E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to Someone Who Lost Faith in Humanity

eb white

In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E. B. White, the author of greats such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, expressing his bleak hope for humanity.

White’s beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note, attempts to raise the man’s spirits.

North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006 the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here, we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening on a weekly basis: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded “no.”

Elaborating on this he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview by two terrific minds.

An Antifragile Way of Life

hydra

“How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely.” — Euripides

Buster Benson with some excellent thoughts on how to live an antifragile life.

An antifragile way of life is all about finding a way to gain from the inevitable disorder of life. To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result of running into this disorder.

First, here are some principles that come from Antifragile:

  • Stick to simple rules
  • Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  • Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  • Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  • Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  • Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  • Don’t get consumed by data
  • Keep your options open
  • Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  • Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

The general underlying principle here is to play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.

What Predicts a Healthy Diet?

In this brief video, Michael Pollan, the author of perhaps the best food book I’ve ever read, argues that the answer is surprisingly simple and it has nothing to do with calories or nutrients.

When I started learning about nutrition, about which, by the way, much less is known than you might think, I learned that what mattered most about one’s health was not necessarily the nutrients, good or bad, that you were consuming, or staying away from, or even the calorie counts, but what predicted a healthy diet more than anything else is the fact that it was being cooked by a human being and not a corporation. Corporations cook very differently than people do.

Still curious? Check out food as culture and coevolution and artificial selection.

The Ten Golden Rules of Argument

​​You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” — Anonymous

Arguments are tricky. We spend a lot of our time trying to persuade others. We think that if we show them the facts that we have they will, logically, reach the same conclusions we did. Unfortunately that’s not how it works. When is the last time someone changed your mind this way?

Sometimes we don’t want to argue. We’d rather avoid. This doesn’t make the problem go away. In fact the suppressed resentment that builds up can poison a relationship.

In his book, How to Argue, Jonathan Herring outlines positive ways of understanding and looking at arguments.

They needn’t be about shouting or imposing your will on someone. A good argument shouldn’t involve screaming, squabbling or fistfights, even though too often it does. Shouting matches are rarely beneficial to anyone.

We should treat the ability to argue as a skill that needs to be practiced and developed.

​​“The aim of an argument, or of a discussion,
should not be victory but progress.”
Karl Popper

Arguments, and for that matter discussions, should be about seeing things through the other person’s eyes. They should lead to a better understanding of another person’s view.

With that in mind, here are what Herring calls the Ten Golden Rules of Argument.

1. Be prepared

Make sure you know the essential points you want to make. Research the facts you need to convince your opponent.

Also, Herring advises: “Before starting an argument think carefully about what it is you are arguing about and what it is you want. This may sound obvious. But it’s critically important. What do you really want from this argument? Do you want the other person to just understand your point of view? Or are you seeking a tangible result? If it’s a tangible result, you must ask yourself whether this result you have in mind is realistic and whether it’s obtainable. If it’s not realistic or obtainable, then a verbal battle might damage a valuable relationship.”

2. When to argue, when to walk away
I’m sure you’ve had an argument before and later felt that it was the wrong time and place. “Knowing when to enter into an argument and when not to is a vital skill.”

Think carefully before you start to argue: is this the time; is this the place?

3. What you say and how you say it

Spend time thinking about how to present your argument. Body language, choice of words and manner of speaking all affect how your argument will come across.

One clever thing to do here, that shows you’ve done the work, is to address the arguments against your position before they arise.

4. Listen and listen again

Listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Watch their body language, listen for the meaning behind their words.

As a general rule, Herring writes, “you should spend more time listening than talking. Aim for listening for 75 percent of the conversation and giving your own arguments 25 percent.” And listening doesn’t mean that you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next.

This is often where a lot of arguments, and discussions for that matter, veer off course. If you’re not listening to the other person and addressing their statements, you’ll just keep making your same points over and over. The other person won’t agree with those and the argument quickly becomes frustrating.

5. Excel at responding to arguments

Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to. What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing.

There are three main ways to respond to an argument: 1) challenge the facts the other person is using; 2) challenge the conclusions they draw from those facts; and 3) accept the point, but argue the weighting of that point (i.e., other points should be considered above this one.)

6. Watch out for crafty tricks

Arguments are not always as good as they first appear. Be wary of your opponent’s use of statistics. Keep alert for distraction techniques such as personal attacks and red herrings. Look out for concealed questions and false choices.

7. Develop the skills of arguing in public

Keep it simple and clear. Be brief and don’t rush.

8. Be able to argue in writing

Always choose clarity over pomposity. Be short, sharp, and to the point, using language that is easily understood.

9. Be great at resolving deadlock

Be creative in finding ways out of an argument that’s going nowhere. Is it time to look at the issue from another angle? Are there ways of putting pressure on so that the other person has to agree with you? Is a compromise possible?

10. Maintain relationships

This is absolutely key. What do you want from this argument? Humiliating, embarrassing or aggravating your opponent might make you feel good at the time, but you might have many lonely days to rue your mistake. Find a result that works for both of you. You need to move forward. Then you will be able to argue another day.

Another approach to end arguments is to simply ask the other person to explain their thinking.

How to Argue goes on to explore putting the rules into practice in particular situations where arguments arise.

Edward Hess, Interview No. 6

This interview with Ed Hess is full of amazing insights but I don’t know if you’ll read it because a) it’s long and we live in a world of increasingly short attention spans and b) it’s an actual conversation, the responses can be hard to follow and you might have to dig a little for clarity. If you’re willing to put in the work, however, I think you’ll come away from this more knowledgeable.

Ed is the author of the best book I’ve ever read on learning, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.

***

INTERVIEWER

I loved your book, so I’m really excited to do this interview with you. I thought it was the best book that I’ve read on the subject of learning.

HESS

… In researching and writing the book, it was also a transformative process for me in the sense of what I learned and had to come to grips with, even though I’d had a very successful educational business, academic life.

The last five years of working on that book were eye-opening, mind-boggling and humbling.

INTERVIEWER

I have so many questions for you. First off, thank you so much for your generosity in giving this interview, I really appreciate your time.

Let’s talk briefly about your forthcoming book, called, “Learn or Die.” Can you give us an overview of the book and why you felt compelled to write it?

HESS

Yes, the book really has two important purposes in answering two questions.

Based on the science of learning and everything the research over the last 20, 25 years has shown, how does one become a better and faster learner, and how does one build a team or an organization that continuously learns better and faster than the competition?

Why is that so important? We live in a very globalized world that’s driven by technology, and the projected technology advances over the next 10 years are going to be really metamorphic.

We live in a time of high velocity change. Change requires human and organizational adaptation, and that means it requires learning. I’ve come to the conclusion that continually learning better and faster than the competition may be the only sustainable competitive advantage individually and organizationally.

