Sunday, December 30, 2012

Are You Prepared?

But you don't understand. If I'm going to get up on a stage and perform, I have to have completely prepared the material. I have to know it inside and out. Otherwise I get so nervous that I totally lose it. I freeze. I can't play a note.

That's so limiting.

What's so limiting?

Needing to have totally prepared for the gig in order to perform without having a breakdown.

Don't you think it's important to be prepared?

I think it can be useful to be prepared, but it's far from necessary. In some cases knowing material inside and out can lead to a less inspired performance. Sometimes it's important to not be prepared.

Oh come on. Ask anyone and they'll tell you that they get nervous when they're on stage in front of an audience and they haven't fully prepared.

Statistically speaking, ask anyone and they'll tell you they get nervous prepared or not. Preparedness has nothing to do with it, or at least not directly. Preparedness is just one of many security blankets one can use to feel safer on stage.

OK, so if it's not preparedness, what is it.


Confidence in what?

In yourself.

But doesn't your confidence in yourself depend on how well you've prepared.

Yes, and no.

Sheesh... I knew there was gonna be a "yes and no" somewhere.

Yes, how you prepare helps build confidence, but no your confidence is not in your preparedness; it's in you. As soon as you start to question your preparedness, you're no longer trusting yourself; you're trusting your preparedness. Since in that moment you have no control over how well you've previously prepared, your confidence goes to hell.

OK, so if your confidence is not based on how well you've prepared, then what does preparation have to do with confidence?

Rather than preparing material, your prepare to be confident. You practice confidence.

How can someone practice confidence?

Well, for one, you could start playing in front of people without preparing for the specific event. You just get up and perform, trusting that you'll be able to play something pleasing, even if not exactly what you'd intended.

And that will build confidence?

Not necessarily, but in your case it couldn't hurt.

And that's it?

No, the more important thing is to get good at what you do independent of the events for which you want to be good. Practice every day and take delight in what you're learning. If you take delight in your own playing, other people will as well.

But I don't want to get all full of myself thinking that I'm another Miles or Freddy or Dizzy.

I didn't say, "Tell yourself how good you are."  I said, "Take delight in what you're doing."

OK, and then what.

Keep doing that and you'll be prepared. Then take every opportunity to perform in your newly unprepared, but prepared way.

And that's it?

I think so.

Happy Sunday,

Friday, December 28, 2012

What's Your Brand

Time to get ready for 2013. What's your game-plan for change?

Forget about the incremental changes, the "more of this" and "less of that". Let's go for a complete overhaul. 

Who will you be in 2013?  

While we're at it, let's drop qualifiers that muddy the water, e.g., "kind of" or "sometimes" or "pretty much".  Instead, let's use declaratives that involve neither adjective nor adverb. When considering strength: you will be a) strong or, b) weak. That's it. Nothing in between.You pick one or the other, plain and simple: no scale of one-to-ten, no situational qualifiers, nothing to compromise your declaration.

Not sure? Then pick the one on which you'd be most willing to bet $1,000. 

So, what's it going to be: 
strong[ ]- or -  weak[ ]
loving[ ]- or -  hateful[ ]
hardworking[ ]- or -  lazy[ ]
engaging[ ]- or -  standoffish[ ]
happy[ ]- or -  miserable[ ]
committed [ ]- or -  lackadaisical [ ]
sweet[ ]- or -  sour[ ]
passionate[ ]- or -  apathetic[ ]
spicy [ ]- or -  mild[ ]
Not sure? 

Hmm... is it the selection characteristics or your readiness to declare?

If it's the selection characteristics, pick any that you consider meaningful. What juxtaposed characteristics would you prefer? Hot or cold? Big or small? Fish or fowl? The main thing is to ask yourself, "What are the key elements that distinguish a personality?"

Pick a characteristic, think of it's opposite and determine which of the two you will be.

With characteristics that you've determined, how ready are you to declare? Is your readiness to declare impeded by your not having a preference or are you uncertain as to your readiness to live up to your preference? Perhaps there's a conflict between your aspirational you and your implementable you; there's the you that you want to be and the you who you believe you'll be. 

Is that it?

What characteristics inspire the greatest internal conflict between aspiration and implementation? Do you really wish you were someone who were reliable (note, not "more" reliable). Would you be someone who loves? (Note, not loves "more".)  In some ways we're talking about your brand. What's your brand? What would you like your brand to be in 2013?

Branding You
I've often consulted with companies that are trying to define their brands. I usually work with a team composed of executives and members of the marketing department. We start by talking about the company's existing brand and invariably we get something big, bold and beautiful. The team considers themselves to be the Apple Computer or the Mercedes Benz or the Michael Jordan or the Harvard of whatever it is they do. 

"That's who we are: we're the Jimi Hendrix of golf cart manufacturers!"

This is why companies bring in outside consultants to help with branding. The employees of a company often see the company's brand in terms of aspiration; unfortunately the aspiration can vary significantly from the actual company. A company that produces OK products, but charges a lot for them want's the image of quality carried by Mercedes Benz. A company that offers nothing particularly new or inventive wants the halo of innovation worn by Apple Computer. A company that is conservative and stayed wants a rock-and-roll image.

