PPPPlot Twists - Four P's #149

University Endowments, Voices in our Head, NFTS and Andrew Cuomo

According to journalist and author Christopher Booker, every story ever written or told fits into one of seven basic story narrative formats. He wrote The 7 Basic Plots nearly two decades ago now, postulating that all of storytelling throughout history can be distilled into the following basic archetypes: “Overcoming the Monster;” “Rags to Riches;” “The Quest;” “Voyage and Return;” “Comedy;” “Tragedy;” and “Rebirth.”

More recently, an interdepartmental study at the University of Vermont (a “must-read” whenever Literature, Statistics and Sociology academics join forces) found six narrative types: “Rags to riches” (rise); “Riches to rags” (fall); “Man in a hole” (fall–rise); “Icarus” (rise–fall); “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise); and “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall).

Ultimately, all stories have either a happy or sad ending. In this week’s Four P’s, each follows a different plot archetype. But in all four instances, the stories are not yet complete. How they end still remains to be determined:

  • Something Personal: University fundraising and endowments.

  • Something Practical: The voices in our head.

  • Something Professional: NFTs for brands.

  • Something Political: The impending fall of Andrew Cuomo.


Something Personal: Hanging with the Well-Endowed

When I graduated college 20+ years ago, I left the institution a more knowledgeable, kinder, and well-rounded adult than the one who arrived as a cocky, inexperienced freshman. Four years of liberal arts study resulted in a healthy mix of academic, personal, and social development. And even though I departed campus with a job waiting for me, I had no clearer sense of purpose or professional direction.

Within weeks of graduating, the University (or representatives) began reaching out to solicit alumni contributions. In my early 20's, I donated annually at a relatively insignificant amount based on what my entry level salary would allow. Even into my late 20's, while contributing less frequently, the donation amounts increased in size. I saw it less as an opportunity to give back to the school and more as a way to just stay connected. Nostalgia giving is a thing, right?

Looking back now, it's probably been 10 years since I last wrote a check to the University of Pennsylvania or gave to the Penn Fund. It coincided right around the time when my children were born and I was working at a start-up. Suddenly, financial uncertainty became a very real, even if unfounded, concern. In short, I needed that money more than the university did.

And I still believe that to be true. While I truly understand the benefits of gifting -- supporting scholarships, paying professors, expanding curriculums, physical plant upkeep, funding a new 25,000 square foot squash pavilion, etc. -- my connection to the school is fading and the likelihood of my kids being able to attend seems to be slipping away. No matter where they go, saving for their education has to be my first priority. Paying for college in full and leaving me debt free remains the greatest gift my parents ever got me. And I want to be able to do the same for my kids. But with rising tuition costs, who knows if that will even be possible in another 10 years?

Large universities, whether private or state-run, are complex corporations with operating budgets that rival those of medium-size nations. The University of Pennsylvania's 2020 operating budget was $11.3 billion. Yes, Penn has a huge hospital and health system, and owns real estate all over Pennsylvania, but even the FY21 Academic Operating Budget for the University will exceed $3.5 billion. They will make $750MM in investment income, alone. No matter how high Bitcoin prices and Tesla stock prices rise, I'm still going to be far behind that number.

In 2020, Penn alumni, parents, and supporters contributed $655 million in new gifts and pledges and $705 million in cash receipts. Non-profits and organizations drive a large chunk of fundraising efforts. A few months ago, the The W. P. Carey Foundation made a $125 million gift to the Law School, the largest gift ever to a law school. Overall contributions, defined as new gifts and pledges, totaled $551.8MM, including 119 gifts of more than $1 million. Contributions to The Penn Fund increased 9.5% from $39.8 million in FY19 to $43.6 million in FY20 and annual giving increased by 4.5% from $85.9 million to $89.8 million. Donors established 84 new undergraduate scholarships.

