Archive for the 'Excellence' Category

Get Talmudic.

15 April 2006

I’ve read plenty of advice over the years that suggests specialization as a key way to get ahead in one’s career. Since I’m an intellectual magpie with an attention span approaching nil, I have resisted this advice; while I still preach the virtue of broad learning and broad exposure to many parts of human experience, more and more I grasp the advantage of diving deep.

The issue isn’t whether you can handle more than one subject — many smart people can, and indeed you see gifted folks who excel in more than one area. The example that springs to mind is David Halberstam, who would be known primarily as one of our most intelligent commentators on sports if he weren’t already known as one of our most intelligent explainers of recent history and policy. And then you’ve got the multi-talents like Bill Buckley or Bill Bradley, who may simply not be the best models to follow. Not everybody gets to be Willie Mays.

But even the men I’ve mentioned have allowed themselves to get “Talmudic” in something. Halberstam is a reporter deluxe — endlessly interviewing and drafting in support of his books. Buckley is a controversialist deluxe, and he immerses himself in public policy and the like to make his points. Bradley spent many years obsessively (happily) immersing himself in basketball, and then many more doing the same for things like tax policy.

The point is that each of them found his own piece of ground and proceeded to explore it, scout it, stake it out, sleep on it, dig around in it, climb the trees on it, wallow in it. Warren Buffett does the same when he follows his obsession — finding value in companies. Oprah Winfrey does the same when she explains the world to her audience. Richard Feynman did the same when he cracked some of the great secrets of the physical world. Joseph DeRisi does the same thing cracking open viruses at his UCSF lab. Mozart, music. Et cetera.

In my own lifetime I have been Talmudic about baseball scores, comic books, and a few other things. Mostly I let myself do this when I was a kid, or say up through the college level (that’s when my baseball obsession was at its peak). It makes your mind better, I think, to wallow in a subject like that. But despite my constant engagement with interesting ideas from business, history, and policy, I haven’t yet wallowed in a field during my professional career.

Bear with me here, because I’m figuring this out as I go. As I think through it, I realize that it’s been years since I’ve let myself dive that deep into anything. I write a lot, but not with that level of obsession. I read a lot, but not with that kind of intent.

This led me to dig up a quote about Bill Belicheck, the subject of a recent Halberstam book and by any measure the best coach in the NFL right now.

“Perhaps his most unheralded virtue, but one that explains plenty to me, is his innate curiosity,” Ingraham wrote in an e-mail message. “Bill wants to know what makes things tick, and when applied to his passion for football, this extends to every facet of the game: ‘What makes this blitz work? How do you counter this blitz? How can you disguise this blitz? How can we vary this blitz? Who can I call tonight to talk blitzes with?’

“You get the picture,” Ingraham added. “No stone goes unturned because his curiosity drives him to learn everything he can, which he then absorbs, thinks about, mixes into the boiling pot with the other ingredients and ultimately prepares to dish out on some poor unsuspecting sap. It’s been said that he’s not Mr. X’s and O’s, but rather Mr. A to Z, the complete package. I believe that his curiosity has been the catalyst in bringing all this together. Not unlike some other accomplished gents throughout history!” (NYTimes, George Vecsey, January 30, 2005)

(Thanks to NOSE.)

That’s the kind of “Talmudic” immersion I’m talking about.


End-of-life goals.

13 April 2006

I heard something on KUT today about Doug's House, a hospice for people with AIDS. The folks who run the hospice help the residents with various things, whether it's bathing, cooking meals, or what have you. They also help residents to achieve "end-of-life goals" — the things these AIDS patients want to do before they check out.

By no means would I compare my everyday — ridiculously healthy — existence with that of a late-stage AIDS patient. But the truth is that we are all terminal patients. The radio piece got me thinking about what my own end-of-life goals are.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that you are diagnosed with an incurable disease that will have no ill effects on you until 30 months from today — but that on that day it will kill you. You have a zero percent chance of survival on 901st day from today, but you'll enjoy rude health until then.

What would you do with yourself?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
—Mary Oliver

Fail earlier and more often.

10 April 2006

As he so often does, Seth Godin nails it with this post: Trial and Error.

People mistakenly believe that one way to successfully avoid error is to avoid trial.

We need more trial.

Here's two more good items on failing more and sooner to achieve greater success:

And a favorite quotation from Winston Churchill:

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

When in doubt, fail more. 

Choose a big problem.

30 March 2006

This post from Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM cites Burt Rutan to make the point that "if you want teams of people to perform at an extraordinary level, you need to challenge them with problems that really inspire them."

