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.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium

Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.

Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.

Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:

Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (amazon)

In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.

Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.

*as distinct from specific technologies