The Key to Improved Performance – Social Capital

September 17th, 2011

I stumbled across a fascinated read today, ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’, which is a response to the film ‘Waiting for Superman’ the 2010 documentary that describes the failure of American public education. ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’ takes an interesting and counter intuitive approach to education reform, and looks at the fact that in trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaborations.

What interested me about this article, and its conclusions, was that they apply not only to teaching/education, but to entrepreneurship, and pretty much any occupation or career.

“In the context of schools, human capital is a teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. For many years, teacher human capital was thought to be attained through a combination of formal education and certification both before entering the profession and throughout the course of a teacher’s career. This has been a boon to the universities that provide such training, but several studies conducted largely by economists have shown little relationship between a teacher’s accumulation of formal education and actual student learning. In our studies, teacher educational attainment similarly shows little effect on improving student achievement…

Social capital, by comparison, is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead resides in the relationships among teachers. In response to the question “Why are some teachers better than others?” a human capital perspective would answer that some teachers are just better trained, more gifted, or more motivated. A social capital perspective would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but also where she gets that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does the teacher go for information and advice? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she confide in about the gaps in her understanding of her subject knowledge? …

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To Become Great, You Must First Realize You Are Not

April 23rd, 2011

i suck at life white black design 300x300 To Become Great, You Must First Realize You Are NotTo become great, truly great at something, you first have to realize that you are hopeless and everyone is better than you.

Understanding you are hopeless at something is a necessary realization on the pathway to excellence. Why?

There are a couple of key reasons:

Realizing how hopeless you are at performing something gives you valuable negative information – it shows you all the stuff you do not know. Knowing what you don’t know is the first step in actually knowing. Therefore this realization brings into focus all the information, and skills you need to learn and develop. It makes you hungry.

Keeping a constant awareness that you are hopeless at something therefore creates a constant drive to become a sponge to learn, develop, and improve. Its like constantly moving the finish line, so that you need to keep on running. Becoming great is all about staying hungry.

The problem with thinking you are good, is that while you still might understand that you do not know everything, you believe that you know enough. As soon as you think you know enough, you stop learning, growing and developing. When you think you are good, whats the point in continuing to grow and develop? The little voice in the back of your head tells you, ‘Hey, don’t worry about pushing yourself on this one, you are already awesome.’ When you reach that finish line, there is no point to keep on running – you are already fit, fast and healthy. You don’t need to keep on running.

The irony is therefore that when you think you are good, you are actually on the pathway to becoming crap at what you do. Thinking you are ‘good’ is the number one killer of greatness. Being good is really a synonym for being mediocre.

These days there is a popular idea (popularized largely due to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, Outliers) based on research with top performing musicians, athletes, scientists etc, that to become a ‘master’ at something, you need to invest 10,000 hours of time. Apparently, after you reach the ‘magic’ 10,000 hours you can consider yourself a master.

If you think you are already ‘good’, 10,000 hours will not transform you into a master. No amount of hours can make you truly great. If you think you are a ‘good’ at golf, and play 5 hours per week, 50 weeks of the year, for 40 years, you might have a great handicap. But you won’t be playing on the US PGA Tour.

Becoming great is all about your attitude. Studies have shown IQ means shit. There is no predictor of talent based on genetic make-up (beyond certain physical requirements for sports).

To become great, you need to realize that you are hopeless and know nothing – and you need to hold onto this idea throughout your life. This simple attitude is the key to constant development and improvement, which combined with 10,000 hours, and importantly (I really should have mentioned this earlier), a love for what you do, will make you truly great.

So, in your line of work, are you ‘good’?



Playing At It vs Playing In It

January 17th, 2011

While passion and creativity are often discussed – I was recently reading a book on presentation design, and the following paragraph struck a chord with me.

“Be in the moment to maximize your creativity. When you play music, don’t repeat the notes on a page, but play beautiful music. Don’t play at it. Play in it.

Only when you play in a thing do people listen & hear you and are moved.”

- Brenda Ueland, in Presentation Zen

Don’t play at it. Play in it. Simple, yet powerful words of advice – to cultivate creativity – but also as a litmus test of where your passion truly lies. When you work – do you feel like you are working at it, or in it?

I believe that when you are passionate about something – playing in it, as opposed to at it, happens automatically. Benjamin Zander, composer, conductor of Grammy Nominated Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and aficionado & promoter of classical music has a similar philosophy when it comes to music, and our passions – he calls it the ‘One Buttock’ philosophy.

