A/B testing in real life, and Real Life in A/B testing

You knew I had to show you the pictures eventually.

It would be prejudicial to comment before showing you the two photos.

My new-ish and very bright friend Ann Chao (HBS ’13; CEO of the company behind Cadenza, the award winning musicians’ practice app) recently had professional photos taken and informally polled her friends to inform her choice between the two best shots. Many more responses later than expected, this became a learning moment:

Following my previous post on “doing things we love within the things we love,” this has been my creative rumination for this week. It was fun to study people’s perceptions across various lines. And to note the tension between gendered descriptors like “warm and inviting” and the supposedly gender-neutral but usually-male position of a CEO or startup founder.

Check out Ann’s whole post for some of the qualitative and quantitative artifacts that emerged along different lines of her social graph. I will reproduce here the excerpt that snapped me from bemusement back into work mode.

I wondered if people who I met at different phases of my life would have different opinions. The number of respondents among my high school, college and HBS circles were roughly the same.

  • My high school friends had a strong preference for #2 (80%).
  • My college friends were almost evenly split between #1 and #2, leaning slightly toward #1.
  • My HBS friends also had a strong preference for #2 (77%).

Not sure how to explain the high school and college difference. But for business school, I presume that most of my friends have a pretty solid idea of what a professional headshot should look like, and #2 fits the bill better.

Suddenly I both actually cared about someone else’s headshots, and found myself in the throes of my own learning moment, to boot.

Ann, I can advance some theories behind the break in opinion between these two photos.

  1. Let’s all please take a moment to note that none of this would matter if Ann’s technical, interpersonal, and ethical values were not top-notch. They are. Little moments like this, where we see the richness of thought behind a fleeting decision or “minor” detail, are deeply telling moments about the measure of a person. (Ann’s more introspective version, “doing things we love within the things we love,” is admittedly more catchy.)
  2. College is the great experimental space of emerging adulthood, whereas high school and business school (I have also heard this about law school, from my brother and others) can be a bit more concerned with a certain kind of branding relative to the social context. Those who remember Ann from each of those periods likely made their selection based on the values they shared at that time.
  3. I may as well just step in it. For the record, these are things that have literally nothing to do with Ann’s skills, but we are already talking about “looking good” as opposed to, you know, anything else.
    • Ann is Chinese-American.
    • Men, “artsy” types (her word, and I stand by it), and more strongly tied friends all showed effect sizes for preference of the “warmer” #1 photo, with the common observation that it has an authentic or “eye” smile.
    • It is very astute of Ann to consider the gender implications of her visual identity as a startup CEO. For whatever it’s worth, I personally chose #1 because of its warmth, taking the professional context as obvious from her attire.
    • However: the eye smile causes a visual narrowing of the eye to the outside observer. Some visual stereotypes still propagate that carry often quite ugly messages; Ann, as previously stated is Chinese-American. Ann having many Asian-American friends, it is not impossible that this cohort featured a prioritization of visual “eye volume” or smize over warmth or affinity.
  4. I must contend in addition that, if we are already in the business of optimizing our physical appearance (and body language, and speech patterns) for branding against other socially normative values, “racial” physical features, along with all the other sensitive indicators, are fair game.
    • I play this game too. With my attire, or my voice, or my writing, or my height, or my business card, or my stated hometown–or the questions I ask you about yours.
    • You play, too. So even do those individuals who boast “ideal” features.
    • None of us can “change society” by ourselves, but we can change our product space, and the lives of everyone around us, for the better.
    • Bias may never go away, but injustice or distaste aren’t the point of our optimizationsSuccess is.

This afternoon’s chance reading has crystallized an idea for me. I believe that the time for questioning the rules of the game comes less often than we think, and oftentimes not in the way we expect. That’s because the game started long before we were born, and it never ends. The most effective question we can ask ourselves is that of what kind of players we intend to be.

In this game, momentum shifts often. Every play is a scoring play, for someone. We adjust our gameplan–our strategy and our brand–on the fly. Everything we say and do in our careers, and indeed in our interpersonal lives as a whole, has informational value that translates through our own reckoning, however oblique, into the real value we seek.

