Turning a Minus Into a Plus … Constraints are Catalysts for Innovation

Creativity Thrives Best When Constrained

“Art consists in limitation,” as the English writer G. K. Chesterton remarked. Constraints are the sine qua non of creativity.

One of the great ironies of creative thinking is that it seems to benefit from constraints. At first blush, inventive thinking may seem to require a great degree of freedom and a lack of restrictions, but the reality of the creative process is that it is frequently entwined with many challenging constraints and intractable requirements. In the right light, demanding constraints can truly be blessings in disguise as the French poet Paul Valery observed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”

Constraints can shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints stimulate creativity because they not only invigorate inventive thinking but also reduce the complexity of the problem at hand. That is to say, constraints can make a problem more controllable, and possibly even more appealing.

Constraints and Challenge Can Actually Be Assets to the Creative Process

When you explore inventions that are creative, you’ll discover that the creators often exploited some core constraints that had characterized their domain in the past. Here are six examples of creativity that exploited a constraint to great advantage.

  • British Airways 'Go for it America' marketing campaign and Virgin Atlantic's Response In 1986, British Airways ran a “Go for it, America!” marketing campaign to give away 5,200 free seats—all seats on its scheduled flights between USA and UK on June 10, 1986. In response, the upstart Virgin Atlantic ran its own newspaper advertisements that declared, “It has always been Virgin’s policy to encourage you to fly to London for as little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways.” And in smaller type, the ad read, “As for the rest of the year, we look forward to seeing you aboard Virgin Atlantic. For the best service possible. At the lowest possible fare.” The British Airways giveaway generated a lot of publicity, but most of the news coverage also mentioned Virgin’s unexpected, witty response.
  • In October 1984, during the second presidential debate with challenger Walter Mondale, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun questioned President Ronald Reagan about his age: “You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?” Reagan famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Tyrwhitt responded, “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over.” Mondale lost and Reagan got elected for his second term as President. [See YouTube clip of this debate.]
  • An determined young woman I knew was embarking on a career as a new architect. She had set her sights on a job with a prominent architectural firm, but her professors and career councilors urged her to gain experience at a smaller employer first, as no prestigious firm would take on an inexperienced, new graduate. Undeterred, the young woman applied to the firm she had set her sights for. When asked about her experience, she declared slickly, “I have no experience at all. You see, I want to learn this business at a top quality firm. Employ me and mentor me to suit your design practices. This way, I’ll not have to unlearn any of the second-rate skills I’d have learned in another place.” She got the job.
  • When YouTube launched in 2005, many of its upstart competitors examined each uploaded video for copyright infringement. However, unlike its competitors, YouTube calculatedly let users upload any content and waited for copyright owners to complain before taking down noncompliant videos. By choosing to put their business model at risk, YouTube rapidly grew in content and viewers. Its early rivals faded out, and YouTube got acquired by Google and went on to became the world’s leading video-sharing platform.
  • The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period) Legend has it that one day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy. Picasso had just relocated to Paris and was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome.
  • When American sculptor Janet Echelman‘s art supplies never arrived to South India on a Fulbright scholarship trip, Echelman altered her plans and started working with bronze casts inspired by the local materials and culture of Mahabalipuram, fishing village famous for sculpture. However, she soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While examining fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began speculating if nets could be a new approach to sculpture. However, the delicate surfaces of the fishnets revealed every ripple of wind. Echelman hoisted the fishnets onto poles and created sturdy volumetric forms without heavy, solid materials. Echelman’s building-sized constructed net art structures are now featured in many cities around the world. [See Janet Echelman’s TED talk.]

In each situation, the inventor reframed elements of his/her world that he/she couldn’t control.

When faced with an element of the situation that they cannot ignore or overcome, instead of tackling those problems head-on, creative folks tend to leverage their constraints in a creative way and reframe them into an exceptionally powerful problem-solving technique.

Idea for Impact: Constraints often stimulate creativity rather than suppress it.

