On Grit

I like this. (emphasis author’s)

None of that would have been possible if I wasn’t willing to make a (polite) pain in the ass out of myself.

The world has a way of making room for those who just won’t give up.

There’s one other treat in here.

I wonder if it’s possible to trade away some self-control to get more grit.  That sounds like a good bargain.

That is a fantastic speculation.

The guy who wrote has the name Adam Smith (not the Adam Smith of economics fame, but the Adam Smith of Silicon Valley-email fame). He successfully started and exited (b-school speak for “sold”) a company, something that is very hard no matter how many times you watch The Social Network. It certainly takes something that is beyond intelligence or talent, or ordinary “hard work”.

There’s a term that I like from the Finnish culture — sisu. It means something like “perseverance, determination, and level-headedness”, and it represents something that I want to cultivate in myself. Other than the nice end-rhyme we get from “true sisu”, I think I prefer “grit” now.

Check out this video that Adam referenced in his blog post. It’s definitely recommended for anyone who considers themselves ambitious.

On Tools & Results

Some people love to focus on their tools — photography comes to mind.

I don’t own any photography equipment that’s nicer than my iPhone. For me, always having a camera on me is much more worthwhile than having a very nice camera and lens set that gets left at home because it’s harder to carry.

I don’t own any film cameras, and I don’t own a DSLR (although I might rent something if I’m going someplace that I expect to be particularly photogenic). I have nothing against nice cameras, and one day I will get one with a good lens so that I can take pictures with a foreground and a background, but until then, I’m content to take pictures like these:

Artsy photo

I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Here’s a walkthrough of the difference between pictures from cameras that cost $150 and $5,000.

I like when Ice Cube talks about how Mr & Mrs Eames took advantage of what they had. It’s easy to impress people by working with the best tools and supplies. If they had one-of-a-kind, oversize glass panes custom-produced for the house, it would naturally be impressive to many people. Instead, by using ordinary ingredients, and treating them skillfully, they create something impressive to untrained eyes, and they get respect from pros, because the only thing really used was skill.

You see the same pattern in other areas, food, for example. There’s an episode of Kitchen Nightmares (UK) where Gordon Ramsay trains a chef on how to make oxtail delicious — and he explicitly says that it’s always a sign of a talented chef who can take a plain and ordinary ingredient, and turn it into a delicious meal. In addition, it’s an easy way to make a nice profit: cheap ingredients, impressive results. (There’s a corollary here: it’s not what you’re drinking, it’s who you’re drinking it with)

Or in life…what’s more impressive? The child of an upper class family, educated in private schools, who goes onto become a Senator; or the child who grows up in urban projects, fought and struggled to succeed, and becomes a Senator. There’s a reason we love rags-to-riches stories in America — it ties into our belief that with the right skill and attitude, you can take ordinary inputs and produce extraordinary results.

I’m sure there are many other areas that I’m not thinking of where this pattern repeats.

I don’t mean to knock an investment in tools. Even Gordon Ramsay would have a difficult time trimming a steak if all he had was a butter knife. Or a spork. Ansel Adams would probably notice if you gave him a cheap camera. A good tool has a multiplier effect — it takes the level of skill and makes the result better. But that still means that if you want to see an improvement in results, as long as the tool is “good enough”, you’re better off focusing on improving your skills — the improvement in skills will continue to be multiplied by the good tool, and you’ll have gained something that can’t be taken away.

Or to be lighthearted about it: it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it that counts. 😉


I like this. It’s a classic Zen story, and the video is good.

It reminds me of that speech Will Smith gave. Running & reading. It’s the modern day version of the body-and-mind connection that the Greeks talked about.

He’s got a phrase that he’s used in other interviews: “die on a treadmill”. I’m not sure if I should be proud that I’ve nearly done this.

There’s a story that I heard about Timbaland. Apparently if he’s got work to do but gets invited to a release party, he’ll show up for 15 minutes, shake hands, offer congratulations, and then go back to the studio. That’s how to hustle.

Of course, there’s another side to this, just to keep the universe in check: be careful what you wish for. You can get anything you want, make sure it’s what you really want.

Mostly unrelated:

News (Halloween-headless-horseman Steve Jobs riding a Harley edition)

I read an article today about Steve Jobs on Obama, and I know everyone gets all excited when it’s a Jobs quote, but I think his take on this is right, and if anything, the fact that he said it might push some people to pay attention.

