Monthly Archives: December 2015

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

My friend Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World comes out on January 5, 2016, and I highly recommend it.

As Cal defines it, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Deep work is a superpower in the modern economy, Cal argues, as fewer and fewer people possess the ability of going deep. Instead they get lost in a blur of social media and email and other infosnack addictions.

I’m sold on the diagnosis. Deep work — producing the sort of valuable accomplishments that only happen with hard focus over a long period of time — is critical in many industries. It’s an increasingly rare skill, which makes it all the more valuable in those environments that demand it.

Cal’s solution — the “what do you do about this?” section in the book — is bold. Plan your days diligently week-by-week. Go cold turkey on social media. Embrace boredom and train your mind to not require constant stimulation. Among other ideas.

Cal’s strategy benefits from at least two work patterns, which are not universal to all professionals. First, you know what you want to do and what your priorities are. Clarity around a personal mission drives structured work processes. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Second, you have a relatively structured, not-especially-externally-facing job in which pre-planning is possible, social media absence not detrimental (i.e. you don’t have a boss that insists upon it in order to talk to customers), and so on.

In my long review of The Age of the Infovore, I describe the advantages of a life filled with diverse, “distracting” information inputs, and push back a bit against claims that all distractions are bad distractions. To this end, I won’t be abandoning social media anytime soon.

That said, as social media has expanded deeper and deeper into our lives, I’ve become more and more concerned about my own ability to focus and do deep sea thinking for long periods of time. (How many times have I opened new browser tabs and gotten distracted while even writing this blog post? I’m too embarrassed to say.) What’s more, when I reflect on my accomplishments, I find myself deriving more satisfaction and pride from the things that took a long time to complete and are demonstrably “harder” than average to execute. Publishing books, for example, or building out teams inside organizations. So I find myself more and more drawn to Cal’s thinking. And, even if you don’t accept his prescription wholesale, there are various practical nuggets that anyone can and probably should adopt to be a more effective professional.

Over the years, Cal and I have talked about the thesis for Deep Work many times on walks, over drinks, and on phone calls. To see his thinking evolve and sharpen into this book — the latest in a series of winners — has been a real pleasure. I hope my 2016 involves more deep work.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been flipping through a bunch of books that people have sent me. A few recent ones on my Kindle that I read in full:

1. How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman

Dov is founder and CEO of LRN, a leading corporate learning firm that specializes in ethics and compliance. His book How encapsulates his philosophy of business (and life) very well. It’s a deep examination of what corporate “values” are and why they matter. A few paragraphs I enjoyed (taken out of order):

Roughly two centuries ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that the moral imagination diminishes with distance. It follows that the moral imagination should increase as the world becomes smaller with the globalization of information and capital. And so it has. We are no longer distant, and therefore we need to reawaken our moral imaginations.

Engagement scores among U.S. and many global workers have tumbled in recent years. I think that’s because we’ve been spending too much time engaging workers with carrots and sticks, and not nearly enough time inspiring them with values and missions worthy of their commitment.

I call it the paradox of success—that you can’t achieve success by pursuing it directly. Inspirational leaders understand that real, sustainable value can be achieved only when you pursue something greater than yourself that makes a difference in the lives of others.

It reminded me of the old story about two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second replies, “Building a cathedral.” Some people see themselves as bricklayers. Angel builds cathedrals. He doesn’t define himself narrowly, as simply a package delivery person

A Swiss person might tend to distrust a South Korean because, in the Swiss person’s view, Koreans don’t respect authority, and that Korean might in turn disrespect the Swiss believing that they do not sufficiently value friendship and loyalty

Metaphorically, leaders don’t show up and tell you perfect time; as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras told us so brilliantly in Built to Last, leaders build clocks that keep telling the time whether they are there or not.

2. The Power to Compete by Hiroshi Mikitani and Ryoichi Mikitani

In Tokyo a couple years ago, for the release of The Start-up of You in Japanese, Reid and Mikitani, the founder/CEO of Rakuten, did a fireside chat. I was impressed by Miki’s comments that evening and by his accomplishments more generally, obviously. Rakuten is an internet giant by any standard. But more striking than Rakuten is his total commitment to revitalizing Japanese entrepreneurial culture at large. This short book is a conversation between he and his economist father about what Japan needs to do to win in the 21st century. A surprisingly enlightening book and recommended for Japanophiles.

3. Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

I couldn’t wrap my head around the overall thesis here but the first half of the book contained some quotable nuggets about innovation, information, and globalization. A few quotes:

There are two pieces of bread. You ate two. I ate none. Average consumption: one bread per capita. —NICANOR PARRA

Today our world is still linguistically fragmented, but that fragmentation is both declining and structured. Twelve thousand years ago, humans spoke an estimated twelve thousand languages. An estimated six thousand languages are spoken worldwide today, but most of the world’s population communicates in a few global languages. And in many important online and offline forums, including Twitter, Wikipedia, and book translations, English has emerged as the “hub” language bridging communication between most other languages.20 As a Chilean married to a Russian, working with students from the United States, Israel, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Chile, Argentina, Germany, and India, I am a living example of the benefits that the existence of a global hub language

Knowledge and knowhow are so “heavy” that when it comes to a simple product such as a cellphone battery, it is infinitely easier to bring the lithium atoms that lie dormant in the Atacama Desert to Korea than to bring the knowledge of lithium batteries that resides in Korean scientists to the bodies of the miners who populate the Atacaman cities of Antofagasta and Calama. Our world is marked by great international differences in countries’ ability to crystallize imagination. These differences emerge because countries differ in the knowledge and knowhow that are embodied in their populations, and because accumulating knowledge and knowhow in people is difficult.

It was in this Q&A that a student asked, “Pep, if we built a team of robots, would you come and coach it?” His reply was short and cunning. He said, and I paraphrase: “The main challenge of coaching a team is not figuring out a game plan, but getting that game plan into the heads of the players. Since in the case of robots I do not see that as a challenge, I kindly decline your offer.” Pep’s answer summarized succinctly one of the main challenges of working with teams of humans. His years of coaching experience had taught him that one of the most difficult aspects of his work was not just figuring out a game plan but distributing the plan among his players.

Book Notes: Drive by Dan Pink

I respect Dan Pink a ton. He writes original, provocative business books. He speaks well. He’s intellectually curious. And, full disclosure, he’s also been helpful to us with The Start-up of You and The Alliance. He did a Q&A with Reid, Chris, and me on the Amazon page for The Alliance.

I’ve been meaning to read his book Drive for awhile. You see it everywhere — airports, bookstores, office shelves. It met my high expectations. It’s an engaging tour of what drives people to be the way they are. My highlights from the book below. (I had one nice small surprise reading it. Pink was telling a story that seemed so familiar that I looked up the endnote and he cited my old AEI piece on side projects.)

Bottom Line: Drive is a good read for any manager thinking about how to get the most of his or her people.


[Organizations] still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash, and pizza coupons to “incentivize” them to learn. Something has gone wrong.

Try to encourage a kid to learn math by paying her for each workbook page she completes—and she’ll almost certainly become more diligent in the short term and lose interest in math in the long term.

[Paying people to donate blood] It tainted an altruistic act and “crowded out” the intrinsic desire to do something good. Doing good is what blood donation is all about. It provides what the American Red Cross brochures say is “a feeling that money can’t buy.” That’s why voluntary blood donations invariably increase during natural disasters and other calamities. But if governments were to pay people to help their neighbors during these crises, donations might decline.

Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy.

Contrast that approach with behavior sparked by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself—deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best—there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.

[Fining parents who pick up kids late] The theory underlying the fine, said Gneezy and Rustichini, was straightforward: “When negative consequences are imposed on a behavior, they will produce a reduction of that particular response.” In other words, thwack the parents with a fine, and they’ll stop showing up late. But that’s not what happened. “After the introduction of the fine we observed a steady increase in the number of parents coming late,” the economists wrote. “The rate finally settled, at a level that was higher, and almost twice as large as the initial one.” And in language reminiscent of Harry Harlow’s head scratching, they write that the existing literature didn’t account for such a result. Indeed, the “possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished was not even considered.” Up pops another bug in Motivation 2.0. One reason most parents showed up on time is that they had a relationship with the teachers—who, after all, were caring for their precious sons and daughters—and wanted to treat them fairly. Parents had an intrinsic desire to be scrupulous about punctuality. But the threat of a fine—like the promise of the kronor in the blood experiment—edged aside that third drive.

In other words, where “if-then” rewards are a mistake, shift to “now that” rewards—as in “Now that you’ve finished the poster and it turned out so well, I’d like to celebrate by taking you out to lunch.” As Deci and his colleagues explain, “If tangible rewards are given unexpectedly to people after they have finished a task, the rewards are less likely to be experienced as the reason for doing the task and are thus less likely to be detrimental to intrinsic motivation.”

But take a step back and think again. Management didn’t emanate from nature. It wasn’t handed to us from God. It’s something that somebody invented. It is, as the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, a technology—and an 1850s technology at that. Now look around your office or home. How many nineteenth-century technologies are you still using? Sure, some companies have oiled management’s gears, and others have sanded off its rough edges. But at its core this technology hasn’t changed much in more than a hundred years. Its paramount goal remains compliance, its central ethic remains control, and its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators.

