Monthly Archives: June 2013

“Self-Absorption is Actually the Most Boring Game in Town”

World Picture Journal posted a fascinating exchange between John David Rhodes, Jane Elliott, and Adam Phillips on topics including: the vagueness of the word ‘happiness’, why trying to neuter desire in the Buddhist sort of way will lead to depression, the value of frustration, escaping self-absorption, and psychoanalysis. Thanks to loyal blog reader T.C. for sending this to me a couple months ago. Favorite parts excerpted below.


John David Rhodes: In various places in your work there’s clearly a kind of skepticism about aiming to be happy or choosing that as a kind of goal, and so, as a place to start, I wonder if happiness is the wrong word for a lot of other things we talk about—like contentment, or pleasure, or joy, equanimity—and if we might be better off calling those things by what they are and disentangling them from this larger term.

Adam Phillips: Yes. I think the risk is that it’s a kind of dead word because it does too much work, and that, in a way, it only becomes talkable about if you do precisely what you’ve described: break it down into all the things that it might involve for individual people at any given moment, otherwise it becomes so vague in a way, it becomes the sort of thing that no one would encourage anybody not to be, and yet, you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re encouraging them to be happy, exactly, because it contains a multitude of sins…

Jane Elliott: One of things I’ve been thinking about is that although there is so much of a drive for happiness, obviously, in popular discourse—that we should always be wanting the next thing—there does seem to be at the moment some kind of counter-discourse that’s about somehow attenuating or getting away from one’s desire. I’m thinking of the Oprah culture, things like meditation, and yoga. As if happiness is sort of inversely proportionate to desire. It’s maybe a bastardized understanding of Buddhism, in a way. It’s as if we can somehow stop looking for the object, then we can be happy. It’s almost as if getting out of the time of desire, where you are constantly looking to the future, is going to solve things, because you can just “be in the moment.” So I was wondering what you think of this counter-discourse. Does it seem to be doing any useful work, or is it just another way of saying the same thing?

AP: It seems to me a good thing that people want to have conversations about the problems attached to desiring. I think what can’t work is being a sort of Buddhism tourist. I don’t think one is going to be able to simply appropriate, in a sort of supermarket-y way, other world religions as a solution to these problems. But I do think—and presumably the credit crunch has something to do with this—that it’s been very weird living as though there’s no such thing as scarcity, when in fact, in a way you could think there’s only scarcity. I think that people being able to have an ironic relationship to their own desire and also be aware of the fact (or what seems to me to be a fact anyway) that we don’t want what we want, in one sense, and also that we’re always going to want something else, and that satisfaction is not the answer to life, so to speak. Partly because there isn’t an answer to life, but partly because satisfaction isn’t always the point. So I think what people should be talking about is…people should be trying to produce more eloquent, persuasive accounts about the value of frustration, not the value of satisfaction. And I think that the equation of happiness with forms of satisfaction is the problem.

JE: We were discussing earlier how when you read some of these accounts of “being in the moment,” it actually sounds like what is being described is depression. Because when I think of having no object of desire, that’s like being dead.

AP: It is. Yes.

JE: It’s a strange utopianism.

AP: Yes, I agree. There’s also a strange logic to it, as well. The question is whether the problem in desiring is the object of desire. Now, logically, you think it must be. So what you’ve got to do is remove the object of desire from the picture and then we’ll be okay. But in a way, you’re left with more of the problem. Because you can’t get around the fact that you’re a desiring creature. You may have different ways of relating to an object of desire, but you can’t, it seems to me, evacuate objects of desire. It’s all about the way in which one approaches them, or what one thinks one wants from them.

JE: In a way, the inverse of thinking that the next object will fix things is thinking that getting rid of the object will fix things.

AP: Yeah, exactly.

JDR: The object, even if it’s a mistaken object, needs to be there. There needs to be an object, because it’s what happens in the movement towards or away from it that’s important.

AP: Yeah.