Especially in the business world, the next business revolution is going to be a learning revolution. That’s why I feel passionately about the book and its purpose, but also the timing of it. Our context demands that we bring the science of learning into our lives, individually, into an organizational life.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by the next revolution in business is going to be a learning revolution?

HESS

Business is going to be continually transformed by technology, and artificial intelligence, smart robots and nanotechnology, the Internet of things, 3-D printing. All of this is going to be a huge impact on how business is done, and who does business.

The business of the very near future, in 10 years, if you look how a business is going to be staffed, it’s going to be some combination of smart robots, smart machines and humans. The human component of it has got to be able to perform or do things differently, or do things better, or do things that machines can’t do.

If you think about that, what is that? That is critical thinking, innovative thinking, emotional and social high engagement with other humans.

If you think about those activities, they’re fundamentally learning activities. We’re continually learning, so I think whether you’re an operationally excellent business model or an innovating business model or a combination, learning underlies both. Operational excellence can’t get better, faster and cheaper unless you change.

Underlying change is trying new things and seeing if they work in adapting and learning. The innovation basically comes as you well know, you’re an expert in it, comes from integrating experimental learning.

Learning is integral now in business, but it’s not emphasized in organizations. If you will, are not resigned in general to maximize or optimize human learning. That will be the focus of many companies. You see that right now in some leading edge companies such as Pixar, WL Gore, largest hedge fund in the world Bridgewater Associates.

INTERVIEWER

.. you have this contradiction. On one hand, you have organizations that need to compete in this ultra competitive world where competitive advantage is eroding and you need to be operationally more excellent than your competitors. Then on the other hand, you have to innovate and innovation is failure and it involves more money sometimes, and it involves trying and experimenting on things. Those two things seem in conflict with one another.

HESS

They are in conflict, they’re in, if you will, 99 percent defect free. … These innovation experiments fail about 90 percent of the time.

You are quite correct, they’re in direct conflict. How do you basically create an environment where you, in fact can be engaged in both, but use different processes and different tolerances for failure?

Your question is a great question because over the last seven years I’ve spent a lot of time teaching executives and companies and consulting with companies that have been dealing with this question.

My answer to that also led to the importance of this book, my answer that I wrote about in my last book that I did with Professor Jeanne Liedtka, “The Physics of Business Growth”, I put forth a theory or rationalization if you will, that the way to unify operational excellence and innovation in an organization is to have a learning culture, because learning underlies operational excellence and it underlies innovation.

That’s why I put in my book the chapter on UPS which is a world class operationally excellent company, so readers could compare how they create that environment of constructive dissatisfaction in high employee engagement.

Relate that, if you will, to IDEO, WL Gore, Bridgewater, just underlying the differences is, is having different processes.

You have different processes, but also the difference is having a different tolerance for failure and being able to give people permission to live that innovation, et cetera.

Underlying both operational excellence and innovation is the two foundational beliefs, or the two foundational processes. Number one, underlying innovation and operational excellence, go back to root cause analysis or the five why’s. Unpacking assumptions, good digging, the why, why, why, is underlying both processes.

Going all the way back, if you will, to the Toyota method, underlying both processes is the fact that mistakes are to be illuminated. Stop the line, pull the cord, Toyota. Mistakes are to be illuminated, and mistakes are opportunities to improve, or opportunities to learn.

Yes, they’re in direct conflict. But if you really dig deeper and use learning as the unifier, I believe you can make a compelling argument that they can and they do exist in some organizations, but they can exist in more organizations if you use learning as the environment. Does that make any sense to you?

INTERVIEWER

Yeah, totally. Do you think that organizations have this conflict with incentives, whereby a learning organization sounds great, but it’s going to take a while to set up, and I know that in the meantime, I’m measured on these very short term quantitative objectives, which are usually oriented towards fewer defects, less variance and things like that?

Although people would agree that we want to set up a learning culture, and if you sat everybody in an organization in the room, they’d all say yes. Why doesn’t that ever happen, then? What are the impediments to enacting that?

HESS

Another good question, and a complex question. Let me approach it this way. A learning culture is only one part of the proposal. That’s why I write and emphasize a learning system.

As you know from reading my book, I’m very behavioral-oriented. I start with what behaviors we want to drive and say, let’s create a system that’s going to drive those behaviors, and what are the parts of the system — it’s culture, leadership behaviors, measurements, rewards, processes, HR policies.

If you go back to it, putting in a culture is not enough unless you define the behaviors you’re trying to get, and unless you measure and reward. If you want to measure and reward learning behaviors, if you want to put them in, it’s more complex.

You’re an expert, so I know you weren’t saying this, but I talk to business people. The easy way is to go, quote, “put in a culture,” and talk about it. Nothing really changes with talk. You’re back to those two business maxims. You get what you measure, and if you measure and reward it, you really get a lot of it.

You’ve got to start at the bottom and say, “What type of behavioral changes are we trying to get here?” It’s interesting, and that’s why the Intuit story is in the book.

You take Intuit and look at, and they’ve been now on an over seven-year journey. Really putting in a learning culture in the sense of making experimentation, and small, fast, cheap experiments their basic business model, but also empowering line employees to do experiments even if their bosses don’t like the experiments.

It’s been a huge success, but the reason it’s been a huge success is a couple of things. They got leadership involved, and they focused on changing leadership behaviors and leadership mindsets about learning, and about power and hierarchy.

If you look at a lot of great learning organizations, whether it is Intuit, or the ones I always talk about, Pixar, IDEO, WL Gore, Bridgewater, UPS, there’s always hierarchy. But hierarchy as an elitism, is de-emphasized, and there is a real push for highly engaging employees and leadership humility, and intellectual humility.

What you’re really talking about here, if you think about the book, is changing the organizational mental model. To do that, you’ve got to change leaders’ mental models. Basically, in order for change to occur in the company, you’ve got to have leaders model the behaviors you want.

If you think about in my book, when I have the high performance learning organization checklists that I put in the book, the first thing on the checklist. Does the CEO own the learning culture and walk the talk? The second thing, has the organization put in place culture, structured leadership behaviors, HR policies, measurement and rewards to enable and promote learning behaviors?

If you don’t approach it from a package, your next question is, “Well, it’s very hard to do this.” Yes, and that’s why you’ve got to start small in the sense you can’t roll out 22 behaviors. You’ve got to start small and figure out and prioritize what you are really going to start working on.

What Intuit started working on was, “Let’s use experimentation as a way to change the culture and change the behaviors, and basically teach learning, teach exploration, teach root cause analysis, teach stress testing of ideas, and devaluing real power and hierarchy.”

INTERVIEWER

I think that’s key. A lot of times, organizations want to implement something, so they come in and they take the whole package, and they try to implement it. It’s a lot easier to start with something small, but only, in my mind, if you have an understanding of why that works somewhere else.

