Monday, January 18. 2010
Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker article, "The Sure Thing," follows his trademark formula: find a truism and turn it on its head. In this case, the truism is "entrepreneurs are risk-takers." American culture lionizes the entrepreneur for taking risks that others wouldn't take, by staking huge amounts of money, time, and energy in something totally new. Gladwell finds, though, that extravagant risk is something the most successful entrepreneurs scrupulously avoid. He cites several famous entrepreneurs – Ted Turner (Turner Broadcasting), Sam Walton (Wal-mart), and Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), among others – who distinguished themselves by their superior insight and exhaustive research, and not their cahones. Hedge-fund manager John Paulson, who made billions of dollars betting against the U.S. housing bubble, may seem like a high-stakes gambler, but in fact he did months of research before he would so much as touch a credit default swap. The successful entrepreneurs took every opportunity to avoid risk, by shifting it onto outside investors, or leaning on cash reserves within a family or a family business, or simply making astute choices of business deals where they couldn't lose.
I can say that Gladwell's thesis holds up well in my own experience. I had the distinct privilege for working for Augie Turak during the early years of his startup Raleigh Group International (RGI) which sold and marketed software develop tools. His motto of entrepreneurship might have been: "Live to fight another day." "Business is very simple," he said. "A successful business has more money coming in than going out. All you have to do is remain solvent, one day after the next, until you find your niche." Turak started his venture with $10,000 and never sought outside loans. He was ruthless about controlling costs. For the first two years he didn't draw a salary. The employees took turns cleaning the office instead of hiring a cleaning service. He shunned most paid advertising, which was expensive and of questionable worth, and instead mastered guerrilla marketing tactics – direct mail to lists he traded for, email subscriptions, and all the editorial coverage he could squeeze from the trade magazines. All his sales reps were paid on straight commission, so he never had to worry about unprofitable employees dragging the company down. When he finally found a niche with a promising future – bug-tracking systems – he found a silent partner to front most of the money for the project, and found an enormous marketing partner – Microsoft – to piggy-back on for the marketing. When he finally sold the business to another software company, he held most of the equity and profited handsomely . . . because he had avoided financial risk rather than taking it.
Gladwell pointed out that entrepreneurs were willing to take social risks, even though they avoid financial ones. That fits Turak to a T. He was a master of telephone sales, and telephone sales reps risk social rejection on a minute-by-minute basis. He taught his sales force to be aggressive, to take risks, and most of all to persevere in the face of rejection and failure. He was famous for making over-the-top, impassioned sales pitches, doing things others would never dream of doing to get the sale. Once, he was pitching a quiet Japanese prospect who told him: "Prease, understand – I Japanese. We vely conservative and careful." "Conservative?" Turak bellowed. "The heck you say. What about the samurai? BONZAI! BONZAI!" Turak didn't get the credit card on that call, but everyone in the sales pit knew he had pulled out all the stops. And then, later that day, he got a call back from the "cautious" Japanese prospect: "You . . . vely good saresman. I buy."
Gladwell is only demonstrating what most performers already know: through discipline, training, and preparation, you can take something that looks dangerous and risky (like, say, a triple somersault on the trapeze, or investing billions of dollars) and make it an everyday occurrence.
Saturday, May 23. 2009
In response to Kenny's comments on the primacy of effort:
Tuesday, May 19. 2009
The writers at the New Yorker keep coming up with new angles on a recurring theme: talent is Out, effort is In.
I had already written previously about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, in which he details how effort and opportunity are more important than talent in creating super-successful people. Now, in another article, "How David Beats Goliath," (The New Yorker, May 11, 2009) he asks a seemingly simple question for a dedicated basketball fan such as himself: "Why don't more teams play the full-court press?" It doesn't take a genius to realize that a weaker team can dramatically slow down a superior team by playing the full-court press: guarding their opponents they moment they get the ball, and doing everything in their power to stop them from advancing to mid-court in the required 10 seconds. And yet, you rarely see that strategy pursued, at any level of play.
