Building Expertise – Judit Polgar

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Judit Polgar is one of my favourite examples of how people make it to an expert level in anything. Only those that follow the chess world would have any idea who she is – Judit is the greatest woman to ever play chess and the only one to have ever made it into the top 100 players of the men’s division. She achieved the title of grandmaster at 15 years 4 months old, the youngest person ever at the time.

Judit was raised by a father who was actually conducting a social experiment. His goal was to show that people could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist field from a young age. “Genius’s are made, not born”, he said. He sought out a woman that was amenable to his goal and they got busy with the task of procreating. He and his wife had three daughters – Susan, Sofia, and the youngest Judit. Susan was the eldest of the sisters, she was 5 1/2 years older than Sofia and 7 years older than Judit. All were brought up playing chess, but Judit, according to her sisters, was by far the most passionate and obsessive, and interestingly, not the most naturally gifted of the three.

And it was that passion and obsession that made Judit the greatest of them at an early age. Initially separated from her sisters while they trained due to her young age, Judit came to be woken from her sleep to help them solve problems with their coach. By age 5 she had defeated a family friend without even looking at the board. Judit was a pioneer in chess in that she would play in the male division of tournaments rather than the female. “These other girls are not serious about chess”, she said. “I practice five or six hours a day. But they get distracted by cooking and work around the house.”

In that statement lies the secret of her expertise. When we look at the figure of 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a field, we can see that with Judit’s practice time (and that isn’t including her time spent in tournament play), she would have reached this figure well before she was 10 years old. When we look at those figures, far from being astonishing, it is little wonder that Judit accomplished everything that she did. If we look at Olympic level judoka from Japan who begin training at primary school, they would not be hitting such a level of mastery until almost double the time that Judit did with chess. They may be training with the same frequency (or close enough to it), but when we look at time spent she is far outmatching them.

Her relentless approach to chess was not lost on her opponents, many of whom were double and triple her age and international masters/grandmasters when she defeated them. David Norwood, a British GM described her as “this cute little auburn-haired monster who crushed you.” US Champion Joel Benjamin said “It was all-out war for five hours. I was totally exhausted… You make one mistake and she goes right for the throat.”

And finally Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest player of all time (who incidentally Judit also managed to defeat): “the Polgars showed that there are no inherent limitations to their aptitude – an idea that many male players refused to accept until they had unceremoniously been crushed by a twelve-year-old with a ponytail.”

If you want to get the full rundown on her, check her out at wikipedia. What I’ve given is the briefest of summations and her full greatness and achievements will knock your socks off.

 

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Business Etiquette – Communication

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I really wish I didn’t have to write a post like this. Quite frankly in the time we live in – the information age, where everyone is sharing their opinions with hundreds of others, it baffles me that people still don’t get the message.

I have dealt with a very large number of businesses and government departments recently, so this doesn’t just come from a couple of isolated incidents. I have repeatedly experienced the sort of rudeness that, if one were a customer, would stop them going back to a particular store. What people don’t realise is that in this world, everyone is a customer. They may not be buying anything from you and in many cases they may need you rather you needing them, however the way you treat them will define the type of business you run. In addition, just because there is no immediately quantifiable consequence as a result of your actions, that doesn’t mean you will not live to regret it down the track.

What I am talking about here is communication. I’m going to give two examples for context. Company 1 interviewed me recently for a position. It turned out I wasn’t fully qualified, but they were impressed so offered me a contract position. I was given the number of a national manager in a different department who would fit me in. I tried for weeks to get a hold of him, always being told “I’ll get back to you”. He never did. When I did manage to get him on the phone for 5 minutes, there were vague promises and nothing happened. I even sent messages to him at times which he set and got nothing in reply.

Company 2 wanted to meet with me to discuss future work opportunities. This involved the national manager and state manager coming to me from interstate. While the meeting has been pushed back multiple times, they have always been polite and courteous. They have constantly apologised and thanked me each time for following up.