The heart of many a problem lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, instead of asking, “how can I minimize this liability?” explore “how can I make the most of it?”

Fight Ignorance, Not Each Other

Demonization in the Era of Hyper-polarization and Hyper-politicization

We live in a era of hyper-polarization and hyper-politicization. Studies suggest that we Americans have mostly devolved to two political groups that fervently believe that all wisdom resides in their particular standpoints and therefore care less and less to empathize with the other side.

People loathe the “other” ideological group with such visceral obsession that their hate pollutes their minds. Thanks partly to social media, self-organized tribes are isolating themselves into geographic, religious, ideological, educational, ethnic, and media bubbles of like-minded crusaders.

As I wrote previously, studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks can make people even more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They neither account for the case against their positions, nor find middle ground.

In the wake of the 2011 Tucson shooting (where perpetrator Jared Loughner shot and killed six individuals, and injured 14 others at a political gathering,) meditation teacher James Baraz of wrote a Huffington Post essay underscoring the ignorance that brings about the aforesaid demonization:

The real villain is in this story is not Jared Loughner. It’s not the media. And it’s not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies—both in their minds and in actuality. Once you demonize the “other” they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.

How to Guard Against Anything You May Inadvertently Overlook

The World is More Inundated with Uncertainties and Errors Than Ever Before

Checklists can help you learn about prospective oversights and mistakes, recognize them in context, and sharpen your decisions.

I am a big fan of Harvard surgeon and columnist Atul Gawande‘s The Checklist Manifesto (2009.) His bestseller is an engaging reminder of how the world has become so complex.

The use of the humble checklist can help you manage the myriad of complexities that underlie most contemporary professional (and personal) undertakings—where what you must do is too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Checklists “provide a kind of a cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”

'The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right' by Atul Gawande (ISBN 0312430000) Gawande begins The Checklist Manifesto with an examination of the characteristics of errors from ignorance (mistakes you make because you don’t know enough—“much of the world and universe is—and will remain—outside our understanding and control”), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes you make because you don’t apply correctly what you know.) Most human and organizational failures involve the latter.

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

The surgery room, Gawande’s own profession, is the principal setting for many of the book’s illustrative examples of how the introduction of checklists dramatically reduced the rate of complications from surgery. He also provides handy stories from other realms of human endeavor—aviation, structural engineering, and Wall Street-investing.

Getting Things Right, Every Time

Checklists are particularly valuable in situations where the stakes are high enough, but your impulsive thought process could lead to suboptimal decisions.

'Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition' by Michael J. Mauboussin (ISBN 1422187381) The benefits of checklists also feature prominently in the thought-provoking Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (2012.) The author, Credit Suisse Investment analyst and polymath Michael J. Mauboussin, argues that checklists are more effective in certain domains than in others:

A checklist’s applicability is largely a function of a domain’s stability. In stable environments, where cause and effect is pretty clear and things don’t change much, checklists are great. But in rapidly changing environments that are heavily circumstantial, creating a checklist is a lot more difficult. In those environments, checklists can help with certain aspects of the decision. For instance, an investor evaluating a stock may use a checklist to make sure that she builds her financial model properly.

A good checklist balances two opposing objectives. It should be general enough to allow for varying conditions, yet specific enough to guide action. Finding this balance means a checklist should not be too long; ideally, you should be able to fit it on one or two pages.

If you have yet to create a checklist, try it and see which issues surface. Concentrate on steps or procedures, and ask where decisions have gone off track before. And recognize that errors are often the result of neglecting a step, not from executing the other steps poorly.

In addition to creating checklists that are specific enough to guide action but general enough to handle changing circumstances, Mauboussin recommends keeping a journal to gather feedback from past decisions and performing “premortems” by envisioning that a imminent decision has already been proven wrong, and then identifying probable reasons for the failure.

No Matter How Proficient You May Be, Well-designed Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes

Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes The notion of making and using checklists is so plainly obvious that it seems impracticable that they could have so vast an effect.

