“Collaboration” in the Public Consciousness

I was sorting through old books today, looking to get rid of a bunch, and I came across two ancient books of quotations, one from 1970, one from 1980. When I was younger, I used to use them a lot, but I hadn’t touched them in decades, and it was time for them to go.

I decided to find and record the quotes on collaboration, then give the books away. So I opened them up, and to my surprise, neither book had sections or indices on collaboration.

I realized this was an interesting way of tracking when collaboration as a concept entered more of the mainstream of public consciousness. When I get the chance, I’ll see if I can find when “collaboration” does start appearing in the index.

Google Books has a really cool feature called Ngram Viewer, which enables you to chart how often different words and phrases appear in Google’s considerable archive of scanned books, which date back to 1800. Several years ago, I searched for “collaboration,” which turned up this chart:

If I were to guess, the initial dip in 1943 is because the French word, “collaborateur,” became associated with those who were collaborating with the Nazis, and the term naturally lost favor. The term gradually returned into favor, and the most recent spike started in 1982. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry into quotation books lines up with this data.

Baselines and Narratives

I haven’t read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, but I have found the reviews and their virality fascinating. Here’s what the New York Times, National Review, and Rolling Stone had to say. The Amazon.com reviews are mediocre at best.

There is something lurid and compelling about reading a retrospective about a failed campaign. It’s like looking at a train wreck — it’s hard to tear your eyes away, even if you want to. Unlike a train wreck, however, it’s hard to assess how “bad” Clinton’s campaign actually was, and what I’m reading about the book doesn’t seem to help.

In my experience working with organizations and their leaders, including some very good ones, there is a baseline of dysfunction that would surprise most people. Internal effectiveness and good strategy matter (which is what keeps me employed), but they’re not the only factors that contribute to success. You have to be very careful about attribution bias, especially when dealing with complex, systemic challenges.

So far, most of the retrospectives and commentary I’ve read have reeked of attribution bias.

The one thing that stuck out for me in reading the reviews were the points about Clinton’s lack of a clear narrative. The National Review, for example, wrote:

In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”

Again, I see this all the time working with leaders. It’s hard to identify a clear and compelling narrative and to stay on message, but it’s important. In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute this challenge to the Curse of Knowledge. Effective leaders have lots of knowledge, but that knowledge can get in the way of telling a clear story.

Learners and Teachers

In his Foreword to Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, Michael Chabon writes:

It is the way of confidence men and tricksters to sell you what you already own; but a great writer, in so doing, always finds a way to enrich you by the game.

The same applies to great teachers, too. Pondering this as I think fondly and appreciatively about one of my great teachers.

Thanks to Neil Kandalgaonkar for recommending this book.

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.

Folded Corners

I was recently reminded of a Richard Feynman anecdote I once read in James Gleick’s biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. I had given the book to my Dad as a gift almost 20 years ago, and — as is tradition for me when I give books to family — I borrowed and read the book immediately.

Yesterday, I borrowed the book from my Dad again to see if I could find the passage. I vaguely knew where the anecdote was, but it was going to require some flipping and scanning, as the book is over 500 pages long with dense type.

To my delight, the corner of the page I was seeking was folded over! It was the only corner folded in the whole book. Apparently, I had been so struck by that very anecdote when I first read the book 20 years ago, and I had folded the corner to hold the place.

I stopped folding corners years ago (reverting instead to Post-Its), and I barely even read paper books anymore, thanks to my Kindle. This discovery was a nice, visceral reminder of the joys of paper artifacts that you can touch and feel and fold.

For those of you curious about the anecdote that has stuck with me all these years, it was about an informal lecture Feynman gave to his peers while he was at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. Here’s the passage, from pages 181-182 of the original hardback edition:

Meanwhile, under the influence of this primal dissection of mathematics, Feynman retreated from pragmatic engineering long enough to put together a public lecture on “Some Interesting Properties of Numbers.” It was a stunning exercise in arithmetic, logic, and — though he would never have used the word — philosophy. He invited his distinguished audience (“all the might minds,” he wrote his mother a few days later) to discard all knowledge of mathematics and begin from first principles — specifically, from a child’s knowledge of counting in units. He defined addition, a + b, as the operation of counting b units from a starting point, a. He defined multiplication (counting b times). He defined exponentiation (multiplying b times). He derived the simple laws of the kind a + b = b + a and (a + b) + c = a + (b + c), laws that were usually assumed unconsciously, though quantum mechanics itself had shown how crucially some mathematical operations did depend on their ordering. Still taking nothing for granted, Feynman showed how pure logic made it necessary to conceive of inverse operations: subtraction, division, and the taking of logarithms. He could always ask a new question that perforce required a new arithmetical invention. Thus he broadened the class of objects represented by his letters a, b, and c and the class of rules by which he was manipulating them. By his original definition, negative numbers meant nothing. Fractions, fractional exponents, imaginary roots of negative numbers — these had no immediate connection to counting, but Feynman continued pulling them from his silvery logical engine. He turned to irrational numbers and complex numbers and complex powers of complex numbers — these came inexorably as soon as one from facing up to the question: What number, i, when multiplied by itself, equals negative one? He reminded his audience how to compute a logarithm from scratch and showed how the numbers converged as he took successive square roots of ten and thus, as an inevitable by-product, derived the “natural base” e, that ubiquitous fundamental constant. He was recapitulating centuries of mathematical history — yet not quite recapitulating, because only a modern shift of perspective made it possible to see the fabric whole. Having conceived of complex powers, he began to compute complex powers. He made a table of his results and showed how they oscillated, swinging from one to zero to negative one and back again in a wave that he drew for his audience, though they knew perfectly well what a sine wave looked like. He had arrived at trigonometric functions. Now he posed one more question, as fundamental as all the others, yet encompassing them all in the round recursive net he had been spinning for a mere hour: To what power must e be raised to reach i? (They already knew the answer, that e and i and π were conjoined as if by an invisible membrane, but as he told his mother, “I went pretty fast & didn’t give them a hell of a lot of time to work out the reason for one fact before I was showing them another still more amazing.”) He now repeated the assertion he had written elatedly in his notebook at the age of fourteen, that the oddly polyglot statement eπi + 1 = 0 was the most remarkable formula in mathematics. Algebra and geometry, their distinct languages notwithstanding, were one and the same, a bit of child’s arithmetic abstracted and generalized by a few minutes of the purest logic. “Well,” he wrote, “all the mighty minds were mightily impressed by my little feats of arithmetic.”