Everything is communications.

And all communications, then, have underlying analytics.

The velocity of technology and information has created an era in which we can all publicly, commercially be as personally astute as Lincoln, Oppenheimer, or Jobs. Or we can be exposed as tone-deaf on the scale of Andrew Mellon, Robert MacNamara, or Steve Ballmer. Consider that each of these historical examples, both the successful and unsuccessful, had access to the best data available of their day.

Then and now, data requires discernment.

Then and now, we only find true understanding of our work if we know where, when, and why we are searching for it. Today, however, the entirety of the decision space has collapsed to within arm’s reach for those who will grab it–even as the gravity of this transformation now demands of us an extraordinary density of thought. What was true all along is now clear: as areas of expertise based on optimization, communications (or sales, marketing, business development, product management, social media, content strategy, UX, design, doctrine, plans, legislation) and analytics (or KPIs, data-driven strategy, data mining, data science, business intelligence, usability research, behavioral economics, sentiment analysis, operations research) are two sides of the same coin.

Communications and analytics are the same thing.

Real life doesn’t come to us in neatly defined campaign cycles (unless you’re in politics) or environments amenable to conventional statistics, although we have acted as though it does. The real questions of leadership, strategy, and influence haven’t changed per se, they’ve simply helped bring each other to the forefront.

How much–and how granularly–can you capture?

How fast can you optimize back into new value-creating actions?

And of course:

Can you ask the right questions?

How hard, fast, and deep can you think? Apologies to Barry Goldwater, but extremism in the pursuit of value is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of vision is no virtue.

Ann, your piece obviously got me to thinking. And for that, I thank you.

Appreciate your mentors

He and I bid on business together for the first time this past week. I told him that regardless of whether or not we get the client, I saw this milestone in our relationship and I thanked him for the honor, the professional validation of allowing me to represent him. (excerpt of ADM personal communication)

Tackle new issues with humility and without fear: Capital Punishment

In refining my position, I may end up significantly changing it or reversing it entirely.

In refining my position, I may end up significantly changing it or reversing it entirely.

I’m not afraid to get embarrassed, and I want to share this philosophical, political, and epistemological journey with you, the reader, in hopes that you will enrich it.

I have not given comprehensive review to my position on capital punishment since before I became active in politics. Because other issues in justice reform are of professional (and personal) importance to me, I am now pushing myself to create a fully-formed policy position on the lawfulness, utility, and justice of the death penalty in the U.S. This post is not anywhere near that position. It is only a starting point.

I have spent my entire life in favor of capital punishment in principle, concerned only with technicalities of execution (that is a truly egregious pun) such as appeals, methods, severity of qualifying convictions, and fiscal concerns. Since entering the justice reform space, however, a space which is rife with remedies sought for bipartisan and ideologically pluralistic mistakes, I have had cause to reconsider the validity of capital punishment from a libertarian or constitutional framework (lowercase letters for both). I point this out because my existing political views, on balance, could be described as “constitutional conservative with libertarian, Reformed Christian, classical liberal, and classical realist influences.” Most American conservative orthodoxy is loath to completely abolish the death penalty, and I would say that describes me as well.

However, I have been in dialogue with a friend who is working for the end of the death penatly among conservative circles: conservative as in supply-side, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-life. And I owe him the respect of a serious dialogue for what is his expertise and not mine.  Excerpts follow.

I’m blogging out of Boston, of course:

Like I mentioned in my voicemail, Tsarnaev is likely to be the biggest death penalty flashpoint of the next 20 years (it having been 20 since Timothy McVeigh, now that I think about it). And I am right in the middle of it. I know there’s something to do here; I just want us to chat about what exactly. My personal views are, of course, still up for debate. And you’re definitely not alone on the conservative side. But you already know that.

I also texted you this link. [The American Conservative, “Why Conservatives Ignored the Ferguson Report”] I send this to speak to the idea that sometimes society suffers [from] a depersonalisation of the social other. Someone like Jonathan Haidt would probably like that idea, especially for conservatives.

