The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The problem with most business books is they present a formula for problems that ultimately have no formula. You’re reading something with no practical value and you’re not really learning anything. There is no formula for dealing with complexity that’s always changing. “There’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble,” writes Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book is one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time.

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Most management books focus on how to avoid screwing up – or at least covering your ass if you do. Ben provides insight into what to do after you screw up.

Just because there is no formula doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Advice and experience can help guide us. But that’s the difference between Ben’s book and most: he shows you what it’s really like to make hard decisions, without offering you a three step formula. Horowitz walks you through his considerations, deliberations, thoughts, mistakes, regrets, difficulties. Through that journey, we learn. “Circumstances may differ, but the deeper patterns and the lessons keep resonating.”

Fear. Here is an interesting point on fear that’s representative and telling.

It taught me that being scared didn’t mean I was gutless. What I did mattered and would determine whether I would be a hero or a coward. I have often thought back on that day, realizing that if I’d done what Roger had told me to do, I would have never met my best friend. That experience also taught me not to judge things by their surfaces. Until you make the effort to get to know someone or something, you don’t know anything. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all.

Seeing the world though different lenses.

Looking at the world through such different prisms helped me separate facts from perception. This ability would serve me incredibly well later when I became an entrepreneur and CEO. In particularly dire circumstances when the “facts” seemed to dictate a certain outcome, I learned to look for alternative narratives and explanations coming from radically different perspectives to inform my outlook. The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.

We can’t do everything.

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”
Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”
“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.
Again, I replied, “No, what?” He said, “Divorce.”

Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously. But his joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family. By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. In my mind, I was confident that I was a good person and not selfish, but my actions said otherwise.

The best thing about startups.

Marc (Andreessen): “Do you know the best thing about startups?”
Ben: “What?”
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”

The type of friends you need in your life.

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Doing the hard things, not the fun things. Ben had a lot of mentors, Bill Campbell was one of them. Being present and letting people know where they stand is incredibly important. Four star General Stan McChrystal couldn’t have been the leader he was without being out there with the troops sleeping in the same conditions with the same risk. Here is an incredibly important lesson on leadership that most people miss.

After seven weeks, we came to an agreement with EDS. They would buy Loudcloud for $ 63.5 million in cash and assume its associated liabilities and cash burn. We would retain the intellectual property, Opsware, and become a software company . EDS would then license our software to run both Loudcloud and the larger EDS for $ 20 million per year. I thought it was a great deal for both EDS and us. It was certainly far better than bankruptcy. I felt 150 pounds lighter. I could take a deep breath for the first time in eighteen months. Still, it wouldn’t be easy. Selling Loudcloud meant selling about 150 employees to EDS and laying off another 140.

I called Bill Campbell to tell him the good news: The deal was signed and we would be announcing it in New York on Monday. He replied, “Too bad you can’t go to New York and be part of the announcement; you’ll have to send Marc.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job.” Damn. He was right. I sent Marc to New York and prepared to let people know where they stood. That small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again. Only a CEO who had been through some awful, horrible, devastating circumstances would know to give that advice at that time.

Figuring out what the customer wants is the innovator’s job. And innovation requires a combination of skills.

It turns out that is exactly what product strategy is all about—figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.

I’ve talked about the important role that coding will play in the future. Horowitz offers a simple lessons for programmers and managers alike: “all decisions were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decisions were emotional.”

Tell it like it is. When you start losing the truth is the first thing to go and everyone sees it.

One of the most important management lessons for a founder/ CEO is totally unintuitive. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

As a young CEO, I felt the pressure— the pressure of employees depending on me, the pressure of not really knowing what I was doing, the pressure of being responsible for tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. As a consequence of this pressure, I took losses extremely hard. If we failed to win a customer or slipped a date or shipped a product that wasn’t quite right, it weighed heavily on me. I thought that I would make the problem worse by transferring that burden to my employees. Instead, I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.

I realized my error during a conversation with my brother in-law, Cartheu. At the time, Cartheu worked for AT& T as a telephone lineman (he is one of those guys who climb the poles). I had just met a senior executive at AT& T, whom I’ll call Fred, and I was excited to find out if Cartheu knew him. Cartheu said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.” At that moment, I knew that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.

