Ingredients for a Political System We Could Love | Rand Strauss and Aaron Johnson

Below you will find an episode of Bridging The Potential Podcast between our guest, Rand Strauss, and one of our very own founding Youth Advisory Council members, Aaron Johnson. Here is Rand Strauss’ biography:

President, CEO and visionary of PeopleCount.org, has more than 30 years of software engineering and managing experience in Silicon Valley and has degrees in Math and Computer Science from Stanford. In 2011, Strauss realized a change was needed in the political sphere. Too many people feel their actions don’t make much of a difference. Strauss has dedicated his time to providing the public with a way to create a government they love.

You can find Rand and more about PeopleCount at PeopleCount.org.

And now, onto the show…

 

If you liked what you heard and want to watch and/or listen to the rest of this incredible conversation, you can click here to create a completely and forever-free account with us. And if you’re interested, check out the first two chapters of Renee Beth’s book: Living The Potential: Engaging the Wisdom of Our Youth to Save the World which you can find here. Thank you so much for listening. ‘Til next time!

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:00:02] Hello, this is Renee Beth Poindexter. I am the founder of Living the Potential Network, and I am your host for today’s podcast. After I wrote the book, Living the Potential: Engaging the Wisdom of Our Youth to Save the World, I set out to find ways to engage people where they could actually hear what the youth have to say. And that’s what this podcast is all about. I love these conversations because after listening to the youth’s dreams and visions and concerns, we connect them with a mentor, an elder who has experience and wisdom to share in the area that the youth is most interested in, so that there can be a learning and receiving of the innovative side of the youth and at the same time sharing that amazing experience. And it’s reciprocal learning at its best. I always leave these conversations inspired, and I think you will, too.

Today we have two fabulous guests. Our mentor today is Rand Strauss, and he is a Stanford educated expert and problem solver and software engineer. And in his 40-year career, he has created reliable solutions and complex systems for a wide range of organizations, from startups to NASA. Well, today he is the founder of PeopleCount.org. Now this is a program that enables voters and politicians to work together to create a constructive democratic political system serving all voters. Let me say that again. PeopleCount.org is enabling voters and politicians to work together to create a constructive and democratic political system serving all voters. I’d say that’s something we definitely need today. Politicians will be able to be free from the influence of money as well as independent of the parties. And voters will be able to hold politicians accountable even after elections.

So Rand is our mentor today, and he’s going to be engaging with Aaron Johnson, who is a young, or I should say inspired project manager, business owner, writer, author, 19 years old, and a co-founder of the Youth Advisory Council for Living the Potential Network. So it’s just great to have you both here today. I’m going to start with you, Rand. So fabulous, your vision and how you came to it. Why don’t we just start with, you know, 40 years as a software engineer solving problems and then you design PeopleCount. How did that come about? Tell us a little bit about your journey.

Rand Strauss [00:02:48] So the first 30 years as a software engineer was just a regular career. You know, I was a kid in college. I was at the University of Washington and finding that wasn’t- I wasn’t meeting a lot of interesting people, which was mainly me. But then I transferred into Stanford and it was wonderful, opened my eyes. I discovered computers and programing. They actually didn’t have a computer science undergraduate degree back in 1980, but, so I did an applied math degree and then stayed on for a master’s in computer science. And I just sort of fell into it.

When I was 28, I took the Landmark Forum, which is a self-help and, you know, personal growth course. And my eyes were opened up to all new sides of life. I got married after that. I have two kids in graduate school and, you know, continued to have to work as a software engineer and all sorts of positions. And it dawned on me later that, you know, what I really loved about programing was problem solving. I excelled in that in school and I have lots of stories, but it was really spending time on a tough problem that I loved. And then about 20 years ago, we had the 9/11 and Bush started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and destabilized the Middle East. To my wife and I, there were just really obvious mistakes. And while I emailed or contacted my senators and representative, you know, it didn’t amount to anything.

