The Best Way To Learn New Things

Science and business seem like two very different disciplines, but is the best approach to learning any different in these two fields?  These areas of life seem so unique, and the people in them can be quite varying (one with the nerdy pocket protector and the other dressed in the well-tailored suit).  However, both science and business require learning, and the best approach to learning in each is really the same.

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The best approach to learning is generally through failure.  For example, Thomas Edison failed an astounding number of times before he invented a working lightbulb, and there are likely thousand of stories about how successes came as a result of many tries and many failures.

In many ways, this is really an application of the scientific method.  I’ve written a number of posts about Stephen Wolfram (such as using Wolfram|Alpha to look at your own social network, his views on big data, computing a theory of everything, and how he created his company).  In the effort to learn even more about how the world works, Wolfram has pushed scientific discovery to the next level, which he’s done with his book A New Kind of Science (NKS for short).

How Wolfram|Alpha Can Help You Discover Your Own Social Network

Ever wonder what your own personal network looks like?  You are likely connected to many different groups (family, friends, community, work), but do you know how they are connected?  Or are they connected at all?  Are you the glue that connects these various groups?

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This is a great age we’re living in, and I’m glad to be involved with developing lots of really advanced technologies.  One of the technology areas that I’m really fascinated with has been pushed forward by Stephen Wolfram.  He created the industry standard computing environment Mathematica, which now serves as the engine behind his company’s newest creation, Wolfram|Alpha.  (I’ve written a few posts on Wolfram|Alpha in the past, and you can read them here and here).

How to Make Better Decisions: Recognize Uncertainty

It’s a complex world, and we are constantly making decisions.  Just imagine the number of decisions we make about breakfast:  How big a breakfast should I have?  Should I have coffee?  If so, how much?  Should I have toast?  Should I use butter?  Should I have one piece or two?  Should I cut the toast?  If so, should they be cut into rectangles or triangles?  Should I keep the crust? Should I have juice?  Should it be apple juice or orange juice?  How about milk?  I haven’t even gotten to the pancakes, waffles, syrup, sausage, cereal, bacon… (mmm, bacon…)

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And these aren’t the really important ones!  How do we know we’re making good decisions, and can we make better ones?

5 Reasons to Collect Data on Yourself

You might think that it’s a bit odd, treating yourself like a science experiement.  However, the best way to achieve your goals may be to do just that – be committed to collecting data on yourself.

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In science, we’re always collecting data and analyzing it to find out more about the world.  However, collecting data isn’t only for people with pocket protectors (although we don’t all wear those!).  It is something that any of us can use to help us achieve any goal we set for ourselves.

Why Scientists Are Lousy Communicators

Albert Einstein - One of the Great Scientific Communicators

It’s amazing sometimes how certain things come together, but I didn’t realize that I’d run across an article that was so true in so many ways.

In this week’s edition, Newsweek‘s science editor Sharon Begley describes why scientists are their own worst enemies when it comes to communicating their ideas.  And, in my mind, the world is suffering as a result.

From evolutionary biology to climate change, scientists regularly lose the battle for the public’s attention to less correct, but more understandable alternatives.   Darwin presented the inarguable theories of evolutionary biology well over 100 years ago, and society (especially American society) is still arguing over whether it’s an accurate explanation of the world around us.

And as Begley puts it, it’s mainly due to “scientists’ abysmal communication skills.”

Begley mentions how scientists regularly present themselves and their findings with “arrogance” and a “smarter-than-thou condescension”.   Startling factiod from Begley’s article:  The United States is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the percentage of adults who agree that species, including humans, evolved. 

How could this be, unless scientists just don’t care about communicating their findings to others so that they can understand the truth.

(Soapbox alert!…)

I’ve written several articles about the importance of communicating, and it becomes especially important for those in the sciences.  Math and science geeks think presenting is merely for marketers and sales people…  Not so!  If you care to see others believe your research and findings, you have an obligation to learn how to communicate your ideas effectively. 

Here’s the attitude that most scientists take, according to Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard, became a tenured marine biology professor at the University of New Hampshire before changing careers, moving to Hollywood, and entering film school at USC.  Here’s how Begley presents his view:

“Scientists think of themselves as guardians of truth,” he says. “Once they have spewed it out, they feel the burden is on the audience to understand it” and agree.

And I’ll tell you – it is incredibly true!  Many scientists are exactly this way…, and they shouldn’t be.  

