if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking

Quote a la Murakami via Norwegian Wood

Following up on impressions since Dropbox…I remain convinced that the class teaches us to be good venture capital investors…and potentially very cerebral entrepreneurs. Which is actually great if it’s being taught to an audience of lawless cowboys, but not as great when it’s being taught to an audience of ex consultants and bankers (myself included) already prone to analysis and being primed for it in every other class we’re in. Arguably, however, conveying the messy world of entrepreneurship isn’t the goal of the course (that’s the goal of our working to build businesses in 3 months) and I imagine being an entrepreneur within a larger organization is much more orderly and structured, allowing one the luxury of being this type of cerebral entrepreneur.

That said, that’s not the point of this post — I should’ve mentioned that despite some of the questions I had about the class, at no point was there any doubt in my mind that my professor was a master teacher. It’s really interesting to see across the spread of my classes this semester, the vast difference between a master vs a novice professor, especially in such a finicky teaching model as the case method, where even if you’re dying to just tell the class the answer, you’re actually supposed to elicit it out of the class. It truly is an art form, a type of quintessential influence without power situation.

One of the key things the professor must get right is how to ask the right questions, which our entrepreneurial manager professor demonstrated beautifully today. In the last class, as is often our privilege, we had the protagonist come and wrap up the case. As is customary, the screen comes down (s/he’s simulcasted) and the speaker speaks for about 10 minutes before opening the last 10 minutes up to questions, during which, of course, only the classroom in which the speaker is in gets to ask questions. Our professor made it abundantly clear beforehand that we could indicate when we’re bored with the discussion and he would turn off the feed. This isn’t unusual.

In this particular case, the speaker wasn’t great, and the class voted him off the stage about halfway through his Q&A. Again, this isn’t unusual. And oftentimes, there would be nothing else to it.

Instead, opening up class today, our professor asked us why we voted to turn the speaker off, essentially where did he fail as a communicator. This question had never been posed and I doubt it ever will again in my remaining time at HBS. It’s a very thoughtful question that makes us reason out a reaction that is typically just written off as boredom or irrelevance. Without this question, we wouldn’t have even dissected the ways in which this clearly competent and passionate individual failed to convey both of those qualities to an audience probably similar in DNA to his investors.

This reminded me of a concept I had read about approximately a year ago. That is this question of what we should talk about. The point is that there are two reasons for most conversations (barring specific reasons like comfort, advice, etc.) — 1) to socialize and 2) to gain and spread useful insight.

If we want merely to socialize, we would talk about whatever everybody else is talking about — ISIS, Jeb Bush, Oscars. But instead if the goal is to gain and spread useful insight, we would want to look at relatively neglected topics — ones that are important yet not very often discussed, where it seems like discussion can result in the most progress, and where the participants in the conversation have some sort of expertise. Robin Hanson pointed out that this is a clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with — and of yourself. “I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.”

One level deeper on this subject is how to think about these neglected topics. True, a very classic way to incite interesting conversation is to pose contrarian points of view. The difficulty with being a generally contrarian person is that oftentimes we get carried away and insist in being contrarian for the pure sake of it. This creates a situation in which bias and inaccuracy easily creeps in, especially since to have a truly contrarian assertion, one actually needs a substantial amount of expertise or depth of insight…on the whole, the crowd is right and honestly, there are more people interested in being contrarians than there are with the right amount of insight (Americans are particularly notorious for this…as covered in a This American Life episode called The American Jackass).

Instead, arguably, we should all be objective in our facts, answers, and conclusions and instead be contrarian in our questions. Instead of posing the conclusion that nobody is thinking, we should be posing the questions nobody is asking to get to interesting conclusions that nobody is thinking.

So elegant. Now the question is how to actually get good at asking questions…more thoughts on this later.

if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking