Plant Acorns. Grow Oaks.

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.

The New Laziness

Busy-ness (on the Wrong Things) is the new Laziness

“What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?”

Paul Graham

Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

Paul Graham suggests that you can summarize these three questions into “What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Seth Godin says that there is a new laziness.

Years ago, laziness was about shirking from physical labour. Avoiding chores.

The New Laziness

Today’s laziness is more insipid. It doesn’t look like physical laziness. In fact, only the individual self can know that they are being lazy. The new laziness is fear based. It is procrastination. It is self-sabotage. It is avoidance of standing out. It is taking the tested path. It is doing what everyone else does and then being frustrated when you get paid the same as everyone else, of how you will be let go when you are 40 and a 20 year old will do the same work, with more energy, and for less money.

“There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practiced in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues. This form of laziness lies in our failure to choose worthwhile applications for our energy.” Sogyal Rinpiche

Busy-ness on the wrong things is the new laziness.

Performance Excellence: Deliberate Practice and 3 Models of Mastery

This post includes additional detail to support my post at ActiveGarage blog: Origin of Leaders Pt 3: Learning – Growing through the Crucibles in your life.  It is worth reading that post first for the background and context for this post.

How do we achieve mastery?

Gary Kasparov, Grandmaster

An entrepreneur friend recently commented to me an early conversation he had with a mentor:

“Alex, you have great potential”.
“Do you know what great potential means?”
“You ain’t done nothing yet”.

What does it take to turn potential into mastery?

Malcolm Gladwell has made famous the concept that 10,000 hours of practice leads to world class performance in his book Outliers.  I say this is not true.  There are plenty of people who have amassed over 10,000 hours and they are still poor or mediocre at what they do.  The truth is that these 10,000 hours need to be “Deliberate Practice” in order to achieve excellence.

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

There are three fields of human performance where methods for becoming world class have been developed and honed over hundreds of years.

Musicians, Sportsmen and Chess players have found practice models that lead to world class performance based on the inclusion of the 5 aspects of deliberate practice. We can bring these styles of practice into the world of business and leadership.

The Musician Model

Barry Douglas:
Ireland’s top Pianist

Great musicians become great by repeatedly copying others and comparing their results with the results of previous great musicians. Musicians spend much of their life reading and practicing music that is written on sheets.

How does the Musician Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Get to know inspiring community leaders.  How do they live their lives?
  • Read biographies and personal accounts (and blogs) of leaders you respect.
  • Practice reading speeches out loud and get a feel for how great speakers use words and structure

The Chess Model

Excellent chess players play lots, have deep knowledge on openings and expert play, have studied extensively the decisions taken by grandmasters – “what was he seeing that I don’t see?”. It is important that you not only copy, but also reflect on why the master followed this series of moves, what was the underlying strategy?

How does the Chess Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Review the decisions taken by great leaders.  What were they thinking?  Why did they take this particular decision?  What other options did they consider?
  • Always ask a question when in a conference or formal presentation.
  • Formulate your opinions on everything – news, stocks, impact of the iphone on society, most important values for children, role of the MBA, etc
  • “War games” Practice scenarios, what if? How would I respond to X, Y, Z? Prepare.

The Sports Model

Sports success requires intense physical and mental conditioning – keep your mind and body fit. Sports people repeatedly practice the basic physical skills; but this is not enough.  It is vital that performance on the big day of the competition is as high as during the practice.  Sports people need to work on their mind so that their performance under the glare of lights and pressure of competition does not reduce.

There are 4 ways to handle anxiety – top sports stars need to use the mature 2 methods: tolerate or enjoy – in order that their performance is not impaired by pressure.

How does the Sports model apply to learning to lead?