A subsequent message from my friend, who has obviously had practice at crafting a “shut-down” message:

I remain focused on the death penalty system as a whole from a conservative perspective. It is, after all, just a government program that risks innocent lives, costs more than life-without-parole, and I don’t believe that giving an error-prone state the power to kill its citizens is wise or a form of limited government.

Yours truly, a little outmuscled in the paint. Honestly, yours truly attempting to form a full opinion for the first time in any forum. I won’t clean up my rushed writing though I will [add some comments]:

I see all those points. I also can’t shake the feeling that something is off from where my faith is. If you can beat me, I will join you. I try to be rational that way.

Now, my points of resistance. The government is a lot of things, but it is also (in theory) us ourselves. And we’ve already given it [probably should’ve said we the people can modify it as we see fit, since I believe that to be true] power over life and death in many small and large ways, war being the most obvious example. Fiscal reforms could be in the form of getting to execution more quickly. I bet it doesn’t cost very much in Texas.

This is where I may start to drift into other philosophies, or say things I’m not supposed to think based on other commitments. [Yes.] I can’t do away with the idea that some citizens come into grievous breach of the social contract and their lives truly do become forfeit in remedy. [Another political mentor: “Life is not ours to take.”] The term “body politic” isn’t in fashion anymore, but to extend the conceit to cancer or sepsis—and what must be done for treatment in those cases—does bespeak an individualism turned mindlessly, malevolently harmful to the other members.

I also think of those prisoners who remain dangerous to their peers and to corrections staff while incarcerated, through either their own actions or by orders given, and those who would become demagogues over the course of their imprisonment. There are a lot of problems with international criminal justice, and so this reference may not be worth much. Still, I always think of Hannah Arendt when she describes the motivation for putting Eichmann to death: “And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” [Israel, within its first 15 years of existence, is probably not a great historical appeal for even-handed theories of retributive justice.]

As conservatives we tend to believe that our nation is meant, (probably) by Christian motivations, to further what is objectively [some of us arrive at our “objective reality” by less travel than others, I know] good and diminish—choosing that word from among others of varying connotations of strength and extent—what is objectively evil. We have accepted that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”. A murderer has deprived his victim(s) of liberty, among other things. If we are to put away evil and mete out justice, we are already in the business of choosing who lives and who dies. [That last sentence was obviously written before coffee. It’s a couple clauses short of fitness for public consumption.]

Just as we have been disappointed by this administration’s foreign policy, I can’t see my way to eliminating a viable option for the furthering objectives of our Constitution of its enemies, foreign…and domestic. [I know I’ve tripped over myself somehow in the last two paragraphs and in this one. Like the time in Algebra II that I was finishing the test too quickly and tried to distribute a quotient of two sums.] I can definitely, however, understand serious reforms including discontinuation of capital sentencing for many types of cases. I do worry for the fates of innocent men and women in this system, but to save their lives I would introduce criminal penalties to prosecutorial misconduct before I would do away with the death penalty. [I am really tied to leaving hats on the ground, aren’t I? I need to study some anthropology and psychology and get to the bottom of why I’m missing, not just what.]

I’d like to know if you hear any observations like this elsewhere. I’ve found that compared to most I am possessed of an uncommon combination of ideology and temperament, which lends itself to arguments such as the above—what we might call “lateral black-and-white thinking.” [A little too much and too fast of both, resulting in the benefits of neither, I fear.] I eagerly await your response. This is a position of mine that dates from before any serious interest in politics, so it is very much up for grabs.

Yes, yes it is.

 

 

How could I leave?

I’ve had quite a bit of personal development and retrenching to do in order to get more satisfactory results out of myself on a more consistent basis. I am my own harshest critic; when I am satisfied, others usually are as well.

For that reason I’ve done some reframing of my attitude towards this space. It is more important for me to write something than to write something flawless. I won’t be employing this blog for content marketing on any traditionally large scale, so it need not be populated only by polished products or timelessly defensible opinions. Perfectionism, left unchecked, will defeat my stated purpose for collecting these remarks in the first place.

So I hereby (attempt to) put away perfectionism and procrastination. Perhaps I can push myself along.

