A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Notes on Never Eat Alone

I’m about 60% of the way through Keith Ferrazzi’s widely-recommended book on networking,
Never Eat Alone. As such, this is not a comprehensive review but rather a few notes on things
that have so far struck me while reading it.

Where is the actual work being done?
The impression one gets of Ferrazzi’s life from the book is that it (a) creates absolutely
enormous amounts of value for people and (b) involves little to nothing that we would
recognise as “ordinary work”. That’s not to say that he is lazy - the effort he apparently goes
to in making contacts and ensuring that he is adding value to their lives is nothing short of
heroic. But this seems to be all that is happening - there are descriptions of planning ahead
(i.e. planning which people to meet and befriend), and of strategies for meeting people,
directing meetings, and maintaining relationships, but none at all of making important
decisions. Indeed, there’s a mention of one senior business leader who attributes his
success to spending hours each day patrolling the factory, not actually achieving anything
but being sure to greet every individual worker, no matter how lowly, by their first name.

I don’t want to suggest that this kind of stuff is unimportant or that it “isn’t work”. But for it
to be viable for businesses to pay people like Ferazzi megabucks for it, one is led inexorably
to the conclusion that either (a) most business purchasing decisions have a very great deal
of latitude, such that decision-makers can actually decide from whom to buy based on who
the know and like rather than product cost and quality, or (b) the business world is a
chronically low-trust place, such that the creation of these relationships really is incredibly
valuable not just to the individuals concerned but to society as a whole - if there were not these
strong bonds being forged, the deals would not be going through at all. There’s probably also
a fair dollop of (c), that the book - being focused on networking, after all - misses out a lot of
Ferazzi’s other activities, but neither (a) nor (b) exactly fills one with optimism about the state
of the American business world.*

It me
He argues that conferences are basically useless for learning things, but that they are
nevertheless highly valuable because they allow business-people to make connections
leading to contracts. To wit, one of his “Don’t Be This Person” profiles (page 133):

THE WALLFLOWER: The limp handshake, the postion in the far corner of the room, the
unassuming demeanour - all signs that this person thinks he or she is there to watch the speakers.

The determinants of success
If I were to summarise the lessons of the book so far, they would be that social success
depends upon five factors: planning, research, organisation, confidence, and actively seeking
to create value for people.

Ferrazzi regularly thinks consciously about what his goals are, and sets out concrete action
plans for what he wants to achieve towards them in the next 90 days, the next year, and the
next three years. In particular, one aspect of planning I had never considered before s that in
addition to setting goals for himself, he identifies several people - not just for each goal, but
for each progress marker - who can bring him closer to his ambitions. The chosen goals and
targets are based on a mixture of introspection about what he truly wants, and consultation
with others (of course) about what his strengths and weaknesses are. There isn’t much
about tracking one’s progress towards these once started, but it seems safe to assume
that’s part of it too.

Second - he prepares for his networking. Quoting from page 69:

“Before I meet with any new people I’ve been thinking of introducing myself to, I research who
they are and what their business is. I find out what’s important to them: their hobbies, challenges,
goals - inside their business and out. Before the meeting, I generally prepare, or have my assistant
1prepare, a one-page synopsis on the person I’m about to meet… I want to know what this person
is like as a human being, what he or she feels strongly about, and what his or her proudest
achievements are.”

He suggests a variety of ways to go about compiling this information, all of which should
be available online - social media, company PR literature, and annual reports from the company.

A while back, one notoriously successful networker raised considerable furor by revealing that
he kept a list of his friends, ranking them on a variety of metrics including income, political
soundness (for his own warped value of “soundness”), and physical attractiveness. Ferrazzi
doesn’t recommend anything quite so calculating, but he reveals that he goes beyond merely
keeping a list of contacts to divide them up into 1s, 2s, and 3s, and makes contact with them
on a schedule according to their importance within this schema. He also advises that a new
contact will only remember you after they’ve had contact with you via three different media,
and he communicates accordingly - if he emailed them originally, he’ll strive to speak to them
on the phone and to meet them in person within the next few months, for example.

One of the reasons I’d be appalling in his job is that I’d have nowhere near his confidence in
pushing boundaries. I can just about get the idea of trying to meet people well above your
station and maybe even solicit favours from them - but his advice that people will tolerate
being contacted, unsolicited, five times a day seems remarkable. I used to work in a call
centre, and we would frequently have people screaming at us if we called them three times
in a week. Perhaps this is a difference between the UK and the USA?

But the most optimistic key to the golden gates, and a positive note to end on, is his emphasis
on unconditionally aiming to create value for other people. Whenever someone mentions a
problem to him, he describes his thought process as “Who do I know who could help this
person with their problem?” He portrays himself as generous with his time and keen to do
favours, and I have no particular reason to believe that he is being dishonest; and above all,
while he is clear that you should be receiving favours as well as giving them, states as the
title of one of the earliest chapters - Don’t Keep Score. This cuts both ways - being willing to
receive favours that you can’t repay as well as to give out favours with no particular prospect
of them being returned to you - but after all, there’s nothing wrong with being clear about
what others can do for you, so long as one is gracious in accepting them and pays it on to
someone else.

