Tuesday, May 26, 2015

About the Amp

When I was a kid, the night before a climbing day I'd lie in bed unable to get to sleep.  I lived to climb rocks. When I got a new piece of gear, I'd bring it to bed with me as a talisman, and when I was planning to do a new climb, I'd be awake at the crack of dawn with anticipation.

I would also become so anxious, about climbing, about school - that I'd pretty much be blown by the early afternoon and ready to head home. I was the kid who was pretty reserved and shy and so it was hard to tell (even to myself) when I was amped up with positive or apprehensive energy about some perceived future. I'd ham it up for some public speaking event, seemingly in my element, but my limbs would be tingling with adrenaline when it was over.

Since then, I've done a lot to work on my long game.  I've tried to focus more on the long-term future, and on enjoying the present moment, rather than seeking the thrill of the next big stoke.  I try to exercise and enjoy the outdoors daily, I try to sustain habits that need never expire.

But every once in a while, some of that trapped energy still surfaces from deep in me - and it takes me a day or a week to recover from my 'cheaper thrills' - the short-term highs that I need to chase.

Nowadays, I find I thrive on that kind of energy, and I have to have it in order to do good work - but it's best served throttled.

In Give and Take, Adam Grant describes a school teacher on the verge of burnout - trying to do service education in inner-city Philadelphia.  Instead of quitting, she actually adds to her workload with a new program she puts together from scratch, to mentor gifted and overachieving kids.  The program energized her, because the kids are more responsive to her support and flourish with her guidance, and so she's able to keep at the daily struggles because on at least one battle front it's clear she is winning.

And I guess that's what Jane McGonigal calls "Urgent Optimism" - the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success."

It helps to drive focus when you focus on where you're winning. Another McGonigal quote about games:

“When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation."

I am finding this is true for me about most things I do - I want to know 'why' (the goal) I want to know how (the rules, or restrictions I have to work within) and I want to know whether I am successfully making progress. And it's very important that I not feel trapped - that I feel it is my own will driving me at this and not a fate sealed by chance. It's demoralizing to take on a challenge controlled by forces beyond my ability to effect change, and even worse to feel like I must stay in that situation.

I talked with my girlfriend L a bit last night and we're both feeling a little burned out, and maybe a bit stuck. So it's with renewed awareness that I look at this enormous opportunity for change (I'm getting moved from marketing to sales with a blank slate so far as to structuring that move) and try to craft it so that I can really do great things, and find the work/life balance I need - a balance heavily swayed by how successful I feel I am - at climbing the mountain or making the sale.  I have to stay excited about my future, and continually renew my expectations and plans.  I make my future worth working toward.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yes, Dear. Let's organize and develop.

Two bits of wisdom in HR, courtesy of Softerware's Nathan Relles and Google's People Operations:

First, the single most revealing question to ask an interviewee?  Ask them to tell you about your company.

Nathan believes (and I agree) that hiring is like a marriage.  This is very much the process and analogy that Ricardo Semler uses, too.  Think of it as an engagement.

My two cents: The best employees are already borderline fanatics about your company and will be bright enough to teach you something new about your company before you hire them.  You should also judge a person by their past performance and ability to understand the current situation, not by their ability to create strong positive feelings (although that's important, too).

Second, Google's People Operations mentions their philosophy on their webpage.  "Find them, grow them, and keep them". Yes!  Yet for some reason, traditional companies seem to under-emphasize Organizational Development (grow & keep).  I am fighting to convince RMS to commit significant resources to 'grow'.

I have been listening to a lot of Elon Musk podcasts in the car recently.  His Oxford talk goes in to particularly juicy detail over his concept of first principles - which I sheepishly admit I got a bit wrong. The good news is that my interpretation, combined with his, is enormously powerful!

I interpreted first principles rather simply: Find the most basic rules about the nature of things and then derive from them to meet the needs of a complex situation. This is how physicists work.  I am sure this is intuitive to Elon, and he has learned to apply this in his business, but I wonder if he has a core life's philosophy.

It's funny how obsessed I am with people as opposed to other natural forms. I am guilty of anthrpocentrism in spite of my pledge of Deep Ecology and biocentrism.  But then again, people do seem to be where the action is these days - at least in terms of the most prominent threats to the future of the planet.  But we could be the most responsible stewards of this planet as well.  Just read Ishmael.

Anyway, the bottom line is I try to find philosophical first principles about people - simple tools for negotiating life with humans such as thinking of ideas as memes, extrapolating from that that all people are inherently 'good' that is, they are all trying to advocate for the survival of their genetic code.  Unfortunately, sometimes that gets a bit haywire with such a complex piece of genetic machinery as a person, occasionally with disastrous results.  But for the most part it appears evolution has done an amazing job of weeding out destructive forces such that even the most twisted individuals are often actually very sick. And you try to help sick people, you don't hate them.

Pick your least favorite person, living or dead.  If you'd been given the same genetics, at the same time, expressed the same way, gone through the same experiences in the same environment, you'd basically be that person - you'd make decisions just how they do. So there's only this narrow margin of becoming exposed to new things beyond one's control, absorbing that experience or information, and changing your own course because of it. That's why creating social structures, 'situations' which are designed to optimize human experience, is so important.  You need the set people up to succeed.

And I try to do that using first principles.

Elon is thinking a bit more about technology when he talks about first principles.  He's literally applying the laws of physics to the technology to see 'back of the envelope' what the growth potential of his technology is.  If it can outperform a mainstream technology by a significant margin (usually a multiple of some key efficiency indicator, sometimes orders of magnitude) then he figures it will eventually be profitable.  (Space X was a crazy folkloric gamble, but I'm guessing he had backup plans.) For example, he could see the opportunity to improve battery technology, and figure that eventually electric cars could be cheaper to run than gas ones if the energy density goes up and cost goes down.

And one of my core challenges I grapple with in first principles of people is that idea of how to influence people. Maybe I'll post more on that later.  Gotta get to work!