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Bayes, Crime, and “Big Enough” Data

It’s funny how words, when used in different contexts, take on completely different meaning. Same spelling but different context. Thus a different meaning. Technically speaking, these are called homographs. For example:

The term “axes” can mean either …

(a) a plurality of a certain hand tool, or

(b) a plurality of fixed reference lines for the measurement of coordinates.

The term “number” can describe …

(a) a mathematical object used to count, measure, or label, or

(b) an increased feeling of numbness.

As you may notice, I chose two homographs that have a different meaning in a mathematical versus colloquial context. This is deliberate. Math does funny things to the english language. And vice versa. It’s one reason why I can’t really learn from math textbooks. It’s also why this article might strain to communicate what I want to say. So I’ll just come right out and say it:

Bayes’ Rule is a fascinating, powerful method for prediction based on past information.

It is also a comfortable trap for anyone who doesn’t want to look beyond old intuitions.

Before I expand on this, I need to point everyone to a pair of fantastic articles that explain Bayes’ Rule very well:

  1. For a brief introduction, see Devin Soni’s What Is Bayes Rule?
  2. For a terrific application of the concept, see Will Koehrsen’s Bayes Rule Applied

For an even simpler explanation, I’ll borrow a line from the Wikipedia article:

Bayes’ Rule describes the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event.

Finally, for one final bit of detail, I’ll borrow from the fantastic book Algorithms to Live By by authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths:

Bayes Rule … gives a remarkably straightforward solution to the problem of how to combine preexisting beliefs with observed evidence: multiply their probabilities together.

If you’re like me, that last phrase “multiply their probabilities together” is hard to envision. So let’s see the actual multiplication. Here’s what the Bayes’ Rule looks like as a formula:

From Wikipedia

Please examine the notation P(A). This is what’s known as the prior. And as you can see in the formula, it has a multiplier effect on our initial belief of probability—which is represented by P(B|A). I like to think about this in the context of gossip.

Oh, But Did You Know?

Imagine you meet someone new today. They seem pretty nice. So what’s the chance that they really are nice? As an initial belief of P(B|A), you’re probably 75% certain of their niceness.

Then a friend tells you that this person has a long recorded history of advocating for the destruction of all kittens and puppies. They show you the person’s blog, full of awful rants against kittens and puppies. As you read their wanton screeds, you establish a prior, P(A). This immediately produces a powerful multiplier effect on your beliefs. In a negative direction. Where you were once 75% certain of the person’s niceness, you are now only 1% certain. If asked to predict the person’s behavior in the future, you’d use this prior to say bad things.

As our authors from the aforementioned book explain,

The richer the prior information we bring to Bayes’ Rule, the more useful the prediction we can get out of it.

Here’s where we get back to homographs. The word “prior” has a slightly different, more narrow meaning in criminal justice.

The term “prior” can describe …

(a) shorthand for prior probability in mathematics, aka the believed value of a uncertain quantity before evidence is taken into account, or

(b) shorthand for prior convictions in criminal justice, aka the historical record of previous convictions of a defendant in a sentencing case or a suspect in a criminal investigation.

As a non-mathematician, I can’t help but pick up on this parallel in the language. The deliberate cross-pollination of the term “prior” in both fields shows the ways in which Bayes’ Rule, and probablistic thinking as a whole, emerges in other disciplines.

This is a good thing. As covered during the study of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, such probablistic thinking helps us understand the distinction between decisions and outcomes and so much more.

But again, it can be a trap if we’re not careful.

You’ll Probably Rob A Bank

Did you know that you run the risk of robbing a bank? It’s true. There is a real possibility that you will wake up one morning, hop into a car, drive to a bank, politely request that they give you all their money, and then attempt to escape as a rich criminal.

You can say the base rate is 0.0000001% That’s fine. But there’s still a chance. Thus a risk.

But this only works if you look at this in a normal distribution. This is something that we examined while studying Taleb’s book The Black Swan. As stated before, we really try to normalize everything. Including your chance of committing a felony.

But criminal statistics don’t always follow normal distributions. There are “mandelbrotian variations” or significant skewness in the data. Much of this activity lives in Taleb’s realm of Extremistan, where power laws romp playfully in fields of green.

For example, a fascinating analysis from Sweden showed that 1% of the entire population accounted for 63% of all violent crime.

That’s only for violent crime and only for Sweden and only for data from 1973 – 2004. All the same, it shows the real predictive power of prior information. It also shows how prior information uncovers the distribution of the data behind a topic. If you want to find the population that is most likely to commit a violent crime, look no further than the population that has already committed a violent crime. The “prior” matters here.

I wish it didn’t. Because while these findings lead us to more-accurate predictions, they also pull us towards more-rigid dogma. People can see this information and jump immediately to notions like “Once a criminal, always a criminal.”

System 2 Informs System 1

I’ve seen it firsthand. Trial and error, experience and observation, all these things lead criminal justice professionals to snap judgements and thin-sliced decisions based on a single question: “They got any priors?”

I’m not criticizing that question. I’m not questioning the veracity of the logic. This question is the Occam’s Razor for predicting crime.

And it is the valid by-product of legitimate experience. Such experience leads people to formulate variations on the original Bayes’ Rule algorithm. A useful heuristic begets other useful heuristics.

In criminal justice, this means that an inexperienced judge might initially assess a sentencing case from System 2 thinking. But repeated exposure leads them to crystallize the System 2 arguments into System 1 algorithms.

This is why a balanced way of thinking is so crucial.

Because the algorithm works. Until it doesn’t. And there’s always a case where it doesn’t.

Specific to criminal justice and “priors”, there is a switch that occurs in the data when we add a new variable into the mix: time.

So prior criminal behavior is a strong indicator of future criminal behavior. But that relationship weakens as time passes. The pattern is reliable because it emerges on a normal distribution. We’ve now ventured back into Taleb’s Mediocristan. Look no further for proof than the important study by Kurlycheck et al., from 2006.

“Big Enough” Data

The point? I’m pulling from a lot of different sources in order to wrestle with something the authors observe in Algorithms To Live By:

Small data is big data in disguise. The reason we can often make good predictions from a small number of observations—or just a single one—is that our priors are so rich.

This is brilliant. This is true. But if anyone were to take that idea at face value (which our authors do not intend), it would be easy to slide into dogma and rigid impressions. It would be easy to say “All stereotypes are true.” In other words, this powerful idea, much like Bayes’ Rule, could be a foundation for lazy thinking.

This isn’t about criminal justice, per se. And it isn’t something the authors condone. But it happens. Why? Because Bayes’ Rule is that powerful.

We can use that power to greater effect. Add more priors. Is a single prior great? Yes. But more priors, more variables, can help.

Just not too many. There is a lot of useful truth in the idea that “small data is big data in disguise.” There is truth in a third way, too. Between the poles of “small data” and “big data,” we have “big enough data”. This is the sort of analysis that is more accurate, more nuanced, and requires only a little bit more effort.

It’s amazing what happens when researchers add a few additional variables (aka priors) to a given formula. In some cases, it uncovers power law distributions. In other cases, it uncovers normal distributions. In every instance, it gives us better intuition.

I should mention, too, that criminal justice professionals first ask about priors. Then they ask how long ago those priors occurred. Just as Kurleycheck., et al. would recommend. So none of this is new to them, generally speaking. It’s the rest of us that have to be mindful.

Priors are powerful indicators. But they’re better when they aren’t isolated.

The Big Sort

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament began last night with a couple play-in games between two 16-Seeds and two 11-Seeds. This tournament is single-elimination. The winners advance to what is referred to as the official first round. The losers do not advance. They return home.

68 teams will compete this tournament over the next few weeks. 67 games will be played. 1 team will emerge the winner. 2 games are already in the books. There were 2 winners and 2 losers.

But this is the tip of the iceberg. Prior to this, the NCAA had all these teams and many more competing in the regular season.

351 teams play in the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball league. They occupy 32 divisions. These teams competed over an entire season. From November to March, thousands of games were played by hundreds of teams with all manner of upset wins and surprise stories and titanic clashes.

Every team gets a chance to win. By winning, they claim a spot in the tournament to pursue the big prize.

Seems fair, right?

Tournament Systems Are Sorting Systems

Fairness is a very difficult thing to achieve even in the best of circumstances. But fairness in sports should be easy. After all, sports involve well-designed games with clear, objective scoring and inarguable results. Someone always wins; someone always loses. And aside from the occasional bad decision from the officiating crew, everyone understands that there is equal opportunity. Superior talent and/or tactics wins the day.

All the same, fairness gets dicey when you start to think about tournaments. It begins with the limitations of a “sudden-death” single elimination format. Consider the upset victory.

The impossible happened in last year’s tournament. A 16-seed team defeated a 1-seed. Prior to that moment, 16-seed teams had a perfect losing record of 0-135. But somehow, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County came out of nowhere to defeat the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers. Who also happened to be the top ranked team overall. In the entire league.  

The odds of this upset victory were practically negligible. Las Vegas wasn’t concerned about whether or not Virginia would win. That wasn’t the question. They just worried about the margin of victory. The betting line, in terms of over/under, was 22.5.

ESPN calculated the actual probability of a loss. It was 1.5%. Such a low probability and yet it happened. It was an incredible sight to see.

So back to fairness. By virtue of their win, it’s obvious that Maryland-Baltimore County was the better team, right?

Of course not. The Virginia Cavaliers were the best team in the entire nation based on the whole record of competition. Over the course of 33 games in the 2017-2018 season, the Cavaliers only lost twice. This upset was only their third loss of the entire year. By the record alone, they were the better team. They just happened to suffer a rare 1.5% event on that day.

In fact, one could say that this regular season result, by virtue of its comprehensive record, is always where the best team is discovered. As tournament designs go, the regular season is something closer to a round-robin format. It isn’t exactly the same but it’s close.

A round-robin format gives every team a chance to play every other team and progress by avoiding a certain number of losses. With repeated games come repeated observations and the best team can be judiciously determined through steady, consistent exposure to every possible combination of adversary. In terms of fairness, this works really well. It’s not perfect, but better.

