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A journey of 10,000 hours begins with a single bow (and a couple of thwacks to the head)

Complete and total awkwardness. An amazing lack of coordination between feet and hands. Bare feet rubbed raw and blistered. One blister bursting and leaving a trail of blood following me across the floor (which I, of course, cleaned up). A couple of lapses in concentration, resulting in a couple of hits to the head – one to the forehead, one to the bridge of my nose. More than a little soreness the next morning.

This was my experience at my first full Kendo class last week. I have not had that much fun starting on something new in a long time. In fact, it has been quite a while since I’ve started on anything so completely new to me.  I had forgotten how good it feels to take that first step into something new.

One of the many challenges of growing older is avoiding the ruts that await us. It is all too easy to settle into a certain routine, get comfortable, and never change it up. If you haven’t tried something completely new recently, I strongly encourage it.

It feels good.

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Rude is in the eye of the beholder

Quite a while back, Scott (aka @nametagscott) tweeted the following words of wisdom: It’s not the traffic that stresses you out, it is your reaction to traffic that stresses you out. I’d like to modify that just a bit and say:

It’s not rudeness of others that stresses you out, it is your reaction to what you think is rudeness that stresses you out.

Are you a presenter who gets stressed out – or pissed off – when you see people paying more attention to their electronic gadgets than to what you are saying?  Olivia Mitchell provides some insight to this in her article How to Handle a Texting Audience with an answer to the question, “Is it rude?”

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

Her advice: “If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.” It’s you, not them, that makes the difference.

As the parent of an autistic son, I’ve found myself in more than one situation where someone has become stressed about my son’s “rude” behavior. Of course, he’s not being rude, he’s just being himself. But people expect certain things from other people, and when they don’t get it they get upset.

In his new book Linchpin, Seth Godin addresses the question in a couple of short sections. In the one titled Teaching Fire a Lesson, Seth writes:

Fire is hot. That’s what it does. If you get burned by fire, you can be annoyed at yourself, but being angry at the fire doesn’t do you much good. And trying to teach the fire a lesson so it won’t be hot next time is certainly not time well spent.

Our inclination is to give fire a pass, because it’s not human. But human beings are similar, in that they’re not going to change any time soon either.

And yet, many (most?) people in organizations handle their interactions as though they are in charge of teaching people a lesson. We make policies and are vindictive and focus on the past because we worry that if we don’t, someone will get away with it.

It doesn’t do any good to get mad at fire, and it’s not any more useful to get mad at autistics, or anyone, who annoys you. As Seth writes in the section Annoyed at Intent:

If you accept that human beings are difficult to change, and embrace (rather than curse) the uniqueness that everyone brings to the table, you’ll navigate the world with more bliss and effectiveness. And make better decisions, too.

I have been as guilty of all of these things as anyone else through the years, and I’m working to improve (though I still get way too annoyed in traffic). Whenever I start to find myself getting annoyed, I take a deep breath and step back from the situation for just a moment to figure out what it is that is really bothering me.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps.

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Expertise, opportunity, and legacy are key to success (a review of “Outliers”)


I had been meaning to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Successever since it was first published just over a year ago. Since a lot of the discussion of the book focused on the “10,000 hour rule” for achieving expertise, or mastery, it seemed a perfect fit for my interests. I’m still surprised that it took this long for me to get to it, but I have to say I’m glad that I waited. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I think I appreciate its message better now than I would have if I had read it a year ago.

My first impression on reading the book was along the lines of, “Wait a minute. This book isn’t about mastery.” True, Gladwell talks about the hard work that goes into becoming an expert in a given trade or profession, and includes this expertise as a prerequisite for achieving success. What comes out, or at least what I got out of it is: mastery is required, but not sufficient, to achieve success. (For the purposes of this review, I’ll leave a discussion of what constitutes success to another day.) Mastery is just one part of success, according to Gladwell, the other two being opportunity – and taking advantage of it – and legacy (your cultural background).

