Rising Above The OK Plateau

March 18, 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

This probably also applies in work situations as well, where skills are rapidly acquired in the early stages of careers but can then easily hit a plateau by encountering the ‘that’s how we do it here’ barrier which naturally stifles further improvement. In fact, in annual appraisals, I can’t ever remember getting the question ‘what have you learnt this year’, it was always ‘what have you achieved this year’.

In a related theme, I came across an interesting article on Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning inspired by the works of the famous mathematician Richard Hamming (my emphasis in bold):

From Rule 6:

As Hamming says, because “there are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient, and furthermore, when your turn comes you will know how to succeed rather than how to fail.” In addition, he notes that “vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself”

From Rule 8:

A prerequisite, of course, is native talent. But even for the talented, no amount of utilizing smart methods can substitute for sheer duration of effort. Gladwell has suggested that about 10,000 hours of application are needed to become a true expert in a particular field. While some have quibbled with the universal validity of this suggestion, we think it is a fairly good estimate of what you need to put in. Also, these long hours need to be quality time without distractions. Easy to say, hard to do.

Rule 9 (Have a Vision to Give You a General Direction) states:

A key to learning how to learn is to be economical and to structure your efforts according to the general direction in which you want to move. Hamming writes: “It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on the average, end up about √n steps from the origin. But if there is a pretty girl in one direction, then his steps will tend to go in that direction and he will go a distance proportional to n.”

You too need an attractive vision of where you want to go. As Hamming points out, “having a vision is what tends to separate the leaders from the followers.”

Finally I’d say that a really important skill to develop is the ability to listen to, try to understand deeply and then have the courage and humility to act on advice from people with a much larger vision that yourself. I’ve rarely done this myself and know of few other people that have, but looking back over my career it’s something I certainly could have given more attention to. Here’s a sample story (see the bottom bit). This relates to Rule 9 above of course, but only in an indirect manner.

Startup Stories

March 11, 2015

CB Insights have put together a fascinating set of stories of how 101 startups ‘failed’, collected from their founders and investors.

Here are some examples:

Ultimately, I didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. It’s an incredibly expensive venture to pursue and a hard industry to work with. We spent more than a quarter of our cash on lawyers, royalties and services related to supporting music. It’s restrictive. We had to shut down our growth because we couldn’t launch internationally. It’s a long road. It took years to get label deals in place and it also took months of engineering time to properly support them (time which could have been spent on product).

We didn’t spend enough time talking with customers and were rolling out features that I thought were great, but we didn’t gather enough input from clients. We didn’t realize it until it was too late. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking your thing is cool. You have to pay attention to your customers and adapt to their needs.

I started to feel burned out. I was Blurtt’s fearless leader, but the problem with burnout is that you become hopeless and you lose every aspect of your creativity. I’d go to work feeling tired and exhausted. I was burning the candle at both ends.

Do not launch a startup if you do not have enough funding for multiple iterations. The chances of getting it right the first time are about the equivalent of winning the lotto.

The full report is a free download on their site.

See also: More Lessons From Startups

Getting Rewarded For Your Skills

February 24, 2015


The topic of getting suitably rewarded for your skills is one that crops up regularly in discussions with colleagues. There often seems a conflict between doing what you really want to do and making that financially viable and sustainable.

There’s an interesting post on this at ‘The problem isn’t that life is unfair – it’s your broken idea of fairness’ from which the diagrams above and below are taken. Although they are obviously a bit simplistic, they do make a key point very clearly.

The only change I’d make is that the top picture illustrates how we like to think reward works even if we know that the picture below is far more more realistic, and probably a lot more uncomfortable. The question then arises as to where an acceptable compromise point is, which is where personal values and circumstances come in.

However it’s a step forward to be aware that a decision on this matter is always being made, either knowingly or by default. So it’s helpful to regularly question this compromise point, preferably with others (to get a spread of views and experiences).

A slight change of direction may yield a delightful improvement!


Images: from the site above.

A Corporate Sense Of Humour

February 19, 2015


On a lighter note, I was quite surprised to read that my local train operator, South West Trains, modified the standard messages on the digital info signs to fit in with Valentine’s Day – quite a creative move!

An example is given above.

From GetHampshire:

Love was in the air for South West Trains passengers this weekend after the rail company romanced them by renaming station on electronic platform signs.

Those travelling on Valentine’s Day (Saturday February 14) were treated to a range of loved-up plays on station names across Hampshire and Surrey.

