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Personal velocity

Why do bikes stay stable when you ride them (and fall down when you stop)?

A tiny reason is the gyroscopic stability of the wheels, but the real reason is the forward momentum of the rider. And we learn the first day we’re on the bike that forward motion is essential or we’re in trouble.

In our fast-moving world, it’s easy to get hooked on personal velocity. What’s in your inbox? Did someone follow you in the last ten seconds? Where’s the beep and the beep and the beep from your last post?

Perhaps we talk faster, interrupt, talk over, invent, dissect, criticize and then move on to the next thing. Boom, boom, boom.

Don’t want to fall off the bike.

But life isn’t a bike. It works fine if we take a moment and leave space for the person next to us to speak.

Are you going fast without getting anywhere?

We can get hooked on systems that want us to get hooked, on platforms that use our effort as their product, our emotions as fodder for their next milestone.

Doing something new simply because we’re worried that the old thing we were doing a minute ago isn’t fast enough is a waste. The crowd might enjoy it, but in the long run, it diminishes our contributions and our joy.

I could just as easily write about the person who is stuck, sitting in the back of the room, the corner of the Zoom, looking for deniability and a place to hide. That person with no velocity has ceased to contribute and might be in as much pain as the person who’s doing nothing but maintaining high personal velocity.

Somewhere in between the two, as in most things, is the place we’d like to be.

The control/responsibility matrix

Alert readers of my last two posts have probably guessed what this one is about.

The control/responsibility matrix (click to enlarge)

People make choices about their preferences for control and for taking responsibility. When we combine those choices, we end up with a simple matrix.

In the top right is an ideal combination. Someone with control and authority who also takes responsibility when things go wrong. This creates a useful feedback loop, because they can actually do something about the problems they caused.

In the bottom right is a disaster waiting to happen. This is brittle megalomaniac, Robert Moses, the builder, who spent nearly a century paving New York while neglecting housing and other social justice issues, but never took responsibility for any of the effects of his work. People who grab control and avoid responsibility are often easily identified because they spend a lot of time whining.

In the top left corner is someone who truly cares. They bring huge empathy to the situation, and they help people feel seen. Alas, because they don’t have power (either because it’s been denied to them or because they avoid it), their willingness to take responsibility is sort of hollow. This is one reason that frontline workers that are required to exert emotional labor and empathy on the job so often burn out.

And finally, in most situations, most people are in the bottom left. The system pushes us to be cogs, to accept what’s given in exchange for being let off the hook and not being held responsible for what happens next.

In many situations, we have the freedom to choose. We can choose a quadrant or we can choose not to participate. And if we’re lucky or care enough, we can choose who to vote for, who to work for and where we’re headed.

Your responsibility preference

When things go wrong, is your instinct to hide in a corner and hope you won’t get noticed–or to lean into the situation and make it clear that this one is on you?

“I’ve got this,” is a phrase that some people will go out of their way to avoid saying. At work, where it’s incredibly valuable, or in personal relationships, where it creates deep connection.

The movies are filled with heroes who take responsibility. Organizations are miserly when it comes to handing out authority, but most of them are eager to pay attention (and give respect) to anyone who is willing to take responsibility.

Like our control preference, responsibility is a learned skill. You might be born with an instinct for it, but mostly it’s something we’re taught or choose to learn.

Sadly, this is a line that’s missing from every resume I’ve ever seen. It seems to be that a bias toward taking responsibility is one of the most important things to look for when hiring an employee, finding a doctor or building a team.

[Part 2 of 3]

Your control preference

Would you rather write the script, read the script, watch the movie or write the review?

When someone commutes by train, they’re giving up control over the journey. On one hand, that means that they can’t actively impact how fast the train arrives. On the other hand, it means that they don’t have to be fully present and in command of all the decisions involved.

There’s a huge diversity of control preference, and it varies across the many areas of our lives. Perhaps you need to be in control over your work, but have no interest in controlling what you eat for dinner–or vice versa.

I remember a restaurant in the Bronx where the waiter would ask you one or two questions about which food you liked, and then walk away and bring you back a series of dishes that you didn’t expect or choose. Some people really enjoy this, others are frustrated by the lack of control it requires.

While it may be that each of us has an inherent bias away or toward control, it’s pretty clear that it is also a skill that can be learned, and that different industries allocate control to people as part of their hierarchies. It’s also true that different cultures have evolved to allocate and teach control preference in different ways. Sometimes it’s based on gender and caste, but there are also cultural mores that have been fueled by industry, the patriarchy and governance.

One of the things we certainly have control over is deciding whether we’ll seek to spend our days in control or not. We might have to make sacrifices along the way, but the feeling is up to us.

[part 1 of a series]

Fear of strangers

Why are we more likely to take off our masks or avoid social distancing with a group of friends at a party instead of strangers on the train?

Why do we drive more carefully in a new neighborhood instead of near our home?

Why trust the advice of a doctor who looks like us, or went to the same school we did?

Our evolved preference for familiarity often backfires. There are many signals that give us useful information about whether a situation is productive or safe. But pre-existing social networks might not be the best one.

The myth about the apples

In settings where sorting is difficult, half a bushel of perfect apples is worth more than a full bushel with a rotten apple in it.

One bad apple can spoil a whole bunch.

We pay a significant premium for pre-selection, confidence and a guarantee.

Sorting adds value.

“The dog ate my homework”

How did the dog become your teacher’s problem?

When we’re actively enrolled in a journey, it’s on us. That’s the requirement once you choose to act professionally. You know the terms, the dates, the structure. It wasn’t even fine print. It’s simply the structure you agreed to be part of.

Of course, enrollment is frightening. Because enrollment confers responsibility. “This is something I’m choosing to do.”

Compulsory education doesn’t often lead to real learning. That’s because compulsory education is coerced. There’s no active enrollment.

For the rest of us, there’s the chance to engage and to move forward. And part of the journey is acknowledging that we have a dog, that life gets in the way, that it’s never the ideal moment or the perfect time. And then doing something about it.

Leaping isn’t easy, but it’s far better and safer than the alternative.

“The way things are”

That’s how culture perpetuates injustice and indignity. Because that’s just the way things are around here.

But the status quo isn’t permanent. The world doesn’t stay the way it was. It changes.

And it’s been changing faster than ever.

It doesn’t change because the status quo sub-committee had a meeting and decided to change it.

It changes when someone decides that the way things are around here needs to change, and simply and bravely begins to do something differently.

And then someone else follows along.

Yes, it bends toward justice. But only if we help. Only if we lead.

Who’s responsible?

Freedom without consequences is a myth.

Our actions always have consequences.

The question is: who will bear them?

Harsh feedback

It often comes from one of two kinds of people:

People who give themselves feedback in the same heartless tone. They don’t hesitate to brutally lash out, because that’s the noise they often hear inside.

And folks who honestly believe that their work is flawless. They can’t understand how anyone else can fail to measure up, because they never seem to.

Of course, each group has a significant (though different) problem. In fact, now that they’re spreading their harshness with others, they have two problems.

When in doubt, look for the fear.