Friday, December 18th, 2009
We admire and envy Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Barack Obama, and other successful people. But success does not come by itself. Even for those born into the right families at the right time, it takes years of dedication and hard work to become successful. And it often entails sacrifices in relationships and other activities. What does success mean to you? Are you willing to pay the price to succeed?
I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a columnist for the New Yorker who writes fascinating, contorted stories that seem to amble here and there before finally converging to his point. In one article he talks about paleontology, Microsoft, and near-simultaneous inventions and discoveries before settling in to describe a “think tank” company that patents new technology ideas.
In Outliers, Gladwell brings together a number of research studies in fields ranging from elementary education to hockey players, corporate takeover law, and others. One conclusion is that there is no such thing as a “self-made man”. Everyone who is successful gets there by having a team, a support network, and a set of fortuitous circumstances that help elevate them.
I initially found that a little depressing. For example, almost all successful hockey players are born early in the year. That could suggest that people like me (with a November birthday) might as well give up (at athletics, at least). As it was, my parents pushed to get me into school early; I certainly would have had a different school experience if I had started a year later. And yes, I sucked at sports.
But that isn’t really Gladwell’s main point. He believes that the circumstances that turn those early-birth-date players into successes can be duplicated and applied to the training of others. And we can use that to turn his research into an action plan for success.
Workers of the World… Succeed
One of Gladwell’s messages is that people don’t just “find themselves at the top”. They work their way up there, and it takes a lot of work. One study shows that to become an expert in any field, you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice and preparation. That means it takes at least ten years of intense study and work just to learn your craft.
Gladwell contrasts the workaholic attitude of Chinese peasant rice farmers with the more laid-back view of Russian and European serfs. Rice is a crop that requires constant attention and work, so it can’t be grown efficiently by slave labor. A Chinese proverb says, “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” How many of us can even imagine that degree of dedication to our work? It doesn’t exactly fit with the popular “something for nothing” approach to life.
Do you have to kill yourself to be successful? Or is there another way? I can think of at least three.
Hours in an Eye-Blink
Practice breeds perfection. And Passion encourages Practice. Find an activity that engrosses you and makes you forget about time, and you will have found the profession at which you can become an expert. I took up computer programming in high school because it was fascinating. I spent many after-school hours playing with the computer and getting it to follow my commands. A few years later, I began to make programming my career.
There has been a lot of press in recent years about work-life balance, especially in the video game industry. Many game companies require mandatory overtime to meet their hectic delivery schedules. The problem is that you can’t mandate passion or dedication. People who are really immersed in their professions work hard, and work long hours, because they don’t think of it as overwork.
When I worked at “regular” programming jobs, most programmers put in 45 or 50 hours a week just because they hated to leave in the middle of a task. Video game development intensifies that – 60 hour weeks are the norm during “crunch phases”. There is so much to do, and almost everything you do breaks new ground, so programmers don’t even think about going home after 8 hours. They want to get the job done, and they love to play with the code until it’s perfect.
Work-life balance? You bet! Your work will become your life. Don’t use this as an excuse for bad relationships though. You can invest a lot of passion in your work and still be a decent human being when you’re at home. But you’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about your creative and work activities, so it helps to have partners and friends who share your passion.
Work Smarter, Not Longer
The 10,000 hour rule teaches you how to become an expert. That doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life working those 60 hour weeks. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children who wanted to learn a craft started as apprentices or indentured servants. Over the course of 7-10 years, they became expert in the craft and the best eventually became Journeymen and then Masters. A Master was known for his skill and artistry, not for working 10 and 12 hour days.
If you were managing an important and challenging project, which employee would you rather have? You can have someone who works by rote for you ten hours a day and turns out a mostly-complete job as you hit the deadline. Or you can have someone who spends a lot of her day thinking and researching, then 3 or 4 hours doing exactly what is needed to finish the task perfectly. I know who I’d choose! But surprisingly many managers prefer the “hard worker” to the expert.
In the game industry – and I think, in life – everything really worthwhile takes experimentation and the willingness to try different approaches. The approaches that don’t work have to be thrown away. If you’re lucky, they might suggest ideas that can be used for another project down the line. But if you aren’t willing to try – and often fail – you won’t accomplish anything extraordinary.
Work smarter, not harder. A few hours of effort with proper preparation is worth a lot more than a marathon for which you didn’t practice. In your career, those first years of preparation in which you work your tail off may give you the opportunity to be successful with a reasonable work schedule later.
Shared Passion is Passion Multiplied
Outliers teaches us that nobody succeeds alone. Spend your time with people who share your passion. Work with people you respect and admire, and try to adopt their best practices. Join a great team or try to create one. You will get a lot farther that way than by hiding in a corner and trying to do everything yourself.