Watch his TED talk below to discover why!

Travelling Hopefully Is Better Than Arriving

January 6th, 2011

I recently came across a essay by the Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island, & Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fame on the the value of hope, aspiration and setting goals.  For me it epitomized to a large extent the mindset required to start your own business, or become particularly good at something.

“To be truly happy is a question of how we begin and not of how we end, of what we want and not of what we have. An aspiration is a joy for ever, a possession as solid as a landed estate, a fortune which we can never exhaust and which gives us year by year a revenue of pleasurable activity. To have many of these is to be spiritually rich.

It is in virtue of his own desires and curiosities that any man continues to exist with even patience, that he is charmed by the look of things and people, and that he wakens every morning with a renewed appetite for work and pleasure. Desire and curiosity are the two eyes through which he sees the world in the most enchanted colours: it is they that make women beautiful or fossils interesting: and the man may squander his estate and come to beggary, but if he keeps these two amulets he is still rich in the possibilities of pleasure

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”

Robert Louis Stevenson – Essay, ‘El Dorado’.

Stevenson’s “El Dorado” is in Chapter 6 of his “Virgnibus Puerisque” essay collection and also available stand-alone at  Travelling Hopefully Is Better Than Arriving (Thanks go to Sean Murphy @ for identifying where the source can be found and inspiring me to read it!)

2.5% of Effort Creates 95% of Your Results Pt 1

January 3rd, 2011

2.5% of effort creates 95% of your results.

Sounds ridiculous right?

This is the contention Tim Ferriss, author of the best selling book, The Four Hour Workweek makes in his new best-selling book, The Four Hour Body (TFHB). TFBH teaches you how to hack your body and is based on 10 years of experiments. Its aim is show you that when it comes to your body, 2.5% of your effort will produce 95% of your results. The book importantly shows you which 2.5% you need to focus your efforts on, to maximize your results.

the 4 hour body 20101207 134157 244x300 2.5% of Effort Creates 95% of Your Results Pt 1

This 2.5/95 rule is really a variation of the 80/20 rule created by Italian economist Vildredo Pareto while studying the distribution of wealth in Italy (20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth). This 80/20 rule stated that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

So why the change towards the extreme?  Why 2.5/90 and not the well-established 80/20? Ferriss noticed through his experiments that the true reward to work ratio was considerably more extreme than the typically used 80/20 principle.

This 2.5/95 rule is something I myself have recently discovered in two different areas of my life, quite independently of Tim Ferriss and TFHB.

Case Study 1: Barefoot Running

Not long ago I read Born To Run, a fascinating book by Chris McDougall, which charts his experiences with the Tarahumara Indians (of Mexico), the world’s greatest distance runners who as McDougall puts it, can run for hundreds of miles non-stop, and enjoy every minute of it. (incredible right?)

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From Sloth to Superman – 30 Day Habit Challenge

December 4th, 2010

Over the last couple of years (particularly while I was at university, and now that I run my own business) I have found that I have developed some poor habits. Looking back at my habits during high school,I was incredibly disciplined – I would wake up at 6:30am, eat, walk to the bus stop, get to school early, play soccer, go to classes, return home, study intensely for a couple of hours, play sport, and then read a book before going to sleep at about 11pm. It was a pretty packed day but I incredibly efficient largely due to the structure that going to school each day gave me.

Since then my habits have changed dramatically. During university because my timetable changed each semester, I found it difficult to build any sort of routine. I would sleep in to all sorts of strange times, often spend hours aimlessly surfing the internet, I stopped playing sport, generally, became a bit of a sloth. While this sort of lack of a routine could have perhaps been acceptable if I was spending all my new found time immersing myself in university readings, I can’t say that ‘immerse’ and ‘university readings’ are two words I have ever used in one sentence until today.

Over the last two years as I have been running my own business and working out of a home office, this routine has believe it or not become even worse! I stopped going to gym (completely -  although my gym sessions could have been considered erratic at best), I became part of my computer, and found that my days were disappearing into a cloud of emails where I would check my emails every 5 minutes. To boot, I also found over the last two years that my inactivity (other than sitting in front of a computer) and working near a fully stocked fridge is a guaranteed combination if you want to gain weight.

