Archive for January, 2008


Feeling Lucky

I’m in the middle of reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an absolutely fascinating book that has me thinking a lot about luck. One of the main premises addressed how we try to attribute skill or intelligence to events that are due more to chance. In actuality, we often have very little to do with our supposed success. Sometimes, events just happen outside of our control, both good and bad.

In spite of this reality, it doesn’t keep us from trying to arrange circumstances to our advantage. How much time do you spend trying to control the world around you versus enjoying the experience? In some respects, I think we give too much power to this idea that we have control. As Taleb does an excellent job of pointing out, not only in Fooled but in his more recent The Black Swan, all it takes is one event to shift the balance or change the outcome.

I think that’s why we’re inclined to laugh, even if only on the inside, when individuals purport to control events. For example, the guy who things he can control a viral event makes me shake my head. I think a successful viral is all about this idea of chance and the random event that triggers the spread of an idea. Otherwise, how is it any different from a traditional campaign?

Now it’s confession time…I’m a bit of a control freak. My inner self would love to believe that it can manage and maneuver in such a way to successfully predict every outcome. Reality has proven otherwise, and I’m coming to terms with my failure to control life. It’s a work in progress.

I think that’s why I enjoyed Taleb’s description of humankind:

“…there is the Tragic Vision of humankind that believes in the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act…the ideas of this book fall squarely into the Tragic category: We are faulty and there is no need to bother trying to correct our flaws. We are so defective and so mismatched to our environment that we can just work around these flaws…Perhaps ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need wily tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help.”

Anyone willing to share their wily tricks?



Roller Coaster Aging

Roller CoasterLast night, I came across this line in one of my current reading options:

“I remember forty—a hard age. It is the age when a man discovers that he is all that he is ever going to be. Some men are rather pleased at the discovery. I suspect your brother is not.”

Perhaps this author was somewhat prescient. Today, researchers announced the results of an 80-country study measuring depression in men and women. Apparently, hitting your 40s triggers something:

For men and women the probability of depression slowly builds and then peaks when people are in their forties—a similar pattern found in 72 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, the researchers said.

About eight nations—mostly in the developing world—did not follow the U-shaped pattern for happiness levels, Oswald and his colleague David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in the United States wrote.

“It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children,” Oswald said. “Nobody knows why we see this consistency.”

One possibility may be that people realize they won’t achieve many of their aspirations at middle age, the researchers said. (link)

It makes a sort of morbid sense that we use age/time to determine the plausibility of our aspirations. After all, we haven’t figured out the key to individual immortality, so our time in this world is finite. But with life expectancy in the U.S. edging towards 80, I wonder why we aren’t shifting away from focusing on the amount of time to focusing on our desires.

The data (for more of my thoughts on data, see this earlier post) would seem to indicate that a high probability exists you won’t be happy in your 40s. I suggest that it’s time to prove the data wrong. The first step would require that we stop associating a particular age with an event. Heresy, I know, but if we didn’t feel like it was a race against an internal calendar, perhaps we could make better decisions about the choices we’re pursuing.

I believe the key is to reframe the aspiration so that time doesn’t become the driving factor behind the decision. Reframing requires pushing against many of society’s traditions because we’ve become entrenched with idea of timing everything in our lives. Are you ready to throw the clock and the calendar aside?


(Image courtesy of Lava. Some rights reserved.)


The Danger of Sure Things

Spin that wheel, take your chanceHow many times have you given into the lure of the “sure thing?” Maybe you placed a bet, accepted a job, or went on a date because you believed it a sure thing. Sure things are dangerous because they lower your shields, raise your expectations, and leave you open to disappointment.

The recent Australian Open, one of professional tennis’s four Grand Slam titles, makes more than one excellent case for the danger of sure things. On the women’s side, the previous year’s winner, Serena Williams, was knocked out in two straight sets. In the next round, the number one ranked woman, Justine Henin, was then beaten by the eventual winner, Maria Sharapova.

