Rules of Ascendancy: Don’t Have an End Goal

I’m going to describe three types of people.  I call them average, elite, and ascendant.  One of the differences between the three is how they approach goals and getting what they want.

The goal of goals

Average people don’t like concrete goals because there is a risk of failure.  Average people tend to get what they want because what they want is, almost by definition, things they already believe themselves capable of getting.  They prefer excuses and limitations as convenient reasons they can’t set big goals and go after big dreams.

Elite people love goals.  Goals are visible and attract attention.  They are driven by concrete goals that can be achieved with lots of work but which often mask deeper, underlying desires that are unobtainable.  Elite people never really get what they want because whenever they achieve a new goal, they realize it wasn’t what they wanted and an empty frustration creeps right back.

The things elite people want are subjective – unequivocal recognition from others for being better than all rivals, being “great”, “wise”, and generally held in higher esteem than their peers.  They use constant concrete goal setting as a way to notch items off their belt, hoping to level up to a place where these illusive perceptions become cemented for all time.  They often achieve their material goals, but these never stack up high enough to take them where they think they want to go.

Beyond goals

Ascendant people don’t really care much for goals one way or another.  They play with them and experiment with them as tools to achieve various projects or develop habits, but they aren’t obsessed with concrete, material goals.  Nor are they motivated by anyone else’s subjective assessment of their worth.

Ascendant people both get and don’t get what they want.  They get it because what they want is progress, growth, meaning, challenge, and evolution.  They want a journey that leads to another journey.  They don’t get what they want because, well, they don’t want to.  They want to chase the rabbit, not catch it.  The chase isn’t something you can get, it’s something you can do.  Ascendant people are directional, not locational.  Life is a centered set, not a closed set.  Everything either moves you toward or away from “up”; there is no “in” or “out”, there is only “toward”.

Ascendant people focus more on who they want to be than what they want to do or be titled.  They create processes and habits and systems to move them closer, an inch at a time, to the kind of person they want to be, rather than focusing on specific end goals.  They identify obstacles to progress and take action to overcome them.  They test and refine processes, allowing the results to be a surprise.  An example might be writing every day because the process moves you closer to the kind of person you want to be, vs. setting a goal to publish and sell X number of books.  The daily practice tends to result in more powerful and unpredictable outcomes than predefined goals.

Ascendant people are not afraid of goals.  Nor do they require them.  They’re motivated by growth, and if goals can help, they’ll adopt some.  They want to pursue more than obtain.

This is part of a series on the difference between average, elite, and ascendant.

Rules of Ascendancy: Never Be Surprised by a Blind Review

I’m going to describe three types of people.  I call them average, elite, and ascendant.  One of the differences between the three is how they approach performance reviews.

The dreaded performance review

A lot of companies and organizations have annual performance reviews where employees submit feedback on their coworkers and then it’s delivered anonymously through a manager.  They tend to foster passive aggression and act as a too-late justification for bad managers to do what they knew they should but lacked the guts to do sooner and without more support.  Whatever I think of them, they’re common and they provide a great opportunity to ascend pettiness and posturing.

Average people fear performance reviews.  Their pain-avoidance drive makes them see only danger in the review.  They work to ensure they are inoffensive and reduce risk of negative feedback with increased fervency leading up to review season.  They are somewhat cautious in reviewing their peers.  Eager to vent pent-up frustration, but also leery of dishing too hard something that might come back to them next go round.

Elite people relish review season.  It’s an opportunity to maneuver and preen and undermine people in polite sounding language.  They see reviews as a building block for a better title, pay raise, more prominent office, or a chance to weed out threats.  The gossip and gamesmanship that come along with review season add to the juicy enjoyment.

Ascendant people are neutral on reviews.  Reviews seem redundant, but if getting them done will help other things move forward, they’ll do it honestly and without a lot of fanfare.  They see no reason to fear or relish the review, because they are not surprised by the results.

