In the opening pages of Smart People Should Build Things, Andrew Yang explains that we’ve made a mistake. According to Andrew, “[w]e’ve let the market dictate what our smart kids do, and they’re being systematically funneled into obvious structured paths that don’t serve them or the economy terribly well.” Essentially, we’ve made exactly the mistake James Surowiecki warned us against in The Wisdom of Crowds: we’ve taught our kids to accept what somebody else says they should do instead of doing what they think they should do.

The answer to this problem, according to many writers, is to follow our passions.

I haven’t always liked business books. Truth be told, I still don’t like a lot of them. Like hucksters who sell you books about how to make a million bucks (write a book!), too many business writers tell you saccharine stories about how you’ll find ultimate happiness if you’ll just find your calling and then follow it.

Bah. Humbug.

Simply having a passion isn’t enough. Passions fade. Passions can mislead. Worse yet, some passions feed only themselves. Those passions are dangerous because they’re insatiable.

In the end, a lot of our “passion” is really just distraction dressed up and paraded about so we don’t have to deal with the work that is challenging and difficult and scary and meaningful.

I’m not saying don’t be passionate.

I’m saying learn to be passionate about work that serves more than just yourself.

Corporations may exist to maximize shareholder profits, but we don’t. Business, trade, the free market, they all exist to serve our self-interest. But even Adam Smith recognized that our self-interest is broad enough to encompass the well-being of our friends and neighbors. Truth be told, we exist to serve other people. That’s how we connect. That’s how we create art.

What Andrew Yang is doing with Venture For America is an important aspect of fixing the way people think about their jobs. We have to get people to stop thinking that the way to get ahead is to just do whatever pays $120k per year. To do that we’ve got to get them thinking about what matters most.

But in the end, just chasing our passions won’t do it. We have to change our passions. If we’re passionate about the ease that $120k per year can buy, it’s gonna be awfully hard to blaze a new trail. But if we’ll learn to be passionate about helping someone else (it almost doesn’t matter who), we’ll find that there are plenty of people to keep us meaningfully engaged long after selfish passion quits satisfying.

Horizontal or vertical?

Brad Feld, one of my favorite business bloggers recently posted about horizontal and vertical scaling. Like he says, the Wikipedia definitions of horizontal and vertical scaling are both simple and useful:

  • Scale Vertically (or “scale up”): Add resources to a single node in a system, typically involving the addition of CPUs or memory to a single computer.
  • Scale Horizontally (or “scale out”): Add more nodes to a system, such as adding a new computer to a distributed software application.

In business, entrepreneurs very often think vertically first. You open your shop and get to work selling widgets. Pretty soon, you realize that if you add employees, you can make your little node in the market more efficient. And so a small shop turns into a bigger shop which sometimes turns into a Really Big Shop.

At some point, you realize that you can’t usefully employ another body at the shop, so you figure out horizontal scaling: you replicate the system and hire a manager to run another Really Big Shop doing the same things in the next town over.

Neither kind of scaling is better than the other, they’re suited to different problems. But the best organizations figure out the right mix between vertical and horizontal scaling in how they do their work and then they run with it.

Otherishness in business is a question of how well we apply vertical and horizontal scaling to why we work.

Business owners and employees also tend to think vertically first. Because we primarily work for our own well-being, we want to increase our salary and our top line revenue as much as possible.

But at some point, we’ll realize that we can’t usefully use another dollar or another day of vacation. When that happens we have to find another reason to work. If our reason for working includes someone else’s well-being, then every time we manage to help another person replicate our success, we’re scaling horizontally.

And if you ask me, the best organizations figure out the right mix between vertical and horizontal scaling in why they do their work and then they run with it.

Why we do

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take.

In his book, Adam says that becoming otherish in a business context would require “dramatic changes in the way that organizations hire, evaluate, reward, and promote people. It would mean paying attention not only to the productivity of individual people but also to the ripple effects of this productivity on others.”

That’s what would happen if we were each individually otherish in our work.

But a business focused on otherishness would be another thing altogether.

The reason most businesses aren’t otherish isn’t because that way isn’t profitable. It’s because that way is much harder. Taking home more money this year is way easier than borrowing money so you can give it away. Focusing on doubling sales is easier than focusing on doubling the number of employees you’ve helped become better salespeople.

A business that focused on how it helped its employees instead of its shareholders would require equally dramatic changes in the way that it hired, evaluated, rewarded, and promoted its people. More importantly, it would mean that its productivity would no longer be measured by the profit that it made.

Its productivity would be measured by the lives it touched. It would be measured by the number of people it trained and sent on to greater heights. It would be measured by how it changed business.


Not a clue

My wife just walked over to the computer, where I’ve been staring blankly at the screen for the last several minutes.