‘You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” Steve Jobs told President Obama at the beginning of a one-on-one session the president requested early last year. As described in the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, Apple’s founder said regulations had created too many burdens on the economy.

Jobs was an Obama supporter, but his just-disclosed comments are typical of a new frustration with Washington among Silicon Valley executives. Their high-tech companies are supposed to be the country’s engine for growth, but the federal government is gumming up the works.

Mr. Isaacson reports that Jobs offered to Mr. Obama to “put together a group of six or seven CEOs who could really explain the innovation challenges facing America.” But after White House aides got involved with planning the dinner, it became unwieldy and Jobs pulled out.

When a smaller dinner was arranged last February, the result was more estrangement of Silicon Valley from Washington. Mr. Obama was seated between Jobs and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The dinner also included top executives from companies such as Google, Cisco and Oracle.

According to Mr. Isaacson, Jobs “stressed the need for more trained engineers and suggested that any foreign students who earned an engineering degree in the U.S. should be given a visa to stay in the country.” The president reportedly replied that this would have to await broader immigration reform, which he said he was unable to accomplish.

“Jobs found this an annoying example of how politics can lead to paralysis,” Mr. Isaacson writes. “The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done,” Jobs said. “It infuriates me.”

Jobs told Mr. Obama that Apple employs 700,000 factory workers in China because it can’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U.S. that it needs on site at its plants. “If you could educate these engineers,” he said at the dinner, “we could move more manufacturing jobs here.”

One of the benefits of free trade, including in the movement of labor, is that skills would go where they are most valued. Jobs made the point that Silicon Valley is mystified by a policy that instead educates foreigner engineers at top U.S. universities, then sends them home immediately.

Among the attendees at the dinner was venture capitalist John Doerr, who during an Internet conference in 2008 described the absurdity memorably: “I would staple a green card to the diploma of anyone that graduates with a degree in the physical sciences or engineering in the U.S.”

Foreign nationals in the U.S. now account for 70% of doctorates in electrical engineering and half the master’s degrees. They would be more productive if permitted to remain in the U.S. Academic studies estimate that a quarter of technology businesses started in the U.S. since 1995 have had at least one foreign-born founder. Half of Silicon Valley startups are founded by foreigners.

The U.S. issues 140,000 green cards a year, which is not enough to meet demand even in this soft economy. Worse yet, the work-permit laws say that the residents of no country can get more than 7% of the permits. This is fine for Andorra and Liechtenstein but not for India and China, which have 18% and 19% of the world’s population, respectively. The National Foundation for American Policy calculates the 7% limit means a backlog of 70 years of applications from prospective Indian workers and 20 years from Chinese ones.

Vivek Wadwha is a native of India who started two tech companies in the U.S. before becoming an academic specializing in immigration. He recently testified to Congress that the U.S. is “giving an unintentional gift to China and India by causing highly educated and skilled workers, frustrated by long waits for visas, to return home.”

There’s little prospect of reform, even though Mr. Doerr’s staple-a-green-card idea has been endorsed by everyone from Mitt Romney to Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, proposes the Staple Act (an acronym for Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy). As Pia Orrenius, author of “Beside the Golden Door,” says, letting more skilled workers stay in the U.S. is “as close to a free lunch” as the economy can get.

Jobs himself was the biological son of an immigrant professor father from Syria, who was lucky enough to be a graduate student in the U.S. in the 1950s when it was easier for foreigners to stay. (Jobs was adopted as a newborn.)

The culture of Silicon Valley is defined by engineers who approach problems logically, searching for the most elegant solution. Washington is different. Members of both parties prefer scoring political points on immigration even though this delays smarter approaches. It’s no wonder that people like Jobs who value innovation find Washington so infuriating.

I think that he’s right. I’ve been lightly involved with the IDEA Act going through Congress (thanks Craig Montuori and Tarik Ansari) which is trying to fix some of these issues.

