Archive | October 2013

Some Sobering Points Regarding “Wildly Successful People”

I often get impatient with my own social scientist’s penchant for “it all depends…”  But seriously, how do you define “success” in your profession?  And is that definition truly applicable to you yourself?  Does this definition change with times?

My kind of success.

My kind of success.

One of the articles on “LinkedIn,” yet another social network, titled The 5 Traits of Wildly Successful People” caught my attention.  The author starts with the premise that hard work alone is insufficient to lead to success.  From his research on some “wildly successful people,” he identifies five traits (my interpretations in parentheses):

1.  Chase the School Bus (Determination).

Sugar Ray Leonard did not ride the school bus with his siblings; he ran after it.

2.  Stray from the Pack (Deviate from the norm).

By following trends, a business is likely to just coast along at the survival level.  So, Tim Ferriss, owner of an online supplier of sport nutrition products, demanded prepayment for shipments instead of following the industry practice of receiving payment 12 months after shipment.

3.  Create Corkboards (Assemble Facts/Data).

Peter Guber, former CEO of Sony, started his career by paying attention to the documented facts of industry talent instead of relying on word of mouth and connections.  He created corkboards detailing factual data on talents to be considered, in his office.

4.  Get on “Qi Time” (Squeezing More Time out of 24 hours).

Mr. Qi Lu, of Microsoft, was dismayed with “wasting” time on sleep.  He wanted more time to read and learn.  Mastering qi gong, a technique combining breathing exercises and meditation to regulate one’s body, Mr. Lu trained his body to sleep only four hours a day.

5.  Play the People Game (Networking).

Steven Spielberg placed a premium on cultivating relationships with directors and stars in Hollywood…since his college days beginning at 19.  He arranged his class schedule around his meeting times with movers and shakers.

By themselves, each of these traits has some merit, except #4 which I will come to later.  However, just simply following any or even all of them doesn’t automatically lead to success. I think it is axiomatic to say that by not doing/acquiring any of these traits, one is certain to not succeed.  But ultimately, the key question is:  How, and when, do I know that I am not on a fool’s errand?  In other words, I can strongly believe in my goal and I can pursue it doggedly for years, but at what point does it become a quixotic pursuit?  “Taking risks” does not mean doing something headlong without care; it still requires forethought.

Firey and wild sky.

Firey and wild sky.

As for breaking the norms, I am all for the general principle.  However, there is an art to being a deviant:  you can’t be too deviant. Dan Pallota, former CEO of TeamWorks, achieved wild success in raising an unprecedented amount of money for charity causes by breaking norms, and he got burned eventually.

Networking is one of the crucial traits in any entrepreneurial undertaking, but not necessarily for all professions.  Besides, are introverts doomed to be left out of the “wildly successful” league?  Furthermore, Mr. Spielberg lived in a different era and had a different social background.  I am sure these days if any Joe or Mary approaches a big-name director or movie star to do lunch (which was one of Mr. Spielberg’s aims), s/he is either blocked by the gorilla guards or hauled off for suspicious behavior.

As for Mr. Lu’s Qi Gongi, literally, more power to him.  However, I consider his practice a bit extreme and his view myopic.  To consider sleep a waste of time?  And he’s from the culture that introduced us to Ying-Yang dynamics!  Sleep and rest recharge us to make our wakeful activities more effective.  Yes, if he can get away with 4 hours of sleep a night, good for him.  But to regard sleep time as a waste? Yes, yes, sometimes, we wish we could have more wakeful hours, but not on an everyday basis, nor on a long-term basis.

Listicles tend to make me batty.  Isolated traits may inform us, but none of these traits is definitive.  I prefer a different take on striving for accomplishment (same as “success?”):  “When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”  — from psychologist, Anders Ericsson, Florida State University.

What are some of your examples of “wildly successful people?”  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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M&M – the kind that leaves a bad taste

I am not a fan of chocolate, but an occasional handful of M&Ms is fun.  But now contemplate the combination of “Managers & Meetings.”  How many of you think that’s fun, tasty, and leaves you wanting more?  Even managers themselves often lament the number of meetings they have to attend, with a typical response, “Well…I guess it’s a necessary evil.”  The non-managers are usually powerless to eliminate meetings.  So it is up to the managers.  The problem is that their bar for “necessary” meetings may be too low.  Meetings should be the last resort to get all involved in a room to hash out details, bugs, or whatever to get things done.  Even brainstorming is an oversold concept whose effectiveness is suspect at best.  Sadly, in today’s organizations, meetings have too often become the default.

let’s do lunch

According to Jason Fried, of 37signals in Chicago (on TED Radio Hour), “Meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work.”  Overkill?  Not to those who can’t seem to find even one whole hour during a day in which to think and to actually produce some results.  How many people doing desk jobs would claim that their most productive time and place for work are in the office?  So, why do people compete for that prestigious corner office? It’s for “meetings” to impress others.  The biggest enemy to getting work done is fragmentation of the workday, and meetings occupy a prominent role in fracturing people’s precious time at work.

When I taught a large undergraduate core course at Wharton, the half dozen instructors had a cadre of paid undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) who managed the small breakout groups.  These TAs were the lifeline for us instructors; they were diligent, stayed on top of the class progress, and anticipated many glitches.  One of my colleagues semi-joked, “We [the instructors] are really the speed bumps for the TAs.”  Thank goodness, most of the instructors accepted the wisdom within his joke and we tried to stay out of the TAs’ managing skills while remaining supportive.  Occasionally, I felt as if I didn’t “do” enough, but fortunately, I had too much else to do to feel bad for long. I was more than happy to let my TAs “lead.”

