Monthly Archives: June 2009

Cater to Your Inner-Completionist

Today while making lunch I realized that when I cut my sandwich into two halves it tastes better overall than when I eat it in one piece.

Why?

When I eat two halves of one sandwich, it feels like I am “completing” two things, not one.

It’s the same reason why we’d prefer to read two short books instead of one long book. Total number of pages read might be the same, but we feel more accomplished having completed two whole books.

It’s the same reason why breaking tasks into bits (and then checking off each bit on our to-do list) makes us feel more accomplished and energized than leaving one, big task on the to-do list, ever unchecked.

We are completionists by nature.

Sometimes this is a bad thing. Rational decision makers must ignore sunk costs. Abandon that book that stopped being interesting at page 50!

Other times the completionist instinct lets us hack our way to more pleasure with no cost, such as the halved sandwich technique.

Of course, now that you’ve read this post, upon eating your newly-halved sandwich it will be hard to separate pleasure caused by heightened completionist success versus pleasure caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Either way, you’ll feel more pleasure, and have something to think about as you eat.

Priestly Believed in Randomness and Side Projects

Joseph Priestly, the 18th century theologian, philosopher, and inventor, embraced three concepts I've written about at length:

  • He exposed himself to randomness: try more stuff than the next guy; law of large numbers; insight at the intersection of seemingly unrelated ideas.
  • He maintained side projects: hedge bets; humility around being able to predict which particular project will be the big win; stay intellectually stimulated.
  • He experimented and iterated: many little bets over few big bets; learn by doing; adapt rapidly to changing conditions.


Priestly was never one for the grand hypothesis; he rarely designed experiments specifically to test a general theory….His approach was far more inventive, even chaotic. While the experiments themselves were artfully designed, his higher-level plan for working through a sequence of experiments was less rigorous, Priestly’s mode was to get interested in a problem – conductivity, fire, air – and throw the kitchen sink at it. (Literally so, in that many of his experiments were conducted in the kitchen sink.) The method was closer to that of natural selection than abstract reasoning: new ideas came out of new juxtapositions, randomness, diversity. Priestly would later credit the emerging technology of the period – air pumps and electrostatic machines – with helping him develop his distinctive approach: “By the help of these machines,” he wrote, “we are able to put an endless variety of things into an endless variety of situations, while nature herself is the agent that shows the result.

That's from Steven Johnson's book, as dog-eared by Russell Davies.

Links from Around the Web

Much original, exciting content will grace this blog in the month of July. Meanwhile, for those of you who do not follow my delicious tags, I must dump upon you some favorite links:

Your job description, via Eric Reis: "Every person in the company has this job description: in any situation it is your responsibility, using your best judgment, to do what you think is in the best interests of the company. That's it. Everything else is only marketing."

"I'm astounded by how far one can get in life with by just (a) getting stuff done, (b) having a sense of humor and (c) being a non-asshole." – Colin Marshall

How Sarah Silverman is raping American comedy. A good analysis of her meta-bigotry: "instead of discussing race, rape, abortion, incest, or mass starvation, they parody our discussions of them. They manipulate stereotypes about stereotypes. It's a dangerous game: If you're humorless, distracted, or even just inordinately history-conscious, meta-bigotry can look suspiciously like actual bigotry."

Laura Miller on three kinds of tragedy: when you want something and don't get it, when you want something and get it, when you don't know what you want in the first place. "As tragedies go, not getting what you want is the straightforward kind, and getting it can be the ironic variety. But there is also the existential tragedy of not knowing what you want to begin with."

The brain of a baby.

Instructions for life. Some good tips.

A reflection from the woman who designed the interior of many of David Foster Wallace's books. "You are loved." I miss DFW.

Scott Adams' terrific career advice: become pretty good at a couple things, and mix your skill set together in interesting ways. This is easier than becoming exceptionally good at just one thing.

The first rule of firearms: the man who tells you he's going to shoot you unless you do X, will not shoot you. From this highly entertaining article about a man who repossesses jets.

The most reliable sign that one of your bank employees is stealing money? He doesn't take a vacation.

The song of our generation?

In favor of nuclear power.

Why Terry Tempest Williams writes. "I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Dan Baum, while interviewing Rahm Emmanuel about medical marijuana, tells Rahm, "Fuck you." Here's why.