HESS

The other thing we have to take into account is the context of, at least in the United States, the public markets and the obsession with short-termism and quarterly earnings, and the high volatility of the public markets in the United States with the average tenure of public CEOs being less than five years, the high turnover of share ownership and the volatility of corporate existence, the short lifespan of organizations today.

If you think about it and look at where the great learning and innovation is going on, they’re going into where it’s happening the easiest, if you will. It’s private companies, or it’s public companies that have dual classes of stock, where the founders or founder’s family have the control positions, voting control or strong voting positions in a sense to be able to ward off the immense pressures of short-termism in our capital markets.

That’s why I write in the epilogue that if we really want innovation, you really want more learning, sometimes the untouched has got to basically enable it, too.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve always thought that was one reason for Berkshire Hathaway’s remarkable success: the fact that Warren and Charlie controlled 40 percent of the stock for a long period of time. They were able to take these counterculture or counter-organizational moves where they would sit with cash for a long period of time and not do anything. There was no activist that could take charge of the company and force them to pay a dividend. They set their incentives up, even without that dual class of shareholders, to do that.

HESS

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s go to the book for a second. What is learning, and does it change as we get older?

HESS

That’s an interesting question. If you define learning as the incorporation of experience and conflicting data into your existing mental models, or learning is the transformation, enhancement of your mental models.

The older you get, and the more successful you are…This is not science. This is a hypothesis. The more successful you are and the older you get, changing your mental models, being open-minded, slowing down your thinking and subjecting it to stress testing by other people.

Is it human for it to get harder? Probably. I haven’t done a lot of research into the age issue. There is tangential research which basically shows that arrogance is a huge inhibitor to learning. Arrogance comes also from success in positional authority.

Let me give you an example that’s very interesting. My two young granddaughters, when they were three and five, we would have conversations where the word they used the most often was why. In fact, I remember a conversation where with the youngest one, when I asked her a question, I said, “Could you please not answer everything with why?” Her answer was, “Why?”

They’re 8 and 10 now, and they rarely use the word why. If you think about what happens as we go into the education system, as we age and go into the workforce, instead of being about curiosity and questioning, the whole system changes to being about being right, getting good grades, not making mistakes.

All of this is part of the answer to your question. In most organizations, you become successful for doing something very, very well. Therefore, you become really focused on avoiding mistakes and avoiding taking risk, and not losing what you have. All of that builds up, makes learning hard.

INTERVIEWER

That relates to one of the stories you tell in the book, which was during the first 20 years of work experience, you became an expert at what you call speedy thinking. You were right often enough to prosper and didn’t think much about thinking.

You even mention that the speed of your thinking was a competitive advantage. You thought you were a good thinker and you thought you had all the right answers but then something happened …

HESS

A couple of things happened all at the same time. One involved my emotional intelligence, and one involved, if you will, my first big business failure. The third involved, if you will, being in the final two slots for a wonderful CEO position, and being told that I was not getting it, and the reason why (Hess elaborates on this in the book). It was a combination. Two of the events, my first big business failure and the emotional event, happened in the same week.

In a nutshell, I evolved my first 20 years in the business world as a highly effective, I will call it machine, in the sense that I was very successful. I had great teams, but I always told my teams that, “Look, we’re going to do things right. We never cross the line. I will never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do. We’re going to be high performance, but I don’t have a lot of time for chitchat. You perform for me. I’ll take care of you. I’ll get you development. I’ll get you training. I’ll get you promoted. I’ll help you go to wherever you want. That’s the quid pro quo. You perform well. I’ll help you be all you can be.”

It’s very similar to what Reid Hoffman writes in “Alliance.” I don’t have time for chitchat. Shane, don’t bring your personal life to work. I hope things are well with you, but football, kids, family…Let’s just work.

Emotionally, I became very focused on and consumed by getting things done and stress at home and in my marriage. I was not a good listener. I wasn’t empathetic. My wife wanted to talk a lot of things out, and I kept wanting to interrupt, and let’s get to the bottom line and solve the problem. She was very interested in the process, and being listened to and respected as to how she was thinking through it and all of this.

That led to such unhappiness on her part that she told me one morning at breakfast that she needed a separation. I’m not sure this was in the book, but it is true. I teach this, I tell students this. I heard her. It was upsetting, but I said to her…It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I did. This just tells you how bad I was, how much work I really needed.

I said to her, “This is very important, but I’ve got a couple of meetings. Can we talk about it when I get home?” Instead of saying, “We’ll pick up the phone and cancel those meetings, delay those meetings and have a conversation.” I in effect told her my meetings were more important than her wanting to talk about needing a separation. I came home that night, and she was gone. That was huge.

Later that afternoon, I got a call from my brother. We had invested some money in a company. Basically, the call was that something’s gone wrong, I need a million dollars. I in effect lost my first million in business. That was a time that a million dollars was a lot of money in the business world. It’s a lot of money to me and every individual today.

In one day, I took my first business loss, and I thought I was really good in business, and I took a huge human loss. Both of which I had to learn from, which I did. As I write in the book, my wife and I reconciled. We’ll celebrate next month our 33rd year of marriage.

I’m still a work in progress. It took a huge wakeup call for me to slow down and begin the process of being emotionally engaged, suspending judgment, learning to be intellectually humble. That also along the way led me to start being much more open to stress testing my thinking.

Writing this book took all of that even to a much, much higher level. Researching and writing the book made me realize that I can even be a better thinker. Into the last three years, I think I have made the most progress I have made in my life in quieting my ego and being much more open-minded and changing my language.

On daily basis thinking about how I’m thinking, and thinking about how I’m relating, and trying to improve on a daily basis how I think and how I relate, and how I engage in learning conversations. Longwinded answer. As my little granddaughter would say, TMI, too much information. [laughs]

INTERVIEWER

Not at all. That’s a very personal story, and it clearly had a major impact on your life. When I hear you tell it again, I wonder how you changed. You come to this moment where you realized something needed to change and you created it but what did this process look like? How did you go about slowing down and evaluating your thinking, and listening more to other people, and being more humble? How did you bring about this change? I imagine it didn’t happen overnight.

HESS

No, it takes years. The first thing it took, I realized that I needed, just as I write in my book, and just as Daniel Kahneman has written, it is very, very hard for anyone to, if you will, evaluate or be critical of one’s own thinking. That’s why all of this learning stuff is a team activity that I write.

I sat back and I said, “Hmm, I need some help.” In my normal anal-compulsive way, I spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of executive recruiters that I trusted, and a lot of executives, and found a person who everyone agreed was one of the best executive coaches, and was trained. She was a psychologist, psychiatrist, and executive coach. She was a graduate of Columbia Medical School.