Gladwell followed up on those who did use the full-court press -- a team of 12-year-old girls in the National Junior Basketball league, and the teams of college coach Rick Pitino -- and found that they triumphed . . . at a price. The full-court press is an exhausting strategy, one that requires players to run and run and run. Few teams, it turns out, are willing to work that hard. It also makes for rather ugly basketball, a rushing and flailing of arms and legs instead of the graceful passes and shots players like to make and fans like to watch. The full-court press is stigmatized -- those who use it are met with both anger and contempt, and some officials make biased calls to discourage its use.
All this would be interesting enough on its own. But Gladwell loves isomorphisms -- he wants to see if this same phenomena maps to other sorts of struggles. And before you know it, he draws parallels with the military history, and academic studies of how underdogs prevail in battle. Lawrence of Arabia played the military equivalent of the full-court press, using the everywhere-at-once attacks of his Bedouin troops in the places his foes were weakest. They prevailed because the hustled, and refused to play by the rules that favored their opponents. Those same tactics -- small, fast, non-traditional, and out-of-bounds -- have now redefined modern warfare in an age of terrorism and insurgency. David can win against Goliath, but only by using methods Goliath finds repellant.
The triumph of effort found another voice this week in another New Yorker article ("Don't! The secret of self-control," May 18, 2009) that looked at the unexpected results of psychological research in the sixties. Some researches had created "the marshmallow test," a simple exercise to see how long four-year-olds could resist eating a treat in order to earn a greater reward later. Kids' abilities to defer gratification varied significantly, but they could also be taught cognitive tricks to make it easier. The researchers didn't realize the significance of their findings until they followed up on their subjects decades later . . . and found that the marshmallow test was profoundly predictive of success in later life. Those who passed the marshmallow test scored higher on the SAT. Those who couldn't resist the marshmallow were more likely to have behavioral problems, had trouble paying attention and maintaining friendships.
For years educators and parents have been focusing on IQ as the most important cognitive measure, when it turns out willpower was more significant. And willpower, they've found, is not some mysterious quality of character, but rather a specific skill for controlling one's attention, focusing on certain thoughts and tuning out others. Persistence of attention and effort are what ensure lifelong success.
What does this mean for our culture? I hope it signals a rejuvenation of the American meritocracy, restoring our faith that people can control their destinies, if they are willing to pay the price. The "land of opportunity" is really "the land of the opportunity to work." Effort is not omnipotent, but it's the closest thing to it.
Thursday, December 4. 2008
"Science is culture." So says Seed Magazine on its cover. A friend of mine gave me a subscription to Seed, though I am only vaguely aware of why. Maybe it was because he knew I was a scientist as well as a spiritual seeker, and he was hoping that a regular dose of rationality would somehow sway me to enlightened agnosticism.
Seed is a curious kind of magazine. It's hard to know who, exactly, it is trying to appeal to. There are some features that clearly are appealing to the scientists themselves -- the rank and file bench workers and post-docs slaving away, with little more than their own high self-regard to comfort them. They have a regular feature, "Workbench," which is just a picture of some scientist's work space -- a desk or office or cube or laboratory -- with little annotations about the pictures and tchockas and books and papers that fill the space. I liked that, because that shows a lot of insight into what the lives of these people are like. Scientists spend a lot of time at the desk, and the view from that desk is as good a symbol as any of the monk-like existence that they lead. I was reminded of the movie Into Great Silence, a documentary about French Trappist monks, and the long shots they would take of snowy scenes outside a monk's cell. The scene that monk would look at for the rest of his life. It has beauty in it, but a bleak kind of beauty, and not what I would call hope.
I think that's part of the problem with Seed. In style it mimics other magazines of the mega-cool future, especially Wired. It has the same trippy two-page color spreads with call-out quotes from an article, something that is supposed to be provocative and compelling. The layout sometimes has the crazy collage quality of Wired, with colorful exploding graphs and maps. But then lapses just as suddenly into the clean staidness of a 1970's Scientific American. Clearly it wants to taken more seriously than billowy lightweights like Popular Science or Psychology Today. But the content falls into this weird space, more technical than puff-piece but not nearly the page length to sustain really complex content, like you would see in Scientific American. And it has social issues on its mind, and it's so serious about its seriousness about social issues that you come away with no other thought than, "Boy, do those guys take themselves seriously." None of the featured scientists smile. Well, maybe in a long shot you might see a smug smirk in the distance. A few non-Caucasian women venture real smiles, but the North American men and women . . . well, they are just too important to be caught smiling.
