Milton Friedman—Is Capitalism Humane?

My personal politics may best be defined as “pro-freedom”. In some ways that makes me sympathetic to positions espoused (though seldom actually practiced) by both of the major political parties in the US. It makes me much more sympathetic to several of the “third” parties of US politics: most especially the Libertarian party (though not without reservations).

However, I’m much more interested in economics than politics (although the two are inextricably intertwined). And, in that realm, my leanings are entirely towards laissez-faire capitalism. To clarify, this is the form of capitalism in which the government only takes on the role of preventing force or fraud and adjudicating disagreements. No bail-outs, no subsidies, no charity, no public works. Regulations are only in service of preventing fraud and force. Also, there are no favors, no bribes, and very little corruption as there are no hand-outs to be obtained or clubs to he wielded against competitors. Needless to say, the form the US economy has taken since before WWI has only had a passing resemblance to this economic system, even though many people still refer to it as “capitalism.”

Milton Friedman (1912–2006) won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976, and was perhaps the most famous defender of laissez-faire capitalism in the 20th century. In the talk I’ve linked to here, he defends capitalism on moral grounds by tackling the question: “Is capitalism humane?”.

If you feel as I do about capitalism, I encourage you to listen to this talk. In it, you will witness an excellent and entertaining speaker explaining points you may have heard before, but in an excellently clear and persuasive fashion.

If you do not feel as I do about capitalism, I encourage you to listen to this talk all the more. Not because I think you’ll be persuaded by 45 minutes of listening to Milton Friedman, but because I suspect what you and I think of when we hear the word “capitalism” are miles apart. And when you hear me promote and defend capitalism, and, perhaps, are inclined to persuade me otherwise, it would be great if we started out on the same page. Listening to this talk will bring us a lot closer to that point.

We’re our own journalists now

A friend just posted this article from NPR which describes a new racial outrage where a White woman called the police on a Black man for birdwatching. There’s even a video the man shot documenting the encounter. And, the woman does, indeed, seem pretty unhinged while the man seems very cool and rational. Except, that’s not actually what happened.

Someone else posted an article from the National Review which does some deeper digging. As this second article indicates, the video only shows part of the encounter. You can actually see the original post on Facebook. The description gives a little more information on what happened before the video starts. In particular, the man asks that the woman put her dog back on its leash, and she resists several suggestions of how she could exercise her dog off-leash elsewhere. At which point, the man says (quoted from his Facebook post): “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” At this point, he attempts to offer the dog a treat, the woman becomes alarmed, and the man starts filming.

Judging from this information (as reported by the man, and therefore likely to be biased somewhat in his favor), I think they both handled the situation badly. It’s understandable that the man was annoyed. The woman was clearly violating the rules for that area of the park, and it inhibited his ability to enjoy it by scaring away the birds he came to watch. It’s also understandable that the woman was alarmed. She encountered a stranger in a secluded part of the park who said he was going to do something she wouldn’t like in retaliation for her annoying him.

On the other hand… he could have just walked away. I can’t count the times I’ve been in a big city, saw someone doing something they obviously weren’t supposed to, and did exactly that. He chose to confront the woman when it wasn’t necessary. When she resisted, he upped the ante in a way which was intended to frighten the woman into compliance, and then the situation blew up. And, for her part, the woman clearly knew she was violating the rules, and could have chosen to simply appologize and clip the leash back on her dog (even if only until the stranger had moved along). Moreover, the man was still calm, and keeping his distance, and so was clearly not an imminent threat. Both of them had opportunities to de-escalate the situation, and neither of them made that choice.

Is the woman racist? Maybe, but I don’t think this one incident provides enough data to actually be sure. I expect what the man said and did would have been enough to frighten me, no matter what he looked like. If she has some subconscious association between black men and crime, then she would have been all the more frightened. However, I don’t find it unreasonable that she would have been frighted enough to call the police even without any extra factor from subconscious racism. So, I don’t think we can make any real judgement from the little data this incident provides.

