Juan David's Newsletter - May 22, 2022
The Oldest Surviving Institution Mechanism of Continuation
Summer is on. This past week, I worked on coding my new website, figuring out the details of the personal flying vehicle, and being here, that is, being with family and trying to do my work. It’s a challenge but a good challenge.
Coding a website isn’t about coding. It’s about design. The design is the hardest part. I’m so close to stopping and making it live but I’ll continue improving on it so I won’t have to worry about it for the next few years.
Flying vehicle? I ordered parts and I’ll start building a drone next week. The most exciting part has been reaching out to a CEO of a drone company asking for spare parts à la Steve Jobs.
The drone company CEO replied and wanted to do a collaboration or internship. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.
I share this because I’ve learned that once you have an idea of what you want to do and ask for help, people will help you get closer to achieving your mission.
✍️ This week, I want to talk about institutions, specifically what we can learn from the oldest institution that continues to survive even after 1200 years.
The Oldest Surviving Institution Mechanism of Continuation
The era we’re living in right now is interesting because many of our institutions that used to work are not working anymore or not working as well as they used to. For instance, the educational system, federal government, healthcare, intergovernmental organizations (e.g. United Nations), regulatory agencies, local governments (e.g. Chicago and San Francisco), News institutions (e.g. New York Times), and more.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, I’ll give you more examples. CDC’s inability to prevent COVID-19 plus its number of lies and contradictions. The almost $2 trillion dollar student loan debt crisis. The two-party system and its threat to democracy and the goals of the nation. Chicago’s and San Francisco’s lawlessness. And the list continues.
This is more or less normal. This is similar to when a big and successful company is the leader and becomes slow and bureaucratic, and a small garage startup ends up making the big company go bankrupt. Or simpler yet, when you are winning a race and you get overconfident making you lose the race.
How can we fix broken institutions? We often can’t. I’m from Venezuela and the country is ruined. What can I do? I can either stay and try to fix it (and get killed along the way). Or I can exit to create a new alternative.
This is known as Voice vs. Exit1. Voice is about changing a system from within. Exit is about leaving to create a new system. In the Venezuela example, I can stay and vote. Or I can emigrate and build a new future.
Another example is being part of the educational system as a college student. The system, as well as the institution, are far from its intended goal. In my college’s case, to be a beacon of knowledge for the state, nation and world.
What can I do? I can change the system from within by climbing the ladder by graduating, getting a Ph.D., becoming a professor, getting tenured, being on boards, becoming the chancellor, becoming the president, and even then it would not be enough to even change anything.
Or I can exit by teaching myself things, building and creating projects, or even creating an education startup.
Institutions aren’t evil. It’s easy to become complacent and forget their mission.
Institutions fail and succeed. But how can make institutions work for everyone? I’m not saying we don’t need institutions and everyone should be on their own. We do need institutions, we just need better ones that actually work.
Let’s learn from the oldest and still active institution of all time. An institution that somehow has survived for more than 1200 years. This institution is called the Catholic Church.
The Oldest and Still Active Institution: The Catholic Church
How can an institution survive for that long? Not even the Roman Empire, which was one of the greatest and most influential civilizations in the world was around for that long (about 1000 years).
What can we learn from the Catholic Church? A solution to the Voice vs. Exit problem.
The Catholic Church dealt with these conflicts in two ways:
Absorption and reforming itself.
Condemnation and extermination.
No institution survives for a long time without internal conflict. How the conflict is resolved is the answer to whether the institution survives. Was the creation of the United States always going to happen? If the British would have known how to resolve the conflict better, the U.S. may have never existed.
Inside the Catholic Church, people like St. Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, or even people like John Hus have caused great challenges that confronted the church. However, in some cases, the church decided to absorb those people and reform itself. Thus the waves of reform throughout its history.
Other times, the Catholic Church reacted by condemning and doing whatever it was necessary to exterminate them. For instance, the crusades, the burning of John Hus at the stake, or movements were labeled heresies such as the Waldensian heresies.
The line between accepted reformation and rejected heresy was thin and often affected by political situations. People like St. Teresa, or Ignatius Loyola (founder of Jesuits) were suspected and even persecuted. The Jesuits came very close to being heretical, and the Waldensians came close to being tolerated within the church2.
Should institutions launch crusades against those who disagree? Well, probably not. But institutions still do similar things, for instance, social media bans, or compassionless media attacks.
However, I don’t see much absorption happening today.
How can institutions adopt absorptions?
By creating incentives to keep the institution’s goal always in mind. That way, when a leader from the institutions sees opposing views, the leader does not just ignore them but also listens to them and tries to bring them to reform themselves, if it makes sense.
In the case of a company, the goal is about creating a product in the best way possible to achieve their goal. This goal could be bigger as making life multi-planetary where the goal would be about creating the best rockets and having the best engineers.
In the case of a college, the goal is about learning to live and think, helping us find our innate talents, and becoming more than just the degree.
In other words, this is a question about how can we create a world where innovation has less friction.
Think about Bitcoin, Ethereum, or other cryptocurrencies. It’s been rejected, criticized, and even banned by some governments. But does that mean cryptocurrencies or their technology are flat-out wrong or stupid?
No. If so, why does it have to go through a period of rejection, and hopefully it’s able to work its way to becoming mainstream?
Or why does it have to go through the “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” Gandhi quote?
These conflicts happened because we forget the incentives. We forget the purpose and get caught up with other matters.
In this era, institutions can absorb them by remembering the mission and goal of the institution, avoiding echo chambers by creating diversity of thought sources, seeking negative feedback, and creating fail-fast methods to absorb and reform from within.
Institutions often do absorptions but they don’t it well. I can think of the high interest by colleges to create entrepreneurship centers and competitions. They don’t work. They all attract the wrong people and very few do interesting things. If you are skeptical, try finding a successful startup that came from a pitch competition. Colleges tried to absorb a current trend but missed the point.
It’s not about reforming for reformation’s sake or getting used to new trends. It’s about seeing how the reformation itself helps you with the goal and purpose of the institution. This is a hard thing because it’s tricky to figure out the people which are worth listening to and have valid reform ideas but not impossible.
Another example is the adaption of “radical wokeness” among institutions. Everyone adopted it in less than a decade3.
Another solution is reminding people from the institutions that it’s ok to quit and resign. The world would have been a very different place if Neville Chamberlain did not resign, opening up the space to Winston Churchill.
Institutions need to go through serious reformation. Many people will attempt to reform them from within and others will try to create new ones. I will be part of the latter. However, current institutions need to pay attention to those who want to create better institutions outside because chances are, we will end up taking over, making a lot of unnecessary mistakes, and slowing future progress.
Institutions? We’re coming for you. Get your survival mechanisms ready to either absorb us (unlikely) or exterminate us (likely).
Take a look at my favorite Chicago building:
How do you build a building with such a narrow base? What?!!!
Incredibly engineering, that’s all.
Thank you for reading,
Juan David Campolargo
From Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert Hirschman
There are more details and a lot more history but hopefully, I explained it well enough to reach my point.