In yesterday’s post I talked about how the brain can only take in so much information at a time and because of that it generalizes what it sees at times, depending on priority. Today I’m going to talk a little about the brain’s ability to self regulate.

Willpower is a great under appreciated talent. What is interesting about it is the balancing act. If you tighten your belt in one area you tend to loosen it in another. For more information you can see Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang Op-Ed piece on April 2nd, 2008 in the NY Times called Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind.” The examples it details is how someone when restricting their spending will then over eat. Here are some excerpts I like from the article:

The good news, however, is that practice increases willpower capacity, so that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals — like losing those 10 pounds we gained when we weren’t out shopping.

Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.

So as we get closer to the stimulus package you can see that the US Federal government wants people to open back up their wallets. They don’t want an increase in shopping avoidance willpower, regardless of if people can really afford it. As consumer spending goes so goes the economy. Maybe it is just as simple as cash flow on the balance sheet.

Blind to Change

“… change blindness: the frequent inability of our visual system to detect alterations to something staring us straight in the face.”

This line is taken from an article on April 1st, 2008 by Natalie Angier in the NY Times called Blind to Change, Even as It Stares Us in the Face. The article’s focus is mainly on how the brain sees the world. Ellsworth Kelly’s “Study for Colors for a Large Wall” is a perfect example. When an audience was exposed to the painting everyone absorbed the piece of art. But when the piece was taken away and the audience was asked to view another slightly modified version of it, the audience couldn’t be sure what was different. It as if the audience took it in as a whole, but the specifics were less memorable. The brain takes steps to prioritize the amount of information coming. Here are two sections from the article that encompass what the brain does:

The mechanisms that succeed in seizing our sightline fall into two basic classes: bottom up and top down. Bottom-up attentiveness originates with the stimulus, with something in our visual field that is the optical equivalent of a shout: a wildly waving hand, a bright red object against a green field. Bottom-up stimuli seem to head straight for the brainstem and are almost impossible to ignore, said Nancy Kanwisher, a vision researcher at M.I.T., and thus they are popular in Internet ads.

Top-down attentiveness, by comparison, is a volitional act, the decision by the viewer that an item, even in the absence of flapping parts or strobe lights, is nonetheless a sight to behold. When you are looking for a specific object — say, your black suitcase on a moving baggage carousel occupied largely by black suitcases — you apply a top-down approach, the bouncing searchlights configured to specific parameters, like a smallish, scuffed black suitcase with one broken wheel. Volitional attentiveness is much trickier to study than is a simple response to a stimulus…

I see a parallel to the US economy. The average US citizen probably believes that either the Federal Reserve or those in Congress, or both act in a manner consistent with the second item above. They have an idea before hand of what things should look like and they focus on it to make it happen. Unfortunately, what seems to happen is the first item – they need a red flag to rise before noticing a problem. The US economy in 2007 had several clues popping up that if someone was looking for would have possibly changed the situation we are currently in. Here are a few: oil prices rising, borrowing up, long term unemployment up, middle class wage increases leveling off, and consumer buying had shifted from steaks to hamburger. I’m not advocating something that could resemble overreacting to any of these clues, but there should be small adjustments planned for when any of these items falters in the early stages. That doesn’t happen. Instead we get stimulus packages that help, but don’t do much in the long term.

Executive Pay Comparison for 2007

The NY Times has a special report running currently regarding executive compensation. I will comment more on it next week. There is an outstanding comparison tool that is accompanying it. You can find the tool by selecting this link to it: Executive Pay: The Bottom Line for Those at the Top

The top 200 companies are listed with executive compensation available and broken down. What is most useful is the direct correlation to stock price performance.

Freelance Success in Tech

I have a  technical background so I like to see how that intersects with HR. One area I checkout routinely is Web Worker Daily. I think their writers form concise entries and some of it is worthwhile to me and some of it I just blow through.

Anyway, Celine Roque (cool name) posted an entry called Plotting Your Career When You’ve Jumped Off the Corporate Ladder on Friday (April 4th, 2008). What I found interesting about it is that it addressed something that is often overlooked, or at least not compared – the corporate ladder and freelance work. Success in the former is much easier to define and recognize, but since many technology professionals aren’t purposely going up the ladder then the measure of success is more liquid. Here is a brief recap of what Celine Roque posts:

What, exactly, does a freelancer’s career ladder look like and which way is up?


  • Write down your definition of success in your field
  • Think about the kind of work you want to do
  • Narrow down your definition of work to the tasks that you enjoy doing


  • It also helps to look at successful people in your field, especially if you see them as your personal mentor


  • Are you getting any public attention for your work?
  • Are your clients satisfied?
  • Looking at your list of goals, ask yourself: did I attain them?
  • Where do you want to go now?

Step up

  • Learn something new
  • Farm out the non-essential tasks and focus on the work you want to do
  • Raise your rates
  • Reward yourself

There are several comments worth reading as well.

Philosophy Education Beneficial in Todays Fast Pace World

I have a few running themes in my entries regarding education. The first is I think tests are too heavily used to judge a students absorption of the curriculum. I believe the student should reflect their comprehension of the subject area by creating something using the materials taught to them. Make it stop being theory and apply it. The second is teachers should have more freedom in how they teach the students. What I mean by this is that every kid learns differently, but the system motivates teachers to focus on the middle bottom. Teachers are inherently driven to see every kid succeed. Otherwise they wouldn’t take the job. But many teachers lose that special feeling because of educational system constraints. The third theme is I don’t think the cost of college is worth what you get out of it, especially as the costs rise at a pace that is unrivaled.

