Archive | April 2014

Misusing Metaphors

Use of metaphors is probably the ultimate “socially constructed reality.” My favorite examples (from Kenwyn Smith’s Philosophical Problems in Thinking About Change): Snow blanketing the ground and snow sitting on the ground evoke different emotions in us. The former offers a sense of protection, and the latter domination. The context adds more complexity. In “the thick fog blanketed the city,” this “blanket” most decidedly does not offer any sense of protection. We use “David and Goliath” as a metaphor for little guy’s beating the big guy despite all probability. Malcolm Gladwell challenges such misconception in his yet another TED presentation.

Even though the story of David and Goliath is biblical, the principles of our imagination and logic still apply…besides, a story is a powerful tool anywhere, any time, any how.

In the battle between David and Goliath, David, this little shepherd boy, was equipped with only a stick, a sling, and a few stones (he used only one in the final act). Goliath was a 6’9” giant, fully armored and possessing a javelin, a spear, and a sword. Hence, “against all probability” for “the underdog” when we use this metaphor. But, was David truly the underdog?


Why not?

He was small, but he was well equipped, almost as fully equipped as Goliath. (Just how many weapons can one use at a time?) In ancient times, a sling with stones was not the modern day slingshot toy. A sling in the hands of a seasoned solider was a formidable weapon. Though a shepherd, David undoubtedly was experienced protecting his herd against wild animals. He possessed a weapon he knew well, and he possessed the skills developed in years of practice (probably not quite 10,000 hours…so, might he possess some innate talent?!).

In Gladwell’s analysis of this story, he presents Goliath as a giant with handicaps. Gladwell conjectures that Goliath might be inflicted with the disease, acromegaly, giantism manifested by slow movement and nearsightedness or double vision. Gladwell proposes this – backed by medical professionals’ speculation — because Goliath said, “Am I a dog that you would come to me with sticks” when he saw David approaching with his shepherd stick.

The end of the story is: David hit Goliath right between his eyes with a stone from one shot. Gladwell further elaborates the significance of this stone. Stones from Valley of Elah were likely barium sulfate, which meant they had twice the density of a normal rock. The distance between David and Goliath was not great, and with the dense stone thrown at the velocity of “probably 35 meters per second,” David was able to knock down the giant in one sling shot.

Whether we buy Gladwell’s modern analysis – his analytical points might not be original but he provides a compelling synthesis – the point is that we have been misconstruing the meaning of “David and Goliath.” It isn’t really about the underdog beating the giant against all odds; it’s more about an outsider’s skillful nimbleness taking down a lumbering overconfident establishment. David was not part of King Saul’s army, hence “an outsider.”

Even with this new understanding of the story, it may not be a totally accurate description of new startup ventures facing down giant corporations, such as all the small firms in Silicon Valley battling against Microsoft, Google, or Apple. In the world of organizations, taking down a giant with one shot isn’t likely to happen. However, it is true that the small firm’s nimbleness is often superior to giant’s hidebound status quo. Looking at the giant establishments all around us, including US’s standing in the world, we should all be humble about learning from “little guys.”

Do you have other examples to share?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Never-Ending Nature-Nurture Debate

Mr. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues would like to convince us that so-called “innate talent” is highly overrated…if it exists at all. They are convinced by their own research (and others’) that ultimately, it is long-term and highly committed effort, at least 10,000 hours or 10 years, that propel certain people to the top echelon of experts and elite performers in all fields. After reading two articles by Ericsson and several colleagues, one published in Psychological Review (PR) and the other in Harvard Business Review (HBR), I still have doubts. I have no quarrel with their methodology, but I question how they gloss over some important premises.

I am convinced that consistent, thoughtful, and determined hard work pave the foundation for anyone who wants to excel in her chosen professional field. I am also convinced that an early start, say, as young as three-years old, does make some difference (in fields which allow such early starts, of course). I just find the notion that “innate talent” plays a miniscule if any part in the development of elite professionals, to be very troublesome.zack6

In the PR article, Ericsson et al provide evidence through two studies, one with violinists and the other with pianists. The authors demonstrate that the elite performers have the edge over their lesser-accomplished contemporaries primarily through the former group’s accumulated practice hours, starting in their childhood. If some of these elite performers were deemed “child prodigies” it is because their parents, or adult guardians, perceived them to be talented, at playing the piano, running, drawing, playing chess, etc. The adults then provided resources to nurture children with these budding skills, or should I say, to nurture these budding skills in their children. Ericsson el al recognize the children’s enjoyment in doing these activities as an important motivational factor; after all, lengthy practice is inherently un-enjoyable per se, you have to like what you do in order to persevere. And because the children keep receiving praise for what they do well, this in turn gives them more incentives to willingly spend more hours practicing.

