Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

The author sets the stage for this book by calling B.S. on the way so many scientists discuss behavior. They often have a strong bias to explaining the world in terms of their field. To the neuroscientist, the origins of behavior are neurological. To the sociologist, they’re cultural. And so on…

The point being different scientific fields study precursors that contribute only in part to human behavior. The truth is always more complicated than we grasp as first. Our brains are oversimplification machines!

So Sapolsky starts with a behavior and looks backwards at its influencing factors. He starts with seconds before, to hours and days before, to years and millennia before. Everything from neurotransmitters to hormones to genomes comes into play.

In the process, the author shares a lot of scientific background information with the reader. So much so, that I think I’d have to read the book a few times to really absorb it all. And I might!

This book sheds a lot of light on behavior. It’s a detailed and measured approach to analyzing why humans do what we do. A must-read for anyone who’s seeking to better understand humans.

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Never trust a programmer who uses the word impossible

 - Dilbert by Scott Adams

When I was a youngster, I would labor at the keyboard of our family computer trying to make it do as I said. You might say I “taught myself” how to program. What does that really mean? It means I learned by borrowing others’ code and asking the kind strangers of the internet (often on Stack Overflow) for help whenever I got stuck.

This long experience taught me never to underestimate what’s possible in the digital world. And this lesson came with me into the world of business.

Assume everything is possible until proven otherwise and shift the burden of proof to the programmer. Below I’ll show you how I do that.

Meeting Mr. Impossible

Early in my career, a friend (we’ll call him Bob) hired a programmer (we’ll call him Mr. Impossible) to develop a custom tool for his business. The tool was basic, but specialized: an order management system for Bob’s manufacturing business. Each item on an order had a price that would vary two ways:

  1. Discounts for bulk orders based on quantity
  2. Adders for certain sizes of product, regardless of quantity

One fine day, the programmer told Bob that building this functionality was impossible. Wisely, Bob sought a second opinion. Looking at the problem with fresh eyes, I recommended logic that surely wasn’t pretty but got the job done. Mr. Impossible scoffed that it, “looked like Excel logic.” He was right, for Excel was my default tool of choice in those days. But more importantly, he was also wrong – turns out it wasn’t impossible.

The bottom line: had Bob taken Mr. Impossible at his word, a critical function of his tool would be missing.

Never trust a programmer who uses the word impossible.

Now, Mr. Impossible was an off-shore, low-cost programmer. Frankly, that’s probably what earned him the job in the first place. But the US and other high-income locales are not immune from the scourge of impossible. I have seen this behavior repeated too many times to count during my career. So, I offer you this maxim: never trust a programmer who uses the word impossible.

“I.T. said it couldn’t be done!”

How does this play out in everyday businesses?

Someone whose specialty is technology says that the objective you want to achieve can’t be done.

Obviously, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt – this is after all his or her field of expertise.

At the same time, you can’t forget the maxim!

Uncover the Hidden Constraint

Ask your technologist to fill in the blank:

“This can’t be done unless ____.”

The unless is key here. There’s a constraint at play that the technologist is taking for granted. This constraint may be very real. But it may also be removable with your help! Unless forces the constraint to become explicit so that it can be discussed.

Constrained by Time and Money

Typically, the constraint is time, money or knowledge. Filling in the blank should make it clear to everyone. Only then can you make an informed decision about whether to work to overcome it.

If the constraint is time, maybe the team can direct more labor resources at the problem. While oftentimes more people do not equate to faster development, sometimes an extra pair of hands does just that! If the constraint is labor, can others pitch in? Can you solve this problem with extra funds to bring on additional programmers or other contributors?

My e-commerce company once had a project with a short deadline. We upgraded the way we stored product data, and then needed to bring our catalog of 30,000 SKUs up to spec quickly. We brought in a team of contractors for six weeks, demonstrating that sometimes it does help to, “throw bodies at a problem.” As a surprise bonus, we liked one of the contractors so much we decided to bring him onto our core team!

If the constraint is money, maybe the team can re-evaluate the problem’s importance. Should you redirect budget from other tech projects, or from other non-tech activities? Or maybe not, and the outcome is that everyone ends up clearer on the priorities.

Constrained by Know-how

If technical knowledge is the constraint, it can be a delicate issue. We simple humans bias toward defensiveness when our egos are at risk. First, seek to understand whether the necessary technology does not exist in this world today and must be invented, or merely doesn’t exist within the organization and must be acquired. Don’t neglect your own research, for Louis Pasteur taught us, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

If the former (invention required), you are probably barking up the wrong tree unless R&D is the mission of your organization. If the latter, however, there are many tools available to your team.

