Archive for the “Thoughts on Work” Category

I love this question because I often hear people talk about all the awesome uses of being smart.

I have a point of view on it for two main reasons:  a) I’ve took a bunch of standardized test in my life.  While no genius, I would generally qualify as smart and b) I’ve interacted with lots of very successful/smart people, mainly through my job in consulting, so I understand to a good degree what makes them successful.

I am defining “smart” as having a pretty high IQ.

I’ll start by saying I don’t think being smart is useful in the ways people think.  “Smartness” is often talked about in this way:  “That person is just so smart”…the implication being that “I couldn’t do that; I’m not smart like that.”.

I think smart is useful in pockets, but folks are being imprecise in their language.  What they often mean is “I don’t work hard enough to do that” or “I don’t have the experience to do that” or “I’m not detail oriented enough to do that” or “I’m not persuasive enough to do that” or “I’m not ambitious enough to do that”….I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here are some situations with my thoughts on how “smartness” might apply vs other traits:


Retaining, discussing, connecting, rationalizing mostly new material/knowledge is something the intelligent do well.  School is a great fit for smart people.  I believe this is part of what makes being smart so valued:  For the first 20 or so years of your life smart is very, very useful.  It is hard to get out of that mindset and realize that, in life, it isn’t as useful as it was in school.


Intelligence doesn’t help that much.  I never recall the smartest being the most popular or most beautiful or most liked.  In fact, too much intelligence can be a hindrance socially.

To be successful in relationships it helps to have traits like helpfulness, positiveness, honesty, decent looks, consistency (no one likes moody), sense of humor, kindness, etc.  Those traits can make you very successful in life…little intelligence required.

Corporate America/Work:

Intelligence is probably over-rated at work (depends on your line of work admittedly).  Most jobs simply don’t require you to be clever, inventive, to “figure out” a puzzle, etc.  It doesn’t matter whether you would be a good Jeopardy participant.

Work requires you to show up on time.  This requires you to have some level of responsibility, a car, a consistent, predictable life.  I’m not sure how smart you need to be for that.

Work requires you to do what others ask you to do.  You also have to do some thinking for yourself, but generally at work the overall goals are driven by others.  Definitely no link to intelligence to be willing to work towards other’s goals.

Work requires you to be a subject matter expert.  While being smart may make you learn slightly faster than others, experience/hard work can overcome that pretty easily in the real world.  As an example, a year of experience working as a mechanic will make you smarter about fixing cars than any amount of general intelligence/IQ.  You simply have to do it to know it.

Work requires you to be diligent.  Being able to keep track of the things you have to do and actually do them in the timeframe asked will make you A LOT of money.  It won’t get you to CEO, but diligence is, in my opinion, the single greatest predictor of work success.  Show up and do it and you’ll be amazed how successful you will become.  Is there a link between diligence and intelligence?  Not much that I’ve ever seen.

Code Breaking / Playing Chess / Being a Polymath, etc.

Yes.  Being intelligent really helps.  These examples seem whimsical because I can’t think of a lot of examples of intelligence being the one, great thing that will get you there.

Being an Executive

Being an executive requires you to be a persuasive leader in group situations.  Being persuasive means being able to state/defend a position, think on your feet, choose the right words, control your emotions.  I do think there is an element of intelligence in that; however, I have seen this skill learned as well.  Once something can be learned, is it intelligence that matters or simply diligence and time?

Being an executive means having “executive presence” / polish / poise.  This is mostly practice.  It is difficult to do, but is composed mostly of preparation and experience, not intelligence.  This is something that is mentored, practiced, honed.

Being an executive means having a track record of success.  Being smart might help.  I would say diligence, and relationships matter more.

Being an executive means having others want to follow you.  Maybe there is some element of intelligence here.  I would say diligence, relationships, honesty, and empathy all matter more.

Being an executive means you have to WANT it.  I’ve rarely seen highly successful people that didn’t have a bit of ambition that peaked through no matter how humble they are practiced to be.  Motivation is very important to being successful. I would be surprised if there is a strong correlation between motivation and intelligence.  I’ve seen some pretty lazy smart people in my life and some really hard working fools.

Being an executive means being articulate.  Like persuasiveness, I think there is an element of intelligence that helps here.  But are all articulate people smart?  Take actors.  Most are very articulate.  They love to talk and are great at it.  I don’t think anyone would imagine that most of them are smart.  It is simply practice.  In many ways, they get paid to talk and so do it often.  Over time, they begin to sound more articulate.


So my outstanding question as I read back over what I’ve written is:  “What is the strength of the relationship between intelligence and all these other traits mentioned (e.g. diligence, honesty, empathy, motivation)?  If intelligence is strong correlated with all of them….then intelligence IS what matters.”

What research I’ve seen says there is more correlation on some of those traits than others…but, to summarize, smart is useful in pockets.  It isn’t a cure all.

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My advice as an HR Professional:  Own your career.

Companies/Managers don’t sit around thinking about you, your career, your pay, and your job fit (very much).  After all, they are trying to run a business!

You are the most knowledgeable person at your company about how to manage/reward you.  Share that information with them.  Help them help you.  That isn’t being difficult; that’s being helpful. Own that conversation.

Make your expectations clear.

If you want a promotion, say it (tactfully).  If you want a raise, say how much and why.

The company then has two options (both of which are a positive for you).  a) they can meet your expectations (which is only possible because you explicitly stated them; otherwise the company moves forward with an absence of information, which leaves them guessing). or b) they can explain to you why they did not meet your expectations (which would presumably include a conversation of “how you can get there from here”), which allows you a path forward.