This, of course, calls into question the justice of everything else the woman experienced after this incident became public. However, it’s clear that her employer didn’t want to take the risk of becoming entangled in the situation—no matter what truth was behind it—and cut their losses as soon as it became publicly embarassing. Maybe the woman actually is racist, and this was a good call. Maybe not. As I said, I, personally, don’t think this one incident is enough to go on. To my mind, that makes her company’s actions at least somewhat cowardly, if not blatently unjust.


I view the original incident as a misunderstanding between two people who wanted to “win” the encounter. When neither was willing to back down, the whole incident blew up.

The real tragedy is what happened later, and I think it demonstrates the value of “classical” journalism as an intermediary between ourselves the messy fragments of truth actually available. However, it’s been a long while since we learned about the world only through the eyes of mature, responsible journalists who knew how to spell “objective.” They’re still out there—to be sure—but they are now largely buried by the flood of social media and clickbait stories designed to stir us up.

This means we’re largely on our own to become such journalists as we used to have as our intellectual first line of defense. We have to take responsibility for turning the messy fragments of reality which find their way onto our screens into a cohesive, objective whole before reacting. I’m certainly guilty of falling short here (all too often, I’m afraid). So, I’m personally taking this as a reminder to check whether I’m falling into the trap of provocative so-called journalism, whether I think I actually am working with all the facts before coming to a judgement of my own.

Learning to appreciate the “out” group

A few weekends ago, my wife and I had some friends over for brunch. We had an entirely delightful time. We made breakfast together, swapped stories, joked around, and had a completely wonderful morning. As it turns out, my wife and I are white, and our friends are black. And, as much as I enjoy their company and admire their many accomplishments, I’ve realized I probably don’t appreciate them as much as they deserve.

I grew up in a very white community, and knew only one black person all the way through high school. She was my co-captain of the debate team, and, while we argued some (it was the debate team, after all), I thought very highly of her. But, in retrospect, I also don’t think I appreciated her as much as she deserved either.

However, in both cases, it wasn’t for being too sensitive of my friends’ skin color, but rather for being a little too color-blind.

It’s only been as an adult that the diversity of my group of friends has increased. Over the years, I’ve heard them talk about growing up, their school experiences, their professional experiences, and their adult lives. And only after hearing their stories that I’ve begun to really understand how to appreciate my friends fully. What you don’t really learn when you’ve always been part of the “in” group, is what it’s actually like to be part of the “out” group.

I’ll stop here a moment to say that while I’ve been part of enough “out” groups (e.g., nerdy, Jewish, bisexual) to have some inkling what it’s like, my experiences as part of those groups is far, far more mild than what I’ve heard from my black friends. So much so as to basically not be the same experience at all. I’ll also pause to say that I think the same applies to anyone who isn’t with the “in” group for whatever other reason (e.g., recent immigrants in an English-speaking business, women in engineering, men in nursing, or gay people in a conservative community).

Every company I’ve worked at has been overwhelmingly homogeneous on many axes. And, not all of the people I’ve worked with have much sensitivity toward “out” groups in general. So, when I start to imagine the sense of isolation it must engender being part of a small “out” group, I start to have an appreciation for the determination and self-confidence it must require to show up, and keep coming back: despite not fitting in with the larger group in some way.

And then, there are all the stories of people in an “out” group being passed over because they just don’t seem like management / leadership / whatever material. Or because they “don’t quite click as well” with the rest of the team, or whatever other squishy, hard-to-refute, but nevertheless-bullshit reason. One has to admire the grit and resolve it takes to decide to persevere through such an experience. And then you realize that every person you meet in such an “out” group may well have had to deal with that kind of thing personally.

Or maybe not. Perhaps they were lucky, and didn’t have those negative experiences. As always, making blanket assumptions about an individual based upon some inessential characteristic is dangerous. However, we all do it all the time: at least at first. You can only learn so much about a person in a first meeting, and it takes time to learn their actual history, struggles, and accomplishments. So, in the interval between meeting a person and deeply getting to know them, we all make lots of inferences from what little we do know.

My takeaway, then, is that in early stage of building a friendship with someone, it’s actually not fair to be as perfectly egalitarian as I’d like the world to become. For someone in an “out” group, the accomplishments I see and admire may very well have come at higher cost or effort than I would have expected. As a consequence, a person in that situation most likely deserves some extra credit for the extra friction they’ve had to overcome.

