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Elon Musk on How To Build Knowledge

elon musk
Elon Musk recently did an AMA on reddit. Here are three question-and-response pairs that I enjoyed, including how to build knowledge.

He knows how to say I don’t know.

Previously, you’ve stated that you estimate a 50% probability of success with the attempted landing on the automated spaceport drone ship tomorrow. Can you discuss the factors that were considered to make that estimation?

Musk: I pretty much made that up. I have no idea :)

Everyone has that one teacher…

I’m a teacher, and I always wonder what I can do to help my students achieve big things. What’s something your teachers did for you while you were in school that helped to encourage your ideas and thinking? Or, if they didn’t, what’s something they could have done better?

Musk: The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason and he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year.

We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn’t do the work, you didn’t get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.

Finally, his answer on building knowledge reminds me of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking and the latticework of mental models.

How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Musk: I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Follow your curiosity to Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books.

(image source: forbes)

The Four Levels of Reading: Improve Skills One Level At A Time

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot. My Hero, Charlie Munger, said it best “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Picking up a book and reading the words is the easy part. Reading to understand is much harder.

The key is not simply to read more but rather be selective about what we reading and how we are reading.

This article, the first in a multi-part series on improving our reading skills, outlines the four levels of reading.

“Books give delisght to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join us in a living and intense intimacy.” — Petrarch

Mortimer Adler originally published How To Read A Book in 1940. It immediately became a bestseller. Since that time the book has been updated and recast many times, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

How To Read A Book

Active Reading

There is no such thing as passive reading. All reading, to some degree, is active reading. The only difference is that some reading is more active than others. And when it comes to reading to learn something or reading for information something the more active your reading habits the better.

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

Success in reading is determined to the extent that you receive what the writer intended to communicate. That doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you understood them.

Reading For Understanding or Information

Assuming we’re not reading for entertainment, there are two things we generally want to get from reading. We can read to acquire information and facts or we can read to learn something new and improve our understanding.

Reading for entertainment is self-explanatory.

Reading for information is the one in which we read media or anything else that’s easily digestible. These things give us more information but don’t improve our understanding. There is no shock, no moment of … that doesn’t make sense.

Alternatively, we can try to read something by someone who knows more about the subject than we do. After reading works by authors who know more about a subject than we do, our understanding is changed … it may be the case that we better understand something or perhaps we understand that our understanding was incomplete. Either way, our understanding has changed.

The easiest way to improve our understanding is from people who understand more about the subjec than we do.

So half the battle of reading for understanding is to identify and select works from someone (or a group of people) who know more about a subject than we do. The internet and Amazon have made this much easier with ratings and book reviews.

And if you can read for understanding, you need not worry about reading for information or entertainment as, being less demanding, they will take care of themselves.

Instruction or Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This is the difference between being knowing the name of something and knowing something.

… if you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You can’t be enlightened unless you are informed, however you can be informed but not enlightened.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”

The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.

The Greeks had a name for people who have read too widely and not well, sophomores.

Being widely read and well-read are not the same thing. Adler argues that to avoid this error we must distinguish between how we learn into instruction and discovery.

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

The 4 Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines the best way to read the material in question. If we’re reading for entertainment, we’re going to read a lot differently than if we’re reading to build a rocket ship.

A thorough understanding of the levels of reading is necessary before we can improve our reading skills.

There are four levels of reading. They are thought of as levels because you can’t reach the higher levels without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

1. Elementary Reading

The first level of reading is elementary reading, which is what we learned to do in elementary school. Most of us never get beyond this level.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

2. Inspectional Reading

The second level of reading is inspectional reading, which can be thought of us intelligently skimming a book in a limited amount of time. Not only does this prime our brain with the material in the book, but it helps us determine if we want to read the entire book.

Adler writes:

[A]nother name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

The point of inspectional reading is to examine the “surface” of the book.

Adler guides us:

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Inspectional reading is underappreciated by a lot of readers because they see it as a waste of time.

A lot of people like to read linearly. They pick up a book, turn to page one, and plow steadily through it without ever reading so much as the table of contents. “They are,” writes Adler, “thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it.” This makes reading more difficult, not less.

