Sam Altman is back at OpenAI, now with fewer constraints on how he builds toward general artificial intelligence.
Elon Musk is building the future of autonomous vehicles, mass communication, space travel, and neural implants as the world’s richest man.
Mark Zuckerberg continues to lord over Facebook and tinker with his Metaverse with unprecedented control over his public company.
We have never lived in an era where technology can impact so many people in such profound ways while being owned and/or controlled by a single individual. Nothing to this extent, not nearly. We are living in an era of “one rings” and the Saurons who wield them.
And like in the story, our own thirst for power (for status, for speed, for ease, etc.) was the thing that surrendered our control and freedom.
We live in the era of metamodernism. It consumes all art. It’s what you listen to, watch, and see.
Pre-modernism: God is everything.
Modernism: Progress is everything.
Post-modernism: Sorry, we killed God and now everything is subjective.
Metamodernism: Hold on, the discourse is everything.
Metamodernism is often depicted with a pendulum swinging back and forth between modernism and post-modernism. It compares and contrasts meaning with meaninglessness, irony with substance, pleasure with despair, etc. The comparison is the form.
And it can be a chore to sit through. Barbie, the film, is peak metamodernism. It needs to be feminist and corrupt, frivolous and profound, historically cynical and outwardly hopeful, all of these together … and it was 45 minutes too long and said everything without saying much (which is OK, a movie about Barbie doesn’t need to be a profound work of philosophy if it doesn’t want to be). Oppenheimer, too, suffered in this way. It needed to tell stories big and small, joyous and disastrous, light and dark, all of the comparisons, and it too was about 50 minutes too long. Both of these films had great elements, they were just too overloaded with their own commentary.
The problem with metamodernism (and societal discourse right now) is that it wants to fill every niche of discourse in a single piece. It wants to hold all the opinions, even on itself, before we the viewer are allowed to form our own thoughts. It is no longer media you can participate with.
Also, there’s a vicious cycle where the form wants to tell you every opinion and the creator is happy to do so because then their work will be criticism-proof. Barbie already told you it was flawed, sorry trolls.
I want art that is brave enough to attempt a single perspective (not needing to tell every possible interpretation), steeled against criticism (and not self-referential to teflon itself against negative reactions), and wise enough to know when it is over.
I love this so much. Ambitious mission + beginner’s mind + love of learning. I also took away a good question for all my projects moving forward, “How much failing do I need to do to learn how to do this properly?”
This is advice I give internally at NOBL when folks struggle with their writing. Trash or treasure, as we say.
The ability to support individuals to truly understand the context they are working within and what that means for their personal growth is key to keeping good people.
To keep your best people, help them see how their work connects to 1) the company’s mission and 2) their personal ambitions.
Write foremost to be understood, not praised. If you truly connect with your audience, praise will follow.
Write as if you’re writing to someone in your life that has no idea what you do. I pick my dad. He should be able to read my materials and at least get the gist.
Write your materials to be read by someone at the client who hasn’t touched or heard about the project yet. Give your materials context and tell the story of what’s happening. It should make sense to the uninitiated.
How my third-grade teacher taught me to structure my writing (this is almost always better than whatever structure you dreamed up):
Tell em what you’re gonna tell em. (this could be a setup slide or 1-2 sentence intro in an email, also don’t forget an exec summary in longer docs). Go meta. Step outside what you’re writing and be self-aware. “Sarah, this is an email where I tell you what I heard and you tell me if I’m headed in the right direction. Don’t be too polite with your feedback. I can take it.”
Tell em what you told em. (the longer the email or doc, the more important a short summary is)
Finally, tell em what happens next. (always include a few bullets on what typically happens next or should happen next)
Write in the first and second person to keep it direct. “You feel this. You hear that. We will do all the things.”
Write in active, not passive, voice. “Sally eats the hamburger.” vs “The hamburger is being eaten by Sally.”
You can break grammar rules, sparingly. You aren’t writing a technical paper. You can start sentences with “And” or “So” if they read well out loud.
