The Suicide Bomber Approach to Decisions

Conviction, of choice and reason, has been one of the hardest qualities of good leadership for me to develop.  An appreciative and empathetic mind can usually find multiple angles from which to appreciate a story, which makes it hard to call someone or something clearly wrong.  Usually if you’ve entered the mind of the other party or explored enough angles, you recognize why the other story may make sense.

Somewhere, there is a line to make between being overly empathetic and a fear of being human – of experiencing guilt.  Hanging up on a decision is a key way to flame out as a leader.  In such a case you become no more than an invisible man, someone who refuses to run the risk of their own humanity.

There can be ways around this.  One of my favorite anecdotes is from Zizek’s story about suicide bombers and their own belief process.  In how he tells it, the suicide bomber isn’t as convinced of their cause as we think they are before they commit their act.  All the way up to it they have doubt weighing on their mind, and it’s only through the act of the suicide that they prove it to themselves that they were actually committed to the cause.

Empathy can muddy the waters in a way that becomes entrenching and ambiguous.  You reach a point over time where you are mired in cognitive dissonance – balancing two opposing mindsets at the same time.  Recently I discovered a possible out to this process.

Picture the mind of a suicide bomber just before he blows himself up.  Do you really think it’s very different than your own at this moment, where you have been teetering over a choice for the last hour or even days?  The severity of his choice is greater than your own, but this is precisely why we shouldn’t expect him to have any easier time convincing himself this is the right course of action.  Where your choice is between sticking to your diet for your upcoming birthday dinner, he is erasing himself from his family and culture, all with the aim of serving his country or cause.

If a person in that situation can commit themselves to an action so severe, while you, with your decades of education and first world dilemmas, deliberate back and forth over some inconsequential matter, how does that reflect on yourself?

The example is important because I think it points to a very special mechanism you have to develop if you’re going to be a leader.  You have to have a “suicide button” for yourself, a button that says you’ve committed to something with absolutely no regard for the consequences of it to yourself.  In fact, you might as well look at the consequences in the same light – certain death.  This becomes like the Stoic practice of negative visualization.  The worst thing that can happen is that you are destroyed.  If you’re prepared for this in light of the choice and the possible benefits for you and the organization, you might just have the conviction needed to carry the group through.

The suicide button is a model for yourself to use against the back-and-forth.  For the bomber, hitting his button is actually the final note by which he convinces himself that he is indeed a believer in the cause.

Where leadership depends so much on a vision-driver, a person who holds the accountability stick, you have to be very sure of your decisions and the ultimate success of your organization, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Your job is to know when and where you must push your suicide button and just dive in.

In a remarkable irony, I originally wrote this draft post several years ago and shied away from publishing for whatever reason, probably based in fear/embarrassment.  I’m just now coming back out of blog hiding, hoping nor to repeat that pattern.

Fascia and Habit

For the last year, I’ve gotten an hour-long massage at least once per month.  Massage is a hard thing not to love for its own sake, but what’s been interesting is to understand the science behind why massage works.  It’s ultimately a process that requires the assistance of outside forces – something or someone presses on your body to enact some change.  “Deep tissue” massage is the type of massage I am talking about, which does not mean massage that involves lots of manual strength, but any massage that focuses on affecting structural changes in the body.

One of the leading theories behind massage and why it works involves the formation of fascia, or connective tissue, throughout the body in response to a process called fibrosis.  The patterns of movement and stationary positioning we take on, to whatever extent they deviate from your standard design, encourage the formation of this tissue throughout the body to prop up these alternate poses.  You can imagine your muscular tissue and cells working constantly at building bridges and trusses throughout your body at any point in time with the intention of enabling the pose to be held and to take stress off the more actively strained muscles.

The challenge with fascia formation is that these bridges aren’t meant to be permanent.  They are going to be much more brittle and will adapt the musculoskeletal system in ways not recommended by the manufacturer.  Fibrosis is actually behind many well-known permanent ailments of tissue replacement – scarring, cirrhosis, and Crohn’s disease are all examples of fibrosis taken to the extreme.  In each of these cases, death or permanent effects result from a natural process of the body (tissue formation and repair) that gets taken to the extreme without being checked.  Deep tissue massage is an outside input to assist in the destruction and collapse of these structures to allow the rest of the body’s structure to build and heal in the right direction, avoiding more permanent pains and cramps due to malformed muscle and tissue buildup.