An even surer thing failed on the men’s side. Roger Federer, the number one ranked male tennis player in the world appeared unstoppable with his 12 Grand Slam titles until he met Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. Both are skilled players, ranked high, but Federer always appeared to dominate and many thought he was on his way to an 11th STRAIGHT Grand Slam final. Djokovic proceeded to beat him in straight sets, something that hasn’t happened to Federer since 2004.

Beyond Sports

Tennis matches are only one example of a potential sure thing that can disappoint. Over time, we start to associate this sense of a sure thing with other aspects of our lives: jobs, investments, relationships, etc. Then, when someone or something upsets a sure thing, we shake our heads in bewilderment wondering how it could have happened.

You’ve seen this scenario play out during the recent weeks and months as markets have shuddered under pressure from the sub-prime mess and fears of an American recession. We were so sure that the housing market would continue to grow that the popping of the bubble was unheard by many.

Searching for Certainty

Without meaning or planning to, we search out guarantees. We want a sure thing because we believe it gives us a lodestone in all the chaos that swirls around us. We’re particularly drawn to sure things of late because of the increased sense of chaos in our world as markets shifts and countries crumble. However, as I pointed out earlier this month, there’s something to be said for chaos:

From my perspective, chaos’ attractiveness lies in its unpredictability, the sense that anything, both good and bad, is possible….I think that our current hunger for order in all the chaos for information cheats us out of what’s possible. A top 10 list and other filters that we pay attention to skip over the uncertainty of a butterfly flapping its wings and goes straight to someone else’s interpretation of the chaos. Why waste time wading through all the different thoughts if someone has been kind enough to provide you with the answers?

If you are a lover of sure things, you need to ask yourself why. And if the answer doesn’t do you or your life justice, consider the chase after a sure thing to be a part of your past instead of your future. Perhaps it goes too far in the other direction, but any time I hear the words, “It’s a sure thing,” I want to run in the opposite direction. What will be your reaction?


(Image courtesy of Cold Cut. Some rights reserved.)


Creating a Custom Experience

Today was my first official day training for an Olympic-length triathlon I try to do each summer. Every year, I wonder what possesses me to sign up, particularly during the last few miles of the race. However, once I’m finished, there’s such a sense of accomplishment. I’m nowhere close to winning (the winner usually beats me by at least an hour). In this particular pursuit, all I care about is finishing and beating my personal record (3 hours).

I’m curious, what pursuits do you continue with, in spite of or because of not being the best? What drives you to keep going after whatever goal you’ve set? I’ve been wondering about this question and its connection with social media. I’ll never have as many “friends” on Facebook as Robert Scoble or gain the master status of Chris Brogan on Twitter, but I don’t necessarily want to copy either one’s efforts.

I think that’s the beauty of these social applications and others like them: they’re a custom fit. In order to participate, I don’t have to meet a set standard. I create my own. In a world that can seem driven by standards, I’m excited by the continued growth of opportunities that let you create your own experience. How are you customizing your experience?



Predictability vs Consistency

Old Faithful Retro-fiedOn the Fast Company blog, I found this post highlighting the dangers of predictability for a business, in this case, Starbucks:

It’s not just the service that is average, but predictable. The coffee is the same way…Predictability can be a double edged sword. It can put people in auto pilot, for example. Or it can lull a company into believing that all is well as its best customers start moving away. Predictability is the friend of complacency and taking things for granted—on both sides of a relationship. Was Starbucks too much of a good thing? Maybe predictability is fine if you achieve success, then move on to innovate in another (or related) area.

To date, society has taken comfort in predictability, but I think we’re seeing a change. For example, the success of the VCR, followed by the DVR, highlights how we want to watch video on our own schedule. We don’t want the predictability of being glued to the television at a specific time on a certain day.

The Losers of Predictability

We’ve embraced the innovation of picking the time, and even place, for our viewing. And we’ve seen how advertisers and media producers have panicked at the notion that they no longer control our eyeballs on a specific schedule. These groups have lost the predictability of a captive viewing audience, which has destroyed their equations for determining value at a particular time.

