my favorite cliche

From Rick Rubin, famous music producer:

"I never decide if an idea is good or bad, until I try it."

From Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals:

"The men who pile up the heaps of discussion and literature on the ethics of means and ends [...] rarely write about their own experiences in the perpetual struggle of life and change."

I used to harbor a pretty deep resentment for cliches. 

Honestly, I still don't think they have any place in writing (I say that very hypocritically). George Orwell believed that cliche and turns-of-phrase were enemies of the English language. Taken to its logical extreme, a society addicted to cliche becomes one that can only communicate in cliche. Precision and uniqueness of expression gets entirely lost, replaced instead by very very vague descriptions. 

For example, how ridiculous would this sound: "FWIW, the cat's out of the bag here and IMHO we need to double down on getting our ducks in a row." 

The act of speaking becomes mindless. 

Nonetheless, I do think that many cliches once had very precise and profound insights. "Don't knock it 'til you try it," for instance. Incredibly overused. But incredibly unexamined! Most people use this phrase as a kind of half-joke, half-defensive justification for something weird they've done. 

The cliche arrives after someone's judging disapproval (as a saving-face mechanism), rather than before (by the person observing). But what if the cliche took place before the judgement? What if it were instead used as a general rule of thumb when witnessing something new? We could use this easy-to-say cliche as a mantra to guide our day-to-day lives. 

"Don't knock it 'til you try it." 

(Well, obviously, you don't have to try it if you have no interest in trying it. Just don't knock it, then.)

During my freshman year at Georgetown, I lived with this California wild child named Matt (to this day, still one of my favorite people in the world). He had this habit of saying "Hi" to everyone in an elevator he was in, regardless of time of day or whether he was in a hurry to get somewhere. 

Being the judgmental freshman that I was, I always thought this weird. By May of the following year though, Matt basically knew everyone in the entire building by name and was seemingly best buds with the security guards, the lunch ladies, everyone.

It was actually pretty amazing to see this transition happen. The first couple months in, people accustomed to having their eyes glaze over while riding the elevator gave these subtle sneers and looks of "WTF?" Gradually, though, it started happening. One more person every day would greet Matt first, having been give permission to say whatup because Matt once flashed his pearly whites and said "Hi" to them. Soon, it was rare to ride in the elevator without getting into hilarious micro-conversations with strangers. Matt, you are the man.

Don't knock it 'til you try it. Because most of the people who knock it will never try it (barring some crazy personality transformation). You don't want to be that person. 

This has been a continued work in progress. There are still a lot of areas in life where I'm hesitant to try something new. But I've definitely come a long way since my freshman year, when I was an armchair critic who always had something deeply skeptical/self-limiting to say about everything.

For the sake of (cliche alert) being an open book, here's a partial list of things I've tried that I once thought were really fucking weird/unnecessary (SFW version):

- hatching an egg with my ass (didn't work out so well for my pants)
- Soylent
- putting butter in my coffee
- going into the water at the beach without knowing how to swim
- talking to a stranger on a bus/plane/train for the entirety of the trip
- living out of my backpack for a year
- cow brain
- joining a dance team
- camping out at Coachella
- asking for help
- holding strong on a controversial opinion
- being one of those people who shimmy or rap out loud while walking down the street listening to music
- telling a stranger that I like their shoes/hair/style/anything
- getting wonderfully lost in a foreign country
- going to a "dangerous" part of town
- telling family that I love them (our family's pretty stoic)
- telling a male friend I love him
- telling a female friend I love her
- crying in public
- crashing a wedding 
- biking

Now that I have these down, I realize it's time to start getting weird again.

the jetsons and why people get scared

(This post is inspired by the recent stabbings in Jerusalem at the Gay Pride Parade)

From Venkat Rao's series of essays entitled Breaking Smart:

"Young or old, those who are unable to adopt the Promethean mindset end up defaulting to what we call a pastoral mindset: one marked by yearning for lost or unattained utopias. 

Today many still yearn for an updated version of romanticized 1950s American middle-class life for instance, featuring flying cars and jetpacks."

The Jetsons was a strange show. In its strange future world, we had flying cars and friendly robot assistants. Oddly, though, daily life here was a scene out ofThe Brady Bunch. On the surface, everything had changed. At a deeper, societal level, though, nothing had. Dad still won the proverbial bread, mom remained at home. Generally happy nuclear families with a house and a backyard. 

This image of the future comes from what Rao calls the pastoral mindset. Pastoralists strive to keep up the "steady states" that they've worked so hard to create for themselves. So if "change" comes in the form of new toys, that's great. But if "change" is something that completely uproots how they've viewed life, then it's bad, scary, and evil.

