Friday, February 25, 2011

Does it Really Take Ten Thousand Hours to Become an Expert?

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 confe...In the early eighties I had the opportunity to spend a month in Tokyo to help the local office of my corporation find and fix problems with a computer system I was working on. While there, a colleague and I were invited to my Japanese boss’s home for Sunday dinner.

I was a woman playing a man’s role at this dinner party. In fact, I was the only woman in the room. Our male boss greeted us at the door, and the only glimpse we had of his wife during dinner was as she silently waited on us with bowed head. More servant than hostess, she was relegated to her role in the kitchen.

After dinner my boss’s wife was allowed to join us, upon my request. She was thrilled at the invitation, and in an effort to please us she showed us some dolls that she had made. Entirely made of paper, these dolls were created by hand with elaborate series of folds. Their colorful costumes gave them character and a uniquely Japanese flair. My hostess was thrilled (and more than a little embarrassed) as I praised her creativity and artwork. “You should sell these,” I suggested. “How long did it take you to learn to make these?”

In perfect English my Japanese hostess responded, “Oh, no. They are not good enough to sell. I’ve only been making dolls for two years. It takes at least ten years before they are good enough to sell.”

To my untrained eye, the dolls were perfect, but my new Japanese friend knew that she had so much more to learn. She knew she had to put in more time. She subscribed to the dogma that we hear so often today:

It takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert.

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell outlines many examples of success, tied to opportunities – opportunities that allowed the expert to practice for ten thousand hours. One example Gladwell cites is Bill Gates. Gates had unique access to a high school computer at a time when most schools didn’t have them. He was able to log ten thousand hours programming on that computer, allowing him to become an expert at a very young age.
Ten thousand hours is roughly equal to forty hours a week for five years, or twenty hours a week for ten years.

It’s no wonder then that companies look for candidates with five years experience for skilled jobs. It’s not coincidental that many successful people offer up “persistence” and “dedication” as characteristics that contributed to their success. It’s no surprise that the violin student who practices the longest hours is often the first chair. There’s more to success than talent and desire.

Have you put in your ten thousand hours yet?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson’s Jeopardy Win is IBM’s Gain

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NY - JANUARY 13:  Senior Vic...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeAt 7 pm on February 14th I wasn’t enjoying a nice Valentine’s dinner with my husband. Instead we were both glued to the television as we watched IBM’s latest supercomputer, Watson, play Jeopardy against the champs.

Could Watson win?
I was surely rooting for him.

We saw Watson’s avatar on stage, but the cameras took us behind the curtains to see the hardware behind the avatar; ten IBM Power 750 servers – that’s a whole lot of computing power – all optimized to win the game of Jeopardy.

But while the system was impressive, the real fun was watching what Watson could do. Despite the fact that he was just a computer, it was hard not to like him. Watson was programmed with personality, saying things like, “Let’s finish the category Alex,” and, “I’ll take a guess...” when he wasn’t sure of the answer on the daily double.

While most human players pick a category and run it, Watson’s approach seemed far more random, almost as if he was “fishing” across categories. And Watson did manage to land far more than his share of the daily doubles. Was it just luck? I laughed when I heard Watson bet $6445 dollars or $367 dollars for those daily doubles – surely the result of a complex algorithm and not numbers any human player would have picked.

More often than not, when Watson wanted to answer a question he did, but Watson wasn’t infallible. When Ken Jennings incorrectly answered a question, Watson was unable to “hear” Jennings answer and jumped in second on the trigger with the same incorrect response.

Day one of the tournament ended at “halftime” with Watson in a dead heat with Brad Rutter. That was the closest the games would get. On day two Watson ran away with it in double Jeopardy, but showed some vulnerability once again when he gave the answer “Toronto” to a final Jeopardy question that asked for a US city.

During the second game, Watson seemed to allow his opponents to click in a bit more often, but didn’t let his guard down, going on to win the second game and the championship.