So, over the last month or so I made a decision to make some changes. While often these changes are often considered to fall into the category of ‘New Year Resolutions’, I don’t believe in New Years Resolution. To be frank I think waiting until the end of the year to make a change is just ridiculous.

So, what changes have I decided to make.

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The Creativity Crisis – Declining Creativity & How to Fix It!

November 17th, 2010

I just finished reading fascinating article on creativity – what it is, how it can be measured, its decline in Western culture, and how it can be resurrected.

What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the article was its exploration of how creativity levels are falling in society (well US society, but I think this is equally applicable to any other Western nation, including Australia) – due to rigid school curriculums, and the emergency of video game/computer game addictions in youth.

Some highlights for me from this article:

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).

Creativity – and its very nature is something that has always interested me. I found that this was an excellent and importantly succinct and simply way to capture the essence of creativity.

Another I have always been attracted to was coined by George Kneller:

Creativity largely involves re-arranging what we know, to discover what we do not know.

From spending a fair amount of time reading about talent – what it is, and how to cultivate it I found the following interesting:

The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

What is interesting, is that studies of talented individuals (that like this study have tracked development from a young age) have revealed that there are no differences in IQ between the talented individuals and their average counterparts. Perhaps, the answer lies in creativity? This study certainly suggests this is the case!

A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future.

Without intending to sound cliched – given the globalisation push over the last decade, problems for companies and nations manifest on global rather than national and regional levels – requiring higher levels of creative solutions. Declining creativity should be a concern.

I have always felt that video games and school curriculum have stifled creativity.

One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

Interestingly, I think part of the problem with video games is that unlike books, kids are not being challenged to use their imagination and create worlds – rather, the games create these for them, reducing the kid to a participant, rather than a creator.

In middle childhood, kids sometimes create paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds. Kids revisit their paracosms repeatedly, sometimes for months, and even create languages spoken there. This type of play peaks at age 9 or 10, and it’s a very strong sign of future creativity. A Michigan State University study of MacArthur “genius award” winners found a remarkably high rate of paracosm creation in their childhoods.

If creating make believe worlds are indicators of genius – video games surely are having a negative impact!

There is some good news:

“Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

But how? It seems the answer does not lie in rigid school curriculum but in problem based leanring.

“The creative problem-solving program has the highest success in increasing children’s creativity,” observed William & Mary’s Kim.

A school in Ohio has developed a focus on teaching the curriculum but moving away from syllabus dot point driven focuses to problem solving. I found this fascinating, and it resonated with me in a couple of ways – both from my experience at law school but also from my experience starting and growing a business.

So what does this mean for America’s standards-obsessed schools? The key is in how kids work through the vast catalog of information. Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

I found that during my time at law school in Sydney, my creativity significantly improved through a focus on problem based assessments and tasks. We were commonly given a real life problem – and asked to advise the law to advice clients on both the likelihood of success and failure of pursuing a cause of action. I found that this problem solving focus really encouraged me to examine multiple perspectives, improved my focus on subtleties, and challenged me to think ‘outside the box’.

I also found that starting two business has also been a valuable tool in building my creativity. My perspective on business, is that a good business exists to solve a problem for customers. Business that survive and grow ultimately have found a way to excel at solving customer problems.Those that do not, never really found a way to solve customers problems in a meaningful way.

Therefore, the way I see it, is that starting a business, and running it – and learning on the fly is perhaps the best way to cultivate creativity – as the whole process in itself is really one of problem based learning.

For those interesting in checking out the article – it can be found at:

The Race of Truth

September 25th, 2010

cycling2 gallery  470x3640 300x232 The Race of TruthCycling is a tough sport – not purely because of the pain involved in projecting yourself at amazing speeds across long distances simply through the use of your own legs, but largely because of the mental aspect of riding (particularly for time trials).

Think about it from this perspective. You are in a running race and a person passes you. What do you do? You start running quicker and try to keep apace and recover your position. In a time trial for cycling it is just you, your bike, the clock and the road. There is no crowd, or competitor to push you forward. The only thing driving you forward, through the pain barrier is your mind. In the article Personal Best – Why a Cycling Time Trial Is Called the ‘Race of Truth’ – the authors explore their own experience of mind over matter (and pain). As I read this article though, it hit me that really life is the race of truth.

Why? While at moments during our lives we have people supporting us, providing us with competition, and helping us drive ourselves forward, what defines who we are is not what we do in the public light, when others are watching, but the small things we do on a regular basis when we are alone.

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