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Month: September 2014

How to beat the hedonic treadmill

In geek circles, the hedonic treadmill is a powerful idea with strong roots. The essence of it is that as humans, we are physiologically designed to never be satisfied without more of whatever it is we crave.

In practice, it means that if, for example, you want to “be rich”, and you define that as having a million dollars of yearly disposable income, then by the time you reach that objective, your internal goal posts will have shifted and now you will want two million dollars, or more. The goals perpetually recede in the distance like mirages the closer you get to them.

If your goal is to have three kids, then some time after your third child is born you will start to feel dissatisfied and want something else. If your goal is to run a four minute mile, then once you achieve that objective, you won’t be satisfied until you run a 3 minute 50 mile, and so on forever and ever.

The hedonic treadmill explains why we are so miserable as a species despite living in the most plentiful and wealthy period of human history so far. As comedian Louis CK put it, “everything’s amazing but no one is happy”.

Many discussions of the hedonic treadmill paint it as an unavoidable physiological characteristic of mankind, as ineluctable as death and maybe even taxes. We are human, therefore we always crave more, therefore we can never be satisfied with what we have, we must always have more. The natural conclusion of this line of thinking is to realise that humans can never be happy unless constantly expanding their sphere of influence, and therefore resign ourselves to either a dystopia where most people are dehumanised to strip away this fundamental human need, or a view of humanity as some kind of uncontrolled cancerous growth that will eventually falter and die, perhaps taking its host organism (the Earth) down along with it.

Like most pernicious ideas, the problem with the hedonic treadmill is not that it’s untrue, it’s that it’s only part of the truth.

Everything is amazing

The more complete truth is to recognise that yes, a part of us is wired to seek out objectives and beat them, and in fact that’s a pretty helpful mechanism to use to achieve things (goal-setting techniques abound in personal improvement literature, and for good reason!), but it’s not a helpful mechanism when considering our larger goals in life, and it is by far not the only mechanism available to us.

The brain is a complex organ, and it has many more ways to produce happiness and contentment than just goal-seeking.

For example, one such mechanism that is easily available to all of us and very popular with meditation practitioners is “being present in the moment”. You can try it for yourself right now! After you finish reading this paragraph, take your eyes off the screen, and take three very slow deep breaths, letting the complete reality around you (sights, sounds, smells, etc) sink in, letting your eyes unfocus, letting your senses be overwhelmed by the cacophony of sensory input that surrounds you at any moment. Then, while you’re doing this, try to notice something beautiful amongst this cacophony. It’ll only take thirty seconds. Do it now.

Unless you’re in a truly awful place in your life (which is very unlikely to be the case for anyone reading this article) you will have noticed something beautiful or weird or unique around yourself and taken it in. And as a result, you should feel incrementally happier than you were before you did it. Notice this did not require any goals or achievements, only taking the time to pay attention to the world that surrounds you with beauty at any given moments and noticing something nice. You noticed the water you were blissfully swimming in, chose what to think about instead of being a puppet of your mind, and this had an effect on your sense of contentment.

Boom. Happiness treadmill beaten. Achievement unlocked. What’s the next goal now?

There is no goal, just a practice for the rest of our lives. When we practice this simple, 30-second exercise on a regular basis, we soon find that it gives us more lasting contentment and happiness than any goal can, and does so consistently throughout our life for free, without needing to purchase anything or beat any high score or any other defined goal.

As we internalise that realisation, the hedonic treadmill will lose its effect. The key was in Louis CK’s sketch all along: we merely needed to notice that yes, many things are amazing, and be happy.

A final note

In reading this article, it is easy to misinterpret it and believe that I’m advocating throwing out goals altogether. That is not the case. Goal-setting is extremely useful to get stuff done, to achieve things, to have an impact on the world – and a whole lot of other things you may wish to do (and feeling that we’re living up to our potential to make a positive difference is something that can also create contentment and happiness).

However, the goals are insubstantial, and the problem of the hedonic treadmill arise when you mistake the goal for the activity. If you start going down a ski slope, it is natural to have a goal to get to the bottom. However, if you don’t derive happiness from going down the slope, but only from getting to the end, then you’re missing the point of skiing – and of life.

There are no B players

“Only hire A players! Fire the B players!”

“If you hire B players, then they will hire C players!”

“Over time, the A players will get frustrated with the B players and will leave to go to other companies and you’ll be left only with B and C players, unless you regularly cull B players.”

