malcolm gladwell

When you think you know what you’re looking for.

In this undated video (probably 2008), Best Selling Author Malcolm Gladwell explains how we have a fundamental mismatch problem in how we assess which people will be successful in a given field. He starts with the differences between NBA scouting combine results and how players actually wind up fairing in the league and then goes on to point out all sorts of other gaps as only Gladwell can

The whole talk is fantastic as Gladwell may be the greatest storyteller of our time. I could listen to the man read a Swahili phone book and I would swear it was Les Miserables.

Gladwell’s point here is that we absolutely suck when it comes to using criteria that will give us a meaningful incite to the how well a person will perform in a given role. For Teachers, we require all manner of certificates only to find these have virtually no impact on the actual performance of the teacher. Job interviews are generally only good for finding out if you’re attracted to someone, it turns out. Or perhaps they’re only useful for discovering if someone is very good in social interaction, but for all sorts of other jobs, how well one does in an interview translates poorly to the ultimate role they’ll have should they be hired.

Around ten years ago we had a major issue in a tough market where our newest Community Managers were getting their clocks cleaned. Their teams couldn’t sell to save their lives, and these new Managers were grossly incapable of teaching them how to sell as they’d never done it before themselves. How did this happen?

It turns out that we’d been promoting “Rental Managers” aka “Assistant Community Managers” who were responsible for collecting rent, running reports, and that’s about it. They avoided sales related work like it had two types of the plague. So, of course, when they got promoted to their own ship they had no idea how to hire for sales ability or how to teach it.

Why would we do this? Because the people in charge of minting the new Community Managers were people who lived in glass offices and who dealt a lot with reports. Guess who typically had great reports? Rental Managers. They were two peas in a pod. Of course, the Brass new that sales mattered, but they overlooked this factor when hiring because they liked the cut of the RM’s jib. They could see a bit of themselves in these up-and-comers, and did you see how clean their reports were? Plus they tended to LOOK like Community Managers.

The most vital component in a Community Manager at the time (in the toughest student rental market in the country) was the ability to rent units, the ability to hire people who could do likewise, and the ability to train the uninitiated on their team. And here we were hiring without any real regard for that fact. The people we should have been promoting to these roles were our best salespeople who lacked any of the care or ability for the paperwork reporting. That’s a relatively easy problem to solve – at least far easier than a whole team at a community that can’t sell ice water at noon in Phoenix.

Maybe the answer would have been to split the job into equal halves; give two nearby communities to a pair of Managers. One would be in charge of the sales and training for each while the other handled the books and reporting. The two would compliment one another and with any luck, some of their skills would rub off on each other. Maybe an Area Manager would have been the way to go, with a couple of executive salespeople put in place to cover the selling and training. There’s any number of solutions, but we were wildly wrong on our criteria for assessing a simple promotion and it cost us big.

I’m sure this mismatch is all too common for you as well. How many times have you experienced one in your life, where you or your organization made decisions on things by assessing criteria that mattered not a bit in determining the outcome or the best course of action? What blinded you? How did you eventually see past it, or have you?

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Like the “Tipping Point” but, you know, with Science.

Did you like Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” or Dan & Chip Heath’s “Made to Stick?” You did? Both, are totally great works that opened our eyes to how ideas get spread. Of the two, “Made to Stick” was the better manual for attributing what is “sticky” vs. what is passably interesting.

Now, Professor Jonah Berger has codified why certain things go viral in a way that does much more to explain the phenomenon than these earlier works. I really can’t wait to try out this process and see how we can best apply it to our product.

I’ll be presenting this video and materials tomorrow in our Leadership Series (held bi-weekly) with all of our Managers and we’re going to try the workbook on making things contagious. It’s available when you subscribe to the Prof’s blog at http://www.JonahBerger.com – which is totally worth it.

If we’re successful applying the principles to our business, I’ll be sure to share the results and give you some step-by-step insight into what worked and how we got there. I think this is going to be one of the easiest to implement processes we’ve encountered yet.