Why should you it like it is? A few reasons: it builds trust; smart people will see through the lies anyways; it fosters a positive culture and ensures everyone is working from the same page with the same information. The pressure to be positive as a leader is incredible. People are looking to you and you want to inspire them. But the best way to do that is to be real with them. For example, if you’re trying to foster a culture where failure is ok, but you don’t get up there and talk about one of your massive personal failures, the culture won’t even have a chance to change.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is the best business book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps one of the best ever.

(Image source)

The Ability To Focus And Make The Best Move When There Are No Good Moves

"The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world."

“The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world.”

Decisions where outcomes (and therefore probabilities) are unknown are often the hardest. The default method problem solving often falls short.

Sometimes you have to play the odds and sometimes you have to play the calculus.

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

— Peter Thiel

And this quote from The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz:

I learned one important lesson: Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same. … I don’t believe in statistics. I believe in calculus.

People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO. In the rest of this chapter, I offer some lessons on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.

… I follow the first principle of the Bushido—the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions. Similarly, if a CEO keeps the following lessons in mind, she will maintain the proper focus when hiring, training , and building her culture.

It’s interesting to me that the skill that stands out to Horowitz is one that we can use to teach how to think and one Tyler Cowen feels is in short supply. Cowen says:

The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.

Sensemaking as a Complement to Default Thinking

Most of the time we devise strategies in the default mode of problem solving, prioritizing maximum growth and profit through rational and logical analysis. But we already know that rational and logical analysis doesn’t always result in the best decisions.

In The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen write:

The ideal is to turn strategy work into a rigorous discipline with the use of deductive logic, a well-structured hypothesis, and a thorough collection of evidence and data. Such problem solving has dominated most research and teaching in business schools over the last decades and has formed the guiding principles of many global management consultancies. Slowly but steadily, this mind-set has gained dominance in business culture over the last thirty years. Today it is the unspoken default tool for solving all problems.

This mindset is almost scientific in the quest for precision.

… learn from past examples to create a hypothesis you can test with numbers. As it uses inductive reasoning for its foundation, it is enormously successful at analyzing information extrapolated from a known set of data from the past. Default thinking helps us create efficiencies, optimize resources, balance product portfolios, increase productivity, invest in markets with the shortest and biggest payback , cut operational complexity, and generally get more bang for the buck. In short, it works extraordinarily well when the business challenge demands an increase in the productivity of a system.

But this method often falls short. And one area where it falls short is people’s behaviour. “When it comes to cultural shifts, the use of a hypothesis based on past examples will give us a false sense of confidence, sending us astray into unknown waters with the wrong map,” the authors write.

Certain problems benefit from a linear and rational approach, while other, less straightforward challenges—navigating in a fog—benefit from the problem solving utilized in the human sciences like philosophy, history, the arts, and anthropology. We call this problem-solving method sensemaking.

Sensemaking is really about finding how things are experienced through culture.

The hard sciences involving mathematics and universal laws tell us the way things are and tend to take the main spotlight when we discuss our understanding of the world. This tendency is so common, we often disregard the wide range of sciences that are used to shed light on other phenomena, or the way things are experienced in culture. If default thinking shows us what exists in the foreground (e.g., “we are losing our market share in competitive athletic apparel”), the human sciences investigate the invisible background— the layered nuance behind what we perceive (e.g., “well -being, not competition , is the main motivating factor for many people participating in sports”).

How we experience the world may be as important as, or more important than the hard, objective facts about the world. This is especially true for the specific set of problems where past data or scenarios no longer seem relevant.

Default thinking and sensemaking are complementary tools.

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another.

But we tend to see leadership more in the default thinking way, which makes perfect sense. Who doesn’t want to be hypothesis driven, quantitative, and linear in their approach to solving problems? Most of these things are visible, which has an added benefit too. But if this is the only tool in our toolbox we’re going to fall short.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

It was perfectly rational, yet wrong, for the steel companies in The Innovator’s Dilemma to cede low-margin market share to the mini-mills. This is the decision we’d all make if we look at it through the lens of finance and default thinking. In my interview with Forbes last year, I elaborated on this concept as well with the example of a textile company. It’s only when you approach problems through different lenses that you can solve them.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems goes on to explain how humanities help solved some of our toughest business problems.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

"It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right." — Molière

“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.” — Molière

“Why is it so fun to be right?”

