Friday Finds (Scruton, Noise, Zuckerberg, Management, Compression)

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Today's Finds

Roger Scruton, on Art: An intelligent critique of modern art. In this three-part lecture series, Scruton argues that we've descended into a world of fakeness and kitsch. He begins by showing how the idea of expressing fake emotions would've been foreign to the ancients. Culturally, the idea of fakeness begins with King Lear, when his three daughters express a fake love for their father. But today, fakeness is everywhere. It's thriving in the areas of amusement parks, plastic surgery, and other simulacra. Kitsch is similar. You see it in the art of Jeff Koons. He doesn't even try to be deep or meaningful. And yet, he sold the most expensive piece of art in history. Though I clicked on this video for Scruton's critique of modern art, this quote about originality is what'll stuck with me: “Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium, and most of all, the refined sensibility and openness to experience that have suffering and solitude as their normal cost.”

Roger Scruton, on Pop Music: Scruton can come across as a bit of a crank, but he's uniquely perceptive and counter-cultural. Here, he describes how our public spaces have been infiltrated by pop music over the past decade. We seem to avoid silence at all costs, maybe because it reminds us of the emptiness at the core of modern life. We're not allowed to pollute restaurants with smoke (which pollutes the body), but there are no laws against indoor noise pollution (which pollutes the soul). Scruton says: "Pop does to musical appreciation what pornography does to sex." Noise is everywhere. Instead of communicating rhythms that express the sound of life, the world of music has been replaced by electrical, machine-programmed pulses that boom base notes into the mind of the victim. Whole areas of civic society are now dominated by such distracting music. I joke that listening to pop music while I'm having a conversation costs me 20 IQ points. Though I adore electronic music, I think Scruton's observations are worth considering. If you prefer a written exploration of Scruton's ideas, I recommend this BBC article and this essay from the man himself.

Working with Me Guide: What if we had instruction manuals for people, like we do for products? Claire Hughes-Johnson, the former Chief Operating Officer at Stripe, wrote one up. She sends it to people she's working with so they know how she wants to be treated and how she wants to work with them. There are sections on her operating approach, management style, and communication patters. Sharing a document like this probably saves everybody six months of getting to know each other. It'd be particularly useful to write about where people falter when they are stressed and anxious. For example, I become sharp, humorless, and embarrassingly bossy. I lose my usual presence and connection, which is confusing and potentially hurtful for people who're just getting to know me. If I wrote a guide to working with me, people would know that about me, notice my tendencies, and be less confused by my behavior. These kinds of guides should be much more common.

Zuckerberg's Memo, on Layoffs: Two sections of this memo are uniquely insightful. The first is about why flatter organizations move faster. Adding hierarchy slows down communication flows and makes companies risk-averse. Even better is the section about narrowing the focus. Every project has trade-offs. If you doubt them at the beginning, remember that every project you accept takes on its own growth trajectory, like a tree branch that grows away from the trunk. Zuckerberg writes: "Since we reduced our workforce last year, one surprising result is that many things have gone faster. In retrospect, I underestimated the indirect costs of lower priority projects. It’s tempting to think that a project is net positive as long as it generates more value than its direct costs. But that project needs a leader, so maybe we take someone great from another team or maybe we take a great engineer and put them into a management role, which both diffuses talent and creates more management layers."

Compress to Impress: Eugene Wei was one of the earliest members of Amazon's finance team. (Here's my podcast with him.) In this essay, he writes about Bezos' communication style. As kids, when we play telephone, we learn that ideas get distorted when they get shared, unless they're extremely simple. Great CEOs create concise and memorable phrases. At their best, they use rhythm and rhyme because those techniques allow people to remember messages with greater accuracy than they would mere prose. Jeff Bezos is a master at this. His "Day 1" mantra is a philosophy of life and corporate governance packed into two words. The simpler your mantras as a leader, the more influence you can have on decisions, without needing to be in the room.

Have a creative week,

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