Karl Rove

Karl Rove 140x190Wait, that Karl Rove? Yes!

The goal of this blog is to find ideas that work, no matter where they come from and Rove’s podcast with David Axelrod (wait, that David Axelrod?) was good. Not only that, but it’s a pair of political heavies having a civil conversation.

If you don’t care for Karl Rove, you can view this post two other ways. Bob Seawright said, “make sure you have people in your life that are going to challenge your thinking.” Let Rove do that. Or, you can use it to see how the enemy thinks (a form of red teaming).


1/ Up close and personal. “First of all, I’m not objective, but on the other hand I’ve seen him up close.”

When Rove offered his thoughts on George W. Bush it reminded me of how venture capitalists talk about the companies they invest in. Chris Sacca spoke with Bill Simmons in April 2016 and mentioned a few apps he was really excited about. I downloaded them. Meh.

Investors like Sacca are up close and personal and know the app, or in Rove’s case, the person, better than anyone. This means that they might know something important that we don’t know. On the other hand, they might be so close as to be biased and seeing the world as they want it to be rather than how it is.

Rove and Sacca both have skin in the game (SITG) and are incentivized for their object of attention to do well. Rove’s legacy is tied to Bush. Sacca’s net worth is tied to his investments. On the one hand, SITG is better than none for decision-making. On the other hand the person may be incentivized to not be truthful.

2/ The village idiot from Midland. Here are Rove’s full comments about Bush:

“People sort of say, ‘village idiot from Midland,’ that was a common criticism. This guy was a Yale history major and a Harvard MBA. He’s really smart. As long as I’ve known him there’s been a book on the night table and an interesting conversation about something available. He’s really smart and it was great working for somebody who’s really smart.”

Rove and Bush had a standing bet each year to see who could read more books. Reading books is one of the most consistent pieces of good advice. Bush also graduated from Harvard and Yale.

That wasn’t all.

“It was also great working for someone who wasn’t the smartest person in the room and didn’t want to be. He wanted to get every smart person around him. He created this ability for people to come in and say ‘you’re not looking so pretty,’ and that as you know is really important in the White House. It’s easy to be isolated. That office has such a powerful presence.”

You need the right people around you to do things like argue well, red team, and choose the best course of action. Michael Dell said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people… or find a different room.” Daymond John likes to do Shark Tank deals with Mark Cuban to work with someone smart. Bethany McLean wrote about the “smartest guys in the room” and what happened to them.

This is compounded when your office has some level of power, and the Oval Office may be the ultimate. “Yeah,” Axelrod agrees, “there’s always people who are willing to tell you you’re doing great.”  Rove went on and told this story:

“I’d have some member of congress in my office pounding the table saying ‘you guys are a bunch of morons and you’re doing ‘x’ and you should be doing ‘y’ and by God if the president knew that,’ and I’d say, he’s got a little time on his schedule, why don’t we walk down and say hello. They walk in and say ‘Hey Mr. President! How you doing. Barney’s looking great. Laura’s looking fantastic Mr. President. How’s your golf game?’”

Whether Bush was actually that smart and whether he really surrounded himself with the right people is for someone else to decide. The point here is that the process he used is good; read a lot and surround yourself with smart people.

3/ Grading your own homework. “The odd thing about (my father’s suicide) was that my father was an immigrant who came here, went to school on the GI bill and became a psychologist. When he died, literally a hundred people came to that funeral who were patients of his who said ‘your dad saved my life’ and he couldn’t save his own, which is tragic.” – David Axelrod

Again, the humanity and civility in this conversation were not what you might expect if you only watched the news. Axelrod faced a tragedy as a teenager and it brings up this idea of grading your own homework.

In Red Teams, Micah Zenko writes:

“Yet, the dilemma for any institution operating in a competitive environment characterized by incomplete information and rapid change is how to determine when its standard processes and strategies are resulting in a suboptimal outcome, or, more seriously, leading to a potential catastrophe. Even worse, if the methods an institution uses to process corrective information are themselves flawed, they can become the ultimate cause of failure. This inherent problem leads to the central theme of this book: you cannot grade your own homework.”

It’s onerous to self-evaluate.

Bill Belichick‘s  New England Patriots have practice squads. Neville Isdell‘s Coca-Cola teams pretended they were Pepsi teams. At Andy Weissman‘s Monday morning team meetings “(we) talk about our portfolio…and hear about ways we screwed up and how we can do better.”

Michael Mauboussin pointed us toward the work of Kathryn Schulz who said that part of our problem is we equate wrongness with badness – and do so from an early age. Not only do we not practice figuring out when we may be wrong, but we assign the wrong emotions to it.

It’s more efficient to get other people to tell you. Assistant coaches to Belichick say that he likes to hear why he’s wrong (but you better have your facts right). It was Isdell’s idea to dress in Pepsi clothes. Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz push back at each other.

4/ Relentless Rove. “There was a temporary executive who turned into a disaster and I was asked to get on the plane every couple of weeks on Thursday night or Friday and take a student standby, fly to Washington D.C., spend three or four days cleaning up the office, answering the mail, returning phone calls, preparing the material and then fly back to Utah to take my classes.”

This was not my college experience.

Two of my favorite books about work are Cal Newport’s Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The theme through the books is that rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills. Only when you get certain skills, can you trade them for certain jobs.

Rove had this because he worked weekends, he worked campaigns, he worked his butt off. Axelrod says “I was not the numbers guy, I was the message guy…but you have sort of an encyclopaedic knowledge of precincts, counties, and so on. Those kind of skills will lend you to  direct mail.”

Often it takes many (many!) hours of practice to earn these rare and valuable skills. If we had to pick a number, let’s say it takes 10,000 hours. Many people hustle to get those hours.

When John Boyd wanted to become a fighter pilot, he hustled. One efficiency report for him read, “His production comes from about 10% inspiration and 90% a grueling pace that his cohorts find difficult if not impossible to keep up with. He is extremely intolerant of inefficiency and those who attempt to impede his program.”

When Bill Belichick wanted to be a head football coach, he did this. He works 100 hours a week and has been studying film since he was a kid.

When Rorke Denver wanted to become a Navy SEAL, he trained for months to get ready for the physical part of BUD/S.

Gary Vaynerchuk‘s main skill is hustle.

Anson Dorrance “despises nothing more than holidays.”  Stephen King jokes that he only takes off three days a year (Christmas, July 4th, his birthday).  Peter Thiel wrote that there are many secrets to find, “but they will only yield to relentless searchers.”

Working hard isn’t all though, you need a few chances to get it right.

Rove almost messed this up.

Early in his career, Rove and a friend got an invitation for a fancy pants democratic fundraising dinner, then made and distributed a modified version (FREE FOOD and BEER!) to a bunch of homeless people from Chicago. “I did a stupid thing,” Rove admits. Neville Isdell had a similar experience, though his stupid thing involved animal theft.

Both Rove and Isdell got second chances because you need a few chances in life. There’s a certain amount of luck of anything and sometimes you get bad luck.  That’s fine if you get a few at bats. Scott Adams says it’s like a slot machine:

pablo (4)

The key is not getting kicked out of the casino before you win.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

Note, Cal Newport shared his TEDx talk in September 2016:

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