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Peterson on Comparison

I just finished re-reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I read slowly—managing maybe 10 pages per day. Speed wasn’t the goal. I wanted to digest as much as I could. I probably underlined and highlighted passages on half of the pages.

I found something valuable in each rule, but my favorites were “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” and “Be precise in your speech.” In the rule on comparison, Peterson had this fantastic quote that I immediately sent to a few friends:

When the internal critic puts you down using such comparisons, here’s how it operates: First, it selects a single, arbitrary domain of comparison (fame, maybe, or power). Then it acts as if that domain is he only one that is relevant. Then it contrasts you unfavorably with someone truly stellar, within that domain. It can take that final step even further, using the unbridgeable gap between you and its target of comparison as evidence for the fundamental injustice of life. That way your motivation to do anything at all can be most effectively undermined.

12 Rules for Life, p. 89

Remember, “comparison is the thief of joy.”

Foundational Career Skills

Or, as an alternative, wordy title: The Theoretical Pyramid of Professional Development.

Today, I want to chat about career skills, but if you’ll spare me a moment for a quick digression, I’d like to wax on about a completely separate topic: CrossFit. We’ll tie this all together here momentarily.

Courtesy of CrossFit.com

One of the fundamental principles in CrossFit is communicated through a pyramid, specifically the “theoretical pyramid of athlete development.”

Nutrition exists at the base of the pyramid followed by metabolic conditioning (aka cardio), gymnastics, weightlifting, and finally, sport.

This pyramid has a few different implications as we’re looking at athletic development over the long-term, the primary one for today being:

Your success at any given level is predicated on how well you’ve developed prior levels.

For example, your weightlifting capacity will be impacted by poor nutrition. A solid conditioning base will improve your gymnastics capability. And so on.

Let’s bring this all back to the professional arena.

A few recent experiences1 have caused me to think about what professional development pyramid would look like. Meaning, if our goal was long-term success and fulfillment throughout our career, what kinds of skills would form the backbone of that success?

I’ve listened to two podcasts on the topic and chatted with some managers at various companies during a recent conference I attended. Here’s a tentative list I’ve come up with in no particular order.

  • Effective Communication—This is critical regardless of whether you’re working with a team, sharing timelines with your boss, or chatting with a potential customer. Can you articulate your ideas in a clear and concise manner both verbally and textually? One may be more important than the other depending on context.
  • Reliability—Can I count on you to do what you committed to doing to the level that you promised on the timeline we agreed to with minimal follow-up? That sounds like a doozy, but it really is a core skill. If any of the components (delivery, scope, or timeliness) has to slip, do you communicate that as early as possible?
  • Organization—It doesn’t really matter if you use the latest productivity app or a notebook and a pen. Can you effectively plan out your day/week/month to deliver results? If you’re tasked with something during a meeting, do you have some method of recording that so you don’t have to be reminded?
  • Focused AttentionCal Newport has literally written books on the importance of focused attention. I’d direct you to Deep Work for starters. The ability to concentrate all of your talents on the most critical task at hand for long periods is critical for accomplishing anything of value.
  • Humble, Adaptable Mentality—Can you take feedback on your work? Are you open to debating points of view on a certain issue? If we move forward in the direction opposite your viewpoint, can you adapt and come along? Are you up for tackling new things, even if you might not excel in the beginning?

These skills form the foundation on which you can build specific skills like learning JavaScript or data analytics. If you focus on the specific skills first though and ignore the foundation, you’re shortchanging your future self.

Tying this all together then, if we built out our own pyramid of professional development these skills would sit at the bottom. I feel like this is important primarily because it’s easy to interview for and focus on developing the career-specific skills that look good on a resume. These foundational skills are harder to tease out in an interview, which is one main reason I love the trial interview process at Automattic.

Mental Models for Any Time

If you’re like me, your mind has been overloaded by information recently. As a result, I’ve been trying to use this pandemic to build better mental models and become a better thinker overall.

You can think of mental models as simply a way to understand what’s going on in the world and make sense of complexity. The goal is to make better decisions when your mind would otherwise be overwhelmed by details.

My go-to resource (for a long time now) for becoming a better thinker and developing helpful mental models is Farnam Street. They recently published a post titled “Mental Models For a Pandemic” that’s honestly useful anytime but especially right now. I’d encourage everyone to give it a read and try to really grasp the concepts.

