The Last Thing We Need Right Now is a Vision Statement

elephants

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. says something I wish tech companies would heed.

I said something at the press conference that turned out to be the most quotable statement I ever made:

“What I’d like to do now is put these announcements in some sort of perspective for you. There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” You could almost hear the reporters blink.

I went on: “What IBM needs right now is a series of very tough-minded, market-driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses— strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value. And that’s what we’re working on.

“Now, the number-one priority is to restore the company to profitability. I mean, if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct.

“And so we are committed to make this company profitable, and that’s what today’s actions are about.

“The second priority for the company,” I said, “is to win the battle in the customers’ premises. And we’re going to do a lot of things in that regard, and again, they’re not visions— they’re people making things happen to serve customers.”

I said we didn’t need a vision right now because I had discovered in my first ninety days on the job that IBM had file drawers full of vision statements. We had never missed predicting correctly a major technological trend in the industry. In fact, we were still inventing most of the technology that created those changes.

However, what was also clear was that IBM was paralyzed, unable to act on any predictions, and there were no easy solutions to its problems. The IBM organization, so full of brilliant, insightful people, would have loved to receive a bold recipe for success—the more sophisticated, the more complicated the recipe, the better everyone would have liked it.

It wasn’t going to work that way. The real issue was going out and making things happen every day in the marketplace.

Fixing IBM was all about execution. We had to stop looking for people to blame, stop tweaking the internal structure and systems. I wanted no excuses. I wanted no long-term projects that people could wait for that would somehow produce a magic turnaround. I wanted— IBM needed— an enormous sense of urgency.

The Mortality Paradox

conversations with DFW

David Foster Wallace, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, found in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, comments on our dread of both relationships and loneliness.

It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when they’re just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of form. The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

***

This reminds me of a passage by Stephen Cave, in his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, where he describes the Mortality Paradox:

Our awareness of ourselves, of the future and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.

[….]

Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

The survival benefits of these faculties are obvious: from mammoth traps to supermarket supply chains, we can plan, coordinate and cooperate to ensure our needs are met. But these powers come at a cost. If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety— it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

And so we realize, as we see the other living things around us fall one by one, that no one is spared. We recognize that death is the real enemy; with our powerful minds we can stave him off for a while with sharp spears or strong gates, full larders and hospitals, but at the same time, we see that it is all ultimately fruitless, that one day we not only can but surely will die. This is what the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously described as “being-toward-death,” which he considered to define the human condition.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace and Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization offer glimpses into how we use stories to both hide and unearth reality.

Miracle Grow for Your Brain

spark

Right now the front of your brain is firing signals about what you’re reading and how much of it you soak up has a lot to do with whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind neurons together. Exercise has a documented, dramatic effect on these essential ingredients. It sets the stage, and when you sit down to learn something new, that stimulation strengthens the relevant connections; with practise, the circuit develops definition, as if you’re wearing down a path through a forest.

I’ve talked about how different I feel after yoga or a long walk; things become clearer and I become calmer. The fascinating book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, explains biologically what accounts for these significant changes in our mind and body.

This is your brain on exercise.

… physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain’s fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaptation, regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those that are not – it’s an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential.

Exercise can have a dramatic affect on our ability to learn.

Darwin taught us that learning is the survival mechanism we use to adapt to constantly changing environments. Inside the microenvironment of the brain, that means forging new connections between cells to relay information. When we learn something, whether it’s a French word or a salsa step, cells morph in order to encode that information; the memory physically becomes part of the brain.

Exercise affects how primed our brain is to take on this new information and create these new connections. If you think of your mind as a garden, the more you move, the more you enrich the soil with positive neurotransmitters like dopamine (attention, motivation, pleasure), serotonin (mood, self-esteem, learning), and norepinephrine (arousal, alertness, attention, mood). More importantly you sprinkle the ground with something called ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein produced inside nerve cells which Ratey has dubbed ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

Researchers found that if they sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.

Spark goes into detail regarding the types of exercise that best produce this cocktail of neurotransmitters and proteins for your brain to sip on but at the end of the day any movement is good, especially if it’s something you want to do.

“Experiments with lab rats suggest that forced exercise doesn’t do the trick quite like voluntary exercise”

So next time you get in a bit of a rut or you simply want to maximize your potential, get up and get moving.

The Reasons We Deny Luck

how to get lucky

One of the reasons that we deny the role of luck is that it acts as a cold counterbalance to the notion of hard work. At every stage in our lives we are taught that the best way to make our way in the world is by hard work, tenacity, and grit. And while I believe there is a lot of truth to this, it also causes some perverse consequences.