If you think it is “too forward” to ask for what you want explicitly, you likely do not understand a) your value as an employee and/or b) that you are actually helping your employer (why should you be hesitant about helping?).

Your company IS NOT doing you a favor by “giving” you a job.

They don’t “give” it to you.  You are presumably doing something for them that is very useful (otherwise why would they give you money?).  Recognize your value.

Develop unique skills.

If “anyone” could do your job, then at some point they might.

However, just because other people could do your job, they are not.  You are doing it and that is valuable.  Your unique skill might be as simple as “I have very good relationships with a lot of people around here.”.  Think of ways to position yourself uniquely.

Don’t let a company/manager promise you something in the future.

A company/manager cannot promise something in the future, even if they would like to…because business reality changes.  They likely fully intend to do what they have said (e.g. promotion, pay raise); it is just that factors outside their control may change the situation.  That is the reality of business promises.

Get the promise in writing if it is a substantive promise.  If this is not possible (which it may not be), do not weight the promise fully, as they can’t necessarily deliver on their promise even if they would like to.

Understand that you may have to leave.

While you are being helpful by telling them what you want, they will not always be able to help (for whatever reason) and so you must be prepared for what happens if they don’t value you as highly as you would like.  This situation happens and is fine; be prepared to start looking for a job.  (If you are often leaving employers due to differences of opinion of your value/readiness…you might consider which party is more likely correct.)

It is helpful to keep your resume up to date and keep up your network.  For most folks good at their job, a good network comes naturally.

My first inclination is always to stay at my current employer and work it out.  Give them an opportunity to make it right.

Don’t threaten your employer.  Don’t discuss your career if you are currently upset.

Remember, you are trying to help them retain and manage you.

The difference between “I am having a lot of recruiters call me to offer 20 – 30% more than I am currently making.  It is becoming distracting.  Can we re-evaluate where I am versus market pay for my role?  I’d really like to make a commitment to staying here.”  and “You aren’t paying me enough.  I need a raise.” is largely word choice and whether you have a smile on your face when you say it.

Framing matters; choose your words in a way that focuses on helping them help you.

Bottom line:  Far too many people are recipients of their career.  They think they will work hard and be rewarded.  That isn’t wholly false, but it isn’t exactly true either.

Own your career.  Ask explicitly.


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Many believe some version of the following regarding income inequality:

The current income distribution is the free market outcome; we can’t regulate ourselves out of income inequality…it is a natural outcome of our global economy.

The statement is untrue.  It is better worded as follows,

“The current income distribution is a consequence of our government labor policies.   Based on current policy, it is the outcome we have created (perhaps inadvertently, but we still did it).  If we’d like to change it, we can.”

How can we better frame the issue of income distribution?

Income can go to two main places:  a) Capital (rich people/businesses)  or c) Labor (us).  We control which of those parties has the upper hand to “negotiate” for their share of national income.

A) Capital:  These are people who earn their income through owning things, such as land (to rent), or stock (to appreciate), or banks (in effect they rent money), or factory equipment (to make things), etc.  Capital does not work; it enables others to work/produce and so capital earns its income by “renting” its capital to others.

Capital has the upper hand right now.  The rich and business owners are raking in all the gains in national income.  If we change their bargaining power, they will capture less.

b) Labor:  This is people who earn a salary by working.  This is us.  We are fairing poorly currently in bargaining for any share of the productivity gains that we are producing.  The gains are all getting captured by capital.  Labor increases productivity; capital is capturing the gains.

There are some who would point out that without capital/business there would be no labor gains for us to think about capturing (this is the whole “the rich are the job creators” argument).  This is not true.  Without consumers/labor (with money) to buy/demand products, capital would be useless.  Job creation is an ecosystem, it takes both capital and labor to succeed.

Here are some factors that have created our current income distribution, which we can reverse if we so choose.

1. Decline in Labor Unions:

We are all in labor unions, whether we know it or not.

When a union bargains a benefit, we all get it as companies will offer it to everyone so that the non-union workers are not tempted to join the union.

Unions create collective bargaining power for labor in which even non-union members benefit.  Without unions, labor is weakened as a whole.

2. Enforcement of the FLSA:

In the US, we generally work many more hours per year than the rest of the world.  The FLSA created the 40 hour work week.  By being lax on enforcing the definition of an “exempt” worker, the 40 hour work week has been effectively abolished for all but a few employee groups.

The law already exists, simply reclassify workers as non-exempt (based on an alternate legal interpretation of the classification) and labor gets a bargaining chip (overtime hours).  As exempt workers, we do not have a basis on which to start the conversation (except complaints about work/life balance).

3. Enforcement of anti-trust law:

Many industries in the US (cable, wireless, media, etc.) are oligopolies…in which a few large firms (e.g. AT&T, Verizon) dominate the industry.

As such, they are near monopoly buyers of labor, and so they do not have to pay out as much to employees in salary.

Here is an example.  If you work in cellular, you work for AT&T or Verizon mainly.  There are only two buyers of your services; you can’t really continue to leave one company for another if your current salary doesn’t suit you.  There are only two places to go, and  you can’t move across the country if needed, because the same two companies exist wherever you go.  In the past, this wasn’t true.  It was easier for labor to say “I’ll just go work for someone else”.  We COULD go work for someone else; now we can’t as easily.

Anti-trust law already exists.  The legal interpretation of it changed such that companies were allowed to get larger and capture larger market shares.  If we go back to the old interpretation, then labor gains bargaining power as very large companies lose their “monopoly buyer of labor” market position.

