Early this morning, this article crossed my transom: Why I Won’t Run Another Startup. It’s short, and it’s excellent. Go read it.
It brought to mind an interesting social dynamic that, I think, is highly relevant to people trying to position themselves in an economy that is increasingly fluid, but still respects many of the old rules. In my mind, the key quote is here, and it agrees with my own personal experience in and around startups, having been on both sides of the purchasing discussion:
Every office-bound exec wants to love a startup. Like a pet. But no one wants to buy from a startup. Especially big companies. Big companies want to buy from big, stable businesses. They want to trust that you’ll still be around in a few years. And their people need to feel you’re a familiar name.
Startups are cool. Someone who is putting his reputation and years of emotional and financial investment at risk, for gold or glory, conforms to a charismatic archetype. That “cool” status might beget power– but usually not. People like scrappy underdogs, but they don’t trust them. Being “scrappy” or “lean” makes you cute, and it might inspire in others a mild desire to protect you, but you don’t have power until people want you to protect them.
One of the more obvious examples of “cool versus powerful” is in an urban nightclub scene, which has its own intriguing sociology. Nightclub and party scenes are staunchly elitist and hierarchical but, at the same time, eager to flout the mainstream concept of social status. A 47-year-old corporate executive worth $75 million might be turned away at the door, while a 21-year-old male model gets in because he knows the promoter. Casinos have a similar dynamic: by design, pure randomness (except in poker and, to a degree, in blackjack) can pull you out to be either a gloating winner or a stupendous loser for the night. The gods of the dice are egalitarian with regard to the “real world”. People are attracted to both of these scene because they have definitions of cool that are often contrary to those of mainstream, “square”, society.
On Saturday night at the club, old status norms are inverted or ignored. In a reversal of uncool corporate patriarchy, the young outrank the old, women outrank men, and having friends who are club promoters matters more than having friends who are hiring managers or investors. Such is “cool”. In fact, cool may be fickle, but it can make a great deal of money while it lasts. Most cool people will be poor, unable either to bottle their own lightning or to exploit others’ electricity in a useful way, but a few who open the right nightclub in the right spot will make millions. Overtly trying to make money (given that most cool people, although being middle- to upper-middle-class in native socioeconomic status, have very little cash on hand due to youth and underemployment) is deliberately uncool. In fact, most of the money made in the cool industry is from uncool people who want in, e.g. investment bankers whose only hope of entry is to drop $750 for a $20 bottle of vodka (“bottle service”).
Cool rarely leads to meaningful social status, and it doesn’t last. I’m writing this at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning in Chicago; at this exact moment and place, who knows which club promoter in L.A. means nothing. (I’m also a 31-year-old married man. Besides, if I did care to try for cool– I wasn’t so successful when I was the right age for it– I’d tell the U.S. nightlife to fuck itself and head for Budapest’s ruin pubs; but that’s another story.) Cool rarely lasts after the age of 30, an age at which people are just starting to have actual power. And while one of the most powerful things (in terms of having a long-term effect on humanity) one can do is to contribute to posterity either as a parent or a teacher, both roles are decidedly uncool.
One of my least favorite office trends is that toward cramped, noisy spaces: the open-plan office. Somehow, the Wolf of Wall Street work environment became the coolest layout in the working world. It’s ridiculously ineffective: it causes people to be sicker and less productive, and while the open-plan layout is sold as being “collaborative”, it actually turns adversarial pretty quickly. It’s a recurring 9-hour economy class plane ride to nowhere, which is not exactly the best theater for human relationships or camaraderie. On an airplane, people just want their pills or booze to kick in so they can forget their physical discomfort for long enough to sleep, and they’re so cranky that even the flight attendant offering free beverages annoys them; in an office, they just want to put their headphones on and get something the fuck done.