3. Analytical Reading

The third level of reading is called analytical reading, which goes deeper than inspectional reading. If your goal in reading is entertainment or acquiring information, analytical reading is not necessary. However, if you are reading to improve understanding, analytical reading is entirely necessary.

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. … Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … [A]nalytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Francis Bacon remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Think of analytical reading as chewing and digesting.

4. Syntopical Reading

The fourth and most difficult level of reading is syntopical reading.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. … With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on how to improve our reading skills.

Disruption Persuasion

One persuasion idea everyone should know is the free to choose technique.

This simple approach is all about reaffirming people’s freedom to choose. When you ask someone to do something, you add on the sentiment that they are free to choose.

But that isn’t the only simple persuasion technique carrying a large impact. Another, involving a little more effort, is the disrupt-then-reframe (DTR) technique.

Davis and Knowles (1999) first brought to light the DTR technique demonstrating that it was “influential in getting household residents to purchase cards supporting a local charity.”

The authors created a new influence technique involving a small disruption (stating the price of a package of note cards in pennies rather than dollars) and a direct reframing (saying, “It’s a bargain”).

In the control the authors told people it was $3 for 8 cards. Sales were made at 40% of the households in the control case. The the authors introduced a DTR case. First telling people it was 300 pennies for 8 cards, followed after with a direct reframing: “It’s a bargain.” Sales in the DTR case were made at 80% of households.

That’s a huge impact for such a small change. So, how and why does this work? For that we turn to the PSY Blog:

DTR works by first disrupting routine thought processes. The pitch is deliberately made hard to think about. In this case people’s attention is distracted while they try to process this cryptic ‘300 pennies’ and why anyone would mention the price in pennies rather than dollars.

Hot on the heels of the disrupt, in comes the reframe: in this case the words: “It’s a bargain!” While people are distracted by the price in pennies (for a second or two anyway), they are more likely to just accept the suggestion that the cards are a bargain.

The disruption only works for a second; the reframe has to come immediately, before people’s critical faculties come back online.

The next time a salesman says something confusing, you’ll want to pay attention to whether they are trying to disrupt your thinking. Something as simple as “only owner one” followed by “this is a great bargin” might not be a slip of tongue after all.

(h/t psy)

The Original Parkinson’s Law and The Law of Triviality

We’ve all heard of Parkinson’s Law — “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I bet you’ve lived this. After all, who hasn’t sat in an hour-long meeting that really ended after 30 minutes. The rest of the time is just filler. It’s already booked after all.

I wanted to learn more about this law so I went back to the source and read Cyril Northcote Parkinson‘s (1909-1993) original 1957 version of Parkinson’s Law.

The implications of the law were interesting.

Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done. … The fact is that the number of officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish, or even disappear.

More than that, Parkinson comes up with the brilliantly insightful Law of Triviality.

“The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”

Parkinson puts this law into dramatic form. Imagine a meeting …

Chairman: We come now to item nine. Our treasurer, Mr. McPhail, will report.

Mr. McPhail: The estimate for the atomic reactor is before you, sir, set forth in Appendix H of the subcommittee’s report. You will see that the general design and layout has been approved by Professor McFission. The total cost will amount to $10,000,000. The contractors, Messrs. McNab and McHash, consider that the work should be complete by April, 1959. Mr. McFee, the consulting engineer, warns us that we should not count on completion before October, at the earliest. In this view he is supported by Dr. McCheap, the well-known geophysicist, who refers to the probable need for piling at the lower end of the site. The plan of the main building is before you–see appendix IX–and the blueprint is laid on the table. I shall be glad to give any further information that members of this committee may require.

Chairman: Thank you, Mr. McPhail, for your very lucid explanation of the plan as proposed. I will now invite the members present to give us their views.

It is necessary to pause at this point and consider what views the members are likely to have. Let us suppose that they number eleven, including the chairman but excluding the secretary. Of these eleven members, four — including the chairman — do not know what a reactor is. Of the remainder, three do not know what it is for. Of those who know its purpose, only two have the least idea of what it should cost. One of these is Mr. Isaacson, the other is Mr. Brickworth. Either is in a position to say something. We may suppose that Mr. Isaacson is the first to speak.

