Monthly Archives: April 2009

What We Say Without Words

Toes  

In this helpful slideshow of body positions and movements, a former FBI counterintelligence agent discusses what you can learn about someone's feelings / thoughts by how observing their body language.

The most interesting nugget's at the end: the best indicator of mood is what we are doing with our feet. If we move or kick our feet upwards, we're feeling good. Same with our thumbs or other gestures which defy gravity such as pointing our thumbs up in in our hands.

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Speaking of communication, here's the one secret necessary to resolve argument and conflict: ask a single clarifying question about what another person's view is about. That's it!

I Believe in Overcommunication

The other day a friend told me, "I didn't send you the article because I didn't want to overwhelm your email inbox." I replied, "You can never send me too much email!"

For people I know, there's no such thing as sending me too much email. The marginal cost of each additional email is minimal and I have gotten proficient at handling large volumes of it. For a slightly smaller circle of folks I apply the same principle for phone calls or text messages.

If I'm overwhelmed or don't have time, let me make that call and reply to say as much.

This is my approach for two reasons. First, I genuinely enjoy talking, brainstorming, and catching up with friends. Second, I think communication is really hard. Miscommunications happen all the time. Relationships end over miscommunications. While improving the quality and clarity of correspondence helps, I think increasing the raw quantity helps, too.

Even very busy CEOs maintain a "proactive open door" policy when it comes to email. Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com, plasters his email address everywhere and regularly encourages employees, customers, and partners to email him anytime.

Bottom Line: I believe in overcommunication. As my friends know, my parting line on the phone or in-person is almost always, "Stay in touch."

(thanks to Brad Feld for teaching me this concept.)

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Join Ramit Sethi of IWillTeachYouToBeRich and me for a free, one-hour live video webcast this Saturday, May 2nd at 12 noon pacific time. We'll be talking about entrepreneurship, writing, careers, blogging, and answering your questions! Here are details.

Symbolic Lip Service in the Form of Small, Ineffective Actions

People trying to take control of their personal finances often read personal finance blogs, and then stop. By reading about the topic they check the "I'm managing my money" task box in their head…without actually taking the necessary steps to manage their money.

It'd better if they read no personal finance blog at all and thus couldn't delude themselves that they'd actually done something.

Process-obsessed people are particularly prone to "pre-mature box-checking dissonance avoidance." They approach goals like "be smart about money" by looking for little steps they can do — read blogs, research, buy budgeting software. Results-oriented people restate the goal as "have $50,000 in savings in x years" and then then focus ruthlessly to make it happen.

Other examples: buying low-fat food at the supermarket and thinking you've taken care of the "lose weight" goal (instead of busting your butt at the gym and eating less), or paying a monthly fee to Match.com and thinking you've taken care of your dating life instead of getting out and meeting women/men.

This phenomenon is something like paying "lip service" to a goal, although it is through symbolic, ineffective action rather than talking.

And because the symbolic actions delude you into thinking you've taken meaningful action, it's worse than doing nothing at all.

(thanks to Ramit Sethi, Cal Newport, and Dave Jilk for helping brainstorm this idea and providing some of the above sentences.)

Book Review: To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife

Housewife

Ambitious, career-driven women who also want to have kids face hard choices.

If you aggressively pursue a career, have kids, go back to work and install a nanny, you are forever wondering (in ways men do not) whether you shortchanged your kids. Yet by working outside the home — “taking part in the commerce and traffic of the adult world” — you develop an identity all your own, and offer your children a model of real-world success.

If you stop working and raise children, there’s a sense that you’re somehow letting down the feminist movement by not taking advantage of professional opportunities newly available to your generation. Your childhood professional dreams wither at the feet of your kid’s soccer regimen. Yet as a full-time mom you experience the primal pleasure of bestowing motherly love every single day, providing great emotional lift to your child. And you can shamelessly embrace the idea that Martha Stewart has made a Truth but that old school feminists still deny: “that a successful, liberated woman can care deeply, meaningfully, spiritually about the precise state of her linen closet.”

Yes, it’s a tradeoff relevant only to affluent women (most have to work) but for these select women it’s a deeply stressful issue.

Caitlin Flanagan has made the stress that comes from choosing to be a housewife — loving and loathing our inner housewife, as the subtitle puts it — the focal point of her recent writing. Her book is titled To Hell With All That and the paradox on the examination table is:

As women have achieved ever more power in the world — power of a kind my mother and her friends from nursing school could never have imagined — they have become increasingly attracted to the privileges and niceties of traditional womanhood.

