What I Read Over the Holidays

I read a bunch of books over the Christmas break.

First, I read all three editions of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy. It’s really something. Very little plot. But a ton of fascinating little nuggets, reflections, sentences, and pieces of dialogue. Look it up if you’re not familiar with Cusk. The premise is you learn about the narrator based on her questions of and dialogue with other people. A ton of highlightable sentences, which I include below. Other books included an obscure theologican’s take on identity politics; Chernow’s exhaustive biography of John D. Rockefeller; and John McPhee’s book on tennis.

1. Outline: Book 1 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

A couple of years ago they gave me six months’ sabbatical, six whole months just for writing, and you know what? I put on ten pounds and spent most of the time wheeling the baby around the park. I didn’t produce a single page. That’s writing for you: when you make space for passion, it doesn’t turn up.

I thought often of the chapter in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff and Cathy stare from the dark garden through the windows of the Lintons’ drawing room and watch the brightly lit family scene inside. What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity: looking through the window the two of them see different things, Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they really are.

Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.

It was important, my neighbour said, to remember to enjoy yourself along the way: in a sense, this had become his philosophy of life these days. His third wife, he said, had been so puritanical that he sometimes felt no amount of pit-stops and pauses would make up for the years he spent with her, in which every event was faced head-on, unanaesthetised, and every little pleasure interrogated and either deemed unnecessary or else written down – with tax added on, he said – in a notebook she kept with her at all times for the purpose.

The idea that you should love your enemies is patently ridiculous. It is entirely a religious proposition. To say that you love what you hate and what hates you is the same as admitting you have been defeated, that you accept your oppression and are just trying to make yourself feel better about it.

‘Once I too bought my son a dog,’ she said in a shocked and quavering voice, ‘when he was a little child. He loved it madly, and while it was still a puppy it was run down before his eyes by a car in the street. He picked up its body and carried it back into the apartment, crying more wildly than I have ever known a person to cry. His character was completely ruined by that experience,’ she said. ‘He is now a cold and calculating man, concerned only with what he can get out of life. I myself put my trust in cats,’ she said, ‘who at least can settle the question of their own survival, and while they might lack the capacity for power and influence, and might be said to subsist on jealousies and a degree of selfishness, also possess uncanny instincts and a marked excellence in matters of taste.

2. Outline: Book 2 by Rachel Cusk

[On losing his gf’s beloved dog] He was standing at a busy intersection on Richmond Avenue. He had one glimpse of her, streaking like a brown arrow uptown through the traffic, and then she had completely vanished. It was strange, he said, but standing there on the sidewalk with the great grey chasms of Toronto’s streets extending away to every side of him and the leash dangling from his hand, he had felt for the first time that he was at home: the feeling of having unwittingly caused an irreversible change, of his failure being the force that broke new ground, was, he realised standing there, the deepest and most familiar thing he knew. By failing he created loss, and loss was the threshold to freedom: an awkward and uncomfortable threshold, but the only one he had ever been able to cross; usually, he said, because he was shoved across it as a consequence of the events that had brought him there. He had returned to Diane’s apartment and waited while the rooms grew dark, the leash still in his hand, until she got home. She knew instantly what had happened; and strange as it may sound, Gerard said, their relationship began at that point. He had destroyed the thing she loved most; she, in her turn, had exposed him to failure through expectations he was unable to fulfil. Without meaning to, they had found one another’s deepest vulnerabilities: they had arrived, by this awful shortcut, at the place where for each of them a relationship usually ended, and set out from there.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.

I think it might have something to do with paying attention not to what comes most naturally but to what you find most difficult. We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.

It inculcated in Julian the belief that he was special, because the fact of his existence was made noticeable in everything that happened. And that fact was becoming increasingly unbearable to his stepfather, who only didn’t hit him, Julian now realised, because he knew that if he started he wouldn’t be able to stop.

He wasn’t obliged to get his family’s permission but he wanted it anyway, because it wasn’t enough for it to be simply his truth, his point of view. Point of view, he said, is like those couples who cut the sofa in two when they get divorced: there’s no sofa any more, but at least you can call it fair.

