Persistence

This originally ran in my company’s monthly-ish newsletter.


A few weeks ago, on a dark, frigid morning, I sat in my car and watched as guys trickled into the Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym where I train.

I didn’t want to be there.

I didn’t want to go inside.

I wanted to go home.

I wanted to hang it all up.

I was so tired … from work, from kids, from a million aggravating and enervating pinpricks that I felt like quitting more than jiu-jitsu.

And in that moment, I thought about the fine line between stamina and stupidity.

It’s right to praise persistence, but shouldn’t we persist in things worth doing?

* * *

Most of the founders who read this newsletter probably started 2020 by defining their goals for the year; and they’re probably throwing themselves at their work with commitment, ingenuity, and optimism.

Honestly, I’ve been stuck in the starting blocks. The near- and long-term objectives are inchoate, and after several years of optimism, the entrepreneurial journey is feeling like a merciless slog through the Sahara. I suspect I’m not alone.

Yes, Portico’s still here, and we’re busy fielding inbound demand. The data suggest we’re on the right track, with visitors to our website growing at a CAGR of 88% since year one, and our audience expanding from 35 to 93 countries.

But still, the azimuth toward a recurring revenue model remains unknown, and the odds of bootstrapping to scale seem long indeed. There’s no discernible Portico Pivot™ on the horizon.

Some people illustrate the benefits of persistence as an exponential growth curve — small efforts compound over time, leading to large returns at time t. As if our lives are money-market funds.

It’s an intuitive concept when applied to one’s own knowledge and capabilities: put in the work, get in the reps, enjoy the gains.

However, it misses the context of industry or market conditions. The latter can dictate the shape and slope of the curve.

For example, you can buy the best surfboard, learn from the best instructors, and have supreme balance and fitness, but there’s no point in surfing on a pond. You need waves.

The tide has been out for a long time in EM private markets. The surf conditions have been poor. I’m scanning the horizon for signs of a swell.

The industry needs an upcycle.

* * *

My dad once gave me framed copies of a prayer and a poem. The prayer was General Douglas MacArthur’s “Build Me a Son” and the poem was John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Don’t Quit.”

Their words become more meaningful as the years tick by and the cinders burn hotter in the furnace of adversity.

My dad injured himself pretty badly when he went through Marine Corps Officer Candidates School. He tried to persist through the program, but he fell during one of the evolutions, tearing most of the ligaments and tendons in his ankle. It was about 10 days before graduation.

He was given a choice: return to civilian life, or wait for the next OCS class and start over from the beginning.

He chose to start over.

One time, he let me in on a secret.

“Buddy, sometimes you have to take it a day at a time, sometimes it’s a meal at a time, and sometimes it’s a step at a time. Just keep taking the next step.”

So, on that cold morning, with an aching body and melancholy in the ascendant, I turned off the ignition, opened the car door, and took the next step.

Globalization in the Age of American Primacy

Four years ago, I drafted a syllabus for a class that I wanted to teach.

It’s a course on international political economy that seeks to tease out how the United States has used its power position to shape the international system — and the states within it — over the last 30 years.

This age of American primacy facilitated a relatively peaceful international environment (at least insofar as there were no wars among great powers), an unprecedented growth in trade and capital flows, and an historic reduction in poverty.

Yet these advancements didn’t proceed without complication:

  • financial crises beset developed and developing countries, alike;
  • questions emerged over the construct of the international system and the suitability of its institutions; and,
  • the exercise of U.S. power alienated numerous countries, all while proving largely ineffective at solving the political and security challenges to the international order.

As the relative power positions were shifting more toward balance than imbalance, the age of American primacy appeared to be coming to an end. As I admonished my hypothetical students in the syllabus:

This matters. The contest for management of the international system will define the conditions in which you build your lives and careers, and it will shape the opportunities available to you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Alas — despite the hours I dedicated to crafting a syllabus — I’ve not yet had the opportunity to teach the course.

(Perhaps I should have spent those hours pitching the idea to more universities instead?)

There’s an outside chance that I could turn this into a book. But rather than sit on the ideas, I thought I’d share them in the hopes of inspiring someone, somewhere to engage in the big questions of our time.

I’ve included an outline of the course below; if you’re keen to peruse the whole syllabus, it’s free to download at the bottom of the post. Let me know what you think!


