Finding yourself or creating yourself?

Photo by whiteafrican

Warning: The post today is more philosophical then practical in nature. It represents even more fuzzy ideas than usual. Readers should proceed at their own peril.

Bill Taylor wrote a few days ago on a post following a NYT column by David Brooks titled: “It’s Not About You”. This is the gist of Taylor’s argument:

But I’m with Brooks and his words of warning against the cult of self-fulfillment. The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from “finding” yourself but from “losing” yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.

In other words, “we” is bigger than “me” — the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live.

This comes out of Brooks attack against the common advice given to graduates in commencement ceremonies to “find themselves”:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front [Emphasis added].

I tend to agree. I think these two ideas should be examined from a wider perspective. Two expanding thoughts.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of leadership. The idea that we need to wait for some external force (hero or leader) that will come and save us all is ingrained in our culture. We just need to wait for the prophecy to be fulfilled. This passivity is also ingrained in the advice above. Your passion is out there – you just need to find it! Like a treasure sitting at the bottom of the sea waiting to be found. “Find yourself” means that “you” are somewhere and it is just a matter of looking. It implies a passivity and acceptance. I prefer George Bernard Shaw’s advice:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

And this leads to the second thought. In another wonderful post, Justin Menkes, writes about how Management Thinking May Be Blinding Leadership:

For over a century, reductionist thinking has offered an excellent means for generating clear, concise, and evidence-based answers to important questions. It is also perfectly suited for rendering compelling statistical evidence to support these answers… Reductionism’s widespread acceptance and application has generated countless advancement around the world that have vastly improved the human condition, and it remains the foundation of the scientific method taught to all grade-schoolers as the fundamentals of “real science” today. But the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in this method, as South African philosophy professor Paul Cilliers discussed in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. By “cutting up” a system, the reductionist method destroys that which it is trying to understand.

The focus on “the individual” (in the wider sense of the word) has been a corner stone of western thinking for the foreseeable past. And it has led to great advancements for individuals and societies. It is time, to add to this magnificent concept another level of complexity and understanding of emergent properties. No man is an island. No real life social phenomenon occurs in vacuum. It is all about connections, interdependencies and relationships.

In this sense, calling people, as the emphasis in Brooks quote illustrate to think only about themselves, ignores the idea of emergence out interconnectedness. And this is where it correlates with Shaw’s advice. Create yourself not only means being active it also means that there must be a relationship with others. A creation, by definition, is connected to something external. It is about change in the broader sense of society. It is about a relationship with the world that creates value. It is about absorbing things from your soundings and molding it to something different, unique and special. The “you” in this process is not found but emerges from an active progression of integrating yourself with the world around you.

So, are you finding yourself alone or are you creating yourself with others?


Synergy in management

Photo by DaveFayram


Marshall Goldsmith writes about Sharing Leadership to Maximize Talent on

Shared leadership involves maximizing all of the human resources in an organization by empowering individuals and giving them an opportunity to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise. With more complex markets increasing the demands on leadership, the job in many cases is simply too large for one individual.

And he gives an example:

For instance, at a company that creates user interfaces for web design, the role of CEO was too extensive for one leader. As a result, it was split into two positions with equal status and complementary skills sets and responsibilities. After splitting the role of CEO, the leaders built on the new team, hiring experts to head up research and development, architecture and design, and sales. Using the shared leadership model gave these leaders the opportunity to focus on the areas in which they are most talented, to hire team leaders, and thus develop a successful, well-rounded and somewhat “flattened” company versus a more hierarchically structured company

I ask you this: isn’t the role of the CEO in most companies too extensive for one leader? The world of business is so complex, how can we expect one “general” at the top to know everything and make wise decisions about everything? The answer is, we can’t. And you should not believe me. I am not a CEO. Believe a CEO, Vineet Nayar, as he writes:

During the day, I try to avoid the traps that are so easy to fall into as a CEO. The most dangerous one is thinking you should know the answers to all questions that arise. This is ridiculous, of course. How can I possibly know the answers to questions that have to do with customers, relationships, technologies, solutions, countries, and offices that I have no direct involvement with? Impossible. But, for centuries, the world’s organizations have been built on the idea that the CEO knows everything. If he does not know, he should act as if he does. Today, everyone knows the CEO doesn’t know much, but assuming that he should (or hoping that he does) is a very hard habit to break. I believe that the CEO should be the Chief Question Asker, not the final provider of answers. And so, especially during the early hours of the day, I ask the following questions of myself:

Ask Bill Gates why he has Steve Ballmer next to him for so long. They each gives something different to the company. As Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton: write in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths:

…[Y]ou will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses. This is not the same as saying ‘ignore your weakness’. The people we described did not ignore their weakness. Instead, they did something much more effective. They found ways to manage around their weakness, thereby freeing them up to hone their strengths to a sharper point. Each of them did this a little differently. Pam liberated herself by hiring an outside consultant to write the strategic plan. Bill Gates did something similar. He selected a partner, Steve Ballmer, to run the company, allowing him to return to software development and rediscover his strengths’ path…

The idea of The Comparative Advantage has never been so powerful. And it should leave the confines of the world of economics and enter, through the main gate on a red carpet, to the world of management. By definition, synergy is the product of a number of individual parts creating something that is bigger than the sum of the parts. But today’s current management practices try to glorify “one” to lead all the other “ones” to be more than they are. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?

