Archive for the 'Excellence' Category

Holy &#%$!, or, Facing Down the Logjam.

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Well, no wonder . . . The stack of notes and to-do’s I’ve been carrying around contains, by an actual count just now, 213 pieces of paper. This doesn’t include four stapled articles to read, or the spiral notebook, or the draftwork on my desk, or the dozen documents on my computer’s desktop, or what’s in my three inboxes, or what’s tucked into my file drawers . . . you get the idea.

A good news/bad news addendum to this: it’s not as bad as it was. (Note that the picture above is not actually a picture of my desk.)

What I’m doing about it:

  • Discarding outright. Applying the Pareto principle, you have to figure that the bottom half or two-thirds of this material just isn’t worth much. So I’m trying to save only the stuff that Pareto, Covey, Williams, and Hamming would agree is worthwhile.
  • Consolidating notes. For many of these pages, there are only a few relevant items left to think about. So I’m piling them all into one big active list, and discarding the rest.
  • Writing my way through everything. As I’ve explained recently, I’m working to improve my daily production of words. There’s a lot of material in these notes that feeds various professional projects and pieces of writing I want to finish. And meanwhile, the process of working through all of it may feed some posts here; I give plenty of abstract advice on “living richly,” but this is definitely a chance to work through things concretely.
  • Turning off my intake. Some new things are bound to come in, but I’m gearing up for vacation soon, and I think that turning off the information spigot between now and then will allow me to carve into the backlog nicely.
  • Begging forebearance. My inboxes have piled up, and I’ve been hanging fire on a couple of key projects — some of the big timber at the front of the logjam. So, if you’re waiting on something from me, I beg a little more patience from you.

Now I’m off to sharpen my ax . . .


(Photo by kris krüg, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

Are you putting both feet on the scale?

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I’ve railed against multitasking many times. I’ve talked plenty about focus. And yet these are things I struggle with daily. Maybe you do, too?

The problem with multitasking is that it divides our energies in too many directions. Instead of bringing all our “weight” (talent, attention, focus) to a single task, we spread it around. Dividing your eggs among different baskets can be a good idea if you’re using portfolio theory to invest for retirement or build a better ballclub. It’s a bad idea if you’re trying to knock out important projects.

Set aside the reasons why we do this (fear, laziness, bad habits). The important thing is that we stop doing it.

What could you do today to make sure you have both feet on the scale — to make sure you’re putting all your weight into the projects that mean the most to you?


(Photo by Andrew Walsh, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.)

Commonplace: Ueshiba

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Those who are enlightened
never stop forging themselves.
The realizations of such masters cannot be
expressed well in words or by theories.
The most perfect actions
echo the patterns found in nature.

–Morihei Ueshiba


(Image via Wikipedia.)

The veteran hitter.

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

(This isn’t really about baseball. Stick with me.)


Jimmie Foxx scared pitchers. Lefty Gomez said “He has muscles in his hair.” When Babe Ruth passed 700 home runs, the only other man above 500 was Foxx.

When it comes to baseball, you’re not Jimmie Foxx and neither am I. But there’s something for which you’re Jimmie Foxx. In some aspect of life, to someone in the world, you’re the sigh of relief. (“It’s okay, we’ve got a chance here — Double X is coming to the plate.”) You’re the larger-than-life hero. You’re the one signing baseballs for the kids crowded around the clubhouse door.

Your job is to find that role and live it to the hilt.


(Image by jay pangan 3, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.)

Genius, patience, and Twitter.

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Another gem turned up via Twitter:

“Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience.”
~George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon

~ ~ ~

An irony: Twitter is the medium of impatience — a sentence or two is all that goes into a message, and you can dash that off in a few seconds. Yet in this case Twitter brought me something I (and you?) need to hear.

~ ~ ~

Possibly related:

Why Are the Most Creative People in Business Skipping Out on Web 2.0?

~ ~ ~

My question to you:

Can genius and social media go together?


(Photo by Abby Ladybug, used under a CC-Noncommercial license.)

Making a list and checking it twice.

Monday, May 25th, 2009

checklist.jpgOn my professional blog, I’ve written more than once about the power of checklists, and especially about how they’ve been used to increase safety and effectiveness in hospitals. My conclusion was that many of us, as individuals or in businesses, could benefit from instituting this kind of simple but effective discipline.