AP: There’s a very interesting idea that has unsurprisingly fallen out of circulation that Ernest Jones had, which was the idea of aphanisis, which is loss of desire. His idea was—and it seems to me a good one, and it’s one that psychoanalysis for some reason has dropped—is the idea that the individual’s terror is the absence of desire, and that desire might be something like the thing that Miles Davis said—that he woke up for years and years with music in his head and then one day he didn’t. Desire might be something that we wake up every day with, but one day we might not. The question would be then whether there are desireless states that aren’t depression, or that don’t need to be pathologized as a way of managing them. Because it would seem to me that it’s as though the fundamental terror that capitalism exploits is that we might not want anything. That’s the thing that we’ve all got to talk each other out of. That we really want things; in fact we want loads of things. I think, in that—the fervor of that—happiness gets recruited.

JDR: I guess what I wonder is what is the relation among pleasure, happiness, and desire, what is in that triangulation?

AP: When you said that, what I thought was that, for me anyway, pleasure has to do with absorption, and it has do with absorption in something that is at least nominally outside oneself. And absorption is the prior thing, I presume, that’s pleasure-driven, so to speak, even though the pleasure to be derived from it may not be clear at all. And happiness may be a consequence of states of absorption, but it may not be. So it would seem to me that happiness is the thing that may or may not occur, but that as an object of desire, it’s a radically misleading one. But it may be one of the good things that happens as a consequence of states of absorption.

JE: Is absorption so frequently pleasurable because it has to do with release from consciousness?

AP: Yes. Or release from consciousness as self-preoccupation. I think the project is—and actually, I think the project of psychoanalysis really is—to free people not to have to bother to be interested in themselves. What people—some people, anyway—are suffering from is self-absorption, and it’s actually the most boring game in town. There’s nothing in it, actually. The only interesting things, it seems to me, are outside oneself. Not because one is altruistic, but just because there’s nothing to be interested in in oneself, actually. Obviously it’s related to what’s going on inside oneself, but it’s to do with the external world. Happiness, if it’s going to be useful, is related to the sort of free loss of interest in oneself.

AP: …we should just accept the intractability of this, that we are creatures who hope, that the more in despair we are, the more we will hope exorbitantly, and the more there is the potential for catastrophic disillusionment. The acid test in anything is always going to be, how people deal with catastrophic disillusionment, which we’ve all had an experience of, without taking refuge in cynicism or bitterness or vengefulness. If that’s possible, then something can happen. And usually it isn’t.

Immigration and Tech Leadership

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s commencement speech at Stanford University the other week noted Reid and Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to pass immigration reform:

Many university presidents – including President Hennessy – have spoken out on this issue and the tech community here and in New York City has been very vocal. That includes Stanford alum Reid Hoffman, and also Mark Zuckerberg – who dropped out of a university often called “The Stanford of the East.”

They – and other tech leaders – are pushing for immigration reform through a new group called “Forward.”

FWD.US, the group the Mayor mentioned in his speech, recently released a short ad to prompt folks to reflect on Emma Lazarus’s famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, as a reminder of immigration’s role in our national history. Embedded below.


And here’s a photo of the Mayor, Reid, Mark Zuckerberg, and a few other FWD founders discussing immigration. It’s awesome to see so many tech and political leaders stepping up to bring awareness to the vital legislation being debated right now in Congress.

Simple Yet Hard, Public Market Investing Edition

Anyone who touches public market investing sings endless praise for Warren Buffett. But how many public market investors invest like Buffett — that is, actually employ the same strategy to generate superior returns? Remarkably few, it seems.

The Mutual Fund Observer recently profiled the Bretton Fund and interviewed its manager Stephen Dodson:

In imagining that firm and its discipline, [Dodson] was struck by a paradox: almost all investment professionals worshipped Warren Buffett, but almost none attempted to invest like him.  Stephen’s estimate is that there are “a ton” of concentrated long-term value hedge funds, but fewer than 20 mutual funds (most visibly The Cook and Bynum Fund COBYX) that follow Buffett’s discipline: he invests in “a small number of good business he believes that he understands and that are trading at a significant discount to what they believe they’re worth.”    He seemed particularly struck by his interviews of managers who run successful, conventional equity funds: 50-100 stocks and a portfolio sensitive to the sector-weightings in some index.

Stephen says:

I asked each of them, “How would you invest if it was only your money and you never had to report to outside shareholders but you needed to sort of protect and grow this capital at an attractive rate for the rest of your life, how would you invest.  Would you invest in the same approach, 50-100 stocks across all sectors.”  And they said, “absolutely not.  I’d only invest in my 10-20 best ideas.” 

