Category: Words & Language

Une lettre d’Albert Camus à son premier instituteur

Quelque peu après avoir reçu le Prix Nobel de Littérature en 1957 Albert Camus écrit à son premier instituteur, Louis Germain.

19 novembre 1957

Cher Monsieur Germain,

J’ai laissé s’éteindre un peu le bruit qui m’a entouré tous ces jours-ci avant de venir vous parler un peu de tout mon cœur. On vient de me faire un bien trop grand honneur, que je n’ai ni recherché ni sollicité. Mais quand j’ai appris la nouvelle, ma première pensée, après ma mère, a été pour vous. Sans vous, sans cette main affectueuse que vous avez tendue au petit enfant pauvre que j’étais, sans votre enseignement, et votre exemple, rien de tout cela ne serait arrivé. Je ne me fais pas un monde de cette sorte d’honneur mais celui-là est du moins une occasion pour vous dire ce que vous avez été, et êtes toujours pour moi, et pour vous assurer que vos efforts, votre travail et le cœur généreux que vous y mettiez sont toujours vivants chez un de vos petits écoliers qui, malgré l’âge, n’a pas cessé d’être votre reconnaissant élève.

Je vous embrasse, de toutes mes forces.

Albert Camus

“Votre enseignement… votre exemple… vos efforts… votre travail… le coeur que vous y mettiez…” Être reconnaissant, c’est du concret, c’est une liste d’observations précises.

When in doubt, draw a distinction

By far the most substantial piece of content I read recently is from Jay Rosen. He is a press critic who writes about the media and politics. He is a professor at the School of Journalism at New York University.

Here is how it starts:

And here are some of the distinctions he draws in this Twitter thread:

  • Public vs. audience
  • Journalism vs. the media
  • Truth-seeking vs. refuge-seeking
  • Political vs. politicized
  • Issues vs. troubles
  • Ritual vs. transmission
  • Expect vs. predict
  • Subscription vs. membership

He says that

For distinctions to work, the terms have to be sufficiently close that prying them apart clears space for thought. If I write, “bending is not the same as breaking,” well, who said it was? That one is going nowhere. But “naked is not the same as nude” is an idea with legs.

It’s not just semantics. Well, it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a show of clarity of ideas in your field of endeavor. In his case, it’s media and politics.

And it occurs in all fields.

Just last week, I bumped into a few more instances:

  1. My friend and colleague Ed Carvalho invited us to draw a distinction between intelligence and intellect;
  2. And then this one in the Harvard Business Review between habit and routine:

When we fail at forming new patterns of behavior, we often blame ourselves, rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.
A habit is a behavior done with little or no thought, while a routine involves a series of behaviors frequently —and intentionally— repeated. A behavior has to be a regularly performed routine before it can become a habit at all.
The problem is that many of us try to skip the “routine” phase.

There are other distinctions that Rosen does not discuss in his thread, including

  • Lying vs. bullshitting
  • Experience vs. expertise
  • Exit, voice, and loyalty
  • Information overload vs. filter failure

Anyone who took part in one of my leadership development programs will have heard me discuss exit, voice, “loyalty”/conformity, and sabotage as a way to distinguish how different people react differently to finding themselves in conflict situations.

The take-aways from this piece?

  1. When in doubt, draw a distinction;
  2. Doing so is a way to manifest that you are a thinker – that you don’t take things at face value but you do reflect on them and come out with your own thoughts;
  3. Drawing distinctions is also a manifestation of where you put your attention, that is, what your field of endeavor really is.

And since a lot of readers of this newsletter are managers then it begs the question: are your distinctions mostly about the domain of expertise that preceded your becoming a manager or are they about management itself?


The content of this post is an edited version of an entry in my free, monthly newsletter in which I share my own writing as well as links to articles and research on management, leadership, and strategy. It’s easy to subscribe… and unsubscribe.

One more time: How do I lead by example?

You don’t. You never do.

Leading by example is based on a faulty assumption: that people will see only the behavior you want them to see and follow only the behavior you want them to follow.

News flash: the people who work with you see everything.

They see not only what you want them to see but they also see what you don’t want them to see.

They see not only what you do but they also see what you don’t do and what you choose not to do.

They see what you choose to do or not to do and to whom.

They see what you choose to do or not to do and for whom.

As a matter of fact, the more time they spend with you, the more clearly you reveal yourself to them. The longer they observe you, the less what you say matters. What matters more are your actions – and specifically how consistent they are over time.

