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Current Events: 2021 Humility

Slate Star Codex and the State of Things

If you, like I, came of professional age in the earliest days of the Internet boom (we’re talking the early ’90s), you might have been exposed to the overwrought sense of intellectual entitlement and rationalization endemic to the San Francisco Bay area. This has mushroomed in recent years to the point of ridiculousness. And you, like I, might have walked away from it.

I grew up in the New York Metro area, and am no stranger to Regional Superiority Syndrome. Like-minded people in large metro areas, living a balls-out Darwinian oval track race, trying their best to out-think one another, all the while shrouding their self-esteem varia with a veil of civic pride. “We’re a great city, filled with the best minds, surrounded by the best culture the world has to offer. Not here? Sucks to be you!”

Generations of people in Silicon Valley (and in the New York Metro) have produced important things; this is not up for dispute. But starkly missing from this sort of culture is a genuine appreciation for, and sense of, humility.

It is this lack of humility that I find myself responding to in the work that I do. An important part of a CIO’s job is to protect the companies they work for from the incredible amount of bullshit that is threaded through our industry. Promises of AI; new features that are always on the way; so much software that is apparently so great, so easy to use; anything can be solved with an integration or an API; Object Linking and Embedding is architecture of the future (or maybe it was ActiveX); Citrix is good; Cisco is great; Access is wonderful; SAP is amazing; Electron is groundbreaking; Apple is doomed; blockchain can solve issues with tracing lettuce from farm to table; every report is valuable. If you are a CIO, add your own bullshit to this list. I will not disagree.

In this vein, part of our jobs as technology leaders is to pay attention to the culture from which these issues emanate. You might be like me, and you might fail to drag yourself out of bed to do this once as often as you should. I tired of it long ago, but there are moments where I take a deep breath, dive in, and catch up.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is my latest diving board. Once I came up for air, I realized that I need to share this: If you are a technology leader, this piece is worth your while.

But…TL;DR:

“Silicon Valley’s Safe Space” focuses on Scott Alexander Siskind, creator of Slate Star Codex, a (now-preserved) blog-cum-support-group for Silicon Valley intellectuals who shared thoughts related to rationalism in technology. In the echoes of the dialog from these Bay Area rationalists, you get the sense that these people felt that they were doing something new and different. The naïveté of that notion is amusing.

It would be fair to say that Slate Star Codexers practice (technology-) applied rationalism in the same vein that I practice (technology-) applied rhetorical theory, the principal difference being that rationalism has been regularly and predictably applied to technology throughout history, whereas rhetorical theory has definitively not.

What’s clear from reading the Times article is that many of these folks would like to shelter their discussions from scrutiny and counterpoint from less-than-likeminded individuals. This is why, despite my short summary, I think you should take the time to read the entire Times article, as well as many of the links within. Many folks might be tempted to focus on some of the right-wing versus left-wing issues in the article and in the blog’s content; that would be a waste of time, because there is little notable to be found in that aspect of the story. The bigger story is one of perspective lost to self-importance.

I particularly recommend perusing the Slate Star Codex post titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due To Offensive Attitudes,” a carefully self-disclaimed, pseudoscientific attempt to dissect gender representation in special interest groups.

The post highlights a dividing line between “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” people and “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people (the rationalists), and treats the former with a predictable and carefully-buffered dose of contempt.

Next up is a link to a TechCrunch article titled “Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neoreactionaries.” The Times piece cites angel investor/Andreesen-Horowitz General Partner Balaji Srinivasan opining that he and his cohort “could not let that kind of story gain traction,” ostensibly because it might prove to be perfect fodder for the outsiders, providing a tad too much insight into who these people really are.

Lest you have lost track of how far along we have come, this circle of people includes Mark Andreesen, creator of the world’s first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, as well as its commercial offspring, Netscape Navigator. Mark was the archetype of the perky, Internet wunderkind of the 1990s. Today, his goals are scarier, more divisive, and more threatening than his earliest work, targeting the Bay Area rationalists through a media outlet via his a16z brand.

You also should not overlook Scott Alexander Siskind’s response to yesterday’s Times article on his Astral Codex Ten blog, in which he defends himself in awkward ways, evoking rationalization rather than rationalism.

Ultimately, what the Times piece helps us see is that the Bay Area technologists’ rationalism is a powerful underpinning for yet-another-inwardly-focused media empire, as if the world needs more of that sort of thing. Poynter’s David Cohn summarizes this point nicely.


Rationalism is helpful. Anything remotely involving science benefits from it. What I find troubling about this era of Bay Area Philosophy is that its philosophers’ rhetoric is regressive, rather than progressive. It is Plato vs. Aristotle all over again. Recall the first line of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” In that single phrase, Aristotle acknowledges the need for dialectic, but warns us that there is more to life than logic. In Aristotle’s world, we consider not just logos, but pathos and ethos in equal measure.