4. Retirement investment in stocks:

When we put our savings in stocks (generally for the purpose of retirement savings); we drive up the price of stocks (which are owned by capital).  The reason is that we input additional dollars which chase a finite supply of stock shares.  We drive up the price of stocks….which gives money to capital (not labor).

Returns to capital would be lessened if we invested less in stocks and preferred (voted) instead to take a government pension.

5.  Privatization:

Government workers have lots of rights (largely due to government unions).  When anything is privatized, those rights go away and capital captures the gains.

As an example, you privatize a utility company in a particular city, those people lose their government benefits and jobs.  The company will be reformed as private (generally with a government granted monopoly) with lower wages, benefits, and job guarantees to employees and higher prices to the public.  The excess profit from the company will leave the city as it is distributed to company leadership and shareholders (capital).  Labor loses.

Those who say “that isn’t what happens…the free market is always more efficient than government run services”; that simply isn’t true in all cases (though it is true in some).

6.  Unemployment:

High unemployment means labor has little bargaining power as employees cannot leave for other companies.  In this case Capital gains the upper hand as it can capture labor’s increased productivity for itself instead of paying some of it out in higher wages.

Unemployment itself is a choice of the government (i.e. our choice as voters) as the government could always act as an employer of last resort to keep the labor markets fully functioning (just as the Fed acts as a lender of last resort to keep the finance industry functioning).

We could have a Fed for the labor market if we so chose.  This would give labor a lot more bargaining power (the government role as employer of last resort would provide a wage floor that private industry would have to meet or beat to attract workers).

7.  Minimum wage:

Increases in the minimum wage push up the wage floor which indirectly pushes up wages for all workers.

The wage floor is our choice.  In the absence of a floor, companies will pay whatever they want…which they are currently doing:   Wal-Mart has food drives to help feed its own employees.

8. Tax law:

Warren Buffet has pointed out that he pays a lower tax rate than this secretary, because of capital gains tax rates and loopholes/deductions for the rich.  Increase the capital  gains tax rate (to more than the marginal income tax rate); close the loopholes.  They favor the rich and the rich (capital) don’t need any help right now.  They are doing fine.

9.  Free trade:

Free trade agreements put our labor in competition against labor of other countries.  NAFTA gutted the domestic textile industry (which I watched happen living in S. Carolina).

T-shirts and other textiles are now dirt cheap (for which I am appreciative, since I don’t work in the textile industry); however, I am under no illusion that these agreements are only of benefit.

There are plenty of good arguments to be made about free trade (I can make them; they are of benefit sometimes); however, at this time labor is losing and we need to shift the balance of power back to regular people…not pit us against third world workers.  This is one avenue if we choose to exercise it.

10.  Corporate law and personhood:

Corporate personhood gives corporations rights they should not have.  Corporations are not people.

Corporate law could be changed to pay out a mandated percentage of profits to workers (if a company benefits, shouldn’t the employees?), or make CEO salary related to avg employee salary (so that executives can’t be paid in excess while workers are laid off).  Even something as simple as mandating employee representation on the board of directors would be helpful to labor’s bargaining position.

11. Campaign finance:

Limit the rich’s ability to influence election through campaign finance.  Last I checked, there are lots of lobbyists for the rich…not so many protecting labor’s interests.  Get big money out of politics and it will give labor a leg up.  We need it!

12. Finance industry oversight:

If, after the mortgage meltdown, we had put all the titans of the finance industry in jail, that would limit the hubris of Capital…and thus limit their ability to capture the gains of the economy (which is happening now).

Why didn’t anyone go to jail?  Poor enforcement of current law.  We don’t even need new laws.  We just need to enforce the laws we already have.  During the S&L crisis and Enron people went to jail.  Now the laws are not being enforced because of undue influence by Capital.

13. Copyright law:

Copyrights are government granted monopolies over a certain time frame.  They are a form of Capital, which funnels profits/income to the holder of the copyright.

Without the copyright protection, more producers would be able to enter the market, which would benefit Labor (both from a cost of goods standpoint and from the standpoint of more employers in the market).

We could weaken the time frames over which copyrights are granted (less time is better for Labor) and/or we could lessen the circumstances under which we grant copyrights (Apple tried to copyright rounded corners on phones and swiping to unlock.  Really?  I guess they are at liberty to try; however, the circumstances of copyright should allow for broader market participation and less special status).

14.  Social Safety Net:

Every time the safety net (unemployment insurance, medicare, medicaid, EIC, SNAP, Social Security, FMLA, etc.) is diminished, it makes it harder for the poor to move up the economic ladder, and thus depresses the income potential of the low income earners (which indirectly affects all of us).  Strengthen the safety net and labor has more of a leg to stand on….otherwise more gain goes to Capital.

You can see that there is a literal war on the bargaining power of labor, and labor is losing (largely without realizing it is happening).

It takes both capital and labor to succeed and right now the power is out of balance.  We need the pendulum to swing back in the direction of labor.  Perhaps in 50 years we can argue why capital needs more bargaining power (hopefully).

One can see that all these laws are creating the conditions of our current inequality.  We can change them; we created them in the first place.  It is silly to say “this is the free market outcome”.  The current income inequality is a choice.  We did it; we can un-do it.

It is fair to ask the question “If we decrease income inequality, what will that mean for me?”.  Most would see an improvement; some would not.  Income inequality creates lots of relatively cheap goods/services for the rich.  The cost of the items on the low end would likely increase if we paid many of the employees that produce those items more.  Lots of poor would benefit; a few rich would not be as well off.  That is OUR choice to make (or at least should be).

