Notes on Verbal Judo


George Thompson was a PhD-wielding, blackbelt-wearing, college professor turned cop turned “Verbal Judo” instructor who sadly, passed away in 2011. I read the first half of his book (chapters one through twelve) in one sitting. It was full of actionable advice for dealing with difficult situations, and Thompson sprinkled it with funny anecdotes that made the lessons stick. The second half of the book wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. I might have to re-read those chapters a year from now, after I’ve practiced the lessons in the earlier chapters.

  1. The ultimate goal is to move a disagreeable person to the point of voluntary compliance
  2. Let insults roll off you. Do not defend, do not counterattack. Just laugh it off. An attack only carries the weight you allow it to.
  3. There are three major types of people
    1. Nice people, who will do what you ask them to
    2. Difficult people, who will keep asking “why?” — you want to tell them how it benefits them
    3. Whimps, who dislike authority but don’t have the guts to confront it, who will gossip and plot revenge in the shadows — call them out, force them to either make a point in public or stop.
  4. Eleven things to avoid saying
    1. “Come here!” — the other person will hear “go away”. Instead say “can I chat with you?”
    2. “You wouldn’t understand” — it sounds like an insult. Instead say “I hope I can explain this.
    3. “Because those are the rules” — it makes you a mindless enforcer. Instead, explain how the rules, in context, lead to everyone’s well-being.
    4. “It’s none of your business” — it makes the other person feel like an outsider. Instead, say “I don’t feel comfortable revealing that”.
    5. “What do you want me to do about it?” — you’re evading responsibility. Instead, explain that you want to help, but can’t, and direct them to someone who can.
    6. “Calm down” — it’ll just make people more upset. Instead, ask them what’s wrong. They’re upset about something and want to talk.
    7. “What’s your problem?” — puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, say “what’s the matter? how can I help?”
    8. “You never/You always” — avoid absolute generalizations as they’re usually lies. Instead, explain that “when you do X, I feel Y”.
    9. “Don’t make me repeat myself” — it forces you to act in the future and puts the person on the defensive. Instead, say “it’s important that you understand this, so listen carefully”.
    10. “I’m doing this for your own good” — it’s condescending and turns your listener into a cynic. Instead, offer concrete examples of the good you’re trying to achieve.
    11. “Be reasonable!” — you’re calling the other person unreasonable, and inviting more conflict. Instead, be reasonable with them. Summarize their position in their own words, and use that to help them think logically and less destructively.
  5. If someone has been emotionally hijacked, help them postpone action until they’re stable again: “give it 24 hours, and we’ll talk again.” Don’t say “don’t do that”, or try to reason them out of doing something.
  6. Deflect, don’t block, verbal attacks. Use “strip phrases”. When someone insults you, thank them, and then pivot and say what you need to get your job done.
  7. If you need to interrupt someone, paraphrase them.
  8. The Five-Step Hard Style
    1. Ask
    2. Set context (in response to “why?”)
    3. Present options in the person’s best interest
    4. Ask if any cooperation is possible
    5. Act
  9. Name the type of people who you struggle to deal with, and you won’t be as easily hijacked the next time you deal with then.
  10. Listening is actually the job of the speaker. You have to communicate in a way that your audience will respond well to.
  11. Words account for less than 10% of what you’re communicating. Your tone of voice and other nonverbal cues are far more important.
  12. Verbal Judo is also useful at home, and in the workplace.
  13. If you need to give criticism, give it first, then praise. Reversing the order makes the praise seem insincere.
  14. Be specific with your praise. Don’t just say “good job on that”, go into detail.

Notes on Drive


I told myself that I’d read Drive after finishing The Mythical Man-Month, but I lost interest in the latter pretty quickly. Drive’s “surprising” truth isn’t all that surprising to those of us who are fortunate enough to be creative workers in a frothy tech industry: after a certain point, material compensation isn’t as important to us as the joy we get from doing our work.

I discovered when I reached the end of the book that taking notes on Drive was superfluous; the end of the book is packed with helpful reference material, including an executive summary. Nevertheless, these may come in useful:

