Monthly Archives: September 2011

Admiring Excellence

At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.

I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn’t matter how bad the opposing team is–when you’re competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he’s never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it’s a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance–and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.

You don’t need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don’t know the rules of baseball you won’t appreciate the players’ talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.

Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance–in the house of feelings–to gratitude. “I’m grateful to be in the presence of someone who’s world class at their craft.”

Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you’re around professionals–and letting yourself admire them!

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From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman’s Creed.

Are Online Reviews Making Brands Irrelevant?

My friend Nathan Labenz writes about the success of TripAdvisor (the leading review site of hotels) and what it means to the future of brands:

Historically, brands were built on the assumption of limited information. As mass production made it possible to sell soap and soup nationwide, companies developed brands to represent quality and cultivate product loyalty. Brands were a natural fit for radio and TV advertising, and brands thrived with the proliferation of cable channels, which kept advertising costs down while offering unprecedented demographic targeting.

Facebook and Twitter get most of the attention for brand disruption, but the biggest problems for brands are in search and e-commerce.

Take this Google search for Super 8 Motels, for example. On the front page, you’ll see ratings that hotel guests have written about particular Super 8s on TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel and Yelp. Importantly, the reviews vary widely. When I checked, a New Mexico location was rated 4.5 stars, while a Los Angeles location was at 3.5 stars and one in British Columbia had only 2 stars. Such location-specific information undermines brands’ ability to affect consumers’ purchasing decisions with 30-second TV spots and gives TripAdvisor a powerful position….

For the Super 8 brand, the end game could be scary: as TripAdvisor accumulates more and more trusted reviews, the best-performing Super 8s, all of which are independent franchises, may eventually realize that their business is suffering from their association with lesser motels. At that point, we might see a “brand run,” wherein the best locations leave the chain, lowering the brand’s value and ultimately leading to its collapse.

It's a solid point and underdiscussed in the hoopla about social media and how it's affecting big brands.

An even better example than Super 8 might be Mariott as I'm guessing a large percentage of Super 8 rooms are sold on no reservation and reviews don't play as much a role.

In the case of Mariott, I'm likely to have reserved a room in advance. In the old days, perhaps I assume that all Mariotts around the world are good. Now, in conjunction with booking the reservation online, I can read reviews of individual locations. There's more variance in the quality of Mariott properties than Mariott HQ would like to admit (I've stayed in dozens of Mariotts myself), and that variance is now for all to see on sites like TripAdvisor.

The end game that Nathan proposes–the outperforming properties dissociating from the national brand because they're being hurt by the low performers–seems quite possible in the long run. After all, wouldn't you rather stay at a hotel you've never heard of (i.e., no national brand) but one that has hundreds of credible five star reviews over a Mariott location that has hundreds of two star reviews?

Eventually, the good franchises will recognize this. And Mariott HQ–whose business is premised on the benefits of a national brand uniting thousands of independent franchises in an information-poor world–will be hurt.

Hard-to-Define Jobs Are More Secure

Generally, the harder it is to explain to someone you've just met at a cocktail party what it is you do on a day to day basis, the more interesting the work you're engaged in.

Arnold Kling applies a related rule of thumb to job security:

A job seeker is looking for… a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.

In other words, how easy is it to outline exactly what you must do day to day at work? The easier this task, the more at risk it is to being offshored or automated.

No Such Thing as Different Learning Styles?

A couple years ago I interviewed a few neuro-psychologists and learning experts to see if they could help me understand how I learn and process information. My thinking was, kids with learning disabilities submit to a battery of cognitive tests that supposedly reveal useful information about the way they learn. Could I do the same and find out more conclusively if I'm a visual learner or auditory learner? The experts told me that it was unlikely the tests would help someone who is fine and high functioning. So I passed.

According to recent research, though, the very idea of personal "learning styles"–an idea at the center of many education philosophies–may be false. In fact, we may all learn pretty much the same way. Here's more:

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design.  Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

(hat tip: Josh Kaufman)

Culture Matters, An On-Going Series

Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture.

Related:

Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost nonexistent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last for days is gone. A result: good bread.

It's from a piece on the Dutch and bicyles, via Bobulate.