Only trouble is time. If the NCAA instituted the pure format of a round-robin method, the result would be a basketball season that never ends. The effort necessary to make 351 teams play each other in a single round is absurd. No one has time for that.

Would it create equal opportunity and clearer measures? Yes.

Would teams like the Virginia Cavaliers have a better chance of proving themselves? Certainly.

Would upset victories carry the drama and intrigue and excitement? No.

Would anyone watch this sort of competition? No.

Fairness is hard. Efficient fairness is practically impossible. Delivering a fair system of broad opportunity requires significant time and resources. Those things are always in short supply.

So we shortcut it. We take a bunch of teams, assign subjective value to their performance via the tournament seeding (why is 23-win Purdue ranked as a 3-seed but 24-win Colgate ranked as a 15-seed?), put them in a single-elimination sorting machine, and let the games begin.

It’s the most fun of all formats. It’s the most efficient. It is the least fair.

Sorting Machines In Everything

The tradeoff between fairness and efficiency really becomes apparent when you examine all manner of sorting methods from the book Algorithms to Live By. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths give us a fascinating view into this corner of computer science where techniques like Bubble Sort and Bucket Sort and other kinds of “-sorts” have intricate strengths and weaknesses that depend on the scale of your problem and the overall objective you wish to achieve.

So when you go for the methods that are more efficient, especially at scale, you choose to forgo the methods that are most fair. You get fluke results. A 16-seed somehow defeats a 1-seed.  

There are easy correlations to other sorting mechanisms. The college admissions scandal shows the deranged behavior that results from sorting mechanisms that are less systematic than the NCAA tournament and certainly less transparent.

Or how about Google’s PageRank? Once that mechanism was understood, people started to game it. Search Engine Optimization is a standalone industry these days. All sorts of tricks and manipulations are tossed at the machine. Seth Kravitz has a fascinating article on the broad phenomena. It’s startling.

I could list more examples but you get the point. The job interview process is a sorting machine. Our own public schools are a sorting machine.

Entire cities are sorting machines. Want to be the best in tech? Naval Ravikant says you need to move to SF. This is a sorting mechanism. He doesn’t like it. His words to budding tech professionals are,

Unfortunately, I’d say, move to SF.

So that’s what you have to do. Unfortunately.

Improve The Sort To Improve The System

The more mindful we are to these sorting effects, the better we can assess our situations. Some sorting methods are misery-in-the-making. Specifically, pairwise comparison is an awful way to sort things. Not just from a fairness or efficiency standpoint. From an accuracy standpoint, too. Because for some of us, these rankings are not the goal.

For example, I have eight Twitter followers.

Can you believe that? Who has a mere EIGHT twitter followers? Me. That’s who.

In an “ordinal” measure of ranking, this is ghastly. I might as well have zero followers. It would look better in pairwise comparison for me to just not even bother.

But I don’t sort myself in that way. Neither should you. Twitter isn’t for sorting. It’s for connection. So I’m looking for the opportunity where someone, like a book author, acknowledges my thoughts on their wonderful work. Did that happen? Great. Did it not happen? That’s okay. No sorting. No ranking. No competition. Just outcomes sought and occasionally achieved.

Nonetheless, competition still exists. But there’s a great line from our aforementioned authors that I think really helps me think better about the act of sorting. It is the approach I want to take in competition. It has to do with a sorting method based not on pairwise competition, a’la the NCAA tournament, but on individual competition against a standard, a’la the marathoner’s final time in a race:

This move from “ordinal” numbers (which only express rank) to “cardinal” ones (which directly assign a measure to something’s caliber) naturally orders a set without requiring pairwise comparisons.

If you want fairness and efficiency in a sorting mechanism, the best way is to look at a cardinal measure. Look at your performance against your standard.

So you didn’t get into the top university. Or you didn’t defeat the 16-seed. Or you weren’t selected for the job. I think it helps to remember that these sorting machines are all flawed.

But your standard for yourself? The time you want to make as your personal best? That’s less flawed. Never perfect but much more robust and resilient. That standard, as a mechanism, helps you sort your best efforts from the ordinary ones. It helps you sort what’s right and wrong. Your standard might not be as high as others. You might not be ranked at the top of the leaderboard. But that’s okay so long as it isn’t how you let yourself be sorted.  

As these things go, it fits with the idea of the self-authored strategy.

Make no mistake about it: tournaments are fun. Sorting is fun. Rankings and competitions are fun. But they’re still games.

So let the games begin. Just don’t let them consume us. It’s still your race, your standard. Sort yourself thusly. As Tony Horton would say, do your best and forget the rest.

Multitask Like Your Computer

The humble calendar is one of the most powerful tools on the planet. It powers all human coordination and gives shape to time itself. No other human creation is more global. It transcends the bonds of geography. Time differs from zone to zone. It’s 8:55 pm in Japan. It’s It’s 11:55 am in the UK. But it’s Tuesday throughout.

We all share a calendar. And if you’re a knowledge worker, you share the common problem of scheduling. This has become more pressing in the past twenty years. During the industrial age, productivity was largely measured in labor and output on the factory floor. Time was measured in eight-hour shifts. No one managed their own workplace calendar. They showed up, did the work, and went home.

But productivity is measured differently now. The hallmark of the factory, performance management, has reached the office. And the gig economy. And logistics. Operations. Hospitals, retail, sales, marketing, and everywhere else. To meet our metrics, we organize our work in new and unique ways.

But it’s all just another version of the calendar. Gantt charts, task lists, kanban boards, trello cards, OKRs, etc. Some have beautiful interfaces. Some are fun to use. All are a riff on the calendar and say the same basic things: who does what by when.

Who Does What By When?

That question powers all organized work. I’ve learned that it also powers our technology. In the computer science field, there is a deep, dedicated literature on scheduling science. Because computers have to operate on a schedule. Just like us.

And also like us, computers can do a lot of things. Just not all at once.

Computers have to switch between tasks all the time. Some are “heavy” tasks, like 3D rendering. Many are “light” tasks, such as word processing. We humans do the same. We try to do a “heavy” task like cooking while engaging in a “light” task such as talking on the phone.

Computers keep certain operations active in the “background”. You can see them in a thing called the “task manager” on the PC. We keep a constant background operation going, too. It’s called the subconscious.

Between the two of us, the computer and the human, there is a constant tension between our ever-expanding abilities and the constant limitation of resources. Neither man nor machine will ever be able to do it all at the same time.

So schedules matter. Which gets us back to our question: who does what by when?

A Few Imperfect Answers.

Computer scientists have the best answers on many things, it seems. But the best answers are seldom perfect. When it comes to scheduling, for either humans or machines, the best we can devise is a series of rules or algorithms to structure our decision-making. This structure, if used properly, can be an operating system for our daily work. I’m convinced it can make us tremendously more capable thanks to the fantastic book Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

So again, there is no perfect schedule. There is no perfect example of investing our time the right way. But there is an underlying logic that remains consistent and can help:

If you have a clear goal, you can optimize your schedule. If you don’t, you can’t.

Most of us don’t have much of a clear goal when we start our day. And we certainly don’t design our calendars around it. It’s rare for me to design my schedule to determine what I will do, as an itinerary; instead I design my schedule to determine what I won’t do for others.

Specifically, I tend to use my schedule as a way of telling people when I won’t be available for their somewhat-arbitrary, slightly-overlong meeting because I’ll be in a competing meeting that is equally-arbitrary and equally-overlong.

If you think about it, the bulk of our schedules function in this way. By showing pre-arranged commitments, it helps us manage incoming requests.

There are a lot of incoming requests. The average knowledge worker is overwhelmed. Telephone calls, emails, IMs, text messages, notifications, reminders, documents in the mail, the occasional real life human.

These requests are what diminish our productivity. Never mind the other distractions we face. It is the requests of others that tax our resources.

So what’s the goal? What’s the answer to all these problems? Here is one strategy I deeply admire:

Minimum Acceptable Response

In 1851, French writer Nicolas Chamfort wrote a great line attributed to a conversation he had with one M. de Lassay, who said:

… we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day.

The idea here drives a lot of successful habits. Do you have a difficult task today? Do it first thing that morning. Your willpower is probably strongest in the morning and your energy reserves are likely full. Be clear that this is your goal and the morning is when you’ll start.

So if your goal is complete a difficult task, dedicate your entire morning to it.

Or perhaps your entire day. You get the idea. Prioritization is key.

But here’s where things get tricky. Prioritization means mastering the art of “No”. This is necessary in order to defend your time and energy until the supremely important task is done. Such is the wisdom of Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism (book review here). It’s also the wisdom of computer scientist Peter Denning.

Denning is a pioneer in the field and the foremost architect behind the ways our computers multitask. This is a bigger deal than it may sound. Multitasking is essential to a computer’s utility. We wouldn’t have adopted these machines so quickly without this capability.

Just imagine it. What if your computer told you “no”. As in, “No, I can’t do that because you already have me doing all these other things.” That does happen occasionally, in the form of lag. And when it does, we hate it. Denning and others know this and they’ve done a lot of incredibly complex, innovative things to avoid that experience as much as possible. This is where scheduling science comes into play.

Thanks to their work, a computer says rarely says “no” to you. If it does, it’s usually in the form of a system crash. But again, that’s rare.

Instead, even when a computer is “eating the frog” of some difficult task, it appears to operate in true simultaneous fashion. You should know, however, that this is an illusion. Kind of.

For example, imagine you issue a computationally-intensive command to a computer and then try to switch to another program while that process “runs in the background”. There is a good chance that the computer will play with your perceptions in order to maximize its resources. Our authors explain it as such:

… operating systems programmers have turned to psychology, mining papers in psychophysics for the exact number of milliseconds of delay it takes a human brain to register a lag or flicker.

Why would programmes worry about this? So that they can determine the precise amount of precious time the computer can delay a response to your command without you knowing it. This is the machine’s way of not doing what it’s told for as long as it can. Just like a child.  

