The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues

Thinker at Columbia University

By: Brooke Allen

This piece is a response to Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.

The problem with talking about Intellectual Virtues is that it can give intellectuals the feeling they are virtuous when they are just talking.

Colleges might not think of themselves as being in the business of teaching virtues (like honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, wisdom, and love of the truth) but the fact is they can reinforce or squash good instincts. For example, a student I know wrote a college admissions essay that began with a graphic description of the earth under attack by aliens when he, as super-hero, arrived to save the day. His essay concluded by saying he wanted to go to college to save the world.

Three years into college I introduced the student to the Heroic Imagination Project (www.HeroicImagination.org). Its founder, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, wrote to the student asking how they might work together to change the world. The student wrote to me, “I’d rather not change the course of history than risk changing it for the worse.” I can not tell you how imagined courage become timidity but I can tell you when and where it happened.

Question: How can the people at colleges do a better job teaching courage? Continue reading “The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues”

To save Wall Street, start with better parenting.

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by Brooke Allen (originally published in Quartz on April 27, 2014)

This past February, I retired from finance. Although I intend to continue to study the markets and write about them, I have no intention of ever working in the securities industry again. This makes it easy for me to talk to you about what I think is going on and what needs to be done.

I worked at Merrill Lynch as a computer consultant in the mid-1980s, and from 1986 through 1992 I was an employee—first doing research and later creating and running trading desks in New York and Japan. After a brief stint at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo, I returned to the US in 1993 to work as a consultant to a couple of large Wall Street firms. In 1995, I built and ran a statistical arbitragetrading desk for the US branch of a medium-sized Canadian securities firm.

This February, at the age of 61, I retired from that job of 18 years. I can honestly say my time at that Canadian firm was the best of my entire working career and unlike anything I experienced at any other Wall Street firm. At first I could not put my finger on the difference, but at a Christmas party an elderly co-worker from South America I’ll call Eduardo told me he’d been wondering about the same thing. “I have figured it out,” he said, “The word is ‘decent’ and my theory is that in Canada they raise their children to believe that it is more important to be decent than to be rich.”

Although I’m US born-and-bred, both of our sons went to college at McGill in Montreal. That gave me an opportunity to meet plenty of Canadian young people, and if I suggest Eduardo’s theory to their parents, a typical response would be, “Of course I want my children to be decent; who wouldn’t?”

Real engineers understand ethics in a way financial engineers do not

Andrew Lo was the keynote speaker at the 2010 annual meeting of the International Association of Financial Engineers. Lo heads theLaboratory for Financial Engineering at MIT and his talk was titled: “WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous to Your Wealth!” He explained that a mistaken belief that financial markets can be treated the way physicists treat the natural world leads economists and financial engineers to a false sense of precision that can have disastrous consequences. You will find a very watchable version of his talk here, and if you love equations then you will find plenty in his 71-page paper here.

I came ready to ambush Lo, and after his talk I held up a slide rule and said, “Despite the fact that I brought my slide rule and my pocket full of pens, and that I’ve been using math in this industry for three decades, I know I’m not an engineer. And I know people who are engineers–some of my best friends are engineers–and I don’t think there are any engineers in the world of financial engineering.” I said the distinction between us and real engineers is that we don’t take responsibility for our actions and hold ourselves to the same ethical standards. I asked, “How come the other engineers don’t say, ‘What are you doing to our name?’?”

Continue reading “To save Wall Street, start with better parenting.”

How to give me a negative reference on LinkedIn

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By: Brooke Allen (you will find my LinkedIn profile here.)

Be aware that on LinkedIn you cannot give me a negative reference unless I approve it.

This is bad news because if it is impossible for you to say something negative, then the positive things I might allow you to say must be taken with a grain of salt.

I want you to give me a fair and balanced reference so others can have an accurate picture of who I am, and I want you to let me know what I’m doing wrong and how I can improve.

