David and Goliath, not what I thought it was

Like many kids, I learned the story of David and Goliath as a parable to illustrate that underdogs can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

As an adult, going through a children’s bible with my kid, I saw it differently. It’s a story of how knowledge, skill and innovation can win out.

David had lots of experience taking out coyotes with a sling and stone. David should have won. He wasn’t the underdog. It’s just that everyone else on the battlefield was unaware of David’s skills and were locked into thinking of the traditional way of fighting.

My guess is that David never doubted that he could take out Goliath. But, he knew why. He had lots of trial and error practice to back himself up. The others didn’t know about it or hadn’t thought to apply his stone slinging skills to a 1v1 human battle.

But, I think the traditional telling of the story is dangerous. It gives the impression that David improvised in the moment and succeeded against the odds and encourages people to take stupid risks and hope they’ll just figure it out in the moment, like most Hollywood action plots.

What it should really teach is that practice makes perfect. Like many Hollywood stars will tell you, what appears to be their overnight success successes was years in the making, with thousands of rejections.

It also reminds me of something one of my navy pilot friends told me one time. Russian jets were designed to be superior for dogfights. The US military decided a better strategy was to knock out the enemy from 20 miles away to avoid the dogfights as much as possible.

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Pleasure vs. Necessity

Tomato (Tamatar)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Freakonomics podcast on the Tale of the $15 Tomato reminded me this post of mine about how things must be pretty good because we can afford to grow our own food.

The tale was about how someone bought a hydroponics tomato growing kit that produced about 15 tomatoes. Once they figured the cost of the kit, the electricity for the light to grow the tomatoes and the time they put into to growing the tomatoes, it cost them about $15 per tomato. And these were cherry tomatoes.

We use to grow our own food out of necessity. Now we do it out of novelty.

Why?

Because it is expensive (opportunity costs) and we’re not very good at it (comparative advantage) and others are much better (specialization).

Reminds me of a time as a young guy when I tried my hand at brewing my beer. I did it. Folks liked it. It was kind of neat to see the process. But, when we were drinking it one of my friends asked, “Why brew your own beer? Beer is so cheap.” I agreed and stopped brewing.

Your Mom was right: It pays to practice

I recommend reading Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else.  I found Colvin’s storytelling interesting and the information well-presented.

Cover of "Talent Is Overrated: What Reall...

The longest book I've read on my iPhone, so far (Cover via Amazon)

It seems to be similar to Malcolm Glidwell’s Outliers, which I have yet to read.  Like Gladwell (I think), Colvin concludes that deliberate practice (and lots of it) is the key.  Which means, that what really separates world class performers and everybody else is their ability to find and persevere through deliberate practice.

Several of Colvin’s stories gelled with observations from my own experience, on page 44 (of my edition) he discusses studies done on expert race horse handicappers.

…IQ just didn’t seem to matter.  “Low-IQ experts always used more complex models than high-IQ nonexperts,” the researchers found.  Not only did handicapping expertise fail to correlate with IQ, it didn’t even correlate with performance on the arithmetic subtest of the IQ test.

The researchers’ conclusion: Their results suggest “that whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multi-variate reasoning.”

That last phrase is not one that most of us use very often, but it’s actually a very good description of what most of us do every day in our working lives, and what the best performers do extremely well.  You just don’t have to be especially “smart,” as traditionally defined, to do it.

I’ve seen this over and over again.  “Smart” people (as determined by school grades and IQ tests) who struggle in the real world as they try to fit it into the supposedly “complex” (but surprisingly simple, once you get past the jargon) models they learned in school and they’re often outwitted by folks that have more contextual experience giving them a much better feel for the dynamics of the situation.

In other words, the “smart” person probably wouldn’t think to consider to factor in details of the horse’s latest bathroom break when handicapping the race, while the expert handicapper probably does that without even realizing it.

I do have one point of contention to offer Colvin.  Later in the book, he explains that folks are taking longer to make significant contributions to their fields.  For example, in 1900 a study of innovators found that people began making contributions to their field at around age 23.  By 1999 that age increased to 31.

Colvin attributes this to having more material for these folks to have to master.