Problem is that, in order to be effective and sustainable, a company's brand must be organic. It must closely reflect who the company is. If it doesn't, then one of two things must change. The company or the brand.

The first step in the process is to set aside the aspirational brand and capture the organic brand. Sometimes you find that a company's challenges with brand are that the company's brand exactly represents who they are, and who they are isn't working. A company sells cheap stuff at a premium; they're brand is that they sell cheap stuff at a premium. Sometimes the brand is opposite; a company that wants to provide name-brands for less really provides off-brands for more.

More often than not you find that the company's brand is just fine but needs a little bolstering. The bolstering starts with getting past denial.

For example, having a strong, recognizable brand as the provider of cheap stuff is great. It's easy to articulate and sell. In a bad economy, being the "cheap" guy can be a real advantage. Being cheap is only a problem if you aspire to something else.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong with being outstandingly uncool. Duncan Donut's trademark pink and brown color scheme is anything but cool, but it's easily recognizable amidst a sea of signage. They're branding works, big time.

Your Organic Brand
The art is to reconcile your would-be with your is. In some cases, there's nothing more to be done than to embrace and accept the is. In other cases, it's time to change one or the other. In the end, the brands that succeed and thrive are the ones where would-be equals is. Sure, you can get by for a while unreconciled (US car manufacturers used to dismiss Japanese cars as having inferior quality),  but it's not sustainable.

You what's your organic brand? You pick the characteristics that you want to use as metrics. How's your organic brand compare to your aspirational brand? How will you reconcile the two in 2013?

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Changing the World by Being Himself

My friend Carolina travels the world working with families of children with autism. She takes delight in having learned as much from her clients as she has taught them. The other day she posted something on her Facebook page that I found moving and inspirational. I thought I'd share it with you.

Happy Tuesday,

A Conversation Overheard
Another airplane, another landing... I hear a man a few rows back. He speaks loudly using phrases like "children dying" and "it's just going to keep happening."

I wonder who he is speaking to with such an uncomfortable tone and if the conversation is leading toward some sort of fight.

I listen.

As I listen I slowly come to recognize something in the man's manner of speech. He sounds as if he may have autism, that he is simply perseverating on death in its various forms, speaking to anyone who will listen to him, trying to understand the impossible-to-understand recent events in the world.

In the midst of his tirade, the flight attendant announces that anyone needing a wheelchair should wait in their seats. The man changes focus. With a deep sense of urgency, he says loudly "I want one! Do I get one? Is my wheelchair coming? I need a wheelchair. Did they get my wheelchair?"

Then the sweetest thing happens. I hear the gentle voice of a woman, saying, "Absolutely sir. You will get your wheelchair. Someone will take great care of you."

I smile, feeling grateful that she sees his outburst as nothing more than than someone voicing his concerns in the best way he knows. She neither dismisses nor overreacts, but instead responds matter-of-factly. She helps him.

A new conversation unfolds. The man asks her what her name is, where she is going, and why she is going there. He asks who she is visiting, and finds out that she is visiting her son who is in the military. He asks, "Are you worried about your son dying, because I'm worried about him dying."

She answers each of his questions with a smile in her voice, a voice that is patient, sweet and helpful.

He ends the conversation with the best line ever. Suddenly changing topics, he says, "Do you remember those record player things we used to have? Don't you miss having them around? I just don't know how to do anything with computers."

Then silence.

I smile to myself, understanding his wish for a simpler world, with record player things.

My faith in humanity feels suddenly bolstered, thanks to a woman who took care of a stranger, and thanks to a man who changes the world just by being himself.

Maybe we no longer have the simplicity of "record player things," but by needing the help and support of others, he gives us all the opportunity to create a more compassionate, loving and accepting world everywhere he goes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Twelve Ways to Avoid Yes

Over the years I've come to appreciate the skills and expertise of people who, no matter what, avoid coming to agreement. It's an august group of non-compromising individuals who refuse to take "yes" for an answer, who'd rather die trying than win, who untiringly swim against the tide (even when the tide turns their way). They're true individuals who know every conceivable way (and many inconceivable ways) of avoiding the support of others in getting what they want, the dogs who know that you never want to actually catch the bus.

I recognize that I can only present a small sampling of the many, varied (and sometimes alarming) techniques employed by those whose skills far surpass my own,  but that's never stopped me before, so I'll give it a shot. If you're someone who revels in being alone and unsupported in your endeavors, then this may be the post for you.  In no particular order (because that's the way we like it when trying to dodge unanticipated success), the following will virtually guarantee that absolutely no-one (that's N-O-1) will ever buy into nor support your goals or efforts.

1. Move Away From, Not Towards
The primary requirement to failing at motivating others is to never clearly say what you want. Stick to things that you don't want. For example, rather than presenting a workable plan for feeding the poor, lament how terrible it is that the poor are hungry.

