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Startups, company culture, technology, writing and life

How to strip off in front of your staff

Here’s a great article by my wife and cofounder, Paulina, on the topic of open cultures and her journey through the last few years, as we embraced more and more of the building blocks of open cultures in GrantTree:

I’d like to propose something radical, I’ve tried over and over again in my own office: strip off in front of your team. Do it thoroughly and from the very beginning when you start employing people. Sounds scary and unusual? It tends to be, but only up to the point when it becomes the very DNA of your company, and the benefits become so strong and so obvious, you wouldn’t even dream of running the business in a different way.

 

Sam Altman and the Internet lynching problem

This story begins with Sam Altman’s article about sexism in technology, with its strong follow-up, a reminder to investors, by YC partner and cofounder Jessica Livingston. Both make the same perfectly valid and unimpeachable point: disgusting sexist behaviour by investors is bad. I’d like to start by agreeing with this point, wholeheartedly. In fact, only a few days ago I wrote a blog post on this very topic. It’s here.

Unfortunately, sexism is one of those conversations that has a tendency to degenerate into shouting matches. The fault lies on both sides – and on neither side, actually.

Weak Man

At this point, it’s worth stepping outside of this thread for a second and reading Scott Alexander‘s excellent article about the “weak man” superweapon. It’s really great. Read it, I’ll wait.

For those who didn’t follow my instructions above, the article begins with a simple few questions:

There was an argument on Tumblr which, like so many arguments on Tumblr, was terrible. I will rephrase it just a little to make a point.

Alice said something along the lines of “I hate people who frivolously diagnose themselves with autism without knowing anything about the disorder. They should stop thinking they’re ‘so speshul’ and go see a competent doctor.”

Beth answered something along the lines of “I diagnosed myself with autism, but only after a lot of careful research. I don’t have the opportunity to go see a doctor. I think what you’re saying is overly strict and hurtful to many people with autism.”

Alice then proceeded to tell Beth she disagreed, in that special way only Tumblr users can. I believe the word “cunt” was used.

I notice two things about the exchange.

First, why did Beth take the bait? Alice said she hated people who frivolously self-diagnosed without knowing anything about the disorder. Beth clearly was not such a person. Why didn’t she just say “Yes, please continue hating these hypothetical bad people who are not me”?

Second, why did Alice take the bait? Why didn’t she just say “I think you’ll find I wasn’t talking about you?”

After much intelligent and enjoyable discussion1, it concludes:

In the example we started with, Beth chose to stand up for the people who self-diagnosed autism without careful research. This wasn’t because she considered herself a member of that category. It was because she decided that self-diagnosed autistics were going to stand or fall as a group, and if Alice succeeded in pushing her “We should dislike careless self-diagnosis” angle, then the fact that she wasn’t careless wouldn’t save her.

Alice, for her part, didn’t bother bringing up that she never accused Beth of being careless, or that Beth had no stake in the matter. She saw no point in pretending that boxing in Beth and the other careful self-diagnosers in with the careless ones wasn’t her strategy all along.

In short, if you are part of group X (or if you are just believed to be part of group X) and group X includes subgroup X1, which is not representative (and which you may dislike), then if someone attacks group X1 you find yourself with a choice of either defending group X1 (who you don’t even agree with) (option 1), or distancing X from X1 as thoroughly as you can (option 2), or being on a slippery slope that leads to group X being publicly discredited, and you along with it (option 3).

This fairly convincingly explains why men tend to react to statements like “men are rapists2 by saying “hey, wait a minute, not all men are like that.” Because it’s of course true – the majority of men are not rapists, wouldn’t dream of being rapists, abhor rapists, would cut off social ties with anyone found to be a rapist immediately, etc. But since option 1 is totally not available (rapists are indefensible) and option 3 feels intuitively like a bad choice in the long term, many men will pick option 2, and make the obviously true statement that “hey, you’re exaggerating quite a bit there, not all men are rapists”.

Which gets feminists very excited. They get to point at their feminist bingo card3 and say “oh my god, he used the ‘not all men’ argument, what a douche, I wonder what other stupid sexist patterns this guy uses.”.

Which leads to completely unproductive discussion. The ironic part is, the “not all X” argument then gets lobbed in both directions, with the reverse statement being that not all feminists are narrow-minded bingo card abusers. Both sides are thus locked in an eternal struggle till Judgement Day (which is starting to sound like a good thing in comparison).

Yes, I just summarised Scott’s arguments. I know what you’re going to say: “Not all of us readers skipped that article that you recommended reading!” There must be a blogist blogwiki entry for that meme.

Insanity

In such a climate, and having even a vague awareness of how the internet is a batshit crazy place, it’s not very surprising that an intelligent, self-aware, publicly-facing organisation is going to try to defend itself proactively.

Which brings us back to YC’s announcements. Chris Stucchio wrote a blog post in response that fairly comprehensively analyses the very loose and shoddy logic in Sam Altman’s post. In short, the post conflates various orthogonal statements that don’t really fit together in any sort of coherent argument. This poses the question of why a smart guy like Sam would write an incoherent blog post like that. Chris answers that question in a Hacker News comment that naturally got obliterated by HN users and by a high-profile member of the community since it takes an unpopular view:

YC is attempting to appease the internet bullies and avoid unwanted media attention (witness the Paul Graham sexism non-incident), not convey facts.

In context of this discussion, it shouldn’t be all that original or controversial to come to this conclusion. The internet is a crazy place. The tech scene is a prominent place on the internet. A number of high-profile tech organisations have been attacked very publicly recently (some for very obviously good reasons, some more ambiguous, some actually targeted at YC and HN itself on laughably bad premises). There is a general climate of extreme hostility in the tech scene, spearheaded by aggressive characters, often (but not always) justified in their reaction by actual behaviour. Basically, shit can erupt in any direction at any moment for valid or invalid reasons and hit a multiplicity of fans that will make for a very unpleasant few days for whoever has to clean up, and can frequently produce sufficient effect to cause founders to be kicked out of their own companies.

It’s only sensible for any prominent player in this field to make some kind of meek statements trying to convey “hey, we’re not the bad guys, we’re totally with you” whether or not that is true. In that context, Sam’s post is perfectly understandable and seems like a pretty sensible move to reduce the impact of any shit-and-fan incidents in the future.