Two concepts, in particular, stood out in the piece—inversion and “Black Swan” thinking.

Finally, on a day-to-day basis, trying to make small decisions with incomplete information, you can use inversion. You can look at the problem backwards. When the best way forward is far from clear, you ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, and then avoid doing those things.

Farnam Street in Mental Models for a Pandemic

Regarding “Black Swan” thinking, this is particularly top of mind as I’m reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, the author that popularized the term “black swan.” As Taleb defines it, a black swan event has three characteristics:

  1. It is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
  2. It carries an extreme impact
  3. In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Specifically on the third item, there will undoubtedly be many post-dictions (explanations after the fact) that attempt to rationalize COVID-19. The more useful approach isn’t to try to predict the next pandemic. It’s to understand the fragilities that COVID-19 has exposed and attempt to move towards antifragility.

A Few Random Thoughts in Reading

I’m a huge book nerd. I geek out over reading lists, love visiting physical bookstores when I travel, and am in the minority of people still collecting physical books in the age of Kindle. I try to start every day with 10 pages of reading, and reading a physical book is my preferred way to wind down at night.

With all of that in mind, I’ve spent far too much time over the past years thinking and reading about…reading. Here’s a smattering of thoughts on what you should read, how to start reading, where I find books, etc.

  • In my opinion, books are the best way to continue learning, and they’re a bargain for $10-$15 a piece. I’ve heard many people mention that they have an unlimited budget for books because they find them so valuable. I do have a budget, but I still spend $150-200/year on reading. The best part about books is you can almost always get them free from the library.
  • I’ve heard all the quotes from folks like General Mattis on reading: “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” While I personally find books valuable, I think that’s a bit extreme. I don’t think someone is incompetent if they don’t enjoy reading. There are dozens of ways to learn and grow. Books are just one way.
  • With that being said, if someone says they don’t like reading, I often imagine it’s a holdover from school when they were forced to read books from a set reading list. I think anyone can learn to love reading if they choose the right books and explore topics they find interesting.
  • You should stop reading a book if you don’t find it interesting regardless of who recommended it or what “Best Books” list it was on. I’ve heard Ryan Holiday mention the rule of 100 pages minus your age as the cutoff for when to make a judgement call on whether to continue a book. I don’t follow a set rule, but I frequently stop reading books and either set them aside for another time or decide they’re not for me.
  • I typically buy 2-3 books per month and spend $25 or less. Ideally, they’re all used, and even better if I can get them from Powell’s Books or a local bookstore. I only buy from Amazon directly if the price difference is extreme (30+% of the book).
  • If you’re struggling to find time to read, the most helpful guidance I’ve found is to start with 10 pages per day, which will add up to 12-15 books during the year, a hefty amount.
  • In general, I think it’s better to default to older books that have stood the test of time rather than always reading the latest thing that hits the shelves. A good rule of thumb I’ve heard is to not read anything that was published in the past five years.
  • I love book recommendations from friends, but there are a few people that heavily influence my reading list. This is because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything they’ve suggested in the past. Those people include Ryan Holiday (through his monthly reading email), Matt Mullenweg, and Bill Gates.
  • I naturally gravitate towards non-fiction, but I do find value in fiction as well. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of my favorite books of all time.
  • For recommendations, I keep an Amazon list that I add to whenever I hear about a book in conversation or in a podcast. When I’m looking to buy more books, I’ll review the list, scan the reviews for general feedback, and typically use the “Look Inside” feature to preview a few pages.
  • I have mixed feelings on audiobooks. I just don’t feel like I retain as much of the information. When tackling longer books though (like The Better Angels of Our Nature by Pinker), I like to pair up the audiobook and physical book just to keep moving at a solid pace.
  • I don’t follow any special reading hacks like reading the ending first or speed reading. I enjoy the process of reading so I have no desire to speed it up. My only “hack” is occasionally pairing physical books and audibooks as mentioned above.
  • I think there’s value in having a set list of books you re-read on a regular basis because they’re particularly impactful or formative in some way. That list for me includes On the Shortness of Life and Man’s Search for Meaning.
  • I don’t think it’s always better to read more books. I’d rather read fewer books deeply. This is something I didn’t fully understand early on, and I’d rush through books just to have a higher tally at the end of the year. I’m much more content reading a book slowly now.
  • I earmark pages, highlight, and write notes in the margins of books although I often don’t revisit my notes unless I’m specifically looking for something.

