Perseveration, or perseverance? Obsession, or passion?

The distinction between “perseverate” and “persevere” is one that I have often wondered about. What I’ve come up with, in a nutshell, is this:

  • perseverate is bad, keeping at something for no real purpose
  • persevere is good, keeping at something in pursuit of a meaningful goal.

Another way to look at it is that someone who perseverates is acting on an obsession, while someone who perseveres is pursuing a passion. In his article Passion Versus ObsessionJohn Hagel provides some insight into this distinction as he reconsiders his earlier question, “When does passion become obsession?“:

To say passion becomes obsession is to make a distinction of degree. It implies that obsession is a more passionate form of passion—too much of a good thing. However, I’m now convinced that passion and obsession do not vary in degree, but in kind. In fact, in many ways they are opposite. [original emphasis]

A real challenge for all parents, but especially parents of autistic kids, is to understand the difference between an obsession and a passion of our kids. Consider the following, a passage that I wrote comparing two different authors’ views on the effect and value of video games:

To Prensky, video games are a passion that can lead to positive learning and skills…. For the Bruners, video games are an obsession that lead to destroyed lives.

If you read the entire article, you will see that the amazing thing is that both Prensky and the Bruners had basically the same understanding of how games work and draw players in but come to wildly different – opposing – conclusions about what it means. For one, games provided an outlet for passion; for the other, games are a destructive obsession.

So how exactly do you figure out if your kid’s behavior is an obsession – so you can help understand and overcome it – or a passion that you can nurture and encourage?  For many parents, especially of “normal” kids, this can seem pretty straightforward: if your kid is interested in something weird, it is an obsession; if it is something more common, then it is a passion.

But just a few seconds thought, serious thought, and you realize that this is not a very good way to make this distinction. Or, as teenage autistic Luke Jackson asks (in a quote that I’ve used before) with more than a hint of sarcasm:

When is an obsession not an obsession?

When it is about football.

For parents of autistic kids, this question is more than academic. Perseveration, or what we believe is perseveration, is a hallmark of autistic behavior. But what if what we are seeing is really just good old-fashioned perseverance?

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It’s not about easy; thoughts on a world without e-mail

I’ve been following Luis Suarez’ (@elsua) thoughts on a world without e-mail for quite a while now. His arguments have always made sense, and yet I’ve always had this nagging feeling of, “Yeah, but….”

Last week I had a chance to view/listen to a recent presentation Luis gave about making the jump from e-mail to social media tools, along with the mind map – no PowerPoint, either! – that goes with it, appropriately subtitled E-mail is where knowledge goes to die. I think I finally understand.

After listening to the presentation, and talking with some co-workers and others about it, one of the most common comments I heard was, “That sounds great, but it looks so hard. Why would I want to do make my life and my work harder?”

It was then that I realized that when most people who are tied to e-mail hear this argument about social media vs. e-mail, they apparently think that moving their work is supposed to make doing their job easier. But that’s not what it’s about at all.

Using social media isn’t about easy, it’s about better. More effective, more productive, less wasteful; however you define “better”.

In e-mail, there is no learning, no opportunity to learn.  In fact, e-mail practically screams “non-learning environment”. Despite what it is you are actually trying to accomplish in your work, you spend a good amount of time trying to stay out of “mail jail”. When someone new joins your team or your project, they will never catch up. How can they, when all the knowledge has died in e-mail archives that are “somewhere else”.

With social media, nearly every transaction is a learning opportunity. Sure you’ll spend as much time sorting through all your social media contacts and messages as you do processing e-mail. But with social media, you are forced to make sense of the information, all the while creating and sharing new knowledge about whatever it is you are working on.

Of course, if you don’t care about learning, about improving, about becoming more effective, then sticking with e-mail is fine.

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Kids, sacrifice, and the master’s journey

I don’t remember exactly where I read this, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this little anecdote captures the essence of mastery, and the sacrifice that often goes with it:

A world class, and world famous, dancer was approached by an excited fan following a performance.

“You were fantastic!” the fan said. “I’d give half my life to be able to dance like that.”

“That’s exactly what I did,” responded the dancer.

Ian competing on TrampIf you are the parent of a child involved in athletics at the elite level, or an adult who was one of those kids, you know exactly what this dancer is talking about. My own personal experience as a parent is with gymnastics.

My son was (is) very talented on the trampoline (he was a national champion at his age / level), but when it came time to make the move into “elite”, he recognized that he wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice demanded of that level. We know plenty of others who chose to make that sacrifice.

(As an aside, there is quite the business in “online education” for those young athletes who are unable to attend school – middle, high – because of their intense training schedule.)

The hardest part of embarking on the master’s journey is the knowledge of the sacrifices you must make, the things that you must give up or resign yourself to never experience. That is why I think it is so much easier for kids – or younger people – to commit themselves to that journey.

As parents, we have a responsibility to make sure that our kids have a “childhood”. Many times this takes the form of making sure they are “well rounded”, and don’t spend too much time on any one thing. In other words, setting up roadblocks on the master’s path.

How much of this is because we really think this is best for our kids, and how much of it is an expression of our own fear of the tough journey?

The importance of teachers and coaches

How many times have you heard someone say, “Those who can’t do, teach (or coach)”? How many times have you said it, or thought it? I think we all probably have at some point in our lives. Except for those who know early on that what they want to do is teach or coach. They know already that teachers and coaches are valuable for their ability to teach and coach, independent of their ability to “do” what they teach or coach.