So the overall tone is . . . cold. Add to it the fact that it's very light on advertising -- just a smattering of full-page officious feel-good propaganda from big pharmas and big oil companies and one or two eco-cable channels. Cold, cold, cold. If the purpose of this magazine is as evangelical as it seems, to make science and scientists look more important and influential and cool . . . Well, they seem to have missed entirely on the "cool" part. The primary missing ingredient is joy. Wired Magazine explodes with enthusiasm, because its guiding ethic is capitalistic and optimistic. The people featured in it tend to have a wild gleam in their eyes, because they're planning on making a few million dollars in their twenties and getting laid tonight, and besides they are having the time of their lives, and, oh yeah, I guess the world will benefit from this cool stuff we're doing. By contrast, the people in Seed look . . . Sad? Bored? They look like people who wish other people took them more seriously. And so, of course, we don't.
Thursday, November 20. 2008
In one of his recent New Yorker articles, "Late Bloomers", Malcolm Gladwell delivers good news to me: not all genius artists are young. Some, like Picasso or Melville, do their greatest work in their twenties, but then others, like Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, or Cezanne, make their greatest work in their forties and fifties. It's not too late for me!
Well, maybe the news is not as great as I first thought. Gladwell goes on to explore what makes these two artistic life cycles so different. The late bloomers, he explains, are exploratory -- they don't know where they are going when they start, and they spend a great deal of time trying to discover what they want to express in the process of creation. Ok, that sounds like me: a guy who starts writing a blog one day with no clear direction.
Now the bad news: those late bloomers can take a looooong time, years and years, to get to great work. Their early work is often poor . . . which means they have to spend a lot of time compensating for their lack of native talent with practice, experience, and brute trial-and-error. The process often requires patronage -- external support from sponsors, friends, spouses, and day jobs.
I got a lot of work ahead of me.
I guess I can still hope that I'm a young genius who is just getting a late start, instead of a dedicated grind who might eventually slave his way to greatness. I wrote some pretty good stuff in my twenties. . .
Yeah, right. I got a lot of work ahead of me.
The variation that we see in the life cycles of artists might be reflected in those of spiritual figures as well. Sometimes relatively young people (Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle) are seized by spiritual experiences and seem to reach some high level of insight without much evident struggle (though sometimes tremendous pain). Others, it seems, have to live through life, suffering through disillusionment and a long series of humiliations before they finally break through. Richard Rose guessed that any dramatic spiritual awakening had to happen before the age of 30, or else the seeker wouldn't have enough vital energy to "make the trip." Andrew Cohen, on the other hand, speculated that most people had to be over thirty before they would be disillusioned enough to seriously devote themselves to liberation. Vedic traditions recognized intense spiritual lifestyles could be appropriate for the young (the brahmachari) and the old (the sannyasi ).
Lots of ways up the mountain . . . some a lot longer than others.
Monday, November 3. 2008
A recent New Yorker article ("Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, November 3, 2008) challenges some assumptions about whether conservative attitudes towards sexuality are really "pro-family". Some new sociological studies find that evangelicals who most strongly push for abstinence before marriage are also the groups that have the most sexually active teenagers, the highest teen pregnancy, the lowest age of marriage and (as a direct consequence) the highest rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the liberals who are generally accepting of both teenage sex and abortion are the ones having the lowest teenage pregnancy rate, delaying marriage and childbearing, and therefore having kids when they are more emotionally and financially mature.
I have mixed feelings about the results they report . . . Primarily because I have lived on both sides of their conservative/liberal divide, at least as far as sexuality was concerned. I grew up with a belief that one should postpone sexual activity until marriage, instilled by my family as a part of my religious beliefs. And I did, in fact, remain a virgin until I married.