It's probably wired into our primate brains to be this way. If something in our environment fundamentally changes, we perceive that as a threat. Hundreds of years ago, an uncomfortable environmental change probably meant we became lunch for a pack of wolves; or we got punished by snowfall; or our food supply got raided by another group of humans.

This same wiring doesn't work very well these days and creates a bizarre set of contradictions.

Good people are racists.
Good people are homophobes.
Good people are misogynists.
Good people are bigots.

So many good people with archaic beliefs. It's the pastoral mindset writ large. When Black Americans finally gained access to the same schools that Whites did, that was not a Jetsons-type change. Neither was the legalization of gay marriage, nor the rise of powerful, successful women in business. 

But people that we normally consider to be good have bared their teeth and seethed at these apparently immoral and unnatural changes in the world. But they are good people, right? Maybe at some age (or at some point generally), our ability to easily accept new ways of life gets shut down.

I fear the day that I grow old and my pastoralist face starts to bare its ugly fangs. Because then that'll mean that I'm fucking scared.


on fake superheroes, categories, and listening

From Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (love this book):

“The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes... Zen practice is to open up our small mind.”

From Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are:
"Everybody should be quiet
near a little stream and listen."
I've been in the startup world for a little over a year now, and I've observed a very strange pseudoscience about people's specific "roles" and "functions." In general, this is what this bullshit sounds like:

In business, there's a concept called sales. This is very often viewed as the practice of convincing people to buy what your selling. When you think of a salesman, you probably imagine a dashing fellow with a quick smile, a sharp suit, and some magical lines. He ensnares people with his hook-line-and-sinker delivery. This mercenary is essentially just handed some type of product and told to go do his thing. 

In business, there's a concept called marketing. This is very often viewed as the practice of showing people how desirable your product is. When you think of a marketer, you probably imagine an artsy extrovert with a penchant for pop culture. He wows the masses with well-produced, heartwarming campaigns. This visual maestro is essentially just handed some type of product and told to go do his thing. 

In business, there's a concept called product development. This is very often viewed as the practice of pulling all-nighters to finish a new feature in time. When you think of a "product developer" (well,"software developer"), you probably imagine an incredibly awkward yet ridiculously misunderstood genius who probably eats Soylent. His ability to keep track of the entire codebase in his head makes him the glue of the company. He is essentially just handed some specs on what the product should be and told to go do his thing.

These three archetypes are myths. They are myths that people working in situations of high uncertainty (read: startup life) crave in order to feel like superheroes.

The competitive fist-bump types do sales like our mythical salesman above because it makes them feel like they have a superpower-- the Gift of Gab. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

The artsy outside-the-box types do marketing like our mythical marketer above because it endows them with a particular superpower, as well-- the Renaissance Man. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

And the nerdy quant types do product development like our mythical developer above because they like the idea of that superpower-- the Mastermind. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

In reality, these highly sought-after "superpowers" are mere appendages that grow from the same source. Before the sales calls and the marketing campaigns and the coding and design-work come the following questions:

- Do people even want this thing? 
- Do you understand your customers at a level so deep that you know their needs better than they do? 
- Have you tried?
- Are you spending most of your time having these conversations? 
- Are you bullshitting your way through these conversations (you better not be...)?

No amount of wireframing, debugging, Excel modeling, prospecting, and Tweeting will change how essential these questions are.

In the startup world, a surprisingly large percentage of companies don't understand this. Actually, it's probably reached pandemic level in the entire professional world.

Why? Because "listening" doesn't really feel like a superpower. It's tiring, and most people don't notice it when it's done well. 

the underrated human brain

From Warren Buffet, as quoted in Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin:

"There was a great article in the New Yorker magazine ... And it got into this speculation of whether or not humans would ever be able to take on computers in chess. Here were these computers doing hundreds of thousands of calculations a second. And the article asked, 'When all you're really looking at is the results from various moves in the future, how can a human mind deal with a computer that's thinking at speeds that are so unbelievable?' [...]

Well, it turns out a mind like ... that of a Fischer or a Spassky essentially was eliminating about 99.99% of the possibilities without even thinking about 'em. So it wasn't that they could outthink the computer in terms of speed, but they had this ability [...] where essentially they just got right down to the few possibilities out of these zillions of possibilities that really had any chance of success."
At some point in the near future, when our technology improves to "our MacBook is our evil overlord" status, I think we're going to realize something. All this while that we've been building tools to make our lives more convenient, what has happened is that the tools have grown in strength, not us.

Without the tools, we revert back to ordinary. The tools are crutches rather than augmenters.

I love this passage from The Education of a Coach, a book about Brian Belichik, coach of the Patriots. This man watched gametape religiously, sometimes breaking his VCR because he'd rewind it and forward it over and over again to watch small, seemingly insignificant parts of a game.

