Think Less

In several management paradigms such as Lean or the Theory of Constraints, one of the key principles in ensuring good flow of products or services through a process is keeping the amount of Work in Process (WIP) – that is, work that has been started but not yet finished – low.

For example, in a sales process, if your lead-generation team produces 100 leads a day but your sales team can only vet 10 a day, pretty soon you’re going to have an ever-growing backlog of unvetted leads. As that backlog gets bigger, the amount of time from when a lead is first generated to the time it gets vetted gets longer. If you want flow, keep WIP low.

These same dynamics – and even the word ‘flow’ – show up in human psychology as well.

Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s famous work on being “in flow” – that state of relaxed state of peak performance also known as being “in the zone” – posits that one’s emotional state is often a function of how the difficulty of a given task compares to one’s skill level in it: when the task is too easy, you’re bored; when the task is too hard, you’re frustrated or stressed. And the task is just about right – when you are being pushed to your limit but not beyond it – you enter flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s model of psychological flow.

Also consider that in the popular Getting Things Done productivity system, one of the most important habits is consistently getting all of your ideas and to-do items out of your head and ‘on to paper’ (digital or not). This frees your mind from having to remember and keep track of it all. People who have gone through this process often find that they they are better able to focus and get more productive.

Less is More

In all of these cases, the amount of ‘stuff’ in the first step in our process- whether sales leads, the level of challenge in a given task, or the amount of to-dos in our list – exceeds the ability of the next step to handle all that stuff. Let’s call the step that’s producing the ‘stuff’ step ‘A’, and the next, step ‘B’.

One way to deal with this – to improve the flow – is to increase the capacity of step B. In our examples this might be hiring new salespeople, practicing to improve your skill level, or improving your memory. The problem with this approach is that while some solutions to increase capacity are cheap and easy (e.g. writing down all your to-dos in an organized way), most of the time these things take additional time and resources. In the meantime, the longer you get things continue on the same way, the more the backlog increases and the problem only gets worse.

Instead, what is often required – counterintuitively – to maintain and then improve flow is to first stop Step A from producing as much. Producing less before the bottleneck in the process reduces WIP and improves flow. After flow is improved, you can then more easily work on improving the capacity of the next step. And this all seems to work in both things and people alike.

“No Mind” = No Thoughts

I think is one of the reasons meditation is so powerful. One of the things you learn after just a few weeks of meditating is that we humans tend to be thinking – that is, producing thoughts – all. the. time. Indeed, it often takes many months of practice meditating to be able to go for more than a few seconds without thought. In many ways, a big part of meditation’s ability to help people is that it trains them to think less.

To be clear, I’m not disparaging the value of thinking. Our cognitive ability is what distinguishes us as a species, and sometimes thinking deeply about something is absolutely recommended. But too much of anything can be problematic. When we’re so lost in thought we’re not really present with our loved ones. When we’re so stressed thinking about work or money we can’t sleep. When we’re so focused on thinking about all the things we want instead of enjoying what we have that we live our lives in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. Those are all symptoms of too much thought.

I don’t think meditation’s ability to decrease the production of thought and increase the frequency and duration of flow in one’s life is a coincidence. Rather, one’s psychology is related to the the structure of one’s brain, which in turns obeys the same physical laws as a manufacturing or sales process.

So if you want more flow in your life, consider a few suggestions:

  1. Get your to-do list organized.
  2. Reduce the difficulty of a difficult task, whether by breaking it into smaller pieces, getting help, or delegating.
  3. Meditate.

And try, if you can, to think less.

Advice to a Recent High School Grad

My Godson just graduated from high school and is getting ready to attend college in the fall. I couldn’t attend his graduation party, but I did want to give him a gift. In addition to some noise-cancelling headphones, I wrote him a letter with some advice that I wish I had received when I went to college.

Below is the letter. Now this letter was a tailored to him so this is not necessarily the advice I’d give everyone. And I’m certain not everyone will agree with all I’ve written. But here it is.

Hi [Redacted],

Congratulations! Graduating high school is a big life milestone. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend your graduation party, but I wanted to send along this note and a gift in my absence.