And then ten years ago, so back to when I was 28 and I took that course, I took courses for just a few years before I went on and got married. So ten years ago I happened to- or about 13 years ago, I started taking courses again. And during 9/11. Now. Let’s see. I’m sorry. It was about 13 years ago. So that was like seven years after 9/11, I started taking courses again. And then in 2011, I took this interesting course, a ten month course, over five weekends of looking at life newly. And we talked about our way of being. And we didn’t talk about politics, but I realized that I was resigned about politics and, you know, being a problem solver, I knew that resignation made me part of the problem. And I didn’t want to be part of the problem of politics. You know, as it made me part of the environment that allowed the problem to be. So I gave up my resignation. This was in the beginning of 2011. And I looked at politics newly and I was interested in, you know, what I had missed. Political developments on the Internet. And there wasn’t too much-

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:06:53] Can I ask you a quick question, cuz when you say you were resigned about politics. You had a resignation about it. What does that mean?

Rand Strauss [00:07:02] So. Back in 2001 it was, and 2002, it was frustrating that I couldn’t get some of my wisdom to my senators and representatives. I couldn’t make a difference. It seemed like there were some much better decisions that could be made. And it was very frustrating and, you know, first thousands and then tens of thousands of people died. Many more were injured. Millions were thrown out of their homes. It was upsetting. And like most people, I don’t want to think about that stuff. So I write that down, those emotions.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:07:52] So when you say you were resigned, it was kind of like you’re just one person, you can’t really make a difference. The system’s operating without you and you’re just resigned to that. That’s just the way it is.

Rand Strauss [00:08:04] Yeah, that there was nothing I could do.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:08:06] Right. And from that place, something else started. When you recognized that resignation, it became kind of a moment. We call it an epiphany, right? That started the ball rolling. I just wanted to make sure that we mark that out because a lot of people are thinking like, what is resignation? When am I resigned about? What difference can I make? Am I just going to complain about it or I’m going to do something about it, you know? Right?

Rand Strauss [00:08:30] Right. In the midst of that intense frustration, I turned away, you know, tried to recoup, but unconsciously I had sort of shut myself down. And it turns out I’ve learned since that, you know, when we shut down our emotions about one thing, we tend to shut down our emotions about everything. So I let go of my resignation and got involved and did research.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:09:05] Right.

Rand Strauss [00:09:07] But it turned out there was still no good way to be a responsible citizen, you know, other than voting. And in this course, we were talking about ourselves and language and what conversations were new. And we were looking at how much of what we say daily was old, sort of recycled. So I- and we were looking for ways to have a new conversation. So I started asking people, what would it be like if we had a political system we loved? And so for two months, I started having these new conversations with people. And people were taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. And it was real clear that this was sort of a blind spot in our culture. And we didn’t get too much out of it. But, you know, out of having these conversations over and over, I saw that there was a lot of potential. A lot was possible if we would just design the system we wanted instead of, you know, being resigned about it, as most of the society seemed to be.

And for the next two months, I started to have a conversation with people about, you know, would it be worthwhile to fix our political system? I mean, I had no hope or thought of fixing it, actually, but it was also a new conversation. So I did that as part of the homework. And at the end of that, and people pretty much said yes, most people were thinking that it was too big to fix that. It was you know, it’s a huge institution or a collection of institutions. And then after that, I wondered, you know, well, what’s wrong with politics? And so, you know, being an expert problem solver, I did a problem solving exercise. And in the beginning, mostly that’s trying to understand what goes on. I mean, in the beginning, you know, there were all sorts of people to blame. I just talked to a lot of people, and most people in America seem to think that most politicians are corrupt. And then there are lobbyists to blame. And then there’s the other party. And then there’s my party as well. I mean.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:11:44] Yeah.

Rand Strauss [00:11:45] And I knew that as long as people were to blame, I was thinking inside the box. And so as I delved further and saw what was happening, finally things gelled that- I started seeing that everybody’s doing what looks appropriate to them. You know, everybody’s trying their hardest. Some who are in politics are trying hard to serve people. There are a few that are trying hard to serve themselves. But as I saw that, I began to see that, actually. I mean, in a sense, the system was working. There was no part of it that was broken, even though when we look at it from the outside, it seems that every part is broken, every part from voters to voting and elections to, you know, the political discourse. There are problems in every arena which is really- or every aspect- which is really strange for a system to be that broken. And so I kept looking and I saw that for democracy to work reliably, politicians need to be accountable to voters. And they weren’t. I mean, I thought to myself, if I were a politician, how would I deliver accountability?