The last theme is what I want to mainly write about now. The NY Times published an article today called In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined by Winnie Hu. The article is about Philosophy curriculums in college. There is a preconceived notion that philosophy studies are for “would be teachers” because you can’t make any money in the outside world with a Philosophy degree. Or as the article says “frou-frou.” But that might be because you don’t directly apply the results of the education. Philosophy underpins much of what you ascribe to in any other line of work. What has changed is the focus solely on historical scholars.

Because a few professors noticed the increased engagement in students when philosophy is applied to current events and situations, the Iraq war and politicians ideologies and swerving from them for example, they started prompting debate on the subjects; it could be The Matrix or if what is so bad about an animal going extinct. The interest in philosophy has increased at several schools. At the City University of New York philosophy majors are up 51% since 2002. At Rutgers the number of philosophy majors has doubled since 2002. A small aside: this is gratifying to me because it is happening after September 11th. I’m encouraged by the fact there are more people learning to see things at different angles using philosophy as the basis.

So what are the reasons for this increase? Is it September 11th and people wanting to have some sort of understanding of something so bad? Perhaps. Is it because the emphasis is not on the classics as much as it used to be? Probably. Is it because the skills are transferable and in a changing world environment you need to have the ability to move from one job to the next regardless of what the job is? Certainly. Verbal skills are so important in today’s business world. Being able to describe the problem and interact with teammates is so vital in a global economy where everything is virtual. Logical skills are valuable as well. They are universal. Or is it because the training you get in college just isn’t that good? It seems like new hires get retrained anyway and are rarely given the opportunity to really do the work they thought they were going to do. So if you are going to get trained anyway, why not get an in depth education in something that you can associate with any additional training you’ll get. Think of it like globalization for your mind – new cultures, new rules, and no assumptions.

Finally, back to my earlier statements. Teachers are teachers because they are intrinsically motivated to see kids succeed in education. Students who major in philosophy are intrinsically motivated by the subject and because of that they will be successful. The world is full of people in jobs they don’t like already.

March 2008 Jobs Report and Wages

Here are the job market and compensation numbers for March 2008 (based on the job report):

Net loss of 80,000 jobs in the month (revised in April ’08 to 81,000 loss)

  • 38,000 more than expected by Economists (50,000 loss expected)
  • 63,000 job loss is the worst in almost 5 years
  • February revised to 76,000 loss
  • January was revised to a 76,000 loss as well
  • Three straight months of job losses
  • 232,000 jobs lost so far in 2008 – estimated by the Labor Department
  • Analyst predicts job losses every month through August
  • A recent survey found 6% of US employers are already trimming compensation budgets and 10% are considering it

Unemployment rate moved  up to 5.1%

  • Near three year high
  • Economists had forecast the unemployment rate would rise to 5%
  • The household survey saw an even bleaker result – 434,000 saying they are unemployed in March
  • Over the last year 591,000 people are working part time but want to work full time (outside of agriculture)

Wages were up 0.3% for March

  • Average hourly wages up 5 cents
  • Average wage is $17.86 an hour
  • 3.6 total raise year over year – adjusted for inflation than means pay was a loss – consumer prices rose 4% concurrently
  • Weekly earnings are up 3.3% over the past year, still behind inflation

Specific Segment Job numbers:

Construction lost 51,000 workers – down in both residential and non-residential (unemployment in the industry went from 9% to 12% over the past year)

Manufacturers lost 48,000 jobs – durable goods took the largest losses

Retailers showed a 12,000 loss

Business and Professional services lost 35,000 jobs

Health care added 23,000 jobs and 363,000 over the last year

Other increases occurred in education, government, and leisure and hospitality

Other information:

The private sector as a whole loss 98,000 jobs

Private sector jobs are down 300,000 from November 2007

Items pulled from EPI:

According to our analysis of Census Bureau data, the income of the typical (median) working family was lower in real terms in 2007 than at the end of the last business cycle, in 2000

Recently, the rate of nominal (i.e., not inflation-adjusted) wage growth, measured year-over-year, peaked in March 2007 at 4.2%. By February 2008, that rate had slowed to 3.7%, a 0.5% deceleration. Note that inflation has grown more quickly over this period, due largely to rising energy and food costs. Real hourly wages have thus been flat or negative since October 2007.

As EPI economist Josh Bivens points out in forthcoming work evaluating the last business cycle (assuming the cycle peaked in December), the employment rate actually fell over this cycle, by 1.6 percentage points (March 2001-December 2007). This is the first cycle on record marked by a decline in the employment rate. It is also a potent indicator of the weakness of labor demand over the cycle, and one reason why workers’ bargaining power was never strong enough to create much real wage pressure during this period.

Job Report Statistics Index Page

A Life Avalanche for Lisa

In case you haven’t noticed, I have a section in my sidebar called “Blogs I like.” One of those featured is Work In Progress. Lisa Takeuchi Cullen writes it practically daily. I don’t know her, but I feel for her.

There are phrases like “work/life balance” and “work to live, not live to work” that sound appropriate at certain times. They are mostly used during times of inconvenience. In Lisa’s situation, they are used for compassion.

If you are interested in other work place and HR related blogs then I suggest reading hers – in addition to mine. You might like it.