The Insider - January 2024

On conversational frames, the aristocracy of ideas, leadership by alignment, and all that remains unchanged.

The Insider - January 2024
Photograph: Banks Benitez

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the January edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.

On conversational frames

The book The Persuaders profiles people like Anat Shenker-Osorio, a political communications strategist, who are changing minds and building bridges across divided groups. Shenker-Osorio’s genius is in helping political groups reframe issues that break the left-right logjams that polarize us. Central to her work is the idea that by arguing on the conversational turf of the other side, you’re often not moving in the direction of compromise, but instead further entrenching people who actually might agree.

For example, if someone is looking to convince skeptics of the merits of the $15 minimum wage, framing the $15 wage through the lens of economic output and national GDP might lead to irreconcilable disagreements about labor markets and trickle-down economics. Instead, Shenker-Osorio advocates, it’s better to find common turf far away from the landmines of fraught politics. By reframing the issue in ethical terms—“people who work for a living ought to earn a living”—there might be a better chance of breaking through and resonating on a different intellectual or moral plane.

The conversational frames we select can be more important than our persuasive performances inside those conversations. Even before the conversation starts, the die often is cast by the frames we implicitly find ourselves within. It’s easy to be lured into the existing frames before us, accept their terms unwittingly, and then find ourselves further fractured or divided. It’s harder, but perhaps more constructive, to pause and consider if there might be an entirely different way to approach the conversation.

The aristocracy of ideas

For those of us who pride ourselves on being innovative and intelligent, there’s a risk in over-engineering and over-complicating our work. Manufacturing complexity is the tool we use to reinforce the story we tell ourselves that we are insightful and sophisticated. But the cost of that unnecessary complexity is noise. Consider this passage from the book The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb: 

“Show two groups of people a blurry image of a fire hydrant, blurry enough for them not to recognize what it is. For one group, increase the resolution slowly, in ten steps. For the second, do it faster, in five steps. Stop at a point where both groups have been presented an identical image and ask each of them to identify what they see. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps are likely to recognize the hydrant much faster. Moral? The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will formulate along the way, and the worse off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information.”

To someone caught up in the aristocracy of their ideas, there is something distasteful about what is simple or obvious. Our ego is hidden in the layers of nuance, not in the piercing, dressed-down truth. Sometimes, on the other side of complexity, there is not more complexity, but rather elegant simplicity.

The alignment of leadership

From golf lessons years ago, I learned something important about swinging a golf club: everything starts with how you’re lined up. If your feet are lined up towards the target, your arms will naturally swing along that plane and you increase the chances that the golf ball goes where you (generally) want it to go. If your feet are aiming too far to the left or right, your arms will subconsciously overcorrect as you swing the club, and anything can happen: slices, hooks, lost balls, mid-course meltdowns.

The same is true in managing a team or a person. Alignment is 90% of the work. When a manager and their team are misaligned, the greater the chances for costly overcorrections: from micro-management to a lack of accountability, and simmering discontent to poor communication. The best golf swing cannot fix poor alignment and set-up, and the same is true in management. The mistake leaders make is by focusing too much on their day-to-day “swing mechanics” and not enough on carefully scripting those infrequent moments when they can align their team to the target.


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What I am reading

  • Why all coffee shops globally now look the same. How algorithms are homogenizing our taste. The Guardian.
  • A cold-case involving the mysterious deaths of two American climbers was reopened when a camera’s undeveloped film was recently discovered. The New York Times.
  • Experts believe 2024 could be the year when an AI-generated deepfake could create a catastrophic impact on an election. Financial Times.
  • Every time we 2x battery deployment, we increase the energy density of batteries by 18%, and cut the cost by 19%. A summary of the latest research around batteries, a crucial technology for decarbonization. Bill McKibben.
  • YouTube has 14 billion videos. How this private platform has become foundational infrastructure for the modern internet. The Atlantic.

Something personal

In the Idaho backcountry, nestled close to a stand of trees and far away from running water and electricity, there is a small mountain hut. Every January for the last five years, I’ve skinned to it on backcountry skis, and with a group yearning for an escape of mountainous solitude and untouched powder, we’ve called it home. Since my first visit, a global pandemic has come and gone, a racial reckoning, an election and then an insurrection, Uncharted merged with Common Future, I took a sabbatical, joined another company, transitioned out, met Lisa and we dated, got engaged, and then married. I moved homes, reset my career ambitions, and let go of so many things so that I could pick up so many more.

And in that time, the hut has remained unchanged. The pots and pans, loose in the handle and scarred from vigorous attempts at cleaning, remain as faithful as ever. The benches around the small table remain sturdy, the framed photographs pinned to the walls haven’t been swapped out, and the old wood-fired sauna, just twenty paces from the hut, can still get so hot it’s hard to remember how cold you’ve been all day. In a life that is fluid and evolving, it can be startling to encounter something that has remained the same. Such a thing becomes itself a kind of kairological measuring stick: tracing all that has changed in our lives by focusing our attention on all that hasn’t.