Friday, January 30, 2009

Success Book Review: Steve Martin: "Born Standing Up"

Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, an autobiographical memoir, is, first, and foremost, a masterpiece. Secondly, it is an authoritative summation of the success principles that appear over and over on this blog. Touchingly written, honest, funny, sad, and inspiring, it's just plain great literature. Anyone who has watched Martin’s brilliant work, especially his stand up work in the 70’s, will be a customer for this book. I, for one, have always wondered what lurked behind the madman/self-parodying/ always-delightful exterior. While we don’t get every last scandalous juicy detail, we get the important bits to piece together the puzzle.

But, beyond that, the book illustrates another point: whether you’re a golf pro/tycoon like Greg Norman, a chess master, like Josh Waitzkin, or a standup comedian, there are common traits and characteristics of many achievers. Startlingly, Steve Martin is, in this respect, amazingly congruent with other high achievers in the manner in which he exemplifies these principles Throughout the course of this blog, I have assembled the success principles I have derived from many outstanding achievers, coaches, and researchers. Here are a few common threads that unite Steve Martin with a host of other successful achievers.

10 Years to Mastery
Frequently in his book the figure of ten years comes up. Ten years between starting his true career till worldwide fame and fortune arrived. It turns out that much research (here and here) has been done on expert performance and, you guessed it, 10 years to mastery is about right. Many a child “prodigy” has, in fact, been hard at work on piano, math, chess, gymnastics, etc for at least 10 years. In fact, Martin’s narrative adds an exclamation point to that research, because we see it is no less true in madcap comedy routines than it is in quantum physics Nobel Laureates.

Deliberate Practice
This is the addendum to “10 years to mastery”. You need to add “deliberate practice”: focused review and improvement of your performance in your key success areas. You can’t just go through the motions. You have to think about what it is you need to do to get better. Steve Martin took plenty of notes after his performances, and, later on, also recorded his act for further review.

Creative inspiration,+knowledge-seeking followed by highly specified activities
This paradigm works everywhere from the Toyota shop floor, to my own previous specialty (commercial music), my current field (coding trading systems), and straight on to Steve Martin’s brilliant career achievement. You have to constantly invent, or search for, ideas on how to get the job done, and then tightly specify the actions needed to implement those ideas. Steve Martin mentions speaking his lines while, at the same time, mentally “living in the future", of his next move, his next prop, his next joke. He also mentions a tighter and tighter focus on “precision”, to the microscopic level: the movement of a finger could make or break a joke, as he tells it. Again, his journey illuminates these qualities, and we can see how they might apply to a baseball pitcher, a race car driver, an Olympic diver, etc.

One more note: mere ideas without precision execution will lead to mediocrity or failure, as does repetitive execution without a constant source of new inputs (either from internal or external sources of creativity).

Networking and Likability
While networking and likability are not mentioned per se in Steve Martin’s book, it is clear that he was able to find, keep, and utilize his excellent relationships with others to move forward in his career. He had long, multi-year relationships with theaters and clubs where he could practice his craft. Friends offered to manage him. Ex-girlfriends got him work. He often sought and received excellent advice from other comics, and even, on occasion, used others’ material, with their permission. You cannot do this without being likable, without building and maintaining your network. I get the impression that people naturally gravitated to this well-spoken, good-looking, freethinking and talented guy. He may not have needed to concentrate very much on this aspect of success, but it is clear he was great at it.

Mental Models
Steve Martin was driven to educate himself. Logic, art history, poetry, and philosophy are only a few of the areas he consciously turned to. Charlie Munger has frequently mentioned having a suite of “mental models” for taking in reality through different perspectives. Martin’s book is loaded with analogies to art. And it is clear that he uses his highly developed mind to “think about what he is doing”. Much as 20th century artists and musicians used “classical” forms and ideas to frame, or "set up" their excursions into new territory, Steve Martin's comedy is “referential”: it is “meta-comedy”, or, comedy about a guy doing comedy. This comes, in part, from having developed mental models to view and re-frame experience.

Success comes on the far side of failure
As Ben Stein puts it, you just have to “stay at the table “ till you win, hopefully enjoying yourself in the process. Just before his biggest breakthrough, when he went from a live audience of 90 to an audience of 40,000, Steve Martin was nearly broke. Reality , and success in particular, is not linear. Breakthroughs can happen right after the most disheartening turn of events. You cannot really put a time limit on success, because things have to “lime up” just right, even though the groundwork may have been laid years before.

The key point is this: Steve Martin is probably the most famous standup comedian ever. And I , for one, have a huge respect for that one-in-a million gift. But , for the rest of us, it is instructive that, as Lee Trevino once said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”. The success principles illustrated by Martin’s meteoric rise to fame (preceded by a mere 10 – 20 years of performing!!!) are actually applicable to success in many areas. His book, besides being a piece of sheer beauty, can help bring out the “star” shining in each of us.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Success Secrets: Self-management the GE Way?

I recently posted a video of Jack Welch, ex-CEO of General Electric, speaking brilliantly at MIT. In the video, he reiterated some of the key practies he used to power GE to dominance. Can Jack Welch’s techniques, used to manage corporate behemoth General Electric, be used in our individual efforts towards personal achievement? Yes, they can.

