Clarify Your Uncertainty and Talk

May 9, 2017

Sage advice from the writer Tim Kreider:

The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.

Spotted here.

I’ve noticed, in connection with an idea I’ve been developing, that chatting to friends about it for 30 mins (attempting to explain it in a couple of clear sentences, handling the immediate objections, taking on board some incredibly useful suggestions) far outweighs researching it on Google (and getting endlessly distracted) for 2-3 hours! It’s amazing how helpful people can be (if you let them).

This is well-visualised below (you’re tapping into what and who they know, see here):

The Death of Expertise

May 4, 2017

I’m still suffering from bouts of insomnia but one of the odd useful side-effects is that I listen to all sorts of radio programmes in the middle of the night. Some are quite fascinating and I get hooked although I usually doze off before it finishes. Often I can’t remember the names or details of the topic, just that it was interesting but some fortunately stick in the mind.

A recent example was an interview with Tom Nichols, who is the author of a book entitled ‘The Death of Expertise’ (Oxford University Press, 2017). The book discusses the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion as a cultural trend. In the current climate (US Trump plus UK Brexit) this is especially relevant.

I’ve not read the book (although I’ve ordered it) but here are some extracts from a detailed review:

“He (Nicols) sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in ‘The Twilight of the Elites‘, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.”

“But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)”.

Note (see here): The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

Ignorance, Knowledge and Action

April 7, 2017

Interesting quote spotted recently:

“The gap between ignorance and knowledge is much less than the gap between knowledge and action.” –  Anonymous

I spend ages collecting all sorts of information and knowledge (probably because it’s rather easy and pleasant to do) but how much focused or useful action results from this is highly unlikely to be proportionate (it’s much harder, takes more time etc). So, as the above quote neatly emphasises, if anything, you need to cut down on the former (as it’s easy to rectify) and progressively aim at increasing the latter activity (and through practice get better at it).

Thanks For The Memory

February 14, 2017

From a recent article in Fast Company, although I’ve read similar views elsewhere:

But that cost to accuracy is the price of admission to your long-term memory. When you recall a memory, it feels as though you’re just summoning it up wholesale, but in reality your mind is reassembling disparate bits of information from various locations in your brain, using its schemas as assembly instructions to build something coherent. So maybe you combine details of two totally different events or remember something that didn’t happen at all.

It’s worth remembering this when you’re obsessing over mistakes or unfortunate events (situations you perceive you could have handled better, often with the benefit of hindsight). They may not have happened as you imagined them anyway, even if the emotional debris remains!


The Allure of Physical Books

May 31, 2016

TsundokuSee also here

I made an attempt to move over to ebooks a few years ago, mainly in the hope of realising some more space (I literally have hundreds of physical books, many from when I was an academic).

However, over time, I’ve realised that I really prefer physical ones (except for travel). I was curious why this was so and Michael Hyatt has given 8 reasons:

1. Ebooks Are out of Sight and out of Mind

2. Ebooks Engage Fewer Senses

3. Ebooks Make It Easier to Get Distracted

4. Ebooks Result in Less Retention and Comprehension

5. Ebooks Feel Too Much like Online Reading

6. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Interact With

7. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Navigate

8. Ebooks Provide Less Satisfaction in Finishing

My current approach is to read a new physical book through a local library (which also helps keep it going, so that’s a win-win) to see how good it is. If they don’t have it in stock it’s easy and cheap to request it (even for quite technical books eg through inter-library loans). In fact through the British Library you have access to most books that have been published (at least in the UK).

I’ve found in practice that having my own copy is now not that important and I now only buy a few ‘exceptional’ ones (ie ones that have a large and lasting impact on me).

However, I wonder if this is also generational. I was brought up on physical books but for someone brought up on ebooks (and digital media in general) it might be quite different.


Corporate and Personal Amnesia

April 15, 2016

From the BBC Business News site:

Britons today change job more frequently than workers in much of the rest of Europe and, as the economy improves, that churn rate increases. Young workers move jobs much often than older workers did.

But there’s a hidden cost.

Each time someone leaves their job, a chunk of the organisation’s memory leaves too. How, then, do you run complex systems, see through long-term projects, or avoid past mistakes?

Short-term contracts and outsourcing reduce the appetite for learning company or product history. And when job losses land, even more knowledge is lost.

This is a problem that has always existed of course but perhaps, with higher churn rates, it’s more serious than previously or perhaps the consequences are potentially more far reaching (global). I remember there was much talk on this subject over 15 years ago, when I was involved the the relatively new field of ‘knowledge management’.

The article gives some interesting and quite varied examples, including:

  • City firms – in 20012 the churn rate for one was 28%, higher than McDonalds.
  • Her Majesty’s Treasury – “the vast majority of Treasury staff had never been through even a recession, let alone a banking crisis.”
  • Nuclear weapons – “for years after the end of the Cold War, policy and expertise became less of a priority; collective memory leeched away as more and more people retired.”

Then there’s the problem of “preserving the institutional memory in the age of email and texts”.

Last year an official review of government digital records concluded that existing systems had not worked well. Most departments, it said, “have a mass of digital data stored on shared drives that is poorly organised and indexed”.

Historian Prof Sir David Cannadine, who was involved in the 2009 review of the “30-year rule” on the release of official papers, goes further.

Speaking at the British Academy in March, he said poor preservation of electronic records from the late 1980s to the early 2000s meant that often, when you looked for documents, “there’s nothing there”.

This latter point applies to my personal information as well. It’s dotted around in emails (in addition, I don’t always systematically save attachments), various databases (Evernote, Devonthink etc) as well as different types of notes/documents (Scrivener, Tinderbox etc) and mind maps (iThoughtsX etc). I could always try to interconnect them but you have to be careful that the time taken to do this (and keep things updated) may easily outweigh any advantages.

I think I’ll try and get back into the habit of writing one page monthly personal reviews. These won’t obviously capture everything (sometimes small events turn out to lead to bigger than anticipated consequences) and lots will remain in my head but the very process of just thinking about things is likely worth the time invested and hopefully provide a helpful and useful ‘memory’.

Igniting Exciting Conversations

March 7, 2016

There are lots of articles on the drawbacks of formal presentations (death by Powerpoint etc). I’ve certainly gone through many presentations that have ranged from boring to incomprehensible.

In a concise article, Jack Welch offers three tips (extracts below):

Rule #1: Keep your message simple. Not simplistic, mind you. Not dumbed down, either. But simple, as in not over-complicated and completely graspable.

It’s quite likely true that if the idea or premise can’t be made simple (but not simplistic) then there’s probably something wrong with it.

Rule #2: Tell your audience something they don’t know. I’m always amazed when a manager comes into an executive or board presentation and basically recites materials that all of us have already received by email.

As you can imagine, this would certainly grab people’s attention. This relates to Rule 1 of course!

Rule #3: Let your passion rip. I don’t get it, but there’s a popular strand of thinking that speakers gain credibility in front of audiences by appearing pensive and logical, almost contained to the point of flatness, like a 3-star general giving testimony before Congress.

This is sometimes more a question of confidence than anything else.

I quite like this extract, which I think gets to the heart of the matter:

“Giving a speech/presentation is not about relating information or a point of view so that people go, “Hmm,” and move along. It’s about igniting exciting conversations that go on long after you’re done talking.”

Consequently it will be invaluable to think through how you’d keep these conversations going and how best to benefit from them.