Elegy for my mentor, Joe Coates

Eric Garland Uncategorized 5 Comments

It was with great sadness that I learned recently of the death of my friend and mentor, Joseph F. Coates. It is with an equal sense of joy and gratitude that I shall tell you about the man I knew and his contributions to the intellectual world which touched his family, friends, colleagues, and leaders around the world.

Joe Coates was a futurist – a real futurist. Yes, there is such a thing, far away from the trite syrup of keynote speakers and media jesters, where serious intellects use rigorous methodology to uncover the trends that will interact to change society. Joe was the opposite of today’s mediagenic faux-experts who are all flash and no substance. He was raw brilliance and zero gloss, and his hallmark was that he did not care how anyone perceived this choice. He went after weak thinking like a pit bull on a filet mignon and strove constantly toward a Platonic ideal of meaningful ideas that mattered to the world. He was a true original and a true asset to humanity.

I want to tell you about my friend.

The master futurist from day one

I came to work for Joe Coates in 1999 as an analyst for his think tank in Washington DC. I had done intellectual jobs in my young career – first as a translator, next as a competitive analyst – but this was The Big Time, a place that studied future trends for Global 1000 corporations and governments around the world. Joe’s firm only analyzed the changes in the world that would be five to twenty years ahead. Everything closer to the present was “tactical” according to his perspective. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Joe had been recovering from surgery of some sort when I was hired and moved down, so our introduction was after I had been working a couple of weeks. I sat down in front of his unpretentious corner desk overlooking Rock Creek Park, and his eyes scanned me up and down. He asked where I was from and I gave him my stock “proud native son of Vermont” routine. He said, “What a nice place to be from. You’re never going home again.”

Excuse me?

I answered something about eight generations and chuckled lightly about “we’ll see.” Joe was clear-eyed and unmoved. “Uh huh. Nice story. You are never going home. This place will change you. Your skills will expand and so will your point of view and you will never feel comfortable there ever again.”

This was the second minute of our relationship. Most people would never dare to broach a sensitive subject like that after 127 seconds – but Joe would.

And you want the kicker? As I write this fifteen years later, his prediction was 100% correct for exactly the reasons he laid out. He was that good of a futurist, after all.

Drop and give me twenty trends!

I settled into life as a research analyst at the shop, and I can safely say it was the most thrilling intellectual environment I could have imagined. If you are from a rural part of the country where a curious intellect of some horsepower got you regular mockery and occasional ass-kickings, Joe’s consulting firm was like the Elysian Fields. Everybody there was brilliant and funny and quirky and you were all tasked with the most sophisticated subjects imaginable. No sooner than my butt hit the chair in that cubicle, I was studying the development of quantum computing, the future of packaging for consumer products, and forecasts about how information technologies were going to change construction. There was so much to learn, I felt like my head was going to pop, but in the best possible way.

Standards were high, and the practices of the firm were some of the most effective I have ever encountered in professional life. Joe demanded some social conventions designed to preserve morale, such as requiring you to greet every single member of the firm by name each morning so nobody felt left out. Also, we had a mid-morning snack that was a perfect moment each day to share a bite of food and trade low-brow jokes and humor before diving back into trends in materials science. The third convention that sticks out was the practice of writing three positive things at the top of every paper that you reviewed. This was designed to show the author that the reviewers were really on your team and that corrections were part of a balanced plan to improve the output of the firm.

Because your writing was going to get absolutely savaged, most of all by Joe.

Joe’s commentaries on your writing would be like if Don Rickles had a 185 IQ, a Masters in Chemistry, and a history of working at military think tanks – only not as cuddly. One of the reasons that personal feelings had to be safeguarded at the firm was because if you had any pride of authorship, you would be constantly angry and potentially homicidal. Sure, the rest of the firm would constructively criticize you into oblivion, but Joe practiced a certain brand of intellectual savagery when it came to editing flawed papers that could fill a book with one liners.

I can see it now in my mind, Joe’s 6’9″ frame gliding down the hall from his desk to the kitchen, leaning ever so slightly into my cubicle to gently dispatch a draft of mine near my computer monitor, the paper covered in red ink. And at the top, written in large letters:

Keep up the fair work.

Joe’s zingers were so numerous that I have to be careful not to fall into the Yogi Berra or George Carlin trap and attribute every acid witticism to the man. But these stick out in my mind:

Reading this paper, I think you suffer from delusions of adequacy.”

What this paper lacks in clarity, it makes up for in mediocrity.”

Joe actually wore gardening gloves to hand a draft back to my colleague Chris Carbone and intoned “I had to wear gloves. Your writing is so wooden, I didn’t want to get a splinter handling it.”

He also said some mean stuff, too.