Mr. Isaacson: Well, Mr. Chairman. I could wish that I felt more confidence in our contractors and consultant. Had we gone to Professor Levi in the first instance, and had the contract been given to Messrs. David and Goliath, I should have been happier about the whole scheme. Mr. Lyon-Daniels would not have wasted our time with wild guesses about the possible delay in completion, and Dr. Moses bullrush would have told us definitely whether piling would be wanted or not.

Chairman: I am sure we all appreciate Mr. Isaacson’s anxiety to complete this work in the best possible way. I feel, however, that it is rather late in the day to call in new technical advisers. I admit that the main contract has still to be signed, but we have already spent very large sums. If we reject the advice for which we have paid, we shall have to pay as much again.

(other members murmur agreement.)

Mr. Isaacson: I should like my observation to be minuted.

Chairman: Certainly. Perhaps Mr. Brickworth also has something to say on this matter?

Now Mr. Brickworth is almost the only man there who knows what he is talking about. There is a great deal he could say. He distrusts that round figure of $10,000,000. Why should it come out to exactly that? Why need they demolish the old building to make room for the new approach? Why is so large a sum set aside for “contingencies”? and who is McCheap, anyway? Is he the man who was sued last year by the trickle and driedup oil corporation? But Brickworth does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know. Better to say nothing.

Mr. Brickworth: I have no comment to make.

Chairman: Does any other member wish to speak? Very well. I may take it then that the plans and estimates are approved? Thank you. May I now sign the main contract on your behalf? (murmur of agreement) Thank you. We can now move on to item ten.

Allowing a few seconds for rustling papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on item nine will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about item nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.

Chairman: Item ten. Bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. An estimate has been received from Messrs. Bodger and Woodworm, who undertake to complete the work for the sum of $2350. Plans and specification are before you, gentlemen.

Mr. Softleigh: Surely, Mr. Chairman, this sum is excessive. I note that the roof is to be of aluminum. Would not asbestos be cheaper?

Mr. Holdfast: I agree with Mr. Softleigh about the cost, but the roof should, in my opinion, be of galvanized iron. I incline to think that the shed could be built for $2000, or even less.

Mr. Daring: I would go further, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this shed is really necessary. We do too much for our staff as it is. They are never satisfied, that is the trouble. They will be wanting garages next.

Mr. Holdfast: No, I can’t support Mr. Daring on this occasion. I think that the shed is needed. It is a question of material and cost …

The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.

coffee

Chairman: Item eleven. Refreshments supplied at meetings of the joint welfare committee. Monthly, $4.75.

Mr. Softleigh: What type of refreshment is supplied on these occasions?

Chairman: Coffee, I understand.

Mr. Holdfast: And this means an annual charge of — let me see — $57?

Chairman: That is so.

Mr. Daring: Well, really, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this is justified. How long do these meetings last.

Hilarious throughout, Parkinson’s book was the original Dilbert.

Kurt Vonnegut — 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

Kurt Vonnegut tells us eight tips on how to write a good short story.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Still curious? Watch Vonnegut give an excellent talk on the shapes of stories.

Charlie Munger: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment (Transcript and Audio)

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, a speech given in 1995 by legendary investor Charlie Munger, opened my eyes to how behavioral psychology can be applied to business and problem-solving.

Charlie Munger: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment

Munger, for those of you who haven’t heard of him, is the irreverent partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. He’s offered us such gems as: a two-step process for making effective decisions and the work required to have an opinion.

And this talk on The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is one of the best you’ll ever hear.

My nature makes me incline toward diagnosing and talking about errors in conventional wisdom. And despite years of being smoothed out by the hard knocks that were inevitable for one with my attitude, I don’t believe life ever knocked all the brashness out of the man.

… I have fallen in love with my way of laying out psychology because it has been so useful to me. And so, before I die, I want to imitate to some extent the bequest practices of three characters: the protagonist in John Bunyan’s Pilgram’s Progress, Benjamin Franklin, and my first employer, Ernest Buffett.

Munger made extensive revisions to The Psychology of Human Misjudgment in Poor Charlie’s Almanack because he “thought he could do better at eighty-one than he did more than ten years earlier when he (1) knew less and was more harried by a crowded life and (2) was speaking from rough notes instead of revising transcripts.”

