Be More Creative By Brushing Your Teeth

Have you ever tried to brush your teeth with the opposite hand? It’s an ordeal. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just clumsy. From twisting the cap off the toothpaste, to the squeeze of the tube, to the rhythm of the back and forth. The reason is because you’ve established a routine with your normal procedure. The cognitive, or thinking part is gone because it’s a habit. You’ve practiced whether you’ve realized it or not.

Think about driving. I bet you can’t remember anything about your commute this morning that is any different than the commute from yesterday or last week for that matter. What’s scary is when you figuratively wake up and you can’t remember the last two miles or so. You’ve been on autopilot.

Why does this happen? Maybe it’s obvious, but you do that so the brain can concentrate on tasks that are new or novel. Sports are the classic example. Practice enables for rapid reaction and frees up the mind to consider strategy or positioning. A baseball hitter before the game is given a scouting report of the pitcher. He knows the strengths and weaknesses and the likelihood of each pitch depending on the count. One ball and two strikes is probably a slider away, so don’t swing unless he throws a fastball. That’s the strategy, but once the ball is thrown, batting practice takes over.

As you’ve read this, your mind has oscillated between finishing and thinking about some other task. You might be bored by this entry or you might be unintentionally preparing for another activity that you need to do. Either way, you haven’t been completely devoted. And that’s OK and normal.

Sometimes when your mind is wandering, it’s because you’re filing away information that was spurred by the current subject matter. Our brains are not neatly organized. Neural pathways crisscross each other and unintentional associations are developed due to proximity within the brain. So when habits are formed, it’s somewhat of a fast track of these pathways – a straight line of sorts. But when you learn something new, such as brushing your teeth with your opposite hand, you create new pathways. It isn’t important for that activity (brushing teeth or reading a blog entry), but it is for other activities that require creativity. You are moving some associations around and changing the proxity of ideas inside your head. Give it a shot, what harm can it do?

John Tierney wrote Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind in the NY Times and I hit on similar aspects of it.

Working Thoughts 6/29/09
The Impact of a Good Story is Greater than the Effort to Tell It

Three Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts

Today is a big day for this blog – it’s the 3 year anniversary and not only that, it’s the 500th entry.

Over the course of 3 years, I’ve learned a lot. I wanted to better understand the job market at the macro level and I wanted to hone my analysis and writing craft. It’s an ever improving art.

During this time we’ve experienced the worst economic slowdown, which I predicted , in decades. I also feel, and time will tell, that we are at an inflection point in the US. The interconnectedness of the world has synchronized with another notion: young people today no longer view the world as us and them. Being able to talk to people via skype , chatroulette , or instant message has broken down so many walls. A kid in India, Brazil, Japan, or Kenya isn’t all that different than a kid in Anytown, USA. And there isn’t a cold war going on to reinforce ideologies either.

The educational system isn’t innovative anymore. And because of that jobs will split down the line of local versus specialized by knowledge base. The local jobs will be fluid with growth and contraction dependent on the knowledge based jobs in the area. The knowledge oriented jobs will require rapid actualization cycles of concepts like design or system architecture. An example is a company called ARM. They design computer chips and then license the design out to other companies for manufacturing. They only produce ideas – ever iterating not just improvements, but whole new ways of how things work. This is the future of wealth creation.

However, the path to that realization is obscured. The root of the problem lies in education, but a cultural shift occurred about 13 years ago as well. Being middle class for a long time was completely acceptable. But the internet bubble of the ’90s lent credence to the “get rich fast” pathos. Discipline was now a sucker’s game and being exceptional was the standard. The problem is that being exceptional, by definition, means it’s exclusive. But instead of accepting this fact, many people adopted an illusion of success and it was paid for by the accumulation of debt.

As I’ve said, I think we are at an inflection point over the next 5 years. Jobs will require a certain type of thinker, the globe will get ever more integrated, and I’ll continue to churn out Workingthoughts entries.