Of course, I fully expect this is all super obvious to anyone who isn’t part of one of the important “in” groups in their life. However, we of the “in” group are mostly so uncomfortable talking about this kind of thing, that it’s not at all obvious to us. I know I’m uncomfortable writing about it now. I feel more than a little blind that it’s taken me so long to become sensitive to it. It’s only after having enough conversations with my friends who are: black in a mostly white environment, female in a mostly male environment, gay in a mostly straight environment, etc. that the broader understanding has come to me.

So, in addition to the earlier takeaway, I’m left with an even more important lesson. It’s admirable to desire and work towards a world which has left racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. behind. However, until we get there, it’s not right to let the vision of that better world make us fail to give due recognition to people whose success comes a little (or a lot) harder because of the world we’re actually in.

Is blaming the victim always wrong?

I’ve noticed this strange pattern of how people talk to one another about certain kinds of crimes: most especially rape against a female victim. The dialog usually starts with someone (almost always a man), saying something like “she was dressed too provocatively”, or “she shouldn’t have drunk so much”. This is immediately following by someone else (usually a woman) saying something like: “she should be able to dress however she wants; it doesn’t give anyone the right to rape her”.

First, I think we can all agree that there is no such thing as a right to rape anyone, for any reason, at any time. Doesn’t matter where they are, what they’ve been doing, how they’re dressed… full stop. No one is morally allowed to rape anyone else. If we can agree on that point, then we can also agree that it is in no way a woman’s fault for getting raped: no matter how she’s dressed or what she’s been doing.

It’s rapists who are at fault for raping. We should focus on teaching them not to rape, or, at the very least, providing some massive disincentives to do so. Right? Right. Of course. Rapists shouldn’t rape.

Now that we’ve got that settled… everyone will be fine, right?

Of course not.

Immoral people will always exist, and while we will always condemn immoral actions and try to educate / reform the people to commit them, that doesn’t actually do any good for someone already victimized by a criminal.

That raises the question of what are our moral obligations to looking after ourselves: especially in a dangerous situation. Let’s change the example. Let’s say I (a man) am walking through a bad part of town, at night, alone, in a smart suit with gold cufflinks. And, I get jumped. They take my wallet, cufflinks, and phone. They beat me up pretty well, and knock out a few teeth. Hell, let’s say I even get raped by one of the thugs, who happens to be gay. What responsibility do I bear for this event?

Clearly, I am not guilty of assault, robbery, or rape. I did none of those things, and the guilt for all of them lies completely on the thugs. Am I guilty of anything, then? Yes. I’m guilty of failing to properly assess the danger of my situation and taking sensible precautions. I have a moral responsibility to myself of looking out for my own person and property. In this case, I failed to do so.

It is crucial to differentiate between the level and nature of moral guilt here. The thugs are, without question, far more guilty of a much worse action. They deliberately, and purposefully, initiated violence against another person. On the other hand, I carelessly neglected my own safety. On the one hand, you have a egregious fault of morality, and on the other hand, a minor lapse—even if it had severe consequences. The difference in guilt here is so extreme as to practically bear no comparison.

I think this is the essence of the strange verbal exchange which started this essay. One mentality looks at a crime victim, and thinks the victim should have done more to protect themselves. The other looks and the criminal, and says we should prevent crime.

Both of these are correct stances. Both parties did something wrong. However, since these are not remotely equivalent wrongs, it is outrageous to focus one’s attention on the minor fault committed by the victim, instead of focusing on the immeasurably greater guilt of the criminal. And yet, one routinely hears more attention given to the women’s clothing, activities, or appearance after a rape than on the criminal.

So, yes, it can, sometimes, be proper to blame the victim, but absolutely not for the crime. At best they failed to take some necessary precaution (though even that doesn’t apply in most cases). They can—in no way—be blamed for the crime itself. The moral culpability for the crime is always 100% on the criminal.