Which company would you rather work for? Which company would you rather deal with? I don’t think any reasonable person out there would agree with the conduct of company 1. A national manager that never returns phone calls is, well, ridiculous. What too many people fail to realise is that whatever their position, they (and by extension their company) are always being judged. Company 1 removed me from their database after I sent an email informing them that I didn’t appreciate their conduct. No doubt they have just washed their hands of the incident. What they don’t realise is that I have hundreds of friends in their sector who I will be more than happy to tell about the incident.

There is a great quote from the Bible (if I recall correctly) that says something to the effect of “measure a man by how he treats one that can do him absolutely no good”. Treating anyone that contacts you (regardless of if they are a customer in the traditional sense) as though they are inconsequential is not only rude but a terrible way to do business. People remember, and when they have a chance to tell anyone, they will. The result – your reputation takes a nosedive.

All it takes is to follow these rules:

1. If someone emails, leaves a voicemail message, sends a text message, get back to them within one business day. If you don’t have enough time on any given day, at the very least contact them to tell them that you have their message and will get back to them within x number of days.

2. If you tell someone that you are going to get back to them, actually get back to them. Don’t make them continue to chase you up.

3. Follow the golden rule – treat others as you wish to be treated.

Not too complicated, is it?

 

Google Time

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The concept of Google time is perhaps one of the greatest discoveries I made in my previous job. For those of you not familiar with the term, Google time is a perk that employees have while working at, you guessed it, Google. Workers are allowed to spend up to 20% of their time on the job to pursue special projects of their own choice instead of their usual workload. Google claims that a large number of their best projects came from workers pursuing them in their Google time.

My last job afforded me a decent amount of spare time. As an instructor, when we had courses coming through it was busy. What to do when there weren’t any courses to teach? Sure, there was some admin work to do and things to get squared away, but on top of that there was also plenty of dead time. I absolutely despise busy work – that is, stupid pointless work for the sake of doing work. So instead, I started using this time as my own Google time. I wasn’t necessarily pursuing my own special projects per se, but I was using the time to explore different aspects of my work that I wouldn’t normally think about.

We have a lot of ebooks available on our servers, so I started reading them. I read management books, books on computer programming (being a tech workplace, I wanted to get inside the heads of programmers and understand what they are like), marketing and innovation. We also have a corporate blogspace where people from all over the organisation wrote about what they were doing, what complaints they had, solutions and so on. I even had access to partner organisations so I could get a pulse on what was going on there as well.

After just a couple of months of me taking Google time I had read multiple books, knew who the thought leaders were in our organisation, I knew what was really going on in the organisation, I could compare ourselves to partner organisations and I was even writing and putting my own ideas out there. For the first time, I felt well and truly engaged with the entire building, not just my tiny little corner of it. It helped me make new connections too – a couple of my current mentors I met during this time. Where it helped me the most, however, was in my job. I read quite a few books on management at the time which helped me gain new perspective in my role as an instructor. I began to see the job as a holistic approach – not focusing purely on the job but learning how best to relate to those I was teaching to get the most out of them.

My teaching methods also improved significantly. I began to constantly ask myself what I could be doing better. I went over our curriculum and results again and again. I started reaching out to people I knew at other teaching institutions to see what they were doing. As a result of this, by the end I was doing what was once thought impossible with my students – I was graduating them in half the time people were accustomed to and they had greater knowledge and ability than previous students. Not only that, taking Google time energised me in my work when I was feeling in that can’t be bothered kind of mood. It would get my mind’s juices flowing with ideas which I would then put into my work. I’d then take time to get more ideas and so on. It was a virtuous circle.

I think a lot of managers struggle to see the value in a concept such as Google time. Perhaps they don’t trust their employees to use the time properly and instead expect them to screw around on Facebook or something. They might also not be able to think long term and just want quantifiable results right now. This doesn’t mean you can’t still take your own Google time, it just means you have to be more discreet about it. You know those points in the day when you seem to spend an hour doing something that should take 10 minutes? That is your Google time. Get stuck into something that energises you for that 50 minutes, and return to your work refreshed and full of mental energy.

On Management Part 2 – The Human Factor

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Obviously management is about far more than workflow, prioritising and planning. Being a good manager is primarily about getting the best out of the people working for you. Doing that is half about what you do for them, and half about how you treat them. I think in Western society we’ve been given the view too often from Hollywood and television that a manager has to be a real kick ass, take no prisoners and speak the unadulterated truth kind of guy. Shows like The Apprentice show Donald Trump telling people they’re fired and then there’s Bill Lumbergh in the office that treats all his staff like crap.

