Good to Great: How to Overcome Self-limiting Behavior
I have taught at Florida International University (FIU), the fifth largest university in the U.S., since 2005 and in 2016 I co-founded StartUP FIU. I have always said that my personal objective for this university incubator was to birth a Google in Miami and create what Michael Porter called an industrial cluster. To achieve this objective requires a great CEO, an outstanding opportunity and capital. As many venture capitalists will tell you, the challenge is in finding and picking the CEO, perhaps a co-founder and a great team.
As possible founders and CEOs, we have FIU students with the raw talent to be great CEOs. However, what I have found is that many students lack the self-confidence to aspire to an opportunity like building Google or more generally to any world-class opportunity. A high percentage of the students at FIU are challenged to match their ability to the best opportunities available. To have such aspirations and realize them, what is required is what Nobel Laureate FA Hayek called individual empowerment. Individual empowerment is simply giving a person the power, status and information to achieve their individual objective(s).
To achieve individual empowerment, I believe four conditions need to be met: 1) self-esteem, 2) education, 3) social inclusion, 4) information. Self-esteem is the necessary confidence for a person to pursue an opportunity and not fall into the trap of being self-limiting. Education is the minimum necessary condition to process information effectively. Social inclusion permits the unrestricted pursuit of opportunity and information addresses the natural asymmetry of information that blinds people to resources and opportunities.
In the remainder of this article, I provide 13 concepts that each promote and enhance individual empowerment. My views are captured in four paradigms, which are the purpose of this article.
1. Art — Reading — Exercise
2. Passion — Creativity — Invention
3. Trust — Sharing — Community — Networking
4. Excellence — Compassion — Self-validation
For the impatient, the article concludes with a list of six rules to follow.
1. Art — Reading — Exercise
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” — Søren Kierkegaard
COVID helped me to solidify this first paradigm, but the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 was the experience that provided the foundational learning. When COVID hit the U.S. I realized that probably no hospital would give me COVID treatment and a bed. So, what was I to do? Fortunately, I had my experience from living in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1997 to fall back on. In two months in 1997 Southeast Asia was torn apart by a financial crisis that saw local currencies plummet against the U.S. Dollar. In Indonesia the currency dropped 80 percent in two months, riot damage destroyed $30 billion in property, and the dictator of 31 years was overthrown after his son-in-law ordered the shooting of student protesters. First lesson to remember from Indonesia, “it can always get worse”. Second lesson, take care of your family first, then take care of your team and finally take care of yourself. Most people get the priority wrong.
During COVID when I got to taking care of myself, I knew from Indonesia the Navy Seal advice to “always stay calm”. With a clear head, I realized that maintaining my daily routine was critical to my mental health. I continued my walking outside but increased it from thirty minutes to an hour (with mask). I increased my daily reading from three to four hours and most importantly I focused on an activity that would make me happy and productive. That was writing and I increased my writing, made it part of the daily routine and the output was noteworthy. (Just look at my Medium articles during COVID.).
About a year into COVID I came across an article that advocated for better mental health by a daily routine of exercise, reading and art. I was pleased I was doing the reading and exercise, but where was my “art”? After a week of thinking about it, I realized my writing was the art. Much is made of the importance of exercise, so I do not think I have to explain the logic. Find an exercise you like and do it for thirty minutes a day minimum, five days a week (do not be a 3-day wimp). Reading we all learned in school. What they forgot to tell us is that information grows old and we need lifelong learning to stay current. They also did not anticipate that according to McKinsey information is now doubling every 12 to 18 months. Reading is the best way to keep up. If you do not keep up for yourself, read so you are better prepared to parent.
Lastly, you need art in your life. Art, as Schopenhauer explained, is the means to make the abstract tangible. Art is a tool that forces us to integrate what we learn into more well-developed frameworks about our feelings, knowledge and reality (the tangible). Art is the pursuit — whether it be weaving cloth, writing articles, painting landscapes or dancing — that initiates a reconciling of new information with our existing knowledge frameworks to better understand…everything. Find your art.
2. Passion — Creativity — Invention
“Passion provides what Freud called fundamental energy, which initiates and sustains discovery. Therefore, to initiate discovery and critical thinking, focus on igniting the student’s natural energy.” — Heraclitean Fire, Erwin Chargaff
This second framework comes from the seminal work in child development of Jean Piaget. Piaget described a cognitive process — passion, discovery, creativity, invention — to understand critical thinking. In the quote above the noted biochemist Irwin Chargaff explains discovery and provides much insight into what Piaget meant by passion. John Doerr, the founder of the renowned venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, talking about good founders, explains passion simply:
“What matters most is their passion — their focus on serving a large, unmet market need with an outstanding team and disruptive innovation. Their commitment to technical excellence and obsessing on customers (not competition).”