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Here are a few thoughts on what it takes to be a good consultant (something I work at everyday):

Consulting is generally filled with smart people. I mean that in the high IQ, “Gee, s/he is really smart” kind of way.  That is one thing to keep in mind if you think you want to be a consultant.  If you are not “smart”, you probably won’t make it.

Here is why:  The premise of consulting is that you are going to tell an experienced executive (15+ years of experience, and many rungs up the corporate ladder) something they don’t already know about their own business.  That is hard to do. It requires you to be able to learn as much as possible about their business in a very short period of time, and then share insights that the executive didn’t already know by applying things you’ve learned from other projects (even though they may not be that similar).  This type of quick learning and fluid intelligence is precisely what “smart” people are good at.

Consulting is generally filled with social people.  If being smart weren’t hard enough, you must also be very social to be a good consultant.  Good consultants are “Trusted Advisers”.  Who is the most trusted adviser in your life?  It is likely your best friend or a family member….someone intensely personal to you….someone you trust and like.  As a consultant you must be both expert and trusted.  Expert requires intelligence.  Trusted requires social skills and strong ethics.

Being both socially adept and very smart is hard to do. How many really smart people do you know?  How many of them are also socially awkward?  Being a good consultant requires an almost Goldilocks-like balance of smart and social since the two are often inversely related.

Consulting is filled with older people.  Consulting is as much art as science.  If there were firm answers to the questions executives ask, they wouldn’t need consultants.  It is human nature that when we are unsure about something we tend to stick with experience, which often means gray hair.  You can be a young consultant, no doubt, and very competent…however, gray hair helps ease the more difficult conversations.

Consultants are performers and social architects.  There is a social dance that goes on with clients and at big meetings.  Consultants lead clients to the conversations they need to have to move the project.  Good consultants, like good politicians, allow the client to give continued feedback while the consultant controls the agenda and guides the outcome.  Clients control consultants while consultants corral clients in the direction they want to go.  Remember, if executives already knew what they wanted, and didn’t need any corralling…they wouldn’t need consultants.  It is a complementary dance.

Consulting is about consensus building and storytelling.  Remember that there are often no “correct” answers to the questions being addressed.  So a good consultant, like a good lawyer, must build the case in the simplest, most appealing way to get people on board.  Logic alone is not enough; you have to be able to tell a compelling story.  If college rewarded length of response, consulting rewards brevity…preferably in bullet points (less than 3)…even more preferably in a graphic/picture.


So, being a good consultant is not easy.  It takes a mix of talent and years of work.  Like leaders, most consultants are made, not born.


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I am traveling a lot for work these days.  Traveling for work is not healthy.

You work very hard all day; after all you were paid to travel to this place to work….so you do it.

You live at a hotel, so there isn’t much to do once you get back…so you work there too (since there is always something to do).  So I would say I am working from sun up to sun down, with breaks to eat.

Ah…eating.  That is one of the few truly pleasurable things I do in a day.  Since the meals are expensed, I do eat well…which means I eat too much.  Then there is the fact of the stress of working all day…I usually drink with dinner (which is expensed as well).

Working all day means you can’t go to the hotel gym.  The stress and a bed that isn’t yours mean you don’t sleep that well.

I always thought it would be somewhat glamorous to travel for work.  It simply isn’t.  “How was Chicago,” you might ask….well I don’t know, unless you count O’Hare airport, a random office building, and/or the Marriott downtown.

Airports are a HUGE waste of time.  You wait in a bunch of lines, can’t do much in the way of work…the only thing good about airports is drinking before you get on the plane (that’s if you make it to the airport in time, since you always work till the last minute).

You might also think it is cool to be at the airport with your fancy clothes and laptop, going to nice hotels, eating out on the client.  No, it isn’t.

You just wish you were sitting in first class instead of trying to cram your carry-on into the overhead bin and sitting next to some smelly (either from cologne or not showering) yahoo that wants to talk to you the whole time and needs to lose 3o pounds (which is fine…unless you are sitting next to them on a cramped plane).

You wish you were waiting for the plane in the Club Room instead of hunting for some greasy seat to park it while you wait for the opportunity to wait again when you finally board the plane (which you could also avoid if you were a Medallion member).  You really just wish you were at home.

So… eat too much, don’t exercise, don’t get to talk to your loved ones much, work too much, drink often, are stressed, and don’t sleep well.

At least I have a job.  For that, I am truly grateful….really.

Its worth it for sure….seeing that I would be living on the streets otherwise.

You don’t even want to hear me complain about that!!!


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People and their values.  Anyway, 1st up today is:

Energy Efficiency

It’s a red herring.  ENERGY EFFICIENCY WILL NOT AFFECT GLOBAL WARMING.  It will make it worse.

Econ 101:  If you make something more efficient people will use it MORE, not less.  Take the cotton gin….before it was invented, we separated the seeds from the cotton by hand…it took a long time, and it sucked.  “The growth of cotton production, enabled by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, expanded by the bale from 750,000 in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850.  As a result of the ability to produce cotton faster, the South became even more dependent on plantations and slavery making it the largest area of the economy in the South.”  Get it?  Efficiency caused its use to explode!

Take the Printing Press.  Before books were made by hand, and only a few could read.  Then making books became faster and more efficient, and as a result there are so many books now people would laugh to think they were once scarce.  Getting better at making books simply means there will be more of them.

Take planes, trains, automobiles….whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  It will work the same.

Efficiency causes people to use something MORE, not less.  I fail to see how more efficient cars (or light bulbs or whatever) will change anything. It will not save energy.  In aggregate, it will use more energy (even if each individual unit uses less).

