Sprezzatura

June 17, 2010 — 6 Comments

When I run, I’ve always had this habit of breaking down whatever distance I set out to accomplish in increasingly diminutive yet illogical units to keep my mind busy. 4 miles becomes just 2 miles when it’s halfway done and 2 miles is easy because you’re hardly even warmed up at .5 which is already halfway to the halfway point of the first leg. And of course the 4th mile has the end in sight so it goes by the quickest. Or when I’m swimming, I change strokes for a pocket in the middle before changing back, so there is a rising up, a hoop to jump through, and a winding down.

This works, I think, because it keeps you immediately and constantly focused on a single point directly in front of you, and when that point is passed, another presents itself and is passed in turn at just the right interval between manageable and significant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Darwin spent something like eight years studying barnacles. Or Stuart Kauffman spending a decade on the mutations of fruit flies. And how we pass along little tidbits like this without any empathy for what they must have meant. These weren’t foundational education periods at the beginning of their careers, they were detours and tangents—years of learning to clear up a few details. We lose the humanity behind that decision, what it must have been like for them in this phase: waiting it out, putting in the hours. We look at it with the hindsight of knowing that it ended, thinking that they probably broke it up like we could—a few years to get familiar, a few for theorizing, and of course the last year flew by because it was finally over. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Try to think of the humility and of the patience. Wading into a pool you have no idea if you’ll ever get out of. Going back and forth until you’d done what you’d needed. No clue yet that it will tie their theories together. To bear this with grace and commitment and a quiet sense of self-control. To accept that no one will ever know what it all felt like.

For me, this year was about wanting less. Being okay with less. Learning how to tolerate dissonance and cultivate indifference. At 23, I’m thinking this is the skill everybody assumed was obsolete.

All the talk about real estate, working at a startup or internships—so much of it is about convincing yourself that you’re “investing” when its really just a way to give yourself what you want now and pretend the payoff is somehow deferred into the future. What part is delayed? What have you gone without? How have you learned to deal with uncertainty? Or the growing bewilderment of the people around you? The truth is that we make these decisions precisely because they’re thought to be “sure things.” But that is not strategy, it’s not even real.

To be able to handle even a fraction of the tension of one of these multi-year draw-down periods. To do the time on the treadmill and then a little more and then get off to do the next thing (and not take the baggage with you). To steadily increase the amount of time that we can stand without getting anxious or restless. And in this process of teaching yourself to do it, to complain as little as possible.

The Point

June 10, 2010 — 7 Comments

One of my favorite things about the internet is watching how people interpret things. Particularly in blog or Twitter posts where someone is forced to condense what they took away from an article down to just a sentence or two. What you notice is that people are incredibly bad at getting the point. Or worse, they walk away with an entirely self-constructed impression. (see: this from this)

A good example is to watch a speculative story evolve across websites. Jokes turn into facts, anonymous quotes turn into official statements, bizarre details become evidence for warped conspiracy theories and so it goes down the chain.

Of course part of this is what they call the confirmation bias. People tend to seek out the parts of what they experience that confirm their existing beliefs, or more often, their unacknowledged preferences or sensitivities. But that doesn’t completely explain the tendency to so profoundly and creatively miss what was right in front of them.

The ability to reduce something down to its essence—to understand, analogize and articulate is a skill we tend to assume is simply there. It isn’t. In fact, most of the tools we have for sharing not only don’t facilitate this synthesis, they discourage it. Comments sections seem to thrive on conflict; a commenter needs to call the writer out or disagree with a trivial part of what they said. Twitter and Facebook are about sharing our opinion about a thing, not what that thing was. Newspapers, blogs and television, both for the creators and also for the viewers, are about making that thing as big as it can be or else it doesn’t deserve the attention. What we’re left with after consuming and participating in this cycle is an inability to comprehend what we see in an honest or accurate way.

If you think this process as a kind of entropy, then the question is how to rebuild what is constantly falling apart–or worse, what we were never explicitly taught. I think this is where several spiritual exercises have value. The first is one the Stoics called “contemptuous expressions,” essentially a way to use cynicism to reduce something to its most basic state. Sex is a few minutes of rubbing and then semen. What a King submits to in private versus the image he presents to his subjects. Another, from Cicero, is to ask this question in every situation: Cui bono? By assuming there is a exposed interest yet unmasked, we’re required to examine each party from an unusual but enlightening perspective—suspicion.