If only…

If only it were that simple. There’s one dynamic that’s not at all covered by this. Feminists are not alone in their single-minded and aggressive pursuit of a somewhat intolerant agenda. There’s countless other groups that can be equally narrow-minded and bigoted. And based on my anecdotal observations, they all seem to be on the rise, figuring out how to be more and more effective at using online tools to organise instant lynch mobs and attack whatever target they set their sights on today.

Recently we got a first-rate and somewhat ironic explosion when Richard Dawkins, atheist extraordinaire, met feminism. It was ironic because atheists, like feminists, are themselves a group (X) that contains an X1 which is highly aggressive and narrow-minded4. When X1 met Y1, sparks ensued. Just be glad you weren’t in the middle of it.

So here’s the problem: first of all, trying to placate these groups is a losing strategy, because they are exceptionally narrow in their beliefs. If you’re not exactly on their agenda, repeating their mantras word for word, you’re a bad guy/gal/other. The second problem is that all those groups are growing in prominence5, and their agendas are mutually exclusive. So even if you do manage to placate one completely, you’ll inevitably tread on the others’ toes.

It’s not a battle anyone can win, let alone a public organisation.

So what to do?

I wish I had a grand solution to suggest, that would magisterially solve the problem in one fell swoop.

Unfortunately, this is the real world, and those solutions don’t exist. Damn.

I can, however, suggest a step in the right direction.

These *-ist movements are made of people like you and me. Some of them are very intelligent. How they get into the mindset of believing the narrow agenda of one of these groups baffles me, but it happens.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps this is a topic you’ve thought about. Perhaps feminism in tech is something that bothers you. Perhaps it’s some other form of social justice that you’re thinking of fighting for (the causes are many and varied and march around the field with their big flags waving for more supporters).

Here’s the very simple thing that you personally can do to help with this: don’t join one of those movements6. If you see one of those deaf arguments going on, don’t take sides. When someone in a hostile, polarised, *-ist environment makes a legitimate comment that seems to go against the grain, think carefully before you join in kicking them.

Internet flash lynch mobs are a reality we’re going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future, but what you can do personally is at least make sure you don’t join them. Support their agenda where it makes sense, but don’t join in the crazy conversation. Don’t condone it. Don’t give it more reach than it already has, however tempting it is to jump on a hobby-horse from time to time7. Lynch mobs thrive on the fact that large groups of people grab pitchforks, join in, and help make things even bigger and louder than they were. Don’t be one of those people. Just. Stay. Out. Of. It.8

If I’ve managed to convince even a single person that was standing on the edge of an *-ist-precipice to step back cautiously and think things through, this article has achieved its goals.


  1. You really should have read through!

  2. On that note, given how rabidly @shanley tends to push the “men are rapists” agenda, I find it highly amusing that a search for “shanley men are rapists” on DuckDuckGo turns out a bunch of articles about a priest called Shanley who is indeed a rapist (and a pedophile to boot), instead of any links to @shanley’s statements.

  3. Another long article very much worth reading

  4. You know, the kind of people who reply to your casual tweet by responding with a “.” in front of your handle and thereby ccing their entire 5000-rabid-fans following into the conversation and drowning out any possible sense instantly.

  5. The “personalisation” of the web, which allows everyone to see only a world they agree with and thereby feel like their Truth is uncontradicted by any evidence, is probably helping this trend.

  6. I have very little hope of convincing anyone already ensnared in one of those movements to leave…

  7. I realise how ironic it is for me to give this advice seeing as I’ve done this very thing myself (and am doing this right now). I am but human.

  8. Unless you figure out the magisterial solution I didn’t, of course…

Company culture: an open and shut model

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

How many ways can you categorise the ways that different startups organise themselves, the different flavours and colours of organisational culture adopted by companies through their life (and death). Far more than nine and sixty, I assure you. And, yes, each of them is right. Models of the world are usually helpful in making sense of the continuous chaos of reality.

I’d like to propose a very simple and useful model for startup (and, more widely, company) cultures, that I feel is relevant at this point in history: open and closed.

Hierarchical Pyramid

Closed cultures

There are a number of ways to run a closed culture, but the presence of any of the following features is usually a clear sign of an at least partially closed culture:

  • Secrecy by default: Business information is closed by default, on a need-to-know basis. Typically, only the senior management team has access to all the information (e.g. salaries and bonuses, detailed financials of the organisation, etc). These multi-layered secrets often form part and parcel of the power structure: the higher you are, the more information you have access to.
  • Top-down, hierarchical management: This can be implemented with varying degrees of flexibility, but the common element is the idea that you have a boss and you should do what they tell you. All closed cultures enable some elements of push-back from those savvy enough to know how to make their points from below, but the general mode of functioning is from the top to the bottom.
  • The Pyramid/Career Ladder: Closed organisations are without fail mapped out as pyramid-shaped: there is one CEO at the top, with a senior executive team below, and progressively wider layers as you go down. This Pyramid also provides the Career Ladder – the ever-receding MacGuffin1 that motivates people to work hard so they can one day get on top of the Pyramid and finally achieve true Success.
  • Focus on profit: The more advanced closed organisations tend to focus on profit above all2. This is measured as a number and is the primary driver of decision-making. If an action results in more profit, it’s worth doing. If the company makes more profit, it is more successful. Profit is the essential driver of all decisions. “How will it affect the bottom line?” is the main (or perhaps even only) question being asked.
  • Motivational measurements and individual incentives: Closed organisations, as they mature, learn to apply measurements as a method of ensuring performance. They will measure everything that can be measure and make up targets and projections (with varying degrees of involvement from those being measured), then hold people accountable to those estimates. Those who meet their targets are rewarded, and those who fail are punished.
  • Fixed roles and masks: In closed cultures, you are hired for a specific role. You can progress towards more managerial responsibilities through promotion, but typically, doing things outside of your role is discouraged (if only because it will step on the toes of the person who currently owns that role). In closed organisations you are your role. It’s no surprise, then, that most people put on a mask to go to work: while they are at the office, they are no longer a full person with a variety of wants and activities and aspirations, but a “Web Developer” or a “Marketing Manager”. Professional behaviour is all that’s accepted, and it’s all that’s given. 3
  • Distrust and control: A fundamental assumption of closed cultures is that people are lazy and cannot be trusted, so they need to be controlled, otherwise they will not do any work. This gives even more justification to adding more measurements and narrowly defining roles and performance criteria. When they don’t treat them like mindless cogs in a machine, closed cultures tend to treat employees like irresponsible children4.