I asked several people about a few different gift ideas, and we all agreed that this would likely be something you would find useful for both fun and work. I actually got some a couple years ago and definitely wish I had had them in college. I hope you enjoy them!

I also wanted to give you a few pieces of advice that I wish someone had told me when I was going off to college. If you search the internet for “advice for college students” (which you should!) you can find lots of great information, so here I’ll focus on a few things that either I didn’t see elsewhere or that I felt would have been particularly useful if someone had told me.

Begin with the End in Mind

First, begin with the end in mind. What do you want to get out of the college experience? A job? To expand your horizons? To make new, lifelong friends? To learn more about yourself? College is different from high school in many ways. But one of the biggest is how many more options you have and how much more freedom you have in choosing between them. Because your time is limited, it’s helpful to at least spend a little of it thinking about what you hope to get out of your college and what steps are most likely to get you there. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t change what your goals are as you learn and grow. In fact, that’s probably likely. But having at least some tentative idea about what you think your goals might be can help you be more conscious about how you spend your time.

Figuring out a Career Path

A career path should lie at the intersection of three things: what makes money, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy (in that order of importance). The people who get paid a lot typically are pretty good at at least one of four things: selling/marketing, managing people, managing money, or creating something that can be reproduced over and over (e.g. writing software, designing a microchip, discovering a new drug, etc.). You can also make pretty good money if you have certain professional certifications (e.g. a corporate attorney, a surgeon, etc.) You should therefore ask yourself and others who know you well which of those areas you are most skilled and which you enjoy.

Even if you think you’re pretty sure, one of the things I’d recommend early in your college career is to try to take a few classes in each of those areas that might give you a better sense of those things. I don’t know that there are many classes that focus on selling, but there might be some classes in negotiation or you could even start a small business on campus. For marketing you can obviously take marketing classes, but if you do that I’d really focus heavily on courses that are very quantitative (e.g. database marketing, digital analytics, etc.). For managing people, the best way to do that is to get a job where you are trying to coordinate a lot of people or try to get into a leadership position on campus at some point and gain some experience. There’s a lot to being a good leader/manager but a desire to coach and mentor people along with excellent communication and organizational skills are key. For managing money, I’d recommend taking accounting and finances classes, or even economics. Finally, in terms of actually making stuff, I’d say computer science and/or industrial design classes (like actually designing products) are good areas to focus. The other types of classes I’d recommend are those focused on statistics. Unless you’re going to be an engineer, statistics will be way more useful in the real world. And of course, if you have any interest in the law or medicine, taking classes in law or biology/chemistry is a good idea.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that early on you should cast your net semi broadly and get some sense of what areas are of practical interest to you. I have nothing against taking classes like poetry, art history, or psychology, but I’d recommend that you wait to take those until you’ve chosen your major and need some other classes to balance out your workload. When in doubt, finance classes are always useful – money touches most things.

Beyond the classes, I’d say that if there’s something you’re interested in that you think might want to pursue in a career, see if there’s some way to get involved with it while you’re in school early on. Maybe there’s a group on campus. Maybe you start a business or a blog. Maybe you start coding on your own on the side. It’s important that you try to actually do the thing you think you want to do. Yes it may help you get a job down the road (more on that later), but – even more importantly – it can help you understand what doing that kind of work is actually like – sometimes, the reality can surprise you. 

You may also want to consider visiting the career center at school. Most students don’t even think about visiting until senior year, but in actuality the resources there are a lot more valuable when you have four years to learn and plan than when you’re two months from graduation and scrambling to find a job.

The next things are internships and interviews. They can help you figure out which types of jobs you might enjoy. If you think you are interested in X, see if you can find professors in that field and just ask them about it. They probably know former students in that space. If there’s an alumni directory, search on there for people in those fields. (You can also used LinkedIn.) There’s a phrase that goes “ask for money, get advice; ask for advice get money twice”. By reaching out early before you’re actually looking for an internship or job and just asking if they’d be willing to talk on the phone or meet for coffee, not only can you learn a lot about various industries but – if you do decide that you want to intern or get a job with them later – you will have already built a relationship with them.