The obvious question is why this is. There are various incentives that distort fund managers’ behavior, certainly. But my guess is that a large number of public market investors think they’re investing like Buffett, but they’re actually not disciplined enough to follow the value strategy all the way. It’s no wonder the average returns from actively managed mutual funds (versus index funds) are so disappointing.

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I should note that Steve is one of my closest friends. And not just because he’s made me money from my being an investor in the Bretton Fund.

Learning to Own the Room

I recently attended an Own the Room public speaking and communication course in New York.

I’ve done a lot of public speaking, from enterprise software sales pitches in the early days, to paid keynote speeches more recently. But I’ve never formally trained. I’ve relied on some natural ability, decent content, and feedback from friends/clients along the way.

Over the past year, I felt like I hit a plateau in my verbal communication/presenting skill. I also came to the more general realization — described in my recent blog post on investing in yourself — I should be investing aggressively in my existing strengths. So I flew to New York and participated in the intensive Own the Room bootcamp, which had been referred to me by several people in my network.

It was phenomenal. I learned so much. Here are some reflections.

The native speaker who can’t write or understand grammar. When I took Spanish classes in school in California, there were always a few near-native speakers — immigrants whose parents spoke Spanish at home. Their accent was perfect and conversational pattern fluid, but occasionally they would unknowingly make very basic grammatical errors. They were never taught grammar; they couldn’t spell many words they spoke. Going through this course, I felt like I was that native Spanish speaker: when I speak or verbally communicate, I do a fine job most of the time, but now I know I make some really basic mistakes. Until this course, I wasn’t aware of the mistakes, let alone how to improve them. I’d argue that many business execs with a natural flair for speaking fall into this camp. They’re quite good, but they won’t get to great without stretching themselves beyond their natural ability.

The bootcamp model. I’ve blogged about the bootcamp model of learning. Own the Room definitely fits that mold — a couple super intensive days focused on a single topic. I still seek a framework by which you can evaluate when a format of learning fits the type of learning — i.e., I think a bootcamp model works well for public speaking, but not for language learning, say.

Demand feedback. “What did I do well? What could I do better next time?”After every module exercise, we “demanded feedback” from our partner or small group or coach by asking these two questions. This is a general learning theme, of course, but was emphasized to such a degree in Own the Room that it stuck with me more than anything else. (“What could I do better next time?” is an example of ‘feedforward’ instead of ‘feedback’ as Marshall Goldsmith calls it — constructive feedback focuses on what you can do better next time.)

Presence comes from change. Dynamic leaders have presence. It’s a hard thing to define. When do you feel someone’s “presence” in a room?  You feel presence when they change. Change their physical position. Change the volume of their voice. Change the speed of their voice. Change their point/topic. Change = presence. A huge learning.

Voice modulation and pauses. I discovered in the class two key weaknesses in how I verbally communicate. First, I don’t employ pauses enough. The rightly timed pause can make such a difference in how a point lands in the audience. Second, I don’t modulate my voice. I don’t use the full range of volume. I’m too monotone too often.

“Imagine…” Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words.

Here’s a video of highlights from the first day of the course I attended.

And here’s a clip of Bill Hoogterp, owner of Own the Room, teaching voice modulation and body language:

Book Review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

At Renaissance Weekend a few months ago, I heard a phenomenal lecture by Michael Starbird, a mathematician at the University of Texas. Afterwards, I bought his book, co-authored with Williams College professor Edward Burger, called The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.effective

It’s a very short, lively book that persuasively makes the case that there are learnable general skills that contribute to clear thinking and effective problem solving. The four elements they highlight are:

Understand deeply: Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success. Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right.

Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers— they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air— the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

Follow the flow of ideas: Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare— milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

(The fifth element is change.)

To remember these, they associate each of the four habits with a classic element of nature: Earth (understand deeply), Fire (make mistakes), Air (ask questions), Water (follow the flow).

I found many good points on each front, especially on the importance of depth of understanding. Kindle highlights below. All direct quotes from the book; bolded sentences my own addition.



You can understand anything better than you currently do. Setting a higher standard for yourself for what you mean by “understanding” can revolutionize how you perceive the world.

The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth. Professional tennis players watch the ball; mathematicians understand a nuanced notion of number; successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.