The beauty of moving away from what you DON'T want versus moving towards what you DO want is that you avoid the pitfalls of a clearly articulated, implementable and sustainable vision, and you know in your gut that inspirational vision can be disastrous when it comes to avoiding success. 

In the back of your mind, you might be thinking, "What do I do if someone asks me outright, 'So, what would you like us to do?'"

Fear not, outside of meeting people like yours truly, it's highly unlikely that you'll ever encounter anyone who will challenge you in this manner. However, if you do, wave your hands, turn from side to side and spout factoids like a garden sprinkler. Fill the air with disjointed truth that has no relevance whatsoever. Avoid clarity at all costs and remember, ambiguity about what you want is your friend,

2. Never Actually Say What You Require
Let's say that you accidentally screw up and state an affirmative goal. Stop yourself, catch your breath and do anything you can to avoid divulging what you need to achieve it. The last thing you want is to provide someone a clearly delineated shopping list of requirements.

Note that you needn't actually delineate your requirements for this to occur. A would-be supporter might casually jot down required items over the course of your interaction and without your having ever said, "I need these n things", clearly articulate your requirements at the end of your discussion.

Before you know it, some good-doer will have laid out your plan and volunteered to supply it. If you're not quick on your feet, you may be faced with the calamitous challenge of being offered all you need to succeed.

3. Don't Know What You Need
Of course, the easiest way to avoid accidentally spilling your requirements for success is to not know them. Avoid thinking through any method that might lead you to success. Make all plans so dependent upon uncontrollable contingencies that it's impossible to articulate all you'd need to be successful. In fact, if at all possible, avoid thinking all together. Instead, stick with talking about and "sharing" your concerns.

If someone points out that you're not clear or that you don't seem to know what you're talking about, tell them that you do but it's too complex to explain it. The comma-"to someone like you" can be implied.

4. Anti-Goals
Sometimes you have to get a bit stronger in your moving away from and create anti-goals, strongly articulated, bite-sized statements of everything you don't want. Create a list of all that you're fighting against and avoid any thought of what you might be fighting for. Sure, there'll be people who pull a little motivational jujitsu on you and try to articulate your negative goals in the positive, but don't worry. For every negative-to-positive move, there's a counter move.

The most oft-used is: "It's not that simple."

Depending on your audience, you can imply a comma-"stupid"  without incurring any penalties for negativity. Alternatively, you can use the phrase offendedly with a sort of "I'm hurt that you would so trivialize my efforts." True artists feign agreement by saying, "If only it were that simple."

5. Stay On Point
Ignore body language that suggests people are uncomfortable or losing interest in what you have to say. That roll of the eyes, that glance at the watch, that stretch and yawn are all forms of encouragement. Remember that it's your job to get your message OUT, not THROUGH.

6. Timing is Everything
Always schedule interactions at times that are convenient to you and hopefully, inconvenient to your audience. Better yet, don't schedule, just interrupt.

7. Avoid Your Audience's Motivations
The key to not selling your ideas is to stick to reasons that are motivational to you. Kids are great at this. When approaching mom or dad for something they want, they'll say things like, "All the other kids' parents are buying..." or "I really, really, really need this for..." or "Please, please, please. If you do this for me, I'll be sooooo happy."

Sure, parents often succumb to the motivations of their children, but if you try the same thing with others, you'll instantly quell any murmur of support. Tell people how important your cause is (to you.) Show would-be supporters empirical numbers that bear out your claims, but have no relevance to them. Talk about all the benefits to you and others, but absolutely avoid anything that your audience would find personally beneficial.

If you're not sure, simply avoid any mention of benefits.

8. Get Righteous
A simple way to avoid the core motivations of supporters who might actually prove helpful is to use mandates that involve a direct or implied negative judgement. For example, "Anyone one who gives a damn about the environment would be happy to..." or "Only a coldhearted bastard who hates children and puppy dogs would consider doing..."

Sure, your righteous indignation may inadvertently inspire guilt that results in someone wanting to help you, but never fear. Anyone so motivated is unlikely to have the wherewithal to provide any significant benefit.

9. Avoid Getting to the Point
As a manager, one of the rules I've always implemented in meetings is: Start with the so-what.

The reason is simple: 1) If I know what you want, it gives a context that I can use to better understand your explanation of why you want it and, 2) if I know what you want and agree, then there's not need to spend time on explanation.

Starting with the so-what has tumultuous implications when avoiding agreement. In fact, you'd do best to NEVER get to the so-what. Always start your appeal with the assumption that your audience knows absolutely nothing and will require an exhaustive explanation of why you want what you want before you can actually get to what it is you want.

10. Know Your Audience
It's heartbreaking to see how easily an individual can suddenly find himself the recipient of support as a result of a casual encounter. You sit down at the coffee shop and strike up a conversation with the guy at the next table. You stick to the rules and avoid any positive hook that he might latch onto. However, because you weren't diligent in knowing your audience you find yourself complaining to someone who routinely acts upon his desires. Before you know it, he's pulled every jujitsu move you've ever heard of and some you'd haven't.

Never assume that just because someone's in a coffee shop talking with others, he'd rather gripe than act.

