This post is inspired by a talk “You and your research” by Richard Hamming.

One life to live

Richard Hamming

“Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean.” Richard Hamming speaking to Bellcore, 7 March, 1986.

My summary of Hamming’s lessons for success (as a scientist, but I believe easily applicable to any profession) are:

Hammings 13 Lessons for Success

  • Work hard
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Work on important problems
  • Plant acorns to grow oaks
  • When opportunity appears pursue it fully
  • Keep your door open sometimes, closed sometimes
  • Do your job in such a way that others can build on it
  • Even scientists have to sell (learn to speak well)
  • Educate your bosses
  • How you dress matters
  • Be good to secretaries
  • Let others fight the system (you can do great work or fight the system, not both)
  • Always look for positive not negative
  • Know yourself, your weaknesses, your self-delusions (we all have self-delusions)

All the talent, but don’t deliver

Richard Hamming says about people who have greatness within their grasp but don’t succeed:

  1. they don’t work on important problems (Bad work, good work, great work)
  2. they don’t become emotionally involved,
  3. they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and
  4. they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck.

How success and fame can ruin you

“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.”

How to keep it going for life

“Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks.”

“It is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than to solve the wrong problem the right way.”

Thanks to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator for sharing this talk on his blog.  The full text of the talk is here.

What do you think?

Are you planting acorns?  Are you fighting the system? or doing great work?  Is it true that you cannot do both?  (sometimes the system is wrong…  what should I do?)  Join the discussion here.

Four false myths of creativity from The Innovation Architect blog:

  1. Creativity should be fun – brainstorming and coloured post-it notes are preferred to the hard work of challenging existing practices and solving recurrent problems. As a boss, are you prepared to be told that “you have been doing it wrong”?
  2. All ideas are good; all good ideas are self evident – I have heard my bosses at various moments in my career state “all ideas are good ideas”.  This is not true.  Some ideas are really bad ideas.  Some ideas are breathtakingly stupid. Truly original ideas are often not self-evidently “good”. If you have been part of the existing system for long enough, you will be blind to some great ideas that break long-held assumptions about the way the world should work. Music and book publishing companies will not be capable of seeing new ways of delivering music or book content to listeners and readers that challenge their core assumptions of how the world should work.
  3. Innovation is entrepreneurship – many of the most innovative people haven’t got an entrepreneurial bone in their body – they can be quite impervious to the commercial aspects of their new solutions. 
  4. The creative imperative – This is the final and overarching myth – that you and your company need to pursue it in the first place.  Innovation has a cost.  It needs time, money and attention if it is really to become part of the company DNA.  If you are not willing to commit the resources then perhaps your best innovation strategy is to not innovate at all.
The Innovation Architect blog is written by Professor Paddy Miller and collaborators Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and Azra Brankovic from IESE Business School.

Photo Credit: SteveJM2009
Photo Credit: SteveJM2009

Five little productive ideas to start the week from five interesting bloggers and authors.

  1. The end of busy at Zen Habits from Leo Babauta.  “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” Lao Tzu.
  2. Feeding the Idea Beast at the 168 hour blog by Laura Vanderkam. Where do breakthrough ideas really come from?  PS Not checking email, answering phone, sitting in meetings…  “Stress comes from spending time on stuff that doesn’t matter.”
  3. Entrepreneurs (this applies to everybody) must take control of their time at Startup Professionals Musings by Marty Zwilling
  4. Hope and the Magic Lottery by Seth Godin at his blog.  There are 2 types of entrepreneurial hope.  One is good.  One is very bad for you.
  5. The surprising truth about what motivates us – a 10 minute whiteboard cartoon video that summarises Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  Video is on the blog here.

Enjoy your week.

This is another blog post inspired by a TED video. This one on the world of online games by Jane McGonigle. 

Humans spend 3 billion hours a week spent playing online games.  This is a lot.  Many American teenagers will have accumulated more hours playing online games than school hours by the age of 18. 

Two questions: 1) why? and 2) what are they learning?

The answer to number one is quite simple.  I can approach this as a economist might approach it.  Each individual case will have their specific reasons, but on a massive scale people play because there is something better about being in the virtual game world than they get in their real world.  Jane McGonigle in her TED talk identifies 4 specific disciplines that are part of a gamer’s experience of the virtual game world.

