Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Quotations-in-Stories Litmus Test

Listen to conversations around you. As people tell and recount stories, do they directly quote someone (… “Yeah, Gates finally said, ‘We should really get together after New Year’s.’” …) or do they simply paraphrase and reframe a story without quoting dialogue directly (… “I saw Gates, and he finally said we should get together after New Year’s.” …)?

I’ve been listening and wondering, is there a difference between the two? If someone directly quotes dialogue, tries to tell stories by playing roles in a conversation rather than paraphrasing it, does it indicate they can empathize more or less? Do they just tell stories differently? It’s a Quotation Litmus Test in the making.

That's from Liz Danzico of the popular blog Bobulate, in semi-reply to my thought on the I'm-Proud-of-You Litmus Test. The most innocent explanation for why someone role plays versus paraphrases when recounting a story has to do with the uniqueness of the dialogue and the storyteller's ability to recall the exact wording. Liz ponders a more complex explanation which is whether role playing vs. paraphrasing can reveal the storyteller's empathy to the people at hand. Definitely plausible. When telling a story of which we disapprove or shun we're more likely to quote characters' words directly; when telling a story that we're more keen to associate with, we'll paraphrase into our own language.

For new readers, litmus tests are small, quick things you can look for in another person's behavior, language, interests, etc. that can reliably predict a bigger idea.


Other links from around the web:

  • Daniel Drezner and Matthew Yglesias discuss public diplomacy in this 17 minute video excerpt. Worth watching and related to my post the other week the real work of American diplomats abroad. Also, note Drezner's and Yglesias's conversation rhythem — it's natural, respectful, forward-moving. Everything a conversation should be. (Granted, they're in agreement, which is easier, but still.)
  • Glengarry Glen-Christmas: Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live does a Christmas edition of his famous Glengarry Glen-Ross sales scene.
  • Seth Godin offers good tips on how to organize a retreat / event.
  • Dan Ariely on the Significant Objects Project, a fascinating case of how narrative adds meaning.
  • Need a technical co-founder? Charlie O'Donnell says hire a product design lead first.
  • Mark Suster continues write an outstanding blog about entrepreneurship and venture capital.

Asking About a Person’s Weaknesses

Austrian entrepreneur Hermann Hauser, in an interview in yesterday's FT, was asked about his three worst features. His answer: "I am impatient, I don't suffer fools gladly, and I am too demanding."

I've seen impatience cited as a weakness in several interviews with big-ego execs. What a cop-out. Though it's not as bad as when someone's self-critical moment comes via a line like, "I work too hard on the weekends."

When attemping to rely on a person's self-knowledge — a treacherous affair — stick to asking about the person's top strengths.

If, however, you're keen on asking a question that prompts a darker reflection, don't ask explicitly about weaknesses. Ask instead, "What keeps you up at 2 AM?"

You won't get an honest answer there, either, but, in my experience, you get a bit closer.

The Mindset of the Ambitious Educational Elite

James Kwak on Peter Orszag's decision to join Citibank:

This is the mindset of the ambitious educational elite: You go to Harvard (or Stanford), maybe to Oxford (or Cambridge) for a Rhodes (or Marshall), then to Goldman (or McKinsey, or TFA), then to Harvard Business School (or Yale Law School), then back to Goldman (or Google), and on and on. You keep doing the thing that is more prestigious, opens more doors, has more (supposed) impact on the world, and eventually will make you more and more famous and powerful. Money is something that happens along the way, but it’s not your primary motivation. Then you get to Peter Orszag’s position, where you can do anything, and you want to go work for Citigroup? Why do our society and culture shape high-achieving people so they want to be executives at big, big companies that are decades past their prime? Why is that the thing people aspire to? Orszag wanting to work at a megabank — instead of starting a new company, or joining a foundation, or joining an NGO, or becoming an executive at a struggling manufacturing company that makes things, or even being a consultant to countries with sovereign debt problems — is the same as an engineer from a top school going to Goldman instead of a real company. It’s not his fault, but it’s a symptom of something that’s bad for our country.

Tyler Cowen, in his long, informative piece on inequality, mentioned something similar:

…in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large.

The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test

How many people in your life can say, "I'm proud of you," and you take it fully and without any sort of resentment or dismissal? Whoever those people are, they are probably your mentors.