That’s the opening line from Kathryn Schulz’ excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

As pleasures go, it is, after all, a second-order one at best. Unlike many of life’s other delights—chocolate, surfing, kissing—it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts. And yet, the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating.

While we take pleasure in being right, we take as much, if not more, in feeling we are right.

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.

Schulz argues this makes sense. We’re right most of the time and in these moments we affirm “our sense of being smart.” But Being Wrong is about … well being wrong.

If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state, you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre—an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed.

In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy. This set of associations was nicely summed up by the Italian cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, who noted that we err because of (among other things) “inattention, distraction, lack of interest, poor preparation, genuine stupidity, timidity, braggadocio, emotional imbalance,…ideological, racial, social or chauvinistic prejudices, as well as aggressive or prevaricatory instincts.” In this rather despairing view—and it is the common one—our errors are evidence of our gravest social, intellectual, and moral failings.

But of all the things we are wrong about, “this idea of error might well top the list.”

It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.

“As with dying,” Schulz pens, “we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us.”

Being wrong is something we have a hard time culturally admitting.

As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it can provide. Instead, what we have mastered are two alternatives to admitting our mistakes that serve to highlight exactly how bad we are at doing so. The first involves a small but strategic addendum: “I was wrong, but…”—a blank we then fill in with wonderfully imaginative explanations for why we weren’t so wrong after all. The second (infamously deployed by, among others, Richard Nixon regarding Watergate and Ronald Reagan regarding the Iran-Contra affair) is even more telling: we say, “mistakes were made.” As that evergreen locution so concisely demonstrates, all we really know how to do with our errors is not acknowledge them as our own.

Being wrong feels a lot like being right.

This is the problem of error-blindness. Whatever falsehoods each of us currently believes are necessarily invisible to us. Think about the telling fact that error literally doesn’t exist in the first person present tense: the sentence “I am wrong” describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say “I was wrong.” Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Error: we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.

Error-blindness goes some way toward explaining our persistent difficulty with imagining that we could be wrong. It’s easy to ascribe this difficulty to various psychological factors—arrogance, insecurity, and so forth—and these plainly play a role. But error-blindness suggests that another, more structural issue might be at work as well. If it is literally impossible to feel wrong—if our current mistakes remain imperceptible to us even when we scrutinize our innermost being for signs of them—then it makes sense for us to conclude that we are right.

If our current mistakes are necessarily invisible to us, our past errors have an oddly slippery status as well. Generally speaking, they are either impossible to remember or impossible to forget. This wouldn’t be particularly strange if we consistently forgot our trivial mistakes and consistently remembered the momentous ones, but the situation isn’t quite that simple.

It’s hard to say which is stranger: the complete amnesia for the massive error, or the perfect recall for the trivial one. On the whole, though, our ability to forget our mistakes seems keener than our ability to remember them.

Part of what’s going on here is, in essence, a database-design flaw. Most of us don’t have a mental category called “Mistakes I Have Made.”

Like our inability to say “I was wrong,” this lack of a category called “error” is a communal as well as an individual problem. As someone who tried to review the literature on wrongness, I can tell you that, first, it is vast; and, second, almost none of it is filed under classifications having anything to do with error. Instead, it is distributed across an extremely diverse set of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics, law, medicine, technology, neuroscience, political science, and the history of science, to name just a few. So too with the errors in our own lives. We file them under a range of headings—“embarrassing moments,” “lessons I’ve learned,” “stuff I used to believe”—but very seldom does an event live inside us with the simple designation “wrong.”

This category problem is only one reason why our past mistakes can be so elusive. Another is that (as we’ll see in more detail later) realizing that we are wrong about a belief almost always involves acquiring a replacement belief at the same time: something else instantly becomes the new right.

What with error-blindness, our amnesia for our mistakes, the lack of a category called “error,” and our tendency to instantly overwrite rejected beliefs, it’s no wonder we have so much trouble accepting that wrongness is a part of who we are. Because we don’t experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, wrongness always seems to come at us from left field—that is, from outside ourselves. But the reality could hardly be more different. Error is the ultimate inside job.