I like to think about the formation of habits as happening within a similar process needing a similar remedy.  A normal human brain will have a natural, healthy course of being that we can generally recognize.  Happiness, a kind demeanor, and an ability to focus are all examples of observed effects of a brain operating as any designer or user would encourage it.

It’s the unnatural poses, or trains of thought and habit, that can disrupt the normal operation of a healthy brain through the creation of mental bridges into unhealthy territory.  Personal examples for me would be the frequent checking of email and social networks throughout the day.  Email responsiveness happens to be a core part of my job, but checking Twitter?  While there’s value there the process has manifested a kind of fibrosis that would be difficult to deny of its negative daily effects.  The distraction started as a prop against whatever stressful topics I wanted to turn away from and has grown into something of a time-suck and an activity that replaces valuable thought and action time that could be better spent focused on the topics at hand at work.

I’d argue that addiction is a type of extreme fibrosis of the brain.  As fascia is built up in the muscles to support a poor structure, an unhealthy drug habit is built up as a replacement for healthier ones.  Once at this point, AA’s 12 Step Program is the psychological equivalent to a deep tissue massage.  And for less severe habitual build-ups, a check-in with a therapist could be the analogy to regular massages for the healthy re-shaping of mental processes.

Technology of all kinds creates a kind of habitual fibrosis, as well.  My dad’s driven his motorhome through 47 states over the last decade, navigating highway and local roads alike with the assistance of his GPS.  This tool has saved him a ton of hassle from figuring out routes between cities and the best path to a local restaurant, but has created a kind of dangerous dependence.  Anytime a resident tries to give him directions to somewhere they’re quickly stopped and asked if they’ve got the address or cross street, instead.  The ubiquity of the GPS and mapping devices frees us from having to learn how to get from Austin to Marfa but displaces the local or tacit knowledge we might hope to acquire during a passing visit.

Stoicism is a kind of active therapy against all kinds of bad mental habit formation.  The active caution against the dependence (aka “mental bridge building”) on material things smooths the formation of habit towards a reliance on things you’d expect to be longer lasting and unbreakable by external events.  Your reputation, countenance, and rational self become personal bridges that last because of their very nature as intrinsic properties not necessarily dependent on externalities.

For everything else, there’s probably a body massage for that.  My own takeaways from the fascia and habit analogy is to recognize when it’s occurring and what effective antidotes could be.  Tissue buildup and habit formation generally depend on the external environment for their formation, and may require external stimulus to be broken down once again.  So, be mindful and pick the massage therapist or mental therapist, in whatever form, that’s going to work for you.


We all get nervous before an important event.  Maybe you’re fundraising and there’s an important meeting coming up with some potential investors.  Maybe you’re young and about to meet somebody important.  In these cases there might be some 20% chance that, if you can knock the meeting out of the park, you reach some great outcome.  Therefore we get anxious about our chances and obsess over that 20% outcome.

I’ve found that this mis-aligns my thinking.  The real probabilities you should be thinking about have nothing to do with the event.  You have a 80% chance of being the same company you were before the investor meeting, so how about you focus on that.  After you meet this important person, you’ll still come home to yourself, so why aren’t you anxious about that?

So many companies focus on fundraising as an end that they forget the most important thing for getting there –  you have to build a fundable company.  I do it all the time when I think about how this next meeting or opportunity is going to make all the difference in the world, but I’m kidding myself.  I find it’s a lot more calming to focus on the things which have the highest chance of coming about (you’re still yourself), and just as importantly, are things you control.

Decision making in a complex world

Streetlights and Shadows is a book by Gary Klein that takes commonly held maxims for decision making and overturns them, revealing cases where these practices break down.  The book’s title comes from the story of the man who went looking for his lost housekeys under a streetlight instead of where he lost them in the shadows – he went for where there was more light.  We do the same when we resort to old maxims that only help in ordered situations without realizing we need something different.  Klein’s book does an impressive job showing us where these problems occur and he prescribes how we can be more resilient decision makers in these scenarios.

