The mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high agency person”. As Eric would elaborate on Tim Ferriss’ podcast:
“When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something? So, how am I going to get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?”
It was Steve Jobs who once said that, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
Once you learn this, he said, you’ll never be the same again.
People have spoken of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and this is really what it was. He believed more in his own agency – his own power to change and affect things – than he did in conventional wisdom or other people”s opinions.
But this idea of agency is a controversial one today. Most of discourse is marked with shibboleths that reveal our doubts about agency. We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.
The line from Hannibal when he was told that crossing the Alps was impossible: Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. I shall either find a way or make one.
This is what high agency individuals do. This is how they respond to bad odds, to big doubts, or frustrating situations.
“In my office, on a wall converted to a massive whiteboard, I’ve written “Learn, Build, Share, Repeat” in large letters. I think of this as both a mission and as an operating manual.
“Learn” means always keep pushing to understand what you don’t already know, because as Isaac Asimov wrote, past glories are poor feeding. The moment you feel like you’ve won, or that you’ve got it all figured out, you are dead.
“Build” is a forcing function. Words like “write,” “create,” or “teach” work here as well. If you force yourself to transform what you’ve learned into something that is your own, then you’ve really learned. You’ve also made something that can serve others.
“Share” means connection. Sharing openly and transparently creates a feedback loop which accelerates learning and improves whatever it is you are building. It also creates a community of like-minded people with similar values and curiosities.
“Repeat” emphasizes that this is a game which is never complete. This isn’t about accomplishments, goals, or endpoints. It is a romance with the process itself.
Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:
6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.
“For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun..Don’t mistake LARPing disruption for the real thing.” Venkatesh Rao on “Software Adoption Bullshit” via Ribbonfarm newsletter
“The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.” Review of “Seeing Like A State” by Scott Alexander
I first internalized the meaning of this phrase when I saw it in the Ribbonfarm newsletter above.
LARPing suddenly crystallized and gave a name to a phenomenon I have witnessed my whole life: people playing roles as though they were in a solipsistic theater, rather than living their roles.
LARPing is common amongst the wealthy, where dilettantism is endemic. I know of entire companies that exist merely to provide a realistic LARPing set for someone to play CEO / Founder, with sometimes hundreds of employees cast as actors in their personal drama.
It reminds me of the old vituperative “poseur“, but LARPing is more collaborative. You need a cast to play along. It is group or collective posing.
When I read the article, this principle felt familiar to me, then I remembered where I had seen it before. It is the 13th Amazon Leadership Principle:
“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”
The rest of the principles are also well worth remembering.
It is a great discussion and well worth the listen, especially about how in many ways Apple and Amazon resemble their org charts. Apple has a single P&L – and they go all in for perfectly integrated appliances that fit perfectly into their ecosystem. Amazon is like AWS, an assembly of modular “primitives” (storage, compute, DB) all interacting through very well defined protocols and interfaces. So much for Steve Sinofsky’s “don’t ship the org chart” !
One thing I learned is that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos considers communications to be a sign of failure. Increased communications signals issues a failure to define interfaces. At Amazon they do not use PowerPoint because Bezo’s says “the details get lost between the bulletpoints”. Instead they use Word documents for meeting briefings. Maximum 6 pages . No powerpoint in Amazon meetings only maximum 6 page Word doc because if you cannot explain it in writing you have not thought about it enough to justify a meeting.
Tim Van Gelder, arguably the worlds greatest authority on critical thinking, asks “What is Decision Engineering?”:
My favorite definition of the engineer is somebody who can’t help but think that there must be a better way to do this. A more comprehensive and workmanlike definition is given by Wikipedia:
“Engineering is the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to invent, design, build, maintain, research, and improve structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes.”
The activities mentioned above seem to fit this very broad concept: we were engaged to help improve or develop systems – in our case, systems for making decisions. It is therefore tempting to describe some of what we do as decision engineering.”
…Decision engineering is applying relevant knowledge to design, build, maintain, and improve systems for making decisions.”
“Relevant knowledge can include knowledge of at least three kinds:
- Theoretical knowledge from any relevant field of inquiry;
- Practical knowledge (know-how, or tacit knowledge) of the decision engineer;
- “Local” knowledge of the particular context and challenges of decision making, contributed by people already in or familiar with the context, such as the decision makers themselves.”
…in order to improve a particular decision system, a decision engineer might use approaches such as:
- Bringing standard engineering principles and techniques to bear on making decisions
- Using more structured decision methods, including the application of decision analysis techniques
- Basing decisions on “big data” and “data science,” such as predictive analytics
…In short, I like this more general definition of decision engineering (in four words or less, building better decision systems) because it seems to get at the essence of what decision engineers do, allowing but not requiring that highly technical, quantitative approaches might be used.”
[Update: After I posted this I came across a great study – “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” [PDF] – freshly published in November 2015. Well worth a read. I also recently came across this old but great post from Scott Berkun “How to Detect Bullshit“]
Because I see so much of this on Facebook, I wanted to post the classic essay “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.
Here is Wikipedia on the essay:
“On Bullshit (2005), by Harry G. Frankfurt, is a philosophical essay that presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyzes the applications of bullshit in the contexts of communication. As such, bullshit can be neither true nor false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to their own agenda.”
Here are some quotes:
Humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point.
Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug. …the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.
…Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
…The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.
…Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretence that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.
…It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
…Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal, sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
…Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
Wikipedia’s great article on Lies that described the many types of lies.
The BBC Ethics page on Lying
St Augustine on the 8 types of lie
Enjoyed this profile of Charlie Munger on Medium, especially the description of the Expert Generalist, a rival to the 10,000 hour specialist:
The Rise Of The Expert-Generalist
The rival argument to the 10,000 hour rule is the expert-generalist approach. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, describes the expert-generalist as:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
- Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
- Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
The concept is commonly represented by this model of the “T-shaped individual”:
You can maximize your odds of getting what you want by minimizing the work the other person has to do to help you.