He’s often been called brave for writing about it, but in fact, once he’d done it once, he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen. You only need one thing, he said, you only need the door to be left unlocked once. For a long time, after he’d moved to London and started the process of becoming himself, he was a bit of a mess. He was like a cupboard rammed full with junk: when he opened the door everything fell out; it took time to reorganise himself. And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of language was getting control of anger and shame, and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it

he often caught himself living in the mistaken belief that transformation was the same thing as progress. Things could look very different while remaining the same: time could seem to have altered everything, without changing the thing that needed to change.

the story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life. In the sense of what most people mean by living, she said. Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.

3. Outbook: Book 3 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

despite our nostalgia for the past and for history, we would quickly find ourselves unable to live there for reasons of discomfort, since the defining motivation of the modern era, he said, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind.

‘More than anything,’ he said, ‘people dislike being made to feel stupid, and if you arouse those feelings, you do so at your own cost.

Because they were conscious of her, everyone made an effort to say witty and interesting things. Yet because she didn’t conceal herself the conversation was never real: it was the conversation of people imitating writers having a conversation, and the morsels she fed on were lifeless and artificial, as well as being laid directly at her feet, so that the spectacle of her satisfaction was artificial too.

‘I guess it reminded me of having a kid,’ she said finally. ‘You survive your own death,’ she added, ‘and then there’s nothing left to do except talk about it.’

‘I admit,’ she said finally, ‘that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I’ve avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck. But it was important not to look as if I was boasting. It always felt then as if I had a secret,’

Friends of his had advised him that if he wanted to make it as a creative writer, he should stop savaging other people’s work, but you might as well ask a bird not to fly or a cat not to hunt; and besides, what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free?

There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause.

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman

A theologian presents a perspective on the rise of therapy culture and individualism and the cost of Christian values he holds dear. I disagreed with most of the points here but it was interesting to dip into the perspective of someone who thinks very, very differently from me. Highlights:

Take, for example, the issue of job satisfaction, something that is significant for most adults. My grandfather left school at fifteen and spent the rest of his working life as a sheet metal worker in a factory in Birmingham, the industrial heartland of England. If he had been asked if he found satisfaction in his work, there is a distinct possibility he would not even have understood the question, given that it really reflects the concerns of psychological man’s world, to which he did not belong. But if he did understand, he would probably have answered in terms of whether his work gave him the money to put food on his family’s table and shoes on his children’s feet. If it did so, then yes, he would have affirmed that his job satisfied him. His needs were those of his family, and in enabling him to meet them, his work gave him satisfaction.

And economic man thus gives way to the latest player on the historical stage, that which Rieff dubs “psychological man”—a type characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities as was true for the previous types but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.

even now in our sexually libertarian world, certain sexual taboos remain in place, pedophilia being perhaps the most obvious. Not all expressions of individuality, not all behaviors that bring about a sense of inner psychological happiness for the agent, are regarded as legitimate. Whether any given individual notices it or not, society still imposes itself on its members and shapes and corrals their behavior.

Emphasis on what we might call the “right to psychological happiness” of the individual will also have some obvious practical effects. For example, language will become much more contested than in the past, because words that cause “psychological harm” will become problematic and will need to be policed and suppressed.

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.

5. Titan: Biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is a massive book and deep look at one incredible American entrepreneur. Did not know how religious Rockefeller was, among so many other things.

This marriage, consummated under false pretenses, fused the lives of two highly dissimilar personalities, setting the stage for all the future heartache, marital discord, and chronic instability that would so powerfully mold the contradictory personality of John D. Rockefeller.

Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks—he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a pugnacious jaw—that people were instantly beguiled by him.

Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties, he developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

there’s no doubt that Rockefeller’s achievement arose from the often tense interplay between the two opposing, deeply ingrained tendencies of his nature—his father’s daring and his mother’s prudence—yoked together under great pressure.

When John was a child, Bill would urge him to leap from his high chair into his waiting arms. One day, he dropped his arms, letting his astonished son crash to the floor. “Remember,” Bill lectured him, “never trust anyone completely, not even me.”

