Don’t Say That!

tram

“I stink, therefore I tram.”

I spent some time living in Prague, Czech Republic.  The summers would get really hot and I couldn’t help but notice that the Czechs had a strange aversion to deodorants.  This would become painfully obvious when riding the public trams.  I wasn’t the only person that noticed this, but of course if you generalise and say something along the lines of:

“Population X has characteristic Y.”

people get upset….really upset….

But what happens if it’s true?  All cultures have their own characteristics.  If you go to India and say that Indians behave – generally speaking – in a different way to people in the UK, is that controversial?

I think it’s fairly obvious that human beings get emotion and logic mixed up all the time.  We make bad choices when we’re angry or upset for example.  But I think the problem goes even deeper than this.

I think that we avoid thinking things, because it makes us uncomfortable.

It seems that ideas and thoughts fall under four categories:

 1) Wrong & Nice 4) Right & Mean
2) Right & Nice 3) Wrong & Mean

1) Wrong & Nice

Being Wrong & Nice is one of the most dangerous categories of thought.  I have seen people come to real harm as a result of this.

When a patient, for example, is very likely to have cancer should you not just be honest and tell the patient the truth?  Are you doing the patient any real favours by not telling them that they most certainly do have cancer or that their treatment is going to be painful and life altering?

How about if an employee keeps asking for a raise?  Is it fair to just keep leading them on, or is it more appropriate to explain that if said employee doesn’t bring more value to the table that they can just be replaced by someone else who will work for less.

2) Right & Nice

This is where the majority of people spend their time.  This is conventional wisdom.  It is mainstream knowledge, with mainstream thought processes.  No need to rock the boat.

Perhaps it is because we are taught from a young age that “being right” goes hand in hand with being “nice” that we conflate being “nice” with being right.

3) Wrong & Mean

Mean people are douche bags.  No one likes them.  They often have short tempers and don’t think things through.  They often only have one perspective – their own!

Again, from a young age it seems that we’re educated out of being mean.  Because being mean or being a “bully” is bad.

4) Right & Mean

The problem is that it is possible to be both right and “mean”.

When a mother tells a child off, they may be mean, but it will likely lead to a more disciplined person down the line.

When a doctor looks a patient in the eye and says “there’s nothing more we can do”, it’s often mean, but right.

I think that being mean is undervalued by society.  As a result there’s a lot of value to be found in “mean but right” thoughts.

Peter Thiel often asks the question:

“Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on”

The reason he asks this question is because great businesses are built on insights which are overlooked by the majority of people. All great businesses are built on an insight or a secret which the other people in the marketplace overlooked, because if it’s not then you will face a lot of competition and your profits will be competed away.

When Uber had the idea that taxi services were corrupt, worked in cahoots with the government and were opposed to making things better despite their customers suffering, Uber could be called “mean but right”.

It is likely that there are many other successful businesses which could be built in the “right but mean” category of ideas.

But beyond business as well, there are a lot of “right but mean” thoughts which get ignored in the public discourse.  I fear that nowadays it is increasingly becoming more acceptable to be “wrong and nice” rather than “right and mean“.  It seems that society in general is moving down a more emotional, less rational trajectory.

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If It Looks & Swims & Quacks Like A Duck, It Might Not Be A Duck

I was shocked at what the pyramids looked like up close when I went to Egypt.  I always thought that they’d be smooth* on the outside.  But when I got up close to them they were made of very large stones.

Pyramids of Giza

Pyramids of Giza

More recently I found out that many of the Greek and Roman architects tilted columns and spread them out unevenly to give the appearance that the columns were actually spread out evenly and absolutely straight.

parthenon-feature

The Parthenon in Greece uses a technique called “entasis” to make it appear that the columns are absolutely straight when in fact they are slightly curved

The point is that when we observe something superficially, we may be fooled into thinking a certain way.  And sometimes it takes someone to point it out and say; “Hey, look at it this way”, before we ever even notice the truth.

