Archive for January, 2013

On Selling the Impossible

Uncategorized | Posted by Brian PCF
Jan 07 2013

“When people want the impossible, only liars will satisfy them.” –Thomas Sowell

I try dance somewhat delicately* in the realm of “self-helpiness”. I’ve talked about this before with coaching, goals (here, here, here), motivation, and specifically the Greg Admunson Goal Setting seminar, which is still offered a few times a year.

I want to make it clear (again) that Greg seems like an incredibly nice guy who honestly thinks that these types of things work.

But I think this stuff is just horse shit. These things are not empirical. They are not “observable, measurable and repeatable.” They are built on faith. Faith in that if you do them, they will work.

Now there are people like Greg in this industry who I think honestly feel that what they do helps people. But there is the majority of folks in the self-help business that are exactly the same as the politicians that Hayek describes in his chapter “Why the Worst Get On Top” in Road to Serfdom:

Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian leader would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism.

In the world of self-help, where what your trying to sell to people is completely contrary to human nature, the only people that would deceive themselves and others that they should keep it up are the amoral. That’s why the majority of men and women who survive and thrive in this industry are hucksters, frauds, charlatans and thieves.

Whatever their followers do, it’s not good enough. Not happy? Not meeting your goals? Well your thetan has issues that can only be remediated by paying the church of Scientology thousands of dollars to get more training.**

Now there are tricks, superstitions, heuristics, etc, that don’t seem to make sense but can provide some degree of positive change for people. In the immortal words of Crash Davis, “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you ARE! And you should know that!”

But there’s a tremendous difference in my mind between what Crash describes that is basically “if whatever you are doing works, keep doing it” and the Eckhart Tolle/Tony Robbins/The Secret cabal which is built around pulling vast amounts of wealth from productive people to tell them how they can be more productive so they can pull more wealth from them. Not to mention that these self-help people have never been successful at anything except selling more and more self-help books, seminars, and deadly sweat lodge retreats.***

So what’s the lesson here for me: I sell fitness.

I don’t promise you anything will get better in your life because you train at my gym. If that happens, then terrific, I’m glad for you. But I will NEVER sell you on some life altering, 12-steps to bliss, plan your life goals program.

Two reason for this. First, that hasn’t happened to everyone and therefore is not a “Law”. Second, I don’t think human nature works that way, and I don’t fuck with nature because when I have tried she fucks back hard.

How hard? At least twice.

Ahhh…the 90’s. Who else misses pirate shirts?
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*Yes, this is me being delicate.
**Great article on the latest big fallout with Scientology here.
***For some fascinating history on the self-help con game in America, take a look at Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. Summary essay by the author in WSJ here. Helpful review in Houston Chronicle here. Steve Salerno’s Sham Blog here. Great look at “The Secret” that Oprah Winfrey widely praised and popularized here.

The Potomac CrossFit “Business 101” Online Course

Uncategorized | Posted by Brian PCF
Jan 03 2013

I’ve been talking to a few other CrossFit box owners and the guys at Athlete’s Forum (which is dead, totally different URL owner now) on what we think would be a good course outline for a “semester” of learning the basics of CrossFit and the tools to do it.

With respect to tools, we decided to use the same thing that Athlete’s Forum, which is a simple video teleconference.

I’ve been working on a baseline course. The most important thing about this course, and where it differs from anything I’ve seen others offer, is the idea of seminar. Another way to put it is the experience Feynman describes as: “the joy of finding things out.”  While we want participants and tutors to discuss concrete examples of successful tactics, techniques and procedures, we need to keep in mind in our discussion that these are all heuristics, or situationally dependent.

With that in mind, here’s a syllabus that I’d like your feedback on. I realize I’m vague about the “intent” of each of these modules, but I think that generally they either cover or will lead to some valuable discussion.

Lesson 1: How to learn.

