Venkatesh Rao: Guru of the Yakverse

Venkatesh Rao is a prolific internet blogger, writer, independent consultant, and shitposter. His philosophy embodies a classic idea from Isaiah Berlin: the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. He is a quintessential fox. Ironically, that might be his one big thing.

closeup photo of fox
close up of a fox by howling red on Unsplash

A few years into my career, I came across his mainstream technology series, Breaking Smart. I was immediately hooked. I spent hours reading his work, even going back to the beginning of Ribbonfarm and catching up on his business book summaries. I came across many pieces that shaped my thinking and others that I’ve shared with my team or clients. His post on the history of consulting led me to read the book discussed and think more deeply about learning as one of the few remaining differentiators for a firm. His piece on asshole-at-the-top, product-driven companies reinforced my view that individuals launching new products need a strong vision. Whether I agree with everything he has written or not, I’ve come to appreciate his ability to think critically about various topics and regularly consider his perspective in my research. 

What I love about Venkat is his evolving writing arc and seeing where he goes next. His recent works on culture and the Great Weirding are forcing me to identify the connections between the weirdness of the world and the implications for businesses trying to operate in this changing landscape. For those unfamiliar with Venkat’s work, COVID is seen as the central turning point into the next era of business. For those within, the weirdness and transition started years ago and just accelerated underlying change. 

Venkat has been one of the strongest forces in my trajectory as a consultant and writer, despite having never interacted aside from the rare Twitter exchange. I cannot do justice to the impact he has had, but I will cover some of the many things he has shown me about strategy and consulting. 

1. Hold nothing sacred

If I had to identify one of Venkat’s core beliefs, it would be to hold nothing sacred. He first identifies this when talking about what consultants bring to the table, but this philosophy carries through in his other work and in his writing. “What the ideal consultant really brings to the party is a lack of a sense of the sacred. This implies a lack of a sense of the profane as well, and a lack of unexamined trust in the ideas and reasoning patterns of insiders.” This belief is core to how I help clients and even how I think about my organization. Venkat embodies this philosophy deeply; even in his consulting practice, he reminds us he won’t hold his past thinking sacred. He evolves and expands perspectives on his older ideas, keeping him honest, something I deeply respect and try to embody. 

I remember something one of my professors said during university that has stuck with me for the last ten years: “If you haven’t been fired from a client engagement before, you probably aren’t doing your job.” As an outsider, you are betraying your responsibility by not holding up a mirror to your clients to see their flaws and imperfections. Sometimes, they just won’t be happy with what they see.

2. Time rules everything around me

It’s safe to say Venkat is obsessed with the notion of time. In his book Tempo, he writes about Tempo’s three elements—energy, emotions, rhythms—and how they relate to the organizations or environments you’re part of. He writes, “the rhythms of every situation have a texture to them.” Tempo is a core part of situational awareness – you need to understand the rhythm of your surroundings and what’s worth noticing.

As a leader, paying attention to time and tempo are incredibly valuable to navigate a competitive landscape or unfolding situation. Many leaders are conservative, aiming to collect enough information to feel confident in their decisions. As Venkatesh outlines in Tempo, “in many domains, you can only develop situation awareness by acting, not by observing.” A change in tempo is all it takes to gain an advantage. This powerful insight can inspire action and snap you out of the analysis-paralysis that comes in an information-rich environment, especially in the moments you feel the most uncertain. By simply taking action, you accumulate a time advantage amid Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. It’s a flip of the traditional model: instead of waiting for information to act, you act to gain information and time to adapt. 

3. To find your way, start by getting lost

Another of Venkatesh’s beliefs is we should spend time getting lost in the world. He is the prototypical example of following your interests haphazardly; his wide-ranging interests are not simply a matter of curiosity but serve as the intellectual fodder for his consulting practice. He is intentionally divergent in his thinking and learning before slowly converging on insights he shares in his writing. In some instances, he spends years honing and refining these ideas like a well-polished gemstone.

Not only does he read obscure and diverse sources, but he is versed in management and organizational theory and can apply creative extensions and rebuttals to traditional ideas. I’ve taken this as guidance for myself: don’t just read widely, learn the foundation so you can frame and expand upon things.

As you read far and wide, you won’t always know how things connect. But that’s part of offroading. Most of the time, you’re slowly building up an internal model of the world around you, whether it makes any sense or not. All you need is a tiny spark to set off the intellectual kindling you have been collecting.

4. Examples, examples, examples

The test of a broad knowledge base is its application to practical scenarios. Perhaps this is a personal desire, but I’d like my offroading to pay off eventually. Not to say that each thing I learn needs to have value, but I want to draw meaningful connections that others can’t.

As Venkat outlines, examples are like currency in strategic consulting. By using storytelling, analogy, or metaphor, you can reframe problems to help executives get unstuck. To me, he is the grandmaster. His ability to synthesize is on another level and is inspiring to me. I often find myself oscillating between “wtf is this guy talking about” and “ooooooohhhhhhhhh.” It’s my favourite kind of reading, and I plan to use his writing as some of my examples in the future. 

If you made it this far without clicking through the links, I’m impressed! I’d encourage you to follow a few of them. Each represents a portal into the mind of Venkat and a potential rabbit hole for you to get lost in. I linked to a few of these throughout the article, but if you need a reading list, here are some of my favourites:

  1. Too Big to Nail
  2. The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink
  3. The Key to Act 2
  4. The Medium is the Client (paid)
  5. Unstuck
  6. The Calculus of Grit
  7. The Lords of Strategy
  8. Why We Slouch
  9. Venkat’s Advanced Writing Tips

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