Thoughts on Youth and Grand Gestures

I really liked this essay from Minneapolis author Eric Hanson that appeared in today’s StarTribune.  He talks about the importance and significance of thinking big when you’re young.

At 21 we possess intelligence and ignorance in equal portions. Our brains are freshly crammed with knowledge, but knowledge of what?

When we are 21 we have everything and have earned nothing. We know everything except what we should do. We have committed our small crimes and are still forgiven for our mistakes. It is all up in the air.

As we approach graduation time, I’m surrounded by people coming to the end of their “formal” education who aren’t always so sure of what comes next. I always encourage them to hang onto dreams and hopes and not just “settle” for what they can get. If you want something badly enough and work at it, you can make it work over time.

So as Hanson says in his title, “Don’t just sit there. Do something!”

Dan Pink & DRIVE

I like this video a student of mine (thanks Ryan!) just sent. It’s a concise and visually fun summary of Dan Pink’s recent book Drive. Among the take-aways: 

Drive by Dan Pink

– Human behavior is often “non-economic”. We’re driven by personal motivations more than economic ones in many cases. Often to the extent that pay incentives are counter-productive.

– He poses three key elements to creating “drive”. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

– Freedom (with responsibility) can be powerful. Atlassian allows everyone a “free day” each month to do whatever they want and report out at a social event on Friday. The result is a flowering of creativity because people are working on what motivates them. Many of the company’s more meaningful innovations have come from this process. It reminds me of 3M’s 15% policy.

I encourage you to take a look if you are interested in behavior, incentives or organizational dynamics relating to autonomy and innovation.

Book Review: Crush It!

A friend of mine strongly suggested I read Gary Vaynerchuk’s CRUSH IT! awhile back. I finally picked up the copy I bought a few months ago and cranked through it on a flight to the West Coast.

I think it was worth the 2 hours to read if you are looking to start your own business, are curious about the evolving field of social networking and/or are trying to figure out how to develop your personal “brand” (I hate this term, but can’t think of a better one and everyone else talks this way.)

The book walks through a process of being honest with yourself about what you really like and then how to turn it into a personal platform, with an almost singular focus on on-line avenues to drive awareness.

“Are you Living, or just earning a living? You spend so much time at work, why waste it doing anything other than what you love most? Life is too short for that.” ( Page 3)

Major points of his that resonated with me, many of which I’ve hit on over time include: passion matters, it’s hard work to be successful and it takes time, networks matter for building scale etc. He does a nice job of walking through a logical process for building your platform and does it with a snarky tone I appreciate.

Here’s my critique: I think he overdoes the on-line bit. Perhaps, this isn’t necessarily a fair point, as he’s explicitly making his case for the on-line opportunities currently available to those with passion and acumen. But I see tremendous value in good old fashioned personal relationships. Knowing, trusted relationships are a part of a successful career/business. (I don’t think he would argue this point, I just think it is lost/missed in the book.)

Similarly, not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or to run their own business. Many find fulfillment and happiness in larger organizations. I still think that his suggestions for building awareness for yourself and your passions is important advice. Just recognize that for many it may remain a hobby or passion or that the platform and intent may be different.

For example: If you are happy working for large organizations (because they have capital, have large teams, offer global opportunities, offer benefits…whatever), then his advice about building your personal brand still applies. But the purpose will be creating demand for your services, as opposed to demand for your e-tailing business. It will be less about tweets and more about a great linkedin profile, attending conferences etc. to build professional reputation.

I recommend taking as look at CRUSH IT! if you’re interested in cranking your career engine up.

A New Jobless Era?

I was just reading an excellent article in The Atlantic: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – Magazine – The Atlantic

It discusses the long term implications of unemployment on individuals and our society. What I thought was particularly interesting (and scary) was the coupling of the personal impact of unemployment financially and emotionally with the current “millenial” generations’ personality. We’ll see how things play out. This is well worth a read.

The Importance of Wonder

One of my key criteria when evaluating a potential hire is “how curious are they?” Particularly in consulting, you have to want to solve problems. In my mind, you need to be curious and driven to get to answers to be a effective problem solver.

