Joseph Conrad on art, writing and reaching your audience

All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

Joseph Conrad – Preface to “The Narcissus

How, in your everyday work, in your next report or meeting, can you…

  • Appeal to the senses (to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions)?
  • Shape what you do so that the ‘light of magic suggestiveness’ may be bought to play over the commonplace surface of old, thin words – or actions and routines?
  • Enable with your audience (partners! friends!) to find there a glimpse of truth for which they have forgotten to ask?
  • Perhaps, better still – can you find that glimpse of truth together?

On assuming the best

Assuming the best of other people is usually the best position to assume.

Here are some reasons for this:

1) There’s a double-distortion going on in our interactions: we think that we’re nicer and more reasonable – and our foibles more loveable – than they probably are (call it +1 vision), while people who aren’t us see everything we do as a bit more irritating than perhaps it really is.

Assuming the best of others removes (at best) half of the distortion in our interactions, which is a lot better than nothing.

2) If we have a culture of assuming the best – in our families, or friendship groups, or with our colleagues – we can be hopeful of eliminating most of the distortion, and can relax a bit. The assumption that others will assume the best is liberating and makes it easier to say what we’re really thinking and try out new ideas and things.

3) It often fixes things. In the absence of concrete evidence of malevolent intent (or persistent thoughtlessness), things work better when you assume the best. A bright reply to the snotty sounding email that you received can often redeem it – either by showing the sender a different way of being, or (just as likely) by revealing their true (non-snotty) intent, or by opening up a chance to talk about the crappy day/week/month they’re having…

4) It’s also easier on you – it’s a nicer set of lenses for viewing the world, and it makes the journey easier and more fun… Which makes it more likely that you’ll be predisposed to spot good things, assume the best, and be gracious with the worst. It’s the start of an upward spiral.

So there you go. All the best.

Eyes. Sawdust. Planks.

 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

Jesus of Nazareth – The Gospel of Matthew

Some ancient wisdom about the mechanics of criticism and disagreement:

  1. You’re far more aware of the shortcomings of others than you are of our own. (We spot specks a mile away, despite our blindness to our ridiculous planks).
  2. Our own shortcomings make it much harder for us to help to handle the shortcomings we see in others. (They distort our perspective, and also make us far less credible sources of help)
  3. The crucial insight I’ve been reminded of this week is that in most disagreements these mechanics of distorted-perspective work in both directions at the same time. That is, at the same time as we are prone to assume the worst and blow the shortcomings of others out of proportion, they are doing exactly the same thing to ours. We think we’re doing well by allowing for the distortion, but don’t appreciate that there’s often a double-distortion that we need to account for.

A series of questions to help think through disagreements:

  1. What do I think the problem is?
  2. How do I feel about my-idea-of-the-problem and why?
  3. Do these two things seem in alignment, or do my feelings suggest that I’ve got a different problem lurking below the surface?
  4. What does my colleague say the problem is?
  5. How do they feel about it and why?
  6. Ask question 3, but for them.

Example:

A colleague recently asked for a small extra allowance for a particular type of overtime. My logical and (to my mind) internally consistent solution was worth significantly more than they were asking – but they repeatedly stated their preference for the smaller allowance. I thought that they were really interested in the financial value of the payment – and was effectively offering more. It turned out (as I currently understand it), they were interested in feeling recognised and valued – and the smaller extra payment with the right frame spoke to this feeling in a way that my solution didn’t.

I saw “This person is always asking for more money.” They saw “This person doesn’t appreciate me.” We might both have been right – but neither of us had things in proportion.

Sawdust. Plank.

Podcasting resource: Anchor.fm

anchor.fm comes highly recommended as free-to-use-with -almost-no-limits one-stop-shop for podcasting.

It’s apparently brilliant, intuitive and powerful, and an easy way to get your podcast onto googlepodcasts, apple, Spotify etc.

It’s on the hitlist – more soon!

Thanks to Ryan for pointing it out.

What’s the story? (1)

We’re always telling stories about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we going.

We tell stories about what’s good and what’s bad, what should be and what shouldn’t. We tell ourselves stories about what’s possible and why and how, and about which things that will never happen, or which things we’ll (or they’ll) never be able to do.

We tell these stories about ourselves, about our organisations, about colleagues and partners and the people we serve, about the context we work in and the wider world.

And we tell them to ourselves, and to and with friends to remind ourselves who we are and who we are together, and we tell them to other people so that they’ll know who we are. We find it easier to trust people who tell the same stories.

Some of the stories we tell are helpful, and some are damaging, and some are true.

It’s a good idea to be aware of the stories we tell because they’re the raw material we use to write the scripts we live by.

Typo (3): the myth of correct spelling

Ironically – considering the frequency with which school children use it for exactly this purpose – the Oxford English Dictionary never set out to specify “correct” spelling.

For “mackerel”, the second edition in 1989 listed 19 alternative spellings. The unearthing of sources never ends, though, so the third edition revised entry in 2002 listed no fewer than thirty: maccarel, mackaral, mackarel, mackarell, mackerel, mackarell, mackeril, mackreel, mackrel, mackril, macquerel, macquerell, macrel, macrell, macrelle, macril, macrill, makarell, makcaral, makerel, makerell, makerelle, makral, makrall, makreill, makrel, makrell, makyrelle, maquerel, and maycril.

As lexicographers, the editors would never declare these alternatives to be wrong: misspellings. They do not wish to declare their choice of spelling for the headword, mackerel, to be “correct”. They emphasize that they examine the evidence and choose “the most common current spelling.”

A new entry as of December 2003 memorialized “nuclar”: “= nuclear, (adjective, in various senses).”