I went to her and explained my issue. She basically helped me understand where all of this came from. As I write in my book, it all came from back to my elementary school days.

In my elementary school days, I learned to be the person who sits in the first row. I was a kid that was most likely to succeed and all that kind of crap. I was a kid that sat on the first row, and was the first one waving his hand to answer the teacher’s questions. I performed for gold stars and A’s.

All of that started, but understanding that and understanding that behavior, and understanding my niche, too, and the home environment in which I grew up, which I write about in another part of my book, where I’m very thankful to my parents.

I had loving parents who sacrificed, and made really everything possible in my life, but my home environment was not a real emotional environment. I never remember either my mother or father ever saying they loved me. I never remember being hugged or anything.

That happens to a lot of kids, but it was just saying emotions were not on the table. It was what did you do, and I earned love and respect at home by getting A’s, by performing. I became a high performer, and all of that carries.

Understanding all of that goes back to what happened. My counseling sessions basically is what my friend Robert Kegan from Harvard in “We Need to Change” writes about, and I talk about his miscellaneous book in my book. I had to basically get down and unpack my mental model that was underlying why I was performing this way, because I was performing that way because it was producing good results for me.

Underlying that was a big assumption that if I wasn’t the first one with the answer, if I didn’t interrupt my wife and solve the problem, she wouldn’t love me. I defined that as helping. She defined that as disrespect. What I had to learn was that by listening and humble inquiry, instead of solving problems, I had to learn that if I don’t have the answer, I had to learn that saying I don’t know. I had to learn by quieting myself.

I had to learn, and that takes time. I had to learn through experience that I still could be successful doing those things. In fact, I would be more successful. I wrote about that in my book. That when I started changing in my workplace and putting in new behaviors, the amazing thing is that my team performance went off the charts. It went from high to supersonic.

It was amazing, because all of a sudden, it was like I released something inside of people. They felt more cared about and more engaged. The same thing happened in my personal relationships and friendships. The answer to your question is no. It’s never over. I’m working on it. This all began for me, this huge transformation, in 1988, ’89. This is umpteen years later. It’s 16 years later, and I’m still a work in progress.

You’re a great learner. If you look at what you do and the service you provide to the world, you’re out there. You are curious. You’re out there, and you’re testing and you’re critiquing and you’re learning. The fact is that if we were to talk 20 years from now, you would be a different person in many ways than you are today.

INTERVIEWER

I hope so. I think we all evolve into what we’re learning and focusing on. Like you said, what gets measured gets done a lot of the time. When you start really critically evaluating yourself in the context of your goals and objectives and how other people feel, you subjectively start to measure that. That’s one way that you can change.

You talk in your book about metacognition, which is the process of managing how we think, and focusing on that helps us understand what strategies are likely to be effective in various circumstances.

How do we consciously recognize situations where we need to move from maybe a habit and system one thinking to system two thinking, which is more reflective?

A great example would be your conversation with your wife that morning at the table. How do you in the moment grasp that your default is to say, “Oh, can we reschedule this conversation for later,” and move to, “No, this is really more important,” which is thoughtful? You’re moving from an immediate habitual response. How do we go about doing that?

HESS

There is no easy answer. There are some ways to approach it. If you can start with the whole area and the research that’s being done in mind focus, and the ability, if you will, to — this even goes back to work at MIT, and the Shine and Humble Inquiry, and the work of Isaacs in dialogue — the ability to be in the moment in a conversation, and to slow down and assess.

If you go back also to the Bridgewater chapter and think about how they start a meeting, they start a meeting by defining the purpose of the meeting, what type of meeting it is and what process is going to be used in the meeting vis-a-vis the conversation or the discussion.

If you’re in a one on one situation, you can do that. When you go into a business meeting, you’re not in charge. But you can do that to yourself. A tool that I have found helpful that I talk about in the book and it’s not unique. It’s not innovative. It’s called mental rehearsal, and mental replay.

What I did back when I was in the real world, I would look at my day and, if you will, visualize my day before my day started. Take 15, 20 minutes and think about what was on my calendar, and think about what type of meeting that was going to be.

To think about, if you will, if you have more meetings which are relating, what my objectives were and who I wanted to get involved, and who I wanted to hear from, and prime myself for slowing down and letting the process evolve. Not chaos, but having a mental game plan. Not controlling, but a mental thinking game plan as to how to approach it.

Most importantly, the thing that helped me for years was what I call mental replay. On the way home or in a quiet time that evening, actually closing my eyes and replaying key meetings, and basically grading myself, and writing down. I didn’t call it a journal. I kept a legal pad, but it’s like a journal. Writing down what I did, what I would do differently, and how I could improve.

It’s interesting. For years, I would basically grade myself. Not only subjectively, but looking at the results of my behavior, other people’s behaviors, other people’s reactions. If you think about it, you can tell from my book and you can tell from my talk, I’m really big on trying to look at something from various angles.

If you really go look, if you go back to the Bridgewater case and Ray Dalio, there’s a unique individual who built the largest and arguably most successful hedge fund in the world. If you go back to his methodology from the time he started his business in his apartment in New York, he wrote down each day his decision about each trade, why he made that trade, and what were his assumptions, and he wrote down the results. The thing about it is he was using thinking rehearsal, or mental rehearsal.

You’ve got to have some processes that slow you down to where you’re thinking about how you think, and thinking about how you relate. Just saying that you’re going to do it is not enough. Good intent is not enough. It works, and everybody that I’ve worked with or talked with that has tried some of these techniques in my book, they work.

If you go to Gary Klein’s work and his visualization on his tool, if you will, that he puts out, how experts make decisions, and the examples that I use in the book of the fire chief, you go in. You assess. You recognize. You come up with a conclusion, but you train yourself to stop. Is there anything in the environment, anything in the context that is different, unusual, an aberration? Anything that I notice that may require some modification?

You’re doing that, if you will, cognitively. But also, if you will, the emotional or the intuitive reaction. You build in this, “Stop, reflect.” It could be less than a minute. It could be two minutes, reflect time. You stop the autopilot.

Again, the questions you ask are very good. It’s very hard to answer in 30 seconds, or even a few minutes.

INTERVIEWER

That’s kind of incredible. It sounds like you come up with a process by which you systemize these gates almost, where you slow down just for a second to double check what you’re doing. That’s really fascinating.

HESS

The other thing I can’t stress enough is the mental rehearsal, and keeping the journal. Just by doing that, grading yourself in the sense of, “Where can I improve? What happened today? What would I do differently in how I think? What would I do differently in that conversation as to how I relate?”

Over years of doing this, it comes back to, at least for me, to two related things, intellectual humility and quieting my ego. Because if I can quiet my ego, I can listen better. I can be more empathetic. I do suspend judgment. I can inquire. I can actively consider other views. Much of this is a discipline. Much of this is psychological.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of psychology, one interesting thing from your book was that you spent time in these learning cultures, or models of various aspects of what you talked about for your book.

