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Good thoughts, good words, good deeds

How to build a religion (and then watch it fade).

[soundtrack for this post: theme from 2001… play it in your head]

The New York Times has a piece today about Zoroastrians. The religion is fading, almost certainly to extinction. After more than 3,000 years, one of the most important monotheistic religions is going to go away.

We can learn an important lesson about ideaviruses from religions, because they are in many ways the original (and longest-lasting) examples of the genre.

If you want to build a religion that spreads, here are some things to build into it:

  • Bias for evangelism
  • Sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders
  • Presumption that insiders are ‘right’ or ‘blessed’ or ‘advantaged’
  • Proscription against intermarriage without conversion
  • Forbid one gender to work outside the home
  • Central hierarchy that maintains the faith and settles disputes
  • Offer significant (very) long-term benefits to believers

Very few organizations have the ability to deliver on all of these opportunities, but in the secular world, many brands do most of them. This works for Harley-Davidson (and certainly the Hells Angels). It works for the latest teenage trends. It works for some politicians. It even works for some computer operating systems and languages.

According to the Times, the Zoroastrians are fading away because they believe being good is just about enough and didn’t build enough of the elements of an ideavirus into their culture. As they traveled the world, their attitude and hard work rewarded them with success and the ability to mix with other cultures. As a result, they were successful as a people but a failure as a long-term growing religion. It’s a fascinating choice, isn’t it?

Thinking Small


Omer sends in this riff from Peopleware:

Juggler Interview

Circus Manager: How long have you been juggling?
Candidate: Oh, about six years.

Manager: Can you handle three balls, four balls, and five balls?
Candidate: Yes, yes, and yes.

Manager: Do you work with flaming objects?
Candidate: Sure.

Manager: …knives, axes, open cigar boxes, floppy hats?
Candidate: I can juggle anything.

Manager: Do you have a line of funny patter that goes with your juggling?
Candidate: It’s hilarious.

Manager: Well, that sounds fine. I guess you’re hired.
Candidate: Umm…Don’t you want to see me juggle?

The end of the job interview

Let’s assert that there are two kinds of jobs you need to fill:

The first kind of job is a cog job. A job where you need someone to perform a measurable task and to follow instructions. This can range from stuffing envelopes to performing blood tests. It’s a profitable task if the person is productive, and you need to find a reliable, skilled person to do what you need.

The second kind of job requires insight and creativity. This job relies on someone doing something you could never imagine in advance, producing outcomes better than you had hoped for. This might include a sales job, or someone rearranging the factory floor to increase productivity. It could also include a skilled craftsperson or even a particularly skilled receptionist.

If you’re hiring for the first kind of job, exactly why are you sitting a nervous candidate down in your office and asking her to put on some sort of demonstration in her ability to interact with strangers under pressure? Why do you care what his suit looks like or whether or not he can look you in the eye?

Years ago, in order to keep the ethnic balance at Harvard the way some trustees felt was correct, the school created interviews and essays as a not-so-subtle way to weed out the undesirables. This spread to just about every college in the country, and persists to this day, even though it’s a largely discredited way to determine anything. Your company is probably doing exactly the same thing. If someone can do the cog job, what other information are you looking for? Why?

And if you’re hiring for the second kind of job, the question becomes even more interesting. Would you marry someone based on a one hour interview in a singles bar? And how does repeating the forced awkwardness of an interview across your entire team help you choose which people are going to do
the extraordinary work you’re banking on?

I’ve been to thousands of job interviews (thankfully as an interviewer mostly) and I have come to the conclusion that the entire effort is a waste of time.

At least half the interview finds the interviewer giving an unplanned and not very good overview of what the applicant should expect from this job. Unlike most of the marketing communications the organization does, this spiel is unvetted, unnatural and unmeasured. No one has ever sat down and said, “when we say X, is it likely the applicant understands what we mean? Are we putting our best foot forward? Does it make it more likely that the right people will want to work here, for the right reasons?” [tell the truth, do you test your job interview spiel the same way you test your web results or even your direct mail?]

The other half is dedicated to figuring out whether the applicant is good at job interviews or not.

I should have learned this lesson in 1981, when my partner and I (and three of our managers) hired Susan, who was perhaps the best interviewer I have ever met. And one of the worst employees we ever hired. Too bad we didn’t have a division that sold interviews.