  1. Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation, the desire to act immediately to tackle a problem and to start now with a belief in a good chance of success.  There is a constant belief in the existance of the epic win – a winning outcome that you sense will be bigger and better than anything you could imagine.
  2. Social Fabric – instinct to trust.  The attitude of gamers in virtual online worlds is to trust and share resources and challenges with unknown strangers.
  3. Blissful productivity – we know that we are happy when we are working hard.  The average gamer of World of Warcraft plays 22 hours a week.  These are not 22 hours of watching the clock, waiting for the coffee break or the school bell to ring.  These are 22 hours of intense problem solving, collaboration, trying and trying and experimenting until the gamer achieves an outcome.  Gamers know that they are most fulfilled when they are totally absorbed in their tasks.
  4. Epic Meaning – gamers love to be attached to awe inspiring missions.  They might be tapping buttons and shifting pixels, but they believe that this is connected to a really worthwhile purpose – saving the galaxy, taking Argentina to the world cup final, defeating evil.

An the answer to question 2 – what are they learning?  Jess says they are learning to be “super empowered hopeful individuals”.  The pity is that they are not taking these super powers – persistance against all odds, trust and openness to strangers, desire to work hard and faith in something bigger – over to the real world.

What can we do to make real world more like these games?  What can be done to allow kids to feel that it is worth working hard to build something important?

This is relevant for anyone who communicates regularly from a position of authority – doctors, scientists, professors…

3 Types of Experts

I have had several people who have expertise say to me “but I haven’t been successful myself”.  Toni Nadal isn’t better at tennis than Rafa, but he knows how to get results. Michael Porter hasn’t run a business, but he has spent a lifetime interviewing people that have.  There are 3 types of experts:

  1. The Result Expert – Proven ability to get specific results for others
  2. The Research Expert – Has interviewed performers and has a deep knowledge of tools, strategies and tactics in an area
  3. The Role Model – Has been successful

Tim Ferriss has an interesting perspective: “you can learn more from the person who shouldn’t be good, but is than from the person who is naturally excellent.”  Roger Federer has every natural gift to be a top tennis player.  Rafa Nadal had to really fight to become number 1.  Most of us can learn more from Rafa’s approach than we could learn by understanding Federer.

Four Actions of Experts

There are four things that the best experts do:

  1. Choose mastery.  Choose continuous learning. Choose to read, to review, to focus intensely on a continuous process of learning and growing in the specific field in which they are experts.  Go deep rather than go broad.
  2. Regularly interview other experts looking for patterns and best practice.
  3. Create arguments based on four parts:
    1. What we should be paying attention to
    2. What things mean
    3. How things work
    4. What might happen
  4. Simplify complex ideas with frameworks

Four Actions of Wealthy Experts

There are four further things that can differentiate the wealthy expert from the plain expert:

  1. Package their knowledge: Write, speak, record – put knowledge into a form that people are willing to purchase
  2. Campaign vs Promote their knowledge – each interaction leads to a further interaction
  3. Charge expert fees – charge more than you are comfortable with
  4. Focus on:
    1. Distinction – Keep studying the competition and keep innovating
    2. Excellence – Be better
    3. Service – Be helpful and responsive

These 8 actions come from this video from Brandon Burchard.  Brandon helps others become well-paid experts.

I like his explanation of what differentiates a true expert from non-experts.

I will finish with a thought from Charles Handy, the Irish business philosopher who was one of the founders of London Business School.

“The aim of education is to give someone the self belief that enables them to take charge of their own life.” Charles Handy

This is the true aim of any expert.

This question is really a game. Here is how it works:

  1. Relate a story of a time when you’ve made a mistake.
  2. Retell the story while only relating the actual mistake (without justification).

The question is, “Why might it be difficult to do just Step 2?”

I read Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute over a year ago thanks to a recommendation from a good friend.  Both books focus on one specific action that is an automatic response of our minds.

Imagine you arrive at your office early as you have some meetings and you want to be well prepared.  You made a special effort today to get in early.  You enter the office building and enter an elevator.  As the doors begin to close, you see somebody enter the main doors and take a couple of steps towards your elevator.  You have an instinct to reach out and push the “hold doors open” button…

…But, you don’t push it.

In the milisecond between my instinct to do right for an other (hold the elevator), and the action of actually pushing the button a fierce debate rages in my head.

“but I came in specially early and need to get to my desk”, “nobody would have held the elevator for me”, “that person should have come in quicker if they really wanted to get the elevator”…

The Arbinger Institute identify the Self Deception process as

  1. Instinct to do right
  2. Not acting on the instinct to do right (Self betrayal)
  3. Making it someone elses fault that you didn’t act (Self Deception)

This is an automatic protection process of our minds.  This is not a process only existant in “bad” people, it is part of the infrastructure of our minds. 