I hope that most people realise these are terrible images of how a manager should treat their staff, but I think there are plenty of managers out there that are actually like this. It’s the whole attitude of pushing people down so that you can be seen as the take no prisoners guy and keep climbing. This might work for some people in the beginning, but eventually you are going to have staff that don’t feel so much like putting up with that sort of boss and won’t give their all, which means that said manager all of a sudden doesn’t look so great to their superiors.

One of the best examples I have seen for contrasting management styles is between Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Let’s for a moment forget that they are on tv shows and there is a certain amount of editing going on – they still say what they say and act how they act. We are still getting a real idea of what these two men are like. Looking at Hell’s Kitchen I have seen Ramsay both speak and act appallingly to his staff. He is constantly yelling and belittling his staff, I remember he even called one of the chefs a “fat fucking pig”. You can see the results with the contestants – they have a competitive fire, sure, but they don’t enjoy the experience one little bit. There is constant tension between them and it is one of the most hostile environments I have ever seen.

Then I think about Pierre White on Masterchef: The Professionals. His management style could not be more different. His management, like all great great management, is about lifting people up. He seems to be an expert at judging people’s moods and feelings and acts accordingly. When someone is clearly struggling and fragile, he gives just the right words to let them know he sees it, but that they need to keep going. When someone does something really well, the praise is genuine and unrestrained. Most importantly, when someone is cocky and arrogant, he doesn’t cut them down cruelly. He gives just the right feedback to let them know they need to pull their head in.

That is what good management is all about. It’s about knowing the people working for you and knowing what they need from you, and being able to give that to them. It isn’t about using people to get to the top, it’s about pulling them up with you. You can see with Pierre White that the chefs genuinely respect him and want to give their very best all the time. People don’t want to give their best with a belittling manager, they want to achieve whatever goal they have and get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

I’ve heard it said quite a lot that “you don’t need to like your boss, but you do need to respect them”. I think that line of thinking is crap. If most of your staff don’t like you, odds are you’re a pretty lousy manager. I think this comes from the line of thinking that managers are going to have to make unpopular decisions, but are still capable of respect. People understand that managers have to make unpopular decisions, that’s not what makes them unlikeable on a daily basis. It is very difficult to dislike someone that treats you with respect, appreciates you and does their best to give you good feedback. You may not want to hang out with them on the weekend, but on a work level every person should like their manager.

Keep it Simple Stupid – Deliberate Practice

I mentioned at the beginning of my last past that humans seem to feel the need (at least nowadays) to overcomplicate everything. When we are talking about skills, the thing that gets overcomplicated most often is deliberate practice. Instead of putting in the work, people are always after the quick fix, the magic bullet or pill that is going to make everything better for them rather than the constant hours spent doing things over and over and over again.

Getting shredded (or ripped, jacked, cut or whatever the current expression is) is one thing that almost every guy wants at some stage during his teens or twenties. The first place their minds go is not the gym and all the reps they should be putting in, it’s either the supplement store for a whole lot of expensive stuff that they don’t need yet, or to training programs designed for people that have been training a decade. As Arnold says (and I have already quoted) “you have to do the reps”. If you want to get more muscular, the most important thing you have to do is work your muscles. It’s not even a difficult thing to deduce, but people don’t want to do the reps, because doing the reps is boring. Doing the reps is repetitive. Most of all, doing the reps is hard.

Yesterday I spoke more about doing those hard yards and sticking through it. Today is about what those hard yards should actually entail. The above is a perfect example of exactly what deliberate practice should be – simple. If you want to build a big chest, it’s simple, do exercises that will target your chest and do a lot. There is no need for a complicated program, hydrolised whey protein, creatine, testosterone booster and so on. All of that is just noise and it won’t help you if you aren’t doing the simple stuff. In this example, you’re basically trying to jump to the deep work stage without doing the deliberate practice.