Featured image is my bookshelf, which I dream of filling up to the point it’s bursting at the seams.

The Positive Impact Test

In the most recent Distributed podcast, Matt chatted with Vanessa Van Edwards of Science of People. I’ve had the episode queued up in Overcast since it came out, and I finally had an opportunity to listen to it yesterday during some yard work.

I thought the conversation was wonderful and provided many tactical tips including how to look and sound better over Zoom calls, which is applicable as many people switch from in-person to forced remote work.

They also talked about our internal definition of API at Automattic—“assume positive intent”. This is particularly important in a distributed workplace where much of the conversation occurs over text and comments can be misconstrued or read in an unintended tone.

The piece that stuck out the most was at the very end when Vanessa mentioned the Positive Impact Test (originally from author Tom Rath)—three questions she asks herself at the end of every day:

  1. In the last 24 hours, have I helped someone?
  2. In the last 24 hours, have I praised someone?
  3. In the last 24 hours have I told someone that I cared about them or appreciated them?

Certainly great questions to keep top of mind!

Two Criteria for Believability

Back in 2017, I read Principles by Ray Dalio. It has since become one of my favorite professional books of all time and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone.

Dalio ran Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, for many years and created a unique culture that he describes in the book. A key concept of Principles is the idea of believability and making decisions within a group.

The problem with a democracy is that it assumes that everyone’s views are equally valuable.

Ray Dalio

(I took “Democracy” in the above quote to mean “consensus-driven decisions,” not “democracy” as a political construct.)

This idea resurfaced in my mind after listening to a recent podcast from Pat Sherwood where he discusses this idea in-depth.

Bridgewater has built a culture Dalio calls an idea meritocracy. Everyone is free to have an opinion in any decision, and the overwhelming majority of conversations and meetings are made public within the company through recordings. This isn’t inherently unique as many companies are moving towards a more transparent model. The unique part is how Bridgewater comes to a decision.

They practice believability-weighted decisions where everyone’s opinion is not counted equally. Individuals with unique expertise, a track record of success, and/or a special investment of time, energy, or resources in a given area are weighted higher than others.

I’ll share a large chunk from the book that summarizes this approach well:

In typical organizations, most decisions are made either autocratically, by a top down leader, or democractically, where everyone shares their opinions and those opinions that have the most support are implemented. Both systems produce inferior decision-making.

That’s because the best decisions are made by an idea meritocracy with believability-weighted decision making in which the most capable people work through their disagreements with other capable people who have thought independently about what is true and what to do about it. It is far better to weigh the opinions of more capable decision makers more heavily than those of less capable decision makers.

…How do you determine who is capable at what? The most believable opinions are those of people who:

1. Have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question.

2. Have demonstrated they can logically explain their cause and effect relationships behind their conclusions.

Principles, page 370

I find myself coming back to those two criteria quite often when I’m weighing in on a conversation. It’s easy to weigh in and express ideas, but it’s often not clear that those ideas are backed up by experience and logic.

In his podcast, Sherwood mentioned a CrossFit article titled “Conjecture, Hypothesis, Theory, Law: The Basis of Rational Argument.” This goes hand in hand with the concept of believability.

I’d highly encourage everyone to read Principles if you’re interested in running a high-performing team or just making better personal decisions. For a teaser, you can listen to Pat’s podcast or the Recode Decode interview with Dalio. Also, read the interesting story about how Principles came into being as an actual book.

Three Routines for Right Now

I’ve spent more time than usual watching the news and scanning social media over the past week. I don’t think I’m alone. “Normal” today looks much different than it did even a week ago.

COVID-19 has taken over the world stage and will likely continue to do so for quite some time. Like everyone else, I’m adapting to new routines and finding “rocks” in my day to build in some consistency. As author James Clear notes, “In times of uncertainty, your habits can ground you.”

Here are three rocks I’m focusing on currently:

  1. Move. Gyms (including CrossFit Undeniable) are closed in Colorado at the moment, but we’re still making it a point to workout every day with what we have available.
  2. Meditate. After many years off, I began using the Headspace app again. They’re offering free meditations during COVID-19. I’ve found that just 15 minutes helps me to say much more focused and present throughout the day.
  3. Prioritize. With a kid at home and schedules in flux, I’ve found it helpful to make a list of the top three things I need to focus my energy on during the following day. When stress levels are high, this kind of laser focus helps to ground my efforts.