There are countless examples of closed cultures: most of the companies and organisations in the world are run on the closed model. In fact, in many countries it is illegal to run a public company in an open way 5.  You’ve most likely worked for a closed company at some point in your life. In fact, chances are you’re working in one right now6.

Whilst closed cultures (which form the majority of business cultures today) are clearly capable of delivering great results, they have a number of deadly flaws, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later article. For now, let’s look at open cultures.

Open cultures

If there are many ways to run a closed culture, there are even more ways to run an open one7. Each open company tends to have its own way of expressing its culture. However, these are some typical commonalities by which to recognise an open culture:

  • Transparency by default: In open cultures, business information is publicly available to all employees. This includes salaries, but also bad news, strategic plans, problems, decisions, ideas, etc. People are trusted to be able to handle that information.
  • Flat hierarchy and/or self-management: If everyone knows everything and you’ve hired smart people in the right kinds of jobs, it is very difficult to maintain an arbitrary hierarchy, since everyone can contribute to any decision8. When you trust people, it is also unnecessary to set up managers whose job it is to check after them.
  • Personal development through work: When there is no career ladder, how do people achieve career progression? The obvious solution is that they take on more responsibilities without having to go “up” an arbitrary ladder. As a natural consequence of that, it is possible for people to fully express themselves in their work, by getting involved in their full range of interests, so they can achieve more personal development than they would in a narrow role with a career ladder.
  • Multiple stakeholders, values, and purpose: In open organisations, the idea of valuing profit above all others becomes obviously absurd. It’s not only shareholders, but also employees, suppliers, customers, society, and the environment, which matter. The company does not exist in a vacuum. Values become a way to express what the company cares about, rather just a motivational slogan. Along with the higher purpose of the company, they become the way that decisions get made in open cultures.
  • Team or company incentives: There is a progression from the closed culture approach of individual incentives, via team incentives, towards the eventual ideal, which is a system where base pay is determined by a combination of what the person is contributing, what the person needs, and what the company can afford, along with company-wide bonuses. Individual incentives are shunned.
  • Self-determined pay: One of the surefire signs of an open culture is when people determine their own pay. In most companies, this is unthinkable. In open cultures, it becomes a natural consequence of all the other stuff. After all, if you trust people to make all sorts of important decisions about the company, why not trust them to make this decision too?9
  • Separation of role and person: The idea that a person and their role are intrinsically bound becomes visibly stupid as the culture opens up. Eventually, it is clear that people are not their roles, but are capable of engaging in several roles simultaneously, contributing more fully to the organisation’s needs. This further enables people to accomplish themselves and to be fully themselves at work instead of wearing masks. One of the ways this is accomplished is through Open Allocation.
  • Trust: Perhaps most important is the fact that open cultures treat employees like adults, trusting them to do the right thing even in complex or ambiguous situations. There are of course processes to help people make better decisions, but the key point is that all these processes start from a perspective of trust and responsibility.

The benefits of running companies this way ought to be obvious, but in case they need to be spelled out:

  • People in open cultures are more engaged, happier, more creative, they contribute more, etc. This makes them much more fun to work in, both as a founder and as an employee, but also much more productive – people work much more effectively when they care.
  • Having a better environment makes it easier to hire great people.
  • Open cultures are way more adaptable to change. Change management is an oxymoron in an open culture: change happens constantly and continually, not through expensive, long-winded, and often failure-prone change processes.
  • Because they motivate people so much better, open cultures are, ironically, also better at achieving sustainable, long-term financial results10.

There are some examples of open cultures out there, too, to varying degrees. GrantTreeBuffer, Valve and Github, in the startup space, are known examples of open cultures. Others include Semco, Burtzorg, Happy Startup, MorningStar, and many others in all sorts of different contexts and sizes. All companies could adopt an open culture, but most don’t. Why is that?

Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux, studies a dozen or so open cultures and comes to the conclusion that two things are absolutely prerequisite for an open culture to exist for any length of time: both the CEO/Leader and the owners must be fully supportive of this (currently) unconventional way of operating. Otherwise, eventually the company hits a hard time, and either the CEO or the owners pressure it into returning to a more traditional (i.e. closed) mode of functioning. So the obvious reason why more companies are not currently open is because most CEOs are not prepared to let go of their control mindset, and when they are, the owners (whether private owners or VCs with board seats and a traditional, closed mindset, or simply public markets) frequently won’t let them.

If you’re a founder of a startup, this poses an interesting challenge: are you up to the challenge of creating an open culture in your business? Even when that involves giving up the trappings of power? Even when that involves passing on an investment round from an investor whom you know will force the company to change its ways when it hits a rough patch?

If so, welcome to the club. Follow this blog11, and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned in transforming GrantTree to be an open company. This is still a new field so we can all learn from each other.


  1. In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. See Wikipedia

  2. Less advanced closed cultures are satisfied with stability

  3. Another sign of this is the internal interview: to change your role, you must go through a complex and scary process of interviewing again in the new department.

  4. This of course encourages infantile behaviour. The company then becomes paranoid about trying to keep everyone in line through more controls, which leads to more child-like behaviour, etc.

  5. For example, directors of public corporations usually have a fiduciary duty to shareholders – meaning the focus on profits above all other things is encoded in law.

  6. If not, congratulations!

  7. Part of that is probably due to the fact that open cultures are relatively new and rare, so “best practices” are still evolving

  8. Usually one of the main ways that a hierarchy maintains itself is by gaining control of information. There’s no easier way to create a power differential in a meeting than for one person to say to the other “I know something that you’re not allowed to know.”

