Criticism and Other CEO Appetizers

Who doesn’t love criticism? Haha. Me, too.

Big Red Car here on a grayish day in the ATX. Getting a new roof, so I have to get finished quick as the mortar fire (the dropping of bundles of shingles on the roof from height) starts in three, two, one! Bam!


This is roofing. This is chaos. This was done voluntarily. This is the Big Red Car’s parking space.

OK, so today we talk about the breakfast of champions — criticism. Who doesn’t love some criticism?

So, when you’re a writer, you join a couple of writer’s confabs. You go to some coffee shop — dude, it has to be a coffee shop because coffee shops kept the light of learning aglow during the Dark Ages, right? before Starbucks even — and bring 2-3,000 words of you latest masterpiece with which to WOW your fellow writers. You feel it?

Criticism — sounds painful, Big Red Car

Except, snowflake, your piece sucks and the other vicious writers are going to savage it. The other writers have degrees in creative writing and are in their twenties with bad skin, wearing skinny jeans. You don’t like taking criticism from acned kids wearing skinny jeans, but you want to get better and somebody told you this was the Chisholm Trail to getting better, so you launch.

There’s an old guy who has four books on Amazon. You slyly bought one and thought, “This is good. Way better than my stuff.”

It depressed you because the guy comes to the meetings in dirty shorts and a tee shirt he clearly slept in. He knows more vocabulary words than the rest of the group and can use them in sentences on the fly. Plus, he’s filled to overflowing with stories. You have no stories.

It takes five years to become even a mildly competent writer. Five freakin’ years.

Lots of people quit because they get whipped by seques, story arcs, plot lines, adverbs. Fuck adverbs.

They struggle to figure out if the denouement is the same thing as the climax. When they find out they aren’t they say, “Damn. This is complicated.”

They get killed by the criticism.

Big Red Car, what does this have to do with CEOing?

Dear Reader, as a CEO, it also takes some time to feel comfortable — ooops, my mistake. You never really feel comfortable, do you?

It takes some time to beat back the panic, lower your heart rate, and to function. Comfortable? Maybe not.

In much the same way as the fledgling writer throws his masterpiece on the table and let’s the jackals tear it apart, the CEO sketches out a Vision, Mission, Strategy and lets the world evaluate it. They are writings and the world will savage them, given a chance.

The higher you climb on the CEO totem pole, the more of your ass the world can see and take shots at. The world likes finding a typo in your work.

The world is vicious. But, that’s fine. You’re a fighter.

The Savagery of Criticism

The other members of your writers’ group read your piece, make faces like someone in the room has introduced a malodorous cloud, and write indecipherable red-inked notes in the margins, defiling your treasure.

When your piece comes up for discussion, they go around the room and share their observations.

“I have no idea what the plot of your story is. Can you explain that? No, on second thought, please don’t.”

“No narrative hook. I’ve seen more narrative hook in a Sears Roebuck catalog.” Ouch!

“I find none of your characters to be even remotely interesting. No depth. No development. No interest. I meet more interesting characters in the line at the grocery.”

“My Shih Tzu, Rufus, the one with a single good eye, could better this crap. Great title.”

And, so it goes.

You evaluate the worthiness of the comments based on the person’s authority, skills, and their own writing.

The guy with sixteen published stories, says, “I know a good editor. She can help you. All you need is a journeyman-like development edit, three passes. A good copy edit and then you’ll require a proof read from someone with good eyesight. It’s not too bad, really. Needs some work. Reminds me of my stuff twenty-five years ago.”

That night, you go home and say, “Maybe I can do this.”

The Savagery of CEO Criticism

In a similar manner, you as CEO will receive criticism and feedback from your co-founders, employees, investors, board members, bankers, and customers. The customer feedback is the most important.

At first, you think, “God, I suck.” And, you are correct. But it is not a life sentence, and there is an opportunity for parole. It requires work.

You want to cry and then you want to take a contract out on that board member who is never satisfied.

But, like the fledgling writer, you slowly master your craft. You do something for a second time and it’s easier than the first. You listen where before you only spoke. In that listening, you hear something you never heard before. You adopt it. You try it. It works.

You seek out wise counsel, you take notes, you bare your soul, and you grow. Two months later, you can’t recognize the guy in the mirror who sounds like you but is different.

After a board meeting that pain in the ass board member stops before he leaves, sticks his head in your office, and says, “Good board meeting today, CEO.”

The Secret. Big Red Car, Tell Me!

The secret is there are no secrets in either writing or CEOing. Sorry.

But there is technique. You listen to criticism. You write it down.

When enough time has transpired that you no longer contemplate murder, you evaluate it and say, “Shit. They’re right. No narrative hook. I can fix that.”

