A Witty Financial Travelogue

I just finished listening to the audio version of  Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. It is advertised as a humorous account of the author’s experiences researching the financial crisis of 2007 to the present.
I must admit that I have read very little about the financial crisis of that time period, but my general impression was that the United States had some very sketchy financial practices which very nearly took down the entire world economy. While there was some truth to that, there was also a lot of really imprudent happenings around the globe.

Michael Lewis, a financial journalist with a long string of best sellers, starts his account in Iceland where the global financial crisis bankrupt an entire nation. He talks to individuals who are coping with the aftermath. He also touches on the national character that led them to such a mess. It reminds me about the internet bubble where everyone thought that they were a savvy investor, because everything was moving up. A small number of Icelanders took advantage of cheap credit and created their own bubble.

Michael then goes to Greece, that has been making a lot of headlines these days.  The characters he talks to are fascinating, including a group of savvy monks that bartered themselves up from being ancient owners of an obscure lake to being billionaires. The cautionary note is to be careful to whom you confess your sins.

Ireland is the next stop where we find that cheap credit caused a property development boom that was entirely unsustainable. The government, in trying to prevent a popping of that bubble, also guaranteed the loans made by their banks. The resulting burden to Ireland’s taxpayer was awesome but also accepted in a good-natured manner.

Next Michael visits Germany. This stalwart financial bastion of hard work and prudence played the moronic straight man to America’s sub-prime loan escapades. Michael tries to explain the national mindset that led to such a seemingly unexpected break from character. He makes the point for a national anal (in both senses of the word) fetish with all things scatological. The pristine exterior of the national character, hid a fascination with some very “dirty” financial dealings. Caution: the language here is a bit strong at times.

Lastly Michael visits the good old U. S of A where he looks at how the crisis affected the States and municipalities. There is an interesting visit with the former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, where we learn a few things, such as that his jumping into the race for governor was apparently a last minute gag on Leno. The trip through the ravaged financial landscape goes through San Jose, and then to Vallejo, where the burden of government employee pensions is so great the entire government has ground to nearly stopped.

In all this was more of a financial travelogue that entertains while it educates. The strong language is fortunately localized and not persuasive, but you need to be careful if you are going to play the audio in the car with the family. The actor that read my version sounded a little like Jim Gaffigan, whom I call the bacon  comic. It makes me want to explore more about the financial crisis and read more or Michael Lewis’ books.

Four tips to keep off the extra pounds

I just finished an amazingly interesting book by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Wansink has conducted hundreds of experiments to find what affects our eating habits. This book ties in well with the Willpower book I reviewed here. That book recommended that you not try to diet. In this book it shows how we mindlessly eat more that we know.

Instead of needing to diet we can avoid the extra 100 calories or more that we consume when mindlessly eating more than  we need. Here are some of his strategies that he covers in more interesting detail in his book.

  1. Dish out 20% less main course, and 20% more veggies before you think you will want to eat. You will barely notice what you are missing.
  2. Dish out your food on your plate once, instead of making multiple smaller trips, or eating out of a box or carton.
  3. Use tall thin glasses and smaller plates and bowls to limit that amount of food you will eat.
  4. Make overeating a hassle, by leaving serving dishes in the kitchen, not on the dinner table (except when it’s salad).

There are even more suggestions that will make people enjoy more the food you prepare, and will make your home more healthy.

The last section of the book compares different popular diet plans. The book will help you eat better without making you suffer.

Use the Latest Science to Organize your Mind

Jill was a patient of Dr. Hammerness who was plagued by the consequences of her disorganization and forgetfulness.  She was helped by the creation of a launch pad, where she could empty her pockets upon arriving,  and find her keys when she was preparing to leave the apartment. This was example of the application of simple principles. 

In Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time. Paul Hammerness, MD, a Harvard Psychiatrist and Margaret Moore, an Executive Coach have authored a guide to curing mental distractions, forgetfulness and much more. John Hanc also contributed as a coauthor (though his contribution might have been as an editor, because there was no visible footprint of his in the reading).

The approach taken suits the expertise of both Hammerness and Moore. The steps to getting control of our crazy life are introduced as Rules of Order as explained below:

  1. Tame the Frenzy – Acknowledge and manage emotions
  2. Sustain Attention – Maintain Focus and ignore distractions
  3. Apply the Brakes – Inhibit or stop actions or thoughts, when appropriate
  4. Mold Information – Capitalize on working memory to focus, analyze and process
  5. Shift Sets – Nimbly move from one  task or thought to another (NOT multitask)
  6. Connect the Dots – Bring together and apply all the rules.