Scott Siskind’s “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people may have a hard time with “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” because it is more comfortable to suck the safe teat of logic. But humans are rarely logical, and we are fools to believe that we are rational. Only through humility can we come to terms with this. “Sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people sometimes like to label matters of ethos and pathos with a dismissive epithet: “soft skills.” These cannot be empirically evaluated through rationalism, therefore they are not worth the time to pursue. What the rationalists fail to see is that this philosophy itself is a logical fallacy: an enthymeme, better-known as “a syllogism where one or more of the premises are implied rather than stated.” You can thank Aristotle’s Rhetoric for that.

As Times author Cade Metz put it:

“Slate Star Codex was a window into the Silicon Valley psyche. There are good reasons to try and understand that psyche, because the decisions made by tech companies and the people who run them eventually affect millions.”

If the people who run our tech companies fail to nurture humility, vulnerability, and empathy, then they will never be able to solve humans’ thorniest problems. What we see in the Times article is a classic imbalance between objectivity vs. subjectivity, and a call to do more. All fields need to consider the relationship between these two viewpoints; one is not more relevant than the other.

Will our profession allow these Bay Area rationalists alone to define what gets said, and what gets funded? Or will we (hopefully) promote a more balanced discussion? Read the Times article. Get up-to-speed. Please do your part to contribute to a balanced conversation.

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Categories
Humility Truth

The Problem With Truth Is That We Think It’s Easy

Lies take many forms. The most troublesome ones involve the liar taking advantage of the audience’s trust when the audience would benefit from the truth more than the liar would…and when it’s far easier for the audience to trust than it is for them to seek the truth.

Every lie’s potential success is dependent upon its audience’s trust. In too many situations, trust trumps truth, because trust is easier.

I am sometimes troubled by the lack of effort that we put into our endeavors to discern something approaching truth. How can we help others if we don’t adequately comprehend the time that we must invest to gather the details we need to truly understand them, and their circumstances? In our profession, employers all too often don’t cultivate a culture that supports this way of working.

Most people would not rush to have surgery until they have had many doctor visits, discussions and tests over several days or weeks. But when we develop or introduce technology solutions for our “patients,” why do we so often fail to allocate the time to understand them, and their problems?

It’s because we think too highly of ourselves.


Take a moment to recall grade school art class. I hope you can recall learning about the differences between realism and impressionism.

That puts me back in the 1970s. At that time, photography was a mature, nearly 150-year-old practice, positioned in stark contrast to its older sibling, painting. Back then, however, even the finest photographer’s technique couldn’t adequately replicate the color range and dynamic depth of real life. Nonetheless, photographers made every attempt to get as close as they could.

The photographic frame is an incredibly small, two dimensional window into a 360°, three dimensional moment and place in time and space. It is always a mere selection of a world that the photographer decided was important to capture. A photograph represents a decision, more than anything else. While photos might achieve realism in a way that paintings cannot, they remain impressionistic documents, whose intent it is to convey something that the human behind them wanted to convey.

When I was young, I became fascinated with photographing the nighttime version of our world. Neon lights, twirling gas station signs, dimly lit people, the lines of red and golden beacons emitted from the back and front of automobiles grizzling by. The tools available to me as a young photographer in the 1970s were limited. It was impossible to reproduce on paper what my eyes perceived.

Today, this problem has been largely solved. Our latest cell phones can produce photographs that resemble the incredibly challenging high-contrast spectacle of our nighttime vision.

To achieve this, our phones take hundreds of photographs in rapid succession, computationally stitching them together, taking the richest and most optimally exposed details from each frame. The final result is a stunning composite that replicates your natural perception better than any tools we’ve ever previously had.

The film photographers of my youth would (and still do!) cry foul, asserting that these photographs are pure artificial trickery. Our eyes would disagree. This illustrates something interesting: in order to achieve something that is closer to “truth,” we must collect multiple views, from different perspectives. It seems paradoxical that conveying something as simple-seeming as truth requires such complexity. Hence the Yiddish proverb:

Truth is the safest lie.

Photography is only one tool in our communication arsenal; the written and spoken word are far more regularly employed. Do we consider that our utterances have the same limitations as the simple photographs of yore? More often than we would like to admit, words are ambiguous, and they are always strung together by imperfect creatures. When any person speaks or writes, there is a good chance that their words will be perceived differently by different people. A simple set of words alone cannot adequately express an idea, in the same way that one simple photograph cannot convey a scene with the depth, breadth, and dimensionality of real life. Language is, at best, impressionistic.

Yet, the vast majority of public discourse today assumes that a few simple words can convey truth. If you don’t believe this, then you may have never visited Facebook or Twitter.