He's a master of football and, in a split-second, can often make decisions that others (including machines) would flounder to even imagine. This ability arose from all those hours growing up spent watching the tape and studying film. 

Recently, Belichick was asked to discuss the differences between the NFL today and the NFL back in the day. In a nutshell, he boiled it down to this: back in the day, everything was done manually, whereas now technology has automated things to such a point that you can go in and find the exact game situations you’re looking for (down and distance, field position, players on the field, players not on the field, etc).

The downside?
“The downside of that is when you do it yourself, you really know what it is and you remember it. When you just see a bunch of crap on the page then you kind of skim through it and you get what you want to get out of it, but it’s not like detailing it [and] writing it out yourself."
Computing and technology should be widening our idea of what we ourselves are capable of. If a computer can do it, then maybe we should try it and do it better. Technology should be forever challenging us to up our game. Instead, I think we've used it as an excuse to become lazy and complacent in our own development.

seeking out being wrong

From Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor:

"No matter how careful you are, the one risk no investor can ever eliminate is the risk of being wrong. Only by insisting on what Graham called the "margin of safety" -- never overpaying, no matter how exciting an investment seems to be -- can you minimize your odds of error."

My introduction to psychology came in middle school, when I learned about the the classic case of Pavlov's dog(s).

We all know how this goes. Here's my horrible rendition. 

Dr. Pavlov rings a bell; his dogs come running over to see what's up; Doc says, "Here's some delicious food. That's what's up;" dogs eat and are happy. 

This sequence plays over and over until the dogs begin to salivate whenever Pavlov rings the bell (even if he has no food to present). They have been conditioned to expect food, so their unconscious reaction is to salivate in anticipation.

Classical conditioning doesn't happen to just dogs; it happens to us, too. And the most profound ways in which it happens to us are really tough to detect. It's not as easy or obvious as a bell and a slab of meat.

The most dangerous conditioning mechanism I see is what's been called the Tyranny of Experts (popularized by William Easterly). It's the tendency for those with the most expansive domain knowledge to be most prone to making large, egregious errors. 

From their humble novice beginnings to their slow climb to mastery, these "experts" have Pavlovian food dangled in front of them with every bell ring. These rings of the bell come in the form of awards, titles, postings, honorary degrees, etc.

Over time, experts often become conditioned to believe that their success is a sign that they have an unassailable world view. Unless if they are very careful, their world view calcifies with every additional "bell ring." These experts think they hold all the answers, but in reality, they hold many salient answers that apply in a particular context

Once that context shifts to something they don't understand, the house of cards collapses. It collapses because they couldn't imagine that they could be wrong.

Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffet talk about this at length when it comes to investing. Traders on an extended hot streak undervalue the possibility that they're missing important information. Their risk appetite rises, along with their belief that they are right.

The thing is, it's really easy to succumb to this form of conditioning.

Maybe the best way to avoid this in our daily lives is to constantly seek out things that prove a piece of our world view to be wrong. By actively searching for these things, we humble ourselves away from believing we actually know anything at all. 

Relevant words from Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few."

what you look for

Busy week this week, but came across this wonderful passage from Ed Catmull, president of Pixar:

"There’s one thing I don’t think people really appreciate, which is how closely aligned artists and technical people really are. Culturally, they bond because they’re really based upon observation. I think there should be more art in schools. When they cut funding, they cut from art programs, shop programs. But they’re really about seeing and developing observational skills, which is useful in science."

Science teaches you what to look for; art teaches you how to look.

art is the science of what we don't know

From Paul Feldwick's The Anatomy of Humbug:

"So theories of how advertising works, however implicit, have an impact on power relations within an agency, and between the agency and the client. A theory which is based on intuition and taste will privilege the creative department; a theory which is based on psychological insight may give power to the planning department; a theory based on measurement of message recall gives authority to the researchers and thus to the client."

I have always found the advertising industry to be fascinating. Primarily because "ad men" are practitioners of persuasion at a mass scale.

Philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists study human motivational structures in closed systems (out of academic necessity). But advertisers, they have to craft and deliver messages in a messy, chaotic, correlation-isn't-causation world.

And whether they are successful or not, well, who knows? Did that guy buy Trident because of the TV ad or the Facebook ad; or because his friend shared a stick of gum with him once, and the packaging looked nice; or because the gum was very conveniently located in the checkout aisle?

Consequently, the tension in the advertising industry between "creativity" and "measurement" is palpable.

Clients fire agencies for "ineffective ads," even if the data being used to determine that is incomplete and misleading.

Meanwhile, agency creatives fiercely defend their claim to intuition: "Persuasion is an art, not a science." And ineffective ads are thus made.