As a CEO, you say, “Shit, he’s right. That plan is lame, but I can fix that.”

Soon, you compare the previous product and the current product.

“Damn, it is better. I incorporated the criticism and it’s better. I can see it’s better. That single eyed Shih Tzu could see it’s better.”

And, that, dear reader, is when you begin to have a Chinaman’s Chance of becoming a good CEO. Not a great one, but a competent one.

Coach, Gray Haired Eminence, Mentor

But, you don’t want to be a “good” CEO, you want to become a great one. You want to give advice to Peter Drucker. You want the brass ring and all of its cousins.

So, you find a gray haired eminence, someone who was a CEO for a few decades. You buy him a cup of coffee, you write him a handwritten note, you take him to breakfast.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. And, you, dear CEO, are ready.

You may hire a CEO coach.

You do NOT confide in anyone who can fire you. Think about that, please. Be skeptical of investors, venture capitalists, board members. If they see you are struggling, they will whip out their rolodexes (so charming the archaic notion of a rolodex, no?) and look for your replacement.

As a startup CEO, you have 6-12 months. The writer has five years.

You do not panic, because you remember what a Big Red Car told you — you’re smart enough, you’re articulate enough, people like you, and you can do this.

You laugh, because, face it — you’re taking advice from a 1966 Impala convertible with an Internet connection.

You come to work early, you stay late, you work through lunch three days a week, you read an hour about your industry every day. You shoot, move, and communicate [sorry, that’s the Army, my bad].

You remember this advice came from a Big Red Car whose owner was a CEO for three and a third decades and who is a published writer. Somehow, he lived through the savagery. You can and will also. Bring on the jackals!

You are a storyteller and your story has a happy ending. Because you wrote it, CEO.

JLM Storyteller hand lettered logoIf this shmo can do it, so can you. You stop laughing and you chortle. Go ahead, practice your chortling. It is an acquired skill. Chortle!

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Here come the roofers! Bam!cropped-LTFD-illust_300.png





4 thoughts on “Criticism and Other CEO Appetizers

  1. Great as usual!!
    At first, you think, “God, I suck.” And, you are correct. 🙂

  2. I’m not thrilled about charging directly up the hill, directly into the fire, along the same path paved with the teeth, air, rags, dried blood, and bones of others who tried before where only one in a million will be successful and they never were sure.

    Instead, I want another and more promising path.

    At times in school, I tried that charging up the hill stuff, as a special case, understanding literary fiction, belle lettre, writing term papers for teachers schooled in literary fiction, etc. and in short it didn’t work. The best I’d be able to do was to contribute to the paving of dried blood, etc. No thanks.

    There were people good at that stuff, really, really good. All the ones I knew were girls. I dated one: She did the homework on some novel, gave a bath to her seven year old sister, and got ready for our date. I worked two hours a day for two weeks on the homework. On the test she got an A. I got maybe a gentleman C. She was good. Her verbal aptitude, taken broadly was good, very good. I married another one: Valedictorian, Summa Cum Laude, PBK, Woodrow Wilson Fellow, NSF Fellow, Ph.D. in mathematical sociology from some of the best people in the world. My brother was much better at that stuff than I was: He wanted to be a sports writer. After honors freshman English in a class of mostly girls really good at that stuff, he gave up — the girls were good, really, really good. He got his Ph.D. in political science.

    For me, it all looked hopeless. There was a hint in eighth grade general science — I already knew the stuff just cold or learned it so fast I never knew I didn’t know it. Class time was nap time — no reason to do otherwise. Once the teacher woke me up and asked me a question about what he’d just explained. Still half asleep, I quickly and effortlessly rattled off what he’d said with much more detail. He never interrupted my sleep again.

    Ninth grade first year algebra showed me an open door: Effortlessly I totally blew away everyone else in the class and was sent to a math tournament. So, I had to conclude that I could do math. And, there was a huge advantage in math: On term papers the English teachers could give me a B for content and a C for style where I had no idea what the criteria were or what the heck I did wrong. But in math, they had to give me a A or darned well in rock solid and dirt simple terms say just what the heck why not. It didn’t matter what reputation I had from teacher gossip: In math I could win. Later in chemistry and physics, again I could win. No problem.

    Later in my career, in software I could win: My code ran just fine. When it came to designing code, that and the resulting code still ran just fine. Once in a rush in six weeks I designed and wrote software to schedule the fleet at FedEx, and my software ran just fine. Soon the first good schedule, from work one evening, yielded a schedule that alleviated some serious concerns of the BoD, enabled crucial funding, and saved FedEx from going out of business, literally. There were lots of other examples where my applied math and corresponding software solved the real problem and got me career and financial success with no mark downs about style from English teachers.