Finally, though I would still recommend that you go to college, you should be aware that the job market is shifting in big ways. Google, for example recently announced a program called “Google Career Certificates”:  they are online courses that – if you take them and pass – Google will consider them equivalent to a four year degree. There are also programs that are called “coding bootcamps”, which aim to give you the practical skills necessary to get a job as a software developer in the course of a few months. The reason I mention this is not to dissuade you from going to college but to make you aware that there are many forms of education available. You shouldn’t assume that just getting a college degree is all you need to do to be successful (or, conversely, that not getting a college means that you’re stuck.) While it’s not the majority view yet, more and more employers are starting to realize that what matters is not having a piece of paper, but that you can do the job they need you to do and can learn and adapt as needed. 

Now if you really want to be a professional athlete, movie star, or famous musician, I’m not saying don’t try. Do try, and try hard. But statistically speaking it’s probably not going to happen. So be smart about having a plan B.

Position Yourself to Get a Job

The good news is that two of the most important ways to figure out what you might want to do – doing actual work in the space and informational interviews/internships – are also two of the most important in helping you get a job by the time you graduate.

Here is the absolute #1 most important thing you need to know about getting a job: it’s almost always about relationships. For companies hiring a new college grad, they’re often going to get hundreds (if not thousands) of applications. The single best way to differentiate yourself is through a referral. That means building relationships: relationships with folks at potential employers, with professors or staff, even with other students – sometimes a friend of yours might get hired before you at a place you want to work and they can refer you; sometimes they might have a parent or older sibling that works somewhere. You never know.

When you combine the relationship with demonstrated interest in the area (through thoughful questions, joining relevant clubs, doing relevant work on the side, etc.) and decent grades, you’re in great shape. And while grades are very important, if I had to choose between a 3.1 and amazing relationships and a 3.8 and no relationships, I’d take the former in most cases. Keep in mind, however, that some scholarships, clubs, etc. have their own GPA requirements. This isn’t advice to skimp on the academics.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to folks. A lot of times people will respond to students. Create a profile on LinkedIn and search for folks in your field. Or look in your alumni directory. The best note is short and goes something like this: 

Dear Mr/Mrs X, I am currently a [freshman/sophomore, etc.] at [school]. I am very interested in learning more about the [field]. [Some explanation of how you found them] and was wondering if you’d be willing to speak for 30 mins and tell me more about the industry and your role. 

Not everyone will respond but some will. Take them up on it. Be prompt and prepared. And then follow up with a thank you note. Then – and particularly if it’s a thing you think you might actually want to do in the future – send them an update note every semester or so: how things are going, what you’ve been doing, and express your continued interest in the field (or ask about possible internships). 

If you start doing these things early on, you will be light years ahead of most other students come graduation time.

Develop Relationships

I talked a little bit about this already, but really take the time to meet new people and develop new relationships. There are two reasons to do this. First, it will help your career. Second, it’s rewarding in its own right.

First, money. Generally speaking, we live in a capitalist society. This means that the people who control the capital are basically in control. For the purposes of this letter, there are two types of capital. The first is financial capital. This is money. All else being equal, having more money is better. The second is human capital. This refers to people’s skills, talents, time, and attention. If you invest those types of capital effectively, you create more of them. If you invest ineffectively, you destroy them. You have your own talents, abilities, time, and attention, but those are inherently limited. You can’t be good at everything. But other people are good at other things. By getting good at developing and maintaining relationships, you get access to other people’s talents, abilities, time, attention, money, and relationships.  More practically, whether you’re looking for a job, someone to hire, a new client, an investor, or even just some advice, having a wide set of relationships makes all of these so much easier. This is somewhat true when you’re graduating. By the time you’re 30 it will be pretty important. And it only gets more important the older you get.

