A Stream of Conscientiousness

By Ian Bennett Alas

How to Behave When Meeting with Steve Jobs

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Don Melton, best known for leading the Safari team at Apple, shared a couple entertaining anecdotes of encountering Steve Jobs. The story that intrigued me was Scott Forstall’s advice for meeting with Jobs. Aside from being just-plain-good advice for meeting with any busy executive, it hints at why Forstall was liked by his direct reports: he empowered, supported, and defended them.

Scott briefed me on what to expect and essentially how to behave during my first meeting with Steve and the subsequent reviews. And it was clear I would not be at a second meeting with Steve if I fucked up during the first one.

So I listened to Scott very carefully and took his most excellent advice. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. At least the general guidelines. But there were a few particulars I never would have thought of ahead of time.

Let me be clear. Steve was not some mercurial ogre or cartoon autocrat. He was just very, very busy. He didn’t have time for “yes men,” the easily frightened, or those who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing or talking about.

In that way, he wasn’t different from any other executive. At least those with good sense.

Steve expected excellence. Which is why he so often got it.

He knew when something was right, but he didn’t always tell you what he wanted when it wasn’t. And he was very clear when he didn’t like it. Some misinterpreted this behavior as being overly critical, but it was actually time-saving clarity, albeit uncomfortable on occasion.

Design was an iterative process with Steve. Which meant that it could take several sessions with him to complete that cycle. So patience was not just a virtue.

When Steve asked you a question? You didn’t ramble and, whatever you did, you didn’t make up an answer. If you didn’t know, you just said that you didn’t know. But then you told him when you’d have an answer. Again, this was just good advice to anyone “managing up,” as they say.

When demoing something to Steve, you had to pace yourself. If Steve said, “Stop,” you fucking stopped. Hands down and waited. And you didn’t jiggle the cursor while he was looking at the screen. Certain death.

If he wanted to drive the demo machine then, by God, you let him drive.

And if your software crashed, you didn’t make excuses. You just made damn sure that particular scenario didn’t happen again. Ever.

Most of all, you remained calm. Because that was so easy. Oh, yeah.

Anyway, the other thing Scott warned me about was that Steve might test me. Meaning that he might push me a bit to see what I would do. Sort of like a pitcher brushing back a batter with the high hard one. Fun.

In short: Be clear. Be calm. Be patient. Be prepared.

Thanksgiving in Mongolia

Ariel Levy, a staff writer for The New Yorker, recounts a devastating personal story, beautifully told, about her pregnancy abroad. Read it. Now. But not in public, because it will overwhelm you.

I always get terrified right before I travel. I become convinced that this time will be different: I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-English speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable. I know that my panic will turn to excitement once I’m there—it always does—but that doesn’t make the fear before takeoff any less vivid. So it was with childbearing: I was afraid for ten years. I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.

The Outcomes of Habits

George Anders wrote a Forbes article that recounts the rise of Workday from a two-person startup to an enterprise software company with a $13 billion stock market value. While researching the article, Anders was struck by Aneel Bhusri, Workday’s co-founder and co-CEO, and his ability to “sweep up huge amounts of information” and “synthesize everything into simple maxims that help Workday chart its course”.

Anders wrote a separate post highlighting five of Bhusri’s habits. None of the habits are especially unintuitive, so it was easy for me to gloss over them at first. But they impressed Anders enough to write about them, so I paused to reflect on whether any of them are worth adopting. I realized that what matters isn’t the habits themselves but their desired outcomes.

Bhusri doesn’t just get out of the office to go on a refreshing walk; he gets out of the office to mingle with start-up entrepreneurs so he refreshes his disruptive thinking.

Bhusri doesn’t err on the side of enthusiasm because it makes people feel good; he wants to ensure that his colleagues never hesitate to give him potentially useful information.

Bhusri doesn’t read widely for entertainment or conversational fodder —though I bet he does that, too — he does it to get up to speed on new domains that matter. A survival instinct.

Why do you do what you do?

How to Scale Your Network

Forbes has an article about the network-building strategy of Adam Rifkin, whom Fortune proclaimed as the “best networker”. Rifkin’s epiphany:

Most people fail to reach their network’s potential because they subconsciously view their relationships within a hub-and-spoke paradigm. Like a bicycle wheel, they see themselves at the center and each relationship as a spoke. The problem with this paradigm is that each relationship you add increases the amount of stress on you until you’re eventually overwhelmed.