You can find a transcript of the talk here.

Still curious? Munger gives his thoughts at Caltech in 2008 during the financial crisis and The University of Michigan in 2010. And, if you haven’t already, buy a copy of Poor Charlie’s Almanack.

16 Leadership Lessons from a Four Star General

"We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct."
“We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct.”

Say what you want about General Stanley McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article that led to his premature retirement from the military he spent his life serving but I could hardly put down his memoir: My Share of the Task.

McChrystal’s life was “a series of unplanned detours, unanticipated challenges, and unexpected opportunities.” More by luck than design, he ended up being part of events that will loom large in history.

While the book was entirely fascinating, I was most interested in what McChrystal had to say about a lifetime spent in leadership roles in an evolving force. Through the stories we see not only how he leads, but how changing circumstances led to him changing.

When I read the book, I couldn’t help but see parts of my life through the lens of leadership: both mine personally and what I witness in companies around the world. Leadership is tough and there are few better teachers than McChrystal. I know I learned and internalized a lot reading this book.

I’ll excerpt some of his obvious lessons below but the full book is worth reading in its entirety.

1. Leadership is the single biggest reason for success or failure.

So, after a lifetime, what had I learned about leadership? Probably not enough. But I saw enough for me to believe it was the single biggest reason organizations succeeded or failed. It dwarfed numbers, technology, ideology, and historical forces in determining the outcome of events. I used to tell junior leaders that the nine otherwise identical parachute infantry battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division ranged widely in effectiveness, the disparity almost entirely a function of leadership.

“Switch just two people— the battalion commander and command sergeant major—from the best battalion with those of the worst, and within ninety days the relative effectiveness of the battalions will have switched as well,” I’d say. I still believe I was correct.

2. Leadership is difficult to measure.

Yet leadership is difficult to measure and often difficult even to adequately describe. I lack the academic bona fides to provide a scholarly analysis of leadership and human behavior. So I’ll simply relate what, after a lifetime of being led and learning to lead, I’ve concluded.

Leadership is the art of influencing others. It differs from giving a simple order or managing in that it shapes the longer-term attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups. George Washington’s tattered army persisted to ultimate victory. Those troops displayed the kind of effort that can never be ordered— only evoked. Effective leaders stir an intangible but very real desire inside people. That drive can be reflected in extraordinary courage, selfless sacrifice, and commitment.

3. Leadership is neither good nor evil.

We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct. Self-serving or evil intent motivated some of the most effective leaders I saw, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the end, leadership is a skill that can be used like any other, but with far greater effect.

4. Leaders take us to where we’d otherwise not go.

Although Englishmen rushing into the breach behind Henry V is a familiar image, leaders whose personal example or patient persuasion causes dramatic changes in otherwise inertia-bound organizations or societies are far more significant. The teacher who awakens and encourages in students a sense of possibility and responsibility is, to me, the ultimate leader.

5. Success is rarely the work of a single leader.

… leaders work best in partnership with other leaders. In Iraq in 2004, I received specific direction to track Zarqawi and bring him to justice. But it was the collaboration of leaders below me, inside TF 714, that built the teams, relentlessly hunted, and ultimately destroyed his lethal network.

6. Leaders are empathetic.

The best leaders I’ve seen have an uncanny ability to understand, empathize, and communicate with those they lead. They need not agree or share the same background or status in society as their followers, but they understand their hopes, fears, and passions. Great leaders intuitively sense, or simply ask, how people feel and what resonates with them. At their worst, demigods like Adolf Hitler manipulate the passions of frustrated populations into misguided forces. But empathy can be remarkably positive when a Nelson Mandela reshapes and redirects the energy of a movement away from violence and into constructive nation-building.

7. Leadership is not popularity.

For soldiers, the choice between popularity and effectiveness is ultimately no choice at all. Soldiers want to win; their survival depends upon it. They will accept, and even take pride in, the quirks and shortcomings of a leader if they believe he or she can produce success.

8. The best leaders are genuine.

I found soldiers would tolerate my being less of a leader than I hoped to be, but they would not forgive me being less than I claimed to be. Simple honesty matters.