You said high performance learning organizations are a function of the right people, the right processes, and the right environment.

Then you went out to these workplaces and you sat in them, and you immersed yourself in these cultures.

What I found the most interesting was the Bridgewater experience, where you went and spent several days at this company that is incredibly unique and so different from anything I’ve ever read about before.

Can you share some of your experience with us?

HESS

It is very unique, and it is different. Not only did I go and spend time inside, but what was interesting also was the prep time.

When I was talking with Ray Dalio about doing this, he very up front said, “I’m going to lay out one condition.” I said, “OK, what is it?” He said, “I want you to agree to take the role of a new recruit coming to join Bridgewater as an employee. I’m going to send you a Bridgewater iPad, and you will basically watch over 10 hours of various films and answer questions, and get graded on your questions, to immerse yourself before you come in having some understanding of the Bridgewater way.”

He said, “In addition, to help you prepare, I’m going to send you lots of other stuff that, da-da-da.” It was a structured and planned immersion. It’s a fascinating place. It vets wonderful people.

You know from my book they allowed me to use quotes and tell their stories. They’re stories that made for change. Genders can sometimes change, too. They’re very compelling stories about how this transformation took place, what Ray calls getting to the other side.

It’s somewhat also analogous to my studies with the United States Marine Corps. As I write in the book, I had the Marine Corps transformation process, where a general once phrased it this way to me. He says, “Take very average people and put them in the most difficult environments and they perform consistently exceptionally well.”

Why? Because of how they, if you will, how they’re trained to think, behave, and the values. When you look at Bridgewater and you look at any organization – whether it’s UPS or someone like W. L. Gore or Pixar – all four of those organizations and the Navy SEALS or the Marine Corps or the Special Forces or the US Army, they all have strong cultures and they all have strong process. They all have a similar, what I call leadership model that is very, very humanistic and people-oriented. I do a lot of this inside companies.

You know. You’ve been around the block, too. There’s a lot of people who talk the talk that don’t walk the walk. I had read Bridgewater’s management principles. I’d used them in my classroom for a couple of years and got a surprising negativity about it all from my students. That also happened when they were used in the Harvard class, which only piqued my interest.

When I went in there and saw it, sat in meetings, and watched the process happen, where people’s thinking was challenged and there were in-sync conversations which were trying to get to the bottom of why certain things were not working, whether it was a process or whether it was a thinking pattern or whether whatever.

Watching that happen, what he writes and what I write is the reality of what they get. The interesting thing is the transformation process. If you think about a firm like Bridgewater, it hires very, very bright people who were then, generally speaking, very successful in school and very successful in extracurricular activities their entire educational life, and are nice people and know how to get along with other people.

They come in there and … it’s the first negative feedback they’d ever received in their life.

How do people change their mental model of what being smart is and change their mental model about mistakes and their emotional defensiveness to, in effect, protect their ego. That’s what it’s all about.

It’s fascinating. Many of the places I’ve studied and got involved in, each of them are different. Gallo has built a learning system. It’s got a culture. It’s got processes, measurements are lower, et cetera, all designed to mitigate…our natural inclination for System 1 thinking and System 1 conversations.

Defend, deny, deflect, protect the ego…The thing that I find amazing is that I think that if you close your eyes and think of 2025, 2030, you think of an operationally excellent company going to be set primarily by smart robots, smart machines with a small human contingent that have got to be the big thinkers. Modelled inside that company of the future is going to be something similar to what the model is in Bridgewater.

INTERVIEWER

Can you walk me through a meeting at Bridgewater where they make decisions? How is it different? What is the structure by which they organize those meetings? How do they seek dissenting views and how do they challenge one another?

HESS

I’ll refer you also…to my book. I will just say, please look at that to be specific, because off the top of my head, I may not use the exact words they use…First, who’s in charge of the meeting? What person is responsible for the meeting? Then, what’s the purpose of the meeting? Is it a view, is it a debate? Is it to find and discuss a problem and figure out what the root cause is? What’s the purpose?

Then as they go through, depending on what the purpose of the meeting is, if it’s a review, someone states what they believe the issue is and where are we not in synch? Because at the end of every meeting and at the end of every review that had happened previous to that meeting, there’s agreement on the action to be taken and a responsible party is assigned.

If something still is not working, you go back to what was agreed. Who is the responsible party? What was done? What were the results? Why is it not working? Is it a process issue or is it a people issue? If it’s a process issue, then they go down a certain line of thinking. Is it a people issue? What is the issue? Is it a skill issue or is it a capability or a mindset issue?

If you think about it, it’s a very continuous drill-down, what I call peeling back the artichoke to get to the heart of the problem. People who are in the meeting, everyone has permission to speak freely.

All conversations that I watched on the films and that I’ve viewed I would say were respectful and in their own way compassionate, in the sense that everyone at the table had been at the receiving end of it and knew they were going to be on the receiving end of it because it’s part of the daily grind.

There’s empathy and compassion. There was no raised voices. There’s no personal stuff. Was it comfortable for everyone all the time? No, it’s not. Is it hard? Is it hard to push and push people to get to the bottom of things? It’s hard to be the pusher and it’s hard to be the pushee. It takes a real belief in the power of what happens.

When you talk to people that have been there, like for 10 years, and talk to them…I remember speaking with a gentleman who’s very successful there. A quiet person, more a quant than a client relationship person. A quiet person. I started talking to him about it, difficulty in learning and was he comfortable with this?

He said, “You never truly get comfortable.” He said, “But it’s so powerful in how it’s transformed my life.” I said, “If you had to describe in one word your 10 years here at Bridgewater, what would it be?” He said — this was very surprising to me, in the sense that this was a quant guy — he said to me, “Love.” I said, “Excuse me?” He says, “Love. Love. I love this place, and I love the people I work with.” I looked at him, and he says, “You’re surprised?” I said, “Yes, because you don’t seem like a touchy feely person.”

He said, “I’m not. I truly love this place.” That was fascinating to me. I spoke to another person who was also a superstar there. I watched her really have a very difficult time in the meeting where they were getting to the bottom of why one of her teams were not performing. It really had to do with her leadership style. It was…

INTERVIEWER

Tough to watch?

HESS

Yeah. I felt for the people doing the pushing in her. She said, “Look, I need to think about this. I don’t know the answer, so let’s take a break and, let’s get back.” They came back. All this was films I watched. When I met her I said, “Can we talk about these films?” She said, “Yes.”

We talked about it, and I said, “What does all this mean to you in your life?” She said to me, “In being pushed to think more deeply, in being pushed to be more critical about how I think and how I relate has made me a much better mother. It also has changed me in terms of how I view my children’s mistakes.”