Adam’s insight was to view others as part of a network connected to each other, not just him. In other words, he viewed his network as a community.

Counterintuitively, he realized that removing himself from the center of the model would not make him irrelevant. On the contrary, connecting people together would build his social capital even more.

To do this, Rifkin first aims to connect everyone in his network by doing three introductions a day, which I’ve written about before. But this article had one new bit: spreading your karma across the community.

Instead of using the goodwill he was developing through extreme giving to stockpile future favors for himself, he dispersed it across his community. When people asked him how they could help him, he started asking for favors on behalf of other members of the community instead of himself.

Disrupting the Diploma

In Reid Hoffman’s latest essay Disrupting the Diploma, he argues that higher education reform requires more than just the transformation of instruction. It also requires the transformation of credentialing.

In the same way that trailblazers like Coursera and Udacity are making instruction faster, cheaper, and more effective, we should also make certification faster, cheaper, and more effective too.

To do this, we need to apply new technologies to the primary tool of traditional certification, the diploma. We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

Once we make this leap, certification can play a more active role in helping the higher education system clearly convey to students what skills and competencies they should pursue if their primary objective is to optimize their economic futures.

I had the good fortune of watching this essay develop firsthand. If you care about higher ed — or if you just want to see the mind of a brilliant visionary at work — this is a must read.

How to Build Rapport with Anyone

Robin Dreeke, a 15 year FBI veteran who managed their elite Behavioral Analysis Program, wrote It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone. On the back cover, he warns that the content of the book is “so effective that the reader should think carefully about how it is used.” He encourages a more virtuous goal: the person you are engaging must leave the conversation and interaction feeling better for having met you.

This post was originally a summary of the ten techniques/chapters. Once I finished, though, I wasn’t proud of the final product and couldn’t remember my key takeaways. I started over, pulling the most compelling ideas and scratching the rest, then I designed a process to put those ideas to use.

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

1. Use accommodating nonverbals, such as:

  • smile and stand at a body angle slightly bladed away (to signal that you’re not threatening),
  • tilt your head slightly (to signal trust and comfort),
  • maintain a slightly lower chin angle (to signal humility), and
  • shake hands with a more palm-up angle that matches the strength of the other person.

2. Identify a third party reference. A third party reference is where you have sought an opinion about something other than yourself or the individual you are chatting with.

3. Establish an artificial time constraint. Conversational discomfort is often a result of not knowing when or if the conversation will end. Let the other person know that there is an end in sight, and it is really close.

4. Add a sympathy or assistance theme. When a request is simple, of limited duration, and non-threatening, we are more inclined to accommodate the request.

To remember these four steps, I created a mnemonic — ARTS (Accommodating, Reference, Time, Sympathy). One example of a great opening line for strangers that uses all four principles:

"I’m sorry to bother you but I’m on my way out. I was hoping you could help me. I’m looking to get something special for my wife/mother/friend/etc."

PART TWO: THE CONVERSATION

1. Suspend your ego. Put the other person’s needs, wants, and opinions ahead of yours, and you’re better able to listen and validate their thoughts and opinions.

2. Thread the conversation with questions and paraphrasing. 

  • Open-ended questions keeps the other person from giving simple yes or no answers. This gives you more to work with, allowing you to ask more open-ended questions about their answers.
  • Anchoring questions allow you to test how far and deep you can venture in a quick conversation. If an answer is short, you shouldn’t pursue the thread; otherwise, you have something to work with.
  • Reflective questions simply restate what was just said as a question, which compels others to elaborate more. It also hits on the sympathy / assistance theme because you’re asking for help in understanding.
  • Paraphrasing what someone’s said to you, especially after they’ve been talking for a while, is a great way to demonstrate that you have been paying attention and it helps you remember the conversation better.
  • Summarizing at the end of the conversation has the same benefits as paraphrasing, plus it allows you to remember any favors asked or commitments made.