Rockefeller never regretted his apprenticeship at Hewitt and Tuttle and, like many self-made men, lavished a retrospective tenderness on his early years.

As John knew, his father’s style as a banker followed a grimly manic pattern of conviviality giving way to Scrooge-like severity.

The year revealed both his finest and most problematic qualities as a businessman: his visionary leadership, his courageous persistence, his capacity to think in strategic terms, but also his lust for domination, his messianic self-righteousness, and his contempt for those shortsighted mortals who made the mistake of standing in his way.

Where Rockefeller differed most from his fellow moguls was that he wanted to be both rich and virtuous and claim divine sanction for his actions.

A sweet, good-natured woman, Cettie nevertheless had a strong didactic side that could verge on fanaticism. As she once confessed to a neighbor, “I am so glad my son has told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him.”

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

6. Levels of the Game by John McPhee

As I’m learning to play tennis more and more, I’d like to learn more about the history of the game. I actually haven’t read any McPhee — I’ll remedy that more in the future — but for now I dipped into his short take on the Arthur Ashe vs. Clark Graebner match and related issues related to race in tennis. One quote: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.”

Setting Up a Home Sauna and Cold Plunge

The most consequential purchase in my life in 2020? Installing a Finnish barrel sauna in my backyard in the Bay Area.

Over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying sauna more and more: Relishing hotels that offered them. Luxuriating in the steam room at the local Equinox gym several times a week. And making special treks to public saunas such as the Archimedes Banya in San Francisco or the vast Munich facility I visited last Christmas or bath houses in Turkey and Japan.

There’s something about sweating and then cold plunging — the contrast between the two — that I find incredibly relaxing and energizing.

Not that I’ve exactly made a new discovery here. Sweat traditions have been around forever, from the Native American sweat lodges to the bathhouses of Russia, Turkey, Finland, Japan, and elsewhere. For hundreds of years, in every corner of the globe, people have purposively sweat in search of benefits such as basic relaxation, skin health, cardiovascular health, and more. Pick a desired health outcome and there’s certainly many anecdotes, maybe even a study, that supports sauna’s salutary effects. The timeless popularity of sauna has been complemented in most of these places by a recognition of the energizing power of contrast: high heat and then low cold. Sauna + jumping in a cold lake, for example.

So among the many unfortunate consequences of Covid-19, one that hit me especially hard: all the saunas and gyms are closed! It finally felt right to invest in getting my own sauna for my own backyard. After a bit of research, I purchased an outdoor barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas.

The sauna arrived on a pallet, and a hired handyman assembled it in 5-6 hours. It’s a two-person sauna but it really just fits one person comfortably. An electrician had to run an upgraded power line out to connect to the Harvia heater inside the sauna — that took another half-day.

It’s beautiful:

In concert with the sauna, I bought a 150 gallon stock tank to serve as a cold plunge. I fill it up with garden hose water. No ice. It’s cold enough with simple hose water in the Bay Area. I put a little hydrogen peroxide in the water to keep it clean and empty it out every 10 days or so and re-fill with fresh water.  I haven’t done a DIY freezer set up yet; nor splurged on a super expensive dedicated cold plunge. For now, it does the trick.

In the two months I’ve had the sauna, I’ve used it about every other day. It’s glorious. Routine: 10-15 mins in the sauna at 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold plunge for 2-3 minutes while slowing inhaling and exhaling. Sit and rest for a few minutes and stare up at the enormous redwood tree in my backyard. Drink water. Then sauna again. The “stare up at the enormous redwood tree” is a real step in the process. I really hadn’t fully appreciated its majesty before the sauna routine. There’s something about warming back up after a plunge, sitting in the recliner chair, and staring up that produces a light spiritual experience:

As I was preparing to receive the sauna, I read a great book called The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience by Scott Carney. The wedge refers to the space between stimulus and response. For example, on the cold plunge experience: “At some point I told myself that it wasn’t cold that I was feeling on my skin; the muscle-tensing sensation caused by my environment was joy itself. This mental trick transmuted the entire experience. I consciously assigned a meaning to my sensations, and that alone made me more resilient.”

