Monthly Archives: May 2005

Six Steps for Making Your Threat Credible

You should always find time to hone your negotiation skills because life is all about negotiation all the time, even in the smallest of things. Check out the excerpt and link below to learn 6 ways to signal that you won’t back down from a threat.

“In the classic game of Chicken, two drivers on a crash course speed toward each other. The rules are simple: Whoever swerves first and avoids collision loses, and whoever is brave enough to stay the course wins. Of course, when both drivers stay the course, they collide and die. Clearly, this is not a game for the faint-hearted. But bravado alone doesn’t guarantee a win. Your opponent has to believe that you’re gutsy enough to stay the course, or he may do the same until the very end. How do you win at Chicken? One approach would be to talk tough beforehand. You might behave irrationally to suggest that you wouldn’t swerve even to save your life. Once the game begins, however, your threat simply may not be credible.

Now consider this strategy: Once the cars are headed directly toward each other, you unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window, making sure that your opponent sees you do it. Foolish? So it would seem, but your threat is now entirely credible. You can’t change course even if you wanted to. It’s up to your opponent to decide whether to lose the game or die. The odds are in your favor.”

Link: HBS Working Knowledge: Strategy: Six Steps for Making Your Threat Credible .

Book Review: Emerson: The Mind on Fire

I slogged through 300+ pages of Robert D. Richardson’s biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson called Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Throughout my life I have seen so many Emerson aphorisms that I was determined to try to understand this incredible mind a little better. Like a lot of esoteric stuff I read, I didn’t understand all of it – I take an admittedly piecemeal approach to my self-directed study of meaty intellectuals and philosophers – but I grasped enough to be inspired. Emerson, arguably one of the country’s most influential intellectuals, truly lived the life of the mind. The most interesting part of the biography for me is its discussion of Emerson’s reading habits. He was a voracious and active reader, furiously taking notes, underlining, and remembering well-phrased sentences. He always wanted to read from the source, not others’ opinions of a source, and then form his own opinion. This book is not one you won’t be able to put down, but if you’re interested in philosophy, public intellectuals, or biographies, I recommend Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

Valedictorian Madness

A New Yorker article that Chris Yeh writes about affirms two things in my mind: 1) I’m glad my high school doesn’t do the valedictorian thing, and 2) That I’m not even close to being of valedictorian status doesn’t mean anything in my quest to think different and change the world.

“In 1981, two professors…began following the lives of eighty-one high-school valedictorians…According to Arnold’s 1995 book “Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians,” these students continued to distinguish themselves academically in college; a little less than sixty per cent pursued graduate studies. By their early thirties, most were “working in high-level, prestigious, secure professions”—they were lawyers, accountants, professors, doctors, engineers. Arnold totted up fifteen Ph.D.s, six law degrees, three medical degrees, and twenty-two master’s degrees in her group. The valedictorians got divorced at a lower rate than did the population at large, were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and tended to be active in their communities.

At the same time, Arnold, who stays in touch with her cohort, has found that few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths. Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field. For these people, Arnold writes, a “powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area.” She goes on, “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” Valedictorians, by contrast, conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure: “As a rule, valedictorians relegated their early interests to hobbies, second majors, or regretted dead ends. The serious athletes among the valedictorians never pursued sports occupations. Most of the high school musicians hung up their instruments during college.”

Chris goes on to say:

“In other words, while valedictorians do well, most of those who are most successful in life were definitely not valedictorians. Let me emphasize one line from the quote above: Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.

School isn’t like real life. In fact, it’s about as far from real life as can be imagined. The lessons that let you be successful in school (follow the rules, work hard, know the right answers) are completely the opposite of those that help you become a successful entrepreneur (change the rules, work smart, know the right questions).”

Ah, I sleep easier.

Where's the Leverage for Entrepreneurs?

