Monthly Archives: November 2012

Book of Mormon

Worthy of all the hype. Saw it last night on stage in San Francisco. Here’s a taste:

Bezos’s Insistence on Full Narrative Prose

A follow up to my post about Jeff Bezos requiring his executive team to write full narrative memos (instead of PowerPoint presentations) when presenting proposals or initiatives. Bezos said this in explaining the approach:

 “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

As I wrote in my essay “Behind the Book,” the hard part about writing is not which words to use; rather, it’s in what order paragraphs should appear. The order of paragraphs holds the logic of the points being argued. And so most of “editing” involves re-ordering paragraphs and fleshing out transitions to and from paragraphs, rather than tweaking sentences.

You could argue the order of the bullet point slides in a PowerPoint deck forces a presenter to similarly consider logic and flow, but since you can orally compensate for rough spots, the standard for crisp thinking while building a PowerPoint deck is lower. Hence, Bezos insists on full narrative written prose–or at least that’s my guess as to why.


One of my favorite Joan Didion quotes is “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Writing is thinking. A lot of busy people say they wish they had more time to “think” — to be proactively thoughtful rather than reactive. But “thought time” is a hard thing to actually schedule, let alone measure. Writing, on the other hand, is something you can schedule to do and then evaluate and measure the output (e.g. 700 words a day or a blog post a week). When someone tells me they don’t do much writing anymore, I sometimes wonder, When do you think deep-ish thoughts? And how do you ever know how coherent your thoughts actually are?

Writing = Thinking, Jeff Bezos Edition

Jeff Bezos likes to read. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation if ever there was one, considering that Bezos is the cerebral founder and chief executive of a $100 billion empire built on books. More revealing is that the Amazon CEO’s fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his “S-team” of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team — including Bezos — consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon executives call these documents “narratives,” and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated — and fans of the PowerPoint presentation — the process is a bit odd. “For new employees, it’s a strange initial experience,” he tells Fortune. “They’re just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives.” Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

From Fortune’s recent profile of Bezos.

(hat tip: Chris Yeh)

Colin Marshall and Ben In Conversation

Colin Marshall, esteemed radio host and man of arts & letters, sat down with me for an hour do an interview for his new podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. It was fun to catch up with him and cover a range of topics. Colin’s description of the show is below.

Colin Marshall sits down in San Francisco’s South Beach with entrepreneur, author, blogger, traveler, and learner Ben Casnocha. His latest book, co-written with Reid Hoffman, chairman of LinkedIn, is The Start-Up of You. They discuss the advantages of hanging an IKEA world map on the wall; his ten days of silent meditation and the feeling of enlarged thumbs that resulted; the San Francisco Bay Area’s convergence of Californian spirituality and Californian technological intensity; the three Californias: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and everything else; “NorCal” pride and State of Jefferson stickers; being the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and how that got him involved in technology startups to begin with; how where you physically live now matters both more and less than it used to (and who still lives virtually on Livejournal); how loyalty now extends horizontally to your network rather than vertically to your company, and how your identity now comes before your role as an organizational component; his lifelong habit of reaching out to interesting people, and how it differs from the standard sleaziness of “networking”; his visits to Detroit and Athens, and how those cities may have strained his appreciative thinking muscles; his interest in underrated and underdiscussed places as well as people, such as those in South America; his adoption of “home bases” around the world, be they in San Francisco, Santiago, Zurich, or Tokyo; the pronunciation of Tegucigalpa; the loneliness he sees deep in the eyes of people who declare themselves “nomadic”; the necessity of acting consistently on curiosity, and of cultivating both a highly technical and a highly nontechnical mind; whether moving to a city means moving to randomness; and his sensory-deprivation experience floating in a saltwater pod.

Optimistic Technology Luminaries

Last night Reid was “in conversation” with Steve Ballmer. Here’s an article about their chat, which drew the largest audience at the Churchill Club in a decade.

A couple weeks ago, Reid hosted Marc Andreessen for a chat about the future of technology, Silicon Valley, and even a bit about career strategy. Here’s a write up of their talk.

After hearing these luminaries in conversation, you can’t help but be left with a feeling of optimism about the future of the technology industry and the opportunity for each of us to participate in the next round of game changing innovation.

Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The puzzle that is being altruistic and cooperative when it does not serve our self-interest. Why do humans over-tip to a waiter they’ll never see again? Why are people nice to strangers?

Because life is about succeeding in the “repeated games” that are interactions with friends, family, and co-workers. In those games, altruism pays. It pays to be generous, to do favors, to go out of our way–we will see those people again, and the altruism may come back to help us. So, when we are in a “single shot game” — for example, deciding on how much to tip the waiter at the diner on the side of the road in a city far away from home — this cooperative instinct spills over. Our moral intuitions spring from the repeated games that matter most and we inadvertently channel them to all games/situations. We forget when we’re in a one shot game; we forget we could get away with leaving no tip and it not harming us in the slightest. We forget, that is, until we start to think hard about what the tip should be. In one study, people who start reflecting actively on an appropriate level of altruism (say, the size of the tip) tend to end up less altruistic in single shot games, because they take the time to realize their self-interest calls for them to be…selfish.

This is the argument advanced by David G. Rand, who helped conduct the studies, in this excellent Bloggingheads episode with Joshua Knobe. They cover why humans are selfish or cooperative, among other topics in the annals of human psychology and evolution.

Relationships Matter, A Never-Ending Series

Reid’s latest post on LinkedIn is another excerpt from The Start-Up of You titled “Why Relationships Matter: I-to-the-We.” It’s an excellent high level summary (if I may say so myself!) on why relationships matter in a professional context.

But relationships matter for reasons beyond finding a kick-ass career. For example: Friends keep you alive. Several studies have shown that, all else equal, you have a better chance of beating a disease if you enjoy the support of friends.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco looked at the survival rates among women diagnosed with breast cancer. They found that women without ten or more friends were four times as likely to die during the test period than those with the close friends. Another study in Australia showed that those with many friendships live longer and healthier than those without similar social networks.

For those of us not dying from cancer, friends do more than just keep us health they make us happy. In recent years, psychologists and gurus have paraded onto morning talk shows bearing myriad theories of happiness. Their talking points vary, but they agree on one thing: human relationships, especially good friends, are the leading predictor of a happy existence.

They matter so much that you’d be wise to value these relationships over near any level of professional achievement. “…[O]ne of the key findings,” David Brooks once concluded in a column summarizing studies of well-being, “is that, just as the old sages predicted, worldly success has shallow roots while interpersonal bonds permeate through and through.”

How to Get Useful Feedback on Your Projects: Avoid Like/Dislike

When you show someone a plan, product demo, or piece of writing and ask for feedback, you might ask, “How do you like it?” If you don’t ask this explicitly, it is often the implied question in a feedback session.

But whether the other person likes whatever it is you’re working on is frequently irrelevant. And, in fact, asking this question can distract both of you from the real goal: discovering practical steps to improvement.

When Reid and I were writing The Start-Up of You, we asked for feedback from several friends on drafts of the manuscript. During the first round of feedback, we were genuinely curious if others liked it because we weren’t sure how much work we had left to do. Folks came back and said they didn’t like several portions of it, and that was useful: we learned we had months of work left. During the second round of feedback, I did not ask people if they liked it, because I knew by then we still had work ahead of us. Instead, I asked, “What are three specific ways you think we could improve the manuscript?”

See, once we realized we had more work to do, hearing whether someone thought the current draft of the manuscript was great or not great was irrelevant. What was helpful was how you actually make the text better. Maybe that meant making a good manuscript great. Maybe that meant making a bad manuscript simply average. Either way, better is the right mantra in an environment of continual improvement.

What’s more, opening with the “like” question can actually be counterproductive. Ask somebody who was in the audience, “What’d you think of my speech?” and you will probably get some variant of “good,” especially if the person is of lower status. Any specific tips that follow will be under this potentially sugarcoated guise. Or, if they say they didn’t like it, you could get defensive or argumentative. Ask instead, “What is one thing I could have done better in the speech?” and you’ll jump right into something that’s potentially actionable–and avoid a potentially awkward like/dislike evaluation.

Bottom Line: If you know there’s still work to do — on your draft essay, on your public speaking skills, on your product — ask people for one or two specific ideas on how they’d improve it. Focus their mind exclusively on practical, specific changes that they think would lead to improvement.


I wrote a long essay titled “Behind the Book” summarizing other lessons learned from the process of publishing The Start-Up of You.

(Photo credit: Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)