Blinded by nothing

I worked at a place where the entire year revolved around the performance review.  Pay raises, organizational changes, hiring, firing, and promotions were all hinged on the process.  The five or six people with whom you worked most frequently were supposed to login to a portal and score you and leave anonymous feedback on your performance.  A manager would gather and aggregate the scores and feedback and then deliver it to you in a meeting as a unified body of general info.  “The feedback you got was…” as if it came from a disembodied collective.

Some people would store up grudges and grievances, rubbing their hands at the thought of finally unleashing it in a blind review.

It didn’t seem worth it to fight against the process as a whole, so I tried to turn it into a more useful test of my own communication skills and work habits.  It was a personal game.  I set a standard for myself: if anything in my review came as a surprise to me, or if anything I said in my reviews of others came as a surprise to them, I’d failed.

I put my name on the reviews I left for people.  I didn’t want them to be anonymous.  I wanted to openly share what I thought about their performance and what it was like to work with them.  I told everyone ahead of time I’d be putting my name on all my reviews and if anything I said came as a surprise to come tell me and we could figure out where communication had broken down.  I worked with these people every day.  If there was a problem or something praiseworthy, they should know it in real time, not be surprised by a review once a year.

I told people to be brutally honest in their reviews of me.  Be anonymous if it helps.  But if anything in anyone’s reviews of me came as a surprise, it reflected my failure to establish an open productive line of communication.

I was never surprised by reviews.  I always knew exactly what I’d hear.  I could usually identify who gave what feedback too, because they had already given it to me many times before.  “You bowl over people in meetings”, “You rush to finish things and overlook important details”, “You are too dismissive of processes and norms”.  I heard all of these things and none of them were a surprise.  I knew that about myself and everyone who worked with me knew it about me and we both knew that we both knew.  It was out in the open.

The test

Ever since, I have used the blind review test to check myself.  I walk through a mental exercise with two questions:

“If you were to honestly and anonymously review people you work and interact with, would they be surprised by anything you said?”

“If those who work and interact with you honestly and anonymous reviewed you, would you be surprised by what they said?”

If the answer to either question is yes, I force myself to get to the source of the problem and find a way to communicate it, or stop working with that person.  There is no gain in an ongoing relationship with festering, unspoken problems.  If the thought of anonymously reviewing someone fills me with vindictive triumph, I’ve got work to do on myself.

Ascend the fear and angling approaches to performance reviews – real or imagined – and use them as a test of your transparency, honesty, and communication.  Everyone who matters should know where you stand with them and vice versa.

This is part of a series on the difference between average, elite, and ascendant.

Apprenticeships Are Leading a Quiet Revolution in Higher Ed

There is a revolution happening in higher education. It’s happening without fanfare. It’s in what futurist investor Peter Diamandis might call the “deceptive phase”. This revolution is the rediscovery of a longstanding idea that somehow got lost in the last century or so: apprenticeship.

The Loud Nothing

Higher education is a popular target for reformers. For at least a decade there have been protests over student debt, which averages well into five figures per student (six figures is not uncommon). Blame is lobbed everywhere. Tuition has risen faster than any other good – more than 500% in the last few decades – fueled by growing demand fueled by subsidy and government-backed loans fueled by a belief that, without college credentials, everyone will be poor and have fewer career options. Ironically, credential-chasing is making people poorer and limiting their options.

More than half of college grads have no job or a job that does not require a degree. Employers find little to no value in whatever colleges are supposed to be teaching (which comes as a major surprise to grads; take a look at how they think they’re prepared vs. how employers think they aren’t).

Debates rage. Some propose forcing taxpayers to fork over even more money for more college for more people. Some propose caps on tuition, or student debt forgiveness, or new laws requiring employers to pay more. Some propose new subjects, teaching methods, programs, and efforts to cajole young people into majoring in whatever field is the economic fortune teller’s flavor of the month. “We need more STEM!” “We need more critical thinkers!” “We need more….”