  • Enjoying anxiety or high pressure situations requires a belief system that sees your life as a continual journey of growth as a human being – whether you succeed or fail each pressure moment is an opportunity for growth.  Do you treat pressure moments and critical decisions as opportunities for reflection and growth?
  • Performance under pressure requires that you have practiced the basic moves to a degree to which you can trust yourself to perform – if reading financial statements and making quick judgements is important to your job – practice making these judgements on a daily basis – don’t just wait for your boss or client to ask your opinion.
  • Keep fit – athletes need to be fit, leaders need all the energy they can get.
  • Eat well – fruit and veg better than pizza and beer.
  • Sleep enough – I need 7 hours. I need to read 20 minutes to calm my mind to sleep.


What will your 10,000 hours be?

I take decisions every day, every hour. The decision to play it safe. The decision to be like all the others. The decision to copy how someone else would do it. The decision to work hard at being the same. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they have consequences. The least safe decision in the long term is to seek comfort now. The world will keep changing. Web 2.0, globalization increase the pace at which change is driving through all of our lives. My grandfather’s competition were the other males living in his town. My competition is every Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Spaniard in the world. There will always be somebody able and willing to do the simple, commodity tasks for less pay. This is inevitable. There is no escape. A sinking ship will eventually sink. I can bail a little. I can pray. I can put up bigger borders. But I cannot stop that the boat will eventually sink. The effort that I put into delaying the sinking is effort that could have gone into making myself not a commodity, into being valuable for me.

What do you want to be doing 20 years from now?  In what domain are you going to accumulate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

My free (as of December 2012) Speaking As a Leader Program can help you begin a disciplined practice around public speaking.

How to be more Confident

Fake it.

Yes, pretend.

There are three benefits that grow from you “acting” confident:

  • Attitude follows Behavior: Over time, you become more like you act—self-assured, confident, and convinced of the truth of what you are saying.
  • Emotional Contagion: Walk down an airport corridor and smile, and watch people smile back; change your facial expression to a frown, and you will be met with frowns. Act confident, people respond with confidence in you.
  • Self-Reinforcing Emotions: if you smile and then others smile, you are more likely to feel happy and smile. You may have to act confident and knowledgeable at first, but as others “catch” that feeling, it will be reflected back, making you more confident.
The research is laid out in detail in “Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don’t” by Jeffrey Pfeffer.  Pfeffer says that in order to be Powerful it is vital that you appear Powerful.  In the words of Peter Ueberroth: “Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.” 

Try acting confident for an hour.  How does it feel?  How do people respond?  Try smiling.  Do people respond with smiles?  How do you feel?  Have a great weekend.

    The Origin of Leaders Part 2: Ambition

    On 9th August 2010, Ed Stafford arrived at the sea, having walked the length of the Amazon river. Over 860 days of walking, 20,000 mosquito bites, 5,000 leeches, poisonous spiders and snakes. No boss told him to do it. Nobody paid him for it. Why did he do it? How did he keep going for almost 3 years?

    My 2nd post in the series “The Origin of Leaders” is now live at  I welcome your reflections and comments.

    The 5 Proven Paths to Failure

    I am up in the mountains an hour from Barcelona with the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation local chapter.  the sun is shining. Yesterday we spent the day on a horse ranch called Hipica Can Vila working with the horses.  Today, we have had a full day with Jordi Vila-Porta, author of the recently published book: “Success” (“¡Exito!”).  He shared some fine thoughts:

    The 5 proven paths to failure.

    1. I don’t know what I want
    2. I don’t know what to do
    3. I don’t know how to do it
    4. I don’t believe I can do it
    5. I am not willing to pay the full price (in time, work, effort, discipline)
    At what point are you bailing out?
    Other news…
    The first of my 9 part series on “The Origin of Leaders” is now up at the excellent blog.  “Imagination: How to develop your most powerful human talent“. Have a read, would love your comments, reactions, thoughts and general link-love 😉  Have a great weekend

    Leadership lessons from the Chile mine rescue

    I watched the rescue of the Chilean miners yesterday morning.  It was an emotional scene. The miners coming one by one hoisted to the surface in a coffin-like metal cage from their cave through 620m of rock.  Each miner arrived to a wave of cheers of “Chi-Chi-Chi… Le-Le-Le… Chile!”.  Each miner reacted in his own particular way – some shouting, some hugging family, some praying.  The second miner out had brought a bag of rocks to hand out as souvenirs to the rescue team.