  • Motivation has changed through the ages
    • Food, and not being killed
    • Basic needs are met, seek reward and avoid punishment more broadly
    • Motivation 2.1: Loosened dress codes, more flexible hours
    • Motivation 3.0: autonomy, mastery, purpose
  • Problems with carrots and sticks
    • They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
    • They can diminish performance
    • They can crush creativity
    • They can crowd out good behavior
    • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
    • They can become addictive
    • They can foster short-term thinking
  • Carrots work if the task is dull, but you have to acknowledge that it’s boring and necessary, then let people complete the task in their own way.
  • Friedman’s two types of people
    • Type A: Excessive competition drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency. Significantly more likely to develop heart disease.
    • Type B: Just as intelligent as ambitious as Type A, but their ambition steadies them, and gives them confidence and security.
  • McGregor’s two outlooks on employees
    • Theory X: People dislike work, fear responsibility, crave security, and badly need direction.
    • Theory Y: Work is as natural as play or rest. People are creative and ingenious, and they will seek responsibility under proper conditions.
  • Pink’s two types of people
    • Type X: fueled by extrinsic desires, concerned about the rewards that activities lead to, rather than the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.
    • Type I: fueled by intrinsic desires, concerned about the inherent satisfaction of the activity, rather than the rewards that it leads to.
    • Type I’s almost always outperform Type X’s in the long run.
    • Type I’s don’t disdain money or recognition. Employee compensation must hit a baseline or their motivation will crater regardless of their type.
    • Pay a Type I enough and you’ll take money off the table, allowing them to focus on their work. For a Type X, money is the table.
    • Type I’s are physically and psychologically healthier.
    • Humans are, by default, Type I.
  • Autonomy
    • Autonomy is the most important of the three basic human needs.
    • Empowerment is not autonomy. It is simply a more civilized form of control.
    • Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s:
      • Task. The “20% time” that companies like Google, Atlassian, and DOW give their employees results in many new products.
      • Time. Lawyers are universally sullen because they bill by the hour, and law is a zero-sum game.
      • Technique
      • Team
  • Mastery
    • A mental state of Flow is how people achieve mastery.
    • In Flow, the relationship between what someone has to do and what they can do is perfect.
    • There are two things companies can do to help employees achieve mastery:
      • Give them “Goldilocks Tasks” — challenges that are not too challenging but not too simple.
      • Trigger the positive side of the Sawyer Effect, and turn work into play.
    • Achieving mastery is painful. Therefore, grit is essential to mastery. In fact, it is as essential as talent.

Notes on Higher Education and the New Society


I picked this little book up at a secondhand shop in Adams Morgan a couple of weeks ago. Keller was a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he specialized in higher education. Higher Education and the New Society was published in 2008, a year after his death.

Keller thinks that many critics of higher education are exaggerating the stubbornness of his beloved institution. He backs this up by summarizing the last hundred and fifty years of American history, and pointing out how higher education has responded to the dramatic changes in society. Keller concedes that while higher education has been changing, those changes have been incremental. The major systems and structures haven’t changed since the 1910s, when the first and only revolution in American higher education happened. He concludes with three proposals for change.