Each section covers one of the Rules. It starts with a case study of someone struggling with the mentioned principle and Hammerness reviews the latest science about brain structure and behavior as relates to the principle. Finally Moore calls upon her experience as a professional coach, helping people make the necessary changes.

This approach seems in line with recent self help books that reference the latest brain science. The recent progress in brain imaging has been remarkable and seems to do a lot to explain more about why we act as we do. There are references included in the back of this book that allow the reader to probe deeper, though the number of references seem a little light for a book of this scope.

There are good ideas shared by Moore to implement change, but the connection between the science and rules seems a little contrived. As if the book started with the rules and then the science was added to give it credibility, or to make it an interesting read. “Mold Information” was an example of a concept that did not completely make sense to me. The case study is of a man who is very busy, but suffers from forgetfulness, and the section concentrates on Working Memory, but does not fully make the connection between that and Mold Information. The science referred to is gone over very lightly and includes mention of a Japanese study about the plasticity of the brain, but offers few details about it. The tips in Meg’s section make good sense and are worth considering.

I like one piece of guidance given for the Rule “Sustain Attention”. We are encouraged to look at the moments in life where we are in Flow. We need to analyze what is it that causes the Peak Attention at that moment. Maybe it is when we are addressing our specific strengths. She recommends taking a strengths assessment if we have not already. Such as :

  • viacharacter.org
  • strengthfinder.com
  • strengths2020.com

She gives some tips to convert regular moments into flow activities.

The section of Mold Info also has some good ideas where work by Dr. Marie Pasinski  author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You: Look Radiant from the Inside Out by Empowering Your Mind is referenced.

The Appendix 2 of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time shares the Top 10 Disorganizational Complaints and their solutions. The solutions are simple and serve as a nice reminder of guidance shared by the book.

I recommend taking a look that this book and its practical guidance to get control of your disorganized mind.

Review of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

This is a review of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a very interesting read that is full of useful strategies to understand and improve our willpower.
  After a brief intro to the topic and the way that willpower has been viewed differently throughout history the book brings up some very interesting experiments that teach us a number of things, such as that willpower is expendable. If I exercise willpower now, it is likely that I will be more likely to give in when presented with a challenging situation before I have had an opportunity to recuperate. This depletion can often be reversed with consumption of glucose. While this was effective to test concepts in the lab, they recommend getting energy from food that is not likely to cause us to crash soon after.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength then brings up a topic dear to my heart.In terms of consumption of mental energy, trying to mentally keep track of everything that is going on, and that we need to do, is a real guzzler. Through several experiments, it was shown that if we know something is incomplete, there is going to be a part of your brain that will keep forcing it to your attention. An annoying song is more likely to stick in our head if we turn off the radio in the middle of its playing. That is why it feels so good to just write down a list, because your brain can relax, and know that those items will not be lost.

This led to a brief introduction of David Allen, and the tenets of Getting Things Done
(GTD). It is nice to know that there is some brain research that backs up the effectiveness of his approach to organization.

The authors make the reading interesting by including stories that put the psychology into context. This makes for a more interesting book, as we can understand the concepts based on the experiences of real people such as Drew Carey and Oprah Winfrey. The detailed history of Stanley (of Livingston of Africa fame) was fascinating. I do find my self being cautious in drawing conclusions because of the human attraction to stories and our predilection to creating narratives, even fictional ones sometimes.

There are further chapters on the connection between belief and willpower and some discussion of how to instill willpower and perseverance in children.

In a chapter titled “The Perfect Storm of Dieting” the authors shed light on why diets are likely to fail. They lay down three rules for controlling your weight.
1. Never go on a diet
2. Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food.
3. Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.
They go on to give some specific things to do, like instead of saying that you will never each dessert you are better off saying that you will eat it later. The book explains how delaying treats is better than swearing off them forever.

The concluding chapter reviews a few hints to improve your willpower, including trying to be a little bit neater in other ways, and monitoring your track record.

