Ability to conform

In 2013, author Nassim Taleb and historian Niall Ferguson were invited to debate the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola on the future of capitalism as part of an event at the New York Public Library. Taleb recalls that neither he nor Ferguson prepared anything, while the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola “showed up with a staff of aides, who, judging from their thick files, had probably studied us down to our shoe sizes.”

As Taleb recounted in his book Antifragile:

We could say anything we wanted with total impunity and she had to hew to her party line, lest the security analysts issue a bad report that would cause a drop of two dollars and thirty cents in the stock price before the year-end bonus. In addition, my experience of company executives, as evidence by their appetite for spending thousands of hours in dull meetings or reading bad memos, is that they cannot possibly be remarkably bright.

The Pepsi-Cola chairperson in question was Indra Nooyi (pictured above), who is consistently ranked one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Fortune actually named her the most powerful woman in business in 2009 and 2010. And yet Taleb is right about how constrained Nooyi was at the event.

The whole debate is available on YouTube, and it’s worth a watch if you want to see a good, non-politician example of someone who can convincingly say a lot of words that don’t mean anything, and say them with conviction. But besides a gift for highfalutin corporate vagueness, what Nooyi really shows off in the video is a skill I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: ability to conform.

On McKinsey consultants

I have now interviewed five people for the What Really Matters podcast, two of whom are former McKinsey consultants - Frederique Irwin and Paul Millerd. I’ve also been watching with interest as another former McKinsey consultant arrogantly traipses through a presidential primary with a campaign fueled, in my view, by his off the cuff ability to string together and deliver with conviction a bouquet of grammatically advanced sentences that don’t mean anything.

The two former McKinsey consultants I’ve interviewed were each interesting in their own way. Paul has since become a writer and coach who helps people find a career other than the “default path” McKinsey-type work.

Meanwhile, when I sat down to interview Frederique about her family’s year in New Zealand, I didn’t know she had been a McKinsey consultant. But as we talked about our theories of education for our kids, she told me that at McKinsey they had screened job applications for resumés of graduates from a tiny handful of elite schools.

I wondered at the time what, exactly, those elite degrees signaled. I am fairly sure the answer is not intelligence, as, like Taleb, I don’t think you need to look far to identify corporate executives making idiotic decisions. Rather, I think it is something the George Mason economist Bryan Caplan identified in his book, The Case Against Education. The skill that McKinsey consultants, graduates of elite universities, and executives of large companies have in spades that the rest of us don’t is simply this: Ability to Conform.

A “piece of paper”

Caplan argued that universities don’t so much educate students, or even teach them how to think. Rather, universities serve primarily to signal to employers that their graduates have three qualities: high IQ, conscientiousness, and ability to conform. I can’t summarize in a few sentences all the social research Caplan uses to buttress his claims, but take as one example the fact that someone who quits college just before graduating is generally considered unfit for jobs requiring a university degree.

Why is that? After all, said person spent almost the exact same amount of time in college as the person who did graduate, all that while supposedly being taught the same information and also learning how to think. But even the students themselves know, and even joke, that they are there for the piece of paper. They are there for the degree, specifically for what it signals.

The person who quits just before graduation didn’t learn less. But they did signal that they didn’t want to finish something they started. In other words, they signaled lack of conscientiousness.

The qualities Caplan identifies, which a university degree signals, are actually really important for most jobs. Knowing how to show up to appointments on time, return calls, and not forget deliverables is pretty much standard fare for succeeding in work, especially white collar work. What universities do, according to Caplan, is identify people with high IQ and high levels of conscientiousness and ability to conform, and then validate those skills for future employers.

In a related blog post, Caplan wrote:

One of the things a stack of degrees says about you is, ‘I uncomplainingly submit to social expectations.’

How I rank

At 38, I have certainly proven I also have conscientiousness and a certain ability to conform (My two degrees signal as much). But those who have worked with me know that the latter can often be a struggle.

In my first big job during grad school, as a reporter for the local newspaper, I realized quickly that reporting demands a high level of conscientiousness. Our nightly deadline, at 10:30pm, was our nightly deadline. The stories needed to be in by then, period. I needed to reach out to and maintain sources, answer the phone and return their calls. I needed to show up to the events and meetings I covered on time, and I needed to pay attention. And I needed to get the facts correct.

Ability to conform was less of a requirement. We needed to write in AP style and dress semi-professionally, but in terms of our thinking the goal was rather to keep an open mind and to follow the story where it led. If it led to a counter-intuitive end, or to something unexpected, that was a more interesting news story.

(An aside: the very online public, epitomized by the Twitterati, often complain that the media exemplifies a herd mentality that perpetuates narratives. But the media are also highly incentivized to find narratives which run counter to prevailing wisdom, and to display the opposite of herd mentality, by digging into information that no one else has found.)

Later in my career, as I led communications for nonprofits and consulted on marketing for companies large and small, I often found it hard to conform when conformity was needed. I was the one in the meetings who would say something which made others uncomfortable, and I found it hard to hide my feelings when colleagues would voice opinions which I regarded as bullshit.

As a marketing professional, part of one’s job is to hew the company line, but I always approached my job more as a reporter telling the story of the organization, albeit one capable of writing around anything which could reflect too negatively.

Work and values

In Antifragile, Taleb expends copious ink criticizing mid-level managers and corporate executives. They are averse to risk-taking, which Taleb considers the engine of innovation, while they hardly ever say what they actually mean. Worse than that, they form their true opinions so as to conform with the interests of the organizations which pay their salaries.

I have been guilty of this as much as anyone. Until last year, I had avoided difficult topics and conformed my writing so as not to threaten or worry those who paid my salary. My livelihood and job security demanded that I do so.

People who are really, really good at conforming - to hewing the company line as Nooyi did - tend to get promoted, especially in large, risk-averse organizations (which is basically all large organizations). Those who aren’t are left where they are, or fired.

On the other hand, those who are bad at conforming often make good entrepreneurs, because they tend to hold and push forward with disruptive ideas. Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One, asks the reader to think of a truth that they are sure of but which others think is wrong - build your startup around that.

Similarly, Taleb writes that your values should lead to your work, not your work to your values.

Most people never even get to think that far. They take the work that the economy hands them. They make money however they can to feed themselves and their families. If getting bread into your child’s mouth means you self-censor a bit, so be it. Besides, ability to conform isn’t all bad. We need it to form large enterprises and nations, and to fight wars.

I truly believe that we go further when we go together, and that going together necessarily means some of us are going to subsume our opinions to the will of the group. But the world also needs those who suck at conforming. Nations need them, armies often need to be led by them, and even large corporations benefit when they can elevate them.

As the saying goes, well behaved women seldom make history. Not that you need to be Harriet Tubman. But if you find yourself ranking low on ability to conform, it’s probably worth trying to carve out the freedom to lean into that. And I for one have no ambition to be the head of Pepsi-Cola.