In a Perfect Universe, You Wouldn’t Exist

The Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson once said, “It is only slightly overstating the case to say that physics is the study of symmetry.” Because physics is the study of the behavior of the universe, Anderson’s statement implies that the universe is, to some degree, symmetrical.

But what does that even mean?

Symmetry, as scientists use the term, describes something that remains unaffected by transformations, like changes in time, place, or orientation. For example, consider the act of throwing a ball in the air. Assuming you throw the ball the same way under the same conditions, does it matter if you throw that ball on a Wednesday versus a Friday? Nope. That’s a symmetry of time. The shift in time alone has no effect on the trajectory of the ball.

The symmetry principles of the universe allow us to study it. Because the laws of physics are the same everywhere in space and time, scientists are able to make conclusions about things unseen by observing what they can. But for all the wonders that symmetry affords us, asymmetry is what allows us to exist.

You see, just after the Big Bang, the universe was a primordial soup made of light. When light is at a high enough energy, it creates matter. But when matter is born, so is its twin: antimatter. Every time a particle of matter is created, an antiparticle is created. But an interesting thing happens when matter and antimatter meet: they annihilate each other.

Since we are made of matter, this means we shouldn’t exist.

The Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, resulting in a neutral universe without either. Instead, at the beginning of time when matter was popping in and out of existence at an unfathomable rate, an imperfection happened. And for every billion antiparticles, there was a billion and one particles. That tiny surplus of matter led to the universe as we know it. That tiny surplus of matter is you.

And yet no one knows why this happened. This asymmetry of matter and antimatter remains one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics.

The Three Languages of Politics

When was the last time you argued with someone who didn’t share your political views? Chances are, you came away from that conversation thinking they were either crazy, stupid, or evil. Fortunately, there’s an alternative.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics, economist Arnold Kling suggests that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians often misunderstand each other because they each frame political issues using a different axis:

  • progressives frame issues as oppressed and oppressors,
  • conservatives frame issues as civilization and barbarism,
  • libertarians frame issues as freedom and coercion.

Or, in Kling’s words:

For praise and condemnation, each tribe prefers a different language. For a progressive, the highest virtue is to be on the side of the oppressed, and the worst sin is to be aligned with the oppressor. For a conservative, the highest virtue is to be on the side of civilizing institutions, and the worst sin is to be aligned with those who would tear down those institutions and thereby promote barbarism. For a libertarian, the highest virtue is to be on the side of individual choice, and worst sin is to be aligned with expanding the scope of government.

As an example, here’s how the three views would consider immigration policy.

In the United States today, a progressive might see Latin American immigrants as an oppressed group, and native white Americans who are hostile to immigrants as oppressors. They would generally favor allowing these immigrants to come in. One caveat, however, is that they would classify low-skilled working Americans as an oppressed group and wouldn’t want to create conflicts where bringing in more immigrants hurts low-skilled Americans.

For conservatives looking along the civilization/barbarism axis, having a well-defined border and population are civilized values. They would worry that allowing immigration undermines that, and they would strongly believe that people who cross the border illegally are performing an illegal act and should not be rewarded for it and perhaps even be punished for it.

Finally, libertarians don’t like the idea of government coercion at all, and don’t see why political borders should have any significance, and so they would tend to favor open borders.

These heuristics, Kling points out, do not describe how people arrive at their opinions; instead, they predict the language that people use to communicate their opinions. So, why does this matter?

Being aware of your own language can allow you to recognize when you are likely to be overly generous in granting credence to those who provide arguments expressed in that language. Being aware of other languages can give you better insight into how issues might appear to those with whom you disagree.

It’s a quick read (~50 pages) at a cheap price ($1.99). Recommended.

The Decoupling of Content and Distribution

Jon Steinberg, President and COO of BuzzFeed:

I think the de-bundling of content and distribution will now happen very quickly over the next several years. Apple TV continues to add more channels, Netflix continues to buy programming, cable operators are talking about becoming broadband operators, networks are going over the top and making their programming available on demand, and Google is bidding for the NFL. Cable CEOs are talking about becoming broadband companies, and Hollywood stars are saying there is no difference between a movie or a tv show. It’s all happening.