Passion is focus, excellence and obsession. Note: Doerr also focuses the obsession away from competition and much more correctly on achieving innovation at the level of disruption or transformation.
Discovery is the iterative process inherent in all life forms. In iteration and discovery, we approach a problem in a step-by-step fashion in order to conserve energy and reduce the risk of a fatal error. Maria Popova, the inspiration at Marginalian, puts it well: “Curiosity is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Just look at little kids — this hunger to know the world is deep in our species’ DNA.” The popular term, feedback loop, is another way to understand discovery — we acquire some useful information that we can then re-use to advance our progress. Marshall Goldsmith, the noted executive coach, provides important advice about effective discovery:
“You have to learn to quit being right all the time, and quit being smart all the time, and quit thinking this is a contest about how smart you are and how right you are and realize that you are here to make a positive difference in the world. And being smart and being right is probably no longer the way to do that… See when you’re in school, you take test after test, after test, after test. You have to prove you’re smart over and over. Thousands of times, you have to prove you’re smart. It’s very difficult to stop. We are programmed to prove we’re smart.”
I might summarize Goldsmith by saying that the worst mistake we make in public school education is the excessive focus on the student producing the “correct” answer. I teach my students and staff that there are many right ways to do something. When they define the plan, they understand it much better than if I give them a plan. Just be clear on the objective and check-in periodically.
Piaget’s third stage in the process, creativity, fortunately was explained simply by Einstein (He also said if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it. A valuable insight in its own right.) Einstein defined creativity as “combinatorial play”. Take [existing] components and combine them in new ways to come up with the alternative combinations. Of course, Einstein knew that all of reality had been built by combining sub-atomic particles into atoms, then into molecules and cells, and then into organs, systems and living organisms. This combinatorial concept also explains the advances in human history as the transformation or combination of matter and then energy in new ways (Schumpeter 1942). With the advent of Claude Shannon’s Information Theory, the beginning of the Computer Age and bits and bytes, we added a third category of transformation — information. At that point, artificial intelligence (AI) was poised to become the “combinatorial” engine for creative discovery in almost every field of research and value creation beginning in the 21st century. With the advent of generative AI, even the “iterative” part of creativity may be automated by AI.
If you will note, I have not defined creativity as a singular result. In fact, I follow Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling’s advice — “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” — and do not make value judgments about the choices or heavily critique them. And where do these choices come from? The iterative process informed by discovery. [Note: the options that survive from iteration (mutation) explain simply how evolution functions.]
The French polymath Henri Poincaré teaches us how to transition from the creative phase to invention — “to invent is to choose”. Bring insight to picking from the creative choices developed. This is where decision-making processes such as human-centric design thinking add so much value. After the selection, one moves to make the invention tangible and develops a proof of concept and then a prototype.
One should note that the process described by Piaget is the same process to describe an animal’s daily routine (the creativity and invention being the successful locating and eating of the selected food), a researcher’s process in a lab, and an entrepreneur’s process to do a startup by taking the invention to market (innovation) and scaling the customer base, revenue and profit.
3. Trust, Sharing, Community and Networking
“The systems view of life is an ecological view that is grounded, ultimately, in spiritual awareness. Connectedness, relationship, and community are fundamental concepts of ecology; and connectedness, relationship, and belonging are the essence of spiritual experience.” — The Systems View of Life, Fritjof Capra, Pier Luigi Luisi
Have you ever wondered about how the first “animals” evolved? Imagine you were a computer programmer and you had two living blobs and you had to write the “code” to create from that blob beginning what we humans are today. What would be the values or the fundamental behaviors that allowed us to evolve and create cities, universities, governments… Evolution and psychology each show us that the first rule in the code would be “to trust”. The second rule would be “to share or collaborate” and the third rule would be to form communities to benefit from economies of scale. The organism’s natural self-interest is moderated by mutation because the odds of survival are better for the community member. This behavior of community member remains dominant until we transition from what the legendary physicist Arthur Eddington called man’s natural state — scarcity — to abundance. With abundance, the selfish man had the option of self-serving choices. Fortunately, a lot of “community” oriented humans still survive evolutionary selection.