Success is Simply Luck?

What is talent? Malcolm Gladwell, somewhat famously, has said he believes talent to be the innate love of some particular pursuit – more so than most other people. Listening to Penn Jillette’s new audio book “God, No!” he states that the real trick to doing magic is simply the willingness of the magician to spend an insane amount of time learning something that no one else would think would be so important. And simply for the sake of pulling off this “trick.” 

success has a thousand fathers

Most people don’t care that much, thus they don’t display the “talent” for magic that someone else does who has put in thousands upon thousands of hours.  Gladwell believes similarly, noting that Wayne Gretzky so loved hockey that he thought about it incessantly. In fact, he thought about it so much that he was the first to score a goal by picking up the puck with his stick and flipping it in from behind the net. That’s love. The same, of course, would be said of Michael Jordan who was famously cut from his High School basketball team but put in intense amounts of work to get back on, and to secure a scholarship to UNC. 

Gladwell also notes, through his best selling book “Outliers” that many famous successes were due to being in the right place at the right time, or even being born at the right time. No doubt that it is helpful to turn up in situations that are primed for success. By definition though, these success stories that he focuses his attention on, are true outliers in that they’re statistically abnormal. The vast multitude of successes and failures that occur each day are of the far more normal variety, not involving some extreme set of criteria. 

During the Summer of 2012, a speech by the President declared “If you got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Setting off a discussion about success and its roots, the likes of which hadn’t occurred before in such a public way. Of course, conservative leaning people were up in arms, declaring that they had in fact “built that” and that success isn’t reducible to  simple luck. Likewise, failure isn’t the result of bad luck necessarily.

Clearly, liberally minded individuals tend to disagree with their conservative counterparts. Gladwell is dismissive of the greatest of successes as being too much a manifestation of luck, be it genetic, chronological, or cultural. There is something to be said for noting the obvious advantages the cases in Outliers enjoyed. However, I don’t think that’s the most effective way to think about success.

When we say to ourselves, success is the product of luck, we’ve let all motivation out the window. If we’re not responsible for our success, if there is no credit to be taken for having worked hard and succeeded – especially where others have failed, then what’s the point? For the collective good? Take a good look at Russia and tell me how that’s working out.

The United States makes up 22.5% of the Global economy despite our making up only 4% of the population. Oh, and we didn’t exist as a country more than 250 years ago. How old is Egypt? Europe? China? Rank of GDP by Country Ours has been an economic system of opportunity to do whatever you like and to create value for those around you. Starting a business and putting in the long hours is not an easy road to hoe, regardless of what kind of background and normative advantages you have. If success was entirely luck, how then to explain for the out-sized success of a 237 year old country vs the other 180 or so? The US has been that lucky for all this time?! Year in, year out?!

Obviously, the young science student who was born to well-off, educated parents, who provide her with the financial, emotional, and cultural support to attend a University in pursuit of a STEM degree has a little help in the pursuit of her success, but she still has to love it. Like Gretzky, Jordan, or Penn Jillette, she has to be willing to spend her time and energy on difficult studies. Is it a little easier for her than the son of a single parent who is working three jobs to help pay for text books? Certainly – but she still has to do the work. If you tell her that after she’s completed school, gotten a job as an engineer and finally secured herself some success at the age of 40, that she didn’t really earn it, what are you doing to the motivation to keep going? Is telling her that her success is not hers done so to benefit those that do not achieve? To help alleviate their bruised feelings as they wait for their good luck (or more likely, bad luck) to arrive?

I know people like that. They’ve never found success of any real sort, and generally struggle through life. Nothing much interested them enough to move beyond the comfort zone of sacking out in front of the couch. Reading seemed tedious and pointless. Besides, success and wealth just sort of happen to people, right? It’s not the same thing as people trying and failing – that’s worthy of the greatest of respect. Trying and failing is what has made our economic success so powerful – we take risks and we get back up off the floor and try again. No, the real shame is telling some portion of our population that they’re not responsible for their successes or failures, that things just… happen.  As much as I respect Mr. Gladwell, and hold his work in the highest regard, I can’t agree with his outlook in this instance.