In other words, when a computer is tasked with an intensive operation (a’la “eating the frog”), it will say “no” to your other commands for as long as humanly tolerable. It will focus all resources on the intensive task within a minimum acceptable limit.

For users, the minimum acceptable limit is milliseconds. Computer scientists probably wish it were longer.

What about our interactions from a person-to-person basis? What is the minimum acceptable limit that we can delay an incoming request? It varies of course. It’s one range for our bosses; it’s another range for customers; it’s something different for friends.

Whatever the case, lowering your expected responsiveness increases your productivity.

This is where strategies like auto-reply email can help. Such tools can allow you to shift all emails to a “slow to reply” sort of message. This establishes a minimum acceptable limit for when you’ll switch from your high priorities to your low priorities. Such tools are an artful way of shifting from “no” to “not yet”.

Josh Spector has a great example of this. Here’s a link to his article.

Diana Urban has another good article on this strategy. Particularly with the distinction between “out of office” and “slow to reply” messages.

It’s a few steps closer to the technique of timeboxing. You set the minimum amount of time you’ll spend “eating the frog” which, in turn, establishes the minimum amount of responsiveness that you’ll manage for other people’s requests. For more on timeboxing, see Matthias Orgler’s article on the concept.

But our authors of Algorithms to Live By capture the idea best:

The moral is that you should try to stay on a single task as long as possible without decreasing your responsiveness below the minimum acceptable limit. Decide how responsive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.

This is such a great strategy in the workplace. So much important work needs to be done and yet we seldom do it because we’re constantly attempting to switch to every request, every need, every incoming command.

It’s why some professors and managers have “office hours” where you can come in with your requests at certain discrete times. Not before. Not after. It’s also why Steve Brophy recommends in this article that you batch your emails.

It’s why I have a calendar in the first place: to block out time and show others what isn’t available to them.   

Distractions? We have them. But the ones that come from other people are no different than the ones a computer must deal with when they get our constant Alt+Tab requests. If the requests are light, and we don’t have intensive work to do, there are many ways of dealing with the volume. Getting Things Done is the best method. Along with FIFO. But when there is real work, real processing, to be done, the solution is simple:

We must lower our responsiveness.  

It’s not about getting to work early or staying late to finish that report. It’s not even about saying “no” to the incoming requests. It’s about finding and maintaining a minimum level of responsiveness (how long can I make you wait?) and saying “not yet” within those terms.

That’s milliseconds for computers.  

It’s a lot longer for us. Days, perhaps. Or so I hope. The art of doing great work is to extend that timeframe as long as possible.

I’m going to answer my emails sometime next month.

Photo by Bartosz Kwitkowski on Unsplash

How To Fix Overthinking

The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had his shares of wins and loses. Or so you would think. But he way of viewing such things. When asked about games where his team “lost”, he was fond of saying, “We didn’t lose the game. We just ran out of time.”

This is a really great sentiment that places the blame of a bad outcome on some artificial, external constraint: time. Had those arbitrary time limits been removed, I think Lombardi would have made his team play for months to get a win. The final score in his matches would have probably been something like 1,042 – 1,017.

Such is the persistence of a professional sports team. Give them a field, an opponent, and a set of rules and they’ll compete as long as necessary to win. This is why time limits are very important.

All the great games have a time limit. It doesn’t have to be a clock. For instance, it’s twelve rounds in a boxing match. Nine innings in a baseball game. Five games in a tennis match. Eighteen holes in golf.

Setting sports aside, we see limits in other games, too. It’s critical for pacing. There are antes in poker keep people from sitting on large chip stacks for hours. Chess has a clock for many variations of its play. And then there’s Monopoly. Some time ago, Hasbro introduced “speed dice” for a faster version of the game.

This was never intended. But the game creators felt they had to do something after years of watching people incorrectly play the game far longer than they should. According to the rules, Monopoly should only take about 60-90 minutes. It never does. Hence the “speedy version.”

You’re Taking Too Long

There are many other instances where we play our proverbial Monopoly games a little longer than we should. For example, it once took me about five months to decide on a vehicle purchase. That’s about 150 days. In the end, I selected the exact make and model that I had wanted from the start.

I also spend more time perusing Netflix’s titles than actually watching them.

I occasionally do this in restaurants, too. I’ll stare at the menu for a long time, reversing my decision again and again. When I finally decide what to order, I’ll still second-guess it all the way to the end of the meal.

I’ve eaten at thousands of restaurants. Why is this still a problem? With that much experience, I should be treating this as a System 1 problem in the parlance of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (book review here). Yet I somehow drift back to System 2 quite regularly.

Then there are more substantial matters like what we see in the workplace. We’ve heard of the phrase “analysis paralysis.” Wikipedia defines it as such:

Analysis paralysis is [a condition where] the fear of potential error outweighs the realistic expectation or potential value of success.

I like the last phrase in that sentence. The “potential value of success” is hard to objectively define. It varies by person. No one ever seems to know when that value is captured but we definitely know when it’s lost. Many is the time, in many a workplace, where I’ve heard someone say, “This just isn’t worth it anymore.”

It might relate to a potential project or study. Or a new hire. In any case, there comes a point where only the decider seems to insist on more study, more reports, more data.

Some things are not studied enough. But many more things are studied too much. So what causes this problem? What creates the indecisive leader who perpetually hesitates?

It’s the fear, of course. We don’t want to be wrong. We don’t want to make a bad bet. This indecision is a cardinal sin in poker. I think it’s a cardinal sin in business, too.

Lengthy analysis just isn’t worth it.

What Is The Right Amount Of Time?

In the study of Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!, he described Google’s unique approach to hiring. They take a long time. Or they did, anyway, when Bock was the VP of People Operations. Some interviewees had to sit through as many as twelve interviews. I can’t imagine the strain.

After all, how much information do you really need?

Hiring, of course, is a really big deal. But even Google can overthink it. Over time, Bock and his counterparts studied the record and discovered their optimal number of interviews. It wasn’t 12. It was 4. After four interviews, they realized they were probably overthinking things.

As an aside, I really hope the poor souls who had to suffer through 12 interviews (3x more interviews than what was later deemed necessary) got their job.  

Regardless, those terrible experiences helped Google create something better for itself and its future candidates. This sort of trial-and-error introspection is what made Bock’s book the best for organizational development. It carries a treasure trove of data-driven optimization that leads to careful, well-established rules for practice. These rules were no accident. As one of the great tech companies, Google’s approach is a perfect encapsulation of what computer scientists do for any problem.

Such structured methods of analyzing past performance leads to patterns that occasionally repeat in a wide range of circumstances. From there, the humble rules emerge. Those rules prove themselves in astonishing ways.

Google found that it needed only 33% of its original process to make the right hiring decision.

This pairs nicely with the 37% Rule that emerged from the classic Secretary Problem.

And it gets to the idea of optimal stopping, a crucial idea for all of us who take too long thinking about things. Under this idea, the “optimal” part of optimal stopping recognizes that there is a certain amount of time that we should definitely spend analyzing a problem. Just as there is a certain amount of time that we should spend playing a football game.

But the stopping comes in once we surpass that point. Once we exceed that specific amount of time, we suffer diminishing returns. Analysis paralysis comes into play. Or something worse: boredom.  

So how much time should you take to hire someone? Or accept a purchase offer on your house? Or settle on a menu item at the restaurant? Or decide on a spouse? About 37% of the time you’d ordinarily think is available.

It’s not a perfect rule. But it doesn’t have to be. And for folks like me, it really helps.

The 37% Rule is one of the many incredible insights that come from the fabulous book Algorithms to Live By. Authored by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, this book takes the methodical, research-backed, data-driven methods of Bock’s Work Rules! and applies it to our daily lives.  

The 37% Rule comes from the legendary computer scientist Merrill Flood. He optimized a solution to the tricky thought experiment for hiring a secretary. In the scenario, which he solved in 1958, a hiring agent must screen candidates and choose, upon one interview, to hire or not. There could be no second round of interviews. There could be no return to a candidate that you decide not to hire. Much like someone offering to buy your house, you can only make a choice at that point with the information you have. How many candidates do you screen? How long do you look?

Mathematically, the answer is 37% of the total candidate pool. You observe the qualities of 37% of the pool and then choose the next-best candidate.

In other words, your analysis should take 67% less time than you think you should.

So again, how many candidates should you review before hiring? About 37% of the total candidate pool.

And how many cars should you test drive before making a purchase? Well, if you want an SUV, build a list of all eligible SUVs, set an order, and then make a decision after you’ve tested 37% of the list.

And in my case, with a restaurant menu, I should review 37% of the items beforehand and then choose the next-best option I then see.

Time Spoils The Thinking

I’m reminded of a beautiful passage from the 1710 Japanese classic, Hagakure, The Book of Samurai. Such historical texts always amaze me; they show how certain problems are timeless product of the human condition.

Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.”

Analysis paralysis is at least as old as feudal Japan.

So what does it mean to be a warrior who “does things quickly” as Lord Naoshige says? According to the math, which Professor Flood developed 248 years later, such a warrior would only take 37% of the time a normal person would require.

Coincidentally, I’m reminded of a similar and equally-fantastic rule from former statesman and four-star general Colin Powell. His heuristic is known now as the 40-70 Rule:

Generally you should act somewhere between P40 and P70, as I call it. Some time after you have obtained 40% of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70% of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time.

So whether it’s Flood’s 37% of the total information or Powell’s maximum of 70%, the point stands that time is of the essence. We know complete information isn’t necessary and these rules tell us how much is enough.

These rules are meant to help us overcome the fear and confusion. It’s so tempting to think more time and more information leads to better quality. It doesn’t. And even when we are fearful of a bad result, the math and the logic of this idea should push us forward. Lord Takanobu was right: our deliberation has an expiration date.

And it’s much sooner than we think.   

The Best Book for Negotiation

Never Split The Difference

By Chris Voss

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: You’re going to have to embrace regular, thoughtful conflict as the basis of effective negotiation—and of life. Please remember that our emphasis throughout the book is that the adversary is the situation and that the person that you appear to be in conflict with is actually your partner.