I wonder how many managers feel the need to do “something” just so that they look engaged and important?

In one of my jobs at a big organization, we had to do a “pre-planning” planning meeting.  When I first heard of it, I thought my manager was being humorous.  How wrong I was!  That “pre-planning” meeting took a whole day, not including the preparation for it.  And by the way, it didn’t make the actual planning meeting go much smoother.

This particular TED Hour was about collaboration, so the host of the program wondered if meetings were indeed able to facilitate collaborations.  Some meetings, a few, are good for genuine collaborations, but face-to-face meetings are not necessary for all collaboration.  One example the host mentioned was Wikipedia where most authors contributing to the site do not need to be physically under the same space.  In fact, imagine having all the Wikipedia authors be housed together!

solitude meeting

Meeting with one’s milieu.

Mr. Fried’s suggestions regarding overabundant meetings are:  1.  Simply cancel a meeting or two…truly cancel it, not just move it to a different time.  2.  Have a no-meeting day, say, every Thursday, or even a no-meeting half-day once a week.

Mr. Fried’s ideas are not unlike the “FedEx Day,” where employees are given some “free” time to explore any ideas related to work.  “Free” time.  What a concept!  How did we get into the current mad-dash situation that so epitomizes today’s organizations?  Answers to this warrant several dissertations, but please share your thoughts anyway.

Are there meetings within your power to nix?  Till next time we “meet,”

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Something Creative

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its 2013 Fellows, so I have “creativity” on my brain.  Again.  Around the time of the announcement, the “Room for Debate” Op-Ed in New York Times (link below) had several panelists pen their opinions on “Is Creativity Endangered?”  Nothing terribly new, and there were no earth-shatteringly creative perspectives in these op-ed pieces, but a little synthesis of my favorite points, combining some other perspectives, can at least provide some food for thought.

When we mention “creative people,” we tend to immediately link the term to artists, and associate them with “pushing the envelope.” Jana Malamud Smith captures this sentiment more poetically, “We tend to make artists special…because we ask their works to map the outer edge of what is psychologically, aesthetically, technically, and imaginatively possible.  We ask them to move us deeply.  To appropriate Kafka’s famous thought…we ask their works to labor as ice axes breaking ‘the frozen sea within us.’”  (Big thanks to Lauren Camp, from her “Which Silk Shirt” on Mastering Creativity)

A little "stone forest" sprouted on a school yard, a spontaneous creation.  Every so often, it gets flattened, and a few days later, a new one pops up.

A little “stone forest” sprouted on a school yard, a spontaneous creation. Every so often, it gets flattened, and a few days later, a new one pops up.

Of course, creativity is not limited to artists.  So, MacArthur’s annual gift of fellowships is all the more interesting in its manifestation of diversity.  There are scientists, musicians, poets/writers, educators, archeologist, audio preservationist, historian, etc.  Most of them are not just talented in their professional disciplines; they are the explorers of the “intersections of disciplines.”

Intellectually, we know and appreciate the risks creative individuals take to bring us breakthroughs, innovations, different perspectives, and to prod us to step into somewhere we haven’t experienced.  Emotionally, sometimes, we like the outcomes and other times, we kick and scream or downright detest what’s being proposed.  And probably just as often, we shrug our indifference.  It’s not an easy task to break “the frozen sea within us,” for both the axe-bearer and the receiver.  If these creative endeavors produce success stories, we celebrate the acts and the actors, but the majority of the creative undertakings probably go into the waste bins.  In general, we are not too kind to “failures” – which are not all equal, though we tend to treat them equally — especially in organizations.

Some would argue that organizations are designed for efficient operations on known procedures in order to bring maximum profits.  That certainly is a big slice of organizational purpose.  However, even with such a purpose in mind, organizations can only truly thrive and grow if they pay attention to innovative designs of products and services and create an atmosphere in which employees desire to master their skills.  Organizations that survive from year to year without innovation eventually go out of business, or, quite often become the “permanently failing organizations,” a topic I will address in the near future.

A totally accidental painting, but it was juried into a show.  Not arguing...

“Blue Dream,” a totally accidental painting, but it was juried into a show. Not arguing…

Not all the creative and innovative breakthroughs need to be of headline-grabbing quality.  Do small ones count?  In our “ordinary” lives, yes, they do.  In organizations, incremental changes and improvements – small and not easily noticeable — though probably offering lasting effects, tend NOT to get major promotions for their developers.  There is another potential detriment for creativity in organizational environment: Organizations are big on groups and committees.  Groups and collaborators can create, and have from time to time produced, innovative ideas, products, and practices.  However, it is most often the individuals’ thinking and working alone that lead to creative breakthroughs.  One of the “Room for Debate” op-ed authors encourages us to immerse ourselves in nature, for example, walking in the woods, to find the creative flow.  A group walking in the woods for awesome ideas?  Possible, not probable.

In his op-ed piece in the New York Time, the strategic and innovation designer, Idris Mootee writes, “Creativity is not just about ‘aha’ moments or interesting ways to look at things. Creativity is about putting empathy to work. Creativity is not about perfection. Creativity is a means to solve complicated problems.”  And, “Many heads are not necessarily better than one. Many heads often reduce creativity by producing group-think. Give individuals space to create, with well-defined goals. Then use the group to build on those ideas and to improvise.”

I find strong resonance in Mr. Mootee’s words.  What’s your view on creativity?

Heavy travel is taking a toll on my “creative” time, and so I need to skip the next week and resume in this space on 10/20.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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