Someone who credibly says "I'm proud of you" usually has two characteristics. First, he is probably higher status / higher power. Most of the time, having pride about someone else comes from a place of superiority. Second, he must know you well. Most of the time, to be proud of someone means you know where they've been and how far they've come — pride is a word about growth. If a homeless guy on the street (lower status) or Bill Gates (don't know him personally) tell me they're proud of me it won't have a huge positive effect.

To be sure, "I'm really proud of you buddy" can sometimes occur between friends. But this seems less common. Usually friends say "I'm so happy for you" or "Really nice job!" but not the p-word. And family can often be proud, but as with most things family, the obligation and bias dull the effect.

This topic came to mind because I recently saw a friend / mentor and told him about a meaningful professional accomplishment. The next morning, I woke up to an email in my inbox that was one line: "I'm really proud of you." It felt great, and as he falls into both of the categories above, was fully appreciated.

It got me thinking, "How many people could send me that sort of email?" And that's how I arrived at the "I'm Proud of You" litmus test.


Here are other litmus tests I've blogged about.

(thanks to TK and Andy for helping think this through.)

Fear: Using the Word Matters

While the modern medical name for the feeling produced by a new challenge or large goal is stress, for countless generations it went by the old, familiar name of fear. Even now, I've found that the most successful people are the ones who gaze fear unblinkingly. Instead of relying on terms like anxiety, stress, or nervousness, they speak openly of being frightened by their responsibilities and challenges. Here's Jack Welch, the past CEO of General Electric: "Everyone who is running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear: Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?" Chuck Jones, the creator of Pepe le Pew and Wile E. Coyote, emphasized that "fear is the most important factor in any creative work." And Sally Ride, the astronaut, is unafraid to talk plainly of fear: "All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary."

I was puzzled why so many remarkable people preferred the word fear to stress or anxiety. The answer came to me one day while I was observing physicians in the course of their training. I was following one of our family-practice resident physicians through the course of her day in the health center, seeing children and adults for the wide variety of maladies that bring people to a primary care physician. I noticed that when adults came to see a physician and talk about their emotional pain, they chose words such as stress, anxiety, depression, nervous, and tense. But when I observed children talking about their feeling, they talked about being scared, sad, or afraid.

It's my conclusion that the reason for the difference in word choice had less to do with the symptoms and more to do with expectations. The children assumed their feelings were normal. Children know they live in a world they cannot control. They have no say in whether their parents are in a good mood or bad, or whether their teachers are nice or mean. They understand that fear is a part of their lives.

Adults, I believe, assume that if they are living correctly, they can control the event around them. When fear does appear, it seems all wrong–so adults prefer to call it by the names for psychiatric disease. Fear becomes a disorder, something to put in a box with a tidy label of "stress" or "anxiety."

This approach to fear is unproductive. If your expectation is that a well-run life should always be orderly, you are setting yourself up for panic and defeat. If you assume that a new job or relationship or health goal is supposed to be easy, you will feel angry and confused when fear arises–and do anything to make it disappear.

Excerpt from One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer via Todd Sattersten.

Some wise men believe fear is the mindkiller. That could be. I prefer to think about fear like Mike Tyson did: it's like fire, something that can cook your food and heat your house, or it's something that can burn down your house and destroy you. Either way, per the excerpt above, I think using the word fear is important — that's what it is, and it's not going away.

The (Charity) Work of Diplomats

(Me with two American diplomats and leaders of an Islmamic boarding school in Indonesia; August, 2010)

Rather than add to heap of analyses on Wikileaks, the soul of Julian Assange, privacy vs. transparency, and all the specific policy questions that have arisen — others are more qualified to comment there — I wish to react to these two sentences by Will Wilkinson:

The careerists scattered about the world in America's intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well.

It does seem like even informed, engaged Americans have no idea of the size and scope of the American diplomacy and intelligence apparatus overseas. And how should they? 22% of Americans have a passport. Some fraction of those people actually use their passport to travel overseas. And some (witheringly small) fraction of that number have needed the assistance of a U.S. consulate or embassy overseas — most likely for a quick visa/passport issue. Meanwhile, there are hardly ever reports state-side on the work of foreign service officers abroad. Add all this together, and I'm sure more than a few Americans were scratching their heads while reading the Wikileaks reports: Diplomatic cables? Political analyses? Ambassadors coming up with nicknames for foreign leaders? Who are these people and where do they come from?