In retrospect, I should have focused more, studied harder, and leveraged my Penn network to earn more money over the past two decades. Had this happened, who knows if I would have been in a position to contribute more? I would still want more of my donations to go to support undergraduate and graduate financial aid grants and scholarships, but a smaller % of the endowment is being directed towards these needs than ever before.

Nowadays, gratitude for my time at Penn is rooted more in the friendships I made than anything else. I talk to them every day. We support and uplift each other, and all of that is rooted in those four years together. I had the time of my life. I never have, and never will again, experience that kind of uninterrupted freedom. But they've already taken enough of my (and my family's) money for one lifetime. This morning, I finally clicked "unsubscribe" to the alumni donation solicitation emails.
Wait, I'm still invited to the 25th reunion, right? Perhaps that’s when I’ll feel compelled to give again.


Something Practical: Managing the Voices in Our Head

We all have "voices in our heads," which could be a way of defining everything from your conscience to an inner monologue to a legitimate mental illness. For me, my inner voice compels me to take risks, question authority, and second-guess decisions. Nowadays, we’re constantly urged to “be present,” yet we spend so much time caught up in streams of self-talk, reflection, reminiscence, and scenario-playing our heads. Prioritizing our inner voices for good, productive, beneficial progress can be challenging, but it is increasingly important as we get older... to help free us from the negative thought spirals that could dominate our lives. Our brains are built with all the tools we need to minimize the loop of negative self-talk.

Our inner voices are an inherent part of our minds, likely developed so we could evaluate our past and prepare for the future (another evolution story, obviously). It helps us with self-control. It helps us keep track of our goals. It shapes our identities. In moments of doubt or insecurity, it can lessen shame, and embarrassment, lower stress, and promote wiser reasoning.

There is a scientific theory that our minds can only hold four pieces of information at any single moment. But if the inner voices get too loud, that number reduces to one. Or zero. Besides undermining our thought-processing functions, the inner voice also gets in the way of our social relationships. When there’s too much internal chatter, we have to get it out. But ironically, the more we share with sympathetic friends, the more we push them away. After all, relationships demand that we listen, too. But people suffering intense negative emotions have trouble knowing when it’s time to stop talking.

The best way to minimize these risks is creating space. Emotional distance helps to put things in perspective. The inner involves force you to zoom in. Emotions swirl and we become consumed and we lose perspective. During a moment of stress recently, my wife was able to provide some helpful temporal distancing. Reminding me how little anything work-related will matter in ten years helped put it in perspective. Wisdom is based on the ability to see the big picture, as well as acknowledging the limits of our knowledge. Key lesson: My wife is wise.

To reduce the inner chatter, we need to meet both our emotional and cognitive needs. Engaging with the outside world can help us to feel more in control, which, in turn, helps us to believe we can achieve our goals and affects how much effort you put into doing so. And one of the easiest and most effective ways of instilling order, getting organized, and doing something I've written about before: establishing rituals and routines.

Ultimately, we should leverage the benefits of our inner monologues, and ignore the rest. Easier said than done, of course. But no matter how bad your situation seems or how negative your thoughts get, things will always seem a little easier if you manage to put a bit of distance between you and that noise.


Something Professional: New Found Temptations (NFT)

NFTs are fun. NFTs are innovative. NFTs are dangerous. NFTs are possibly even a smart investment. But NFTs are not for brand marketers. Not yet, at least.

By now, you know what NFTs are. Or you kind of understand the concept, but don't fully get it... NFT stands for "Non-Fungible Tokens," which are unique, verifiable digital assets that can represent items such as GIFs, images, videos, music albums, and more. Even tweets and sports video clips. Anything that exists online can be purchased as an NFT, really. The value is in their collectability and tradability. Why do you buy art to put on your wall? Why did you buy baseball cards as a kid? Maybe to collect? Maybe to turn around and sell for a profit? NFTs are a digital version of that concept, except created as a type of cryptographic token. NFTs are not cryptocurrency, per se, because they’re not interchangeable. Each asset is uniquely identifiable, recorded on blockchain platforms (which I explained last night to my 10 year-old as "decentralization across many people’s computers in encrypted bits and pieces." He got it).