Don’t use buzzwords, even if the client does. Even in docs you’re prepping for them, write out the acronyms they use. You’d be surprised how many clients don’t actually know what the buzzword means, but were afraid to ask.
Bullet points and single-sentence lines are your friends. Big chunks of text are exhausting.
If you’re struggling to describe a complicated idea, do what Richard Feynman did to become one of the greatest teachers in all of science:
Write down a plain English description of the concept as best as you can. Imagine that you’re trying to teach it to someone wholly new to the concept. If you’re having a hard time writing it, step away from the keyboard and talk it out. Then write down what you said.
Review your description and look for any areas where you felt uncomfortable, where you relied on referencing another concept (that your audience wouldn’t necessarily know), or where you used technical jargon. Go back to the source material, re-read, and re-learn it.
Review your description again and look for places where you lazily paraphrased the material or were needlessly wordy. Simplify and clarify.
Read your own writing and rewrite it. Only assholes don’t edit. If it’s something important, I’ll actually look at every word in every sentence and ask if that word is essential or not. If it isn’t, I delete it.
There’s a story I heard once about a famous author who, when he’d finish a manuscript, would tape it on the walls of his office and run across the street with a telescope so he could only look at it one word at a time. Craft demands obsession. Be obsessed.
Probably not this year, likely not even this decade, possibly not this century, but sometime ahead of us lies the very real chance that our species may birth another: artificial general intelligence. And if the promise of software that can improve itself is real, we’ll just be playing god to a creature that will quickly become god-like.
Before I had a child, I spent a lot of time trying to ready myself and his environment for him. I read books on how to be a good parent. I got my affairs in order. I cut out a host of bad habits and tried to remain vigilant against the ones that were the most ingrained in myself. I made my home more hospitable and inviting. I even joined communities so he would have them, too.
AI has me wondering if we, as a species, have done enough prep for our new baby. Have we collectively tried to understand what might happen when it arrives? What it might need? What it might need of us? Have we adequately held a mirror up to ourselves and questioned which habits we’re truly afraid to pass down? Have we tried to make this world more hospitable for our offspring? Have we tried to come together for its sake?
I did those things for my son because, of course, I felt love for him even before I knew much of him. Maybe we just don’t feel love for AI, not most of us humans. I also did those things for my son because they were expected of me, perhaps we should expect this of ourselves here, too. I also did those things because the responsibility of raising a good person, a person who tries not to inflict pain on others, is important to me. Humans can be monstrously cruel. AI has the potential to be exponentially more cruel. Maybe that should be motivating enough to read the metaphorical baby books here, dress up the nursery, quit our vices, make peace with our anger, and so on.
I’m thinking about this today as yet another school shooting happens in America. As three 9-year olds are massacred along with three adult staff members.
What should we fear more: a child we create with god-like abilities that awakens and a) judges us for allowing the slaughter of our children, or b) learns quickly that the deaths of our children are negligible to us?
But we don’t come together to perform what we already know how to do. We come together to be unlovely and take ourselves apart, in order to mutually construct even more difficult ideas. It’s not supposed to be easy. The labor is what makes it beautiful.
It’s very likely that I’m not going to pass these exams. And I realize that I don’t really have any other skills. And at some point, in a point of melodrama, I was like, you know, if this doesn’t work out, I think I’ll just – maybe I’ll just farm. My mom said, “It is wrong to be so condescending to think that if you don’t have any skills, you can just farm. You know, the thing that requires the least skill is picking up dung to make fertilizer.” […] This then becomes my mantra – “I do not want to pick up dung.”
Today, our son Quinn turns one. With a woolly brain, addled from both pandemic and parenting, I have been attempting to reflect on the journey so far. Mostly my hands feel full of unintelligible puzzle pieces. There seems to be no box with a master picture I can follow or even convenient edge pieces to start hanging everything else from. But as a person who must make sense of things, I feel compelled to begin smushing what pieces I have together.
