Evil tip: avoid "easy" things

Now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.

Dark Helmet

Evildoers live longer and feel better.

Myself

My writing has recently prompted an anonymous commenter to declare that people like me are what's wrong with the world. Oh joy! – finally, after all these years of doing evil, some recognition! Excited, I decided to share one of my battle-tested evil tips, which never ever failed evil me.

Don't work on "easy" things

An easy thing is a heads they win, tails you lose situation. Failing at easy things is shameful; succeeding is unremarkable. Much better to work on hard things – heads you win, tails they lose. Failure is unfortunate but expected; success makes you a hero.

Treat this seriously, because it snowballs. The guy working on the "hard" thing gets a lot of help and resources, making it easier to succeed – and easier to move on to the next "hard" thing. The guy doing the "easy" tasks gets no help, so it's harder to succeed.

Quotation marks all over the place, because of course what counts is perception, not how hard or easy it really is. The worst thing to work on is the hard one that's perceived as easy – the hard "easy" thing. The best thing is the easy "hard" one. My years-long preference for low-level programming results, in part, from its reputation of a very hard field, when in practice, it takes a little knowledge and a lot of discipline – but not any outstanding skills.

(Why then do many people fear low-level programming? Only because of how hard it bites you the first few times. People who felt that pain and recoiled respect those who've moved past it and reached productivity. Now you know why people take shit from the likes of Ken Thompson and Linus Torvalds, and then beg for more.)

The point where this gets really evil is not when a heroic doer of hard things decides to behave like a Torvalds. That's more stupid than evil. You'll get away with being a Torvalds, but it always costs some goodwill and hence, ultimately, money. So the goal-oriented evildoer always tries to be on their best behavior.

No, the point where this gets really evil is when you let them fail. When they come to you thinking that it's easy, and you know it's actually very hard, and you turn them down, and you let them fail a few times, and you wait until they come back with a readjusted attitude - that's evil.

Here, the evildoer needs to strike a delicate balance, keeping in mind The Evildoer's Golden Rule:

  • You can only sustain that much do-gooding; however,
  • Your environment can only take that much evildoing, and you need your environment.

Here's the rule applied to our situation:

  • Working on the hard "easy" thing – all trouble, no credit – is going to be terrible for you. You'll get a taste of a do-gooder's short, miserable life.
  • However, if this thing is so important that a failure would endanger the org, maybe you should be the do-gooder and save them from their misconceptions at your own expense. Maybe. And maybe not. Be sure to think about it.

The upshot is, sometimes the evildoer gets to be the do-gooder, but you should know that it's hazardous to your health.

Making easy things into hard ones: the postponing gambit

Sometimes you can't weasel out of doing something "easy." An interesting gambit for these cases is to postpone the easy thing until it becomes urgent. This accomplishes two things at a time:

  • Urgent things automatically become harder, a person in a hurry more important. The later it's done, the easier it is to get help (while retaining the status of "the" hero in the center of it all who made it happen.)
  • Under time pressure, the scope shrinks, making the formerly "easy" and now officially "hard" thing genuinely easier. This is particularly useful for the really disgusting, but unavoidable work.

But it is a gambit, because postponing things until they become urgent is openly evil. (Avoiding easy things is not – why, it's patriotic and heroic to look for the harder work!) To get away with postponing, you need an excuse:

  • other supposedly urgent work;
  • whoever needing this thing not having reminded you;
  • or even you having sincerely underestimated the difficulty and hence, regrettably, having postponed it too much – you're so sorry. (This last excuse has the drawback of you having to admit an error. But to the extent that urgency will make the scope smaller, the error will become smaller, too.)

One thing you want to prevent is people learning to remind you earlier. The way to accomplish it is being very nice when they come late. If people feel punished for reminding too late, they'll come earlier next time, and in a vengeful mood, so with more needless tasks. But if they're late and you eagerly "try to do the best under the circumstances", not only do you put yourself under the spotlight as a patriotic hero, you move the forgetful culprit out of the spotlight. So they'll form a rosy memory of the incident, and not learn the value of coming earlier – precisely what we want.

