The Paradox of Frameworks

After receiving advice from technology and marketing professionals I admire (both in real life and through online articles) I've come to two observations:

  1. Business organizations love frameworks. They help scale ideas. 
  2. Business frameworks don't always work. Most of the time, actually, they don't.

The paradox of frameworks is that solutions require structure in order to move from one mind to another, but so many growth challenges (both in business and a career) are unique enough such that no one framework can be plugged in. Instead, solutions are customized to the problem, which is to say that there is no directly applicable framework. 

Part of this paradox is quickly summed up in Peter Thiel's book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future:

Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won't make a search engine...If you are copying these guys, you aren't learning from them. 

Of course, it's easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange. 

I look at the many pieces of career advice I've received from parents, friends, and older colleagues. I also look at success stories across my organization at work. The consistent thread has always been "Hey, here's what I did when I faced that scenario," or "Hey, last time we broke through a large deal, this is how we did it." And this is because frameworks help tell the story of what going from 0 to 1 looked like. Frameworks are attractive because they help bring clarity and understanding. 

After reeling off of the success from Toy Story, Pixar's first movie, president Ed Catmull found himself asking how that movie became a success and how much of that success was his doing. 

He walks through his answer in an episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast:

What we did together is not something I can separate myself from. This is true of most enterprises. The desire to separate oneself is like asking for a clean answer to a question when there is no clean answer. And it is true with most of the things in our lives whether its business or personal is that the inner connection between them and how they're all mixed up together is inherently messy, confusing, and there aren't clear boundaries. And the desire for complete clarity actually leads one away from addressing the mess that's in the middle.

In another episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and a million other things, brings the same argument for novelty to his definitions of professional success. 

The great temptation that people have is that they want to be someone else which is to say that they want to be in someone else's movie. They want to be the best rockstar. And there are so many of those already that you can only wind up imitating somebody in that slot. And I think to me success is making your own slot. You have a new slot that didn't exist before. That's what I chalk up as success - is making a new slot.

My slot would be Kevin Kelly. That's the whole point. The slot isn't going to be a career or an imitation of someone. That is success. You didn't imitate anybody. If you become an adjective that's a good sign. So I think success is making your own path. If they're calling you a successful entrepreneur, then to me that's not the best kind of success.

In other words, frameworks can be helpful for making sense of how an idea solved a problem. Role models can be helpful for showing how a person navigated the tendrils of a career. But to create something new or to solve something new or to be something new means that only a fraction of that framework is going to be helpful.

So, then, why do we use frameworks and why do I see so many of them?

Here's another popular quote from John Maynard Keynes: "It's better to be roughly correct than precisely wrong." 

Frameworks help make the incremental next step easier. We use frameworks because looking for precisely correct means we never get from 0 to .00001 (this is because precisely correct doesn't exist). Not using frameworks means staying at zero. And that's the absolute worst.


When you're uncool

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." - Lester Bang from Almost Famous

I had entirely forgotten this quote (and the equally amazing film from which it comes from) until I came upon the reference in my reading of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. At least amongst my social circle (read: Millenials), Vulnerability is a hot new topic. I see a trove of articles thrown my way every day on how to be vulnerable, the importance of opening yourself up to the world, etc. And while these readings make sense to me, the talk always seems easier than the walk. There are a few great vignettes in Brown's book that allude to the "vulnerability hangover" - you know, that moment after you've opened yourself up and realize your mouth is a fire hose of overshare. 

So, naturally, I was excited to pick up Brown's book, which walks through what it means to be vulnerable and how to do it in a healthy, meaningful manner with the science of a psychologist's lens and without the suffering embarrassment of a vulnerability hangover.

Increase in "vulnerable" searches from 2009 - present:

Two points on vulnerability stood out to me: 

1) Use your uncool pool. 

Finding people you can be uncool around, to build on Lester's wisdom, is about finding the people closest to you and using their holistic perspective of who you are to help you reason through decisions. There is no firehose and there is no overshare if you're speaking to those closest to you, just honest dialogue. 

Brown identifies these people as the following:

"To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles. You have to know that I'm trying to be Wholehearted, but I still cuss too much, flip people off under the steering wheel, and have both Lawrence Welk and Metallica on my iPod. You have to know and respect that I"m totally uncool."

Brown calls these friends "stretch-mark friends" because her "connection to these people has been stretched and pulled so much that it's become part of who we are, a second skin." I'm going to call these friends my "uncool friends" because I like the idea of having a group of people in my life where I can be uncool, un-scrutinized, myself. The irony in relying on this network of friends is that having a group of "uncool friends" means that at one point you've opened yourself up to them. On some level, whether by design or accident, these people have seen you stumble, they've seen you rise, and they've seen you everywhere in between. 

Brown goes so far as to write the names of these people on a piece of paper that she keeps in her wallet. I didn't do that, but I did write names of my uncool friends in the margins of the book. 

The utility of the uncool friends, according to Brown, is that they provide a trustworthy second or third opinion when trying to find balance:

"When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable. if we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits get crushed. It's a tightrope, shame resilience is the balance bar, and the safety net below is the one or two people in our lives who can help us reality-check the criticism and cynicism."

When I think about moments in my life when I've been vulnerable (oh, boy), I can remember the moments before, during, and after the vulnerability. I analyze them internally. And eventually, I walk that analysis through with my uncool friends. In that sharing one of two things will happen: over the course of the conversation I'll come to articulate something I could not have before, or my uncool friends will tell me I'm overanalyzing and the moment needs to pass. Both scenarios provide balance, help me understand why a vulnerable moment was worth my time. But the point is that I wouldn't have been able to go through that process without my uncool friends. 

2) Perfectionism is not self-improvement. 

Brown writes: 

"Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: 'I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect." Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle."

Looking at perfectionism with this definition is paralyzing, which is the point that Brown is trying to make, along with the notion that perfectionism is also an addiction. According to Brown, perfectionism lays opposite from worthiness. Perfectionism is cousin to a world of scarcity, where we can easily identify ourselves as not being smart/good/successful/fatherly/friendly enough. Perfectionism, as I read it, doesn't leave room in all its stifling wonder for vulnerability. 

When I think about the greatest inventors and creative minds that I admire today, I recognize the emphasis they place on feedback. To go through that feedback process correctly means opening oneself up for criticism. That criticism brings the creator closer to perfection, closer to a better piece of work, though the creator knows there is no perfection. There is a difference between perfectionism and excellence. Aim for the latter.   


Brene Brown also has her own TED talk, if you'd rather take a quick dip into the daring greatly world, instead of a deep dive into the book.