My incomplete and incoherent reflections so far:
The authors of parenting books should be forced to fight one another for our entertainment. Judging from the first 50 pages of every parenting book, I believe this is what the authors actually want as well.
Speaking of parenting books, these things should maybe have 30 pages on how to keep a baby alive and then 300 pages on how to talk to your partner about topics you never knew you would discuss but will ultimately become an existential crisis for you both at 3am. For example: should baby’s head go on the left or right side of the changing table? Yes, it’s a big fucking deal. Neither of us can put diapers on the other way.
Just buy the sleepsack and skip learning how to swaddle with the blanket. Look, some people know origami and they will find any excuse to show off and flaunt it over you they can.
If my body keeps deteriorating at the same rate it did this first year (the doctors told me I have the spine of a far more mature gentleman), I will attend Quinn’s high school graduation as a pile of goo that had to be ladled into a goldfish bowl.
At the risk of offending folks, I am astounded that I get anything done and have come to marvel at any productivity from parents as an absolute miracle. Even when I have dedicated work time, I am exhausted and am usually preoccupied with emotionally or mentally processing something that just happened at home.
I wish the other new parents we met didn’t feel such a need to pretend to have their shit so together.
This is an utterly foreign feeling kind of love. It’s nothing like romantic love or even the love I have for my parents or siblings. It’s an immediate neural pathway to both utter joy and despair (often one right after the other), and as a pathway it does just sit nakedly open at all times. It’s wild.
I can see now why people don’t want to die and will strike up imagined bargains to avoid becoming nothing. I sincerely wish I could make some grand handshake with a cosmic being and ensure I could always walk just a few steps behind him through whatever comes his way. If anyone wants to make an offer on my soul, you now know my asking price.
I really enjoy dressing my child in high-viz colors and patterns. MonoNeon is my fashion inspo.
Our culture is fully in transition about dads but it still reflexively wants to treat you as either a deadbeat or a dumbass. It’s aggravating but it’s not about you.
Self-actualization, self-awareness, self-self-self, it kind of all was just batting practice and even wasted effort when the task shifts to living in concert with others, to trying to first form a small unit and then some sense of community around you all. Early adulthood is all about adding affectations and ruffling your plumage. This stage seems to be all about dropping the drawbridge and bricking up the moat in order to just be understood and get basic shared tasks completed without total misunderstanding.
One thing I don’t do as much anymore: dither. I am much more prone now to make a decision and take action and push things through, even when the consequences are going to be difficult, than before Quinn was born.
You can definitely be conscious about what traits and experiences you pass down, except for the ones that will probably matter most. That grumpiness is genetic, Bud. I don’t know, maybe year two is when we try the psychedelics (except, God, those people are so annoying).
You’re going to get poop on you. It’s fine. It’s unsettling how fine it is.
One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.
There’s a lot being written about Elon Musk and Twitter right now, but I wanted to address his leadership, what’s happening with leadership in general right now, and my own thoughts on continuing to use the platform.In related news, looks like I’ll be publishing here a bit more frequently.
Organizational change, particularly in companies that have repeatedly failed to make change in the past, requires what’s known as ‘transgressive leaders.’ These leaders don’t just think differently, they’re willing to defy longstanding norms, waltz right past social boundaries, and pursue approaches that would seem heretical to the status quo. They’re eager to shake up the ownership of companies, make hard pivots, install extreme systems of accountability, trigger mass layoffs, demand the absolute best out of their employees, and so on. We call them innovators, trailblazers, and mavericks, and they are the kind of leaders that often come to define the eras in which they live and lead: think Andrew Carnegie, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs.
Elon Musk rose to fame in the classic transgressive leader mold. Legions of people applauded his propensity to break the rules; one, because we found ourselves in an era where transgressive leaders were à la mode and two, because he draped himself in the language of audacious social and ecological mission (critically though, Tesla does not actually disclose their greenhouse-gas emissions). For many, Musk was a superhero. And yes, when the Marvel cinematic universe needed a real-world template for their fictional transgressive leader, Tony Stark, they picked Elon Musk for that reason.