Not everybody took these one-liners well. One of my colleagues said they hoped to witness some sort of adverse cardiovascular event. His barbs didn’t bother me; I had been on the receiving end of much more cruel treatment from significantly dumber humans, so I just thought of it as an opportunity. I sat down tentatively at his desk one afternoon and asked Joe why I didn’t think up to his standard. I wanted to know in as much detail as possible, what was I missing?

He sat down and told me.

How to think about the future

That day at his desk, Joe committed to teaching me how to escape my tendency to think like a slow-witted, emotional fool and then gave me the blueprint to move forward. I remember that he then produced a clean, label-free can of Campbell’s Soup, a personal client of his, and he said, “You see this? This is a thing of beauty. The exemplification of engineering design. Efficient, flexible, strong, resilient, useful – this is beauty, not some painted up tchotchke designed for your fleeting attention.” Joe thought in terms of global systems, and this was his notion of beauty – something that adhered elegantly to the world’s needs millions of times a day.

Joe saw the industrial system as aesthetically profound as fine arts, as indicative of the human condition as philosophy and literature. And this worldview was deeply grounded in reality: Coal. Sewage. Medical waste. Shipping lanes. Elementary school. Cemeteries. Semiconductors. Genetic sequencers. Video games. Ball bearings. He knew what made the world go around, seemed to know trends on every tiny part of it, and what’s more, he seemed to have a knowledge of this system several centuries into the past and further into the future than any intellectual of his generation, with the possible exceptions of Peter Drucker and Gordon Moore.

I have never met his equal, and I am near certain I never will.

As I learned more about how Joe saw the world, I understood why his genius was mistaken for social awkwardness or outright offensiveness. He refused to avoid thinking about a topic simply because it was unsexy, overly sophisticated, out of style, or a threat to sensitive souls. There were social repercussions, to be sure, but this approach allowed his analysis to explore the most important parts of a future scenario without stopping short because of taboo. After all, he was a contemporary of Herman Kahn, the futurist who dared to explore various scenarios of nuclear annihilation. Given this legacy, political correctness was a trifling matter that got in the way of proper analysis of issues that could mean life or death.

Not that this approach lacked its entertaining side.

Joe Coates in the wild

When Joe held court in his own consulting firm, social expectations were well established that he would say things such as “Your writing is baroque and girlish, which is a poor fit for an analysis on the future of chemical engineering.” Or if you were sick, “Look, if you are harboring some illness, stay home with your goddamn fomites. Stop trying to look diligent by showing up to put in hours of inefficient work when all you’ll do is sicken the whole firm.” By signing the job offer, this was part of the deal.

But then, Joe was released frequently on an unsuspecting public in the form of a keynote speaker.

Now, when I say “keynote speaker,” you probably conjure up the vision of some glib, shallow huckster peddling the same forty-five minutes of cheery pablum for conference attendees grazing on creamed chicken.  If we’re talking about futurist keynote schlubs, this additionally means to sell some watered-down nonsense about choosy consumers or incrementally-better gadgets or some damn fool idea about utopia. Let me briefly describe Joe Coates as “the complete opposite” of that archetype. Rather than describe his speeches abstractly any further, let me simply illustrate with examples.

In around 2000 or so, Joe went to Nabisco to talk about the future of food packaging. Reportedly, he got out his trademark long finger, snarled at the executives, and began chastising them about their 75-year old uncloseable packaging for Oreos. “You people are conspiring to make children obese and diabetic for a few extra ducats. Your packaging is designed to be ripped open and stay open, enticing the consumer to eat all your cookies before they go artificially stale. You are going to expose yourselves to class action suits on diabetes, all for a few extra sales. Is that the future you want?”

And apparently they liked it, which is even more amazing. Then again, he was right about the trend in metabolic illness and the coming class action lawsuits. It unfolded as he said.

He was engaged by some Pentagon group of senior Admirals, and he unveiled to the staff his speech about the future of the armed services. His plan, he told us, was to walk into the top brass of the Navy and tell them that their service was in danger from the ignorant, useless system of rank-and-file hierarchy. He was going to tell the military that ranks were stupid and that the next generation of recruits would not abide by them.

We all joked that he would be the recipient of several cruise missiles as he walked to his car, but apparently they liked it. Then again, he was right about the major rift between the values of Gen X and Gen Y, and that recruiting and retention would soon be a major issue for large organizations around the world.

Joe got in your face about subjects people found sacrosanct, but his logic was frequently impeccable.

If you were a speaker yourself while my mentor was in the audience, woe betide you. Joe did not see question-and-answer sessions following a speech as some social nicety, but as the opportunity for professionals to deal with the veracity of your statements to the audience.