Why is an open-plan office “cool”? Those who tend to view management in the worst possible light will say that open-plan is about surveillance, control, and ego-fulfillment for the bosses. Lackeys who trust management implicitly actually believe the nonsense about these spaces being “collaborative”. Neither is correct. The open-plan monster is actually about marketing. “Scrappy” startups have to sell themselves constantly to investors and clients. The actual getting done of work is quite subtle. Show me a quiet workplace where the median age is 45, people have offices with doors, half the staff are women, and there are mathematical scribblings on the whiteboards, and you’ve shown me a place where a lot’s getting done, but it doesn’t look productive from the “pattern matching” viewpoint of a SillyCon Valley venture capitalist. At 10:30 on a random Tuesday, all I’m going to see are people (old people! women with pictures of kids on their desks! people who leave at 5:30!) typing abstract symbols into computers. Are they writing formal verification software that will save lives… or are they playing some complicated text adventure game that happens to run in emacs and just look like Haskell code? If I’m an average VC, I won’t have a clue. Show me a typical open-plan startup office, and it immediately looks frantically busy, even if little’s getting done.
Being in an open-plan office makes you cool but it lowers your social status. There’s no contradiction there, because coolness and power often contradict. It makes you cool because it shows that you’re young and adaptable to the startup’s ravenous appetite for attractiveness– to investors and clients. The company’s not established or trusted yet, so it needs to strike a powerful image, and if you work in a trading-floor environment (for 1/7th of what your trading counterpart is paid in order to compensate for that environment) then you’re doing your part to create that image. You’re pitching in to the startup’s overarching need to market itself; you’re a team-player. (If you want to get actual work done, do it before 10:00 or after 5:00.) By accepting the otherwise degrading work situation of being visible from behind, you’re part of what makes that “scrappy underdog” an emotional favorite: the cool factor.
All of that said, people with status and power avoid visibility into many aspects of their work. Always. This is visible even in physical position. Even in an “egalitarian” open-plan office, the higher status people will, over time as seats shuffle, be less visible from behind than the peons. A newly-hired VP might face undesirable lines of sight in his first six months, but after a couple years, he’ll be in the row with a wall at his back.
One thing that I have learned is that it’s best if no one knows how hard you’re working. I average about 50 hours per week but, occasionally, I slack and put in a 3-hour day. Other times, I throw down and work 14-hour days (much of that at home). I prefer that no one know which is happening at the time. I certainly don’t want to be perceived as the hardest-working person in the office (low status) or the least hard-working (low commitment). Being “the Office X” for any X is undesirable; it’s OK to be liberal (or conservative, or Christian, or atheist, or feminist) and known for it, but you don’t want to be the Office Liberal, or the Office Conservative, or the Office Christian, or the Office Atheist, or the Office Feminist. Likewise, you never want to be the Office Slacker or the Office Workhorse. So on the rare day that I do need to slack, I up-moderate the appearance of working hard and do a couple tasks on my secret backlog of things that look hard but only take a couple minutes; and when I am working harder than anyone else, I down-moderate that appearance so that whatever I achieve seems more effortless than it actually was, because visible sacrifice or extreme effort might make one a “team player” but it’s a low-status move. That said, even if my work effort were exactly socially optimal (75th percentile in a typical startup, or 50 hours per week) I would still want uncertainty about how much I’m working. Let’s say that 10 hours per day is the socially optimal work effort and I’m working exactly that. Still, if anyone else knows that I’m working exactly that much, then I utterly lose, status wise, compared to the “wizard” who works the exact same amount but has completely avoided visibility into his work and might be working 3 hours per day and might be working 17. Being “pinpointed”, even if you’re at the exact right spot, makes you a loser. That’s why I hate “Agile” regimes that are designed to pinpoint people. Ask around about the work effort of a high-status person (like a CEO) and, because he’s not pinpointed, people will see what they want to see. Those who value effort will perceive an all-in hard worker, while those who admire talented slackers will see her as a supremely efficient “10x” sort of person.
This is what young people generally don’t get– and that older people usually understand through experience, making them less of a “culture fit” for the more cultish companies– about “Agile” and open-plan offices and violent transparency. Allowing extreme visibility into your work, as the “Agile” fad that is destroying software engineering demands, makes you cool. It makes you well-liked and affable. However, it disempowers you, even if your work commitment is exactly the socially optimal amount. It makes you a pretty little boy (or girl); not a man or woman. It makes you “a culture fit” but never a culture maker.