Perhaps art is simply the science of the things we don't know.

For things we don't know, I'd take a principles-driven tastemaker like Steve Jobs or Ira Glass any day. I'll step back and let you do your magic. You clearly get something the rest of us don't.

For things we do know, though, "art" isn't art if it isn't delivering the desired results. 

In the case of advertising, the measurement geeks overmeasure and tortured artists overtorture. Maybe the same dynamic exists in every industry.


morality and maslow's hierarchy

From Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money:

“It's all very well for us to sit here in the West with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it's immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don't rule it out.” 

There's an interesting concept that underlies this passage from Ferguson. It's something I think we all can relate to.

It's the notion that, when your back is against the wall, you will do whatever it takes to make sure those that you care about get what they need. 

Example: I constantly hear blame tossed around about "poor people" in America's big cities struggling with illiteracy, drug abuse, and violence. "It starts at home," they usually say in a condescending manner. As if all it'll take is for parents to teach their kids better. But what if those parents are working two jobs to barely cover the mortgage, and are never at home, and that's something that happens all across the neighborhood? And if access to jobs, good schools, and good grocery stores is nonexistent? Does peddling drugs seem that much of a stretch?

A related notion is that, while you're going through something, you don't know what it's like to not be going through it. Then when you have the wisdom of being on the other side, you strangely forget what it was like to go through it.

Example: during college, I fully drank the Kool-Aid of student organizations and got very deeply and emotionally involved with them. After a year of working in the "real world," I watched my slightly younger friends (still in school) obsessing over these same organizations, and I found it odd. "They just don't have perspective yet," I thought, as I found a new Kool-Aid to drink (my job). I had forgotten what it felt like to go through that process and how instrumental it was to me becoming who I am now.

All of this is just another re-articulation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Before we can start discussing higher, more idealistic notions of the world, we first need food and safety. Then we seek out belonging and purpose. Then we keep moving up and around the hierarchy, based on our circumstances and development. But then and only then.

If those bottom "animal" needs aren't secured, I think we're willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they are. That's not a fault of individuals, but rather of the system itself. 

Of course, this doesn't justify anything, but it does serve as an adequate explanation.

get lost in the weeds to get out of the woods

From Ken Segall's Insanely Simple:

"[Quoting Steve Jobs] When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions."

The toughest thing about simplicity is that it often looks effortless and easy. In reality, the process of shedding complexity is infinitely more difficult than uncovering complexity.

When I watch Roger Federer play tennis, I simultaneously recognize that he is a master and that ... maybe I could do that too (because it looks so simple)! So I lace up my shoes and grab a friend and a can of balls to go play. 

I have visions of sending screaming one-handed backhand winners down the line.

I dream of the wide kick serve, the smooth approach to net, and the clinical volley finish.

Because Roger makes it look that easy, I delude myself: Ammar, if you just do it like Roger, it'll all make sense.

But I haven't touched my racquet in months. I can't read and anticipate like Roger can.

So that screaming backhand winner actually gets shanked into the net.

My wide kick serve leads to a clumsy, ill-timed approach, which itself leads to an embarrassing, stumbling stab at a volley. Disaster.

Simplicity is hard work because we need to make things more complicated before we can see how simple it all really is. But the final product looks so natural; why would anyone else even imagine to do it any other way? Fuck you Roger.


elevator rides and misleading statistics

From Darrell Huff's excellent How to Lie with Statistics:

"If you can't prove what you want to prove, demonstrate something else and pretend they are the same thing. In the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind, hardly anyone will notice the difference."

I share the elevator up to the office every morning with a small, tablet-sized screen. It's primary function is to give me and other elevator riders something to look at while we awkwardly ignore each other.

This little screen (or at least whoever paid to put that screen there) knows who rides up and down these elevators. Marketers, media buyers, investors, accountants. It displays bite-sized factoids targeted to these people. Little bits of out-of-context data, news, and advice, sponsored by Forbes.

In other words, this little screen is a purveyor of bullshit.

"A recent study shows that 92% of adult Americans have their phones near them at all times." 

"To get the most out of your marketing, you should maintain a blog. 35% of customers say they first hear of a brand through a blog."

To the uninitiated, numbers carry a strangely high level of authority. They remove the pressure for you to be correct. If you're in the business of misleading people, using convincing-sounding numbers is the easiest way to do that. 

Why? Because you can frame any statistic in a way to tell the story you want to tell. You can design any study or survey to get the results you want. Numbers don't exist in a vacuum; they are compiled and observed through the lens of human bias.

So maybe numbers play a different role than we all have imagined. Numbers aren't designed to be fully predictive or descriptive of the world around us. Instead, they function in the negative sense-- to show us how they shouldn't be used.