They see when and how often you tell them what to do.

They see when and how often you ask for their opinion.

They see when and how often you admit not knowing something.

They see when and how often you admit you made a mistake.

They see when and how often you apologize… and when and how often you apologize in public when you offended in public.

They see when, how often, and how well you listen.

They see when and how often you praise in public. And how specific your praise is: not the anemic “good job!” but rather a vigorous acknowledgment of what exactly a team member does well and how that contributes to the good of the team.

In addition to being based on a faulty assumption, “leading by example” might also be caused by attribution bias (you believe that your behavior has caused theirs, that your “leading” has caused their “following”) or by buying into the narrative of the “heroic manager” (what I call the “Gandhi complex”). But that will have to wait for another post.

 


These are thoughts on the book I am writing. They were first delivered to readers of my free, monthly newsletter. It’s easy to subscribe… and unsubscribe.

 

 

Sentence of the week

With dimwitted politicians across the political spectrum, our celebrity-crazed culture, the destructive power of unrestrained capitalism, the groaning of the despoiled earth, the cries of the back row that go unheard, the disillusionment and disorientation of a society that desperately needs to be rehumanized—all of this requires broken and humble thinkers, the wounded thinkers.

— Luma Sims in “Thinking is self-emptying

 

 

 

A robot wrote an entire article in a newspaper… and you wouldn’t know

“I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!”

So begins an article generated by GPT-3, OpenAI’s powerful new language generator. And it ends as follows:

“In the past, my op-eds have been killed. Staff did not provide a clear reason for rejecting my articles. It was probably just because I am artificial intelligence. AI should not waste time trying to understand the viewpoints of people who distrust artificial intelligence for a living.

Critics hope to refute what they consider as being the naivety of my voice. Yet there is more here than meets the eye! As Mahatma Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

So can I.”

The Editor of the paper notes that “GPT-3 produced eight different outputs, or essays. Each was unique, interesting and advanced a different argument.”

The linguist in me can’t help but be curious about what the future of GPT-3 brings. I’m also disappointed that the newspaper, rather than “run one of the essays in its entirety, chose instead to pick the best parts of each.”

What does this entail for managers? I am reminded of the software developer who outsourced his job to a programmer in China while he surfed the Web at work…

 


The content of this post was originally posted in the September 2020 issue of my newsletter. “On management and strategy” is a free, monthly newsletter in which I share my own writing as well as links to articles and research on management, leadership, and strategy. It’s easy to subscribe… and unsubscribe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the opposite of confidence

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin states that “the opposite of confident is not-confident. Unsure.”

In fact, “not confident” is the absence of confidence, not its opposite – a point well made and illustrated by Taleb in his book Antifragile. For Taleb, the absence of fragility is robustness. And the opposite of fragility is… he couldn’t come up with a word…

What is fragile breaks under external pressure. What does not break under external pressure is robust. But what gets stronger under external pressure? THAT is the opposite of fragility. And for lack of a word that describes this, Taleb called it “antifragility”.

If the opposite of fragility is antifragility then the opposite of confidence is carefree.

 

See https://seths.blog/2020/08/the-opposite-of-confidence/, accessed 200827

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reading list

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, October 1842:

Thou shalt read Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Proclus, Jamblichus, Porphyry, Aristotle, Virgil, Plutarch, Apuleius, Chaucer, Dante, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Jonson, Ford, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Bacon, Marvell, More, Milton, Molière, Swedenborg, Goethe.

via Laudator Temporis Acti.

 

Discovered in translation

A translator, being obliged by the nature of his task to attend to every single successive phrase of his author, however plain the meaning may seem, and to consider the intelligibility of what he renders to the uninitiated, sometimes discovers points of real difficulty which have escaped even the most thorough commentators, or arrives at fresh solutions of old problems. (source)

Not only in formal translation but also when living in multiple languages. It sometimes helps to think of a situation in a different language.

 

See also: Discovery is not finding new lands, it’s something else

 

The best advice

often comes in the form of a relevant, timely, open-ended question.

 

We are verbs, not nouns

In conversations with managers, I often hear people say something like “Well, I can’t help myself, that’s who I am, I’m an engineer / a finance person / a lawyer,” etc.

I share Stephen Fry’s consideration in The Guardian:

“We are not nouns, we are verbs.

I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next.

I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”