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Too clever by half

August 13, 2010
Richard Feynman

Very appropriate for a "Think Different" ad

A while ago, I started reading a book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. A lot of people I knew had been gushing on and on about how Richard Feynman is such an incredible person, and this is just one of the best books ever.

So I started reading it, via some text file ebook (yes, very dubious). And for several pages, it was entertaining to read about Feynman’s crazy innovations and antics.

But after a while, it just got annoying. This guy was just too clever, and it made me sick.

I never finished reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and I like to blame it on the fact that dubiously acquired .txt files are tough to read. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Ultimately, I think I blamed my envy/jealousy/(dis)gust for Feynman’s creativity on the fact that he was a physics genius. Obviously, since I’m not a physics genius, there’s nothing I should worry about…I shouldn’t be racking my brains trying to compare myself against someone who is obviously out of my league, right?

But the interesting thing is that reading Feynman’s book was as engrossing as it was (dis)enchanting. While I was fuming at his accomplishments and clever solutions to problems as how to peel potatoes more efficiently (at least, I think there was a story about peeling potatoes…or something in a restaurant situation), I was fascinated that someone could think to do things differently like that.

What perturbed me most was realizing how wrong the title to my article is. “Too clever by half” assumes that the person who is too clever by half is overly confident or arrogant and it is the arrogance that annoys.

I was annoyed, but from what I could tell, Feynman was a pretty cool guy. Instead, I was (and am) annoyed by his creativity and my comparative lack thereof.

But when I stopped reading that book, I didn’t have to feel that mixture of engrossment and (dis)enchantment anymore.

At least, not until recently.

Zappo's Tony HsiehWhile I was at the Ernst & Young International Intern Leadership Conference, I received a book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s one of the guys behind Zappo’s, the online shoe place. (My mom and brother still can’t get over the preposterous idea of buying shoes online. I decided to try it — I’m hoping for the best.)

The first story that he told was about some worm farm. I wasn’t amused. Fortunately (ugh, schadenfreude is ugly), all of his worms died. (Wow, that sentence sounds way crueler than I anticipated.)

But soon on, Hsieh really endeared himself to me. How? He mentioned getting the Free Stuff For Kids books when he was a kid. The real clincher was when he wrote about learning that SASE means “self-addressed stamped envelope.”

IMMEDIATELY, I was back to second or third grade, learning what SASE meant and seeing all of these novelty items (and novelty, indeed, means “really really really cool,” as Hsieh wrote [Dear Tony X…every time I see your last name, I want to Romanize it the mainland way. Sorry]) that could be mine for *free* (or, at most, .50 to $1), if only I sent an envelope with a SASE as well.

I’m pretty sure the only thing I got from that was a clinky yo-yo. I wasn’t that big on letters then, I guess.

But of course, Tony did so much more! And so he made a business from making custom stickers, made a “company” that got into the Free Stuff for Kids book to sell these stickers back to other kids. He got a sticker machine, quickly recouped costs, got his brothers involved, and so on and so on.

Man! Who does that?!

I was engrossed to read stories like that, and I was engrossed to see an enterprise that bore forth a couple hundred dollars lead to a separate enterprise of exchanging links that bore forth millions. But what really got me was Xi…Hsieh’s self-doubts…was he just a beneficiary of the dot-com boom? Was that it? And so that really got me turning the pages looking to see how Zappo’s would turn out (even though I know that it did pretty well for itself, being bought by Amazon for $1.2 billion [which, since that was the amount HP paid for Palm, I’m hoping that means just as good news here]). So, from all of these things, I could tell that Hsieh is a good guy.

But…I couldn’t help but feel…(dis)turbed. Who has this kind of creativity? This kind of entrepreneurial spirit? This willingness to take risks (and resilience to jump back up when things don’t seem to be going well)?

What I’m getting from these kinds of stories is how much I am not like these people, and how much, while I realize I would be scared to do what these people are doing, while I would be completely stressed out to do something “different,” with no guarantee of success, with no plan, no obvious path, I can’t say I feel like the plan and path and guaranteed job will lead anywhere out of obscurity.

And as a reasonably competitive person, I don’t want to concede myself to mediocrity.

When we received the book, one of the E&Y people challenged us to compare the Zappo’s culture to the Ernst & Young culture. I’m wondering if this person realized how dangerous this challenge would be. In case any E&Y people are reading (wow, I should go anonymous or something), it’s not that I think my internship was (dis)quietingly boring, or (dis)interesting or anything like that. But what really drew me to it — and what I keep having these moments of existential job crisis over — is the fact that it is so safe, so planned, so secure. Tax laws will change, but the fact that there is tax will not.

The crisis is in wondering: can a secure, safe plan ever outperform the risky, spontaneous wilderness, and can the person who has traversed the safe path ever compete against the explorer of the wilderness? Can it provide real value? Because if not and if he or she cannot, then the question is how and when should I move from the former to the latter. If so and if he or she can, then the question is when will slow and steady pull ahead and win the race?