The fundamental difference between the true master and the talented students clearly occurred at a far more basic level than in the intricacies of complex pieces. Tony explained that mastering an efficient, nuanced performance of simple pieces allows one to play spectacularly difficult pieces with greater control and artistry.

Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master. Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together? Now compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss). When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action.

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come. If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. —George Polya

Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve. Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue. But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue. First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.

I simply asked the artist, “Tell me one insight into painting.” The artist, a bit surprised by the out-of-the-blue request, thought for several moments and then responded, “Shadows are the color of the sky.” I didn’t really believe him at first. Like most people, I thought shadows were gray or black, but if you look closely, you will see that indeed shadows in the great outdoors do have color—albeit subtle. I had seen shadows every day of my life, but I was wrong about what they really look like. Those colorful shadows gave me a whole new view of the world—a fresh perspective that transcends the art of painting.

Let’s return to a time in which photographs were not in living color. During that period, people referred to pictures as “photographs” rather than “black-and-white photographs” as we do today. The possibility of color did not exist, so it was unnecessary to insert the adjective “black-and-white.” However, suppose we did include the phrase “black-and-white” before the existence of color photography. By highlighting that reality, we become conscious of current limitations and thus open our minds to new possibilities and potential opportunities. World War I was given that name only after we were deeply embattled in World War II. Before that horrific period of the 1940s, World War I was simply called “The Great War” or, even worse, “The War to End All Wars.” What if we had called it “World War I” back in 1918? Such a label might have made the possibility of a second worldwide conflict a greater reality for governments and individuals, and might have led to better international policy decisions. We become conscious of issues when we explicitly identify and articulate them.

From the physical world to society, academics, personal relations, business, abstract ideas, and even sports, a deep examination of the simple and familiar is a potent first step for learning, thinking, creating, and problem solving.

instead extract a new insight from that misstep and correctly think, “Great: one down, nine to go—I’m making forward progress!” And indeed you are. After your first failure, think, “Terrific, I’m 10% done!” Mistakes, loss, and failure are all flashing lights clearly pointing the way to deeper understanding and creative solutions.

Success is not about almost always succeeding. How would you feel if you were failing about 60% of the time? Sounds like a solid “F.” Well, in certain contexts you’d be a superstar. A major league baseball player who failed 60% of the time—that is, who had a batting average of .400—would be phenomenal. No

A transformative but challenging personal policy is to never pretend to know more than you do. Don’t build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don’t know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action—ask a question.

If you are a teacher or a manager, instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” assume there are, and say, “Talk to your neighbor for sixty seconds and write down two questions.” Then randomly call on pairs to read their questions. That is, instead of asking whether there are questions, tell your listeners that they are to create questions—an important habit to develop for lifelong learning and curiosity.

there are at least two kinds of ignorance: cases in which you know the right question but not the answer, and cases in which you don’t even know which question to ask.

recognize that each new idea extends a line that started in the past and travels through the present into the future. Successful and effective learners and innovators harness the power of the flow of ideas, which suggests the element Water.

When you learn a new concept or master a skill, think about what extensions, variations, and applications are possible. It’s natural to think of the moment when you’ve solved a problem or mastered a new idea as a time to party and rest on your laurels—as if you’ve arrived at the final chapter of some great story. In fact, a bed of laurels will never offer a satisfying rest, and a new idea or solution should always be viewed as a beginning. Effective students and creative innovators regularly strive to uncover the unintended consequences of a lesson learned or a new idea. The time to work on a problem is after you’ve solved it. —R. H. Bing

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. —Pablo Picasso

Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme. If you are arguing one side of an issue, support the side you truly believe; then make the argument so exaggerated that you realize that it’s way over the top. Now study your exaggerated description and discover some underlying defect. Does that defect also exist in a nonexaggerated perspective?

“He’s a Grown Man”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich speaking to the press about LeBron James, after the Heat’s Game 1 loss and criticisms of LeBron not being aggressive enough:

He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need any of you to tell him anything. He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.

(hat tip: porejide)

On the Airwaves…

Chris and I spent an hour on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR show “OnPoint” yesterday, discussing the New Employer-Employee Compact. Smart host, smart callers from around the country, a fine conversation overall.

We also were in conversation recently with our editor Justin Fox for the HBR Ideacast about the themes of the article. 20 minutes; hits the high level themes.