People always want to jump to the end stage, the deeper work stage of their pursuit. The urge to start thinking about the complicated things and more abstract concepts is a strong one because it takes the pressure off us to do the hard work. If you want to become truly good at something, you have to resist this urge and get down to business.

Where to begin? Most activities actually have their own version of deliberate practice, you just have to stick with them rather than being tempted to move on to the more fun parts of the endeavour. In boxing, that means practicing your jab, cross, hook and uppercut until they are crisp and powerful before you move on to combinations and ring strategy. In computer programming it means writing thousands of lines of code which handles basic functions before you start putting your mind to writing code for Jarvis of Iron Man.

I’m going to address this next part to all the university students out there because I think you can gain the most from it. You have to think of all your studies as deliberate practice. Everyone (myself included during my bachelor’s degree) thinks of study as a chore. Essays are left until the last minute, readings are left unread and research is half assed. This is the time that you should be honing your skills, not complaining that you hate the essay topic and putting in the bare minimum.

Writing an essay on a topic you neither like nor care about is the perfect example of deliberate practice. By taking it as such, you can turn it to your advantage and not waste the opportunity. Rather than trying to impress the markers with your incredibly new and progressive ideas (which are no doubt far from new to them), you should be trying to perfect the technical parts of your writing such as grammar, sentence structure and the flow of your essay. I’ve marked plenty of essays where the student clearly had some great concept in their head but didn’t pay attention to the nuts and bolts of their work. The result was each page having almost as much red ink on it from my correction pen as the black ink from their typing. Basic mistakes such as incorrect usage of punctuation, sentences that didn’t make sense, paragraphs that had no real point to them and..spelling mistakes! By the end of marking work like this, no one cares about your ideas, because you can’t even articulate them properly.

This is why deliberate practice is a must. If you can focus on improving your writing skills during the many (and there will be many) essays on topics you don’t care for at university, when the time comes for you to specialise and seek out topics that do interest you, you will actually be ready for the deep work that you will be doing. Writing books is another area where people always want to bypass the deliberate practice and go straight to the payoff. People sit around waiting for the big idea when they should just be writing as much as possible about anything they can think of just to improve their skills. Most of the time when you wait for that big idea instead of putting pen to paper, it never comes. When it does come, like in Fifty Shades of Grey, everyone can see you haven’t put in the practice because while the idea is there, the ability to write decently (because you’ve skipped the practice part) isn’t.

I’m putting my own advice into practice at the moment with chess. I love chess, but I’m not going to lie to you and act like it makes up a big part of my life, it doesn’t. I do, however, want to get better at it. I have a few books that a friend recommended to me and I haven’t picked up one of them yet. I could be exploring endgame, strategy, reviewing old master’s games. Nope, none of that. Right now I am spending 30-60 minutes each day practicing the fundamentals of chess, tactics. I get through about 50-100 different problems most days, before I then play a few games. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t super fun and it’s frequently frustrating, but it’s doing far more for my game than exploring the deeper stuff before I’m ready for it.

Whatever the skill you are trying to improve, keep things simple and just keep doing them. There will be time in the future for you to do the more complicated, deeper work, but it is not now. Never cut short your time doing deliberate practice, because those that do will always stand out to the experts in the field. They are called pretenders, and they are mediocre.

The Power of Persistence

Human beings have a remarkable ability to overcomplicate things; I’m not sure if this is a recent phenomenon or it has been going on since we were hunting animals with spears. Whatever the answer, most of the overcomplicating I have seen since I started actually thinking about such things is done by people that don’t want to put in the most important thing in any endeavour – deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is hard. It can be boring, painful and often unfulfilling. I think back to my first couple of formative years in judo and the above statement is absolutely true. I was training 4 nights a week with many people that were far better than I was (many at the international level), I watched them with their perfect throws and the ability to pull them off at high speed with fully resisting opponents. Me on the other hand, I got thrown pretty much non stop for the better part of 2 years. I was one of the few less experienced judoka to turn up to fight nights, so I spent half the time looking up at the cieling, and the other half actually getting back up. I couldn’t even get the grip I wanted on most of these people, let alone unbalance or throw them. I remember as an orange belt fighting with a visiting Japanese university judoka – by the end of the 5 minutes I had been thrown so many times I could barely pick my sorry ass up off the floor.