I think these researchers have discounted this “intrinsic motivation” too quickly. For preschoolers to “endure” hours of practice, parents’ demands alone don’t cut it, and the children’s own “simple” determination, will power, or “grit” (the current buzzword) doesn’t quite add up either. Might the long hours of practice seem “un-enjoyable” only to outsiders? Might there be some level of joy in the practice that is in synch with their developing skills? The question is how do we unpack the emotions from the activities, for the sake of measurement.

In the HBR article, Ericsson el al (a different group of colleagues) quote the well-known scientist Lord Kelvin, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” Might this be the reason the authors discount intrinsic motivation? Yet just because we cannot easily measure intrinsic motivation, emotions, or soul, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or can’t be improved upon. For millennia, human beings have been trying to grasp what constitutes sentience, as in “sentient beings.” And for millennia sentience has defied measurement and the best we have ever done is assert it (“cogito ergo sum”); but does it follow that we cannot improve upon our “sentience” simply because we can’t measure it? Can we measure the very thought that Lord Kelvin must have had when he asserted the importance of measurement?

One marginal outcome from at least 100 iterations of the same character...and bamboo stalk.

One marginal outcome from at least 100 iterations of the same character…and bamboo stalk.

Since HBR articles are designed for business community and management, the authors try to argue that managers can practice to achieve better management. They choose the example of charisma, manifested in public speaking. Of course, one can improve on public speaking, but in different assessments of management skills, “charisma” or “public speaking” does not rank very high. In fact, I wonder what are the practicable management skills – and which of such practicable skills truly make one a better manager? Listening, yes, making better relationships, of course. If only improving relationships were readily learnable and practicable! In both HBR and PR articles, we learn that elite members, or experts, devote 2-4 hours every day on practicing their chosen skills. What can managers practice? Do 8 hours a day being a manager also constitute practicing management? Discipline is an important feature of the elite performers. In what aspects should managers discipline their practice? (I vote for meditation.)

The HBR article ends with an example that almost made my head explode. The authors, while not disputing the extraordinary accomplishments of Mozart, assertively remind readers that Mozart started early – at age four – under his father who was a skilled composer and an author of a violin instruction manual.   While the modern authors do not explicitly claim that there could have been other Mozarts given those two key elements, they do insist that with an early start and tutelage under an expert, any one of us may achieve Mozart-esque status.

I guess “Tiger Moms” would agree with such an assertion. Yet, of all the children brought up by tiger moms with emphasis on playing music instruments, how many have achieved national and international status? More likely, many of these children slack off the practice as soon as they become independent. That pesky unmeasurable “intrinsic motivation” probably has something to do with it. Or, it might have something to do with innate talent, or rather, the lack thereof.

possible?We can also learn about the issue of innate talent from adults acquiring new skills. For instance, I wonder how many novices recruited to becoming pilots in the British RAF during WWII made it through the program? The instructors couldn’t have had the luxury then of nurturing anyone and everyone into competence. On what criteria was the selection made? From Googling, I learn that nowadays a person who cannot pilot solo after about 10-12 hours of instructor flight time may be less able than average. Doesn’t this suggest some influence of innate ability?flying human

A recent BBC story reports that artists’ brain images show grey matter in certain areas that are different (more) from non-artists. It is possible that the years of practice produce this additional grey matter. Brains are malleable. However, we still do not know the cause and effect; more research is needed.

No one doubts the importance of long-term, deliberate practice, but I think Ericsson and his colleagues have not presented a convincing case against the existence and importance of “innate talent.”

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Practice, Practice, Practice… Is 10,000 Hours Really The Key?

Drawing for 10,000 hours would not automatically make a person into the next Da Vinci. One needs both the quantity of hours of doing and quality of thinking. What’s more, the keys to quality practice lie in making mistakes and getting informative feedback. Otherwise, the monotonous practice is at best, rote learning.

Nature's excellence.

Nature’s excellence.

It’s ironic that in the age of stressful lives, jam-packed schedules, and perpetual shortcuts, there has been this buzz about practicing 10,000 hours to reach excellence and expertise. Yet, the ultimate irony is that this focus on just the number is a half-truth, truncated from its original research finding. Anders Ericsson whose work on “The Making of Experts” lays out the foundation of how virtuosos have come about. Ericsson and his colleagues argue that expertise is not based on innate talents or skills, but years of “deliberate practice and coaching.” 10,000 hours of practice spanning roughly 10 years. Yes, practice is important, but it is not sufficient and it’s only half of the formula for success. The “deliberate practice and coaching” somehow got lost in the translation for popularization.

The deliberate effort entails focus and concentration, and mentors’/experts’ coaching provides the fuel for that focus. Highly concentrated practice, though, can be exhausting. Most virtuosos, of all fields, tend to do their most focused work in the morning and for only a handful of hours. During such focused work periods, their mindful engagement is in high gear analyzing one or two particular aspects of what they do to propel themselves to the next level. Still, there is value to autopilot-type of practice; we gain familiarity and minimize mistakes

Daniel Goldman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” adds another element in this “success formula:” feedback loop. Experts’ and coaches’ feedback is important, of course, but others’ input can also be valid and valuable. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes and ears, of someone outside the field, may provide some “out of the box” ideas. Equally important in such feedback loops is the attention to the mistakes we tend to make as we gain proficiency. Sounds like common-sense, but how often do we allow people to make mistakes, at work or elsewhere? (I have touched on this aspect many times in the past.)