He begins by outlining ten of the most widely held beliefs taught about systems and decision making, and after telling a few stories about each he describes a replacement maxim.  The ten claims and their replacements are:

  1. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully. Replacement: In complex situations people will need judgment skills to follow procedures effectively and go beyond them when necessary.
  2. Decision biases distort our thinking.  Replacement: Decision biases reflect our thinking.  Rather than discouraging people from using heuristics, we should help them build expertise so they can use their heuristics more effectively.
  3. (Sub-point to 2) Successful decision makers rely on logic and statistics instead of intuition.  Replacement: We need to blend systemic analysis and intuition.
  4. To make a decision, generate several options and compare them to pick the best one.  Replacement: Good decision makers use their experience to recognize effective options and evaluate them through mental simulation.
  5. We can reduce uncertainty by gathering more information.  Too much information can get in our way.  Replacement: In complex environments, what we need isn’t the right information but the right way to understand the information we have.
  6. It’s bad to jump to conclusions – wait to see the evidence.  Replacement: Speculate, but test your speculations instead of committing to them.
  7. To get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.  Replacement: We can’t just give feedback; we have to find ways to make it understandable.
  8. To make sense of a situation, we draw inferences from the data.  Replacement: We make sense of data by fitting them into stories and other frames, but the reverse also happens: our frames determine what counts as data.
  9. The starting point for any project is a clear description of the goal.  Replacement: When facing wicked problems, we should redefine goals as we try to reach them.
  10. Our plans will succeed more often if we identify the biggest risks and then find ways to eliminate them.  Replacement: We should cope with risk in complex situations by relying on resilience engineering rather than attempting to identify and prevent risks.
  11. Leaders can create common ground by assigning roles and setting ground rules in advance.  Replacement: All team members are responsible for continually monitoring common ground for breakdowns and repairing the breakdown when necessary.

All of his replacement claims have common themes of adaptability, experience, and expertise winning over stricture, linear thinking, and risk management.  I’ve found almost all of his ideas to be directly applicable to running a startup and the challenges of making decisions in that kind of environment.  You are constantly in the shadows, with only hints of illumination peeking through.

Some of his replacements are no-brainers on a surface level.  Procedures are dangerous and often have glaring holes you may suspect but may not be able to pinpoint.  Of course data and your frame for looking at it are equally important, and one would expect that over time and with experience you will be able to make more decisions successfully from intuition alone over careful analysis.

His more subtle examples include statements about goal setting, risk management, and heuristics.  These examples are especially applicable to teams of people and early stage projects.  It’s nearly impossible to set goals in the beginning of projects when there are so many unknowns.  Admitting this, and acknowledging that you will have to discover and revise your goals along the way, let’s you clear your mind of these issues and get back to doing.  During the process, if you stay aware, the goals you were looking for will emerge on their own.

An early stage company is essentially a group of people trying to do something together.  Each person will have their quirks and challenges that make them difficult to work with.  You can tinker with a lot of things in a startup’s early days, but not your founding team and stars.  By their nature they will usually add a ton of value, but they are unlikely to change.  It’s up to you to build a culture where the erratic geniuses around you can get their work done, while minimizing their disturbances to progress elsewhere.  A lot of my job is just supporting systems that create a more resilient environment where these folks can still thrive.

These people are just another kind of risk.  Accepting you can’t change or get rid of them is the same as accepting that there are risks you are blind to, that you are in a complex situation where instead of a focus on risk elimination you should focus on risk tolerance.  You will never be able to list everything that could go wrong and rat out the issues, so you must create an environment that is robust and resilient against these risks.

Some of the biggest ideas missing from Klein’s book come from war.  Although he used a few examples from the modern military to show where local problems occur due to a misguided belief in some of the claims above, he made no mention of Boyd and his work on adaptability and the OODA loop, in which expertise and intuition are the keyholes.  Klein even has a diagram of his own that looks like a dumbed down version of the loop.

