Teachings of the Cortez School of Management

by abclarke

I mentioned in my first post that I have decided to change some things about how I live.  Well, here it is, the first public statement of those goals: I am going to achieve contentment through the pursuit of perfection.   Specifically I will approach perfection by constantly challenging my mind to learn, constantly challenging my body be in the best shape I can be in, constantly challenging my soul by seeking to share and create things that are valuable to others, and constantly challenging my spirit to be open to the awesomeness of the universe. Now, if you’re reading that paragraph for the first time, I imagine your initial reaction would be “Art, you arrogant prick.”  I’ll give you that it certainly sounds arrogant.  But please bear with me a moment while I explain why and what I mean.

When I was 14 I set a lifetime goal for myself: I will never be as poor as my parents had been.  It was simple and measurable.  At the time I had just moved to the United States, and I was able to compare our lot in the world to the average American.  You could say I suffered from status anxiety (although I certainly didn’t know the term at the time).  At that point in time (1988), our family (2 parents, 4 kids) made $23,000 a year, and it was the wealthiest I could remember us ever being.

This goal served me well for some time, guiding me to choose different options to achieve it.  But like running around Central Park, it had a flaw that wasn’t obvious to me at the onset.  It is (for a white male in America) too easily achievable.  My goal wasn’t (and isn’t) to be super-rich.  My goal was to not be poor.  By the time I turned 30, I realized as long as I stayed healthy, it would be trivial to not be poor.  I had thrown everything I had into work to achieve my big goal, forgoing so many things, and now having achieved the goal I felt so empty.  With this realization (coincident with a lot of stress in my job) a period of intense depression set in:  I hadn’t considered what to do next.  This was the darkest period ever in my life (and great thanks to J for helping me get through it).

I took some time off work.  I started smoking.  I travelled.  I read lots of books on philosophy, religion, spirituality, management goobly-gook, personal fulfillment and anything I could think of.  I saw a psychiatrist for a few weeks.  I spoke with friends.  Gradually I came to the conclusion that I needed a new raison d’etre, it needed to be aspirational but not achievable, and it had to be total: “Raison d’etre” because without it I wasn’t sure why I’d want to exist; “aspirational” because it needed to inspire me, but “not achievable” because it has to last as long as I live; “total” because I had discovered that my first goal, which focused solely on physical comforts, left me colder and more alone that I could have imagined.

And what would that goal be?  Well, having a Daydream for what I wanted, I applied the principle of Laziness: instead of trying to figure it out myself, I figured there had to be a shortcut.  I believed that I’m not the only person in the world who has faced this conundrum, and within the thousands (I think all parties agree at least 6,000) of years that humans have existed, surely there must emerge a common answer.  So I looked to people in history that I admire (and some people I didn’t even know existed but have come to admire).  And looking at it, I believe a common thread does appear.  People who are serious about changing themselves have all chased a form of perfection.  And that perfection has been consistent, be it Jesus, Mohammed, Buddah, Ghandi, Muhammad Sumohadiwidjojo, Mother Teresa, Aristotle, or thousands of others.  They have constantly challenged themselves (mind, body and soul) to be open with themselves, to share themselves openly with the world, and to be open to the mysteries, paradoxes, and unknowns that exist in the world (I’m sure other folks will disagree with this synopsis, and would love to hear your thoughts).  They were the original naked runners.

I’d gotten to this line of thinking by the end of 2004.  And, I did nothing.  I changed nothing about myself.  I just stayed lost.

Why?  For lack of a better phrase, I was scared shitless.

Let me break down why: I’ve always loved learning and challenging my mind.  But if I did an honest assessment of the other areas, I was coming up with consistently failing grades.  My body had taken a backseat (dear God, I’d started smoking!!!).  My soul?  Well, I “shared” in the context of my job, but that’s the closest I came to being a decent human being.  And openness to the mysteries in the world?  Well, I had earlier rejected (rather explicitly) every teaching of the Catholic Church I’d been brought up in, and had been thoroughly trained in the hard-science atheistic school of modern neo-liberalism and had a severe gut problem with concepts like God, spirituality, and anything outside the realm of eventual explanation by rational thought.  I was well short of any ideal of perfection, and any change I made would expose me to feelings of intense discomfort.  I was hove-to and drifting for many months, knowing change was necessary but doing nothing.

And then I decided to apply the Teachings of the Cortez School of Management to myself.  The teachings of Cortez School of Management are very simple.