We were going on. She’s the one who gave me the quote in the book that the purpose of the whole system at Bridgewater is to overcome our humanness in a humane way. In other words, to help us view our natural proclivities for system one, ego defenses, but in a humane way.

The other thing that was fascinating at Bridgewater was how open everyone truly is. I would have people sit there and tell me that they think they probably have peaked at Bridgewater. They need to grow, and they don’t see the opportunity. I say, “Well, gosh, what have you done about this?”

They say, “Oh, I talk to Ray about it. Yeah, I talked to Ray for two years about it.” I said, “You’ve actually told Ray that you’re thinking of leaving?” They said, “I’ve actually told Ray that I’m not only thinking I’m looking, but I’d really like to stay if we can make something work where I can grow.” I said, “What did he say?”

He says, “I respect that. Let’s try and see, because I want you to stay and grow. But, also, I want you to grow. If you can grow somewhere better, we’ll help you get there.” It was like, “Wow.” I can remember two or three young people. It’s amazing. I asked to meet with lots of different people. Young people. Senior people.

I remember having lunch with three young people. We were having lunch. They have different lunch areas and cafes. It’s all catered every day. It was awesome sushi. I’m sitting there with these three guys. We’re sitting outside. The environment is very tranquil. It’s along a river. A small river. Trees.

We’re sitting there. I asked the three guys…They know who I am, and why I’m there and all this kind of stuff. “Where would you like to start?” Everyone at Bridgewater has a big burden. A big personal issue they’re working on. I had only met these guys three minutes, five minutes. The guy says, “I want to tell you what my big burden is.”

They go around the table. They basically lay out what their big issue is they’re trying to work on personally. It’s like, “Wow.” They’re looking at me, and I can see it in their eyes and feel it. They want reciprocity. “OK, Ed. What’s your big burden?” I sense that, and I volunteer it. Those then set up a wonderful, open conversation.

Think about that. How many times have you gone into a new environment and somebody…First, they’re young. They know I’m there because of Ray. The first thing they want to talk about is their vulnerability. I’m talking about a hedge fund. I’m talking about a money machine.

I’m not talking about going into an…educational environment or a social environment. It’s little things like that that gave me the feeling and also the data that this place is different.

INTERVIEWER

It struck me when I was reading that chapter that the common refrain in most organizations is pick your battles, but it seemed like nothing was too small in Bridgewater to pick apart and tease apart and try to understand.

HESS

Correct. The other thing that’s common in organizations is not only pick your battles but pick your time to raise the battle. There are no battles too small and right now is the time. I was in meetings that had purpose A. In this particular meeting I’m referring to there’s probably 12 senior executives in the room. The meeting was scheduled to last 45 minutes.

The meeting at the end of 40 minutes was over, and Ray says, “Before we leave.” He looked at person X and said, “We’ve got an open issue. I’d like to get to the bottom of this. I’d like for us to get in sync.” Some of them had knowledge of it, but everyone else…The meeting was supposed to last only five more minutes, because everyone’s got another…

There was a 45 minute discussion of that in sync issue. Afterwards, I asked Ray. I said, “Ray, why’d you do it then?” He said, “You can’t let things slide, and it was my fault I’m not getting back to it sooner, because I’ve been travelling. But, I had the responsible parties, the necessary parties.” He says it in that chapter. You don’t put things off. You deal with them directly, honestly, openly.

One of the most amazing things, and I think I write about in the chapter, is when I was doing the book, one of my editors said, “All this sounds good, but it’s just one way, top-down.” I told her the story and how I read an email, when I was doing my research, an email that went from a, I would say, mid-level person who happened to be part of a small team — I don’t know if it’s five or six people — who had a big client, big meeting that Ray attended. This was an email. Everything at Bridgewater, every communication, every review, every performance, everything about everybody is public record.

If you went to work for Bridgewater, you could go on your little iPad and look and see every grade that Ray Dalio or Bob Prince or any individual. Every grade, everything about their performance, their measurements, their test scores, et cetera, et cetera. You could watch every film of every senior management executive meeting. We film everything. It’s totally transparent.

This gentleman puts it in the system and I read it. The substance of the email basically said, “Dear Ray, in our meeting yesterday with client so-and-so, your performance was disappointing and, quite frankly, embarrassing to the team.”

INTERVIEWER

I remember that.

HESS

“It was this, this, and this.” How many places can you be that truthful with the CEO? He’s not CEO, technically. He’s the founder.

INTERVIEWER

Not many.

HESS

Not many, at all. I read Ray’s response. “Dear So-and-So, thank you for bringing this to my attention. You are right. I was not on top of my game. I let the team down, and I apologize to the team and your organization. I need to work on these things. I will not let this happen again.”

INTERVIEWER

That’s remarkable. How often does that happen? Not only does an employee have the guts, and I guess in this place it’s cultural, but the chutzpah to send a message like that and speak so directly to the founder or CEO …Psychologically, within your organization, that is such a hard thing to do, and then have the type of response that not only encourages, but agrees with, and immediately admits a mistake.

HESS

Right. If you look at the culture, and every organization does it differently. You look at what Pixar has created. That could occur in Pixar. You look at what WL Gore has created. That could occur in WL Gore. If you look at what Intuit’s trying to do by “It’s time to bury Caesar,” in devaluing positional power and “empowering employees,” trying to have conversations about the business issues and experiments and everything. That’s what Intuit’s trying to move towards. If you think, you go to UPS, the UPS culture of constructive dissatisfaction and the devaluing of perks, no corporate jets. The whole culture.

If you think about it, and you go back and you look through the some of the high-performance organizational research that I cite in the book, you could go back all the way to confronting the Google facts. I got some nice stuff in it. You see some consistencies. They’re different degrees.

They’re different degrees, but underlying all of this is, if you will, a leadership openness to subject themselves to the same rigor and review as everyone else. The message that sends, and the vulnerability, if you think about it, goes back to McGregor….The all-knowing, decisive, wise leader, quite frankly, has always been hooey.

But it’s in the environment today that you live, where this type of thinking and learning is so critical.

In order for it to occur, it takes a humanistic type of environment that basically is, “I state permission to speak freely,” and really, intellectual humility. It goes back to my work and other people’s work in looking at high-performance organizations, to what Jim Collins calls “level five leadership” and I call “humble, passionate operators.”

It’s funny. Every talk I give to executives, I use the word “humble.” Everybody wants to have a conversation about it, because they disagree that you can be humble. Because the word “humble” means to so many people that you’re basically a pushover.

There’s this whole concept in the business world that if you’re humanistic and engaging with people, you’ll come across as soft. People will take advantage of you. That all goes back to Theory X. It’s not the case.

INTERVIEWER

I think you proved that.