9. Leaders can be found at any rank and at any age.

I often found myself led by soldiers many levels junior to me, and I was the better for it. Deferring to the expertise and skills of the leader best suited to any given situation requires enough self-confidence to subjugate one’s ego, but it signals a strong respect for the people with whom one serves.

10. Charisma is not leadership.

Personal gifts like intellect or charisma help. But neither are required nor enough to be a leader.

Physical appearance, poise, and outward self-confidence can be confused with leadership—for a time. I saw many new lieutenants arrive to battalions and fail to live up to the expectations their handsome, broad-shouldered look generated. Conversely, I saw others overcome the initial doubts created by small stature or a squeaky voice. It took time and enough interaction with followers, but performance usually became more important than the advantages of innate traits.

Later in my career, I encountered some figures who had learned to leverage superficial gifts so effectively that they appeared to be better leaders than they were. It took me some time and interaction —often under the pressure of difficult situations—before I could determine whether they possessed those bedrock skills and qualities that infantry platoons would seek to find and assess in young sergeants and lieutenants. Modern media exacerbate the challenge of sorting reality from orchestrated perception.

11. Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility.

Soldiers want leaders who are sure of their ability to lead the team to success but humble enough to recognize their limitations. I learned that it was better to admit ignorance or fear than to display false knowledge or bravado. And candidly admitting doubts or difficulties is key to building confidence in your honesty. But expressing doubts and confidence is a delicate balance. When things look their worst, followers look to the leader for reassurance that they can and will succeed.

12. People are born; leaders are made.

I was born the son of a leader with a clear path to a profession of leadership. But whatever leadership I later possessed, I learned from others. I grew up in a household of overt values, many of which hardened in me only as I matured. Although history fascinated me, and mentors surrounded me, the overall direction and key decisions of my life and career were rarely impacted by specific advice, or even a particularly relevant example I’d read or seen. I rarely wondered What would Nelson, Buford, Grant, or my father have done? But as I grew, I was increasingly aware of the guideposts and guardrails that leaders had set for me, often through their examples. The question became What kind of leader have I decided to be? Over time, decisions came easily against that standard, even when the consequences were grave.

13. Leaders are people, and people constantly change.

Even well into my career I was still figuring out what kind of leader I wanted to be. For many years I found myself bouncing between competing models of a hard-bitten taskmaster and a nurturing father figure— sometimes alternating within a relatively short time span. That could be tough on the people I led, and a bit unfair. They looked for and deserved steady, consistent leadership. When I failed to provide that, I gave conflicting messages that produced uncertainty and reduced the effectiveness of the team we were trying to create. As I got older, the swings between leadership styles were less pronounced and frequent as I learned the value of consistency. But even at the end I still wasn’t the leader I believed I should be.

14. Leaders are human.

They get tired, angry, and jealous and carry the same range of emotions and frailties common to mankind. Most leaders periodically display them. The leaders I most admired were totally human but constantly strove to be the best humans they could be.

15. Leaders make mistakes, and they are often costly.

The first reflex is normally to deny the failure to themselves; the second is to hide it from others, because most leaders covet a reputation for infallibility. But it’s a fool’s dream and is inherently dishonest.

16. Leadership is a choice.

Rank, authority, and even responsibility can be inherited or assigned, whether or not an individual desires or deserves them. Even the mantle of leadership occasionally falls to people who haven’t sought it. But actually leading is different. A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives. It can be a crushing burden, but I found it an indescribable honor.

In the end, “there are few secrets to leadership.”

It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline. Colorful, charismatic characters often fascinate people, even soldiers. But over time, effectiveness is what counts. Those who lead most successfully do so while looking out for their followers’ welfare. Self-discipline manifests itself in countless ways. In a leader I see it as doing those things that should be done, even when they are unpleasant, inconvenient, or dangerous; and refraining from those that shouldn’t, even when they are pleasant, easy, or safe.

McChrystal’s memoir is entirely worth reading.

“Much complexity has been deliberately created”

More on the theme of intentional complexity.

Many of the products we buy today are, by their nature, complicated. If you want to buy a television or a car or a computer, you are faced with a bewildering range of types, sizes and optional features.