If you want people to use less energy we need to become less efficient at making it.  You could attempt to impose huge taxes to dissuade use, but people would create a gray/black market.  It wouldn’t make a difference in the end.

In short, there is pretty much nothing except population control or space ships (population control vis a vis leaving the planet) that will change what we’re doing.

As technology progresses forward we MUST use more energy.  There must be throughput.  It doesn’t go backwards.

Corporate Person-hood:

In court, Corporations often try to claim the same rights as we do.  They want free speech; they want to contribute openly to political campaigns; they do enjoy the right to contracts, to declare bankruptcy; they sue people/parties.  They behave in many ways like people, and when it suits them they claim any and all the rights entitled to people.

Here is the rub though:  Corporations aren’t people.  Primarily, corporations can’t die, and they can shift their definition of “person”.  You can put a person in jail.  You can punish them.  You can’t rightly punish an amorphous concept.  Arthur Anderson consulting just became Accenture.  Kill one, and it just shifts to something else.  No person enjoys shape-shifting immortality.

People are moral.  All of them are, even if their morality is not one we agree with.  Maybe better said, people HAVE morals.  Corporations do not…and they behave accordingly.

So what does this have to do with me?

Accountability:  I am thinking of a systemic solution, a single switch, to stop the seemingly runaway power of corporations:  make ONE person accountable.  Abolish the ability for the CEO and Board of Directors to hide behind corporate person-hood.  Make the CEO accountable.

Abolish corporate-person-hood…just one person at the top.  If you think the company has gotten too big for you personally to take responsibility for…then you need to spin-off a business. Sweat-shops….ONE person is responsible for that.  A corporation is not “following labor arbitrage to the lowest cost provider because “the market” (another non-human entity) demands it”….ONE person is supporting children working for nothing to make stuff we throw away after a few uses.  It affects that person’s morality.  It is the responsibility of that person.

Talk about a Renaissance of values: The only person it would make sense to hire in that case (when the actions of those you hire affect YOU personally)…..would be someone of impeccable values.

For instance, take the current banking crisis.  Tons of individual PEOPLE are underwater on their homes…they owe more than it is worth…yet they keep paying….because they have VALUES.  They made a promise to pay and they feel bad about not paying; they are affected by the guilt.

Corporations are NOT affected by any guilt or any morality.  They are also “underwater” on the derivatives of the homes…and yet they feel no compunction to pay.  They simply walk away, because they don’t care…in fact, they can’t care.  Not only that but they realize they’ll get more by lobbying Congress to get US, the people, to bail them out.  Why?  Because they can.

That kind of thinking, where you do something just because you can….is the same thinking sociopaths use. It is dangerous.

And yet these entities, who cannot feel, and for whose leaders we do not vote….rule most of our days.  We endure because they enable us a decent life (which I agree is the case); however, that does not change the fact that corporations enjoy near absolute authority:  They tell us how to dress, where to show up, what to say, what to do for most of our waking hours……is that not pretty much slavery?

The saving grace is that we can largely choose our job, which allows us to choose our slavery….a decent proposition I  think (I really do)….just align yourself with a corporation that largely shares your values……..Oops:  Corporations don’t have values.

Then again, most people don’t either when faced with survival.  Oh well.

Artificial Intelligence:

I had big hopes for this, in the sense that surely we need to be smarter than we are now…even if the robots take over?  Right?  Also, I thought it wasn’t that far away; I mean we can process the shit out of some shit with computers.  It won’t be long before we can simulate the processing of the human brain.

A few thoughts…..if we ever COULD simulate the processing of the human brain, how much energy would it take at this point?  Shit…my computer (one computer) requires a up-voltage converter, and runs so hot that it needs a heat sink to avoid melting the metal.

My brain runs at 98.6 degrees.  And it doesn’t require an up-converter at all.  I can shove a few beers and a slice of bread into it and it will run all day.  Imagine if you could shove a few leaves and a cup of water into your computer, and that was it?  That’s nuts!!!  The brain is, simply put, so far beyond anything we have now that its a joke.  Show me a computer that runs on beer and a plate of rice!?!?!!  Our brains are so energy efficient it is SICK.

Next:  Free Will

Isn’t that the issue?  Computers (despite their poor efficiency) can already process more than we can in most situations (though they aren’t as flexible).  But they can’t DECIDE to process something.  If they could I might simply stay at home and let my computer be curious about the data that I work with for a living.

So what is free will?  And why can’t processing devices (computers) that are already “smarter” than we are in some situations simply decide to do something?

Proposition:  The brain is a pattern recognition machine.  At its simplest, the brain stores information and turns it into patterns.  I didn’t invent this idea (see  You have to take this one on belief somewhat.

Another Proposition:  The brain is leaky.  Computers work with 1s and 0s….and that is hard to do.  The smaller the circuits, the more the circuits leak…and 1s bleed into 0s.  The way you separate the feedback from the signal is to turn up the volume (energy throughput)… the smaller the processing circuits get, for the most part the larger we must turn up the energy to separate the signal from the noise.  This is true (no belief required).  The brain doesn’t work like that…it simply leaks, and trades accuracy for speed and efficiency….and the brain has trouble telling the noise from the signal.


That is why there is no artificial intelligence, no free will in machines.  They don’t have enough noise;  they are TOO accurate.

Imagine a brain that is programmed to see patterns.  It sees lots of them, because the world is largely patterned (follows trends).  Because it errs though, it also sees trends where there aren’t any (optical illusions are an example).  It is well documented that the brain sees patterns where they don’t exist, it “fills in the blanks” where our sensory input doesn’t match previous patterns we’ve seen.