For us to learn from error, we have to see it differently. The goal of Being Wrong then is “to foster an intimacy with our own fallibility, to expand our vocabulary for and interest in talking about our mistakes, and to linger for a while inside the normally elusive and ephemeral experience of being wrong.”

How Using a Decision Journal can Help you Make Better Decisions

"Odds are you’re going to discover two things right away. First, you’re right a lot of the time. Second, it’s often for the wrong reasons."

“Odds are you’re going to discover two things. First, you’re right a lot of the time. Second, it’s often for the wrong reasons.”


We’ve talked quite a bit about decision journals and the one question I get asked more than any other is what should my decision journal look like?

After all, in most knowledge organizations, your product is decisions: you should care enormously whether you’re making good ones or bad ones. “There ought to be something that is the equivalent to the quality control you can find in manufacturing.”

We know that a good decision process matters more than analysis by a factor of six. A process or framework for making decisions, however, is only one part of an overall approach to making better decisions.

The way to test the quality of your decisions, whether individually or organizationally, is by testing the process by which they are made. And one way to do that is to use a decision journal.

Conceptually this is pretty easy but it requires some discipline and humility to implement and maintain. In consulting with various organizations on how to make better decisions I’ve seen everything from people who take great strides to improve their decision making to people who doctor decision journals for optics over substance.

“The idea,” says Michael Mauboussin, “is whenever you are making a consequential decision, write down what you decided, why you decided as you did, what you expect to happen, and if you’re so inclined, how you feel mentally and physically.”

Whenever you’re making a consequential decision either individually or as part of a group you take a moment and write down:

  1. The situation or context;
  2. The problem statement or frame;
  3. The variables that govern the situation;
  4. The complications or complexity as you see it;
  5. Alternatives that were seriously considered and why they were not chosen; (think: the work required to have an opinion).
  6. A paragraph explaining the range of outcomes
  7. A paragraph explaining what you expect to happen and, importantly, the reasoning and actual probabilities you assign to each. (The degree of confidence matters, a lot.)
  8. Time of day the decision was made and how you feel physically and mentally (if you’re tired, for example, write it down.)

Of course, this can be tailored to the situation and context. Specific decisions might include tradeoffs, weighting criteria, or other relevant factors.

One point, worth noting, is not to spend too much time on the brief and obvious insight. Often these first thoughts are system one, not system two. Any decision you’re journaling is inherently complex (and may involve non-linear systems). In such a world small effects can cause disproportionate responses whereas bigger ones can have no impact. Remember that causality is complex, especially in complex domains.

Review
One tip I’ve learned from helping organizations implement this is that there are two common ways people wiggle out of their own decision: hindsight bias and jargon.

I know we live in an age of computers but you simply must do this by hand because that will help reduce the odds of hindsight bias. It’s easy to look at a print-out and say, I didn’t see it that way. It’s a lot harder to look at your own writing and say the same thing.

Another thing to avoid is vague and ambiguous wording. If you’re talking in abstractions and fog, you’re not ready to make a decision, and you’ll find it easy to change the definitions to suit new information. This is where writing down the probabilities as you see them comes into play.

These journals should be reviewed on a regular basis—every six months or so. The review is an important part of the process. This is where you can get better. Realizing where you make mistakes, how you make them, what types of decisions you’re bad at, etc. will help you make better decisions if you’re rational enough. This is also where a coach can help. If you share your journal with someone, they can review it with you and help identify areas for improvement.

And keep in mind it’s not all about outcome. You might have made the right decision (which, in our sense means a good process) and had a bad outcome. We call that a bad break.

Odds are you’re going to discover two things right away. First, you’re right a lot of the time. Second, it’s often for the wrong reasons.

This can be somewhat humbling.

Let’s say you buy a stock and it goes up, but it goes up for reasons that are not the same as the ones you thought. You’re probably thinking high-fives all around right? But in a very real sense you were wrong. This feedback is incredibly important.

If you let it, the information provided by this journal will help identify cases where you think you know more than you do but in fact you’re operating outside your circle of competence.

It will also show you how your views change over time, when you tend to make better decisions, and how serious the deliberations were.