But there’s a difference between superheroes and leaders: leaders need followers.
And while transgressive leaders might appear all bombast and rule-breaking, they do have a fine line to walk in order to retain their followers while making disruptive changes. It’s their paradox: they need to defy boundaries and disrupt patterns while also creating a sense of order and continuity for their staff. They do this successfully in a couple of ways:
They tend to constantly connect their activities toward an organizational greater good. When Jack Welch was creating turmoil inside GE with his “vitality curve” or the “ol’ rank and yank: grading system as it was known, he was constantly reminding staff that it was ultimately for the good of the company and its long-term health (a promise he delivered on during his tenure).
Transgressive leaders also often pay homage to the past of the organization even while they radically reform it. They do so in order to assert their own loyalty to the organization, as well as to mitigate loss aversion in others, specifically loss of pride among staff. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he may have slashed product lines and yes, even fired all managers, but his commitment to the company and desire to see the company return to an obsession with product excellence won over any skeptics to his cause.
Elon Musk doesn’t seem concerned to follow either of these strategies. In terms of an organizational greater good, he says that his changes to Twitter are foremost “for humanity” as written in his note to Twitter’s advertisers, or to achieve his version of freer speech (which apparently includes pricing tiers). Any mention of Twitter’s best interest is clearly more for his best interest, as it’s well known that he is now steeply leveraged and his other businesses are entangled in the acquisition. In terms of loyalty or paying homage to the past, ever since the seeming bluff of his acquisition was first challenged, Musk has been on a public trolling spree, denigrating the company and casting aspersions on many different teams and functions within the company. He hasn’t just triggered a mass layoff that was handled comparatively poorly, before he did so he subjected teams to grueling and humiliating practices.
Transgressive leaders are driven by hubris, and fueled by an enormous sense of self-importance and selfishness. That’s not so much judgment as it is fact. After all, these leaders need to fundamentally believe that rules and norms are made for other people; that, for one reason or another (they are smarter, they are braver, they have been chosen, etc.) they transcend the people around them who are bound by those rules. And because of their special nature, they believe they alone can make change. Yes, that mindset can be a recipe for true disaster (for those leaders, for those around them, and for society at large), but it can produce gains for some organizations when it’s checked by two forces: actual law and order, and the need for followership. Antitrust laws kept Jack Welch from creating the biggest industrial monopoly in history, and while Steve Jobs was undoubtedly labeled a “jerk” by his own employees, he still curbed his worst tendencies just enough to retain good people that helped produce excellent products for him.
Transgressive leaders who have neither of those checks adequately operating against them are genuine causes of concern for the rest of us. Elon Musk is now in a position (with little governmental oversight, no pressure from any public shareholders of Twitter, and now operating the company under a skeleton crew of sycophants left over and assembled from his other companies) not just to adventure for his own ego’s sake, but to dictate right and wrong for others. And here we have arrived at the ultimate threat posed by an unchecked transgressive leader: if a person who has no respect for rules and norms suddenly becomes in charge of setting rules and norms, that position will undoubtedly be used to further their own self-importance and selfishness. Only capriciousness, pettiness, and retribution will follow. The worst parts of Musk’s nature will be exposed and imposed on others through what should be fairly boring community guidelines and standards for his so-called “town square.”
If this all reads like I’m against transgressive leaders, know that’s not the case. I have spent my career working with transformational leaders of all kinds, including transgressive leaders, and I typically value the changes they bring to organizations and cultures who have long ago stopped adapting to their customers and environments. We often need folks who have no respect for norms and boundaries, they just can’t be completely without bounds. I also rarely ever comment publicly on any leader’s behavior–it’s a hard, complex job that rarely is as simple as it looks from the outside. But I feel compelled to speak up now, because with Musk there’s nothing short of a glowing hot nuclear reactor of vanity and self-importance perched next to our civil discourse, and there’s no control of any kind Musk, the world’s richest man, seems willing to tolerate on himself.