The book is a series of essays. One’s on the complicated relationship between mothers and the nanny — the never-quite-resolved fear that your nanny knows your children better than you; that your child might even love your nanny more than you. So you at once love your nanny and are deeply grateful for her services but you also “possess a quietly burning antipathy” toward her. One essay’s about feeling abandoned when her own mother began working again in the seventh grade. One’s on the epidemic of sexless marriages. All convey Flanagan’s genuine fascination with the “places women love and loathe: laundry rooms and nurseries, sunny kitchens and dark ones, the marriage bed.”

Together, the collection gently advances Flanagan’s positive view of traditional motherhood and homemaking. This will continue to infuriate her critics. A lot of feminists hate Flanagan. They hate the fact that she would suggest women have a more natural connection than men to the “shit work” that needs to get done around the house. They hate that she would speak warmly of division of labor within the family: one person earns money for the family’s keep while the other provides the actual keep. Where the haters see flaws in Flanagan, I see a perspective — traditionalism — worth hearing even if it’s politically incorrect in the modern feminist context.

To be sure, it’s not a perspective informed by original journalism or the parsing of scientific literature on parenting / mothering. Instead, we get unsupported assertions about the glories of motherly love and the not-so-subtle implication that children of stay-at-home moms benefit accordingly, but there’s no evidence presented to support this. Yes, motherly love is a beautiful and singular thing, but for the woman agonizing over whether to abandon a career for her children she would be better served with research-based insight on how her decision will impact the long-term prospects of her children, if at all. Also, if you’re young and looking to Flanagan for resolution to the dilemma which I articulated at the outset of this post, you’ll be disappointed. She doesn’t really offer advice to young women who want it all: kids and career, guilt-free.

All books have shortcomings. Books that fail do so less because of an overwhelming number of shortcomings and more because it doesn’t understand what its inevitable shortcomings are — the book mis-understands the ground it is covering. Flanagan knows exactly who she is and what she is doing and that’s why I’m sure she would be satisfied (not that she would care!) with my description of her book as a chatty, entertaining, often very funny, witty, but not altogether rigorous look at what it means to be a twenty-first century housewife, or a confused feminist, or a maybe-housewife.

I recommend this book to women and men alike, perhaps especially to men who want a straight scoop from a funny female guide who’s not overly hostage to blah-blah-blah psychobabble. She is illuminating about heartstrings and marriage and child rearing and other wired female (and male) yearnings which cause all sorts of intractable dilemmas.

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Other choice sentences from Flanagan:

“Weddings today are often made comical or ghastly by their obvious overtones of strenuous social climbing.”

“Like most contemporary writers on family life, Stephen Covey is mesmerized by the practice of sitting down to dinner, a custom he imbues with almost magical properties to bind and focus a family.”

“Public events are central to what we tell ourselves and one another about how much we love our children: Look, I’m here! I stopped everything just to come.

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I’ve written about this topic over the years.

Here are other posts of mine on Caitlin Flanagan. Here’s my book review of Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. Here’s my post on motherhood vs. womanhood. Here’s my post on progressive feminists and happiness. Here’s my post about physical attractiveness and feminism. Here’s where I call bullshit on strippers who say they feel “empowered” in a post-feminist way. Here’s an old Ross Douthat post on two ways of looking at child-rearing; highly recommended. Here’s where I quote Ross on why we shouldn’t separate the sexual revolution and achievement of certain feminist goals with Joe Francis and a Duke frat on a Saturday night. Here are 29 bookmarks tagged “feminism.” Here are 45 bookmarks tagged “gender.”

Procrastiflation: Procrastination + Inflation

The longer a task goes un-completed, the harder it is to do it.

If you say you’re going to call John Doe on Monday, and you don’t, and you continue to procrastinate on Tuesday, and then Wednesday, it becomes harder and harder with each passing day to ever complete the task.

Another common example is going to the gym. If you want to go to the gym every day, and you miss a day, and then miss another day, and so forth, it becomes harder and harder to get back into the routine.

Problem: A phrase does not exist to describe this phenomenon. Putting names to widely-understood effects makes communication easier. The Streisand Effect, for example, is a good shorthand for the phenomenon of when trying to censor or remove information backfires and causes the information to be widely publicized.

Solution: I email a few friends for help on coming up with a name. Stan James writes:

The key concepts seem to be procrastination (the cause) and inflation (of difficulty). As a portmanteau, I propose “procrastiflation.” As in, “I haven’t written a blog post in weeks, and now the procrastiflationary costs are becoming insurmountable.”

Bottom Line: Procrastiflation is when procrastination of a task over time compounds the difficulty of ever completing it.