I think there’s another factor, that is a key part of Colvin’s book, but he fails to relate here — the amount of deliberate practice these folks have had.

My guess is that in 1900, folks found their fields at a younger age and were able to spend more time in deliberate practice in those fields, because they didn’t have as many other subject requirements in their education distracting their attention.

My guess is that I could have done without about half or more of the liberal arts education that I was required to take to earn my engineering degree and I wouldn’t have missed a beat.

Had I spent more time while I was studying to become an engineer, doing actual engineering work (as an apprentice or intern), I may have discovered several years sooner that engineering didn’t hold my interest.  I could have spent those years getting an earlier start on my other interests instead.

Markets in Everything and Incentives Matter

Markets in Everything

I was intrigued on Memorial Day weekend by a show on the Discovery and Science channels called Oddities.  The half-hour show features the owners, Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson, of an “antiques and oddities” shop in New York City called Obscura as they haggle with buyers and sellers of some mighty strange stuff.  Mighty strange.  I thought bloggers were strange.

Belly lint art.  Rotting teeth.  Articulated animal skeletons.  Diseased brain cross sections.  You name it.

A number of times sellers walked into the store with some strange thing and I thought, they’ll never want that.  But then the owners offer pretty good sums of money for it.

If they don’t know what it is, they call in experts who usually “are really into this stuff” to get a better opinion on the going market rate for such oddities.

It’s interesting to watch.  I appreciate getting the insight into the haggling process.  For example, a sideshow performer worked Zohn and Michelson down on the price of a bed-of-nails sandwich (performer lies on his back on one bed-of-nails and then places another bed-of-nails, tips to nips, on his chest for people to stand on) from an old Coney Island sideshow by laying on the bed of nails and letting  Zohn and Michelson stand on top of him while he was in the sandwich.

Generally the sellers seem to be folks who have somehow acquired something strange from an inheritance, garage sale or something like that, and don’t really know what it is.  The buyers generally seem to be artists, performers and very specific collectors.

Incentives matter

One artist, who specializes in art from body functions and parts, was looking for something new.  Zohn pulled a large glass jar filled with rotting teeth from a top shelf.  He explained that dentists donated teeth that they pulled from patients to dental schools so dentists-in-training could practice filling cavities.  Somehow they came across this jar.

The artist loved it.  She and I both thought they would be happy to get rid of the whole jar for a price.  While hugging the jar she asked, “How much for this?”

Apparently there is a healthy market for rotting teeth.  “We sell those by the tooth.  You can pick out five or six teeth for $100 or so.”

This made me think back to Russell Roberts’ book the Price of Everything.  After an earthquake, one big box retailer raised prices on flashlights.  Some consumers saw this as price gouging.

But, the other side of the story is the higher prices caused better resource allocation.

Stores that didn’t raise prices were sold out of flashlights soon after the earthquake.  The value of flashlights had increased, but prices hadn’t, so the first few customers bought out the entire stock whether they really needed them or not, leaving no flashlights for customers that came in later.  The flashlights were allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis with all the spoils going to those who got to the store first.  People who came in later and really needed a flashlight could feel good that the store didn’t raise prices on flashlights, but they still wouldn’t be able to to buy a flashlight.

When the big box retailer raised prices, it caused people to more carefully consider their purchase, resulting in some people who may have already had flashlights, to pass on the flashlight purchase leaving more flashlights on the shelves for those who truly needed them.

Apparently, the same principle was at work on the rotting teeth.

Gervais on Success

Ricky Gervais

Test Marketing

I recommend this 12 minute Harvard Business Review podcast with Ricky Gervais. These are the parts that stuck out for me.

First, he agrees with me about awards.

The awards.  They’re a thrill. But, deep down, I know its only the opinions of a few people and it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose.

I’ve often been amazed at how awards are generally accepted as some great honor, when many times they’re a results of nothing more politics.  If you follow any awards like the Nobel Prize or even the Oscars, ask yourself what you really know about the people making the selection.  How and why is their criteria better than ours’?

Gervais continues on what he thinks is important:

What matters is the work you did. You tried your hardest and you’re proud of it.  You brought something into the world.  That’s the important thing.

