A New Jobless Era?

March 31, 2010

I was just reading an excellent article in The Atlantic: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – Magazine – The Atlantic

It discusses the long term implications of unemployment on individuals and our society. What I thought was particularly interesting (and scary) was the coupling of the personal impact of unemployment financially and emotionally with the current “millenial” generations’ personality. We’ll see how things play out. This is well worth a read.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

The Importance of Perceived Control

June 17, 2009

There is an emerging body of research suggesting that a sense of control is fundamental to human happiness and contentment. Here’s a link to an interesting piece from Leonard Mlodinow, a Caltech professor and writer. The post is focused on the good (and bad) effects of this need and how it can play out. He also cites some academic references for further reading.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

March 25, 2009

When I was growing up, my best friend Pete’s dad always told us we needed to “work, work, work”. It’s such a family joke, that when one of Pete’s kids was born his mother in law joked whether the baby needed to get right to “work, work, work.”

 

I was reminded of this and a few other things in reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. If you are at all interested in history, cultural influence on macro patterns of development, education and economic development then I highly recommend Outliers.

 

Gladwell sets out to understand what explains “outliers”, which he defines as individual success stories that lie well outside the norm and cannot be explained by normal circumstances. The conventional approach to explaining these successes is a Horatio Alger-esque emphasis on the rugged individual’s personal capabilities and persistence. Gladwell asks us to pause and consider whether this is really what’s going on in most cases.

 

His answer is fascinating and points to several critical factors that tend to tilt the field in certain groups and people’s favor. The point is not a deterministic rendering of “it is what it is”, but rather taking the deeper findings and applying them to creative solutions that lead to enhanced opportunity for everyone.

 

Two major factors that he describes influencing outcomes are opportunity and hard work. The latter is heavily affected by one’s cultural situation. These seem obvious, but there are patterns to certain groups’ successes that are alternately discouraging and hopeful.

 

“Opportunity” is very subtle…

 

Bill Gates is a classic example of entrepreneurial zeal. But how did a such a young man go so far so fast? It turns he was probably one of only a handful of teenagers in the US who had access to nearly unlimited computing time as was his friend Paul Allen. Both their school and the University of Washington offered almost unique access. Personal computing was on the verge of taking off. They were uniquely placed to see and exploit a new technology. There literally were not many people who could have been Bill Gates. Most didn’t know enough about programming.

 

Gladwell demonstrates that an unusually large number of computer innovators were born within 2-3 years of each other (Gates, Allen, Jobs, Ellison, Joy, McNealy etc.) They were born in a Goldilocks moment if you will. Old giants don’t see opportunity while a whole new ecosystem is emerging. A similar explosion of large scale entrepreneurship happened in the 19th century with railroads, steel and other infrastructure. A similarly tight range of birthdays bounds that generation’s giants.

 

Certainly others had similar opportunities and didn’t become Bill Gates. But the number of people who did is in the hundreds or thousands, not the millions. Very few people had the confluence of influences and market opportunities that these entrepreneurs did.

 

Hard work matters, but not all hard work is the same…

 

Gladwell convincingly (in my opinion) shows that “genius” is over-rated relative to work and softer emotional intelligence characteristics. Many studies show there is a magical threshold of ~10,000 hours of effort that tends to define “mastery” of a discipline. Additionally, certain factors bear a heavy influence on one’s ability to get to these levels of mastery.

 

A major factor is culture. Each of us is rooted in a particular culture that carries tendencies to views on a wide array of subjects. Gladwell focuses on views towards work effort and type of work.

 

First, how consistently and hard are you inclined to work? There’s a “stick-to-it-ivness” required to get really good at things. Studies he cites point out that in music, art, math and most disciplines there is no clear correlation between natural genius and success. Instead people who really grind to get better do.  Those who don’t, don’t. Read the book for details.

 

Second, what kind of work are you doing? Working really hard at menial labor won’t get you ahead. He explores the difference between Irish or Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jews in late 19th century New York. One group brought experience in skilled labor (clothing/sewing/knitting) and turned that into an explosion of entrepreneurialism in the garment district. Were they “smarter” or harder workers than other groups? Probably not, but they were urban/city dwellers in their home countries and brought commercially viable skills with them. Their hard work allowed them to get ahead because of the skills they brought with them from Europe (an intersection of opportunity & hard work).

 

Third, where you’re from matters. Different agricultural traditions lead to different views of effort and focus. Rice farming requires incredibly precise work year round from the entire family unit and if you are more diligent and more precise than your neighbor you will most likely have higher yields. Wheat farming is much more seasonal and outcomes are driven by natural factors beyond a farmer’s control. There are implications for the attitudes towards success and hard work that develop and they persist long after leaving the field or even the native country.

 

So what?

Gladwell offers a number of interesting implications, in particular for education. Read to find out the results KIPP schools get from applying this continuous effort based view to changing the school calendar and curriculum. Hint: It’s pretty impressive or he wouldn’t be citing it.

 

Part of why I liked the conclusions he reached is that it meshes with my views on hard work and creativity. A major determinant of long term success in my mind is effort. Continuous creative effort generally overcomes a lot of obstacles.

 

 

It also speaks to the need to stick with things longer than many modern students want to. Everyone wants to rotate through jobs quickly to “learn faster”. It’s important to remember that you have to actually do something for awhile to really learn it. There is a distinct difference for me in offering consulting advice to businesses after I had to run my own. I have a much better understanding of what I know (and don’t know). So stick with things long enough to actually learn some deeper lessons.


The End of the Financial World as We Know It

February 4, 2009

This Michael Lewis piece from the New York Times Several weeks ago was interesting. It did a better job than most of what I’ve seen of laying out how we got where we are and challenging the thinking about where to go from here.

The financial service industry will certainly be going through massive change in the coming years. This is a starting point for those with and interest in financial services as a career.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/opinion/04lewiseinhorn.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink


Office Humor

November 19, 2008

I tend to a sarcastic sense of humor regarding business topics. If you can’t laugh, what do you have left? one of my favorite places to go chuckle is despair.com. Their “demotivator” collection is a brilliant spoof of the successory style motivational office material (which I personally can’t stand). Each demotivator looks just like a successory style poster, with the twist that it is usually hilariously sarcastic. I hope you think they’re funny too. 

My personal favorite: “Mistakes: padIt could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”


Visual Display of Information: Gapminder Demonstration

November 5, 2008

I showed this video of Hans Rosling discussing global economic conditions. He uses tools from his Gapminder website/application to illustrate his point. I think you’ll find it interesting for several reasons: 1) it provides a different perspective on global economic conditions than I typically see, 2) it gives you access to an interesting tool and data set 3) the creative use and display of information can significantly improve your career prospects.

Gapminder link: www.gapminder.org

Hans Rosling TED talk on debunking third world myths with statistics: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

I will write more on the effective communication of ideas through how you display information. I thought this was an interesting introduction to it. As you view the video, think about how compelling the ideas become when animated/visualized, rather than simply described. Also think about how much thought and effort were required to achieve this visualization.