HESS

You can be humanistic and have high standards and high accountability. The companies I write about, every one of them are outstanding performers because they have the highest of standards that they hold themselves to. There is no softness in standards. There’s a human element. Nobody can go put in the Bridgewater way. Nobody can go put in the WL Gore ways. You’ve got to create your own way that’s consistent with the leadership team. If people criticize Bridgewater’s culture, and UPS, but WL Gore will tell you the same thing that Bridgewater will tell you. It takes people longer than a year to adjust to working in the WL Gore environment, when they come in from the outside world, because our whole philosophy of engagement and collaboration and openness.

It’s not the same as Bridgewater. What’s fascinating is all these great companies will tell you, “We are not for everyone.”

INTERVIEWER

I’m conscious of the fact we’re way over time. Ed, I want to thank you so much for your time. This was a fascinating conversation.

HESS

No problem. I enjoyed talking with you. I like your work. …

***

If you liked this interview, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Ed’s book Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.

The Glass Cage: Automation and US

The Glass Cage

The impact of technology is all around us. Maybe we’re at another Gutenberg moment and maybe we’re not.

Marshall McLuhan said it best.

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.

He also wrote that “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.”

In The Glass Cage: Automation and US, Nick Carr, one of my favorite writers, enters the debate about the impact automation has on us, “examining the personal as well as the economic consequences of our growing dependence on computers.”

We know that the nature of jobs is going to change in the future thanks to technology. Tyler Cowen argues “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”

Carr’s book shows another side to the argument – the broader human consequences to living in a world where computers and software do the things we used to do.

Computer automation makes our lives easier, our chores less burdensome. We’re often able to accomplish more in less time—or to do things we simply couldn’t do before. But automation also has deeper, hidden effects. As aviators have learned, not all of them are beneficial. Automation can take a toll on our work, our talents, and our lives. It can narrow our perspectives and limit our choices. It can open us to surveillance and manipulation. As computers become our constant companions, our familiar, obliging helpmates, it seems wise to take a closer look at exactly how they’re changing what we do and who we are.

On the autonomous automobile, for example, Carr agues that while they have a ways to go before they start chauffeuring us around, there are broader questions that need to be answered first.

Although Google has said it expects commercial versions of its car to be on sale by the end of the decade, that’s probably wishful thinking. The vehicle’s sensor systems remain prohibitively expensive, with the roof-mounted laser apparatus alone going for eighty thousand dollars. Many technical challenges remain to be met, such as navigating snowy or leaf-covered roads, dealing with unexpected detours, and interpreting the hand signals of traffic cops and road workers. Even the most powerful computers still have a hard time distinguishing a bit of harmless road debris (a flattened cardboard box, say) from a dangerous obstacle (a nail-studded chunk of plywood). Most daunting of all are the many legal, cultural, and ethical hurdles a driverless car faces-Where, for instance, will culpability and liability reside should a computer-driven automobile cause an accident that kills or injures someone? With the car’s owner? With the manufacturer that installed the self-driving system? With the programmers who wrote the software? Until such thorny questions get sorted out, fully automated cars are unlikely to grace dealer showrooms.

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

Self-driving cars are just one example of a technology that forces us “to change our thinking about what computers and robots can and can’t do.”

Up until that fateful October day, it was taken for granted that many important skills lay beyond the reach of automation. Computers could do a lot of things, but they couldn’t do everything. In an influential 2004 book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued, convincingly, that there were practical limits to the ability of software programmers to replicate human talents, particularly those involving sensory perception, pattern recognition, and conceptual knowledge. They pointed specifically to the example of driving a car on the open road, a talent that requires the instantaneous interpretation of a welter of visual signals and an ability to adapt seamlessly to shifting and often unanticipated situations. We hardly know how we pull off such a feat ourselves, so the idea that programmers could reduce all of driving’s intricacies, intangibilities, and contingencies to a set of instructions, to lines of software code, seemed ludicrous. “Executing a left turn across oncoming traffic,” Levy and Murnane wrote, “involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine the set of rules that can replicate a drivers behavior.” It seemed a sure bet, to them and to pretty much everyone else, that steering wheels would remain firmly in the grip of human hands.

In assessing computers’ capabilities, economists and psychologists have long drawn on a basic distinction between two kinds of knowledge: tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge, which is also sometimes called procedural knowledge, refers to all the stuff we do without actively thinking about it: riding a bike, snagging a fly ball, reading a book, driving a car. These aren’t innate skills—we have to learn them, and some people are better at them than others—but they can’t be expressed as a simple recipe, a sequence of precisely defined steps. When you make a turn through a busy intersection in your car, neurological studies have shown, many areas of your brain are hard at work, processing sensory stimuli, making estimates of time and distance, and coordinating your arms and legs. But if someone asked you to document everything involved in making that turn, you wouldn’t be able to, at least not without resorting to generalizations and abstractions.The ability resides deep in your nervous system outside the ambit of your conscious mind. The mental processing goes on without your awareness.

Much of our ability to size up situations and make quick judgments about them stems from the fuzzy realm of tacit knowledge. Most of our creative and artistic skills reside there too. Explicit knowledge, which is also known as declarative knowledge, is the stuff you can actually write down: how to change a flat tire, how to fold an origami crane, how to solve a quadratic equation. These are processes that can be broken down into well-defined steps. One person can explain them to another person through written or oral instructions: do this, then this, then this.

Because a software program is essentially a set of precise, written instructions—do this, then this, then this—we’ve assumed that while computers can replicate skills that depend on explicit knowledge, they’re not so good when it comes to skills that flow from tacit knowledge. How do you translate the ineffable into lines of code, into the rigid, step-by-step instructions of an algorithm? The boundary between the explicit and the tacit has always been a rough one—a lot of our talents straddle the line—but it seemed to offer a good way to define the limits of automation and, in turn, to mark out the exclusive precincts of the human. The sophisticated jobs Levy and Murnane identified as lying beyond the reach of computers—in addition to driving, they pointed to teaching and medical diagnosis—were a mix of the mental and the manual, but they all drew on tacit knowledge.

Google’s car resets the boundary between human and computer, and it does so more dramatically, more decisively, than have earlier breakthroughs in programming. It tells us that our idea of the limits of automation has always been something of a fiction. Were not as special as we think we are. While the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge remains a useful one in the realm of human psychology, it has lost much of its relevance to discussions of automation.