Nerds vs. jocks. "Jockism is not about athletics per se. It’s a philosophy–of certainty vs. endless nerdish questioning; of happy conformity, vs. nerdish loner ostracisim. Jockism is suspicious of complexity, because that’s how you lose games. It’s more comfortable with what it can see, touch, feel, punch."

Ignorance is a Precious Resource

The value of what you don't know:

Little attention has been paid to ignorance as a precious resource. Unlike knowledge, which is infinitely reusable, ignorance is a one-shot deal: Once it has been displaced by knowledge, it can be hard to get back. And after it’s gone, we are more apt to follow well-worn paths to find answers than to exert our sense of what we don’t know in order to probe new options. Knowledge can stand in the way of innovation. Solved problems tend to stay solved—sometimes disastrously so.

The author goes on to recommend four ways to cultivate healthy ignorance in your organization.

Ignorance is one reason why young entrepreneurs succeed when they do — they're ignorant about how the world works so they ask dumb questions, challenge inbred assumptions, and dare the thing that age will fear.

In a post I wrote 2.5 years ago entitled How do you fall upwards? I listed three suggestions in this arena, including "cultivate the naive mind" (not as tactically useful as the above-linked article) and "spend time with children."

(hat tip to the book Chief Culture Officer which comes out in November. I will blog more about it at that time.)

Four Personality Types and Romance

In her latest piece in the Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh writes with customary brio about her infidelity and the subsequent dissolution of her marriage. Along the way she talks about the romantic compatibility of four basic personality types:

Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher [the author] posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:

The Explorer—the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Chemistry.com. Explorers made up 26 percent of the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa…. Explorer-Explorer tends to be one of the most unstable combinations, whereas Fisher suspects “most of the world’s fifty-year marriages are made by Builders who marry other Builders.”

Interesting stuff. If I had to be boxed in one of the above labels it would probably be Director. I agree that the most explosive combination (in a bad way) tends to be Explorers with Explorers.

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Elsewhere in the world of love and romance, the always-worthwhile Meghan O’Rourke reviews a new book that makes the case for passionate, obsessive love. Why subordinate passion to reason? What’s so wrong with being madly, crazily in love? The author advises: “Let go of security and embrace the radical alertness that comes with the fullness of feeling.” Hmm.

O’Rourke concludes by challenging the traditional definition of successful relationships (longevity):

Nehring’s paean to unconventional ecstasy is a bracing reminder of how narrow and orthodox our vision of love has become—and how that in turn bequeaths us a vast swathe of “unsuccessful” relationships. Most of us know more single mothers and unmarried partners than ever, yet we still think of relationships as goal-oriented, and that goal is conventional: until death do us part. Since when are longevity and frictionlessness, Nehring prompts us to ask, themselves a sign of “success”? The equitable marriage is a worthy goal, but it is hardly uncomplicated. Just consider the recent AOL Living and Woman’s Day study that showed 72 percent of women have debated leaving their husbands. Only we can judge how a relationship changes us—what new spaces open up inside ourselves, or how a turbulent encounter may enlarge our view of human nature, as it did for Heloise.

Appealing to the Classiness Aspiration of Young Men and Women

The Mexican beer Dos Equis has very popular TV ads running right now called "The Most Interesting Man in the World." Watch the 30 second ad here (viewed 800k times on YouTube!) or see the embed below.

The announcer boasts about the most interesting man in the world:

  • The police often question him just because they find him interesting.
  • His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man's entire body.
  • His blood smells like cologne.
  • He once had an awkward moment just to see how it feels.

At the end the old man — the most interesting man — says, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis."

Why does this advertisement work so well?

Seth Stevenson, at Slate, has a masterful analysis. He notes the counter-intuitive but spot-on ambivalence the man has toward the advertised product and the quirky, Wes Anderson-inspired imagery at the beginning.

His most interesting insight has to do with why a senior citizen is advertising an alcoholic beverage aimed to 20-somethings who like to go out on the weekends. Normally, beer ads have beautiful busty women circling the lucky 25 year-old clenching a Bud Light and flashing a wicked smile. The atmosphere feels like a frat party. It's obvious, right? Sex sells. The films hip young people go to are Old School, Wedding Crashers, and most recently The Hangover, right?

But this isn't the whole story when it comes to the emotional buttons of young men (and women).

The Dos Equis ad appeals to "dudes' self-conception, placing the focus on older gents who serve as models of masculinity." The Most Interesting Man wears nice clothes throughout; the women who surround him are similarly examples of elegance, no sluts here; the activities shown are not beer pong or football but sports like jai alai which have a certain high-minded eccentricity about them. Even the label "most interesting" is different than "most cool" or "most popular" — in adult-land, interestingness rules.

