Blog Archives

Learning and Productivity Compound Over Time

Mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming on how learning and productivity compound over time

How are some people more industrious and prolific than others? Are they merely smarter or do they just toil a bit harder than everyone else?

In 1986, mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming gave a talk at Bell Communications Research about how people can do great work, “Nobel-Prize type of work.” One of the characteristics he talked about was possessing great drive:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity—it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Thinking of investing your time and energy in terms of this compounding effect can be a very useful way to go about life. Early and rigorous investment in anything you are interested in cultivating—friendships, relationships, wealth, understanding, spirituality, know-how, etc.—often generates exponentially superior results over time than even marginally less effort.

Success begets success, and that counts for small investments, too.

Try to have “more experience” than someone else, but it’s not by itself enough. It’s about how well you can draw the appropriate lessons from the experiences. It’s about how well you can distinguish specific experiences as generalizable versus anomalies.

Knowledge Compounds

Someone once asked Warren Buffett how to become a better investor. He pointed to a pile of company annual reports. “Read 500 pages like this every day … That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Posted in Education and Career

Knowledge is Never Really Acquired

A portrait statue of Socrates The famous statement, “All I know is that I do not know,” is attributed-questionably, according to some scholars-to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), based on two dialogues written by his disciple Plato (c. 424-c. 348 BCE).

In The Republic (c. 360 BCE), Socrates concludes a discussion with Thrasymachus on “justice” by saying, “the result of the discussion, as far as I’m concerned, is that I know nothing, for when I don’t know what justice is, I’ll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.”

In The Apology (399 BCE), Socrates says of a well-respected politician that “he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know.” The resulting slogan was adopted by later thinkers and incorporated into the tradition that became known as “Academic Skepticism.” Rather than believing that it is impossible to know anything, Academic Skeptics actually claim only that we can know very little about reality—namely, truths of logic and mathematics. This contrasts with Pyrrhonian skepticism, which involves an attitude of doubting every positive judgment, including logic and mathematics.

A serious problem with Socrates’s statements is that he seems committed to an incoherent position. If he truly does not know anything, then it is false that he knows that; but if he does know he does not know anything, then it is false that he does not know anything. Thus, the claim “I know that I do not know” is self-defeating (resulting in the statement also being known as the Socratic paradox). In response, many scholars argue that this is an uncharitable reading of Plato. They contend that Socrates’s claims are expressed in a particular context, referring only to specific concepts and not to knowledge generally (“Justice” in The Republic, and “beauty” and “goodness” in The Apology).

Posted in Education and Career Philosophy and Wisdom

The E-Learning Revolution

10 Advantages of e-Learning

Executives face the challenge of recognizing when and where change is coming and how it will affect their business. The knowledge of employees represents a competitive edge that most companies neglect. Only those who have not succeeded know the secret of success in life.

Today, the emerging juggernaut of corporate training and learning is e-learning. E-learning represents a wide range of activities and technologies, including distance education, computer-based training, and web-based training. E-Learning represents the integration of multimedia, instructor-led, and real-time training—all in a collaborative environment.

Today, corporations have three basic concerns: hiring, training, and retention of intellectual capital. It’s difficult to train and retain knowledge workers who are now “free agents” and job hoppers. What they offer is portable knowledge. E-learning offers a simple, long-term solution.

10 Advantages of e-Learning

E-learning is the fastest-growing segment of the training market. Web-based training revenue is projected to reach $32 billion by 2025. I believe e-Learning offers 10 major advantages.

  1. Real-time learning and application of critical knowledge. E-learning is immediate and up-to-date. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this causeless state.
  2. Learner-centric training. E-learning changes the focus of training from instructor to learner. It is tailored to the learner’s responsibilities and capabilities, creating relevant applications.
  3. Attract, train and retain. The number one reason for loss of key employees is that they feel their company has not invested sufficient resources for their professional development.
  4. Personalized training. An effective e-learning system learns about its users and tailors its offerings to their learning style, job requirements, career goals, current knowledge, and preferences.
  5. The E-Learning Revolution Ownership. E-learning empowers people to manage their own learning and development plans. Ownership of learning is crucial for individual growth and retention of employees. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty.
  6. Simulation. We learn by doing. E-learning is an innovative way of simulating each learning experience with content provided by top professionals.
  7. Collaboration. This is done through either joint problem-solving or the sharing of ideas and experience among study groups and chat rooms. Collaboration is the path to effective learning and innovative processes.
  8. Anytime and anywhere. Training in a virtual information classroom is now possible anytime, anywhere. And those people are rough people.
  9. Cost effective. Costs can be applied to each learner, and results measured against costs. And, e-learning is less intrusive to daily work duties, saving time and money through less interruption of employees regularly scheduled duties.
  10. Quantifiable. E-learning can be effectively measured in terms of knowledge gain and retention. With e-learning, corporations can track progress, report results, and specify additional subject matter. This is where ROI will be recognized by the employer and employee.

