Your Evil Twins and How to Find Them

Recently a reader emailed me a note: “I just wanted to bring to your radar ‘the pleasures and sorrows of work’ by Alain de Botton, and what you thought of its theses.” Now de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life) has been on my radar for a while. I had browsed his books at Barnes and Noble a few times, but always put them down due to strange, sick feelings in my stomach. Thanks to this reader’s gentle nudge, I finally caved and read the first of the three, and managed to figure out why de Botton’s books had made me viscerally uncomfortable at first glance: he is my evil twin. An evil twin is defined as somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker. Here’s why evil twins matter, and how to discover yours.

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Time and Money: Separated at Birth?

An intriguing theme keeps popping up in finance discussions: the relationship between time and money. The best-known line of thinking is the one that Ben Franklin popularized, that time is money. This is the Protestant ethic in three words. Then there is the transactional view that says that time can be traded for money. Let’s call it the Catholic ethic. There is a third view, which I’ll call the Zen ethic. The first two lead to misery. The third, I speculate, does not.


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The Manager on Labor Day

There will never be a Management Day to complement Labor Day. The reason lies in the nature of the function, which I once flippantly defined as “delegating whatever you can define, and doing whatever you cannot.” What you cannot define, you cannot step away from. Stuff so ambiguous, you can only define it after actually doing it. When worker bees step away from their tools, situation awareness fades rapidly, and perforce, they must relax a little. There are no tools to the management trade. Your head is it, and it goes with you to the beach, even on Labor Day.

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On Going Feral

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Yesterday, a colleague looked at me and deadpanned, “aren’t you supposed to have a long beard?” When you remote-work for an extended period (it’s been six months since my last visit to the mother ship), you can expect to hear your share of jokes and odd remarks when you do show up. Once you become a true cloudworker, a ghost in the corporate machine who only exists as a tinny voice on conference calls, perceptions change. So when you do show up, you find that people react to you with some confusion. You’re not a visitor or guest, but you don’t seem to truly belong either.

I hadn’t planned on such a long period without visits to the home base, but the recession and a travel freeze got in the way of my regular monthly visits for a while. The anomalous situation created an accidental social-psychological experiment with me as guinea pig. What’s the difference between six months and one month, you might ask? Everything. Monthly visits keep you domesticated. Six months is long enough to make you go feral. I’ve gone feral.

Feral cat (Wikimedia Commons, GFDL)

Feral cat (Wikimedia Commons, GFDL)

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The Book as a Social Signal

Thrice in recent memory, a stranger has come up to speak to me because of the cover of a book. Within the three great introvert institutions built by the book: the cafe, the library and the bookstore, book covers serve as social signals. They are ice-breakers par excellence. Or were. I recently bought the austerely cover-free Kindle.


From Wikimedia commons, GFDL

I am among those who celebrate the possibilities of the Kindle, but I have to acknowledge the dark side. With apologies to Joni Mitchell, we’ve digitized paradise, put up a plastic box. Finishing my first full Kindle-read, I realized with a sinking sadness that I was not holding a fringe toy. For all its rough edges, the Kindle is a legitimate book-killer, and it will prevail. In time, it will catalyze the formation of its own institutions and social-psychological landscape, complete with different social signals. But it will be too late for me. I am the sum total of the books I’ve read. Paper books with covers, with associated memories of intimate bookish conversations triggered by glimpses of covers. With the paper book, a part of me will die. I can imagine having a conversation with an 18-year-old Kindleworm in 2025. He will probably view me with the same incomprehension with which I, as a calculator-trained engineer, view 50-plus slide-rule-trained engineers.

This is my first stab at finding a short-format style that works for me. 250 words. What do you think? Still ribbonfarmesque?

The Crucible Effect and the Scarcity of Collective Attention

This article is about a number I call the optimal crucible size. I’ll define this number — call it C — in a bit, but I believe its value to be around 12. This article is also about an argument that I’ve been unconsciously circling for a long time. Chris Anderson’s Free provided me with the insight that helped me put the whole package together: economics is fundamentally a process driven by abundance and creative-destruction rather than scarcity. The reason we focus on scarcity is that at any given time, the economy is constrained by a single important “bottleneck scarcity.” Land, labor, factories, information and most recently, individual attention, have all played the bottleneck role in the past. I believe we are experiencing the first major bottleneck-shift in a decade. “Attention,” as an unqualified commodity is no longer the critical scarcity. Collective attention is: the coordinated, creative attention of more than 1 person. It is scarce and it is horrendously badly allocated in the economy today. The free-agent planet under-organizes it, and the industrial economy over-organizes it.  That’s the story of C, the optimal size of a creative group. There are seven other significant numbers in this tale: 0, 1, 7, 150, 8, 1000 and 10,000. The big story is how the economy is moving closer to C-driven allocation of creative capital. But the little story starts with my table tennis clique in high school.