Joe and I went to a conference all about storytelling and its role in corporate decision making. I remember we heard John Seely Brown of Xerox talk about how to make slide decks for maximum impact, and then we saw a short film about Boston Symphony Orchestra legend Benjamin Zander. As a paragon of human creativity and the arts, this film explored how Zander seamlessly knit together leadership and storytelling, drawing people into the power of their own narrative. In his charismatic, brilliant way, the orchestra superstar argued passionately about how society was ready for stories that transcended the old heroes of sports and war and that drove toward a new, beautiful, creative story in which all could participate. Then he taught three rocks, a donkey, and a toaster to sing Handel’s Messiah, divided by zero, and then produced the perfect no-calorie soft drink. This was maybe the most inspiring short film anyone had ever seen.

Unaware of Joe’s presence, they foolishly intoned “Any questions?”

One person spoke up to give the audience’s general impression that all of this was awesome, and thank you. Then, wasting no time, Joe asked for the microphone.

“I want to congratulate you on the film. It was done in a marvelously entertaining manner, was professionally produced with high aesthetic values, and the subject was incredible engaging. Also, the film’s impact could not be less useful. There is literally nothing you can do with that other than feel good in the short term. There is no way in hell you could walk into Hewlett-Packard and demand that everybody go around and hug each other and be inspired all of the time. It is not possible. You addressed none of the power structure that underlies organizational culture. So your film was merely entertaining. Best of luck.”

Three nice things, then the evisceration, just like at work.

During this exchange, the filmmaker kept a smile on her face and looked in my eyes as if to say, “did you know he was like this?” I smiled and shrugged and tried to say with my eyes, “That’s my friend Joe. Yup, he’s like this everywhere.”

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that Joe aimed to destroy people. His arguments were not ad hominem, no matter how much he obliterated your ideas. He was focused on intellectual integrity, not primate social rank. And while he put many keynote speakers to the test, if you had a decent answer to his challenge, everything was cool.

I remember a chapter meeting of the World Future Society in Washington DC where Storm Cunningham gave a speech on his book The Restoration Economy. Storm talked about the multi-trillion dollar industry in fixing up the natural and built environment, his stock in trade. Joe launched at him about how Restoration economics were not a fix-all for the environment, and began to hold forth about the ecological impact of fresh construction. Storm breezily countered that he never implied restoration was green, and the concepts needed to be treated separately.

Tense moment over – Joe was satisfied. “Oh, I didn’t follow that. Thank you for the clarification.”

The idea was always the thing with Joe. He was rigorous, consistent, and honorable, a tremendous role model, even if your tongue wasn’t as sharp as his.

What I owe to Joe

Joe Coates and I continued to work together after we both left his consulting firm. The venue moved from the auspices of a DC office building to the comfort of his kitchen table, nourished by a river of decaffeinated coffee, but the process was always the same. Joe’s life thrived at the nexus of rigor and curiosity, and he had never-ending amounts of both. It was my privilege to be both a witness, a student, and a collaborator.

In the aftermath of September 11, as the booming economy crumbled alongside job opportunities and cozy assumptions, I was at a loss for my next move. Joe told me to launch a firm as a consulting futurist. I was reticent, to say the least.

“Joe, I’m 28, I’m too young.” He replied, “Well, I’m too old.

“I don’t have a Masters degree!” He smiled, “Funny, I don’t have a PhD.”

“Nobody takes me seriously.” He looked at me calmly, “Take yourself seriously, do good work, and the world will return the favor.”

We worked side-by-side on different projects until eventually he began referring engagements to me that involved too much travel for him. He lent his reputation to mine when I assure you, I had done nothing so significant as to deserve the honor. And I enjoyed the incredible pleasure of simply hanging out with a man of such limitless brilliance, civilization, honor, and kindness – side by side with a wife who exemplified every single one of those qualities, albeit with the additional touch of a Southern drawl and a wit that has the dry crack of a sniper’s rifle.

For the blessing of knowing Joe Coates, I am in a debt to the world that I may never repay. As American intellectual culture seems to slide inexorably toward sloth and degradation, I remain in the long shadow of a towering figure who exemplified the demanding standard required of the intellectual leaders of a free society. Please, go and read some of his articles. Be inspired and challenged by his language, appreciate his unique point of view, and wrestle with his logic if you can. Every moment you spend in the presence of Joe Coates, you will become stronger and finer.

I would have sat at his kitchen table and debated the direction of the world for another millennium with this man. I loved him. It might do me some comfort to imagine him locked in fascinating combat with Aristotle and Newton and Richard Feynman in the afterlife, though Joe would slap me for suggesting that. He did not believe in a universe shaped that way. So I am left with the stark, uncomfortable realization that a truly unique figure passed our way, left a tremendous mark, and is now gone. Yet that is a fitting tribute to my friend. He did not cower in comfortable fictions. He sought the truth with his every breath.

The truth is that Joe Coates was a great man. He shall be missed most dearly.