Here’s a tangible consquence of viewing product design as a sport with a scoreboard. By far the most common question I am asked of first-time entrepreneurs is “When did you know that you had hit it out of the park with Twitter?” When did you know it had worked.
There’s a lot underlying this question but one part is that working at a startup is to be constantly adrift in uncertainty. There are times when the way forward is very clear. But those times are fleeting.
So first time entrepreneurs are asking this question because they want to know that there’s a way out. “Hey you’ve obviously made it through this mess, just tell me that it clears up at some point.”
The bad news is that isn’t really how it works. It always feels that you’re one move away from really cracking it open and this is understandably anxiety-inducing. But if you view the process of building a company and a product as a sport you’re making it much harder on yourself. Your defining metaphor leads you to believe at some point you will win or lose.
“I went through YC the same class as Reddit, and so I was one of the first dozen or so users. My thought at the time was these community sites should own themselves. For years I couldn’t think of a great way to do that. … The block chain came along and I thought, huh, this might the biggest evolution of corporate structure since the limited-liability corporation. So we don’t know exactly how it will work yet, but all the investors are committed to allocating these shares to the community if we can find a way to make it work.”—Sam Altman
There is more to all this than meets the eye, however. This ‘muteness’ is not just a reflection of women’s general disempowerment throughout the classical world: no voting rights, limited legal and economic independence and so on. Ancient women were obviously not likely to raise their voices in a political sphere in which they had no formal stake. But we’re dealing with a much more active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech than that – and, importantly, it’s one with a much greater impact than we usually acknowledge on our own traditions, conventions and assumptions about the voice of women. What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman. We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state. So another second-century lecturer and guru, Dio Chrysostom, whose name, significantly, means Dio ‘the Golden Mouth’, asked his audience to imagine a situation where ‘an entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male – child or adult – could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague? I’m sure they would send off to a sanctuary to consult the gods and try to propitiate the divine power with many gifts.’ He wasn’t joking.
What I want to underline here is that this is not the peculiar ideology of some distant culture. Distant in time it may be. But this is the tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – of which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs. I don’t want to overstate the case. Western culture doesn’t owe everything to the Greeks and Romans, in speaking or in anything else (thank heavens it doesn’t; none of us would fancy living in a Greco-Roman world). There are all kinds of variant and competing influences on us, and our political system has happily overthrown many of the gendered certainties of antiquity. Yet it remains the fact that our own traditions of debate and public speaking, their conventions and rules, still lie very much in the shadow of the classical world. The modern techniques of rhetoric and persuasion formulated in the Renaissance were drawn explicitly from ancient speeches and handbooks. Our own terms of rhetorical analysis go back directly to Aristotle and Cicero (it’s common to point out that Barack Obama, or his speech writers, have learned their best tricks from Cicero). And so far as the House of Commons is concerned, those 19th-century gentlemen who devised, or enshrined, most of the parliamentary rules and procedures that we are now familiar with were brought up on exactly those classical theories, slogans and prejudices that I’ve been quoting. Again, we’re not simply the victims or dupes of our classical inheritance, but classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard. And gender is obviously an important part of that mix.
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”—Toni Morrison
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.”—
“The Reason-Rupe poll, for example, found that 42 percent of millennials “prefer” socialism as an economic and political system, a result that can send shivers down the spines of older anti-communists. Yet when things are put in a language that millennials actually use, a very different picture emerges. When the Reason-Rupe poll asked millennials whether they preferred a free market economy or one managed by the government, the younger-generation’s diapers looked considerably less red: 64 percent prefer a free market, compared to just 32 percent who favor state management. As befits a generation known for producing a growing list of billionaire entrepreneurs, millennials have highly positive visions of business, with 55 percent saying that they’d like to start their own some day.”—
I live in Ohio. I knew who I was voting for. I was sick of the ads by midsummer. I avoided local TV stations, I disabled my answering machine because of robocalls. I only picked up the phone if it was someone I knew, or had reason to believe was important. If I did pick up the phone and heard the beginnings of a robocall I hung up.
I do not mind answering surveys, actually. I am happy to have my opinion be known. Unfortunately by early in the election season I was so inundated with ads and robocalls from candidates and other political groups that I prevented myself from being available. I voted for Obama. I wonder how many others there were like me.