Investor Charlie Munger, the well-respected beacon of wisdom and multi-disciplinary thinking, has said, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” And, “I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise it’s easy to miss something important.”

Idea for Impact: Checklists can prevent many things that could go wrong in the hands of human beings, given our many well-documented biases and foibles. Well-designed checklists not only make sure that all the can-be-relied upon elements are in place in complex decision-making, but also provide for flexibility and room for ad hoc judgment.

Gambler’s Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

Gambler's Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

The Gambler’s Fallacy is the misleading belief that the probability of a specific occurrence in a random sequence is dependent on preceding events—that its probability will increase with each successive occasion on which it fails to occur.

Suppose that you roll a fair die 14 times and don’t get a six even once. According to the Gambler’s Fallacy, a six is “long overdue.” Thus, it must be a good wager for the 15th roll of the dice. This conjecture is irrational; the probability of a six is the same as for every other roll of the dice: that is, 1/6.

Chance Events Don’t Have Memories

In practical terms, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the hunch that if you play long enough, you will eventually win. For example, if you toss a fair coin and flip heads five times in a row, the Gambler’s Fallacy suggests that the next toss may well flip a tail because it is “due.” In actuality, the results of previous coin flips have no bearing on future coin flips. Therefore, it is poor reasoning to assume that the probability of flipping tails on the next coin-toss is better than one-half.

Gambler's Fallacy: Chance Events Don't Have Memories A classic example of the Gambler’s Fallacy is when parents who’ve had children of the same sex anticipate that their next child ought to be of the opposite sex. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) was the first to document the Gambler’s Fallacy. In Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1796,) Laplace identified an instance of expectant fathers trying to predict the probability of having sons. These men assumed that the ratio of boys to girls born must be fifty-fifty. If adjacent villages had high male birth rates in the recent past, they could predict more birth of girls in their own village.

There Isn’t a Lady Luck or an “Invisible Hand” in Charge of Your Game

The Gambler’s Fallacy is what makes gambling so addictive. Gamblers normally think that gambling is an intrinsically fair-minded system in which any losses they’ll incur will eventually be corrected by a winning streak.

In buying lottery tickets, as in gambling, perseverance will not pay. However, human nature is such that gamblers have an irrational hunch that if they keep playing, they will eventually win, even if the odds of winning a lottery are remote. However, the odds of winning the jackpot remain unchanged … every time people buy lottery tickets. Playing week after week doesn’t change their chances. What’s more, the odds remain the same even for people who have previously won the lottery.

Gambler’s Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913

Gambler's Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913 The Gambler’s Fallacy is also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy because of an extraordinary event that happened in the renowned Monte Carlo Casino in the Principality of Monaco.

On 18-August-1913, black fell 26 times in a row at a roulette table. Seeing that that the roulette ball had fallen on black for quite some time, gamblers kept pushing more money onto the table assuming that, after the sequence of blacks, a red was “due” at each subsequent spin of the roulette wheel. The sequence of blacks that occurred that night is an unusual statistical occurrence, but it is still among the possibilities, as is any other sequence of red or black. As you may guess, gamblers at that roulette table lost millions of francs that night.

Gambler’s Fallacy is The False Assumption That Probability is Affected by Past Events

The Gambler’s Fallacy is frequently in force in casual judgments, casinos, sporting events, and, alas, in everyday business and personal decision-making. This common fallacy is manifest by the belief that a random event is more likely to occur because it has not happened for a time (or a random event is less likely to occur because it recently happened.)