I don’t try to please anyone except myself.  And if people like what I do, that’s fantastic.  If they don’t like it, then that’s good too.  If you start to try to water it down or second guess people, you end up with something so safe and homogenized that a lot of people will like, but they won’t love it.

I’ve always wanted to rather do something that really moved a million people then washes over 10 million.

I think that’s an extremely important insight.  Many successful organizations who have established their million fans make the mistake of trying too hard to expand to 10 million to find out that they’ve lost their million fans and aren’t that well liked by the other 9 million people.  I’d rather keep the million and find something else that works for another million.

I like the following because I think many successful people have their collaborators that we hear very little about.  Buffett has Munger, for instance.  Vince has E.

These are the no bullshit people.  That means these guys are tight enough with the Talent that they don’t blow smoke up the Talent’s bohunkus just to earn a spot in the entourage.  And the Talent trusts, values and appreciates their opinion — though they may not always agree.

Gervais explains how his collaboration with Stephen Merchant works.

It helps with two people.  Two heads are better than one.  But, there’s a compromise, which is bad. The best things are a single vision. So, you got to find a single vision between the two of you.

One, it’s luck.  Out of 6 billion people, I bumped into someone who sees eye-to-eye on 90 percent on everything we talk about.

He and Merchant have a golden rule.  One veto and it’s out.  No justification or compromise.  It just goes.

So, what you end up with the compromise is that every second of that thing, you both love it.

I love how Gervais appreciates the luck of finding a good collaborator.  I see so many people who I believe could be much more successful if only that could find those people they hit it off with.

I liked this bit about how he gets his material because it ties in with the experimentation and crowd sourcing themes that I write about on this blog frequently:

The things I work up on my own, it’s an evolution.  It’s a process of natural selection.  So the audience chooses the best bits.  They either laugh or they don’t.

So, if I do something that isn’t funny, they don’t laugh and it doesn’t survive.

If I say something that is funny, it’s funny every time.

What you’re left with at the end of a series of gigs is a survival of the fittest.  It’s the best gene pool that I could come up with.

So, I’ve got a room full of 10,000 collaborators and critics.

I’ve found the same thing with business presentations.  The best presentation I do on a new subject is about the fifth time I’ve presented the material, because I try a variety of things to illustrate a point and I keep the stuff that worked in presentations one through four and drop the stuff that didn’t.  And it works.

That’s why it’s always good to find practice audiences, have a keen eye for body language and learn how to cull out honest feedback.

Finally, on dealing with the fact not everything is for everybody and his inspiration.

I just do things that make me laugh and I always think that if I do something that genuinely makes me laugh, with no ulterior motive other than ‘that’s funny’, then there will be someone else in the world that finds it as funny as me.

And with 6 billion people in the world, there’s probably quite a few people who find it as funny as me.

And, that’ll do for me. That really will do.

Washing machines are a great innovation

Thanks to Aaron McKenzie of The Idiots’ Collective for directing me to this 10 minute TED talk from Hans Rosling.

In it, Rosling uses his mix of entertaining presentation skills, easy-to-understand graphics and simplifying data analytics to tell us how washing machines opened markets for books  and why environmental activists should refrain from giving energy use advice to others.

In the comments of his post, McKenzie requests a laundry folder.  That would be nice.

I have wondered why we store our clothes across the home to be close to our beds and baths rather than close to our washers and dryers.  Or, why we don’t put our washer/dryer closer to where we store our clothes.

Effective Visual

In this EconTalk podcast with Arnold Kling, Kling channels Bill Cosby to explain what he thinks is wrong with the idea of stimulating the economy with government spending:

The notion that by undertaking some aggregate spending policy you are going to enable entrepreneurs all of a sudden to discover those comparative advantage opportunities–I think it’s somewhat implausible.

I use this analogy of this old joke Bill Cosby used to tell: person drives into a gas station, doesn’t know where the gas tank is on his car; the gas station attendant can’t find it either. And the attendant says: Well, maybe we should just pour some gas all over the car and maybe it will seep in somewhere. To me that’s what aggregate demand policy is trying to do relative to finding patterns of sustainable specialization and trade.