Ego, Null-Ego, Anti-Ego

One of Nassim Taleb’s contributions is reminding people of opposites. That the opposite of fragility is not robustness but anti-fragility. That absence is not the opposite.

With that in mind we’ll see that the absence of ego isn’t anti-ego (humility) but just null-ego. Ted Sarandos spoke on the Aspen Ideas To Go podcast about the early days of Netflix.

It’s easy storytelling that Netflix disrupted television. It’s convenient to label Reed Hastings a genius (no matter how much he emphasizes his luck). It’s a great contrast to say that Netflix landed House of Cards and no one else did. However the truth is always more complex.

Everyone, Sarandos explained, wanted House of Cards. The show was not like an indie-band that blew up. It was an auction and Netflix was the highest bidder.

In addition to the highest bid, Netflix had another competitive advantage. A null-ego. Sarandos said:

“We had to convince the talent, ‘Why do it with us?’ We famously gave them twenty-six episodes with no pilot and a promise not to give them any notes on the production. I did that because there was no reason they should have done it with us. We had never done an original anything.”

Ted Sarandos

Sarandos and Hastings didn’t have an ego and that served them well. Jason Blum said that this is his advantage too. Michael Ovitz wrote about this too, noting that daytime television didn’t have much glitz and glam but it did pay the bills.

Sarandos continued: “at the beginning (the light touch) was out of necessity. I didn’t have enough people and I told David Fincher, ‘You don’t want me giving notes.’ I knew enough people who had shared enough horror stories.”

This decentralized command is common for high functioning organizations with great culture and talented employees. Warren Buffett has said to, “hire well and manage little.” Both The Simpsons and Seinfeld were famously no-note-sets.

Sarandos understands this, “The real art of what my team does is pick the show runner and then give them the tools they need.”

However, interviewer Derek Thompson and Sarandos talk about why this doesn’t happen. It’s the belief that activity is good. Taleb wrote about this too:

“Ingenious interventionism is very persuasive across professions…if you supply a typical copy editor with a text, he will propose a certain number of edits, say about five changes per page. Now accept his corrections and give this text to another copy editor…and you will see he will suggest an equivalent number of edits.”

Nassim Taleb

Like the Hollywood-note-machines or Nassim’s editors we can often think of change as good. However, sometimes all it takes is the removal of something harmful rather than the addition of something helpful.

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