teaching

Discussions that Seed the Roots of Creativity

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A few months ago I purchased Fitbit watches for my children and myself. My goals were twofold. First, I was hoping that they would motivate all of us to be more active. Second, I wanted to foster a sense of competition (including fair play and winning) within my children. Much of their pre-High School experiences focused on “participation,” as many schools feel that competition is bad. Unfortunately, competition is everywhere in life, so if don’t play to win you may not get the opportunity to play at all.

It is fun seeing them push to be the high achiever for the day, and to continually push themselves to do better week-by-week and month-by-month. I believe this creates a wonderful mindset that makes you want to do more, learn more, achieve more, and make an overall greater impact with everything they do. People who do that are also more interesting to spend time with, so that is a bonus.

Recently my 14 year-old son and I went for a long walk at night. It was a cold, windy, and fairly dark night. We live in fairly rural area so it is not uncommon to see and hear various wild animals on a 3-4 mile walk. I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my kids things in a way that is fun and memorable, and in a way that they don’t realize they are being taught. Retention of the concepts is very high when I am able to make it relevant to something we are doing.

That night we started talking about the wind. It was steady with occasional gusts, and at times it changed direction slightly. I pointed out the movement on bushes and taller grass on the side of the road. We discussed direction, and I told him to think about the wind like an invisible arrow, and then explained how those arrows traveled in straight lines or vectors until they met some other object. We discussed which object would “win,” and how the force of one object could impact another object. My plan was to discuss Newton’s three laws of motion.

My son asked if that is why airplanes sometimes appear to be flying at an angle but are going straight. He seemed to be grasping the concept. He then asked me if drones would be smart enough to make those adjustments, which quickly led to me discussing the use potential future of “intelligent” AI-based drones by the military. When he was 9 he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but once he saw how much work that was he decided that he would rather be Transformer (which I explained was not a real thing). My plan was to use this example to discuss robotics and how you might program a robot to do various tasks, and then move to how it could learn from the past tasks and outcomes. I wanted him to logically break down the actions and think about managing complexity. But, no such luck that night.

His mind jumped to “Terminator” and “I, Robot.” I pointed out that Science Fiction does occasionally become Science Fact, which makes this type of discussion even more interesting. I also pointed out that there is spectrum between the best possible outcome – Utopia, and the worst possible outcome – Dystopia, and asked him what he thought could happen if machines could learn and become smarter on their own.

His response was that things would probably fall somewhere in the middle, but that there would be people at each end trying to pull the technology in their direction. That seemed like a very enlightened estimation. He asked me what I thought and I replied that I agreed with him. I then noted how some really intelligent guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are worried about the dystopian future and recently published a letter to express their concerns about potential pitfalls of AI (artificial intelligence). This is where the discussion became really interesting…

We discussed why you would want a program or a robot to learn and improve – so that it could continue to become better and more efficient, just like a person. We discussed good and bad, and how difficult it could be to control something that doesn’t have morals or understand social mores (which he felt if this robot was smart enough to learn on its own that it would also learn those things based on observations and interactions). That was an interesting perspective.

I told him about my discussions with his older sister, who wants to become a Physician, about how I believe that robotics, nanotechnology, and pharmacology will become the future of medicine. He and I took the logical next step and thought about a generic but intelligent medicine that identified and fixed problems independently, and then sent the data and lessons learned for others to learn from.

I’m sure that we will have an Internet of Things (IoT) discussion later, but for now I will tie this back to our discussion and Fitbit wearable technology.

After the walk I was thinking about what just happened, and was pleased because it seemed to spark some genuine interest in him. I’m always looking for that perfect recipe for innovation, but it is elusive and so far lacks repeatability. It may be possible to list many of the “ingredients” (intelligence, creativity, curiosity, confidence (to try and accept and learn from failure), multi-disciplinary experiences and expertise) and “measurements” (such as a mix of complementary skills, a mix of roles, and a special environment (i.e., strives to learn and improve, rewards both learning and success but doesn’t penalize failure, and creates a competitive environment that understands that in most cases the team is more important than any one individual)).

That type of environment is magical when you can create it, but it takes so much more than just having people and a place that seem to match the recipe. A critical “activation” component or two is missing. Things like curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, and a bit of fearlessness.

Salvador_Dali_Three_Sphinxes_of_Bikini
Salvador Dali’s “The Three Sphinxes of Bikini”

I tend to visualize things, so while I was thinking about this I pictured a tree with multiple “brains” (my mental image looked somewhat like broccoli) that had visible roots. Those roots were creative ideas that went off in various directions. Trees with more roots that were bigger and went deeper would stand out in a forest of regular trees.