  9. There is one reason: fear. But it’s not a good reason.

  10. For some empirical evidence, have a read through Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, which examines a dozen open organisations a number of which are doing exceptionally well in a market of closed competitors

  11. You can also sign up to receive these articles by email, on the right in the footer.

How Psychedelics saved Amber Lyon’s life

Emmy-Award-winning, former CNN investigative reporter Amber Lyon on her new site reset.me:

I invite you to take a step back and clear your mind of decades of false propaganda. Governments worldwide lied to us about the medicinal benefits of marijuana. The public has also been misled about psychedelics.

(…)

Five ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms cured my anxiety and PTSD symptoms. The butterflies that had a constant home in my stomach have flown away.

(…)

I was blessed with an inquisitive nature and a stubbornness to always question authority. Had I opted for a doctor’s script and resigned myself in the hope that things would just get better, I never would have discovered the outer reaches of my mind and heart. Had I drunk the Kool-Aid and believed that all ‘drugs’ are evil and have no healing value, I may still be in the midst of a battle with PTSD.

Forgetting the personal development benefits of psychedelic drugs, the fact that our society does not explore their benefits to people with mental disorders is a disgrace of modern medicine and politics.

I wish Amber the best of luck in her reset.me venture. I hope it focuses on clean investigative reporting, consistently making the case for more psychedelic drug research, rather than letting itself be drowned in mysticism and superstition.

On discrimination in the tech industry

Whilst I am not one to side with dogmatic ultra-feminists, this kind of behaviour is not only reprehensible, it is disgusting and stupid:

After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.

Silicon Valley may be a hotbed of technical innovation, but when it comes to social standards it seems to be pretty far backwards:

It’s not merely the men. Sometimes women help perpetuate the same tropes. Once while presenting to a group, the only female on the panel began an onslaught of questions, including “Did your daddy give you money?” “Are you old enough to drive?” and “How are you going to run up the corporate ladder in those shoes?” What was billed as a 20-minute pitch turned into a three-and-half hour inquisition.

Unfortunately, this is not even limited to Silicon Valley. This one is from a New York investor:

When she asked why, he told her. “I don’t like the way women think,” he said. “They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” To prove his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritize her to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment her, he told Tucker she was different. “You’re more male,” he said.

People who behave in this manner have no place in civilised society. They should be shunned just as they would be if they spouted racist jokes, joked about hitting people while drunk driving, or occasionally burst into homophobic rants. Perhaps the sad thing is that some of those people do those things as well, and still get away with it. Such is the power of money and position, still, today.

Beyond what women are already doing, i.e. patiently changing the system by becoming part of the system and then forcing it to change from within, and occasionally publicly shaming an exceptionally bad player, unfortunately there doesn’t seem much else to do. Change takes time. Deep, societal change takes more time.

Those backwards dinosaurs who still think it’s ok to beat up women or discriminate against them (or, indeed, any other minority) will die eventually. All of them. Let’s make sure no new generations are brought up in the belief that any of those behaviours are ok.

Based on the last few hundred years of history, I think we’re moving in the right direction.

You can’t hide from yourself

I got into a little Twitter debate the other day about whether it is possible to teach founders to build a good company culture. The answer, I believe, is more ambiguous than just “yes” or “no”.

There’s definitely a case to be made for teaching a founder some best practices of how to build the startup culture they want and mean to build. If, for example, you’re trying to build a top-down, hierarchical organisation, because that’s your thing and that’s what represents your values best, there are definitely ways to do it and ways not to do it. The same is true of consensus-based organisations, and even of open cultures (the name I’m trying to coin for the sort of culture we’re building at GrantTree). Right now, for example, I’m learning a tremendous amount from this book, which, however new-agey the intro, is full of great data about how a dozen other open organisations manage themselves, what best practices they’ve all evolved over decades of operation, etc.

So yes, you can teach culture. But you can only teach it if the founder is ready for it – nay, demands it, thirsts for it, needs it.

Who are you?

Your company culture’s foundational building block will inevitably be who you are as a founder or team of founders.  By that, I mean that your values, your personal development, and your larger goals in life, will inexorably shape the culture that you build. There’s no use writing the word “transparency” on the wall if it’s not something you personally value. It will just ring hollow and devalue your message that “we care about values here”.

This leads to a startling insight that is very worrying to most startup founders: the only way you can ensure you build a great company culture is by growing on a personal level.

granttree-office-treeAs a founder myself, I am bothered about this insight. I don’t like it. It feels dangerous and risky, because personal growth is not really under my control1. Some events will naturally compel personal growth through extreme emotions, others will find such growth in reading, or in talking to other people, or even in taking drugs or meditating or going to church. Each of us has our own way of growing and discovering ourselves. But one commonality is it always takes time and the rate of progress is largely out of our control.

Startup founders, operating in a sea of chaos and trying to make some order out of it, are often desperate for control. Ironically, or perhaps elegantly, part of personal growth in life is to realise that this quest for control is obsolete and irrelevant, to let go of illusions of control, to realise that there never was any control to begin with, just a delusion. Most people go through those phases in their personal lives, eventually. Parenthood certainly forces that insight on most people – creating another independent human being is the ultimate surrender of control.

Analogously to parenthood, trying to control your company’s every step instead of letting it thrive and having some faith in your and your colleagues’ abilities to change course if required, will result in a tortured company where everyone is clinging to that illusion and passing it on downwards to their minions.

This is not only applicable to control and trust as a value dichotomy, but to every value that you hold dear as a person. Whoever you are, whatever your values are, they will come through in the way that you build your company. You can’t hide from that. But there is something you can do.

How to build a better culture

If you can’t hide from who you are, the obvious thing you can do to build a better company culture is to actively seek out opportunities for personal growth. Unfortunately, the awfully saccharine self-help industry has been polluting the idea of personal growth for decades by vomiting uncountable numbers of nauseous books, videos, seminars, cult-like groups, coaches into the public consciousness, with little or no filtration of what’s good and what’s not. Self-help’s reputation, like the field of SEO or Social Media consultants, is rife with crass commercialism that seeks not to help, but to make a buck.

However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of personal growth itself is polluted, only that one must be more deliberate and particular about which inputs to accept. And, given the above conclusion, that who we are will have a huge impact on the kind of company culture we build, it is paramount that we do not let the tide of the self-help industry’s dross slow down our own personal growth.