Scott takes a tour of different environments that produce stress and writes about their effect on the body. Among other things, Scott trained with Wim Hof.

Another excerpt from Scott:

“A person can choose a life path of muted sensations, avoiding pain and living indoors protected by a cocoon of technological comfort. That person can work a 40-hour work week, fully fund a retirement plan, carry acceptable insurance, dutifully pay taxes, have a few children and ultimately die comfortably in bed. This is the default life plan that many Americans follow.”

I also read Jesse Coomer’s e-book on cold exposure, which is a helpful overview of how to think about cold plunging and a cold practice in general.

If you’re getting interested in sauna, I’d recommend the Sauna Times, and the Sauna Talk podcast which is a delight to listen to for any sauna enthusiasts. If you’re interested in cold exposure, start by taking cold showers (do the last 1-2 minutes of your shower with just cold water) and focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Cold showers alone can be a tremendous boost to energy.

Some requests on my end:

  • I’m looking for tips on good sand timers (clocks) that won’t melt or get stuck inside the sauna. The one I bought has sand that’s jammed.
  • I’m interested in doing a sauna tour in Finland (or elsewhere). I.e. spend a week traveling and check out different saunas/bathhouses in the country. Any suggestions welcome.
  • If any entrepreneurs want to create a Soho House like business for sauna, let me know. Or a D2C business that involves sauna or cold plunges. Americans are slowly waking up to sauna and I bet there will be some interesting businesses built in the space.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books:

1. The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks by Ben Cohen. This was a lot of fun to read — full of fresh stories and research about the idea of the hot hand in basketball as well as in fields as varied as art and business and law. Originally, the hot hand existed anecdotally in the minds of basketball players (and other athletes). Then it was “disproven” by famous academics. Now it’s been proven again to be real in basketball (players can get “hot” and be more likely to make shots once hot). In fact, Cohen suggests a wide range of professionals can experience a hot hand. Shakespeare wrote many of his best plays in a period of a few months. Einstein “packed a career’s worth of intellectual achievements into a few months.”

Back when I was writing books, I often stayed up super late if I felt “hot” — unusually productive, focused. My productivity usually dropped off the subsequent day, due to lack of sleep or the chaos generated by pushing off whatever I had originally scheduled to have been doing during the period of time I unexpectedly got “hot” — but in the end it was worth it for the creative output the hot hand helped generate. I haven’t taken that approach in recent years. I run more structured days. I wonder if I should revert; whether I should be more attentive, at the micro productivity level, to when I’m feeling the hot hand in my venture work and “ride it” until I cool off. Thanks to Russ Roberts for recommending this book.

2. Writers & Lovers: A Novel by Lily King. An engaging, well written, pretty-easy-to-follow story chock full of quips that made me laugh or think. It’s especially resonant for anyone who’s tried writing a book though that background isn’t necessary to appreciate it, as the primary themes revolve around romantic life in general. Thanks to Marci Alboher for the rec.

3. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. One of the more troubling points of view that’s increasingly popular in our culture is the idea that some people ought to be banned from life if they make a serious mistake. I.e., if you make a serious mistake, your career ought to be ruined and you ought to live in shame for the rest of your life.

Most of the time, I believe we should not judge people for their worst mistakes in life if they’ve shown genuine remorse and rehabilitation. And we shouldn’t conclude someone’s even made a mistake until proof or evidence has been furnished. Yet modern social media culture seems to cultivate an atmosphere of take-downs, of kick ’em-while-they’re-down, of unrelenting scorched earth attempts to destroy someone’s reputation forever for whatever wrong they’re accused of committing. And accusation is all it takes; destroy now, find evidence later.