I read that shortly after having a fascinating conversation with one of my professors in which he stressed the need for great works of scholarship to be "problem-driven." It's not enough for a scholar to pick an interesting era or an interesting phenomenon to study, and it's not enough to carry out a study that treats complex topics from interesting angles. There must be a problem that the scholar is trying to solve — some grand question that begs for a smart answer.

This resonates with something I quoted a couple of months back from Richard Hamming: "If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them." It also matches with Gian-Carlo Rota's description of Richard Feynman's methods.

I can't tell you how many bright people I know — in business, in scholarship, in art, or in life generally — who have never given themselves a big problem to solve.  They sometimes don't know what to work on, or what to do with themselves, in part because they haven't thought enough about what big problem awaits their assault on it.

The moral of this story:  go big. 

Decision in the flow of time

11 March 2006

In an earlier post, I cited Jeff Bewkes’s comment that “you must make decisions as fast as possible.”  In his view, the best way to proceed is by iteration:  “You go, you talk, you act, and you check back on how did it work. You adjust course as you go, and it turns out that’s the fastest way to move.”

Bewkes understands that in business or in any other area of life, you always are making decisions–whether you mean to or not, whether you do it consciously or unconsciously.  He chooses to do it quickly and consciously, which is one of the reasons he’s admired as a fine business leader.

When I’m clicking well, I know what I’m doing and I know that I’m doing it.  I’m choosing consciously to do A rather than B–because A is more important.  When it comes to the things in life that are most important, there is no waiting for “later”:  we’re always deciding, right-now-this-instant, whether the supposedly important things of our life are really important enough to merit our attention in the current, precious moment.

The best achievers in life give their attention to the biggest things.  They do it preferentially.  They do it even if it means overlooking the sort of quotidian chores that most of us focus on.

Life is precious.  “Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” You could be dead by tomorrow.  Decide now what you will make of this moment, and the next, and the next.

Good management is everywhere.

26 February 2006

You can find good and bad examples of management in any context. Clearing out some files, I came across this long ESPN profile of Leo Mazzone–by acclamation the greatest baseball pitching coach of this era. You don’t have to like (or even understand) baseball to appreciate the power of his techniques.

Future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Greg Maddux:

[In training,] There are no parachutes on your back, no cones to run around, no 10 different meetings talking about something that doesn’t concern you. All the other stuff, you don’t partake in. So you spend less time doing nothing, and you spend all your time doing what it is you have to do to get better on the mound.

Mazzone in reply:

You don’t think pitchers appreciate that? Running all these drills and doing all this stuff before you get on the mound is not very bright. Your first priority is to get on the mound and practice your craft, without being fatigued from drills that are not going to mean near as much as you trying to make pitches.

This is another way of saying “First things first, second things not at all”–an apothegm that’s been taped to my computer monitor for years. Mazzone has always kept his players in shape, but primarily by having them throw a lot. Radical concept, no?

One more thing in the first-things-firt vein, this one more baseball-specific. Here’s a quote from big-league pitcher Kent Mercker, who worked under Mazzone for six years:

I think there is an understanding, whatever team you are on, whoever your pitching coach is, whoever is hitting, if you can go knee-high down and away on the corner, you are going to be successful. I don’t think that’s a mystery, but I think it’s the fact that he stresses, he harps on it, he doesn’t let you forget that. There is not a 10-minute period that goes by in a day where he doesn’t say that to somebody.

The heading for that part of the article is “Down and away, got it? Down and away, got it?” Mazzone is willing to be repetitive to implant this fundamental principle into the minds of his charges. His mantra is the converse of a famous observation made by all-time-great hitter Ted Williams in his book The Science of Hitting. Williams said that “baseball history is made on the inner half of the plate”–that is, the part of the strike zone nearer the hitter. Williams waited for the ball inside so he could drive it harder, and thereby make baseball history with big hits. Mazzone consistently–incessantly–coaches his pitchers not to give those pitches to hitters.

If you like baseball, read the article. It’s the perfect thing for a Sunday morning during Spring Training, especially if you like your management lessons with a spoonful of honey.

My grand unifying theory of business.

22 February 2006

There is a place in every subject for complexity. As a graduate student, I’m reminded of this all the time. It might seem a bit silly that someone really smart would spend years and years writing a monograph on, say, a California beef empire, until someone does it brilliantly or until you, as a scholar, need to know more on that particular subject for your own work.

This is as true of business writing as of anything else. There are blockbuster works that redefine the way a whole generation thinks about some aspect of commerce. There are the fountains that gush forth a constant stream of provocative new thinking on different aspects of commerce. And then there’s . . . the rest, much of which doesn’t deserve the paper it’s printed on.