My most productive periods have been when I worked closely with a peer – someone who could look over my shoulder when I got stuck, or with whom I could discuss ideas. Two heads are better than one when it comes to creative approaches to solving problems. And that helps you work smarter.
Lori and I have always had a collaborative relationship. That isn’t always easy – another word for collaboration is “arguing”. But each of us pushes the other to try new things and to do them as well as we can. Many of the puzzles and story elements in our games started with a “half-baked idea” that we kicked back and forth until it really worked.
Each week, when I start writing this blog, I seem to get to 400 words and stall. Lori pushes me to get the rest done. Then she usually makes me reread what I wrote and make it better. Even though I do almost all of the writing, these blogs would be much lower quality without the intervention.
Two or three people working together will accomplish much more than the same people working on their own. Individual work adds up; collaboration multiplies.
Going out of your way to try new experiences and meet interesting people can also be a way to find your passion. If your work doesn’t immerse and fascinate you, maybe you just haven’t tried enough kinds of work yet. Some very successful people started out trying out a little of everything. Go on – Give something new a try!
Success = Worth
I don’t consider anyone truly “successful” if they don’t love and care about their life and their work. You need to know that your contributions really matter to stay passionate about your work.
If you don’t feel that passion, maybe you need to reinvent yourself. Take on new tasks. Try new types of work. Volunteer your services for a few weeks at a time. If you have a creative idea and don’t see a clear way to capitalize on it, work on it for fun, then give it away. Worth is not measured by how much money you make, but by what you create and the value you add through your work and your ideas.
In the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether anyone else calls you an “expert”. All that matters is that you can look back and say, “I’ve accomplished a lot with my life.” Find small ways to make the world – and the lives of people around you – a little better. There is no greater success than that in life or in work.
Friday, December 19th, 2008
I (Corey) just read a fascinating book called, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives,” by Leonard Mlodinow. Since I found myself quoting all sorts of interesting tidbits from the book to Lori, I guess it’s time for another book review – what “The Drunkard’s Walk” is all about and how it relates to games and life.
A “drunkard’s walk,” also known as a “random walk,” is a mathematical term for randomness. Suppose you take one step in a random direction, turn in a random direction, take another step, and so on? Will you end up at your starting point? It’s possible, but it’s far more likely you’ll end up somewhere else. If you flip a balanced coin and it comes up Heads, the next flip is equally likely to come up Heads or Tails. Over the long run, you’ll probably get about half of each, but you can expect to see a lot of “clusters” of 3, 4, 5, or more Tails in a row. That’s why you can’t just pick the best team in a sport and expect them to win every time. There are so many random factors to any significant event that you can never be sure of the outcome until it happens.
There are a lot of counter-intuitive results in probability. Perhaps you’re familiar with the “Let’s Make a Deal” puzzle from the old television game show. Your host, Monty Hall, shows you three doors. Behind one is a brand-new Mercedes, while the other two have live donkeys. After you choose one of these doors, Monty opens one of the remaining two and shows you that there’s a donkey behind it. He then offers you the choice to stick with your original door or switch to the last one. So, what IS behind Door number One? Should you switch? Does it make a difference?
What do you think?
What Are the Odds?
“The Drunkard’s Walk” has some crossover with the previously-reviewed book, “The Black Swan.” One of the important points is that there’s a huge difference between “unlikely” and “impossible.” Over enough trials, every unlikely result is likely to occur. And in a single trial, anything can happen. If you roll two dice together, the most likely result is that they will total 7, but that only happens 1/6 of the time. It is twice as likely that you will roll one of the “unlikely” results of 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, or 12, because their combined chance is 1/3.
That’s really what the Black Swan theory is about – When you look at enough highly unlikely possibilities, the combined chance that at least one of them will happen is actually very high. Of course it’s impossible to predict which unlikely chance will come up – except as a random guess – but unlikely things occur all the time. A friend is fond of saying, “All that probability shows is how unlikely it was for the thing that just happened to occur.”
You’re probably all familiar with the “bell curve” – also known as a “normal distribution”. Basically, “average” and near-average results are the most common, while very low and very high results are rarer. The problem is that our minds are not wired very well for understanding randomness. As a result, we tend to overemphasize the high probabilities and underestimate the lower ones. If we roll two dice, if we expect them to total 6, 7, or 8, we’ll be right a lot, but still wrong more than half the time. If we note that the stock market has historically risen 8-10% per year, we may find ourselves expecting our stock holdings to go up 9% next year… but as we’ve seen, the fluctuations that make up that total trend can be huge, and there’s no guarantee the trend will continue. The outliers – strings of low-probability random results – actually happen quite a lot and can make life very interesting.