Every day, programmers help one another transfer knowledge on forums like Stack Overflow. If the knowledge is particularly specialized or particularly in-depth, hiring a contractor may be a useful move. At my previous company eComfort, we hired a contractor to help us configure and optimize our search server technology – this helped us get it done right the first time.

Hidden Differences of Opinion

Another potential reason your programmer threw the impossible card at you: he or she doesn’t believe the problem you want to solve is worth addressing, and also doesn’t feel like debating the matter with you.

If this might be the case, consider a different approach.

Creating software is a pursuit rooted in logic, reasoning, and problem solving. We nerds seem to love sinking our teeth into juicy problems! Try adding context to your request about why you believe the problem is important and interesting. Include details about the potential positive impact for the business, the user, or the customer.

Understand Context and Add Pressure

If you’ve ever watched a show about renovating old homes, you know that generations of infrastructure are often built over, used, and reused. Software can be similar. There may be generations of code debris, aka technical debt.

Encourage your programmer to consider the problem from outside the current codebase. Imagine a solution in a debt-free world, and maybe that inspires a new approach.

As the colorful General George S. Patton, Jr. once remarked, “Pressure makes diamonds.” Lest we forget, coal and diamonds are the same except for one secret ingredient: pressure.

Apply your own pressure to create diamonds in your organization. Push back on technologists, respectfully, by applying logic and posing questions to improve your understanding. The byproduct: sharper thinking all-around.

Agree on Outcomes, Then Get Out of the Way

While adding pressure, it’s also your duty to avoid interfering with the talent. Remember, you are not the technologist! Programming computers to do one’s bidding may be called “computer science”, but involves a healthy dose of art.

And as with most times when something must be created from nothing, the exact form will vary by artisan. You and your programmer should agree on outcome, and then you should generally stay out of their process.

One final maxim to keep in mind: “Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze.”

Image result for is the juice worth the squeeze gif

Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done! Invest the time to make sure the goal is well-defined and worth the cost.

Thanks to everyone who read earlier drafts of this post and helped improve it! Kim, Zach, Christian, Scott, Alex, George, and Raj.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

As with the first Taleb book I read, Skin in the Game, I had to work extra hard while reading this to divorce the author’s wisdom from his style.

That wisdom is, in one man’s opinion, worth the effort. If nothing else, he’s keeping it real and letting his personality shine. Taleb discusses risk like nobody else I’ve read. He harps on the same points over and over, and for good reason: it’s the simple points that we mortals keep screwing up in our assessments.

One of the big points that hopefully sticks with me is his discussion of survivorship bias. Here’s a great example: trading stocks/options/etc is a great way to make money because it seems that everyone who has that job makes a ton of money! This is true. But what about the people who once had that job but no longer have that job? Most likely their career change was due to a sudden loss of a ton of money – more than they ever thought they could lose, and maybe more than they had ever made. And most likely that happened all of a sudden, so they “blew up”. What percentage of traders actually have sustained good outcome? I don’t know, but Taleb makes it clear that it’s a much smaller group than we imagine at first glance – all thanks to survivorship bias. We measure only what we see, and fail to measure what we can no longer see. So when we extrapolate based on what we see, we end up with a flawed understanding of reality. Basic, and also profound.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who takes risks for a living (which is probably you).

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Jeeves and the King of Clubs: A Novel in Homage to P.G. Wodehouse

Author: Ben Schott

Jeeves and the King of Clubs: A Novel in Homage to P.G. Wodehouse by [Schott, Ben]

I hadn’t heard of P.G. Wodehouse and his famed characters Jeeves and Wooster until I read this book. It was recommended to me, and I figured it was time for a detour back to fiction, so I gave it a try. I’m so glad to have read it!

The book is wonderfully funny. Set in the leisure class of early 20th century England, the author (like Wodehouse before him, I suppose) follows the life of Bertie Wooster and his Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman Jeeves as they get into and out of a bunch of minor but hilarious hijinx. From the book’s description: “Unfolding in the background are school-chum capers, affairs of the heart, drawing-room escapades, antics with aunts, and sartorial set-tos.”

The writing itself is spectacular! The English language is on full display throughout the novel. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narrator did a perfectly British job reading.

If fun wordplay, long-winded entertaining asides, and upper-crust English shenanigans are your cup of tea, you’ll love this book.

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Power Moves: Lessons from Davos

This is an audio-only production full of interviews of powerful people who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The topic is power, and how it’s changing nowadays due to the networked age we live in. Some of the interviewees include:

  • Mary Barra (GM)
  • Stewart Butterfield (Slack)
  • Satya Nadella (Microsoft)
  • Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook)
  • Eric Schmidt (Google/Alphabet)
  • David Solomon (Goldman Sachs)
  • Ellen Stofan (NASA)

Overall this was a relatively interesting listen. Even better, it was short!