Hernando Cortez was the Spanish man credited with taking over the Aztec empire[1]. He landed on the coasts of America with a crew that had been at sea for months.  He knew they had miles to march still.  So he took his crew and he told them of the glories they were about to see.  He told them of the riches they were about to make.  He told them of the celebrity they would enjoy once they returned.  In short, he gave them a dream they could believe in.  And believe they did.  They were so excited they gathered their gear and began marching that day.  And then, when they’d marched out of sight of the boats, he sent back some trusted men and to burn all the boats.  When his men found out they were outraged, but Cortez pointed out that all elements of the dream still existed, but now they had an extra incentive.  Their only option now was to pursue the dream!

The Cortez School of Management teaches two things:

  • 1) Dream big.
  • 2) Remove any options to back out of achieving the dream.

In work I’ve applied the principle several times.  I inherited a project management team at my former employer that had been referred to as “the biggest internal problem we have” by several folks on the executive management team.  I helped the team come up with a dream of being a well respected team by coming up with some great ideas we could implement for “4-week quick wins” to show the company we were for real (the dream).  And then I publically committing us to ship that list (and now there was no going back).  I even publically name each person responsible for delivering each win.  I thoroughly burnt the boats.  (Right afterwards, one of the team came to me in a panic because she thought she wouldn’t really have to do it.)  Well wow, did folks get that stuff done – there is immense power in publically holding people responsible to their commitments.  Within 12 months the team had a totally different (and better) reputation and attitude!

Another time, I wanted to grow my career outside of just engineering, but I was scared to do so, afraid I’d look like an idiot when I tried to present to business folks about technical ideas, or to technical folks about business ideas.  But I dreamed of being really successful; of wowing clients whenever I worked with them; of moving fluently between the technical and business worlds.  And then, I quit my engineering job completely and joined the sales team where the only way to succeed was to face that fear head-on with no opportunity to go back.  I didn’t take a half-step into the shallow end – I removed all flotation devices and jumped into the ocean.  And what do you know?  I learned to swim pretty damn quickly.

So, in late 2005 I saw an opportunity to apply the Cortez School of Management to my (failed) attempts to change my path in life.

My wife (J) was applying for fellowship programs and, while we were very settled in the Bay Area, I encouraged her to apply for the best-program regardless of geography.  Four choices emerged: San Francisco, New York, Houston and LA.  Cortez whispered in my ear and I decided it was time to leave San Francisco.  Leaving San Francisco would force me to quit my comfortable job and remove excuses to not change.  Sure, I could have quit my job and stayed in San Francisco, but I felt that would only force me to change jobs, not change everything about how I live.  I needed something that would force me to change everything.  I didn’t care about where we moved (honestly, ask J, I was even willing to live in Houston).  I just decided to burn the San Francisco boats (job, network, local favorite spots), and move somewhere new to start over.

Once I was in New York (July 2006), I couldn’t make excuses anymore.  And that was when I decided to embark upon this personal journey: I am going to achieve contentment through the pursuit of perfection.  By contentment, I don’t mean sloppy-drunk happy.  I mean content because I’ve changed all the things I could change, but genuinely accepted the things I can’t.  By perfection, I mean strive to hit the ideals laid out by the great people in the world that I respect.

To do this, I have to address my mind, my body, my soul and I have to approach the fact that spirituality is a biological fact that needs to be explored (if folks are interested, I’ll explain that later). And so I set these goals for the rest of my life:

  • 1. For my mind, I want to continue constantly trying to learn new things. This was the one area I felt didn’t need much change when I got to New York, but I still try hard to learn new things each day.
  • 2. For my body, I want to be in the best shape I can be in (see prior posts).
  • 3. For my soul, I want to create something that brings value to other people. So I started a company (because that’s part of what I know how to do) with some friends that is focusing on using the web, and outsourcing services, to deliver cheap easy-to-use services for small companies that eliminate lots of bullshit busy work for them (http://www.stolenbases.com/). And I’m starting to get more involved with charity and giving back (see future posts) to others some of the fortune I’ve had.
  • 4. And for spirituality, I’ve come to realize that the universe is awesome, and take each day to try to see another aspect of that (I’ll write about that in the future).

I know I’ll never be perfect.  I know that not all days will be a step forward.  And I certainly will never achieve near the level of perfection that the people who have inspired me achieved.  But I’m trying, and now I’m trying more openly.   It’s been way harder than I expected.  I feel more uncomfortable than any point in my life (but it’s a good discomfort).  The Cortez School of Management has certainly helped, but I’d be lying if I said on some days I didn’t wish there was a boat waiting for me on the dock to take me back to someplace less scary.


[1] OK, Cortez’s dream wasn’t really that good for the Aztecs, and many parts of the story are not factually correct, but such is the nature of metaphors.