⨳   23 July 2021

First Principles

Hiring for skills is mostly bogus. Hiring for soft skills is better. Hiring for principles is ideal.

⚐   Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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How’s this for an idea: Hiring for skills is mostly bogus. Hiring for soft skills is better. Hiring for principles is ideal.

I have been involved in a lot of hiring over the course of my career. Not once have I seen a candidate hired purely for their technical skill or talent that has remained part of the team for longer than someone hired for other reasons and trained afterward. Not once have I seen a candidate hired for their technical skill or talent that has been demonstrably more effective than someone who learned their skills on the job. Why is this? I think it’s because bringing a person onto a team is more about making relationships work than making work work. You are adding a person to people, not adding a functional component to a machine. It is easy to say, “we need a designer” because certain kinds of work need to be done, and therefore seek out a person who can do those things. It is far more difficult to find a match for what you actually need: a person who thinks in a certain way, expresses themselves in a certain way, can collaborate with others in a certain way, and cares about a certain kind of result.

As a result, we emphasize skills almost like technical specs when we look for a person to add to our team, and we emphasize skills when we look for a team to join. Resumes are chronological spec sheets.

I understand, of course, that resumes are tools for filtration. You get the table stakes out of the way before you use interviews to get to the heart of a person. OK, sure. But I’ve sat through many interviews. The best ones were those that don’t dwell on technology, techniques, procedures, or even accomplishments. The best conversations — the ones that actually make a team feel like they are adding the right person — are those which feel as if that person is already on the team and always has been. They are when a person knows exactly who they are and what they want, and a team knows exactly who they are and who they need.

I also understand that sometimes you just need a set of hands. Fine. But it has been my observation that occupancy rates for those kinds of seats is short-lived. I like long-term investments, so I’m always going to prioritize heads over hands.

Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been writing down First Principles. These are the things that are fundamental to what I do, how I do it, and why. Nowhere among them is a single skill. You won’t find a measurable outcome, either. Instead, each represents a starting point — the irreducible start of a reverse-engineered capability. Not what I design, for instance, or how, but the why. Each principle is a choice. As a group, they’re a system of self-governance.

As I’ve been doing this, I’ve realized that this exercise — of accounting for the things that truly matter to you — is a really useful one. Putting thought toward the most fundamental truths of doing — the why beneath the why beneath the why — is good for the mind; it’s good for the soul. It is also efficient. It could take an hour of talking about skills and procedures and case studies and hypotheticals to get to the crux of the matter, which is what you believe and care about. Those are the foundation upon which we do our work. Writing a list like this is training to increase the pace with which we get to the point. If I read a resume and came to a short list of First Principles, I would be stunned, then overjoyed. I would want to meet the person who wrote it.

So, here are some First Principles. These are not etched in stone; they’re likely to change as I change. But for right now, these are mine. I encourage you to write yours. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a team member or looking for a team to join. You have principles; think on them and share them.

I’ve put mine in somewhat of a reverse-priority order.

Improvisation

Each of us has a way of doing things. Every team has a way of organizing its members’ ways of doing things. Operational efficiencies are good. They help us to measure the efficacy of what we do. They help us to do more when there’s more to do and more people who need us. They keep everyone sane. AND they can keep us from doing the right thing. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is the thing that is not in our script.

Over the years, I’ve observed that the more efficient a person or team is, the more they should be able to safely break patterns or conventions but the less they feel comfortable doing so. It’s remarkably counterintuitive. With experience and expertise should come confidence in trying new and other ways — in taking risks. But the opposite tends to happen. We are guarded about other ways because we aren’t willing to risk our stability for the benefit of those who depend upon us. I’d rather fail trying than succeed with no effort.

When I was an art student, it was often said that you cannot abstract what you do not know. In other words, before a painter tried to unleash their inner Pollock, they first needed to master the representational basics. The more time gathers between me and that instruction, the more I doubt its wisdom. One shouldn’t have to master one way in order to earn the right to try another. The ends determine the means.

Commitment

See things through. Don’t give up so easily. Sometimes the best aspects of who we are are made from endurance rather than variety.

Vigilance

If you see something, say something. This principle goes both ways.

If something is wrong, say so. Often, things are wrong because they weren’t seen. You don’t want to be the person who could have helped long after the damage is done. Also, chances are that someone else has been wracked with anxiety because they’ve seen it too and are waiting for someone else to take the risk to speak up. Justice rightly depends upon courage. But it has been my experience that the risk of speaking the truth — of a mistake made, say, by me or anyone — is ordinarily less than it feels. This is because there is always a way of saying something that builds trust, validates others, strengthens relationships, and gets the job done. It just requires that we speak carefully.

