Force vs. Power

There’s a saying that goes, “If you want to know who controls you, ask who you’re not allowed to criticize.”

That may be roughly true in terms of who’s trying to force you into something, but that’s not the same as knowing who has power.  In fact, when it comes to finding out who is powerful, I think the opposite is true.  I say,

If you want to know who has power, ask who you can criticize freely and openly.

If a person or group has to force you to withhold negative opinions, they lack power.  It may be that they incorrectly perceive themselves as powerless, but believing you are powerless is self-fulfilling.

The truly powerful aren’t threatened by criticism.  The fearful and powerless are.  The weak and panicked seek the use of force and control to protect their fragile identities.  The powerful don’t care.  Your good opinion isn’t required for their success.

It’s easy to see people, groups, and ideas protected by strong legal or cultural controls and conclude they are the power brokers.  If you’re not allowed to criticize the priest, professor, or politician, they must be the puppet-masters.  This conclusion is false.  Their fragility drives them to violence, threat, and manipulation.

Meanwhile, those with genuine power are comfortable being lampooned.  They are as likely to laugh at satire at their expense as to ignore it.

When an opinion is shut down by force, weakness hides behind the threat.  When criticism is free to fly, power hides behind it.

If you want to know who has power, ask who gets poked fun of and criticized with abandon.

*I am referring in this post to power in a general, value-neutral way.  Power can be used for a great many things, but true power doesn’t require force, threat, manipulation, control or propaganda.  The powerful are not always who they seem.

Give It a Try

You have less to lose than you think.  You have more to gain than you can imagine, even if it fails.

We tend to over-scrutinize action, change, and unknowns, and under-scrutinize our current situation.  Most change happens at the margin anyway.  How precious are those marginal perceived benefits of known mediocrity versus the marginal risks of unknown potential greatness?

It’s not about the great feeling of reaching the summit.  That won’t be as great as you think.  It’s about the new summits that come into view when you get there.

All Or Nothing vs. Management

Some things are best done with an all or nothing mentality.  Management isn’t one of them.

Getting startup off the ground, picking and finishing a creative project, or being a solopreneur all benefit from either total engagement or total disengagement.  Black and white decisions made entirely by you or entirely by someone else.  It cuts through the crap and makes progress possible.

Management is different.  If you go all-in and do everything yourself or micromanage every decision, you’re limited to what’s in your personal capacity.  If you go all out and delegate with abandon, abdicate responsibility, and offer little guidance, lots of individual things get done faster, but not necessarily in the same direction, like ropes tugging at different angles.

This is a challenge.  My default settings are either do it myself, or hire someone to do it and not think about it again.  I can see it with my kids.  Sometimes they want help making eggs or building LEGO.  The subtle art of working with people, rather than working for them or having them work for you, takes patience and insight.  I can tell you how to make eggs easy enough.  I can make eggs easy enough.  But actively guiding from beginning to end, interjecting only lightly and when asked or needed, that’s tough.  It feels inefficient.  Couldn’t one of us be doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to each do different things?  Aren’t two things at 90% better than one at 98%?

Not always.

As I mentioned yesterday, I prefer to play to strengths than shore up weaknesses.  The all or nothing mindset is a strength.  But it taps out pretty quickly beyond a certain scale.  It’s not so much about working on a weakness, it’s more about developing an entirely new skill called management.  It’s a skill nobody just has.  It can only be learned once you’re in a position where it’s needed to get you to the next level.  You have to reach your personal productivity ceiling.  Then you actually need to work with others.  It’s not about curbing the all or nothing mindset, just building a new one for new circumstances.

My brother once told me a CEO has only three priorities: Money, talent, and vision.  Money and vision are best served with an all or nothing approach.  Talent requires something totally different.

Just Pick One Weakness

I’m not a fan of trying to improve weaknesses.

Not because I think they’re unimportant.  It’s just an ROI calculation.  A month spent getting from the bottom 5% to the bottom 7% proficiency at something I suck at is lower yield than a month spent getting from the top 92% to the top 92.5%.