Response to “Diversity and Justice”

A day or so after publishing Diversity and Justice, I received the following comment from a female acquaintance:

I appreciate you offering this patch! Some code comments from a more senior developer in the area:

Good start with “there are traits which matter and traits which don’t”! Your error is that you’re assuming the only variables that matter are the ones in your Engineering function, but you’re using classes that are defined globally. Banana-gorilla-jungle stuff. 

That’s why you’ve got the common misconception “since ‘female’ doesn’t directly come into play in ‘Engineer’, an object descended from both ‘female’ and ‘Engineer’ is the same as an object descended from both ‘male’ and ‘Engineer’.” In fact, because female is a trait that matters globally, anyone in the female Engineer group has had to pass through a filtering function “stand_up_to_assumption_of_incompetence” that requires that engineer be confident in their knowledge, or patient, or stubborn, or lucky, or sociopathic, or possessing some other extra trait; most of which are favorable for Engineering prowess.

If you have two pools of engineers and one is pre-screened, it makes logical sense to exhaust the pre-screened pool before turning to the random pool!

Also, most people who work in this field use a fork of the Justice framework that comes with a bunch of open source tools specifically for working with these filtering functions; like Feminism or Anti-Racism.

Again, thanks for weighing in on the project!

To be honest, my first reaction was to feel annoyed and patronized. I was tempted to ignore the comment and just move along with my day. But I couldn’t, in good conscious, let it go so easily.

First, while my first reaction was to view this as a “negative” comment, I’m not 100% sure that was the intention. I’m perfectly willing to accept a well-reasoned and friendly rebuttal to my ideas. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I publish things publicly, instead of just keeping them to myself. However, I’m a lot less interested in debating a point with someone who is already hostile. But, knowing the person who posted the comment (I attended her wedding!), and being good friends with her husband, I am much more willing to give her the benefit of the doubt as to her intentions.

Second, if you look past the tone of the message to its actual argument, I think there’s validity to her point. That is, any woman who is still in the software field after any length of time has had to put up with a certain amount of bullshit which gives her a certain talent and toughness above the average candidate. That being the case, you could consider female candidates even more attractive than the average male candidate. I think there’s some truth there, and I was even considering various similar ideas when I wrote the original article. But, to keep things concise, I decided to exclude them.

However, the reason I ultimately decided to respond with a new post is because I think this comment actually demonstrates the third part of the trap, as I outlined in my original post:

Finally, it’s a trap for everyone trying to correct the problem. By framing the situation as one group oppressing the other, it creates a powerful “us vs. them” mentality which is hard to overcome. People in the minority group are tempted to identify all people in the majority group as oppressors. Allies in the majority group feel unfairly accused, and are less likely to want to remain allies. Progress in correcting the situation is impeded to no one’s benefit.

Andrew Miner

Whether it was the commenter’s intention or not, my reaction to the comment was exactly what I described: an ally who was being unfairly attacked. To put it more bluntly, I felt I was effectively being told: “Get out of here; you don’t know what you’re talking about.” with a little pat on the head for at least trying not to be a sexist asshole.


While I wish the comment were more unambiguously friendly in tone, I appreciate the time my acquaintance took to write it, and I think she makes a good point. I would prefer, though, if we all were to follow Lori Lakin Hutcherson’s admirable example when she (a black woman) responded to her friend (a white man) who was struggling with the idea of “white privilege”:

I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding… because I realized many of my friends—especially the white ones—have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with…

Lori Lakin Hutcherson

Lori embraced her friend’s attempt to figure things out and be an ally. She was willing to accept his professed good intention (despite his ignorance), and help him understand her own point of view in a friendly, sincere, and very powerfully honest way. I think we should all aspire to follow her example.

Diversity and Justice

I have been thinking about diversity a good deal lately. In fact, at work, I just attended the first meeting of a group to support and promote women in the workplace. I fully support the effort, but it got me thinking… what is the deeper issue here?