11. Sell Past the Close
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, someone will decide that they want to help. If you some agrees with you, just keep selling as if she hadn't.

12. Refuse to Take Yes for an Answer
If all else fails, you can always refuse assistance. You can determine that the would-be supporter is simply not qualified to support you. He doesn't have the right character. She doesn't know what's she's getting into.

You can do it for his benefit asking him to take some time to think about it. Tell her that you'll call her in a week to check in and then lose her phone number.

You Can Do It, Not
Although I can't hold a candle to the expert practitioners I've encountered, I think my little list can still prove useful to novices who have yet to develop a capacity to avoid coming to agreement.  Don't feel that you have to implement all twelve steps to be successful. Any one or two will do.

Happy Monday,

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ron's Mantra

A guy that used to work for me, Ron, would often say, "There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working."

To some the words make no sense. To others they seem an oxymoron or just wrong. Technically speaking, the step from not working to working isn't an optimization; optimization can only be performed on something already working. Nonetheless, for me and others with whom I worked, Ron's words became a mantra: there's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

We mantrafied Ron's statement because it completely changed how we approached problems and, importantly, how successful we were at solving them. We were a group of engineers and computer scientists. However, unlike many groups of technologists, each of us had a strong creative streak. In team meetings, it'd take us a couple of minutes to solve the technical challenge du jour after which we'd spend an hour on all the additional features we could add based on the insights we gained from the initial discussion.

Were it not for the mantra, we'd never have got back to implementing the solution to the problem that had led to the meeting. As our ideas got bigger and broader, Ron would say, "Hey guys, that's great, but you know..."

The discussion would freeze in mid air, we'd each turn to look his way, the mantra would ring in our ears, and we'd get back on track.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Of course, Ron's mantra applies to more than engineering and science; it applies to pretty much anything you want to do successfully. Last night our Will Power rehearsal morphed into a fireside chat. As we enjoyed a sumptuous combination of cigars, diet coke, chips and guacamole, we talked about all we'd done in the past year and what we intended to do in the upcoming year.

One topic was that of continuous improvement; what will each of us do to become better musicians and players? I mentioned that the most important thing is to play every day, that if you play for forty minutes every single day, you can't help but to improve.

Scott responded, "Yeah, but doesn't it matter what you play? I want to make sure that I'm playing the right material so that I'm not wasting time."

That's when Ron's mantra hit me. In one sense, Scott was correct; if you're going spend forty minutes a day practicing, you might as well work with the most effective material. However, from Ron's perspective Scott was wrong. The reason is the word "if".

The problem is this: if you're NOT playing forty minutes a day, it doesn't matter what material you use. In fact, your concern about optimizing the material may result in your never practicing forty minutes a day. Since the first order optimization is the one that goes from not working to working, then any other optimizations that get in the way of the first are not in fact optimizations. They're detriments.

I said to Scott, "What you're saying is true; it's just wrong. The most important thing is to build the habit of daily practice. Once you've got that as a foundation, you can start making your practice more efficient and effective. However, without it, you've got nothing to optimize."

This morning my mind played through conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks where people weren't doing what they'd intended because they were waiting until they could do it "right".  In one case, "right" might have meant "least expensively". In an other, "right" might have meant, "when I get the proper equipment." In any case, "right" meant, "so I'm doing nothing."

In everyone's life, there are situations where Ron's mantra could be useful, where wanting to do the best is leading to doing nothing at all. The funny thing is that our assumptions about what it takes to do the best change once we start doing, period. The actual path to best ends up involving nothing we'd thought we'd needed.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What's Your Prognosis?

As a kid, I was diagnosed with dislexia and ADHD. Well at least that's what they'd have called them today. Back then they called them not-so-bright (NSB) and annoying, respectively. My capacity to annoy was enhanced by what would now be called Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism. In addition to bouncing all over the place, I seemed to be completely clueless when it came to social cues and conventional modes of interpersonal communication.

Nowadays they have more clinical names for these diagnoses and protocols to address them. Yet, when you get past all the rhetoric, in the back of the minds of many you still end up with not-so-bright and annoying.

Kids with combinations of the first two diagnoses have a tough time in school.  Kids with Asperger's-only often do quite well academically, but may struggle socially. Generally speaking, kids with any combination of these diagnoses earn the designation of "special." Usually, "special" doesn't translate to "genius-in-residence" or "gifted", but instead to "needs extra help."

In-and-of-itself there's nothing wrong with being someone who needs extra help. It's just that you start to notice how people change when they interact with you.  Although many are good at masking or even avoiding the "annoying" part, their manner, their word selection,  their facial expressions, their expectations all shout, "not-so-bright". So despite best intentions, you come to buy into the belief that you're not so bright.

You might be thinking, "Hey, I thought that people with Asperger's don't pick up on social cues like facial expressions."

That would be misleadingly correct. I used to think it was just me, but I've lately come to realize that the following is a common experience among people with Asperger's. It's not that you don't notice facial expression or change of gaze or gestures. It's that you notice so many little things in a person's manner it's impossible to determine which ones are meaningful and/or significant. Although you don't pick up on them, you may actually take in and process more nonverbal cues than others would.