So, the first thing we must do to ensure we build a better culture is to not only allow ourselves to grow, but also seek out this personal growth. As a founder but also as a human being, I am in a constant struggle to temper my natural skepticism towards all this “new age stuff” about meditation, presence in the moment, compassion, and life in general, because amidst all the dross are some very valuable lessons.

Once upon a time, I wrote an article positing that there were three kinds of games, with the larger, most fundamental ones being games of self, which are about finding boundaries within yourself and pushing them out, about transcending the internal limitations of your mind, your self, who you are. One of the more tangible and immediate paybacks of this game of self is that you will be able to build a better culture.

Today’s lesson is simple, then:

To build a better culture, become a better person.

It’s simple, and terribly difficult at the same time, but it’s the only way, because you can’t hide from yourself.

 

 


  1. There are ways to encourage it, to create opportunities for it, and to more consistently seize those opportunities. But you can no more speed up personal growth than you can the growth of a tree. You can make it easier for growth to happen, but you can’t force it.

Where do children’s earliest memories go?

Our first three to four years are the maddeningly, mysteriously blank opening pages to our story of self. As Freud said, childhood amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. During that time, we transition from what my brother-in-law calls ‘a loaf of bread with a nervous system’ to sentient humans. If we can’t remember much of anything from those years – whether abuse or exuberant cherishing – does it matter what actually happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn’t have the brains and cognitive tools to stash the event in memory, did it still help shape who we are?

Fascinating article, well worth a read. There’s something mysterious and wonderful about early childhood that we try to recapture through our entire lives.

How to lose weight

This article presents just one method of losing weight. It’s worked very, very well for me. It doesn’t require an extreme diet, it doesn’t require much money (you’ll save money, in fact), and it doesn’t require extreme amounts of willpower. All it requires is a bit of method and preparation.

I’ve gone through this “diet” three times (see graphs). The first time I went from 83kg to 75.5kg over about 3 months. The second time, from 80kg to 71kg over 4 months. My latest iteration of this diet has me down from 75kg to 68.5kg in about 2 months. When I started my first version of this diet, two and a half years ago, I was, according to my scale, at about 22% body fat (well into “overweight”). I am now at 14.3%, which is just below the middle of the “normal” range for men. I still have a little bit of belly fat, but considerably less than I used to.

Usual disclaimers: this worked for me, it may not work for you. I provide it with no suggestion that it will do you any good. It is not a way to get fit, or a way to get a six-pack, or a way to get healthy. I have no idea if it will work for obese people, because I’ve never been obese. I suspect it won’t hurt to try, and I’d love to hear about any successes, but I provide this information as-is. Make whatever use of it you like.

Willpower

Before I tried this approach, I tried to “diet” in a number of ways, mostly by telling myself that I’d be eating less, and making a concerted effort to not heap huge amounts of food onto my plate at every occasion1. None of those “dieting efforts” paid off, even though I really wanted to lose weight.

Fundamentally, losing weight is extremely simple: eat less than you spend. No diet can side-step this fundamental fact. If you eat a lot less than you spend, you’ll probably lose weight in an unhealthy way (your body will eat through your muscle tissue and even your organs if you push it hard enough – even if you still have fat left). If you eat a little less than you spend, you will lose weight in a slow and relatively predictable fashion2.

So why is it so bloody hard to lose weight? My theory is, the hardest thing with losing weight is not figuring out what to eat (or not eat). It’s actually not eating when you’re hungry.

When my body wants food, it is extremely good at convincing me to eat.

So really, losing weight is much more about willpower than about preparing and eating meals. This is why most of the advice below is about generating and sustaining willpower, rather than about eating. I firmly believe that anyone who wants to lose weight enough and is smart enough about sustaining the willpower to do so, will lose however much weight they want to lose.

Without further ado, onto the method.

Step 1: Weigh yourself every day

The first piece of advice is to weigh yourself every morning. Wake up, go to the toilet, and then step on the scale. Record that weight (more on this in step 2). Do this every day, at the same time every day. If you do it later than usual, you’ll be lighter. If you do it after eating breakfast, you’ll be (potentially a lot) heavier. If you wake up really early, you will be lighter.

A lot of weight-loss guides claim that you should only weigh yourself every week or two, because “the weight loss is not that visible otherwise”. Bullcrap. Weighing yourself first thing in the morning helps put you in the right state of mind to sustain your diet. Thinking about your weight every morning means that you’ll keep on thinking about your weight loss and stay motivated about it. The surest sign that my diet was failing was when I “forgot” to weigh myself for a week or two.

This is the most important step, and has nothing to do with what you eat.

Buy a body fat percentage scale. They are wildly inaccurate, but if you weigh yourself at the same time every day, you will get a rough idea of the trend of your body fat percentage. This is important because not all weight loss is equal. You want to lose mostly fat, not mostly muscle. A body fat percentage scale will keep reminding you that starving yourself is no good, since your body fat percentage will go up or stay steady when you do that, but it will go down along with your weight when you diet healthily.

Weigh yourself every day.

Step 2: Graph your weight

You might feel silly at first. You will feel delighted once you see how well this works.

During your weight loss, you will inevitably have some slips. Someone will sweet-talk you into having a big dinner. There’ll be that one day of actual real summer (with genuine sunshine) in London, and so you’ll have to have a bbq or wait for the next one (a year later). These things happen. Errare humanum est (to err is human).

If you only weigh yourself every morning without graphing it, then when you slip you will feel demoralised, because you will have gone up by a kilo and a half. That feels really harsh when it took you two weeks to lose that weight, and it might sap your willpower enough to give up.

A graph of your weight will give you perspective. When you can see a lovely straight line from 81kg to 76kg, an unfortunate bounce back up to 77.5kg isn’t such a drama. Thanks to the graph, you’ll see the mishap for what it is – a temporary mistake. It will also be hugely heartening to see the “bump” go straight back down over the next couple of days (assuming you don’t continue stuffing yourself!).

Have a look at my graphs – what do you see? The dead cat bounces along the way, or the irresistible, stock-market-like slide downwards?

Graph your weight every day.

Step 3: Eat less

There has to be one step about eating, eh?