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

Author: Bill Browder

The story starts out innocently enough – a smart guy finds his footing in the investment world by stumbling upon Eastern European privatizations after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Then it gets a little more interesting as he must compete with the local Russian “investors” who covet the same assets and play by a different set of rules. These Russians are the oligarchs, and there are other great stories written about how they basically stole Russia in the 90s. (this one is good)

But then things get hairy. As Vladimir Putin brings the oligarchs to heel, his interests are suddenly aligned with theirs. Aligned against the impetuous Western foreigner who keeps trying to extract investment profits from Russia.

And so begins the real story of this book – the story of Russians at their scummiest. A conspiracy born of and shielded by government officials from local police all the way up to President Vladimir Putin. Stealing hundreds of millions of tax revenue from the government, torturing and eventually murdering the mid-level Russian tax lawyer who discovered the fraud, and working tirelessly to ignore all evidence and stand behind the cover-up. Yikes.

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The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

Author: Brad Stone

This story is brought to you from the same author as The Everything Store, an excellent book about Amazon. With his tech reporter credentials he’s able to get exclusive and deep access to the key players involved in the growth of storied tech companies.

This book’s subjects are Uber and Airbnb, the titans of the so-called sharing economy. I have been following both companies for a while from my perch as a “tech enthusiast”. I also claim fame as an early adopter of Uber in Chicago, having used it a couple times to show off back when it only offered black cars. 🙂

I am glad to report that there was a lot to each company’s founding story that I learned from this book. I now have a much clearer understanding of the players involved in the origin stories, including the founders, competitors, and investors. It was fascinating to learn, and I encourage my fellow technophiles and startup enthusiasts to read this book.

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AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

Author: Kai-Fu Lee

I read this book mostly on the basis of the authors pedigree. Kai-Fu Lee is a tech rock star. He’s an O.G. of AI research, a tech exec who built Google China, and founder of the VC firm Sinovation Ventures.

What I hoped to learn from this book was not about AI necessarily, but rather about the view on why China would be relevant to the AI economy in the coming years. Lee delivered on the promise by telling a story that tied together China’s strengths and the current state of AI development. Despite China’s shortcomings, the argument that they have what it takes to make meaningful advances with AI technology is a strong one.

The point centers around the fact that we’re not relying on fundamental breakthroughs in AI research for progress. Instead, the breakthroughs already exist and now we’re in the “application” phase where execution is needed. And China has the skills to pay the bills when it comes to applying this tech because of the massive amounts of engineering manpower and a data-rich environment driven by culture and scale. Watch out!

Lee spends a good part of the book painting a picture of what the world might look like after the AI job losses start occurring. His message is that we will be wise to reposition the manpower that’s been replaced by computers to do tasks that are innately human – social work, care giving, etc. I’m not sure I buy into this thinking as much as the message on China, but it’s a conversation that I think will pick up steam over the coming years.

Read this book if you’re curious to learn more about AI and the “race” among countries to implement it. Otherwise, maybe find a summary online.

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10% Happier

Author: Dan Harris

The subject of this book is meditation. It’s a personal story written by Dan Harris, a TV media personality who’s been a journalist, a morning show host, and an anchor.

Dan’s story is especially interesting because of his early professional experience as a religion reporter. He was the stereotypical skeptic and cynic. He spent much of his time on the road scouting out stories of people with (seemingly) bogus beliefs and shining bright media sunlight on them. So the fact that someone like this was sucked in to the world of meditation and mindfulness by characters like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle is interesting.

Since I read this after having become a believer in the power of mindfulness (based on research presented mostly in The Science of Mindfulness), it didn’t do much to influence my thinking on the topic. It was just a neat story. But if you’re still on the fence, Harris does a nice job of detailing his personal experience with mindfulness.

One part that I found novel and interesting was his journey to a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Hope you enjoy it!

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Authors: Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh

Not every startup need burn ridiculous amounts of cash to get as big as possible as quickly as possible. But some should, and Reid Hoffman explains exactly how to identify them.

Reid is the founder of LinkedIn, a venture capital investor at Sequoia, and a former early employee at PayPal. He knows a thing or two about the topic of scaling.

The book argues that for startups that operate in winner-take-all or winner-take-most markets, the need to grow quickly to capture market share far outweighs the need to operate a business efficiently. The trade off is to optimize for speed to market and growth at the expense of financial and operational efficiency, because absent winning the market there’s no hope for the business.

This is not a book of hypothetical musings. It’s actionable advice based on real examples of companies that “blitzscaled” to win sustainable competitive advantages – most often based on network effects that create customer lock-in and competitor barriers to entry.

Read this book to understand the mentality of venture capital fueled businesses, the stakes they play for, and maybe most importantly the conditions required for this path to make sense. Most businesses should not take this path!

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