Best Line #2: “Why” is always an accusation, in any language

Negotiation is endlessly fascinating and every book on the topic has something to offer. Many authors study it from an analytical, business-oriented point of view. For them, the objective is machine-like optimization. This approach has its merits. Negotiation is a game and game theory does indeed apply.

There is, of course, more that happens outside the sterile environment of the game. In fact, the emotional and psychological factors are much richer, more individualized, and far more influential. This is where the real mastery awaits. Negotiating from a rational, analytical point of view is like painting by numbers—crude but effective. Adding a deliberate strategy for emotion and psychology is like graduating to the artist’s canvas.

It gives you more freedom, more possibility. But with a higher degree of difficulty. And I think that’s the part about Never Split The Difference that fascinates me most: this is one of those rare instances of someone imparting wisdom that is easy to use but difficult to master. The author and former FBI negotiator Chris Voss can make it sound so easy. Some of these things are. But the sequence and the timing is dreadfully difficult.

This week has focused on establishing a new understanding for negotiation and illustrating that approach through some simple-yet-powerful techniques. The posts have included the following:

A Better Way To Ask

What Great Listeners (And Negotiators) Do

Label Emotions To Improve Situations

Getting To No

I’ll highlight some additional wisdom below.

Questions: The Heart of Negotiation

I knew this book was for me when it started to describe all the mistakes I’d been making. When a book captures that, it’s like the author wrote it specifically for you. Such was the case with Voss’s study of calibrated questions.

What are these, you may ask? Voss writes the following:

Calibrated questions have the power to educate your counterpart on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them what the problem is.

It reminds me of the indirect power of the adage “Show don’t tell.” You want to demonstrate the issues rather than preach about them. Questions are the way to do that.

Think of an attorney that “leads the witness” with their questions. An attorney does this so that the witness can fully inhabit the same flow of logic that the attorney is using. But this is an imperfect example. The attorney does this for the sake of the jury. It’s argumentative.

A negotiator does this for the sake of their counterpart. It’s persuasive. And collaborative.

So while an attorney’s work to “lead the witness” gives you a sense of the idea, a better example is The Socratic Method of education. This has broad application to all manner of dialogue. It starts with the idea that if you want someone to learn, give them the question instead of the answer.  

Why Do You Think That?

I tend to ask a lot of questions.

When I do so, the other person invariably provides initial answers that are partially accurate but a little rough. This should be expected. To calibrate the person’s understanding and sharpen their knowledge, you ask the next question, then the next one, until they start to see all the facets that go into your sense of the bigger topic and overarching answer.

It ain’t easy. Eventually, with all these questions and these vague bits of information, the student resists. They aren’t you, after all, and they don’t see things your way. They offer something different. That’s to be expected. And valued.

This approach really helps once the student starts to ask questions of their own. When they do, you then have the chance to offer answers. In doing so, the conversation leads both parties to share all information and assumptions until you arrive, collectively, at a shared point of view. In an educational setting, this means a shared understanding of the material.

In negotiation, the shared understanding isn’t so holistic. But there will be some level of agreement. All because of the questions you’ve asked.

Multi-level questions is the beating heart of Critical Thinking. So I rely on the Socratic method for nearly every conversation I have. Admittedly, it gets tiresome for others.

And that’s where the mistakes show up. Voss’s techniques are the best I’ve found and the wisdom mustn’t be limited to negotiation. Teachers and managers should learn this, too. Starting with the curious, difficult nature of the word “why”.

“Why” Is A Four-Letter Word

I once wrote about intent versus impact. The chasm between the intent of your words and the impact it has on others is the deepest source of misunderstanding. This usually happens with our statements. But it can happen with questions, too. Especially with any question that starts with the word “why”.

Voss has reminded me that I really have to stop using that word in the form of a question. Here’s what he writes:

Don’t ask questions that start with “Why” unless you want your counterpart to defend a goal that serves you. “Why” is always an accusation, in any language.

Voss’s analysis on this point, along with his prescriptions for how to ask better questions, would be enough on its own to justify the purchase of this book. The whole thing is solid gold but this part really hits me at the core.

The word “why” is a knife. It has great power to cut through a lot of stuff. But the instant you point it at other people, you immediately change the situation. It doesn’t matter how honest your intent. I’m a genuinely curious person and I used to ask people this question all the time:

“Why do you think that?”

Wow. Talk about a misstep. Turns out, if you ask another adult why they think what they think they will think that you think they’re dumb.

That is a very clumsy sentence but I like it.

Such a question is like a test. No one likes tests. And to Voss’s point, it’s also an accusation. Because as Frank Luntz said in his fabulous book Words That Work, it’s not what you say, it’s what others hear. So when I used to ask the question “Why do you think that?”, people often heard this:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

That has never been my intent but it shows how hard it is to master these sort of exchanges. Voss provides some guidance in the book. It starts with two words.

Having just two words to start with might not seem like a lot of ammunition, but trust me, you can use “what” and “how” to calibrate nearly any question.

This is such great advice. Simple yet powerful. In my case, a small example would be to soften the rather harsh question “Why do you think that?” with either …

“How did you arrive at that?”

or …

“What gave you that idea?”

I know those sound a little rough, too. But that’s because they’re out of context. In a Socratic dialogue, these questions are at the second or third level of the discussion. I think that’s true in a negotiation, too.

There are better questions to ask. Voss provides some really fantastic examples in the book. I won’t share them here, lest I give away the juiciest bits, but I strongly urge you to seek them out. And remember: replace “why” with “how” and “what”.

“Why” is a four-letter word.

You Drive A Hard Bargain

Given all the study I’ve shared on communication from other books, I imagine it’s clear to regular readers (love y’all!) that I really value the soft skills as a way to slip hard-edged rationality into what we do. Voss feels the same. He basically spends 80% of the book focused entirely on how we should talk to the other side.

Tricks, tactics, and strategies? It’s all here. But Voss obviously knows that this book is about delivering on the bottom line. You have something you want to get from the situation, something the other party probably doesn’t want to give you. At the start, anyway.

So there is an inevitable devolution into horse-trading. All the work on the front end to bond with the other party is intended to create trust and respect. It is also intended to help you identify your counterparts needs, wants, and overall style of negotiation.

Voss explains that there are three basic negotiating styles: accommodator, assertive, and analyst.

As implied, the accommodator loves the win-win. They also love the free flow of information. They also irritate the heck out of the other types who want to get down to brass tacks. But the relationship is what matters here. Without it, they don’t want to adjust to your needs.

Analysts take their time and have the details all in place. You can’t ask them too many questions because they expect you to have prepared, too. Which means you should already have those first-level questions answered.

Additionally, talk isn’t the analyst’s strong suit. Here’s the data, they think. Here’s the analysis. What else could you possibly want? Yet, as ironclad as that analysis may be, there’s always room within that data to operate. Maneuvering within the known facts is the key to negotiating with them.

Assertives like to talk as much as accommodators but they’re preachy. And weirdly impatient. They want to talk but they also want this conversation to be done in 59 minutes so they can move on to the next 59-minute negotiation. They are deeply motivated by agreement. If you share their point of view, they’ll be deeply amenable to other ideas. Because they’ll feel that they’ve at least asserted the conditions for an agreement.

These three types make for a fantastic framework. It is sensible on the surface and yet it’s also really deep. The real value comes in understanding the ways you identify each style. Voss has great insights into that. Knowing how to communicate with each category is relatively intuitive, so long as you identify the style accurately.

Working within the parameters of each style is a helpful way to build trust and empathy for when the real horse-trading occurs. At that point, you should “drive a hard bargain” with a more universal, methodical approach.

The Ackerman Method

Voss names this method after its creator, an ex-CIA professional named Mike Ackerman. I can’t imagine how tense it would be to do apply this with kidnappers and bank robbers but it clearly works. Not because it helps you meet in the middle (something Voss hilariously calls a “wimp-win”). Instead, helps you maximize your desired result while helping the other party feel accommodated. It’s like mixing the best of all three negotiation styles into a single, condensed mixed-martial art attack.

Here’s the method in brief. Please read the broader context of all that Voss offers before attempting to use it:

  1. Set your target price (your goal).
  2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price.
  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent).
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, non round numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight.
  6. On your final number, throw in a non monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.

Again, I think it’s vital to read the broader context. There are reasons why this sequence works and it all comes down to understanding those nuances before you can do this with confidence.

For example, when do you introduce Step One of this method? How? And what do you do when the other party reacts terribly?

Do this incorrectly and you’ll blow all the careful work you’ve done to get to this point. You’ll appear to be a low-baller. Or a poser who never wanted to negotiate in the first place. So again, read the full book to understand the full picture! The Ackerman Method works well at building a favorable agreement. Just as gasoline works well at building a fire. Both are highly combustible without training.


We negotiate all the time. It is a necessary evil for most of us. It is something we don’t enjoy. Until we do. I don’t know what colors the experience but there are some negotiations that we actually like. The ones we have with friends can be playful and productive. The ones we have with neighbors can be respectful and clear. The ones we have with our bosses can lead to all manner of benefit.

I suppose it’s the strangers that we have the most trouble with. Negotiating with a car salesman or a potential new employer or anyone else we don’t know leads to some serious discomfort. Coincidentally, these exchanges often have the most at stake.

Voss’s method is very clear, very unique, very communicative, and it is the best I’ve found at accelerating both parties to a place of trust. Because that is the point. Voss writes numerous times about how the real opponent in this negotiation isn’t your counterpart, it’s the situation itself.  

It isn’t the car salesman’s fault that he has a quota and profit margin to maintain.

It isn’t the attorney’s fault that the other party needs $X of damages for a medical claim.

It isn’t the teacher’s fault that the school has a policy against allowing extra credit.

Your counterpart is bound by the same situation as you. They just come at it from a different angle. Should you meet in the middle? Maybe. But chances are good that you can find something that is more beneficial for you and them if you build trust, empathy, a broader understanding of the situation itself so that you can attack it together with shared goals.

Voss shows a way to do that. It’s the best way I’ve found in any of the eight negotiation books I’ve read, skimmed, or tossed after Chapter One.

You should still haggle on occasion. You should still try to give an inch and take a mile. I don’t think Voss dissuades that. After all, he negotiated against terrorists and kidnappers. He would never “meet them in the middle” with them. But he does expect us to do the work first. It’s the only way to get what you need and want. If you can’t do that, you can’t really negotiate.

Getting To No

The great actor Sidney Poitier once said, “I always had the ability to say no. That’s how I called my own shots.”

Meanwhile, Mark Cuban has regularly said, “Every no gets me closer to a yes.”

Put these together and it’s clear that Poitier and Cuban would have had a great time negotiating against one another. The Venn diagram here is pretty big. But it isn’t exactly unique. Sidney Poitier’s line about the ability to say no is something we all aspire towards. Which means that Mark Cuban’s attitude, which welcomes people to say “no”, allows him to negotiate with everyone.

Who Do We Negotiate With?

I suspect we do most of our real negotiation with our partners. We’re most comfortable around them. The proof is plain in how easily we can say “no” to them when we want.

Imagine your partner wants to go out tonight. But it’s late and you’ve had a long day. What do you do?

Channelling your best Poitier, you’ll say, “No. I don’t want to.”

But your partner will persist, giving his best Mark Cuban impression. “C’mon, how about a quick bite? Maybe just a drink? I’m bored.”

You’ll quickly respond: “No! I’m tired. If you want to go out so bad, then go. I’m staying here.”

True love in action, right? This is the sort of exchange that signifies a great relationship because it allows each person to have agency and understanding. The ability to provide one another a “comfortable no” is a major hallmark of a strong bond.

It is a major hallmark of a great negotiation, too. But this isn’t so obvious. Most of us consider the word “no” to be something we should avoid in a negotiation. After all, it’s the word that creates all the stress and strain in the first place; it’s the reason you’re at the table. You somehow ran into a “no” and now, as that famous book by would suggest, you want to get to yes.

That’s fine. Just don’t try to get there too quickly.   

We Say Yes. We Mean No.

What is your personality? How do you describe yourself? Which framework do you use? Myers-Briggs? Real Colors? Enneagram?

When it comes to measuring our personality, there is a 31 Flavors panoply of tests you can choose from. Yet, when you really get to the heart of the research, psychologists have settled on a core framework that accurately categorizes every persona in a reliable and valid way. It is referred to as The Big Five or by the common acronym OCEAN. This framework is supremely helpful for any of us who want to make sense of our fellow humans. It is time-tested, research-backed, blended from best practices through the decades, and relatively easy to understand.  

All five factors are worth researching but I want to focus today’s study on the “A” in the OCEAN acronym. It stands for agreeableness. As quoted from Wikipedia:

The agreeableness trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others.

We each have a unique base rate of agreeableness. I don’t know where it comes from but we all have it. The nuance is that we all fluctuate on the spectrum in given circumstances. Certain people, in certain relationships, make us more agreeable than what we would normally be. Other people make us less agreeable.

At work, you might be wildly disagreeable to the point of puritanical zeal. Nevermind backbone. You’re a brick wall.

But at home, you might be a total pushover. A spineless jellyfish who just goes with the flow.

All the same, our base rates hold steady in most situations. And in most situations, we are all largely agreeable. There is beauty in this. It is what drives a cooperative society. A fabulous 2008 paper by Professor Francis J. Flynn of Stanford University and Vanessa Lake of Columbia University shows that we grossly underestimate people’s willingness to help us. We underestimate our own agreeableness. Every day, people everywhere are just waiting to say “yes” in the effort to be useful.

Of course, this tendency can be, and often is, abused. Whether it’s through gross sales tactics or passive-aggressive bosses, many people will ask for things that plainly take advantage of our good nature. It causes us to do things we don’t really want to do.

This is why Sidney Poitier’s quote is so admirable. We’re a polite society, all things considered, and we say yes to too many things. Poitier reminds us that we should reconsider that idea. Call your shots! If you don’t, others will.

In fact, our agreeableness is such a problem that Greg McKeown had to write a book about it. His work, Essentialism, is one of my all-time favorites. Here’s the link to my review. The book is nearly 100,000 words written to help you say “no” more often. Highly recommended.

Safety In No

We intuitively understand the power of the word “no” from the agreeableness point of view. Aside from your partner, child, best friend, or parent, saying “no” to someone is practically taken as an offense. It proves how typical relationships are so tenable.

Conversely, it shows how you can strengthen a typical relationship really quickly. You can strengthen a relationship by empowering a person to say “no”. And when it comes to negotiation, this is where the best approaches to finding agreement are so deeply misunderstood.

Ask anyone who works in sales and they’ll tell you the one word they never want to hear is “No.”

Ask Chris Voss, master negotiator and author of Never Split The Difference, and he’ll say the one word he never wants to hear is a noncommittal “Yes.”

We get a lot of those. We give a lot of them, too. But a genuine “Yes”, as in a genuine negotiated agreement, is the ultimate goal. The best path to that goal involves a lot of heartfelt utterances of the word “No”. As Voss explains:   

Your invitation for the other side to say “No” has an amazing power to bring down barriers and allow for beneficial communication.

How so? By finding the edges. A great negotiation defines the space within which you can both operate. Think back to the earlier mention of Venn Diagrams. At the start of a negotiation, your circle probably doesn’t overlap much with the other party. That can change. But not until you find out where the overlap does exist, doesn’t exist, and why.

It’s like a rejection-based version of the kid’s game Marco Polo. You enter a negotiation with your eyes closed, trying to find where the other party’s coming from. What about this? What about that? When you reach a limit, where the other party says no, you find the real source of their needs and interests.

Once a “no” is offered, Voss goes straight to the productive questions and labeling efforts that uncover the party’s real needs.

This is when real negotiation begins: with the second-level questions. Voss gives two great examples. After hearing “no”, he suggests you then ask something like:

“What about this doesn’t work for you?”

Or do some labeling:

“It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”

Notice that the statement above begins with the phrase “It seems like …” This calls us back to the labeling technique from yesterday’s article.

Both questions open a space for the other party to say the things they need to say. What’s funny, though, is that the things the other party needs to say are often things they aren’t prepared to talk about. When you empower them to use the word “no”, you give them self-confidence. You give them a safe space to represent their interests in precisely the way they need to. As Voss explains:  

Saying “No” makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control, so trigger it. By saying what they don’t want, your counterpart defines their space and gains the confidence and comfort to listen to you. That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Priming Effects

I am enamored with Voss’s techniques. He really threads the needle on negotiation so that we can rightfully pursue our best interests while respecting the interests of others. And he offers this in ways that treat people like actual people instead of objectifying us as bundles of biases ripe for manipulation.

But bias still exists and I think this approach leads to a sneaky, fascinating, reverse effect around priming. I’ve written about this before. Through the dynamic of “cognitive ease”, people have very calmly and confidently stated that a chicken’s body temperature is a 144 degrees. Which is hotter than medium steak. Why would people believe that?

Well, if you’re exposed to the phrase “144 degrees” enough, it starts to lose meaning. It becomes a symbol. You can tack it onto anything.

All the same, I think there’s a reverse effect with this empowerment for “no”. When you help people in a negotiation by giving them the comfort to say “no”, I suspect you plant the seed for them to want to say “yes”. Handle the conversations well, with calm and charisma, while listening carefully and pushing them to “no” wherever you can, and I think people will actually enjoy talking with you.

For now. Which means they’ll feel primed and thus compelled to “yes” at the end. Perhaps through guilt or agreeableness. Perhaps because you treated them well. I don’t know. But there’s something about this pattern that makes me think it triggers another bias.

In closing, this may all sound like the recipe for making a nice conversation rather than a winning negotiation. But our bare knuckles do come out. Just not here. It happens later. After you’ve given the other party the comfort to wield their bare knuckles first.

Let the other party say “no”. This creates the bond, the relationship. The relationship then gives you the chance to express your own agency. In smarter, more strategic ways.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Label Emotions To Improve Situations

What do you do when you’re dealing with an emotional person? A really emotional person? It could be a customer, boss, friend, family member, or partner. Whatever the case, what do you do when they are emotional and you are not?

Having been trained as a teacher, I usually enter into some sort of attitude of a classroom manager. I slow down my speech, assume a calm, confident voice, and talk rationally to the individual with monosyllabic words. It’s my first instinct.

Yet it is so ineffective. And imperious.

To describe this more clearly, consider the professional circumstance. When dealing with an emotional customer or an aggressive negotiator, I usually try to remind them of what I can and can’t do. This typically involves restating a position or reaffirming a decision they dislike. Because they’re usually screaming about that. So I feel like I have to restate it. As if they’ll miraculously understand when I utter the words a third time.

So ineffective. So imperious.

In personal circumstances, if dealing with a friend or family member, I usually try to speak slowly, calmly, and offer those little reassurances that I wish could help. Some of these phrases feel patronizing when others say them to me. I wish that weren’t the case. Consider the following examples.

There’s the feeble encouragement: “It’s not so bad. It’s okay. You’ll be okay.”

Or the actionable pity: “I’m so sorry for you. This is so terrible. What can I do to help?”

Or the worst of all: “There’s no need to be upset.”

What else can we do in these circumstances?

Other Nice-Yet-Ineffective Tactics

One common tactic is to just listen to the emotional person. Do nothing, in other words. As they wrestle with their emotions, weeping or shouting to the sky, we do our best impression of an inert rock pile. We sit there, quiet and still.

This isn’t a bad idea. But it’s not a good one, either. Especially when your dealing with a friend, family member, or child. It’s hard to sit there. It feels weird.

Another tactic, which I have tried many times, is to pivot to action. This works occasionally in a professional setting. Not always, but sometimes. I don’t think it’s ever worked in a personal setting.

In this example, the tactic is all about waiting for the right moment. We weather their emotional storm and then, in the quiet of their repose, we say, “What can I do to help?”

Seems like a good gesture. And it can work when the timing is right. But we usually do this much too quickly. If the person is still emotional and we ask “What can I do to help?”, it puts a new burden on them.

To ask an emotionally-overwhelmed person the question “What can I do to help?” is akin to asking them “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” You force them to not only struggle with their emotion but also answer a pop quiz.

They have no idea how to enlist your help! Which probably makes them feel more helpless. And the spiral continues.

A final tactic is to offer preemptive advice. Which is a bad idea. I think advice is crucial but it has to come later. You have to ramp up to it.

So how do you get there?

The Joy of Diagnosis

Have you ever felt physically ill in some general way that is easy to describe but hard to diagnose? Some illnesses are easy to understand. A sore throat is a sore throat. But a nauseous feeling coupled with upset stomach and a headache? Put those symptoms into WebMD and you’ll find a thousand possibilities.

Or what if you have severe joint pain that comes at random moments? Sometimes morning, sometimes evening, sometimes on consecutive days, sometimes not.

These are very frustrating afflictions. Especially when you go to the doctor, get a full workup, and it yields no conclusion. I’ve experienced this firsthand with some very acute pain. I tell the doctor. The doctor then says “I don’t see any problems”. This is crazy-making. And embarrassing.

Now consider the flip-side. You feel sick, you go to the doctor, they do an exam, and determine you have the flu.

Thank goodness! What a relief! The flu! I’m not crazy for feeling this way.

There is a strange sense of satisfaction that comes from someone naming our problem. A diagnosis of this sort is almost a cure in its own right.

Thankfully, this dynamic can apply to emotional discomfort, too.

The Best Place To Start: Labeling

When we feel deep emotional turmoil, it is akin to suffering the symptoms of a physical illness. The pain makes it hard for us to objectively diagnose ourselves. Or even acknowledge the way we feel.

But if someone is listening to us, and keeping a calm head, they can offer the diagnosis for us. They can do something that therapists and hostage negotiators refer to as labeling.

You may have seen this in a movie or TV show. A patient sits on the couch, talking through their feelings, and the therapist listens. As the patient’s emotions start to rise, the therapist makes the observation: “It sounds like you’re angry.”

Of course I’m angry, the patient says. I don’t need you to tell me that!

But actually, the patient does. As explained by psychology professors Jared B. Torre and Matthew D. Lieberman from the University of California,

Putting feelings into words, or “affect labeling”, can attenuate our emotional experiences. [Labeling] produces a pattern of effects like those seen during explicit emotion regulation.

This comes from their 2018 article in the curiously-titled academic journal Emotion Review.

Here’s a better example: imagine a patient is describing some trauma around a recent event, their emotions climbing as they recall the memory. At the peak of their fury, the therapist might say: “It seems like this situation makes you feel disgusted.”

Disgusted? Is that the right word? Let’s assume the therapist is a professional and that this is, indeed, the right word. It is more nuanced than the word “angry”. And it is probably more precise in the given context.

A precise, nuanced label strengthens the power of the labeling effect.

Expanding the vocabulary expands the range of possibilities in the patient’s mind. So if “disgusted” is the right word, it unlocks a new pathway for the conversation. Disgusted? Yes! I’m disgusted! Because that was just morally wrong, that thing that happened.

The therapist can then ask, What is it about this situation that feels morally wrong? From there, the conversation becomes more concrete, more tangible, and solutions can begin to emerge.

Negotiators Are Therapists

This labelling technique is far too powerful to be constrained to the world of talk therapy. It offers immense possibility to any of us working in other emotionally-charged circumstances. Take, for example, a hostage situation. In his book, Never Split The Difference, Chris Voss shows incredible skill in using labeling as a gateway to what he calls tactical empathy. This concept is really interesting. As he explains:

Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so that you increase your influence in all the moments that follow.

The empathy part is obvious, right? We all know how to feel what others feel in a given moment. Or at least give the appearance of such empathy. Bill Clinton famously practiced this during his 1992 campaign when he said to an activist at a rally,

I feel your pain.

That’s … actually quite helpful. The first time around. But if you use that phrase too much, it becomes disingenuous. Labeling is the better technique. Not “I feel your pain” but “It seems like you’re feeling pretty annoyed right now.”

Are they? Maybe. Or maybe not. It might be that they aren’t annoyed so much as “furious”. If so, they’ll tell you. Which is great. Because regardless of the word, and regardless who determines it, the real benefit here is that the emotion now has a label.

Voss explains why this is necessary in hostage situations:

Labeling is a helpful tactic in de-escalating angry confrontations, because it makes the person acknowledge their feelings rather than continuing to act out.

As soon as you label something, you change how people perceive it. You almost objectify the feelings. In a good way.

Once the feelings are labeled, acknowledged, and objectified, you open the space for action. Why? Because you, the listener, have created a connection. That connection leads to a small modicum of trust or, at minimum, openness from the individual.

Just as surely as a medical doctor can’t give you an antibiotic until they’ve labeled your infection, you can’t make a request of an emotional person until you label their emotion.

And remember that these emotions aren’t just anger or frustration or disgust. It can be more subtle. In a negotiation, for example, the other party might feel apprehension. Or anxiety. Or uncertainty.

So a great negotiator is like a great therapist in that they understand the broad array of emotions that might inform the other person’s thinking. The look for those emotions and help the other party label them. This is a great step towards resolution.

If you listen effectively, as explained in yesterday’s post, and make genuine observations through the labeling technique, you can develop a fine-grained demonstration of empathy that leads to great tactical advantage. For the therapist, this tactical advantage leads to solutions for the patient. For the negotiator, it leads to requests for the other party to consider. Small wins emerge. Trust is gained. Progress is made.

And for your friends and family, it might lead to something better than the usual ways we try to help.

Just remember: you don’t have to get the label perfect. You should try but that’s not the point. The point is to find a way to be empathetic in new ways that demonstrate how you’re really listening. This fulfills the most critical need, as Voss explains with the following:

Remember you’re dealing with a person who wants to be appreciated and understood.

You want that, too. You’ll get it by giving it first. Starting with a name.

Image of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion from Wikimedia Commons

What Great Listeners (And Negotiators) Do

Hollywood hasn’t done us many favors when it comes to demonstrating the real art of criminal justice. Movies suggest there’s a lot of yelling. Lawyers yelling at judges. Police yelling at partners. Hostage negotiators yelling at dangerous criminals.

We know the reality is quite different but we don’t know what the reality actually is. What do these people in these professions actually do? Some of it is quite boring, of course. Some of it is utterly fascinating. The good stuff shares a common thread: persuasion.

Every profession has a necessary element of persuasion but criminal justice has its own unique approaches. Criminal lawyers develop persuasion through rhetorical argument. Police develop persuasion through soft redirection, using formal techniques like “verbal judo”. And hostage negotiators develop the most unexpected capabilities in persuasion through listening.

Proper Angst

Again, our friends in Hollywood don’t help matters much when it comes to learning the best practices in negotiation. But even without their bad influence, we still fail to understand these things on our own. Take the classic example of buying a car.

Most people hate the car-buying experience. They don’t want the conflict. They feel pressured. Manipulated. And rightfully so. For most of us, most of the time, this is stressful stuff.

We’ve seen the gimmicks, the pressure tactics. We know the popcorn and cookies might be free at the dealership but it’s just another way of keeping us hooked. And time has no bounds on the sales floor. It feels like a casino. Thirty minutes turn into three hours really fast.  

In reality, we should feel this way. We should be nervous. We should be sensitive. Buying a car is supposed to be difficult. It is one of the largest purchases we’ll make. In fact, you should only be scared if a car-buying experience isn’t stressful.

If the experience isn’t stressful, it might be due to the fact that you’re working with a master salesperson who knows how to channel your angst towards their interests.

This is the funny thing about great negotiators: you won’t know you’re dealing with one until after the fact. That’s because a great negotiator doesn’t really negotiate. They don’t wade into the fray with brass tacks and bottom lines. They don’t communicate a specific “position”.

Instead, they seek to solve your problem. With their solutions.

How do they do this? It starts with one incredibly simple, deeply rich technique that is featured in the fantastic book Never Split The Difference. This technique won’t seem mysterious or magical but it is. And it has terrific applicability to all facets of communication.

Volley and Serve  

Do you ever feel like you’re not being heard?

Every day, right?

Our inability to really hear one another is so pervasive that the better question might be this: When is the last time you actually felt heard?

I sit in a lot of meetings. I watch people talk at each other. Patterns emerge over time. After the initial pleasantries, we see some form of fact-finding from all parties. Someone sets a stage with their problem and, through that narrative, they announce their desired solution. The negotiation begins when the other party responds to that initial proposal.

And they always respond. I’ve never been in a meeting where the initial idea was accepted. It’s never happened. People want to play the game. That’s why we’re having a meeting.

So what comes next? The two parties begin a prolonged volley-and-serve of points and counterpoints that bounce like tennis balls across the conference table. Party #1 offers their logic and postulations. Party #2 returns with a bit of rhetorical topspin, restating the phrases in some semantic twist. Back and forth, back and forth.

In most cases, what I see are people engaged in selective listening. The party with the most positional authority looks to shut down the other party by listening for certain trigger words. They turtle in their position until the other side overreaches and creates an opening. Then they bludgeon their opponent with all their pre-baked leverage.

The party with the least positional authority selectively listens, too. They wait for a moment of inconsistency so they can trap the dominant player with an accusation. They ask a lot of questions. In some cases, the questions uncover flaws in the dominant party’s logic. Such flaws lead to openings.

In other cases, the questions exhaust the dominant player until they can’t explain themselves anymore. Once all the carefully-crafted party-line statements have been stripped away, the dominant player gets sloppy and the weaker opponent delivers the big blow. It’s usually a presumption of bad intent. See! We knew you wouldn’t play fair! This has been the problem all along! Suddenly, the tables are turned.

Again, I see this all day long. If meetings were a Spotify playlist, this would be its lone song. A playlist of one tune. On constant repeat.

A Reflection of Them

Selective listening is totally appropriate. Just not in the way we typically use it. As Voss explains, the great negotiators selectively listen for different things in different phases of the conversation. But they always begin the same way. As he writes:

It begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.

I don’t know about you but that sounds delightful to me. That’s how I want to operate. None of this passive-aggressive back-and-forth rhetorical tennis.

But rhetorical tennis comes natural to us. So to break that habit, we need to use a specific technique or else we will regress. So how can we listen the way Voss describes? Through a specific kind of imitation called mirroring. Voss describes it:

It’s generally an unconscious behavior—we are rarely aware of it when it’s happening—but it’s a sign that people are bonding, in sync, and establishing the kind of rapport that leads to trust.

Mirroring is to bonding as night is to day. It gets to the old adage, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”. So it’s necessary for creatings the trust and safety needed in a real conversation.

And it’s such a fascinating behavior. I can think back on times I’ve done this mirroring when in the presence of very charismatic people. I’ve seen others do it with me. As Voss explains, this is an unconscious behavior. So how can we deliberately practice it? Through our words.

[The technique] is almost laughably simple: for the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one that gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.

If you think about it, this simple act is incredibly rare. When is the last time someone actually repeated what you said? Even a single word of what you said? Chances are, the last time this happened is also the last time you felt truly heard.

Left to our own devices, we won’t listen in this fashion. Our ears on are perpetual auto-pilot. We listen only for the pauses in another person’s speech so that we can issue a “yep” or “uh-huh”. Meanwhile, as our ears listen for those beats, our brain formulates whatever we’re going to say when it’s our turn.

Talking right past one another. I’m profoundly guilty of this.

Why? Because we’re so fixated on saying the right thing. But we must remember what Frank Luntz wrote in the review of his brilliant book Words That Work.   

It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear.

So a mirror is a way of helping people hear that we are listening. Practice it today. Start by doing what Voss describes as the literal repetition of someone’s last two or three words in a statement. Preferably in the form of a question. Here’s a brief example from the book:

The boss said, “Let’s make two copies of all the paperwork.”

“I’m sorry, two copies?” [the employee] mirrored in response.

These two lines make a great illustration. Note the use of the phrase “I’m sorry”. There are two things happening there. For one, the employee is softening the whole situation with an apology, as if to suggest he is to blame for some misunderstanding. Second, the employee is asking, through this mirror, for more explanation. The phrase “I’m sorry, two copies?” is a more elegant way of asking “Can you repeat that?”

This is vital. You don’t want to ask people to repeat themselves. It will make it seem like your not paying attention. A mirror leads them to do this without appearing distracted.

The boss then repeats herself. Which is critical to the negotiation because, when we have to repeat ourselves, we very rarely say things the same way. We usually reword our statements, we add more clarity and unveil more of the core desire at-play.

This is especially true when someone is mirroring our language. The mirror makes us feel like we were actually heard. Just not understood. So we’ll naturally want to explain ourselves further. That further explanation opens up possibilities for negotiation.

A Daily Jedi Mind Trick

Again, I heartily recommend that you use this very simple technique today. Use it all week. You’ll find that this really is a powerful way of listening to others.

Nevermind the negotiation. Consider the boon that comes from just listening. That is a great gift in itself. Yes, there should be a justifiable end (i.e., a better-negotiated agreement) but you won’t negotiate with people nearly as much as you’ll listen to them. Listening is constant. Empathy is always in demand.

So make no mistake: we can all benefit by becoming better negotiators. But this powerful technique, this Jedi mind trick of mirroring, can help us be better listeners first. That, in itself, might be the best benefit of all.

A Better Way To Ask

The opening pages of the Chris Voss’s book Never Split The Difference lays out a hard-yet-beautiful truth:

In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

I’ve seen this proven firsthand for many people. I’ve also seen the negative proven firsthand. Many fail to get what they wanted because they fail to ask. It’s happened to me numerous times.

So Voss is here to help with his excellent set of negotiation tactics. Voss deployed these tactics for many years as a hostage negotiator for the FBI. He tells stories of life-and-death situations where the stakes were at their highest. Many things were asked of him. He asked for things in return. The ability to do this correctly is quite potent.

And illuminating. Through his work, Voss shows that negotiation doesn’t have to be some crude method of trench warfare between people. It can be elevated to a higher form of exchange. It is a better way of asking.

We Hate Asking

I was raised to believe that you shouldn’t ask for anything. Asking was an expression of greed.  You shouldn’t want anything beyond what is already offered or available. It’s a useful attitude but the downsides are clear to me now.

A lot of it goes back to the culture of rugged individualism. I regularly over-value the virtue of self-reliance. To ask for something (a loaned tool, a favor, an opinion, or, God help us, money) is to flagrantly toss aside my charter responsibility to Handle My Own Business. To ask for something is a clear sign of weakness or deficiency.

Which is why I seldom ask for things.

But this is also about my warped sense of self. I tend to see my needs as some strange encumbrance if shared with others. I’ll help other people with their needs all day. Gladly. But I wouldn’t dare ask them to help with mine. It might inconvenience them. It might turn me into some social albatross. This leads me to regularly preface any request with some version of the following:

“I hate to be a bother but …”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking but …”

“Can I trouble you …”

This is strange behavior. To put it simply, my asking feels more onerous to me than the ask itself. For example, I once asked a friend to help me move to a new apartment. The strain that went into making the request, knowing it would wreck my friend’s Saturday, was harder than the physical labor of the actual move.

Then there’s the sense of debt. I hate debt in every form. And because I have more money than sense, I’ll pay a stranger to help me before I ask a friend. Because I don’t want to “owe them a favor”.

So yeah … outside of the workplace, I have trouble asking people for things. You probably do, too. Every one of us is cooped up in some narrow corner of the world, working on stuff that is much harder than it needs to be because we hate asking someone else to lend a hand.

We’re much too sensitive about this. Neighbors used to ask each other for a cup of sugar. These days, we’d treat them as crude suburban panhandlers.

The Heart of Asking

Multimedia artist extraordinaire Amanda Palmer has a great book called The Art of Asking that is largely an autobiography about how and why she asks for things. Her story details the positive impact asking has brought her. But the pleasure isn’t just hers. The exchanges produce something warm and rich for the providers, too. People want to give something. They feel value when they do.

Yet, for all the merit of the book’s thesis, many readers struggle with the idea. Here’s one quote from a self-proclaimed Amanda Palmer fan:

[The book] makes you question your own life and your own choices. How many times have you held back when you could have asked for something, worried that other people would find you annoying or uncool?

Here’s another on how we all feel that hesitation to ask or be asked:

[The book] got me pondering other things, too, like why it’s so frustrating when people stand there staring at me instead of just saying, “Hey, can I ask you something?” or why my first reaction, a lot fo the time, is annoyance instead of acceptance or compassion.

Then there’s the trouble with reciprocity:

[The book] comes off a little selfish to hear about all these times of people helping her and very few instances of her helping back.

At the heart of it all, the trouble with asking is that it demands as much from us as it does other people. At our core, most of us are good people. So the act of asking demands that we be pure in our intent, clear in our need, accepting of the risk (what if they say no?), and generous in our gratitude.

That last one really sticks with me. I’ve seen people be ungrateful when someone helps them. It is repugnant. And yet, I’ve appeared ungrateful to others because I’m so incapable of accepting their help.

We Love Negotiating

As much as we dislike asking people for things, we seem to enjoy negotiation. Even when it’s just a friendly banter. Negotiations help two parties find an upfront exchange of equal value. But “equal” and “value” are delightfully subjective.

When asking a friend if he’d help you move, the friend might say, “Sure. So long as there’s beer involved.”

This is a nice gesture. It is also a negotiation. The friend has named his price. In this case, the price happens to include a special discount. I imagine total strangers would have to pay your friend in actual money. You, however, can pay in beer. All the same, it is a negotiation.

For some reason, this simple, superficial exchange helps me and many others feel better about asking for help. It balances the equation. It gives a better sense of mutual benefit.

Negotiation has many other benefits, too. All of which comes back to the power of asking. The ability to ask for what you want, while demonstrating ways you will provide what others want in turn, is fundamental to any person’s success. So again, I’ll cite the passage from Voss’s book:

In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

This week is an exploration in knowing how to ask for things correctly. The idea of what is “correct” is a matter of style, of course. I’ve read my share of books on negotiation and there are many methods out there. I think Voss offers a style that is the so beneficial, so natural, that doesn’t even feel like negotiation. Or asking.

Image from Veronique Debord-Lazaro

The Best Book for Competitive Strategy

The 33 Strategies of War

Robert Greene

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: Velocity creates a sense of vitality.

Best Line #2: The essence of strategy is not to carry out a brilliant plan that proceeds in steps; it is to put yourself in situations where you have more options than the enemy does.

I made a really big mistake the first time I ran a 5k. I got caught up in the pre-race adrenaline. It was so exciting being part of this thing. And since it was my first time, I watched the crowd around me and mimicked their behavior. Some stretched, some did a little jog, some drank water. I did all three. And when the race started, I did what I always do when I’m amped up: I went fast. All the energy, all the anticipation … I launched at the start, running in big, lunging strides, feeling the rush as I passed the crowd, zooming to the head of the pack with the feeling of victory.

Again, I was new to this. So I modeled my behavior and performance according to others. I ran at other people’s pace. I had no pace. I just wanted to feel it, that rush, at the start.

I was exhausted by the end of the first mile. My legs were rubber. I slowed down, nearly collapsed, recovered, and then suffered a wee bit of humiliation over the next two miles as people passed me by at their steady pace.

It was the real-life rendition of that old tortoise and hare fable. I ground my way to the finish and made decent time. But the experience never left me. It was big proof of the wisdom I had ignored:

Run your race.

Most endeavors are best-performed by doing your best and forgetting the rest. In a race, some runners are fast, some are slow, some warm-up beforehand, others don’t. But you’re not racing against those people. Not even in a track meet. You’re racing against the clock. Against your own limitations. Beat your personal best and the scoreboard will take care of itself.

This is true for a lot of sports. When athletes discuss being in “the zone”, they talk about a trance-like experience that somehow leads them into a completely detached point of view. When they’re “in the zone”, these athletes see nothing but themselves, the goal, and the next two or three steps that they will take to bend reality to their desire. Opponents seldom, if ever, show up in their view. It’s another version of the flow state and very powerful.