When you let people know how hard (or how little) you work, you’re giving away critical information and getting nothing in return. How little or how much you work can always be used against you; if you visibly work hard, people might see your efforts as unsustainable; they might distrust you on the suspicion that you have ulterior motives, like a rogue trader who never takes vacation; they might start tossing you undesirable grunt work assuming you’ll do it with minimal complaint; or they might think that you’re incompetent and have to work long hours to make up for your lack of natural ability. If you’re smart, you keep that information close to your chest. Just as your managers and colleagues should know nothing about your sex life, whether you’re having a lot of sex or none or an average amount; they should not know how many hours you’re actually working, whether you’re the biggest slacker or the hardest worker or right in the middle.
The most powerful statements that a person makes are what she gives, expecting nothing in return. It is not always a low-status move to do give something and ask for nothing back. Giving people no-strings gifts that help them and don’t hurt you is not just ethically good, but it also improve your status by showing that you have good judgment. Giving people gifts that don’t help them, but that hurt you, either supplicates you or shows that you have terrible judgment. No one gains anything meaningful when you provide Agile-style micro-visibility into your work– executives don’t make better decisions, the team doesn’t gel any better– but you put yourself at unnecessary political risk. You’re hurting yourself “for the team” but the team doesn’t actually gain anything other than information it didn’t ask for and can’t use (unless someone intends to use it politically, and possibly against you). By doing this, you signify yourself as the over-eager sort of person who unintentionally generates political messes.
The open-plan office is cool but lowers one’s status. That said, cubicles are probably worse: low status and uncool. Still, I’d rather have a private office: uncool and middle-aged, but high in status. Private space means that your work actually matters.
“I don’t care what other people think about me”
One of my favorite examples of the divergence between what is cool and what is powerful is the statement, “I don’t care what other people think about me”. It’s usually a dishonest statement. Why would anyone who means it, say it? It’s also a cool statement. Cool people don’t care (or, more accurately, don’t seem to care) what is thought about them. However, it’s disempowering. Let’s transform it into something equivalent: “I don’t care about my reputation“. That’s not so much a “cool” statement as a reckless one. Reputation has a phenomenal impact on a person’s ability to be effective, and “I don’t care if I’m effective” is a loser’s statement. And yet, reputation is, quite exactly, what others think about a person. So why is one equivalent statement cool, and the other reckless?
Usually, people who say, “I don’t care what you think about me” are saying one of two things. The first is a fuck-you, either to the person or to the masses. Being cool is somewhat democratic; it’s about whether you are popular, seen as attractive, or otherwise beloved by the masses. Appealing to power is not democratic; most peoples’ votes actually don’t count for much. (Of course, if you brazenly flip off the masses, you might offend many people who do matter, so it’s not advisable in most circumstances.) The 24-year-olds in the open-plan office who play foosball from noon till 9:00 can decide if you’re cool, but they have no say in what you’re paid, how your work is evaluated, or whether you’re promoted or fired. It’s better to have them like you than to be disliked by them, but they’re not the ones making decisions that matter. So, a person who says, “I don’t care what you think about me” is often saying, “your vote doesn’t matter”. That’s a bit of a stupid statement, because even other prole-kickers don’t like the brazen prole-kickers.
The second meaning of “I don’t care what you think about me” is “I don’t care if you like me“. That’s fundamentally different. Personally, I do care about what people think of me. Reputation is far more powerful a factor in one’s ability to be effective in anything involving other humans than is individual capability. A reputation for competence is crucial. However, I don’t really care that much about being liked. I don’t want to be hated, but there’s really no difference between being mildly disliked by someone who’d never back me in a tight spot and being mildly liked by a person who’d never back me in a tight spot. It’s all the same, along that stretch: don’t make this person as an enemy, don’t trust as a friend.
Machiavelli was half-right and half-wrong with “It is better to be feared than loved.” It is not very valuable to be vacuously “loved”, as “scrappy startups” often are. His argument was that beloved princes are often betrayed– and we see that, all the time, in Silicon Valley– whereas feared princes are less likely to be maltreated. This may apply to Renaissance politics, that period being just as barbaric (if not moreso) as the medieval era before it; but I don’t think that it applies to modern corporate politics. Being loved isn’t valuable, but being feared is detrimental as well. You don’t get what you want through fear unless what you want is to be avoided and friendless.