The ad, then, appeals to the same aspirational quality that's at work when little children play grown-up. Even into our 20's we're still modeling ourselves after elders we admire — their maturity, self-confidence, and relaxed ambition. And we know that Real Men (and women) don't binge drink on the weekends but rather enjoy a fine adult beverage while munching on cashews.

If marketers spent time on glitzy private college campuses they'd learn that drugs, sex, and alcohol are not the only considerations of the privileged young men and women who attend (and buy expensive beer and other products). If the marketers embedded themselves in Private College X they'd hear the word "classy" mentioned a lot as justification for certain activities. Rich kids like to be classy. They like to buy nicer alcohol, go to dinner parties, and dress up in fancy clothes more than you'd think from just watching Old School. Ramen noodles and a beer while watching the basketball game is not as cool as a three course meal with pricey wine to match, in many cases.

It's easy to be cynical about this phenomenon. Is being classy at this age not, at its core, simply a refined display of your parents' wealth? Is there something fucked up about a 19 year-old buying fine alcohol and dining at Beverly Hills' highest profile restaurants in pursuit of classiness, while a great number of students struggle with loans and night jobs? Sure there is.

But in some sense, who cares? A psychological soft spot ("this will help you be classy") has been identified in a lucrative target market: let's follow Dos Equis' lead and go take their money.

Best Reference Check Strategy Ever

In an excerpt from his book Hiring Smart, Pierre Mornell reveals the best reference check strategy I’ve heard of. It’s fast and tip toes around the liability issues: ask a person’s references to call you back if the person was outstanding.

Call references at what you assume will be their lunchtime–you want to reach an assistant or voice mail. If it’s voice mail, leave a simple message. If it’s an assistant, be sure that he or she understands the last sentence of your message. You say: “Jane Jones is a candidate for (the position) in our company. Your name has been given as a reference. Please call me back if the candidate was outstanding.” The results are both immediate and revealing. If the candidate is outstanding, I guarantee that people will respond quickly and want to help. Take such a response as a green light. Proceed to the next level by checking out the individual. However, if only 2 or 3 of the 10 references selected by the candidate return your call, this message is also loud and clear. And yet – No derogatory information has been shared. No libelous statements have been made. No confidences or laws have been broken.

Brilliant. Mornell also advises you to ask the candidate beforehand, “What am I likely to hear — positive and negative — when I call your references?”

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Elsewhere in the article, Mornell suggests saying “We have about five more minutes…” before closing the interview. This will prompt a last-minute, crucial disclosure or statement from the candidate:

Pay attention when the candidate says, “By the way…,” “Oh, one more thing…,” and “I almost forgot…,” which means, “This is the most important thing I’m going to say.” In my psychiatry practice, I always announced when we were coming to the end of an hour, both as the timekeeper and because I knew there was another patient in my waiting room. Men and women invariably say something that’s really important at this point, regardless of the time we’ve already spent together.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent reading:

1. The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Strategies that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker.

De Becker is a legend in the field of security and violence prevention. Hollywood stars hire him to assess threats. Companies hire him to train employees on when to trust your gut if and when you feel danger. The title of the book refers to de Becker’s claim that “true gift is a fear, unwarranted fear is a curse.” What matters is being able to tell the difference.

This is a book written for women; most of the examples have to do with male predators looking to rob, rape, or otherwise take advantage of a woman who didn’t listen to her “uh-oh” alarm. The lessons, though, are universal and I found this a valuable resource.

Methods criminals use to take advantage of victims:

  • Forced Teaming: They use the word “we” and create a “we’re in the same boat” mentality.
  • Charm and Niceness: The smile is the typical disguise used to mask emotions. Unsolicited niceness.
  • Too Many Details: When people lie they imbue their stories with too many details; lots of specificity where truth sayers would not include any.
  • Typecasting: A slight neg: “You’re probably too snobbish to talk to the likes of me.” Something that’s easily rebutted — but the predator is just looking for a response.
  • The Unsolicited Promise: “I’ll just put this stuff down and go. I promise.” Unsolicited promises are almost always of questionable motive.

Read into dark humor. Dark humor contains a truth that we often don’t want to talk about or feel embarrassed about.

A caller who wants to discharge anger over the telephone by using violent imagery (“You’ll all be blown to bits”) or who is agitated and aggressive, is not behaving like a real bomber.