Second, meaning. In 1932, a Harvard doctor named Arlen Bock tried to conduct a definitive study of what leads to a life of satisfaction and happiness – what he called “human flourishing”. Between 1939 and 1946, Dr. Bock and his team selected about 250 sophomores from the Harvard undergraduate class, which ended up including four members who ran for U.S. Senate, one who served in a presidential cabinet, and even a young JFK. The men were evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, evaluations from physicians, and in many cases by personal interviews. Information was gathered on every imaginable dimension: mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality…all from the time they enrolled in the study for the rest of their lives – it was to become known as the Grant Study, one of the foremost longitudinal studies of 20th century social science. In 2012, George Vallant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published a book called Triumph of Experience, a summation of the insights from the study. There are many interesting findings, but in my mind the most important finding is the following in Vallant’s own words: “The 75-years and $20 million expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward conclusion: the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.

So how to do this? If you’re naturally extroverted then you’ll do it automatically. If you’re introverted, it may take a bit more work. But make the effort. Join that club. Ask that girl out. You don’t need to be someone you’re not but put in the effort to at least be in situations where you have the opportunity to develop relationships with others. The reality is that you probably won’t remember most of what you learn in your classes. But many of the relationships you forge could last a lifetime. 

Do Well Enough in School

The first thing I need to say here is that “well enough” is really defined by your goals. If you want to go to med, law, or grad school –  then having top grades (~4.0) really matters. If you want to try to get a highly competitive job at a top company (Amazon, Goldman Sachs, etc.) then slightly lower grades (3.75+) are probably fine if you have built the relationships and have demonstrated real interest by doing work in the field. For most other things, a 3.0 is probably good enough and a 3.5+ is quite solid. If you’re getting below a 3.0 you need to do some combination of working harder, getting some help, or considering changing your major.

I won’t go into a ton of detail since you can find a lot about doing well in school online, but here are some quick tips on how to do well:

  • Use the resources the school has. Go to office hours. Go to writing clinics. Ask your (smart) friends. Ask the teaching assistants. Youtube and Google are your friends. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP. You are the customer (and the product) – the professors, teaching assistants and everyone else are there to help you. 
  • Figure out your own schedule. Some people are morning people. Some are night folks. Some people work best in uninterrupted blocks. Some people like to work for 90 mins then take a while to recover. Figure out when you are best able to focus and plan accordingly. Plan for about 3 hours of work outside the classroom for every 1 hour in it.
  • Figure how you study best. I personally found it was best for me to skim through the textbook before lectures as well as after.
  • If you’re in classes with problem sets, find others in the class to work with. It will be a lot easier working with a group.
  • Did I mention not being afraid to use the school’s resources? 

Working While in School

First of all, I recognize that some people have to work during school in order to afford it. But if you’re not in that situation, I’d generally recommend against it unless it’s really aligned with what you think you may want to do in the future. If you think you need more money, I’d first try to talk with the school – sometimes they have additional grants that they can provide. Next, assuming you haven’t taken out crazy amounts of debt to go to school already, I’d consider taking out an additional loan amount to cover the extra cost. You can also search for something called an “income share agreement” – this is a new way of paying for school where you only pay once you have a job and can afford it.

My reasoning here is that every hour you spend working (say in Starbucks) is an hour you could have spent studying, or writing your blog, or programming, or networking with potential employers. If you spend those hours doing those things, I can virtually guarantee you that’s a better investment. Now if take out a bigger loan, don’t get a job and then spend those hours watching TV or drinking (when you’re over 21, of course), that’s a different story.

Expand Your Horizons

Once you have some idea of what kind of path you think you might want to be on, are developing relationships, and are doing well enough in school, the next thing I’d suggest is to intentionally and proactively expand your horizons. Here are a few experiences that might be interesting to try – even if just once – while in college: write for the college newspaper; study abroad for a semester; volunteer for a political campaign; play an intramural sport; volunteer at a soup kitchen or other non-profit; learn Brazilian jiu jitsu; join a choir; play an instrument; do yoga; take a cooking class; learn to meditate. Always do some mix of spending time on the thing you think you care about (as doing so will tell you how much) and trying new things you’re curious about or even know nothing about just to learn. When you start working full time you’ll have plenty of time to focus. Now is still a time to explore.