Over the weekend I saw the video “What Teachers Make” that tackles this question head on. (Found via Seth’s Blog.)

Back in December 2008, I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell’s Q&A with ESPN during his Outliers book tour, in which he had this to say about coaches:

I always find it incredible that an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round, give him a $10 million signing bonus, and get, maybe, four good years out of him. Suppose you spent $10 million finding and training the equivalent of Mike Leach — someone who could create a system so good that it could make even the most mediocre athletes play like stars. You could get 40 years out of him.

Good teachers and coaches are invaluable to our children. And to adults, if we are smart enough to go out and find one.

Rework (a review)

Front cover image - Rework

Rework is my kind of book. Written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from 37Signals, it has several chapters  made up of a bunch of short essays (most less than two pages) that each dive into a very specific idea or question related to the chapter. And pictures, lots of pictures.

Much of the content comes from the personal experiences of the authors over the past 10 years. To say that their approach to their company is unusual and unorthodox (at least compared to how you are usually told you should run a business) is an understatement.

The following essays in the book give you an idea of what I mean:

  • Ignore the real world (p. 13) – “The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse.”
  • Why grow? (p. 22) – “Small is a great destination in itself.”
  • Scratch your own itch (p. 34) – examples include James Dyson, Vic Firth, and Mary Kay Wagner
  • Embrace constraints (p. 67) – “Constraints are advantages in disguise.”
  • Throw less at the problem (p. 83) – “Your project won’t suffer nearly as much as you fear.”
  • Meetings are toxic (p. 108) – OK, we already knew that
  • Underdo your competition (p. 144) – “Do less than your competitors to beat them.”
  • …and many more…

The individual essays read like blog posts, and they are collected into chapters that could most easily be compared to tags on a blog. The chapters are organized in an almost, but not quite, chronological order based on when you might need the info as you grow (or don’t) your business. The first time through I read the book front to back, but it doesn’t really matter what order you read them.

Though aimed squarely at starters (not entrepreneurs) who want to start a business (not start a startup), Rework contains valuable ideas and insights for anyone who works, whether for themselves or for someone else. Big companies likely will not be able – or interested – in implementing many of the ideas, but anyone can take the lessons and make a difference in their corner of whatever company they find themselves.

The design of the book is also a lesson in the unusual; about the only typical aspect are the inside flaps on the book jacket. For example, when I started reading the book, I immediately had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was only when I finished the book and saw, on the last printed page, the copyright page that I realized the source of that feeling.

Fried and Hansson have pulled a George Lucas, dispensing with all the upfront crap that you usually have to get through to get to the good stuff. Two pages of praise, and then the Table of Contents. Not even a title page. Talk about getting right to the point!

If you haven’t guessed already, I strongly recommend that you read this book. It deserves the place its found on bestseller lists. You may agree or disagree with what they have to say, but they will definitely get you thinking and asking yourself questions about why you do what you do and how you do it.

Update: My review was mentioned on Signal vs. Noise in the post Interesting tangents from REWORK readers.

The futility – and value – of planning

In his recent article Planning is very important…. It doesn’t work, Jack Vinson has this insight into planning:

If they hadn’t planned, there is no chance they would have been able to accomplish what they wanted to do.  At the same time, if they had decided that the plan was exactly what they were going to do, they would have never made it either.

This is a lesson I learned very early on in my military career, and something I wrote about back in March 2005 (has it really been that long?) while digesting the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s then-new book Blink.  The following is a slightly edited version of those original thoughts.

– – — — —–

Have been spending a lot of time “adjusting” plans lately. A colleague made the following comment today in one of our many (many many) sessions:

He who plans early, plans twice.

Which got me thinking about the apparent futility, and the obvious value, of planning.

The aphorism “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is absolutely true. Proper preparation, though, can make that fact largely irrelevant. The very act of planning, and rehearsing that plan, involves preparation that enables you to effectively react to most any situation that may arise. In other words, proper planning allows you to IMPROVISE.

“What?” you say. “Improvise? That’s fine for comedy and music, but military operations? Business? I don’t think so. The whole purpose of planning is so you know what is going to happen, and when it is going to happen. Not to just wing it.”

In an Industrial Age setting, I may have agreed with that. But in the Information Age, I strongly disagree. If you tie yourself too tightly to a plan, and stick to it no matter what, you are doomed to fail.

As an example, consider a football (American) team – or any other team sport, for that matter. It is possible to develop a detailed game plan that dictates every play you will use, and when you will use them in the game. You could make a simple list of plays: On the first play, do this; On the second play, do that. etc. Or you could have a more detailed plan: If it is second and under 5 yards, and we’re in the red zone, we do this. etc. You could even take it a step further and include separate options that take into account the opposition’s activities. Of course, the more contigencies you identify, the bigger the play book you have to carry around and the longer it may take to figure out exactly what to do.

What actually happens is that the team develops a basic game plan ahead of time and rehearses the execution of that plan. By doing this, the focus of the team becomes achieving the goal of winning the game, and not just simply executing the plan.

I was inspired to write this post partly by a few key passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink , in which he uses the obvious example of an improv comedy troupe (which in turn cites as one of their references a basketball team) to support the concept of “thin-slicing,” the ability to parse a given situation into the minimum information required to deal with that situation.