If someone tries to extort you, say “I don’t understand what you’re getting at” until the extortionist states his demands very clearly. When they have to be explicit they sometimes abandon the bad idea altogether. If someone says, “You’ll be sorry” or “Don’t mess with me” respond, “What do you mean by that?”

2. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin

Some good stuff on the phenomenon of celebrity — “being known for your well-knownness” — but overall I didn’t find much here that engaged me. My favorite paragraph:

The tourist seldom likes the authentic (to him often unintelligible) product of the foreign culture; he prefers his own provincial expectations. The French chanteuse singing English with a French accent seems more charmingly French than one who simply sings in French. The American tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than for what is Japanesey.

A funny dialogue:

Admiring friend: “My, that’s a beautiful baby you have there!”

Mother: “Oh, that’s nothing — you should see his photograph!”

4. The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith

Collection of fictional character portraits by various contributing writers. Only so-so, but I enjoyed this paragraph from one of the sketches:

This is reminiscent of all the dutiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren lingering over deathbeds with digital recorders, or else manically pursuing their ancestors through the online genealogy sites at three in the morning, so very eager to reconstitute the lives and thoughts of dead and soon-to-be-dead men, though they may regularly screen the phone calls of their own mothers. I am of that generation. I will do anything for my family except see them.

And my favorite sentence:

Sleep came like the lightest rain. He felt it on his skin, something like a mist, numbing his legs, his arms.

Here’s my review of Smith’s On Beauty, which I loved.

5. Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller. Very disappointing. A hodge podge of historical examples which cohere into nothing. My favorite sentences:

Why are mindlessly good-natured persons popular? Because they pose no threat to anyone’s self-esteem. Many people are envious of those whose conversation is superior to their own.

6. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink

I’m a big Dan Pink fan. This is his older book which hails the right brain in the “conceptual age.” I’m sympathetic to his argument and found much value in the various resources and tips he scatters throughout the book. I recommend it particularly to highly analytical people.

“Before giving birth to anything physical, ask yourself if you have created an original idea, an original concept, if there is any real value in what you disseminate.” – Karim Rashid

Never say “I could have done that” because you didn’t. – Karim Rashid

As Alan Kay, a Hewlett-Packard executive and co-founder of Xerox PARC, puts it: “Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.” Storytelling. Storytelling. Storytelling.

“A large part of self-understanding is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives.” – George Lakoff

The “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Theory of Innovation”: sometimes the most powerful ideas come from simply combining two existing ideas nobody else ever thought to unite.

“Many writers are notorious eavesdroppers,” Epel writes, citing, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who kept a notebook in which he recorded “overheard conversations.”

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Here are all my posts on books. Here are my all-time favorite books in an Amazon store.

How To Be Interesting

Russell Davies, three years ago, posted worthwhile tips for how to become a more interesting person. His advice is premised on two assumptions:

The way to be interesting is to be interested. You’ve got to find what’s interesting in everything, you’ve got to be good at noticing things, you’ve got to be good at listening. If you find people (and things) interesting, they’ll find you interesting.

Interesting people are good at sharing. You can’t be interested in someone who won’t tell you anything. Being good at sharing is not the same as talking and talking and talking. It means you share your ideas, you let people play with them and you’re good at talking about them without having to talk about yourself.

Here's his top 10 list. See the post for details under each header:

1. Take at least one picture everyday. Post it to flickr.

2. Start a blog. Write at least one sentence every week.

3. Keep a scrapbook

4. Every week, read a magazine you’ve never read before

5. Once a month interview someone for 20 minutes, work out how to make them interesting. Podcast it.

6. Collect something

7. Once a week sit in a coffee-shop or cafe for an hour and listen to other people’s conversations. Take notes. Blog about it. (Carefully)

8. Every month write 50 words about one piece of visual art, one piece of writing, one piece of music and one piece of film or TV. Do other art forms if you can. Blog about it

9. Make something

10. Read

If you had to take away just one thing from his post, I think it should be assumption #1: the way to be interesting is to be interested.

Keep Your Door Open at the Office

In his talk titled "You and Your Research," Richard Hamming implores researchers and scientists to pick hard problems to work on. Along the way he says the following:

I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, "The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind." I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

It's important, in other words, to have one eye looking down at the work on your desk and one eye scanning the horizon to make sure what you're doing is still relevant and important.

Thus the thorny challenge: How to create a work environment with the optimal amount of distraction?