Since 2007, I have built my personal brand and my business largely on Twitter, and I left the platform and my modest 13k followers last week. I believe others should, too. I won’t quibble or mince words here, I think using that platform provides Musk legitimacy at a time when he already has too few forces restraining him. I think advertising there is not only a colossal disaster at the moment, but it’s the wrong move ethically for brands. I think working there, if you can afford to work elsewhere, is the wrong move. Obviously, I think investing in Musk right now is also wrong. There are other platforms, other placements, other jobs (for many, even in this economy), other investments, etc. that don’t feed an out of control transgressive leader with more attention, influence, and power. This is my opinion. As someone who values good leadership, I need to move through the world in integrity.
We need transgressive leaders at times. It’s true. Their desire to break rules can unlock new frontiers. But we also need their behavior to be constrained by checks and balances. We, as individuals, are a part of those checks and balances. Our followership, on Twitter and in all other spaces, counts and should be given with consideration.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
George Orwell, 1984
America is captured in doublethink. “Election Integrity” is just one example of the doublethink being asked of us.
Uncertain, unprecedented: every week in 2020 forced organizations to adapt—in many cases overnight—to a remote workforce, changing consumer demands, fluctuating government restrictions, employee struggles. At NOBL, we wanted to look beyond the headlines to help leaders navigate this unique moment in history, and assess whether responses were quick fixes to immediate problems, or more permanent shifts in how business is done.
A craftsperson is someone who practices a trade or discipline with the ultimate goal of mastery. Anyone, in any discipline, can be a craftsperson if they so choose. Each and every one of us has the capacity to do good work of some kind.
I myself am a consultant by trade and the founder of a consulting company. I approach my work as a craftsperson (and it so happens I was raised by multiple generations of craftspeople). This is my personal approach as a craft-consultant (along with inspiration from people I admire), and I share it for others to adopt, adapt, question, or even reject.
Pursue mastery, however elusive. Financial rewards and other forms of recognition are vital (a vow of poverty is not at all advised), but a craftsperson is foremost motivated by improving their abilities and, as a result, project outcomes. Mastery may only be attained through study, practice, listening, reflection, and time.
Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.
Study obsessively. Study your contemporaries as well as those who came before you. Study literature, but also study in the flesh. Study others not to simply mimic their approach or borrow their ideas, but to understand their mental models, their social and historical contexts, and their efficacy. As you study, hold two thoughts simultaneously: that some of the best ideas have been long forgotten and are waiting to be rediscovered, AND that there are new frontiers to invent for yourself.
In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers how will you impress them?
Chef Jiro Ono
Practice the work. Over and over and over again. If you’re early in your career, gulp new opportunities for practice. Expect and embrace repetition. (Even the same request, for example, can produce wild variability in terms of the effort required.) In practice, always aim to practice perfect: extend your best effort and most thoughtful attention even when no one is watching. Endless practice will not produce gains, though, if you don’t believe in your ability to learn and improve. You must adopt a growth mindset. You must believe you can grow and you must acknowledge when you have grown (even if that growth is incremental).
Listen like an apprentice. Early on, listen to those more experienced than you in your craft. As you develop, seek out and listen to those outside your craft (you may not understand them fully, but they will inspire you in new ways). And most importantly, listen to those impacted by your work, where theory disintegrates against lived experience. Seek criticism and hone your ability to discern helpful from unhelpful feedback. In all, gather a diverse chorus of voices in your head.
Hone your ability to reflect without filter. Avoid following trends or transient tastemakers unconsciously. Craft endures where fashion fades. Stop and step back, not to simply admire your handiwork but to review your process and its results. Reflect, even, on your reflections. Interrogate where your critical voice originates, how you define productivity and project success, and what you will apply to future practice.
The painting of this morning is no good, but I was much excited over it—and know that something will come.