My Notes
  • Higher education is not an institution that exists in isolation. Educational systems change in response to society. In order to critique the current state of higher education, one must also understand what changes in society have happened.
  • Major transformations in society:
    • Younger generations are influenced by friends and the media. Older generations are influenced by community leaders, and familial elders.
    • Changing Demographics
      • A plummeting fertility rate means that the population is aging
      • The elderly are wealthier than ever.
      • Immigration has rapidly increased, and 90% of immigrants are coming from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Prior to 1965, 70% of immigrants were from Europe.
      • The nuclear family is crumbling. The divorce rate has doubled, 36% of children are born out of wedlock, and many 60% of children will spend part of their childhood in a single parent home.
      • “We find it easier to love others if we ourselves have been loved. We learn self-sacrifice as we learn so many other things — in small, managable steps, starting close to home.”
      • Good parenting is a better predictor of a child’s success than affluence.
      • The first six years of a child’s life, to a large extent, determines academic achievement later.
      • Two-parent families serve as a bank and venture capital fund for their children.
      • Illegitimacy and divorce are responsible for essentially all the growth in poverty since 1970.
      • Interracial relationships are increasing, which means that the current system of classifying students by race will break down as racially ambiguous students become the norm.
      • The internet might fundamentally change education, but that remains to be seen — the same was said about television in 1957.
    • Changing Economics
      • The US was relatively unscathed after WWII, and siezed the opportunity to build the mightiest economy in the world. The 1960s were a golden age. The US government was flush with money, and compassionate liberals poured money into federal aid and research universities.
      • In the 1970s, the economic boom eroded. It was a decade of deterioration and disruptive change.
        • High quality goods from Japan and Germany led to the US becoming a net importer.
        • The outbreak of global terrorism resulted in the formation of a costly department of homeland security.
        • Inflation rose to 17% at one point, before drastic measures and a recession cut it back down to 3.8%.
        • US leaders could not rein in the spending that started in the 1960s and doubled taxes instead.
        • Watergate happened, and the news media became more hostile and adversarial. Polls revealed that the public had a widespread new contempt for authority.
        • The globalization of trade caused the US to transition into a knowledge economy. American companies farmed lower-skill manufacturing out to other nations and refocused their efforts on inventing new technologies, making scientific advances, and innovating in marketing. Scientifically educated and internationally attuned people were now in high demand, causing disciplines like History to fall into decline.
      • The US has performed admirably in the new global economy. More wealth has been created since 1983 than in the previous 150 years.
        • The demand for “skill” is the root cause of income inequality.
        • Colleges were the primary producers of high level skills.
        • More students hoped to go to college and study a professional field rather than the liberal arts.
        • The new economy lifted the best professors to new heights of affluence, influence, and importance.
        • “Intellectuals rose to the status of a privileged class” – Christopher Lasch
        • The top universities now admit based on academic achievement, and downplay the importance of family, fame, and alumni connections.
    • There are four major types of universities
      • Research Universities. These prestigious universities are a copious new source of new ideas, scientific findings, and discoveries.
      • Small Liberal Arts Colleges. The most sentimentally revered segment, they train students holistically for leadership and public service.
      • State colleges, polytechnics, proprietary schools, and small private colleges. These institutions provide the country with essential middle-range workers.
      • Two-year community and private colleges that enroll 40 percent of all students in higher education. They prepare people for vocational tasks.
    • The United States has made much progress towards equal opportunity for all. This has led to sometimes ironic results.
      • The already high degree of individualism in the US has increased.
      • Those who take advantage of the new opportunities have been richly rewarded. However, those who have not embraced the new openness earn much less and experience greater difficulty.
      • The rich and successful become more arrogant and feel they are richly deserving, but the poor become more sulky, angry, violent, and self-destructive and wonder whom to blame. “Every year, it becomes more difficult to use ant external barrier as an excuse” – Michael Young
  • Contrary to popular belief, colleges have adapted
    • Admissions offices are now grander than ever, and are frequently colocated with the financial aid office, as colleges make an effort to woo students of every race, from every corner of the country.
    • There are more classes for working adults and the elderly. Harvard makes $150 million a year from adults — 10% of its budget.
    • Colleges have also made changes to accommodate the torrent of immigrants, such as English as a Second Language classes.
    • In response to the dissolving nuclear family, colleges have increased financial aid packages and increased student affairs staff to handle the growing volume of date rape, harassment, and plagiarism cases.
    • Regarding computer technology…
      • Universities have heavily invested in computer technology, and often have CIOs in their cabinet.
      • “People don’t become physicists by learning formulas… Learning involves inhabiting the streets of a community’s culture.”
      • IT has not lowered the cost of higher education. It has increased it.
    • The significant increase in cost of higher education is not unique. It is happening in other service fields like healthcare, legal services, fine dining, and theatrical performances.
      • Slow growth in productivity compared to other activities. You can’t make a symphony orchestra that much more productive.
      • Labor intensive personal attention is required. You can’t reduce the labor cost of a chef or surgeon without serious loss of quality.
      • Highly trained expert personnel are required. These people are very expensive.
      • Costly equipment is needed, like medical devices or stage props and sets.
      • Expanding demand for a scarce number of extraordinary people.
    • Colleges have adapted to rising costs by investing their endowments in hedge funds instead of historically safe stocks, and reducing their annual withdrawal from endowment.
    • Colleges became less effective as they lowered costs.
      • Princeton closed its department of Statistics, and Columbia ended its department of Geography.
      • Colleges are employing many more part time professors, and are using graduate students to teach lower-class undergraduates. In 1980 one in four professors were part time. In 2001 only one in four new professors were on a tenure track position.
      • America is using higher education to accelerate social change. This means classifying students as a member of some group that merits special treatment, instead of treating each student as a thinking individual. The aim of a liberal education should be to “liberate our students from the contingencies of their backgrounds” (Searle). However, many professors have lifted political transformation above the disinterested pursuit of the truth.
  • The critics saying that higher education needs a massive overhaul have a point.
    • The changes in higher education since the 1970s have been incremental, and were accomplished in the same century-old structures.
    • The only academic revolution to happen in the US was between 1870 and 1910. This was when colleges got academic departments and majors, deans and presidents, electives, research and graduate programs, numbered courses and a credit system, academics relevant to industry, tenure, alumni associations, and organized fund raising. It was propelled by the desire to scrap the heavy emphasis on Latin, Greek, and Christian pedagogy and connect higher education to the actual conditions of the emerging American economy. It was kicked off by the Morrill Act of 1863, that established land-grant colleges.
    • There is tension between the three aims of higher education: preparation for work, well-rounded and deeply grounded learning, research and scholarship. To quote Aristotle, “It throws no light on the problem whether the proper studies to be followed are those which are useful in life, or those which make for goodness, or those which advance the bounds of knowledge. Each sort of study receives some votes in its favor.”
    • The semester system is a holdover from America’s agricultural past.
    • Graduate programs are devoted to research, not to the craft of teaching
    • Higher education used to be for the elite 15% that completed secondary education. Today, more than 60% of high school graduates go to college. This means that there are many more less academically prepared and less motivated students in college. Colleges are designed to educate a small elite for research, not masses of people.
    • “A multi billion dollar industry has developed outside established education institutions, responding in more direct, and usually more effective ways to the needs of industry and the labor market” – Michael Gibbons
    • Universities used to train high-minded people like von Humboldt and Newman, who pursued knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Today, they’re expected to train qualified manpower and producing knowledge for society’s benefit.
    • Only fifty or sixty of the 3800 accredited colleges in the US are premier research universities. At the rest of them, teaching is most important.
  • Proposals for change
    • Replace many four year colleges with three year programs. More students are taking AP tests, so many students are entering with sophomore status. They’re also older, and need less grooming. Many students are graduating in seven semesters. At Johns Hopkins, 20% of students complete at least one semester early.
    • Abolish the semester system. Students are no longer needed to plant crops in the spring and harvest in the fall. This would allow colleges to operate for an additional three months a year. Students would be able to complete their degrees more quickly, and facilities wouldn’t be wasted lying dormant for months.
    • Reform the sports programs at Division I universities. Big time sports have nothing to do with education, and are run as businesses that drain millions of dollars of the university’s money, while enjoying tax-exempt status. The students in these sport programs are not there for the education — 40% of basketball players do not graduate — they’re there because the only way to become a highly paid professional is to go through an education institution.