Hands up if you’ve read this advice before. Keep your hands up if you’ve believed it. I see that’s all of you still. Now keep your hand up if you think you’re a B player, that it’s your nature to be one, that you’ll never be an A player. Oh, where’d all the hands go?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– Albert Einstein (or not)

I was a B player

Once upon a time, I worked for Accenture. I started out fairly motivated, and did some good work (or so it felt) in my first year, and then I got progressively more demotivated. I have no doubt that most of the people I worked with, or at least most of the people who had to rate my performance, rated me as a B player. Not a bad contributor, but not the kind of balls-to-the-walls excellence that they hoped for from a super-keen, motivated Accenture consultant.

I missed two rounds of promotions before I finally left Accenture. In theory this was due to one-off structural stuff happening while I was there (like Accenture taking a $450m write off on the NHS project), but I knew that if I had been rated as one of the top people, they would have figured out a way to promote me even during a promotion freeze (Accenture works like that, with special deals for special people). So I was clearly not at the top. At Accenture, I was a consistent B player.

Even in my two subsequent startups I was a B player. It turns out that I don’t operate at my full potential when I believe someone else will find and fix my mistakes. I play better without a safety net. I also have a burning need to work on stuff that I feel I own completely. The two combined mean that on Vocalix and Woobius, I was working at maybe 10–20% of my capacity at the time (probably less than 5% of my current capacity). I was not in a state of flow. I was easily distracted. I frequently felt demotivated because of what I perceived as unfair ownership/shares split. I still got stuff done, of course, but most people who are not in an absolutely abysmal environment will get shit done.

Long before these events, I was a B player at school, and then at university. I might have been smart, but I never felt like putting in the seemingly unending amounts of largely pointless effort that academic excellence would have required. Add to this that I was undisciplined, didn’t have many friends, and in fact was constantly bullied in my early years of school. For most of school, I was a B player, if not a C player.1

So, shall we consign me to the B-player trash can and forget about this person called “Daniel Tenner”? Or, as my dad suggested, in a skilful reductio ad absurdum, to the headmaster who declared me “unsalvageable” and wanted to expel me, “so do we take him out back and shoot him now?”

People are not cogs

The A/B player mentality comes out of a worldview where people are replaceable cogs in a machine that you’re building to make money. In this context, they are measured mostly by their ability to produce a positive effect on the bottom line. Sure, there may be some qualities or defects that don’t have an immediately apparent effect on profits, but in this worldview, it all comes down to the numbers in the end, to one number in particular: profit.

Within that worldview, the concept of A and B players makes sense. An A player has an outsized positive effect on your profits. A B player has a more moderate positive effect. A C player may have no effect or worse. It stands to reason that the best thing to do in this context is to have only A players: this way you’ll have more revenue, more opportunities being grabbed, and fewer people to share the pot with. If that’s all that matters to you, then please disregard my article: it’s not addressed to you.

If, however, the thought of measuring your entire human output with a single number makes you shudder or at least makes you a little bit uncomfortable, please read on.

Human beings are deep, complex creatures with many subtleties and nuances. They can contribute to a whole variety of endeavours in a whole lot of ways. The key to unlocking this human potential in yourself is to find the stuff you’re good at, that you enjoy doing, and that you think is worth doing to make a positive difference, to find that elusive state of flow where work becomes more like play, where despite dealing with a variety of tasks, some of which may seem boring, you take the time to love what you do and thereby end up doing what you love. When you find that place, you’re an A player.

Everyone seems perfectly willing to accept the above statement when it comes to their own self. Even better, we all breathlessly repeat this pearl of wisdom to friends, family, and sometimes complete strangers that we feel some sympathy towards. We believe in its deeper Truth, on its positive impact on our lives.

And yet when it comes to hiring and firing, we suddenly conclude that some people are hopeless B players to be culled, lest they pollute our precious company by hiring even worse examples of themselves, or setting a low hiring standard for the whole company.

That is elitist crap, merely there as a consequence of a narrow-minded worldview and as an escape hatch to allow us to blame poor performance on other people rather than ourselves. There are no B players, only people whose potential is not being brought to life, fish which are made to climb trees and then told they suck.