Autonomy, as they see it, is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice—which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one.

But the billable hour has little place in Motivation 3.0. For nonroutine tasks, including law, the link between how much time somebody spends and what that somebody produces is irregular and unpredictable.

The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us toward different destinations. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.

According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., in some countries as little as 2 to 3 percent of the workforce is highly engaged in their work.

Goldilocks tasks offer us the powerful experience of inhabiting the zone, of living on the knife’s edge between order and disorder, of—as painter Fritz Scholder once described it—“walking the tightrope between accident and discipline.”

So the shrewdest enterprises afford employees the freedom to sculpt their jobs in ways that bring a little bit of flow to otherwise mundane duties. Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, two business school professors, have studied this phenomenon among hospital cleaners, nurses, and hairdressers. They found, for instance, that some members of the cleaning staff at hospitals, instead of doing the minimum the job required, took on new tasks—from chatting with patients to helping make nurses’ jobs go more smoothly. Adding these more absorbing challenges increased these cleaners’ satisfaction and boosted their own views of their skills. By reframing aspects of their duties, they helped make work more playful and more fully their own. 

“Purpose provides activation energy for living,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi told me in an interview. “I think that evolution has had a hand in selecting people who had a sense of doing something beyond themselves.”

That’s the thinking behind the simple and effective way Robert B. Reich, former U.S. labor secretary, gauges the health of an organization. He calls it the “pronoun test.” When he visits a workplace, he’ll ask the people employed there some questions about the company. He listens to the substance of their response, of course. But most of all, he listens for the pronouns they use. Do the workers refer to the company as “they”? Or do they describe it in terms of “we”? “They” companies and “we” companies, he says, are very different places.

According to The Boston Globe, they believe that “companies can improve their employees’ emotional well-being by shifting some of their budget for charitable giving so that individual employees are given sums to donate, leaving them happier even as the charities of their choice benefit.” In other words, handing individual employees control over how the organization gives back to the community might do more to improve their overall satisfaction than one more “if-then” financial incentive.

Lessons and Impressions of Egypt

cairo

After a week in Dubai for business, I headed over to Cairo for the RiseUp Entrepreneurship Summit. The conference was stunning in its scale. Some 4,000 registrants crowded into several sprawling campuses to network, listen to speakers, and get exposed to the entrepreneurial dream. I also spent a day being a tourist. As always, the locals on the ground were exceptionally nice and helpful and oftentimes inspiring.

Here were some of my takeaways from visiting Egypt for the first time.

Pure chaos. From the moment you land in Cairo, you begin to spot cultural norms that are telling. After the plane touched down, while it was still moving and taxi-ing to the gate, the local Egyptians just got up and started taking their bags out of the overheard compartments. The flight attendants didn’t bother to try to stop them. Then, upon exiting the airport and getting in my driver’s car, the driver noticed me looking for a seatbelt that doesn’t exist. “Don’t worry,” he says, “You don’t need one. You’ll see.” We began our seatbelt-less drive into downtown Cairo. We never moved faster than 15 MPH. The traffic is so stifling that even if there were an accident no one would get hurt since everyone’s moving so slowly. The slow speeds don’t stop folks from honking, though. The honking squeals non-stop throughout the city as cars maneuver on roads without lanes and pedestrians attempt to cross streets with no cross walk signal.

One day, with a guide, we stopped and watched a bunch of drivers attempt, through sheer force, to convert a two-way street into a one-way street to accommodate the direction they were heading. Quite literally they all just turned into the two way street and took over both lanes in order to block the cars trying to head down the street toward them. The tour guide, an Egyptian who’s traveled a lot internationally, cursed his compatriots for ignoring most the basic rules of the road. And then he said wistfully, “The thing I love most about the U.S. is how cars pull over to the side when emergency vehicles flash their sirens.”

When I relayed these anecdotes to some locals, they affectionally referred to Cairo as “organized chaos,” a phrase that didn’t totally resonate. I found the chaos more energy-draining than energy-adding — especially as a pedestrian.

The legacy of the revolution. “There was no Egypt for the couple years after the revolution of 2011,” one local told me. By which he meant: laws were not really enforced. Uncertainty reigned.  The uprisings — which gave rise to the broader Arab Spring — ejected an unelected despot but created a power vacuum then filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were subsequently overthrown in a coup by the military. During these years of tumult, the civic institutions of Egypt eroded. Smart people left. Tourism plunged. The country is trying to pull itself up and out of all this. It’s a work in progress. Those who have stayed are committed to defining the next chapter in Egypt’s history. They are the reason for hope.