Overall the book’s advice seems actionable; the chapters are short, containing a minimum of
fat; and I am so far happy to add to the recommendations of it.

*Ferrazzi also finds the time for long monastic retreats, weeks building schools by hand in
Africa, spending six months unemployed between jobs, and the like. Again I have no
objections to his presence in the business world, he seems to be creating enormous
amounts of value for those who know him - but it contributes further to the impression that
what value he creates is concentrated within a relatively low number of events, as opposed
to the long grind of value-creation that characterises most jobs.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Three Routes to Elitism

Open and explicit elitism is a greatly underrated political position. Being contrary to the democratic ethos of our times, "elitist" is more commonly a derogatory adjective than a merely descriptive one. In this post, I shall set out three ways in which one might attempt to justify elitism, and suggest ways in which they may be flawed.

Route One: Aren't We Great!

This is the most basic route to elitism, and it is almost as simple as the title above suggests. This is the elitism of pub sessions, of putting the world to rights over a pint or six. Most people probably think that the world would be better off if they were in charge, but the difference is that we - being the cognitive elite, as evidenced by our smart conversations - are actually justified in this belief.

Well, clearly most people who engage in this kind of reasoning aren't justified in it. I actually do think that at least some of the people I know personally are justified in it, but the fact is that even explicitly elitist politics is highly unlikely to put Superforecasters and the like into positions of power. In practice, an openly elitist political system would resemble the average academic department. If we're lucky, a science department where people would at least be highly numerate; if we're unlucky, a humanities department, which are mostly full of "people like Hillary Clinton with faulty BS detectors, poor critical thinking skills, and severe social desirability bias." When one advocates for elitism, one should think of oneself as advocating less for the rule of sensible people like oneself, so much as advocating for the rule of humanities postgrads.

Route Two: Whig History

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a symbol of both Budapest and
Hungary. This is not the original bridge, which was destroyed
during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt.
Count István Széchenyi left an impressive set of institutions around Budapest. The most famous are the Chain Bridge across the Danube and the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, but he also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the National Casino. In addition to this, he conducted various measures to improve the navigability of the Danube and to open it up to steamships, and wrote a great deal of classical liberal political theory. (Since I'm posing Széchenyi as a champion of elitism, it is interesting to contrast him with another figure of 1840s Hungarian politics, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth was far better known abroad, since after the collapse of the 1848 rebellion he lived abroad as perhaps the single greatest voice of democratic liberal nationalism. Kossuth is every bit as celebrated as Széchenyi - the square in which the Hungarian parliament stands is named for him - but it is almost impossible to point to anything he established which lasted beyond 1849).

Going back further in Hungarian history, the arrival of the Renaissance in Hungary is credited more or less entirely to King Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus was not dealt an especially powerful hand - he started his kingship as a puppet of his uncle - but he greatly expanded his power by establishing a professional army, introducing legal reforms and curbs on baronial power, and creating meritocracy in state service.

The point at which I am driving is that some people do things. Sometimes these things are good, sometimes they are bad, but ultimately they create a small minority upon which progress is dependent. If you want society to progress, the best you can do is to create processes which select for these people and deliver as much power to them as possible.

One important thing to note is that while both of these lines of thinking lead to elitism, they lead to rather different elites - "Aren't We Great" suggests we want our leaders chosen for their intelligence, while "Whig History" suggests we should choose them for being driven and conscientious.

The biggest objection to this kind of elitism is the conservative worry that they will tear apart all that we have achieved. To be honest I think that's probably enough by itself - political deadlock is annoying, but kicking the machine to make it work is generally bad. One might also question the model of the world on which it rests. It may well be that the emergence of Hungary as a prosperous nation in the late 19th century owes a massive amount to Count Széchenyi, but how many other countries are there whose development could be traced to the positive actions of a single person?

Route Three: If not the elites, then who?

I don't think anarchy is feasible, at least for the foreseeable future. It's not that I don't see anarcho-capitalism as a valuable ideal towards which me might aspire, but that people have yet to breed out their tribal instincts and the abolition of the state would lead in short order to massive demand either for a new one, or to its effective replacement with clans. Given this, it makes sense to have a government which is at least somewhat under our control.

Since there must be a government, there must be someone in charge. So... why not the elites? It's true that power attracts people with unsavoury motivations and brings out people's corruption, but that will happen whoever you put in charge. Good traits - not just things like intelligence, health, and height, but also pro-social and trusting attitudes - are positively correlated for the most part. So if it's a choice between the common man and the credulous, unoriginal, unspiring elite in pantsuits... give me the elite every time.