One Minute Manager

I remember a time during my childhood, just as my mother’s career started taking off, when I saw a particular book lying around the house. Sometimes it was in the living room, other times in the kitchen, and once I saw it in the bathroom.

The book was called The One Minute Manager, and it was a massive bestseller in those days.

I saw it in the library the other day and decided to take a look. It is a short book, easily read in one sitting. It is a parable of a young man who has heard about a manager who is said to be extraordinary, and he goes to investigate.

It isn’t highly complex, nor is it particularly deep. But it isn’t meant to be. It is a parable after all. It is meant to be delivered in the same manner of its subject: in a quick, easily digestible story that can help you see a broader truth.

There was one particular quote that I found to be compelling. It takes the form of a plaque over one of the worker’s desks. It reads:

Take a minute:
Look at your goals.
Look at your performance.
See if your behavior matches your goals.

In other words, is what you are doing right now furthering your progress toward your goals? It’s a good thing to repeat to yourself any time it feels like distractions and side projects are impeding your ability to achieve your goals.

The Old Guard

If you’re trying to make change, beware of the Old Guard. The Old Guard doesn’t want change. The Old Guard thinks there is only one way of doing things. Their way.

You’ve encountered them everywhere you go, especially when you’re trying something new, or joining a new organization. They’re the people who have followed the rules, the rules created by The Old Old Guard. The rules that defined how you are supposed to act, what you’re supposed to do to become a member of the Old Guard. They have an interest in protecting those rules and making sure you follow them, because those rules are what gave them their power. If you break those rules, you threaten their hard-earned status.

But remember, the Old Guard is not the organization. The Old Guard is the entrenched leadership of the organization. You can learn a lot from them, how things currently work, and how change can be made. Learn from them, but don’t become one of them. Once you’re a member of the Old Guard, you won’t want change either.

Ethics for the Real World

I’ve talked about a few books that reference moral behavior, either directly or through the complete absence of morality. I suggested the amoral books be read with a view towards understanding other people’s behavior.

But, if we want to develop our own ethical behavior, where can we turn? Fortunately, there is a great book for this, too.

The subtitle of Ethics for the Real World by Ronald Howard & Clinton Korver says it all: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life. It is a guide for developing your own personal code of ethics.

They start by defining the 4 areas of ethical temptation: lying, deceiving, stealing, and physical harm. All ethical ideas and behaviors can be reduced to these 4 areas, and one’s ethical code must address each of them. They go on to discuss ethical touchstones (other ethical and honor codes), explain how to build your own code by answering a few key questions, and give examples from some of their students’ work.

The chapter I found most interesting was Chapter 2: Draw Distinctions. In it, they insist we must make distinctions among legal, prudential, and ethical situations. Legal are those things defined by law as right or wrong. Prudential are things that are in your best interest, and ethical are simply right vs wrong. Ethical dilemmas, they argue, are almost non-existent. An ethical dilemma would be a conflict between two of our ethics. In reality, what we call ethical dilemmas are usually conflicts between our prudential interests and our ethical codes.

This book is essential reading if you want to develop your own ethical code. If you define a personal ethical code, you’ll have a touchstone by which you can measure your own behavior.

It is also uncomfortable reading if, like me, you realize that maybe you don’t always act as ethically as you would like to. White lies, exaggerated excuses for being late, or not returning to the store when you get home and realize they undercharged you for those bananas, things most people have done at some point in their lives. Though we might not want to admit it, this is not ethical behavior, as convenient or prudential as it might have been at the time . By defining a code, we can train ourselves to live more in line with our ethical ideals, and recognize when we are led into temptation.

(Side note: if you are interested in personal ethics, I also recommend the New York Times Magazine podcast, The Ethicists.)

Laws of Power

Early in my career, an executive arrived early to a meeting  and asked one of the finance people for a department’s quarterly numbers. He listened, then nodded silently about the bad numbers. When the other people arrived, including the manager of the aforementioned department, he called the meeting to order.

He asked the manager for his quarterly numbers, though he already knew them. When the hapless manager finished his report, the executive glared at him across the table for a few seconds. Then he stood up, picked up the report, slammed it down on the table and said simply, “F**k!” It was a performance I will never forget. He was observing Robert Greene’s Law 17:

Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability….

You sometimes need to strike without warning, to make others tremble when they least expect it. It is a device that the powerful have  used for centuries.

Robert Greene has been called “a modern Machiavelli  primarily because of his cult classic, The 48 Laws of Power. At its core, the book attempts the same thing Machiavelli’s book attempts: to describe how to get and keep power. It is not concerned in the least with morality.

