Is reciprocity the force behind everything?

Let’s start the week with an easy, straight-forward question…

Is there a simple two-word description that accurately describes how everything in the world works?

1: That’s the question posed by Peter D. Kaufman, CEO of Glenair, Inc., but best-known for compiling Poor Charlie’s Almanack, the Wit and Wisdom of Charlie Munger.

“That would be very useful, wouldn’t it, if you know how everything works in just two words?” Peter states in a talk at California Polytechnic State University Pomona Economics Club.

Yes, it would.

To answer the question, Peter looks to three sources or what he calls “buckets”: (1) the inorganic universe, i.e. anything that is not living (13.7 billion years old), (2) the biology on Earth (3.5 billion years), and (3) 20,000 years of recorded history.  

We will start with bucket #1 and Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there will always be an equal and opposite reaction.’”

Let’s say we put a bottle of water on a table.  Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictates if the bottle pushes down on the table with “force x,” the table pushes back with equal “force x.”  If we push down twice as hard on the bottle, the table pushes back twice as hard.  

For how long has that been true?  

13.7 billion years.

Peter suggests there is a word to describe this phenomenon.  

Reciprocation.

“But it’s not mere reciprocation,” says Peter. “It’s perfectly mirrored reciprocation. The harder I push, the harder it pushes back. That’s how the world works. It’s mirrored reciprocation. Everything in the inorganic universe works that way.”

2: What about bucket #2 involving all living things?

Mark Twain said, “If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”  

In other words, the cat is “going to try and scratch me with its sharp claws,” Peter states.  

Why? 

“It doesn’t find being picked up by its tail very agreeable, does it?” says Peter.  “Now what if I start swinging this cat around by its tail—what does the cat do now? Now it’s trying to scratch my eyes out.  The cat says, “You escalated on me pal, I’m going to escalate back on you.” 

But, what if instead of treating the cat in a disagreeable way, we do something agreeable instead?  

If “we come over and we gently pick it up by its tummy and we put it in the crook of our elbow and we gently stroke it. Does the cat try and scratch us? What does it do?” asks Peter.

“It licks our hands.  And as long as I sit here and stroke it, it’s going to continue to try and lick my hand,” states Peter.  The cat says, “I like this. This is agreeable. You’re a good guy. Keep it up, man!” 

Which sounds a lot like… “mirrored reciprocation.”

3: What do we think we’ll find with bucket #3, our 20,000 years of human history? This bucket is the most relevant of all. It’s our story.  Who we are.

“Every interaction you have with another human being is merely mirrored reciprocation,” Peter observes.  “Your entire life.  It’s exactly the same thing, isn’t it?” 

__________________________

Reflection:  Think back on several recent interchanges at work or at home.  What role did mirrored reciprocity play?

Action:  Deliberately experiment with this principle and reflect on the learnings.

[H/T: Farnam Street 4/12/21 weekly newsletter, my favorite weekly blog, for bringing Peter’s talk to my attention.]

[Here is a link to the audio recording of Peter’s talk.]

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