The individual as “value proposition.”

A value proposition is a business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

“No wife ever shot her husband while he was doing the dishes.” – origin unknown

“I wonder if any wife ever shot her husband while he was at the computer?” – idle question asked by a (totally anonymous) bystander while I was typing in the quote above.

A recent series of four LOTRW posts dealt with the value of information. Here are some reflections on a related topic: the so-called value proposition. As the first quote above suggests, this is normally considered in terms of a good or a service offered by a company or other organization. But the latter quotes remind us that as individuals, whether at home or at work, you and I represent “value propositions” to family members, or friends, or prospective or actual employers.

We need a starting point for this conversation. Let’s take Gaston Bruton.


gaston bruton

You may not have heard of the man, but that’s because you didn’t grow up in my house. Dr. Bruton was a mathematics professor at the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee) who ultimately went on to chair their math department and then become dean of administration. During the 1940’s he hired my father to join the faculty there. Some excerpts from the departmental history:

“A perhaps decisive influence during this period was Robert Hooke, a Princeton Ph.D. and a great admirer of Bruton’s, who had joined Sewanee’s faculty to bring much-needed expertise in modern mathematics… Unfortunately, Hooke soon left Sewanee to become chief statistician for the Westinghouse Corporation. The costly medical attention needed by a family member [note: that might have been me] had forced him to seek more lucrative employment. Hooke later published a short and witty paperback book entitled How to tell the Liars from the Statisticians, which became widely known.”

“Great admirer” was absolutely correct. Dad used to talk about Dr. Bruton frequently, in reverent tones (that he reserved for Bruton and very few others), at the dinner table. One frequent story?

“Dr. Bruton would say,” my dad would remind us every so often, “that everybody the same age knew the same amount. One of those people might have traveled the world, and/or devoted his or her life to disciplined scholarship. Another might have just sat in the same single room all the while, staring at a clock and a wall, but that person sitting in the one room knew a lot about that clock and that wall.”

The takeaway from these dinner conversations was twofold: humility, and respect for others. Those were Bruton’s values and our dad worked to pass them along. But for our purposes here there’s an additional lesson. The traveled, learned person and the wall-gazer likely represent quite different utilities to others.

We can see this by reflecting on another conversation, this one quite recent, and involving DJ Patil – who got his start in numerical weather prediction, publishing in Phys. Rev. and similar journals (a distinctive choice in the meteorological community) and then went on to become an entrepreneur, and co-coiner-of-the-term “data science.” He’s currently the Chief Data Scientist of the White House, and still only in his early 40’s. Dr. Patil gave a keynote talk to the AMS Washington Forum on April 12, and in the course of his remarks repeated two comments he’d made as part of a commencement speech a few years back at UC Santa Cruz, entitled Fight for YES[1]:

“End each day ten times smarter than you had been at the beginning.

“Return a value ten times your employer’s investment.”

 Some hearers, perhaps many, might dismiss these goals, especially the first, as hopelessly unrealistic, but both remarks bear reflection. The first reminds us that the ways we spend our time each day themselves offer stunningly different value to us – and ultimately to those we serve, whether family or workplace. Start with what we learn. Sometimes we come across an idea or stumble across a finding at home or work that is truly life-changing. But too often we spend much time in habit and ritual (more complex forms of wall-gazing) or worse – procrastination. Time spent looking at cat videos, epic fails, or the hundredth analytical piece on the current political campaign yield diminishing marginal returns.

What we learn makes a difference.

Patil’s second quote reminds us that learning per se is of limited value – unless and until we put that insight to work, using it for the benefit of others. Whether at home or at work, the benefit versus the cost we represent to others ought not to be a close call. Here again, where and how we choose to spend our time matters hugely. During each workday we confront an array of tasks. Their relative importance to us and our organization and customers span the range from existentially important to vanishingly small or even negative.

What we work on makes a difference.

An aside? How we work matters as well.

Two days ago I heard a talk on human cognition. In passing, the speaker warned of the dangers of multi-tasking, presenting evidence that multi-tasking results in serious deterioration of performance. To drive the point home, the speaker referred us to a video clip used in Great Britain to warn of the dangers of texting, etc., while driving. You might take a look.

A closing thought, at the same time signaling where we’re going next. The value proposition we represent individually is a microcosm of a larger context; the value proposition the Earth-observations,-science,-and services-community represents to the larger society. That’s important to consider in and of itself. But the current political season in the United States and events worldwide each and every day reveal a society that sees itself as frustrated and angry about the present and fearful and unprepared for the future. That preoccupation doesn’t change the value of our work. But it has to change the way we engage.

As individuals and a community, we need to reset our outreach itself and the accompanying language. More soon.


[1] You might want to watch the video in its entirety. It may not be the best commencement speech you’ve ever heard, but if it’s not in the top ten, you can have your money back.

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