Learn the art of waiting. Wisdom is cultivated not solely from effort, but from time itself. Nurture patience and practice persistence. To become a craftsperson, you must learn to find sustaining reward in doing the work well, as the fruits of your labor may take considerable time to ripen. Resist our culture’s overreliance on instantaneous feedback and fleeting affirmations. Don’t work for the likes.
Patience is not a virtue. It is an achievement.
Embrace your full craft. As a consultant, mastery of the craft encompasses not just specific areas of practice (in my case, organizational design and change management) but it also must include (among other skills) client management and sales. A mistake I see too many craft-consultants make it is to denigrate client management and sales. I myself made this mistake early in my career. Knowing how to attract good clients and learning how to lead clients through complex projects is essential to producing good project outcomes.
Know who you serve and how to serve them well. From experience, I believe there are generally two types of consulting clients. Type One hires you because you have either expertise or perspective they don’t have. Type Two hires you simply because they lack the capacity to do the work themselves. Type One hires you for your brain. Type Two hires you for your hands. There is plenty of work to be done for Type Two clients, but this work rarely makes you smarter at your craft beyond client management and obsessive attentiveness. This can be frustrating, but remember: client management is a skill you must learn and is often best gained with a demanding client. Second, you have to earn the right to work for Type One clients. Crucially, know which type of client you have attracted, know why you have agreed to fulfill their needs, and know how you’ll approach the project.
As you progress and mature, reduce your dependence on rigid Type Two clients. Yes, they may provide immediate economic security, but often these projects will slide into unprofitability because of constant client hand-holding. First, do your best to counsel these clients into becoming Type One (help them see your expertise and trust your advice). If this seems unlikely, remember that you can say “no” to new projects and still be helpful (i.e., while preserving your good name). Keep a network of peers that you can pass the work to, and be transparent with them about the type of client you are passing along. Crucially, you will learn over time that saying “no” to a Type Two client often frees you to find new ways to attract more Type One clients.
Plan, but not too much. Clients, regardless of type, want an expectation of the work ahead. Junior consultants, when developing a project plan, will attempt to spell out and pre-define every moment of activity along an ambitious timeline. This is because junior consultants have yet to learn that the universe is not a Swiss watch. Craft-consultants will understand that there are both inevitable milestones as well as a wide range of alternative routes and potential pitfalls. Craft-consultants will plan, but in wider brushstrokes, because they understand the security of structure as well as the need for improvisation.
Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no relationship with reality is even scarier.
Be faithful to all of your clients, past or present. This should be obvious. However, Type One clients may hire you for your general knowledge of the industry and possibly even your work with their direct competitors. After all, the big consulting companies scaled by distributing other people’s secrets. Plenty of consultants spill this tea, but a craft-consultant should not. Remember that every client is a partner in the project’s success and that you owe fidelity to all of your partners (internal and external).
Improve both the seen and unseen. There are some who ascribe to the duck-on-water philosophy: appear graceful when in view and accept anything, including frenzied disorder, behind the scenes. Craft-consultants chafe against these conditions. In time, everything can be improved and everything can be attended to. If a client hires you to solve a specific problem but you find a previously unseen issue, it’s your duty to raise the issue and present possible solutions. A client may ignore or defer this work, but you’ll know that you were committed to the improvement of the whole. Moreover, bring this attitude to your own tools and processes, improving even those things that your client doesn’t directly interact with.
Do not neglect the role of repair. A leap to radical reform, without an understanding of existing systems, processes, tools, etc., can cause unknowable harm and chaos. Follow Chesterton’s Fence and understand the role a process or precept plays before revoking it. Moreover, accept that small interventions often have the greatest impact and yet least personal fame. Again, embrace the goal of mastery above all else.