For instance, when we’re successful, we’re hesitant or even ashamed to admit that luck played a role because we somehow feel that diminishes what was under our control. Conversely, if we’re hit with bad luck, it’s culturally reinforced that that was our own fault. We’re led to believe that we’re responsible for outcomes not process, when in fact just the opposite is true.

We are culturally conditioned to deny the role of luck because of its impact on our search for meaning.

In How to Get Lucky, Max Gunther explains:

All American and European kids (and for all I know, Russian and Chinese kids, too) get the “tragic flaw” theory of great literature laid on them in high school or college. This theory holds that in Shakespeare’s tragedies or Dostoevski’s novels or the epic poems of Homer, the heroes and heroines always bring their troubles on themselves through some failing of character. Teachers and professors insist that this is so, and many generations of kids have been given the same choice: agree or flunk.

The fact is, however, that you have to look pretty hard to find those “tragic flaws” that supposedly are behind the tragic happenings. There is no good evidence that either Homer or Shakespeare, for example, bought this goofy theory. In the Iliad, much of what happens is brought about by the manipulations of the gods – in other words, by good and bad luck that the human characters have no control of. Shakespeare’s tragedies are similar. Hamlet opens with the hero in a fix because of events he had nothing to do with. It ends with nearly everybody dead by mistake – a blither of bloody blunders. It isn’t a play about tragic flaws. It is a play about bad luck.

Why do English professors deny it? A good answer was offered recently by Phyllis Rose, a professor of English at Wesleyan University and no fan of the “tragic flaw” notion. Students are taught that the character flaw is a necessary ingredient of tragedy, Professor Rose wrote in The New York Times: “If the hero or heroine didn’t have a flaw, it wouldn’t be tragic because it wouldn’t ‘mean’ anything. It would just be bad luck.”

She added, wryly, “To convince students that bad luck isn’t tragic must take some fancy teaching.” But that is what is taught, and most people seem to buy the notion. And now, we have uncovered yet another reason why the role of luck in human experience is so persistently denied. Luck isn’t “meaningful” enough. We yearn for life to have meaning. Acknowledging luck’s role takes half the meaning out of it.

This is the “tragic flaw” theory — nothing bad ever happens because of luck but rather because people deserve it.

How to Get Lucky goes on to explore 13 ways to improve your luck.

Saying No: How Successful People Stay Productive

productivity
This upcoming weekend is the first online seminar that I’ve ever offered on increasing your productivity. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen out there today and I think it has the potential to change how you invest your time. The seminar is going to be fast-paced and full of ideas that you can immediately put into action.

One of the things we’re going to talk about is why to-do lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time. “Scheduling,” says Cal Newport, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.”

It’s really easy to add things to a to-do list. Because it’s so simple, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we’re not discriminating and we’re not as conscious about controlling our time as we should be. As Steve Jobs said, it’s easy to say yes but the real value comes from saying no. Warren Buffett agrees: “You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

Most people have the default of saying yes to everything. Personal relationships aside, the default, however, should be no.

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email. Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we’re intentionally blind to because we won’t like what we see.

Just as important you need to think about your energy levels and when you schedule these tasks.

A lot of people I’ve offered productivity advice to spend hours a day on email. It’s not uncommon for people to tell me their job is moving email around. That’s how the modern office works right? While many of these people hate email, it’s not within their control (or mine) to change how the organization works. Instead I help them look at what is within their control — the time of day they invest in email. I’ve discovered most people use some of their most productive and high-energy time on … email. That means that some of our best mental energy is being used on the low value add task of email. A simple change to schedule “doing email” for times when we have less energy makes a world of difference to both productivity and happiness.

Being more productive isn’t always about doing more, it’s about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.

There is still time to register and pay the early bird rate for the productivity seminar.

David Foster Wallace on The Moral Clarity of the Immature

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David Foster Wallace, who has brought us gems such as This is Water and insights into ambition and perfectionism, was the guest editor of the 2007 edition of Best American Essays.

His introduction explores why pre-formed positions are so appealing and how the role of having people decide for us has no clear alternative.

Commenting on how essays and other pre-packaged models of thinking help us deal with information and stimuli overload, Wallace writes:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the “moral clarity” of the immature.

The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time and to need help.

That’s about as clearly as I can put it … That last one’s of especial value, I think. As exquisite verbal art, yes, but also as a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error.

This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of “best” your decider can give: these pieces are models — not templates, but models — of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world.

And commenting on the role of Google and curators alike as deciders for us Wallace writes:

I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now — and why it’s so much-invoked and potent in cultural disputes — is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary … to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.

Still Curious? Check out the best book on the art of writing.