my way

I named this blog “ginsudo” in 2007, saying that it means “the way of ginsu.” That was a lazy evasion, as the natural follow-up question should be “Sure, but what exactly is your way?” And I had no answer.

Sure, I had theories. I always have a theory. A good friend called me out on this, fifteen years into our friendship. I was regaling him with some forgettable tale about personal growth, and he listened with patience and bemusement as I concluded with the immodest judgment that I’d changed so much that I must be unrecognizable as the person he met a decade and a half ago. He replied, “Well, there’s one thing about you that hasn’t changed, that was clear from the day I met you, that is perhaps your defining characteristic: You always have a theory. And you express your theories with a visceral passion. A few years later, you might have a completely different, possibly even mutually exclusive, theory. But you’ll have a theory, and you’ll believe it with all your heart.”

I can’t decide if that’s a sparkling insight or an acerbic insult, and I can’t deny its truth. I sat with that truth for another five years before I realized: “Hey waitaminute. I’d rather always have a theory, and always change it, than always be in a perpetual state of confusion. In either case, there’s no real answer, so I might as well be excited about the illusions along the way.”

That’s the background to this momentous event: I’m changing the tagline of this blog from “the way of ginsu” to the shortest statement that I can make of what has really become my way, after all these years of searching. I may have believed a lot of things over the last dozen or so years, but I didn’t believe any of them strongly enough to make it the meaning of ginsudo. I like to think that underneath all of the other theories I have ever had about life, this statement is the purely distilled expression of the true meaning of them all. So here is the latest, and greatest, expression of my way:

At the base of every argument is the irrefutable fact that there is only one thing that everyone agrees upon.

Now, I don’t mean to be coy about what that one thing is: I think that I am thinking, right now. Everyone agrees that this is a thought that must be in your head as you think anything else. A few people would say that this is the only thing that everyone must acknowledge is true. Whether or not it’s the only thing, it is certainly irrefutable.

There are only two ways to object, and both of them are inadequate to the task.

One objection comes from the land of science fiction, or perhaps from sciences so far advanced that they seem like fiction. This objection says that it’s likely we’re not at all what we think we are, that the odds are likely that we’re simply living in a simulation. Perhaps nothing is real at all. This objection is irrelevant. Even if it is true, the simulation creates in you the thought that “I think I’m thinking, right now” – you could say that’s actually the test of a successful simulation.

The other objection comes from either sophistry or deep insight – as diametric as these are, it’s often difficult to tell the difference. But in either case, the objection is simply, “So what? It’s a trivial observation.” The deep expression of this objection goes on to say that the sense of self is an illusion, consciousness is a human construct, all outcomes are deterministic (or “fated”), so thoughts are merely distractions from a more important truth. But I never said that “I think I’m thinking” is the the most important truth, even if it is the only one that everyone agrees upon. In fact, I’m saying that this truth is the gateway to many deeper truths, which is perfectly in accord with this line of putative objection.

So the interesting claim of ginsudo is not the actual fact that everyone must agree upon. It’s the idea that this fact is at the base of every argument. In the most grandiose statement of my way, I’m claiming that I’ve found the bottom turtle.

This comes from the apocryphal tale of a famous scientist explaining cosmology to an audience. After the lecture, one elderly lady approaches the scientist and says, “Your lecture was hogwash – how can anyone believe that the earth simply exists in the universe without any support beyond your mystical claims?”

The scientist asks, “Well then, what do you suppose supports the earth?”

She says, “The planet rests on the back of a giant turtle.”

The scientist responds, “Alright then, what supports the turtle?”

“An even larger, more grand turtle.”

At this point, the scientist is sure she’s trapped: “And then? What’s beneath that grand turtle?”

She exclaims triumphantly, “You silly goose, it’s turtles all the way down!”

In stating my way, I’m revealing many things about myself, but there’s one thing that people who know me already know too well: I’ve been in a lot of arguments. I’ve been in arguments with people who love me, people who hate me, people smarter than me, people with an exasperating inability to understand even the most basic tenets of argumentation. I’ve been in arguments with my bosses, my employees, my peers, my friends, my lovers, my children, and way too many people on Twitter.

What I’ve learned from all these arguments is that most people in arguments aren’t trying to win the argument. They’re trying to say something about themselves, say something about the other person, say something about the world or about life or about the universe and god and everything. But if you are trying in good faith to get to the truth in any argument, there is always one technique that you will try, and that is to seek a place of common agreement that precedes the argument. Almost always, this means that you try to find the nearest place where you agree.

That means, for example, that if you and I are arguing about who to vote for in the next election, we might argue about economics or immigration or globalism or socialism – and we might find that we’re making no progress. If we want to make progress, we seek the nearest place where we have a common goal, usually something like: “We want the best outcome for this country.” But maybe we find out that isn’t our common goal. Maybe one of us says, “What do you mean, ‘our country’? I want the best outcome for humanity first, our country only a distant second and only to the extent that our country can affect the future of humanity.” It’s interesting to find a place like that, where you thought you must have a common point in your argument, but actually, there’s a deeper foundational point that you must discuss first.

What I’m saying here is that it’s not enough to start from the nearest foundational point. The foundation under all foundations, the last turtle in the entire stack, is in not the nearest but rather the deepest point: that there is only one thing that everyone agrees on. The idea that “I think that I am thinking, right now” is the only thing that you must agree on is both freeing and compassionate. It frees you from every assumption you were making about what the other person must agree upon. It forces you to understand that you diverge from your counterpart in this argument somewhere after this base agreement, and there is absolutely no rule that requires that the divergence take place in any particular place above that bottom turtle.