  • While growing up in India, I often heard farmers discuss rainwater observing that, if the season’s rainfall was below average, they worry about protecting their crops during imminent protracted rains because the rainfall needs to “catch-up to a seasonal average.”
  • Gambler's Fallacy in soccer / football penalty shootouts In soccer / football, kickers and goalkeepers are frequently prone to the Gambler’s Fallacy during penalty shootouts. For instance, after a series of three kicks in the same direction, goalkeepers are more likely to dive in the opposite direction at the fourth kick.
  • In the episode “Stress Relief” of the fifth season of the American TV series The Office, when the character Jim Halpert learns that his fiancee Pam Beesley‘s parents are divorcing, he quotes the common statistic that 50% of marriages wind up in divorce. Halpert then comments that, because his parents are not divorced, it is only reasonable that Pam’s parents are getting divorced.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a Powerful and Seductive Illusion of Control Over Events That are Not Controllable

Don’t be misled by the Gambler’s Fallacy. Be aware of the certainty of statistical independence. The occurrence of one random event has no statistical bearing upon the occurrence of the other random event. In other words, the probability of the occurrence of a random event is never influenced by a previous, or series of previous, arbitrary events.

Idea for Impact: Be skeptical of most judgments about probabilities. Never rely exclusively on your intuitive sense in evaluating probable events. In general, relying exclusively on your gut feeling or your hunches in assessing probabilities is usually not a reason to trust the assessment, but to distrust it.

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Enabling the Highest Degrees of Understanding: Book Summary of ‘The Unschooled Mind’

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions

'The Unschooled Mind' by Howard Gardner (ISBN 0465024386) In The Unschooled Mind (1991,) Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner makes a persuasive case for why even the brightest students often lack a deep understanding of what traditional schooling purports to teach them.

According to Gardner, students (in elementary schools to graduate colleges) may take exams and earn degrees, but their supposed knowledge turns out deficient in situations that are at variance from the “text-to-test” framework in which they learnt it. To some extent, this disconnect is an outcome of teachers’ settling for “correct-answer compromises” whereby students take the rote repetition of facts, formulas, concepts, and theories for a real understanding of fundamental concepts.

Robust Forms of Intuitive Knowledge

Overall, Gardner argues that children tend to acquire well-established models for perceptive learning and intuitive thinking by the time they are five years old. They develop wide-ranging beliefs about the physical world and distinctive models of events and people.

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions Subsequently, when children begin their schooling, they are launched into pedagogic methods that often sidestep—even interfere with—the children’s entrenched patterns of learning and understanding. That is to say, children have to put up with a disagreeable dichotomy between their intuitive learning patterns and the academic learning:

In its theoretical resourcefulness and intuitions, [a 5-year old’s mind] is powerful; in its artistic endeavors, it can be creative and imaginative; in its adventurousness, it is exemplary. … Education that takes seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child is far more likely to achieve success than education that ignores these views, either considering them to be unimportant or assuming that they will disappear on their own.

Experiential Learning, Supplanted by Critical Analysis and Synthesis, Can Enhance Students’ Points of View

The Unschooled Mind contends that far-reaching knowledge and appreciation of education can occur only when students are allowed to integrate their “prescholastic” learning modes with the scholastic and the disciplinary ways of traditional school education. “The problem is less a difficulty in school learning per se and more a problem in integrating the notational and conceptual knowledge featured in school with the robust forms of intuitive knowledge that have evolved spontaneously during the opening years of life.”

Gardner’s solution to this problem is to situate students in educational environments that pique their curiosity about the subject matter and, at the higher levels of education, challenge their preexisting assumptions. Educating children for the utmost degrees of understanding involves designing educational systems that help students synthesize these several patterns of learning.

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding For real learning to occur, Gardner argues, students must have an opportunity to realize their own ignorance, and then ask and explore their own questions. Teachers must regularly expose students to “Christopherian encounters”—compelling personal discoveries of the inconsistencies between their various frames of reference—by approaching any subject matter through at least five instructive channels:

Gardner claims that traditional schooling should incorporate more apprenticing—apprenticeship programs build most effectively on the ways children learn—and schools should become more like children’s museums.

Recommendation: Read The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, especially if you have a child in school. The key takeaway: to enable the highest degrees of understanding, any skills instruction must be systematically reinforced by instruction in which the deployment of the skills makes holistic sense.

Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectively:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko