Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?

…asked Annie Dillard. It’s a good question.

Richard D. Bartlett, who I support via Patreon and who is better known as richdecibels, has started a newsletter. The process of signing up for it reminded me of a post he wrote last year entitled Hierarchy Is Not The Problem…

Is it a circle or a cone?

Ten years ago, in my first foray into senior management, I was told by a consultant to the newly-installed Principal that “he’s very hierarchical”. She meant it in a good way, but I almost quit on the spot. To me, that’s shorthand for a very dictatorial style of management.

So Bartlett’s post, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is one I keep coming back to. He says that:

I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.

[…]

These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.

Richard D. Bartlett

That’s quite a challenging notion for me, having been in situations within very hierarchical organisations where people try and put me in a box, tie me to a particular role, or otherwise indicate I should stick to my own lane.

It’s something I’m continue to process. I’m not sure whether Bartlett’s correct. It’s a great argument, and I’ve certainly seen some great organisations structured by way of what I’d call the “default operating system” of hierarchy.

Perhaps the thing is that it’s easy to show the difference between the way an organisation is structured (its nodes) as opposed to the the difference between the way those nodes connect with one another. Interactions between other human beings are complicated, and difficult to put in a neat diagram.


Recently, Sam Altman, President of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, wrote a Twitter thread which he entitled How To Be Successful At Your Career. It’s what people do instead of blogging these days, it would appear.

One tweet in the thread really stuck out to me, especially in this context of hierarchy and coercive power relationships:

The most successful people (judged by history, not money) continually look for the most important thing they are able to work on, and that’s what they do. They do not get trapped in local maxima, and they do not deceive themselves if they find something more important.

Sam Altman

In other words, what you’re attempting to do should transcend the organisation you currently work for and the people with whom you currently work. I believe Steve Jobs called this “making a dent in the universe”. It’s unlikely to happen if you’re playing politics within your organisation, if you’re abusing a position of power, or you’re spending all day in meetings.


Fred Wilson, a VC, says he often gets asked what to work on. This is understandable, given it’s his job to keep his finger on the pulse of companies in which he can invest. Wilson sums up by saying:

You must work on something that inspires you and others, you must work on something with a significant impact, and you must do it in a way that makes getting where you want to go as easy as possible and keeps you there as long as possible.

Fred Wilson

I think this is a good mantra, and I appreciate that he doesn’t just consider ‘impact’ to be ‘financial impact’, but also “how it changes the way people think and how they react to your product or service or innovation”.


Context is really important. It’s the reason why there is no one-size-fits-all approach to organisational structures, and why, unless you’re the founder of the organisation, you will never be 100% aligned with everything it does. And even then, if your organisation grows to make an impact, there will be a difference between you and the organisation you helped to gestate.

All we can do, at any given point, is to weigh up where we are, using principles such as Fred Wilson’s:

  1. Am I working on something that inspires me (and others)?
  2. Am I working on something with a significant impact?
  3. Am I working in a way that makes getting where I want to go as easy as possible (and keeps me there as long as possible)?

As Altman writes, that’s likely to be in a place that doesn’t play politics and, to Bartlett’s point, it’s important to pay very close attention to power dynamics. In short, it’s important to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I best positioned to make the particular dent I’ve decided to make in the universe?”

6 Comments

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  1. This reminds me of a long-standing thread in Dave Pollard’s work on looking for that sweet spot in work, the intersection of ‘what needs to be done’, ‘what I am good at’, and ‘what I enjoy’. And means of evaluating each of those three domains (eg., How do I determine what needs to be done? How do I know what I’m good at?).

    • Yes, like the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’! I think your questions are a lifelong project – but I reckon most people should have preliminary answers to this by the time they hit 40…

      (he says, as a 39 year-old!)

  2. Plenty to think about in this piece Doug, thank you. My only question is where family fits within all this? Always something to consider.

  3. I like the discussion here as well as a recent one on Twitter between Jon Husband and Harord Jarche: http://impedagogy.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/pablo-2020-01-17T074338.198.png

    Really like what Jarche says (and don’t know if he is quoting Bartlett here): “Power is not needed to manage, only to coerce.”

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