Friday, November 29, 2013

Why So Certain?

I've already written today about the dangers of certainty in the retail trade:

Yet the problematic nature of certainty extends far beyond checkout follies.

Especially in today's polarized, 140 character world, people default to an aggressive certainty.

Boldness elicits reactions and draws pageviews.

But like the hapless Toys R Us clerk who gave me wrong information with utter certainty, not being able to back up your certainty carries a high cost.

When I was young, I was very impressed with people who expressed strong opinions.  "Wow," I thought, "If he believes something that strongly, he must have really examined the issue, considered all the alternatives and objections, and reached an informed decision."

Ha, how little I understood the world.

Today, when I see people making predictions with utter certainty, I conclude that they are arrogant and slapdash.  Painful experience has taught me that the world is far too uncertain to justify the kind of snap judgements that used to impress me.

Many people will give the rich/famous/successful the benefit of the doubt when they express their certainty.  That too is a mistake.  Except in their particular bailiwick, their judgment is probably no better than yours.  I don't care how famous they are as a journalist, VC, or entrepreneur.

And if that's what I think, I have to imagine that's what other smart, experienced people think as well (though of course, I can't be certain!).

Have We Reached Peak Headline?

Headlines have become more and more important because of social media.

Once upon a time, headlines were critical because they helped persuade news stand passers-by to buy newspapers.

Now of course, most people are likely to ask, "What's a news stand?  What's a newspaper?"

Nonetheless, the importance of headlines remains.  The headline is what convinces you whether or not to click on a link, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or even that old dinosaur, email (where it is referred to as a subject line).

But I can't help but feel that we're nearing "peak headline."  Too many companies are strip-mining the psychology of headlines for traffic; the result will be a jaded and cynical audience that will stop clicking on anything.

Once upon a time, Huffington Post was criticized for simply republishing content.  Now we long for those halcyon days.  Upworthy doesn't even bother with republishing--the typical Upworthy post is simply a YouTube video with a catchy headline.

Now "viral" sites are proliferating with all the speed of a cat-based meme:

Perhaps the most extreme examples come from the British press, where Fleet Street specializes in bait-and-switch headlines.  Take this recent one, for example:

"Exciting new BRAZILIAN PUSSY FINGERED by overjoyed boffins"

Don't worry, puns aside, the content is perfectly SFW (this is a story about Brazilian scientists discovering a new breed of large cat), as are other stories like:
  • "Rare BLOWJOB-GIVING APES 'face extinction from interacting with HUMANS'"
  • "Japanese pussies slurp 'meow meow' sex wine"
  • "Man killed by own cock"
I predict that the natural response will be an even greater emphasis on the reputation of the source, rather than simply relying on the catchiness of the headline.  The viral sites that are best able to deliver on the promise of their headlines will be the ones that persist over time.

Hope Enables The Better Angels Of Our Nature

I've seen a lot written lately about the mental impact of poverty.  The trigger was probably this article, which originally began as a long comment on Gawker:

The author shares her experiences living in poverty, and the psychological struggles she faces.  The key passage is probably this one:

"It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it."

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic provided some context for this statement, writing:
"As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty's stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. The train is just not coming. What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually "the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes," he wrote."
Together, these passages capture the paradox of hope.  On the one hand, hope is somewhat irrational; if it wasn't, we'd call it "reasonable expectations for the future."  On the other hand, hope that is never fulfilled leads to disillusion and despair.  Hope is a stretch goal--it needs to be slightly but not completely unrealistic.

With hope, we can defer gratification and make plans for the future.  Without it, we fall into the path of least resistance, no matter how negative the expected value.

While you may never find yourself living in poverty (I wouldn't wish that hardship on anyone I know), you can generalize the principles of hope to apply to leadership and management, especially in the startup world.

When hope dies, so does your company.  Fill people with hope.  Just recognize that hope without fulfillment is the same as no hope at all.

If someone asks you, "Are you sure?", you'd better be

I despise Black Friday.  Not only does it involve spending money (never a favorite activity of mine), it also means dealing with the chaos of overcrowded retail stores.

Last night, before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, I was dispatched to Toys R Us to pick up some of the Christmas shopping. (Thanks American retailers, for ruining yet another holiday!)

After buying a cartload of toys, I was presented with a $10 off card for a future visit.  "It's only good for tomorrow," the checker told me.

I was puzzled.  The card clearly stated, "Valid 12/1 - 12/7."

"How come the card says December 1 through 7?" I asked.

"That's wrong," said the checker.  "It's only good tomorrow."

It was at this point that I said the fateful words, "Are you sure about that?"

"Definitely," the checker said with a firm, confident tone.  None of the other personnel within earshot said anything.  "We open at 5 AM tomorrow morning.  You can come back then."

Fast forward to this morning.  I drove Marissa and my sister to Toys R Us to look for some items I hadn't been able to find the night before.  As I checked out, I gave today's checker the $10 off card.

"It's not valid yet," she said.  "See, it says so right here."

I could feel myself tensing.  "The guy last night was very specific.  He told me the card was wrong, and that I needed to come back today.  That's why I'm here."

"Sorry," she said, "But you can't use the card."

As we drove back home, I was furious.  I wouldn't mind being prevented from using the card if I had made a mistake, or been negligent.  But I was very specifically told to disregard the date on the card.  I had even asked, "Are you sure?"

When someone asks you, "Are you sure?", you'd damn well better be sure.  Because if I ask someone, "Are you sure?" and the answer is a firm "Yes," I've got no way to escalate without seeming like a raging asshole.

I could say, "I don't believe you. I want to talk with your manager," but that's basically like saying, "You're incompetent, I want to talk with someone who isn't an idiot."  I could also do what my sister suggested afterwards, which is to pull out my phone and say, "Can you say that again for the camera, just in case?"  But neither is a kind thing to do.

Therefore, the onus is on the person being asked.  If you aren't sure, just say so, dammit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Do Or Do Not

Life is too damn short, and there is always too much to do.

None of us has time to waste (especially entrepreneurs), though we always have to decide how to spend it.

The ideal, at which I often fail, is to act decisively and intentionally.

Or to put it another way, do or do not.

Do tackle the hard problems you face, whether in your life or your startup.

Do spend time on the things you love.

Do not waste time on things that don't matter.

Do not allow others to decide things for you.

It's not easy to be decisive and intentional.  There are times when I'm tired and my brain doesn't feel like deciding what to have for dinner, let alone making important business or life decisions.

It's so easy to move my mouse just a couple of inches to my bookmark for Facebook, and lose myself in the fake activity of reading my friends' updates and commenting on things that strike my fancy.

And there's nothing wrong with doing that.  But if you do, choose to do it, and choose how long to do it.

Reading Facebook is fine.  Watching TV is fine.  Browsing Amazon is fine.  But make the decision to do it; don't just fall into it.  Don't feel guilty.  Do suck every drop of pleasure out of it, so you can recharge yourself to tackle things that do matter.

Do or do not, but make sure the choice is yours.