Is there any doubt that [within] a few years, you’ll just turn on a screen and ask for the content that you want. And that content and delivery will both thrive but as two business lines that may coincidentally sit in the same company or sit in separate companies. Just as some companies make hardware and software, and many make only one of the two. And we will no doubt have the debates about whether integrated delivery/content companies or pure plays deliver the better products.

From my seat at BuzzFeed, I think our focus on content and content optimization technology has been key. We don’t own any physical delivery infrastructure, in fact, we don’t even own the delivery pipes one level up. Those higher level delivery pipes are Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram and soon, hopefully, emerging platforms like Snapchat and Whatsapp will allow for content distribution.

In fact, I’ve gone so far as to call these social platforms the cable networks of my era, and I think we’re building BuzzFeed in the tradition of the great cable network programming entrepreneurs of the 1980’s.

How Poverty Taxes the Brain

Emily Badger, writing for The Atlantic Cities, points to new research that concludes that “poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time”. 

The opening graf:

Human mental bandwidth is finite. You’ve probably experienced this before (though maybe not in those terms): When you’re lost in concentration trying to solve a problem like a broken computer, you’re more likely to neglect other tasks, things like remembering to take the dog for a walk, or picking your kid up from school. This is why people who use cell phones behind the wheel actually perform worse as drivers. It’s why air traffic controllers focused on averting a mid-air collision are less likely to pay attention to other planes in the sky.

We only have so much cognitive capacity to spread around. It’s a scarce resource.

The massive cognitive load that accompanies poverty is not stress, which can be good in small doses.

Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults. […]

What Shafir and his colleagues have identified is not exactly stress. Rather, poverty imposes something else on people that impedes them even when biological markers of stress (like elevated heart rates and blood pressure) aren’t present.

Finally, the takeaways:

Now that all of these perspectives have come together, the implications for how we think about poverty – and design programs for people impacted by it – are enormous. Solutions that make financial life easier for poor people don’t simply change their financial prospects. When a poor person receives a regular direct-deposited paycheck every Friday, that does more than simply relieve the worry over when money will come in next.

“When we do that, we liberate some bandwidth,” Shafir says. Policymakers tend to evaluate the success of financial programs aimed at the poor by measuring how they do financially. “The interesting thing about this perspective is that it says if I make your financial life easier, if I give you more bandwidth, what I really ought to look at is how you’re doing in your life. You might be doing better parenting. You might be adhering to your medication better.” […]

Conversely, going forward, this also means that anti-poverty programs could have a huge benefit that we’ve never recognized before: Help people become more financially stable, and you also free up their cognitive resources to succeed in all kinds of other ways as well.

When Class Became More Important to a Child’s Education Than Race

Sarah Garland, writing for The Atlantic, examines why income has become a stronger predictor of how well kids do in school than race.

The country is far from fulfilling King’s dream that race no longer limit children’s opportunities, but how much income their parents earn is more and more influential. According to a 2011 research study by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, the test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10th percentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) has expanded by as much as 40 percent and is now more than 50 percent larger than the black-white achievement gap—a reversal of the trend 50 years ago. Underprivileged children now languish at achievement levels that are close to four years behind their wealthy peers.

According to many researchers, one of the most effective ways to close the class achievement gap is also politically unpopular: wealth redistribution.

According to the Kornrich and Furstenberg study, even though poor families spend much less money on their children, they put a higher percentage of their paychecks toward investments in their children (about 20 percent, compared with 5 percent among wealthier families). And Murnane points to evidence showing that when lower-income families have additional income, through the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, their children’s test scores increase.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Planet Money podcast explained it back in March. It’s a federal program started in the ’70s that gives money to poor people… and works. And earlier this month, they told a similar story about a charity that gives money directly to poor people… and works.

The Wrong Role Models

Alina Tugend, writing for The New York Times, points to research concluding that the best of the best are not, in turn, the best role models.

“The more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them,” said Chengwei Liu, an assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in Britain.

In fact, he said, we may do better to look to solid workers who aren’t as flashy as those at the top, but consistently perform well. […]

That’s because “chance events outside the control of individuals often influence performance,” Professor Liu wrote in the paper, which was published in the June 2012 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Luck and the rich-get-richer dynamic — in which those who succeed early are more apt to receive resources and attention — often play a crucial role in determining who ends up on top.