E-learning enables corporations to manage the tasks of hiring, training, and retaining new knowledge workers. This year over 70 million people will receive training and education on the Internet. Soon, training for virtually every job will be available over the Internet. Speed, connectivity, and intangible value have made e-Learning the choice for creating a competitive advantage.

People who can learn from other people’s experiences have a leg up. Most people just learn from their own experiences. As the Canadian value-investor Peter Cundill is quoted in There’s Always Something to Do, “Curiosity is the engine of civilization. If I were to elaborate it would be to say read, read, read, and don’t forget to talk to people, really talk, listening with attention and having conversations, on whatever topic, that are an exchange of thoughts. Keep the reading broad, beyond just the professional. This helps to develop one’s sense of perspective in all matters.”

Success in today’s dynamic world is based less on how much you know than on how quickly you can learn. Be open-minded about e-learning. People often muddle up being open-minded with not having a unyielding position. If truth be told, having firm convictions, anchored in criteria we have decided are important to us, is virtually a prerequisite of being open-minded. Being open-minded means listening carefully and deferentially to the position of another.

Posted in Education and Career

Seek to Understand a Limited Number of Master Thinkers

Stoic philosopher Seneca advises,

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.

Reference: Seneca, The Epistles of Seneca, “II. On Discursiveness in Reading”

Source: Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Posted in Philosophy and Wisdom

Apply New Knowledge to Solve New Problems

Apply New Knowledge to Solve New Problems

Education is what have left after forgotten everything you’ve learned. Today, people must constantly forget things they know.

Product generations often last less than 18 months. Some entire product lines turn over every year, and some in six months. Companies that roll to success are those that develop constant learning capacities and exploit them.

Learning can become a renewable resource. An educated person is like a spring: as a spring replenishes itself when water is withdrawn, so educated individuals replenish their learning when knowledge has served its purpose.

Educated people know how to learn. A person who has been trained in specific tasks but not educated in the art of learning is like a dipper, which gets its water from an external source. When the water’s gone, the dipper can’t refill itself.

In the industrial age, education was not essential to successful job performance. Tasks were broken into small subtasks, which people performed repetitively. Once the worker had learned the mechanical procedure, further learning was unnecessary. A robot could do it.

Well, robots are doing it, which means that something more is required of people. They must learn to become more than repetitive doers; they must become purposeful thinkers.

Today, knowledge must generate more knowledge. Workers must learn to bridge between what they already know and what they need to know to achieve continuous improvement.

This calls for skills in interacting with other people and applying new knowledge to solve new problems. Corporate education should develop these skills.

Knock down walls (bureaucratic barriers that block communication). In many companies, communication flows through narrow channels, chimneys of power, usually from the top down. People walled off from these chimneys are left to work in an information vacuum.

Today’s leaders must demolish the walls that prevent the lateral flow of communication. With the walls gone, information permeates and people find it easier to be focused, flexible, fast and friendly. You can’t focus the efforts of your workforce if your organization is criss-crossed with walls that impede the flow of information. You can’t be flexible if you have a rigid structure in which every division and department is a closed information loop. You can’t be fast if information has to seep slowly through layers of management. And you can’t be friendly if your people don’t talk to other people inside and outside your organization.

If you look around, you may see plenty of boundaries that need to be removed. One may be the door to your office that remains closed to input. Another might be a rigid boundary between hourly and salaried employees. Or it could be a boundary that shuts out ideas that don’t originate in your own organization. Other boundaries might be the lines between divisions. If one division develops a new method or technology, does it share it with other divisions?

Among the toughest boundaries to dismantle are the ones managers erect around the borders of their turf. People who are promoted to their “levels of incompetence” and armed with the word “manager” in their titles, stake out their own turfs and guard them jealously. In a corporation without boundaries, advancement means moving into positions in which expertise is interchanged and knowledge is put to productive use by coaches, advisers, and knowledge workers. In such corporations, advancement for individuals results in advancement for the entire company.