Tomorrowland

That doesn’t mean that computers now have tacit knowledge, or that they’ve started to think the way we think, or that they’ll soon be able to do everything people can do. They don’t, they haven’t, and they won’t. Artificial intelligence is not human intelligence. People are mindful; computers are mindless. But when it comes to performing demanding tasks, whether with the brain or the body, computers are able to replicate our ends without replicating our means. When a driverless car makes a left turn in traffic, it’s not tapping into a well of intuition and skill; it’s following a program. But while the strategies are different, the outcomes, for practical purposes, are the same. The superhuman speed with which computers can follow instructions, calculate probabilities, and receive and send data means that they can use explicit knowledge to perform many of the complicated tasks that we do with tacit knowledge. In some cases, the unique strengths of computers allow them to perform what we consider to be tacit skills better than we can perform them ourselves. In a world of computer-controlled cars, you wouldn’t need traffic lights or stop signs. Through the continuous, high-speed exchange of data, vehicles would seamlessly coordinate their passage through even the busiest of intersections—just as computers today regulate the flow of inconceivable numbers of data packets along the highways and byways of the internet. What’s ineffable in our own minds becomes altogether effable in the circuits of a microchip.

Many of the cognitive talents we’ve considered uniquely human, it turns out, are anything but. Once computers get quick enough, they can begin to replicate our ability to spot patterns, make judgments, and learn from experience.

It’s not only vocations that are increasingly being computerized, avocations are too.

Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other small, affordable, and even wearable computers, we now depend on software to carry out many of our daily chores and pastimes. We launch apps to aid us in shopping, cooking, exercising, even finding a mate and raising a child. We follow turn-by-turn GPS instructions to get from one place to the next. We use social networks to maintain friendships and express our feelings. We seek advice from recommendation engines on what to watch, read, and listen to. We look to Google, or to Apple’s Siri, to answer our questions and solve our problems. The computer is becoming our all-purpose tool for navigating, manipulating, and understanding the world, in both its physical and its social manifestations. Just think what happens these days when people misplace their smartphones or lose their connections to the net. Without their digital assistants, they feel helpless.

As Katherine Hayles, a literature professor at Duke University, observed in her 2012 book How We Think, “When my computer goes down or my Internet connection fails, I feel lost, disoriented, unable to work—in fact, I feel as if my hands have been amputated.”

While our dependency on computers is “disconcerting at times,” we welcome it.

We’re eager to celebrate and show off our whizzy new gadgets and apps—and not only because they’re so useful and so stylish. There’s something magical about computer automation. To watch an iPhone identify an obscure song playing over the sound system in a bar is to experience something that would have been inconceivable to any previous generation.

Miswanting

The trouble with automation is “that it often gives us what we don’t need at the cost of what we do.”

To understand why that’s so, and why we’re eager to accept the bargain, we need to take a look at how certain cognitive biases—flaws in the way we think—can distort our perceptions. When it comes to assessing the value of labor and leisure, the mind’s eye can’t see straight.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor and author of the popular 1990 book Flow, has described a phenomenon that he calls “the paradox of work.” He first observed it in a study conducted in the 1980s with his University of Chicago colleague Judith LeFevre. They recruited a hundred workers, blue-collar and white-collar, skilled and unskilled, from five businesses around Chicago. They gave each an electronic pager (this was when cell phones were still luxury goods) that they had programmed to beep at seven random moments a day over the course of a week. At each beep, the subjects would fill out a short questionnaire. They’d describe the activity they were engaged in at that moment, the challenges they were facing, the skills they were deploying, and the psychological state they were in, as indicated by their sense of motivation, satisfaction, engagement, creativity, and so forth. The intent of this “experience sampling,” as Csikszentmihalyi termed the technique, was to see how people spend their time, on the job and off, and how their activities influence their “quality of experience.”

The results were surprising. People were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn’t like to be at work. When they were on the job, they expressed a strong desire to be off the job, and when they were off the job, the last thing they wanted was to go back to work. “We have,” reported Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre, “the paradoxical situation of people having many more positive feelings at work than in leisure, yet saying that they wish to be doing something else when they are at work, not when they are in leisure.” We’re terrible, the experiment revealed, at anticipating which activities will satisfy us and which will leave us discontented. Even when we’re in the midst of doing something, we don’t seem able to judge its psychic consequences accurately.

Those are symptoms of a more general affliction, on which psychologists have bestowed the poetic name miswanting. We’re inclined to desire things we don’t like and to like things we don’t desire. “When the things we want to happen do not improve our happiness, and when the things we want not to happen do,” the cognitive psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have observed, “it seems fair to say we have wanted badly.” And as slews of gloomy studies show, we’re forever wanting badly. There’s also a social angle to our tendency to misjudge work and leisure. As Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre discovered in their experiments, and as most of us know from our own experience, people allow themselves to be guided by social conventions—in this case, the deep-seated idea that being “at leisure” is more desirable, and carries more status, than being “at work”—rather than by their true feelings. “Needless to say,” the researchers concluded, “such a blindness to the real state of affairs is likely to have unfortunate consequences for both individual wellbeing and the health of society.” As people act on their skewed perceptions, they will “try to do more of those activities that provide the least positive experiences and avoid the activities that are the source of their most positive and intense feelings.” That’s hardly a recipe for the good life.

It’s not that the work we do for pay is intrinsically superior to the activities we engage in for diversion or entertainment. Far from it. Plenty of jobs are dull and even demeaning, and plenty of hobbies and pastimes are stimulating and fulfilling. But a job imposes a structure on our time that we lose when we’re left to our own devices. At work, were pushed to engage in the kinds of activities that human beings find most satisfying. We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. We become so immersed in the flow of our work, to use Csikszentmihalyi s term, that we tune out distractions and transcend the anxieties and worries that plague our everyday lives. Our usually wayward attention becomes fixed on what we’re doing. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one,” explains Csikszentmihalyi. “Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Such states of deep absorption can be produced by all manner of effort, from laying tile to singing in a choir to racing a dirt bike. You don’t have to be earning a wage to enjoy the transports of flow.

More often than not, though, our discipline flags and our mind wanders when we’re not on the job. We may yearn for the workday to be over so we can start spending our pay and having some fun, but most of us fritter away our leisure hours. We shun hard work and only rarely engage in challenging hobbies. Instead, we watch TV or go to the mall or log on to Facebook. We get lazy. And then we get bored and fretful. Disengaged from any outward focus, our attention turns inward, and we end up locked in what Emerson called the jail of self-consciousness. Jobs, even crummy ones, are “actually easier to enjoy than free time,” says Csikszentmihalyi, because they have the “built-in” goals and challenges that “encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it.” But that’s not what our deceiving minds want us to believe. Given the opportunity, we’ll eagerly relieve ourselves of the rigors of labor. We’ll sentence ourselves to idleness.

Automation offers us innumerable promises. Our lives, we think, will be greater if more things are automated. Yet as Carr explores in The Glass Cage, automation extracts a cost. Removing “complexity from jobs, diminishing the challenge they present and hence the level of engagement they promote.” This doesn’t mean that Carr is anti-automation. He’s not. He just wants us to see another side.

“All too often,” Carr warns, “automation frees us from that which makes us feel free.”