You won’t lose weight unless you eat less. Any number of systems work, but I recommend a system that doesn’t involve starving yourself of essential nutrients. Continue to eat balanced. That includes fat, protein, carbs, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, plenty of water, and nothing in excess (even water is deadly in large quantities).

For me, the method that worked best and with the least expenditure of will-power was what I called “front-loading the day”, or the “big breakfast” diet. For the first two stints of this diet, I had my meals in reverse. My breakfast would involve stuffing myself with as much food as I could fit in my morning stomach. I followed that with a light lunch around 2-3pm, and then almost no dinner (or a low-calorie snack if I was hungry – examples in the appendix).

This “big breakfast” diet worked for me because I need to feel full once a day to be satisfied. But at breakfast, you’re more easily filled up. An 800-1000 calorie breakfast feels huge and very satisfying, whereas you can easily engulf one and a half times as many calories for dinner and feel only a bit full. Having one meal a day where you know you’ll be feeling stuffed also means it’s easier to last through the food-less evening, since you have a nice massive breakfast to look forward to.

For my latest weight-loss campaign, I’m having a small breakfast and a bigger lunch. That’s clearly working too, but I think the “big breakfast” variant was definitely easier. Another advantage I have nowadays is that I have less pressure to eat a proper dinner, since my girlfriend also skips dinner3.

It’s worth pointing out that for the first 3 to 5 days, you will feel very hungry in the evening. Have plenty of low-calorie snacks at hand (see appendix). Take heart: after the first few days, you don’t feel all that hungry in the evening anymore. You can eat if you must, but you’re not devoured by hunger anymore. I have actually sat by while others ate a delicious dinner and not felt hungry.

What to eat for breakfast? Anything you want, but I’ve had good luck with a full english breakfast (boiled+fried potatoes, eggs, bacon, the lot – no hash browns though), french-style crèpes (with ham and cheese – 5 small crèpes make for a very filling breakfast), and massive ham-and-cheese toasties (cooked in the oven).

If you don’t have any better ideas, I recommend you do what I did. Big breakfast (eat as much as you can!), light lunch, no dinner.

That’s it.

With those three simple principles I went from 83kg/22% two and a half years ago to 68.5kg/14.3% today (and it’s still dropping, I’m not done with this yet). All my friends will tell you that I have an extremely healthy appetite – I used to eat large portions of everything. I still do, sometimes. I love food, and consider it one of the pleasures of life. Eating less without the steps above is pretty much impossible for me.

And yet, I have done all this without ever feeling like I was making a titanic effort. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but the hardest step was really to do what most people consider downright weird: i.e. chart my weight, and decline to eat dinner4.

Thanks to this approach, I feel in control of my weight, which is nice. I’ve never really fancied getting fat, and it looks like I’ll be able to avoid that for the foreseeable future.

Thanks for reading this far. The rest of the article contains some additional tips that don’t fit within the three steps of the method. It’s helpful advice, I think, but not critical.

Summary:

  • Successful weight loss is about willpower, not food
  • Step 1: Weigh yourself every day, including body fat percentage
  • Step 2: Chart your weight and BF%, update every day
  • Step 3: Eat less, for example, by eating a big breakfast, light lunch, and no dinner

Enjoy your new lower weight! It feels great.

1 I didn’t try the crazy diets like Atkins or the Maple Syrup diet. Anything that requires eating crazy stuff is probably bad for your health. If you’re looking to lose a lot of weight quickly and don’t care about the health implication, just try amputation. It’ll be quick and the weight is guaranteed not to come back.

2 A good rate to aim for is between 0.5kg and 1kg a week. Whenever I observe myself losing more than that, I eat a little more to slow down the weight loss.

3 Don’t eat dinner on this diet. If you eat a proper dinner even twice a week, that’ll be enough to negate any weight loss. Dinners, especially in restaurants, often have huge amounts of calories. They also cost a lot – skipping dinner will save you lots of money.

4 It can be really hard to decline eating dinner, particularly if you have a partner. In fact, if you have a partner, I don’t recommend this diet, because it will put a huge strain on your relationship (it did for mine – to breaking point and beyond).

Appendix – further tips and thoughts

Initial dip

If you do the “Big Breakfast” approach, you will lose 2-3kg in the first week. That’s not real weight loss – most of it is due to the fact that you’re not eating dinner anymore, which makes morning a really light time for you. Once you start eating dinner again, you will regain 1-2kg of morning weight.

Weight variations

Your weight varies because of more than food. The average human breathes 11,000 liters of air a day. At 36 grams a liter, that’s over 400 kilograms of air. And we drink about 2-3 liters a day (2-3kg). In comparison, 2,500 calories of carbohydrates weigh about 500 grams. It’s no surprise that small differences in what you eat are swamped out on a daily basis. Trends, however, don’t lie.

Calorie counting

I did calorie counting for a couple of weeks once. I don’t think it’s worthwhile in the long term (and it will drive most people nuts), but it’s a good idea to do so just to get a good idea of what foods contain lots of calories. You will be shocked at just how many calories are contained in just one table-spoon of oil. It will change your stir-frying habits forever (hint: a bit of water works just as well to prevent stuff from burning).

Cooking

Learn to cook. It’s easy, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s by far the best way to eat healthy, satisfying meals that have the right amount of calories for your lifestyle.

Exercise

You’ll notice this plan says nothing of exercise. That’s because you don’t need to exercise to lose weight. In my case, I’ve found that exercise, by stimulating hunger, actually makes it harder to eat less. Whereas the weighing and charting generates motivation, exercise sucks it away. In the context of a healthy lifestyle, of course, exercise is very important. I just don’t think it’s that helpful for weight loss. Some notable publications agree with me.

Processed foods / pre-made meals

Avoid processed foods. They usually contain more calories and fewer nutrients. The closer you can get to “whole-grain”, the better. Brown rice beats white rice any day.

Pre-made meals are often the same, but you can find some exceptions. Examine the labelling carefully before eating.

Sugary drinks

Avoid. Until you’re in control of your weight, stay away from those altogether. They contain stupid amounts of calories. One little can of Coke contains 140 calories, all of it sugar. That’s like 7 teaspoons of sugar, for just one drink.

Soda drinks from junk food shops (e.g. McDonald’s) are even worse. They are sugared up to the max. If you really really want to treat yourself to a junk burger, have it without the soft drink.

