One Thing & Another

Notes From My Journal: “Scientific Method” and the Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

Much of my reading lately has hit upon science. In particular, the controversy about whether the scientific method is the most reliable way to ascertain what’s true and what seems to be true.

“Scientific method” is a term that was coined in the 17thcentury. It refers to a systematic procedure – based on observation and testing – that researchers use to try to understand/explain the mysteries of the natural world.

The method is pretty simple. You come up with a theory about an observed phenomenon. Then you test that theory as precisely as you can. That’s where some misunderstanding occurs.

When you are testing the results of two direct mail campaigns, you must ensure that you are testing only one variable. You don’t, for example, test both price and headline at the same time.

When humans are involved, which is the case with most social and health studies, the test must also be double-blind. Double-blind means that neither the tester nor the testee can know which of the sample groups is the control group and which is the test group. The ancient Greeks were good at the first part of the scientific method: coming up with guesses about why things are the way they are. But they never subjected their theories to experiment. The Muslims, from what I’ve read, were the first to do that.A theory that is proven is not proven for all time. It is simply accepted as true until some further testing finds it incorrect or inadequate. Still, you have to go with what you have. You can’t ignore or deny the existence of carbon dating and fossils simply because they don’t fit into your theory.


Today’s Word: bloviate (verb)

To bloviate (BLOW-vee-ate) is to speak or write in a longwinded, empty, pompous way. As used by former U.S. Representative Barney Frank: “I think there is too much bloviating around by politicians.” (He needn’t have said “around.”)


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Sometimes It’s Smart to Shoot for Second Place

It may sometimes seem like I’m always pushing my readers in the direction of becoming No.1 –  of being your own boss and having your own business. And I won’t deny that I spend a lot of time talking about the advantages of entrepreneurship and equity.

But some people are better off in the No.2 position. Some people will have more success, make more money, achieve more, and more fully enjoy their life’s work if there is someone else to whom they feel responsible.

I sometimes believe I am one of those people. I notice that when I negotiate for myself, I’m a pushover. But when I do so on the part of a senior partner or group of people, I tend to be much more aggressive.

When it’s solely my interests at stake, I tend to relax. I have the feeling that I don’t need the best deal, that I can always find another, and so I’m happy to settle. But when I’m representing others, I feel an additional responsibility to get the deal they will like.

It’s an admission I don’t make readily. I’d rather think of myself as more alpha, as the No.1 dog in the junkyard. But if I look back at my business career, I have to recognize that my greatest accomplishments have come out of relationships in which I was No.2.

That’s not to say I was ever comfortable down the food chain of power.  I was never able to spend much more than a few months at a job before I started moving up and taking over.  I was simply unwilling to play a modest role. From day one, I was trying to cut myself in on the action. This impulse was no doubt the driving force in my career.

I presume you have a driving force, too – and your impulse may feel like the need to be on the very top. If so, that’s fine. But if you tend to be more like me, your path may be slightly different.

It is important to understand the difference. Because if you are a No.1 kind of person, you will be unhappy and eventually fail as a second banana. And if you are a No.2 kind of person, you may fail if you try to go out on your own.

The story of Pat Farrah illustrates the point.

In 1962, Mr. Farrah went to work for a building-supply store in Bellflower, California. In the challenging atmosphere of a fast-growing company, Mr. Farrah thrived, working his way up to general manager. Then, in 1978, he tried running his own show. He rented a huge warehouse and filled it with household goods. He described his idea to an interviewer from The Wall Street Journalas “stack it high and watch it fly.”

The idea… as a marketing strategy… worked wonderfully. The store was flooded with customers. But financial controls were lacking, and the store went bust.

A couple of years later, Bernard Marcus, a veteran retailer who had watched Mr. Farrah’s brilliant failure, hired him to become chief merchandising officer of Home Depot.

As the No.2 guy in a very similar business, Mr. Farrah was able to apply his proven strategies again. But this time, he was free of the other tasks (such as balancing the books) that he didn’t do so well.

The result? Well, you know the history of Home Depot.

So take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I a top dog or a second banana?” Consider what you’ve done before and where you’ve had your successes. Ask yourself honestly, “Do I work better for myself or for someone else?”

You may not arrive at the answer right away, and that’s okay. You will know what to aim for.

By the way, Mr. Farrah eventually left Home Depot and tried to have his own business again. Guess what? He failed again. He was hired back as assistant to the man who replaced him and very quickly worked his way back to the No.2 spot. Home Depot profited immensely from his return. And Pat Farrah retired rich and happy. (His current net worth is an estimated $150 million.)

There’s no shame in being No.2. In my career, No. 2 always meant being a partner. It usually came with most, if not all, of the benefits of being No. 1, but with what was for me an additional perk: someone I had to answer to.

Know yourself. Move to the top. Seize top dog or second banana. Demand equity and fair compensation for your work. Be proud. Have fun.


Fun Fact

Most elephants weigh less than the tongue of a blue whale.


Something to Think About…

From my book How to Speak Intelligently About Everything That Matters

Only in French, the language of love, would it make sense to call your beloved “my little cabbage” (mon petit chou)… to describe love at first sight as “the bolt of lightning” (le coup de foudre)… to use the word galoche for a French kiss. (The idea with this one is that there’s a connection between the sound of interacting tongues and the sound of galoshes on a wet pavement.)