Try to Enjoy the Journey

I found this paragraph online and though it captured the sentiment well:

“College can be a very exciting time of your life, but it can also be a very stressful one. Universities advertise themselves as places full of fun-loving, amazing students enjoying every day by hiking on the local trails, dressing up in school colors, cheering at football or basketball games, discovering their true passions, and having ‘the best four years of their life’. But college is also a place where you spend a lot of money taking classes that are likely considerably more difficult than anything you’ve taken in the past, with the hope that the effort will land you a better career someday, but only if you spend a lot of time networking and finding other opportunities to grow your resume, all while trying to figure out what it means to be an adult now and not a kid anymore. It can be so overwhelming that it’s very easy to just curl up in a ball and accept that the students around you will be better off than you, and that’s just the way it is.”

Particularly at times during the first couple of years, you may find that college can be overwhelming, stressful, and many other things. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Talk to your parents. Or your sister. Or your friends. Or people at school. Or me. Whatever helps. When things get really stressful, take a few deep breaths and remember that, in the grand scheme of things, whatever it is isn’t that big of a deal. The data I’ve seen suggests that the first two years are often the hardest from an adjustment perspective. If you can persevere through the first two years, things usually get better.

With that said college can also be a fun and exciting time. Though it may not always feel like it, in many ways it’s the time (perhaps until retirement) when you will have the maximum amount of freedom with the minimum amount of responsibility. You’ll learn a ton, make great friends, have fun, and make memories that last a lifetime. Four years may sound like a long time, but it’ll go by quickly. So enjoy it. I’m rooting for you.



What did I get wrong here? What important thing did I miss? What advice do you wish you’d received before going to college that you don’t think is commonly given?


I have meditated on and off for the past 15 years. I tried a bit in high school but never got into a rhythm. My first three years of college were so busy that I forgot about it. My senior year, however, I took a class taught by Daniel Kahneman where we discussed research on happiness and life satisfaction. During that class it became clear that science was beginning to back up what people had been saying for many millennia: meditation can be good for you.

After I graduated I decided to give meditation a real shot. I purchased a meditation program called Holosync. Then – for a period of about a year – I tried to meditate for an hour every day. Though not easy, I am entirely serious when I say that this was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Since that time I’ve meditated sporadically. I’ll usually manage 30 minutes a day for a few weeks. Then something will happen, I’ll stop for several months, and then I’ll start up again. I still use Holosync, but recently also started using Sam Harris‘s Waking Up app.

Meditation is like exercise. Doing it consistently isn’t easy. It takes time to see results. But – also just like exercise – even a little bit helps, and doing it regularly can dramatically improve your life. It certainly has for me.

Clear Thinking

Naval Ravikant has a saying: “Clear thinker” is a better compliment than “smart“. He doesn’t define exactly what he means by this, but if you’ve ever observed smart people acting stupidly (or done so yourself), then it’s clear they are not exactly the same.

To me, clear thinking seems to imply two things:

  1. An ability to think logically and rationally.
  2. An ability to be able to articulate or explain your reasoning.

Professors Keith Stanovich and Richard West have also proposed that there are actually two types of rationality: epistemic rationality (the ability to see reality accurately) and instrumental rationality (the ability to pursue one’s goals in a rational manner). Importantly, they also posit that someone’s “RQ” (rationality quotient) is only loosely correlated with someone’s IQ.

It has been my experience that many people – and particularly folks who have been in a field for a long time – have very powerful intuitions. However, their ability to articulate their intuitions and the rational basis behind them is often much weaker.

This is one of the reasons why I think the practice of writing can be helpful, as it forces you to slow down and verbalize your intuitions.