But there is one source of random noise that is always present….it is the leak in our brain circuits…the trade off between efficiency and accuracy.  From the day we are born the brain tries to process the ghost in our machine (the leak in our signal, which is completely random).  Because it is so good at seeing patterns…it invents a pattern….WE ARE THE PATTERN.completely unique, un-reproducible, always shifting with new input (which produces new randomness, which causes us to shift more…but on the whole the brain creates a way to interpret that randomness, and refines that interpretation with time).  We tell ourselves to do different things in different situations (or the same situation) because it is somewhat random.  Free will is that randomness. We…are the randomness.

Anyway, that is my theory, and that is why there is no free will in computers, nor is there any “artificial intelligence” upcoming in computers:  they work too well.

To sum up:

While there is no apparent theme in my three topics…..the theme is that it pays to think about the things that go on around us.  If you take at face value all the information we’re fed…’re the same as dumb.

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I read today about Obama chiding Wall Street for their reported $40 billion dollars in bonuses this year (even though they were down over the past few years).  It does offend one’s sensibilities, I certainly agree.

I mean…if risky mortgages are the source of the problem, then don’t bail out the banks, bail out the people…the banks get the money in the end anyway (since the people still have to pay the mortgage) and the people get to keep their homes.

If you bail out the banks…the banks get the money, the people still lose their homes…which then means the banks get the homes………so the banks get the homes AND the money:  And they were the ones responsible for the mess in the first place (to the losers go the spoils)!

Seems like they’re making out like bandits.  We lose our homes AND we pay to bail them out.  But whatever….that’s another conversation (the gist being that it really ISN’T the bad mortgages that are causing banks trouble, otherwise bailing out the people would be a more logical economic and political solution).

What the continuance of Wall Street bonuses really means is that pay for performance is a myth, and that is what it has to do with my job (HR Consulting).  Pay for performance is the idea that each is paid (in some measure) according to what they contribute.  If you do better, you get more.  A bonus (since it is a BONUS and not part of regular pay) would be linked to some performance measure and if you meet that measure then you get the bonus.

This is where it gets a little human on us:  The bonuses are largely paid out anyway (people set goals attainable within the normal flow of work, or managers “adjust” for externalities, etc.)  In effect, bonuses are not pay for performance (otherwise Wall Street wouldn’t get any)….they are really just a part of base pay.  In a good year you may earn 100% of a potential bonus; in a poor year you may still earn 75%.

Merit pay increases work the same way:  The average salary increase is 3.5% or so a year.  The average merit increase for good performers is 5%; top performers 7%.  In other words, there is only a 4% difference in pay increases between those who are just drawing paychecks, and those who are the best of the best (the best of the best do get promoted though).

Anyone who’s ever worked in corporate America knows the top performers are worth 10x or more than the average worker.

Of course there is the issue of measurement (how do you know how much more someone is worth?), and the issue of fairness (would you work next to someone doing your job that is making 10x more than you?), and the holdover from manufacturing/assembly line era of pay where a warm body is a warm body…anyone can pull a lever or start a machine, so everyone should make the same.  And then there is simplicity:  its easier to largely pay people the same.

Anyway, don’t blame Wall Street for their bonuses for the most part….its just part of salary.


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At work things are good. I have a new job, which isn’t all that different from my last one. I enjoy coming to understand how work gets done though. Its a weird mix when people come together to do something and then a hierarchy emerges for who asks what to whom to get things done. I have learned a lesson I think about work. It might just apply to the technology development sector, but I suspect it applies to all large projects of a technical nature: coordination costs are HUGE.You have no idea the amount of effort that is spent trying to inform all relevant parties of stuff that other people already know…but you can’t ask those that already know because their calendars are already full the entire day. In other words, the cost of coordination have grown to the point that some people don’t do anything at all anymore…they just know general info that other people don’t have the time to know.

The value chain runs in a trickle from these people. They know what needs to be done…but because they’re in meetings all day, they can’t do anything really. They just trickle bits of relevant information to those below them, who further elaborate in trickles to those below them, until we actually get a usable output at the very bottom.

But those at the bottom aren’t even close to being equipped with the information to do it all on their own. It requires the small inputs of those above, in their small areas of expertise, to get to the bottom. The rub is that those above are only adding small values at each point in the chain. Each value add is small; which means each person at the top of the chain isn’t doing all that much, but their decisions require more and more information to make, which require more coordination costs…more meetings….more nothings.

All these people could be replaced by maybe two or three people that REALLY know how to do their work. This means people that have done perhaps all the jobs in the chain over a multiple year period. The problem is that these people don’t exist. No company can keep people working in a particular business long enough to staff the talent they need.

I always say, “Shit…I’ll take you, me and Johnny Smith…and we can do the work of all 15 of those clowns, and still go home at 3 o’clock everyday…and do it better.” And that’s true. But I could never get those three people to all work with me for any significant amount of time, because people that really know what they’re doing are in such demand that you can’t have a significant number of them working on the same project.

The staffing will always be terrible unless you find a way to pay (in some form, even if its not in $) these uber-producers. I don’t see any companies that are able to do that because its so hard to tease out who is actually driving the project. People know informally, but I’ve never seen a company that pays for it.

Imagine a low level manager where the pay is generally around $40,000…except some people, in the same job, are making $70,000…almost double. It’d never work. The other managers would get upset if they found out others were making so much. You’d need an airtight measurement system for incentives that everyone believed in. Most work is so fluid there is no way to measure that extra productivity…at least currently.