I believe that’s predictability’s underlying weakness: once the core of something predictable is lost, it can’t be recovered. The question remains, how do you determine if you’ve become too complacent to innovate and recover? Starbucks answered the challenge to its dominance from companies like McDonald’s by recently starting a pilot program in Seattle that offers a small coffee for $1, along with free refills in on all sizes.

The hope that you’ll one day have this amazing thing that’s too great to change applies to a very small percentage of ideas (classic Coke vs. new Coke, anyone?). The market, and customers, will require that businesses maintain a balancing act between predictability and innovation. Remember the famous words of Charles H. Duell who headed the U.S. Patent Office:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.“(link)

That was in 1899. He was slightly wrong.

Confusing Predictability with Consistency

Old Faithful, the famous geyser in West Yellowstone National Park, was so named for its predictable eruption schedule. While still predictable to an extent, the average time between eruptions has lengthened:

Because Old Faithful has held to its historic pattern, park naturalists can still accurately predict most of the geyser’s eruptions within a window of about 20 minutes. But some visitors lose patience with the geothermal wonder.

“The one comment the naturalists hear a lot when they tell people the prediction is, ‘That long?'” said Yellowstone spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews. “Some people don’t want to wait.”

The shift in the geyser’s pattern to more frequent long intervals between eruptions does not mean Old Faithful is losing steam, as many headline-writers crowed when the geyser’s slowdown was first widely reported in the 1980s.

Generally, the longer an eruption, the longer the geyser will take to recharge before the next eruption, providing the basis for park naturalists’ predictions. And the longer the geyser takes to recharge, the taller and longer the next eruption will be and, consequently, the more water it will eject.

By taking its time between eruptions, Old Faithful may have figured out how to put on more striking shows by sending water higher on average than it used to. (link)

I would argue that Old Faithful changed its predictability, but not its consistency. Old Faithful consistently produces eruptions, although on a slightly different schedule, but with even more exciting results. You don’t have to be predictable to be consistent, and I think it’s consistency that matters more to customers and creates a stronger impression. You might be muttering, “Aren’t consistency and predictability the same thing?” Not really, from my perspective. Here’s an example of my interpretation.

You likely won’t get the same customer service rep each time you attempt to resolve an issue with a particular company. If you did, that would be predictability. However, if you get the same results, regardless of the rep, that’s consistency. Which would you rather have? The same rep or the same results? The debate is far from over, but as I hear people discussing what I consider to be the differences between predictability and consistency, I hear more people voting in favor of consistency. And I believe that consistency is much more kind to innovation that predictability.


(Image courtesy of brothergrimm. Some rights reserved.)


Changing Definitions to Avoid Responsibility

UPDATE: While my original concerns about adult attitudes still stands, the teacher I quoted below, Steven Maher, commented in this post and kindly pointed me to the original transcript of his full interview. Clearly, Frontline made an effort to edit his interview to the greatest effect. I’ve added the additional parts from his interview below that clarify his remarks.

Reality check. I’m currently watching Frontline‘s latest episode, Growing Up Online. I’m less concerned about what I’m hearing coming out of the kids’ mouths and more what I’m hearing from the adults. If you haven’t seen the show, go here and select Chapter Two, skip to 3:47 and listen to what a supposed adult (a teacher no less) has to say about cheating, or sorry maybe it’s not cheating:

Steve Maher: You take it as a given that they’re gonna take stuff from Sparknotes and from other sources like that. The question is how we react to that. And we can react and say, “Ok, this is something we have to fight against.” The other way to react to it is to accept it as a reality and say that’s how the outside world works. If I can find someone who’s working in advertising and who knows how to push a product and they can collect information from other sources and borrow and steal and put it together and reshape it, isn’t that a skill that I want them to have?

Interviewer: Are you saying cheating is ok?

Steve Maher: I’m not saying cheating is ok. {Sidenote: At this point I’m yelling at the television, “Yes you are!”} (Update: Sigh…comments taken out of context…I was wrong.)

Steve Maher: I’m saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say what is cheating, what’s not cheating.