Anyway, it didn't take me long to figure out that teachers and other adults saw me as not-so-bright. After all, not-so-bright was the formal diagnosis. For me the greatest challenge lay in the fact that I've always had a particularly strong capacity to annoy, specially when I'm excited about something I want to do or I've begun to obsess on something that I just can't let go of until resolved.

For younger kids the annoying part isn't too much of a problem due to a phenomenon I've deemed "survival of the cutest." I imagine that the homicide rate among victims with ADHD would increase significantly if it weren't for the fact that little kids are so cute. That said, from a Darwinian perspective it's amazing that I reached puberty. I never scored well on cuteness.

When I think about first, second and third grade, I have memories of adults getting annoyed with me and me trying to figure what I'd done to get them annoyed. My strongest memories come from times when I'd decided to get to the bottom of it by asking what I'd done. I'd obsess on getting a satisfactory answer. Of course, this only served to exacerbate the level of annoyance.

As an adult I still have strong powers of annoyance. However, I learned to control them, at least a bit. My control typically isn't as good as I think it is, but it's way better than it was. I've also overcome the not-so-bright stigma. That's not to say that people think I am bright; it's just that I think I'm bright. The crazy thing is that I still have dislexia, ADHD and Asperger's. It's just that I've learned to route around them or garner their power.

For example, I still often misinterpret what I've read because of having rearranged words or letters on their way in. Dyslexia still makes reading challenging, even reading musical notes. However, because reading has been challenging I've developed other modes of knowledge acquisition and transfer. Although I'd be hard-pressed to play from a sheet of piano music, it's no problem at all to play something I've heard. Similarly, I'd have a hard time reading a musical score; but to write one isn't at all challenging.

A side-effect of my dislexia is being able to translate anything in my head into a medium like music or prose or software. Wait... I hadn't thought about that one before. That's how it works! For me, writing software is just like playing music by ear. If I can see it in my minds eye, I can write the code to do it without really thinking about it. Hmm... that's pretty cool for someone who's "special."

Still working on the annoying part. Fortunately, I'm a much cuter adult than I was a kid. I know, that's not saying much, but to some people I'm even earned the designation of "cute."

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Promise Me This...

Promise me you'll always remember that you're braver than you believe and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Multi-disciplined You

Over the past couple of weeks, I've spent lots of time with executives from the healthcare industry. A common activity of those who want their companies to become more out-of-the-box in their approaches to solutions is the creation of multi-disciplined teams.

Traditionally, product teams and research teams were composed of experts from the same discipline. Over the past couple of decades, as disciplines grew in knowledge and experience, they split into sub-disciplines that, in turn, split into sub-sub-disciplines. Each new discipline concentrated around a subset of subject matter of its parent discipline. Each became more focused. Each became more narrow.

The conscious tradeoff was one of breadth for depth. A side-effect of this tradeoff was that experts in one discipline came to know next to nothing about other disciplines, even those closely related to their own. This was fine until companies and research organizations started to realize that, in order to be effective, solutions needed to be holistic. Pharmaceutical companies needed to consider a persons therapeutic activities. Therapists needed to consider a patient's medications. Doctors needed to think about diet and exercise.

The problem was that none of the experts knew much about other areas of expertise.  Since no one person had expertise in all the areas required to provide a holistic solution, organizations began to create groups of experts, each representing a component discipline. The multi-disciplined team was born.

In theory the idea sounds great. We'll bring together the best people from each field, an all-star team of luminaries from each discipline. We'll provide them all the resources they need to do great things.

In practice, it doesn't work.


Because a multi-disciplined team of people who are each experts in a single discipline is like a multilingual team of people who each speak only one language. Without overlap of disciplines, without common languages, it's impossible for the members to effectively communicate with or benefit from the expertise of others.

Sure, there may be other reasons that we don't see the anticipated benefits of multi-disciplined teams. However, without the ability to effectively translate expertise into language accessible to non-experts, there's little benefit that an expert can offer to a team.

The solution is obvious: multi-disciplined individuals. However it's unlikely to be implemented. The reason is that all our systems that recognize and accredit expertise reward specialization and penalize breadth. Topics of doctoral theses and journal publications are becoming increasingly narrow. Within the orthodoxy, to become a generalist is a bad thing.

Nonetheless, to effectively share your expertise with experts outside your area of expertise, you need to be able to translate it into the language of other experts: if not their native language, at least into one of their secondary languages.

A side effect of becoming a multi-disciplined you is that you become a better expert. You gain new perspectives on subject matter that you thought you knew inside and out.

New areas of expertise need not be, and perhaps are necessarily not, closely related to your primary area of expertise. However, if you want to be someone who can make a big difference in a world that demands holistic thought, if you want to be someone who can catalyze a multi-disciplined team, then its time to branch out and become a multi-disciplined you.

Happy Thursday,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Keeping Up with Quinn

As I prepare dinner, Iris paces back-and-forth past the kitchen island on which my I'm chopping peppers and onions. Her hands move in fits of frenzy, pausing to wait for her words to catch up, and then frenzying again.  "The problem is... the problem... the problem is that we're just not keeping up with Quinn."

"What do mean?"

"Quinn still has his challenges, but he's overcoming them faster and faster."

"Uh, huh."

"People see that he's growing, but they don't see how he's getting faster at learning to learn."

"He's accelerating."

"Yeah, he's... what?"

"They see his rate of speed, but they don't see that the rate is changing. Most people see just a snapshot of Quinn, like a picture of a car in motion. You can't see that he's moving.

Some people see how he's growing day to day and they have an idea of how fast he's going, like a car that you pass on the highway, but they don't see that he's getting faster.

Everyone thinks about Quinn like the car in the photo that seems not to be moving or the car on the highway that was moving slowly; they don't see Quinn as someone who's going to pass them."

"Yeah, and he's going to pass them soon, really soon. Some, he might already have passed."

"So why are you suddenly concerned about this?"

"It's not suddenly. I've been seeing it happen, but I haven't been able to put my finger on it. First, you've got the fact that once Quinn get's the idea of something new, he's relentless in trying it over and over until he gets it."

"Sure, but that's not something new. What's changed, recently?"

"Hmm... OK, here's something. Over the past weeks, we've been teaching Quinn sign-language. Being Quinn, he wants to sign everything he's says or hears. He's been picking it up really quickly."

"Oh, well that's it then."

"That's it then? I didn't even finish what I was going to say."

"Sorry, please finish."

"Since he's been signing, his spoken language has been improving and so has his spelling."

"Uh, huh."

"As his speaking and spelling improve, so does his signing."

"Uh, huh."

"Uh, huh what?"

"Anchor points."

"Anchor points?"

"Yeah, anchor points. Quinn's learning faster than other people, because he has multiple anchor points for everything he learns."

"You mean like when you learn a knew word and you visualize how it must be spelled."

"Yeah, like that. You set an aural anchor point when you hear and repeat the word. Visualizing how it's spelled sets a visual anchor point.  More importantly, when you sound out the spelling, you set a hybrid aural/visual anchor point that embeds much more deeply than the other two."

"And now Quinn has the signing. He watches his fingers and our fingers, so that gives him another visual anchor point. Plus, he feels the words and letters in his hands, so that's a tactile anchor point."

"With all those anchor points, it's no wonder he's learning so fast. If he keeps it up and if no one else is keeping up with his signing, he'll be passing everyone in no time. That's what happened for me in math."

"For you in math? I knew that this would eventually become about you. What about math?"

"In school, I was never good at math. I must have taken freshmen algebra four years in a row. When I got the job at Bell Labs, I had to go to night school in order to get ahead. That meant taking math classes. Moreover, it meant taking calculus classes. I had no idea what I would do."

"Yeah, but you're really good at math now."

"Now, but not then. Fortunately for me they cancelled the evening session because there weren't enough students enrolled. I couldn't make the daytime session because I had to work. So, I asked the professor if I could just come in and take the tests."

"But you said you were no good at math. How exactly did you expect that to work?"

"Um... good question. When the professor agreed to give it a try, I had this internal sense of panic as I smiled and thanked him. I had no idea how to go about it."

"What'd you do?"

"First thing was to buy five different calculus books. Whenever I read just one, I'd come up with so many ways to interpret the text that I'd get completely confused. However, if I read four or five versions of the same thing, I could lock down the meaning. It was painfully slow, but for the first time ever I felt as though I'd understood what'd I'd read."

"So reading the various versions was kind of like setting anchor points?"

"Yeah, but thing that really nailed it for me was to visualize the formulas. Previously, I'd always tried to memorize them, but they were just phrases and symbols. When I started visualizing the geometric images that the formulas mapped to, it was easier to learn them. It was like sounding out words and spelling them."

"OK, so that gave you a visual anchor point plus a hybrid one, right?"

"Yup. And the last thing I did was to practice. At Berklee, I'd learned what it meant to practice relentlessly. It was a skill I'd not developed in grammar school or high school. So, I treated calculus like I would a really gnarly piece of music. I broke it down and practiced each piece repeatedly."

"And it all worked?"

"Yeah. I was hoping just to make it through and instead I got the highest score on the final exam."

"Well, I've got to start setting some anchor points and practicing relentlessly. Otherwise, Quinn's going to blow right by me and I'll be running like crazy to catch up. He's already better than I am at sign language."

"Better not teach him to play drums, otherwise you'll never catch up."

"Very funny.... hah... hah..."

Happy Monday,

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Uncommon Sense

Common Sense and Conventional Wisdom. They're two phrases that are often confused and even used interchangeably. That's OK except that they often represent diametrically opposed answers to the same situation.