All of these collectivist approaches are fundamentally arrogant and irrelevant, however well-intentioned their advocates. The funny thing is, while pundits wring their hands and raise their voices with clueless frustration, the market is on the move

The Silent Something

I read a long and thoughtful policy paper the other day (ok, I skimmed it…it was pretty boring) about apprenticeship as a potential solution to problems plaguing higher education. It came to a predictably safe and meaningless conclusion: apprenticeship could be beneficial, but there are complications that must be worked out.

Meanwhile, in the real world where real people have real skin in the real game, apprenticeship is already undermining the old apparatus and freeing people and businesses from the costly credentialist conveyor belt.

It turns out self-interest, entrepreneurial risk-taking, and profit and loss signals are sufficient to induce radical change in a stagnant industry (I guess Adam Smith was onto something). It didn’t take think tanks, wonks, and talking heads putting together a “sound plan” for a “bold future”. It didn’t take ballots or protests. It took individuals pursuing their own dreams, bucking peer pressure and the status quo of religious devotion to debt-fuelled four-year binge drinking and test-taking. Innovation beats politics.

I’m speaking from personal experience. I’m one of these individuals and my skin is in this game. I staked everything on the value to young people of gaining great apprenticeships and becoming entrepreneurial creators outside of the classroom when I launched Praxis. I’m not talking theoretically, I’m seeing these young revolutionaries do it every day.

This revolution isn’t anything that needs to be designed by planners, or gain consensus. It’s not a revolution for “society” or other abstract collectives. It’s an individual revolution. One by one, the best and brightest are opting out of classrooms and breaking down the wall between learning and doing. They’re apprenticing at real businesses, creating real value, and gaining the skills, knowledge, network, experience, and confidence needed to succeed in less than a year for zero cost.

The New Apprentice

What kinds of individuals are leading the apprentice revolution?

Apprenticeship isn’t just for welders, and startups aren’t just for coders. The apprentice revolution is driven largely by eager, hard-working generalists. Young people who don’t yet have a specialized skill set or specific life plan. They want to create value and they know they won’t find a perfect career without testing a lot of things. They’re doing things like sales, marketing, customer service, product development, and an array of activities too varied to be labelled. They’re doing this primarily at startups and growing small businesses – places that need talent, but can’t afford a cubicle farm of coffee-fetching interns. They see the unique benefits of an apprenticeship vs. the standard approach.

It’s easier than ever to start and grow a business. Talent is the biggest constraint faced by every growing company. College credentials are not only killing the classroom, they’re losing all of their signalling power to employers. Today, young people must find a better way to signal their ability to create value. The best companies are looking for the best talent based on what they can do and prove, not lifeless bullets on a resume. They’re turning to apprenticeship.

A Way of Life

The apprentice revolution is not just a better way to learn and work. It’s a better way to think and live. It’s deeply rooted in a philosophy of personal autonomy, growth, and innovation. It’s about freedom, not just in theory or legal code, but in each person’s daily life. It’s built around the idea of free exchange and value creation, not obedience and entitlement.

Rather than the passive, rule-following mindset bred by an education system isolated from the dynamic market, the apprentice approach is fully immersed in commerce and requires creativity and insight to meet the needs of others.

A free and prosperous society emerges from the actions of free and prosperous individuals, not slavish students of arbitrary facts. It emerges when we’re not looking, and in ways the intelligentsia don’t expect. The revolution in higher education is already here. It’s not on the evening news. Instead, it’s quietly creating the products and services you’ll be buying tomorrow.

Forget politics. The real rebels and revolutionaries are building the world without anyone’s permission. Apprenticeship is but one example in one area. Opportunity abounds.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

Rules of Ascendancy: Drama is the Enemy of Progress

I’m going to describe three types of people.  I call them average, elite, and ascendant.  One of the differences between the three is how they approach drama.

Average drama

Average people love drama.  It’s a distraction from the boredom of daily life.  Average people enjoy drama in a self-aware way.  It’s a known indulgence; an escape from weightier things that take too much effort.