Just as one photograph is not enough, one word is not enough. One sentence is not enough. One paragraph is not enough. One book is not enough. To discern something worthy of being called truth, people need to gain perspectives from multiple photographs…multiple words…multiple sentences…multiple paragraphs…multiple books.

Of course, this is the essence of learning. But in recent decades, we have seen learning increasingly demonized. Should something take too much effort to understand, we are told that it is “intellectual.” Sometimes, we are told that learning is an exercise for “elites.” If something is “complex,” we are encouraged to postpone digesting it until we have time.

But learning demands that we find multiple perspectives. It requires critical thinking, looking through and past the imperfections in our written and spoken interpersonal communications. This takes time. We like things to be simple, but truth isn’t simple.

Is it fair to say that calculus should be simple? Or that it’s a bunch of bull because it’s complex?

Is it fair to say that the theory of relativity is a bunch of malarkey, by the same standards?

Is it fair to say that British history is bollocks?

The conceit of modern humanity is to believe we can distill truth from a few soundbites, whether through one or two books, or one or two social media posts. The arc of this extreme conceit arguably began in September 1982, when USA Today published its first issue. That conceit — however attractive it was at the time — continues to erode our comprehension of the difficulty of truth to this day.

No matter how hard we study language in school, every one of us struggles to successfully communicate the many goings on in our world. Unfortunately, our choices seem to be either a) perceived as a complex, talkative bore, or b) to be perceived at all. We too often choose the latter. That choice promotes ego over truth.

Our egos are a bigger problem than we think. Not only do they prioritize our simple desire to be heard over producing something worthwhile to hear, but our egos lead us to believe that our capacity for language is a magical, God-given gift that makes us superior to other creatures. You and I have been programmed to believe that a paragraph like this one is vastly more sophisticated than a dog’s bark. If that were true, this might be the last essay ever written about truth.

It’s no wonder why dogs so often ignore us.

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Antipatterns Compassion Invisibleism Vulnerability

Revisiting Patrick Lencioni’s First Team: It’s a Fractal!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an avid reader of business nonfiction bestsellers. Books that have been foundational to my thinking have been at least somewhat academic (and unfortunately esoteric) in nature, like Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action. If you’ve been following me on these pages, though, you know that I delight in citing two books that are straightforward yet uncommonly seen in offices around the world. There is, however, a third approachable book that I am fond of, which you might have read before, since it is comparatively well-known. That book, nearing its 20th birthday, is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

As with all things popular, critiques of Five Dysfunctions are in no short supply. The book’s Wikipedia entry does its job on this, citing some thoughtful summary criticism, noting that the “book is explicitly a work of fiction; it is not based on research and its practical recommendations lack empirical support.” There is truth to that, but if you have been following me on these pages, you will remember that I have a firm belief that truth is best derived from considering multiple perspectives over time. The many sorts of responses to Five Dysfunctions that have been penned over the years have brought helpful real-world framing to the book’s core concepts, adding value through a globally-shared dialog.

Here is yet another response, albeit one that I hope you find to be new and refreshing.


Like seemingly everything else from Five Dysfunctions, the “First Team” concept has been through the point-counterpoint wringer over the past two decades. If the “First Team” concept is unfamiliar to you, then let’s listen to Patrick Lencioni himself introduce it:

I’d like to suggest that, rather than eschewing ideas (such as this one!) that might not be strictly empirical, we consider them, at the very least, to be valuable thought exercises.

I am fond of the “First Team” thought exercise. Why? Well, I have been part of no fewer than five senior management teams in my career, and each one of those teams was at its weakest when we were not attendant to one another, and when we spent the majority of our time in our vertical silos. We were not as strategic, and our teams were not as tightly focused on the company’s mission, when we were more attendant to our departments than to senior teams. Anecdotal? Perhaps. But at the very least, I have developed an opinion that the “First Team” is worth talking about from time to time, wherever you may work.

A “First Team” Thought Exercise Extension, in Two Parts

Part The First

Whether we like it or not, our jobs are at least somewhat framed by our titles, whose primary purpose is, more or less, to denote our roles. These titles, apart from “President” and “CEO,” always connote some form of swim lane that we work within.

New-age management philosophies like Teal and Holacracy aim to reduce the significance of titles in an effort to encourage an organization’s members to better appreciate (and contribute to solving) the many challenges that exist across its functions. However, these management styles present their own challenges. First off, they are wholly unfamiliar to the majority of the working population. More notably, however, in accordance with the valiant mission to decentralize power and decision making, they sometimes confuse people who feel uncomfortable making certain types of decisions, and who would better serve an organization when given at least some amount of explicit direction. Human beings are animals (which we too often forget), and animals are conditioned to exist within a power structure, whether we like that or not.