That deliberate practice, that hanging in there when it sucked, that has made me what I am today. I am no world or even national champion (considering how late I started in life, that wasn’t really a possibility), but right now I train with former and current international judoka – and I can more than hold my own. This is a pretty big deal for me. Most (in fact almost all) of the people I started with, they quit a long time ago. The effort to get past the initial stage was just too much. We have a similar guy at my club right now. Only 16, and for the past two years because of his size, he has been fighting with the men. That entire last 2 years he has spent getting his ass whooped by grown men who fight at the highest level. He should be utterly demoralised by now, but he just kept coming back. You could tell how hard it was for him; he was often angry and frustrated and in his eyes there was clearly no light yet at the end of the tunnel. But he just kept turning up, kept training, kept fighting.

And something unremarkable happened. I say unremarkable because it should be completely expected – he got stronger, he got better, and now he’s a pain in the ass to fight. The only remarkable thing about it is that he didn’t give up. He’s now going to international tournaments and he isn’t even close to his peak yet, that won’t come for another decade. He is the living embodiment of one of the great judo sayings: “seven times down, eight times back up”.

If mine and other’s judo experience has taught me anything, it is to just keep turning up. In any endeavour you choose, I’m confident the statistics would show that 90% (I’d estimate) of people that take it up will quit. Simply by never quitting you will one day be in that top 10%. Work a bit harder and you will be even better. To get there though, you have to put in the work. You have to turn up when you don’t want to, you have to train when you are going through the rough patches and getting belted, you have to keep training when it feels like you aren’t improving at all.

I got asked not so long ago at what point judo becomes easier. All I could answer was that it doesn’t. Sure, you get to a point where learning new techniques is no longer difficult because your body just knows how to move, but you’re always going to have trouble. There’s always a throw you just won’t be able to get how you want it, you’ll have opponents that are always better than you, and as you age fighting takes its toll on the body much more. Like many things in life, judo is a perishable skill – if you stop doing it you’ll lose your edge. It’s not like Neo in The Matrix where you all of a sudden have a moment of clarity and everything becomes easy for you. You have to keep turning up.

This isn’t just about judo either, it is just a great example of the point I’m trying to make. It holds true for any skill that requires work. There are no shortcuts, there are no great epiphanies, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.

Just keep turning up.

Happiness at work

Happiness at work is a big deal for most people. I wouldn’t even want to make a guess on how many people aren’t happy at their jobs. Using my own experience the question most people need to ask themselves is – what am I actually unhappy about at work?

I write this post because I have recently had a couple of epiphanies regarding the job I recently left and have considered returning to. I thought I had a lot of issues with said job at the time, but looking back it isn’t so much that I didn’t have issues, it was that those issues were small in the grand scheme of things. To give some clarity, here is a list of the issues I had in no particular order:

1. Never enough credit or recognition for a job well (or outstandingly) done

2. Promotion not based on merit so much as time served and who your boss is

3. Certain people in authority I wasn’t happy with

4. Being owned by the contract I was under

5. Having to wear a uniform

6. Not feeling like I was an individual

7. Feeling my abilities were squandered by management

Looking at these issues, I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about the current job they are in. In isolation, they are important, but what I never really considered was the good parts of the job and what it actually added up to. The good parts were:

1. Excellent pay with multiple serious perks

2. A job that I really enjoyed

3. Excellent working hours that allowed me to pursue outside interests

4. Excellent people to work with

5. The chance to converse and challenge myself on an intellectual level with other curious minds

6. The opportunity to pursue work that interested me

7. Autonomy in my position

When I began to reconcile the two lists, I found that the ledger was firmly on the pros, rather than the cons of the job. Importantly, there were also a lot of bad incidents that happened along the way which were on the con side – but for the most part they happened to people I knew, not to me. The other problem that contributed to my distorted view was my period of training. To put it mildly, it was rough. Rough to the point that I think on some level I have been carrying the trauma for a long time. I made the hasty (and stupid) decision on completion of my training that I was not possibly going to stay any longer once my contract was up. My projection of this trauma onto a job I actually liked caused me to look at it with an erroneous view.

