Monthly Archives: October 2012

When People Remind You of Your Younger Self…

…and when you have some issues with how your younger self developed, stuff happens.

Consider David Foster Wallace as a professor of creative writing at Illinois State. From the recent bio:

In his undergraduate class, Wallace was kind to the clueless but cruel to anyone with pretensions. When a student claimed that her sentences were “pretty,” he scribbled lined from her manuscript on the blackboard and challenged, “Which of you thinks this is pretty? Is this pretty? And this?” He continued to battle any young man who reminded him of his younger self. When one student wowed his classmates with a voicy, ironic short story, he took him outside the classroom and told him he had “never witnessed a collective dick-sucking like that before.” Wallace promised to prevent the “erection of an ego-machine” and strafed the student with criticism for the rest of the semester.

You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You

There is a romantic idea about conversation, learning, and open-mindedness: “Joe and I don’t agree on much, but we respect each other, and learn a heck of a lot from each other.” If you want to learn and grow, get out of your comfort zone and spend time talking to people who disagree with you and who will challenge you. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.

On the Econtalk podcast, I heard this insightful argument made by David Weinberger, which I’ll summarize and riff on here.

The premise: Rarely is your worldview turned upside down in a single conversation over lunch. Rarely is your mind truly blown in an hour. Instead, most learning happens on the margins. A nugget here, a nugget there. Brick by brick you assemble a house of knowledge; you iteratively form and evolve a worldview.

The question: With what kinds of people do you have conversations that lead to an iterative, valuable insight?

The answer: People with whom you agree on 99.9% of issues already.

In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. A Creationist learns little about the origins of the world from an Evolutionist. A lab scientist working on a vaccine doesn’t learn much from someone who thinks vaccines cause autism. Nobody learns anything if civility isn’t mutually valued. If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.

When you have broad foundational agreement, learning in conversation happens best when there’s still further agreement on the next 1% of possible agreement. Two internet company CEOs who both speak English who are both convinced of technology’s wonders will have no problem at all breaking bread and having a lively conversation. But for learning’s sake, it’d be even better if they agreed on a number of industry-specific beliefs. If they’re aligned on the booming future of mobile devices, for example, then they can dive deep and explore possible disagreement on how to, say, best serve ads to users on an iOS device.

As Weinberger says, “It’s how culture advances. It’s how knowledge advances.” And it’s how individual intellectual growth advances, too. Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything–but not quite everything.

Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

(Photo: Search Engine People blog, Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

So Much Better Than Yours That You Hug Criticisms of It In Self-Defense

I’m reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace. Early in his writing career, Wallace was sent a galley of Jonathan Franzen’s first novel. He loved it, but he wrote back to Franzen’s editor:

I’m having a lot of trouble with my own stuff right now, and this book, a freaking first novel, seems so much more sophisticated than anything I could do plot-wise, so precocious in its marriage of theme and character and verisimilitude and phantasm, so simultaneously wild and controlled, that I found myself hugging criticisms of it to myself in unabashed self-defense (a subspecies of envy).

The trickiness of being inspired by others: the person needs to be better/faster/stronger than us in some way but not so much so that a) the chance of one day having that superior quality yourself seems utterly unrealistic or b) the person’s superior quality engenders an unproductive amount of envy and related depression.

In my essay Lessons Learned and Reflections on Publishing a Bestselling Business Book, I said I didn’t read many books outside the career field because I didn’t want to get depressed reading the prose of some world class novelist. It reminded me of a note I got from Cal Newport when he was writing his book: “I took a break from my manuscript writing and read a novel by a Nobel prize winner in literature. Remind me never to do that again.”

By the way, I love DFW’s use of “sub-species” as a phrase.

When to Obsessively Focus and When to Court Serendipity

Cal Newport writes a lot about the importance of hard focus to produce meaningful accomplishments. I write a lot about randomness and serendipity. A reader of both of ours, Nitin, wrote to Cal to ask whether our emphases are in conflict. Their email exchange follows:

Cal: I tend to our two different foci as complementary. I tend to write about the core underlying philosophy of remarkability: mastering valuable things. Ben’s book does a good job of capturing all the tactics and strategies that orbit such a quest.

Nitin: I agree that your and Ben’s views can be complementary. But I also think there are time tradeoffs. When I think of people who are focused on creating phenomenal products (or when I read about Steve Jobs), it seems that those people single-mindedly and obsessively focus on shipping product. I cannot imagine them e-mailing strangers or seeking randomness. Those people want to ship their product and a minute focused on anything else is a minute not focused on shipping.