Entrepreneurship ecosystem. Many smart people who feel powerless to change the politics of the country are turning to entrepreneurship instead. And many people who are simply lifelong entrepreneurs through and through are stepping up and beginning to organize themselves. There’s a nascent entrepreneurship ecosystem in Egypt led in large part by the remarkable Ahmed El Alfi, who’s renovated the Greek Campus to be a hotbed of startup activity in Cairo. He also launched the regional startup accelerator Flat6Labs. My good friend Chris Schroeder (who’s in the photo above with me) wrote a book that is the definitive account of 21st century middle east tech entrepreneurship — it features Alfi. On the flip side of most of what’s broken in the middle east lies an opportunity for an entrepreneur to build a solution. Opportunity is the flip side of frustration.

Interestingly, one entrepreneur we met with described his very impressive business as a “form of resistance” against the government. Resistance through capitalism; resistance through global trade. It’s quite moving to hear these sentiments and quite true, I think. Running his company is one of the best ways to shape Egypt’s future with the values that he believes in. This motivation does complicate a traditional business analysis of his company, though, since it’s not purely — or even primarily — being driven to maximize shareholder returns.

The word among Egyptian entrepreneurship ecosystem leaders is that what’s holding back the entrepreneurs is lack of capital. Money hasn’t caught up with the talent yet. Seems likely. Markets tend to be efficient…eventually. In Silicon Valley, where capital for startups is abundant, perhaps too abundant, we tend to forget just how special it is to have dozens of investors compete for the opportunity to invest in a startup. Growth markets like Egypt seem to be a couple institutional, mid to late stage investors away from an environment in which most of the credible local entrepreneurs can raise seed and early stage funding from local investors (and get terms that are ever more founder friendly). Will these investors be funding billion dollar Silicon Valley style unicorns? Not for awhile, but that’s not the only way to generate great venture returns — and it’s certainly not the only model for building a great business.

One small but interesting regional dynamic: Given the overall volatility in the middle east, Dubai has emerged as a regional hub that attracts the most international talent and capital. More than one Egyptian entrepreneur prefaced a conversation with me in Cairo by saying, “I haven’t moved to Dubai because…” Where the best local talent ends up will determine which ecosystems thrive.

I didn’t spend enough time in Egypt to make any meaningful conclusions about what’s happening there economically (and certainly politically). But the shift of geo-political power from west to east, the rise of a global middle class empowered by technology, the faster spread of innovation through interconnected populations — these are some of the central stories of our lifetime. Egypt will be part of this story. American investors like Dave McClure recognize this macro trend and are putting their money where their mouths are. More from Silicon Valley will follow. Why? Because entrepreneurial people chase opportunity even when there’s risk — perhaps especially when there’s risk. And the next great opportunity is on the frontier, where billions of people are coming online with smartphones…

Pyramids. As Richard Nixon might have said, the Great Pyramid of Giza is a very great pyramid indeed. So amazing to see the scale up close and personal. It’s a short drive from Cairo and it’s a great time to visit because of the lack of tourists.

Embassy areas that feel like war zones. It’s eerie to walk around the row of embassies in Cairo, including the streets around the U.S. Embassy. It’s quiet because armed soldiers walk around on blocked off streets. Ginormous blocks of concrete stack up along the roads. Our tour guide reminisced that when he was a kid growing up in Cairo he would go over to the American embassy on the weekends and watch movies in the grass yard inside the courtyard, right under the American flag. American kids would pass out candy. Today, you can hardly see the flag from the outside, obscured as it is by the concrete and barbed wire. Our guide asked wistfully, “What has happened to the world?”

Selfies for everyone. A striking moment in the gate area flying from Dubai to Cairo: A woman fully veiled in a burqa making multiple attempts at the perfect selfie.

Trump in the Muslim world. Muslims are listening to Donald Trump’s bigoted proposals. The damage to the American idea is incalculable.

Relationship Building vs. Networking via Reid

I wrote a piece on LinkedIn about the difference between networking and relationship building, using recent media profiles of Reid Hoffman — which mistakenly refer to him as a “networker” — as the impetus for the post. Opening:

My co-author Reid Hoffman, as co-founder of Linkedin and a successful investor in Silicon Valley, is the subject of many media profiles. Frequently, these profiles extol the power of his network. NPR’s story about our book The Start-up of Youwas headlined “Networking Tips from The Ultimate Networker.” Last month, Bloomberg magazine’s long and flattering profile of Reid was headlined in the print edition “Tech’s Ultimate Networker.”

It’s an unfortunate word choice that distorts how Reid thinks about relationships. And it misses the deeper point about what it means to work in a networked age.

Read the whole thing.