What do you think? Is success largely the result of the conditions one comes up in? Or is success as much, or more dependent on individual effort and the strive to achieve?

"Knowing neither victory nor defeat"

“Knowing neither victory nor defeat”

Nietzche & The Family Circus, or making a better you…

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” -Nietzsche

I saw this quote while checking out www.nietzschefamilycircus.com and yes, it’s exactly what you’d think – random Nietzsche quotes under random family circus panels. Check it. 

Anyway, I saw this quote and it spoke to me. Or maybe it was the thought of Nietzsche’s mustache that made we dwell on it. On just One No-Shave-November, I want to see someone pull off this look.

Image

But I digress…

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” he relays a story about a big problem the Miami Police Department was having some years back. Apparently they were getting into shoot outs at an alarming rate, especially when compared to similar cities. Theories abound: cops are racist (all of them?), there are more criminals in Miami than most other cities due to Castro’s opening of the prisons (Scarface?), or the high volume of drugs has something to do with it. 

After a lot of observation, it turns out Miami’s finest weren’t doing the basic things you’ve seen a cop do every time you’ve been pulled over. Stay back behind the window frame, lean in slowly to assess the car and occupants as possible threats, keeping a safe distance, etc… These didn’t seem like huge deals but they had the result of causing the number of altercations to escalate wildly. 

The measures of keeping distance and assessment were designed to maximize the amount of time Police had to make a decision. When they have little to no time, gut reactions to threats can lead to guns drawn and the same from suspects. The “fight or flight” response is no joke and it can completely bypass our rational brain. Telling cops to simply “be careful out there” isn’t going to work as well as telling them to do very specific things that will minimize the risk of a run-in that ends with guns drawn or worse. 

In the same vein, when we’re tired (see also: stressed, hot, angry, exhausted, hungry) we react poorly to things that we wouldn’t otherwise be bothered with. Think about your family vacations. Maybe you went to Disney and walked around for 10 hours in the heat and now you’re trying to decide where to have dinner and everyone wants something different. More often then not, those conversations don’t go over well. I feel ya, I’ve been there. 

Leave it to Nietzsche to sum up a clear path to happiness. Avoid being tired! Avoid being stressed! Easy, right? Of course that’s completely insane. You HAVE to be stressed at times. You HAVE to be tired at times, or you’re probably not trying hard enough at life. That’s ok. The answer for the Miami police wasn’t to quit pulling over cars – it was to give themselves a cushion of time. They made a rational decision before they were threatened to avoid feeling threatened, as much as easily done and reasonably possible. 

That’s the answer for us. Know yourself and when you’re going to reach the limits of your normally happy, sated self. Plan for them and stop plowing ahead if at all possible so you don’t succumb to things that wouldn’t typically bother “normal you.” 

For example, I know in late July/August that I’m going to be dealing with “turn” and all the massive amounts of people moving in/out and this taxes my faculties more than any other time of the year. My brain is fried and when I finally get home, all I want to do is sit and stare without speaking for a few hours. Or pull a Herman Blume. 

My wife, who spends all day with our two and three year old boys, is eager for adult conversation by the time I finally arrive home though she knows I need a couple hours of quiet time to recharge my batteries. It is remarkable how rested I feel after spending an hour or so just letting my mind wander or doing a little light reading. 

Similarly, my wife loves to nap on the weekends in the afternoon so I take over kid duties exclusively for a few hours so she can be her best, rested self. These tiny adjustments do wonders to keep us out of those danger zones where tempers can easily flare. 

Slow things down. Take it a little easier. Plan on when you’ll eat, rest, relax when you can and you’ll likely be a lot easier to deal with. Everyone wants to be the best person they can, give yourself the buffer from exhaustion to make it easier to be that person. 

Also, read some Nietzsche Family Circus. That stuff is great for your brain.