At my current employer, we’re trying to build airplanes. That requires considerable diversity: most especially in talent and experience. We need aerodynamicists, structural analysts, inlet designers, electrical engineers, program managers… on and on. We also need people at all levels of experience in their professions. But do we need people with blue eyes? Honestly… does eye color matter when building an airplane? Couldn’t we build a plane without anyone who has blue eyes? What about people with freckles? Do we actually need people to have uteruses? What about dark skin? Do we really need to have a man on staff who’s attracted to other men?

For those first few categories, I can hear you thinking… “Well, I guess not… but, what difference does it make?” But, by the end of that list, I would hope that you were starting to get offended. I think this is the really important point. While it’s likely that you could build an airplane without people having a certain eye color, complexion, gender, race, or sexuality, we should still feel outraged to exclude people based on those traits.

I think the deeper issue here is one of justice. When trying to assemble a group of people for whatever purpose, there are traits which matter and traits which don’t: based upon the purpose at hand. It is manifestly unjust, therefore, to exclude someone based on inessential traits: most especially when they do have the traits necessary for the endeavor.

I think focusing on diversity of race, gender, etc. instead of justice is a trap which bites in three ways.

First, it’s a trap for the company. Imagine a field where 80% of its members are men, and 20% women. Assuming an even distribution of talent, if you were trying to hire the top 10 people in the field, you’d get 8 men, and 2 women. However, if you are obliged to hire 50/50, you’d get 5 men and 2 women from the group of the 10 best people in the field, and then have to hire 3 more women who were not in the top 10. This is clearly not the best outcome for the company.

Second, it’s a trap for the people being hired. First, there are the 3 men who were excluded. It’s unfair, and we definitely sympathize with them. However, it’s the women who actually face the nastier part of the trap. First, the women who were hired won’t know whether they were hired for their talent, or to fill a quota. This is demoralizing all on its own. Even worse, no one else in the company will know either. One can easily imagine the nasty bias and mistreatment which will ensue from people who were already skeptical. With this combination of factors, a reasonable person would feel extremely unwelcome and move along rather quickly.

Finally, it’s a trap for everyone trying to correct the problem. By framing the situation as one group oppressing the other, it creates a powerful “us vs. them” mentality which is hard to overcome. People in the minority group are tempted to identify all people in the majority group as oppressors. Allies in the majority group feel unfairly accused, and are less likely to want to remain allies. Progress in correcting the situation is impeded to no one’s benefit.

I think the better approach is to focus on eliminating injustice: for any group which experiences it, and in whatever form it takes.

This approach requires and supports a great many of the actions one would take with a pro-diversity agenda. Unbalanced representation of women speakers in a conference you’re planning? It is just and pro-diversity to look a little harder to find more qualified speakers who happen to be female. Engineering staff looking a little too white? It is both just and pro-diversity to set up a recruiting trip to universities whose color balance isn’t so pale to hire talented newcomers who might face prejudice elsewhere. Notice though, that it is only just in that you’re selecting people who are qualified through their skills, talents, and accomplishments: not because of some inessential trait. The difference is that you’re putting in the extra effort required to avoid and/or unwind unjust biases against those people to promote justice towards them.

Paradoxically, I think this approach is also more inclusive. Promoting justice is a cause which anyone can support, and for any other person. Instead of creating innumerable “us vs. them” pairings, holding justice as the primary creates only one: those in favor of justice vs those who are not.

The Importance of Context

When studying history, the first rule of intellectual honesty is to never drop the context of the time period being studied. We stand at the end of a long line of people who screwed things up, figured out what went wrong, and came up with a better solution. We are the inheritors of thousands of years learning in every area of human endeavor: including morality. When studying history, any time you indignantly ask the question “How could they?”, it is imperative to stop yourself and ask the question again with curiosity instead. Really… how did it come to pass that people in a prior age thought it right and natural to act in ways we find foreign or even immoral now?

We can (and should) look back with our modern eyes and pass judgement on the moral systems people have used in the past. Most moral codes for most of history were atrocious by our modern moral understanding. However, when judging individual members of those societies, we must not lose our perspective and judge them by standards they never even knew existed. One can only judge a person from a prior historical period by asking whether they faithfully adhered to the best moral code they knew about and/or whether they helped to advance our understanding of morality as such.