This book is a fascinating look at real life examples of people whose lives were destroyed — or attempted to be destroyed — by various internet mobs. “You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”

4. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. Eric and I “grew up” on the blogosphere together a long time ago. His popular self-help blog is always full of interesting studies and factoids about how to live a healthier, happier life. It took me awhile to get around to reading his book for some reason (sorry Eric!) but I finally read it and enjoyed it. A bunch of good nuggets and if you’re familiar with his blog and like it, you’ll like the book.

What Kinds of People Prefer In-Person vs. Zoom?

In these Covid times, we’ve all done more video chatting than ever before. Some people love it. Some people are missing in-person.

What are the personality, cognitive, and communication style correlates with someone preferring Zoom/video chat meetings to in-person or vice versa? This is not an exhaustive list of pros and cons of video vs. in-person companies or meetings, but specific to the individual personalities of people who seem to prefer one over the other.

People who prefer in-person meetings tend to be:

Extroverts. Extroverts report that socializing makes them feel *more* energized, whereas introverts get their batteries drained and then need solitude to recharge. In-person involves more energy transfer between and among the people involved than on a Zoom — either energy addition (for extroverts) or energy subtraction. (H/t ToddS)

Kinesthetically communicative. With physical touch, hugs, slaps, rubs, hand gestures, etc.

Good at reading other people’s body language. These tend to be people with a high degree of emotional intelligence which helps them read eye contact, body gestures, and “wayfind” in a conversation through subtle cues.

Physically attractive. And aware of how to use attractiveness in the room.

More “quiet” or reserved in meetings. Because they can get shouted over or interrupted more easily on videochat. In-person it’s easier for them to signal to a group, “I want to speak.”

“Personal” relationship builders who don’t always prioritize short term efficiency. These people bridge to personal topics as well as professional ones in meetings, broaching intimate topics based on the trust that’s usually only established in-person. Even if it means going off the agenda and “wasting” time to explore these areas.

People who prefer video chat meetings tend to be:

Introverts. For the inverse of the extravert reason above. Energy transfer in-person is more draining.

Focused on efficiency and productivity in meetings in the micro sense. There’s less random chit chat on a Zoom. On a video meeting, you get straight to the agenda, usually. If you don’t love small talk, you get to skip a lot of that when doing a video meeting. Easy to do a 15 minute video call; not easy to do a 15 minute coffee meeting.

Focused on efficiency and productivity in the macro sense. You can do 12 back to back Zooms in one day. No travel time. No walking between meetings. No down time. All meetings, all the time.

People who are socially awkward in person. Or people with body image issues. If your physical appearance isn’t a plus — Zoom helps level the playing field.

People with high computer cognitive skills and good multitasking skills. They can multitask while on a Zoom and get more done. In-person, you can more easily be “caught” and seen as rude if you’re multi-tasking in a meeting.

The fourth dimension

Myself? I find a lot to like about both videochat and in person. One of our founders recently said: In-person for innovation; remote for iteration. I think that captures it well: In-person seems superior for the most complex conversations. Videochat works well for small iterations on top of an agreed plan.

I don’t think we’ll ever go back to having as many in-person meetings as we did pre-Covid, given how effective Zoom is in so many use cases.

Nonetheless, I suspect that when people return to sustained in-person interaction, post-Covid, they’ll realize just how unsatisfying so many of their video calls are in comparison. They’ll remember the richness of being in person. I’ve certainly experienced this in the outdoor meeting I’ve participated in since Covid.

I’m reminded of a Po Bronson line: “Physical affection is a fourth dimension: You can get through life without ever knowing that it’s there, but it sure adds something to the experience when you open up to it.”

The More Success You Have, The More You Can (and Should) Hire Appropriately-Rated People

Talent markets tend to be efficient. In a given industry, great people are in high demand and command high salaries commensurate with their value, and bad people are in low demand and receive low salaries.

Of course, there are plenty of inefficiencies. We all know amazing people overlooked by employers for whatever reason. I’ve written about some of the “tells” of underrated people — for example, people who are especially bad at self-promotion, physically unattractive, socially awkward, etc. Auren Hoffman has a great list too of traits that signal underratedness.

