We roast our own beans

I recently heard Seth Godin talk about his passion for coffee – although he does not drink it, he only makes it. He said:

We roast our own beans. You can’t make a good coffee with an expensive coffee machine. You need to start with the best beans.

I think this is a good metaphor for how I think about our team at Andreyev Lawyers. It resonates why we like to hire young graduates who have the right attitude and approach to life – and then we roast then into good lawyers! Fortunately for them, the ‘roasting’ reference is just a metaphor…

Tim and Seth

I just finished listening to Tim Ferris interview Seth Godin. Listen here.

I know I am only one in several million people who get so much out of listening to them – but I really do. Seth is at a whole new level to Tim, but they each bring an invigorating perspective to life.

Enough so, that I am going to start up this blog again.

Why?

First, because I want to keep a journal of notes for myself. A place where I can find things I might want to find again someday – like the link to the interview between Tim and Seth, like the names of people I have met and learned from.

Secondly, because I think I am good at identifying ideas and content that is interesting to other people.

If you have found this blog – then that’s amazing! Welcome. Sign up to hear more.

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely

‘Behavioural economics’ is basically the study of how humans really act, as opposed to how we think we act, or think we should act.

Most of Western philosophy and social science (including law) is based on the notion that we are ‘rational’ people, who behave in a predictable way.  The fundamental legal notion that we are ‘responsible for our own actions’ is premised on the belief that we can rationally and positively control our own actions.  What Dan and other behavioural economists enjoy pointing out to us is that this is not in fact true – and that a lot of what we do is based on hard-wired instinct, and our interaction with our environment.

Following on from his bestselling book Predictably Irrational, Dan’s latest book looks at the issue of ‘honesty’.  He explores how honest we are to others, but more importantly, how honest we are to ourselves. 

The premise of this book is that we are all dishonest, but only to the extent that we can convince ourselves that we are still good people.  There is both a natural tendency to cheat (in almost all things), but also a counterbalancing natural tendency to limit this cheating to a personal and socially acceptable level.

He goes about proving this theory by means of a series of ingenuous social experiments.  This is really what I like about Dan’s books. They are not theoretical or academically derivative.  He starts with a simple yet counter-intuitive hypothesis, comes up with ingenuous experiments to test the hypothesis, and then presents his objective findings in a cohesive and entertaining way.

Two experiments that he uses throughout the book are what I call the ‘puzzle test’ and the ‘dot estimate test’. 

In the puzzle test he gives people a number of complex puzzles to solve.  He then varies the conditions that allow the people to cheat, and measures how many they claim to solve against a control group where cheating was not possible.  There is usually a monetary reward for the number of puzzles solved.

In the other experiment he divides a square into two triangles, and then asks the participants to estimate which triangle has the most dots in it over a range of several hundred examples.  Sometimes it is obvious which triangle has more dots, but most of the time it is difficult to guess.  He then only rewards the person when they estimate that the right-hand triangle has more dots.  What this does is biases the person to estimate that there are more dots in the right triangle – even when it is more likely that there are more dots in the left triangle.  The extent of the bias is a proxy for their propensity to cheat.

Another experiment I particularly liked involved people’s ability to make good decisions under stress or pressure.  In this experiment, he gave half the participants a 2-digit number to remember, and the other half a 7-digit number to remember.  They had to walk down the hall and tell another person their number.  On the way they had to choose a small reward.  On their return they could collect their reward and leave. The reward choices involved some fruit and some chocolate bars.  Those trying to remember the 7-digit number chose the unhealthy but tempting chocolate significantly more than the 2-digit participants.  It appears that our mind only has so much ‘energy’ for making good and honest decisions.

Another example involved a vending machine that Dan had wired to return both the food and the customer’s money.  As it turns out, on average people only took three free items, whereas they could have emptied the machine.  They each had a justification for their cheating, for example, they had been ripped off by vending machines in the past and were ‘restoring the balance’.  People would also go and grab their friends to get some free food, which gave an element of social acceptability to the dishonesty.

Following along the theme that we are only dishonest to the extent that we can convince ourselves we are still a good person, he correlated how much people will cheat with how ‘creative’ they are.  The theory was that more creative people will cheat to a greater extent because they will be more creative in how they convince themselves they are still honest.  He had people in an advertising agency take the cheating tests, and plotted the results against the level of creativity in their job. Applying the dot estimate test, the ‘creatives’ were the most dishonest, with the accountants and clerks being the most honest.

The other thing Dan explored was the ‘social element’ of dishonesty, including how ‘infectious’ dishonesty was.  The theory being that we will cheat more if it is seen as socially acceptable – if other people are doing it.  When Dan used an actor to demonstrate to the test participants that cheating was possible and socially acceptable, more people cheated. When he allowed people to work together and share the proceeds, more cheating arose – even though both people were aware of each other’s cheating. The level of cheating also increased the better the people knew each other.

The key premise to most of Dan’s work is that people behave in irrational ways, but through careful objective study we can very accurately predict this irrationality, i.e. it is possible to understand how humans will act in a given scenario, it just may not be what we expect.

Why do I see these books as ‘self help’? The idea is that armed with a more realistic understanding of ourselves, we can make adjustments to our environment (the pre-conditions of our actions) to promote the outcomes we are after.  Or failing that, we can be a little more ‘honest’ to ourselves about our ‘dishonesty’…

Rating: I give this book ‘3.5 Stars’ out of 5.  Well worth a read.

For more information on this book, or to learn about Dan Ariely, visit: http://danariely.com/

Keeping software simple

I have been working on a software program for about 2 and a half years now. It is pretty cool – and getting cooler by the day. However, I can’t help thinking that if it was a little less cool, and a little more used, then life would make a lot more sense.