I don’t know if it is inertia, habit, ego, mistaken conventional wisdom or something else the leaves this kind of thinking intact. I am happy that there are some people out there crying out to change this. The world does not need superheroes. The world needs more cooperation that leads to synergy.


A manager’s job is simple but in no way it is simplistic

Photo by Katie@!


From Wikipedia:

The representativeness heuristic is a rule of thumb wherein people judge the probability or frequency of a hypothesis by considering how much the hypothesis resembles available data … While often very useful in everyday life, it can also result in neglect of relevant base rates and other cognitive biases

Want a simple explanation? We believe that “like goes with like”. We think the big effects must have big causes and vice versa. According to some researchers, that is why it took so many years to understand that Malaria comes from mosquito bites. Could such a horrible disease come from such a small insect? Well, yes.

However, the representativeness heuristic is much more common than you think. If something looks simple, we assume it is simple. Yet, as one of my professors is fond of saying – “simple does not mean simplistic”.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod:

Being good at anything is like figure skating – the definition of being good at it is being able to make it look easy. But it is never easy. Ever. That’s what the stupidly wrong people conveniently forget.

Think about it. Look around you. My favorite example. Sports. You sit on your couch at home and watch the player miss an easy shot. “Come on!” you shout out. “What a loser! Such an easy shot”. But it’s not easy. Chances are you could not make that shot. It looks easy, because you have seen professional athletes, who probably have been practicing since they were 6 years old for thousands of hours, doing it again and again, make such a shot.  They make it look simple. And it is simple. Put the ball in the basket. Couldn’t be simpler than that. But it is not simplistic. Ever. This is the heart of the 10,000 hours idea so popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

And why am I writing about this? Because so many of the issues I write about in this blog seem so simple. The concepts a great manager should understand and follow are not rocket science. Yet, the fact that they are simple does not mean they are simplistic. The so called “soft skills” are the hardest to master. We should not confuse like with like. To get to the simple, we need to pass through a lot of complexity.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.


Normal accidents, motivation, causes and effects

Photo by EKavet


If I would ask you to rank order the following causes of death in the U.S. between the years 1990 and 2000 in from the most common cause to the least common, how will you rank it?

Tobacco, poor diet and physical inactivity, motor vehicle accidents, firearms (guns), illicit drug use

If you are like most people, you probably made at least one (if not more) mistakes in this ranking. The actual ranking is according to the order in which the causes are written down. Usually people put too much emphasis on motor vehicles and not enough on tobacco and poor diet.


Well, there are many reasons but one of them is the fact that people think in events and not in processes. It is easier to imagine somebody dying because of a car accident than imagining the same person slowly dying from physical inactivity.

There is a human tendency to find discrete causes for effects born by extended, hard to observe, processes. We decide very easily that something specific is the cause of a certain effect, when in fact, the effect has many causes, and have been created over a long time.

In his article Blowup, Malcolm Gladwell explains the distinction the Yale University sociologist Charles Perrow made between a “normal accident” and a “real accident”:

By “normal” Perrow does not mean that it is frequent; he means that it is the kind of accident one can expect in the normal functioning of a technologically complex operation. Modern systems, Perrow argues, are made up of thousands of parts, all of which interrelate in ways that are impossible to anticipate

Organizations today are so complex that rarely something happens in them that can be attributed to one cause or one person. There are so many layers, seen and unseen, of culture, rules, habits, heuristics, and communication problems. 30 or 40 years ago these kinds of complex organizations were rare (think of place like NASA). Today the level of complexity is so high that these issues are relevant to almost every organization.

I was talking today to a classmate who works in a bank. “We never have time to really discuss issues of teamwork or motivation”, she told me, “There is always so much to do that we just deal with what is happening right now”. It is the same thing. We focus on the discrete things (what has to be done now) and not on the process (the long time motivation and engagement of our team). When something goes wrong we talk about the specific decision and how we can prevent the likes of it in the future. We usually don’t attack the underlying assumptions and processes that led to it. We don’t spend enough time on maintenance. We can fix the real accidents easily; it is the normal accidents we should look for. The systematic issues. And that requires a change in thinking and a change of priorities.