Perhaps it will not surprise you that I’ve had trouble implementing this for myself.

Now, though, in line with my stated career objective in yesterday’s post, I’m putting together a big daily checklist aimed at ensuring that I cover each day’s bases that day (hey, that also sounds familiar . . .). Some of the things on the list seem silly to write down, since I do them automatically anyway. The point, though, is to get all of the things on the list to be automatic — and to have the list as a reference and a goad for those times when I’m prone to slip up.

Here’s the really hard part: you have to include things on the checklist that you know are going to be painful to do. And when you encounter those things in the course of your daily work, you have to . . . go ahead and do them. Possibly it’s just the bias of my own experience, but I think that shying away from what’s most painful — or even potentially painful — is the great stumbling block for many people, the thing that keeps them from achieving what they’d like to achieve.

No need to be a glutton for punishment, mind you. We don’t all have to be like Lance Armstrong, who said that a day’s training on the bike wouldn’t be complete without at least a little agony. But if we’re going to engage in deliberate practice and get better methodically, it implies that we need to address our shortcomings, even if that only means tidying up after them.

Try using a checklist for anything that’s giving you trouble. I’ll do the same, and report back with my results.

(Photo by Kent Wien, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

What passes for work.

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

“Yeah, go to your local gym and see what passes for work.”
~Mark Twight

There’s a gray-faced, humorless guy at my gym — he might be anywhere from 45 to 60 — who schlubs his way through every workout: one or two sets of a few exercises, low weights, and horribly incomplete repetitions. (Consistently the worst reps I’ve ever seen, in fact.) I can’t stand to watch him work, because it’s not work at all. In fact, it’s all but a complete waste of his time: he’s been in the gym like clockwork for years now, but is as dumpy and lacking in energy as the first time I ever saw him there.

Now, I try to love everybody, and I know that different people come to the gym with different goals and outlooks. So who knows what’s going through this guy’s mind? (I might try to sound him out, but he’s not what you’d call friendly.) But wouldn’t you want to enjoy yourself, at least a little, if you went to the gym that often? Wouldn’t you want to get better over time? Wouldn’t you want to put in some real work — ever? Not this guy.

Normal people won’t work out like Messrs. Schwarzenegger and Wilkosz in the picture here. (I’m imagining Arnold saying “Bist du fertig? Doch! Noch eine!”) That’s fine. But even normal people can get better.

So, let’s turn our gaze from Mr Lazy at the gym and think about ourselves:

  • What are you doing that passes for work — at the gym or in any other part of your life?
  • Which parts of your life are just as dumpy and gray as they were a year ago, or five years ago?
  • What would you get if you followed Mark Twight’s advice and started paying attention every hour of every day?
  • Is there anything you care about enough to pay attention every second of every minute of every hour of every day?

The moral of this story, for myself: I do okay in the gym, but I can do better. But when it comes to other parts of my life (e.g. writing books), it’s high time I stopped kidding myself about what passes for work.


(Photo source; used under a CC-Share Alike license.)

One percent better.

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I once read a great quote from Pat Riley — he of the five NBA titles as a head coach — in which Riley said that his goal was to help his players get one percent better each day throughout a season. One percent.

It doesn’t sound like much, and indeed it’s a modest goal that would seem to be more about easy attainability than about world-class ambition. Until, that is, you start thinking about compounding.

Several times before, I’ve referred to Richard Hamming’s great talk about getting the most out of your career. One of the key concepts in the talk is the idea of compounding — using today’s gains to build on yesterday’s, not arithmetically but geometrically or logarithmically. (This, by the way, is also a key aspect of Anders Ericsson’s research on “deliberate practice,” which I’ve discussed on my professional blog.)

Doing the math

I was curious to know what sort of gains you’d see if you legitimately improved by one percent each day at a given thing. Clearly, it wouldn’t be possible to be so precise with many endeavors, e.g. painting pictures or learning to be your own bicycle mechanic. You could tell you were getting better over time, and maybe even day by day, but you’d have a hard time putting numbers to it.

But let’s pretend that whatever thing you want to do well is quantifiable, and that on Day Zero you start with 100 units of Goodness in the domain you’re improving.