Such complexity means some consumers will inevitably pay more than they need because they make mistakes or do not take the time to understand the options. Some complexity is unavoidable, but much of the complexity consumers experience is not.

For its consumers, energy is the simplest of products. All electricity or gas on the public network is the same. The only material difference between providers is the length of time it takes them to respond to complaints about your bill. The only persuasive claim a salesman can make is that his electricity or gas is cheaper. The time he spends trying to persuade you of this is a clue that it probably isn’t. But to establish the truth may require a computer.

Much complexity has been deliberately created, to encourage consumers to pay more than they need, or expected. Or to reduce the likelihood that they will switch to another supplier. …

And

The problem is less the weakness of competition than its effectiveness. Whatever one supplier does, others are forced to follow if they are to protect their markets and their returns. I

Sol LeWitt on the Power of Doing

Stop is and just DO
Stop it and just DO

In 1960 two American artists met for the first time: Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse. The meeting sparked a bond that resulted in “countless inspirational discussions and rich exchanged of ideas” until Hesse passed away in 1970.

In 1965 Hesse was facing a creative block, plagued with self-doubt. She told LeWitt who replied with this work of art found in Letters of Note. “An invaluable letter of advice, it has since inspired many other artists, and copies now grace the walls of art studios the world over.”

Dear Eva,
April 14

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just

Do

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing— clean— clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder . . . real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful—real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever— make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you— draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to

Do

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work— the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell— you are not responsible for the world— you are only responsible for your work— so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working— then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to

Do

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible— and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work—not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can— shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

I would like to see your work and will have to be content to wait until Aug or Sept. I have seen photos of some of Tom’s new things at Lucy’s. They are very impressive—especially the ones with the more rigorous form; the simpler ones. I guess he’ll send some more later on. Let me know how the shows are going and that kind of stuff.

My work has changed since you left and it is much better. I will be having a show May 4– 29 at the Daniels Gallery 17 E 64th St (where Emmerich was), I wish you could be there. Much love to you both.

Sol

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Still curious? Letters of Note is full of interestingness.

Atul Gawande: The Building Industry’s Strategy for Getting Things Right in Complexity

Old_timer_structural_worker2

Checklists establish a higher level of baseline performance.

***

A useful reminder from Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto:

In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. (When you’ve got a patient throwing up and an upset family member asking you what’s going on, it can be easy to forget that you have not checked her pulse.) Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. In complex processes, after all, certain steps don’t always matter. … “This has never been a problem before,” people say. Until one day it is.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

***

How you employ the checklist is also important. In the face of complexity most organizations tend to centralize decisions, which reduces the risk for egregious error. The costs to this approach are high too. Most employees loathe feeling like they need a hall pass to use the washroom. That’s why these next comments were so inspiring.

There is a particularly tantalizing aspect to the building industry’s strategy for getting things right in complex situations: it’s that it gives people power. In response to risk, most authorities tend to centralize power and decision making. That’s usually what checklists are about—dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. Indeed, the first building checklist I saw, the construction schedule on the right-hand wall of O’Sullivan’s conference room, was exactly that. It spelled out to the tiniest detail every critical step the tradesmen were expected to follow and when—which is logical if you’re confronted with simple and routine problems; you want the forcing function.

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems—such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

The strategy is unexpectedly democratic, and it has become standard nowadays, O’Sullivan told me, even in building inspections. The inspectors do not recompute the wind-force calculations or decide whether the joints in a given building should be bolted or welded, he said. Determining whether a structure like Russia Wharf or my hospital’s new wing is built to code and fit for occupancy involves more knowledge and complexity than any one inspector could possibly have. So although inspectors do what they can to oversee a building’s construction, mostly they make certain the builders have the proper checks in place and then have them sign affidavits attesting that they themselves have ensured that the structure is up to code. Inspectors disperse the power and the responsibility.

“It makes sense,” O’Sullivan said. “The inspectors have more troubles with the safety of a two-room addition from a do-it-yourselfer than they do with projects like ours. So that’s where they focus their efforts.” Also, I suspect, at least some authorities have recognized that when they don’t let go of authority they fail.