Jack Welch Technique: 20/70/10 (Reward the top 20%, encourage/coach the middle 70%, fire the bottom 10%)
In our personal projects, we can get deeper and deeper into what works. This area is equivalent to Jack Welch's "top 20%". We should concentrate on doing more in the areas in which we are successful. These are “golden”. These areas include our natural aptitudes. We should expand this territory by meeting more people in our field, stressing our core competencies, and getting training in contiguous and appropriate skills. Toyota stresses continuous improvement down to the tiniest level…and it’s already the best-in-class automaker. Charlie Munger has suggested that the best results we are getting should be the benchmarks for the next investments we make. In other words…use our best to make the rest better.

The “middle 70%” is the area of our average aptitudes. This is the area where we may not be outstanding, but it includes areas that are important to our lives. These areas (perhaps diet, exercise, “giving back”, etc) are amenable to an organized approach to productivity (checklists, regular monitoring, etc). They are not “natural” for us, but they are important. We can improve in them, and we must, while taking into account that we may not be “stars” in that particular firmament.

The “bottom 10%" corresponds to what’s not working. Relationships, goals and plans, outright failures. So, how do we “fire” the bottom 10% if it’s only ourselves? First, we can outsource. If we are not organized, we can hire a consultant who can help us organize. If we dress badly, we can get a personal shopper. Another method is to “outsource” the job to software. I felt I needed budgeting help recently so I found YNAB, a superb budgeting program. It’s a lot more organized than I am and much better at keeping categories and totals straight.

Another technique: “fire” what’s not working. Just stop doing it. Stop watching TV shows that are meaningless. Stop hanging out with whiners and complainers. Stop consuming food and drink that are bad for you. “Fire” the unproductive behaviors and people in your life.

Jack Welch Technique: Let employees repeatedly know where they stand
Welch comes down hard on bosses that fire without warning. He is a champion of regular employee reviews. This concept is not far from Drucker’s “What gets measured gets done”. So, in our personal goals and plans, how regularly do we sit down with ourselves and review? Do we actually know what’s working? Do we have benchmarks to check for our income, health, contacts, learning goals, business plan? The better-specified our activities are, and the more frequently measured, the more successful they will be. Forget about keeping track “in your head”. It’s virtually impossible. And, the more categories you are measuring, the fuzzier your “off the cuff” reviews will be.

Jack Welch Technique: Spend 5% on planning, 95% on execution
Plans are great, but they always change. Military planners know that planning is crucial, but that all plans get torn up the moment the battle starts. We must avoid perfectionism, which may be procrastination in disguise. All important things are “hard”. All important tasks involve painful new behaviors, learning, adjusting, and just plain hard work. Life is too short not to get it done. Furthermore, life moves so fast that an extended period of planning, instead of just working, may, in itself, make the plan outdated and obsolete. There is no substitute for actually “doing it’

Jack Welch Technique: A manager’s job is to constantly fire up the troops.
Well… YOU are the “troops”. How often do you read and write positive affirmations? How often do you visualize success? How about multiple levels of success? 1 year out? 5 years out? 20 years out? Do you keep a journal of good things that happen to you? Compliments people pay you? Did you frame that first check from the new business? Do you keep a “dreams list”? Remember, you are a human being, not a machine. Your fuel is emotion. Passion. Even envy, greed, and lust have their place. Get the fires burning. Never let them go out. Jack Welch is still going strong. He knows whereof he speaks.

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New On My Reading List

I am currently reading "Cracking Creativity" by Michael Michalko. Outstanding collection of creativity-enhancing techniques. I hope to post a full review soon. The book illuminate the techinques of the world's great geniuses (Einstein, DaVinci , et al), and goes on to present a dazzling collection of very usable techniques for idea generaton, problem-framing, and problem solving.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Success Book Reviews: Warren Buffett and "The Snowball" Part 4

This is part 4 of a “review” of Alice Schroeder’s remarkable biography of Warren Buffett, "The Snowball”. Actually, this topic would be better categorized as part of my Success Secrets category, since, as always on this blog, my goal is to elucidate the behaviors, disciplines, and mental models of the most successful people. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

Buffett Secret # 6 Stick to your Circle of Competence
Both Buffett and his lifelong sidekick Charlie Munger, arguably two of the smartest business minds on the planet, repeatedly emphasize that they themselves stick to a very few investment methodologies, and only work in business lines that they understand thoroughly. Why would they admit this? Why would this be important to know? Well, firstly, it takes years and years to be good at something. Trying to be good at too many things is not going to work. Also, simple business concepts are going to be easier to apply broadly than complex business concepts. Market dominance, for instance, is a simple concept . Semantic Web Asynchronous Transfer, for instance, is a complex concept.

Secondly, there are very few “snowballs” out there (meaning, a line of activity that produces consistent results that work repeatedly, and can be compounded over decades). So, if there is a line of activity that seems to be accumulating results in a “snowball-like” manner, you use that information to stick to what you are doing, rather than succumb to boredom or “master of the universe syndrome” and veer off-course.

