The limitations of sequential thinking

What does sequential thinking mean, you might be asking? Many of us think in a sequential order. Basically, it means I cannot think about a certain thing, because it comes after what I need to do next. Sequential thinking is at odds with a working or living environment that demands a multi-tasking mindset.

When I say multi-tasking, I am not referring to doing more than one thing at one time, although that is its most common description. What I mean is having a list of multiple things to do and balancing the priority and times of when you plan to do them. It is akin to walking while juggling balls in the air. The key is to not drop any balls while you keep walking.

Let me use a few examples to emphasize my point. I may have a list of ten or twenty things to do. I receive information to do one of the items, but that item is not needed for a week. Sequential thinking would push doing that project until later in the week. But, what if you have a hard deadline and the information provided might be incomplete?

The military doctors and nurses coined an apt term called “triage.” So, a multi-tasking way to think of this would be to triage the information for the later project as an earlier step. Then, if it is incomplete, you could ask the sender to clarify or send additional input. Then, you can move onto other things while you wait.

Another example is moving forward with pieces of a project before having all the needed steps complete. One of the best project managers I have ever worked with would apportion a large report out in pieces for earlier completion. She would have folks working on producing the Appendix, Sections 5, 8, 11 and 14, e.g., while the analysis was being done to complete the key findings and recommendations. So, the supporting sections could be completed, so as to reduce the time crunch at the end once the analysis was done.

Although the last paragraph makes so much sense, it is not as widely practiced as you would think. Neither is the triaging concept, except in medical emergency settings. The other thing these two approaches avoid is the bottle-neck created by other projects and demands. And, in so doing, it enables deadlines to be better fulfilled.

As I write this, I recall a very demanding client. She could be a hard-ass on staff, but at the heart of her criticisms often was a legitimate one. If you told her a deadline, she expected you to meet it. The key was to give her a deadline that could be met, not in a vacuum, but in recognition that you had other things to do.

People like to please and hate telling people no. But, having been a consultant and client manager for ages, I would rather someone tell me they were too busy to help, forcing me to find another source, or avoid giving me too aggressive a deadline. This may not surprise people, but many deadlines that are not met are set by the person doing the work, not the client. Managing expectations is vital.

A favorite author, Malcolm Gladwell, confessed in an interview that he writes in an unusual way that works for him. He said he does not do all his research up front, so he outlines the idea, does some research, writes some, does more research, writes some more and so on. Why? Two reasons – he said he would get bored doing all the research, then writing. Plus, the research is fresher in his mind when he writes soon thereafter. He portions out the work in smaller more manageable segments.

Sequential thinking can get in the way of moving forward. I am not suggesting everyone will think like Gladwell or the best project manager I mention above, but think in terms of smaller, earlier steps to move things along.

Five easy memory tricks

With two of our four parents succumbing to complications due to Alzheimer’s, memory maintenance is of interest to my wife and me. Readers’ Digest ran an article by Andrea Au Levitt called “5 Easy Memory Tricks.” Her intro paragraph follows:

“You know that eating healthy, staying active, and solving a few brain games can help keep you sharp. But these lesser known habits work wonders, too.”

1. Sit tall – when slouching it follows or promotes defeated, anxious and depressive thoughts, which hinder memory.

2. Exercise – once – gains in memory after one exercise are similar to gains after regular exercise (note still do the regular stuff).

3. Limit TV – including online versions of TV, too much screen time can harm cognitive development and maintenance.

4. Doodle – people can remember things better if they doodle or draw a picture of what they are thinking of. Writing the words of the thing is not as memorable as drawing a picture.

5. Walk backward – real, imagined or watched walking backward or even forward, can help remember something. So, in keeping with #2 above, take a walk (and walk backwards on occasion).

Let me take one of the above and break it down more. One of the examples from Malcom Gladwell’s book, “Talking to strangers,” notes that torture is a horrible way to gain information. Why? Under trauma, people remember less than they would normally. The comment about sitting tall in #1 above, notes if we slouch we increase anxiety or depressive thoughts, a mild form of trauma.

Outside of the walking backward, I do the above things. The sitting tall actually helps this tall person with his back. As for doodling, for some reason when I work the various puzzles in the newspaper, I blacken in the circular letters (O’s, D’s, P’s etc.) in the title of the advice section (sorry Dear Abby). Maybe it helps me with the puzzles (or advice).

As I leave you, think of Barbra Streisand walking backward singing “Memories light the corners of my mind, Misty water-colored memories of the way we were.”