The thing is, the IDEA Act is focused on entrepreneurs, but it’s also nuts that we kick out people who we have trained up to a very high standard who just want jobs. Not just jobs. Taxable jobs. High tax bracket jobs. For all the people freaked out about the economy, and how there are a lot of people not paying taxes (47% of Americans?), by keeping foreign-born, high-wage earners here, we’ll be benefiting by getting more money in taxes, which means lower tax rates for everyone else (what happens to the taxes after they’re taken is a totally different story, but…one piece at a time). Otherwise, we’re wasting money by training people to build up the economies of other countries.

Remember, it’s not “dey took our jerbs”, it’s “our jerbs got replaced by different types of jerbs that America isn’t doing a good job of training citizens for”

To reach more women, who account for about 10% of U.S. motorcycle owners, Harley dealers hold “garage parties,” such as one attended recently by Ms. Ruschman and several dozen other women. Scott Miller, marketing director of the Mentor dealership, spray-painted his hair pink and extolled the psychic benefits of cycling. “It’s about your ability to kind of extend your personality,” he said as the women sipped wine. “Or develop a new one.”

Harley pitches models with lower seats as easier for women to handle. The Harley website has a video showing how even a small woman can use leverage to pick up a bike of 550 pounds or more if it topples over. “The muscles that make it possible are in your legs and your butt,” the video explains.

Harley, With Macho Intact, Tries to Court More Women

Classy move…it seems like they thought through the feelings and mental state of what stops women from getting into riding motorcycles, and then went out to deal with the issue head-on. Much better than just making a new bike but not following through on getting women to enjoy motorcycling. There’s a lot to learn from this — excellent move on product-design-product-management. Might be interesting to watch these guys in the future.

On Brains


In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes.

Why Do Some People Learn Faster?

There is some serious gold here. Granted, nearly every time I see this discussed, it’s the same paper, so I’d love to see some peer-review and Devil’s Advocacy on the subject, but I can think of several examples where I’ve seen this effect, as well as heard about it from others.

Or, if we’re reducing psychology to phrases that would fit on a bumper sticker, “no matter if you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”

Unlike homo economicus, that imaginary species featured in macroeconomics textbooks, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that real people don’t deal with uncertainty by carefully evaluating all of the relevant information. They stink at statistics and rarely maximize utility. Instead, their choices depend on a long list of mental short cuts and intemperate emotions, which often lead them to pick the wrong options.

Football coaches have performed just as badly. Although it’s now clear that their biases have a meaningful impact—a coach immune to loss aversion would win one more game in three seasons out of every four—their collective decision-making hasn’t improved.
This same theme applies to practically all of our thinking errors: self-knowledge is surprisingly useless. Teaching people about the hazards of multitasking doesn’t lead to less texting in the car; learning about the weakness of the will doesn’t increase the success of diets; knowing that most people are overconfident about the future doesn’t make us more realistic. The problem isn’t that we’re stupid—it’s that we’re so damn stubborn.

Is Self Knowledge Overrated?

I’m mixed on this one. I know we all suffer from logical fallacies and mental shortcuts (Las Vegas magicians exploit these mental shortcuts hundreds of times per night), but there’s something here that I think is very important.

Invert, always invert.
Carl Jacobi

The example mentioned in the article of “think of the lives lost” versus “think of the lives saved” is a good example of making people think about losses (the psychological reframing), but from an economic and mathematical view, what they’re doing is inverting the question. It’s not about fancy math or statistics tricks, it’s just about remembering that sometimes there’s another way (the opposite) to look at whatever you’re being asked, and sometimes it changes your decision.

It’s surprising how often things come up that can be fixed by thinking with this trick.

Dungeons and Dragons and Workouts

Mr. Morris works out seven mornings a week. During the work week, he’s often at the gym by 5:30 a.m. and exercises for an hour before he returns home to wake his kids and have breakfast with his family. On the weekends he gets to the gym at 7 a.m.

Mr. Morris will roll his die twice to determine his day’s workout. He dedicates 30 minutes to each exercise. Some days that means he’ll be doing an hour of cardio, and other days all strength.