How To Think

chess

Sebastian Garcia made a mistake but he couldn’t figure it out. At the 2011 National Junior High Chess Championship he was looking strong and heading towards a victory. Then he made a mistake, squandering his advantage. A few moves later the collapse was complete. Sebastian shook hands with the boy who had beaten him and walked back to Union B, the conference room down the hall. Union B was the makeshift home for his chess team from Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn.

Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher, was waiting. It was customary to come back to the room for a postmortem. Sebastian, feeling sorry for himself, slouched into the room, his head held low, and approached Spiegel. “I lost,” he announced.

“Tell me about your game,” Spiegel said. Sebastian flopped into the chair and handed her his notepad, where he’d recorded all the moves for both players in the game.

Sebastian explained that the other guy was simply better. “He had good skills,” he said. “Good strategies.”

And this is the point where many of us would simply say something along the lines of “did you do your best?,” in which case the likely response is “Yes.” Everyone is at least let off the hook. The teacher for ensuring students try their best, the student for having lost to someone better. Spiegel did not take this approach.

“Well, let’s see,” said Spiegel as she started to re-create the game on a chess board. At one point Sebastian fell into a trap. His opponent quickly pounced and took a pawn just four moves into the game. He was already down a piece.

Spiegel looked at him. “How long did you spend on that move,” she asked.

“Two seconds.”

Spiegel’s face tensed. “We did not bring you here so that you could spend two seconds on a move,” she said with an edge in her voice. In the face of this obvious challenge to what he did, Sebastian looked down. “Sebastian!” He looked up. “This is pathetic. If you continue to play like this, I’m going to withdraw you from the tournament, and you can just sit here with your head down for the rest of the weekend. Two seconds is not slow enough.”

Her voice grew more understanding. “Look, if you make a mistake, that’s okay. But you do something without even thinking about it? That’s not okay. I’m very, very, very upset to be seeing such a careless and thoughtless game.”

Then the storm passed. Spiegel resumed moving pieces and examining the game. She pointed out his good moves. “Very clever,” she said when he took the knight. As the game progressed, Spiegel praised his good ideas and asked him to come up with alternatives to others. “You were playing in some ways an excellent game,” she told him, “and then once in a while you moved superfast and you did something really stupid. If you can stop doing that, you’re going to do very, very well.”

By the thirty-fifth move Sebastian recovered completely from his early errors. The position on the board favored him. He pushed his queen forward, checking the white king. His opponent countered, drawing a pawn up to block the path. Sebastian moved his queen ahead: check. His opponent moved his king one square, out of the queen’s range.

Rather than keep the pressure on, Sebastian went for an easy score: taking a white pawn with his queen. But in this move he had missed the threat. On the other side of the board, his opponent took his bishop and Sebastian’s advantage started to slip away.

“You took the pawn?” Spiegel asked. “Come on. What’s a better move?”

Sebastian didn’t answer.

“What about check?” Spiegel suggested. Sebastian stared at the board evaluating the move.

“Think about it,” Spiegel said. “Remember, when I ask you a question, you don’t have to answer right away. But you do have to be right.”

Suddenly a light went on his head. “I could win the queen,” he said.

Spiegel looked at him and said “Show me.”

Sebastian made the moves, understanding how one more check would have saved his bishop and sealed the game.

“This is the thing,” Spiegel said, moving the pieces back to the point where they were when Sebastian had gone for the easy pawn. “Think back on this moment. When you made this move”— she captured the white pawn, as Sebastian had done—“ you lost the game. If you had made this move”— she put the white king in check—“ you would have won the game.” She leaned back in her chair, her gaze fixed on Sebastian. “It’s okay if the loss hurts you a little,” she said. “You should feel bad. You’re a talented player, but you have to slow down and think more. Because now you have”— she checked her watch—“ four hours until the next game, which means that you have four hours to think about the fact that you got beat by this kid.” She tapped the board. “All because of this one time when you could have slowed down but you didn’t.”

* * *

A version of that story appears in Paul Tough’s incredible book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Spiegel’s story is straight out of Hollywood — inner-city teacher and low-income students, against all odds beating the pants off private school students. Often when you look into these stories you find an asterisk. But in this case Tough “couldn’t find one.”