Average drama takes the form of Judge Judy, or People Magazine, sports and celebrity gossip, and a voyeuristic pleasure in the domestic disputes of those around them.  Average people like to trump up tough situations and turn them into drama as a way to make life seem more epic and interesting.

Elite drama

Elite people have an equal, if not greater appetite for drama than average people.  But it’s masked by pomp and circumstance.  Elite drama is a method of constant movement and benchmarking along the social hierarchy they so long to climb.  Elite drama is not an escape, it has a purpose.  It’s an integral part of elite life.  Its purpose is to undermine or posture so that other’s dramatic failings make you look better by comparison.

Elite drama takes the form of complex office politics, infighting and gossip in churches or civic organizations, and of course governments and committees.  It is mostly unspoken.  It’s not acknowledged or recognized as drama, but painted as valuable information.  “I think Sheila is angling for John’s job”, or, “I’m concerned that James is treating Hannah differently because they’re having an affair”.

Elite drama is imagined, created, provoked, and discussed not to materially change facts and arrive at solutions, but to create feelings, schisms, and unspoken alliances.  It seeks perpetuation, not resolution.  It’s used as a way to ask for things an elite would be too polite/dishonest/insecure to ask for directly.  Rather than, “I want you to stop liking this person so much and start liking me more”, it’s, “Sure, they’re good at their job, but I wonder if other people on the team really trust them…”  Elite drama-talk is pregnant with implication but almost devoid of provable, actionable fact.

Elites end up spending considerable energy and resource on drama, which limits their ability to become better versions of themselves.  Hard work and focus are the most direct route to accomplishing anything, but in effort to shortcut the system, elite people pursue endless dramatic narratives and angling in effort to move up by by jockeying, rather than through direct hard work.  The paradox is that navigating endless drama is more work in the end.

Beyond drama

Ascendant people hate drama.  They avoid it at all costs.  They don’t care about Sheila or John or social hierarchies or elicit affairs or rumors.  They hate celebrity gossip, political gossip, and workplace angling.  All are a distraction from meaningful, productive progress.

The easiest way to separate the elite from the ascendant in a group of high performers is to introduce a juicy tidbit of gossip or some unspoken animosity.  Elites will be unable to resist the lure of scandal that could possibly impact their social status or present an opportunity to climb the ranks of perception.  Ascendant people will ignore it as soon as possible, find those willing to get to work, and move ahead.

When it comes to drama average people may be closer to ascendancy than elites.  A known indulgence can be given up if the goal is meaningful enough.  A way of life that permeates the complex lattice of social status isn’t so easily abandoned.

Drama is the enemy of progress.  Rise above it in all its forms.

This is part of a series on the difference between average, elite, and ascendant.

The Call of Christ to Freedom, by Stephen Legate

Thirteen years ago, age 20 and grappling with how to make the world freer, my good friend Leon Drolet (I think only the second time I met him) handed me photocopied article from Liberty magazine.  He’d heard I was a Christian, and though he was not, he made several copies of this article and handed them out to every Christian he knew in the political realm.

The article changed my life.  It put into words so many things I felt but couldn’t articulate.  It generated a burst of mental freedom and set me on a trajectory that altered my intellectual and professional life.  I had a great appreciation for theology, philosophy, ethics, and the concept of free-will.  I had a great appreciation for the science of human action and free-market economic principles.  I knew these things were not in conflict, but I lacked the lexicon to describe how two paths (for me, represented by Milton Friedman and C.S. Lewis) led to the same conclusion about the unnecessary evil of government.

Legate described it for me.  I’m not objective enough to determine whether the article itself is really great or if it’s just the time in my life when I read it.  Regardless, it’s been lost and found on and off over the years, so I’m thrilled to have pinned down a PDF of the issue in which it appeared.

I’ve uploaded a file below of just the one article for my own records and remembrance.  But you can enjoy it too!

The Call of Christ to Freedom, by Stephen Legate