Here are some links from the past:

1st Blog Entry

First Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts

Two Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts – Part 1

Two Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts – Part 2

Working Thoughts in 2008

Thank You to Those that Inspired Me in 2008

Thank You to Those that Inspired Me in 2009

There is a Flip Side to Risk, The Side that Ignores It

Entrepreneurs are often described as risk takers. They are people who can deal with taking chances and the ups and downs that go along with it. But there is a flip side to risk, the side that ignores it completely. Having the confidence to follow through on something is half the battle. Many would be entrepreneurs sit on the side lines waiting to have everything shored up. The reason they do that is self doubt. It can be debilitating. It’s practically better to be clueless.

There is something called the Dunning-Kuger effect . Here’s the Wikipedia explanation of it:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the perverse situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

“ In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”  
— Bertrand Russell

 This is important because you want to be a good balance between these two extremes. Here’s a negative view point on it from Dunning in the NY Times :

… Cluelessness is
clearly the biggest circle, in that there is so much knowledge and
expertise that lies outside everybody’s personal cognitive event
horizon.  People can be clueless in a million different ways, even
though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way.
Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just
leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.

That is not to dismiss or belittle self-deception.  A caveat to
begin:  The traditional academic definition of “self-deception” is
technical and a little stodgy.  It requires that, to self-deceive, a
person both know “X” and deceive himself or herself into believing
“not-X.”  But how can a person both believe and disbelieve “X” at the
same time?  This is for philosophers to argue about (and they have, for
centuries) and for experimental nerds like me to try to figure out how
to demonstrate decisively in the lab (so far, we haven’t).

But if we imbue self-deception with a looser definition, we have a
lot to talk about. Psychologists over the past 50 years have
demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of
congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones. 
You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names
rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion,
and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies
people follow to believe what they want to, and we research
psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that
catalogue.  All this rationalization can lead people toward false
beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false
beliefs they should really reconsider.

Denial, to a psychologist, is a somewhat knuckle-headed technique in
self-deception, and it is to merely deny the truth of something someone
does not want to confront.

We are in an age where data is becoming ever more helpful in seeing the world and making decisions. It’s important to snap out of this Venn diagram and sometimes it helps provide lift off.

To Succeed in Life You Must Have the Ability to Accept Failure as an Outcome, Rebound From It, and Try Again.

Tonight one of my favorite movies was on. The Usual Suspects is a classic with the way it weaves the story telling. Every now and then I’ll look up some quotes from the movie just to remember their cool delivery.

Dave Kujan: First day on the job, you know what I learned? How to spot a murderer. Let’s say you arrest three guys for the same killing. You put them all in jail overnight. The next morning, who’s ever sleeping is your man. You see, if you’re guilty, you know you’re caught, you get some rest, you let your guard down.
Verbal: Then he showed those men of will what will really was.
Verbal: How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss? 
Verbal: After that my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.

This blog entry is about the second quote above. Having the will to accomplish something is perhaps the only real factor that matters. It enables perseverance and failure isn’t an end and more of a blip or a learning opportunity while success is just around the corner.

Tennis had it’s longest match ever this past week. The two players, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, played 980 points over 11 hours and 5 minutes. The match was contested over 3 days as neither guy could break the serve of the other, so they kept going and going. Energy waned and heart took over. They each demonstrated what it takes to succeed in life: the ability to accept failure as an outcome, rebound from it, and try again. has a blog entry called The Long of Coming Up Short by Whitney Johnson. She talks about how she missed an opportunity to learn about calculus, something applicable to her adult life, because she didn’t want to negatively impact her transcript. Getting a B was worse than not taking the course at all was her reasoning. She later regretted it.

I’ve spoken many times about the need for critical thinking. The ability to be creative while problem solving. But I wish I said this:

In the words of George Polya, a Hungarian mathematician and educator, we need to build processes into our work to find “a way out of difficulty, a way around an obstacle, attaining an aim which is not immediately attainable.”

And you have to have the will to persevere. It’s the only way to succeed.

Wealth Distribution Around the World posted an article called The New Global Opportunity by Michael Elliott the other day. It starts out with some great stats particularly about GDP and the world population. GDP is a measurement that is loosing it’s worth because it overly accounts for the creation of something e.g. manufacturing. The US in particular is moving to a services and intellect based economy. Regardless, I took the stats and created this illustration to show the wealth distribution by population.

