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Empathy, Incremental Progress, Keeping Your Work Human, & Thinking Big by Staying Small (Reading/Study Notes 5.19.18)

Resource: March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media


“On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf (January 15, 1882–March 28, 1941) filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard.”

“What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one.”

“embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right.”


The noteworthy author, Virginia Wolfe, committed suicide at the age of 59 after a 25 year battle with mental illness. She left behind a suicide letter explaining things to her husband and expressing her appreciation for how happy he made her. She also expressed that if anyone was capable of saving her, it would be him. She went on to say how she didn’t want to hold back his life and work anymore because she felt like she would not recover. Her letter was later published in British media and some aspects of it were misrepresented and oversimplified. The personal nature of her struggle was de-emphasized while her suicidal act was treated as if it were an unpatriotic due to her perceived inability to handle the hard times resulting from WWII. Her husband tried to defend her, but even his defense received the same treatment. The story of Wolfe’s treatment in the media provides a sad but important lesson about the value of empathy and the virtue of placing charitable interpretation above clickbait. In the words of Maria Popova, it’s “A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.”

Resource: How many hops?


This one is worth quoting in its entirety — Seth Godin on how opportunity is gained:

“Some things, like your next job, might happen as the direct result of one meeting. Here I am, here’s my resume, okay, you’re hired. But most of the time, that’s not the way it works. You meet someone. You do a small project. You write an article. It leads to another meeting. You do a slightly bigger project for someone else. You make a short film. That leads to a speaking gig. Which leads to an consulting contract. And then you get the gig. How many hops does the ball take before it lands where you’re hoping it will? If you’re walking around with a quid pro quo mindset, giving only enough to get what you need right now, and walking away from anyone or anything that isn’t the destination—not only are you eliminating all the possible multi-hop options, you’re probably not having as much as fun or contributing as much as you could either.”


Don’t look for the quantum leap. Don’t look for the dramatically surprising opportunity. Don’t look for the game-changing “it feels like I just won the lotto” success plan. You win big opportunities by seizing the little opportunities in front of you. It’s a mistake to say “I’ll go on autopilot and do just enough to not get fired while I work at this crappy job, but I’ll really apply myself once a worthwhile opportunity comes along.” That’s not how it works.

My H.S. theater teacher would often advise “Don’t save your best performance for the callback. If you don’t nail it at the preliminary audition, there won’t be a callback. Callbacks are reserved for the people who show up and are ready to give their best before they’re being seriously considered for a big role.” Mike Murdock once said “If you want a better opportunity, become overqualified for the one you already have.” “Become overqualified” doesn’t mean “look down on the work because you feel entitled to something better.” It means “Do your work with such agency and artistry that other people will take notice and want to steal you away from your current employer.” It’s a way of following Steve Martin’s advice to “be so good that they can’t ignore you.”

Start now, start where you are, and start being a star even if you don’t have a spotlight shining on you. That’s how you get the bigger roles.

Resource: Mass personalization is a trap


“There’s an uncanny valley here, that uncomfortable feeling we get when we know we’re being played, when someone mass customizes and tries to steal the value of actual person-to-person connection. It’s a trap because the more you do it, the more you need to do it. Once you start burning trust, the only way to keep up is to burn more trust… it’s a bit like throwing the walls of your house in the fireplace to stay warm. Don’t waste your time and money on this. You’re wasting the most valuable thing you own–trust. Humanity is too valuable to try to steal with a laser printer.”


Seth doesn’t tell us exactly where he thinks the boundary line lies here — and perhaps that’s the point — but the underlying message is clear: don’t shortcut the process of trust. Your most valuable asset is your ability to create a genuine sense of connection between you and your customers/clients. If you try to outsource that, you weaken the connection. Perhaps it’s necessary to hire some help or adopt automated systems to help you with some tasks, but make sure you’re using the freedom that automation creates to help you become more human to the people you’re serving.

Resource: Keep Your Identity Small


On what makes religion and politics such common cases for conflict during conversation:

“I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.”

On how identity, not subject matter, is the driving force in unproductive conversations:

“Which topics engage people’s identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn’t. No one would know what side to be on. So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people’s identities.”

On how unproductive conversations don’t imply unanswerable questions:

“Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it’s a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that’s false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.”

On the conditions for a fruitful topic:

“More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.”

On how making your identity small can help you develop bigger ideas:

“The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”

“The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”


Graham argues that conversations tend to get polemic not because of the topic (ie. religion and politics), but because of the fact that people’s opinions about those topics are deeply tied to their sense of identity in some way. Religion and politics just happen to be great candidates for this because people tend to see who they are largely in political or religious terms. But there are instances where people will react the same way about seemingly trivial topics like sports (ie. Lebron versus Jordan, Yankees versus Red Sox, etc) and where people are entirely non-reactive about seemingly important topics (ie. non-voters who feel no sense of loss regarding who wins the election).

One interesting implication of his theory– which he doesn’t seem to touch on– is that it can be transformed into a great technique for coaching and conflict-resolution. If you can talk about an idea in a way that doesn’t threaten people’s sense of identity, you might be able to get them to open up. The ability to anticipate how someone might take what you’re saying personally combined with a framing that presents the idea in an impersonal manner could be a valuable asset. This reminds me of two things: 1) A quote by Seth Godin I read yesterday: “It’s almost impossible to get someone to try something new today if they also have to admit that they were wrong yesterday.” 2) Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, had a vision for making stories that challenged people to think philosophically about moral themes. He received feedback from advertisers saying that the messages were too controversial. So he changed the setting from Earth to “another mysterious dimension lying somewhere between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge” and he transformed humans into aliens. This allowed him to make all his same points in a way that didn’t feel personal. He made it possible for them members of his audience to say “this isn’t about me, it’s about the aliens living on mars.”

Graham argues that it’s important to go beyond saying things like “I’m an X who’s tolerant of Y.” He argues that it’s better to identify with as few things as possible. I like this idea. It reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson’s advice to “never believe in anyone’s BS (belief system) because that’s when your thinking stops.” Once thing I’d be curious to hear Graham comment on is how he would handle beliefs that do seem to be inseparable from one’s identity. How could one not identify as a particular gender, or race, or religion in a way that isn’t reducible to empty sounding lip-service like “I don’t think of myself as a human or a Christian or businessperson because I don’t like labels” when those labels truthfully apply?

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