    Later for my Ph.D. in applied math, again I used the fact that I could solve serious applied math problems, complete with theorems and proofs, that no professor could criticize. I can think of three of my professors that came to bitterly hate me, but they couldn’t find fault with my math, and that was the crucial point. Finally when in two weeks I did some original work, in just two weeks, essentially independently, that was clearly quite serious and, for the just crucial, key, overwhelmingly important criterion, PUBLISHABLE, I was essentially immune to criticism. Whew! It helps that the criteria be something definite and easy to understand — meet the criteria and get an A, not much doubt.

    It took me a while to start to understand English literature fiction.

    For business, i.e., my startup, again I want to take a path where I can be successful and not just pave an old path with my dried blood.

    So, my startup is a Web site. The purpose of the site is to give users some information they very much want, and nearly every user of the Internet very much wants this information and to date has no good source for it. Although the users won’t know this, at the core the Web site is, right, some applied math I derived. From the math and more, I’m sure that the information I can give the users is really good, much better than any alternative, and that they will like it a lot. The number of people able to do the math I did and also interested in implementing a practical solution for this problem is essentially just 1 — me. The Web pages of the site are just dirt simple, so simple there is no question the user interface (UI) is easy to use. Since the resulting information and some more are so good, the user experience (UX) stands to be good.

    For the users, the Web site is not subtle, has no subtle interpersonal, stylistic, political, moral, ethical, privacy, legal, religious, theme, artistic, fad, or cultural issues, no more than a good tool such as a hammer or screwdriver. What’s just crucial for a good tool is that it work well for important work, and that’s my Web site. No English teachers will be able to give me low grades for subtle reasons without explanation.

    The Web site does not require that I have any contact or communications with any of the users except for just the Web site. The users won’t know my name, won’t see my picture, won’t hear my voice, and will know next to nothing about me or my personality — I will remain an anonymous person. So, I don’t need a user services department, a complaint department, a help desk, etc.

    My paying customers are not the users but the advertisers, and what they want are clicks, essentially just clicks (but without any political or public controversies) — okay, just such clicks by the millions on the way.

    I’m a solo founder so have no co-founder disputes. I’m 100% owner so have no BoD issues, no equity funding, and no VC issues. No one can fire me!

    For nearly any work I’d do to make a living, I’d have to do the work at least reasonably well and in a direction that is a good idea; if I do such work for my startup, then I stand to do well, very well. Too often I’ve done my work very well while the company I was in was doing poorly — as a result I suffered. Working for someone else, the basic direction is theirs and not mine, and I’d have very little influence over that direction. Working for myself, again the direction has to be good, but if I need to adjust the direction I can. In either event I have to do good work, but with the work my startup needs I have no doubt my work can be world-class good.

    I have no employees so have no need to be a good manager of people.

    My need for capital to start the business is much, much lower than that of an auto repair shop, an auto body shop, a McDonald’s, a dentist’s office, or a pizza shop. Really, some back of the envelope arithmetic (I can do arithmetic) says that the computer in front of me should, if users actually do like my site, be good for maybe $60,000 a week in revenue, at least $10,000 a week at which time I’ll buy more computing power ($1500 will buy one heck of a powerful server), enough for revenue of $1 million a month and awash in free cash flow for more capacity.

    My gross margins will be over 90% of revenue. That is, it will cost me next to nothing to please the users and run the ads. And, the computers will do essentially all the work; mostly my work will be to keep the computers running and work with my accountant to handle the money parts.

    For the reasons I’ve explained and more, I should get a lot of users with a lot of eyeballs. The user demographics should be quite good for ads. So, I will get to show a lot of ads to some good demographics. Ballpark, net, on average, I should be able to get paid about $2 per 1000 ads I display.

    As a business, it should all work as routinely as my school math and physical science and my career applied math and software — those things I can do and with them win, and my business just follows again that path to victory.

    In math and physical science, some of my teachers liked me a lot and a small fraction hated me; outside of math and physical science, I don’t think even a single teacher ever liked me. But I found a way through a good Ph.D. degree even when some of the teachers didn’t like me; net, give rock solid proofs of good theorems. Done.

    E.g., early in grad school an exercise was, prove that there are no countably infinite sigma algebras. That exercise will stop 90+% of all undergraduate math majors. In grad school that year, I was the only student who got it. That helped.

    For Buffett, Jobs, Gates, Bloomberg, Bezos, Walton, Drucker, Trump, etc. what they did is very different, from me and also each other. I wouldn’t be very good at their work; none of them would be any good at my work except possibly for Gates and apparently he never really had the patience to take math seriously and wouldn’t be any good at my work, either.

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