Here is a good idea for Google: they should try to figure out how to measure it.

Current metrics suck for large scale project related work. Its so hard to tease out who is driving results. Google had the same problem with the Internet: its so hard to tease out what someone means when they search for something. They figured out a better way.

They should figure out a better way to search for “who is driving results on this project”. Maybe it could be based on some weighted average formula of “number or emails sent to and from, number of meetings called/attended, number of rows of code written, number of phone calls to and from, number of mentions in other people’s emails, number of project tasks assigned, complexity of work (a tough one), # of positive mentions in the performance reviews, etc, etc”. Of course, the formula would have to be a secret or people would try to manipulate it (which happens with the current Google search). Regardless, its possible.

On all other fronts I am just chilling. I have posts coming on CYA, women and the workplace, and the placebo effect.

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Making goals and working towards them is good right? Everyone says so. It is true that the goal oriented “get” more than others…that makes sense. Purposefully going in a direction will more likely get you in that direction that not trying at all. You’ll never accidentally end up with exactly what you’ve always wanted…right?

Well….maybe. It depends on where you want to go. Ever hear “You’re never lost if you don’t care where you are going.”? Travellers used to say that, and it worked quite well for me in those days.

I rarely fretted over how to tackle a new city; I didn’t worry whether I would see everything. In fact, a lot of times I didn’t try to see anything at all. In Paris, it is true I made a point to see the Louvre. But in Valencia, for instance, what exactly do you need to see? Most cities are more like Valencia than Paris.

I usually ate, and drank some coffee and when I felt good I would start walking and talk to people when they looked interesting. I didn’t miss anything in Valencia, because I never knew what there was to see. I just walked down a street and when it ceased to interest me I would turn and go down another street. Years later someone would ask, “Did you see La Catedral de Valencia while you were there?” My reply: “I don’t know. Show me a picture.” I haven’t the slightest idea what I saw and what I didn’t….although I likely saw alot (or maybe not).

So that is one extreme: The “you’re never lost if you don’t care where you’re going” camp.

The other extreme is: A goal achieved necessitates another goal planned….otherwise you have no goals. Ever read the myth of Sisyphus?

That’s the common wisdom: 1) State your goal to everyone that will listen, 2) make a detailed plan with a timeline including beginning, middle, and especially an end, 3) have short term achievable milestones that can be measured, and 4) find people to hold you accountable.

So I did that when I started the corporate life. I said I wanted to work in this Talent/HR Effectiveness consulting group. I told everyone, even the people I currently work with….which was weird to tell you boss and boss’s boss that you don’t really want to do what you’re doing…..but still, I didn’t care. I had a GOAL (which is what I’m supposed to have right?).

I slowly worked toward it, meeting everyone I could in consulting, asking them what kind of experience would help me, asking their story, trying to stay abreast of the business, learning when jobs came open, meeting the right HR people. I didn’t meet my original timeline, nor the next one…but I kept at it.

It is frustrating when most of it was out of my control: I can’t make positions open; I can’t make myself more qualified than the other candidates (since I can’t control what experience they have). In my current role I couldn’t get relevant experience (since the two businesses do very different things). I also cannot go outside the company to get the experience (if they won’t hire me within the company to do it where I know people and have a proven track record, what would make another company hire me without those things?). I was basically asking for a special favor (and businesses don’t often give out favors).

Regardless, I know how goals work. If you stick with them long enough, keep doing something/anything to move towards them, and are sincere in your efforts……something will happen.

And it did. After 3.5 years…..I caught a break. In January I’ll be transferring internally to work in consulting. The story of exactly how it happened after 3.5 years is actually a really good one…but I’ll save it for later, since that isn’t what this post is about.

Very, very few people have made the transition from what I do now (sort of tech project mgt) to HR Effectiveness consulting. Its like being a water treatment expert and wanting to move into politics. Not a logical jump. I had a lot working against me, and pretty much only persistence working for me. Also, I can’t recall ever having a stated goal like this and then it taking so long to achieve.

It should be all the sweeter then right? I overcame signficant obstacles. I’ve been wanting it for a long time. I got a little lucky. I get on a long term career path I think will suit me better.

Uhh…no. Actually, I don’t feel all that much better or different. I feel a bit anxious now that I have to “put up or shut up” so to speak. A lot of people stuck their necks out to get me the job over others who were probably more qualified on paper. I have to return to the bottom of the totem pole, which means working long hours, and getting all the shitty work. I didn’t really get a raise. It was a lateral move in that respect.

I also don’t think I will be any happier in a year or maybe even two. I might be a little happier; however, I could never be sure as I don’t know how happy I would’ve been had I stayed in the other job (I don’t know what the opportunity cost is). I think I will work with some smarter people (smarter in the way I want; I work with smart people now too.) and eventually do more interesting work, but again…there is no way for me to know the opportunity cost of what I left. My new line of business isn’t growing as fast as the one I’m in currently, so there won’t be as many promotional opportunities in my new job…..but its a great transferable skill to be in front of clients and have billable hours (you go from a cost to a profit center).

In short, there are some good things about it….and some bad things. That’s no different than life at most any juncture.

So what good is it to constantly struggle to achieve a goal if it makes you no better off? Well, it does sort of make me better off…in some ways…but what it doesn’t make me is any happier, or any more satisfied. And isn’t that what you’re aiming towards? I think it is.