One thought I’d like to float: considering how hard it is to understand another’s behavior (let alone our own), why admire individuals at all? It seems a better use of time to identify individual habits, traits and values you admire, testing them in your daily life and discarding what doesn’t help. And perhaps, as this article suggests, the qualities of consistent non-outliers are a good source.

How to Think Like a Wise Person

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, is on a roll, and his latest piece is about the unique thought patterns of wise people. His opening point:

Don’t wait until you’re older and smarter. The people with the highest wisdom scores are just as likely to be 30 as 60. It turns out that the number of life experiences has little to do with the quality of those experiences. According to the data, between ages 25 to 75, the correlation between age and wisdom is zero. Wisdom emerges not from experience itself, but rather from reflecting thoughtfully on the lessons gained from experience. Further research shows that intelligence only accounts for about 2% of the variance in wisdom. It’s possible to be quick on your feet and skilled in processing complex information without reaching sensible solutions to problems. Cultivating wisdom is a deliberate choice that people can make regardless of age and intelligence.

Also:

Wise people specialize in what strategy expert Roger Martin calls integrative thinking—“the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads”—and reconcile them for the situation at hand.

What are the five thought patterns? Read the piece to find out.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself While Reading

According to Mortimer Adler in his 1940 classic How to Read a Book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.

2. What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.

How Fast Should You Read?

In the 1940 classic How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler addresses the practice of speed reading. Instead of learning how to read fast, he argues, you should learn to read at different speeds.

Our point is really very simple. Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension. It is wasteful to read a book slowly that deserves only a fast reading; speed reading skills can help you solve that problem. But this is only one reading problem. The obstacles that stand in the way of comprehension of a difficult book are not ordinarily, and perhaps never primarily, physiological or psychological. They arise because the reader simply does not know what to do when approaching a difficult—and rewarding—book. He does not know the rules of reading; he does not know how to marshal his intellectual resources for the task. No matter how quickly he reads, he will be no better off if, as is too often true, he does not know what he is looking for and does not know when he has found it.

With regard to rates of reading, then, the ideal is not merely to be able to read faster, but to be able to read at different speeds—and to know when the different speeds are appropriate. Inspectional reading is accomplished quickly, but that is not only because you read faster, although in fact you do; it is also because you read less of a book when you give it an inspectional reading, and because you read it in a different way, with different goals in mind. Analytical reading is ordinarily much slower than inspectional reading, but even when you are giving a book an analytical reading, you should not read all of it at the same rate of speed. Every book, no matter how difficult, contains interstitial material that can be and should be read quickly; and every good book also contains matter that is difficult and should be read very slowly.

A benefit of speed reading is that you learn to stop bad reading habits that unnecessarily slow you down. The problem with speed reading, however, is that it only allows low levels of comprehension.

There is no speed reading course that we know of that does not claim to be able to increase your comprehension along with your reading speed. And on the whole, there is probably some foundation for these claims. The hand (or some other device) used as a timer tends not only to increase your reading rate, but also to improve your concentration on what you are reading. As long as you are following your hand it is harder to fall asleep, to daydream, to let your mind wander. So far, so good. Concentration is another name for what we have called activity in reading. The good reader reads actively, with concentration.

But concentration alone does not really have much of an effect on comprehension, when that is properly understood. Comprehension involves much more than merely being able to answer simple questions of fact about a text. This limited kind of comprehension, in fact, is nothing but the elementary ability to answer the question about a book or other reading material: “What does it say?” The many further questions that, when correctly answered, imply higher levels of comprehension are seldom asked in speed reading courses, and instruction in how to answer them is seldom given. 

In summary:

There is no single right speed at which you should read; the ability to read at various speeds and to know when each speed is appropriate is the ideal. Great speed in reading is a dubious achievement; it is of value only if what you have to read is not really worth reading. A better formula is this: Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension. In any event, the speed at which they read, be it fast or slow, is but a fractional part of most people’s problem with reading. 

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To review my past posts on the subject: Inspectional reading is the second level of reading, and it has two types: systematic skimming (a quick study of a book’s contents and structure) and superficial reading (your first thorough read without stopping at parts you don’t understand). The second type — superficial reading — is the secret to reading difficult books.