The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”

The-Holy-Grail-of-Online-Engagement

In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

[Read more…]

Go Corporate or Go Home

If you’re in Silicon Valley, you might have missed the trend, but the percentage of American workers working for big companies has been increasing, even as corporate bureaucracy is getting more stifling. Strangely, this has been happening even as the companies issue press releases about being more flexible and adaptive, to compete with startups, as Paul Graham argues in his recent controversial essay on Refragmentation. But flexible seems to mean layoffs and reorgs into ever more complex and, yes, fragmented corporate structures. They aren’t slimming down into flexible startups.

Worse, startups scale into big companies, and transform into bureaucracies when they do. Harvard Business Review just came out with some advice on how to stop being a startup. Even startups can’t stay startups. Github, the catalyst for distributed software companies everywhere, is itself restructuring. As the author of this post on Github’s restructuring puts it, “Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers.” But why?

[Read more…]

Productivity for Precious Snowflakes

We’ve been told for years now that what our parents and kindergarten teachers told us is not, in fact, true — we are not each and every one of us special unique snowflakes destined for greatness. In this essay I want to offer a new theory of productivity for those of us who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still believe there is something valuable about our particular point of view. I will argue that the fundamental driver of creative work today is not values, goals, or processes, but unique states of mind.

Two identical snowflakes, via the NYT

Let’s start by taking this idea to unreasonable extremes: hyper-advanced aliens and digital souls.

[Read more…]

Berliners #8: Red String

berliners8

Click here for the Berliners Archives

Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

How to be a Precious Snowflake

Every few months, one of my much more successful friends will get frustrated by my apparent lack of aggressive hustle in service of my own work, and declare that I could be 10x better known and make 10x as much money if only I did x. The unstated assumption is that I am perversely being a precious snowflake by not doing x.

snowflake

Every few weeks, I also have a different kind of conversation, usually sparked by a particularly poignant email from a youngish reader who has been persuaded by something I wrote to “go sociopath” (a la Butters going Professor Chaos). Typically, my new best friend will express a desire (and seek my help) to pursue some creative mission of personal, soul-enriching significance, without getting eaten alive by some species of shark in their waters. These emails often strike me as precious (as in snowflake, as well as in every other sense of the term).

We need a term for an anti-snowflake. I propose clod. 

Clod

If you view someone as a precious snowflake, they necessarily view you as a clod. This post is about the clod-snowflake dynamic.  All culture arises out of it.

[Read more…]

Executive Engagement

Corporations spend vast amounts of money researching “employee engagement” and worrying about how to shift the distribution in one direction or another as part of some sort of change initiative.

There are good and bad, qualitative and quantitative ways of studying employee engagement. You can study it using survey instruments (something my wife does for her clients), and you can study it using various anthropological lenses, such as metaphors of organization or my model in the Gervais Principle.

Here’s the thing though: when organizational change is possible and desirable at all: executive engagement matters a heck of a lot more, and almost nobody studies it formally. If you take care of executive engagement, employee engagement almost (but not quite) takes care of itself.

[Read more…]

Frontierland

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960


[Read more…]

The Four Forces for Sociology

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the four fundamental forces in physics ever since I first learned of the idea. I used it as a metaphor for Big History in A Brief History of the Corporation a few years back. Brian Skinner’s meditation on Coulomb interactions and some conversations with my favorite crazy engineer Artem Litvinovich (blog, twitter) have gotten me thinking about the four forces again.

I made up a metaphorical mapping of the four forces to sociology. It’s not pretty, but it’s interesting.

[Read more…]

The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 

orgchart-full

Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

[Read more…]