Notes From My Journal

The Lessons of History

Delray Beach, FL– On the recommendation of Tim Ferriss, I’m reading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. Published in 1962, it contains the occasional paragraph that seems chronologically quaint. But the sentences are lovely. The tone is pitch perfect. And it is dense with wise thoughts and observations.

A few tidbits:

* We are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character.

* Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization.

* Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man.

* Puritanism and paganism – the repression and the expression of the senses and desire – alternate in mutual reaction in history.

* The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution.

* Economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.

* Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government, since it applies to the group the authority of the father in a family or of the chieftain in a warrior band. If we were to judge forms of government from their prevalence and duration in history we should have to give the palm to monarchy; democracies, by contrast, have been hectic interludes.

* If progress is truly real despite our whining, it is not because we are born healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being.


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Every Problem Should Have a Simple Solution

On August 15, I published an essay titled “Growers and Tenders” in which I suggested that there are two kinds of employees. I wrote:

This is an exaggeration, but I like to say that, in business, personalities can be divided into two camps: those that value growth and those that value order.

Those that value growth (the growers) want to make everything bigger. Those that value order (the tenders) want to make everything better. And you need both to enjoy unstoppable success. But the ratio depends on where in the business lifecycle your company is.

This idea is, of course, a simplification. But there’s nothing wrong with that. In business (as in almost any context), simple ideas are almost always better than complicated ones because:

* They are easy to explain.

* They are easy to understand.

* They are easy to remember.

* They benefit from Occam’s razor – i.e., they have a fair chance of being true.

Today I want to talk about a particular set of simplified business ideas: those that mean to solve problems by putting (some might say shoving) employees into two or three personality/proclivity boxes.

Growers and tenders are one example. Over the years, I’ve conjured up many more. One of the most useful is this:

Growing an entrepreneurial business requires three core skills – (1) the ability to produce products/services that can sell, (2) the ability to sell those products/services, and (3) the ability to push everybody and everything in the business to produce a profit.

If you are lucky enough to have three people with those skills when starting a business, success is likely to come relatively quickly. Most startups aren’t so lucky. It’s more typical for the founder to play two or even all three roles. But eventually, if you want your business to achieve its potential, you’ll need to find different people for each role.

This particular simple idea has been very helpful to my partners, my protégés, and me in solving early problems and moving things along.

Another example:

Employees tend to organize themselves into three groups – frontrunners, muddlers, and laggards.

The frontrunners need to be at the head of the pack – and they will do whatever it takes to get them there. The muddlers (most people are muddlers) like being in the middle of the pack. The laggards like being in the back.

And here’s the interesting thing: The desire to be at the front, middle, or end of the pack has nothing to do with how hard or intensely an employee wants to work – which is why most theories about employee motivation fail. They are based on the idea that employees have an inbuilt proclivity to apply a certain amount of energy to their work, whereas their inbuilt proclivity is really about where they feel comfortable in the pack.

In other words, you can’t motivate an individual muddler to step up to the front of the pack. You can only move the entire pack ahead or, by neglect, let it slow down.

A third example:

When it comes to coming up with new ideas, employees can be sorted into two groups – those that like ideas that are safe and sensible and those that prefer ideas that are contrarian and even disruptive.

We’ve heard so much about the value of disruption that you might be forgiven for thinking that you should populate your business entirely with contrarian thinkers. But that would be a formula for chaos. In fact, you need both. A good mix would probably include two safe/sensible thinkers for every contrarian.

I could go on. And I will in future essays. But here’s a fourth idea, one that I came up with very recently after struggling with a few businesses that have been floundering (not foundering) for several years:

When it comes to profits, there are two kinds of employees – those that give a shit and those that don’t.

By giving a shit, I mean caring enough about the bottom line to get worried if it’s not positive. I mean understanding that the future health of the business depends on profits and that, therefore, their future as an employee does too. I mean being willing to work long hours if necessary to produce profits. I mean spending their spare time thinking of profit-producing ideas. I mean feeling personally responsible for the profitability of the business. I mean waking up in the middle of the night thinking about profits.

Employees that don’t give a shit are not necessarily bad employees. In fact, they may be very good and very able workers. But realistically, you can’t expect most of the people you hire to truly care about profits. They will care about getting paid for their work. And they will want the company to continue to issue paychecks. But their priorities in life are not connected to your bottom line. And there is little or nothing that you can do to make them care about it.

Employees that do care about profitability are rare birds. The more of them you have, the better. But no matter how hard you try to recruit them, just a small portion of your employee base, at best, is likely to be comprised of such people.

That’s okay. Unless you make the mistake of having someone like that in senior management. In most cases, that means your head product person, your head marketer, and your CEO. No matter how good these people may be at what they do, if they don’t give a shit about profits, your business is in trouble.

Think about it.


Today’s Word: vouchsafe (verb) To vouchsafe (vowch-SAFE) isto give or grant something to someone in a condescending way. As used by Martin Luther: “So our Lord God commonly gives riches to those gross asses to whom He vouchsafes nothing else.”

Did You Know?: Dogs have lived with humans for more than 14,000 years.


Worth Quoting: “Work would be terribly boring if one did not play the game all out, passionately.”

–Simone de Beauvoir


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Cast Your Vote for Solar Project of the Year

My friend Ramsey Stevens has developed an amazing solar project for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in San Francisco. Using his design, the building went from using $140,000 in utilities a year to zero.

Please take a look at it HERE.

(It’s about two-thirds down the page. If you like it as much as I do, vote for it!)