However, I had a lot of the "blue" factors at work as well. My parents were explicit about practical perils of sex as well as the moral ones -- "if you father a child, you are the one who will be raising it, not me," my mother told me on more than one occasion. And though my mother was vehement about postponing sex until marriage, she was far from being against sex per se. Sex was not banned because it was evil, but precisely because it was good -- a sacred bond, something to be cherished and not debased. And, like many teenagers, I engaged in certain, erm, practices that only barely qualified me as a "technical virgin," as is typical of the liberal-minded prescription.
The New Yorker article didn't mention some of the downsides that I see to the "liberal-minded" approach to sexuality. It completely ignores the emotionally charged nature of sexuality. All the condoms in the world cannot protect the psyche from the ramifications of such intimacy. Today's youth might be more informed about sexuality, more careful in a practical sense, and yet they also seem numb. It seems as if the only way they could deal with the emotional consequences of sex was to shut down. I can't speak to this with any authority, since, as I said, I took a different path and have no direct experience with promiscuity. But, as one young woman told me, "With my generation, it's like, sleeping with someone is no big deal." And while some liberals might cheer at such an attitude, I find it unnerving, in the same way I found mandatory promiscuity to be unnerving in Brave New World. If we conquer sexuality by sucking absolutely all meaning and significance out of it, then I'm not entirely sure we're better off.
Interestingly, the study found that the abstinence-only works fine for those who score high on measures of religiosity -- those who go to church often and pray at home. People who get plenty of support and attention, and who are embedded in a cultural alternative to the sexed-up popular culture, can succeed in delaying sex. But, as with lots of religious groups, most who identify themselves as evangelicals are not deeply observant. So it's not enough to have the conservative beliefs about sexuality -- you have to have a lifestyle that supports those beliefs in order for them to have any significance.
All this reinforces some basic SKS messages regarding one's philosophy:
Monday, April 21. 2008
Last week the New Yorker had an interesting review of several books about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, and how they have played out in the formation of the Constitution and the First Amendment. When it comes to the topic of law and religion, I have several possibly contradictory currents competing within me:
So what does the New Yorker's literature review have to say about it? Firstly, they cast some doubt in both directions, both for those who would claim we were founded as a "Christian nation," and those who would elevate secularism as the highest value in society. The founding fathers were not the sort of Christians your average fundamentalist would identify with â€“ they were deists, who recognized a spiritual reality and at the same time were skeptical of dogma and superstition. (They were, I dare say, not that different from me.) At a time when most states explicitly established an official religion in their constitutions and had religious tests for holding office, the Constitution is remarkable for explicitly refusing such tests, and, for that matter, not even mentioning God at all. It is an emphatic exclusion â€“ they clearly wanted Reason to be the foundation of their political system, and to keep religion out of it.
At the same time, they Founders were not anti-religion. They were explicit in saying the purpose of the disestablishment clause was not so much to protect secularism from religion, but rather to protect religions from each other. They very much wanted the free expression of religion, and thought it most likely to happen if no religion could establish itself above any other. And so far they have been right: America has been significantly more religious than its European peers since its independence, and indeed even more religious than the founding fathers themselves.
In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers had faith in freedom. They believed that people, and institutions, would arrive at the truth if given the freedom to do so. The coercion of an official religion was antithetical to their notion of religion itself, which had to be the individual's free and direct recognition of the Deity. Most interestingly, the Founding Fathers were not even that thrilled that we should care what they think. As Jefferson put it: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."
Monday, April 7. 2008
Kenny sent around a New York Times article on scientific studies of willpower capacity, which basically established that we have a finite capacity of willpower that can be exhausted, but that the capacity for greater willpower can be developed over time, mostly by practice. Personal willpower is a theme that often comes up in the SKS, since it's a necessary-but-not-sufficient capacity for nearly all forms of success, including spiritual success.
A few other observations on the article's ramifications:
Sunday, February 24. 2008
NPR ran a story a couple days ago that gives me hope for our educational system: "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills" [Alix Spiegel, February 21, 2009.]