It strikes me that when people talk about “success” and “failure” they are often described as the opposite of one another.  People make it sound like there’s a spectrum like height, where there’s a tallest person and where there’s a shortest person.

The reality is very different.

The reality is that when you set out to accomplish something “failure” and “success” often require the same amount of effort, the same actions, the same thought processes, the same sacrifices, but one has an outcome which we call “failure” and the other has an outcome we call “success”.  Failure and success it seems are just two sides of the same coin.

“Mediocrity” is in fact the real opposite of both “success” and “failure”.  Coming somewhere in the middle, not standing out and fitting in is the path that people who are trying to accomplish something avoid at all costs.

*I am aware that the pyramids in Egypt were in fact smooth on the outside many years ago, but nonetheless they definitely aren’t smooth today.

Is Someone Getting The Best Of You?

True story.

I was once working in a hospital that was desperately short of doctors to cover the night shift.  The hospital somehow managed to find a senior doctor to cover one of the night shifts to oversee the work of the junior doctors, admit new patients and ensure patients were safe over night.

Usually the doctors that are hired in short notice get generous hourly pay because the hospital needs the doctor, but the doctor doesn’t need the hospital.

When this particular doctor arrived to start his night shift he was very angry because he was promised hot food and a place to eat.  Because the hospital didn’t organise this for him, he got up and said he was going to leave.  The nurses begged the doctor to stay, but he drove off while all the nurses looked at each other in horror, realising that there was no senior cover for the night.

What’s the lesson?

The person who has the most options always wins.

If you have no or few options in life, then by definition someone has power over you.

boss

A lot of decisions in life come disguised as logical and “safe”.  But they often bring with them hidden pitfalls and loss of optionality.

The person working in a “safe” job in an office making a steady income for example is counter intuitively a lot more vulnerable than an Uber driver.

The Uber driver can earn the same amount as most office workers.  Granted, he may have more variability in his take home pay month to month, thus making his job “unsafe”.  But when the office worker gets fired in his mid 40’s with no transferable skill set he is in a lot of trouble.

The Uber driver by contrast will be able to detect if his livelihood is at stake early and retrain / develop his skill set before getting laid off.  By working with the “safe” company the office worker gave up optionality later in life without realising.

Moral of the story:

In the majority of decisions, the decision which will provide most optionality is the correct one.

*Money is attractive to people as it represents pure optionality.  You can do anything you want with it.  But only if you own the money outright.  Money often has strings attached – either you owe it back, or someone gets a portion of your company or even worse you trade a portion of your life to get a paycheck.

In a startup this matters.  If you take a loan or you raise money, all of a sudden you’ve lost optionality as the people you took money from want it back and often with interest.  This limits your ability to innovate and explore different options.

 

How To Measure Your Life

It is unusual how when you insist on measuring something, you often end up measuring what actually doesn’t matter.  Often the thing you end up measuring is a distant relative of something meaningful.

Modern medicine is pretty incredible.  We can stick a tube down your air pipe and artificially ventilate you, we can keep your heart pumping artificially to keep the blood flowing, we can introduce an IV line and keep you hydrated by giving you fluids, we can feed you with a tube into your stomach (a PEG feed) and we can catheterise you to make sure you’re peeing properly.

By all measurable metrics we can keep you “alive”.  But by doing all of this are we really keeping the patient “alive” in any meaningful way?

 

Measure

I have a feeling that we often end up measuring things due to the mere fact that they are easy to measure.  The things which actually matter are usually difficult or impossible to measure:

  • “Likes”, “Follows” and “Shares” instead of measuring impact and engagement.
  • Money instead of measuring purpose and fulfillment.
  • Short-term growth instead of “durability”.

So the question becomes; “Are you measuring your life in a meaningful way?”, or are you measuring out of convenience.  Maybe it’s time to buckle down and figure out what actually matters.