Each chapter is only a few pages, and the book can easily be dipped into now and again, rather than read from front to back. A chapter will focus on one of the 48 laws, and each is composed of 5 subsections. First is the Law, a one-sentence statement of how to behave. Then follows Judgment, a brief, 2-3 sentence interpretation of the law.

Transgression of the Law, the third section, is usually a historical story about someone who failed to observe the law, and an interpretation of how that person could have saved himself from the consequences of the transgression.

Observance of the Law is also a historical story, but this time of a person who observed the law and the rewards reaped from doing so.

Finally is Keys to Power. Greene uses examples from history to explain how to observe the law, pitfalls to be wary of, and quotes and images to help further illustrate the law and its importance.

This isn’t Dale Carnegie. Most of the laws describe behavior that one might describe as immoral or deceitful. A few of the Laws:

Law 3: Conceal your intentions

Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy

Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew

Law 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter

The 48 Laws of Power is considered by some to be an underground classic. I recommend it, and think it should be read in the same spirit as The Prince: you can follow all of the laws to the letter, pick and choose those you find to be useful, or learn why others might behave in ways you don’t quite understand. But, unlike The Prince, you probably know someone who has actually read it.

No, the Other Carnegie

Last week, I wrote about The Prince, a book many people would consider a how-to manual for sociopaths. This week is a different book, a book I used to consider (before I read it) a how-to manual for sociopaths: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

It took me a long time to get around to reading it, partly because of its name. The title is a bit off-putting. It feels too much like a sales manual, like a blueprint for manipulating people. It just didn’t seem like the sort of book a modern, educated person should need to read. And it certainly wasn’t a book for a person who valued the idea of being authentic or “real.”

But mostly, in full disclosure, I put off reading it because of a personal vendetta. In my youth, I was vying to get on a local game show. I was about to advance to the next round, had a lead of 100 points with one question remaining. The question was, “Who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People?” I rang in and answered, “Andrew Carnegie!” I was wrong, and lost 100 points. The person in second place rang in and correctly answered, “Dale Carnegie!” I lost. She won.

I must have held that grudge for many years, for it took me until recently to actually read it and evaluate it on its own merits. As to the title? I still think it’s a bad title. In our era, the title seems to convey a sense of manipulation, and its contents are contrary to that idea. The one thing Carnegie emphasizes in all of his ideas is that one must be sincere and genuine in any interaction with other people.

Give honest and sincere appreciation….

Make the other person feel important, and do it sincerely….

Become genuinely interested in other people….

The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks.

In order to be genuine in our relationships with others, we need to start by suspending our own tendency to criticize other points of view.

Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.

We can’t ever achieve understanding of, or even interest in, other people and ideas if we enter into an exchange convinced of our own superiority, and with an agenda of being “right.”

Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness.

Further, he suggests avoiding arguments altogether:

I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.

This book probably isn’t for everyone. Nor is every section of this book valuable for all of its readers. But, if you are willing to examine how you interact with others, and recognize that you might be able to improve these interactions, you can find some timeless advice in its contents.

If out of reading this book you get just one thing—an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle—if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.

More than just your career, it could be one of the building blocks of your life.

Reading The Prince

I once worked for a large organization, a company with over 10,000 employees. When new managers, people from outside the organization, were hired, they would come in and clean house. A reorganization and layoffs were almost inevitable.

I always saw this as a way of establishing that the new person, though they hadn’t come up through the ranks, was in charge. What I didn’t realize is that this practice is centuries old.

a new prince must always harm his new subjects, both with his soldiers as well as with countless other injuries involved in his new conquest

An important piece of understanding how the world works is understanding how people work. If you want to change the world you need to understand human psychology. One of the earliest books of psychology is The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Prince has had many critics over the years. In fact, Machiavelli’s name has been transformed into an adjective meant to describe a person who is self-serving, deceitful, and ruthless. And certainly parts of the book are all of those things

Some people will read The Prince as a sort of operating manual for how to live. Because of this, its real use comes from learning why people sometimes act in ways that seem immoral.

The Prince, however, is amoral, in that it is unconcerned with morality. Its only concern is how to get and maintain power. As Machiavelli writes,

A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, recommends it as one of the 8 books every intelligent person should read. Read it, he says,

to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.

But read it for yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s interpretation as the definitive one. As you read it, look for analogies to modern life. We don’t wage war in the same way as Machiavelli’s princes did, but we can certainly find bloodless examples of these maxims in business and politics.

Read it for yourself, and suspend judgment, though you may find parts of it downright repugnant. You might not act in the ways described, but other people do. If you want to understand why, read The Prince.