The basic thesis of the story: it was only relatively recently, with the advent of year-round toy advertisements on television, that children's play in our culture became focused on the toy, rather than on play. Before then, play was fundamentally an activity, a free-wheeling imaginative make-believe in which children narrated stories, individually and collectively. But the focus on toys, with ever-more-articulated detail and pre-scripted stories, restricted the imaginative sphere of the child. Add to that the increasing focus on child safety, and the trend to put kids into adult-managed activities: Little Leagues, karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps, etc. (To quote the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Child-Safety Experts Call for the Restrictions on Childhood Imagination.") In the end, children had much, much less room for imaginative play.
Which, it turns out, was a disastrous mistake. Imaginative play turns out to have a strong role in the development of "executive function," a constellation of cognitive abilities that includes, most significantly, "self-regulation" -- the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. And executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
What makes this story particularly interesting for me is that it is a sweeping endorsement of Waldorf Education pedagogy. Waldorf distinguishes itself with a strong de-emphasis on early reading, instead making the ideal environment for imaginative play for younger children. In the Waldorf preschools and kindergartens, you will not find a single alphabet block. Instead you will find the raw material for imaginative play: play stands, colorful silk scarves, polished stones, pieces of wood, and extremely rudimentary dolls. You will also see lots of handwork and practical arts: knitting, felting, drawing, painting, cooking, and gardening. These are basic exercises for self-regulation.
The NPR story also helps justify Waldorf's strong prohibitions against exposure to media and commercial messages. Waldorf teachers urge parents to limit, and preferably eliminate, all TV, radio, and computer time for young children. School dress codes forbid brand logos, television characters, and all forms of writing. Now we know why: television targeting young audiences is deliberately, consciously trying to co-opt imaginative play for the sake of selling products.
Think of all the modern complaints about the rise in "attention-deficit disorder", and discipline issues in school. Is it any wonder that they can't sit still and pay attention, if we never gave them the chance to practice those abilities?
I find it exciting and promising that the mainstream culture is starting to realize what Waldorf teachers knew all along: children do not need to be little Einsteins. They need to be little children. They need to play.
Thursday, December 27. 2007
Janet passed on to me a Sun Magazine interview with Adyashanti, a contemporary spiritual teacher in California. I'm gladÂ I read the interview before I looked at the website, because I think he comes off very well in the interview, but looks like just another Western guru with a funny name on the website. He has a teaching similar to Eckhart Tolle, but a tone that has slightly more edge and reminiscent of Augie Turak or Richard Rose. Some passages that caught my attention:
"I'm a truth guy, not a comfort guy."
"The role of spiritual practice is basically to exhaust the seeker. If the practice does what's it's supposed to do, it exhausts our energy for seeking, and then reality has a chance to present itself. In that sense, spiritual practices can help lead to awakening. But that's different from saying that the practice produces the awakening."
"Reality is always looking for a moment of vulnerability, when we let our guard down . . . it can be prompted by some tragic event: an illness, or a death of a loved one, or a divorce. Reality rushes into the cracks and presents itself."
Q: "What method do you teach people to sustaining awakening?"
Q: "What do you think is the significance of routine in spiritual practice?"
"Looking back I could easily say, 'Boy, I made a lot of dumb mistakes.' But I needd to do it that way. I wasn't going to let go of those identities on the meditation cushion. it would have been nice if it could have been contained in this safe environment -- bowing and meditating and meeting with the teacher -- but it often doesn't work that way. Spirituality is much more of a bloody mess than we like to admit."
"No emotion or experience is necessarily excluded from my life. Do I ever get angry? Sure, I get angry. Awakening shows us that emotions are illusions -- but that doesn't mean they will cease to arise."
Q: "What do you think happens to individual consciousness after the death of the body?"
"Statements about the ego 'disappearing' miss the mark. The ego is still there; you just see it to be an illusion."
"Most people who think they're part of the greater awakening of humanity are actually just aggrandizing their own egos . . . one of the best ways to stay asleep is to wait for a future when we'll all be awake. But, like I said, I hope I'm wrong. If the whole world wakes up tomorrow, I'll be glad that I was wrong."
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