It's the first word of each phrase that causes the confusion. Indeed, common and conventional may be exchanged without modifying meaning much. However, that's not the case with sense and wisdom. Sense is something that comes from within; wisdom is something that comes from without. Sense is an intuitive, figure-it-out kind of thing; wisdom is a read-about-it, learn-it kind of thing. The two often yield different results and quite frequently, it's conventional wisdom that makes common sense so uncommon. Easy access to conventional wisdom (e.g., through google) often precludes the engagement of sense at all.

Problem is that conventional wisdom is often wrong (but it just makes up for it in volume). For example, let's say that you have pain in your right shoulder. You conclude that you've been working too long at your computer and that your muscles are overly tight. You ask friends what to do about it. One suggests a massage. Another shows you some stretching exercises. A third friend invites you to his yoga class.

Conventional wisdom says that any one or all of these can be a good solution to your shoulder pain. You try all of them. After the massage, you feel great, but by the time you go to bed, the pain starts to creep back in. The yoga provides a good distraction, but you're not sure it did much for your shoulder. The stretching felt good at first, but an hour later both shoulders are hurting.

Conventional wisdom says, "Stretch."

However, common sense (or perhaps, uncommon sense) says, "Compress."

For example, if you've got shoulder pain, take a couple of dumbbells (one in each hand), and hoist them up to shoulder height so that your forearms and hands are facing forward. Slowly exhale as you press the weights towards the ceiling until your arms are full extended; slowly inhale as you lower them to shoulder height. Find a weight that allows you to do this eight-to-ten times before you feel exhausted.

When you return to your desk, you'll find that your shoulder muscles have relaxed (all by themselves). Throughout the day, get up from your computer and repeat the exercise. Note that if you rarely or never work out, you may experience some aches and pains the next day; however, they'll not be from the stressed muscles. Just keep repeating the exercise; after a while you'll rarely if ever experience stress in your shoulders and you'll start to get into pretty good shape.

Conventional wisdom says, "That's not the way to do it."

Common sense tells you otherwise. All you have to do is to pay attention to your body and how it behaves. After exertion, muscles relax; it's just built into the system. It's one of those action/reaction phenomena, i.e., for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.

Don't have or don't want to use weights? No problem. There's a little trick that musicians, actors and public speakers use to relax before going on stage. Make like a body-builder who's trying show off every muscle at once. Hunch just a bit. Curl your arms in slightly so that you hands are just before your belly. Suck in a deep breath and try to tighten absolutely every muscle in your body. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter. Hold it.

Now release. Voila!

Of course, the conflict between conventional wisdom and common sense isn't limited to muscle relaxation. It's pervasive. You might be surprised by just how much conventional wisdom you've adopted in lieu of using your sense. It can be hard to spot. However, there's an easy way find much of it.

If you'd like to build your uncommon sense by shedding conventional wisdom, start with the things you do that never seem to work or work as well as they ought. Could be that they never really made much sense to you, but you know, everyone else does'em that way.

Once you find a couple, give yourself a little uncommon sense workout. Don't google an answer. Just think about how you'd go about solving a problem if there were no one to ask and nothing to google.

Have an uncommonly happy day!

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I wrote yesterday about a talk I gave in Washington DC the previous day at an international conference on mobile health. Rather than presenting the PowerPoint slides I'd prepared, I decided to simply tell my story, incorporating the facts and figures as I went. The immediate response was pretty amazing. However, I discovered yesterday that the ripple-effect was more far-reaching than I'd have imagined and as far as I can tell, positive.

Throughout the day, I was approached by people who'd heard about my talk from others and who had questions for me. Some were fairly senior officials in US healthcare; fortunately (I think), I had no idea about who they were at the time I was speaking to them. After talking with someone, the next person waiting to speak with me would say something like, "Do you know who that was?"

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been all that deferential anyway, but it was nice not to have been distracted by the position held by each person. Regardless of the position held, a common theme of discussion was innovation. How do we become more innovative in healthcare? 

Whether multinational corporation or government bureaucracy, innovation within large, mature systems has always been a challenge. Large organizations tend to attract people who like structure, organization and well-defined rules (not exactly your creative types) and throughout history, rarely has innovation come from within the orthodoxy. It seems always to come from without.

So my gut reaction to the question, "How does a large, bureaucratic organization become innovative", was simply, "It doesn't."  However, I didn't find that very satisfying and neither did anyone with whom I was speaking.

One man whose title was Director, Innovation said, "I see the problem with innovation; it's us. We're just not the sort of people who can be creative and innovative."

In my head, I heard Scott lamenting, "I'm just not the kind of person who can play bass and sing at the same time."

My almost involuntary response was, "Of course you can! You just don't know how!"

I awoke from my multi-millisecond revery to see the innovation director looking at me expectantly without a hint of skepticism or doubt. His expression shouted, "How? Tell me how!"

Before I had time to think, I heard my mouth say, "Rudiments. It's all about rudiments. You learn innovation by practicing little innovations."

This provided my brain just enough time to catch up as he asked, "What kind of rudiments? Can you give me an example?"

I said, "Sure. Have you ever spent significant time using your opposite hand? One time, I went for three months doing everything normally done with my right hand with my left. I learned all sorts of things I'd never have learned otherwise."

"But how did that help you become more innovative?"