Blockchain for companies? Absolutely. Cryptocurrency for market transactions? Sure! But NFTs as brand-building OR commerce-driving entities? Not so much. This may come as a surprise to you, considering many of you know me as the guy going around trying to convince brands to create a Facebook page and invest in social media marketing 13 or 14 years ago. But I never saw the power or potential of digital audience-building communities as a gimmick.

Right now, NFT "advertising" is a gimmick to get attention in a small echo chamber of digital elitists. It may create some social media engagement and even some trade pub headlines. Brands that are really tapped into internet culture and have a "right to speak" about such things on Twitter are entitled to have some fun with it. Borrowed relevance and all that. Will it move the bottom line for shareholders? Definitely not. And I'm the guy who sunk hundreds of dollars into NBA TopShot, which now has an estimated portfolio value (yes, this is a thing) in the thousands. But this is not going to be a thing that drives direct or indirect revenue for brands, at least not anytime soon.

Pizza Hut recently created and sold "Non-Fungible Pizza" on Rarible, a crypto marketplace. One slice for $8,800. The goal, they said, was to promote the Hut’s four new recipes. Ok. Has your Pizza Hut-loving cousin in North Carolina heard about this? No chance. In a moment of weakness last week, I even tried to buy a limited-edition NFT Pringles can because it was affordable and I was first, and thought it could be worth something on a quick flip. But the transaction crapped out on my phone while I was lying in bed in the middle of the night and I woke up thinking it was all a bad dream. Not to be outdone, Taco Bell and Charmin also got in on the NFT fun with a “Swivel Taco” and roll of NF"TP,” respectively.

In marketing and advertising circles, “schwag,” merchandising, and even collectibles can be a fun side hustle for brand marketers. But they can just as easily become distractions. Coke may sell sweatshirts out of the Atlanta airport, but I'd rather wear my orange WNBA hoodie, instead. Overall, NFTs are only going to become more popular, and the uses for them may expand. But brands have to stay focused and disciplined, and minimize the distractions. As the hype fades and collectors become less interested in flipping for profit (my current interest), only then will NFTs become a legitimate platform for brand-building on a secondary or tertiary level. If the value of NFTs is more aligned with the collectibles market, collectors may want "pop art" that contains branded elements (think Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans), but they may also be just as likely to trade weird digital felines, instead.


Something Political: In Fine Cuomo

Not, it’s not fine at all. In Latin, this means the “end is near.” A year ago... even six months ago... New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was the toast of the town. His transparent, forthright approach to fighting the COVID pandemic was important and noteworthy. His daily briefings were must-see TV, and in a time of Trump, he was a no-nonsense, action-oriented leader. There were some negative stories about nursing home deaths, but we were in a crisis, and the elderly were definitively more at risk.

Fast forward to about a month ago, and a startling number of allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior by Cuomo began to surface. One complaint... each complaint... all complaints should be taken seriously, investigated and dealt with accordingly. As the first one or two came out, it was easier to think that it was likely false or, at best, misleading. Cuomo has political opponents and enemies on all sides, and the initial reports were unsubstantiated.

But the volume, and severity, of these allegations is beyond the point of conspiratorial. There has to be some truth behind some of this. Yes, let the investigations continue and proceed, but perhaps it's time for Cuomo to step aside. He has not commented about the multiple investigations, except to ask for the public to wait for their conclusions before passing judgment on him -- and, by extension, whether he should stay in office.

We can't have it both ways. No, Brett Kavanaugh should never have been approved for a Supreme Court seat. Donald Trump should never have been President. A growing number of Democrats in New York and around the country are also calling for Cuomo to resign. And good for them. We need to be the good guys even when the other side isn't. Never surrender the moral, ethical or legal high ground no matter what short term damage it does.

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