    If you haven’t seen it, I watched the CNN coverage of the rescue here.  I was inspired by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton’s recent post Chile’s President to Luis Urzua “you acted like a good boss”.  His blog is regularly updated with interesting content on leadership and workplace challenges.

    Three people stood out for their leadership in this 69 day odyssey.

    Sebastian Piñera – Chilean President. Announced from day one that Chile’s objective was the rescue attempt and that this was a priority.  He set no dates or deadlines.  He gave no false hopes.  He set a vision but let others define the map.  Second, he ensured that each small win along the way was celebrated – without ever letting the euphoria overtake the hard work still to come.  Clarity of purpose and celebration of the little wins.

    Luis Urzua – the shift supervisor, the leader of the 33 miners trapped underground.  We expect 2 things from our leaders:  competence and compassion.  Competence to do their job well.  Compassion to care for the people they lead.  Luis had both.  He organised the group.  They had defined areas for sleeping, for exercise, for daytime.  They had electric lighting simulating 12 hours day, and switched it off for simulated night.  He rationed the food and set specific eating times.  He brought a small predictability for the miners confronting a massive uncertainty.  He was compassionate.  He ate last, and ate least.  He was the last to leave the mine.  When he emerged, President Piñera said to him “You acted like a good boss“.  Competence and compassion.

    Mario Gomez – the eldest of the trapped miners.  He was the leader of the parties, of the fun videos that the miners had made during their ordeal.  He took a leading role as spiritual guide to the miners.  He ensured that fun and enthusiasm was part of every day.  In a situation of such tension, these moments of fun were so important in keeping up hope and maintaining morale. The importance of fun.

    When 63 year old Mario Gomez emerged he spoke on camera with the Presidents of Chile and Brazil.  He said: “Sometimes you need something to happen to really reflect that you only have one life. I am changed, I am a different man.

    The biggest lesson, my simple reflection…  33 people faced an extreme situation and kept their humanity. They kept hope.  Chile dedicated its resources and achieved a big deal.  They kept faith.  We are capable of much more than we know.  Chile showed its best under extreme situations.  In this extreme event each leader, each politician, each boss, each person sought to serve others, to do the right thing. It was a moment worthy of celebration.

    Lessons of Leadership:

    • Discipline provides predictability in an uncertain world
    • Leadership is a team sport
    • Marathon not sprint
    • Celebrate small wins
    • Compassion, Own needs last
    • Fun makes life worth living

    How not to waste a life. The real responsibility of parents and schools.

    This week we decided where my daughter will go to school – potentially for the next 15 years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what criteria are important in selecting a school and this blog is a summary of 3-4 months of that reflection.

    To Prepare One for Living

    How do you best waste a life?  Quite possibly the worst thing in the world is “what could have been” – the waste of human talent.  How do parents or schools contribute to allowing a child to waste their potential, to live a stressed life, to be unable to connect to others, to constantly feel that there is “something missing” in their life?

    I believe that we are the first generation that really doesn’t face any risks to our survival (other than the “run over by bus” end).  We have endless choice and the perception of a classless, meritocratic society.  There is a widespread assumption that financial, relationship, social success is because of the innate goodness of one or the innate poorness of another.

    In a world where survival is pretty much guaranteed, what is required in order to thrive as a human being?  In this blog post I want to think through the aspects that are most difficult to change later in life that are key to a fulfilling life – and argue that the role of parents and schools is to develop these habits during the 18+ years of early development and school.