“I don’t have any idea what I’m going to write tonight.”

“Then just say that.”

So here I am. Without a clue.

It’s not the first time. And it’s not for a lack of thinking about this little blog problem I have. My wife will be the first to confirm that I spend too much time thinking about this project.

And as I write this, I realize it’s a lot like what faces us in business. We have an idea we want to try or a need to fill. But what’s between that and reality, we really have no idea.

Seth Godin talks constantly about delivering. I’m reading “The Icarus Deception” right now, where it’s a constant theme. You don’t always know what to do or how you’re gonna do it. But at some point you’ve got to decide you’re gonna be the one who just starts making it work. Which is a great idea if you’ve got an Idea, but a lot harder when you don’t.

It seems to me that the answer to our problem of not knowing what to do stems, at least in part, from the delusion that we should know what to do.

This last week or two I’ve been thinking a lot about helping my kids. I’ve got four of them and I’m frequently struck with the overpowering conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing. So as I was pondering on the subject last week, it occurred to me that there are a few questions I should ask my kids every day:

  • What are you learning?
  • What would you like to be learning?
  • What would help you finish your work?
  • How can I help you?

I doubt it would be effective if I started peppering these questions at them every day after work. Rapid-fire interrogation has a way of making their eyes glaze over, I see it every time I tell them “‘Because’ isn’t a reason, it’s a conjunction.” But I’m a wily guy and I’ve been around for a bit, so I figure I can work these four questions into our conversations without them even noticing for a while.

Anyway, right after I wrote those four questions, I realized there are a corollary set of questions applicable to work. They are:

  • What are you working on?
  • What would you like to be working on?
  • What would help you finish your work?
  • How can I help you?

Now, I’m not the first guy to come up with this series of questions (or one very much like it). Doug Conant has me beat by at least 14 years, and Moses’ father-in-law had the wisdom to ask nearly 3500 years ago.

You see, the thing that ties Doug Conant in with Moses is that there’s really no way we’re going to have all the answers all the time. But as entrepreneurs, it’s not our job to have all the answers. If entrepreneurship really means leadership, then our job is to define the vision and then to make sure the team is unified around the vision.

Neal A. Maxwell defined a useful framework for defining a vision and encouraging team unity:

  1. Define the problem;
  2. gather ideas;
  3. test the ideas;
  4. choose among the ideas; and
  5. plan the action.1

And that’s where the questions come in. If we handle it right, these questions will walk us right through the five elements of Neal’s framework. At the same time, they’ll help us understand where our kids’ employees’ heads are at. We’ll understand pretty quickly whether they understand the vision, whether they support it, whether they’re on board but not sure what to do next, or whether the task at hand is more than they’re competent to handle. If we don’t use the questions as an excuse to take over, the questions will also reinforce our trust in them.

And the best part is, if we get real answers to our questions we might just start to have a clue.

  1. Neal A. Maxwell, “. . . A More Excellent Way,” Deseret Book, 1973, p. 102


In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech titled “The Man in the Arena” at the Sorbonne in Paris. From that speech comes this famous quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I’ve had a post about this quote in mind since I started writing the blog, but I couldn’t remember who said it or how exactly it went, so the few times I’ve gone looking for it I came up empty-handed. Lucky for me, a friend of mine sent it to me today for a totally unrelated reason and now I have it.

I started writing this blog as a way to force myself to make my thoughts coherent. I hoped to be able to collect and organize some of the best business thinking in a way that would persuade some of you to change your minds about why we work.

When I was in law school and first thinking about these ideas, I briefly considered a career in academia, where I could research and write papers on the subject. But I realized that if I did that, I’d just end up writing for a small group of other academic lawyers who really wouldn’t understand what entrepreneurship means because they would never experience it.

So as I write these posts, I want to avoid the trap of being a mere critic. After all, I’m not an employer. I’m still not even in the arena.

We ought to give a great deal of credit to those people who do take the risk of business ownership. Most of them, in the United States anyway, have no formal business education at all. They’re mostly just regular people who need to feed their families and along the way they figure out they can make life more comfortable by hiring some employees. Some of them are so busy just trying to get their thing going that they wouldn’t have time to read this blog even if they knew it existed. They’re gonna make mistakes and they’re gonna win sometimes. And in some ways, I’m glad they’re not wasting their time reading this blog.

The difference between a mere critic and someone who offers useful ideas is the difference between the man in the arena and those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” It’s the difference between the academes and the landscapers and the outside sales reps and the guy who started a janitorial service so he could get up at 3 AM to clean your office building toilets.

Ultimately, I’m not interested in being a critic. I mean to show the world that there is a better way to do business, and that means I’ll first have to build a better business. I expect to succeed. But if I fail, I’ll fail having dared to try something great.