A nice post by my Cole Valley neighbor Mark Pincus who groans about the lack of leverage entrepreneurs have. VCs and other investors can make several large bets among various companies in different market segments, hedge fund managers are pretty much guaranteed a year in year out solid return, but entrepreneurs must make one concentrated bet and wait years to see if there’s a payoff. To obtain the same leverage as the aforementioned, entrepreneurs must start multiple companies, start an incubator, or join a VC fund.

In my view the most successful entrepreneurs are those who immerse themselves 24/7 in their company, their market. Trying to stay on top of the latest thing to come around on the technology wheel is simply not possible. So from a “staying on the cutting edge” perspective, it is risky. If you are like me, life is a chocolate store with a million different interesting things pulling you in different directions. This urge needs to be balanced with extraordinary focus, and this is a differentiator among good and great entrepreneurs. But with this focus you are placing all your financial eggs in one basket.

The last thing Mark touches on is the day-to-day grime of the entrepreneurial life style. This is simply a reality of being a business entrepreneur. On top of the lack of diverse intellectual stimulation and significant financial risk, there’s also a massive time commitment, endless meetings, planes, pitches, and cold pizza.

My bottom line is that if you need the kind of “leverage” that the other people get in order to be fulfilled and happy or if you need a fat check annually, then the start-up entrepreneur in the typical sense is not the profession for you.

Sadness – The Most Under-Rated of Human Emotions

A teacher of mine remarked today that she thinks sadness is an important emotion. I was reflecting on that later this evening thinking that I’ve certainly felt sad many times in my life but never a deep, stinging feel of sadness usually associated with death. No one very close to me has ever died and I’ve only been to one funeral in my life. I have had dreams where someone close to me dies and I feel a profound sense of loss. And then I wake-up. In some strange, unexplainable way, I almost want to experience such a moment soon. I’ve never been a very outwardly emotional person and I think going through a profound loss would put me in touch with parts of me I have not yet discovered. In any case, I thought back to the fantastic post my friend Andy Sack had a few months ago, where he comments on the importance of sadness:

There’s nothing like a quiet, deep sadness to get you in touch with the profundity of life — having a sad year because of the loss of someone you love or because of bad relationships or some painful memory is something that we all experience but rarely appreciate and celebrate.  And while sadness inherently isn’t something that is fun — it is a strong emotion and is a heck of a lot better than feeling numb to the world.

Well put, Andy.

Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

I just read a fantastic essay by Scott Berkun on “Why smart people defend bad ideas.” This is something I’ve thought some about and it is something I am guilty of often: intellectual bullying even if my logic doesn’t add up. Scott attempts to answer “How can smart people take up positions that defy any reasonable logic?” Print it out and read it when you aren’t rushed. Excerpts below:

Proficiency in argument can easily be used to overpower others, even when you are dead wrong. If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous. If the people who you’re arguing with aren’t as comfortable in the tactics of argument or aren’t as arrogant as you are, they may even give in and agree with you.

The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death….

Simply because they cannot be proven wrong, does not make them right. Most of the tricks of logic and debate refute questions and attacks, but fail to establish any true justification for a given idea…

People worry about the wrong thing at the wrong time and apply their intelligence in ways that doesn’t serve the greater good of whatever they’re trying to achieve. Some call this difference in skill wisdom, in that the wise know what to be thinking about, where as the merely intelligent only know how to think. (The de-emphasis of wisdom is an east vs. west dichotomy: eastern philosophy heavily emphasizes deeper wisdom, where-as the post enlightenment west, and perhaps particularly America, heavily emphasizes the intellectual flourishes of intelligence). BC Note: That was a very interesting point.

Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

At the end of the article there are additional resources, and you better believe that those books have made it onto my Amazon wish list!

