Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

January 15, 2009

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.


The Dumb and the Arrogant

November 19, 2008

The human condition is to have a very limited perspective. We are all dumb about many things. Just being dumb is no big deal. If we have the humility to understand where our perspective falls short, we can trade with others for services that help fill in our knowledge gaps. Being dumb is no barrier to a successful and happy life, but living without humility—also called being arrogant—is a tremendous barrier. And when you combine stupidity and arrogance along with the power to coerce others, you are able to create misery not only for yourself but for many others as well.

Only a few short years ago, a student in my class told the story of his participation in the General Motors/United Auto Workers “job bank” program. As a laid-off union worker, he was eligible to collect a full salary of over $30 hour; all he had to do was sit in a room with other job bank participants and do nothing. He related how most of his colleagues simply talked, sat there staring at the walls, or did crossword puzzles. He couldn’t recall anyone even reading a book while they sat there all day, and he was the only one who was making use of the educational benefits that the union contract also provided. If the autoworkers went back to school, they didn’t have to sit around in the room—they would collect their salary, as well as get a free education. Amazingly, every other participant in the “job bank” program chose to simply sit, instead of choosing to get a free education.

By the time that this student had related his story, GM, Ford, and Chrysler had already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on these job bank programs. Apparently, my student’s fellow, laid-off autoworkers thought the party would go on forever. They thought that the power of the unions to coerce the automakers and consumers would continue unabated.

Remember, if Congress votes for an automobile bailout, part of the money will pay for workers to sit and refuse to change.

And what of the auto executives that signed such insane contracts? In their stupidity and arrogance, they believed that they could get consumers to purchase inferior products, carrying inflated price tags, and that they themselves would never bear the consequences. As they destroyed shareholder wealth, they paid themselves exorbitant salaries.

Remember, if Congress votes for an automobile bailout, part of the money will pay the salaries of these dumb and arrogant executives.

Mark Twain used to frequently include this joke in his lectures: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

The powerful Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, would have to make anybody’s list of dumbest (at least about economics) and most arrogant Congressmen. This week Frank said about the proposed bailout of U.S. automakers, “There’s no downside to trying.”

No downside to trying! Since the 1980s, GM, Ford, and Chrysler according to David Yermack have collectively destroyed $465 billion dollars in capital. About the bailout for automakers, Yermack writes, “We would do better to set this money on fire rather than using it to keep these dying firms on life support, setting them up for even more money-losing investments in the future.”

In contrast to the automakers, according to Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated, Microsoft has created about $200 billion in shareholder wealth; Google has created about $120 billion in shareholder wealth. How did they do that? Compared to some other corporations, they better served the needs of the consuming public; and in the process, together they have created about $300 billion dollars in new wealth. Google has put at our fingertips the wealth of information on the Internet, and Microsoft (for all our complaints about them) has built an operating system and office suite that almost all of us use every day.

No downside to trying! More taxpayers’ money is wasted, setting the stage for an even more severe economic depression. Less capital remains for productive industries and firms; as a consequence, jobs are lost—not saved.

The problem is of course, when you are dumb and arrogant, you think you deserve the power to coerce others so that you can have your way. The autoworkers, the auto executives, and Barney Frank are more alike than they would like to believe. It is amazing how many Americans are fooled by their economic sophistry and bullying.


This is the former Packard Motor Car plant which closed in 1958 (source). Would we be better off today if we were still driving Packards? Who could possibly believe we would be?

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