My brain fully caught up, I said, "To be innovative simply requires you to be comfortable when exposed to stimuli and situations that are completely foreign to you. The more comfortable you are, the more open you become to situations and stimuli you usually avoid or ignore. As you open yourself to these, you start to see the patterns and opportunities that normally evade you."

He slowly nodded his head parsing what I'd said.

I continued, "Anyone is capable of innovation. It's a learned skill, not a gift. Some of us come with it factory-equipped; others have to get it aftermarket. Nonetheless, anyone can be innovative. The trick is that innovation is learned through doing, not through studying."

He responded, "So, I have to practice innovation like I'd practice my golf swing?"

"Yes, and no", I said. "It all depends on how you practice your golf swing. If you practice by replicating what someone taught you, then no. However, if you practice by listening to your body and making changes as they occur to you, then yes."

"Mmm... Hmm..."

"That's why it's important to start with things for which you've never been trained, things that you have to figure out on your own. The goal is to break down the neurological dams that limit thought-flow to the streams you've developed."

"Uh, huh."

"Much of formal training involves dam building: you know 'Do it this way; never do it that way'. So, if you start in an area in which you were formally trained, you end up fighting voices that are telling you, 'no!' The key is to come at the dams orthogonally. You want to find an activity in which you haven't been trained that requires a flow through the same dam. The simpler the activity, the better."

"So, write left-handed for the next three months?"

"Yeah, or without a GPS or map, take a different route to work every day."

"And that will make me more innovative?"

"I don't know. That'd be up you, but it couldn't hurt."

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Change from Within

Yesterday, I spoke at an international conference on mobile health systems and participated in a panel discussion. The theme for the panel was "The upcoming big-data deluge". The presenters included a business leader from a large IT company, a professor from George Washington University, the director of an international healthcare organization, and me. We would each identify and address what we believed to be the challenges of managing, filtering, interpreting and protecting the ever-increasing volume of biomedical data being collected not only in hospitals and practices, but also through consumer devices and self-evaluation tools.

Preparing for my presentation on Monday night, I researched facts and figures on the proliferation of sensor devices through products such as telephones and video games. I put together a cost-performance curve that anticipated the continued reduction in costs over the next ten years. Based on the proliferation rates, I calculated for the next five years, the per-week volume of new data being collected worldwide. The numbers were impressive and well beyond the capacity of any current system. All my numbers in place, I created a set of PowerPoint slides, submitted them to the conference website and went to bed.

The next morning, I headed over to the conference center and made my way to our designated presentation room. It was about eight times larger than I'd anticipated and, even though I was about fifteen minutes early, almost filled to capacity. I thought, "Hmm... these guys must be pretty well known to draw such a big crowd. This ought to be fun."

I walked up to the front of the room where the moderator and the other speakers were huddled, and said, "Hey y'all, I'm Mark." We shook hands and the moderator filled us in on the format. We'd begin the ninety-minute session with each of us providing a five-to-ten minute presentation and then open the discussion to questions from the audience. The order of the presenters would be alphabetical by last name; I would be last.

The business executive spoke first. His firm employed more than 100,000 people; his PowerPoint slides were polished and well done. He spoke primarily about the expertise of his company and its capacity to handle whatever data the world of medical forms and devices can throw at it. He was precise, to the point and clear. Eight or so minutes after opening he returned to his seat.

The professor's slides were, well, professorial. Each was crowded with enough detail to require five-to-ten minutes of explanation.  Many of them, he read verbatim. About five minutes after the ten-minute timer began flashing red, he skipped ahead to his conclusion slide, black with text, and read it to the audience.

The international healthcare director had well prepared slides that spoke to real issues encountered by his teams in the field. He gave equal time to solutions that had worked and ones that had not worked. Rather than waxing philosophical about the future of healthcare, he spoke to the biggest challenges he faced on a day-to-day basis.

It was my turn to speak. The moderator introduced me. I walked up to the podium and clicked to my first slide (to the left). I made a mental pass through all my facts and figures and looked up at the audience. As I did so, I flashed back to sessions with our weekly writer's group and thought about simply telling a story. In the moment between the time I clicked to my first slide and the time my mouth opened to speak, my mind changed everything I would say and present. Rather than talking about data, geopolitics and technology, I said, "When I was twenty-one or so, I stood at the checkout counter of the hospital where my wife Rene had just given birth to our first child, Joy. I had about two-thousand dollars cash (which was all the money in the world to me) and no healthcare coverage."

From there it just kind of rolled along. I managed to get in my facts and figures, but in a completely different context. The audience seemed to really like it. They laughed and even applauded from time to time.

Five minutes later, I sat down and we dug into the discussion. Afterwards, before I could stand up to shake hands with my fellow panelists, a queue of people wanting to talk with me had formed. I spent the next hour meeting people from all sides of the healthcare industry who wanted to know more about the systems we were developing and how they might use them. It was pretty amazing.

Afterwards, I felt grateful for all I'd learned from Jenny and Will about just telling your story. It's powerful.

Happy Wednesday,