It was in this frame of mind that I came across what has become one of my favourite software companies – http://www.37signals.com. Now you would think that if these guys were really my favourite software company then I would be using all their gear. But unfortunately that is not the case. In fact, I do not use any of their software. I just like the way they think.

The reason I know what they think is because I have read their books – both of them. But I hear you say, these guys write software, what do books have to do with anything? Well they were so good at running their software company, they decided to write about it, and share their insights.

A lot of professionals write books to get “leverage” from their knowledge – rather than getting paid by the hour. Most professionals also think of software as the ultimate in leverage – ‘write once, sell many’. So when a software company writes a book about how to build a software company – we are talking ‘leverage on leverage’ that would make a Goldman Sacks mortgage broker start to drool.

Their premise is that you can’t please everyone all the time – and if you try then your software soon becomes someone else’s bitch. Software seems to suffer from the same fate as humans, when it puts on weight, it does so in all the wrong places.

So how do you keep your software looking trim? Focus. Don’t try and satisfy everyone all of the time. In fact, make it a rule to only satisfy some people most of the time.

The benefit of errors

The importance of mistakes and errors in achieving high performance

I have been reading a series of books about what at first appeared to be unrelated topics. Neuroscience, talent (or the lack thereof), checklists, decision-making, and high performance teams (see list below).  Many of these books will already be familiar to you – that is, if you are a ‘Business’ and ‘Self Help’ book junkie like I am.

While not a common theme on the face of each book – an underlying principle in all of them is the importance of mistakes and errors.

Some couch the importance of mistakes in the guise of “deliberate practice”, some focus on “mistakes to be avoided”, while others talk about the “process of learning”. But fundamentally they are all talking about the same thing: mistakes and errors – plain and simple.

“Deliberate practice” is the process of pushing the boundaries of your abilities just past your own competence – so you make mistakes, and then deliberately correct those mistakes – and thereby improve your skill.  Folklore (and in fact the scientists) now tell us that it takes in excess of 10,000 hours of this type of deliberate practice to get any good at something.

The body of books on “avoiding mistakes” attempts to assist us learn and develop at the expense of someone else’s mistakes. It is a nice idea – see where others have gone wrong, and then go down a different path. However, what is apparent from the third group of books is that this actually does not work all that well.

The third group of books on neuroscience (and how we learn) are the most interesting in this series – because they tell us actually what a “mistake” is – and how it benefits us.  They also explain why reading about someone else’s mistake is rarely useful in developing a new skill (although sometimes comforting).

I am no expert in physiology, but apparently when you make a mistake and become conscious of it, your body is flooded with hormones that make certain cells within your brain “plastic”, i.e. capable of making new connections.  By consciously acknowledging and studying the mistake at this ‘learning-ready’ time, your brain is able to re-wire its understanding – and thereby improve.

What is interesting about these books is the case studies they highlight: The musical prodigy who slowly goes over and over a piece of new music, painstakingly correcting their own mistakes, rather than proudly playing the pieces they have already mastered.  The sports star who watches video of their performance over and over again – not focusing on the winning shots, but the unforced errors.  Or the artificial intelligence computer that beats the world’s best chess and backgammon players by applying algorithms that only focus on past wrong moves – not winning moves.

What this line of enquiry and observation highlights for me is the fundamental importance of mistakes in all things good and worthwhile.

The unfortunate part: I, like the rest of you, have not tended to be a big fan of my mistakes. In fact, I have generally made an art form out of hiding them, re-characterising them, shifting them onto someone else, and generally trying to ignore them.

Our education system also has a dislike for mistakes.  Big red crosses and frowning faces when we get the sum wrong, or spell a word incorrectly.  The last thing we want to do is associate anything good from this process – we want to move on and find some of those blue ticks and smiling faces.

There is also a physical reason for this general aversion to mistakes and errors – because the process of acknowledging and learning from your mistake is actually quite physically demanding and uncomfortable.  We are wired to do what kept the majority of us alive, but in a huddle, on the Sahara.  It also now keeps the majority of us in our middling-performance 21st Century ‘comfort zone’.

One interesting anecdote is an experiment that was done on children.  Two groups of children were given a problem to solve. One group was shown their errors but were praised for their effort, while the other group were praised for their results (they were told they were ‘smart’).  When given an even harder problem, the group praised for their efforts significantly outperformed the group praised for their earlier results.  One group began to associate the physical process of learning with positive reinforcement, while the other group became timid and invested in their ego.

So if you want to get better at something – or even excel at something – you need to get over your mistake aversion.  You need to embrace your mistakes, put in place conscious systems to pick up and analyse your mistakes, and generally learn to love them.

When was the last time you heard about an entrepreneur who never failed before becoming a success? Never.  In my experience there are only two types of entrepreneurs – those who have failed and not got back up, and those who have failed and then got back up to go on to success. Those that have learned from their past mistakes.

If you want to build and nurture a high performance team, then you need to create an environment that:

  • Allows for people to make mistakes in a protected environment; and
  • Tolerates mistakes and errors – but on the condition the mistakes are ‘owned’ and used as a conscious learning and performance enhancing experience.

You need to take regular time out of your team’s schedule to talk about mistakes and errors, analyse how they occurred, and discuss how they can be avoided in the future – what pilots famously refer to as a post-flight “de-brief”.

Yes, you need to celebrate your wins.  But even more importantly, you need to dwell happily on your mistakes.  Only from the conscious study of your mistakes will you reach your true potential.

BOOK LIST

The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer

The Ten Commandments for Business Failure by Donald R. Keough

Why People Fail by Simon Reynolds

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam

Sway – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour by Ori and Ron Brafman