If something is right, say so! Chances are that someone put a huge amount of effort to make it so and hasn’t had it validated at all. You’d be amazed at how much excellent work doesn’t get the praise it deserves because everyone who experiences it assumes that it’s getting a ton of praise already. Meanwhile, the person responsible feels as if they’ve sent a piece of their soul into the void.

Be vigilant of others before anything else. Be liberal with your praise.

Proretrospection

Thinking about the future is a great skill. Technically, futurism is just a framework through which to analyze the present. By imagining the passage of time, we dissect meaning and function in the present and use that exercise as a way of setting intention. Those who are especially analytical are better at it than the dreamers, though their futures are often less bright.

Being an emotional futurist is better. I have found that thinking about how I will feel later about the things I do now is a greater use of my burdened cognition than keeping track of details and scenarios that are largely out of my control. It means I can evaluate any choice the same way: how will I feel later, if I do this? This is a skill to be practiced. In fact, studies have shown that when people anticipate future temptations, they have a measurably higher chance of resisting them than do those who confront temptations without any preparation. But more importantly, this is just a brain hack. It’s a way of evaluating an action or choice on the basis of whether it is in accordance with your values without running them through the rubric of those values one by one. It’s an emotional litmus test. When I do this, and when I see others do it, it leads to better outcomes more often than even the most rigorous data-based scenario building.

Equalization

It is one thing to know or believe that everyone is equal, and it is another thing to act accordingly. We are all more selfish than we want to be, and no matter how desperately we peer out from within our person-suits — no matter how much we try to get out of our own blind spots — we will tend toward acting in our own best interests and put ourselves before others. When we do that, we begin to see others as somehow different from ourselves. But there is another brain hack that can help with this.

If you have ever prepared to speak in front of a group, you have probably been given the advice to imagine them in their underwear. This is silly advice. Somehow, that visualization is intended to boost your confidence: how easy it would suddenly be, after all, if everyone else was more embarrassed than you! But why not find a way to level the playing field instead?

One method I have found to be especially effective is to think of others as children. Not in the sense that they are smaller, know less, or are less able. Again, it is not about making them less than so that we can be more. It is about finding an easy way to access compassion. After all, it is far easier to hate a peer than a child. We assume a lot more of peers than children. And we know, from experience, how hard and strange it is to be a child. When I imagine my peers as the children they once were, who had hopes and dreams for the future they’re now living, just as we did, it makes it easy for me to get past their behaviors and especially my own projections on to them and access a person who, no matter what, is worthy of my best.

Another version of this that works even better for me is to go further, beyond the child. To treat everyone as a soul. Now, even if you don’t believe in the soul, this could work for you. When I think of a person in this way, I’m not thinking of the “ghost in the machine,” per se. I’m thinking of a person as a being on a journey of discovery. I’m not thinking about John Smith, or the Director of Such and Such. I’m thinking about the “I” underneath those layers. I’m considering their entire existence — one that, perhaps, precedes and exceeds this life but, for my purposes, need not upset even the most staunch materialist — and my role in it. What if we — that person and I — are not just haphazardly colliding in time and space, but have a purpose for one another? Now, I think of my life in big terms — What is my purpose? Where am I going? What does it all mean? — I should assume the same of everyone else. When I do that, those questions — the ones they ask of themselves — start to matter to me, too. We tend to see our lives as stories in which we are the protagonist. But in a world of billions of people, we are only the protagonist of one story. We are the supporting character of far more.

Intention

Someone once said that running is “controlled falling.” It is the sort of oxymoron that elicits an easy chuckle but misses the point. You can stand, sit, or lie down with little to no intention, but no one accidentally runs.

The most important things we do are the result of knowing what we are about — of setting intentions. This is different than setting specific goals. For example, one could say, “I want to be President,” and one could say, “I want power.” One is a goal, the other is an intention. Another way of thinking about this is that goals are destinations and intentions are both the starting point and the road.

Setting intentions keeps you in control of what and how you do, whereas setting goals tends to control you. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. When I set fitness goals, I do so precisely because they impose control over me. I need the goal to create the boundaries and rules within which I will achieve it. I also have the intention of being healthy. And that creates all kinds of behaviors over which I am in control. Over the course of my life, fitness goals will (and must) change; my intention to be healthy will not.

My intentions have more lasting influence over me and everything I do and everyone in my life than any discrete goal. So, it’s important that I know what my intentions are.

Insight

Know yourself. Self-awareness is exponentially more valuable than talent and skill. You can’t know what you want without knowing who you truly are. You can’t know what to do without knowing what you want. You can’t know how others experience you without knowing what to do. You can’t know how you need to grow without knowing how others experience you. You can’t know yourself without knowing how you’ve grown. Insight is an endless inverted periscope.

There’s a huge difference between narcissism and insight. Narcissism is static; insight is active. Narcissism is a pre-occupation with one’s self; insight is a commitment to growth that requires self-study. Narcissism benefits no one; insight benefits everyone.