Talking to Strangers – another good read by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell and highly recommend it. Gladwell is one of my favorite non-fiction authors and has penned multiple best sellers such as “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point.” His style is to season examples with a touch of data and analysis, without infringing on the story.

“Talking to Strangers” shares numerous examples and data that we humans tend not to read strangers very well. The main reason is we “default to truth.” In other words, we give more benefit of the doubt to strangers than we should. A healthy dose of skepticism would help in this regard. Without giving too many of his examples away, here are few to think about.

  • Neville Chamberlain wanted to meet Adolph Hitler to see if he could be trusted at his word. It should be noted that Chamberlain was not the only person to meet Hitler and misread him. The ones who saw Hitler more clearly never met him.
  • Amanda Knox was convicted of a crime she did not commit on very flimsy evidence, primarily because she did not react to the news of her roommate’s murder as the Italian police expected her to. Her manner convinced them she had something to hide.
  • Bernie Madoff did not come across as someone who was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. When investigators met him they could not believe he was so doing. Yet, a man who had not met Madoff named Nat Simons handed the case to the investigators years before they paid attention – he saw too may red flags and dug deeper.
  • Fidel Castro had seven double agents working in the CIA that went unnoticed for years until the US allies caught a key Cuban agent in Europe. The CIA dismissed what would have been red flags rationalizing that the lie detector was picking up a false positive, for example.
  • Brock Turner was convicted of raping a co-ed at Stanford, primarily on the evidence that two Swedish grad students came upon him having sex with a comatose women near a dumpster. Gladwell notes meeting a stranger at a college party is bad enough, but made far worse when both have been drinking.
  • The Penn State president and Athletic Directors could not believe coach Jerry Sandusky was a prolific pedophile. People gravitated to all the good he had done without heeding the first witness to have observed something. The witness was not forceful enough to follow-up and make sure something was done.
  • Sandra Bland was arrested on a very minor traffic offense in a conversation that went awry when it needed not. There were too many incidences where the conversation could have been diffused, yet was not. She was taking a job at Prairie State University in Texas and her Illinois license plates gave Officer Brian Encinia pause. She committed suicide in her jail cell.

Gladwell highlights a study that concluded through tests that we tend to think people who are innocent, but nervous or anxious, as guilty and tend to give a free pass to the good bluffer who is guilty. The folks inbetween, we tend to judge a little better. Given the above CIA and other intelligence, judicial and police examples, those who say they are better at judging are not as good as they think.

One of the examples noted a computer algorithm looking at criminal history was far better than a judge who met the person at setting bail or releasing the offender. The judges released too many that should have had higher bail. Another noted the use of torture was not a good elictor of truth, as when people are tortured, they go into trauma and cannot recall the truth very well.

Like all Gladwell books, “Talking to Strangers” is a quick read. Yet, I hope you will walk away with a few nuggets of knowledge as I did.

 

Wednesday walkabout

There are a lot of things to ponder this Wednesday, so let’s go for a walkabout. A young sixteen year old from Sweden has twice spoken candidly with members of the US Congress. Two take aways from Greta Thunberg’s comments:

– do something
– listen to the scientists

Yet, while she has been here, the US president’s head of the EPA, a former coal lobbyist, has rolled back an Obama regulation on clean water and overruled California’s ability to have tougher emissions standards for autos sold there. Call me crazy, but this 60 year old man sides with the 16 year old and the climate scientists.

The US president should thank Boris for taking some of the spotlight away from his inane antics. The UK is headed toward a cliff and Boris is saying follow me as he hits the gas. Brexit will be challenging enough, but a no deal Brexit would be a disaster. The British public should listen to the business community who is sharing its concern. An inability to govern this issue has been evident from the outset.

Somebody blew up oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. Iran is the most likely culprit. It is my guess someone is testing the waters with hawk John Bolton gone. Sadly, we are in this mess because of Trump’s decision to back out of a deal all other parties begged him not to, including US military and intelligence leaders. So, Trump’s building a coalition will be harder with our not listening to allies in the first place.

Finally, I am in the middle of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.” The thesis is we are horrible judges of when strangers are lying to us. Meeting the person actually is detrimental to the effort. A comment I just read is belief is not the absence of doubt; it’s the absence of a sufficient number of reasons to doubt. Fascinating read.

Have a great rest of the week.

The hard work is essential

Watching the college basketball tournament during March Madness, it is the hard work that wins ballgames. As my high school coach often said, you can have a bad shooting game, but defense and rebounding can never take a day off.

This is also a metaphor for life. Hard work pays dividends, even if it does not get notoriety. In basketball, making it difficult for your opponent to score requires determination, focus and hustle. The same goes for rebounding. Holding your opponent to one shot and giving your team more than one by good rebounding, makes a huge difference.

