Culture and Grind

Over the past few months, I have been going back and forth with a fairly senior person at one of our big banks. It has been a deeply frustrating process, mainly because of the quality of the person’s work. I was finally prompted to write something down after an interesting conversation on Twitter about, well, the quality of work one has come expect from artisans, specifically, but Nigerians generally.

Every time I think about the quality of output, I am reminded of an episode from years ago. Early into my career, I found myself under a boss who was what could be called a master. He had a remarkable resume and experience at some of the finest firms in the world. One time, I was over at his house for Saturday drinks when he’d organised a barbecue for he and some of his peers (mostly private equity and investment banking types). I was the cub in the den. We got to talking about all sorts of things, and the conversation turned to the young starters in their various firms — people like me. They were all complaining about the quality of work they got. (Some of this I suspect was the usual habit of older people to look back and think everything was better in their day.) I recall someone saying something like:

“Most people think there is some secret to doing great work. Like you must be Einstein or something.

No. That’s wrong.

Sure, it helps to be smart, but assume that most people are at the same level for smarts—which is usually the case for the top firms. The rest is just hard work and keeping at it. Doing great work is a grind.”

I’ve never forgotten that last phrase, “Doing great work is a grind.” Basically, it is drudgery. It is crossing t’s and dotting i’s, checking and rechecking, being obsessed about ridiculously small things. I do not think much about the mythologizing of Steve Jobs, but one thing about his story which has always struck me was his maniacal attention to detail, his obsession with perfection. He cared about the text of his creations, the shade of black on the screen, the feel of the product, even its packaging. It is almost impossible to list out all the specific instances where he was sweating the small stuff.

After that weekend, I started to see my boss’s fussiness in a new light. His painful anality served a purpose. Every letter, every report, every document of his was thought out to extraordinary depths before he even started writing. And then, he would write, and rewrite, and get your opinion, and then rewrite again. Constantly cutting out fluff, correcting errors, distilling the essence of what he was saying. When I sent reports to him, he would go over it with an electronic red pen: correcting grammar, interrogating points, helping me to sharpen my thinking. It was being anal-retentive by design.

And this is just how it goes regardless of who you are or what you do. If you want to do great work, you have to make it a habit and you have to be prepared to work bloody hard. You have got to sweat the tiniest things and sharpen the instinct to spot crap work. You have to hate crap work: I mean like really hate it. Do this long enough, eventually you would have worked yourself to a level where it is simply impossible to do otherwise.

I see the challenge of lower quality work all too clearly. It is a compounding catastrophe. Perhaps the biggest problem is that once you get used to crap work, you accept it; and once you accept it, well, you are done. You will deliver crap work because your norm is now crap. You will lose the ability to distinguish crap from great. Here’s the thing: You cannot on the one hand accept bullshit as OK and think you can deliver caviar. It ain’t gonna happen.

Jeff Bezos had this to say about a culture of performance in his most recent letter to Amazon’s shareholders:

“A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward—it’s part of what it means to be a professional.”

I love this idea of ‘invisible work.’ (I also love how he defines the idea of a ‘professional.’ When last did you think about what it means to be called a professional-something? What does that mean? How does it separate you from the non-professional?)

Bezos’s allusion to invisible work is an admission that it is impossible to micromanage everyone. The best teams are ones where everyone is prepared to grind and grinding is a culture. For leaders, I think engineering this culture—or, indeed, engineering the destruction of the opposite culture, a culture of low standards and bullshit—may be the single biggest contribution they can make to any team. And I think we are all leaders, if only of our own lives. We can demand a culture of high standards, but it starts with accepting the grind life.


Yesterday, a friend of mine forwarded me an email which he had first sent in 2010. He was reminding me of an opportunity from back then, which he had suggested to me. In the original mail he noted that it was ‘the easiest time ever to do this, so please get on it.’ I didn’t. Also copied in that mail were four others who he also encouraged to ‘get on it.’ They didn’t. As I now read how the communication evolved, it is clear that, from the very beginning, there was questionable commitment to the enterprise. Ultimately the endeavour petered out in a sort of muted fashion, under the usual groaning about the administrative hassles (documents, money, time, you know, the usual fare) of simply starting. We moved on with our lives, all was forgotten.

Until yesterday.

Without going into details—mainly because I am still a little too upset by the whole business—I can say that the decision to do nothing was quite possibly one of the worst I have ever made. It may even be more accurate to speak of having made a non-decision. An opportunity was forwarded from someone I knew to be credible, who himself was putting something meaningful at risk to take advantage of this opportunity. (That was how strong his conviction was.) And yet, somehow, I ignored it and moved on, zombie-like, to some new ridiculous distraction which was more immediately gratifying and less difficult.

Now, of course, it is easier to see the future when it becomes the past. I have the benefit of knowing now what the past eight years looked like. Back in 2010, it was all uncertainty. And with uncertainty comes the real burden of trying to make important decisions using what is necessarily incomplete information. That uncertainty often leads to a sort of paralysis. We do nothing, and hope that that difficult situation resolves itself. Sometimes it does, we get lucky. But sometimes we don’t need too much luck. Sometimes we have what gamblers call an edge. At such times we really can say something intelligent about the future. We can influence the outcomes, or tilt the odds to ensure that whichever outcome emerges, we generally end up not too bad. Mohnish Pabrai, who wrote one of the smartest investment texts I’ve read, memorably described such situations as: “Heads I win; tails I don’t lose too much.”

Consider this wonderful post by Scott Alexander, where he discusses a heads-I-win-tails-I-don’t- lose-too-much situation involving Bitcoin. He observes that though his readers were some of the earliest people to hear about and understand the promise of cryptocurrencies—it had been first discussed on the site in early 2011, when coins were trading for $0.91—very few of the site’s regular readers made any meaningful money as crypto-investors. His description of one of the lessons he took out of this is instructive:

When I first saw the posts saying that cryptocurrency investments were a good idea, I agreed with them. I even googled “how to get Bitcoin” and got a bunch of technical stuff that seemed like a lot of work. So I didn’t do it.

Back in 2016, my father asked me what this whole “cryptocurrency” thing was, and I told him he should invest in Ethereum. He did, and centupled his money. I never got around to it, and didn’t.

On the broader scale, I saw what looked like widespread consensus on a lot of the relevant Less Wrong posts that investing in cryptocurrency was a good idea. The problem wasn’t that we failed at the epistemic task of identifying it as an opportunity. The problem was that not too many people converted that into action.

That last line is critical. Like the case with my friend, they recognised the opportunity, they understood it, and they were being instructed by credible people who themselves had something at risk. Beyond that, the potential upside of their investment was so vast that the downside (Min return = -100%) seemed irrelevant. Anyone who had invested $10 in Bitcoins when they first read about it on the site, even after the huge swings in price over the past few months, would be, you know, 50-cent, basically.

And yet, again like me, “not too many people converted that into action.” Fewer than 3% of the site’s readers (including the author) made decent money in cryptocurrencies (as at the end of January 2018).

And this is perhaps not surprising. Most of the time the future is a haze. We cannot do much but our best every day and hope that things don’t get too rough. But on those few occasions when you know something about the future that most people don’t, when you can pick the joker in the pack, when you can get an extremely valuable low-cost option, or when you can setup a heads-I-win-tails-I-don’t-lose-too-much situation, for God’s sake, don’t make a non-decision, jump in with both feet.

I note the irony of referencing this particular investing legend after a discussion on crypto speculation, but I think this quote from Charlie Munger closes things off quite nicely:

The wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t.

True in investing. True in life.