Posted in Leaders and Innovators Mental Models and Psychology

Good Intentions Won’t Bail You Out

Good Intentions Won't Bail You Out

When it comes to fishing, my husband James takes the lead. But his lack of leadership ability during recent canoe trip on the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota offered wonderful lessons on how leaders can unknowingly screw up.

Here is a list of what not to do.

Never assign responsibility without authority

James insisted that in order to cast his fishing line, he needed to be the back of the canoe. I was to paddle as he cast and trolled his lure. The only challenge is that the ability to steer a two-person canoe is handled by the person in the back. He’d shout directions to me but I had little authority over the craft. Frustrated, I wanted to turn around and whack him with the paddle.

Lesson: If you assign someone a task, put them where they have full control to do what is required rather than hamstring them with your positional authority.

Don’t: Hire a skill set but don’t let the employee use it

The Boundary Waters are comprised of many lakes connected with islands and it is frequently neces- sary to portage the canoe to the next lake. I have a good eye for reading navigational maps. I would identify the portage spot as we approached. On more than one occasion, James would insist I was wrong. We’d spend time looking” only to return to the site I had identified. I felt like throwing the backpacks up the trail.

Lesson: If you hire someone with skill you don’t have, let them take the lead.

Never believe someone closest to the problem

We were fishing along a rock ledge jutting out from one of the islands. James was a distance from me when I suddenly yelled for help. “I have a fish and I can’t tighten the reel.” “No,” replied James, “You don’t have a fish.”

“Yes, I do. Please help me.” He slowly made his way over and took the rod from my hand. A deft fisherman, he fixed the problem and, to his amazement, he pulled out a fish. I wanted to hit him with it.

Lesson: Pay attention to people down line. A removed view might very well be wrong.

Never Practice unclear communication

From my weak directional paddling position, James would also holler out a specific direction. “Head toward that tree,” he’d call. Now remember, he is sitting behind me. The island is covered with trees. Just what is that tree?

“The green one,” he’d say. Sorry, James. They are all green! Since the eyes at the back of my head were shut, I couldn’t see where his finger pointed. I wanted to bite that finger.

Lesson: Clairvoyance is not a skill set you can hire. Describe specifically what you want, what you see. Bring people along into your vision.

Don’t Make others bail you out of the trouble you cause

As we circled the various islands, James would cast toward the shore. He has a good eye for distance but on occasion, his line would snag the low-lying bushes, and I’d have to climb out and untangle the mess.

One foot almost landed on the back of a monstrous rock that moved: a moss-covered snapping turtle with a shell the size of a toilet seat and jaws that could break my ankle. I screamed.

Lesson: You can be bailed out once. But for repeated errors, get out and do it yourself.

Posted in Mental Models and Psychology

Personal Growth is an Unseen Mystery

Growth is an Unseen Mystery

The other day I watched my eight-year-old nephew swing a bat at the approaching ball. He looked quite grown up in the midst of his team of playmates. When did this miracle of growth occur? As I look back I can see him at various stages, but I can see no more than the results of a change. The act of changing can never be seen with the naked eye. Today we are one thing; tomorrow, another. The transformation is an unseen, hidden mystery.

Consider the words of Italian Catholic philosopher and theologian, Alphonsus Liguori:

“Let us not lament if we suffer from some natural defect of body or mind: from poor memory, slowness of understanding, little ability, lameness or general bad health. Who knows? Perhaps if God had given us greater talent, better health, a more personable appearance, we might have lost our souls!”

Growth is generally slow. No one sees the flowers blossoming. No one sees the development of a new ring in the trunk of a tree, denoting the passage of another year. We can only see what is. However, in the womb of the present the unseen mystery of growth is acting itself out—unhurriedly and indiscernibly. Moreover, when the transformation is complete, the future transpires.

The fact that growth is an unseen mystery is one of our great sources of hope in the world. We look at ourselves and at our worlds, and we are often discouraged by what we see, and by what appears to be our hopes and prospects. We can distinguish no turn in life’s direction towards the dreams we have treasured and worked for.

The most challenging element of changing our lives involves exploring our inner worlds. True change cannot come about on the surface or outside of you.

However, we could never determine life’s transforming directions with the naked eye. These turns are often the unseen mystery of growth. Likewise, while we lament some imperfection lurking in the present, a brighter dawn may, unnoticed, be upon the horizon. One day we will wake up and, astonished by the change, wonder when and how it all happened. Then, we will become cognizant of one of the many wonders in the baffling mystery of our journey called life.

