Every project has a marshmallow

I mentioned Tom Wujec’s TED-U talk in one of my TED conference roundups, so I was excited to see the talk go on the TED site today. From the TED blurb:

Tom Wujec presents some surprisingly deep research into the “marshmallow problem” — a simple team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Who can build the tallest tower with these ingredients? And why does a surprising group always beat the average?

It’s easy to say things like “we need different approaches to problem-solving” and “it’s not all about rational, linear thinking and finding a single answer.”

But pat observations don’t pack nearly as much punch as an experiment, run multiple times with thousands and thousands of people – of all ages and educational backgrounds – that shows truly surprising results about who solves complex, team-oriented problems better or worse.

It’s a 7 minute video and it’s worth every minute.  (you especially have to see this if you are a parent, engineer, MBA, executive assistant).

(how it relates to the 30-second FedEx commercial will be obvious).

And more can be found at the marshmallow challenge website.

Tom Wujec’s talk:

…and the great, irreverent FedEx commercial:

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Next Monday – be wowed in NYC

(Shameless plug alert. But this is a good one).

Next Monday night in New York, Acumen Fund’s NY Chapter is hosting a fun event.

There will be talks by Chris Hughes (co-founder of Facebook, brains behind my.barackobama.com, now launching Jumo.com); Gretchen Rubin (bestselling author of The Happiness Project); Jawad Aslam (pioneering low-ncome housing in Pakistan and all-around great guy); Sarah Kay (spoken word poet).

Jenny 8 Lee will emcee, and any event that is emceed by someone who is obsessed with dumplings and who wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles has to be good.

You can buy tickets here.  Proceeds benefit Acumen Fund (further enticements: open bar, DJ, food, etc.)

Please spread the word.  And buy tickets here.  They’re going fast.

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I am human

When you meet someone for the first time – in a job interview, a sales meeting, wherever – it’s amazing how easily you can differentiate yourself by communicating that you are an actual, living human being.

Actual human beings aren’t just smart and articulate – they also have hopes and fears and joy and aspirations.  Yet so often we keep all of this under wraps.

How you share glimpses of what really makes you tick will depend on your personality, your openness, to whom you are speaking.  But giving even a glimpse of your own humanity is the dry tinder to spark genuine, personal connection.

The challenge is that you can’t go halfway.  You can’t say “I’m really excited about / passionate about / committed to…” if you don’t express (in your voice, your eyes, your face, your body language) the emotions you are describing.  Describing enthusiasm in a monotone; saying “I’m passionate” while you lean back, with arms crossed; claiming “my whole life I’ve dreamed of” as if you’re ordering a side of fries…this is worse than nothing.

Put another way, there’s no shortcut to being open, genuine, excited, and inspired.  You have to FEEL real emotion and be comfortable sharing it (in a professional way).

It is precisely because there are no shortcuts that doing this right will set you apart.

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Pattern (mis)recognition

I’m just finishing Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, Switch, which I bought right away because I thought Made to Stick was one of the most actionable books I’ve ever seen about effective communications.  A few years after reading Made to Stick, I still recommend it far and wide.

Made to Stick is one of those books whose entire arc grabs you and informs your thinking from that day forward.  I’m not sure Stick hits that bar, but it has a lot of good stuff in it, and I found at least one gem that I think may be the most important reminder I’ve gotten in a while about how to make sense of the world.  It’s called fundamental attribution error, which describes our tendency consistently to reach incorrect conclusions about the meaning of the data / information we’re getting.

A story to explain the concept: a group of schoolkids that was struggling academically was divided into two groups for a few hours of once-a-week instruction over a six week period.  One group received normal tutoring and traditional instruction in the subject areas in which they were struggling; another group was exposed to a curriculum that focused on the mind as a pliable “muscle” that could be strengthened through hard work and study, and on the concept that intelligence wasn’t fixed.  Group 1 was taught stuff, group 2 was taught that they could be taught stuff.