It was a robocall from Huckabee asking me to support Republicans that did me in. Honestly! I am a single, female, college professor and molecular geneticist. What were they thinking?
“The thing about life in the real world is, all your hopes and dreams and desires and feelings are trapped inside you. Reality doesn’t care — it’s stiffly, primly indifferent to your inner life. But in a fantasy world, all those feelings can come out. When you cast a spell, you use your desires and emotions to change reality. You reshape the outer world to look more like your inner world.”—Lev Grossman on writing fantasy literature
BS: And yet the show never feels all that insular. There’s a lot of internal monologues and inside jokes but anyone can get into a bit like “The Order of Everything.”
TS: That’s something I’ve really tried to be conscious of all the time. I don’t want it to feel like some sort of club that you can’t join if you weren’t there at the beginning. Those things always feel isolating to me, when I see some sort of community that if you’re not completely up to speed you’re at such a disadvantage that you couldn’t appreciate any of it. I’m happy that there are levels to it and people can go as deep as they want.
I love the idea of building worlds. Jon and I built out one world with Newbridge. There’s the world of the callers that I’ve built out. And then the other world is me talking about myself. My worst nightmare would be for someone to say that [The Best Show] is impenetrable. It’s always going to take some time for people. It’s never going to be the easiest thing. People do have to give it a shot and spend some time with it. [But] if the show felt impenetrable to somebody that’d bum me out. Like “I listened to two episodes and I could not understand anything you guys were talking about”—I would hate that.
“It seems to me that the years between eighteen and twenty-eight are the hardest, psychologically. It’s then you realize this is make or break, you no longer have the excuse of youth, and it is time to become an adult - but you are not ready. I just could not believe that anything I desired would happen, and the responsibility of making my own way, economically, artistically and emotionally, was terrifying.”—Helen Mirren
“Is saving three months salary and on occasionally going without food to be able to afford a basic Nokia branded mobile phone irrational? What if it’s used to enable a business? Or play games? Or chat with loved ones? Or browse porn? Is spending one month’s salary on a unknown-branded device any more rational? Just how rational is your purchase of your iPhone? That pair of Nike sneakers? Those red high heels? Who is to define what is rational? What was the opportunity cost of your last large purchase? What is the opportunity cost of buying that branded phone versus one where the manufacturer is unknown? And who is to decide what the viable opportunity costs are? Or to loop it around to the design community — are low income consumers duty bound to ignore aesthetics and more superficial elements over more functional choices? And to loop once more — are designers duty bound to make products for these markets aesthetically displeasing? Because that’s where this argument is heading.”—
“In what transaction contexts do we currently appreciate anonymity, or even pseudo-anonymity–and are we willing to pay for it? There are moments in the hotel service industry where knowing who you are is key, and moments when discretion (an implicit agreement that what you do will remain anonymous) is equally if not more valued.”—Jan Chipchase
Of course experience isn’t the only danger. Dogma and ideology are even worse. They provide us with the answers, and put boundaries around our thinking. Ignoring the dogma invites ridicule, or even punishment. I suspect that’s why more ideological societies are less innovative. If we aren’t free to wander outside the realms of conventional thinking, then we won’t happen upon the opportunities that others have missed.
Escaping dogma is hard. From the inside, it simply looks like truth and reality. Watch out for any belief that limits the range of your thinking and exploration. This includes logic and reason. They are useful tools, but just as often work to keep us trapped inside of exclusionary belief systems. If you believe yourself to be a rational person, then you’re in the trap.
“Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. - David P. Abbott was an Omaha magician who invented the basis of my ball trick back in 1907. He used to make a golden ball float around his parlor. After the show, Abbott would absent-mindedly leave the ball on a bookshelf while he went to the kitchen for refreshments. Guests would sneak over, heft the ball and find it was much heavier than a thread could support. So they were mystified. But the ball the audience had seen floating weighed only five ounces. The one on the bookshelf was a heavy duplicate, left out to entice the curious. When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.”—Penn & Teller
“Right now, there are more than a billion regular Android users, and each of their devices looks slightly different. With its material design push, Google wants to create a visual lingua franca, to make sure that every time you tap, swipe, or open an element on an Android phone, it behaves the same way. It’s an attempt to impose a small amount of order on a fragmented mishmash of devices, most of which Google has no immediate control over.”—