Tag: success

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?”

Friday flurries

It’s been a busy week, but I’ve still found time to unearth these gems…

  • The Dark Psychology of Social Networks (The Atlantic) — “The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.”
  • Live Your Best Life—On and Off Your Phone—in 2020 (WIRED) — “It’s your devices versus your best life. Just in time for a new decade, though, several fresh books offer a more measured approach to living in the age of technology. These are not self-help books, or even books that confront our relationship with technology head-on. Instead, they examine the realities of a tech-saturated world and offer a few simple ideas for rewriting bad habits, reviewing the devices we actually need, and relearning how to listen amid all the noise.”
  • People Who Are Obsessed With Success and Prestige (Bennett Notes) — “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment. A guy who starts many endeavors and side projects just because he wants to be known as the creator of something. This a guy who wants to build another social app, not because he has an unique problem that’s unaddressed, but because he wants to be the cool tech entrepreneur who everyone admires and envies. This is a guy who probably doesn’t care for much of what he does, but continues to do so for the eventual social validation of society and his peers.”
  • The Lesson to Unlearn (Paul Graham) — “Merely talking explicitly about this phenomenon is likely to make things better, because much of its power comes from the fact that we take it for granted. After you’ve noticed it, it seems the elephant in the room, but it’s a pretty well camouflaged elephant. The phenomenon is so old, and so pervasive. And it’s simply the result of neglect. No one meant things to be this way. This is just what happens when you combine learning with grades, competition, and the naive assumption of unhackability.”
  • The End of the Beginning (Stratechery) — “[In consumer-focused startups] few companies are pure “tech” companies seeking to disrupt the dominant cloud and mobile players; rather, they take their presence as an assumption, and seek to transform society in ways that were previously impossible when computing was a destination, not a given. That is exactly what happened with the automobile: its existence stopped being interesting in its own right, while the implications of its existence changed everything.”
  • Populism Is Morphing in Insidious Ways (The Atlantic) — “If the 2010s were the years in which predominantly far-right, populist parties permeated the political mainstream, then the 2020s will be when voters “are going to see the consequences of that,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading, in England, told me.”
  • It’s the network, stupid: Study offers fresh insight into why we’re so divided (Ars Technica) — “There is no easy answer when it comes to implementing structural changes that encourage diversity, but today’s extreme polarization need not become a permanent characteristic of our cultural landscape. “I think we need to adopt new skills as we are transitioning into a more complex, more globalized, and more interconnected world, where each of us can affect far-away parts of the world with our actions,” said Galesic.”
  • Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won’t Help (Hapgood) — “But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work.”
  • How to get more done by doing less (Fast Company) — “Sometimes, the secret to doing more isn’t optimizing every minute, but finding the things you can cull from your schedule. That way, you not only reduce the time you spend on non-essential tasks, but you can also find more time for yourself.”

Image via xkcd

Tennessee Williams on the problems that come with success

I can’t remember now where I came across this link to a 1947 essay entitled ‘The Catastrophe of Success’ written by Tennessee Williams’ for The New York Times. It’s excellent, and I’m not sure how to keep this down to my customary maximum limit of three quotations.

Williams talks about being suddenly thrust into the limelight and a life of luxury after, well, the opposite:

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

Staying in a ‘first-class hotel suite’ didn’t bring him pleasure but rather made him rather depressed. He didn’t feel inspired or ready to create a follow-up to his breakout play The Glass Menagerie and was rather embarrassed not only by the attention, but because he no longer had to perform any menial tasks:

I have been corrupted as much as anyone else by the vast number of menial services which our society has grown to expect and depend on. We should do for ourselves or let the machines do for us, the glorious technology that is supposed to be the new light of the world. We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.

The biggest takeaway for me is the line I’ve highlighted below. We’re meant to struggle in life. That doesn’t mean a life of poverty or hardship, but it is important to struggle towards something, particularly in creative endeavours:

One does not escape that easily from the seduction of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will not continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—-why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

So, yes, the ‘catastrophe’ of success.

Source: Genius.com