One thing making the postponing gambit relatively safe is that management is shocked by the very thought of people playing it, as can be seen in the following real-life conversation:

Babbling management consultant: A lot of organizations have a problem where they only work on urgent things at the expense of important, but less urgent ones.

Low-ranking evildoer manager (in a momentary lapse of reason): Why, of course! I actually postpone things to get priority around here.

Higher-ranking manager (in disbelief): You aren't serious, of course.

Low-ranking evildoer (apparently still out to lunch): I am.

Higher-ranking manager (firmly): I know you aren't.

Low-ranking evildoer finally shuts his mouth.

See? Sometimes they won't believe it if you say to their face. So they're unlikely to suspect you. (Do people reporting to me play the postponing gambit? Sometimes they do, and I don't resent them for it; their priorities aren't mine. But at the worst case, you should expect a lot of resentment – it's practically high treason – so you should have plausible deniability.)

Conclusion

To a very large extent, your productivity is a result of what you choose to work on. Keep things perceived as easy out of that list. When you can't, postponing an "easy" thing can make it both "harder" and smaller.

Happy evildoing, and follow me on Twitter!

 

20 comments ↓

#1 Doug on 06.01.16 at 7:37 pm

If you have not read it, http://www.ribbonfarm.com/the-gervais-principle/

The other book by the same author, "Be Slightly Evil" should also be a lot of fun for you.
Stay evil.

#2 Yossi Kreinin on 06.01.16 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for the tip! Gervais irks me off a bit on a personal level, but if it's funny, it's funny.

#3 Anonymous on 06.02.16 at 8:32 am

Brilliant!

#4 David on 06.02.16 at 1:13 pm

Did you see / hear Hammings "you and your research ?"

#5 Yossi Kreinin on 06.02.16 at 4:14 pm

Heard about it, didn't read/see, on the theory that I'm not a researcher (here I could put a sad or a happy smiley.) Is it related? (Here I'm talking about perception of your work more than your actual work; I'd kinda hope that someone discussing research would not go there, or at least would mostly discuss other things.)

#6 Payton Quackenbush on 06.02.16 at 10:16 pm

Ray Zinn wrote a book on this topic: "Tough Things First".

http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Things-First-Leadership-Lessons/dp/1259584178/

#7 Dan Luu on 06.02.16 at 11:47 pm

I don't know you, but from reading your blog I think that you and Hamming have, at a high-level, similar approaches. Just for example, consider this excerpt from his talk:

Now Alan Chynoweth mentioned that I used to eat at the physics table. I had been eating with the mathematicians and I found out that I already knew a fair amount of mathematics; in fact, I wasn't learning much. The physics table was, as he said, an exciting place, but I think he exaggerated on how much I contributed. It was very interesting to listen to Shockley, Brattain, Bardeen, J. B. Johnson, Ken McKay and other people, and I was learning a lot. But unfortunately a Nobel Prize came, and a promotion came, and what was left was the dregs. Nobody wanted what was left. Well, there was no use eating with them!

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?" They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?" I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research," he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile." And I said, "Thank you Dave," and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?"

#8 Yossi Kreinin on 06.03.16 at 12:21 am

Oh, that sounds too great for it to be me, I'll maybe compliment myself that I'm 5% that guy, but mostly I'm not that guy, twice:

* Firstly what I discussed here was looking for "hard" things – those perceived as hard, this is not the same as important (and it's not the same even if "hard" is really actually hard.) I explicitly say there, and I sincerely believe it, that often you want to NOT work on important stuff because it's considered easy and there's nothing in it for you, moreover, it being considered easy makes it unnecessarily hard to actually succeed; I said there that yes if it's truly important maybe you go do it, and I'll add that sometimes you go do it on the theory that it'll get recognized as hard and worthy later, but these are the exceptions, not the rule – not my rule at least.

* …And secondly often I feel that I don't have the cranial horsepower for the really important problems (in my case one of my excuses is it's really hard for me to focus deeply on any one thing because I'm getting pulled in umpteen directions all the time; but this is an excuse, the other part is I specifically choose breadth over depth because drilling for depth requires too much cranial horsepower.) So what I mainly do is (A) rely on other people for much of the depth and (B) for areas where I'm most directly involved, I pick "penalty kicks" – these are important alright and many good players will do them worse than I do because I'm psychologically well-built for it. But penalty kick type of work is more prevalent and more valued in the industry than in the academia. So this is the other part of me not being a Hamming.

The upshot is that I'm usually both too evil and too stupid to go after the important stuff; I'll flatter myself and say that sometimes I get to do something "important" in the same sense that an academic would use when talking about an academic field – sometimes I'm doing something ahead or let's say outside of well-trodden textbook paths. But again, saying it's 5% of the time compliments me.

Congrats on that TPU announcement BTW. (I refrain from commenting on it for obvious reasons, but a cool thing to have worked on, and to have it publicly announced.)

#9 Gil Dogon on 06.03.16 at 10:29 pm

Cool to know H is the same guy after which the distance was named. His name coincidently appears in the obfuscated code supposedly written by Richard from "Silicon Valley" I was poring over just yesterday :

https://www.reddit.com/r/SiliconValleyHBO/comments/4gbra7/i_got_the_silicon_valley_s03e01_code_to_compile/

#10 Dan Luu on 06.04.16 at 12:37 am

Well, it depends on how you read "important". I take his "important" to be the same as your "sounds hard". I suppose that's a superset of what you claim to work on, since you claim to work on "sounds hard, is easy" problems and Hamming doesn't make that qualification.

Re: the TPU thing, thanks! Although I think that was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It just happened that I joined Google when that project was transitioning from a 20%-time project to a full-time thing, so I got to do a lot of interesting stuff since I was the first hire (other than the guy whose idea it was, of course).

#11 dunkelheit on 06.06.16 at 1:13 pm

Seems like everybody is sharing stuff that this post reminded them of and I will do it too. The book "Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat" is full of evil recipes like this one.

In fact the book goes even further: one of the suggestions is to inflate crisis level to just the right point where rate of promotion is maximized. And if the failure is imminent, the book reminds that "Innovative organizations abhor little failures but reward big ones" so the rational course of action is to make the failure as big as possible.

#12 Yossi Kreinin on 06.06.16 at 1:29 pm

To systematically do a shitty job in order to generate crises and become the hero is indeed a workable strategy, at least for a time, but too evil for me; I think that a healthy organization, even one that is culturally very vulnerable to this sort of thing and implicitly encourages it, rids itself of this sort of people over time.

#13 Yossi Kreinin on 06.06.16 at 1:43 pm

Maybe I'll read that book. $28 for a Kindle edition though, imagine that. Talk about an urgent need of a copyright reform!

#14 dunkelheit on 06.06.16 at 11:28 pm

Wow, that's expensive for a rather slim book! And yes it is a bit over the top at times. Still made me laugh. And cry.

#15 Some Gal on 06.08.16 at 11:37 am

Insightfull and funny writeup as usual!
PD. Your C++FQA is a masterpice.

#16 Yossi Kreinin on 06.08.16 at 12:09 pm

Thanks!

#17 Gil Dogon on 06.12.16 at 11:31 pm

Well, Mr. Google found this:

http://rako.com/Other_Voices/Putt's_Law/Putts_Law_no_ads.pdf

I don't think copyright reform, is that relevant …

#18 Yossi Kreinin on 06.13.16 at 10:26 am

Of course you don't think it's relevant, you'll only consider it relevant once you're punished with a big enough fine – but then you'll only consider traffic regulations relevant once you're punished with a big enough fine. But I hear that in the first world counties such as the UK, it's harder to obtain copyrighted material via torrents or similar than it is in the Middle East, so I guess you'll understand the interest of the residents of those countries in copyright reform.

#19 Nikos Chavaranis on 12.27.16 at 11:15 am

Well, there is a catch here. What if the manager monitors what you spend your time on and leans from experience what is hard for you and what isn't? And he knows some basic stuff about PM and HRM? The kind of evildoing you describe is only possible if your manager doesn't have a clue about management.

#20 Jonathan on 11.11.17 at 3:58 pm

Just to add, one of these books, contains the life-changing insight: "The Purpose of a System, is What it Does." [Note: Actually attributed to Stafford Beer, see WLL biog. on the link above.]

Disclaimer: What you get out of these books, may depend on your state of mind.

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