Curators. They help us figure out what to focus our attention on. Out of all of these songs, listen to these. Out of all of the data points, focus on these. Out of all of the books, read these.
They can be people. They can be algorithms (in this post I assume they are people). They are indispensible to those that seek to spend their time in a satisfying and productive way. They help us reach our goals.
Two traits are needed to become a curator. Experience and vision.
Experience comes from delving into the topic. Passionately exploring all facets. Experiencing the good and the bad. Curators have hit roadblocks and they have persevered. They have learned what works, and what doesn't. They wish they had known all of the things they know today back when they first got into the topic. The more they learn, the less they realize they know. The process of gaining experience is what empowers them to become a curator. It gives them the ability to start selecting the things we should focus on.
Experience is not enough. In addition they need to have a vision. The reason why they selected the subset of things we should focus on. Where are they leading us by selecting these things? What is the purpose of their curation?
Say you work for a technology company that is collecting a lot of user data related to your product. Data may include app reviews, Google analytics, and a variety of demographic data. Hundreds of data points. What do you do with all of it? What do you focus on? A data curator can provide a vision and tactics for what to do, what to ignore. Their industry experience paired with conviction empowers them to lead. To help us figure out what to focus on and why.
If you want to become a curator, gain experience and become an expert in the topic. Then develop a vision and have the conviction to tell where we should go and why.
While listening to the Jocko podcast I was introduced to MCDP 1-3, "Tactics". A publication from the U.S. Marine Corps about winning in combat. It's a philosophical publication that presents a way to think about the art and science of using tactics to achieve victory. Tactics include "achieving a decision", "gaining advantage", "being faster" and "adapting".
The publication is filled with blunt yet profound insight that can be applied beyond the battlefield. For example:
Consequences of a tactical engagement should lead to achieving operational and strategic goals.
If you're going to invest time to engage in a project, an activity, or a meeting among colleagues, don't do it just to do it. Have your goals top-of-mind. Why are you pursuing the activity? Without a clear objective the consequences may be lost time, or a frustrated colleague wondering why the meeting was scheduled. Yet it if the objective is clear, the consequences may be mitigated.
In the final chapter "Making It Happen", there is a discussion on how to deliver a "critique" after a training exercise:
The standard approach for conducting critiques should promote initiative. Since every tactical situation is unique and since no training situation can encompass more than a small fraction of the peculiarities of a real tactical situation, there can be no ideal or school solution. Critiques should focus on the students' rationale for doing what they did. What factors did a student consider, or not consider, in making an estimate of the situation? Were the decisions the student made consistent with this estimate? Were the actions ordered tactically sound? Did they have a reasonable chance of achieving success? How well were the orders communicated to subordinates? These questions should form the basis for critiques. The purpose is to broaden a leader's analytical powers, experience level, and base of knowledge, thereby increasing the student's creative ability to devise sound, innovative solutions to difficult problems.
Critiques should be open-minded and understanding, rather than rigid and harsh. Mistakes are essential to the learning process and should always be cast in a positive light. The focus should not be on whether a leader did well or poorly, but rather on the progress achieved in overall development. We must aim to provide the best climate to grow leaders. Damaging a leader's self-esteem, especially in public, therefore should be strictly avoided. A leader's self-confidence is the wellspring from which flows the willingness to assume responsibility and exercise initiative.
This "standard approach" is straightforward, yet practical and nuanced in it's objective of promoting initiative and helping the leader grow. The objective is to focus on a leader's "progress achieved in overall development".
Each company that I've worked for required companywide "employee reviews". I would fill out templates about what I worked on, and rate myself on a subjective scale. My managers and colleagues would do the same. The process was time-consuming and I rarely learned how to get better.
The critique approach presented in MCDP 1-3 isn't a step-by-step guide to delivering a critique. It's a mindset. It presents an objective, a way to think about achieving that objective, and some tactical questions for getting there. It's up to the company to take this approach and adapt it to their situation and needs.
I believe many organizations could benefit by reassessing their approach for conducting critiques, because the "standard approach for conducting critiques" is not so standard outside the US Marine Corps.
There are certain skills citizens should develop in school and nurture throughout their careers. Skills such as empathy, grit, wonder, and growth-mindset. These are often referred to as non-cognitive, twenty-first century, or intangible skills. They can empower an individual to live a fulfilling and prosperous life.
I've recently started to believe that dealing with ambiguity is another critical non-cognitive skill. This skill requires an individual to be comfortable with committing to an answer when there is no right answer. To be able to take in multiple inputs (perspectives, facts, etc.) and make a decision. To not only strive to make the best decision that can be made, but to be aware of the impact that decision may have. And to use that awareness of potential impact(s) to make an even more optimal decision.
Learning to deal with ambiguity is the antithesis of a multiple-choice test. The latter has one correct answer. Many situations in the real-world have no clear right answer. For example as new technologies emerge, regulations for those technologies can rarely be organized into a A, B, C, or D answer. The answer is there is no right answer. And we will need citizens that are capable of making decisions that are ethical and value driven. Decisions that if audited, show that the citizen made the best decision they could given the information available.
