Camp Kotok: In the Canoe Is Where We Learn
Each year, I head to the woods of Maine for an event called “Camp Kotok.” Over the coming week or so, I’ll be sharing some videos of conversations I had with attendees while there (and also pointing to coverage from other attendees, as well). However, I wanted first to explain why events like this are important, and why you, personally, should care about them.
What Is Camp Kotok?
On paper, Camp Kotok sounds simple enough. Over a two-week period, about 80 folks show up at a remote cabin in the Maine woods. There, they go fishing and have deep, crunchy conversations with each other.
It’s like a typical family reunion. However, three things make Camp Kotok unique:
1. Anchoring: David Kotok’s Vision of “Lives Free From Despair”
For as long as I’ve known David, he’s really had one particular goal, though it isn’t explicitly written anywhere: Help smart people get smarter so they can make better decisions, and help more people lead lives free from despair and poverty.
You get to attend Camp Kotok because David invites you, and David brings together people he finds interesting. The group is phenomenally intellectually and politically diverse. There’s real magic, I think, in an event anchored to a single human being — even more so when that human being is fundamentally good.
2: Rules: Chatham House Means Honest Conversations
All conversations at Camp Kotok fall under “Chatham House rules,” which means that they’re off the record, with no attributions or even identification of participants allowed without permission. It’s intended to be a communications black hole; nothing escapes without permission. Many gatherings claim to follow Chatham House rules. None I have ever attended take it as seriously as Camp Kotok.
In the past, I have heard criticism that Chatham House meetings encourage an “in-crowd” sort of secrecy. I’ve even encountered the assumption that at Camp Kotok, “secret” people show up and say “secret” things. While some attendees might not have otherwise attended a meeting that was fully on the record, the real value of Chatham House rules at Camp Kotok is to engender privacy and trust.
In turn, that allows anybody the freedom to ask dumb questions. You can say, without penalty, “I have no idea why I should care about the Bosphorus,” to someone who’s spent their lifetime studying maritime shipping. Then you get to sit back and learn why it matters.
When you aren’t afraid of looking smart or being caught out, then it’s much easier to admit the holes in your knowledge. That’s the first step to learning and growth.
3: Dialog: Inside the Canoe Is Where the Learning Happens
No matter how much you establish a trust circle, human nature dictates that, with a rotating cast of some 40 campers at any time, most folks will hang out with people who they already know, who they already like, or who they want to know.
But Camp Kotok forces you to interact outside your circle. That’s because twice a day, everyone diligently gets into a canoe with one other camper and a guide and spends a few hours alone on the water.
Put simply, you cannot spend three hours sitting face-to-face with someone six feet from you, surrounded by the silence of a lake, and not learn something about them. I always come away having learned something new.
Camp Kotok as a Model for Exchanging Ideas
What David has built at Camp Kotok is, of course, lovely and special for those who attend. But it also can serve as a model for anybody, attendee or not, on how to live together as human beings.
If you set your pivot point (the person or idea that will drive things), set the rules of engagement, and then physically make people have conversations, then growth will occur. In fact, last year, Camp Kotok so effectively shattered my reality tunnels that I realized it was the shared experience of the trip that made it so effective.
When I put seven folks on stage earlier this year at Exchange to discuss institutional decay, I was, perhaps unconsciously, trying to do what David’s been doing for decades: I wanted to anchor the conversation, make very clear rules, and make people talk to each other.
As we start putting together the conversations for Exchange 2024, I’m using the same ethos: Let’s have real conversations about the big ideas. Let’s get smarter together by being unafraid to ask hard questions or dumb ones.
As advisors, many of you are in the position of doing this every day. When clients come in, you set the parameters of the conversation, then you talk about the most taboo subjects in the American lexicon: their health, their finances, and their families. It’s almost a kind of “advisor-mind” — a bastardization of Shoshin, the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind.” Advisor-mind is the magic that happens when great advisors sit with clients and help them navigate emotionally laden problems with ease because of intelligence, trust, structure, and good intent.
Stay Tuned for More From Camp Kotok
To see firsthand what I’m talking about, stay tuned (or hey, you could subscribe on YouTube) for upcoming conversations from Camp Kotok with Barry Ritholtz, Cameron Dawson, Sam Rines, Jeremy Schwartz, Jim Bianco, and others, talking about bank walks, interest rates, bond investing, model portfolios, labor markets, China, AI, and more.
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