Of course, both opportunity and legacy definitely have an impact on your ability and desire to achieve mastery in a given topic.  Gladwell goes through a wide variety of examples of real people, showing these principles in action, including:

  • Bill Gates had an early interest in computers, and because of his cultural environment had the opportunity to use a nearly unlimited amount of free computer access at a time when that access was prohibitively expensive for everyone, much less a teenager.
  • A study of Canadian junior hockey players showed that because of the of the structure of seasons and age cut off dates,  those born early in the year were more likely to have success. He applies this same process to Jewish lawyers in New York and other groups.
  • In a chapter titled “Rice paddies and math tests”, Gladwell explores how the differences in agriculture between Asia and the US have contributed to the differences in education systems and the conventional wisdom (you could say stereotype) that “Asian kids are good at math.”
  • And more…

I enjoyed this book. I’m not sure I learned anything new in terms of “facts”, but I did come away with an understanding of a different way of looking at the stories of the people around me, successful or not. After reading the epilogue, in which Gladwell tells his family story applying the concepts in Outliers, I can’t help but look at every situation now and wonder, “What’s the real story behind how that person got to where they are?”

It has also encouraged me to look at my own past, to better understand my legacy and the opportunities that I’ve had along the way. And my future, to wonder what unique opportunity that my generation has been given and what I will have made of it when the time comes to look back on my life.

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Cynefin and mastery

When I first discovered the Cynefin framework, I remember thinking, “Exactly.” It is one of those things that once I saw it I realized how obvious it was, at least in hindsight after someone had pointed it out. Of course, I’ve been trying to actually figure it out ever since.

Dave Snowden blogged recently that he is putting together a history of Cynefin, and provides a brief timeline of its origins and where it is now. He also includes a diagram showing the diagram as it was in 2000 compared to what it is now:

My most recent post that included Cynefin looked at it in the context of  concept work and the role of deliberate practice in achieving mastery. The basic premise of that post was that success in the chaotic domain requires mastery, which is the result of a lot (10,000 + hours) of deliberate practice. Even though originally developed with a focus on knowledge management and communities of practice, the origins of the model, as shown above, seem to lend some validity to my understanding.

An added bonus to Dave’s blog post is the comment from Steve Barth (the emphasis is mine):

Something I’ve been thinking about lately relates to the original knowledge-training axis in the early drawings. It comes up working with clients to differentiate and merge knowledge management and organizational learning programs. Increasingly, I believe that knowledge and learning are often polar opposites, and the order/unorder sides of the model make this clear. Simple and complicated emphasize what we already know—or at least believe to be true—and further investigations and analysis must either accept or falsify these premises. We assume that our assumptions are correct. On the other hand, learning is largely about what we don’t know. That is, we must assume that our assumptions could be wrong.

I’m looking forward to the full history.

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Different, not less (or broken)

Tomorrow night HBO will premier the film Temple Grandin:

Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn Temple Grandin paints a picture of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenges of autism at a time when it was still quite unknown.

Temple Grandin and Claire Danes
The film is based on two of Grandin’s books about autism, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (written with Margaret Scariano) and Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. Given the typical Hollywood treatment of autism (Rain Man, anyone), I had my doubts – fears, maybe – about how this story would be told. A review of the film in yesterday’s The Atlantic has helped to alleviate those concerns:

Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them.  These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable.  From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.

If you are at all involved in the “autism community”, I know that you will probably be checking out this film. If you are not involved with, or even familiar with, autism, I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

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Changing things up: time for a new theme, new name

My focus on this blog is on the content, so I try not to mess around with the design/layout very much. There comes a point, though, when things need to be relooked and freshened up, and that time has come around again.

I’ve been looking at different themes, with an eye on going even more minimal than I already am. Every time I’ve considered going really minimal, I still always end up with something a bit more “busy” than what I really wanted. After reading Linchpin, I now realize that I was just giving in to the resistance, doing what I thought others would want or expect me to do.  (Who are these “others”, anyway?)

After some quick research, I’ve put the Wu Wei theme by Jeff Ngan at the top of my short list of possible themes. I like the look, and the philosophy, of the theme. If you use Wu Wei, I’d love to hear from you.

As for the name of the blog, I’m not really sure what I was thinking including the word cum in the title. It doesn’t really matter that it is a Latin word in a Latin phrase. You would not believe some of the search terms that end up pointing here (OK, maybe you would) just because of that word. A bit on the Colbert Report last night about the renaming of the magazine “The Beaver” to “Canada’s History” also got me wondering about how spam filters would treat anything from here.