Types of Work

In an organization there are many different roles that need to be filled. There are also many different ways of talking about or describing various aspects of those roles. One way I’ve come up with for talking about the type of work that different people like to do is using the analogy of building a house. For each of these different roles, you can ask how well each describes you:

  • Visionary. You see an empty field and you like thinking about what type of house should be built. You can see things where nothing exists. This role is all about the vision: a grand house with a garden, a large patio… maybe even a fountain in back. Heck, maybe everyone else thinks it should be a house, but you come along and realize what it really should be is a ten-story highrise, since in 3 years a major highway is going to run right by here and we’re going to be well positioned to capitalize on it and…. (you get the idea.)
  • Architect. OK, so we’ve agreed on a house. What’s the house going to look like? How many bedrooms? Where’s the kitchen and how’s it laid out? Is it going to flow well? How do you design it so that there’s morning light in the bedroom, that the design is naturally energy efficient, and that the minimum of material is needed? This is marrying the artistic and holistic with the practical engineering. This design looks nice, but is it technically feasible? Will it cost too much to design? Will the layout be too complex for people to walk through? This is where you get excited: taking the high level idea and creating a plan and design for translating that vision into something real.
  • Capitalist. You’ve studied the plans and now you want to know if this investment is going to make money. To do this, you know you have to run the numbers. What are the material and labor costs? What’s the expected price per square foot at sale or rental? Should we flip it or rent it? Equity or debt? What’s our expected yield? Does building that roof deck have a positive ROI? What are our assumptions? Whether it’s doing quick math in your head or preparing a detailed financial model, you know that it always comes down to ‘the money’ and keep an eye on the bottom line.
  • Promoter. So you now have the vision and plan. It’s time to secure the resources necessary: investors, the team, permits, supplies, etc. This is where you shine. You know lots of people, love talking to them, and are really good at getting people excited and involved. You’ll talk to everyone you know and everyone you meet, excitedly tell them about what you’re working on and why they should get involved, and ask them to ask all their colleagues, too. After all, who wouldn’t want to be involved in this?…
  • Closer. So the promoter has the investors and/or customers excited and got them to the table. Now it’s time to close. At the end of the day you know that money talks and that investment and revenue make or break a business. Your style might be intense or relaxed but at the end of the day you know that only one thing matters: closing the deal.
  • Conductor / General Contractor. All right, we’ve got everything we need: the vision, the blueprints, the timeline, the budget, the money, the permits, and the team. It’s time to begin construction. This is where you shine. You’re good at coordinating people, holding them accountable, keeping everyone in sync, and raising red flags should anything come up. You keep the project running on time and on budget.
  • Builder. This is where the rubber meets the road. You’ve got your plan and timing and now it’s time to execute. You get it done. Quickly and well. You’re able to stay relentlessly focused on accomplishing the task, and if things come up or break, you’re resourceful enough to figure out how to get. the. job. done. You’re practical, focused, determined, and resourceful. Brick by brick, piece by piece, you thrive on doing real work and doing it well.
  • Inspector. You like details, precision, and perfection. Sometimes, you actually like finding the mistakes and errors people make – not to make them feel bad or point blame, but because you know that it makes the end result that much better. It’s almost like a game.
  • Administrator. You love order. Making lists and checking things off them is one of the highlights of your day. In fact, sometimes you add things to your list after you’ve already done them just SO you can check them off. The files on your computer are all organized, your inbox is alway empty, and you’re generally just on top of your stuff. Crossing T’s and dotting I’s is your thing. (In fact, you’ve already noticed several typos in this post…)

When I’m interviewing people for a role I’ll often ask them to rate themselves 1-10 on each dimension, with a 5 meaning average and a 10 being world-class (for whatever they consider to be their peer group). For example, compared to my peer group, I’d rate myself a 7 Visionary, an 8 Architect, a 6 Capitalist, a 4 Promoter, a 5 Closer, a 6 Conductor, a 6 Builder, a 5 Inspector and a 6 Administrator.

How would you rate yourself?