This is not to say that Holacracy or Teal are unworthy of further work and refinement; they most certainly are. What’s more effective to say is: work is not what we want to do in comparison to the better parts of life (if it were, we wouldn’t get paid for it), and doing what we can to help it be less of a drag will vastly increase the likelihood that our employees will stay with us to solve the problems we are paid to solve. One thing that seems to resonate with all workers is when power structures are absent enough to allow people to breathe and bring their own values to the table, yet present enough to provide clear direction when needed.

All of this is to suggest that there is a desirable balance between power presence and power absence, and that power absence is something that needs focus, since it is not as natural as power presence. The “First Team” thought exercise is most useful, in my opinion, in helping organizations find that better balance. That’s because, when we encourage a First Team mentality, we have to work hard ensure that the teams of people who report into the First Team have healthy team dynamics of their own. More on that in a bit.

I think teams struggle to identify when it’s time to engage further with the “First Team” thought exercise, to calibrate their work toward its prescribed dynamic. Here are six questions that will help you know:

  1. Are the team members aware of each other’s professional issues, and are they willing to spend the time to contribute to each other’s success in overcoming those issues?
  2. Are the team members aware of each other’s personal issues, to the extent necessary to help others empathize with their challenges meeting professional expectations?
  3. In the spirit of invisibleism, are all team members paying attention not only to what they see, but what they do not see?
  4. Do the team members have a rapport that allows for vulnerability on a routine basis, wherein a team member can openly share a personal deficiency or fear without reprisal, and with compassion?
  5. Does any member of the team feel that it’s a “drag” to spend time with their “First Team” when compared to spending time with the team who reports into them, or with their customers/stakeholders?
  6. Are there “factions” within the team that draw a subset of the team together more powerfully than the entire team is drawn to itself?

If you can answer yes to any of these six questions, it’s time to recalibrate your First Team dynamic.

It’s entirely possible for the First Team concept to go too far. That is easier to identify through these two anti-patterns:

  1. When the team too often feels like an “escape” from the difficult work any of its members have to do, and First Team members abandon their responsibilities to their Second Teams.
  2. When (you are lucky enough to hear grumblings that) the team is a “clique” who merely likes to enjoy lunching and drinking together, and is inaccessible to outsiders.

Remember, this is all about balance.

Part The Second

Sometimes the best way to see where you are is through triangulation.

In this case, let’s consider what all of the above means to the team of people who report into you, who students of Lencioni might call your “Second Team.”

As a leader for your Second Team, you would do well to encourage them to be a First Team unto themselves (and I do mean that they, without you, comprise this First Team). Despite all that has been written about Patrick Lencioni and his work over the years, this is not a conclusion that most people seem to draw, yet I suggest that this is, in fact, your most important responsibility as your Second Team’s leader.

In other words, don’t limit the “First Team” thought exercise to your executive team. Understand that it is fractal in nature, and you would do well to encourage it wherever you find leadership groups in your organization. Wherever a First Team exists, the Second Team will need to be able to better self-manage when their leader is attending to their First Team, and the First Team thought exercise is valuable for them as well.

Are you creating an environment where your Second Team can answer “yes” to the six questions above, while avoiding the two anti-patterns?

If so, then congratulations.

If both your First Team and Second Team are exhibiting the optimum balance, then hats off to you: it’s time for a well-deserved, relaxing vacation.

But we are imperfect creatures, living in an imperfect world. Most of the time, we will find ourselves working on maintaining the right balance between nurturing our First Team while helping our Second Team nurture its own First Team dynamic.

Remember: what we are looking to achieve, in the end, is an appropriate balance at any given moment between power presence and power absence for the people who are looking to us for leadership. If your Second Team is able to be its own First Team, then step away and work on your First Team. If your First Team and Second Team are both having problems, do not focus on your Second Team at the expense of your First Team, but don’t walk away from them, either. Seek to help your Second Team regain its balance while you remind them that your First Team needs balancing, too. Make the balance part of the conversations you have with both of your teams.

But keep a close eye on anti-pattern #1. None of the above is to suggest that your Second Team should ever feel like they have been abandoned by you. They deserve your leadership. Power abhors a vacuum, and our animalistic conditioning for leadership structures will ensure that your unofficial replacement is eventually found. That would be a tragedy for your team.

The “First Team” is a handy tool. It is a fulcrum for introspection, and it can help you achieve the some of the best elements of Teal and Holacracy without completely reinventing your organization. Keep it in a front pocket, use it often, and don’t neglect your duty to pay it forward to the teams you lead. It’s good for them today, and should you depart — whether through attrition, retirement, or otherwise — it will condition your organization for smoother succession tomorrow.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSUD7WHzFTw.

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