Have you read this book? What did you think?   Do you have a secret to improving your willpower?                                                   

Tracking the Development of the Strengths Movement (Part 2 of 3))

I’m taking a fresh look at the books that defined the strengths movement. Initially I felt that they were all authored or co-authored by Marcus Buckingham but I soon discovered that there were some interesting variations from that. Up front let me share the Strength themes provided by the on-line assessment tool associated with StrengthsFinder 2.0
. They are:

  1. Input
  2. Learning 
  3. Responsibility
  4. Context
  5. Connectedness

My first thought when I got them was; well, that is strange. I understood most of them, but number 4 and 5 just seemed too strange. Not long after doing the assessment, I was in a team meeting where we were sharing our themes. As we were getting into the discussion, I just felt the need to educate everyone about where this movement started with the first book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently where twelve different questions were used to pinpoint productive teams. The whole strengths movement was based on one of these questions. As I explained this, one person pointed out that it was obvious that Context was a theme for me. Up to that point, I really thought that Context was too strange, but instead it was a part of the way I see things.

Marcus co-wrote Now, Discover Your Strengths
  The book claims that most organizations operate on two flawed assumptions:
1. Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything
2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.
This makes me want to nitpick about “competence”.

Marcus believes the follow:

  1. Each person’s talents are enduring and unique
  2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in her areas of greatest strength.

 I tend to agree with the first, but the second seems to require more scientific study I think.

He shared the example of Warren Buffet who plays to his strengths.
If you can picture yourself doing it repeatedly, happily and successfully, it is a strength. This gets me thinking about how all those things we wanted to do when we were small, that we were good at. But we decided to go into something that we thought would make us better able to make a living. Maybe we should be less quick to take the safe path.

Now, Discover Your Strengths
  shares three tools
1. Explains the difference and relationship between Talent, Knowledge and Skills

Our strengths are where talents meet knowledge and we acquire the skills needed to be competent. Of the three only talent cannot be learned. Either you have the specific inclination to be a certain way, or you do not.
2. Provides a system to identify your dominate strengths (or themes of strengths)
This is where the assessment tool comes in. I found it interesting that Marcus Buckingham was a co-author of Now, Discover Your Strengths but the second book StrengthsFinder 2.0 was written by Tom Rath, even though its assessment tool is an update to that of Now, Discover Your Strengths.
The description of the 34 different themes is the same in both books, but the second book has some specific Items for Action that would serve to help us make best use of our themes.

3. Provides a positive language to describe this positive approach to self improvement.

The assessment tool, and the resulting themes are an ideal way to describe people’s talents. Instead of saying that someone is a people person, we can say they have a theme of Relator, as opposed to Individualization, even though both of them are “people skills”. Marcus asserts that being able to distinguish these themes is very empowering.

The remainder of the book has a lot of encouraging information including:

  1. How can I manage around my weaknesses
  2. How do I manage a person who has a theme of _________________?
  3. and many more

I think that Marcus Buckingham makes some important points, which are easier to think about than to implement. I say this because the paradigm of focusing on weaknesses is very hard to break.

So, do you work to your strengths everyday?

Next time I will talk about some follow-up books that continue this arc.
Please share your thoughts in the comments section

Tracking the Development of the Strengths Movement (Part 1 of 3))

I have really enjoyed and learned from books authored and coauthored by Marcus Buckingham. His early career included work at Gallup, which is famous for their Surveys and Polls. There he coauthored First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently
in 1999 and he just recently authored StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution. There were three books in between, with a few significant offshoots, that I want to mention.

 First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently was a significant book for a number of reasons and in rereading it recently I was amazed at the good counsel it provided. I like that the book is based on the results of a Management Survey that was done by Gallup where hundreds of questions were asked of millions of employees of thousands of companies and divisions to discover the factors most closely associated with highly productive teams. After lots of tweaking of questions and iterative analysis, they found that the most productive teams could be isolated by getting a positive response from 12 specific questions. The questions were:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to do quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

That is it. Now there can be a lot of analysis that can be done just on what those questions mean. I believe that it is possible to make bad assumptions when looking at successful companies, as explained in The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.  I believe that Gallup avoided those pitfalls when coming up with these questions.
Buckingham points out that the first two questions are like the base camp of this quest for productivity, and are really the bare minimum to get someone working along the right path. Questions 3-6 are the next camp where the worker finds out if he can contribute to the group. Questions 7-10 ask “Do I belong here?” and Questions 11 and 12 ask “How can we all grow?”

Obviously there is a lot here that is influenced by the culture of the workplace, but Buckingham makes the case that the success of an enterprise, as highlighted by the first six questions, depends on the Manager. The Manager can have a direct influence on how that worker will answer questions 1-6.
His goal, to achieve a productive workplace, would be for the worker strongly answer yes to each question.