Patterns in Chaos
Our brains are programmed to look for and recognize patterns. This is a valuable survival trait, but has the unfortunate side-effect that we tend to see patterns where there are none. We tend to think that a heavily-downloaded song must be good. It might be, but it’s just as likely that it got a few extra downloads early from fans or random chance, then after that benefited from the snowball effect of others assuming that its early success was meaningful.
A related phenomenon is the “confirmation fallacy,” which basically says that we see what we expected to see. Sneaky researchers did a blind taste test of cola brands. First they asked the 30 participants which they preferred – Pepsi or Coke. They then tasted both colas, and 21 out of 30 found they liked the brand they had said they preferred. However, the researchers had switched the bottles, putting Coke in the Pepsi bottle and vice versa. In another test, researchers put the same wine into five bottles with price tags ranging from $10 to $90. The $90 bottle got much higher ratings than the $10 bottle. We tend to believe “authority”, in this case, that the $90 wine must be better for them to be able to charge that much.
Are you concerned that you got a “B” on an important essay test when you thought you should get an “A”? That’s just another example of randomness. In one study, a group of eight faculty members independently graded 120 term papers on the A-F scale. In some cases, their grades differed by two full marks. The average range was one full grade. I remember a friend in High School getting marked down for misspelling “Trinity” in the title of his short story, “A Threnody for Reason.” The teacher didn’t bother to look up “threnody” – a funeral dirge – which was in fact a perfect title for the story. Or the college writing instructor who thought that Lori made up the word, “Ragnarok” on a poem… Teachers, just can’t trust ’em… er… except for the ones at Our School!
Randomness happens… but how we react to it affects how we live our lives. We think that Bill Gates must be much smarter than other software entrepreneurs because Microsoft has been so successful. And yet, the story of Microsoft points to a huge series of lucky incidents that resulted in that success. Any of a number of less-successful entrepreneurs could be just as smart, and run their businesses just as well, but got fewer “heads” in a row on the coin flips of fate. Sports team managers and executives are judged on the success of their team/company, but pretty much all the winning streaks and team records follow normal distribution patterns. They match random results much better than anything predictive based on management. “The Drunkard’s Walk” has dozens of similar examples of events which are best explained by randomness, but which we tend to think of as having a deeper pattern and meaning.
Make Your Best Deal
Did you answer, “It doesn’t matter,” to the Let’s Make a Deal puzzle? Most people do. In fact, when Marilyn vos Savant said in her syndicated newspaper column that you should switch, she received a lot of angry letters from pretty intelligent people. However, she was correct. Look at the problem this way – You started with a 1/3 chance of picking the correct door. There was a 2/3 chance that the car was behind one of the other doors. Now Monty – who knows which door hides the car – eliminates a door. Your door still has a 1/3 chance of being correct, and the other two doors still have a 2/3 chance. But now there’s only one door to switch to, so the 2/3 chance applies to it alone. Switching gives you twice the chance of driving home in a new car as staying with your original pick. Results on the show confirm this – People who chose a door and stayed with it won the big prize about 1 time in 3. People who switched won 2 times in 3 – double the odds of staying with your original pick.
You can see this more clearly by saying there were 100 doors at the beginning. After you pick one, the host opens 98 of the remaining 99 doors to show they’re empty (or filled with donkeys). There’s a 99/100 chance that the prize is behind the last door, vs. the 1/100 chance that you picked correctly originally. Even if you think there’s a good chance your host is trying to cheat you, you should switch. After all, isn’t it almost as likely that he’s trying to use reverse-psychology on you by trying to keep you from switching?
We all tend to be stubborn about choices. Once we make one, we hate to switch. But when the original decision is purely random, and there is any evidence at all in favor of switching, it pays to be flexible.
Getting Superior Results in a Random World
Are you depressed at the idea that so much of what happens in our lives is random? You shouldn’t be. The important message I took away from “The Drunkard’s Walk” was that we can make randomness work to our advantage. Failures happen, but people who refuse to give up after a setback are the ones most likely to find eventual success. If you “win on a 6”, keep rolling the dice. Sooner or later, you’re likely to hit. If you give up after the first roll, you’re out of the game.
Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being turned down for a job. Writers and salespeople face constant rejection; one writer papered his cabin with rejection slips. The successful ones are those who keep going and try again. My father has been a successful real estate investor. He once told me that the important thing was never to fall in love with a property. He would make an offer far below the asking price, and if it was rejected, move on to the next property. The first Harry Potter book was rejected nine times before J. K. Rowling found a publisher and became the wealthiest writer in the world. The winners in the game of life are those who keep going and keep trying.
“Never give up; never surrender. Full speed ahead!” Most success comes from trying and failing and trying and failing and yet, trying again. Keep trying and the random factors will eventually align (probably!). Make the odds work in your favor! If you never give up, you’ll never fail.