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Cloudworker Board Game Revisited

In October last year, I sketched out a concept for an open-source board game that I tentatively titled “Brandhood” (I think I’d now want to call it just “Cloudworker”).  The idea was picked up by the NY Times and went mildly viral.


I haven’t done much with it, since I have no idea how to actually make a board game at the detailed level.  Well now, my buddy from work, @poinky alerted me that there is a new start up called Game Crafter that allows self-publishing and selling of board games. So the question: anyone interested in collaborating with me to make this happen? I got a lot of interest/curiosity, but few actual volunteers last time around, but maybe this time, with a path-to-publication opening up, we can make it happen. We’ll sell the thing on Game Crafter and also release the source material free for people who want to make their own version. Check out the game’s home page to get the details, and connect if interested! Seems to me we mainly need Photoshop/Illustrator skills and someone with deeper detailed/technical understanding of board games than I have. I will, err…, supervise. It appears that all that is needed is the artwork for the game, a document with rules, and indications of what game play pieces (dice etc.) are to be provided.

p.s. since coming up with the concept, I have learned about Robert “Rich Dad Poor Dad” Kiyosaki’s board game, Cash Flow, which seems to have a few similar ideas.

p.p.s. This revival is also partly inspired by a discussion I participated in yesterday at, about freelancing, online markets, the role of big corporations vis-a-vis little guys, etc.

Coworking: “I’m Outta Here” by Jones, Sundsted and Bacigalupo

I’m Outta Here: How coworking is making the office obsolete by Drew Jones, Todd Sundstead and Tony Bacigalupo is a curious counter-cultural book about the emerging future-of-work movement called “coworking.” Ostensibly, the movement is about practical workday logistics for the new rootless worker, whether he/she is a virtual traditional employee or a free agent, looking for ways to avoid going nuts working alone at home. The movement is about building ‘Spaces’ like this one, CitizenSpace in San Francisco (Creative Commons picture, taken from their website):


Dig beyond this surface value proposition though,  and there is a very definite philosophy at work within the movement. A philosophy anchored by an uneasy mix of primary-colored, bubblgum communitarian values, economic bets, and ideas about the business of making a living and living a life. The philosophy has a lot of potential, but also some limiting self-perceptions which could end up being fatal flaws. Can it cross the chasm, and go from being a marginal counter-cultural trend to a mainstream model of work? At the moment, I would offer 3:1 odds against, barring some critical re-engineering of the movement’s DNA.

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The Slash Effect

My reading tends to be very random-access; sometimes it takes me years before I figure out the most rewarding perspective with which to read a book. I bought and began browsing Marci Alboher’s (@heymarci) oddball career-guide,  One Person/Multiple Careers several months ago, when she blogged about in the New York Times. But though something about the book was intriguing me, it wasn’t till about a month ago that I found the right perspective. So here is a review/summary, with a couple of editorial thoughts for you to ponder.

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Succession Planning: Marshall Goldsmith vs. Eric Raymond

There is such a thing as a single, powerful litmus test of management and leadership ability. It is your handling of succession. As I read Succession: Are You Ready? by Marshall Goldsmith, I was overcome by a sense of “this is unreal,” and for a moment I couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me: the book is excellent, but it belongs within an era of management thinking when succession was primarily a C-suite issue. Until very recently, only in the stratosphere did you find the sort of unique people who were not plug and play.  The ranks were, almost by definition, fungible, which meant succession was not an issue. Management thinking on succession for 2009 is represented by the laconic one-line understatement from Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “When you lose interest in a [computer] program, your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor.” In the brave new world of work, where anarchic, leaderless organizations and wandering bands of open-source ronin are as common as the traditional organization, the idea of “succession” — having one person take over a role in an effort from another — needs reconstruction. Its center of gravity is not in the C-suite, but in the fish-market of coordinating unique individuals that used to be known as the “ranks.” Can we, I wonder, reconstruct the idea of succession, and port the insights of thinkers like Goldsmith to the new world of work?

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