The uberskill


Legendary computer scientist Donald Knuth on “the strange kind of brain-organization” that marks “geekhood”:

The main characteristic is an ability to understand many levels of abstraction simultaneously, and to shift effortlessly between in-the-large and in-the-small.

In a world of exponential complexity, this ability has become the uberskill. Not just for technology—for law, business, and everything else.

I, pronoun

Psychologist James Pennebaker says that “function words” (articles, pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs) are the most-used but least-appreciated parts of speech. Though we focus on content words, function words add important information about personality, emotion, and intent.

Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself.

Of course, I am more interesting than the weather. (I think.) So that example is a little weak.

But Pennebaker’s next example—of deception by a strategic combination of abstraction and misdirection—is right on target:

A person who’s lying tends to use “we” more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying “I didn’t take your book,” a liar might say “That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.”

See James Pennebaker, Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality – Harvard Business Review. He also has a book titled The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Recommended reading for technology investors and entrepreneurs

  • Jerry Kaplan, Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure (1994). The story of Go Corporation, founded in 1987 to develop one of the first tablet computers. Go had every advantage: Experienced entrepreneurs, brilliant technologists, and $75 million in venture capital, back when $75 million was Uber money.  Yet it failed. A fascinating story in light of the spectacular success of the iPad some twenty years later.
  • C. Gordon Bell, High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success (1991). Bell was one of the engineers who built Digital Equipment Corporation, the disruptive innovator of its day. A useful guide to understanding what it takes to turn a promising technology or product into a successful business—the first does not automatically generate the second.
  • Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm (1991). The classic analysis of the cycle of technology marketing. Coined the phrase “crossing the chasm” for the difficult task of moving from tech-savvy early adopters to the mainstream market. [Update 5/17/20: Now in its third edition (2014).]
  • Bob Zider, How Venture Capital Works (Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1998). A primer on the venture capital business and the economic realities that drive it.
  • Brad Feld & Jason Mendelson, Venture Deals (2012). An up-to-date compendium of everything you ever wanted to know about venture capital, including valuation, term sheets, and how venture deals are structured. [Update 5/17/20: Now in its fourth edition (2019).]