0 = 100
1 = 101
2 = 102
3 = 103
4 = 104
5 = 105
. . .

At first, one-percent-daily improvement makes it look like you’d need nearly 100 days to double your acumen — which could be less than inspiring if you’re pursuing a new activity at which you suck, and at which you will merely suck less when you double your performance.

Eventually, though, you start to see a little headway:

25 = 128
30 = 135
35 = 142
40 = 149
. . .

Then the ol’ mathematics starts to kick in, and the quantities start to get stunning:

100 = 270
150 = 445
200 = 732
250 = 1,203
. . .

And so on. If you kept this up every day for a year, on day 365 you’d boast 3,778 units of Goodness — that is, you’d be nearly 38 times as good as when you started. At the end of two years, you’d have nearly 143,000 units of Goodness. A body can remove a lot of suckitude that way.

Sure, there’s such a thing as diminishing returns. Sure, most of us will need to take days off now and again. Feel free to adjust these numbers any way you care to. The point still stands: the work doesn’t just pile up over time — it multiplies.

How are you compounding your personal gains?
What could you do to get one percent better each day?


The Shaq Test.

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Before he threw U.S. presidential politics into an uproar in 2000, someone once wrote of Ralph Nader that calling him “a consumer advocate” was like calling Joe DiMaggio “an outfielder”: correct in a limited sense, but hardly explanatory.

Whatever you think of him, Ralph Nader’s real career is as . . . Ralph Nader. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t just the centerfielder for the Yankees, and wasn’t “just” a Hall of Famer, because he was JOE DIMAGGIO.

I’ve come across three very different standout performers who have talked about the desirability of turning yourself into your very own category:

  • Shaquille O’Neal said that you don’t just want to be the best at what you do, you want to get to the point where you’re the only one who even does what you do. (I’m paraphrasing.)
  • Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia said about the same thing: “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”
  • In this Wired magazine interview, legendary computer scientist Bill Joy said: “I try to work on things that won’t happen unless I do them.”

These men’s success at doing this is evident. Shaquille O’Neal isn’t just a Hall of Fame-caliber basketball center — he’s SHAQ. Jerry Garcia wasn’t just the frontman for a rock band — he was JERRY GARCIA, and his band was more of a cultural phenomenon than a musical act. Bill Joy, within the realms of computer science or Silicon Valley business, needs no introduction whatsoever — he’s just BILL JOY.

Most of us will never be as rich, as famous, or as obviously successful as these three men (or Joe DiMaggio or Ralph Nader, for that matter). But the principle still holds: we should try to develop what’s within us to the point that what we do and who we are are synonymous — and cherished by those who know us.

In other words, when someone comes across something thorny and says, “This is a job for [Your Name Here]” or “I want to see what [Your Name Here] does about this” — THAT’s when you’ll know you’re doing it right.

Oh, and one more thing. It’s quite possible that Shaq never actually said this. To no avail, I’ve looked high and low around the Interwebs trying to find the quote, which I’m sure I read at some point. But you know what? I’m going with it anyway, for two reasons:

  1. I can totally imagine Shaq mumbling it out with that mixture of gravity and take-it-or-leave-it attitude that he has; and
  2. Jerry Garcia and Bill Joy are slightly inferior to Shaquille on this score because they need two words — a first and a last name — to identify them. Shaq needs four letters.

So there you go. How are you doing on The Shaq Test?


(Photo by Anthony Mumphrey.)

The men’s Wimbledon final: a brief assessment.

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

It was emotionally exhausting, and I didn’t even have a particular favorite.

My wife and I were making giddy exclamations of “Oh!” and “Sheez!” and “Good grief!” as both men rifled returns and winners this way and that.

Federer wasn’t the sniper we knew from a couple of years ago. Nadal was playing at an extraordinarily high level, but there were many chances for Federer to gain himself some daylight with one of his patented, unhittable chalk-dusting shots . . . but he kept hitting into the tape of the net, or six inches wide of true.

Nadal has ratcheted his game up tremendously. When he first came on the scene, with the biceps etc., I wondered if he would be the embodiment of tennis machismo. I was very wrong about that.

Both men played with incredible heart.

In sum: probably the best tennis match I’ve ever watched.