The Last Thing We Need Right Now is a Vision Statement

elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mortality Paradox

conversations with DFW

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

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

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

***

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

Miracle Grow for Your Brain

spark

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

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

This is your brain on exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reasons We Deny Luck

how to get lucky

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

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

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

In How to Get Lucky, Max Gunther explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Techniques to Improve Your Luck

Luck

It isn’t enough to be good. You need luck.

We tend to think that smart people make good decisions and stupid people make bad decisions and that luck plays very little role. That is until we’re one of those smart people who has a bad outcome because of luck.

You can’t ignore luck and you really can’t plan for it. Yet much of life is the combination, to varying degrees, of skill and luck. This continuum is also what makes watching sports fun. The most talented team doesn’t always win, luck plays a role.

However elusive, luck is something that we can cultivate. While we can’t control it, we can improve it. In How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life’s good breaks, Max Gunther shows us how.

It turns out that lucky people characteristically organize their lives in such a way that they are in position to experience good luck and to avoid bad luck.

Technique 1: Acknowledge The Role of Luck

When losers lose, they blame luck. When winners win, it’s because they were smart.

Via How to Get Lucky:

If you want to be a winner, you must stay keenly aware of the role luck plays in your life. When a desired outcome is brought about by luck, you must acknowledge that fact. Don’t try to tell yourself the outcome came about because you were smart. Never confuse luck with planning. If you do that, you all but guarantee that your luck, in the long run, will be bad.

When you see that luck plays a role, you’re more likely to be aware that the situation can change. You don’t expect things to continue, no that’s for the people who don’t acknowledge the role of luck because they mix up planning and luck.

Via How to Get Lucky:

The process begins when a good result occurs once or a few times. The loser studies it, ascribes it to planning, and concludes that the same planning will produce the same result in the future. And the loser loses again.

The lucky personality avoids getting trapped in that way. This isn’t to say he or she avoids taking risks. Quite the contrary, as we will see later. What it does mean is that the lucky personality, entering a situation and perceiving it to be ruled or heavily influenced by luck, deliberately stays light-footed, ready to jump this way or that as events unfold.

[…]

Planning may be more important than luck in much of what you do. The trick is to know what kind of situation you are in at any given time. Can you rely on your own or others’ planning, or will the outcome be determined by luck?

Technique 2: Find the Fast Flow

The idea here is to be where things are happening and surround yourself with a lot of people and interactions. The theory being that if you’re a hermit, nothing will ever happen.

Via How to Get Lucky:

The lucky personality gets to know everybody in sight: the rich and the poor, the famous, the humble, the sociable and even the friendless and the cranky.

When you meet these people, use these tips to quickly build rapport.

You never want to become isolated. Make contact with people and get involved. Never sit on the sidelines.

Via How to Get Lucky:

Eric Wachtel, a New York management consultant and executive recruiter, has watched literally hundreds of men and women climbing career ladders. In his observation, people who get dead-ended are very often people who allow themselves to become isolated.

… The worst thing you can do is withdraw from the network of friendships and acquaintanceships at home and at work. If you aren’t in the network, nobody is ever going to steer anything your way.”

People make things happen. Not necessarily friends, just contacts. But for this to happen people need to know what you’re trying to do – or where you want to go. Few things make us happier than helping others with lucky breaks.

In the words of Eric Wachtel, the consultant recruiter mentioned above: “It really is very pleasant to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, Charlie, there’s a job opening that sounds as if it might be your kind of thing.’”

Via How to Get Lucky:

Consistently lucky people are nearly always to be found in the fast flow. I never met one who was a recluse or even reclusive.

Technique 3: Risk Spooning

You have to invite things to happen. This means you have to stick your neck out.

Via How to Get Lucky:

There are two ways to be an almost sure loser in life. One is to take goofy risks; that is, risks that are out of proportion to the rewards being sought. And the other is to take no risks at all. Lucky people characteristically avoid both extremes. They cultivate the technique of taking risks in carefully measured spoonfuls.

Here is what generally happens in life. Some person sticks their neck out and the speculation pays off. They become rich and famous. Newspapers interview the person, asking them “how can we do the same thing you did?” And the newfound sage replies not that he got lucky, no, but rather that he was smart and hard working and those sorts of things. And we eat this stuff up.

In part this is because culturally we hate the gambler. Largely because we don’t like that we can’t take risks ourselves. The gambler represents what we are not. It’s this motivated reasoning that makes it easy to find ways to dislike him.

Via How to Get Lucky:

It is essential to take risks. Examine the life of any lucky man or woman, and you are all but certain to find that he or she was willing, at some point, to take a risk. Without that willingness, hardly anything interesting is likely to happen to you.

[…]

[T]he need to take risks extends into all areas of life. Falling in love, for instance. If you want to experience the joys of such a relationship, you must be willing to take the possible hurts, too. You must be willing to make an emotional commitment that has the capacity to wound you. But it is exactly like playing a lottery: If you don’t bet, you are not in position to win.

Risk — smart risk — is a key element to getting lucky. Going to the track and betting on the 99-1 payoff is just stupid.

Technique 4: Run Cutting

“Don’t push your luck.” My parents used to repeat that ancient maxim after I scored a 30-minute curfew extension and rather than be happy with that, I tried to push it longer.

Via How to Get Lucky:

As nearly all lucky people realize instinctively or learn through experience, runs of luck always end sooner than you wish. Sometimes they are long runs; much more often they are short. Since you can never tell in advance when a given run is going to end, the only sensible thing to do is preserve your gains by jumping off early in the game. Always assume the run is going to be short. Never try to ride a run to its very peak. Don’t push your luck.