But here, in summary form, is what I’ve learned about business so far, at least in terms of how any enterprise, from a shoe-repair shop to General Electric, interacts with customers:

There are Bad Things in the world. Dragons. Beasties. Hangnails. Missed flights. Whatever in the world it is that your (potential) customers fear. The savvy business will figure out how to keep these Bad Things far away from the customer. Just one example for now: Maybe your customer’s Bad Thing is even a millisecond of server downtime, in which case your customer needs a bunch of weird obsessives who will monitor and ensure server uptime as though the fate of civilization hinged upon it . . . in which case, you are Rackspace. Rackspace offers its customers, more or less, a legion of ninjas sworn by horrible oaths to oppose server downtime at all costs, everywhere, forever.

If you want to succeed in business, figure out who your customers are, what their Bad Things are, and how you’re going to keep those Bad Things beyond their far border. Figure out how you can demonstrate the prowess of your employee/application/product, the gigantic, magical, immortal Paladin with the flaming sword who will guard that border forever, keeping those Bad Things at bay.

And then there are Good Things. Wealth. Health. Peace of mind. Cool stuff that makes people’s lives easier. Smart companies will figure out how to deliver these things, on a plate, at the very moment when a customer wants them, and in exactly the way that the customer wants them. The plate itself may be beautiful, or historically significant, or sentient, or just really, really cool. The Good Thing and its delivery mechanism will, in fact, be so sweet that it becomes easier to use them than not to use them. Your customer might just be able to imagine living without them . . . but why would they want to?

Thus are thunderlizard customers cultivated. The rest is details.

That’s the fruit of my experience, so far.

Clueless, but in a good way.

20 February 2006

A great post from Kathy Sierra on ignoring the artificial constraints around us.

The Clueless Manifesto.

Often, by the time you learn you can’t do it, your response might be “Oops! You mean this thing I just did?”

All of the most frustrated people I know are really, really certain about how the deck is stacked against them, or how their efforts will come to naught. Me, I’d rather be “clueless,” happy, and creative.

Multiply yourself: Ask for help.

16 February 2006

David Lorenzo’s blog is a fount of encouragement and good sense, not just for those seeking “career intensity” in a business setting, but for anyone who wants to do more and do better what they love to do most. Lorenzo’s own energy is obvious — he often posts several times a day, and he talks sense.

Asking for Help is Smart” is a great reminder that not only is there no reason to go it alone in this life, but also that going it alone is silly. Two great quotes jump out at me from Lorenzo’s post: 1. “I would rather be thought of as a needy success than as a brilliant failure.” 2. “If you don’t swallow your pride and you try to ‘tough it out’ in an area where you lack skill, knowledge or experience, you exponentially increase the likelihood you will fail.”

This matches my personal experience and the events I’ve seen around me. How many times in my life have I wasted my time, energy, and serenity by trying to do something that I simply wasn’t up to doing? It could be a lack of training, or experience, or aptitude, or motivation, but whatever the case, even the most omnicompetent people have something that they ought to farm out to others. This is why I no longer change the oil in my cars myself: the guys at the garage do it all day, every day; they do it much faster and better than I can; they dispose of the used oil with no effort; they might spot important problems with the car that I never would; and so on. Yes, I know how to change the oil if I absolutely must, but at this point there’s no reason for me to do it myself. I’d rather spend that time doing something that only I can do, or that at least will build toward my bigger goals in life.

What do you insist on doing for yourself that, really, you should be letting someone else do for you? Why don’t you ask for help?

Terminal patients.

15 February 2006

Let’s consider something heavy for a minute: Every last one of us is a terminal patient. Each of us will check out of this life someday. Fine. But what if we put a sharper edge on this? What if you knew you had only 18 months before your appointment with the Reaper? What would you try to accomplish between now and then?

Would you do schlub-work? Busy-work? Cubicle-work?

Or something major?

There is nothing wrong per se with working in a cubicle. I do, and it helps my family to live comfortably. But how many of us are–when we’re honest with ourselves–defined by the fact that we work in a cubicle? I certainly have been in the past, and it’s an easy rut to return to.

As much as I can, I now guide myself toward doing big things. My own challenge now is to maintain that 18-months focus: what can I accomplish in the next year and a half that will change the world in some way that’s meaningful to me? What can I do today that will help me get there?

Consider the example of David Lorenzo’s friend, who used a cancer diagnosis to change his life for the better.

Friend, don’t wait until it’s too late.