What are you afraid of? 

July 19, 2018

If you tell me what you fear, then you give me the opportunity to prey on those fears.

Politicians, prognosticators, and pundits understand this.  

Many marketers also understand this. They often use fear to scare customers into buying.

For example, some technology research firms use fear to keep clients paying high fees. Recently, a senior leader at one of the largest and most prestigious firms confirmed to me that their internal policy was to sow “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” with their reports. That strategy is so important that they have created an acronym – FUD – and a goal: every analyst’s job is to bake FUD into their writing. 

FUD shows up everywhere – nowhere more than in the debate about AI and robotics.

Fear the Robots?

Techno-optimists who believe the robot revolution is right around the corner are scaring people with false predictions of huge job losses in the short-term.

Many books, articles, and podcasts stoke FUD with these false “facts”:

– 13 million jobs will be lost in the United States in the next several years due to robots! (wrong – this prediction made years ago by researchers seems wildly wrong – if anything AI/robotics may be creating jobs though even those predictions are questionable).

– Even white collar professional jobs will be replaced by our robot overlords (the New York Times recently ran an article quoting an expert saying, “A much broader set of tasks will be automated or augmented” – but there’s the rub. Automated means the job is gone. Augmented means the human is still there – and augmentation is what seems to be happening far more).

– Self-driving cars will take over the roads in the short-term (and, yes, wrong – the social, legal, and regulatory factors slow down any technical improvements – and the technical improvements are also not as far along as they might seem).

Further, the term “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer. The algorithms behind AI are limited and domain-specific. We are decades (if not centuries) away from actual intelligence

While it’s amazing what can be done with AI, it’s also important to recognize the real limitations of this technology today.

I recommend you ignore those who promise too much (and also sow FUD too much) about AI and robotics. 

Look for the few books and experts that can help you understand really what’s going on and how to think about investments and experiments you should be running.


Take AIQ, for example.

Published in May, the book is written by two professors, Nick Polson and James Scott. They provide one of the best overviews of AI for general managers and product managers that I’ve read. They help deepen your understanding of statistics and probability and the specific algorithms powering the best AI today. They also give a brief historical view of where these ideas come from. They reminds us that this is a long project that began hundreds of years ago and will continue for hundreds of years. 

Another simpler way to understand the book is that the authors show how humans and AI “dance” (my term not theirs) with AI augmenting not replacing humans.

James Scott to Speak at Fall Council Meetings in Austin

I reached out to Professor James Scott from the University of Texas. He and I had a great conversation. We talked about some of the myths and memes they debunk in their book. He’s very impressive – smart, funny, and personable. He’s also won awards and recognition including the prestigious Savage Award given by The International Society for Bayesian Analysis.

As a result, I invited him to speak at our fall Council meetings in Austin. Premium members joining us there will get to hear him speak and receive a copy of his book AIQ

Fear and Moral Leadership?

It is not by accident that FDR went after fear in his first inaugural address when he famously said,  “the only thing we have to fear Is fear itself.”

The great 18th-century British conservative, Edmund Burke, wrote that fear “robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning.”

Political scientists, behavioral economists, neuroscientists all agree with Burke: fear can make us reactive and dumb.

While historians may argue that it’s the job of the President of the U.S. to set an example of moral leadership, I say it is also the duty of every American, certainly of every businessperson, to strive to lead not with fear but with decency, respect, and love.


Below the Fold

Keep scrolling for more good stuff including the two books I recommend you read on vacation this summer (and even some free prizes 😉

Tips for Leaders to Ward Off FUD and Think Clearly

In addition to ignoring the hype and fear-mongering of the techno-optimists, I recommend a few other fear reduction techniques for leaders.

First, some context. In my last newsletter, I spoke about the severe concussion I received in the fall of 2018 from an accident (a bike came up on the sidewalk in Brooklyn and ran me over).

Photo by Seth Werkheiser

As a result, I had to go off all screens and media for about six weeks.

This blackout changed my life and gave birth to better habits that have reduced my fear and improved my capacity to think and manage.

Here’s what I do:

– Ask for help 
Asking for help not only gives you help but talking through whatever you’re concerned about, afraid of, or worried about, is itself a tonic. It may be hard to ask for help sometimes, but the rewards are worth it. 

– Focus on the customers 
The good news is your customers are not worried about what you are worried about internally at your company. If you focus on and learn from your customers it will not only improve your business, but it will improve your mood.  

– No daily political news

I have my custom browser homepage set up with links that go ONLY to the business sections of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times – I also read long-form political analysis on The New Yorker, and from some select conservative writers.

– No television
I love TV and shows have gotten really good but it’s another screen and it doesn’t actually relax me the way I thought it did. Plus it takes away from reading time.

– Read, read, read
I LOVE reading and now instead of watching TV and reading the daily political news, I’m reading more books. It’s made me much happier and strengthened my long-term perspective. Reading history in particular helps us see that we’ve faced difficulties greater than our current ones – and it illuminates what people did to pull through it and create something better. 

– In bed by 9pm
I sleep longer and I go to sleep *earlier* more in tune with my body’s cycles.

– Act like you have a brain budget (because you do) 
Focus your cognitive effort on ONLY the things that really matter and cut out everything else.

Two Books to Read on Vacation 

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch
Lyrically written, this beautifully written nonfiction book creates love and respect for this championship bronco-riding hardworking ranching Mormon family in Utah. Highly recommend it. You might start and finish it on the flight out.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
One of the great living literary non-fiction writers, Wilkerson brings the reader into the heart of the Great Migration – the movement of six million African Americans from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970. This book will keep you going through the whole vacation.

Other Book Recommendations

– AIQ by Nick Polson and James Scott
See above. 

– The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
A good writer and thinker, Professor Meacham puts today’s political world into the context of American history and reminds readers that we have had worse and that there is good reason for hope.

– God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England by James A. Warren
Surprisingly relevant to our world, this book introduces readers to the radical Roger Williams – dissident Puritan minister and founder of Rhode Island. The debates between Williams and the Puritans of New England are a distant but clear mirror to the world of today.

– Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
While a bit polemical, this book is worth a scan. 

– A Most Elegant Equation by David Stipp
A short terrific history of one of the great equations of mathematics.

Come to Omaha and Learn from Warren Buffett

“Loved it…quality group of attendees – great event.” 
 Chris Fralic, Partner, First Round Capital

Warren Buffett is a calm leader who has done extraordinary things. And he certainly does NOT stoke FUD (just the opposite).

For years, we’ve been bringing Internet CEOs out to Omaha for a workshop on the leadership lessons to learn from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

Attendees have loved it.

Those CEOs, however, have been pressing us to create something for their teams – and we finally did it.

I’m excited to say that we have finally launched a new workshop for “Rising Leaders” – i.e. at the Dir/VP/SVP level at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.

You’ll discover a number of surprising lessons from these octogenarians and nonagenarians (i.e. people in their 80s and 90s) about customer experience, product development, business design, and moral leadership. 

Tickets are selling fast. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Info/register:​​ Rising Leaders

15 minute phone call to learn more? https://calendly.com/britanycrown/

Until next time – beware of the fear-mongers, keep asking for help, and keep bringing moral leadership to our world.


About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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