I ask the question at the beginning because I see that for me it is painfully dificult not to justify my mistakes. Have you described your story?

Heather Burton of The Arbinger Institute, who first asked me the question gave the following example of an answer:

This past week, I attended a special Conflict Transformation training. Those of us who flew in for the event shared space in a rented condominium. We bought groceries, together and separately, to make breakfasts and a few dinners, as well as snacks. I bought a big back of lovely seedless black grapes.

On the Tuesday, I noticed someone had kindly rinsed the grapes and put them in a bowl for everyone to enjoy. I offered them around the group as we had our breakfast together, and particularly to Cossie, my colleague from Down Under. He’s a dear friend I don’t see often, and I wanted to share. I think he had a few. They were so sweet and delicious that I ate a lot of them myself.

On about Thursday, after our training session was over and we were back at the condo, I was rummaging in the fridge for “a little something.” That’s when I noticed that there was a bag of grapes still sitting in the bottom of the fridge, unopened. All of a sudden, I realized that the reason the grapes had been washed and put in a bowl on Tuesday was that they were Cossie’s grapes. He had avoided embarrassing me by letting me not only share his grapes, but pretty much eat the whole bag single-handedly.

So, that’s the long story. The mistake, without embellishments and details? I ate Cossie’s grapes.

Now, when I related this story to our group, I added even more colour commentary. When asked to just name the mistake, it was almost physically impossible to just say, “I ate Cossie’s grapes.” Something in me wanted to keep saying things like, “Not realizing there were two bags, I ate Cossie’s grapes” or “The grapes were so delicious that I offered them around, not realizing they were Cossie’s.”

Are some people born lucky?

Richard Wiseman, author of Quirkology, describes a number of psychological experiements that he has conducted to understand the role and roots of luck in people’s lives.  In each case, people were asked to self-evaluate their level of luck prior to the experiments, allowing Richard to create 2 groups – the self selected “unlucky people” and the self selected “lucky people”.

In your face
In the first experiment subjects were shown into a room and handed a newspaper.  They were shown a couple of photos of faces and asked to look through the newspaper to see whether these people appeared in any of the photos in the newspaper.

Mid-way through the newspaper there was a half-page advertisement with the words “Mention to the Experimenter that you have seen this Advert to receive €100”.  A whole half page. Big letters.

Most of the self selected “unlucky people” failed to see the advert in their focus on the search for the faces.

Pass the parcel
In another experiment, 100 people registered to participate in an experiment to test the 6 degrees of separation theory.  Each was sent a parcel.  Their task – to get the parcel to a specific person in Coventry, but they were only allowed to send the parcel on to somebody that they knew on first name terms.  The average number of degrees of separation for the parcels to reach our friend in Coventry was 4 (of the parcels that made it).

However, about 30 of the 100 people who actually took the time to register did not even send the parcel on once.  Rather strange – you would go to the effort of applying to participate, and then not even sending the parcel on to anybody.  And, yes, these people who didn’t know who they could send the parcel on to had self selected themselves into the “unlucky people” group.

So, are some people born lucky?

Luck, no; but maybe some people are born with better peripheral vision and greater extroversion.

A Recipe for luck: 

  1. Look up and around you once in a while
  2. Get to know a few more people

I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground yesterday and sat in the crowd with my friend Maurice.  We watched Ricky Ponting and his Australia team score 267 runs against the Pakistan team on an overcast but warm day – perfect temperature for sitting outside.

Maurice shared with me three pearls of wisdom that had been passed down to him by an early boss:

  1. Don’t polish turds
  2. Don’t boil oceans
  3. Hope is not a strategy

 You can put glitter on a turd, but inside it will still be a turd.  Life is too short to have any great success heating an entire ocean. If you don’t have any idea how you’re going to get there, it’s unlikely that you get there.

We also talked about the best books we had read in 2009.  I am running low on fiction ideas.  Any thoughts?


Take a look around you.

Take a look at the people you work with, the people you meet at parties, even the people you just casually pass in the street.

How do they spend their days?

Most of them work.  They do some other activities as well. They sleep, eat, cook, hang out with friends, watch TV, play sport and some might play an instrument.  Nothing, however, comes close to the hours that they dedicate to work.

Now, ask yourself, honestly, how well do they do it?  Well enough to not be sacked?  Maybe well enough to get a promotion now and then?  But are any of them awesomely great at what they do?  Truly world class?  Excellent?