    What is the purpose of school?  I will use some thoughtful answers from teachers at The Fischbowl “The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.” or “The purpose of education is to make the world a better place” and A teacher writes “to prepare one for a living”. One of my favourite bloggers, Seth Godin has a list of 27 objectives for school.  My father says “its from the Latin, educare: to lead out”

    I feel that these definitions leave out some important aspects – a better place for whom? For each child?  For parents?  For the wealthy patrons of government, banks and corporate?  We can categorize thinking 5 levels to which schools could purport to be making the world a better place:

    5 Levels of Purpose for School

    1. To keep children off the street (conversely, to provide employment to teachers; or to give a few hours of peace to parents)
    2. To prepare children to enter the workforce (to provide fodder for the robber barons, to create a legion of obedient wage earners)
    3. To prepare children to be good citizens (to understand and follow the norms of civilized society, to not rob, cheat or otherwise make the world worse for others)
    4. To assist human unfolding emotionally, socially, intellectually and physically
    5. To develop the unique strengths of each individual and prepare them to thrive and have a fulfilling life

    I think there are clearly examples of all five levels in place at all levels of formal education.  We have university professors that see their role as a teacher taking them away from more valuable research time;  Secondary school teachers who spend more time thinking about strikes and the unfairness of the unequal rises in private sector pay over the last quarter century.  Exam systems that serve to divide children into passes (successes) and fails (destined to McDonalds) without looking to help each child get an ‘A’ in their own personal exam. Schools which develop students that are fantastic at following the 23 steps to get an ‘A’, but completely collapse when they come out into the real world where there is no clear set of steps to develop a career, life, relationship or social life.

    I have seen some interesting stuff on how parents and schools can weaken their children’s ability to thrive by inappropriate praise over at NY Magazine, “How not to talk to your kids” (definitely worth a read for parents).  Praise and coaching should be directed at aspects that a child has control over (hard work, solving problems, patience, working in a team, overcoming frustration) and not at things outside the child’s control (their looks “you are beautiful”, their intelligence “you are the smartest”).

    The Habits of a Good Life

    I think there are habits for a fulfilling life and personal competencies that are very difficult to change, and some that are much easier to change.

    Easy to Change Harder to Change Hardest to change
    • Education
    • Communications
    • First impression
    • Goal setting
    • Self Discipline (hard work, completing projects)
    • Judgement (decisiveness, understanding consequences)
    • Excellence standards
    • Resourcefulness
    • Likability
    • Persuasiveness
    • Stress management
    • Integrity
    • Energy
    • Passion
    • Ambition
    • Tenacity
    • Intelligence
    • Physical aspects (height, build, looks)

    My answer is that school should serve to develop the human competencies that will be hard to change later on in life – and parents and teachers need to praise, coach and help children develop these disciplines.  I will outline three that I now believe are key to the purpose of school:

    Develop the discipline of hard work.

    “The real happiness comes from the work you’ve put into winning. If it’s too easy, it means nothing to you.” Rafa Nadal

    Nothing feels worthwhile without real hard work. Not what looks like hard work to others, but what you personally know is long-term, disciplined, difficult, challenging hard work.

    Finish what you start (completer/finisher).  Only start what you mean to finish (judgement).

    Nothing is worse than a life lived with 100 half-finished projects. The hardest part of a project is the last bit – finishing it. Saying “this is it”, “this is me” is tough – but if I don’t get my projects finished I will continually be the guy who could have been.

    Passion and Tenacity.

    Jim Rohn has a speech called “The Ant philosophy” – ants will never quit – you put an obstacle in their way and they will search for another route… for as long as it takes.  This is a great philosophy not just for ants, but for people as well.

    We need it from our parents and our early school. It is incredibly difficult to change integrity, passion, energy, ambition and tenacity if we don’t have it nurtured during our early years (Aristotle viewed age 12 as the limit for really incorporating ethics and values).

    We decided upon Betania Patmos for my daughter’s (potentially) next 15 years of schooling.  I think I have said “you are beautiful”, “my princess”, and “you are so smart” at least 1000 times to my daughter in 2 and a half years…  I hope my newfound wisdom and the support of the teachers at Betania Patmos can help my daughter overcome the challenge of having me as a father! (but she is beautiful, smart and my favourite princess!)