When you’re really good at something, a tiny improvement gives a huge edge.  When you’re bad at something, even a sizable improvement doesn’t do much.

I apply this principle to others too.  I try to work with people’s existing strengths and push them to get even better there, and assume their weaknesses will never change.  If they do, bonus, but I’d rather create an incentive structure where nobody has to be different than they are to get results.

It generates faster progress and helps reduce frustration.  I’d never ask a really shy behind the scenes organized person to give a speech, so why ask an extroverted elocutionist to handle logistics?  Play to strengths, plan around weaknesses.

Still, weaknesses suck and sometimes I need to work on them to level up.  When I do, I focus on one at a time.  I build my daily routines so that most activities are building strengths, but I have one weakness in there too.  This helps keep me focused and pick the weakness that’s most glaring and costly.

The past several months, it’s talking.  I’m trying to talk less.  I talk too much in almost every setting.  Verbal communication is a strength, but overtalking dilutes it.  I’m not stopping any of my normal activities to work on this weakness.  I’m still putting 90% of my focus into building my strengths.  But it’s helped me become more aware of the cost of loquaciousness just by picking it as my one weakness to focus on right now.

I don’t think I’ve made progress yet.  It could be several years on this one.  Silence is my siren song.

This is Just the Beginning of the Change

I think everyone dramatically underestimates how deep and radical the change spurrred by the internet really is.  I think we’re still in the infant stages.  I think even now, it’s hard to see how profoundly it’s changing all facets of life, from experts and gatekeepers to the design of cities and governance and more.

Few things are more exciting to contemplate.

The All Or Nothing Problem with Reading

I don’t like in-betweens. I prefer doing something all the way or doing nothing.

This presents a challenge when it comes to reading. If I read a few books in one genre, I get tired of it and don’t want to read that genre any more for a while. The downside is that I’ll start to crave a bit of it, but not enough to read a full book. I’m stuck between none at all, which leaves me hungry, and a full book, which leaves me bored.

I’m trying a new approach where I keep books I like handy and read a page or even just a paragraph at random when I need a little dose.  It’s very contrary to my nature, so we’ll see how it goes.

“I’m Gonna Hit You”: How to Win Before You Begin

Billy Sibley was terrifying.

We all knew he had major heat, especially for a twelve year old.  We were a good team of base-hitters, but we hadn’t faced power on the mound yet.  Billy was known for speed, but inconsistent accuracy, especially early in the game.  The strategy was to hug the plate, shrink the strike zone, take walks, drop a few bunts, and hope for extra bases on the occasional wild pitch.

I was the lead-off hitter and, technically, I did my job in the first inning.  I got on base.  But on a deeper level, Billy won the opening at bat, and with it the entire game.  It started with four words just before the opening pitch.

“I’m gonna hit you.”

I did a double take as we passed each other to our respective dugouts after handshakes to be sure he actually said something so brazen and threatening.  He did.

I told my teammates about it while getting my bat and helmet.  Nobody knew if he was trash talking or prophesying.

It wasn’t a bluff.

I stepped into the box and the first pitch hit me square on the left cheek before I could back out.  I almost dropped, but managed to wobble to first base for my freebie.  That was about the closest to scoring we’d get.

The rest of the game, our plate-crowding strategy was abandoned on instinct.  We stood stiffly on the outer edge of the batter’s box and watched.  We might have gotten a few walks, maybe a even a few hits, I don’t remember.  What I do remember is the whole team being stunned into submission by an already scary guy who told the lead-off hitter he was going to hit him, then did on the first pitch.  Right in the face.  Hard.

Billy played to his greatest strength.  Not his fastball, but his reputation.  He was a small legend in the 10-12 year old league.  He knew we’d be nervous.  He knew his early stuff was unpredictable.  He knew we were a stingy small-ball team.  He kept his game plan simple: scare the shit out of them to expand the strike zone and own the game.

He didn’t need great stuff that night.  He only needed to do two things: tell me he’d hit me, and do it.

Sometimes winning the battle on the level of narrative is more important than winning on facts.