Let us now praise famous men

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These personal reflections on Amazon found their way into my journal this morning, and I thought they were worth highlighting:

Amazon were geniuses to get their hooks into used booksellers. It placates [those vendors] by making a market and sharing the carcass of the chain bookstore with them, and it unlocks the [liquidity] of [heavy-reading consumers]. Between that and Kindle, they’ve got a steady IV drip of my money, and probably that of millions of others. It’s funny; I can’t even remember exactly when the “buying options” table appeared, much less when I started (ab)using it.

That little snippet of my introspection bespeaks a triumph–on Amazon’s part, of course–of two-way market creation (the most difficult), proactively “counter-disrupting” another type of transaction and horizontally linking it to the main business, and incorporating the new capabilities seamlessly and attractively into the user experience.

My hat is off to them, for what that’s worth. If more firms acted (or were started) to lower the barriers–and raise the utility–of added consumption on the margin in this way, we might actually get ourselves an economic recovery. Eventually. Er…maybe I shouldn’t oversell it.

Martyr-Preneurship, or Too Many “Rebels” and Not Enough Cause

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Real failure is horrific. Why would we trivialize its menace? Or forget the cost of success?

One of these statements is better than the others.

  1. Failure is a universally accepted requirement for success.
  2. Learning from failure is a universally accepted requirement for success.
  3. LEARNING is a universally accepted requirement for success.

Harvard Business Review has coined the term “entrepreneurship porn” to describe the way in which self-employment – or the marketing and journalism that surround it – has become a rhetorical vehicle for wish fulfillment, in which “all work is always meaningful and running your own business is a way to achieve better work/life harmony.” Of course, there is no real ill to mitigate in the aggrandizement of success; survivorship bias is a fact of life in all human activity.  The real trouble with “entrepreneurship porn” is that it actively distorts, and ultimately dismisses, failure.

Now, I don’t mean failure in the sense of an operational setback or the closing of an avenue of progress. We all have heard of how many ways Thomas Edison found to not design the light bulb, and that kind of motivation is a virtue. I mean real failure, in its two most common forms of ignominy: (1) coming to the true end of capabilities to continue, with a measurable deficit between present assets/aptitudes and what is necessary for viability; and (2) reaching the end of denial that an undertaking was ill-advised, poorly thought out, shoddily executed, and irrelevant. I mean failure that costs real blood, treasure, and time. We users of human bodies are remarkably resilient, but our capacity for healing and indeed living is, in the end, painfully finite.

Acknowledging the risk of failure and the need to recover insightfully and without shame is perfectly noble. Pretending that failure, any failure, is a mere badge of honor, a lost virginity of little import to eventual success, is wantonly irresponsible to both Capital and Labor. On that note, I personally (as a Christian, and one with plenty of sins in his past life) appreciated the analogy to our “modern”, heavily oversexed and porn-positive culture. An “entrepreneur” with no traction and no inkling of either success or opportunity cost is engaging a fantasy life in the same way that a porn addict does. The criticism is the same as well: the echo chamber of mobile social retail apps or dirty videos, respectively, is a pitiable sort of slavery that pales in comparison to the real thing under healthier conditions.

I’m not picking on mobile apps in particular, or ventures of any specific type. Those who are doing good work surely feel nothing if/when they encounter the HBR article, other than perhaps a healthy fear. (Feeling Excited And Ready!) But it’s unavoidable that not everyone hits the mark. When we ignore the difficulties, when we pretend that entrepreneurship is low-cost and low-risk, and that everybody’s doing it (and there’s the analogy to conservative sexual morality again), we have essentially hurt people through negligence. If we allow failure to look appealing enough to be subsumed into the greater fantasy, it is success. Moreover, this “success” is easy. Talk big, throw some code, attend some events, repeat often enough to distract from the grievous self-injury being inflicted. When satisfied, get a real job (if still employable) and tell war stories. Congratulations, you’re a martyrpreneur. Delusion is the most native advertising there is. And it creates huge amounts of negative value.