The remainder of the book is based on interviews with thousands of great managers and determining how they get to be great. Buckingham concludes that underlying their best practices is the creed:

People don’t change that much.
Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
Try to draw out what was left in.
That is hard enough.

It is not particularly catchy, but it is the basis of what has become the strengths movement. Being a manager myself, I know that it is tempting to think in terms of what people need to do to improve and throw efforts at turning their weaknesses into strengths. This movement says that you find ways to make weakness less of a liability, but spend the efforts on building on the strengths. Even when we were all reading these books at work and talking about our strengths, we came upon our semi annual performance appraisal and returned to talking about weaknesses and how to turn them into strengths.

We all have different strengths because from womb we have developed differently. Our brain has developed by laying out billions of neuron connections. Over time some of the connections get beefed up, while others atrophy and die away. Some individuals have an eight lane superhighway running between areas of the brain, while others in the same area have dirt roads. We can waste our efforts when we try to rebuild a superhighway in a given place instead of relying on the one that is supporting different abilities. He emphasizes that lots of people have talents, it is not rare, it is just individual predisposition to see and filter their view of the world according to their unique cranial wiring.

Great managers get the right person in the right role (based on their talents), give them the tools that they need to succeed and help them build on the personality traits that will make them shine in their position.

One of the key changes suggested by Buckingham is that we need to make sure that salaries and perks do not push people into career paths that are a mismatch to their talents. A good sales person should be rewarded for being really good at sales by being fairly (or highly) compensated and having opportunities to further develop their talents, instead of feeling the need to move into management because that is where the high salaries are. We should not under appreciate the talents that allow a worker to excel in any position. We should not neglect to get specifically talented people into even the most apparently basic positions. Buckingham talks about the attributes of the most talented hotel housekeeping workers.

He explains that it is a temptation to believe that you can make anyone the right employee by giving a checklist that they follow. He gives the history of Madelaine Hunter’s attempt to make teaching as simple as following a short list of steps. Ultimately it failed because “the essence of great teaching is to treat every child as an individual.”

He goes into some detail about the importance of choosing the right outcomes, so that workers can be given a loose rein.

Marcus goes on to give more counsel about Focusing on Strengths. It would take too long to mention all of his suggestions, but one that is particularly interesting is the idea that we should spend most of our time with our best people. This is definitely different than normal procedure. We are used to spending time with our lower performers, because we feel that fixing their problems will see a greater improvement in productivity. Marcus believes that you are better off helping the individual with the natural talents for success be even better. I would have to think about that some more to see if I believe it, but his arguments are compelling.

Another good section talks about how to hire for talent.

I enjoyed reading this book again, and intend to apply some principles in my managing.

Next I will  review  Now, Discover Your Strengths.

Let me know what you thought of any of Marcus’ books!

Quotation Friday: Intensity

Here is one quotation that I am a little wary to share. It is by Bertrand Russell, whom wikipedia describes as a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. His views in general differ from mine, but I consider this quote very thought provoking

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. Bertrand Russell

I think there are two things we can learn from this. First, is that maybe we should take ourselves a little less seriously and lighten up a bit. This is healthy habit that might prevent us from suffering burnout.

The second thing that we can learn is that what other people are doing can be very important to them as well. When we are too involved with our own work, and projects, we can act dismissively toward others. One tip that I recommend, which does not come easily to me, as a male and as an engineer, is to listen wholeheartedly when others are talking. I do mean in this case to listen with your whole heart. This can be a little startling for the speaker, because it is common that we have full attention being paid to us. It is worth it to make others feel important.

Your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

Guitar Zero Book Review

In Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus chronicles his following his dream of learning to play guitar despite his age (almost 40) and his inability to keep musical time at all. I reserved this book as soon as I saw a blurb about it, because I was intrigued by the concept of learning a musical instrument as an adult, and in my case in, when I had entered middle age. I have aspirations to get myself a banjo and learn to play.

Gary (a fine name now that I think about it) covers a great deal of ground within this book which is a pretty interesting read. As a brain researcher he quickly goes over a few studies, before deciding that though the brain is changed by the study of music, there is no specific area of the brain that is devoted to music related activities. His quest will require that his brain rewire itself in many areas to handle the complexity of playing the guitar. He also spends some time weighing the merits of whether humans are hardwired with an affinity to music. The bottom line is that though we are programmed to learn language, creating music is not a natural result of our makeup.

