Grit Breeds Possibility

One of my favorite lines from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit.

Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In a recent TED Talk, Dr. Duckworth argues that the single greatest indicator of an individual’s success is not good looks, brilliance, or physical health. It is grit. So what is grit?

Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality.

How can we develop true grit? Dr. Duckworth encourages us to develop a “growth mindset“:

The ability to learn is not fixed. It can grow with your effort…

The Cycle of Accelerated Returns

Robert Greene has had a greater impact on my view of the world than any other author, with the possible exception of Adam Smith. The 48 Laws of Power discusses power dynamics. Only a sociopath would practice all 48 laws in his personal or professional life, but it is helpful to understand how the principles work so that one can recognize when he is using them and when another is using one on him. The Art of Seduction is an examination of seduction, in a sexual and political sense. It provides some insight into how Marilyn Monroe became synonymous with sex in the 20th century and the techniques used by master politicians like Ronald Reagan and JFK. The 33 Strategies of War combines the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu with the post-Enlightenment theories of von Clausewitz with lessons learned from 20th century wars. Even if you never plan on joining the military or participating in geopolitical struggle, it can serve as a guide for competition in politics or business.

In Mastery Greene seeks to answer a simple question: how can one master a subject? He looks at the lives of Darwin, Mozart, an ace fighter pilot, and an architect, among others, for the universal truths of mastery.

This book wasn’t nearly as entertaining as his previous works, but it is helpful particularly for those who are just beginning their careers. Greene identifies 6 steps on the path to mastery:

  1. Identify your life calling
  2. Find an apprenticeship
  3. Find a mentor
  4. Master social dynamics
  5. Activate your creativity
  6. Marry creativity with reality

The most useful chapters were about the importance of the apprenticeship phase; acting as a sponge to absorb as much information as possible. This makes sense, given my stage in life.

The passage and concept that I found particularly helpful was quoted in a Forbes piece about the book:

Even with skills that are primarily mental, such as computer programming or speaking a foreign language, robert-greene-masteryit remains the case that we learn best through practice and repetition—the natural learning process. We learn a foreign language by actually speaking it as much as possible, not by reading books and absorbing theories. The more we speak and practice, the more fluent we become.

Once you take this far enough, you enter a cycle of accelerated returns in which the practice becomes easier and more interesting, leading to the ability to practice for longer hours, which increases your skill level, which in turn makes practice even more interesting. Reaching this cycle is the goal you must set for yourself, and to get there you must understand some basic principles about skills themselves.

First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration, and understand that trying to multi task will be the death of the process.

Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it. The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents—will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction? Much as with physical exercise, you can even get a kind of perverse pleasure out of this pain, knowing the benefits it will bring you. In any event, you must meet any boredom head-on and not try to avoid or repress it. Throughout your life you will encounter tedious situations, and you must cultivate the ability to handle them with discipline.

The cycle of accelerated returns. The snowball effect. I’ve watched it with people playing instruments or learning languages or writing. Quite fascinating.

Cycle of Accelerated Returns

The Understated Value of Generalists

LinkedIn has rolled out an interesting concept over the past several months. There are now blogs by “thought leaders” that seem to be hosted on the site. As a content addict, this would be exciting, except that it seems that, as with HBR and other similar business sites, there is a groupthink when it comes to trends. We’ve all seen the word “innovation” one too many times.

I describe myself as “an unapologetic generalist” and lament the specialized era in which we live. I was naturally intrigued when I came across a blog post entitled The Myth of the Generalist by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz.

Tunguz discusses his experience at Google, where a generalist was highly sought after but thought of as an engineer who knew every relevant type of technology. It seems that Google sees a cross-platform technology expert as a generalist. I would dispute the notion that this definition could even remotely describe a generalist and claim that Google doesn’t even really want generalists, but technology geeks well versed in all platforms (which apparently don’t exist).

Tunguz revisited this notion of a generalist after reading a book by Peter Drucker:

[A] generalist is someone has demonstrated learning one field, who has an open mind and who can articulate relationships between known domains and new ideas.

This still doesn’t go far enough. I would redefine the term as follows:

A generalist has one field on which she focuses her learning, but continues to learn in multiple other fields so as to supplement her learning in her primary field.

Tunguz also fails to fully capture how generalists can provide value to an organization. As a venture capitalist, he narrowly focuses on (tech startups):

A team built of these types of people would be a great fit for a startup – smart, flexible thinkers who communicate well.

Startups bob and weave. They change architectures and products and markets and tactics. Startups need teams who can change the tires on the bus as it’s traveling at 60 mph; they need a team of MacGyvers, who combine a little bit of knowledge, a wad of gum(ption) from their pocket and some raw smarts to solve a problem. That’s my kind of generalist.

Specialization has become more and more incentivized since Adam Smith wrote about it in 1776 and as knowledge has become more available. There is growing evidence, however, that a generalist can provide value in contexts outside of the tech startup.

Let’s say there is someone employed by a company as an attorney. If that attorney devotes time to reading about business, politics, and advertising, she can provide far more value to that company than a second attorney who focuses his study narrowly on the law. The second attorney will be better at the legal aspect of his job, but the value added by the first attorney’s knowledge exceeds the value added by the superior legal skills of the second attorney. A case study:

A prominent company in a small-town creates a PR scandal legal implications. The vssecond attorney, with superior legal skills, will approach the situation thinking “we must do whatever we can to minimize our legal exposure”. His approach will result in conflict with other departments in the business.

The first attorney, with inferior legal skills but superior skills in the subjects outlined above will have a much different approach: “we must minimize our legal exposure while maximizing the effectiveness of our public relations crisis management plan”.

This case study oversimplified the matter, but I hope that it highlighted that generalists can create unforseen efficiencies within an organization.