I find that if I get those pieces in place, I feel much more confident and in control of my day regardless of the chaos going on in the world.

The Care and Feeding of Monkeys

A fellow Automattician passed along this older HBR article that originally appeared in 1974. In the piece, the author describes how managers and leaders often take on unnecessary responsibility from teammates inadvertently. These responsibilities are referred to as “monkeys.”

An example from the article:

A fourth subordinate, Reed, has just been transferred from another part of the company so that he can launch and eventually manage a newly created business venture. The manager has said they should get together soon to hammer out a set of objectives for the new job, adding, “I will draw up an initial draft for discussion with you.”

Let us analyze this one, too. The subordinate has the new job (by formal assignment) and the full responsibility (by formal delegation), but the manager has the next move. Until he makes it, he will have the monkey, and the subordinate will be immobilized.

The language in the piece is a bit outdated (“subordinates” is an unfortunate term), but the piece is worth a read and reflection.

On High Standards (Part 2)

Yesterday, I shared two takeaways related to high standards based on a few recent podcasts.

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

On Facebook, a friend pointed out an important missing piece—people are human. I think it’s worth expanding on this point quite a bit. Otherwise, one might assume that it’s okay to set a sky-high bar and act like a tyrant driving people in that direction giving no slack or breathing room for adjustments.

Let’s all agree that’s not ideal.

Here are a few additional caveats to the above takeaways:

These high standards should be developed alongside the people that will be upholding them in service of a goal we all agree on. When a team has a voice in setting the goals, they feel far more ownership than if the goals were just passed down the chain.

How you deal with failure matters. In Measure What Matters, John Doer talks about the OKR framework Google and other teams use for setting goals. They assume a 70-80% completion rate. If a team completes 100% of their work for a quarter, the goals weren’t ambitious enough.

A team/individual falling short of a goal or a standard is a critical inflection point. If you drop the hammer, it’s understood that falling short is not acceptable, and teammates will be reluctant to stretch in the future. As Steven Pressfield notes, compassion is an unlimited resource.

Extreme ownership applies here too. When a team member falls short, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault. You could’ve checked in with them earlier. You could’ve explained the goal in better detail. You could’ve offered to chip in.

With those caveats in mind, here’s how I would expand the original two takeaways:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them. This works when the standards are defined alongside the people upholding them in service to a goal everyone agrees on.
  2. When people fall short, remember compassion is an unlimited resource. Don’t blame them; own the situation.
  3. A prerequisite to holding others to a high standard is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

A Few Related Thoughts on High Standards

After some discussion on this post, I wrote a follow-up post here—On High Standards (Part 2). It expands on some elements this post misses.

While traveling to New York, I recently listened to two podcasts related to high standards.

First, I listened to the interview with Dave Castro (Director of the CrossFit Games) on the Pursuing Health podcast. As the host describes in the interview, Castro is a polarizing figure within the CrossFit space. He’s well-known for having exceptionally high standards for his team and holding them to those standards.

I hold people to a really high standard, and you can’t hold people to a really high standard if you don’t hold yourself to a really high standard.

Dave Castro

He goes on to discuss his time in the military, which informed many of his views on team and individual performance, which brings me to the other podcast I revisited during my trip.

Jocko Willink is well known for his podcast, Jocko Podcast, which offers leadership tactics through the lens of the military. I’ve listened to one episode multiple times in particular—“Set Standards. Aspire to Achieve Them. Become an Eminently Qualified Human.” The episode walks through the Marine Corp Overall Fitness Assessment.

This document embodies the idea of having high standards. Let’s look at the rating scale for “Performance”:

Meets requirements of billet and additional duties. Aptitude, commitment, and competence meet expectations. Results maintain status quo.

Sounds solid, right? That’s one of the lowest possible rankings. Here’s the top (bold added by me for emphasis):

Results far surpass expectations. Recognizes and exploits new resources; creates opportunities. Emulated; sought after as an expert with influence beyond unit. Impact significant; innovative approaches to problems produce significant gains in quality and efficiency.

That’s an incredibly high bar! At the end of the assessment, they provide this chart:

Courtesy of the NAVMC 10835 Assessment Form

The takeaway is clear—very few should be correctly graded at the top of the pyramid. Most professionals will fall in the middle of the pack.

Summarizing the two big takeaways I had listening to these two podcasts together:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.