In life, being prepared by doing your homework, anticipating questions, learning and maintaining machinery or software, planning your efforts and asking questions puts you and your team in position to succeed. As legendary golfer Gary Player once said, “I have found the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

In “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he notes four attributes of highly successful people or groups. They are talented or smart enough, they are given opportunity, and they recognize and seize such opportunity. The fourth one is they practice, a lot. He noted about 10,000 hours of practice as a key threshhold.

So, think of that last differentiator. Maybe your talent or smarts are average, but you can be much better if you practice. And, that takes effort and hard work. Maybe your opportunities are fewer, but I have found opportunities come to busy and capable people. If you are not busy, learn something, study and make yourself better.

Getting back to basketball, I was not the best shooter or big scorer on the team. If I led a team in scoring, we were not very good. So, I worked my fanny off on playing defense, boxing out and rebounding, and being a good passer to our better shooters. Being a good teammate and playing to your strengths are essential. In basketball, there are five people and only one ball. Play well together. The best five players don’t win; the team playing the best wins.

Work hard. Put the time in. Play to your strengths. And, be willing to pass the ball.

Opportunity missed

One of my favorite quotes about opportunity is “Opportunity is missed because it is often dressed up as hard work.” To me, this speaks volumes. Too many look for easy answers, when success comes from doing some heavy lifting.

Along these lines, in his book “Outliers,” two of Malcolm Gladwell’s four traits of successful people involve opportunity. I should mention the other two are being smart or talented enough and putting in 10,000 hours or more of practice. But, the two pertinent to this discussion are recognizing opportunity and seizing opportunity.

A quick example illustrates this point. By the time he was age 21, Bill Gates was one of the top programmers in the world. Why? He had the opportunity to work on the mainframe computer after 1 am at the University of Washington. As Gladwell points out, it was recognizing this opportunity and getting up or staying up to program while others slept or had fun. He was learning.

Gladwell points out that even the smartest of people sometimes overlook opportunity. In a genius grant project, money was given to watch these geniuses flourish, but many of them were not successful. The reason is they missed opportunity. The ones who were successful either saw opportunity or had someone who brokered opportunity for them.

Some very smart people fail to see that they are in competition for people’s time, interest and money. By waiting until something is perfected or their schedule frees, that opportunity may be gone.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this brief discussion. First, don’t be frightened of hard work. A man will never be shot while washing the dishes.

Second, keep your head up, network, ask questions and just be involved in your surroundings. Connect dots by looking for or asking about things you see in someone’s office or something you saw online.

Third, be prepared for these moments. Do your research on companies and people that you are meeting with. This will help in making those connections.

Fourth, seize opportunities. If you are driving and see an interesting shop – stop the car and pull in. This is a metaphor for business, volunteer or investment opportunities. Since the average person has had eleven jobs by the time they’re forty, take a chance on something that interests you. But, honor that interest and invest your time in it. These life experiences will build your wisdom.

Opportunities abound. Look for them. Seize them. Work them.

The more I practice the less I suck

The above phrase was uttered by Joe Walsh, the legendary guitarist with The Eagles and as a solo artist. Walsh was a guest on Daryl Hall’s show “Live at Daryl’s House,” where Hall has a studio in his mountain house and the crew and guest jam together, then cook and eat a meal. It is worth the watch (see a link below).

After jamming on Funk 49, Rocky Mountain Way, and Life’s Been Good along with a few of Hall’s songs, the group sat down for a meal which they prepared with a guest chef. As they spoke of how they got started in the music business, Walsh regaled them with his story.

In essence, Walsh spoke of an early band where “we all sucked.” This brought lots of nods and smiles. Then, he said The Beatles came out and they learned to cover The Beatles’ songs. He said if you knew the songs, you could get gigs and they began to play more. But, they also had to practice more beforehand. Eventually, they got closer to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice, which ironically referenced The Beatles in his book “Outliers.” Gladwell noted The Beatles were sent to Hamburg to learn to play better in front of an audience with seven shows a night, six days a week.

And, he then uttered the above line. The more I practiced, the less I sucked. This succinct lesson applies to far more than playing music or singing. It could be related to golf, tennis, free throws, research, business analysis, teaching, presentations, general medicine, surgery, investing, etc. It could be as basic as driving a car or learning to cook or bake.

If we put in the time, we will suck less. Doing something once, does not make you proficient. It means you did it once. It takes practice to get better at something. Thanks Joe for your music and advice. You no longer suck.

http://www.livefromdarylshouse.com/