Cal: The counterpoint is that serendipitous networking is pretty common among super high achievers (think Einsteins frequent meetings with mathematicians). I think the occasional conversation with other experts in related fields is not the thing keeping people back from focusing on shipping. It’s more things like working on multiple projects, or spending too much time on distraction, etc…Sort of thinking out loud here.

Nitin: Yes…now that I think more about the people I know. They are strict about no distractions, but also frequently collaborate with very smart colleagues within their trusted network. (I am thinking about developers frequently asking questions on forums and making contributions to open source projects and reading academic papers in related fields to learn about the best ideas.) I think they can be complementary. 🙂

Spending time on hard focus and spending time on serendipity are both important things to do, but perhaps not with equal emphasis at the same time. I believe different stages of your career call for different tempos in this regard. For the past couple years, for example, I’ve been more in “focus” mode than “serendipity” mode, going deeper on fewer things and feeling less interested in meeting new people and exposing myself to randomness. That’s because the projects on my plate right now are so compelling (to me). The balance will surely shift back when I’m at a natural transition point. To be sure, I never dial down the serendipity to zero — when I’m in “focus” or “maker” mode the proactively serendipity seeking probably consumes 10-20% of energy cycles, and when I’m in explorer mode it’s more like 40-50% of cycles.

Faith, Community, and Friendship

Chris Yeh wrote a phenomenal post over the summer titled Faith, Community, Friendship, and Imperfection.

He opens by reminding readers of an idea the two of us have kicked around for years: forming a secular church. Then he shares two beliefs of his that may seem puzzling when juxtaposed: he is not religious, but many of the people he most admires are.

First he explains what emotional void Mr. Rogers filled for his viewers:

Mr. Rogers made a difference because he pursued intimacy with people; he made them feel safe enough to open up about their failings and fears. Whatever the issue in your life, he felt that you should speak openly about it. And once people did open up, he showered them with unconditional love.

He didn’t absolve them; while we crave absolution, we know ourselves too well for absolution to feel real. His genius was to convey a simple, yet powerful message. “You are struggling. You sometimes fail. But despite those things, I love you, and I am proud of you.”

He then goes on to cite Walter Kirn’s recent piece on Mormonism to get to a larger point about faith and friendship:

Perhaps one of the reasons friendship is so powerful is that it represents the kind of loving acceptance that we crave, yet often do not receive.

I can’t speak for women, but among men, one’s close friends provide the same kind of paradoxical support as Mr. Rogers and the Mormons. My friends know my various flaws, and are quick to point them out. Much of male bonding consists of busting one another’s asses with friendly insults and embarrassing stories. Yet underlying it all is a sense of acceptance and brotherhood. The unspoken message is simple: “You’re a fuckup, but I love you anyways. Let’s grab a beer and hang out. Just don’t sleep with my sister.”

When Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” he argued that the decay in community institutions (such as bowling leagues) was isolating people and making them angrier and less empathetic. Yet while his concept of declining social capital is a powerful one, I always had problems with finding solutions to the challenge.

I don’t think we can turn back the clock to an age where people lived their entire lives in a small town, and attended Rotary Club meetings every week. Putnam thinks that the entry of women into the workplace contributed to these changes; I doubt many of us want to go back to 1950s chauvinism.

But when I consider “Bowling Alone” in the context of faith, community, and friendship, I think I start to see a different solution.

Ultimately, the institutions of the past were imperfect. I don’t belong to any fraternal institutions because I find them kind of weird and creepy. But we can’t let our desire to avoid imperfection keep us from building meaningful bonds.

I think we all have a need to be known, really and truly, and then accepted for what we are. Call it love. Call it friendship. Whatever it its, we need it.

I think we all have a need for community–repeated, unplanned interactions with a group of people that accept us–even if the pieces fit together imperfectly.

I think that religious organizations like the Mormon Church, wittingly or unwittingly, have built a culture around meeting both of these needs. And in doing so, they provide great benefits to their adherents, regardless what’s in their theology.

If you are known, accepted, and loved by a community of people, no matter who those people are, I think you have something special that you should hang on to.

It’s a topic I think about constantly, and Chris captured it beautifully. I’m grateful to have him in my community of friends.


One small nit with the well-circulated NYT piece on how it’s harder to form friends when older: I’m not convinced “unplanned interactions” is a litmus test for a good friendship, or even a necessary ingredient.