Sugar

There’s truly astounding amounts of sugar in a lot of foods. In moderate quantities, though, sugar is not that bad. Don’t feel bad about putting a couple of teaspoons of sugar in your morning coffee if it makes your day a lot better. You can have three of those coffees and still not make up for a single can of Coke.

Beer

A whole pint of beer contains about 180 calories. That might sound like a lot, and it is, if you drink a lot of beer. However, in the greater scheme of things, I’ve found beer to be less of a problem – particularly on a no-dinner diet, where you get drunk really quickly and will rarely have more than two or three pints. Don’t make it a daily habit, but don’t feel too bad about having a couple of pints on friday after work, especially if you’ve earned it!

Anorexia

Don’t use a mirror to gauge your weight. That’s the surest way to anorexia. Lose weight to look better if you want (I do), but use an objective measure. Human beings are really bad at judging how fat they are using mirrors. They consistently over-estimate by a huge margin.

Healthy, very-low-calorie foods

What can you eat if you’re really hungry but it’s dinner time? Try one of these:

  • Instant miso soup (should be about 20 calories and very filling)
  • Cucumber, sliced lengthwise, drizzled with soy sauce (about 50 calories)
  • Red peppers, sliced, with some salt ground on top (about 50 calories)
  • Rice crackers (about 16 calories each)
  • Low-fat yoghurt (about 60 calories for the Danone Activia ones)
  • Two big glasses of water (0 calories!)

Typically, the hunger will go away within half an hour. If no, wait another half hour, then have another snack.

Low-fat / Low-sugar

A lot of scumbags in the food industry label high-fat foods “low sugar” and high-sugar foods “low fat”. Even a low-fat and low-sugar food can be high-calorie. Always check the label properly.

Fat

Fat is great for you. Don’t cut down on fat, cut down on overall food intake. Great sources of fat: olive oil, fish, nuts. I also like whole milk, and freshly cooked meat, but the general wisdom says that animal fats are not as good for you. It’s worth pointing out that most of my breakfasts through my first two weight-loss stints involved copious amounts of animal fat. The point is, fat might be good or bad for your health, but it’s neutral as far as weight loss is concerned: only calories count.

Dense, unfilling foods

Some types of food are very calorie-dense but not very filling. Oil and butter are the obvious examples (though they can be filling when used right). Other examples include processed fried foods (like pre-fried hash browns or french fries), dried fruits and nuts (see lower), sweets, chocolate bars, fruit juices (sadly), and so on. Always check the label. If it’s high-calorie but doesn’t seem very filling, it’ll probably leave you wanting.

Water

Often, when you think you want to eat something, you’re just thirsty. Before eating a snack, ask yourself whether you’re thirsty. If so, try a glass of water first, then eat half an hour later if still hungry.

Dried fruit and nuts

This has quite a bit of calories and isn’t very filling. It’s nice and healthy, but don’t abuse it. Remember, what counts is not how healthy it is, but how many calories it has.

Fresh fruit

Some fruit has lots of calories (e.g. grapes), but in general I’ve made it a rule never to forbid myself to eat fresh fruit, if I have some at hand. I’m beginning to think that it’s almost impossible to overeat on fresh fruit.

What about after the diet?

Keep recording and charting your weight pretty much forever, but return to a normal diet, making small adjustments based on the general trends that you observe on your graphs. So far, my observation has been that as long as I continued charting my weight, I did not regain any weight. I only ever gain weight when not charting my weight.

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How to nap

I am the kind of person who takes 30 minutes to an hour to fall asleep, most nights. Falling asleep is an ordeal for me (unless I’m completely exhausted). Don’t get me wrong – it’s not an unpleasant ordeal… there are worse things in life than lying in bed. But I truly envy those people who can just put their head on a pillow and drift off within moments. Oh, such bliss… not for me. I will lie in bed, awake, forever thinking and rethinking whatever happens to be on my mind at the time.

Because of this, I always thought that power napping was not for me. After all, power naps are supposed to last about 20 minutes, and you don’t need to be a maths genius to realise that if it takes you at least half an hour to fall asleep, 20 minutes won’t be enough. So, therefore, I thought, since I can’t fall asleep quickly, I can’t nap.

Fortunately for me, I was completely wrong about this.

Napping isn’t sleeping

The reason I was wrong is, napping is not sleeping. To get the benefit of a refreshing power nap, you don’t need to fall asleep. It’s enough to relax yourself and let your thoughts drift off, even while remaining mostly awake. If you can do this properly (it does take some practice), you can power nap even if you find it impossible to fall asleep quickly.

I learned how to nap when I was starting my first start-up, while still working full time at Accenture. It was a pretty hard time for me, and I was constantly tired. Learning to nap allowed me to keep performing in both my job (during the daytime) and my start-up (in the morning and evening), despite my chronic lack of sleep. It’s great to be able to magically transition from a state of mind-numbing exhaustion into a fresh, wakeful mind, in just 20 minutes.

Pzizz

The way I learned to nap was with a tool called Pzizz. What Pzizz does is to generate soundtracks for your nap. They use a fancy thing called a binaural beat, combined with a hypnotherapy track, to help pull you into the depth of a good nap. When I tried Pzizz, I discovered, to my surprise, that I could listen to it for 15, 20 minutes, while sitting on a bench (or hiding in the toilet at work), and when it was over, I felt completely refreshed, ready to face several more hours of work.

All I needed was to have one of those tracks on my iPod, and bingo – I could gain the benefit of naps even though, as I knew, it was impossible for me to nap.

Pzizz without the Pzizz

Fast forward a couple of years. I don’t use Pzizz anymore, but I now nap up to three, four times a day, whenever I feel a wave of drowsiness overpowering me.

After quitting my Accenture job, I went through a phase where I tried to nap without Pzizz. At first, what I found is that most of my naps were refreshing, but not as refreshing as if I’d used Pzizz. But the important difference from before I’d tried Pzizz was that I knew what I was aiming for. With practice, I eventually got my Pzizz-less naps to be just as effective as they’d been with Pzizz – better, even, since now I don’t need to wear headphones or listen to a distracting voice while napping.

