Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman

I was delighted when my friend Ben Casnocha published his essay about what he learned from working with Reid Hoffman.

Ben described the subject of his essay as “10,000 hours with Reid Hoffman,” but its roots go back even further.  Ben had long been interested in learning from the massively successful; one of the book ideas we had batted back and forth many years ago was “Right Hand Man,” which would interview the various assistants and chiefs of staff who helped the rich and powerful accomplish more.  I’m sure Ben could have learned a lot from any number of people, but I doubt he could have found someone who could teach him more than Reid did.  Selfishly, this essay is a great way for me to learn from a fascinating and incredibly productive partnership.

And even ignoring the fact that these are two of my favorite people and valued allies, the essay did what Ben always seems to do: make me think.  Here are few of the random thoughts and reactions that I had:

Save vs. Savor

Author E.B. White once captured the essence of why. “I wake up in the morning unsure of whether I want to savor the world or save the world,” White said, “This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Decision making becomes hard when you want to do both. Which is it
today: saving or savoring? Usually you do have to choose. It’s the very
rare project that involves close friends and ongoing intellectual
stimulation, and change-the-world impact.

The Save vs. Savor question gets at the heart of how to live the “good life”.  Assuming that you’re fortunate enough to afford the necessities of modern life (food, shelter, and connectivity), you have the luxury of deciding how to allocate your time.  Will you choose to defer gratification and invest that time for future benefits?  Or will you choose to spend that time on something which will deliver present benefits?

I’ve jokingly said that I’m a “First World Problems Counselor” because I recognize that being rich, famous, and powerful doesn’t prevent you from having problems.  Far too often, we dismiss the problems of the successful by saying things like, “I’d love to have his/her problems!”  There’s a reason why the rich and famous flock together, and it’s not because they’re busy plotting how to rule the world.  It’s because hanging out with peers is one of the few times that they get any sympathy about their plight.

Having the resources to do anything you wish is a classic example of the tyranny of choice.  As crazy as it may sound, it’s harder to be mega-rich than to simply be financially comfortable.  That’s because money reduces unhappiness, but doesn’t increase happiness.  As Spider-Man teaches us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The sad paradox is that people who are kind and generous struggle more with this tyranny than those who are selfish and self-centered.  The egomaniac doesn’t worry about saving; he focuses on savoring.  But better to struggle with the tyranny of choice than to experience the despair of learning that money can’t buy happiness.

My own answer to this dilemma is, like most of my philosophies, simple and unambitious.  Long-term outcomes are difficult to predict, but moment-by-moment activity is not.  I focus on activities that allow me to spend time with people I like, and let the outcomes take care of themselves.  That’s why I’m happy to piggyback on the good work of others such as the Unreasonable Institute.


When there’s a complex list of pros and cons driving a potentially
expensive action, Reid seeks a single decisive reason to go for it—not a
blended reason. For example, we once discussing whether it’d make sense
for him to travel to China. There was the LinkedIn expansion activity
in China; some fun intellectual events happening; the launch of The
Start-Up of You in Chinese. A variety of possible good reasons to go,
but none justified a trip in and of itself. He said, “There needs to be
one decisive reason. And then the worthiness of the trip needs to be
measured against that one reason. If I go, then we can backfill into the
schedule all the other secondary activities. But if I go for a blended
reason, I’ll almost surely come back and feel like it was a waste a
time.” He did not go on the trip. If you come up with a list of many
reasons to do something, Nassim Taleb once wrote, you are trying to
convince yourself—if there isn’t one clear reason, don’t do it.

I love the simple brilliance of Reid’s heuristic.  It lines up nicely with one of the lessons I took away from The Outsiders; these ultra-successful CEOs used the simple approach to make key decisions about acquisitions.  Rather than creating massive spreadsheets to quantify “synergies,” these CEOs would create 1-page writeups with simple math and conservative assumptions.

When you focus on “one decisive reason,” it’s easy to consider the issue, rather than getting lost in arguing over a series of assumptions and values.

Every weakness has a corresponding strength

I sat down with Reid one day and shared a self-evaluation of my work,
my goals, and my strengths and weaknesses. When I discussed how to
compensate for certain weaknesses, he told me, “Most strengths have
corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given
weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.”

I’m a big believer in tradeoffs.  Far too often, we act as though the world has a single linear scale of value.  You can see this in Silicon Valley’s endless quest for “rockstars,” “10x programmers,” and “A players.”  There’s no question that all men (and women) are not created equal.  But a person’s value depends on the context; some programmers might be great for a solo skunkworks project, but would be terrible at leading a large, client-facing initiative.  It’s also the case that a person’s strengths are what drives her value, not her ability to mitigate her weaknesses.  The smart manager finds roles that play to a person’s strengths, while avoiding her weaknesses, rather than trying to “fix” people.