Notes on Gender Equality by Design

What Works Gender Equality By Design Cover.jpg

Iris Bohnet is a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. Her new book, “What Works: Gender Equality by Design”, is amazing. It’s full of research-backed recommendations for moving the needle on diversity. Here are my notes, but you should really just buy her book.


  • When cues about a position’s typical wage range is clear, women are as good as negotiating as men.
  • When employees are prohibited from discussing their salaries with each other, pay discrimination by sex and race is more likely to persist
  • 93% of women do not negotiate their initial offer. 43% of men do this
  • Those who are willing to negotiate advance quicker; performance is not necessarily what gets you promoted
  • Managers have a negative perception of women who ask for a pay increase. The same does not apply to men.
  • Leaning in can backfire. To “lean in safely”, invoke someone else like a supervisor when negotiating. “My team lead suggested that I talk to you about my comp because its not clear to us if its at the top of the pay range”
  • Mentors of women tend to be less senior, have less organizational clout, and they don’t advocate for them as much as mentors of men do for their proteges.
  • Emphasizing meritocracy and merit-based reward practices leads to greater male favoritism
  • Evaluating people sequentially leads to biased conclusions. Comparing people solves this problem.
  • Job postings for male-dominated jobs contain more words like “competence” that signal to women that they don’t belong. This happens in letters of recommendation too.
  • 40% of the gender gap in SAT Math scores can be explained by the unwillingness of women to guess
  • When Asian girls were reminded of their ethnicity, they performed better on Math tests than when they were reminded of their gender
  • Women underestimate themselves, men overestimate themselves
  • When there are only women in the room, women do better at competitions
  • Before 1975, some states still declared men and women adults at different ages
  • Seeing women in leadership positions increases women’s self-confidence and changes both men and women’s beliefs about what an effective leader looks like
  • When there are significantly fewer women than men in senior positions, the senior women are less likely to mentor other women because they see them as competition
  • Men are more likely to support women’s causes when they have daughters
  • Male CEOs who have daughters, especially firstborn ones, are associated with a difference in female employees’ wages
  • The more daughters a male Danish CEO has, the better his employees are paid
  • Start-ups with highly paid women among their first hires were more successful and stayed longer in the market than all-male start-ups
  • People are more willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the process was fair, but some people don’t believe that quotas are fair
  • The “pipeline problem” is real in some fields like STEM, so quotas might not be realistic
  • Assigning responsibility for diversity to people or groups of people is strongly associated with an increase in workforce diversity

Action Items

  • Invite people to negotiate
  • Be transparent with what is negotiable
  • Have people negotiate on behalf of others
  • Hire & promote in batches, comparing candidates against others in the batch
  • Remove clues that might trigger performance-inhibiting stereotypes
  • Adjust risk when gender differences may bias outcomes
  • Managers should give their reports feedback about their performance, instead of asking them to self-assess
  • Diversify the portraits on your office walls
  • Increase diversity in leadership roles through quotas or other means
  • If you cannot include more than one woman in a team, keep it homogenous so that nobody is a token member
  • Use rankings to motivate people to compete on gender equality
  • Use rules, laws, and codes of conduct to express norms
  • Make specific people responsible for diversity and hold them accountable