Challenging Your Beliefs

Once you’ve identified your personal biases, you don’t necessarily need to rid yourself of them. These personal beliefs can indeed be our pole stars, our guiding ethical lights. But, we do need to recognize when they are getting in the way of our acceptance of new ideas.

We need to challenge them. And, we need to ignore them, if only for a few minutes, and open our minds long enough to hear the other side of the argument.

In his 2007 Commencement Address to the USC Law School, Charlie Munger stated,

“I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.”

In other words, before you can be certain of anything, you need to fully understand all sides of an issue before you can hold an opinion. Munger himself admits that this is a hard standard to uphold.

And it is really difficult to do sometimes.

If you’re a political conservative, watch MSNBC for a week. If you’re a progressive, watch Fox News. If you have strong religious beliefs, read about other faiths or even atheism. If you’re an atheist, read why religious people have the faith they do and why they think atheists might be misguided.

If you start feeling angry, you’re probably doing it right. That anger is our reaction to being challenged, and it often prevents us from accepting new ideas.

But, push through the anger, and you’ll start to understand something: those who believe the opposite of what you believe, they believe it just as strongly as you do. And they are just as unwilling to change their beliefs as you might be, at first.

In order to change minds, you need to understand people. Starting with yourself is the first step.

Identifying Personal Biases

We all have personal biases. As much as we might not want to think so, these biases can often block our ability to absorb new ideas. If you want to train yourself to think critically, you must be able to identify your biases, and recognize when they might be interfering with your ability to see the world as it really is.

First, get a piece of paper and start writing out your core beliefs. (A mind map also works well for this.) You can separate them into subsections, like Politics, Religion, and Interpersonal Relationships. At each point where you write down a core belief, ask yourself “Why do I believe that?” Write down the answer next to each belief. Then, for each of those answers, ask, “How do I know that what I believe is true?”

This is where it gets tricky. Most of the answers here can be nebulous, and based around things like “That’s what someone told me.” Or, “I read it somewhere.” Or sometimes the answer is simply, “It’s how I believe the world should work.” When we reach the point where our answers are not based around empirical evidence, and are instead based around what we believe, we have arrived at personal bias.

There is nothing wrong with having these beliefs, so long as we can acknowledge that we have them. And so long as we can suspend them long enough to listen to a new idea and evaluate it on its own merits, not our personal biases.

Abandoning Old Beliefs

We can never be 100% certain about anything, but sometimes the amount of uncertainty is so small that it is not worth considering. But, how do you get to that level of uncertainty, the level where we are confident about our knowledge?

In many cases, we can take our cues from science. By science, I do not mean what many people think when they hear the word “science.” I do not mean the body of facts accumulated by scientists over the centuries. I mean the method of science.

In his article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Joel Achenbach writes,

In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that method doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble, again and again.

Understanding the way the world works often requires that we abandon ideas that common sense may tell us is true, but are at odds with the laws of nature. This is extremely difficult to do. We all are prone to make up our minds, and then twist any new facts to fit what we already believe.

Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.

To make matters worse, science often reveals things we once thought were true to be true no longer.

“Science will find the truth,” [Francis] Collins says. “It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth.” That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with.

What does this mean for a non-scientist trying to change the world? Be willing to abandon old beliefs. Be willing to change your mind when you acquire new information or when humanity’s understanding of something changes.

Or you can even go so far as abandoning all of your old beliefs and acquiring new ones only through thoughtful consideration. It’s incredibly difficult to do, as it requires ego suspension as well as critical thinking. But until you can identify your own biases and flaws in the ways you think, you will never be able to see the world as it actually is.

Total Certainty

I had a teacher in high school who once tried to blow our minds by telling us we could never be 100% certain of anything. Many kids tried to confound him, by stating their certainty that the chair they were sitting in was really there, or that they knew that they were alive. Inevitably, the teacher was able to dismiss their absolute certainty by asking them how they knew, or telling them to prove it, or suggesting that perhaps it was all an illusion.

Then one kid raised his hand and said, “I am 100% certain that something exists.” Rather than asking the student to define existence, the teacher smiled and said, “But it could all be an illusion.” The student replied, “Then the illusion exists.”

The teacher was speechless. And then he changed the subject.

I am not a logician, and have no idea if the student’s argument had any merit. What I do know is that both teacher and student offered me a lesson.

The teacher taught me that we truly cannot be certain of anything. Our knowledge is always necessarily incomplete.

The student taught me that, at some point, that uncertainty is no longer worth considering.

When I talk about seeing the world as it really is, I mean it in this way. Seeing it as it is, to the best of our human abilities. There will always be uncertainty, but at some point we have to act.