While certain questions and decisions will have narrow consequences, others will be far-reaching. In the article "Tech Giants Join Forces to Score AI Chips", the author describes how tech companies need to align around a benchmark for measuring how well computer chips perform artificial intelligence tasks:
While esoteric, the process of devising benchmarks can be surprisingly contentious, involving fierce technical battles and corporate politics. Participants are often the same companies that have heavy stakes in the results of the tests—namely, chip makers and cloud computing providers who use the scores to publicly boast about the advantages of their products and services. It is a bit like inviting students to craft the questions for an exam they’re about to take.
If you're the mediator, or a representative of a company building such chips, how do you navigate this situation? How do you deal with the ambiguity? How do you approach understanding the perspectives and goals of the other parties? How do you take a stance and recognize when it's more productive to shift your stance even if it comes with a negative cost to you.
In a white paper by Senator Mark Warner, he describes potential policies for regulating social media and tech firms. In one of the sections he talks about "dark patterns":
Dark patterns are user interfaces that have been intentionally designed to sway (or trick) users towards taking actions they would otherwise not take under effective, informed consent. Often, these interfaces exploit the power of defaults - framing a user choice as agreeing with a skewed default option (which benefits the service provider) and minimizing alternative options available to the user.
One drawback of codifying this prohibition in statute is that the law may be slow to address novel forms of these practices not anticipated by drafters.
He gives the example of Facebook asking users to provide access to their address book, and not giving the user a clear YES / NO option. The product design skews the passive user to selecting the YES option.
And thus how do you regulate this? As a free product that users have the choice to not use, should Facebook be regulated in how they build their product? How will such regulation impact other companies ability to innovate? How would you introduce regulation for something that seems clear today, but may become ambiguous in the future? Although your stance may make sense today, tomorrow a new company or technology may break it. Would you be able to adapt? As Mark Warner writes, can a law be written in such a way that it anticipates future problem areas?
As new technologies emerge the level of ambiguity around how those technologies impact our societal infrastructure increases. And as these technologies impact a majority of citizens, the decisions made around these ambiguous questions will have a far-reaching impact. And thus I hope that the citizens in positions to answer ambiguous questions are comfortable and confident in dealing with ambiguity.
In his essay "How to Get Startup Ideas" Paul Graham writes:
The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not "think up" but "notice." Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing.
Awareness, the ability to notice is a fundamental life skill that can release you to pursue greater things. For Paul Graham it's a strategy to unlock startup ideas. For those that practice mindfulness it's the foundation of the practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his seminal book on meditation "The Miracle of Mindfulness" introduces the reader to meditation through awareness. Having a process running where you are constantly aware of what you are doing presently. Even when putting a book back on the shelf:
While placing a book on the shelf, look at the book, be aware of what book it is, know that you are in the process of placing it on the shelf, intending to put it in that specific place.
What is awareness? How do you channel it? Tara Brach in "Radical Acceptance" writes:
When thoughts arise, where do they come from, where do they go to? As you explore looking into the space between thoughts, through the holes in the net, you are looking into awareness itself. You might sit quietly and simply listen for a few moments. Notice how sounds arise and dissolve back into formless awareness. Can you notice the beginnings of sounds, the ends of sounds? The spaces between? It is all happening in awareness, known by awareness.
As you begin practicing awareness you'll notice a transformation in your outlook to the world. Signs you may have missed previously become clearer. Feelings you've suppressed may become nurtured. Your relationships with others, with food, with experiences may become more significant.
Starting small and finding awareness in moments everyday can lead to more awareness throughout your experiences. It's a habit that can easily be dismissed or neglected. And yet finding ways to remind yourself, to continue to notice, can establish a habit that can have a profound impact on how you live life.
On the topic of life skills Michele Borba's book "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World" is one of my favorites. It presents a case for why empathy is a critical skill and how it can be fostered in children.
Professionally as a Product Manager empathy is something I'm continually honing and practicing. My responsibility is to determine the stakeholder's (e.g. user's, team member's) need. Out of all the things we can build given a constrained set of time and resources, which ones will have the greatest value? I must put myself into the position of the stakeholder in order to understand their need. I must empathize.
Unknowing I began to foster my ability to empathize at a young age. One of my favorite games was setting up and acting out movie like scenes with my G. I. Joe action figures. I'd imagine elaborate worlds and scenes where my hero would fall under duress and battle his way through to redemption. I imagined what he was feeling, what his allies were feeling, what the villains were feeling. I'd act out the scenes, conversations, and of course the action. I'd stretch out the scenes imagining my hero experiencing a range of emotions. It was exciting to create these scenes in my mind. And as I let my imagination flow I was honing my ability to empathize.
Imagination is a pre-requisite for empathy. You cannot empathize with someone if you can't imagine what they feel or need. I believe if we want a child to develop empathy, we must encourage them to use their imagination. The how they do it is not important. It could be playing a video game where they have a connection to emotional state of the characters in the game. It could be watching a film, reading a book, or creating a fictitious world with G.I. Joes. Put them in a situation where the mind starts imagining and they'll begin to empathize with their environment.