4. Always say enough - ask more than necessary
The fourth law of power is to "always say less than necessary." Everything you say is an opportunity for criticism, so saying less prevents attack. It also gives you more room to maneuver when the situation changes. And you maintain an aura of alluring mystery.
The fourth law of cooperation is to "always say enough," and "to ask more than you think necessary." Everything you say is an opportunity for miscommunication, so saying more prevents misunderstanding. We always underestimate how clear we come across, so it's better to be safe than sorry and speak abundantly.
Transgression of the Law
In 2010, Adam Neumann co-founded WeWork with his business partner Miguel McKelvey. Their new idea was to rent office space from landlords in bulk, divide it into smaller pieces, and sublease for profit.
But that wasn't really their "new" idea. The idea of coworking already existed. There were well-established competitors like Regus (est. 1989), the Cambridge Innovation Center (1999), and The Office Group (2004). Granted: WeWork may have been the first "pretty" coworking space, but that's hardly patentable. This was a problem because—if you recall Peter Thiel's lesson from the last chapter—a company's primary need is to be inimitable.
If WeWork's unique value proposition wasn't in coworking, it certainly wasn't in real estate. After the Great Recession (caused by real-estate speculation), you weren't going to convince any investors that you could scrape more than the thinnest of margins off of mortar and brick.
No, the new idea of WeWork was to build the first "physical social network" (yes, seriously). To offer coworking space that would fulfill not only the carnal needs—plants, wifi, standing desks—but those higher wants—"community," yoga, and craft beer.
Simple as that idea was, it would rocket WeWork to a $47 billion valuation, to spin-offs in coliving, gyms, and private schools, and to acquisitions in construction, marketing, and food.
Empty as that idea was, it would crash WeWork into the dust. The $47 billion valuation introduced intense pressure to grow, and Neumann became tyrannical. He would berate and ostracize any critic. Burning through cash, Neumann bought a company jet, threw Gatsby-esque parties, and made outlandish investments in unrelated companies like a wave-generating start-up for surfing. The perhaps most telling example is the simplest. Neumann had mixed-up the definitions of "latte" and "cappuccino." Rather than correct him, WeWork swapped their internal definitions of "latte" and "cappuccino."
When the waste and losses came to light in WeWork's S-1 paperwork in 2019 (as part of its IPO filing), the tides turned. In the space of six weeks, WeWork crashed from its peak to a valuation of "only" 2 billion…
WeWork crumbled because in saying too little Neumann promised too much.
The idea of pretty coworking space is not a particularly special idea. Anyone can copy it. Because anyone can copy it, others will, and your profit margins will evaporate. And because there is so much real estate, you could never achieve a situation of "winner-take-all."
And the idea of coworking space plus "community" and "culture" is not an idea. It is vague psychotechnobabble at best and cultish at worst. Let me give an example:
"Real estate is going through a fundamental shift, from a fixed-cost-per-seat commodity to a must-have experiential-differentiated service." — Adam Neumann
Let's translate that: middlemen ("service") will make lots of money if they can convince you to buy their bells and whistles ("experiential-differentiated"). To do that, they have to convince you these luxuries are essential ("must-have"). And when these luxuries become the norm, they can begin rent-seeking (cf. "fixed-cost-per-seat").1
To hide the aim of rent-seeking from clients, your best weapon is jargon and outright nonsense. Promise investors that you're like Amazon in the books-and-CDs phase. Don't commit to anything.
Neumann is unique because he blends the trite mumbo jumbo of the spiritual guru ("community," "we") with the obscurity of business speak ("experiential-differentiated service", "physical social network") . To this, he adds a lethal dose of charisma for a brew so potent it took only 12 minutes to dupe SoftBank's Masayoshi Son into a $4.4 billion investment. If only Son had probed past the veneer and looked for real content: How much money were they making (losing)? What is the conceivable take rate on a square foot of real estate? How does this take rate scale with the amount you invest in furniture, plants, beer? What are the returns on "community?"
Of course, Neumann could have (and would have) retorted, "we're trying to look past profits. We want to build something for humans not only investors." And, you know what, that answer might have even deserved praise. But if you don't ground those higher aspirations in a sustainable business model, you will one day crumble. Such is nature.
In some ways you can read Neumann's tale as validation to say "less than necessary." Evidently, this strategy works well enough to trick laypeople and seasoned investors alike. But, as with any con, time will call your bluff. Avoid the platitudes of the guru. Spurn the nonsense of the businessman.
For more on WeWork and Neumann, I recommend Hulu's documentary, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
🚀 Challenger Disaster
On January 28th, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. In the aftermath, NASA set up the Rogers Commission to determine the cause. This commission would, by stroke of luck, include legendary physicist Richard Feynman. He was reluctant at first: there was physics to do, and Feynman doubted he was the right fit. Fortunately for the commission, Feynman came to his senses. Even as an outsider to aviation, he did have something unique to offer: the ability to ask questions—lots and lots of questions. This came from Feynman's complete lack of shame in admitting he didn't know something. For example, his first briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory "wasn't brief: it was very intense, very fast, and very complete. It's the only way I know to get technical information quickly . . . you ask a lot of questions, you get quick answers . . . and learn just what to ask to get the next piece of information you need." Take a pointer from Feynman and be willing to be the idiot in the room.