The London Waterloo to Salisbury service was changed to “London Waterlove” to “When Harry met Salisbury”, while Liphook became “Lips-Hooked” and Petersfield “Passionfield”.
Fleet was changed to “Fleet-ing Romance”, Ash Vale to “Ash Valentine”, Hook to “Hook, Line and Sinker” and Farnborough to “Four Weddings and Farnborough”.

It’s not without risk of course:

However, the puns may have backfired slightly after some commuters claimed it left them confused and even led to some missing trains.

The sight of the pun names next to notices informing passengers of delays or cancellations also killed the romance for others.

Anyway, it’s good to know that some companies are brave enough to try a corporate sense of humour!

Introducing Yourself

February 16, 2015

I often meet new people at various business events. Sometimes I’m introduced to them through colleagues or else they’re just bumped into at random. The situation then crops up as to how you can communicate ‘who you are and what you do’ in an interesting and concise manner. You don’t want it to be too specific as that could cut down possibilities but being too general can result in vagueness. Also, you often have just a few minutes to get the main points over. Tricky!

I’ve tried various techniques and not found any of them particularly satisfying.

One common approach is to define yourself through your profession and role e.g. I’m a senior project manager with company X. This is useful information but it’s not likely to spark an interesting conversation.

What could be better?

There are a couple of suggestions I’ve come across recently that sound promising (see here and here):

1. Tell a mini-story (Present-Past-Future):

So, first you start with the present – where you are right now. Then, segue into the past – a little bit about the experiences you’ve had and the skills you gained at the previous position. Finally, finish with the future – why you are really excited about this particular opportunity.

This sounds fairly natural to me and has the opportunity of revealing a theme, which is probably far more interesting and memorable than any specifics. The listener can then respond to any of the hooks – present, past or future. It just needs to be done succinctly and not develop into a rambling life story!

2. Focus on your customers rather than yourself:

Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.”

Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.

This sounds a bit rigid to me although, admittedly, it could be very useful if time is tight.

Both allow you to get out of the confining box of profession and role, as, in my experience, nearly everyone is far more interesting than that!

The Allure Of A Happy And Meaningful Life

January 23, 2015

ons - measures of national well-being

I guess most people would like to lead a ‘happy and meaningful’ life and over the last few years the notion of ‘well-being’ has even found it’s way into national surveys (see screenshot above and link below).

So I was interested (and a bit surprised) to recently come across this

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.

The underlying research project is described here, and some extracts are

Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.

One can also use our findings to depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life. People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future. These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Our findings are broadly consistent with the framework that happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness was still consist in having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.

It’s certainly food for thought – in particular, I’m now wondering if I should try to make my life a bit less meaningful!

On a more practical note, there’s an interactive graphic on some measures of national well-being here (provided by the UK Office of National Statistics). The screenshot above is taken from this site.

Power, Inertia And Entropy

January 19, 2015

As it’s the start of 2015, I’m mulling on what to aim for professionally this year (and thereafter), so I’m quite susceptible to articles on this topic. Whilst there’s no easy answer, getting others’ views is often handy even if it’s only to prompt a questioning of my current viewpoints.

Recently from Seth Godin:

A tactic might feel fun, or the next thing to do, or a lot like what your competition is doing. But a tactic by itself is nothing much worth doing. If it supports a strategy, a longer-term plan that builds on itself and generates leverage, that’s far more powerful. But a strategy without a goal is wasted.

In this context, I quite liked this quote (which pre-assumes you have a clear and challenging goal):

“Yes is the destination, No is how you get there.” – Andrea Waltz

The problem is that tactics and delivery are comparatively easy and give the immediate impression of progress being made whilst developing good strategy is really hard and because of this is often effectively ‘avoided’.

From an earlier post on this topic (A Cascade Of Outcomes):

Good strategy is rare. Many organizations which claim to have a strategy do not. Instead, they have a set of performance goals. Or, worse, a set of vague aspirations. It is rare because there are strong forces resisting the concentration of action and resources. Good strategy gathers power from its very rareness.

Competitors do not always respond quickly, nor do customers always see the value of an offering. Good strategy anticipates and exploits inertia.

Organizations experience significant entropy—the continual drift towards disorganization. Much of the useful work of managers and consultants is maintenance—the constant battle against entropy. Strategists must battle this never-ending drift towards disarray within their own organization. And they must try to exploit the disarray of their rivals.

These aspects apply to small businesses just as much as to large ones.


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