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Posts Tagged “NPR”

In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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Dolly_Parton_2011Dolly Parton once said, “Above everything else I’ve done, I’ve always said I have more guts than talent.”

I suspect Dr. Angela Duckworth might well endorse Dolly’s intuition that guts trumps talent.

I was doing some routine work at my desk last Tuesday and was listening with half an ear to the Brian Lehrer morning show on the local PBS radio station here in New York. He was interviewing Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner. Duckworth has just written a book called Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  I got fascinated listening to her and, when Lehrer mentioned she was speaking and signing books in person that very night at Chappaqua Public Library, I immediately made a reservation and trundled up there.  Well worth it.

Duckworth’s essential thesis is that the key differentiator for achieving success in business and in life is simply something she calls “grit.”  She defines grit as a combination of “passion and perseverance for achieving long-term goals.”  For Duckworth, it is the real key to why some people succeed and others don’t. Passion she defines as falling in love with something and staying in love. Per perseverance, she says, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”  (By way of illustration, she had Will Shortz, the puzzle master for the New York Times and NPR stand up from the audience.  51aje84UleL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_She cited him personally as a perfect example of grit [impassioned perseverance]—who against all odds and discouragement, made a great success for himself in a field most folks would find just plain silly.  He actually is the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.  Shortz said, “If you are tired of puzzles, you are tired of life!”  Passion, indeed.)

Her book is rich with case studies that are counterintuitive to popular assumptions about success.  She reports a study she did early on about army cadets at West Point.  (As a great admirer of modern military management and leadership, I was particularly interested in this.)  West Point accepts about 1,200 of the over 14,000 applicants they receive each year, but 20% drop out before graduation.  A great many of the dropouts occur in the first two weeks during a process called “Beast Barracks” which seems to be (intentionally) hell on earth.

West Point rates its plebes on what is called a Whole Candidate Score, which is basically a measurement of innate abilities. It turns out those who ranked highest on the Whole Candidate Score were not the ones who best survived “Beast” (as “Beast Barracks is called at the Academy.)  Duckworth developed instead what she calls a “Grit Scale” which grades the plebes on statements like, “I finish what I begin” or “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.”  Those who score highest on grit survive Beast Barracks best—and are the ones most likely to excel at West Point.

imagesDuckworth came by her initial intuitions working as a middle-school math teacher in NYC. She noticed that her math “stars” were not her brightest students but simply the most determined.  This observation inspired her to get her Ph. D. in psychology and to begin her ongoing research on grit.

Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s, Dr. Duckworth’s research often surprises.  She challenges preconceptions about how far our talent and innate potential really carry us. For example, she cites a study of Ivy League undergraduates which shows that the smarter the students were, as measured by SATs, the less gritty they were. Her case studies of gritty people include Jamie Dimon of Chase Bank, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and many more known and less known.

Grit  is certainly a useful read for any entrepreneur. Its research seems convincing.  However, a lot of what Duckworth talks about is preternaturally baked in to most successful small business founders already. They might find themselves (like my daughter) saying, “Well, duh.”  If I have a personal quibble with Grit it is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more about how grit can create meaning, happiness, and morality, as well as success. It is perhaps a bit spiritually thin.

11791573_91bde70979If one wants to winnow down Duckworth’s message it is much like the guy in New York who asks how he gets to Carnegie Hall. The answer being, of course, “Practice.  Practice.  Practice.”

Not profound, but usefully true. Dr. Duckworth’s conclusions are somewhat similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s in Outliers.  Note Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”  for the achievement of mastery.

Writer John Ortberg puts the essence of grit pretty succinctly.  He says, “Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness.”  Angela Duckworth would certainly agree.

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Wallace_StevensAmerican poet Wallace Stevens said “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.”

Some might say that Stevens himself stayed an amateur till the day he died, as he spent his whole life as a full-time insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.

Adam Grant of Wharton Business School would have approved. Grant celebrates inspired amateurs among other counterintuitive insights in his captivating new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  His book is huge, wonderful fun.  I found myself laughing aloud several times reading it.  (The book has a spiritual kinship to Outliers and other Malcolm Gladwell books.)

Grant defines originality simply as “introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain.” Though he never cites Wallace Stevens in Originals, he conveys that the great truths often come out of the work of impassioned amateurs and generalists.  For example, he cites Galileo. One of Galileo’s discoveries was the mountains on the moon. Though many of Galileo’s contemporaries could see the same images he did, Galileo was able to recognize the images as mountains because of his practiced training and expertise in drawing. Grant points out that one thing that differentiates Nobel Prize-winning scientists form others is that they are very often committed to artistic hobbies. Originalists tend not to be blinkered-vision nerds, contrary to the popular cliche.

Another shibboleth that Grant challenges is the idea that successful entrepreneurs are enthusiastic risk-takers. Grant points to research that indicates original entrepreneurs are much more cautious than is commonly assumed. Successful entrepreneurs are more like investment managers. They don’t put all their bets on red.  Indeed, he cites a study that shows originalist entrepreneurs are actually more risk averse than the average person. He tells compelling true-life tales about Steve Wozniak and Phil Knight, founders of Apple and Nike respectively, who cautiously kept their full-time jobs while developing their disruptive firms.

maxresdefaultSpeaking on NPR about his book, Grant tells Rachel Martin: “…successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to play it safe and have backup plans than failed entrepreneurs; and secondly, all of the time they spent working on other things was giving them the freedom to do something really original.”

Grant also has a lot to say about the pluses of negativity. Yes, negativity. This may seem counterintuitive to the popular trope of entrepreneurs as the most optimistic of business creatures, but Grant’s cited research indicates entrepreneurial dubiosity actually aids entrepreneurial success.

For example, Grant has studied Ray Dalio and his very successful hedge fund Bridgewater. Grant admires Dalio’s process of encouraging all employees to aggressively challenge his managers about what could go wrong with their investment decisions. In other words, he encourages his associates to think negatively. Or, from the sports world, Grant points to endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh, who claims to have helped himself break many records by rigorously visualizing failure–by constantly visualizing what can go wrong. (I especially liked Grant’s valuation of pessimism and wrote about it myself last year in “The Upside of Negativity for Entrepreneurs.”)

But my favorite chapter in Grant’s book is a discussion of procrastination. I’m a procrastinator. Mea culpa. In fact, I have put off today’s column till the last minute and am at this moment hurrying to get it out. But Grant claims procrastination is often a font of original ideas. He validates his intuition by adducing research stating that projects that begin early and finish efficiently and on time end up with conventional and constrained results. When you take longer, he found, you allow for more original thinking, and more synthesis from seemingly contradictory sources.

urlGrant notes Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which, despite King’s working on it in bits and snippets for weeks, was not finished till moments before King spoke on the Washington Mall.

So try Adam Grant’s Originals.  It’s accessible, cogent, counterintuitive, yet science-based.  And good fun to read.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, “The great thinker is one who can hear what is greatest in the work of other ‘greats’ and who can transform it in an original manner.” I don’t think Adam Grant would disagree with that.

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