Ronald Reagan was growing tired of the high turnover rate in Soviet leadership. Brezhnev had lasted more than a decade, but his successor, Andropov, had made it only two years. And, after Andropov, Chernenko had lasted just one. So Reagan was hesitant when in 1985 yet another communist, Mikhail Gorbachev, rose to power. Gorbachev, likewise, was weary of the conservative American. Reagan had called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" only 2 years earlier.
Despite these hesitations, Gorbachev and Reagan gave each other a chance, and the rest is history. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that this one relationship brought about the end of the Cold War. Together, the two would sign the INF treaty in 1987. Later, George H.W. Bush, building on Reagan's relationship with Gorbachev, would sign the CFE agreement (1990) and START I (1991).
This mutual respect was also the basis for a peaceful end to the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather than gloating in "victory," Bush played down the fanfare, which made it easier for the Soviets to accept regime change.
The relationship between Gorbachev and Reagan had a simple foundation: a series of more than 40 personal letters.
These letters began rather vague and noncommittal. Reagan opens by professing his belief that "our differences can and must be resolved through discussion and negotiation." Gorbachev agrees and acknowledges the "great importance [of] the exchange of letters."
But they soon venture into details. In his second letter, Reagan hones in on the killing of Major Nicholson. While gathering information in Berlin, Nicholson had been shot by a Soviet sentry. His death provoked a crisis between the nations and would be the first and only official US casualty of the Cold War. In his third letter, Reagan calls for the demilitarization of Afghanistan. He goes on to propose a ban on chemical weapons. Gorbachev counters with a proposed ban on anti-ballistic missile technology ("Star Wars"). And he suggests a halt to nuclear weapons tests. Evidently, the two were not afraid to say anything and everything. They spoke freely even when they had no hope of a particular proposal materializing.
Here's Reagan's explanation:
"I've written you in candor. I believe that our heavy responsibilities require us to communicate directly without guile or circumlocution. I hope you will give me your frank view of these questions and call my attention any others which you consider require our personal involvement."
And Gorbachev's response:
"I noted the intention expressed in your letter of April 30 to share thoughts in our correspondence with complete frankness. This is also my attitude. Only in this manner can we bring to each other the essence of our respective approaches the problems of world politics in bilateral relations."
When the problems are great, the only way to get through them is by talking, talking, talking. By sharing openly, Gorbachev and Reagan learned to see each other as people. Without the chance for spoken repartee, close reading forces you to acknowledge the other's concerns. In so doing, they found a tiny area of common ground: the desire to avert nuclear war. From this shared aim, they could begin to effect tangible diplomatic progress. They never would have gotten there had they not spoken abundantly. When trying to establish cooperation, put all your cards on the table.
🇺🇸 Presidential Styles
President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama are polar opposites in political style. Obama, the epitome of technocracy, was the numbers guy. He needed data before any decision and would annotate binders full of briefings. Biden was more the people person. Famous for long-winded digressions, Biden is a politician more in the style of an FDR or LBJ. He'll go on talking with people deep into the night, looking for compromise and even bemoan the Democrats as a party of "heartless technocrats… [that] have never … moved this nation by 14-point position papers and nine-point programs." As Biden writes in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, "[i]t’s important to read reports and listen to the experts; more important is being able to read people in power." We're still early on in Biden's presidency, so we can't say much of the consequences. But a promising nugget is that some Republicans believe they can better get along with Biden than Obama. Time will tell which is the winning strategy.
Keys to Cooperation
The invitation to say enough is not a suggestion to dilute your words. It's the opposite: saying enough requires constant vigilance towards clarity and concision. Each of has very little time on this planet, so it is arrogant to assume you deserve anyone's attention.
We must earn our audience's time, and the best way to earn this is to show frugality. Get to the point.
The best practice for frugality is to write. Only when you put your words in front of you will the waste reveal itself and the clean-up begin. This is why, in organizations, communication should be asynchronous first. Meetings have a horrible way of devolving into jargonistic ego-trips for management. Talking makes commitment cheap, while writing keeps it prized.
There are exceptions of course. Water-cooler conversations is the kind of cross-talk that spurs creative insights. Sometimes, direct questions are faster, especially if the problem is blocking. And before everything else, as human beings, socializing is just about our most basic need.
From the 19th to 20th centuries, the sun never set on the British empire. This is quite the accomplishment if you consider that they did so without phones and telegraphs. How? Letters. An elaborate hierarchical structure helped, but the main feature was an elite class of bureaucrats who could write. The slow speed of communication was a feature, not a bug. Then, in our present age of tweets and texts, we stand to gain from slowing the pace of information.
"I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood." — Kurt Vonnegut
Types of Say-nothings
Just as you should avoid wasting the time of others, you should avoid those who waste your time by saying nothing. That begins by learning to diagnose the major types of say-nothings.