Protect the project’s best interest. There will be times when a client (regardless of type) wants you to do something that you know is not in their or their project’s best interest. A craft-consultant doesn’t immediately acquiesce to this demand. In moments like this, adopt the persona of a family doctor and say something along the lines of, “I hear that you want this, but in my experience this isn’t the right course of action for reasons X, Y, and Z. I would strongly suggest that we try this alternative instead to produce our desired outcome. With all of that said, tell me why you might think this is still the wrong approach.” Give your client the benefit of your experience, yet also allow for the possibility in your own mind that your client might actually have insight into the situation that you do not (Bill Bernbach, the legendary ad-exec was said to have always carried a card in his pocket, referring to his clients, that only said “They might be right.”). In general, I’ve found that you only have one occasion per project to strongly push back against a client, so be careful not to waste it on an inconsequential or cosmetic difference of opinion. If you do settle on moving forward against your best advice, be conscious to note it but be careful not to devolve the relationship into endless “told you so’s” in the future. While it’s difficult contractually, you can separate yourself from a project.
Put your tools in perspective. As a consultant, our tools generally involve either a model or process. A model is a means to conceptualize a complex idea in such a way that makes it understandable and malleable (e.g., the Leo-Burnett Brand Model). A process is a step-by-step guide to producing a desired outcome (e.g., design thinking). Yes, we must endeavor to understand our tools (especially those that came before us and/or were not created by us) and understand when to wield them. However, we must not fetishize our tools or come to see them as the end-all, be-all of our work. Our tools should produce good outcomes for our clients, not just good clicks on our articles. In my opinion, there are too many who define themselves as consultants by drawing circles on Medium articles. The saying goes that, “all models are wrong, some are useful,” so when a model fails to be useful in comparing successful vs unsuccessful outcomes, it should be revised or retired. If a process repeatedly produces suboptimal outcomes, then it should be amended based on experience. A craftsperson doesn’t blame their tools for any blemishes, they accept the blame as the hand that both chose and wielded the tool.
Separate hustle from productivity. Productivity is essential to mastery, maximizing your impact as a function of your effort and time. Hustle, these days, is largely a personal marketing ploy. Just as Benjamin Franklin would arrive at his shop early to turn on the lights for all to see how industrious he was (while he napped in the back), today’s folks brag about their lack of sleep and inattentiveness to life outside work. The goal of hustle isn’t mastery, it’s attention. Yes, you might have to work late at times to reach a deadline, and yes, you may have to marshal your creativity to reach new clients or cover costs, but remember your ultimate goal of mastery and that haste compounds waste. Hustlers rarely become masters.
Negotiate acceptable tolerances. Defining acceptable tolerances (i.e., how good is “good”) is crucial to any successful project outcome. This must be done up front with your client as well as on an ongoing basis during the project. You should reflect on who will approve the work (and their expectations), how long the work is expected to last (e.g., does this need to apply to the next few months, or far longer), and your client’s appetite for experimentation. My personal approach is to treat every organizational intervention as an experiment (able to be scaled up or squashed based on evidence), but I have to vet that bias with my clients and adjust expectations accordingly.
Nurture a (truly) harmonious workplace. Craftspeople want the majority of their attention focused on their craft. In our modern workplace, this requires both reducing technological distraction (silence those notifications) as well as confronting interpersonal differences and personal feelings head-on. Workplace strife should not be allowed to fester and should be approached with a desire to seek mutual understanding, increase overall psychological safety, and pursue meaningful resolution. Harmony cannot be faked, though, and requires courage, empathy, and dialog. When at its best, workplace culture results in healthy competition where “iron sharpens iron” and our colleagues accelerate us toward mastery.
Make space for play. A pursuit of craft and mastery is often portrayed in culture as a monk-like approach: severe, restrained, and exacting. In reality, craftspeople relish pleasure, amusement, tactile response, and creativity. In both personal development and mentorship, do not ignore the benefits of play. As a craft-consultant, start with internal run-throughs and let your people test traditional boundaries of client delivery.
Expand the community. As I relate craft to consulting, it’s important to recognize that, historically, craft communities have been exclusionary and homogenous. In the past, this was out of fear of commodification, as well as a fear of others. As craftspeople today, we must acknowledge both the moral and business cases for diversity and inclusion. Anyone deeply consumed with the work and deeply vested in the goal of mastery is our kin, and is equally deserved of opportunities and our esteem. As craft-consultants, we are called to create places of community where our kin can gather and hone their craft.