  1. The Euro: Stationary bike for 45 minutes.
  2. Playground: Exercises on the swing set, ropes, bars, trees. (Such as jump and hang from a swing set, jump up and down off of a picnic table.)
  3. LeBron: Shoot baskets, work on jump shots, full-court dribble. (Named for the basketball player.)
  4. NFLPA: Two-minute, full-speed sprints on a treadmill. (Stands for NFL Players Association because it mimics the wind sprints football players do in practice.)
  5. Accelerator: Run on the treadmill and steadily increase speed until topping out, repeat.
  6. Water: Swim a half or one mile, alternating sprints.
  7. River run: An easy pace, four- to five-mile run along the Anacostia River.
  8. Plyo: Jumps, squats, balance on a balance ball. (Stands for plyometrics, exercises involving a burst of speed and strength.)
  9. Kettle corn: Swings and lifts with kettle bells.
  10. Jack LaLanne: Work out on Nautilus machines, focus on shoulders and chest. (Refers to the late fitness guru.)
  11. Alex McCandless: Climb the step machine for 200 stories. (Named for the ‘Into the Wild’ subject, who liked to walk.)
  12. Reverse: Skip backwards on treadmill for one mile.
  13. Jail house: 300 sit-ups, 150 pushups (The sit-ups in sets of 50 and pushups in sets of 25.)
  14. Full metal jacket: Walk with a 50-pound weighted vest. (Borrows the name of the 1987 Vietnam War movie.)
  15. Medicine ball: Twists, squats, lunges, side to side moves using the medicine ball.
  16. Burpees: Perform as many as possible in 30 minutes. (See Least Favorite Workout section of main column.)
  17. Mike Tyson: Punching bag workout. (Named for the prizefighter.)
  18. Old school: Bench press, bicep curls, military press, three sets each.
  19. Yosemite: Rock climbing at the gym.
  20. Rihanna: Paddleboarding at the Columbia Island Marina in Arlington, Va. (Named for the singer who was photographed doing the sport.)

via What’s Your Workout?: Rolling the Dice for Exercise – WSJ.com.

Way to work hard, Mr Morris.

Sinatra and Loyalty

Sinatra swiftly became an international singing idol whose voice and face made women and girls scream and faint; riots broke out at his concerts. Patsy, meanwhile, left the Sorrento and opened Patsy’s. Both men — the crooner and the cook — were doing well for themselves.

But in the early 1950s, Sinatra’s career crashed. He was no longer a kid. His records stopped selling. His romance with Ava Gardner was on the rocks. His record company dropped him. The winner suddenly was being widely seen as a loser, washed up.

People who follow the Sinatra story know about the eventual comeback: how he landed a role in the movie “From Here to Eternity” and won an Academy Award, how his career zoomed again, how he became the living symbol of success and swagger.

Yet in those down years, no one could have anticipated the rebirth. Sinatra was a has-been, yesterday’s news.

“He would come in to the restaurant alone for lunch,” Sal Scognamillo said to me. I could tell that this was a thrice-told family tale — or a thrice-times-thrice-told tale. That didn’t make it any less compelling.

“My grandfather would sit with him,” Sal said. “There would be people eating lunch who would avoid making eye contact with Sinatra — people who used to know him when he was on top. Sinatra would nod toward them and say to my grandfather: ‘My fair-weather friends.'”

One November, on the day before Thanksgiving, Sinatra asked Patsy if he would make him a solo reservation for the next day. “He said he would be coming in for Thanksgiving dinner by himself,” Sal said. “He said, ‘Give me anything but turkey.’ He didn’t want to think about the holiday, but he didn’t want to be alone.”

The restaurant was scheduled to be closed on Thanksgiving. But Patsy didn’t tell Sinatra that; he told him that he’d make the reservation for 3 p.m. He didn’t want Sinatra to know that he was opening especially for him, so he invited the families of the restaurant’s staff to come in for dinner, too. He cooked for Sinatra, on that solitary holiday, and it wasn’t until years later that Sinatra found out.

That’s where the loyalty came from. That’s why Sinatra never stopped coming to the restaurant. In later years, when Patsy’s would be jammed with diners hoping to get a glimpse of him, few understood why the most famous singer in the world would single out one place as his constant favorite.

Frank Sinatra’s lesson in loyalty 

“Five Myths of Consumer Behavior”

Just finished reading “Five Myths of Consumer Behavior“, and I think it is excellent.

The book is a short 145 pages (the pages are physically small and there’s lots of whitespace). There’s no bullshit language in here to confuse things — it is all plainly written, which makes it even more valuable. Also they give direct advice on how to think about a product to get around the problems you might run across.