I hear echos of this in another Reid concept, which is that it’s critical to understand a person’s “superpower.”  Don’t send the Human Torch to fight a forest fire (unless you need to quickly burn a firebreak).  The corollary is that you should figure out your own superpower so that you can share it with others.

The values that actually shape a culture have both upside and downside

One of the reasons people have trouble understanding tradeoffs is that when a situation is suboptimal, you don’t necessarily need to make tradeoffs.  Think of this as being in the middle of the performance envelope; you can easily make improvements that lead you to be being better off in all dimensions.

However, once you reach the edge of the performance envelope, you’re at the frontier, and in order to advance in one direction, you will almost certainly have to accept a retreat in another direction.

Be clear on your specific level of engagement on a project

Here’s a handy way to categorize different types of engagement on a given project. Reid uses this shorthand.

  1. Principal – You’re driving the process. You’re the man. You have ball control.
  2. Board Member
    – You’re probably an investor. You’re regularly meeting with the
    principal. You’re thinking about the project even when you’re not
    formally scheduled to be doing so. You’re continually up to speed on the
    latest and greatest.
  3. Investor – You’re a
    supporter (financially or with periodic bursts of time), but you’re not
    actively involved in the project. You’ll meet with the principal
    occasionally. If you’re called to do something, you have enough context
    such that you can be helpful on a reactive basis, but you won’t have up
    to date knowledge.
  4. Friend. You enjoy
    talking to the principal. But the moment you walk away from the
    breakfast or lunch – that’s it. You’re not thinking about it anymore.

This is another awesome Reid heuristic.  What I especially appreciate is his dedication to setting these expectations appropriately.  Far too many investors promise a greater level of engagement than they’re actually willing to deliver; I’ve even been guilty of this myself, though unintentionally.

I’d add to this by noting that every human being probably has limits on the number of such roles he or she can pursue.  Imagine that you had a limited number of human bandwidth units (HBUs), say 100.  In that case, the relative costs of the different levels of engagement might be as follows:

Principal: 75
Board Member: 10
Investor: 3
Friend: 1

Being explicit about your relationships allows you to track how (over)committed you are, and whether you can take on more engagements.

Don’t believe me?  Think of each HBU as an hour of your time; no one can really work much more than 100 hours per week for a sustained period of time.

Sketch three possible outcomes for a project: the likely upside, likely ‘regular’, and likely downside scenarios.

Ben’s post talks about how we brainstormed these scenarios for “The Alliance.”  It’s interesting to see how things played out.  The good news is that we definitely didn’t experience any of the downside scenarios; the book was well-received, and sold well.  In 2015, we’ll be able to tell whether we’ll experience a regular outcome (a bestselling book that provides some brand enhancement) or an upside outcome (turning The Alliance into something many organizations adopt).  The early results are promising!

Trade up on trust even if it means you trade down on competency.

I’d actually argue that this should be amended from “competency” to “experience.” I don’t believe in hiring the incapable, regardless of how much I trust them.  But assuming capability, trust is far more important than experience.  Not only does it reduce risk, it creates a better working environment and thus is likely to deliver better long-term results.

Make people genuine partners and they’ll work harder

[Reid]’s inclusive because he knows when people are personally invested in
the public success of a project, they’ll work harder, they’ll care more,
and the final product will likely benefit (which also benefits his
reputation). I’ve seen Reid do this with partners at Greylock,
executives at LinkedIn, and with me in the two books we co-authored. As a
co-author instead of a ghostwriter I felt far more committed to the
project than I would have otherwise and the quality improved

I’ll echo and amplify Ben’s point.  While I would have worked hard on “The Alliance” regardless, the fact that Reid was dedicated to making it a true partnership meant that I was willing to make great sacrifices (including things like staying up all night to meet deadlines).  Many of the people I talk with about the book are surprised when I tell them how involved Reid was in the writing; they assume that like most rich and famous authors, Reid simply wanted his name on something.  After all, Charles Barkley once protested that he was misquoted in his own autobiography.  The fact that Reid was willing to invest his time and intellectual energy in the process demonstrated his partnership far more than any flowery words.  As I’ve noted about parenting, kids are smart–they quickly learn to ignore your words and draw conclusions based on your actions.  If you say you love them, but never spend time with them, they won’t be fooled.

There is no shortcut to being a genuine partner.

The people around you change you in myriad unconscious ways

The people you spend the most time with will change you in ways you
cannot anticipate or ever fully understand after the fact. The most
important choice of all is who you choose to surround yourself with.

I feel incredibly lucky to have learned so much from such a special
man. May we all have the opportunity to partner with and learn from the
special people in our lives. May we all take the time to savor this
amazing world. And may we all have the wisdom to try to save it a
little, too.

One of my go to quotes is the perfect summary of this point, and of Ben’s entire essay: “The principle difference between heaven and hell is the company you keep there.”  I’m glad I got to spend time with both Ben and Reid.

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