Why Talent Won’t Get You There — Book Review: Talent Is Overrated

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Portfolio, 2008).

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin argues that despite common belief that raw talent and hard work produces great performance, years of studies show that direct practice is actually the key. As Senior Editor at Large of Fortune, as well as one of America’s most respected journalists, Colvin is well positioned to collect and synthesize the studies needed to write such a volume.

The author states that dedicated, diligent and repetitive work on items that need improvement is really the key to great performance. Part of this has to do with identifying what needs to be worked on and getting immediate feedback on your practice—this can come from a teacher, or the individual performer critiquing their own work. Continue Reading…

Making a Career Out of Creativity — Book Review: Hackers and Painters

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham (Beijing, Cambridge, Farnham, Köln, Paris, Sebastolpol, Taipei, Tokyo: O’Reilly, 2004)

Paul Graham’s Hackers & Painters, in essay-like chapters, illustrates how technology and art converge, both philosophically and in practice. As the creator of the Yahoo! Store, a Ph.D. in Computer Science (Harvard), and someone who has studied painting at the RISD, as well as the Academia in Florida, Graham is well positioned to offer insights on this subject.

To illustrate Graham’s overall argument, we will focus on chapter two of this perceptive book. Graham contends that the guild should reconsider how it trains students, because it naturally inhibits “hackers,” who are the artists of the computer industry, from being free thinkers (pgs. 18-21). According to Graham, Computer Science professors at the university level do not enable free thinkers, but conversely teach impractical, insufficient and abstract knowledge. Graham then goes on in the rest of the book to illustrate how the same problems occur in corporations, and the only solution for artists (“hackers”) in the technological age is to either work for a company that allows for them to “hack,” or create their own start-up. In spite of Graham’s “against the grain” line of reasoning, his practical philosophy is very useful—the key for the artist is finding the balance between art (what they love) and everything else in their occupation. Continue Reading…

Will Your Company Fail without You Realizing It? Book Review: How the Mighty Fall

How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In by Jim Collins (JimCollins, 2009)

Jim Collins is a self-described “student and teacher of enduring great companies—how they grow, how they attain superior performance, and how good companies can become great companies” (jimcollins.com). He is also the author of Good to Great and coauthor of Built to LastHow the Mighty Fail is by far his most negative book, and well worth the read.

How does a successful company suddenly stop making money? Continue Reading…

Setting Yourself Apart — Book Review of Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd by Youngme Moon (Crown Business, 2010)

Youngme Moon, a Harvard professor who has published some of the bestselling business case studies in the world, argues that a company can be successful by defying the norm and the expected.

But this book moves beyond the cliché “Be different.” Moon suggests that differentiating yourself from the competition isn’t about the “new and improved,” because that involves embracing “product evolution” (pgs. 3–8; 26–34; 52–56; 61–65). Instead, it’s about saying “no” as much as you say “yes.” Continue Reading…

Why You Should Stop Using PowerPoint — Book Review: Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint

Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas by Christopher Witt with Dale Fetherling (Crown Business, 2009)

Christopher Witt, speech consultant and president of Witt Communications, says that leaders owe their audience more than a PowerPoint presentation. This book is as much about leadership as it is about presenting.

Every time a leader speaks they want to either identify, influence or inspire (pg. 19). “Real leaders” aren’t trying to just convey information, which is what most people use PowerPoint for; instead, they’re interested in persuading people. This is essential because leaders take stands (pg. 27).

In addition to the philosophical principles of presenting, Witt offers some practical, yet uncommon, advice. For example, he lists all the questions you should ask before presenting (pg. 52). (I would have never thought to ask how the room is set up that I’m presenting in—outside of asking if there will be a projector.) Continue Reading…

Getting People to Adopt Your Ideas — Book Review: Made to Stick

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (New York: Random House, 2007, 2008).

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath offer a very practical and well-researched guide to creating ideas that will penetrate the market and produce profit. Chip, a professor of organizational behavior (Stanford) and Dan, a consultant to the Policy Program at the Aspen Institute, are well positioned to offer insights on this subject.

The Heath brothers’ tips can be applied to several areas of business—writing, marketing, strategy and even running effective meetings. The Heath brothers summarize sticky ideas with the acronym SUCCES (the last “S” is intentionally missing): Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional and Stories. Continue Reading…

Could You Be the Next Cornelius Vanderbilt? Book Review: The First Tycoon

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles (Knopf, 2009)

T. J. Stiles has taught at Columbia University and held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his work on The First Tycoon.

Biographies generally fall into two categories: exciting or boring. The First Tycoon is riveting.

Vanderbilt may be the most-driven, power hungry, greedy, and downright ruthless businessman who has ever lived. And in the process of being so, he destroyed monopolies owned by aristocrats, essentially paved the way for the modern American corporation, and brought progress to not just New York, but America at large. He even helped win the Civil War for the Union, and through guiding military operations ensured that his businesses could operate in Nicaragua (pg. 299, 343). The ironic part: As Vanderbilt toppled monopolies, he gladly became one, several times over. Continue Reading…

Overcoming Obstacles to True Inspiration: Book Review of Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace (Random House, 2014)

Creativity, Inc. profoundly articulates how to lead people who are paid to be creative. Author Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull was at the University of Utah as the internet came into existence. After receiving his PhD, he led a tech company in New York City before going to work for George Lucas. Later, Catmull was integral to Steve Jobs acquiring Pixar from Lucas. Eventually, he worked alongside Jobs to sell Pixar to Disney. Today, he is President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

The message of Creativity, Inc. is simple and it is full of actionable ideas. As part memoir part practical business advice, this book is special. It deploys narrative arc, takes you inside the wonderful world of Pixar and Disney, and is hard to put down. Probably the biggest message in Creativity, Inc. is the need to not just suggest but also facilitate an environment of honesty and candor because “when it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. … Unhindered communication [is] key, no matter what your position” (chapter one).

Continue Reading…

9 Steps to Overcoming a Major Project Failure

When project failures occur, it’s easy to place blame. But in the process, we often forget a simple fact: “it doesn’t matter, we’re here now.” Here are nine steps for getting past the problem to a solution.

1. Stop drinking coffee. When a major problem occurs, your adrenaline will kick in, if you add caffeine to the mix, you will likely just compound the problem. What you need when a major issue occurs isn’t to think fast, but to think slow. You need to make a good decision despite the tension. (I learned this from a colleague of mine.)

2. Instill trust. People need to feel secure after a failure. They need to know that you don’t plan to fire them, but instead that you just want to solve the problem. If you get angry with someone, you will put them on the defense, and, as a result, make them nervous and difficult to work with. What you need in the moment of failure is everyone, and especially those who failed–they know more than anyone else about the problem. If you make people feel trusted and that you’re trustworthy, your chances of success are much higher.

Continue Reading…

The Art of Admitting Mistakes

One of the most difficult things for a strong-willed person to do is to admit that they’re wrong.

If you can admit that you’re wrong, you will gain the respect of others, be able to move quicker through projects, and continue to grow personally. If you can’t, your mistakes will catch up to you.

Small failures are part of innovation. And it may sound cheesy to say, but learning from your small failures is part of innovating yourself.

Ask yourself today: What’s failing? It’s not negative to go to work with that thought in your mind, it’s actually positive. If you can approach things that way today, chance has it that you’re going to fix a relationship along the way to improving a project.

What’s failing? How can you admit defeat, admit your wrong, and then improve your life and the lives of others as a result?

(Many of the ideas in this post stem from Seth Godin’s The Dip and Paul Arden’s Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite.)

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