Trying to look at it objectively, there certainly are problems with my old job. Without a doubt. However, most of these problems were things that I made bigger than they were. I assigned them an unnecessary amount of weight which tipped the balance in the wrong direction. What I learned from this is that it is possible to be both wrong and right about something at the same time. I was right about the problems, however I was wrong that things would be so much rosier on the other side. Had I been able to look at things objectively from the start, I would have realised that the cons on my list were cons at most workplaces, and the pros were things that most people could only dream of.

If you are unhappy with your current job, it is difficult to look at things objectively because all you can do is feel how crappy your situation is. Believe me, I know from experience. I think it is important before you make rash actions to look at things as objectively as possible and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What exactly is wrong with my current job?

2. Will changing jobs actually improve that?

3. What do I like about my current job?

4. Am I likely to get that at a new job?

I think when you can answer those questions objectively, you can make the right decisions about your career. Without those questions, you are making assumptions, and we all know how that turns out.

The Fallacy of Talent (part 2)

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I was motivated to write another post on this topic following the comment on the first post:

“What about aptitude? The ability to understand a foreign concept at a faster rate than someone else? Art is a tough one to apply your theory to. I can practice painting every day and become good at painting but a true artist, one that paints a masterpiece that transcends through time – that surely requires talent? Once again, a very interesting topic.”

Firstly, the whole aptitude angle is something I thought of addressing after I’d already written the first article. Aptitude is a word that I’ve also seen substituted for talent. When someone has come into our judo club, they might pick things up faster than other people that begin training with them. Some people begin to talk of them having an aptitude for judo. I’ve seen this in other areas of life as well, and it boils down to a fairly simple explanation – it isn’t some god given gift they have that allows them to pick things up faster, it’s crossover from another pursuit. What this means is that while they may not have “put in the reps” in one specific pursuit, say judo, they may have put in a lot of work in a field that requires similar attributes. A rugby player will pick up judo much faster than someone who has spent their time on less physically active pursuits because they are already strong, have good control of their body and have good proprioception. It has nothing to do with some preordained ability, it is just work in a similar area. Likewise someone with a strong background in mathematics is going to pick up engineering concepts far quicker than someone that has spent all their time in the liberal arts.

On the subject of arts and talent, we have the slight problem of subjectivity – how popular any artist is is defined as how many people like their work. This doesn’t necessarily equate to skill (which I’m sure most people appreciate). Modern/postmodern art have done a lot of damage to a once noble profession, because much of it consists of works that a 4 year old child could do. Silly lines and squiggles etc, and a whole bunch of ridiculous names to classify such things. Go a little further back into history though and look at the real genius’s of art. These people had unmatched skill because they were incredibly prolific and practiced constantly. I recall reading quite some time ago that Rembrandt’s (I could be mistaken on that, it may have been another prominent artist) apprentices spent months, even years mixing his paint before they were allowed to paint a single stroke with their own brush.

While we are on Rembrandt, we can see why he was so good – his collected works comprise (and these are conservative estimates, considering many of them have been lost) over 300 paintings, 300 etchings, and over 2,000 drawings. Clearly it is no accident that he became one of the greatest artists in history. Looking at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (which I have not yet seen myself), it is the fact that the woman’s eyes in the portrait seem to follow the observer that is seen as the most remarkable feature of the painting. There is also “subtle modeling of forms and the atmospheric illusionism” which were novel qualities contributing to its popularity. All of these aspects speak not simply to divine gift from god, but an incredible skill born from years of practice.

Finally I think the literary world is a good place to touch on when we speak of talent. Many would speak of Stephanie Meyer (of Twilight fame) or E.L. James (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) as talented authors. After all, they have written book series that have earned them millions of dollars. Surely they are talented, coming up with such a great story? Here is where subjectivity makes things murky. They are very popular. A large group of people love their work. Does this make them talented? Well, no. They may have come up with ideas which pleased many people, enough even to keep them reading for several books. However as writers, their technique and ability stinks. They have problems with even basic skills such as putting commas and periods in the correct places. I remember reading some of Fifty Shades and feeling as though I was hearing nails down a chalkboard because the basic paragraph and sentence structure was horrid.