[Full text from original transcript: I’m not saying that cheating is OK. I’m saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say, what is cheating and what’s not cheating? Copying another student’s answer on a multiple-choice test is cheating. The way to deal with that is not to put a book between them and say, “Don’t look at that other student’s test.” The way to deal with that is to replace the multiple-choice test and say that you’re going to do something else that you can look at other people’s projects, but the way I assess what you’re doing is going to take into account that you’re going to look at what other people are doing. Your work still has to be original, but to get inspiration from other people and to craft your work in response to theirs or alongside theirs is not something that’s necessarily a problem. …]

Huh? If borrowing, stealing even, doesn’t meet this teacher’s definition of cheating, then what does? Going beyond that, I’m listening to these parents wigging out about how immersed kids are in technology and the “dangerous” Internet. Here’s a suggestion: if you’re worried quit buying the technology. Yes, they may access it at school, a friend’s home, or Internet cafe, but don’t aid and abet then toss your hands up in dismay.

One kid had two monitors plus a flat panel television in his room. Then, his dad comes on screen shaking his head over how he always feels like he’s intruding or interrupting his son when he goes into his bedroom. Maybe you shouldn’t have purchased all the expensive gear. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this particular kid bought his toys with an allowance buoyed by inflation. Same thing with the cell phones. Parents can’t believe how the kids refuse to separate themselves, even when on vacation. Sigh. When did parents stop being parents? To clarify, I’m not advocating against technology. I am advocating for a little common sense.

Perhaps I’m stuck in a time warp, but I always felt that I had boundaries growing up. I knew what was acceptable and what would create consequences. I never had a computer in my room, and I didn’t get a cell phone until I turned 16, and only then because I was driving back and forth to basketball practice and games during early mornings and late nights. Based on the interviews that I saw this evening, I want to shake some of these parents. You’re buying the cell phones, putting computers in bedrooms, then wondering why your kids have created such separate lives that appall you. I keep hearing the argument that everyone’s doing it. That’s the same argument I used growing up, too, and it got me exactly no where. I must have missed when that logic suddenly became acceptable.

As part of the show, they also interviewed danah boyd, one of my favorite social media researchers. She makes the very valid point that the Internet and these other technologies are a part of daily lives. They aren’t going away, so adults need to learn and kids need to be taught how to deal with the issues surrounding them. However, she also advocates that individuals need to be responsible about their participation, something I didn’t hear from many people in the show.

Please watch all of Growing Up Online because I think it has revealed as much about the adults as it does about the kids. The language used blows me away. The rationalizations by some, and this idea that parents and other adults don’t play a role in what’s happening, is ludicrous. For example, allowing kids to believe that analytical thinking and reading can be replaced by technology or that it’s somehow a benefit to know how to borrow and steal does them a disservice. The words adults use, regardless of what kids may say, do register at some level. Changing the definitions, because we want to avoid the fight, isn’t the answer.




An Offer of Immortality

ImmortalIf I offered you immortality, would you take it? I think in a way, many of us are already pursuing an immortality of sorts. Perhaps it’s on the small scale, but I wonder if our passion for user-generated content (or whatever you want to call it) is part of our desire to create our own immortality.

According to William Faulkner,

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass. (link)

Is that what all our bytes of data are about, achieving a type of immortality? Faulkner’s idea of arresting motion seems to fly in the face of a world that seems constantly in motion. So are we leaving anything behind for strangers a 100 years from now to put into motion? Are we creating things worth reviving in the decades and centuries to come, or are we so busy producing that we’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to accomplish?

What form of immortality are you pursuing? And is immortality as Faulkner defines it even possible anymore given the amount of what is currently being produced? Will we all end up in one big pile, no longer distinguishable from one another, no longer put into motion during the years to come? This post is not an argument for limiting creation, but rather a caution to think about what you’re creating and where you want to go. Don’t be the person who says, “If I’d only had one more day, one more week, one more year, I could have…”


(Image courtesy of rnickme. Some rights reserved.)

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January 2008
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