A better view of hiring

Pretty much everyone in the world has the potential to make a great contribution to some human endeavour. Sure, some people are cleverer or stronger or faster or more nimble or more diligent or more patient or more helpful or more of a zillion different qualities humans can be evaluated on. However, this contribution is only possible when the said human being is placed in a context that gets the best out of them.

Most of humanity labours in terrible, dehumanising, boring, uninspiring contexts. Too many still are slaves, or toil for survival or safety or comfort rather than for inspiration, fulfilment or any kind of meaningful purpose. That is a tragedy first of all for ourselves as a species, as we miss out on great contributions from billions of people who could give so much more to the world around them. A few of us are lucky to be able to find or fashion an environment which enables us to give our best day after day after day. Calling the latter “A players” and firing the rest is not only callous, it is immensely short-sighted and bone-headed on both a personal, a business, and a societal level.

When it comes to hiring, not everyone is right for your company. Some people will thrive in the open environment we’ve built at GrantTree. Others will excel in a numbers-and-measurements-oriented, strictly hierarchical company. Others yet will thrive in a socially oriented context where they feel part of a family. Others may give their best when surrounded by chaos and relying on themselves alone. To make matters worse, people will shift between these and other categories throughout their life, depending on many factors including personal growth, external demands on their resources, etc. In addition, people have skills, abilities and aspirations that will determine whether there is useful work for them to do within a given company.

Anyone who thrives in the environment you’ve built for your company, and wants and is able to contribute to something important to your company, will be by definition an A player. Your job when recruiting is to find those people who will do well in the environment you’ve built, and who have skills, abilities and aspirations that coincide with the needs of your company. Depending on how different your company is from the norm, there may be no one who fits so well outright. Perhaps they will need some coaching to embrace your unique culture. Perhaps some training to learn the ropes. Your job then becomes to find people with the right potential to thrive in your company, and to coach them and train them and help them to unfold their potential.

Whatever you do, though, don’t make the mistake to think that those who don’t fit your specific environment are unworthy human beings, categorised forever with the “B” brush stroke, unlikely ever to amount to much, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you’re better than them. You’re not better, you’re merely in a better place, and with some humility perhaps you will be able to see that your role is not to sort the deserving from the unworthy, but merely to help those whose way you’re lucky to cross to contribute at their best, whether in your company or somewhere else.

  1. My parents would certainly disagree with this assessment, but then, what are parents for if not to provide this unflagging belief in their children’s abilities, that later forms a solid platform for the self-confidence our world requires of us?

Flat hierarchies, mentorship and personal development

I read this article with concern. Dustin Moskovitz, founder of Asana, took issue with Valve’s flat management structure and its lack of coaching:

Almost immediately after, I grasped what they had actually written and my enthusiasm waned. In exchange for freedom, they gave up *personal growth.* I can fully believe that there are people who can survive in such an organization, but I am deeply skeptical that they can thrive and reach their full potential. They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They tied one hand behind their back. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Pick your favorite metaphor; the point is this philosophy lacks balance. More importantly, I totally reject the idea that freedom and mentorship have to be mutually exclusive.

Dustin then argues that some kind of people-management is necessary to ensure personal growth, and proposes a few lighter management-that-doesn’t-look-like-management approaches, such as:

An alternative approach to creating structure and order that we employ at Asana is distributed responsibility, exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Rather than have all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we have the explicit intention of distributing them as evenly as possible across all employees. Unless we forgot about the existence of an AoR (which does happen) or otherwise make a mistake, the relevant domain owner has the final decision making authority, not their manager. Additionally, we try to promote an understanding of management as an AoR on par with other AoR’s, making the organization feel flatter.

Management still plays a very important role, however, as a backstop for all decisions. If an AoR does not exist or the most relevant decision maker is ambiguous, then decisions do flow through the management hierarchy. In effect, the CEO has the ultimate meta-AoR. In practice, this happens very rarely, but we save ourselves a ton of pain by having clear decision making authority when it does. Another way of putting it is that the managers fill the whitespace of the organization, making sure we have complete coverage. People tend to value that clarity rather than see it as a form of oppression. No one wants to feel like the ship is not being steered and, in my experience, organizations that lack identifiable decision owners tend to end up with more politics than those with traditional structures, rather than less.