I think this column by Olivia Judson in the New York Times does a nice job of hitting on a piece of this: 

Her comments about wonder and imagination are worth considering. She lays out the case for imagination as critical to scientific inquiry. Progress isn’t a linear slog through gradual increase in the body of knowledge (“facts upon facts”). It’s lumpier progress, sometimes gradual and predictable at other times led by leaps of intuition that overturn the common understanding.

In my program, I often get feedback that I’m “too structured” or that I demand a lot from my students. Often, my point to students is about what Judson discusses. You need to have enough structure to get to good questions, but then be willing to let your mind wander and imagine possibilities. The challenge is often knowing when to turn the wandering back into concrete action steps and specific analysis and recommendations.  This takes time, thought and a lot of work. You don’t get anything right on the first try. It takes lots of iteration and feedback.

In her example, Rosalind Franklin didn’t make the critical connections about DNA’s structure because she was too rigid and linear in her thinking. Watson and Crick were more open to “playing” with ideas. Having said that, they were also driven problem solvers. Had they kept playing they wouldn’t have solved anything. Their play led to useful and increasingly accurate representations of the mystery they were trying to solve (the structure of DNA).

Business problems are often the same. There’s a time for wonder and imagination, but for it to turn out a useful product there also needs to be a time for tangible, concrete work product.

I guess experience is knowing when the balance is “just right”.

Michael Sandel's "Justice"

Michael Sandel is a renowned Harvard professor who teaches a class titled “Justice”. Its subject matter is ethical decisions and challenging students’ mental models. (ie: actually challenging people to think.) His class has been recorded in a high production value setting by WGBH in Boston and is now available online at

It’s interesting and thought provoking material and the episodes come with suggested readings to go with them. I always appreciate excellent teaching and would encourage you to take a look at the site, even if you don’t have the time to watch all 12 episodes.

Making Things Happen

I just had a link to this ebook sent to me by a friend. Read this and tell me you can’t get going on a search in tough times.

Charlie paints a compelling picture of clear strategies for getting connected to great work. It’s about being assertive, showing value and making people offers they can’t refuse. The traditioanl process works for some, but if it’s not working for you, don’t be a victim. Re-frame and get going.

I was really proud of my students this summer who took “non-traditional” (ie: unpaid) internships. Many of them ended up with work that was as good as or better than they would have normally and as this ebook points out, it was more on their own terms.

I disagree with his point about the value of graduate degrees (I’m biased I guess, I teach in an MBA program). Not everyone is equipped to be as entrepreneurial as Charlie is and need some structure and support on their journey. Grad degrees are great for the people they help and a waste for people who aren’t interested or are self-sufficient.

But that’s quibbling, the principles here are important ones and I encourage you to take a look.

Advice from a CEO

A former student sent along this great interview with Gary E. McCullough, president and chief executive of the Career Education Corporation from the NYT. I thought this was a great summary of many themes I try to convey in my teaching and writing. Be good to others, have a plan but be flexible in manging your career etc.

I’m back in the saddle after a nice vacation and will be posting regularly starting this week…

"Just Drawn that Way"

Michael Arthur has an interesting post at this week. He writes the Happy Days blog and this week’s post is titled “Just Drawn that Way“. He describes his personal  journey to a unique job and career. He covers themes of personal loss, soul searching and taking a personal risk.

Arthur struck a chord with me when he describes how the loss of several relatives and friends drove serious re-appraisal of his career choices. The loss of both my parents in 2006-7 played a big role in shaping my priorities. It made me really contemplate what mattered to me. It also lessened my own sense of “risk”. After sitting with two of the people I loved more than anything in the world and watching them die slowly of cancer, nothing seemed all that daunting really.  

He also hits on the seeming randomness of his path. As I often say, things make sense looking back. You can usually see the themes and connections. But you would never have predicted the outcome looking forward for those who choose paths a little less traveled. So open yourself up to what comes. Life is inherently unpredicable, so go with it.

I loved this quote about realizing what matters to you: “Nine years ago, however, I was a theater professor in Austin, Tex. I had drawn all my life, but had never taken an art class. I was a compulsive doodler who had never viewed drawing as anything other than a diversion until, quite suddenly, I realized that it was actually the rest of my life that had been the diversion.”

Perfect. Figure out what matters to you and what the diversions are.

I’ve seen this before…

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.