Early in one’s entrepreneurial career — as you start companies, recruit people, corral support for your various projects — your only talent strategy option involves “talent arbitrage”: finding underrated people. You don’t have much money or status, so you bargain shop to find deals: people who provide outsize value for their cost.

I believe an important evolution to go through as a talent manager is to recognize when it makes sense to not default to prioritizing underrated people. When you have money and status, you can actually pay what it takes to get people who are “appropriately rated” on the open talent market.

Two reasons why you seek appropriately rated people:

1. Lower variance. Talent markets generally rate people accurately. High priced people are more reliably of the quality you expect. “Underrated” people can work out spectacularly from an ROI perspective but in my experience they can backfire more often, too.

2. Speed. The more successful you are, the higher your opportunity cost of time. So speed of process becomes relevant. It’s usually faster to partner with or hire people who are appropriately priced vs. scouring the earth for the hidden gem. This is especially the case if you’re hiring within a team and need to convince others of a given candidate’s abilities. Underrated people are by definition not obvious, which includes not obvious to your teammates whose buy-in you seek.

The recruiting strategies of startups vs. big companies illustrate this point. When a startup is looking for an ML engineer, and can only afford to pay the person scraps, they might find the college dropout who’s mostly self-taught but wicked smart and, of course, cheap, because Google doesn’t know he exists. When Google is looking for an ML engineer, they might make offers to all the PhDs coming out of Stanford’s CS department. The Google approach is more expensive, but more likely a reliable (not perfect!) filter for high talent, and certainly a lot faster. This is an imperfect example because what a company like Google needs in terms of talent make-up differs from what a start-up needs (e.g. hustle). But the overall point holds nonetheless, I think.

Now, the amount of success necessary to switch from “hire underrated people” to “hire appropriately rated people” can vary based on industry, functional area, etc. To take an extreme: If you’re a tech startup recruiting software engineers, even if you’ve raised a Series C and have breakout success — you might still need to employ a talent arbitrage strategy and hunt for underrated gems, because you’re still competing against enormous Google salaries.

Admittedly, this overall idea may not be earth shatteringly novel: it’s consistent with how humans generally approach consumption as their wealth increases. But it has special importance when you’re on a team or building an organization. The normal “life” pattern is that the broke college kid shops when things are on sale and the rich middle aged adult ignores discounts and shops when convenient. Some billionaires never kick their frugality habit in their personal lives. It can be irrational at times, even amusing, but it’s a personal decision. However, when talent managers fail to kick their “underrated” talent strategy even as their company or team obtains greater and greater power, it can be detrimental to the success of their overall organization. They’re missing out on reliably high quality people and they’re likely moving too slowly.

Bottom Line: “Talent arbitrage” of targeting underrated people is a necessary strategy in the early days as a talent manager. As you get more and more successful though, it makes sense to relax into the wisdom of the market, and cultivate a habit of hiring appropriately rated people.


A somewhat related, somewhat unrelated idea: I remember in my youth thinking I’d never spend more than X dollars on a piece of clothing or a meal or whatever. I simply could not understand why someone would spend $120 on a pair of jeans or $300 on a dinner. Now that I’ve had some outrageously expensive meals and few other expensive goods or experiences, I can see the appeal. I’m not just talking about the signaling benefits of conspicuous consumption. I’m talking about genuine appreciation for a product or service or experience that’s absolutely world class in quality.

Sometimes the attributes that makes a product, service, or experience world-class are subtle. The marker of a luxury hotel is usually not a flashy lobby; instead, it might show up in how the cleaning staff cleans and organizes your toiletries during housekeeping, and in a hundred other ways like that.

Is there a similarity here with “high end” talent? Do really expensive talent sometimes possess characteristics that are harder to appreciate from afar, but once you’ve worked with “the best” you realize just why these sorts of people are paid so much? In the same way that high end food and drink tend to stand out in subtle ways, the traits of high end talent may also be more subtle than something as blunt as years of experience. I’m thinking of traits like poise, emotional stability, genuine humility, a hard-to-describe “it” factor that causes other people to want to follow him/her, etc…

(Thanks to Auren Hoffman for reading a draft of this post.)