Ultimately, each company needs to evolve its own approach to this and other similar culture issues, but my opinion is that going back to having “people managers” and a hierarchy is a clear step backwards. There are other solutions to the problems described by Dustin, that don’t involve setting up an official hierarchy, and I hope Dustin will consider them before letting the Asana ship sail too far in its current direction…

Dynamic hierarchy isn’t bad

First of all, it’s worth clarifying that I’m not opposed to all hierarchy, not at all. As I’ve written before, hierarchy is essential, it’s a natural way that people organise when facing a problem and if you try to make it disappear, you just make it harder to change. What’s problematic is not the existence of hierarchy, but the existence of a static hierarchy that needs to be maintained artificially in the face of changing circumstances.

In one context, one person might be the best leader. In another, it might be some other person. Someone new might join in and be better than someone who was previously in charge of something. If you have a static hierarchy in place, how do you get the new person to take over a role for which they are a better fit?

Unfortunately, a people-management hierarchy, especially one based on mentoring and ultimate decision-making, sounds exactly like the kind of static hierarchy that is very hard to alter and that easily turns into a career ladder. This may work for Asana, but I dislike that instinctively, because I know what those hierarchies end up looking like eventually. Static hierarchies usher in arbitrary decision-making and unfairness, which need to be justified by secrecy, which reduce trust, etc… We’ve been down this road before.

Mentorship and personal development don’t have to come from above

Mentoring people is not something that needs to be done by a boss. There is no need for a mentor to have management or decision power over the person they’re mentoring. In fact, arguably, a mentor who is also your manager is a far less effective mentor.

A mentor is simply someone who can give you advice and help you reflect on what you do in order to accelerate your personal development. Mentoring relationships often do imply some sort of seniority, but seniority does not have to involve management responsibility. I can be senior to one of my colleagues without being their manager.

As for personal development, I think it is ridiculous to imply that personal growth requires a hierarchy. Personal growth is one of our core values at GrantTree and it is doing perfectly well without a static, non-flat hierarchy. Personal growth is about growing who you are, what you’re able to do, your sense of purpose, your sense of achievement. How bizarre that an entrepreneur, who almost by definition is someone who finds personal growth without any management structure around him or her, comes to the conclusion that other people need a manager in order to grow personally?

If anything, traditional management stifles personal growth by imposing boundaries on it. Without reporting lines, everyone is free to grow in the direction in which they feel they wish to grow, and to push themselves as fast as they want with no speed limit.

Conversely, an open culture with a flat hierarchy liberates everyone to grow in whatever direction they feel inclined to, without needing to ask for permission or wait until they’re promoted up the career ladder. Open cultures encourage people to grow at whatever rate they’re comfortable. Combined with a good mentor, this should outperform the hierarchical approach to personal growth consistently.

Decisions don’t have to float upwards

Finally, Dustin also made the point that someone needs to take responsibility for making the decisions, which he feels is not addressed by a flat management structure.

However, built into that statement is the implicit belief that people in general cannot be trusted to take responsibility for the decisions they make. In an open culture, everyone can and does make decisions and takes responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. The presence of a manager who will take responsibility for your decisions is precisely what leads to the infantilisation of employees that then provides evidence that of course, people can’t be trusted to take responsibility for their actions, etc.

If it begins without trust, it is unlikely to end up with an open culture. I see this assertion that decision-power lines of responsibility are necessary as a big warning sign about Asana’s culture and its future.

A conclusion

I’m not saying that Dustin is necessarily wrong with his assertions. They may be correct in the environment of Asana. However, the dismissal of flat hierarchies as incompatible with mentorship and personal growth are flat-out (!) wrong, and doing so based on a quick extrapolation of an “employee handbook” which clearly gives only a very partial picture of life at Valve seems quite unfair (practically a straw man argument). At least, before making this point, Dustin should have contacted some current or former Valve employees to ask how things work in practice.

My main concern after reading this article, however, is that although Asana seems to have started with an open culture, it is adopting closed solutions to problems instead of doing the hard work of finding open solutions. Eventually, this is likely to erode trust and lead Asana to becoming a culture just like very other top-down, hierarchical closed culture. That seems like a shame, since Dustin appears to want to do the right thing in other areas of the business.

Millenials: not working for money

“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”

Given this, if your culture’s main lever for retention or recruitment is money (which is the traditional approach in closed cultures), you’re in for a rough few decades.

Open cultures typically have more ways of motivating people, and so they’re ideally positioned to appeal to the millennial generation: purpose, freedom, self-fulfilment – and paradoxically, those are much better motivators even for those who also want money.


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