This does mean that certain historical figures, though perhaps despicable when judged by our modern standards, where moral and virtuous in their own time. It is important that we judge the moral system, not the person who could have known no better.

Considering Women in History

When thinking of the treatment of women through history (just to pick one minority), we must apply the same respect for context we would for any other historical study. We can (and should) judge historical societies’ moral codes based upon their respect for women. However, we can only judge individual people for having better or worse views and actions compared to others who shared their context.

For example, a person who was skeptical of a woman’s right to vote in England of 1880 is hardly a villain when judged by the moral standards of that time. We now find that position repugnant, but not the person who holds it. Needless to day, a person in a modern context who held such a view would (rightfully) be considered morally bankrupt. Conversely, a person who was enlightened enough, in that place and time, to support women’s suffrage wasn’t merely a normal, decent person (as they would be today), but a one of unusual foresight and virtue.

Notice that I very deliberately used the word “person” throughout that example. We must remember that the suffragettes were themselves usually foresighted and virtuous even among the women of their day. Many women of the time were as skeptical of such things as “votes for women” as their spouses. They too were not villains, but people of ordinary character and understanding: for their own time.

But what about…

The really interesting question is what other moral issues were, at one point, perfectly acceptable, but are not any longer? For example, homophobia was once not only perfectly acceptable, but actively encouraged and legally enforced. However, in the United States today, LGBT+ people are legally protected (in many jurisdictions) and homophobia (in most communities) is actively regarded as backward and immoral. When did that moral stance shift? How did it happen? At what point do you consider someone slow to make the shift as being immoral?

Thoughts on Toxic Masculinity

I recently saw the Gillette commercial about toxic masculinity, and it’s gotten me thinking, especially when viewed along side the Egard Watches response video. I highly recommend you go watch both of them before continuing to read here.

The perspectives in both are reflected by the polarized responses I’ve been seeing since the Me Too movement picked up steam. Any time I see such extreme reactions to the same thing (the commercial, especially) among people who normally agree about many things, it makes me stop to ponder what’s going on.

Personally, I find it very easy to have enormous sympathy with the Me Too movement.  It is sadly all too easy to find many, many examples of women being treated unjustly in every era, and in every civilization which has ever existed.  Indeed, “unjust” hardly begins to describe centuries of disregard, disenfranchisement, oppression, torment, slavery, mutilation, rape, and murder which women have suffered across the span of human history. Given that the perpetrators have been overwhelmingly male, it’s all too easy to take a dim view of masculinity in general.

However, it is also true that many brilliant, talented, moral, and courageous men have moved our species forward in leaps and bounds. Many of these men were the ones who fought against oppressors of every sort (both literally and figuratively). Indeed, many of them fought, specifically, to oppose the tremendous injustice met out to women by other men of their time. Taking either the view that all men are monsters or that all men are innocent is too simplistic.

I view “toxic masculinity” as being what the philosopher, Ayn Rand, called a package deal. That is, a bunch of concepts grouped together with the effect (usually deliberate) of damning the good by linking it with the evil. In this case, the “package” contains a lot of elements which are, in fact, attitudes, beliefs, and cultural norms which each have been held by individual men. However, not all men exhibit all these traits, and, in fact, it’s very common for the negative traits to be concentrated in certain individuals, and positive ones in others.

But let’s get specific here. When I think of traits considered typically “masculine”, I get something like this:

  • physical traits (size, strength, body shape, genitals)
  • self-control
  • competence
  • courage
  • protectiveness
  • resilience

However, when I think of the kind of behaviors associated with the phrase “toxic masculinity”, I get a very different (and mostly incompatible) list:

  • sexism & misogyny
  • homophobia
  • bullying
  • excessive use of drugs & alcohol
  • macho toughness

I think this is the heart of the division I see between people reacting to this issue. When someone says “masculine”, which of these two lists pops up in their head? You can easily tell by the litmus test of these two videos.

What I find especially fascinating and useful, is to construct a similar list using the phrases “feminine” and “toxic femininity”. To my mind, the first list is nearly identical, while the second list has its own (and different) set of revolting behaviors.