When people say, “Yeah, but what good is your new car?” even if you answer something vacant like “It will get me hot women,”…the next question is “Ok, why do you want hot women?”…then you can say, “Because it’ll make me look cool (or whatever you want to answer),” then the next question is “Why do you want to look cool?”….the answer is “Because it makes me happy or more satisfied.” Happiness, contentment, satisfaction is at the root of most of your motivations (that don’t have to do with basic needs of food, shelther, etc.).

Happiness is a strange thing though. Everyone knows that I have a fascination with Happiness. I put it in capitals because I mean happiness as a science. My fascination stems from the knowledge that my life is pretty darn good, yet I seem unable to be happy with it….whatever “happy” might mean to me (which I’m not so sure about anymore….maybe I AM happy?). I think I can safely say I know as much about the study of Happiness as all but those who actually do research on it (psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc).

Happiness is circular in many cases. If you think a cool car will make you happy, then it likely will. It doesn’t matter that your motivations are shallow or even incorrect. It is a brain trick. Happiness is whatever you can tell yourself you’re happy with. Otherwise you’re on the hedonic treadmill and always keeping up with the Joneses.

Achievement is the hedonic treadmill. It is Sisyphus pushing his rock.

Humans acclimate very, very quickly to a change in circumstances. On the downside we don’t appreciate our ever improving lives (or even winning the lottery). On the upside, those who are crippled or blinded in adulthood quickly return to their previous average happiness level. Again on the downside, though we don’t really appreciate the incremental improvements all that much, we do become stressed by constant un-improvements.

So what did I enjoy over the last 3.5 years? I enjoyed being good at my job (my current one which I will no longer have). I enjoyed some of the people I worked with (who I will be leaving). I enjoyed playing tennis. I enjoyed food, music, and doing things with my friends. I like ice cream and cheesecake. I like my computer. I like singing.

So is there a point here? Yeah, a little bit.

I remember someone asked me one time in an interview, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (yes, apparently people really do ask that question).

I said, “I don’t believe in 5 years plans because I don’t think anyone can plan that well. Life has too many variables You limit yourself by focusing too much on one outcome and disregarding other opportunities that may be beneficial.”

He replied, “Do you not have goals then?”

(Of course I did have goals, but that isn’t what I answered.) I said, “I believe in heuristics. Life is more like chess than an engineering project. In chess you know your end game…its checkmate. But when you start the game, you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You make a few moves, and then do whatever is best from that spot based on your rules of thumb: control the middle of the board, attack pinned pieces, don’t attack early with your queen, etc. Life is like that….identify a few useful rules that work for you, and stick with them….always re-evaluating where you are currently based on those rules.”

I repeat the answer now because I think it is the right one: Forget about your long term goals. You will achieve them (and be no happier) or you will not achieve them (and be stressed by your failure). Better to focus on what you like, and what you’re good at….then do more of that. The rest will take care of itself.

Ok, enough of that. I have said all these things before and yet I still make goals, maybe because it makes life more interesting even if not more satisfying. It is also empowering to think I have a say in my future. It will not, however, make me any happier.

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Today I went to the bathroom to take a dump.  I thought back over the previous three and a half years I have worked in this building.  I have never seen a stopped up toilet here…ever.  How is that possible?  Toilets get stopped up.  It is a fact of life. 

The toilets here are the same as in other commercial buildings, bars, and restaurants.  It cannot be that these toilets get stopped up less than other toilets due to design or plumbing.

Also, I do not think that these toilets see less traffic.  In fact, due to the number of people I know work here and the fact that they are here all day (as opposed to a few hours for restaurtants, bars, shops, etc), I think these toilets see more traffic than most toilets that I see stopped up occasionally.

I do not think it is the case that these corporate toilets do get stopped up as often as other toilets in high traffic buildings…just that the maintenance crew cleans them up before I actually get to see the mess.  I would say toilets are paid more attention in bars, restaurants, shops, gas stations (unless you’re at the “lone highway” truckstop in the middle of nowhere.  These toilets are stopped up because people don’t care.  I think these types of gas stations are outliers.).  People who run restaurants, shops, and bars know that the toilets tend to get stopped up and check them often since an unusable toilet may mean a non-repeat customer.  For a corporate toilet, we have to use it everyday.  We have no choice.

I don’t think its that you eat or drink at other establishments (and so that causes messier toilets since your digestive system is involved).  People eat often before coming to work (both at breakfast and lunch).  They don’t drink before coming to work, but that really only causes puking, and so isn’t useful for other means of toilet blockage.

I also do not believe, and so am ruling out, other scenarios…like perhaps people are cleaning up their own mess in the corporate bathrooms, or that they call maintenance right after it happens because they are so conscientious.  I don’t think so.

I am left with only one plausible scenario:  Corporate employees are “better” shitters.  They do not stop up toilets.  They do not puke in toilets.  They do not use too much toilet tissue.  At least they don’t do so with the frequency of the people that habit the other establishments.

I am not really attempting to make a value judgment.  I can’t think of a great, compelling reason why corporate employees would be cleaner toilet users.  I’m not going to comment on the “why”s, just that this is the hypothesis that best meets the observed facts.

Perhaps its just at my company?  I don’t have the data for other companies.  Maybe if corporate employees went to other public restrooms they would be poor toilet users (that doesn’t sound right though)?  Do employees of private companies differ in any way in their toilet use (perhaps they are even better, although its hard to be a 3.5 year run of perfect)?  Anyway, the experiments needed to confirm my hypothesis are impossible to run and wasteful since it really doesn’t matter, but it is interesting.

I came to the conclusion that corporate employees are better shitters simply because I can’t think of any other conclusion that fits better.  Can you?

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