But before you give me a negative reference let us establish a few ground rules. Let’s begin with:

Motivation – Why do you want to say what you do? Why do I want to hear it?

Familiarity – How well do you know me and my work?

Rationality – Are you basing your statements on facts and valid reasoning?

Let’s analyze each in more detail…

Continue reading “How to give me a negative reference on LinkedIn”

Give us your tired, your poor, your overly-automated.

DefaultWayIsInhumane

Deborah Branscum just wrote an article in Medium Backchannel: Our Hiring Process is Broken. Can a Hackathon Fix It? It talks about her experience of a new approach to hiring that my partner, Noah Goldman, and I are pioneering that we’re calling Staffup Weekend. You can see a photo of the attendees, a report on the event, and a video of Deborah here.

This story appears to be a hit because my inbox is flooded.

People writing appear to fall into a few categories that we list below (along with the response you should expect as soon as we can get to it):

  • I have an opinion. (Noted.)
  • I have a complaint. (Noted.)
  • I want you to help me get a job. (Give us time to work on a story offering advice for the masses and then if that doesn’t do the trick then please write again. In the meantime, please: Read my advice for job seekers on my website, follow me on twitter, check out our company (BetterWorkWorld.com), and go to Staffup Weekend where you can sign up for our newsletter and learn about future events.)
  • I want you to help us hire better. (Let’s schedule a call ASAP.)
  • I want to make money doing what you do. Can you help me be a competitor? (Absolutely. If enough people do what we do then we don’t have to do it. Tell us more about yourself.)
  • I want you to look at our software that makes everything easier so people don’t have to get involved. (Maybe later. Please read our response to one such a software developer below.)

Hope this helps. More later.

Brooke

BrookeAllen.com

Here is my response to a reader who wrote: “I invite you to visit our website and get a general feel for what we are about.  Essentially, we offer a software solution backed by solid Industrial Organizational Psychology and vast experiences working with high performance clients.”

Thank you for writing. 

I have copied Noah, my partner in Staffup Weekend. He might have time to evaluate your software. Right now, because I am the only one of us mentioned in the article, I’m busy fielding requests from people who want us to help them hire rather than help them develop product in competition with us.

Perhaps we could help each other because although we are both trying to help employers hire better workers and job seekers find better jobs, we’re coming at it from different viewpoints. You are essentially a “software solution” and we are essentially an “anti-software solution.” 

Perhaps you would send to us the prospects you cannot help because they have plenty of software (including perhaps yours) and now they’re willing to try getting down-and-dirty shoulder-to-shoulder with job seekers and help them prove their worth to themselves – even if it leads to them getting hired elsewhere.

We’ll be glad to send to you prospects who don’t want to do that but imagine they have not yet found the perfect software package.

Deal?

Brooke

PS. Our approach is not based on modern Industrial Organizational Philosophy. It is based on the idea that if you care about people they will care back. This was observed by psychologists in the dark ages before the computer, and I believe it is called the Hawthorne Effect.

Passion requires that something makes you angry

 

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Whenever I speak at colleges I begin by asking, “Why are you here?”

This catches the students off guard and after batting the question around for a bit someone says, “To find my passion.” The rest agree and they imagine they are done with the topic.

But I am not done with them.

I ask them to define “passion” because if you cannot say what a word means then you are shooting the shit rather than answering a question.

So they discuss that for a while longer and eventually settle on some variant of, “I don’t know what passion is but I’ll know when I have passion for my work because I won’t have to motivate myself to do it.”

“Really?” I say, “Where I come from we have a word for that, and it is ‘like’ as in ‘I like my job.’ But I know I am passionate when I do something even though I hate every second.”

“Why would anyone do a job they hate?” someone asks.

I want to say, “It might be because you have bills to pay and you don’t want to live off your parents or the state.”

But, instead I say, “I don’t know. Why did my dad lie about his age so he could enlist a year earlier than allowed by law to become a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes while the Japanese shot at him? That was something he hated to do, but he did it anyway, and he did it because of something called passion.”