All Types Needed

The reason I like this question is it helps get both the level of abstraction at which people enjoy working and the type of work they like to do. And the important thing here is that you really do need all roles to build the house:

  • Without the visionary what gets built is uninspired (and maybe the wrong thing altogether)
  • Without the architect what gets built will either never match the vision, won’t actually work in practice, or both.
  • Without the capitalist you may not make any money.
  • Without the promoter you won’t have all the resources you need to bring the vision to fruition, no matter how good the blueprint.
  • Without the closer the deal doesn’t actually get finished.
  • Without the conductor you will have lots of activity but quality, time, and budget will suffer.
  • Without the builder, there will be lots of talk but no action.
  • Without the inspector your building/deal is at risk of death by a thousand paper cuts.
  • Without the administrator balls can get dropped and speed and quality of execution suffers. Sometimes irreparably.

In order to be effective, an organization needs to have all types, put in the appropriate roles for them, and in the right proportions.

There are many ways of thinking about the types of people you need in an organization. This is one that I’ve found useful.

Too Much of A Good Thing (Feedback)

I recently talked about the danger of trying to add too much value. Recently while reading The Inner Game of Tennis, I came across this passage (emphasis mine):

I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying too hard often produces negative results.

W. Timothy Gallwey; the Inner Game of Tennis

I am a firm believer in providing and receiving feedback. In many environments I think people don’t get or give enough. But I do think that, in some organizational cultures or with some people, the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. The art lies in knowing how to strike the right balance.

Traits of Great Employees & Founders

Paul Graham has another great post this month on Earnestness. You should read it in full. (It’s not long.) There were a few specific parts that caught my attention, however:

The highest compliment we can pay to founders is to describe them as “earnest.” This is not by itself a guarantee of success. You could be earnest but incapable. But when founders are both formidable (another of our words) and earnest, they’re as close to unstoppable as you get.

He goes on further:

When you call someone earnest, you’re making a statement about their motives. It means both that they’re doing something for the right reasons, and that they’re trying as hard as they can. If we imagine motives as vectors, it means both the direction and the magnitude are right. Though these are of course related: when people are doing something for the right reasons, they try harder.

Warren Buffett often says he looks for three things in people he hires: intelligence, energy, and character. Jeff Bezos says he looks for resourcefulness and an ability to make good decisions. How might we synthesize and reconcile these things? I think it probably looks something like the below:

I think the question of motives and energy is an interesting one. Some people (like my wife) tend to be high energy in general: she is able to work for long periods of time and is incapable of “relaxing” – watching TV or reading, say – for more than a few hours. In contrast, I am very lazy in general… except when the effort required aligns with something I value. For example, I value building companies and being fit. So I have no problem working for twelve hours and then running six miles. But taking 10 mins to get up from the couch to put away some groceries? Now that takes real effort.

Adding Too Much Value

I was reading the amazing Farnham Street Blog (which I highly recommend) and came across this topic.

Here’s a common scenario: Jane has an idea for a major initiative. She’s given the green light to move ahead and quickly gets under way. When she reviews it with the CEO, however, he gives her a bunch of suggestions. Same thing when she talks to the board.

While individually these ideas may be helpful, cumulatively it can have the effect of making it feel to Jane that the idea or initiative is no longer hers. The result? Jane feels less ownership and less motivation.

Counterintuitively, this dynamic is caused because each person is individually trying to help Jane and add value to the process. But collectively it may end up destroying value because it negates Jane’s sense of motivation.

People are often most motivated when they feel like they have ownership over what they’re doing. Given enough motivation, Jane will often figure out the problems on her own with time.

Quote from the Farnham Street Blog:

Here’s what I used to do when I managed a lot of people. First, recognize how driven the person is. Second, keep my mouth shut despite any obvious flaws in the plan that I might feel the need to talk about. Third, identify the point in the project that will happen right before the first flaw I see would have an effect. Fourth, tell Jane to get started on her ideas, but ask for a check-in right before that first major fork. Nine times out of ten, Jane figured out what she was missing — I didn’t have to say anything.

And because she figured it out, she learned something. The other 10% of the time, we had a conversation that was way less stressful than the one in the boardroom would have been, and we moved everyone forward.

-Shane Parrish, Farnham Street

When I was at Bridgewater, they called this ‘guard-railing’ or letting your reports “dent the car but not crash the car.” Allowing others to maintain a sense of ownership is important.

Next time you’re managing someone, consider adding less value.