Take a look at this tournament, held only a few months before the tournament that Sebastian Garcia was playing in:

Kindergarten Oak Hall School, a private school in Gainesville, Florida
First grade SciCore Academy, a private school in New Jersey
Second grade Dalton School, a private school in New York City
Third grade Hunter College Elementary, an exam school in New York City
Fourth grade Tie between SciCore Academy and Stuart Hall School for Boys, a Catholic school in New Orleans
Fifth grade Regnart Elementary, a public school in Cupertino, California, home of Apple and dozens of software companies
Ninth grade San Benito Veterans Memorial Academy, in southern Texas, a public school whose student body is mostly Hispanic and low income
Tenth grade Horace Mann, a private school in New York City
Eleventh grade Solomon Schechter, a private school in a New York City suburb
Twelfth grade Bronx Science, an exam school in New York City

With the exception of Grade nine, the winning team , “came from a private school, an exam school, a parochial school, or a public school populated by the children of Apple engineers,” Tough writes.

Except, that is, for middle school grades, the space where Elizabeth Spiegel teaches.

Sixth grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn
Seventh grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn
Eighth grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn

These students didn’t win just one grade, they won every grade they entered. “The roster of schools they beat,” Tough writes, “reads like a wealthy parent’s wish list of the most desirable private schools in the country: Trinity, Collegiate, Spence, Dalton, and Horace Mann in New York City, and exclusive private schools in Boston, Miami, and Greenwich, Connecticut.”

The chess program at IS 318 is one of the best in the country. But why?

…they win tournaments because of what Elizabeth Spiegel was sitting in Union B doing that April afternoon: taking eleven-year-old kids, like Sebastian Garcia, who know a little chess but not a lot, and turning them, move by painstaking move, into champions.

“Most of the major academic studies of chess miss much that is essential to the way that chess-player thinks and feels,” Jonathan Rowson wrote in his book The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. “They are guilty of thinking of chess as an almost exclusively cognitive pursuit, where moves are chosen and positions understood only on the basis of mental patterns and inferences.” In reality, he wrote, if you want to become a great chess player, or even a good one, “your ability to recognize and utilize your emotions is every bit as important as the way you think.”

Most of us probably think that Spiegel was teaching the kids chess. Of course she often passed along specific chess knowledge: how to weigh the comparative value of moves, etc. “But most of the time,” Tough writes, “it struck me whenever I watched (Elizabeth Spiegel) at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think.”

Two of the most important executive functions are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one. Both skills are central to the training Spiegel gives to her students. To prevail at chess, she says, you need a heightened ability to see new and different ideas: Which especially creative winning move have you overlooked? And which potentially lethal move of your opponent’s are you blindly ignoring? She also teaches them to resist the temptation to pursue an immediately attractive move, since that type of move (as Sebastian Garcia found out) often leads to trouble down the road. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”

Before she was a a full-time chess teacher, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class. She taught them the same way she taught Sebastian: ruthlessly analyzing everything.

When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.”

Although her teaching style might not have been the right fit for English, this helped her better understand how to teach chess. Rather than follow a set curriculum, she decided to construct her calendar as she went, focusing “entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know.”

For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces , meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.

Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

Calibrated Meanness

At the heart of Spiegel’s job was a complex balancing act. She wanted to build up her students’ confidence, to make them believe in their own ability to overcome stronger rivals and master an impossibly complicated game. But the exigencies of her job— and the particularities of her personality— meant that she spent most of her time telling her students how they were messing up. It’s the basic narrative of all postgame chess analysis, in fact: You thought you had a good idea here, but you were wrong.

“I struggle with it all the time,” she told me one day when I visited her class. “Every day. It’s very high on my list of anxieties as a teacher. I feel like I’m very mean to the kids. It kills me sometimes, like I go home and I play through everything I said to every kid and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m damaging the children.’”

After the 2010 girls’ national tournament (which IS 318 won), Spiegel wrote on her blog:

The first day and a half was pretty bad. I was on a complete rampage, going over every game and being a huge bitch all the time: saying things like “THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE!!!” to 11-year-olds for hanging pieces or not having a reason for a move. I said some amazing things to kids, including “You can count to two, right? Then you should have seen that!!” and “If you are not going to pay more attention, you should quit chess, because you are wasting everyone’s time.” By the end of round three I was starting to feel like an abusive jerk and was about to give up and be fake nice instead. But then in round four everyone took more than an hour and started playing well. And I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.