Communication Skills are a Good Investment No Matter the Job Market

As a business man I’m interested in talented individuals. The free flow of ideas within a company is an advantage, but it needs good communication channels, both mechanically and culturally.

The news tonight ran a story that made me sit up and watch. It was about a Peruvian woman who has been in the US for six years. She is attending John Hopkins University in the fall to earn a PhD. In preparation for this education opportunity, she is investing in her speech by undergoing speech therapy. She practices speaking clear English everyday for an hour and once a week a therapist comes to her house for some coaching. This service costs about $120 a week.

As I thought about the news story it dawned on me what a win-win this service is. The student improves how well they are understood and the service provider can earn a fair wage providing a market need. The supply of speech therapists isn’t nil – there were several Google returns just for the Charlotte area – but I see this need growing, especially as India, China, Brazil, and Latin America grow in their engagement with the US.

The job market isn’t doing well right now and part of the reason is because the skills that are needed aren’t being taught effectively. Our schools are engineered to create direction followers and now the job market needs other skills. But those skills aren’t being offered in curriculum streams that are affordable. Programs like this speech therapy are the right starting point. It emphasizes person to person interaction and very few wouldn’t benefit from it. It could be it’s own cottage industry of entrepreneurs.

Rationality Comes in Several Forms

I’m a student of problem solving. There are times when creative approaches are needed, but there are plenty of times when a structured decision criteria is the best way forward. Through out this week, I wrote entries hitting on this topic. One was about how all this data is becoming available to us to make decision, another was about simple cues, which is the filtering of data, I commented about our desire to make things black and white, and and lastly I showed a decision tree for a heart attack patient . Each of these deals with inputs to the decision making process. Below is a visual showing how decisions can be made:

The illustration shows four modes of addressing a decision.

Left Side:
Unbounded Rationality is the ability to aggregate information until the outcome of the decision is certain. This ignores real world factors like time and money.

Optimization under Constraints inserts a stopping point, but it’s a tricky one. It means that the costs of continuing data aggregation no longer warrants the benefits. It’s the point of diminishing returns. It’s tricky because there never is a clear line as to where that line is. It becomes very involved with expected outcomes, probabilities, and utilities coming into play. A super mathematician might like it but normal individuals wilt under these calculations.

Right Side:
Satisfying is the playing out of scenarios, or options, one by one with the very first one to “satisfy” or meet the desired threshold is taken or chosen. It respects the limitations of time and knowledge and it doesn’t investigate or pursue all the alternatives or consequences.

Fast and Frugal Heuristics takes the best of each of the others and ascertains which approach or if a combination of approaches is best. It could be to take the first or could be to compare alternatives. The guidelines for searching for more information and alternatives is established. The guidelines for stopping the search are initiated. And the Decision Making principles are determined. It could be to put a lot of weight behind a particular cue or it could be through a process of elimination or some other way all-together.

It’s important to remember we live on the right side of this illustration and there is a level of uncertainty in our choices. We use data  to make it feel like the left side, but that comes with the cost of a search (time). Thanks again to Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart for helping me understand this better.

Figuring Out Repeatable Decision Guidelines is So Valuable

I’m currently reading a book called Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart by Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group. A heuristic is a guide for investigation or problem solving. It helps get to answers. In today’s world of ever increasing complexity, having someone figure out repeatable decision guidelines is so valuable. It requires a great deal of analysis and insight, but it can save money and save lives. Below is the opening except from the book and is a great example:

A man is rushed to a hospital in the throes of a heart attack. The doctor needs to decide quickly whether the victim should be treated as a low-risk or a high-risk patient. He is at high risk if his life is truly threatened, and should receive the most expensive and detailed care. Although this decision can save or a cost a life, the doctor does not have the luxury of extensive deliberation: She or he must decide under time pressure  using only the available cues, each of which is, at best, merely an uncertain predictor of the patient’s risk level. For instance, at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, as many as 19 such cues, including blood pressure and age, are measured as soon as a heart attack patient is admitted. Common sense dictates that the best way to make the decision is to look at the results of each of those measurements, rank them according to their importance, and combine them somehow in to a final conclusion, preferable using some fancy statistical software package.