And, and actually, I knew from a course 30 years ago that, or, in the beginning when I started taking courses, that accountability is the responsibility to give a full account for what’s going on. And I defined it even further, more rigorously, that accountability is a relationship. So if I’m accountable to you, yes, I need to answer your questions and give you a full account. But I’m accountable to you for something which is like an employee manager relationship where I pretty much do what you tell me, you know, according to the job spec and and that there was no way to enforce that relationship. We just didn’t have that. And I knew that relationships mainly consist of communication, you know, role-based communication. So there was no way for you, the voter, to tell the politician what you want. No way to tell each other what you want. So you could be the manager together. And no way to hold me to it. And that usually that happens, that is, a manager holds an employee to what they’re supposed to do with their judgment, you know, approval or disapproval. And it’s that communication, you know, I’ve been working for 30 years that, you know, gives the employee the guidance. And we didn’t have that. But at the same time, that was all communication which, you know, we’ve had breakthroughs with on the Web. So I started to see that something new was possible.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:15:22] That’s amazing. So what I love about your process and so people listening to this, and I’m sure specifically for Aaron, this idea of being a problem solver and knowing what questions to ask along the way. It’s like you didn’t have the answer and it was okay that you didn’t have the answer because a lot of people don’t start a project until they have it all figured out. But you’ve got to have these guiding questions and each question you asked led to the next that led to the next that led to the next. So this idea about accountability, and the connection to communication has to be two way for the system to actually be upgraded. There has to be a better communication than the way we’ve had it. So those seeds, the seeds, for your PeopleCount.org- is that how it came to be? And if so, how could you describe how that came together and where you are with the project now?

Rand Strauss [00:16:22] Yeah, about problem solving. You know, there’s this thing that’s said nowadays that everybody’s a problem solver and well, it’s true. That’s why I call myself an expert problem solver. And what makes me an expert are two things. One is, you know, a background of solving lots and lots of puzzles in school as well as problems at work. But the other is that I can sit with the problem for days or weeks or months and get it to gel and see what’s going on. Part of my research was looking at books about what’s wrong with politics and there are these surface level problems and people dive beneath it and pick something, like one book is on how we’ve sorted ourselves into the two parties. So the Conservative Party is full of, you know, pure conser- or is purely made up of conservatives and the Liberal Party is purely made up of liberals or progressives, and that makes the groups more divisive.

Another book says that the problem is that there’s not much competition in political- in elections. And yet, beneath those are deeper problems. And and as I said, all of those seem to be caused by this lack of accountability. And even the money’s huge power in elections and in stopping or allowing legislation. So it’s going deep, deep into it and understanding everything. And often that’s difficult, especially in a big problem like politics, I mean. Right. You know.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:18:30] I can picture this big mind map with all these arrows going left to different places, but coming to the same issue about accountability and communication and having more voices be heard.

Rand Strauss [00:18:44] Yeah. So part of it- part of the problem solving is I just happen to have a mind that does it well and some of it I know, but a lot of it I don’t know, you know, it’s just a God-given thing, you know? Thank God I have a talent.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:19:02] Exactly. But you’re leveraging this talent as a problem solver to something that’s really needed today, more so than ever.

Rand Strauss [00:19:09] But what I was going to say is that is that the other part of it is that I have high standards, that a big part of problem solving is checking everything. And that’s what, you know, we tend not to do in simple everyday problems. You know, it’s not as necessary. We just wait till we feel good about it.

Renee Beth Poindexter [00:19:31] Mm hmm. Exactly. So it’s kind of like looking at the long term effect of choices and decisions made by looking at all aspects, let’s say 360 degrees a circle. And I would like you to speak just a little bit about what people- how all this has come into PeopleCount.org because then we’re going to open it up. I’d loved Aaron to come in and I know he’s got some really good questions related to your work. So, could you give a brief description of- you’ve given us the background on why would something like PeopleCount.org be needed? We kind of got your thought process, now what? What is PeopleCount.org and what can people learn about it and being a part of the solution moving forward?

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