Ravi Mohan's Blog
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I won't go seal hunting with you
I told someone a few minutes ago "I think you are very capable and like you a lot but I don't trust you one inch". (Yeah I do say things like that in real life :-D). After the (very unproductive) conversation was over, I was trying to recollect where that phrase/concept came from. It was certainly not an original thought/phrase and I was sure I read it somewhere. Turns out it was from Edward de Bono who said (paraphrased) "some languages have one word which says 'I like you very much, but I would not go seal-hunting with you'." so one can say (in that language) "I [word] you" where [word] has the meaning of the phrase above. I forget the book he used the phrase in but iirc, the context was that sometimes if we lack the precise word for something, we need to repeat a long phrase. This holds in technical conversation too. We don't say "change the structure of the code without changing the behaviour", we say "refactor". In the absence of the word "refactor" we would probably use the longer phrase, till someone got tired of it and invented the word. Back to seal hunting. In this case, the context was one of doing a startup together and I suggested the phrase as an explanation why a few people don't "openly talk" to him, while the other people do talk to me "openly". Note that this doesn't mean that person X *is* untrustworthy. All it means is that I (and a few other people) *think* that in a crunch, X wouldn't stand by us and would do what's best for him vs what's best for us. Is not trusting someone a problem? In a normal context, not at all. We all work with people whose competence we admire but we wouldn't want to trust them to keep our objectives and safety in mind when the stakes are high. We just add a double dose of caution, keep our guards up and are careful with words around that person, read the fine print very carefully and so on. I am not very sure that would work in the context of a startup though. In a startup (from what I've read, not that I've ever founded a startup, though I've been employed in a couple) the pressure is so intense that one doesn't have the time to do all this armor donning and being careful. Founding startups is not like seal hunting -it is like hunting Great White sharks or the aliens from the movie "Predator".The founders absolutely *must* trust each other to do the right thing when the bullets (or harpoons or laser beams) are raining down. Another thing that I noticed from the conversation was the use of phrases which don't really mean anything but are invitations to games (in an Eric Bernian, Transactional Analysis sense - the person proferring the invitation doesn't often know what he is doing, from a group dynamics perspective). For e.g the conversation started with "I don't want to jeopardize our friendship but .. " and I was thinking "What friendship? we aren't friends - we were never friends- We are professional acquaintances who speak about technology occasionally and have met at a couple of parties". To me a friend is someone who you have let into the "inner courtyards" of your life. You can have many positive, enriching relationships which are of a lesser intensity than a friendship, but the word does have a defined meaning and it didn't make sense in this context. That opening phrase puzzled me for a while, but then I realized that he didn't really mean it either. It is just a phrase the meaning of which depends very much on the context of its usage, in this particular instance meaning something like "I am very uneasy about the fact that people don't relate to me like they relate to you. I am going to vent my feelings a bit but I don't know how you'll react to that, so I'll just use this phrase and hope you believe " maintain friendship" is the reason I am screaming". Real friends don't need to use those kind of weasel phrases and would say something like "I don't know wtf you are doing, but I am concerned" or something to that effect. I try to avoid these meaningless phrases as much as possible, not because it is a particularly noble thing to do, but because I don't want to clutter a conversation with superfluities. "Say what you mean, mean what you say" is a surprisingly effective, not to mention efficient means of communication. If you keep an open mind you learn something from the most trivial incident. I learned a few things today. Not too bad for a 20 minute conversation. Not bad at all.