Role of Side Projects in Innovation

Side
My 2,600 word article for The American, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, came out today. It's on the role of side projects in innovation. It draws upon examples such as 3M, Google, Apple, the Founding Fathers, and music band Metallica. Here's the conclusion:

Figuring out innovation—how to come up with a killer new idea and then execute it—has long been an obsession of entrepreneurs and the academics and journalists who study them. One of the great myths of the innovation process, often reported in the popular press, involves a creative genius experiencing a “eureka moment,” refining the golden idea, and then pursuing it toward blockbuster status.

Successful side projects and the policies that nurture them somewhat deflate this myth. First, they highlight the random circumstances that can give rise to important inspiration. Second, they promote experimentation—not abstract brainstorming—because the “aha!” moment does not always happen at the outset, as mythologized, but somewhere in the middle of the process. Third, they underscore not the mad, brilliant scientist at the top but the collective brainpower of all employees, especially those close to the customer—Richard Drew at 3M, Paul Buchheit at Google. These people are critical to sustaining innovation over the long term.

Most of all, side project successes serve as a reminder that when you try more stuff than the next guy, up go the odds that you are going to do something right. It is the law of large numbers in entrepreneurship. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "It is amazing how much may be done if we are always doing." And as Jefferson later learned, it is amazing what can come of some of the things we least expect, which is good reason to always keep that crackpot project bubbling on the side and to stay open-minded about what it might one day become.

Do read the whole thing.

The Capacity to Surprise

One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What do you look for in a person?” I ask it in the context of sizing up someone’s potential as a friend, as an employee, as a conversation partner, anything.

I always find it fascinating what somebody looks for (what specific characteristics does he mention) and then how he goes about assessing the existence of those characteristics in a short period of time. It’s easy to say “I look for intelligence” but what specific things tip you off? (My old and well commented post on litmus tests covers this.)

One friend recently gave an interesting answer: he looks for people who can surprise him. He said that if someone doesn’t surprise him, he doesn’t get a sense of the person’s presence.

I’d have to agree: there’s nothing more boring than a person whose sentences you feel you can finish every time. Or who fits squarely into a stereotype such that 90% of their beliefs perfectly align with a broader political or religious label.

What I usually answer to the question which opened this post, when I’m choosing friends, romantic partners, or conversation companions, is “eccentricity.” I like eccentric people. They’re usually very fun. They are unique, like keys. And they regularly surprise me.

When the Blinders Come Off…

Geez-magazine-find-the-eyes-to-see
I could not respect how he functioned so completely immersed in the structures of his professional micro-universe. Yes, I too had previously derived comfort from my firm's exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.

– Mohsin Hamid in his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, page 145, my review here

I read that paragraph slowly. It happens at a point in the novel where the main character is distracted at work by a brewing Pakistan-India war, and he notices his colleagues' total apathy to anything other than the company task immediately in front of them.

Most ambitious companies — certainly start-ups — require of their employees single-mindedness. They demand all-consuming focus, and to "give thought to the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional present" is seen a distraction. Some of the successful business executives I've met are absolutely immersed in their professional micro-universe. The politics of the world, their personal relationships, their personal philosophies: who cares? Whether they realize they're wearing blinders, I don't know. Whether blinders are necessary to achieve massive professional success, I also don't know.

I do know that most of the start-up folks I meet have a fairly narrow arc of vision (this is an observation not a criticism) and many cite this hyper-focus as key to their success. To me, if the narrow focus Hamid describes is necessary for professional success, and if such focus is especially necessary to start a start-up, and if you are a curious person, and if said focus requirement impinges on the flourishing of said curiosity, this represents one of the main downsides of the start-up entrepreneurship lifestyle.

The Best Jokes are Hardest to Recall

If you can't remember exactly how a joke goes, it is probably a winner. From the Sunday Times (UK):

Scientists have found that the most successful gags work by subverting the listener’s usual thought patterns, making them inherently less memorable. By contrast, clichéd jokes are easier to remember because their structure and punch line are so predictable.

Experts say this over and over: If you want to be funny, surprise the audience. The full article is good, as is a "related article" titled So a Gay, Blind Suicide Bomber Walks Into a Bar… in which the author says jokes about physical or mental disabilities "are the real howlers these days. And that’s because the disability lobby has become so preternaturally sensitive, so disposed towards pouncing on anything which might be construed as disablist."

A couple years ago I thought hard about humor in the business world — here are the notes from the Junto conversation we had on the topic. Everyone at the lunch agreed that the most effective executives deftly use humor to get ahead professionally. I am especially impressed when I see executives use humor to defuse tense situations.

Recently I've been contemplating how I can integrate more humor into my writing. In particular, on this blog.