The difference between Twilight and the Mona Lisa is that to write a book that millions love doesn’t necessarily take skill – it takes an idea at the right time for the right group of people, and the persistence to see it through until the end (which is an admirable achievement in itself, but not part of this discussion). The Mona Lisa is something that required years of practice and understanding, and the unique mental landscape that such practice brings. This is why the Mona Lisa is a once in a millennium achievement, and Twilight is appreciated only be teenagers subject to hormones and bored stay at home mums.

The Fallacy of Talent

tal·ent

noun

1. a special natural ability or aptitude: a talent for drawing.

2. a capacity for achievement or success; ability: young men of talent.

Talent is one of the most misleading words in the World today, and typifies Western society’s obsession with doing everything quickly. Talent, as per the definition above, implies that a person is somehow gifted in a certain field, which thus leads to great success. We can see this all through our popular culture – Harry Potter finds out he has a talent for magic despite being raised as a muggle, in the Matrix Morpheus tells Neo “don’t think you can, know you can” and that is basically all he needs to turn into a demigod. We are basically told repeatedly by movies and television that we simply have to discover our talent and we are going to be awesome at it.

This flies completely in the face of reality where hard work and dedication are what make you good at anything, not this mysterious thing called “talent”. If The Karate Kid was actually realistic, Daniel (and most likely Mr Miyagi too) would have gotten his ass kicked by the Cobra Kai at the tournament rather than winning with that ridiculous crane kick. To be honest I think the term talent is actually somewhat insulting, because it implies that the person was somehow gifted that trait by god or whatever deity you follow, rather than having earned them. I want to give three examples as to why talent is an inappropriate term.

A good friend of mine, Matt D’Aquino is an Olympic level judoka. He has competed at world championships, world cups and of course, the Olympics. He is exactly what people would refer to as a talented judo player. Take a glimpse into his life, however, and it becomes clear that talent doesn’t even enter into it. Matt lives and breathes judo – when he is not on the mat training or teaching, he is thinking about judo. When he is at home he is making notes, watching videos, talking to people online about judo. He recently started a website, the University of Judo, where he helps other judoka by providing hundreds of his own videos (amongst other things) and answering questions. He has been overseas to many different countries to train with the best he could find. He has had multiple operations on his knees from injury. His fighting style is just like his personality and attitude to judo – relentless. This is not talent, it is immense dedication, persistence and hard work. Matt’s dedication reminds me of a saying from feudal Japan: “Every day you train, someone, somewhere is training twice as hard. One day you will meet him on the battlefield, and he will kill you”. Matt is that guy.

The second example is a work colleague who happens to be an internationally rated chess player. The cliched thing about chess is that you have to be smart to be good at it. This is incorrect. Chess is just like anything else – the earlier you start and the more you practice the better you will be. James doesn’t just dabble in chess and because he is intelligent wipes the floor with people. No, he has been playing since he was a child and he spends 2-3 hours a day on chess (in addition to working full time and being a father), playing games, working problems and studying. He has traveled Europe and been coached by some of the best in addition to coaching others himself. He plays in tournaments all the time. Again, this is not about talent, it is about working hard and working smart.

Finally, I’m using myself as an example. A lot of people that read my work tell me I’m a talented writer. I was thinking about it last night and realised that I’m not talented at all, I’ve just written a hell of a lot more than most regular people. I’ve been writing creatively since I was a kid. Add to that a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a master’s degree, the many blogs I’ve had over the years and we are talking thousands of pages of work. I also read heavily and across a wide variety of genres. Looking back it is no accident that I am good at writing – if I wasn’t by now I’d be worried!

So to conclude, there is no such thing as talent. The best people in any field get there through a huge amount of work and dedication. Remember that in every part of life – when you think someone at work is talented, realise that they have actually worked hard to be as good as they are. In sport when you pass off someone defeating you as them being really talented remember that no, they have more likely trained far more than you have.

On Management

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I firmly believe that management is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the working world at the moment. Whether it be government or private, I think Western society has an unrealistic and in fact downright wrong view of what good management is supposed to be. I’ve had two years of management experience myself, and I’ve had almost twenty years of experience working under piss poor managers.I’ve learned a lot of lessons from my time under both good bosses and bad bosses, and I’d like to think that I took the best and left the worst when I had people working underneath me.