The Need For Competitive Strategy

Nonetheless, there are circumstances where opponents (i.e., other people) should be the central focus of your endeavor. Whether it’s in boxing, presidential elections, price wars in commodity trading, chess, or literal warfare, these instances have you facing an opponent in a winner-take-all game. One of you must defeat the other to win.

In those cases, you can’t just “run your race.” You can’t merely try to “do your best”. If your best isn’t good enough, you lose. And in a winner-take-all game, losing is unacceptable.

I don’t particularly enjoy those games and try to avoid those circumstance wherever I can. Yet, we all face these moments. When we do, our strategies must be deeply predicated on beating the opponent rather than beating your personal threshold. In other words, if you think your best isn’t good enough, don’t play “fair”. Go guerrilla.

It’s a proven method and it’s one of the hundreds that can be found in this week’s book. Altogether, it gives us a deeper, richer understanding of strategy.

Written in 2007, Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War is a deeply entertaining mix of history, philosophy, self-help, and social commentary. Having read all of Greene’s work, this one is his best. They’re all excellent but, again, this is his best work.  

It also appears to also be his least-popular work. I think the title throws people off.

33 Strategies of … War? Yeah, I’m not into that.

Me neither. But, again, it’s not about war, per se. It’s about the competitive circumstances we face where we must do certain things to win against the opposition. So consider this for a second …

Are you chasing any finite resource that other people also want?

Is it a winner-take-all situation where second place does not yield an acceptable prize?   

Are you facing a clear and obvious enemy? Something that can counter your every move?

You may answer “no” to these questions today but you’ll find yourself in this situation at some point, I’m sure. We all do.

And I should say … if you aren’t facing this situation in some aspect of life today, it might be worthwhile to go find it. Monday’s post about picking an enemy reminded me how invigorating the struggle can be. But pick a good one. After all, iron sharpens iron. A great opponent of some kind can be lead to something healthy. If the fight is done right.

Picking a healthy fight is like a forester conducting a prescribed burn. It builds clears the weeds and builds resilience.

I should emphasize the idea of a “healthy” fight. This isn’t about becoming combative and intimidating. Don’t be a bully. But find something that is big, ugly, and reactive, and employ the wisdom Greene offers us. It might help to read these posts, too:

Monday: It’s Okay. Choose An Enemy.

Tuesday: Fight The Past. Better Yet, Ignore It.

Wednesday: The Self-Authored Strategy.

Thursday: How To Burn The Boats Properly.

There are far more strategies than I can cover in this review so I’m going to highlight three that resonate with me at this time. Two months from now, when I return to this book, I’ll find a whole other set of strategies that fit at that moment. Such is the delightful utility of this book. Of the 33 strategies, you’ll find four or five that really fit at any moment.

The Weakness Of The Crowds

In the fifth strategy, Greene attacks the willowy, ultra-sensitive, workshop-driven method of groupthink that infects a lot of our work today. He writes the following:

The group has a mind of its own, and that mind is cautious, slow to decide, unimaginative, and sometimes downright irrational.

So true! There is wisdom in the crowds and there is weakness in the crowds. Where is the dividing line?

Greene combs through history to find specific situations where inclusive groupthink failed and a command-and-control method succeeded. I think the common pattern, based on Greene’s work and my own research, goes something like this:

Groupthink is best for non-urgent decisions with no specific, desired outcome predefined. In other words, if you don’t have a target to hit, and don’t have a hard time constraint, then go with the groupthink. Build a process … explore … discuss … vote. You’ll eventually make decisions that are, at minimum, lacking any perceived weakness.

These decisions will also lack any strength. There will be no firm identity to those final approaches. The work will be a mish-mash of different values and ideas. Kind of like the worst product designs out there, weighed down with feature bloat and generic marketing.

It’s statistics of a certain kind. Poking at the darkness. Goading a response from the market, the opponent, the test case, etc., so that you can build the next iteration.  

Command and control is best for urgent decisions where specific goals already defined. I won’t get to deep into this but, suffice to say, this is the stuff of startups and calculus as I’ve written about before. More importantly, this is about forging your identity with your work, your authority, and your desire to hold true to a clear style.

For more, I highly recommend the outstanding website Work With Source. If you want to know why some companies and ventures succeed and others fail, start here.  Think about the concept of the gestalt.

For decisions that embrace trade-offs and carry a strength, embrace trade-offs, and accept a weakness, you need to take this approach. Coincidentally, this is the only way forward in competitive landscapes.

Hit Them Back. Intelligently.

Strategy #9 is one of my favorites: the counterattack strategy. It is at the heart of any competitive effort and a fascinating aspect of any fight that we examine after the fact. This is the hinge within the cause-and-effect of all stories we tell ourselves. There seems to always come a point where “the tables are turned”. But what make a great counterattack? It starts with mindset:

A key principle of the counterattack is never to see a situation as hopeless. No matter how strong your enemies seem, they have vulnerabilities you can prey upon.

This is the common thread in every counterattack story I can remember. In the context of war, this story emerges when the defenders have withstood the initial attack from an invading force. When the smoke clears and they find themselves still standing, the defenders discover many things about the situation:

First, they find that the attacker wasn’t as powerful as they thought.

Second, they find out exactly what the attacker’s strength looks like.

Third, they find a way to counter that strength.

Whether it’s the hit-and-run tactics of the NVA or the calculated retreats of Napoleon’s army, the counterattack is predicated on information gathered from the opponent’s initial assault and a creative response around it. In every instance, this creative thinking requires a calm, optimistic mind. There is a certain kernel of hope embedded in the action. We can do this. Here’s how.

I think that’s why finding a competition of some kind is so important to our growth. Nevermind the winning and losing. The test itself forces you to be creative. Necessity is the mother of invention. And in a winner-take-all battle, the great competitors get inventive.

Speed and Suddenness

If the counterattack is a proven strategy for a defender, the blitzkrieg is the proven strategy for the attacker. Strategy #14 is all about the effort to make your first attack the only one you need. Greene writes some really great lines to this point:

Velocity creates a sense of vitality.

You must be slow in deliberation and swift in execution.

Acting with speed and decisiveness will garner you respect, awe, and irresistible momentum.

It’s easy to think that we operate in a world where the idea of a blitzkrieg is neither warranted nor relevant. This easy, understandable idea is also deeply limiting. There is always an opportunity, and a need, to act swiftly, forcefully, every single day. In some regard.

The former Navy Seal turned consultant/podcaster/author Jocko Willink has an expression for this: default aggressive. I like that. It conveys the notion that every action is a miniature blitzkrieg, done with maximum intensity and force and speed.

It’s very Type A, isn’t it? Yes, but Type A isn’t a personality. It’s a deliberate strategy anyone can adopt for a given situation. And despite my admiration for Mr. Willink, I don’t recommend the Type A Blitzkrieg approach for everything.

But if you don’t have this default aggressive mindset for something (not everything, but something) then I’m not sure what you hope to accomplish. You’re not sure either. In competitive circumstances, this feels like the most important strategy of them all.

Strategy Books So Far

With this review, I’ve now covered three books written on the formal topic of strategy. It started with the best book on strategy, Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. The review can be found here. That books lays the foundation for how all strategy must be developed. It is the trusty hammer of any good strategic thinker’s toolbox. Better yet, Rumelt’s work is a fantastic framework for problem-solving in general.

Next came a focus on business strategy. The best book for that is Lafley and Martin’s Playing To Win. Here’s a link to that review. This book illustrates how great strategy, in the business world, is a true manifestation of “running your race”. Find your strengths, find your customer’s needs, and blend the two in a product or service that will “win” by delivering value to the customer.

This marks the third book. And again, this one is focused wholly on competition. I needed to read this again to remind myself that competition is a beautiful thing. We can’t avoid it. Nor should we. Cultivate it where it serves you and you’ll unlock one of the most tried-and-true methods of growth.

I’ll review two more books on strategy before we reach the end of this broader project. The first, titled Blue Ocean Strategy, will argue persuasively for the instances where competition is a bad thing. This idea rhymes deeply with what we’ll find in Peter Thiel’s work, Zero To One. Both books will be featured in coming months and that will round out my review of the best literature on the topic.

Do you need the wisdom of all five books to truly understand strategy? I think so. It’s a deep, difficult topic and so many people trip up because they’ve never read anything on the idea. That said, do you need all five books in order to be successful? No. Of course not. Many people stumble into winning strategies without ever realizing it. As the saying goes, a blind squirrel still finds an acorn or two. But thousands of you have come along this far, dear readers, because I think you see the value in seeing.


Make no mistake: this book is potent. It is a recipe book for strategy but it also a playbook for manipulation. I once wrote that we’re all being manipulated. All the time. Everything is manipulation.

I still believe that. So this is a book that helps us manipulate properly when the stakes are the highest. Greene does well to leaven the ideas with a firm sense of morality. All the same, anyone who reads this book, and only this book, could use it to become a proto-Machiavelli. So let’s make sure we do this right. Our author wouldn’t want it any other way.

A Final Note On The Beauty Of The Page

This marks the second time that I’ve featured a book by Robert Greene. The first occasion featured his book Mastery. The review can be found here. After a couple samples, I’m fully entranced by Greene’s unique voice. The content is rich and expressive. But that’s just half the fun of his books. Let’s take a moment to admire the books themselves. Greene’s books, in physical form, are some of the most beautiful pieces of work you’ll find.

Have you ever just looked at a printed page? From a newspaper or a technical document? If so, you’ll notice information is displayed in specific, sometimes deliberate, sometimes useful fashions. There can be a real art to document design.

Greene’s books explore that art to the fullest. Open up The 33 Strategies of War and you’ll find information is color-coded, organized in clean sections, full of margin notes, distinct typography, and composed in a format that is consistent but varied. It feels so rich.

They’re worth a purchase if only to look at them. Don’t bother reading the words. The organization of information is impressive in its own right. Here’s the link to the paperback.

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