Clausewitz’ idea of friction also gives us a unique stance from which to appreciate Klein’s work.  Friction is a very apt term to use when thinking about startup problems.  Acknowledgement of its ever-presence, with the care to combat it using the toolkit Klein provides, just might help us get better at making good decisions in our complex world.


At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meredian, the character of the judge is seen dancing and playing the fiddle in a remote dance hall.  When he dances and skips he tells the world “I am original, I will live forever and I will not be forgotten.”  Throughout the book the judge is quoted numerous times on issues of collective memory and witness, while McCarthy imitates scenes and characters from great works of the past like Moby Dick and the Bible.  It’s fantastic and one of my favorite books.

Blood Meridian is infamous for the murder and violence described in its pages, most of which is at the hand of or impelled by the judge.  Brilliant and skilled in crafts of life and death, the judge wants us to admit that nothing can ever happen unless someone bares witness.  He says “every man is tabernacled in every other” and asks “what could be said to occur unobserved?”  These thoughts, coupled with his view of war as a birthright and a process for culling nature, allow the judge to lead his small band to murder countless indians, bandits, and innocents they find on the road.

It is not to be confused with a moral quest, indeed the judge is suspicious of members of his band who hold a moral lens to the world.  Instead the judge dances through the pages, his victims baring witness to himself and his marauders just before they’re squeezed out of this world, the judge their final observer.  They will not forget him.  Their observation and death reinforce his identity as earth’s great observer and final suzerain.

One of the more interesting ideas I’ve seen lately comes from James March’s analysis of Don Quixote and its implications for leadership.  He’s done lectures and published books and a video about it, but basically he says that leaders do their jobs by fulfilling a strong identity.  External rewards shouldn’t matter and are even counter-productive, once you’ve declared what you are you are beholden to a number of principles that require you to act a certain way.  This idea is no different than problems central to life – early adulthood is usually described as a struggle to find and know ourselves.

An implication of all this is that if your identity and the universe conspire together to put you in a position of leadership, then your view of yourself is going to effect other people.  Maybe you see yourself as a Type A, an alpha male, or an entrepreneur.  Maybe it’s more subtle than that, some of the best leaders would not dare ascribe those archetypes to their name.  To say that we should be on a quest to find ourselves or know ourselves has always seemed a trite and self-indulgent maxim, ennobled by Beat literature and embraced by reflective adolescents everywhere.  But it may be more important than we think.  Leaders make decisions all the time that, given their status, affect more than one person and sometimes millions of people.

Given the example of the judge, and using the lesson from March, we see that one’s identity will have a profound effect on the rest of the world.  Self-examination and guidance toward a healthy identity become moral imperatives if we are to avoid destruction of the type caused by the judge.  He is the more rare and extreme example, but everyday leaders and managers run around with rampant self-delusions, destructive self-images, and poor empathy.  Mistakes by inexperienced leaders can often be coached away, but not when the problems run this deep.  You have to decide for yourself what you are and how you are tabernacled in your own mirror.  And if you are to be ethical and effective, embraced by colleagues and other men, you better put in the work and embark on that great study of how to be.

Rap citations

I am a Hip-Hop fan and ever since I saw the Fleshmap project show how the booty is the most mentioned body part in Hip-Hop I have wanted to accomplish a pet project whose goal is to answer the question – Who is the most quoted rap artist of all time?  If you pay attention to the lyrics of your average song, you’ll hear a lot of the same phrases again and again: grown ass man, me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benzo, shorty, crunk, etc…  There was likely one artist who first used this phrase in a song, and afterwards it spread.

The analogy I’ve always used is citations in academia.  If you’re an academic researcher, your credibility and importance is generally based on the number of other scholarly works that cite your own papers.  Herbert Simon had over a thousand citations which makes him a pretty big deal.  My goal with this project is to find who is the most cited artist – who coined a phrase that has been used more than any other?

Finally, after probably 2 years of letting this project sit on the sidelines, and after dragging a colleague at Infochimps away from work over enough weekends, I have started to hack away at my questions.  I have imported a database of around 45,000 songs with lyrics into MySQL and am running queries against it.  The data is not perfect, if you’ve ever managed an iTunes collection then you know how frustrating the metadata can be to organize, but these initial queries are probably within a reasonable ball park.

