Beware Advice That Costs Them Nothing

I just finished my first reading of Taleb’s Antifragile and started listening to All Quiet on the Western Front. (I haven’t read it since middle school.) I noticed a principle from Antifragile in Remarque’s historical fiction of The Great War.

Advice From a Position of Trust

The main group of young men were inspired by their school teacher, Kantorek, to volunteer for the German army. War was very different from what they had expected. After the first of them dies the narrator reflects:

Naturally we couldn’t blame Kantorek for this. Where would the world be if one brought every man to book? There were thousands of Kantoreks — all of whom convinced that they were acting for the best, in a way that cost them nothing.

chapter 1, 16m 25s. Bold added

Benefit Without Risk

If I understand Taleb correctly then Kantorek (and his generation) was benefiting from optionality — one where he reaps the upside (possible national victory) and others the downside (death in the war).  Taleb rails on this sort of arrangement at length in Antifragile.

Don’t Abuse Trust

Managers can face this sort of issue. I’ve had employees counsel with me before making a decision on a job offer from somewhere else.  If they are a good worker then I benefit from persuading them to stay. But they may be declining an upside much larger than the downside I’m avoiding.

I’m definitely not an expert on optionality. I’m just practicing to recognize it in the wild. Whether or not this is a good example of optionality the conflict of interests is clear and I’ve dealt with it.

Declare Your Bias

In these cases I honor my obligation to represent the company and it’s interests without manipulating my employee. I make clear what benefits me and the company. I make sure they understand I’m not entirely impartial.

You might say that bias should be assumed. Anyone that takes advice without considering the source is just being naïve. Well, that doesn’t do it for me.

I work hard to have a trusting relationship with my employees. It isn’t fair for me to ignore the possibility that they might think I’m speaking as a completely independent friend when I must speak as an employee. (Reminds me of Taleb’s comments about Lawrence of Arabia: never trust a man that isn’t free.)

Be Likable

Here’s a gem from the February 20th edition of Mad, Sad, Glad from

This is a typical HBR article in that it’s long and academic.  The important part is that people would rather work with with someone who is incompetent than someone who is unlikable.  If you think that smarts are enough, refer to our very first podcast ‘Solution to a Stalled Technical Career‘.  Yes, HBR, we said it 10 years ago 🙂

2015-06-03 Unlikeable

What! I thought this was a meritocracy! Am I not hired for my mad skills?!

Well, yes. You are.

And contributing positively to a team is a skill. One the vast majority of us can’t succeed without.

Be likable.

Be a good, kind, and gracious person. People tend to like those.

No tricks. Don’t just gently imitate others like Andy Bernard from The Office. Trickery is icky and doomed to fail — if not professionally then ultimately in the shriveling of your soul.

Innovation is Saying “No” to 1000 Things

People think focus means saying “yes” to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying “no” to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying “no” to a thousand things.

Steve Jobs as attributed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. 11h 26m 15s

By the way, as you can see I’m making progress on Taleb’s book and loving it.  Some of it is a bit dense for listening to at 3x so I have to slow it down and re-listen. Very well-reasoned and thought-provoking ideas.

Ironically this quote isn’t one of his own ideas but support for his ideas. I might have to listen to it a second time in order to pull out small quotes that really represent the whole. Kinda feels like swimming in deep waters right now.

I will say that Taleb talks a bit about ADHD and formal education. As a parent with at least one young child with ADHD these strike close to home. (ADHD runs in my family like the Force does in the Skywalkers.)

The tension between what fits the mold and what fits the child — the possible systematic harm from having a mold. Good questions.