Slowing down, examining impulses, and considering alternatives sounds reasonable but it’s “quite rare in contemporary American Schools.”

If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths David Levin and Dominic Randolph emphasized and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is an amazing book. Highly recommended.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

susan cain

“A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty -five pages to the dissection of a small boy’s feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight.… Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.” — Allen Shawn

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain looks at how our lives are shaped by personality. Specifically she explores how where we land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum influences our choices, friends, conversations, careers, success, and even love. “It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

It’s also one of the most exhaustively researched subjects. It’s not just scientists who’ve contemplated this, they are a rather recent addition. Poets and Philosophers have been “thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time.”

[T]oday we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts— which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts— in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.

Surprising? That’s because most introverts, like myself, pretend to be extroverts. I’m what you call a “closet introvert.”

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal— the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual— the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.”

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

The extrovert ideal is alive and well.

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking , more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.

But, like anything, it’s a mistake to embrace this ideal without thinking. Without introverts, we wouldn’t have: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell’s 1984, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Schindler’s List, E.T., Google, Harry Potter, or Farnam Street.

In How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc^2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Cain argues that it is not in spite of introversion that people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi and Rosa Parks achieve what they do, but, in part, because of it.

As society moves unconsciously toward an extroverted world—one of open offices, team everything, and organizations that value “people skills” above competence—introverts will have to adjust. But things like creativity and “innovation” will suffer.

If you’re an introvert:

you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

After taking my MBTI, one of my professors defined introversion as “where you get your energy.” If you’re extroverted you get energy from being around people, and if you’re introverted you get it from being alone. But is there more to it than that? What exactly does it mean to say someone is introverted?

In 1921, psychologist Carl Jung had published a book, Psychological Types, that popularized the terms introvert and extrovert as the foundation of personality.

Discussing Jung’s work, Cain writes:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

The MBTI is based on Jung’s work. But, you should know, there is no consensus on any of this. There are “almost as many definitions of introverts and extroverts as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate.”

Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle , or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

(Introverts) prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

Whenever I tell someone I’m introverted the first thing they inevitably say is “you can’t be an introvert. You’re not shy.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

The bus to Abilene
Here is one particularly amusing anecdote from the book: The bus to Abilene. And this applies to everything from meetings to how we make decisions.

A well-known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident—the very ones who would be considered natural leaders in an HBS classroom.

The U.S. Army has a name for a similar phenomenon: “the Bus to Abilene.” “Any army officer can tell you what that means,” Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral sciences at the U.S. Army War College, told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008. “It’s about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go— I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re all getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our culture.”

The “Bus to Abilene” anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action.

Innovation
A lot of organizations want to encourage innovation with “positive” action. They hold up Google, Twitter, and Kickstarter as models of innovation. In a well-meaning attempt to encourage innovation they inevitably come up with a process that relies on presentation skills to sift ideas.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explores what happens when companies rely too heavily on presentation skills to sift ideas. “He describes a software company called Rite-Solutions,” Cain writes summarizing his work, “that successfully asks employees to share ideas through an online ‘idea market,’ as a way of focusing on substance rather than style.”

(In Quiet Cain describes the company) Joe Marino, president of Rite-Solutions, and Jim Lavoie, CEO of the company, created this system as a reaction to problems they’d experienced elsewhere. “In my old company,” Lavoie told Berns, “if you had a great idea, we would tell you , ‘OK, we’ll make an appointment for you to address the murder board’ ”— a group of people charged with vetting new ideas. Marino described what happened next:

(Cain quoting: Iconoclast) Some technical guy comes in with a good idea. Of course questions are asked of that person that they don’t know. Like, “How big’s the market? What’s your marketing approach? What’s your business plan for this? What’s the product going to cost?” It’s embarrassing. Most people can’t answer those kinds of questions. The people who made it through these boards were not the people with the best ideas. They were the best presenters.

In his memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Steve Wozniak writes:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Of course introverts are not necessarily more creative. The most creative or innovative people tend to ask questions, display a healthy disrespect for authority, a natural irreverence, and a stubborn streak. This suggests they may not work well as part of a team.