I am not yet proficient enough to run anything too complicated, so I’ve started with a dozen or so words and phrases that I know are common.  What follows is the phrase, the number of artists who mention it, and then (if interesting) the top artists who mention it and their total songs that contain the word/phrase.

10,255 Artists
– Insane Clown Posse – 204
– 2Pac – 195
– Nas – 194
– Too Short – 190
– Lil Wayne – 190
– Busta Rhymes – 180
– Snoop Dogg – 180
9,684 Artists
– JayZ – 257
– Lil Wayne – 256
– Nas – 220
– 50 Cent – 214
– 2Pac – 210
– Master P – 210
– Snoop Dogg – 210
– Busta Rhymes – 201
2,658 Artists
– Big Tymers – 77
– Lil Wayne – 63
– 2 Live Crew – 58
– Juvenile – 38
1,774 Artists
– KRSOne – 35
– Chamillionaire – 32
– Royce Da 59 – 31
– Canibus – 28
– Insane Clown Posse – 26
– IceT – 25
1,767 Artists
– Mobb Deep – 61
– 50 Cent – 55
– Busta Rhymes – 49
– Nas – 37
– Lil Wayne – 33
– LL Cool J – 28
– Twista – 27
1,120 Artists
– Lil Flip – 30
– E40 – 25
– TI – 24
– Playa Fly – 24
1,053 Artists
– Too Short – 26
– Kool Keith – 22
– Twista – 21
776 Artists
– Three 6 Mafia – 21
– Ying Yang Twins – 20
– Li’l Jon – 19
My nine
567 Artists
– 2Pac – 18
– Master P – 11
– Nas – 9
– ZRo – 9
– Ice Cube – 9
– Cormega – 9
Throw your hands [in the air]
401 Artists
– Busta Rhymes – 10
– Ol Dirty Bastard – 6
– KRSOne – 6
– Method Man – 5
229 Artists
– Puff Daddy – 6
– Notorious B.I.G. – 6
– Ja Rule – 4
Dollar Bills
267 Artists
Dead Presidents
186 Artists
Half steppin
107 Artists
Lorenzo [rollin in a benzo]
92 Artists
Grown ass man
88 Artists
Gift of Gab
81 Artists
Like a jungle [out there no man is safe from]
78 Artists

I am already really pleased with the results, but there is a lot more that I want to do.  I have a friend that’s a brilliant designer who will work up a visualization for some of the final results.  Currently my data doesn’t have any years attached to the albums, so once I manage to get that in there then I can understand who said each of these phrases first.  It could be nice to attach geography to each artist, so we could possibly plot the progression of the phrase across the US.

If you have any questions you want to suggest I’d love to incorporate them into the project, and if there are any popular phrases that stick out in your mind please suggest them to me.  There is also another project out there doing something similar called the Hip Hop Word Count, which looks really promising.

Can a person change?

Is there at all a formula for how old a person gets vs. how hard it is for that person to change? I feel like for quite some time now I’ve struggled with the same things. I look at my co-founders and after the last year I can recognize their deep flaws, their most difficult thought processes to deal with and it’s very obvious they’re not going to change anytime very soon. I’ll have to adapt.

What about the things in me that I need to change? Those glaring flaws that they will see in me. How able am I to actually change those?

It’s like once a month the same black dog comes out to misdirect my thinking, to distract and steer me towards self-pecking. It’s always for the same causes – laziness, inexperience, and a hesitation to confront somebody. But is there a better root to focus my efforts on? The resolution to change any of those only ever lasts a few days.

The importance of mission in business

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that almost nothing is as important in business as mission.  Boyd had a German word for this, auftragstaktik, and he defined it as a contract between leadership and subordinates that defined why that relationship even existed.  There is no way you can expect effective work from smart people unless they enter this contract.  They have to understand the organization’s mission and then their work will just flow towards that.  If you don’t make explicit the purpose the motivated people will come up with their own version, and the not-so-motivated will give up and do less work.