Thirdly, you are less likely to be deceived by others if you thoroughly understand the potential of a business. This understanding is easier to achieve if you limit your "circle of competence" to simple businesses, as Buffett does. You can then bid intelligently, and to recognize when something is “too good to be true”. You thus avoid many meltdowns and bad decisions.

Buffett Secret #7: Focus for a lifetime
Buffett’s own description of his main “secret”, according to Alice Schroeder, is “focus”. You must be drawn obsessively to you main pursuit. It must dominate your waking and sleeping hours. "Love", "passion", "obsession", while not exactly the right words, convey the feeling of someone in the grip of a “virtuous circle”, where what he does not only works, but brings out the best in a person, and also captivates him, urging him higher and higher. Often, this type of success allows others to follow along and succeed as well. Berkshire stock turned many an average investor into a multi-multi-millionaire.

But focus is different from “focus for a lifetime” just as a driveway is different from an interstate. Do you have something that will keep you fascinated for decades? That makes you “skip to work” in the morning, as Buffet claims he does? Does the concept drive you to gain knowledge, hone skills, ask questions, and be the type of person that other people love to do business with? Will it make you the kind of person people feel safe with? Confident with? Sure of? Focus for a lifetime can, indeed, be the crowning achievement of a lifetime.

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Success Book Reviews: Warren Buffett and "The Snowball" Part 3

This is part 3 of a “review” of Alice Schroeder’s remarkable biography of Warren Buffett, "The Snowball”. Actually, this topic would be better categorized as part of my Success Secrets category, since, as always on this blog, my goal is to elucidate the behaviours, disciplines, and metal models of the most successful people. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. We continue...

Buffett Secret # 3: Hire or acquire skill sets that are lacking
One of the startling revelations (to me , at least) in the book was the fact that Buffett took the Dale Carnegie course. My image of Buffett, before this book, was that of a brilliant analytical individual whose insights into corporate structure and value allowed him to buy companies cheaply. While that is absolutely true, it turns out that it frequently took a lot of interpersonal skills to buy the kind of assets he was seeking, especially if these assets were not publicly available. This is one of the areas where interpersonal skills are required. Another is in encouraging and “firing up” your employees to consistently perform at their highest level ( a fact that Jack Welch also addresses in a video I posted recently).

What Buffett and Welch reveal to us is that you ignore the human component of your business at your peril.

Sometimes you hire, rather than acquire, the lacking skill sets. To improve the results of his insurance businesses, Buffett hired the outstanding Ajit Jain. Jain proved to be such an outstanding risk manager that his name is bandied about as a successor to Buffett himself at Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett Secret # 4: Keep Expenses low. Stay away from “Glamour”
Buffett never maxed out on fancy homes, fancy cars, fancy hobbies, or fancy possessions. Now, we can never know exactly how much of this is actually true, but we do know, from Schroeder, that Buffett basically maintained a singe residence, a home in Omaha, Nebraska, for the whole of his working life. This is a far cry from the deca-million-dollar Manhattan condos maintained by lavish-spending CEOs. Similarly, Buffett often bought into “low-glamour” businesses such as flooring, metal fabricators, shoes and furniture. Why? Because the cash flows from the businesses were cheaper than cash flows of more glamourous businesses. Also, because he candidly admitted that he didn’t understand high tech. While Buffett could match brains with highest of high-tech CEOSs, my own guess is that, to Buffett, the long-term value of the cash-flow stream of a high-ech business is more difficult to predict than the long term value of massively scaled business based on serving a huge and slowly-changing need. Coffee roasters instead of Javascript, as it were.

Buffett Secret # 5: Find a Supportive Mate
Buffett, always a keen scout of talent, picked Suzie to be his wife. N Suzie he found a woman who was willing to allow Buffett the time and mental tranquility to achieve his full potential. In my own experience, I have seen the demands of family, often channeled through the society’s pop-psychology lens, stifle nascent potential, in the interests of fulfilling dubious “needs” (such as consumer goods, fine houses, “work/life balance”) . Truly great careers, and great achievements , need decades to come to their full fruition, and the achiever needs supportive people around hm, to “wall off” distractions, provide empathy and understanding, and to provide approval and comfort during rough times. A tranquil marriage, free of divorce or major psychological upheavals, has to have been the greatest success secret of all

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Success Videos: Jack Welch at MIT

Here's a great video of GE ex-CEO Jack Welch speaking at MIT in April, 2007. One of Welch's core principles, among his many, is that he deals with what actually is, rather than what should be. We are so blessed in this Internet Age to be able to get hours and hours of instruction from the actual leaders, the actual winners in their fields. We are also blessed by the fact that so many leaders (Welch, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger and others) live so long. Why? because it is more difficult, statistically, to be a "fluke" if you have a multi-decade track record of success. Someone who has been succeeding, without major derailments, and with minimum scandal, for 30 or 40 years is very likely to be the "genuine article", and to posses the true markers, the true principles, of success and achievement. These are people whose voices we should be listening to, an heeding, as we go about achieving our own goals.