In craftsman, executive I wrote about two modes of working adapted to different circumstances:
Craftsman mode is the set of skills and patterns of work adapted to immediate experience, instantaneous feedback loops, and deterministic outcomes. Executive mode is the set of skills and patterns of work adapted to operating with abstractions, delayed feedback loops, and mostly probabilistic outcomes.
If you’re a craftsman learning to operate in executive mode, everything you study will fall into one of three broad categories– the mundane, the mystical, and the meta. This is important because unlike craftsman mode, you study executive mode breadth first. For example, you learn to program by picking a programming language, then going deep until you master it. But you don’t get good at executive mode by learning everything there is to know about Steve Jobs.
So you have to approach studying executive mode breadth first. And to do that, you need to understand what the categories are.
First there is the mundane. The mundane is conventional operations techniques used in modern organizations– roughly everything you can outsource to a competent, well-incentivized professional CEO and expect good outcomes. Some of these techniques, like productivity and management, are applicable to executive mode in general. Others are domain specific. Here is an example from Jason Lemkin’s SaaStr:
You have to train your team in SaaS. How to go upmarket. How to drive up NPS. How to increase pricing. How to sell more of a solution. How to compete. How to get more referrals, and increase revenue retention.
The mundane doesn’t mean unimportant. A lot of people screw this up– it’s very, very important. It’s the nuts and bolts of the operation. If you want to work in executive mode, you have to get good at least at some of these things. To do that you study this: 1 2 3 4.
Then there is the mystical. The mystical goes something like this. Yes, the mundane is very important, and yes, conventional wisdom will get you far. But nobody seriously believes that tips on structuring your calendar, going upmarket or driving NPS will get you smart phones, or internet search, or personal computers. That kind of innovation is something else entirely. We know that given the right conditions entrepreneurs will create these products, but we only have a rough idea of what the conditions are. We don’t know yet how to reliably teach or replicate this.
So you read about exceptional projects and people, hoping to learn by osmosis. Reading the mystical is like reading history, or classics. You don’t read Symposium because the information is applicable to your life. You read it to learn to think like Socrates did. The mystical includes biographies, case studies, memos and even lore: 1 2 3 4. When people take the mystical too far, they cargo cult Mark Zuckerberg’s flip-flops, or Steve Jobs’s acid trips.
Finally there is the meta. The meta is an attempt to extract useful models from the mundane and the mystical to try and teach exceptionalism (or at least explain it post factum). Reading the meta won’t teach you how to hire a head of engineering or how open-source business models work; but it will give you tools at a higher level of abstraction to reason through these problems on your own. For example, how do you decide when to follow conventional wisdom and when to be contrarian? One possible answer to this question is to prefer contrarian questions. That’s one example of meta. Here are a few more: 1 2 3 4.
Most people, when they begin studying executive mode, gravitate toward one of the three categories to the exclusion of everything else. If you tend pragmatic you’ll likely restrict yourself to the mundane– what use is knowledge that doesn’t immediately help build products and close deals? If you tend intellectual you’ll likely restrict yourself to the meta– why read about a million details when you can learn the rules and figure out the details yourself from first principles?
That’s a mistake. Each category teaches you different kinds of things.
You can’t figure out the mundane from first principles any more than you can figure out how to be a chess grandmaster from learning the rules of chess. There is too much to learn, and not enough time. You need the knowledge others have painstakingly developed to go about your daily work. The mystical teaches you to think big, and gives you the courage to follow through on these thoughts. Humans are unusually good at learning by imitation; the mystical gives you the opportunity to imitate the best of humanity– people you may not have access to, or who may not even be alive. The meta enhances your ability to understand and to think independently. It gives you the ability to manipulate your idiosyncratic situation using higher order intellectual tools.
If we flatten the categories, there is productivity, management, domain-specific tactics, biographies, case studies, memos, lore, and meta reasoning. At the beginning– especially at the beginning– sample from them uniformly. Or at the very least, don’t neglect any one group.