At this point the class looks flummoxed but intrigued.

I explain that my father’s uncle, Brooke Cadwallader, was taken prisoner by the Japanese and interned in the Santo Tomas prison camp. My dad imagined that one day he might rescue his uncle, and indeed, he did just that when he was dropped into the camp to keep the Japanese from killing their prisoners as they retreated ahead of the Allied advance. Brooke made it out alive and I am named after him.

Santo TomasMy dad was passionate about saving his uncle in a way that most accountants who “like” their jobs are not. My dad did not love the Army or even like it. He hated what he had to do; what he loved was his uncle.

Passion, the way I use the term, is a composite emotion; an admixture of love and hate. That is why we call it a ‘crime of passion’ if you kill your lover’s lover and then your lover before turning the gun on yourself. We don’t call that a crime of ‘like’ or of ‘love’ or even a ‘hate crime.’ Nope, it’s all about passion, pure and simple.

At this point I’m fairly loud and emphatic and the class is in shock. Someone says, “You sound angry.”

I’m on a roll. I say, “Damn straight I’m angry. If your lover cheats on you, don’t whine to me, and certainly don’t be unfaithful just to get even. Instead just dump the two-timing cheat and work on being successful, fit, kind, and attractive. That way the next time you are in the market for a mate the candidates will be lined up around the block begging for your attention. Your only problem will be to choose wisely.”

Then a young woman in the back whimpers, “But I didn’t cheat on you; I don’t even know you. Why are you angry with me?”

My heart melts. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m not angry with you; I don’t know you either. What makes me angry in general is that when people talk about not finding their passion they are really bemoaning the fact that they aren’t getting what they want. But that is because they aren’t doing the hard stuff – the stuff they might hate doing. Many of you will graduate from this school deeply in debt with no marketable skills and blissfully unaware that you have gutted your parents’ retirement accounts. And yet you will think your only problem is that you haven’t found paid work worth your time.”

I let that sink in and then I say, “I’m here to tell you all this now so that later you can’t say nobody has.”

So, now you know why I am often invited to speak to college students and seldom invited back.

And you also know why the person who has never known hardship might find it easy to like a job but hard to get passionate about it. You are not passionate until there is some part of what you do that is so hard you hate doing it but you do it anyway because there is something about the status quo that you hate even more.

The love comes when you fall in love with the process of doing something worthwhile and that is when you will fall asleep exhausted rather than stay up anxious and angry. And you’ll wake up early ready to tackle a polar bear rather than wishing it was a snow day so you can sleep ‘till noon.

So, if you want something worthwhile to do with your life and you haven’t found something to love then start looking for something to hate.

Photo Credit: Marek Bernat

How to hire good people instead of nice people

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Usually, employers rapidly scan the resume of each job applicant looking for relevant education, skills, and work experience. They select 10 candidates for telephone calls, invite three in for interviews, and hire the one they like the best.

This is a bad way to hire because at best it gets you nice people.

You don’t need nice people.

You need good people.

Good and nice are not the same thing. The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable.

Nice people care if you like them; good people care about you. Nice people stretch the truth; good people don’t. If you tell a nice person to do something evil, they might do it because they do not want to upset you; a good person will refuse to do it.

You might think you are a good person, but you are fallible, so if you want to avoid inadvertently doing something evil you must surround yourself with good people, not nice people.

How do you separate the good from the nice? If you do what I do, it will be a piece of cake.

Nice people will allow you to hire them even if they know they are not among your best candidates; a good person won’t let you hire them unless that is what is best for you.

People reflect what you project and expect. If you advertise that you need cutthroat employees, those are the people who will apply. Or if you say you only hire the goodhearted, you will attract those people. The funny thing is, if you run both those ads simultaneously, you’ll get the same people applying. You influence the kind of people they become even before you meet.

I want people with a good heart and a giving personality, so that is what I explicitly ask for. I won’t hire anyone before I can see their authentic self because I don’t want to guess who they plan on being afterwards. To expect authenticity, I must be authentic. Therefore, I put myself into everything I do, including my job ads. You can find a recent example here.

Rather than ask people to send resumes and formulaic cover letters, I ask for thoughts and questions. This way I spend my time evaluating people’s thinking and answering questions, and I don’t waste it reading resumes from thoughtless unquestioning people who cannot follow instructions.

I’ll identify everyone who might possibly be appropriate and invite them all to visit for an open-house. Over pizza and soda they get to see our offices, meet the staff, and learn more about the work.

Then I assemble the crowd and lay down some rules for how I hire:

  • As the ad said, you must have a good heart and a giving personality. If you do, then you won’t object to the rest of my rules.
  • I will not hire anyone until we both understand and care about each other. I have to care enough about you that I will tell you reasons the job I am offering might not be best for you, and you need to care enough about me to tell me why you might not be my best choice. Once we get all the objections on the table, we can address them, and only then will we both be capable of making a good decision.
  • I give honesty and require it in return. I’ll listen if you want to convince me that honesty is not the best policy, but so far nobody has.
  • I won’t get between you and your dreams. If you have a dream, I need to know what it is so we can figure out if this job gets you closer. If you don’t have a dream then that’s fine, as long as you really want one and you’re not addicted to wishing and complaining. I’ll consider hiring you if you can make my dreams yours too.
  • I won’t make an offer to anyone until I have at least three people I’d hire, so you might as well help me find them. This also means that I will end up with a surplus of people I care about but cannot hire, so if I hire you, you’ll need to help me find jobs for the others.
  • If you don’t have a requisite skill right now, I won’t hold it against you as long as you get up to speed before I make a hiring decision. People should help each other learn things, and I’ll help too.
  • I’d rather everyone help each other find work than try to convince me they are better than the rest. I’ll help you find work, too. If you want me to hire you then just get everyone else a job, and I’ll have little choice, but—man—you’re going to be awesome.
  • If someone is “overqualified” for the position, I will try to find them a better job elsewhere rather than pay less than I should.

The results are amazing. Here are just a few examples:

Deborah was bright, personable, and clearly qualified for a job I was trying to fill in 2009. But she called the morning after the open house and said, “I have to drop out. I’m pregnant. The plan was that I wouldn’t tell you I was pregnant and work for six months, go on leave, and decide later if I’d come back. But now I realize I cannot do that to you, and I cannot do that to the other people who might deserve the job more than me. Then it hit me that I cannot do that to anyone because I’m about to be a mom and I have to think about what kind of role model I want to be for my child.” Deborah and her husband have become friends with my wife and me because, although nice people are a dime-a-dozen, good people like them are hard to find.

Next, David called to drop out because it was his dream to be a comedy writer, and if he landed a job doing that, he would leave me in an instant. So he created a parody of one of my websites (see: HumongousShortageOfWork.com), and a couple of months later he got work at the Onion. We still keep in touch. He is good at being funny and good at being good too.

This left Adrienne, whose writing samples weren’t what I’d hoped for. I told her that if she got a grammar book and a style manual, and submitted new examples within two weeks I’d look at her again. She did that, and her writing was much better, so I hired her and she has proved to be just what I needed.

Wendi and Melissa were my two top scoring programmers on a test I gave in December 2011. Neither of them had ever heard of the computer language we use when I first met them six weeks earlier, but they had done a great job learning it. Wendi had a PhD and prior relevant work experience and was clearly the better candidate, but I did not have a budget to pay her what she was worth. So, I got her a job with a friend paying nearly twice what I was offering. I hired Melissa, who proved to be more than I could have hoped for. She keeps becoming worth more, so I have to keep giving her raises.

Lana was my first choice for the assistant position mentioned in the ad above. But when she realized that my job would get between her and a dream of improving US-Japanese relations, she took a job elsewhere paying half of my offer. Another candidate said he didn’t want the job either because he dreams of becoming a teacher. I said, “But that is my dream too,” so we agreed I would hire him to help me work on articles like this one in which I teach you how to hire better.