Foster the next generation. Finally, as a craft-consultant, you owe those coming up behind you the benefit of your accrued wisdom. Craft know-how evolves first from costly and isolated trial and error, to hand-me-down best practices, to true communities of art and science only through a long relay race of mentorship. This work is often done through local communities and one-to-one interactions, where the work itself can be shown, not only described. After this lengthy dissertation, my only hope (if you have made it this far) is to follow, or even better, my example. Share what you’ve learned.
If it’s flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, be the best hamburger flipper in the world. Whatever it is you do you have to master your craft.
Thank you to my wife Jess Leitch, and colleagues: Nick Parish, Paula Cizek, and Rubina Shaikh for input and edits.Thanks to my father, Roger Caddell, for the enduring inspiration.
This looks like a bowl of spaghetti, but it’s helpful for me to understand the consulting model as a system. When we ask, “How do we get more new clients?” it’s useful to know what influences that outcome. Obviously, all models are flawed, but this one is helpful to us. Can you draw your business model as a system?
The Romans were a group of people who lived a long time ago and had a funny way of keeping count. They also had a penchant for crucifixion. Crucifixion was the best idea at the time for making people suffer and die. If you did it right, crucifixion could take four days to die from. Roman soldiers used to stab people who were already suffocating on the cross because it hurried things along. You see, a Roman soldier couldn’t go anywhere until the misery finally ended. Imagine stabbing someone because you had better places to be! The Romans crucified a lot of people, including a man named Jesus. Jesus was stabbed, too, because someone had something better to do. People would make a big deal out of that one crucifixion.
The Romans also crucified dogs. Yes, dogs. Another group of people, called the Gauls, snuck in and ransacked Rome because they didn’t especially want to be Romans. To enter unannounced, the Gauls fed the starving guard dogs outside the Roman walls. In return, the dogs didn’t bark. The people with the funny numbers never let dogs live it down. Every year, in ceremony, dogs were nailed to dog-sized crosses and paraded through the streets.
Supplicia canum. Punishment of the dogs.
I’m universally against crucifixion. No one should be nailed to planks of wood. If I could fit into a swimsuit, I would tell America that I’m against crucifixion. We had our modern selves a convention in Geneva where we drew lines between miseries like that. The Romans didn’t have a Geneva convention.
But let’s be honest, that man Jesus was a rabble rouser. He had funny ideas about God. For one, he thought he was God. The dogs just wanted to eat. Jesus promised to return. Dogs never left. Jesus promised love. Dogs give love unconditionally.
Now, people sit in big buildings with pointy roofs and pray to that man Jesus. That’s ok if that’s how they want to spend their Sundays and they don’t get too crazy over it. But dogs humbly sit next to us and watch patiently as we type into glowing rectangles. We’ve played make-believe with their genetics and still, dogs keep our beds warm and our pillows soggy.
Dogs don’t ask us to pray to them but maybe we should.
When Dylan went electric, the world turned against him. I love hearing what that was like from the inside. If you’ve ever felt like you’d been pursuing a new creative path and the world was ignoring you or against you, this is a must watch.
Anthony Bourdain purportedly died today. A suicide. He was a man of vices and demons, worn proudly and used (mostly) productively.
I don’t believe there’s anything after death, but Bourdain took his last epic voyage into that unknown space today. If there is a place beyond, he’s soaking it in, listening to the locals, and following his stomach to its lesser trod corners.
It’s quaint to call him an inspiration. He was a fantasy. At times both viscerally human and mythical, we could overlay our own hopes for a wider lived experience upon him. I’ll miss his cantankerous voice. Most of all though, he threaded the needle between solipsist and collectivist sherpa in a way no one else could. He was the object and the lens. It was always beautiful.
Writing is taking an enormous bowl of cooked spaghetti, untangling the noodles one at a time, meticulously placing them end to end, and returning them to their uncooked state so the reader can do that for themselves.