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5 / The non-obvious management responsibility

September 18, 2022

Welcome to Issue #5!

Word choice is the difference between telling your spouse, “I love you,” and “I loved you.” One letter makes all the difference, and often our words have invisible legacies we unknowingly inhabit.

Horsepower, for example, is an artifact of an age of equine engines. The term has a sort of endearing nostalgia for a pastoral past. But did you know the word “manager” comes from the early modern French, “manège,” or “to handle, train, or direct a horse?

Now, anyone who’s ever spent a lick of time around horses knows they’re majestic, intelligent (and often dangerous) creatures. Still, I also don’t think that means we have to appreciate being unconsciously compared to beasts to be broken and handled when we head into the office.

The point is that “managing” and “being a manager” implicitly assumes that the worker is some lower form to be controlled, directed, handled, and so on. And we’ve got to get out of that way of thinking.

And before anyone gets carried away, the solution is not to stop using words like manager and management. It’s not offensive. It’s funny. And now that we see the linguistic legacy of the terms, we can decide not to treat our co-workers like horses and move on with it.

So what do we do? Dee Hock, the late founder of Visa, loved asking managers what they thought the first responsibility of a manager was. He noticed that everybody always answered with a “downward-looking” perspective—management was always about managing the folks who reported to them. Dee thought this was so wrong (and so do I). In his book, One from Many, Dee wrote:

“Without exceptional management of self…one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts…no one is fit for authority no matter how much they acquire. In truth, the more authority they acquire, the more dangerous they become. The management of self should have half our time and the best of our ability.”

Think about that. Dee advocated for spending half of your time on managing yourself. Even more shocking, Dee believed a great manager only spends 5% of their time managing their subordinates because they practice and preach the principle of exceptional self-management.

So if self-management is so important, where does one start? That’s what this week’s big idea is all about.

Big Idea #5: Self-Observation in Six Steps

From Wake Up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod

Theory (and Some Practice)

Martin Heidegger, an oft-cited but nearly indecipherable-to-read philosopher, came up with two ideas related to self-observation. He called them transparency and breakdowns.

Transparency, to Martin, was the sum of all our habits, the strung-together, nearly absent-minded experience of being on autopilot that makes up most of our days.

On the other hand, a breakdown is when some unexpected event shatters the transparency. Like that morning I woke up, stumbled to the pantry, filled the hot water kettle, and went to grind the coffee beans, only to find that we were fresh out of beans. Being bereft of coffee and caffeine was not part of the plan today, and now I’m going to have to drink that diesel-swill they sell at the coffee shop around the corner to get my fix today.

Breakdowns in transparency feel one of three ways: pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Being beanless was certainly unpleasant. The mornings Kate brings me coffee while I’m still in bed are also breakdowns but rather pleasant ones.

So the first two steps in self-observation are first to notice your breakdowns or when “something happens,” and second to notice whether you feel pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Once “something happens,” and we notice how it feels, the next step is to see how we interpret both the thing that happened and the feeling that followed. What’s the story you’re making up about the thing that happened?

When I ran out of beans, I could have interpreted that as, “This means I’m going to be late for that meeting,” “This must be a sign from the Almighty that my addiction has spiraled out of control and I need to check myself into caffeine rehab,” “I’m a poor excuse for a person for being a shite pantry-stocker,” or “Kate must be so careless because she is a shite pantry-stocker.”

Notice how different these interpretations are—they’re loaded with emotions, shattered expectations, judgments, preconceived notions, and changes in our bodies.

Each interpretation or story we tell ourselves about the “something that happened” comes with an associated emotional experience. No coffee? I’m sad, pissed, frustrated, irritated, bummed. Or maybe I’m happy because I’ve been meaning to cut back, and this is the moment that will let me take that leap.

And then what? Now it’s time to do something. Will put on pants, shoes, sunglasses, and head around the corner to the place that sells that diesel sludge dark roast and do my best to be happy with a poor substitute for my bright and citrusy light roast? Will I let my inner critic beat myself up for forgetting to add coffee to the shopping list again? Make tea instead? Say something sarcastic to Kate?

By the time we get to the impact of our behavior (on ourselves, others, circumstances), we’ve gone through a long chain of events. We’ve experienced a “breakdown” or “interruption in our expectations,” felt neutral, negative, or positive, interpreted those feelings, felt emotions about the interpretation, and acted consciously or out of habit. Deciding to make tea, put coffee on the grocery list, and block time to head to the store that evening is an intentional action that will likely result in caffeine and bean abundance. Rolling around on the floor like a toddler complaining about no coffee may result in a positive but unintended scene of laughter from both Kate and me. Saying something rude will likely vent my anger and have an unintended consequence of making Kate feel bad and expect me to act like a child when I don’t get what I want.

Here’s where it all comes together. I don’t know a single person who kicks ass and takes names every day, every week, every month, every year. All of us have moments of unpleasantry, some more often than others. To manage yourself is to be aware of where your emotions and behavior are causing unpleasant and unintended consequences for others or yourself. So next time you catch yourself saying, “Well, that could have gone better,” “What a shit show,” or even feelingunpleasant, walk through these six steps to see what you can learn.

Reads & Resources


Written by Founder and Co-CEO of Brex, Pedro Franceschi, this piece is about how inescapable change is inside a high-growth startup. The company changes, and you need to change with it. Transgress this law, and thou shalt be left behind. My favorite line? “…the best leaders I know are constantly listening to their feelings, because feelings are backdoors to their intuition.”

From Twitter

I believe remote work is here to stay. Even the most remote-positive folks will agree that Zoom leaves something to be desired and nags at something lost from sitting together in real life. Kevin shares a great thread with real examples of why some people are more credible, present, and generally less shitty than others. If you’re on camera for a living, especially as a founder or CEO, and how you look on camera is an afterthought, you’re missing a quick win to make it easier for people to connect with you as a human.


A CTO I work with recently recommended this episode to me, saying that he’s listened to it three times now because it’s so densely packed with Lucky Charms marshmallows of wisdom. Tony is kind of a big deal, having created the iPod, co-created the iPhone, and founding NEST, the company behind thermostats that don’t require solving a Rubik’s cube to get to turn the heat on at 7am every morning. My favorite part was when Tony explains to Lex what a product manager’s job isand how he believes it is everyone’s—including engineering—responsibility to think of why people will buy something before you begin building it.


First, I recommend listening to the audiobook. Second, I found this book five years ago because Seth Godin said he listens to part of it every month. The Art of Possibility is co-authored (and narrated) by a real-life couple, Rosamund Stone Zander (a family therapist and executive coach) and Benjamin Zander (founder of and conductor at the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra). Each chapter is cleverly titled to help you remember a way of approaching life. I adore this book, and it’s one of the only books I’ve ever honestly revisited four times. My favorite part is where they get a school of Catholic nuns to adopt a way of thinking about boldness and risk called “BTFI” or “Beyond the Fuck It!”

Dice Roll

One of the hardest parts of being a founder is how much you have to learn so fast. Some of us came to start companies through some kind of design experience, but most of us did not. Butterick’s Practical Typography is hands down the bestresource I’ve ever come across on typography. If you’re short on time, read his “Typography in Ten Minutes.” How do I use it? When designing my blog and home page, I referred to it for good rules of thumb on line height, paragraph width, and all those wonderful things that make a page with text look beautiful.

That’s all for this week. I’m looking forward to what’s next!