Lesson 2: The Customer

  • Crito, Plato

Lesson 3: Inter-Mural, Dealing with Competition

  • How to interact with other CrossFit gyms

Lesson 4: Intra-Mural, Dealing with Competition

  • How to interact with a coach/employee that wants to open their own CrossFit gym.
  • How to interact with a coach/employee that opens their own CrossFit gym, and then you find out.

Lesson 5: Easy Topic: What is Human Nature

  • The idea of hierarchy and social cooperation, E.O. Wilson

Lesson 6: Getting Things Done

  • Division of Labor, Adam Smith

Lesson 7: Adapting and Getting Better at What You Do

  • Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley

Lesson 8: Making Decision and Changing Course.

  • Sortes Virgilianae
  • Turning a jet ski versus turning a battleship

What other lessons are important for a CrossFit gym owner to understand?

On Being an Asshole

Uncategorized | Posted by Brian PCF
Jan 02 2013

“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.” Apology, Plato

For those of you that haven’t read this or haven’t read it lately, what Socrates is saying here is that his accusers are full of shit. Note the title in its intended ironic form.

Some additional context may be necessary:

In this story, Socrates is on trial for “impiety and corrupting the youth.” What he actually was on trial for was for criticizing the leaders of Athens. The Athenian leaders fought back through this legal charade to shut Socrates up or get rid of him by exile.*

As the guys over at The Partially Examined Life point out, Socrates is doing the same thing to his accusers that he got in trouble for in the first place: criticizing their authority by pointing out they have no idea what they are doing.

Now whether or not you are a Platonist or a quasi-Platonist or a non-Platonist, you have an idea of what “being an asshole” is, and for the leaders (and many of the people) of Athens, Socrates was an asshole.**

Not only did he criticize the powerful of Athens, but he went out of his way to do it and taught others how to do it as well. He made it very clear in the Apology that he thought “the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Inherent in this is an insult to those that don’t take the time to question or criticize.

Two Socratic questions at the heart of being the less powerful:
1) Is there any way to criticize people with more power than you and not sound like an asshole?
2) Is there any incentive to criticize people with more power than you and try to not sound like an asshole?

To attempt the first question, as a starting point you can say “it depends.” If the people you criticize accept that they can learn and adapt from criticism and that those that criticize will be held in check by a politeness that extends from their shared audience, then both parties can survive without sounding like assholes, and vice versa.

Where the incentive lies is a tricker question. The more powerful party has the capability (and if Acton is to be believed, the desire as well) to destroy the less. So the incentive is to do so.

The less powerful party, sensing that the end game in this is either destruction or capitulation, will consciously or unconsciously choose a direction right out of the gate. If he accepts destruction, then inherent in this is the incentive to “take no prisoners”. If he accepts capitulation (we could call this “providing constructive criticism”), he must necessarily change his stance on many points to satisfy his rulers.

The other very large issue in this question is the idea that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” A larger and more powerful entity will by this virtue have more visibility, or a broader outreach. If they begin to criticize, castigate, or attempt to destroy the gadfly, the gadfly will only get more attention.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb regularly points out that a very significant amount of his popularity is brought about by the established media and banking sectors saying loudly and often that he has no idea what he’s talking about.***

The thing that brought about this whole post was listening to The Partially Examined Life Podcast and reading Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile. This took me down a rabbit hole of criticism on that book and also wanting to examine why I sometimes get called an asshole, something that only bothers me when I do not mean to be so (true to the famous definition of a gentleman: someone who is never rude except on purpose). The most succinct piece of knowledge that I have yet to fully wrap my head around is Taleb’s quote: “English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence toward the temporarily powerful) and arrogant-down (directed at the small guy).” The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

So where does this leave us?

As I don’t like neat conclusions, I’ll just ask two more questions to ponder in the comments or in later posts:

1) What’s the best way to manage “Arrogant-Down” as it relates to Acton’s warning about power corrupting?
2) What’s the best way to manage “Arrogant-Up” so we don’t end up like Socrates?

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*You can read a nice blow-by-blow of the trial and some background about Socrates here.
**And why not, while we’re at it:

***Taleb, who is anti-Platonist in much of what he says, uses the same technique as Socrates.