The key here is to always assume that you’re in the average case.

Via How to Get Lucky:

The simplest way to illustrate this is to calculate the mathematics of probability in tossing a coin. If you toss it 1,024 times, the odds are there will be one long run in which heads comes up nine times in a row. But there will be thirty-two short runs in which heads comes up four times in a row. Which is the way to bet?

On the short runs, of course.

[…]

Always cut runs short. Sure, there will be times when you regret doing this. A run will continue without you, and you will be left enviously watching all the happy players who stayed aboard. But statistically, such gloomy outcomes are not likely to happen often.

One of the problems is that long runs of luck are available.

Via How to Get Lucky:

One problem is that long, high runs of luck make news and get talked about. If you go to a racetrack and have a so-so day, you will forget it quickly. But if you have one of those days when every horse runs for your benefit, you will undoubtedly bore your friends with the story for a long time. We hear more about big wins than about the vastly more common little wins. This can delude us into thinking the big wins are more attainable than they really are. We think: “Well, if all these stories are true, maybe there’s a big win waiting out there for me.”

Casinos publicize big wins that are usually the result of long runs of luck. They do this for two reasons. First, it’s a good story and we think that we can win more than we actually can. Second, it encourages people who are winning, to keep those bets riding so they can be one of the big winners. Of course, the odds are with the casino so the longer you play the more likely luck goes to odds. And the odds favor the house.

We never know how long luck will last but we do know that short runs of luck are much more common than long runs of luck.

Technique 5: Luck Selection

At what point should you “cut your losses?”

Via How to Get Lucky:

As you enter any new venture – an investment, a job, a love affair – you cannot know how it will work out. No matter how carefully you lay your plans, you cannot know how those plans will be affected by the unforeseeable and uncontrollable events that we call luck. If the luck is good, then you stay with the venture and enjoy it. But what if the luck is bad? What if the bottom drops out of the stock market? Or the seemingly limitless promise of that new job vanishes in a corporate upheaval? Or your love affair sours when a rival suddenly appears?

The lucky reaction is to wait a short time and see if the problems can be fixed or will go away, and then, if the answer is no, bail out. Cut losses short. This is what lucky people habitually do. To put it another way, they have the ability to select their own luck. Hit with bad luck, they discard it, freeing themselves to seek better luck in another venture.

The inability to cut losses is one of the traits of the born loser according to psychiatrists Stanley Block and Samuel Correnti in their book Psyche, Sex, and Stocks.

Sunk costs are hard to overcome, in part because it often involves confessing that you were wrong.

Via How to Get Lucky:

It is hard because it requires a kind of pessimism, or unsentimental realism, that doesn’t come naturally to many. What makes it still harder is that there are times when, in retrospect, you wish you hadn’t applied it.

How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life’s good breaks goes on to explore 7 other techniques to cultivate your luck.

A Few Lessons

shane

Looking back on my first years out of school and the countless mistakes I made, I can’t help but feel that any success I’ve enjoyed is more through dumb luck than any particular brilliance on my part.

Through Farnam Street, I detail my journey of self-discovery and learning. Basically, I explore two things in parallel:

First is the enduring search for how we should live and what it means to live a good life. And second, more practically, I explore things we can learn and connect that better equip us to solve problems by thinking.

While unqualified, I’m often asked to give advice to young people who are just beginning their own journey of self-discovery. With that disclaimer, let me share a few things that I’ve learned in the hopes that these help you navigate your journey.

1. Learn to say “I don’t know.”
Being caught without an opinion on something can be the kiss of death for the modern knowledge worker. This fosters an environment where we borrow our opinions from others without doing the necessary thinking.

And to make matters worse, once blurted out, we feel the need to defend these borrowed opinions because we don’t want to appear inconsistent. So we end up defending a superficial opinion based on the thoughts of others all because we couldn’t say three simple words: “I don’t know.”

2. Learn the difficult skill of changing your mind.
When was the last time you changed your mind on something? If you’re honest, it was probably a long time ago. We tend to accumulate knowledge and assume, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that we are right.

The point here is to re-examine your conclusions and attitudes. When someone has a better one, adopt it. Seek evidence that contradicts what you think and try to explain it.

3. Your reputation for helping others is the most important thing.
Harry Truman had a saying that resonates a lot with me: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The thirst for credit fuels our ego. When culturally reinforced, this leads to predictably disastrous outcomes. Ego often prevents us from being as generous as we would like. It causes us to show how smart we are by making others look bad rather than making them look good.

Ego causes us to withhold information. And so on. When your ego gets too big, people won’t want to work with you. Help others achieve their goals and you’ll be amazed at the places you’ll go.

4. Knowing what to avoid is often more valuable than knowing what you think you want.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is invert the problem. It’s often as helpful to know what you want to avoid as what you want. Things that ruin lives tend to be predictable over time.

Avoid debt or leverage as well as over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. But there are some less obvious things to avoid.

For instance, when you start out in the workforce you’re looking for a cool place to work, but the person you work for is important, too.

Generally you want to work with people who have three traits: intelligence, energy and integrity. Avoid at all costs the seductive allure of smart people that lack integrity.

5. Mistakes.
Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. Learn to recognize mistakes and correct them. (see #2.)

6. Goal-orientated people mostly fail.
Goal-oriented people mostly fail. What you really want is a system that increases your odds of success. Even if that system only improves the odds a little it adds up over a long life.

7. Friendships.
Friendship is more than just being there for your friends. Being a great friend means that you let your friends be there for you.