Anyone can hire the way I do–it’s easy. Care, and people cannot help but care back. Be authentic and people cannot help but be authentic back. Be honest and people cannot help but be honest back. Don’t treat others the way they expect to be treated; treat them the best way you can imagine treating them. Strive to be a better person than you are, and you’ll figure out the rest.

Another reason most hiring practices are bad is because most employers treat badly the people they do not hire. If what you do is bad, then you can’t call yourself good without at least trying to be better; that’s not even being nice.

There is no aspect of how I hire that I do not thoroughly enjoy, I love everyone I hire, and many I don’t hire. I cannot ask for more than that.

This story was first published in Quartz on May 28, 2013.

Judging from the correspondence I’ve received many people seem to think I’m advocating hiring mean people or that I’m suggesting that you cannot be good without being unlikable.

This is absurd. You can be both good and nice most of the time. But when you are asked to do something immoral, illegal, or unethical by someone who you want to like you then you may have to be firm to the point of not being nice. Blowing the whistle on a corrupt but likable boss would be an example of being good but not nice; there are probably no nice ways of sending someone to jail. Bernie Madoff was nice but up to no good and yet the only person who tried to turn him in wasn’t much liked for his good efforts.

Since this article was published I have shut down my business unit and retired from Wall Street, and created BetterWorkWorld.com to help employers find better ways of hiring people and treat them after they do. Check it out.

You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.

I went to college in 1970. By 1974 I had a degree in mathematics and experience hitchhiking  to every state of the union except for Alaska and Hawaii; perhaps 30,000 miles in all.

I learned more about how to live from those experiences than anything I learned in a school. Here is the story of what I learned from a man in the pick-up truck who took my girlfriend and me from central Minnesota to just west of Fargo, North Dakota.

Had I not learned this lesson my life would have been very different; not only would I have been much less inventive I would not have had the courage to stand up to some of the shenanigans I saw during the 30 years I was on Wall Street.

I’ll call him Jeb. I don’t remember his name, but during Prohibition he used to bootleg whisky, so Jeb sounds like a good bootlegger’s name, don’t you think?

He said the pay was good and it was exciting work because the cops were always chasing you, but it wasn’t very intellectual. The only creative thing he learned was the Bootlegger’s K-Turn. He left the Interstate for a side road to show us how it is done. I’ll draw it for you:

 

BootleggersKTurn

One of the best ways to put distance between you and the police is to reverse directions after a curve on a narrow road where the cops miss a turn-around and have to back up or go a long way to another one. In the normal K-Turn you pull into a driveway on the opposite side of the street (A), back up (B), and then hopefully wave at the cops as you wiz past while they are still trying to cock their guns.

But the problem with the normal K-Turn is that the cop cars have a habit of crashing into you at point B. But with the Bootlegger’s K-Turn at point (B) you’re in the opposite lane from the cops so you have less of a chance of a crack-up.

For Jeb, the good times ended when Roosevelt took office; damn him! His first act was to legalize alcohol, and there went a well-compensatin’ career.

The only work Jeb could find was as a drill-press operator in a factory and for years he drilled holes in stuff over and over and over. To entertain himself he would think of ways the machine could be improved.

After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”

The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question?”

“Is it OK if I suggest an improvement,” Jeb asked meekly.

“You don’t need permission to ask a question.”

“May I show you what I had in mind?”

The owner was beginning to get irritated, “Get on with it; show me already.”

It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”

In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.

His pickup truck was littered with samples of his inventions. A new way of manufacturing razor blades; a way of silk-screening watercolors on paper; an attachment for a combine to convert it from harvesting corn to sunflowers.

My girlfriend asked him, “Exactly when did you know you were an inventor?”

“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do.” Jeb laughed.

“But,” he continued, “I didn’t become inventive until I leaned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.”

You do not need permission to do the right thing. 

No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.

It is never a matter yes or no but of right or wrong.