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The world may need ditch-diggers, but why did blow your ha’penny on a sand castle when it’s obviously made of the same stuff you’ve been shoveling? Pay attention!

Granted, it’s not lost on me that much constructive entrepreneurship is self-actualization or even self-projection. Unfortunately, the will to discern and defeat unhealthy self-projection is rare in any environment; the entrepreneur’s ties to individualism and capitalism can engender self-deception even if the market itself vehemently discourages such vanity.

But I wouldn’t be writing this if the hype was going to stop. There are very expensive hot dogs beings sold at this circus. Reporters report, consultants consult, and contract developers contract to develop; with enough entrepreneurs, to ask of the quality of this work frankly misses the point. And there’s the rub: the more entrepreneurs, the more business can be gained from the feckless nobodies among them. Hope springs eternal; someone will always be trying and failing, or even just trying to try. No judgment passed here; I know from experience that startup failure can be James Altucher awful. The only difference between me and said feckless nobodies is the grace of God that I’ve been on this road long enough to hit the uncanny valley between annoyance at other people’s marketing and marketing my own insights effectively.

However cynical it may be, many successful entrepreneurs have realized that selling picks and shovels is a more lucrative and far easier business than actually mining. I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about it.

MOOCs, MBAs, and existential pessimism

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“We’re all entrepreneurs now. School yourselves accordingly.”
-People who already figured it out for themselves

Lack of self-actualization is our own fault. Oh, thanks. Right? Except that it is. But the mere observation of the fact—and many of the suggestions that follow, for that matter—don’t help matters.

On that festive note, consider the following: LinkedIn published this, which puts the hard sell on MOOCs, here advocated in the context of the MBA curriculum as shared with the world from Elite Universities. (Are there any other kinds of schools on MOOCs?) Complete the MOOC; it’s as good (for employment, of course) as being there!

The author certainly sells it well, and I am fully aware of the benefits of MOOC rollout. In fact, part of my disquiet at this article is the fact that MOOCs stand to benefit seekers of interdisciplinary knowledge and obscure subjects far more on the margin than those pursuing more common curricula.

Speaking of benefits, that LinkedIn benefits from increased MOOC adoption is pretty obvious. It makes one more information stream to arbitrage to advertisers, this one from an especially desperate motivated cohort of job seekers likely to spend a lot of time on LinkedIn and its partner sites. This isn’t wrong per se, but those of us making consumer decisions do well to consider motives and externalities besides the ones being presented to us.

Of course, then there’s everyone else. I saw one prescient comment to the effect that MOOCs are very likely to disrupt lower-tier MBA programs, but not those of high regional or national profile. That’s pretty accurate. Anthropological and epistemological criticisms never seem to disrupt the desirability of the model in which individuals invest the requisite capital and time requirements into full-time residential MBA programs and are returned the ever-elusive benefit of “networking” (don’t look at me, I just blog here).

My recommendations stem from my own self-assessment. In my case, I am too overconfident self-sabotaging weird idealistic to submit to the MBA regime, because I aim to end up in a dead end that no one appreciates but me sublimate the pursuit of management earnings and put my academic pursuits into something with more depth in hopes of Being There and Creating Something. I’ve heard too many classmates say “I didn’t learn anything” at HBS or Haas or Booth or wherever else to give one of those places the time and treasure for what is actually an anthropic gamble on my “unique” story and personality.

Personally, I think it makes more sense for someone like me to study the esoterica that are in my heart and hedge with the M(OOC)BA so that when it’s all said and done, I’m only unemployed as opposed to unemployed and out a lot of money and social energy to boot after muddling through a “real” MBA I’m betting on my own passion and depth instead of appeals to tradition to put me in a good position. There’s just one problem: when the afterglow from all that Doing It My Way wears off, I’ve made myself quite a bit more, lonelier and less defined, work than The Alternative—if, that is, I want to do it for real and not just play at it. (What is “it” and “for real”? Um…SQUIRREL!)

But it’s always that way. Anyone reading this and considering their own choices should take stock of their own gifts and aims.

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This is an essential part of my plan, but it’s optional for you (and it’s my blog, so there).