Even though piano has always seemed more highbrow than guitar to me, Gary points out how chords and individual notes are much more complicated to understand and to execute on the guitar. I guess the difference is that you can get a lot more mileage out of a small number of chords on the guitar if you need to, while playing piano is not as interesting until you can make use of a good number of keys. He goes into some detail about the individual skills that must be mastered to play the guitar well, such as training the ear to distinguish intervals.

The author talks about the importance of deliberate practice (as studied by Anders Ericsson). Deliberate practice is constant self evaluation, where you apply effort to correct your shortcomings, as opposed to just playing what we already know or broadly goofing around with the instrument. I find this concept fascinating and have seen in mentioned in many books about achievement such as Outliers by Malcolm something and other places as well. Thinking of a personal application, I compare it to where people have a choice of studying the bible by reading it cover to cover every so often as opposed to sitting down and deciding what theme or passage is important to understand better and then deep diving to get a real handle on the insights there. Throughout the book the author considers the relative merits of this deliberate practice and innate talent.Both it seems are important.

Gary tries to decide whether music is an evolutionary development that improved the genetic survival of musicians or does it have some other value? I like his conclusion that music allows us to enter into a flow state where we are elevated by the musical experience.

He goes over the different styles of teaching guitar, and also looks at whether lessons are even needed. It is apparent that efforts to keep practice interesting are crucial, because the most important task is to keep learning. The perfect mix of familiar and new material is important to prevent boredom or frustration.

An interesting part of the book is the author’s participation in a rock and roll camp, for youth 8 to 15. I enjoyed his nervousness in waiting to be picked to be in one of the bands formed on the first day, which would work to develop their skills, to be able to perform on the last day of the camp. His account of how everything came together was fun, especially the camaraderie that developed within the band.

In one chapter the author discusses what makes for a good song and in another talks about the skills that make a true expert musician stand out from your average one. These chapters might be important for those who are going to learn to play the guitar.

This book has many similarities with Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, a book that follows the effort of an American to prepare and then compete in a national, and then international memory competition. Some of the same issues of adult learning are touched upon, but with much more interesting asides and more quirky characters. I hope to do up a review of that book soon.

When Gary completes this year and a half quest to gain proficiency in playing the guitar, he meditates on whether it was all worth it. He concludes that it certainly was, that there is something to be said for the mixture of musical enjoyment, the flow that comes of being immersed in the sounds and rhythms, and the physical challenge of learning and developing. I was a little surprised that in working up to this conclusion in the end, that he even considered that maybe the effort was futile since machines or computers can now or soon will be able to perform music better that humans can. I think that there is an important inner balance that is achieved by being to perform skillfully with our hands, be it in crafts, or with a musical instrument, especially given our current isolation from the handicraft of our ancestors. I am glad that Gary Marcus comes to the same conclusion.

Be a Linchpin

This is a quick review of a book that is very high on my list of favorite books.
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Seth describes that the world has changed, and you cannot rely upon success by fitting into a “factory job”. The irreplaceable position in this new economy is being a linchpin wherever we are. A linchpin is an Artist that makes art. According to Seth Godin, anyone can be a linchpin. A linchpin does what others are not willing to do.

Seth talks about how our corporate culture and schooling have indoctrinated us that if we do strictly what we are told, we will be taken care of. If this might have been true before, it certainly is no longer true.

He also talks about the tiny voice within us that pushes back when we are tempted to do something extraordinary. He calls this “the resistance”, or the “Lizard Brain”. I like to think of it as the “natural man” that would like us to be safely mediocre.

Seth talks about the nature of art and how it is a gift. He talks also about the benefits of a gift economy.

Being a linchpin always involves risk. A linchpin must produce the art and put it out into the world. A linchpin ships.

There is a very good bibliography which includes books that I now look forward to reading.

Here is a great overview of some of the major linchpin concepts.

Linchpin Manifesto

If you have read “Linchpin”, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments.

My Favorite Quotation

I ran across a few of my favorite quotations. This was once kind of a motto for me. I am considering adopting it again. It is by Edwin Markham, also author of The Man with the Hoe, and other poems.

For all your days prepare,

and meet them ever alike.

When you are the anvil bear,

when you are the hammer, strike.

It gives me the strength to either hold up to challenges, or to forcefully push through at opportunities.

I would like to hear some of your motivating quotations!


Gary Short