Put another way: group 2 was taught that the data they’d received about their academic performance (that they didn’t do well in school) did not mean that they were irrevocably poor students.  And guess what?  Test scores from this second group – after just a few hours of these sessions spread out over a little more than a month – soon beat the pants off those of group 1.

I think of fundamental attribution error as the story we build around the data we are given.  In the simple, obvious case: I push the elevator button a bunch of times, and the elevator comes.  The attribution error is thinking that the more I push the button, the more quickly the elevator comes.

Elevator-pushing is a blunt example.  But life is full of more subtle, trickier situations.  Say I’m meeting someone for the first time and she seems distracted and disengaged.  If I’m nervous about the conversation, my attitudes about the information I’m receiving (she’s not looking me in the eye, she seems distracted) informs the story I tell myself about her actions (which is by definition not the same thing as her actions).  This story can be objective and positive (“I’m noticing that she’s distracted.”) or it can morph into a stream of fear-induced thoughts: “she doesn’t like me” or “she’s not interested in what I’m saying.”  More often than not where you end up will be somewhere between these two extremes.

Chip and Dan Heath remind us in Switch that humans are typically awful at distinguishing real from imagined patterns; that we over-attribute actions to people’s personalities and attitudes rather than to situations; and that the biases we bring into situations play an overwhelming role in how we process the information we receive.

Our outlook – about ourselves, our own self-image, how we think people act and process information – is the superstructure upon which we hang the tidbits and facts that accumulate throughout our days.  They allow us to make sense of the complexity of the world around us, but they also can reinforce patterns that are completely of our own making.   This is why acting fearless, positive, open and present is just about the most powerful strategy for having positive interactions and learning appropriately from things you hear from others.

I’m beginning to believe that HOW we make sense of information – which more often than not is about us, our attitudes and biases and fears – is the most fundamental determinant of our experiences of and success in the world.  Put another way, recognizing where we consistently reach wrong conclusions is the first, giant step towards breaking out of these patterns.

The data – how people act and react; what they think of us; what they hope to achieve themselves – is usually quite benign, and the signal (real information) to noise (our story about the data) ratio is often pretty low.

Separating out what we see from what we tell ourselves allows us a glimpse of real, honest truths.

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What we pay, what we get

Lots of inspirational moments today at the Global Philanthropy Forum (live webcast here).

It’s too much to try to capture in one post, but my parting reflection from today is how continually humbled I am by the accomplishments of Aravind Eye Hospital, the recipient of this year’s Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Founded in 1976, Aravind pioneered high-quality, high value, low cost service for low-income customers. They have built a truly remarkable organization that has revolutionized not only eyecare in India but our conception of what is possible. Some statistics:

  • Of the 37 million people globally who are blind, 15 million are in India
  • Aravind has served more than 3 million people since inception, and currently serves more than 300,000 per year
  • The majority (60-70%) of Aravind’s customers pay a reduced cost or nothing for eye surgery
  • The average medical doctor performs 300 surgeries per year; the average Aravind doctor performs more than 2,000
  • Among other inspirations, Aravind’s founder Dr. Venkataswamy attended McDonald’s Hamburger University to learn about standardization and quality control.
  • Interocular lenses cost $200, so Aravind decided to manufacture them themselves, and now sells them for $3 apiece (at a profit)
  • 15% of all ophthalmologists in India have been trained by Aravind
  • Aravind is profitable

When we talk about scale, innovation, doing the impossible, creating massive change to fight preventable illness, this is what we mean.

A closing thought, shared by Dr. William Foege (who among other things is credited with creating the strategy that eradicated smallpox): philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of two robbers who entered a jewelry store and stole nothing; the only thing they did was switch the price tags between the costume and the real jewelry.  The customers never noticed.

So too, Dr. Foege opined, in the modern world the price tags have been switched.  We ascribe the highest value to a small group of people who receive exceptional, unprecedented levels of monetary reward, and consistently undervalue the work of nurses and teachers and social workers and people who live lives in service of others.

In closing, a video about Aravind:

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“Biz Class? Ha!” I scoff.