Why?  How can they spend so much time at it, going through school, through university, maybe even an MBA, some executive seminars, coaching, mentors, high-flyer programs…  but they are not great at what they do.


Some people have been working for a long time.  They have been going at it for 20, 30 even 40 years.  After all these thousands of hours most people are just plain ok at what they do.

This is sad.

I am currently reading “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.  This is a well referenced book on what does in fact lead to great performance.

“Being good at what we want to do – playing the violin, running a race, painting a picture, leading a group of people – is among the deepest sources of fulfillment we will ever know. ” Geoff Colvin.

So, what does lead to great performance?  What is the secret that Tiger Woods, Mozart, Jack Welsh, Steve Jobs have found?

First, let me tell you what it is not due to:

  1. Experience (alone)
  2. Innate abilities
  3. High general intelligence, powerful memory or other “general” cognitive ability.

Let me now tell you what 30 years of scientific research say it is due to:

Deliberate Practice.

What is deliberate practice? “For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing” Geoff Colvin.  The key piece of scientific literature on this subject is “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” by Anders Ericsson.

There are five things that characterize Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It is highly demanding mentally
  5. It is not fun

A note on Tiger, Mozart and the Polgar sisters (top 3 female chess players):  It was due to something they were born with:  Their fathers.  Earl Woods was a golf fanatic and an expert in the process of teaching. Leopold Mozart published the leading book on violin instruction in the year his son was born. Lazlo Polgar wrote “Bring up Genius” before marrying and deliberately putting into practice his theories with his three daughters.

I finish with a sentence for my friend Piero in response to a profound statement that he managed to use in normal conversation “the zero point field that sustains the energy of the universe”.  In the words of a group of scientists investigating talent: “Whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multivariate reasoning”.

They are saying of course, that high IQ doesn’t help you succeed in the real world.  If you are interested I will write more on the three models of deliberate practice: The musician model, the chess model and the sports model.  Only if you are interested…

The conclusion: it doesn’t matter how good the idea, it matters what the “buyer” thinks of you as a person in the first few seconds of your pitch.

I have just read “How to Pitch a Brilliant idea” by Kimberly Elsbach in the Harvard Business Review.  In 150 miliseconds a “buyer” will have categorized you in one of seven stereotypes – only three of which will allow you to have a chance of selling them on your brilliant idea.

Kimberly has looked at the film industry, venture capital and entrepreneurs and within the corporate world.  In these environments only 1-3% of ideas make it beyond the initial pitch. What does it take for somebody with a brilliant idea to get it noticed, financed and implemented?

“When a person we don’t know pitches an idea to us, we search for visual and verbal matches with those implicit models, remembering only the characteristics that identify the pitcher as one type or another.  We subconciously award points to people we can easily identify as having creative traits; we subtract points from those who are hard to assess or who fit negative stereotypes.” Kimberly Elsbach.

The seven stereotypes that Kimberly developed that are relevant in the pitch of an idea to a “buyer” who has not met us before are:

  • The three positive stereotypes
    • Showrunner: Looks the part, comes with a successful track record, delivers the idea with a great interactive performance that engages the “buyer” in the idea.
    • Artist: Displays single minded passion but not as polished as the showrunner, tend to be shy or socially awkward (a sense that they are living in their own internal world)
    • Neophyte: The opposite of showrunners – they know they need help and present themselves as eager learners (never looking desperate).
  • The four negative stereotypes
    • Pushover: Look like they are trying to “unload” an idea rather than own it and run with it.
    • Robot: Presents sticking to a formulaic script as if it had been memorized from a how-to book.
    • Used-car salesman: Argumentative and slightly obnoxious (standard issue from the consulting world or large corporate sales department). Fails to treat the “buyer” as a partner, to turn the sale into a collaborative process. Arrogant.
    • Charity case: Needy. As soon as he senses rejection begins pleading with the “buyer” that he really needs just one small sale. In reality is not selling an idea but looking for a job.

The only stereotypes which have a chance of the “buyer” engaging are showrunner, artist and neophyte.  If you manage to present the visual, audible, dress clues that lead a potential buyer to categorize you outside of these three categories, you will not sell your idea.

One key to the three successful stereotypes is a positive, proactive engagement of the buyer in the development of the idea during the pitch process. 

What stereotype do you get categorized into by people on the first impression?  It is unlikely to be showrunner (there are really very few of these types out there).  So are you a pushover?  Are you a used-car salesman?  The only thing that you cannot be is nothing…  You will be categorized.