It is better to be considered competent than to be feared or loved. Competent at what? That, itself, is an interesting question. Take my notes, above, on why it is undesirable to provide visibility into how hard you work. If you’re a known slacker who, coasting on natural ability or acquired expertise, gets the job done and does it well, you’ve proven your competence at the job, but you’ve shown social incompetence, by definition, because people know that you’re working less hard than the rest of the team. Even if no one resents you for it, the fact that people have this information over you is one that lowers your status. Likewise, if you’re to be a reliable hard worker, you’ve shown competence at self-control and in focus; but, yet again, the fact that people know that you work longer hours than everyone else shows a bit of social incompetence. The optimal image, in terms of where you are on the piker-versus-workhorse continuum, is to be high enough in status that others’ image of you is exactly what you want it to be. I would say, then, that wants to be seen as being competent at life. It is not enough to be competent only at the job; that keeps you from getting fired, but it won’t get you promoted.
Of course, the idea that there’s such a thing as “competent at life” is ridiculous. I’m highly competent at most things that I do, but if I somehow got into professional football, I’d be one of the worst incompetents ever seen. “Competent at life” is an image, if not a hard reality. There probably isn’t such a thing, because for anyone there is a context that would humiliate that person (for me, professional football). That said, there are people who have the self-awareness and social acumen to make themselves most visible in contexts where they are the most competent (and have moments of incompetence, such as when learning a new skill, in private) and there are others who don’t. It’s best to be in the former group and therefore create the image (since there is no such reality) of universal competence.
It is better to be thought competent than to be loved or to be feared. If you are beloved but you are not respected and you are not trusted to be competent, you can be tossed aside in favor of someone who is prettier or more charismatic or younger or cooler or “scrappier” and more of an underdog; and, over time, the probability of that happening approaches one. People will feel a mild desire to protect you, but no one will come to you for protection. This is of minimal use, because the amount of emotional energy that powerful people have to expend in the protection of others is usually low; the mentor/protege dynamic of cinema is extremely rare in the real world; most people with actual power were self-mentoring. However, if you are feared, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be respected or seen as capable. Plenty of people are feared because they’re catastrophically incompetent. You’re much more likely to be avoided, isolated, and miserable, than to get your way through fear. Furthermore, it’s often necessary that blatant adversaries (i.e. someone who might damage your reputation or career to bolster his, or to settle a score) be intimidated, but you never want them to be frightened. An intimidated adversary declines to fight you, which is what you want; a frightened or humiliated one might do any number of things, most of which are bad for all parties.
Cool can disempower
It is not always undesirable to be cool or popular. Depending on one’s aims, it might be useful. Very young people are almost never powerful, and will have more fun if they’re seen as cool than if not. When you’re 17, teachers and parents and admissions officers (all uncool) have the power, so there’s a side game that’s sexier and more accessible. When you’re 23, being “cool” can get you a following and venture funding and turn you from yet-another app developer to a “founder” overnight. There is, however, a point (probably, in the late 20s) at which cool becomes a childish thing to put away. If you work well in a Scrum environment, that might make you “cool” in light of current IT fads, but it ultimately shows that you’ve excelled at subordination, which does not lend you an aura of power. (“Agile: How to be a 10X Junior Developer.”)
I am, of course, not saying that being likeable or cool are, ever, bad things. All else considered, it’s better to have them than not. They just aren’t very useful. They aren’t the same thing as status or power, and sometimes one must be chosen or the other. Open-plan culture and the startup world fetishize coolness and distract people from the uncool but important games that they’ll have to play (and get good at) in order to become adults. Ultimately, having a reputation for professional competence and being able to afford nice vacations is just more important than being considered “cool” by people who won’t remember one’s name in 10 years. At some point, you realize that it’s more important to have a career that’ll enable you to send your kids to top schools than to win the approval of people who are just a year and a half out of those schools. The “sexiness” of the startup cult seems to derive itself from those who haven’t yet learned this.