Middle seat linebacker gets

me off my high horse.

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School teaches

That expertise is out there and that it is narrowly defined.

That we should narrow our focus and specialize.

That if you, the student, don’t know the answer, that there’s an expert who knows better than you.

It’s a sharpen-your-number-2-pencils mindset.  It’s lessons from last centuries’ economy.  And I worry that as we try to improve education we’re focused on bringing as many people as possible up last centuries’ standard when what we need is 21st century aspirations.

It’s easy for me as a parent to find which schools are most likely to produce high SAT scores and good college admissions – easy to find schools that do a good job of teaching kids to do well on tests and get into other schools.

What if you want to find the schools that are best at fostering creativity, curiosity, and right-brain thinking?  Where do you even begin to look?

Closing thoughts from renowned photographer Platon from fear.less:

I came to realize that it’s actually irrelevant how anybody else does it if you’re looking for a formula to apply to yourself. The truth is, everyone’s journey is different, everyone’s personality is different, and everyone’s talent or weaknesses are different.


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Nothing magical happens when my Inbox is empty.

There’s no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Which means I can decide whether or not to care about this.

And so can you.

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I hate newsletters…

…and form letters, and customer service notes that sound like customer service notes and most anything that was obviously written by lawyers trying to sound like lawyers whenever it’s not 100% necessary.

Like this note I got the other day from eBay’s customer service department, which includes gems like:

“Thank you for taking the time to write back to eBay regarding your concern…”

“I would request you to check your Account Status Page where you can easily get the detailed report of the fees charged on your account…”

“If you need further assistance, please don’t hesitate to reply to this email and let us know…”

(Yeah, I can tell they’re dying to hear from me.)

Compare that to this note from Moo cards:

“I’m Little MOO – the bit of software that will be managing your order with us.  It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine who will print it for you in the next few days.  I’ll let you know when it’s done and on its way to you…”

“Remember, I’m just a bit of software.  So, if you have any questions regarding your order please first read our Frequently Asked Questions at: http://www.moo.com/help/ and if you’re still not sure, contact customer service (who are real people) at https://secure.moo.com/service/

One of these companies is communicating that they care about every interaction and that personal connections matter to them.   In one of these companies, the naysayers lost, the people saying “Yes, but…” failed to choke the life out of things, and doing something memorable was more important than avoiding looking silly.

No one ever loses their job because they took something great and made it unremarkable.  And that’s a real shame.

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Throwing Boomerangs

Not surprisingly, I’ve never learned how to throw a boomerang properly.  When I have thrown them, some come back and some don’t.  How long it takes, the path they take, these are all variable.

Today an old friend who just had a new baby asked me for the name of a good, affordable lawyer to draw up his will.  It just so happens I had someone to recommend, a lawyer named Joanne Sternlieb with a private practice that I used, with great satisfaction, when my first child was born.

I’m pretty sure Joanne has forgotten about me – I was just one of many clients, many years ago – and she’s probably not aware how happy I was with her work.  Yet she did such a good job and provided such a good value that when someone asked me, six years later, for a recommendation, I passed her name along instantly.

Joanne threw a boomerang.  She provided a service and an exceptional experience that came back to her – even though in this case it took many years.  If she’s throwing lots of boomerangs every day, then over time the enterprise builds:  sometimes in obvious, linear ways (two weeks after working with one client she gets hired by that client’s friend), but just as often (I’d guess) less predictably.

The unexpected connections come when there are lots of people out in the world who, in the back of their minds, carry around a memory of you as the most exceptional person they’ve met doing what you do.

It’s easy, when you’re busy, to switch off when a given meeting or opportunity shows no sign of panning out in the short term; to think of interactions in terms of what can come clearly, linearly, right now. Of course that matters.  But life is also about randomness and spontaneous, surprising connections, and about the things you put out in the world coming back in unexpected, positive ways.

By being your best self in all situations, by being generous and making every interaction positive and productive for the person you’re meeting, you’re throwing boomerangs.

So, did you throw any boomerangs today?

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