s worth factoring in extra time to make that possible. We’re also increasingly demanding flexibility from our workplaces, as we should, and that can mean shifting work hours so we start from home and then travel-in when the rush hour is over. If you have to take a train or bus, read something that also transports you: A great book can be an important happiness factor for us.

Afternoon

  • Don’t be uncomfortable at your desk

Pain at work should not be a normal state of affairs, though for many of us it is. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to optimize your work station but at the minimum: screens, desktops and chairs need to be at the right height and distance for your body. Other tweaks (footrests, the ability to stand, ergonomic equipment) might be necessary. Experiment until you find what works.

  • Move

This can be a challenge, but for lots of us it’s also the difference between feeling great and feeling terrible. It doesn’t have to be hours at the gym. A short walk is much, much better than no walk. One trip to the pool a week gives swimming addicts an important fix.

Evening

  • Put your speakers in the right place. Arrange books so that you can find them easily. Keep floors clean, so that walking barefoot is a pleasure.
  • Use good-quality cotton sheets

So, if you don’t have great sheets, buying them as an expense. Not a sky-high one, though, and an investment: good sheets last. Some also emphasized the importance of a good mattress. That’s expensive, for sure, but for somewhere you spend a third of your life, perhaps worth it. If you look you can find great deals too.

Any time of day

  • Designate a time each day to not worry

Or, even, a time to worry.Designating time when you can process those thoughts—or escape them—can help manage feelings of being overwhelmed.

  • Eat good bread

Bread goes in and out of fashion. But if you’re eating it, that experience can be one of simple glory. Hipster-beloved sourdough. A baguette with butter. Dark Polish rye. Eat what you love. Just don’t eat bad bread. Just don’t do it.

  • Seek out quality food

We’re straying away from “tweaks” into the realm of farmers markets and locavores. This isn’t a shopping list, but good olive oil, truly fresh seasonal fruit, good Scotch (in the right glass), tomatoes that haven’t been refrigerated, full-fat dairy products, and “capers in your tuna salad” are things that some have said make life better. And an airtight lunchbox can give you the ability to take delicious home-cooked food to work.

Finally, and importantly…

Having a sense of agency in one’s own life is, unsurprisingly, a key to happiness. So is opportunity: the belief that you can achieve goals. Those are big things, but maybe that’s why small tweaks make a lot of difference to how we feel. They remind us we have choice: between a good cup of coffee and a poor one; between a synthetic sheet and one made of cotton.

Simple gratitude. Who could argue with that?

MaxCo Advisors, May 2016