Let me be clear about what I’m recommending: the next time someone asks you to “sit in” on an interview, just say no. Don’t do it. Don’t waste your time or theirs.

So, what should you do instead?

Glad you asked!

First, none of this will work if you’re not offering a great job at a great company for fair pay. These techniques will not succeed if you are the employer of last resort. Assuming that’s not the case, how about his:

Every applicant gets a guided tour of your story. Maybe from a website or lens or DVD. Maybe from one person in your organization who is really good at this. It might mean a plant tour or watching an interview with the CEO. It might involve spending an hour sitting in one of your stores or following one of your doctors around on her rounds. But it’s a measurable event, something you can evaluate after the process is over. If you’re hiring more than a few people a week, clearly it’s worth having a full-time person to do this task and do it well.

There are no one-on-one-sit-in-my-office-and-let’s-talk interviews. Boom, you just saved 7 hours per interview. Instead, spend those seven hours actually doing the work. Put the person on a team and have a brainstorming session, or design a widget or make some espressos together. If you want to hire a copywriter, do some copywriting. Send back some edits and see how they’re received.

If the person is really great, hire them. For a weekend. Pay them to spend another 20 hours pushing their way through something. Get them involved with the people they’ll actually be working with and find out how it goes. Not just the outcomes, but the process. Does their behavior and insight change the game for the better? If they want to be in sales, go on a sales call with them. Not a trial run, but a real one. If they want to be a rabbi, have them give a sermon or visit a hospital.

Yes, people change after you hire them. They always do. But do they change more after an unrealistic office interview or after you’ve actually watched them get in the cage and tame a lion?

Help Wanted

Just in time for Labor Day.

Having tripled our monthly traffic since April (we’ve passed msnbc.com and we’re now over a million unique visitors a month), Squidoo is hiring: Help Wanted at Squidoo.

These are local positions only (sorry… hope to have telecommuting one day soon). We have a full-time gig for a Director of Philanthropic Relations and several slots for interns. All details on the lens. Thanks!

Compromise: How to make breakfast

A creature of habit, I have just about exactly the same thing for breakfast every day, especially when I’m on the road.

Here it is. An egg white omelet, made in a cast-iron skillet with fresh herbs and a whole wheat tortilla. Sometimes I add some peppers from the farmer’s market or whatever looks good. It takes me less than six minutes, start to finish, including clean up, to make breakfast.

If you run a hotel (the sort of hotel that charges $15 for breakfast) you might have a few questions. Here we go:

Can we use a standard restaurant skillet? The cast iron is too hard to clean.
Of course you can. If you do, you’ll end up with eggs that have no real color and are a little flaccid, but it’ll work.

Can we use a portable propane burner instead of a real stove? It’s easier for us.
Of course you can. If you do, though, you won’t have a lot of heat and it’ll take a long time and not taste as good.

Do we have to use fresh herbs? That’ll add more than $3 a day to our costs.
Of course you don’t have to use fresh herbs. The eggs won’t taste as good, naturally.

Whole wheat tortilla? Most of our guests are satisfied with toasted Wonder bread, which is a lot  cheaper and comes in a big loaf.
Sure, you can use that, but I’m not going to eat it.

I notice your omelet is sort of big… our policy is to only use three eggs, so if you want an egg-white omelet, it’s going to be pretty tiny. It’s not fair to give you more eggs, because it’s the same price as the regular omelet. Is that okay?
Well, since eggs cost you 8 cents each, I can understand your desire to standardize and keep your costs really low. So, sure, go ahead.

You used fresh veggies as a garnish. Even though you ordered a healthy protein, we’re going to give you hash browns as a garnish, because that’s what everyone gets. Okay?
Sure, whatever.

You mentioned the farmer’s market. We get a delivery every day from Sysco, and if it’s not on the
truck, we can’t serve it… it takes too much time to go to a farmer’s market. You understand, right?


Please come again to our expensive restaurant! It’s a purple cow! It’s remarkable! Because we said so.

Once you start compromising, when do you stop?

If your goal is to be remarkable, please understand that the easiest way to do that is to compromise less, not more. And no, this wasn’t a post about breakfast.

If they can’t, how can you?

Derek Hill sends us this one.

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