My humor in-person tends to be kinesthetic, and strong on sarcasm, irony, feux-pretentiousness, storytelling, and exaggeration. These things are easier done when you have the advantage of body language and tone of voice. In writing, it's harder to do sarcasm effectively, for instance, because people can mis-interpret it or mis-understand your point.

A blog is especially hard because it can be read by anyone. Aren't you funnier when you're at a table with three other people rather than a dinner party with twenty? When audience grows, the chance you're going to offend someone or riffle some idiosyncratic feathers goes up. We're more risk averse.

This is why I'm especially envious when I read a blog that is consistently funny. So at the least, I'd like to make this blog more reflective of my in-person humor sensibilities, even if I am not a witty enough writer (a la Michael Kinsley or David Brooks) to pump out daily the subtle, wry humor that succeeds best in this medium.

Other random thoughts:

  • Recently a friend asked if I could send him my resume. To this point we were talking in serious tones. I replied, "Bitch, I ain't got no resume," in my best ghetto voice (AAU basketball will do it to you). It was funny because it was unexpected.
  • It's good to have a few go-to stories in your back pocket for in-person humor. I have a Chuck Norris story/joke that is a sure winner.
  • Think about your sources. So much of humor is taking other people's material and slightly iterating on it. My sources include my brothers (who send me stuff every day), Seinfeld, movies (Old School and Wedding Crashers, for example), The Onion, and talking to my funny friends as much as possible.
  • Here's my humor tag on delicious. It is my most popular tag with 280 items. Here are blog posts in the Humor category.

The Many Sides of Friendship

Each quarter Chris Yeh and I convene about 20 of our friends on the peninsula and 20 of our friends in San Francisco for a conversation over lunch. Each lunch, called the Junto, has a theme. So far we've discussed and debated happiness, love, belief systems, humor, storytelling, death, Americanism, and this quarter: friendship.

My friendships are important to me and an area of my life to which I devote a lot of energy. My thinking about the topic generates questions that I felt grateful to be able to discuss at the Junto: What are the types of friendship? Should all friendships be bi-directional / fully reciprocal? Can you be close friends with people you hire or fire? How do you develop emotional intimacy with professional friends and intellectual energy with childhood emotional friends? Can you have a composite best friend instead of a single best friend?

Below are some of the key nuggets from our conversations. Full notes are here. (I missed some notes due to my laughter control issues in the very amusing San Francisco conversation.)

  • The measure of depth is trust. Trust is engendered by the things you share, since that makes their actions predictable. The more shared experiences you have, the more predictable they become.
  • The more settings in which you see a friend, the more you can trust that person. The person you only see in one setting can't be relied upon in other settings. That's how fraternity initiations work. That's why off-sites work.
  • Emotional connection is what switches someone from an acquaintance to a friend.
  • How can you add an emotional dimension to professional/intellectual relationships? How can you add an intellectual dimension to childhood relationships?
  • A lot of CEOs believe that they can't have a friendship with a subordinate or co-worker. But they also know that they need to be able to motivate people. So they share stories to establish an emotional connection.
  • A regular friend helps you move; a true friend helps you move a body. Use this to determine how many close friends you have – for how many people would you help move a body?
  • How do you break up with a friend? We don't have a script for doing this like we have for romantic breakups.
  • Friendships can by asymmetrical. Sometimes the "value" that flows back and forth takes different forms. Socialists worry about asymmetry. Capitalists only care if the two parties enter into a willing exchange. Is it wrong to think about "providing value" to a friend?
  • The best friendships are reciprocal but you don't keep score.
  • Do you have a best friend or a composite best friend? It's hard to find a single friend who fulfills all the different friendship needs you might have. Plus, a composite best friend eliminates the single point of failure ("The Voltron model of friendship.") Is the concept of "best friend" an antiquated notion?
  • In a good friendship, the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
  • U.S. is more transactional than other countries. Other countries see friends more immediately as "family."
  • Is it harder now to form deep friendships than it was in the past? If we're more mobile, perhaps yes. Simple math: You can know more people these days, which dramatically divides your attention across more relationships.
  • You want your friends to be able to criticize you but not judge you.
  • The quality of your relationship with others depends on your relationship with yourself. Do you love yourself?
  • It's impossible for someone to be your friend if you're not having fun with him. Having fun with the person is a universal value of friendship, despite in general it being a very personal and individual thing.
  • In California, after one meeting you're friends with the person, after two meetings you're good friends, after three meetings you're best friends.
  • Technology has expanded our capacity to maintain connections in the outer circles but doesn't affect how many relationships we can maintain in our inner circles.

Here's David Brooks' definition of friendship. Here are my favorite lines from Montaigne's book on the topic.