Recommended Books

Posted in Philosophy and Wisdom

The Guru-Shishya Parampara: Oral Tradition of Education in India

The Guru-Shishya Parampara: Oral Tradition of Education in India

Verse 5 of the Advayataraka Upanishad states,

The syllable gu means shadows (darkness)
The syllable ru, he who disperses them.
Because of his power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.

Essentially, a guru is someone who leads the student from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Although this characterization is an interpretative definition rather than an etymological definition, it suggests the figurative the emblematic power of the guru—the honored preceptor at the heart of traditional learning in the Indian culture.

The vast body of knowledge in ancient India was oral in nature. The Vedas, the Upanishads, and the other religious texts were imparted for many generations by word of mouth; only later were these ancient texts committed to the written word.

The oral tradition in India necessitated a living representative—the guru—who both personified and transferred the time-honored knowledge. Since the Vedic times, it was typical for a father to impart his scholarship to his son, thus propagating the age-old knowledge via parampara, signifying lineage, progeny, uninterrupted row or series, succession or tradition.

The principal elements of the oral tradition in India are:

  • the guru (the teacher)
  • the shishya (the student)
  • the parampara, the conduit of knowledge in which the guru and the shishya discrete participants in a tradition which extends across generations.

Oral traditions for imparting knowledge are still in vogue in India today. Unsurprisingly, particular sciences and arts lend themselves such diffusion through direct contact between the teacher and taught. Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine, is still taught through traditional teaching methods. Ancient Indian legends, fables, and myths come vividly to life grandchildren hear their grandparents recount them. By the same token, drama, theater, dance, and classical music depend on the ability of the masters to nurture these arts in the subsequent generations.

Posted in Faith and Religion Music, Arts, and Culture

Leadership Development: Experiential Learning is Best

Leadership Development: Experiential Learning is Best

The most powerful forces in any organization are its people—leaders, managers, and employees—who build the organization, manage it, lead it, and motivate it. To ensure the long-term success of any organization, it is imperative to identify extraordinary people, devote organizational resources to prepare them, and assign them to the organization’s most vital leadership roles.

The most effective management lessons for upcoming leaders are usually not in book knowledge but from experience. Experience may possibly be the best teacher. Experience is adored; experience is a highly sought after career-development goal; experience is translated to everyday contexts in the world of work.

Consider the foremost tangible leadership skills:

  • Experience: previous activity and practice either in doing the specifics of the open position or something similar
  • Proven skill sets: documented abilities in terms of job performance and achievement
  • Traction: a demonstrated track record of repeated success in broad contexts
  • Validated accountability: substantiated responsibility to generate, pick, and execute the winning ideas.

Successful managers learn these tangible skills only from a series of progressively challenging leadership assignments. They get used to gaining experience and being successful by relying heavily on their own experience. Other than extensive use of case studies, neither corporate training nor executive education programs can address certain leadership attributes to executives. For instance, it is impossible to design a leadership development course involving mock-up exercises or models for risk-taking. Experiential learning, supplanted by the learner’s ability to perform reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis of his / her performance and outcomes, can enhance the learner’s perspective on the business, and develop the proficiency needed to manage rapidly changing businesses.

Posted in Education and Career

Personal Development: “Am I finished yet?”

Personal Development

Everybody is pursuing personal development, self-help, spiritual growth, and skills expansion. They speak in terms of goals, outcomes, success, desires and dreams. There is a deluge of personal coaches, blogs, movies, books, classes, and various other sources of information and guidance. When do they know they are done? When do they answer the key question, “Am I finished yet?”

The simple answer is, never. Most people have short-term and long-term development targets. They begin by working on small goals and might be enticed to stop once they achieve their small goals. In some sense, they are done. They wanted to be free from old patterns that caused some problems and they have gotten over them. Nevertheless, they quickly realize that the issue at hand is still persistent. Alternatively, they have discovered some other theme to focus their attention on. On balance, deliberate human endeavor consists of steady stream of psychological, physical, and spiritual transformation. Therefore, to achieve life goals, people make progress little by little. Through personal inquiry, deep reflection, coaching, and relentless refinement, people discover and reach their potentials. The key is to understand why they want to achieve what they want to achieve.

The response to the “Am I finished yet?” question is really, “What do I mean by ‘finished’?”

Posted in Philosophy and Wisdom