The idea of practicing the act of getting to the center or premise of something is about more than improving reading comprehension. In what they are describing as “economics of abundance” there is no scarcity to ensure preselection. This means that what we see, read, hear or are pitched—from entertainment to a business plan—is more likely to be bullshit. Think: misinterpretation layered on top of misinterpretation, stripped from context and general understanding. Without the ability to separate the folds to look at the central, underpinning parts of an issue, you’re at the mercy of the comically distorted reality of the people mentioned above.

The Course

May 25, 2010 — 27 Comments

When you first begin as a strategist, you hold the faulty assumption that foresight means predicting what happens next. Of course, though it sometimes does, more often than not, the proper plan is proven wrong before it is proven proper.

There are plenty of opportunities to undermine yourself along the way. To have doubts. To want to turn back. To disavow the instincts that brought you here. They say that the market bottoms out when the last bull finally blinks and throws in the towel.

So you may beat yourself up when it doesn’t work out exactly as you envisioned. You forget that the timeline could be a year or five years or longer. Groundwork can suddenly pay off without expectation. It can look very bad before it ever starts to look good – or worse it can look like nothing, like you did nothing at all.

What you need to develop is the quiet confidence that Seneca called euthymia—”the belief that you’re on the right path and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost.” You’re after something elusive and rare and critical: to not be shaken. If you can accept that your strategy will almost certainly “feel wrong” at some point, you’ll be less likely to ditch it at the critical moment. In fact, you’ll come to know this test as a positive experience that exercises your tolerance for dissonance.

Their Logic

May 12, 2010 — 7 Comments

In the preface to The Hollywood Economist, Edward Jay Epstein tells the story of why newspapers still report box office numbers. The journalists who put them together are well aware that ticket receipts make up just a small fraction of the average movie’s revenue. They know, for example, that the numbers are highly relative—different movies have different splits with different theater chains and distributors and even then, studios rarely take home anything over 40% of the money earned theatrically. Not to mention that domestic and international gross, which although conveniently rolled into one, don’t go into the same coffers. They know that the results are juiced by p&a spend, but still get compared head to head with movies that didn’t have any.

Yet newspapers continue to report what are little more than bragging rights. Why?

The answer is that newspapers can only report on what is happening right now. By the time the other revenue streams trickle in—ones that studios are reluctant to disclose—nobody cares how much money a movie made. Not only that, but movies contribute millions of dollars in newspapers advertising and an immediate scorecard is nice fodder for next week’s ad copy. #1 Movie in America, etc.

So what seems like cluelessness is actually very logical. Newspapers are responding perfectly to the incentives that the inclinations of their readers and the industry converge to create. And for the most part, any effort to ‘fix’ this anachronism would fail unless it changes the root cause of the issue – which in this case is an innate feature of the human attention span.

Many things are like this. What seems like an easily resolved inefficiency is actually a deeply rooted, consistent response to the conditions of the market. You just have to be humble and open minded enough to spot these native operative paradigms. To understand why people behave this way, the assumptions need to be traced back to their founding sources. Not only for the sake of sympathizing with the culture, but to figure out what can be changed and what can’t.

Unfortunately, this is why bloggers analysis fails so spectacularly. As outsiders, they’re cut off from the peculiarities of the terrain – and they are too foolish and self-absorbed to to bother finding it out for themselves.

It’s easy to learn enough about an industry to know that, say, the box office numbers don’t tell you much. Pointing it out isn’t helpful. What’s difficult is to develop a wide and empathetic understanding of the sources that created these conditions. This is the position that makes change or action possible. Because the solution will not be obvious. It will not be an “aha!” moment. And if you feel like you have one, you’re probably still in the easy phase.

Staying Sober

May 4, 2010 — 7 Comments

“When I walk into a casino there is a soundtrack in my mind. I am hearing all those cool Rat Pack, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis songs and…it just feels like everything’s swinging, everything’s hip and it’s all gonna go my way. Ring-a-ding-ding. Cha-Ching. You know?” Gabe, Gambling Addict. Intervention.

Gabe gambles four days a week, up to 12 hours a day. He has lost over $500,000 in the last six years. His addiction is fed by the soundtrack delusion—in fact, he’s crippled by it. It’s the song the starts slow and melodic and rises up into the Second Act. The worse things get, the more he needs it—the more it divorces him from the reality and the awfulness of his situation.

He’s a nice example because of the contrast. The casino is a shitty Indian casino two hours outside Los Angeles. He’ll never be in the Rat Pack and it’s objectively not going his way. But the truth is that the fallacy is much more insidious. And we’re all addicted to it.

The best way to stay sober: practice your contemptuous expressions.