In explaining why introverts have a creative advantage, Cain writes:

[T]here’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

In the end, creativity and innovation in organizations is about accepting and even encouraging differences. I’d caution organizations not to move too far towards the extroversion end of the spectrum (open offices, everything done in teams, promoting based on social skills above competence) without giving consideration to the effects that may have on some of your most creative people. A lot of things are better done by individuals than teams. It’s ok to have offices. It’s ok to have quiet. It doesn’t work for everyone but it works for some of your best and possibly most misunderstood employees.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is an interesting look at how letting the extrovert ideal run wild is a bad idea for creativity, decision making, and cognitive diversity.

Daniel Kahneman’s Favorite Approach For Making Better Decisions

Bob Sutton’s new book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, contains an interesting section towards the end on looking back from the future, which talks about “a mind trick that goads and guides people to act on what they know and, in turn, amplifies their odds of success.”

We build on Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s favorite approach for making better decisions. This may sound weird, but it’s a form of imaginary time travel.

It’s called the premortem. And, while it may be Kahneman’s favorite, he didn’t come up with it. A fellow by the name of Gary Klein invented the premortem technique.

A premortem works something like this. When you’re on the verge of making a decision, not just any decision but a big decision, you call a meeting. At the meeting you ask each member of your team to imagine that it’s a year later.

Split them into two groups. Have one group imagine that the effort was an unmitigated disaster. Have the other pretend it was a roaring success. Ask each member to work independently and generate reasons, or better yet, write a story, about why the success or failure occurred. Instruct them to be as detailed as possible, and, as Klein emphasizes, to identify causes that they wouldn’t usually mention “for fear of being impolite.” Next, have each person in the “failure” group read their list or story aloud, and record and collate the reasons. Repeat this process with the “success” group. Finally use the reasons from both groups to strengthen your … plan. If you uncover overwhelming and impassible roadblocks, then go back to the drawing board.

Premortems encourage people to use “prospective hindsight,” or, more accurately, to talk in “future perfect tense.” Instead of thinking, “we will devote the next six months to implementing a new HR software initiative,” for example, we travel to the future and think “we have devoted six months to implementing a new HR software package.”

You imagine that a concrete success or failure has occurred and look “back from the future” to tell a story about the causes.

Pretending that a success or failure has already occurred—and looking back and inventing the details of why it happened—seems almost absurdly simple. Yet renowned scholars including Kahneman, Klein, and Karl Weick supply compelling logic and evidence that this approach generates better decisions, predictions, and plans. Their work suggests several reasons why. …

1. This approach helps people overcome blind spots.

As … upcoming events become more distant, people develop more grandiose and vague plans and overlook the nitty-gritty daily details required to achieve their long-term goals.

2. This approach helps people bridge short-term and long-term thinking

Weick argues that this shift is effective, in part, because it is far easier to imagine the detailed causes of a single outcome than to imagine multiple outcomes and try to explain why each may have occurred. Beyond that, analyzing a single event as if it has already occurred rather than pretending it might occur makes it seem more concrete and likely to actually happen, which motivates people to devote more attention to explaining it.

3. Looking back dampens excessive optimism.

As Kahneman and other researchers show, most people overestimate the chances that good things will happen to them and underestimate the odds that they will face failures, delays, and setbacks. Kahneman adds that “in general, organizations really don’t like pessimists” and that when naysayers raise risks and drawbacks, they are viewed as “almost disloyal.”

Max Bazerman, a Harvard professor, believes that we’re less prone to irrational optimism when we predict the fate of projects that are not our own. For example, when it comes to friends’ home renovation projects, most people estimate the costs will run 25 to 50 percent over budget. When it comes to our projects however, they will be “completed on time and near the project costs.”

4. A premortem challenges the illusion of consensus.
Most times not everyone on a team agrees with the course of action. Even when you have enough cognitive diversity in the room, people still keep their mouths shut because people in power tend to reward people who agree with them while punishing those who have the courage to speak up with a dissenting view.

The resulting corrosive conformity is evident when people don’t raise private doubts, known risks, and inconvenient facts. In contrast, as Klein explains, a premortem can create a competition where members feel accountable for raising obstacles that others haven’t. “The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.”