All in all, the tournament was an amazing ninety minute commercial for IBM. There was plenty of time with just two games across the three day tournament for IBM to show its stuff. Dr. John E. Kelly III, IBM’s leader of the research lab where Watson was developed said, “IBM hopes to revolutionize the entire industry.”


It seems IBM has.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Labeling and Workplace Identity – Good or Bad?

Taurus Symbol
I’m having an identity crisis. All my life I’ve been a Taurus. And because I am a Taurus, I’ve been told that I am determined and stubborn – some have even used the word bull-headed. But now, some scientists are suggesting that there is a thirteenth zodiac sign, and that the alignment of the stars is not quite what we’ve thought. Suddenly, instead of the bull, my mascot is the battering ram.

Research on my new sign, Aries, tells me that I should be headstrong and courageous, possibly even fearless. It feels like I’m forcing Cinderella’s show to fit.

The same kind of identity crisis can happen in the workplace. Whether self-imposed, earned, or bestowed upon us, we find ourselves being labeled in the workplace.

Julie is the creative one.

Jack is the sales guy.

Peter is the technical guru.

Sally is on the management fast track.

Labels like these can distinguish you from the pack, and may even open up opportunities for you. They are your workplace identity and can serve you well, but they can also be an inhibitor for you when organizations or circumstances change.

Being the expert is often a very good thing. Julie is in a fantastic position as the creative one when her organization is marketing a new product. It’s her time to shine. But what happens when Julie’s company decides to focus on current products, and no longer needs her creative expertise?

Jack had a great year last year selling that new product, but what happens when the market shifts and he doesn’t meet his sales targets this year?

Peter gets rewarded as the technical guy who designed the new product, but what happens when that product doesn’t sell well? Peter may find himself developing action plans and strategies for improvement rather than the next big thing.

Sally moves along quickly and easily in her career, but what happens when she decides to take a leave of absence for a couple of years? She may have difficulty maintaining her workplace identity when she returns.

The workplace identities that these employees have worked so hard to achieve are suddenly questioned. While little research is available on this topic, what is there suggests that when organizations change, employee workplace identities are affected. Even if these employees have many other skills, they may not be easily accepted in a new role. If we’re not careful we can become a fish out of water.

What’s your take on labels in the workplace, and have they served you well?
Don't forget to set your DVRs to record Jeopardy next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to watch IBM's Watson play Jeopardy against the champs!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Man versus Machine – Can IBM’s Watson Win?

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NY - JANUARY 13:  (L-R) Exec...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeIn just a few days, IBM’s super-computer, named Watson after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, will play Jeopardy against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The three-day match will take place on February 14th through the 16th. And the world will be watching.

Certainly these men – the two most successful Jeopardy champions ever – should win, right? After all, they have something Watson doesn’t – a brain.

Not so fast! I’m calling the odds in Watson’s favor, and here’s why:

1. Brainpower. Yes, Rutter and Jennings have brains, but they each have only one. Watson, on the other hand, has had the benefit of the enormous brainpower of IBM’s research lab – an organization that pumps out record numbers of patents every year. Watson has the collective brains of many brilliant men and women who designed, developed, and tested “him”, making him the best he could be.

2. Watson doesn’t need to remember and recall. Rutter and Jennings, being human after all, just might find themselves in a position where they say, “I know that, I know that…” and still come up short on the answer. Watson simply needs to access the data and analyze it.

3. And speaking of data, Watson has access to data. Lots and lots of data. Surely the right answer is out there somewhere. If anything, Watson’s challenge will be to filter the data to zero in on what he needs.

4. Watson won’t let emotions get in his way. If he makes a mistake, he’s not going to be wondering if Ken Jennings thinks he’s an idiot. If he overbids on a daily double, he won’t let the loss slow down his trigger finger. He can just stand tall and move on.

5. Watson has nothing else to do. That’s right. Watson won’t be thinking about what to do with his winnings. He won’t be worrying about dinner later, or whether the kids did their homework. And even though he won’t be worried about whether his tie is on straight for the camera, I expect all eyes will be indeed be on him.

I’ll be watching and cheering for Watson. What about you?