The Guru. The total sum of human wisdom is a pretty short list: "eat healthy," "get enough sleep," "spend time with friends," "go on a walk," "meditate," etc. But, for whatever reason, we humans regularly forget these basic tenets. Every so often, we need a spiritual guru, a Deepak Chopra or Paolo Coelho, to come along and remind us of what is, in retrospect, painfully obvious. Sometimes, it's innocent, and the reminder is welcome. But, often, their words carry something sinister and deceiving. Take Coelho's, "When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream." If you have ever sat in a science class, you know the universe does not work this way. To say the universe is going to help you meet your goals just sets you up for failure. Meeting your goals requires hard work not just wishful visualization.
The Jargonist. With the guru, there can still be something endearing about the whole charade. So long as it's not a Bikram Choudhury taking advantage of his disciples (which may be more the norm than exception), you can forgive followers for wanting something to believe in. There's less of this endearing quality in jargon. Jargon's role is to signal belonging and exclusion: if you speak the idiolect, you are in-group; if you don't, you are out-group. Now, jargon is everywhere. And we can't hope to eradicate jargon for the same reason that we don't want capital-L Language to be static. A large part of language is completely inseparable from social signaling. Still, we can do our best to deter the most dangerous varieties of jargon. Worst is probably business speak or "commercialese." Here's my best attempt: quantum block-chain is an emerging disruptive technology that will utilize AI to revolutionize finance and bring about a paradigm shift to a new generation of empowering decentralized, delocalized quantum internet. Unlike the gurus who at least offer you a repackaging of ancient wisdoms and life advice, the jargonist has nothing to offer. Nothing, that is, except an endless void in which to dispose of your investments. Avoid.
The Hyperrationalist. Hyperrationalists content themselves to talk about just the "facts." They pride themselves on their analytical ability and no-nonsense attitude. This would be Obama when compared against Biden. The risk is that hyperrationalists may lack the people skills necessary to collaborate. They see questions like "how was your weekend" and "how are your kids" as small-talk that wastes valuable time they could be talking about ideas. With the hyperrationalist, your best option is to show them, subtly, the latent opportunity for learning. They have often never considered the possibility that human relations are a skill to learn (and the single most important skill at that). This intervention won't always work. Some hyperrationalists convince themselves they are not "people people." They may think it hopeless for them to try to learn more. If this attitude persists, limit the damage by keeping the person out of management, or sever your tie.
The Timid. Many people say too little because they are shy and fear embarrassment. With this type, it's best to make room for talking in a smaller, more personal environment. Otherwise, try to keep track of who is speaking in a group and how often, and ask questions that involve the quiet types. Also, preemptively volunteer vulnerability to reduce the perceived risk of embarrassment. People can grow past timidity, but it is usually a gradual process. Unlike the other types of say-nothings, the timid person is not one to avoid. They usually can have much to say; it's on you to help bring this out.
The Gossip. We all recognize the gossip: the person who talks nonstop about other people. In this way, they are opposite to the hyperrationalist who talks too much about things and not enough about people. In the gossip's gregariousness, they are opposite to the timid person who keeps quiet. Put a bunch of timid people together in a room with one gossip, and the gossip may start blabbing from fear of "awkward" silence. Even though they often end up being the most awkward person in the room.
Note that the gossip is not always harmful. They can play a critical role in a group, especially if they have a sense of humor. But we all know there is a dark side. Avoid and ostracize the gossip who only talks negatively about others. This person will cannibalize your group's social scaffolding.
Here's another piece of self-evident life advice: aim for the middle. Don't say too much, and don't say too little. Listen more than you speak, ask more than you answer, and you'll be fine.
So little Goldilocks opened the door, and went in; and well pleased she was when she saw the porridge on the table. If she had been a good little girl, she would have waited till the Bears came home, and then, perhaps, they would have asked her to breakfast; for they were good Bears, a little rough or so, as the manner of Bears is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable.
So first she tasted the porridge of the Great, Huge Bear, and that was too hot for her. And then she tasted the porridge of the Middle Bear, and that was too cold for her. And then she went to the porridge of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, and tasted that; and that was neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. She liked it so well, that she ate it all up.
Then little Goldilocks sat down in the chair of the Great, Huge Bear, and that was too hard for her. And then she sat down in the chair of the Middle Bear, and that was too soft for her. And then she sate down in the chair of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, and that was neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. So she seated herself in it, and there she sat till the bottom of the chair came out, and down she went, plump upon the ground — John Cundall, "The Three Bears"
Consider an example. You want to (and can afford to) go skiing. So you look on your local ski resort's website and find out that two weekends of skiing will cost you around 800, you'll get unlimited access not just to your local mountain, but to 30 others. It's a steal, right? But you are a rationalist, and you know you only have two weekends available. So you go for the $400 option even though some cruel twist of psychology makes this cheaper option feel like you've lost money. That's because you have: by normalizing the luxury item, your ski resort has raised costs for "normal" clients. Another example is universities. Competition between universities for students puts pressure on universities to differentiate—not in quality but in luxury. Think spas, gyms, and meal plans. As these become the norm, universities become more expensive even for students who don't want the luxuries. It's a race to the top. ↩