Consider in contract the simple decision tree below, which was designed by Breiman and colleagues to classify heart attack patients according to risk using only a maximum of three variables. A patient who has  a systolic blood pressure of less than 91 is immediately classified as high risk – no further information is needed. Otherwise, the decision is left to the second cue, age. A patient under 62.5 years old is classified as low risk; if he or she is older, the one more cue (sinus tachycardia) is needed to classify the patient as high or low risk. Thus, the tree requires the doctor to answer a maximum of three yes/no questions to reach a decision rather than to measure and consider 19 predicators, letting life-saving treatment proceed sooner.

This decision strategy is simple in several respects. First, it ignores the great majority of possible measured predictors. Second, it ignores quantitative information by using only yes/no answers to the three questions. For instance, it does not care how much older or younger the patient is than the 62.5-year cutoff. Third, the strategy is a step-by-step process; it may end after the first question and does not combine (e.g. weight and add) the values on the three predicators. Asking at most three yes/no questions is a fast and frugal strategy for making a decision. It is fast because it does not involve much computation, and it is frugal because it only searches for some of the available information. Its simplicity raises the suspicion that it might be highly inaccurate, compared to standard statistical classification methods that process and combine all available predicators. Yet it is actually more accurate in classifying heart attack patients according to risk status than are some rather complex statistical classification methods.

A Belief System Redefined

The definition of “believe” is to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something. However, we all construct a personal belief system that results in rules or laws about how the world operates. These tenets are irrefutable and all situations throughout life are subject to obey them. We do this to stream line all the information coming in moment by moment. But occasionally they are not only refuted but shown to be complete illusions. Each of us have examples: a fondling priest or unattended toddlers who die in a house fire. The reckoning is emotionally brutal.

I bring this up for a few reasons, or questions really.

There is something called cognitive dissonance . It’s the ability to hold two opposing views in the mind at the same time. It’s often claimed to be the basis for superior thought. People who are good at debate are skilled at it and Oscar Wilde’s famously stated that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” My question is, does cognitive dissonance result in a person who is emotionally cold? This ability makes the individual consider the inhuman side of existence. Mental survival must adjust and to do that the emotional center must be minimized. At least I think it does?

My next question is why do we purposefully try to make the world black and white? It is solely for the efficiency of dealing with all the stimulus we encounter so we play the odds and create these mostly correct rules? My sense is that these tenets are good to have and only a few are ever compromised. But I mostly feel like we unnecessarily pick a side and stick with it out of loyalty or stubbornness. I’m not sure, maybe it’s laziness.

And my final question is where does art reside in this equation? It’s the ultimate eye of the beholder example and there is rarely a side to take because it’s boundless in interpretation. For instance, yesterday was Happy Bloom’s Day. June 16th is the day that James Joyce chose as the day Leopold Bloom traverses Dublin in Ulysses . This book is considered the literary masterpiece of the 20th century. The writing style, the narratives, and the musings are complicated and challenging. Reflecting on it with others is both a joy and a humbling experience. I personally like The Dead better, but that is more a function of my time committed to it over Ulysses. But back to the contemplation aspect of this entry. There is a constant tug of war over education and business. Wes Davis wrote up a great Op-Ed piece today in the NY Times about AT&T in the 1950s. The writing titled The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone is about their leadership’s concern about a lack of people capable of guiding the company rather than responding to crises. Most people can follow directions and answers questions on a form, but few arrange the program in the first place and understand the why as much as the how. AT&T solved the issue by creating a 10 month educational program at the University of Pennsylvania that focused on the liberal arts. The students had to read classics, go to art museums, and review architecture. They received lecturers from prominent thought leaders as well.

Ultimately, the project failed AT&T. The reason is the employees humanistic growth was so great that they were not interested in a devotion to progressing AT&T. They wanted to spend time with their families, read literature, and listen to music. Their belief system was redefined.

Now that is an example of cognitive dissonance.

We Respond to Small Cues Very Effectively

I’m really into the potential of ubiquitous measurements. My last entry was about HP building sensors for everywhere and everything. It’s also know as the “internet of things.” The reason I think it’s coming and very powerful is because it let’s people know the impact of their actions in real time. Behaviorists have for years said that people are not rational in their decision making and I agree, but making data available is one way to change behaviors. We respond to small cues very effectively – just asking someone in marketing and advertising.