I get the feeling that many organizations only give singular missions to teams or subordinates and forget to unify everything.  It’s apparent when we’re dealing with a company that is making enormous mistakes on the ground, but everybody thinks they’re doing their job correctly because their individual mission is following through.  Nobody there has taken a step back to see how little actions may going to tear that company down in the long run.  Maybe business development’s success is linked to number of logos on a partner page, PR’s success is tied to number of press articles, and development’s success is based on the rate they can crank out new features.  Great!  But what ties it all together?  What is the point?

This mistake happens internally sometimes for us, too.  We grew so fast over the last few months that when a new employee came on they were told a bunch of tasks and they weren’t given a sense for how they fit in the overall picture.  The people I work with are so bright that whenever they come up with something we could do it is almost always a good idea, but not always is it central to our mission.  Or maybe it does relate to our mission, just not yet.  With a small team and a limited amount of cash in the bank we can only expect to inch our way to our goal as a unit.  There can be almost no splintering of functions or projects across our tiny organization, every move has to count.

The word (another German one) for an individual mission or focus is schwerpunkt, and it must be born of the auftragstaktik.  At Infochimps we have one goal – to be the plumbing for the data web.  To that end, our organization has 3 teams – a business development team, a data team, and a site team.  Business development’s job, or schwerpunkt, is to listen to as many people as possible for which data is valuable and to evaluate opportunities for the company.  Data team’s schwerpunkt is listen to this feedback and build products, and the site team’s schwerpunkt is to build the best site possible that enables this pipeline.  So long as everyone is working with their schwerpunkt, the company will always be in motion towards its goal.  Partner logos, press articles, and site features are only means to this end.

The Crafstsman

I am reading this book called The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.  Craftsmen are people who work for quality and seek to become masters in their trade.  The book draws from history’s archetypal potters and goldsmiths as easy examples of crafstmen, but your modern day software developer or manager can both have roots in this same quest for a standard of quality.

Prehension is when your hand knows what to shape itself to before it picks up a familiar object, say a lighter or a hammer.  Consider what this is like for the master blacksmith who has struck his hammer 10,000 times.  His mind, shoulder, and arms expect and conform to every exact action he takes with that tool.  Or consider a mind of prehensility, a mind that shapes itself to new ideas and challenges.

Sennett highlights challenges as an important step in the process of mastery but gets more technical than saying that this is just “to learn.”  Challenges aren’t only a ground for finding solutions, but are where we go to find problems.  You have to break some things or identify when they do not work to understand them.  An auto mechanic will know an engine after having broken it down to pieces and put it back together.  To get your startup business right, you must discover and understand why you’re not selling enough or developing the right product.

You can use the process outlined in The Craftsman in any pursuit.

Making decisions

My friend just returned from the Dominican Republic.  He is a photographer and took dozens of pictures from his stay in Santo Domingo.  One house in particular fascinated him.  A gorgeous palace of stone and brick, with a beautiful wooden interior.  It was built a few hundred years ago by a wealthy man from Italy.  His daughter missed their home country and he had this house built in an Italian style to remind her of home.  The father would have spent a fortune on this building.

This got me thinking.  A millionaire by today’s standards and he is still making decisions on basic emotions.  His daughter cries for home so he pulls out the purse and provides work and the livelihood for the architect, suppliers, and laborers on a massive project.  Imagine that – his want to make his daughter happy supported hundreds of people because of his decision.

Now imagine Ebay’s former CEO Meg Whitman championing the purchase of Skype for $2.6B.  Everyone around her agreeing to it, an $8.5B bureaucratic machine of lawyers and bean-counters mobilizing to make this happen.  In the end it was a bad decision, a poor fit.  Should have never happened.

What emotions were at play here?  What basic feelings made her and the people around her go through with this?  Whatever they were they weren’t enough.  The real issues weren’t strong enough on the table, and the quest was wrong.

Infochimps is still a small startup, and any decisions we make only have a swath of 3-10 people.  But it is so important for us to maintain our focus while we burn cash.  A slight deviation from the course at this stage can lead to a difference of hundreds of miles at the end.

I try to ask these these questions whenever an important decision is on our minds.  What is really pulling us in this direction?  Where are there biases?  Why should we do this?  What would our advisors say?  What could this mean 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years down the road?  What have we learned from decisions like this in the past that can make this experience better?