The first thing I learned about good management is the mindset that you are not a “boss”, you are a servant. If you want your people to respect you, to give you their best, you have to look at your job as doing everything possible to get the best out of them. Far too many people believe that they are superior in some way to the people that work under them, or that their every moment should be used telling people what to do and stamp their authority. A line from the movie Braveheart is particularly pertinent here. When the Scottish nobles begin arguing after Wallace is knighted, he walks out on them. When he is stopped, he says “there’s a difference between you and me – you believe the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I believe your position exists to provide those people with freedom, and I go to make sure that they have it”.

A bad manager believes that the people under him exist to serve him, when it is in fact the other way around. Take this attitude as a boss, and your subordinates will despise you. People are very good at picking up delusions of grandeur in their managers and will almost always “compensate” themselves for your behaviour. That compensation could be in the form of taking extra long lunches, stepping out of the office more than is appropriate, responding to requests far slower than they should and so on. I’ve even seen it take the direct form of stealing.

A good manager believes that they are there to (in addition to their work) serve their subordinates. The first thing a good manager does is remove obstacles. Obstacles are those small, pain in the ass things that take away from the main object of work. I read a great post on the corporate blog a while ago on how to get the best computer programmers working for you. The answer basically boils down to being a remover of obstacles. Programmers hate rigid work schedules, they hate typical work obligations. They do their best work in fits and spurts, in between which they like to take short naps on the couch (because programming is extremely mentally taxing). A regular workplace with set hours, standard patterns of office behaviour and having to wear a suit is anathema to them. A good programming manager would be doing their best to accommodate the programmer’s needs, knowing that it will yield dividends shortly down the track. It is their job to take any heat coming from above and keep it away from the programmers so that they can work. Good managers will keep their admin tasks to a minimum, their contact with other groups to a minimum and their need to quantify everything to management at a minimum.

An excellent example of multiple mistakes made by a manager is the principal of a good friend of mine that is a school teacher. My friend loves their job teaching kids, however they are required to spend a lot of time doing professional development outside the classroom. The fact that the professional development courses are chosen completely by the executive staff with no input from the teachers is the first problem. The second problem is that they are widely seen as a waste of time by the teachers. They have to participate in games and things you would expect children to do. In essence, the teachers’ time is being wasted. It is that principal’s job as a manager to get rid of such useless distractions from the job of actually teaching. Making them do what the teachers see as useless activities is in fact adding obstacles to their main job of teaching.

A good principal would also be asking for feedback from those teachers. This is possibly the worst mistake I see from managers – assuming that they know best and that the people underneath could not possibly have any good ideas or even worse, that they are stupid. For starters, those people under you are the ones at the coal face every day. They know what they need. Ask them, and then listen carefully to what they say. In my opinion, if you are not asking your team as a whole what could be improved at least every six months, you’re doing it wrong. A large part of excellence in any workplace is constant review and the desire to improve, a good manager should be driving that by picking the brains of their subordinates.

Another thing that the above example shows is that a good manager also needs to be actively developing their staff. Don’t flood them with ridiculous professional development that you assume is exactly what they need. Of course, there needs to be mandatory personal development for the whole team in line with any job. That isn’t disputed. However the majority of professional development should be arranged with your subordinates input. Your subordinates know exactly what they need and where they want their career to go. I have seen several managers give their disapproval of requested courses and subsequently putting their subordinate on a course they did not want. As I said above, people are perceptive. Those people knew straight away that that manager was trying to block their ascension in the organisation. I apologise for the bolding again but it is absolutely necessary – a good manager should never fear their people improving or being promoted. A good manager should want their people to improve and be promoted. Fearing such a thing means a manager is either a:) petty and jealous or b:) is bad at their own job and fears being replaced. It should be the most natural and obvious thing in the world – if your staff are improving and doing great work, and being promoted it makes the manager look very good to their superiors.

Management is a big topic with so much to explore. That’s it for this post, the next aspect I will tackle is the human aspects of management, and how to actually deal with people if you want the best out of them.