Each major branch (brain/person) would have a certain degree of independence, but ultimately everything on the tree worked as a system. To me, this description makes so much more sense than the idea of a recipe, but it still doesn’t bring me closer to being able map the DNA of this imaginary tree.

At the end of our long walk it seemed that I probably learned as much as my son did. We made a connection that will likely lead to more walks and more discussions.

And in a strange way, I can thank the purchase of these Fitbit watches for being the motivation for an activity that led to this amazing discussion. From that perspective alone this was money well spent.

Non-Linear Thought Process and a Message for my Children

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I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience) and then we spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training.

The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection which ultimately led to this post.

The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” faster and more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. For me personally, that has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.

Photo by Cu00e9sar Gaviria on Pexels.com

The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of your ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to communicate better and deal with the fact that ideas can be difficult to grasp. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they tend to think like you, so you become relatable and interesting to them. The world is a strange place.

It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things suddenly make complete sense. That causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure something out sooner. As a parent I am always trying to identify and create learning shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.

I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder and possibly help others. Instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms in life that could help foster that personal growth process. So, here goes…

  1. Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
  2. Learn from everything you do – good and bad. Continuous improvement is so important. By focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
  3. Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
  4. Incorporating new approaches or the best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
  5. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
  6. Surround yourself with the best people that you can find. Look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
  7. Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
  8. Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
  9. Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
  10. Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
  11. Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled in environments where fear and blame rule.
  12. Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  13. And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.

Hopefully, this will help my children become the best people possible, and ideally early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until that point I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.

Why do you want to teach?

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In the past I wrote about about how I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.

Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and always wanting to improve led me to ask a lot of questions in order to understand why things were done the way they were. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art. Two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”

At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he stated was true. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. From that perspective learning really is somewhat of an artform.

What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.

Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. In medicine they have the concept of, “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is a great way to codify the knowledge and start developing the desired skills.

Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful. Often a student would mention how they handled a problem and it sounded bizarre at first, but digging deeper into their approach resulted in understanding something that was actually pretty amazing.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met several of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and provide the confidence and desire to do more than they ever dreamed was possible.

Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help the people who want to grow and improve. Mentoring is another good way to do this. You will be surprised at the positive impact one person can have by doing this.

There’s a story in there – I just know it…

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I was reading an article from Nancy Duarte about Strengthening Culture with Storytelling, and it made me think about how important a skill story telling can be in business, and how it can be far more effective than just presenting facts / data. These are just a few examples – I’m sure that you have many of your own.Storytelling

One of the best sales people that I’ve ever known wasn’t a sales person at all. It is Jon Vice, former CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Jon is very personable and has the ability to make each person feel like they are the most important person in the room (quite a skill in itself). Jon would talk to a room of people and tell a story. Mid-story you were hooked. You completely bought what he was selling, often without knowing what the “ask” was. It was amazing to experience.

Years ago when my company was funding medical research projects, my oldest daughter (then only four years old) and I watched a presentation on the mid-term findings of one of the projects. The MD/Ph.D. giving the presentation was impressive, but what he showed was slide after slide of data. After 10-15 minutes my daughter held her Curious George stuffed animal up in front of her (where the shadow would be seen on the screen) and proclaimed, “Boring!”

Six months later that same person gave his wrap-up presentation. It was short, told an interesting story that explained why these findings were important, laying the groundwork for a follow-on project. A few years later he commented that this was a very valuable lesson because the story with data was far more compelling than just the data itself.

A few years ago the company I work for introduced a high-performance analytics database. We touted that our product was 100 times faster than other products, which happened to be a similar message used by a handful of competitors. In my region we created a “Why Fast Matters” webinar series and told the stories of our early Proof of Value efforts. This helped my team make the first few sales of this new product. People understood our value proposition because these success stories made it tangible.

What I tell my team is to weave the thread of our value proposition into the fabric of a prospect’s story. This both makes us part of the story, and also makes this new story their own (as opposed to being our story). This simple approach has been effective, and also helps you qualify out sooner if you can’t improve the story.

What if you not selling anything? Your data has a story to tell – even more so with big data. Whether you are analyzing data from a single source (such as audit or log data), or correlating data from multiple sources, the data is telling you a story. Whether patterns, trends, or correlated events – the story is there. And once you find it there is so much you can do to build it out.

Whether you are selling, managing, teaching, coaching, analyzing, or just hanging out with friends or colleagues, being able to entertain with a story is a valuable skill. This is a great way to make a lot of things in business even more interesting and memorable. So, give it a try.

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…