How Determined Are You To Succeed?

September 30, 2013

I recently noticed a fascinating article on the research carried out by Angela Duckworth in clarifying the role that grit and self-control can play in attaining goals, particularly in the realm of educational achievement. Grit is a term used in psychology and is defined by ‘perseverance and passion for long-term goals’.

It provoked my interest as I’ve written about the topic of ‘determination’ in the context of business success a while ago. This is a different setting of course but some of the insights of the research may still be broadly relevant or at least promote interesting questions.

From my previous posts, here are some typical quotes (see here):

“Starting things is easy – a business; a novel; a war; a baby. Keeping them going is a lot harder. I have a feeling doggedness is quite as important as imagination.” – Pru Leith

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” Zig Ziglar

“What I’ve learned from running is that the time to push hard is when you’re hurting like crazy and you want to give up. The moment you should accelerate is the moment you’re the most tired. The beginning of the final lap is the testing point, and so I found that to be in life. Success is often just around the corner. You might make a discovery. You might call it obstinacy or determination.

It almost made me sort of relish that moment. I see it as an opportunity, that point where if you know you can get through that bit, you’re going to make an important discovery that someone else might have made except they gave up, because they couldn’t get through the difficulties. I got that from running.” – James Dyson

In particular, I wrote:

As I mentioned then, often in business there is a focus on the sexy topics of creativity, imagination, knowledge, innovation, strategy and so on but sometimes the key to success can lie in persistence and determination. In other words, an attitude of mind, and oddly something which is rarely discussed in courses and workshops even though it appears it’s something that can be learned and developed (as in Dyson’s running story above).

Going back to the article, Duckworth says (my use of boldface):

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

From the statement of research that Duckworth is currently carrying out:

The language we use to describe grit and self-control – words like “character” or “personality trait” — may connote to some immutability. However, it is now well-established that traits change across the life course. So, while there is enough stability to traits to sensibly describe one individual as grittier than another, it is also true that children and adults change their habitual patterns of interacting with the world as they accumulate additional life experience.

In terms of intentional change, one promising direction for research is the correction of maladaptive, incorrect beliefs. For instance, individuals who believe that frustration and confusion are signs that they should quit what they are doing may be taught that these emotions are common during the learning process. Likewise, individuals who believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs may be taught that the most effective form of practice entails tackling challenges beyond one’s current skill level.

There’s more info on The Duckworth Lab website here. It’s geared to education but it would be fascinating if, in time, some of the ideas can be applied to other areas, such as business, by providing strategies for better personal success. Here’s a video summary:

The original motivation is interesting as well:

Duckworth began her graduate work by studying self-discipline. But when she completed her first-year thesis, based on a group of 164 eighth-graders from a Philadelphia middle school, she arrived at a startling discovery that would shape the course of her career: She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. So she became intensely interested in what strategies and tricks we might develop to maximize our self-control, and whether those strategies can be taught.


How To Please Everyone

September 26, 2013

An illuminating mini-story from the very wise Benjamin Franklin:

“A certain well-meaning man and his son were travelling towards a market town, with an ass which they had to sell. The road was bad, and the old man therefore rid [rode], but the son went afoot. The first passenger they met asked the father if he was not ashamed to ride by himself and suffer the poor lad to wade along through the mire; this induced him to take up his son behind him. He had not travelled far when he met others, who said they were two unmerciful lubbers to get both on the back of that poor ass, in such a deep road. Upon this the old man gets off and let his son ride alone.

The next they met called the lad a graceless, rascally young jackanapes to ride in that manner through the dirt while his aged father trudged along on foot; and they said the old man was a fool for suffering it. He then bid his son come down and walk with him, and they travelled on leading the ass by the halter; till they met another company, who called them a couple of senseless blockheads for going both on foot in such a dirty way when they had an empty ass with them, which they might ride upon. The old man could bear no longer. My son, he said, it grieves me much that we cannot please all these people. Let us throw the ass over the next bridge, and be no farther troubled with him.”

Spotted here.

Feynman’s Legendary Lectures

September 24, 2013


I started out in life as a physicist (in particle physics to be precise).  In hindsight, I was very lucky to be doing research during an extraordinarily productive period (see here and here) – it was an exciting time!

One aspect of this was helping give undergraduate courses as well as taking problem sessions. Courses usually had a standard textbook to go with them, and there was a good selection. At the same time, there was also the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLP) which were a very individualistic take on broadly the same material.

Rather remarkably, the first volume of the Feynman lectures is now available free online with the other two volumes in preparation. They’ve done a really excellent job, it’s worth taking a look, even if there’s only a passing interest. There’s some interesting background on the development of the online version here, including:

Mike Gottlieb has now devoted 13 years of his life to enhancing FLP and bringing the lectures to a broader audience, receiving little monetary compensation. I asked him yesterday about his motivation, and his answer surprised me somewhat. Mike wants to be able to look back at his life feeling that he has made a bigger contribution to the world than merely writing code and making money.

Finally, it’s revealing to read Feynman’s preface to these lectures (written in 1963):

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.

The above lectures are at an undergraduate level and some are quite advanced. If you’re interested in his lectures at a more general level, take a look instead at the his Messenger Lectures or else the videos produced by Christopher Sykes.

Feynman was quite a remarkable man and it’s very impressive that his legacy lives on in so many ways.

Picture credit: here.

Thriving Through Stories And Myths

September 22, 2013

Whilst reading a book on marketing the other day, I came across this quote:

“We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence becomes the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion.

Imagination, myth, ritual — the rich language of emotion — will affect everything from our purchasing decisions to how we work with others. Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths.

Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories.”

– Rolf Jensen (Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, author of The Dream Society).

It’s interesting to see the touching video The Power Of Words in this light. The first advert focuses on understanding information whilst the second evokes a deeper and more powerful response.

What are your (compelling) stories?

Differentiating Right From Wrong

September 18, 2013

From The Guardian, amongst a long list of ‘rules for writers’:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman (writer)

In my experience, this rule has much wider applicability!

The Benefit Of Summaries

September 15, 2013

“Perhaps the best test of a man’s intelligence is his capacity for making a summary.” — Lytton Strachey

I’m going through a number of old projects at the moment and realising how useful it would have been to have written a cogent summary at the end of each one, including key contacts and new ideas generated.

Usually there’s a rush to the next income-generating activity so this task gets demoted or put into the category of ‘when I get time’ (which usually means it doesn’t get done at all).

One reason it’s not done is that it’s not at all straightforward. You have to provide a balanced and insightful overview which means sifting information from a variety of disparate and often incomplete sources (emails, memories of meetings etc).

Sometimes there are gaps, which is actually very illuminating eg why exactly did we make that decision or did we just drift into it? how many other options did we really consider? did we talk to anyone else about it? how much were we operating in our comfort zone/wishful thinking?

Formal project material is always kept of course so it’s all (in principal) there but getting it out is often a frustrating and time-consuming process.

Writing independent summaries is potentially a very rich learning experience as you have to rethink the whole project. So, as an experiment, I’ve decided to start writing them by allocating a fixed amount of time to this (at the end of each project) no matter what.

I’ve realised that having something is better than having nothing, even if it’s only purpose is to act as a nontrivial memory jerker!

The Power Of Words

September 12, 2013

Very touching and effective.

It’s amazing what changing a few words can do to communicating a story – the power of good copywriting!