Geek Job Guru: Build That BS Detector

Running Of The Bulls

If you want a successful career, build a nice big mental BS detector, my fellow Geek.

BS detection is necessary for your success in any career. There’s a lot out of it in the world, and seemingly more every day as advanced technology let’s us manufacture crackpot ideas and complete lies even faster than usual. If you can’t recognize it, you’re sunk as you’ll make bad decisions, sign on to a guaranteed-to-fail startup, or stick with a failing company.

You’ve probably seen it happen to your friends and family or had it happen to you.  “What the hell was I thinking?” seems to be a really common career question.

Don’t worry, beeen there.

I recall the time I realized mine didn’t work. It was back in the late 90’s when I was trying to explain to a friend how websites wanted to get viewers and didn’t worry about money, and their business plan would succeed because . . . and then I realized I was completely full of it. At that point I began working on tuning my BS detector and haven’t stopped since because I realized I was dreadfully wrong.

Since that time, It’s served me well, if not perfectly, helping me avoid some failing industries or bad choices. It’s something you want to develop.  In fact, that very conversation eventually led me to wisely changing my career plans.

In fact, we geeks should work extra hard to develop ours because we have some specific vulnerabilities.

The BS Weak Spots Of The Geek

Once I bought into a lot of internet startup BS as noted and learned my lesson. Over the years I’ve wondered just why some smart, geeky, creative people believed such utterly bogus promises, business concepts, and economic ideas. I’ve come to the conclusion that the following reasons are major parts of it.

  • We’re part of a lot of cool things these days. As I noted it’d the age of geek, with comic book movies and technology everywhere, we’ve got a place at the table. The problem is we can let that go to our heads or blind us to the fact that some “geeky” things like stupid startups or terrible film ideas are really just bad ideas.
  • There’s a lot of success stories to follow from the geekosphere, from wildly effective companies to incredibly funded startups. However we can miss that those things don’t last forever, and just focus on a high stock price or someone who landed an obscene amount of venture capital – and not realize a year later it was all bogus. (Anyone remember when I was all agog over Kno?).
  • We’re vulnerable think we’re smarter/better informed than people. We may be – but once you start letting it go to your head, then you’re suddenly a lot dumber. Wisdom comes from knowing how stupid you can be.
  • People think we’re smarter/better informed than them. Other people can believe you right into believing yourself, which is sometimes nice or necessary, but you have to check yourself to make sure they’re right. Certainly not easy to do

So keep this in mind. We’re vulnerable to developing faulty BS detectors because of certain social and economic truths. It’s something I actually worry about as I try and help people navigate their careers and choose good employers because I’ve seen some . . . pretty wrong decisions.

So let’s start talking about how to build that functional BS detector in your head – and in fact our Geek nature also provides us with some advantages, and I’ll focus on those first. Namely . . .

We Know What’s BS

The flip side of the risks to geeks developing bad BS detectors is that we’re also immersed in so many areas that are BS that we can see it and become attuned to it. When you see so much kool-aid being manufactured, you learn what not to drink, if you get my drift.

Really, terrible failures and bad ideas are constantly entering into the geekonomy and then falling flat on their faces. It doesn’t take much to see a startup that died, or watch some terrible movie plans fade, or see a company make a totally wrongheaded decision. We see it constantly, a painful parade of bad examples stumbling down the street of history.

if anything, we’re in danger of becoming numb to it because we see so much. After some time spent watching poorly thought-out business plans go up in flames, you get used to it. So don’t let yourself go numb, but revel in the fact you’re probably exposed to usefully high levels of stupid.

Use the stupid to build a BS detector. Take a moment not just to snigger at the latest geekonomic catastrophe, but ask what you can learn – and if there’s anything you should avoid doing.

(Don’t let yourself get arrogant about it – because the more you think “it won’t happen to me” the more you ensure it’s going to.)

As a side note? Don’t let yourself get depressed and cynical. Becoming fashionably depressed and cynical about failure is its own form of BS, often self-generated. At that point you’ve created a way to BS yourself and can’t even recognize good ideas – and it’s not like certain cynical politicians and pundits won’t be glad to take advantage of you.

Of course if you’re seeing enough BS, you’re probably following the news, but just in case . . .

Follow The News, See The Stupid

If you want to build a good BS Detector then you have to follow the news. Period. Websites, RSS feeds, newsletters, whatever – get informed. I’ve said this many times here, and I’m going to keep saying it, so don’t expect a break.

Get informed and follow the news. it helps in many ways:

  • It keeps you informed about what’s going on, and of course what BS is going on so you know what to look for, and develop your BS Detector with fine new examples of craptacularity.
  • It helps you spot trends. Sometimes something that isn’t a load of male bovine droppings turns out to be a good idea, and in many cases the reverse is true. Spot trends and learn what they mean.
  • It puts you in touch with people and ideas. Comments on news sites, passing links around, and so forth helps you learn new things and meet people – with whom you can help build better BS detectors.

Keeping informed helps keep you from being deceived, and lets you keep honing your BS-detection abilities. Just don’t let yourself become cynical as noted. In fact, a good way to further improve BS detection is to look for good ideas . . .

Seek Success, See The Results

Sure staying informed teaches you to detect terrible ideas. A few failed companies, a disastrous industry incident or two, and you can quickly enhance your “Spidey Sense” that detects horrible ideas. But contrast is the soul of noticing things, and this means you want to look at successes.

Yes, take time to look at successes. Look at what works, what ideas led to real results, what companies made actual money. Sure, it may seem hard at times (there may not be enough examples for you), but make that extra effort to see who was right.

When you see successful ideas and good results, you know what to look for that shows there isn’t (at least as much) BS floating around. When you know the good, then you’r even further able to contrast it with the bad. That contrast lets you spot BS better, and of course the career advantages follow.

But knowing the good and the bad leads to one final thing you should do . . .

Get The Narrative, See The Lies

I hinted at this earlier, and it really comes back to what helped me realize my BS detector was woefully uncalibrated and that it’d probably affect my career.  I tried to explain something and realized I was full of it.  Narrative reveals truths – and lies.

Look for real narratives in the stories of ideas, businesses, startups, company reorgs, and what have you. Look for the story and see if they really make sense.

Can you describe why a company’s move is a good one – or a bad one? Can you explain it? Can you look to historical trends to explain why you’re working for someone – or upon examination does that fall apart?

BS, especially the intentional kind, is about spinning a narrative to entrap you. Learning to look for the real stories, to see them as narratives, is a great counterpoint. It lets you see what’s real, prevents you from being deceived, and improves your detection ability.

Fire That Detector Up!

So, for your career, start building your BS detector my fellow geeks. You’re going to need it . . . and if it’s anything to judge by in recent news, you need it more than ever.

It may take time, it may take effort, it may depress the hell out of you. But it’s worth it?

Think I’m BSing? Then . . . well that may be a good start come to think of it . . .

– Steven Savage