Three Smooth Stones

Ideas that never grew into essays

October 16, 2019

This content was originally sent as a newsletter

I come bearing small things: three ideas that, after years of turning around in my head, have exposed a durable core, but never gained enough meat to become freestanding essays. Take ‘em if you like them, start a conversation if you think they’re cursed, or throw ‘em on the midden if they’re not of use.

I. What’s a Tool

I’m not a huge fan of borrowing military language, but there is a useful fundamental idea in military strategy: the force multiplier. Imagine a group of five people fighting a mutual enemy of five people; imagine they are evenly matched. Then hand one group bows and arrows. How many more people do you need to add to the opposing force before they are evenly matched, again? The bows are force multipliers, and their value can be measured by that ratio.

When you use a piece of software, a process, a language, a way of thinking, an org structure, it ought to result in an overall >1 multiplier for your team, even including the additional labor required to maintain it.

(From here out I’m going to say “positive multiplier” to mean >1 and “negative multiplier” to mean <=1; it reads more clearly in English even though it is mathematically inaccurate.)

When something has a positive multiplier on each and every member of your team, adoption is easy — everyone can feel how useful it is. When something has a positive multiplier on the team as a whole, but a negative multiplier on some individual team members, there will be friction; you can attempt to redistribute workloads, or adjust incentives, to reduce that harm and friction.

When something has a negative multiplier and you choose to use it, it’s a toy. Leave it at home.

When something has a negative multiplier and it is imposed on a team from outside, it is bureaucracy, and is justly mocked.

Measuring a force multiplier is impossible. The vast majority of processes and gewgaws reside in a foggy area that could be positive and could be negative. Some things, though, are so vastly helpful — their multipliers so high — that while you cannot measure exactly, you can be confident they are » 1.

I try to reserve the word “tool” for things with obviously positive multipliers. I try to avoid spending much time on foggy things when I’m on the clock, and none on the obviously negative.

II. The Pocket Veto

My least favorite way to be told “no” when asking for some work from someone is to be told “yes” and then the work never reaches the top of their queue of priorities.

The pocket veto can be deployed intentionally (“I’ll say yes and never do it; he’ll probably forget he asked”) and unintentionally (“Uh, sure, I guess I can do that,” followed by weeks of other things coming up, and feeling awful about it).

Saying “no” feels worse in the moment, but that pain is momentary, and long-term plans emerge stronger afterward. The pocket veto malingers; it ruins plans; it can sour an entire relationship.

I have no advice for what to do if someone performs a pocket veto on you.

Don’t participate in its spread.

III. How to get a reputation for being frequently right: say “Sorry, I was wrong” a LOT

[Note: what follows is cis white male advice. I suspect it still applies to members of underrepresented groups, but I totally acknowledge there’s more there there; always take what I say with a grain of salt given who I am, but especially when it’s ‘taking risks in the workplace’ stuff like this.]

I did a lot of slight of hand in high school. (Yeah.) One thing I learned is subtle, and almost tautological: what effects how people perceive you is their memory of an event. If people remember me reaching right through a pane of solid glass, as far as my reputation is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether I actually did or not.

It is not so important to be right at the beginning of a conversation; that rarely sticks in people’s memory. What will stick is being insistently wrong.

Saying “I was wrong” feels icky. It feels scary. If you have any amount of impostor syndrome, it can feel like you’re gonna be fired, ostracized, and ignored for the rest of time. If you do it the instant you know you were wrong, though, something else happens instead: everyone forgets.

I have heard more than one person say something to the effect “It’s refreshing when Sam is wrong about something, because he’s right so often.” (I’m pretty sure (I hope!) they mean this literally, not “he thinks he’s right so often” — but I could be wrong!)

And yet, I probably say “oh, gosh, I’m wrong” out loud at least 5 times a day; I say it more often than I hear it.

Say “I’m wrong” and get a reputation for being right? This paradox is a lot like a magic trick. As long as I find your card spectacularly enough before I take a bow, it doesn’t matter if my first guess was wrong, or made me look silly. If we’re on the same page, and the right one, by the end of a conversation, that’s what will last in your memory.

Practice saying “I was wrong” immediately, reflexively, about small things the moment you recognize your mistake. If someone else was right, say that, too. Saying you were wrong about where you went to lunch yesterday is good practice for saying you were wrong when the stakes are higher. Hesitating for even a moment, especially when the stakes are high, gives you time to dig a hole for yourself: a pit of rationalization that’s much harder to escape.

[Postscript: This is essentially career advice, not social advice. Saying “Oh, I’m wrong” does not prevent me from being an insufferable know-it-all — that probably requires therapy — but if people feel like I’m an accurate know-it-all, it does bring in contracts.]

My books are open! I am currently taking contracts for the second half of 2023. Drop me a note.