The Allure of Doomsaying

I just finished this Grantland piece by Bryan Curtis on the imminent demise of baseball. If you’re a fan at all — or a fan of any long-standing pastime — you’ve probably read or heard complaints like this:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

The kicker is that this quote is from 1868, eight years before the founding of the National League. It turns out that there’s a long thread of end-times commentary stretching back to the beginning of the Major Leagues, and Curtis unspools it carefully and well.

These persistent predictions hint at one of the reasons that doomsayers will never want for work: all human institutions, no matter how long-lived, will wax and wane. Predicting an institution’s demise, as Curtis describes it:

…allows us to imagine we’re present at a turning point in history. We’re the lucky coroners who get to toe-tag the game of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Kurt Bevacqua.

“We are not at a historic moment,” Thorn said. “The popularity of anything will be cyclical. There will be ups and downs. If you want to measure a current moment against a peak, you will perceive a decline. J.P. Morgan was asked, ‘What will the stock market do this year?’ His answer was: ‘Fluctuate.’”

One driver that Curtis doesn’t mention is the control that failure gives us. There’s a certain temperament — and I plead guilty — that is very comfortable with the dodge Richard Feynman mocks here:

All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t,’–which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

Making a positive forecast about, in this case, baseball, would put us in the uncomfortable position of predicting success for something we can’t control. It is hard to create and achieve success in this world and nothing lasts forever. The sure bet is on the “can’t” in Henry Ford’s “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

As everyone say, please read the whole thing.

Not getting that promotion and handling failure

We talk a lot about the need to fail and there are lots of great nuggets of wisdom like “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” and “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”  But doesn’t that all sound like a bunch of hooey when failure visits you personally?

The best example of this phenomenon is when one doesn’t get a promotion.   As Amy Gallo puts it in her HBR blog post “Didn’t Get That Promotion?

Getting passed over for a promotion can be disheartening and even humiliating. Whether you thought you deserved the job or were promised it, no one likes hearing that they didn’t meet the mark.

It is a rejection that’s more painful than any save for unrequited or lost love.  One can brush off a failed project or presentation fairly easily… at least compared to hearing that one didn’t quite cut it. 

Gallo and her experts hit on familiar points up front: act ( but don’t react), get some outside perspective, no whingeing.  However, I found the last two points the most valuable from my experience.  I would go even further: reframing the experience and reenergizing one’s network are essential to make the obvious work.  One can’t exercise patience, get “outside > in” feedback, then take appropriate action without taking those two steps first.

Difference between hard and soft elite disciplines

In my last post I referred to Steve Hsu’s (on Twitter @hsu_steve) post on credentials and elite performance.   Hsu distinguishes between the “hard” and “soft” elite, where law, consultancy, and investment banking firms are…

“soft” elite firms, whereas I will refer to hedge/venture funds, startups and technology companies as “hard” elite firms.  …In the latter category performance is a bit easier to measure, and raw prestige plays less of a role in marketing to customers or clients — i.e., the customer can directly tell whether the gizmo works (“these search results suck!”) or the fund made money. Whether or not the advice received from a law/consulting/M&A firm is any good is much more nebulous and, well, soft.

I would clarify in one way: the inability to measure “softens” negative consequences, which IMO is the true driver for “softness”.   A “consequences of failure” scale would refine Hsu’s categories: e.g., litigation-oriented law firms are “harder” than lobbying-focused firms.  So, given the challenge of the many nebulous partnerships we must forge with “soft” firms,  do you all have any tips beyond the few I’ve added below?

  1. Stay aligned ahead of them:  Hsu identifies one core competence of soft elite firms: the ability “to appear elite and smart enough to snow their clients and sell the work.”  If you find yourself in conflict with the approach Continue reading

PM Quote of the Day — Truman Capote

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.

PM Quote of the Day — Bernard Ibbings Bell

A good education is not so much one which prepares a man to succeed in the world, as one which enables him to sustain a failure

PM Quote of the Day — Samuel Beckett

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Writer’s block is the bane of every author; and what is writing a book or play but a project?  Such fear of failure often prevents us from attempting the challenging, the unknown, and the innovative. 

But aren’t even the greatest triumphs of history shot through with small bits of frustration and compromise?  How many opportunities have we let slip because the time or the terms weren’t “just so.”  Nothing is ever perfect, so remember that sometimes we need to settle for “perfect enough”.

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