This would have been me a couple years ago. I knew diddly squat about the U.S. State Department until I lost my passport in Switzerland in 2005. I went to Bern to get a new one and I had a positive impression of the Embassy there as very capable passport stampers.

Over the past year and a half, that's changed. I have enjoyed an up-close look at American public diplomacy in four countries. Partly this came from residing in another country for a period of time; partly this has come from working with a few embassies on some of their local economic development initiatives. Based on my (limited) experience, the stories we're reading about are the most salacious bits of a very large cache of documents (which itself is only a portion of the total communications of diplomats). The overwhelming majority of American diplomats' work around the world has little to do with advancing American self-interest and could better be described as charity work.

Yes, charity work. Almost entirely, diplomats engage in projects that aim to improve and enrich the local communities in which they work. They work towards democracy and economic advancement in the most general, agreeable ways. Despite being paid by the U.S. government (U.S. taxpayers), most of their work advances American self-interest only in the "peace and prosperity is better for everybody" kind of way.

A few examples. First, most embassies invite American citizens who are experts in their field to lead discussions on topics such as business, technology, education, dance, music, science, energy, and more. All the sessions are free for the local people. While working with embassies overseas, I saw one dance instructor lead classes for disabled children. I saw a New York jazz ensemble hold joint practice sessions and concerts with local musicians. I heard a green energy expert talking with local business leaders.

Second, the local staff themselves arrange on-going cultural and economic programs for locals. They'll facilitate roundtables on how to get a business off the ground. They'll organize events around the healing power of music. They put on events about higher education and how to get scholarships to attend universities abroad. Most of these programs are done in conjunction with the local staff of the embassies — citizens of the country who speak the language fluently and are employed full-time by the embassy.

Third, embassies fund an array of other programs for locals. In Cyprus, for example, the U.S. Embassy each year selects 15 high potential teenagers from the North and South side. (The country is divided.) They are flown to Denver, Colorado where a Cypriot facilitator leads a joint conversation about their respective cultures and the pursuit of peace. Even though the teens live just miles apart in Cyprus, for many it's their first time interacting with somebody on the other side of the U.N. dividing wall. It's also the first time many of them have been on an airplane.

Fourth, diplomats interface with the host government and offer assistance as requested. After the Chile earthquake, the U.S. Embassy spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours aiding the recovery.

None of this counts as traditional "foreign aid" — and yet, in many respects, it is. Of course, there will be skeptics who think American embassies are part of one grand conspiracy to spread American imperialism. There are indeed CIA agents in many embassies and there are diplomatic activities that directly support U.S. interests that may not be as warm and fuzzy as the aforementioned cultural programs. But as far as I can tell, that type of work is a small fraction of the overall activity set.

In fact, I suspect if Americans gained more familiarity with the work of foreign service officers and State Department missions overseas, many would ask, "Why are my tax dollars going to all those programs? How does it benefit me?" The answer: it doesn't, really. That's probably why you don't hear about their work too much.

One other point. As you can tell from reading some of the cables, America's diplomats are smart. They are some of the most talented people in the federal government. Although a life in the foreign service is not an easy one — all that moving around seriously narrows the pool of possible mates and friends, and the mandate to keep up appearances surely gets tiring — I have seen how it can be so rewarding. If you love travel, consider the foreign service.

Bottom Line: While headlines like "Diplomats Told to Spy at U.N." command attention, many American diplomats engage in work that could better be described as foreign aid.

The Media’s Real Bias: Subservience to Power

Glenn Greenwald is just riffing informally, but man, he’s eloquent / persuasive in these five minutes on media bias:

Quotes from The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Good quotes from the book The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, via this review:

"I have no children, I do not watch television, and I do not believe in God — all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease."

"And here I am now and my tiny bladder has just reminded me of its existence. Painfully aware that I have imbibed liters of tea that very afternoon, I cannot ignore its message: reduced autonomy."

"The peace of mind one experiences on one's own, one's certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship."

"We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were able to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy."

"In our world, that's the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it's been put together is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you're alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe."