Pay Attention to the Person Behind the Curtain

After a tumultuous Presidential election here in the US – which I’m only beginning to be able to talk about without sweating – I wanted to offer a takeaway lesson that’s much broader than politics: Don’t watch the birdie.

Illusionists, especially sleight-of-hand and other “close up” magicians – know that a key part of the tradecraft is distracting you. They’ll enticingly wave one hand out in front of you, while the other one is doing all the work. It’s called distraction. In the US, that kind of “watch the birdie!” is backed into our political system in the form of the Presidency. But you run into this in every culture and in every aspect of life.

But let’s quickly draw a contrast to help throw the problem into full relief. Most world democracies – notable not the US – use a Parliamentary system of government. In such a system, you vote only for your legislators – “Parliament,” in those systems, equivalent to the US “Congress.” Whichever party wins a majority of the legislature also “owns” the government, and appoints their best and brightest to be their chief executive – a “Prime Minister” in most cases, but equivalent to the US “President.” In the event no one party has a clear majority, one or more minority parties team up to form a “collation government,” and send their collective best and brightest to become the chief executive.

There is at least one singular advantage to this system: the focus of the electorate is firmly on the legislature, since it’s the legislature in any system of government that really wields the most power.

In the US, by contrast, we tend to get really excited about the Presidential election. People have firm and deep-rooted opinions on their Presidential preference. At the same time, many are utterly clueless about who they’re electing into the legislature. Presidential candidates make wide-reaching promises about the laws they’ll pass or repeal, when in fact, the President can do neither. It’s the legislature’s job to pass and repeal legislation. But focusing so exclusively on the Presidency, we tend to let the people with the real power get away with murder. We worry about having a President that will represent “me,” when it’s clearly ludicrous to think any one person can “represent” the individuals of a country with more than 350M people in it. Where we should be looking for representation – our much more diverse legislature – gets buried in the Presidential headlines.

The broader life lesson here is to acknowledge that people tend to like figureheads. We try to boil our problems down into a single source, because we instinctively feel that it’s easier to tackle a single source. We blame CEOs for their high pay and poor performance, because they’re more visible and concentrated than the C-suites and Boards of Directors that are probably the real problem. We focus on a single technical element when troubleshooting, because it’s easier than trying to grok the entire gestalt that might be contributing to a problem. We look at singular performance metrics – CPU, network, disk, memory – because the entire system is too much to easily comprehend or affect. Salespeople do this, too – they want to sell to the C-suite because they perceive it as the biggest lever they can move. “If I can convince the guy who signs the checks, all my problems are over.” But that rarely works in practice – you have to focus instead on the minions, who are often less influential and harder to sell to, making for a longer sales cycle.

So be wary of simple, easy, single-source answers to problems. Life, and technology, are rarely so straightforward. Look for the real sources of power, the real spots of influence, and know that you might not be able to affect all of them (you can only vote for a tiny fraction of the total legislature, after all). Looking for some single, super-influential point that you can affect is instinctively compelling – but rarely as effective as digging in and exerting influence on a hundred smaller points.

One thought on “Pay Attention to the Person Behind the Curtain

  1. Bill Bailey (@bbnetman)

    Nice write up, Don. On a similar note, I am wary when a person backs a president or politician (democrat or republican) with such great fanatical emotion. It makes me think they are rooting for a sports team or something on that level. Not many returns for happiness with that type of mentality.

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