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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Knowing and Caring

Do you ever idly fantasize about kicking a wine enthusiast in the pants? Wine enthusiasts routinely confuse knowing with caring. They are eager to explain to you that this 1992 Chardonnay has more body while that one has a cleaner finish.  They assume that if only you knew you would start to care. I made up this 3×3 matrix to illustrate the various combinations of knowing and caring about any sort of A-B distinction. Ponder. I will explain.


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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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How to Think Like Hercule Poirot

Last fall, I spent a long weekend in the Outer Banks region, a few hours south of Washington, DC, reading a collection of Agatha Christie pastiches called Malice Domestic, Volume 1 (now the title of an annual mystery  conference). The summer tourist season was over, and the hordes had moved on to Maine and Vermont to chase the Fall colors. The days were gray, windy, rainy and chilly.  The beach front properties had mostly emptied out, and most of the summer attractions were closed. We had a large three-level beach front house to ourselves, with a porch facing the troubled, ominous sea.


The ocean view from our hotel at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks

Perfect conditions for bundling up in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and a mystery. Reading Malice Domestic was a revelation. None of the included writers even came close to creating Christie-like magic. Which led me to wonder: does Poirot endure because he represents certain truths about how to think effectively, which lesser fictional detectives lack? I think so.

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The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

To most of us, the oceans are about romance, not shipping logistics. Violent thirty-foot waves and gripping piracy tales are conspicuously missing from The Box, the first shipping-themed book I reviewed. While that story (see my post the epic story of container shipping) had all the passion and high drama of a business thriller, it was essentially a human and technology story. The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime tells a parallel tale, one focusing on the realities of the oceans themselves . There are plenty of waves and pirates here, and this is easily the most absorbing maritime-themed book I’ve read since Treasure Island, which is saying a lot, since it is non-fiction.


The "Alondra Rainbow", pirated and renamed "Mega Rama" (picture from Indian Coast Guard site)

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The Pregnancy Metaphor

Pregnancy is a rich, if slightly uncomfortable source of metaphors, especially for men.  For example:

  1. The idea of the startup incubator
  2. The idea that product launches are like birth events

The most interesting aspect of pregnancy metaphors is the difference between male and female attitudes towards them.

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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 Tragicomic Exasperations of Expertise

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of those cleanly stated insights that can at once make you feel relieved and hopeless. It is a cognitive bias which lends confidence to ignorance. Wikipedia compactly describes the effect as follows:

“…people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average. This leads to a perverse result where people with less competence will rate their ability more highly than people with relatively more competence.

This dry, academic version actually understates both the richness and emotional complexity of what is going on. This richness begins with the subjective consequences of the impasse: the expert is exasperated, while the novice actually feels contemptuous and superior. The situation is stable: the expert gropes for a way to demonstrate the validity of his view at a level the novice can understand and is reduced to sputtering incoherence, which only serves to strengthen the novice’s illusory sense of superiority. Play out the broader effects of this little piece of sketch comedy, and you get all the pathos and pageantry of human society at the grandest scales.

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Two Manipulative Ways to Close Conversations

I have a morbid fascination with the idea that conversations represent two computers trying to program each other in real time. Pondering this sometimes yields insights that seem to be valid but manipulative. Here are two examples; you can decide whether these moves should be used. The first has to do with IM/chat conversations. Do you ever tire of closing rituals that take too long?

A: Ciao!

B: Yup, ttyl

A: Have a good weekend

B: Thanks, am looking forward to chilling on my camping trip. You have a nice weekend too.

A: Oh, where are you going?

I’ve found a move that tends to cut off these sessions surgically. I call it repeat-or-complement. The first time the other person uses a closing phrase, you either repeat it exactly (mirroring) or provide the most ritualistic, banal complementary response available. In the example above, the response to Ciao! should have been Ciao!, not ttyl. This works for neutral/symmetric closings. If you get something like Thanks, you should choose You’re welcome (no exclamation point). Not no problem or anytime dude.

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