• Luck, wealth, and implications for policy

    10/17 2012

    I love it when economists chime in about luck. The great Richard Posner recently wrote about Luck, Wealth and the Implications for Policy here. Money quote:


    I think that ultimately everything is attributable to luck, good or bad. Not just the obvious things, like IQ, genes that predipose to health or sickliness, the historical era and the country in which one is born, the wealth of one’s parents, whom one happens to meet at critical stages of one’s life and career, one’s height and looks and temperament, to the extent genetic, and one’s innate propensity to risk or caution (that is an exceptionally important factor); but also the characteristics that cause a person to make critical decisions that may turn out well or badly, characteristics that really are derivative from some of the previously noted “luck” characteristics. The decision-determining characteristics include intelligence, imagination, attitude toward risk, and personality characteristics such as aggressiveness, maladjustment, indolence, and having a low or high personal discount rate (how future-regarding one is or is not). Talent is luck but so is the propensity for working hard (often the consequence of a compulsive personality) or not working hard.


  • Yes, I Lied: Why Web Design is Important

    07/12 2012

    As you can plainly tell from this website, I’m not a web designer. I’ll never be one. That’s why I’ve finally hired a real web designer, Natalie McGuire, after months of looking for one.

    It’s not just that first impressions count—and they do. When we subconsciously formulate a first impression of someone else, which I previously wrote about, we’re using the posterior cingular cortex, the same part of the brain that’s involved in setting a price and establishing value to something. We’re also using the amygdala, that part of the brain responsible for fear, controlling and moderating our motivations, telling us where to go and why. We’re figuring out if we should flee, if it’s worth staying, and if so, how close we want to be to someone.

    First impressions help us decide the worth of others.

    Think about that. 

    The Halo Effect is usually discussed in positive terms, but when it goes wrong—when you have sweaty hands, don’t blink enough, are dressed like a hobo (all things that can cause bad first impressions)—regaining trust and authority can be impossible. I mean, who has the time?

    You might be incidentally promoting the worst skills in your creative career by insisting that you do everything on your own. The best way to stand apart as a professional is hire other professionals to do what you’re not paid to do. If you’re a writer, focus on your writing. If you’re a tennis coach, please for the love of god don’t design your own business cards. It’s really not that difficult to separate yourself from the pack once you decide that you’re worth it.

    It’s tricky when you’re poor and just starting out, yes, but if you don’t take yourself seriously enough to hire a pro, why should anyone else treat you like a pro? If you don’t have the confidence in your own work, why should others?

  • The Easiest/Hardest Way to Become a Great Boss

    12/01 2011

    I’m interviewing people for an article right now, and stumbled upon a cluster of similar answers to the question: How do you hire someone for a position if you don’t have that skill set?

    Bosses who were successful—their companies were afloat, had grown considerably (over 100 employees), and, most importantly, whose original employees were still working for them, had one thing in common, when they were bootstrapping:

    Yes, for a brief time, they actually did the jobs that they’re now managing. One person did logistics, HR, marketing, administrative work.

    I’ve had amazing work experiences and shitty ones, and one of the biggest factors differentiating shitty bosses from non-shitty bosses is how well they actually want to understand the job. Not how well they do understand it (not everyone can code or be an accountant), but the extent to which they’ve tried to do the work.

    Bosses who aren’t interested in even trying to do the work of their employees usually means one of a few things:

    • They think they’re above the job. Thinking you’re above a job can disguise itself in many ways, like saying, “I’ll just leave that to the experts!”
    • They don’t have the time, aren’t willing to make it, or don’t know how to manage their own time.
    • They’re not curious about how a part of their company works.
    • They’re not capable of doing the job, but don’t want to lose face by trying. Insecurity can also disguise itself in many ways, like saying, “I’ll just leave that to the experts!”

    The best way to underestimate the amount of work needed to complete a task is to think about it from a theoretical standpoint, rather than a practical one. The closer you get to the work itself, the more you understand what it entails, and what somebody attempting that task will need in order to succeed.

