Weekly I/O #35
Advice not Permission, Orangutan Effect, First Principles, Ban PowerPoint, More Visually Literate
Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.
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The below is extracted from the email sent on March 06, 2022
Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.
1. Ask for advice, not permission.
Article: Ask for Advice, Not Permission
I always believe we should ask for forgiveness, not permission. I learn this first from the book 4-Hour Workweek:
“If the potential damage is moderate or in any way reversible, don’t give people the chance to say no. Most people are fast to stop you before you get started but hesitant to get in the way if you’re moving. Get good at being a troublemaker and saying sorry when you really screw up.”
Boz, the new CTO of Meta, took this to another level: Ask for advice, not permission. When we ask for permission, we make other people feel like they take responsibility for our decision. We aren’t inviting others to be part of the success, but they might have to be responsible for the failure if things go wrong. Giving permission casts the burden for others to do some diligence with no benefits when it works but potential trouble when it fails.
On the other hand, giving advice is relatively easy and potentially rewarding. When we ask, “Hey, I was thinking about doing X, what advice would you give me on that?” we show respect to the person without saddling them with responsibility since the decision is still on us.
Asking for advice also makes others feel more ownership over our result since giving advice feels more like a value-adding contribution than just an approval. It gives them a personal stake in the resulting success or failure.
2. Orangutan Effect: If you explain your ideas to an orangutan, the primate might be confused, but you will think more clearly in the process.
Article: Berkshire Hathaway 2022 Shareholder Letter
In the latest Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter, Warren Buffet mentioned how teaching and writing have helped him develop and clarify his ideas. His partner, Charlie Munger, called this phenomenon the orangutan effect:
“If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly.”
3. First Principles Thinking: Break things down to the most fundamental truths and reason up only from there.
Book: The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts
First Principles Thinking is one of the most widely known mental models, especially among the Elon Musk or Charlie Munger fan clubs. The idea is to break down complicated problems into fundamental elements that we know almost for sure are true. We then think through the problems based on those elements without other inherited wisdom or second-handed knowledge.
Reasoning from first principles allows us to think outside history and conventional wisdom and see what is possible. Therefore, it is often used to reverse-engineer complicated problems and develop something no one has built before.
You can find Elon Musk explained this idea and gave the example of how he used First Principle Thinking to question why people said battery pack is always expensive and that’s just the way they will always be.
Some ways to build First Principles include Socratic Questioning and The Five Whys. You can also find a detailed explanation of this in the article: First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge.
4. Why does Amazon ban PowerPoint in meetings? First Principles and writing to think.
Podcast: Eugene Wei: Compress to Impress
In Amazon’s 2018 annual letter, Jeff Bezos wrote, “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.”
Eugene Wei, who joined Amazon in 1997, talked about his experience working with Jeff in this Podcast. He talked about how Jeff Bezos was a first principles thinker and a huge fan of raw data. He believed that PowerPoint, as the medium of communication, can distort people’s thinking. Slides are compressed and second-handed information. It is easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. Switching to write in narrative memos lets the audience judge from raw data by themselves. In other words, it opened the opportunity to invite the audience to think from the First Principle.
Additionally, writing forces the presenters to clarify their thinking more. As I noted in Weekly I/O #27.3, writing is thinking. “When you haven’t had a clear thought to elaborate, you should start writing first, and the idea will get more concrete and clear by the process of writing.”
To add to Eugene’s points, I think switching from slides to writing also opens the opportunity for other people who are not in the meeting to review and understand the context. This advantage is also related to Basecamp’s Internal Communication Guide:
“Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.”
“Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn’t make it, or future employees who join years from now.”
Lastly, regardless of being a big fan of raw data and absorbing them from the bottom, Jeff Bezos is still really good at encapsulating the derived thoughts into concise but captivating principles for communication.
Eugene Wei’s career is pretty interesting. He joined Amazon early working on product, then left Amazon to be a filmmaker, went to editing school in NYC, then to UCLA Film School. Later he became the head of product at Hulu and Flipboard, and head of video at Oculus. This interview with Eugene Wei is quite fun to listen to. I also like his writing.
5. Kids today are much more visually literate and prefer to communicate with images over text.
Podcast: Eugene Wei: Compress to Impress
Visual mediums like images and videos do carry more information per unit than writing does. Visuals are a very compressed and efficient medium.
The younger generation is more visually literate than the older. Young people use photos and videos as the first form of communication way more naturally.
Though I love books and reading, I have to admit that most people tend to be better visual learners. For example, people in memory competitions often memorize things by transferring information to visuals in the memory palace techniques.
Tech companies like Amazon and Google also have shadow programs where rising employees follow around an executive to see how they work directly and learn from them.
In the book The Art of Learning, the author also mentioned many successful individuals, especially athletes, often visualize the move they want to make and their desired outcome in practice.
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