Entrepreneurship is a Life Idea, Not a Business One

I’ve always been perplexed when I read blogs by entrepreneurs or talk with entrepreneurs in person who list the recent books they’ve read. All business books; all management books; all marketing books. We all get plenty of that every day from articles, each other, conferences, etc. Entrepreneurs should be reading other kinds of books – psychology, politics, history, self-help, religious, a great novel, biographies – to become interesting people who are well-rounded. As Jim Collins says in this article, many of the world’s greatest thinkers read the most outside their primary field. He thinks the business to non-business books ratio should be 1:20; for me it’s probably 1:10.

Also at the Jim Collins site there’s a nice audio excerpt where he elaborates on the idea that entrepreneurship is fundamentally a life idea, not a business one. The other week I was talking with Mike Bateman about how exciting it is to work with passionate entrepreneurs. That passion, that desire to change things, can be found in nurses, teachers, authors, and yes, business people. Collins says:

You can do a paint by numbers kit approach to your life and end up with a nice, little pretty picture at the end. Or you can throw that out. Or you can start with a blank canvas. And try to paint a masterpiece. Entrepreneurship is about throwing out the paint by numbers kit, and starting with a blank canvas, and trying to make your own life a work of art. To me, entrepreneurship is about carving a path that is so idiosyncratically YOU, that it fits you like a glove. And figuring out how to do that. If it so happens that starting a company is that path – all the better – if not that, it should be something else that is uniquely you.

Book Review: New New Journalism

New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction writers on Their Craft is a very instructional read for the aspiring journalist or anyone who is looking to discover more about literary nonfiction or “immersion journalism” where an author – Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, Richard Ben Cramer, William Langewiesche, etc. – spends months or years with the subject and includes the character depth and scene descriptions typical of fiction. “New Journalism” was a movement kicked off by Tom Wolfe; in this book Robert Boynton interviews the best nonfiction writers in our country and includes a goldmine of techniques and insights into immersion journalism. I could see myself getting into business-journalism one day…

Ben Is Insensitive and Like a Machine

That’s what I was told today standing around with people at school much smarter than I who were deconstructing some amazing art/photography students had done. A couple people had come up to me and said they had stumbled across my blog, so using that as a segue, we dived into a conversation about blogging and the new-teen-phenomenon social networking web site MySpace.

People were commenting about how weird it is to exchange emails or IMs were someone and then walk by them the next day in the hall and not say a word. In other words, was blogging and the internet creating people who only knew how to communicate behind a screen?

As I defended the medium a bit (hey, someone has to) it came out: “But Ben, I don’t want to read your blog. I want to talk to you in person. You’re a machine!” The same person also called me insensitive. Now, I have a nice friendship with this person but we would both admit that it could be much stronger. A very close (male?) friend I don’t think would ever say something like that. And herein lies the great challenge for me as I navigate the high school waters with interests and friends which largely exist outside the walls of my school: building strong relationships with people @ school requires time. I don’t have much spare energy. So I am resigned to having friends at school who share mutual activities, like basketball, or who are so awesome where I make an extraordinary effort to reach out to them (rare). For the others, who are all super smart and beautiful, I am stuck with the label of being a crazy-busy machine. The trade off is definitely worth it, but it makes me take a big, deep sigh.

A Reminder About the Power of Self-Deprecation

I was reminded today about the power of self-deprecation when used effectively. An excerpt from Clinton & Me that I blogged about last October:

Self-depreciation is one of the most effective tools for leaders who want people to like and trust them, it communicates strength and grounding. Most people’s public personae are made up of 2-12 simple, widely known facts. If you concede the obvious you’re conceding nothing, but you gain back credibility. That’s a trade you should make every time.

What are the 2-12 simple, widely known facts that make up your persona? Maybe in the long run you want to change those perceptions, but in the meantime, how can you leverage it to your advantage? When I started realizing that people thought I could be arrogant at times, since I tend to over-intellectualize a lot, I first pushed back. I didn’t want to accept that perception. Now, I’ve mastered the tone of voice, body language, and specific lines to make a joke during situations when people may think I’m being arrogant (or even when I am!). By lightening the mood at my own expense, I gain credibility and my image improves in the eyes of others.