Read Begley’s article here, especially if you are a scientist!…

Apocryphal Anecdote on Persistence

I’ve been reading a book by a well-known and successful consultant Alan Weiss (author of Million Dollar Consulting and about 30 other books), and he had an interesting anecdote regarding persistence (most likely of dubious authenticity).

As I paraprhase how Alan tells it, an organization had a sales team with one individual who, by most accounts, is a terrible salesperson.  He doesn’t really have the skills needs to become a successful salesperson (doesn’t listen well to customer needs, etc.), and was predicted by many to be unsuccessful.  However, this person always seemed to lead the team in sales – by at least two to three times the other staff.

At first, the managers thought his first year success was a fluke, but after two or three years of this performance, he was brought in to explain just how he does it.

So, the sales manager asks him, “When you meet with a customer, what do you do?”

The salesperson answers, “I put the catalog on the desk in front of him.”

And the conversation continues, “OK – so what do you do next?”

“I open the catalog to page 1 and ask if he wants to buy what’s listed.”

“So, what if they say no?”

“I turn to page 2 and ask if he wants to buy what’s listed.”

“OK – if they say no again, then what?”

“I turn to page 3 and ask if he wants to buy what’s listed.”

“Well, what happens if you get to page 147 and they still don’t buy anything?”

“I go back to the beginning and start over at page 1.”

This probably isn’t the easiest method to generate sales (and could lead to being kicked out of the customer’s office!), but the persistence is clear, and one could see how this could lead to better than average results – there are some people who would buy something merely to stop turning pages in the catalog! 

This doesn’t mean that other methods wouldn’t work better (they probably would…).  However, persistence is a key factor in leading to success, whether in sales or in any aspect of life.

Alan mentions this as an example of being omnipresent to your customers – always being there when your customer realizes that they need (your) help.  However, it also is a good example of what persistence can bring. 

You can read more about Alan Weiss at his blog Contrarian Consulting.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien“, literally translated as The best is the enemy of good.”  (bet you didn’t think I knew French, huh?…)  It has been modified over the years to refer to “the perfect”, but it long ago captured a consistent logical reality that challenges us all, scientists and non-scientists alike. 

It’s a neat little saying (I once heard the late Jack Kemp, former Congressman, Cabinet Secretary, and NFL quarterback, use it in describing passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement…).  But, basically, it’s a nice way of telling yourself, “Get going!  We need an answer now!”

When scientists work on problems, we are always trading off time versus quality.  If you spend more time on the problem, you’ll (possibly) get a better answer.  But to the people who are looking for the answer, they are really interested in hearing what the answer is.  And ASAP!

The same holds (ever more so) in business.  You may have heard about “first to market” – well, this is exactly the same concept.  Customers want solutions, which means that they want a product that is good enough to solve their problem.  You may have a better solution to their problem, but the customer is interested in solving their problem now.  If you don’t solve their problem now, they will look to someone else.  So, the product has to be good enough (a bad product won’t solve anyone’s problem…), but it has to be provided now.

Message:  You have to produce.

We scientists have a habit sometimes of worrying about everything that’s not quite right.  In fact, we’re trained to look at the world, describe ways of explaining it, and then analyze the problems with that explanation in order to figure out new and better ones…

But there’s a limit to how “perfect” we think we can make something.  In fact, nothing is or can ever be perfect.   There’s always room for improvement, so we all need to figure out a way to be satisfied with the “good” while still focusing on what it takes to get to the “better”.

Especially in the business world, it is so important to get to a good answer, something that explains most of what you need, and provide that to others quickly.  Believe me, they will tell you if it’s good enough, or if it needs work.  But don’t be afraid of the feedback…

Now, I’ll admit, sometimes I find myself overanalyzing things and not taking action.  But I’m always pushing myself to “get going”, even if I have the urge to study things just a little more…  This is what got me blogging again…

Being productive is an incredibly important quality in business and in science.  We become valuable to other people by what we produce (how much good stuff), not necessarily the superior quality of very little output. 

In fact, being productive translates to being reliable and dependable to others, since they can always count on you to produce good stuff to meet their needs (usually, relating to timeliness of solving their problems).  Others can have a reputation for providing spectacular results, but you may never know when (or if) you’ll ever get them. 

Strive for perfection, but don’t let that get in the way of providing plenty of “good” to the people who care about what you’re striving for.