This truth gives you enormous power, which you will probably never choose to use. If you had the time, you would build up from this base, instead of simply finding the nearest point of agreement. A stable bridge cannot be built simply as a quick connection between the nearest shores across the water. Instead it must be anchored deep in the foundation not only of both shores but deep underneath the waters. So in arguing with someone, if you really want to understand your disagreement, you would start from the foundation that the only thing that you must agree upon is that each of you is thinking, “I’m thinking, right now” – and you would try to draw a line from that thought to each other, finding where you disagree along the way.

For all practical purposes, you would have neither the time nor inclination to do this with every person you would want to argue with. But simply knowing that this is the base, that you would have to work up from this base if you really and truly want to resolve your argument – that knowledge would curtail a lot of your desire to argue in the first place. 

That is my way, if not in practice, always in theory.

startups as the path to enlightenment

So if you didn’t work at PayPal during their halcyon days, what else makes for an attractive startup résumé?

I would say that ideally startup hiring managers should try to get folks who’ve been through at least two of the four private company stages, including at least one that the hiring company has not yet been through.

Well, I would say that, except I find that these “stages” are not particularly well defined by anyone.  Or at least not anyone I could find in 28 seconds of Googling.  So like any moron with a digital pen and printing press, I can just make up my own definitions.

Some of the typical “stage” terms are seed, early, expansion, and late – these are often used by investors, are vaguely defined, and don’t always track to a company’s internal status and expectations.  I’ll try to align the four stages of private company progress with some more-fun-if-equally-irrelevant quadrilateral perspectives, from psychology and Buddhism.

Stage I:  pre-product

psych: unconscious incompetence – the individual neither understands or knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit or has a desire to address it

Buddhist: the path to stream-entry; the fruition of stream-entry

This stage is everything before you have a product launched to anyone outside your “friendlies” (relatives, friends, close contacts) – from the idea on the napkin to your Hello World! launch to the general public.

What others call ‘seed stage’ is often short of this – just the idea through a prototype, with ‘early stage’ then following from pre-launch to revenue traction.  But although that division may be natural for funding demarcation, from a product perspective you just don’t know what you have until it’s in the hands of the buying public, so I regard all of this period of not knowing as a single period of sustained ignorance.  It is all the pre-product path before the fruition of entering the great stream of commerce.

Stage II:  maximum iteration

psych: conscious incompetence – though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it

Buddhist: the path to once-returning ; the fruition of once-returning

This is the period where the company has both the maximum flexibility and the most urgent need to rapidly iterate development.  Not just product development – everything about what the company makes, does and is.  The flexibility is there because the product has been launched, which not only lifts the inchoate burden of launch, but begins the collection of data (customer feedback, product metrics, use data etc) which can now be mined for insights about how to shape and reshape the product.  The need is there because if you don’t iterate, you will not grow and then you will not exist.

And again, it’s not just product iteration but an opportunity to examine and tune everything you do as a company:  recruiting and review systems, management team and tools, compensation, cultural principles, office design, everything.  The things you do to shape the company during this period will have an enduring effect on everyone who works there for years to come.  Too bad you don’t really know what you’re doing just yet.  But now is the time to get on the path to once-returning, to reincarnation and rebirth into the next stage.

Stage III:  revenue optimization

psych: conscious competence – the individual understands or knows how to do something; however, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration

Buddhist: the path to non-returning ; the fruition of non-returning

Unless you were oh-so-clever enough to launch without a revenue model, the company began to enjoy early revenues during the maximum iteration stage.  Iteration remains critical, but now your flexibility is naturally limited by the existence of paying customers, who often have a limited tolerance for change.  You have to optimize existing lines of revenue while making careful tradeoffs in launching new lines of revenue.  You may for the first time begin pursuing meaningful acquisitions or divestments that could change the face of the company.

This stage may be the most difficult among the four; your hard-earned knowledge seems to have the perverse effect of increasing the challenge.  When you were young and ignorant, it served you well to underestimate the difficulty in changing the world.  Now that some corner of the world has bent to your dream, you find that the dream is a shared hallucination of many rather than your own private trip – and your role isn’t to enjoy the ride but to supply the vehicle.

Nonetheless you are on a path of no return:  in returning there is only defeat and regression to a lower form of living; you can only move forward for true enlightenment.

Stage IV:  maturity and liquidity

psych: unconscious competence – the individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply)

Buddhist: the path to enlightenment; the fruition of enlightenment.

The mature company does not have to be moribund, there is a vitality and pleasing grace to the well-oiled machine.  You know what you’re doing and you’re at the height of your powers, freed from the mixed blessings of youth.

And no matter your personal attitude towards money, getting the company to liquidity is the last barrier to enlightenment.  (Here I’m putting aside the case of those who want to build a big, sustainable private company without calling it a “lifestyle business” – the more typical startup dream involves shareholders and employees who want to be able to freely trade their stakes in the business on the open market.)

With your first big liquidity event, you find out if the other side of that barrier really is nirvana.  You find out whether the money has changed you, or whether it exposed who you really are.

That is the startup path as self-actualization, the startup path to enlightenment.  When you’re hiring for a startup, you need to pay careful attention to which of these stages your candidates have progressed through, and uncover their self-knowledge about their enjoyment in what has been learned and their eagerness to learn what hasn’t.

btw, if you are on that path or would like to be, and have skills in javascript, php and/or other web programming-fu: send me your résumé! (just a link to your LinkedIn or other relevant online bio would also be fine.)  use the intarwebs to find how to contact me.