Outline of the Course

1. Departures / Introduction to the Course

Globalization and American Primacy in a New World Order

2. A New Dawn in Europe — The Reunification of Germany and the Extirpation of Communism in Central & Eastern Europe

3. Democratic Enlargement and the Foundations of a New Global Economy

4. From NAFTA to the Tequila Crisis

Globalization and American Primacy on the March

5. Hot Money — The Asian Financial Crisis, The Ruble Crisis, and The Committee to Save the World

6. 9/11, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the International System

7. The Rise of China, Emerging Markets, and Bretton Woods II

8. Cracks in the System — The Global Financial Crisis and Its Aftermath

Globalization and American Primacy in Reverse

9. European Disunion — Debt, Austerity, and the End of Unity?

10. China, the Great Rebalancing, and the End of the Commodity Supercycle — From Emerging to Submerging Markets

11. Entropy in the International System

12. Cui bono? Taking Stock of America’s Return on Investment — Who Won, Who Lost, and What It Means for the Future

13. Recap // Key Themes from the Course


Download the syllabus:

Favorite Books of 2019

Is this thing still on?

Fully one year has passed since the last blog post. 

Do people even read blogs anymore? Continue reading “Favorite Books of 2019”

Favorite Books of 2018

I set myself two book-related goals this year: first, I established a target of reading 50 (non-children’s) books. I missed it by some distance. Continue reading “Favorite Books of 2018”

Some Reflections on Entrepreneurship and Life

Two years ago, I quit my job and founded Portico. 

At the time, I questioned the prudence of launching a business catering to an industry in cyclical — and perhaps structural — decline, and markets where fewer and fewer investors seem keen to tread. I mean, all the books say that you’re supposed to ride the wave of a growing industry, or at least choose one in which the customer base isn’t shrinking.

But, the thing about journeys is they start where you’re standing. So, I took the first step with a disregard for the macro and industry cycles. 

Two years later, those founding doubts persist.  Continue reading “Some Reflections on Entrepreneurship and Life”

The Wealth of Nations

Who’s wealthier, a Maasai elder or your average American?

A few years ago, my wife and I enjoyed a marvelous hike through the bush of Tanzania while on safari. After camping in the village of Nainokanoka, we set off early with Moloton, our Maasai guide, and we walked amongst the buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and zebra on our way to a campsite at Empakaai, a gorgeous crater lake that legions of flamingos call home.

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It was positively Edenic … I still can’t believe my wife did it while pregnant …

Anyway, as we walked through some of the villages, I noticed an abundance of domesticated animals grazing around the boma— cattle, goats, sheep, chickens.

Since this was a long hike, I had lots of time to get lost in thought. And I kept pondering the question at the top of this page. Continue reading “The Wealth of Nations”

A Reason for Optimism

About four years ago, I wrote a post called “The Reckoning.” In it, I put forward the idea that unsustainable economic trends in the United States would lead to the emergence of populist politics and demagogues.

In the conclusion, I suggested that this incipient “reckoning” was symptomatic of a cleavage between different generations’ perceptions of the world. Basically, (1) that the generation that grew up in the post-World War II era — which by definition is responsible for the state of the union — would be incapable of adapting to a world without American primacy; and, (2) that the generation coming of age in a period of entropy and uncertainty would be willing to take on the shibboleths that have impeded political progress.

I closed with the following: Continue reading “A Reason for Optimism”

Intangible Assets

I’ve been digging through some historical tax receipts data (#NerdAlert) to determine whether investment income — defined as net income from taxable interest, dividends, capital gains, and rent — has been rising as a share of gross income. To my surprise, it has been fairly flat at around 10% in recent years (see Exhibit 1). Continue reading “Intangible Assets”

Favorite Podcast Episodes (2017)

In The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly says that at least 27 new podcasts launch each day. That’s nearly 10,000 per year! And I bet that number has grown since his book was published.

I haven’t looked very hard for a solution, but one of my biggest headaches with podcasts is discovery: finding a new voice / perspective to which I want to listen. Since most podcasts target a niche, then by definition, to each listener, most podcasts are shit. Continue reading “Favorite Podcast Episodes (2017)”

Favorite Books of 2017

Recreational reading took a back seat to building my company and enjoying time with my family this year. So, I am limiting this year’s selection to my favorite six books. Continue reading “Favorite Books of 2017”