As the title says, there are five myths (and a few extra chapters offering good ideas):

  1. Consumers behave the same in all markets
  2. The more consumers see it, the more successful it will be
  3. If I’ll use it, my users will
  4. Consumers will find a product’s value
  5. Consumers want more features

For me, the first few pages had me hooked because of the “consumers behave the same in all markets” myth. I went in expecting it to say something like “consumers in India buy less beef than Americans”, but it had a much broader (and in retrospect, insanely obvious) lesson. If people are finding a product for the first time, they will approach it from a very different mindset than someone who has seen/used the product before. This includes how people make the initial decision to try something, the purchasing decision, and ongoing use. The authors do a great job of breaking each of these down and explaining the psychology of each one, as well as what you should do about it.

Myth 2 is useful in marketing (or more accurately, in avoiding marketing at the wrong time in a product’s life). There’s a common belief that “we’re not selling enough because people don’t know about it” that I’ve run into many times in business. Sometimes it’s not that people don’t know about it, it’s that people really don’t want it (or they don’t see the value).

An even simpler way of saying it is this: you could buy a prime time Super Bowl ad for a company selling turds, and 98 percent of people watching will still not buy it (the 2% of farmers watching the ad might be interested in some organic fertilizer, as long as you market it as such). As with the other chapters, there’s more explanation worth reading.

Myth 3 is one of the most painful. I’ve got a background in engineering, and I know a lot of engineers, so it hits home more than the others. The engineering problem is this: engineers judge things based on “does it solve the problem? yes/no?”. A consumer judges things based on “does it solve the problem with an acceptable level of effort on my part? yes/no?”

One person will look at a product and say “wow, this really solves problem X!”, and another person will say “uh, yeah I guess, but it’s not worth it to me”. Again, this is something that sounds obvious, but they fill out the idea with lots of very useful info — the percentage of people that fall into the “not worth it to me” group is higher than you think, and they break it down nicely in the book.

Myth 4 comes down to this: if you’ve got a gold bar, and there are enough locked doors in the way, people will go someplace else. Your product is probably not gold bars. You can’t rely on people to dig to figure out what’s useful about the thing you’re offering (yes, this ties into Myth 3). Consumers are busy, and they don’t care about your product nearly as much as you think they do (because your brain lies to you).

Myth 5 (“Consumers want more features”) is something that is valuable (again, their breakdown of the myth is worth the 15 pages you’ll need to read it), but seems to be fading away. The book was published in 2007, and since then, the rise of Apple has given people a concrete example of “less is more”.

I expect that my friends who work in User Experience are most likely to read the book and nod in agreement the whole way through. Tragically, the people who need this book the most are probably going to be the least likely to buy it. In particular, engineers/inventors are a very susceptible group to some of these myths, but I think any entrepreneur could benefit.

It’s not just a book about product design, it’s also got useful marketing and psychology lessons blended in (for example, the end of the book explains why you should check into a hotel and ask for the nosiest room instead of the quietest).

Definitely worth the few hours of reading, and it’s a better value if you pick up a used copy with Amazon Prime shipping.

Planning & Scheduling

My kids are aged 21 through 31 now, but we always had a family meeting every Sunday morning before we’d all clean up the house, because we have five kids and everybody has scheduled stuff.

So we’d sit down every Sunday morning and everybody would get their schedule out. The kids would have their schedules and we’d have ours and everybody would compare schedules. And if they needed a ride or they had a soccer game or they had ballet or they had a school activity, we’d figure it out.

This is why when people say that kids of successful/powerful people got there just because “they knew someone”, I have to disagree. Contacts are only part of it. You can’t grow up getting these kind of habits ingrained without it having an effect on the range and scale of things you conquer as an adult.

(via nytimes)

“I have no opinion”

One of the most powerful and underused tools in any manager’s toolkit is “I have no opinion”. In fact, it’s useful for anyone who is asked to provide input on a thing.

Unless you’re contributing real value to a question — don’t answer it. Unless you can really answer “why do you hold this opinion” — unless you can really justify your position on something — don’t respond.

“I have no opinion” is polite. It means “I’m not going to clutter your head up with a non-valuable bunch of words.” It says “I have confidence in your ability to make the right decision.” It’s rewarding to the other person. It’s empowering.

See “Why Should I Care What Color the Bikeshed Is?” for a great in-depth discussion on this.