So, I’m changing the name to Brett’s Waste Blog. Shouldn’t be anything too controversial with that. Plus, I think it better reflects what this blog is all about.

This shouldn’t affect your experience with the blog, especially if you view this mostly through RSS. Just wanted to let you know in case you find your way here sometime and wonder if you are in the right place.

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Live your life, don’t let it pass you by

Of all of the daily meditations in 365 Tao, yesterday’s meditation on Engagement is the one that most deeply resonates for me:

Prey passes the tiger who
Sometimes merely looks,
Sometimes pounces without  hesitation,
But never fails to act.

Don’t just let life pass you by. Engage with it, be aware of all of the opportunities (and traps) that come your way, and actively choose your response.

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Solitary work genius in the age of tribes and crowd-sourcing

Is there a place for solitary work and achievement in this age of teams, collaboration, KM, social media, crowdsourcing, etc? Can one person still “change the world”, all by themselves?

I wondered about these questions recently as I read James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. To say that Newton was a solitary genius would be to understate his lack of interest in working with, and sharing with, others.

While safely tucked away from the plague infecting England in 1665 – 1666, Newton developed the basics of calculus as well as the foundation of what would become his greatest work, The Principia : Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (which would not be published for many years afterwards).

Newton returned home. He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seemlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.

He also waited 30 years before publishing his “second great work” – Opticks. He designed, built, and used his revolutionary reflecting telescope for over two years before sharing it with anyone. Bottom line, he preferred to work alone and chose not to share the fruits of his labor.  At least not right away.

I’ve long believed that knowledge is an inherently personal thing. Only individuals can come up with great (as opposed to “good” or “acceptable”) insights and ideas, and individuals create and hold their own knowledge. Of course, these insights and ideas – this knowledge – are most often inspired or catalyzed by the ideas of others, and the value of the knowledge is essentially zero until it is shared with others.

Without Euclid and Descartes, Newton would not have been able to achieve what he did. And if his work had never been published, then his ideas would never have had the opportunity to change the world.

So learn from those around you, build on the knowledge that they share. Then share your newfound knowledge right back.

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Chasing mastery is worth the trouble

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (which I will be reviewing soon), Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule, which states that to achieve mastery – of anything – requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (Readers of Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated will recognize this idea, as well.) This is, to put it mildly, a lot of hours.

Last week a couple of bloggers I follow asked themselves if they thought all this effort was worth it.  From Did I Say That Out Loud?

So then the next question is do I even want to be an expert at anything? Is it worth 10,000 hours to master something so completely? Or is my time better spent doing the daily tasks in front of me the best that I can? Or is there some organic blend of the two?

And from Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist:

There are a few things about the article [The Making of an Expert by Anders EricssonMichael Prietula and Edward Cokely in the July/August HBR] that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you’re wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

I was trying to come up with responses to these to let them know that it is worth the effort if you’ve found something you love. I was having a hard time coming up with the right words, so took a break to watch tennis. To watch Roger Federer win the Australian Open, his record 16th major tournament win.

And it all became clear. Not a whole lot of words needed (though I ended up typing a lot anyway).

Is chasing mastery worth the trouble? Your damn right it is.

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The importance of rehearsal

A couple of days ago I mentioned to some friends how I use rehearsal in my day-to-day life: Preparing for a presentation, walking through the steps of a plan, practicing a process. Especially when it is something important. (The subject came up because I am giving an important presentation to some senior folks in our organization later this week, and I had excused myself so I could rehearse.)

“Rehearse? What do you mean, rehearse?”

I learned the importance of rehearsal while in the military: Plan an operation, try it out, refine the plan. Sometimes the rehearsal can be a simple walk through of the basic steps of something. Sometimes, as is the case this week, it is a full blown dress rehearsal, maybe even with a video camera so I can be my own judge.

When I watch speakers on TED.com, or have the opportunity to hear speakers live, I always marvel at how easy they make it look. I also know that for every minute on stage they’ve probably prepared for an hour or more.

Like the old jokes goes: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice practice practice.

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