However, the relationship between mistakes and progress isn’t symmetric. Rarely can we progress without faltering or making mistakes; yet mistakes alone don’t necessarily lead to progress. When we become more proficient in our instrument, task, project, we make less mistakes, but eventually our performance plateaus. Most people may be content to coast along – “good enough” being the standard – while exceptional practitioners want to push themselves further by taking up something new, or reaching new levels (and therefore making more mistakes). On the fifth hand, coasting along offers some value as well: we can daydream a little during this period. After all, daydreaming is a foundational part of the creative process.

I was told, "Excellent!"

I was told, “Excellent!”

Who says the road to excellence is a straightforward journey? It’s a constant interplay between making mistakes, learning, coasting, daydreaming, climbing, reflection, taking up new angles, discarding bad habits, and on and on.

The journey to excellence requires a lot of thoughtful hard work. However, even with thoughtful hard work doesn’t mean we can all become Einstein, Mozart, Michelangelo, Jane Austen, etc. Geniuses still need to work hard to stay exceptional, but I reject Ericcson’s notion that everyone can become a genius with the right combination of hard work and thoughtful deliberation. I will argue my case next week. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Those Little Annoying Things In Our Daily Life Can Add Up

For instance, if the phone computerized recording tells me, “Remember, you must first dial ‘1’,” why couldn’t a program have been written that just inserts the “1” automatically? Or, when I key in my library ID number, with spaces as it appears on my card, I get, “please do not use space.” Then, why do you issue the card with the spaces (or, why not program to accommodate or ignore the “spaces”)? I am computer illiterate, so I am sure I miss nuances about programming. However, from a user’s point of view, my queries stand.

When reaching the programmed temperature, my hot water dispenser merrily plays a bungled Bach tune. How cute! But when we want something with an automated function, wouldn’t we want to be left alone? Isn’t that the definition of “automation?” My refrigerator beeps at me if I leave it open longer than it’s programmed to tolerate. The car beeps at me for numerous reasons, significant or otherwise; the washer and dryer beep at me. Gmail informs me every that I can “activate notification.” Why?! If I forget to put the gearshift in “P” as I get out of my car, it beeps. Someday, we are going to ask each other, “Can you hear that beep in my head?”

No confusion for what to do with these delicious.

No confusion for what to do with these delicious.

Modern technologies certainly have given us plenty of conveniences, but also seem determined to deprive us of peace much of the time. For a little while, I was enamored with Apple products. Currently, I still have “i” of everything made by Apple. Given my woefully inadequate computer background, I am very thankful for my resident computer guru; however, he has now more than occasionally sworn, “No more Apple!” Not that he thinks other brands are necessarily better.

Recently, my guru decided to authorize all our Apple products under the “cloud” feature. In the process, we learned that we had to update this rig and that device. So, we did. But then, our desktop Apple was deemed so old that the latest OS would not be available unless we purchased it. The price for OS is a pittance compared to the cost of the hardware. However, the point is: Why is that decision made by the corporation? And not by the customers? A couple of years ago, when we brought our desktop to the Apple store for what should have been a minor repair, the Apple “genius” commented that we probably should update our computer soon. Really? Of course, in the Apple universe, everyone can afford it. The point is: Shouldn’t that be the customer’s decision, without being forced by all the updates?

This week, I found out that in order to use my new SD card for my camera, I had to update the “raw camera” program in my Photoshop. My laptop is new enough to have the latest OS, but not our “old” desktop. We finally raised the white flag and ordered the latest OS for our still sleek-looking Apple desktop.

Hard to say how many complaints about Apple products are “out there;” evidently not nearly enough to so disturb Apple as to actually address them. So, I have another fantasy. If we can organize a consumer boycott, postponing all purchases of Apple products by just one month with the message that the company really needs to zap away all these annoying bugs… A loss of, say, 5 million purchases a month would surely catch the company’s attention.


Strandbeest  (check out this link on “Strandbeest”…wonderful design, very complicated, but oh so inspiring, and it works.)

Someday, maybe, only maybe, someone can finally figure out that for a truly superior software system, every update means less storage space required, faster operation, no need to learn additional features that you didn’t want in the first place, total compatibility with other software including everything that ran under the older operating system. Oh, and a truly superior software system should need updates only very infrequently. And not require you to spend more money.

I wonder, do airlines pilots have to respond to “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” before the software responds to their command? Hopefully pilots don’t have to respond repeatedly, but then why do the rest of us have to repeatedly reassure our computer’s operating system before we can even shut it off?

And I have naively thought that the “free” market is supposed to provide customers what they want.

Now I feel little better. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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