Now, I can nap in almost any position where I can relax (lying across two chairs mostly works, though I still much prefer a couch or a bed). I can even nap in a relatively noisy environment (so long as the noise isn’t someone speaking). Within 20 minutes, I will drift off to a zone where I don’t feel like I’m asleep, but my brain is actually pretty much in the REM zone (it feels like dreaming awake). After those 20 minutes, my alarm clock will wake me up, feeling refreshed, and that feeling lasts for up to several hours.

As a final step, I’m now practicing napping without an alarm clock. It’s going well so far.

So, what should you do to learn to nap?1

I think most people should be able to get from “completely unable to nap” to “can nap in most circumstances” within a few months. It took me about 6 months to get it consistently right without any hypnotic tracks, earplugs, or other aides.

The hardest hurdle to get across is, I believe, just realising that napping isn’t sleeping, and that you can learn to nap even if it takes you ages to fall asleep. Hopefully this article got that point across.

Next, you need to learn what to aim for. Until you’ve had a successful nap-like experience, it’s pretty hard to practice it. The way I learned that was with Pzizz. You may find different, perhaps better ways to learn that (please do share them in the comments). Some ideas include meditation classes and hypnotherapy recordings. There are also a number of binaural beat applications on the iPhone, including some free ones, but I haven’t yet found one that worked to my satisfaction (that said, I haven’t looked that hard).

The best way I can describe the feeling of napping is that you lie down or sit somewhere, and first focus on relaxing. Relax your muscle groups one by one, from your neck all the way down to your toes. Take a good minute or two to do this properly. Then finally you relax your thoughts. Let them drift off. It’s important to gently nudge those thoughts towards more relaxing topics – you won’t nap very well if you’re rehearsing a conversation with the boss – but at the same time, they need to largely drift on their own. Keep your eyes closed, your body relaxed, and let your thoughts meander from subject to subject without much order.

Once you’ve learned what to aim for, it’s just a matter of practicing it. It takes time (you can only nap a few times each day!), but it’s very rewarding.

Some final thoughts on napping

First of all, don’t go over your 20 minute target. You may find that your target window is slightly shorter or slightly longer, but whatever you do don’t over-sleep. This is a good article on the subject. When your alarm clock rings, get up, even if you feel drowsy for the first few moments. If you stay down, you risk going from the REM sleep mode into slow-wave sleep, which would require you to stay in bed for 90-120 minutes before your sleep cycle is complete. If you get up, the drowsiness will vanish in a minute or two.

So, paradoxically, napping longer makes you drowsy, not rested.

With 3-4 power naps through the day, I’ve found that I could, on occasion, drastically reduce my need for sleep. I’ve done it for a week or two at a time, basically sleeping only about 2-4 hours a night, without any apparent ill-effects during the day. I’m still undecided as to whether that’s something that I can or want to pursue as a longer term lifestyle change. Polyphasic sleep has its benefits and its drawbacks.

Another point worth highlighting is that napping is not just a cure for drowsiness. It’s also simply a way to make yourself more alert. And, importantly, it works, and feels, far better than any caffeinated drink. If you have a choice between drinking a strong coffee or having a 20 minute nap, always take the nap – you’ll feel more alert and smarter after the nap, and its after-effects will last longer.

Finally, the Wakemate guys inform me that it is also possible to do a 90-120 minute nap, which goes through a full sleep cycle. The difficulty there is to get the wake-up time right. Apparently their product should be able to help with that. We’ll see (I’m signed up to get a unit when they ship!)…

In summary

TL;DR? Here’s the Cliff notes:

  • You don’t have to actually fall asleep to nap – it’s enough to drift off to a half-sleep state
  • Even if it normally takes you 30+ minutes to fall asleep, you can benefit from 20 minute power naps
  • First, learn what you’re aiming for, for example by using something like pzizz
  • Then, practice reproducing that feeling – plan for a few months before you get good at it
  • Don’t over-sleep when power-napping, it will only make you feel groggy

Good luck with your napping! I would love to hear your comments below, especially if you have more tips for people who are trying to learn to nap.

1 Please note that the approach I present here is what worked for me. I’m sure there are as many different approaches to learning to nap as there are people in the world. This is not meant to be a scientific guide to napping, merely an inspirational description of one approach that worked.

Thanks to Scott Wheeler, Yousef Syed, Greg Nemeth and Mike Gunderloy for reviewing a draft of this article, and particular thanks for Colin Curtin for needling me into finally publishing it!

No best practices

I worked in Accenture for 4 years. For almost 2 of those years, my role was to be the QPI lead on my project. That stands for “Quality Process Improvement” lead. No, I’m not kidding you.

In that role, I was essentially meant to take the “best practices” from the Accenture methodology and ensure the project followed them. Yet even a relatively rigid company like Accenture understood that not all “best practices” applied to every project. Project managers were not told to take everything from the book and apply it to their projects. Instead, the very purpose of the QPI lead was to work with the project manager to figure out which of the Accenture methods were suited to the project at hand.

Circumstances vary, and with the circumstances, the “best practices” change. A competent project manager must be able to pick and choose the techniques that work best for his team, his project, his objectives, his budget, etc.

Even Accenture, with all its big-corporation mentality, had this figured out. And yet when I look at the world of start-ups and agile projects, I see a much more religious fervour. People seem to believe that the only way to apply an agile methodology properly is to apply the whole of it, without exception. When someone picks out the bits that might work for a specific project but doesn’t succeed, the blame that they receive is “you didn’t follow the whole methodology”.

The truth is, the methodology is rarely to blame for a failed project. Ultimately, blame rests with the people: the project manager, the product lead, the developers, and so on. Blaming anything else (from “the requirements gathering” to “the methodology” or “the programming language”) is just pointless blame-shifting. If your project failed, it’s most likely because of you failed to adapt to your project’s circumstances, rather than because you didn’t follow your methodology to the letter.

As a start-up project manager (and every start-up founder is a project manager, whether they know it or not) your job is to pick out the best practices for your start-up, apply those to help the project, and terminate, adapt or replace them when they’re no longer the best practices for your start-up’s stage.

Every start-up is different, and calls for a unique mix of techniques. Blind obedience just doesn’t cut it.

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