James GleickThe Information

All spellings are made up, and exist as dynamic parts of the complex adaptive system of language. Conclusion: we waste too much attention on typos.

Typo (1)

I was reading an article – a thoughtful, well researched, nicely structured, neatly expressed piece of writing about something important – when I came across the typo.

“Ha!” ran my interior monologue. “This person is an idiot. I am smarter than they are.”

Of course, it’s better if a text is error-free. But typos and spelling mistakes are probably the least important problems a piece of writing can have and are by far the easiest things to fix.

Perhaps that’s why we’re trained to pay them so much attention: it’s a lot easier to teach kids to spell than to help them learn to think, to have something worth saying, and to say it convincingly or winsomely.

Inwardly ridiculing the idiot who misspelled a word or two is a cheap trick we use to feel good about ourselves – with the added benefit that it allows us to hide from the fact that the writer in question (smarter or not) has taken the time to write something, and we haven’t.

Marc Andreessen: the test

More from Marc Andreessen’s brilliant interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman. This time: how breaking into the network in order to get funding isn’t so much a symptom of cronyism as a test of fundamental attributes that a fundraiser will need to be successful.

Marc: In the financing business, like, we are dying to finance the next great startup. Like, people talk about like venture capitalists; it’s you gotta run on these gauntlets to do it or like it’s so, you know, they fund all this…you know, we’re dying to fund the next Google. Like, we can’t wait. So just for god’s sake, figure out a way to build it and bring it to us. Please!

Brian: Right. Though, to get to you, somebody has to be credibly recommended to you.

Marc: Okay, so then this gets to a concept that I talked… So this goes directly what we’re talking about. So you described the process of getting you to read somebody’s screenplay. And basically it’s they have to be a referral. There should be some sort of warm referral.

Brian: Either a referral, or the only other way is over a period of time, you’ve impressed me somehow yourself.

Marc: Yeah, exactly right, independent of this specific thing that you’re trying to create. So, it’s sort of a very similar thing in venture, which is, I mean, there are certain people where it’s just like, the reputation precedes them, and they want to come in to pitch us, we’re gonna take the pitch. And some of those people, by the way, you discover on Twitter. Like, so that’s a real thing.

But more generally, it’s a referral business. And I figured this out early on, when we were starting, I talked to friends of mine at one of the top firms in the industry that’s now a 50-year-old venture firm, one of these legendary firms and they said, in the entire history of the venture firm, they funded exactly one startup pitch that came in cold, right, over 50 years. Now, they funded like a thousand that came in warm and they funded one that came in cold.

And so anyway, so that’s like, okay, well, again, isn’t that unfair? Like, okay.

So that’s why I get into what I call the test, with a capital T, The Test. And The Test is basically, the test to get to us, to get into VC is can you get one warm introduction? Just one. And in our world, you know, your world is agents or whatever or other creatives — in our world it’s an angel investor, it’s a seed funder, it’s a professor, it’s a manager at one of the big existing tech companies, right?

Brian: Someone you think is smart.

Marc: Yeah, somebody I think is smart.

Brian: And knows people.

Marc: But there are thousands of those people out there who I will take that call for.

Brian: Like, I could call you and tell you, but somebody… By the way, I won’t. Let me just say, clearly, I will not!! <laughs> But you have this world…

Marc: You could. Somebody, like, if a director of — I don’t know, there’s like, 1,000 executives at Facebook; Facebook is like a 40,000-person company, it has like, 1,000 executives at Facebook in decision-making capacity — if any one of the thousand calls up and says, “I got this kid I think you should meet.” It’s like, “Yes, I’ll take that meeting.” So it’s like, and again, it’s just one, right?

And so the test is, can you get one person to refer you, right? And it’s like, okay, like… think of the number of ways you could get one person to refer you, you could go get a job and you could go impress a manager and then that manager makes the call.

Brian: That is an incredibly good test, by the way.

Marc: And if you can’t pass the test, The Test, to get a warm inbound referral into a venture firm, then what that indicates is, you are gonna have a hell of a time as an entrepreneur. You are gonna hate being an entrepreneur because guess what you have to do, once you raise money. We’re the easy — I always say like, we’re the easy part of the process.

Once you raise money from us is when the pain begins. And the pain is trying to get other people to say yes to you. The pain specifically is trying to get people to work for you. And they all have choices, right? And so you got to convince them to come work for instead of somebody else; to try to get a customer to buy a product, and the customers are overwhelmed with new products they could buy… and so to actually sell something to somebody. And then at some point, you’re gonna have to raise money again, right? And you raise money from new people each round. At some point you’re gonna have to go get somebody else to say yes.

And so, if you can’t get a warm inbound to us, how are you possibly going to be able to function in the environment in which you’re now gonna be operating, where you’re gonna have to get all these other people to do stuff for you. And so that’s the thing.

Marc Andreessen and Brian Koppelman

Cut it out, or the impossibility of completeness

Nothing is really complete. That story always needs more context to fully understand, that lesson is inevitably missing something important, that job could always be more polished.

With some things (like painting and decorating), we face the law of diminishing returns: more effort results in less and less improvement. There comes a point where going beyond ‘good enough’ is wasteful.

Other things – presentations and teaching in particular – go beyond diminishing returns to decreasing returns: more content undermines what’s gone before, and reduces the impact you hope to have.

By recognising and accepting the impossibility of completeness – you will never be able to say everything – you free yourself up to focus. Not “What is everything I want people to know?” but “What is enough for today?”

Cut. The. Rest. Out.

Get this right – get clarity, simplicity and focus – and those you’re serving are far more likely to listen, engage and understand. And to come back for the next chapter.