My point, really, is that using deliberately leading phrases like “toxic masculinity” or “toxic femininity” doesn’t actually help what is really an admirable goal: to eliminate the specific nasty behaviors associated with those phrases. At best, they serve to stir up animosity and misunderstanding between people who probably have the same goals at heart. At worst, they create a completely useless debate between people wanting to define “masculine” as meaning the first list versus the second.

Instead, I would urge people to discard the “package deal”, and focus on the real problems specifically, and one-by-one: sexual harassment, homophobia, bullying, and all those other behaviors we should no longer tolerate as a rational, civil society.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

I recently picked up the audiobook version of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. While I’ve only just started my second listen through, I already think it will become one of the most influential books I’ve read: right behind “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand.

The basic premiss of the book is that while goals are great for setting a direction, they are really lousy as a means to achieving anything. Instead, success comes from changing your daily habits—sometimes in very tiny ways—so that they accumulate, inevitably, and almost without effort, into success. This is accomplished by dissecting the life-cycle of a habit, and taking specific actions for each stage to ensure a new habit sticks. The same applies to habits you’d like to break: just apply the opposite actions for each stage to break the habit.

What impresses me the most about this book is its specificity. A lot of self-help books do a great job of laying out some interesting ideas or principles, but then fail to help the reader make the jump to practicing what is written. Not here. Every chapter starts with some motivating anecdote, then describes the principle involved, and then works through several different ways to put things into practice. Each chapter includes various kinds of mental exercises, checklists, and specific actions to take.

Another thing I like, is that the author fully understands how challenging it is to jump in at the deep end of creating some complex new habit (or breaking a very familiar one). He talks through various ways to simplify the process of easing into the new habit so that it doesn’t require tremendous willpower to accomplish it. Just a slow process of continuous improvement from very easy steps to more complex ones.

It’s not a long book at all, just 5½ hours in the audiobook version, and it’s caught my brain on fire with future possibilities. I highly recommend giving it a read.

Being Helpful While Still Saying “No”

A while back, I was a team lead at Amazon.  At the time, Amazon was organized into lots of small teams, and each lead was expected to run their team pretty autonomously.  When a team wanted to tackle a project which required the help of some other team, the lead of the one team would generally go talk to the lead of the other team and ask for their help.

This all seems very sensible on the surface, but it frequently happened that certain teams who were at the cross-roads of a lot of systems would be inundated, and, in frustration, would flat-out reject requests.  Naturally, this aggravated the people making the requests, and it turned into an unpleasant spiral.

I had the good fortune not to be running one of those teams, but my team certainly got plenty of requests which weren’t feasible for us to accept.  However, instead of flatly refusing requests, I employed a technique taught to me by one of my mentors at Amazon:

Instead of refusing what you can’t do, offer what you can do.

In one particular incident, I recall the lead of another team calling a meeting with me and a few of his most senior engineers.  They had a scheme in mind which I knew my team wouldn’t have time to handle.  However, taking this advice to heart, I heard him out.  In the end, I told him that my team definitely didn’t have to do what he was asking, but I offered instead to help him brainstorm other options.  At the end of our meeting, we’d managed to work out a different approach which was less work for his team, and none at all for mine.  By offering up a little over an hour of my own time, the lead of the other team walked away happy and thinking well of me despite my refusal of his initial request.


Of course, this advice has served me well in many aspects of my life since then.  Whether it’s a friend needing a favor, or my spouse wanting help with a project, or anything else, the key insight I’ve taken away is to look for ways to turn a “no” into a “yes”, even if its not the “yes” the person was looking for.

There are two extremely helpful side effects I’ve noticed with this approach.  The first is that it’s a lot easier to offer an alternate “yes” than to say “no”: especially to someone you like.  Using this approach helps me protect my own time instead of allowing my feelings of compassion or guilt trick me into over-committing and regretting it later on.  The second is that it helps me clearly communicate that I do want to help the person, even if I can’t do the exact thing they’re asking.  So, rather than stressing a relationship by a flat refusal (or even more so by a failure to deliver later on), you strengthen it (or at least break even) by showing your eagerness not to refuse them: at least in some capacity.