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10 Comments
  1. If you want a notable example of how this kind of creative energy and ethos can go horribly wrong, I would recommend an obscure law review article with a waaay too long title:

    “Restoring Ethical Gumption in the Corporation: A Federalist Paper on Corporate Governance – Restoration of Active Virtue in the Corporate Structure to Curb the “YeeHaw Culture” in Organizations.” Marianne M. Jennings, Wyoming Law Review, Vol 3, No. 2, 2003 pp. 387

    And yes, if I had been articles editor that year, I totally would have done something about that freaking title. But that was a year before my time. I became articles editor the next year.

    It’s a good article though about how an entrepreneurial, can-do, audacious ethos in an organization can lead to utter ethical meltdown – in this case Enron and Tyco (the two case studies in the article).

  2. Wow at that title. That itself is an example of creative energy and ethos going wrong.

    I guess I can see where the meltdowns are possible (and have occurred), but I feel that in the kinds of corporate cultures I’ve been reading about, ethical integrity is wedded with creativity..? Maybe that’s just naive…

  3. It’s Nietzsche time again: “Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive. ” I get a similar feeling of resentment toward (for lack of a better term) successful people, sometimes. For example, I look at Stephen King’s work and think what a hack, I read a nice turn of phrase and think what a smug SOB, this guy’s totally up himself.

    However, the reflection from my mirror of disdain reveals a different picture. The arrogance is a projection that originated with me. I don’t know Stephen King. He could very well be a nice guy, but my eyes are burning so green with envy that I fail to see it. I’m disappointed in myself when I let this happen, but’s it’s so common that I let it slide to a degree. It would probably be healthier to draw inspiration from these entrepreneurial/creative types. Changing attitudes is no easy feat though. It’s a work in progress for me.

    As for taking the safe and well planed path vs. the uncertain and riskier road less traveled, well, the latter certainly makes for the better story, but I don’t think that that makes it intrinsically better than the former. Eclipses are notable because they are rare, the novelty of a scarce experience is alluring. If big foot really existed it would be just another animal in the zoo, but the myth that has grown around its enigmatic appearances draw (some) of us in somehow. We humans love myths, especially when we get to live our own.

  4. However, the reflection from my mirror of disdain reveals a different picture. The arrogance is a projection that originated with me. I don’t know Stephen King. He could very well be a nice guy, but my eyes are burning so green with envy that I fail to see it. I’m disappointed in myself when I let this happen, but it’s so common that I let it slide to a degree.

    This is pretty much how I feel. Except, I can’t really let it slide…

    I guess the idea re: safe and planned vs uncertain and riskier is not what makes the better (external) story…e.g., not what necessarily makes the better news headline or book…but about inner happiness and all that jazz. Certainly, the two aren’t directly comparable, but it seems that these people who write these books don’t say, “Oh yeah, my company became fabulously successful…but I’m super unhappy at it.”

    No, they have the happiness, and that propels them to the success.

  5. Part of the problem with the entrepreneurial spirit is that there is a lot of “fake it till you make it” going on in that area. I had to do it myself when I opened my law practice. I really had no idea how to run my area of law when I started. But I had to get cases to grow up on and get the ball rolling.

    But no way was I admitting to those first clients that I was a total newb with no experience. This is natural, and kind of goes with the territory. You have the same spirit animating a lot of missionary work. And it animates any new and innovative company as well.

    But this can lead to severe overreach and hubris if you aren’t careful and you let your innovativeness get the better of your sense of ethics. Which is kind of what happened with Enron. They wanted positive, can-do, go-getters and often appointed men who were really far too young and inexperienced to run some pretty important posts.

    As a result, the youngsters were kind of beholden to the charismatic head of Enron, and didn’t have enough of a sense of self (which you get in business with years of experience) to tell the boss he was freaking nuts. Too many “yes men” and not enough wiser heads putting on the brakes. This youthful, won’t-say-no attitude seems to be encouraged in the LDS corporate culture in particular.

    Basically, “can-do” can really get away from you if you let it. And the results aren’t always pretty.

  6. ugh. that’s all really unfortunate stuff to hear.

    I hate doing anything without researching, consulting, etc., beforehand so that I know basically how things will go before I start. Sure, if something unexpected happens, then i can adjust for that, but I HATE going into things with absolutely no idea how to go about things (and with no easy way to just look it up).

  7. The problem is – it ain’t that simple.

    A lot of times you really have no choice but to wing-it. And this happens a lot for small business owners, entrepreneurs and guys who push the envelope and forge new ground. A lot of the time, you just have to throw yourself out there and trust you innate resources to win through.

    Nature of the beast.

  8. bleagh

  9. Too many “yes men” and not enough wiser heads putting on the brakes.

    This is exactly why the new Star Wars trilogy sucked monkey chunks.

  10. And also why George Romero hasn’t done anything good since the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead.

    (The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was, of course, one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It just wasn’t George Romero’s.)

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