    If you really want to understand your company, or even just a part of it that’s not working, do all the jobs.

  • Before you tell people to leap, consider how many safety nets you have

    11/26 2011

    I know a successful entrepreneur who was given a house when he was 25, sold it, and was able to live off of the $250,000 for the next five years, while his company became profitable. A little while later, his grandmother gave him a condo downtown. Because of his grandfather and father’s successful businesses, obtaining money–whether cash or access to a substantial amount of credit–has never been an issue.

    His suggestions, like those of so many other self-help or entrepreneurial gurus, consist of the following: the only thing standing between you and success are your mental blocks. If you really wanted to start a business you’d just do it.

    Those suggestions are two things.

    1) Stupid. You can’t prescribe advice for others based on experiences that are only applicable to the top 5% of the population.

  • Can we please finally stop putting our energy into SEO? Please?

    11/17 2011

    Will Apple’s Siri be the end of local SEO, as predicted by a recent article in Entrepreneur? I’ve always thought of investing in SEO, rather than quality content, as a rather short-sighted tactic for both small and large businesses.

    Let’s take it to the extreme to show why: on one hand, you have Associated Content, the Yahoo-driven pantheon of “articles-seemingly-written-by-drunk-middle-schoolers.” On the other extreme, you’ve got Google. They both started as simple search engines, but now their business models are the real-life equivalent of Yahoo’s Wile E. Coyote trying to outsmart Google’s the Road Runner through any means possible.

    As we saw from Google’s recent algorithm update, Panda, a lot of the websites that got penalized were ones that seemed to put all of their money in SEO rather than producing quality content.

  • Six years of experience is arbitrary and you know it

    09/26 2011

    Of all of the frustrating practices on job ads, what gets me the most are the arbitrary cut-off points, timelines, and number of years of experience required for certain jobs–especially when the jobs aren’t particularly technical.

    Earlier this year, I worked as a communications specialist where I didn’t have any expertise in the specific area–a political campaign–I have a few observations about why employers should reconsider.

    1. Many people overestimate how unique the problems in their departments are. Essentially, a political campaign, online fundraising, and plain-ol’ marketing all want to motivate others for a specific call-to-action.

    2. People learn at different speeds. If Mercy Corps, for example, only wants to look at the resumés of those who’ve been working in online fundraising for four years, they’re leaving out people who can, and have, picked up the essentials in a few months. Do you really want to weed out the people who learn faster?

    3. A post by 37signals pointed out a study stating that, for programmers, “Once they had six months under their belt, the platform knowledge was no longer the bottleneck in their abilities.” Translation: once you have the fundamentals under your belt, the extra “years” don’t usually count for anything, since they’re just mindless reps. (Some good fodder here.)

    4. The more time you spend completely immersed in one domain, the less likely you are to come up with any true innovations. Dean Keith Simonton wrote a wonderful paper in 2003, Scientific Creativity as Constrained Stochastic Behavior. He found that the more diverse a scientist’s interests, the more likely they’re able to make previously unseen connections between disciplines; it was the best indicator for the number of positive contributions of a scientist.

    5. If you spend all of your time in one domain, you may not realize that you’re on the Titanic. I was amazed at how uncreative certain aspects of the campaign were until I realized where they were getting their information from. The New Organizing Institute’s studies on email advocacy programs, available here, goes against more modern studies about email usability: eye-tracking studies that tell us “shorter is sweeter.”

    6. Say you’ve spent nine years honing your skills at making pizza. Quick: imagine yourself as a new customer who’s never heard of pizza before… you can’t, right? Losing the ability to get an unbiased, unfettered point of view–which you lose steadily, as you spend more and more time around something–is a lost opportunity to convert customers or get people to engage in your call-to-action. In the political campaign, the entire thing looked like a political campaign designed to get the attention of people who were already highly politically-motivated and involved. They couldn’t even envision what it would look like to recruit new people, and as a result, didn’t alert anyone new to the cause.

    A little new blood doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it?

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