Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Beautiful feedback

Here's where I start this story by saying, "I love getting feedback from other people because it helps me improve myself". I know that's the Right Answer when talking about critical feedback and—wink wink—we only say and do the Right Things here on That's our Brand.

I hate critical feedback. Everyone hates it, I think. I think it's useful, and I ask for it and take it, but I cringe hard enough I'm in danger of pulling something at my advanced age. Please, sir, just tell me I made it to the top of the mountain and that there isn't anything left to climb.

Nah. Life's not like that. It would be boring if it was like that, although a good deal more relaxed.

As part of the closeout for the once-dreaded negotiations class, our final team of four had to give each other positive and negative individual feedback about our performance. I would have guessed, going into this exercise, that it was going to be only a pro forma exercise. Yes, you did this and that, and, oh, I did this and that, fascinating. Thanks. Bye. Nothing substantial, just get it done.

But there was something to that all-day final negotiation activity that acted like a kind of fast-setting glue. It was a stressful day, and it was a kind of hard work to do the negotiation, even if it was just a game. It took on a life of its own within the simulation. The feedback that came out of it, surprisingly to me, had Meaning. I felt like I had meaningful things to say about teammates' performances as well because they made an impression on me during those few hours. Even though receiving the negative bits of feedback had all the same armrest clenching autonomic responses that I get from feedback in the real world, it was somewhat easier to relax and listen—even though we had our own bond in that short time, it was easier to detach from it because it was so short and hear the negative bits without judgment, without reservation, without reaction. It was less charged, less loaded. It was easier to corroborate with all of the things I witness about myself in my own head. It was beautiful to hear—although hearing feedback and doing something about it are substantially far apart.

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W13 - Acrophobic

Read it: The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W13 - Acrophobic

The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world. Let us start our Republic, with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that we can write our Constitution.

—Kurt Vonnegut. Cat's Cradle (1963).

Who's in charge of the pollen around here. You? You? Anyone? Anyway. Someone should take responsibility for this mess. I was digging around in my Box of Drugs—not as interesting as it sounds—looking for some allergy medicine. Nothing. NOTHING. Ugh. I don't know who's in charge of the pollen, but I do know who's in charge of keeping his own allergy medicine stocked. And that guy isn't prepared. Ugh. No matter. We'll survive. We'll survive the best way we know how, by reading the Newsletter.

Subscribe to it: /captain

The long windup

The long windup earns me a lot of grief at home and at work. It seems other people don't prepare the same way I do. I assumed it was common.

Basically: I make a huge mess followed by a series of other messes and then—hey presto—the thing in its final form emerges.

Case in point: the ongoing—and seemingly never-ending—wall and steps construction in the backyard. For a long time it was just a trench and piles of rocks and blocks and dirt. Then it was a trench with some rocks and blocks in it, surrounded by rocks and blocks and dirt. It seemed like it was in this state for an unnaturally long time, even though blocks were being added to the wall, but it just never looked more done—still surrounded by rocks and blocks and dirt. Then, in one weekend, the dirt pile moved and the ground got flattened and some of the rock and blocks piles got depleted and the whole thing started to look finished. (Even though it is very much not finished.)

I get why my approach drives people nuts. The situation looks bad—until it doesn't. For me it's mise en place. I know the pieces are ready. I know it's coming together. I can see the parts in motion, in time and space. Patience—enjoy the product, enjoy the process.

The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself—the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent—all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

—George Plimpton. Paper Lion (1966).

The squeaky wheel

The squeaky wheel gets trashed. Amazon can bring a new one tomorrow. Ain't nobody got time for maintenance.

Wheels are three for a dollar. Maintenance is so hard.

Back in my day the squeaky wheel got the grease. You kids these days have it so

Variety pack. Three sizes. Big wheel small wheel medium wheel. $5. Free shipping on orders over

The squeaky wheel gets the

Ain't nobody got time for

The squeaky wheel

Ain't nobody got

The grease


On one hand: the squeaky wheel is everywhere. You don't have to look for it. It's on Facebook. It's on Twitter. It's probably on TV. I don't know. It's going to get the grease. From someone. For someone. Did you hear about the? Yes, it's tragic. I can't believe about the. What a shame. Won't somebody do something about.

On the other hand: replacement is so cheap. And a wheel is going to squeak anyway. Buy a cheap wheel and it squeaks. Throw it away. But ten cheap wheels, seven squeak, throw them away—still got three wheels. We don't even need to pretend that we've wasted seven wheels—still got three wheels. It's not a waste if you never wanted it. It's not maintenance if you don't do it. It makes sense if you don't think about it.

Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus (1990): "Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."

2021: Everybody wants to buy and nobody wants to do maintenance.

2021, the next day: Squeak.

New Q, new U

For a week or two here I've been mentioning, off and on, how I was waiting for this quarter to end to unburden myself of some of the commitments I had last quarter. Today is April 1, the start of the new quarter, and I'm here to tell you: I woke up, the sun was shining, and I felt so, so much better.

All that threatened to derail when I turned on my work computer to log in to work, and the computer had one of its semi-regular fits and I had to restart it—a 15-minute ordeal to restart, on top of the 15-minute ordeal to start it the first time. I suppose that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but that second start ran right through an 8:00 meeting, and I was really stressed until I remembered... I hate meetings. What a gift. This new quarter was looking out for me and it would be a shame to waste it. After work I cooked dinner, and I moved dirt around the yard with a shovel and a coffee mug of Old No. 7, and I stared at my tomato seedlings in the basement, and I decided to be utterly unfuckwithable.

There are many flavors of the phrase "I don't care". Some are lazy. Some are mean. Some are wild. Some are flippant. For me, now, "I don't care" means: don't let the bastards get you down. Even with the bastard is yourself. Especially when the bastard is yourself.

Listen: I'm half-complaining and half-joking and half-serious about what a grind 2021 has been. I signed up for the things I signed up for based on what the outlook was like, and then the outlook changed underneath me—what was once a free quarter became a definitely-not-free quarter, but with all the filler I added into it hung around my neck like an albatross. Which is a long way of saying it's my own damned fault.

But hey—wake up in a different quarter, at a different time, wake up as a different person.


The more I contemplate the spectacle of the world and the ever-changing state of things, the more profoundly I’m convinced of the inherent fiction of everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realities. And in this contemplation (which has occurred to all thinking souls at one time or another), the colourful parade of customs and fashions, the complex path of civilizations and progress, the grandiose commotion of empires and cultures – all of this strikes me as a myth and a fiction, dreamed among shadows and ruins.

—Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.

I've been looking at this one from the front the sides, the back, trying to find an angle from which to disagree with it. I can't. I don't.

Myself, I don't think it's all a fiction. No. It's right there. But a dream? A shadow? Sure. The world as an image in a distorted mirror. All of the things that we see, from a certain point of view, processed through our own understanding and bias. But that's the fiction of seeing, not of being.

There's the fiction of acting or projecting. Hmm. If enough of us do that—outright making things up or just putting on a face—then the real is eroded, replaced by a brace of fictions. Maybe that's the meaning. Every day a new composite of not real this and not real that—every day forever and ever.

Talk to yourself, but

Trailhead: Tara Well. "Why Should You Talk to Yourself?" Psychology Today (2021-03-30).

I was feeling pretty smart reading this article—an excursion through a few reasons why talking to yourself is good. Yes, it improves cognitive performance, good. Yes, you can deal with negative emotions by talking about it as if you were someone else, useful. Oh, you can feel less anxiety if you do it, so maybe I should crank it up a notch.

"Crank it up a notch"—see, because that's me, talking to myself while washing dishes or walking up the stairs, or shoveling dirt in the backyard. (Although the last example is limited to a fairly small subset of words, all with the same number of letters—what a coincidence.) I assume everyone does it. It's not a conversation, it's just letting the inside voice out. I guess I'm making a big assumption there that everyone has the inside voice, although an episode of This American Life really knocked me over with an interview with someone who doesn't have that constant internal blitz going on: What Lies Beneath, Act 2: Penny for Your Non-Thoughts?

Here's where the article threw me: "Some psychologists even believe that talking aloud can be a sign of superior cognitive functioning when the mind is not wandering. Rather than making you crazy, self-talk can make you intellectually more competent."

All of the other comments about positive things had a link to the article being cited for evidence. But this one doesn't. And this is the one that has to say talking to yourself is good "when the mind is not wandering".

Talking to yourself while doing something difficult like tying a knot or reading a schematic—that's OK. You're just working through the problem. Not doing anything and talking to yourself—you're nuts. That's my takeaway.

I'm not worried about it. I'm not sure if I do it. That's even more nuts. Do I talk to myself when my mind is wandering? How would I know? Just the act of letting the mind go and go and go—that seems exactly like the time I wouldn't be paying attention to myself. That's exactly the seed of useless anxious self-awareness I needed this year.

How aware are we when we're doing something weird or annoying or grating? How aware could we be? What is weird or annoying or grating? How many times am I going to apologize tomorrow, and then ask if I was talking to myself? Do we create stories about talking to ourselves when really we don't just to cover for the case that we might talk to ourselves? "Break glass for alibi".

I know what I'm thinking of and it's hard to find the angle to get it across. More than the outer inner talk, I'm more interested in the inner inner talk. The first David Foster Wallace book I ever read was Oblivion, which is a hard way to start with DFW, I don't recommend that path. It's been a long time—early in the Massachusetts years, I think, so over ten years ago. (Checked: 2009.) But I remember the shocked interest in seeing how he could seemingly slow down the internal processes of thought like a crystal that could be held in the hand, turned this way and that, examined in front of the light of the mind at different angles. (That's what I got from the footnotes, as well, the sort of many-branching of simultaneous thoughts, but I also get how those are easy to hate.)

Somewhere in my mind, this is what I was thinking of when I set out in the first few paragraphs, but I couldn't stick the landing—couldn't even commit to taking the leap that would have necessitated a landing. I don't even know if I would want to be that aware of the fleeting things inside, of the torrent and its eddies, its flows, its headlong dashes into the rocks, its spreading out languidly over the flats. Deliver me, Tyler, from self-thought.

What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.

—David Foster Wallace. "Good Old Neon". Oblivion (2004).


I got stuck trying to determine the ROI on something for a project management class assignment this evening. Ironically, perhaps. I've also been stuck on calculating the ROI for putting myself through classes generally.

Eh, honestly I don't calculate ROI on anything in real life. Not the house, not the house improvements, not the food I eat, not the utility bills, not the Netflix subscription, not the books on the shelf. And so on. I'm not going to calculate ROI on this business degree. Money is money. Return on time, return on pain, return on effort, return on frustration, etc. Those are closer to what I'm thinking about.

I don't know how to calculate those, either. I'm also not very interested in the calculation, although there's a part of my brain that recognizes that it might be a good idea. But there's also a part of my brain that doesn't believe it could be calculated cleanly, usefully, and doesn't want to waste the time.

Sometimes those two parts of my mind fight over their differences, but not today. They both have too much on their minds, I guess. (It's minds all the way down.)

This company, this case—I'll figure out the ROI here soon. It's not impossible, just relevant info lost in the text. Life? Maybe I'll just keep using weak versions of the hell yeah rule, at least for time and energy expenditures. Good enough. Returns? Sure, I'll take two.

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W12 - Good enough

Read it: The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W12 - Good enough

Here we are (here I am) taking a big, long breath at the end of a grinding week, at the end of a grinding month, at the end of a grinding quarter. It was a good week, month, quarter, etc. But damn, I think I'm going to find another gear this next quarter. "Find another gear" is typically some kind of sports euphemism for "go faster", but I'm not sure if I'm feeling that right now. I'm looking at that big "N" by the gear shifter and thinking to myself, I wonder what that one does. I probably won't use it*—sometimes just remembering that it's there is comforting enough.

(*Ask me about the time(s) I've passed cars heading down into Death Valley via Towne Pass while in neutral. The ol' gold Pontiac Grand Am weren't called the Coffin on Wheels fer nothin'.)

Subscribe here: /captain. Step right up. Everyone's a winner. Bargains galore.

Negotiating thoughts, 2

Previously: Negotiating thoughts

This weekend's negotiations class has gone off so much smoother for me than last weekend's class—not in the same ballpark as last weekend, not even the same game. When I have to sit down across the screen from someone now, I don't dread it in the same way. Now it's more like the dread before a presentation or race—more of a hormone cocktail with all of its attendant mood swings from let do this to let's get out of here. That's a feeling (feelings) I can work with. Not only that, but the lack of that pre-competition melange is a warning sign that the thing isn't being taken seriously enough.

There's no magic to most of the improvement: preparation. Some activities last weekend I did the minimum preparation for, just grabbing a simple list of issues from the case that I guess I thought I was going to just figure out how to get what I wanted on the fly. I can talk on the fly, sure—I can present and introduce and lecture and banter and so on without much more than a prompt. But to pry some kind of concession out of someone else, or convince them to give me something that I want (and that they might also want)? It ain't me. But with some preparation—understanding issues and coming up with some numerical boundaries on what I want and what I'd leave the table for and what is definitely the most valuable to keep and so on—I could calm down and find a path to get there.

That feels like it's just as obvious as most of my revelations. Better prep, better performance. Obviously. There's a self-feeding feedback loop—or self-starving, really—in there that hindered preparation. The anticipated discomfort of competing made preparation difficult, which led to bad performance, which led to want to avoid prep for the next round, and so on. You just have to break the loop. There's no magic.

One other quick thing: my baseline definition of negotiating is that you should beat the other parties in the negotiation. It's a competition, eh? I think that's a broken definition now. Related to the preparation: if you figure out what you want, and you get it, well, you win. It's not an optimization problem to max out while also taking as much as you can from the other parties. That's a limited view of the system. Just that one mindset shift made entering the next negotiation easier, and then it ended up boosting performance anyway.

The remaining thing that I'd like to learn, though it won't come from this class, which ends tomorrow: how do people analyze what the other side(s) are going to negotiate for before they come to the table? What do they want? In the clench, what do they have and what do they need? My approach is still mostly limited to what I want, along with some intuitive trading of performance on my issues for someone else's. It just seems like there should be a more systematic way to do that.