The case I reiterate here is that human life has survived and advanced because of trust, sharing and communities. The combination of these behaviors may explain the power of networking. Networking allows one to find coaches, mentors, teachers, mates, partners, every combination of two or more people. I have found that the most effective way to build human relationships (and network) is to give first. Take the initiative to offer information, advice, a book recommendation, an introduction to another person. Do not worry about time management here. Most of us waste more than enough time each day that we can free some time to help other people. Remember that trust, sharing and community is the fundamental behavior that explains the survival of all living things. Why would an intelligent person diverge from this type of behavior?
4. Excellence — Compassion — Self-validation
The legendary John von Neumann taught a young student, Richard Feynman (future Nobel Physicist), a three-part approach to life:
· Do good work
· Be nice to people
· Do not care what other people think
Perhaps this whole article could have been just these three points.
Von Neumann was arguably one of the smartest people to have lived, comparable to Aristotle and da Vinci. So, when he talks about “good work”, we are talking about winning the Fields Medal in math or a Nobel Prize in any field. I have won neither prize, but I have some ideas on how to produce work at that level:
· Geniuses study other geniuses. Study the geniuses and their fundamental work. Everybody studies Aristotle, Michelangelo, Descartes, Boltzmann and Poincare, to name a few. Regardless of your field of interest, start with the Greeks, find the geniuses and study their work.
· Be patient. Einstein needed ten years to develop General Relativity to address some issues in his first theory on Special Relativity.
· Pick good problems. Fleming, the Wright brothers, Shannon, Curie, Doudna, they all picked problems that led to transformative changes in their fields or new theories. The days of research for research sake are long over as we need to successfully tackle the problems of the environment and equity.
A personal story illustrates the points above. I worked on the One Laptop per Child project at the MIT Media Lab. Early on I noticed that in the remote mountains of Peru parents of the children (receiving the free laptops) were learning to read, surfing the Internet and starting new businesses. As an entrepreneurship professor, I was intrigued by this behavior of the parents, but I could not explain it. I studied and read for three years until I found, by chance, Nobel Prize winning economist Michael Spence’s book — The New Convergence. In the book he explains his prize-winning application of information theory (originally developed by Claude Shannon) to social and economic problems. In the book Spence states that poverty is caused by a “negative asymmetry” of information. Israel Kirzner, noted Austrian School economist, explains entrepreneurship as a “positive asymmetry” of information, seeing the opportunity others do not see. When I put together Spence and Kirzner’s thinking, I realized that the laptops solved the negative asymmetry of information and the parents behaved as Kirzner would have predicted when they had access to information. In fact, I now believe all social problems can first be explained as a negative asymmetry of information. I continue to study this hypothesis, but notice that Spence relied on Shannon and I combined Spence and Kirzner to develop an interesting new hypothesis on social problems. I needed three years just to frame the hypothesis.
Be nice to people was the second instruction from von Neumann. Here I derive some understanding from the Buddhists. I believe that the Buddhists fundamentally reject empathy in favor of a more generalized behavior — compassion. I see a spectrum for behavior — sympathy, empathy and compassion. Sympathy is expressing sorrow. Empathy is putting yourself in the others place, feeling their pain. Compassion is feeling the others pain but going beyond words to deliver a tangible benefit to the person hurting. If one is always compassionate, one does not moderate their behavior Compassion is the highest standard of behavior.
The third lesson from von Neumann is “Do not care what other people think”. This may be the toughest behavior change in the entire article. From a young age we are taught to worry first about what our parents think, then teachers, then peers, then employers. We are taught to be constantly externally validating ourselves. As one ages, one should be getting more comfortable with self-validation. I teach my staff, “don’t do what I say, do what is right.” As long as survival is not at risk (imminent death or bankruptcy), staff self-validate to execute their projects. Developing the skills to self-validate is particularly necessary as society transitions from top-down to bottom-up hierarchies. Nature is based on self-organizing bottom-up hierarchies and is largely self-validating. Starting in the 1700s with the emergence of democracy as a widespread form of government, top-down government hierarchies were adopted in large part to more efficiently manage information. Today, with the Internet, advanced telecommunications and low-cost personal computing devices, the government is no longer the low-cost information manager/provider. With these changes in the network and the move toward a bottom-up hierarchy, people will be expected to self-validate (especially to provide real-time responses).
The six simple rules to remember:
1. Be compassionate
2. Learn to self-validate
3. Build your network and collaborate
4. Be a lifelong learner
5. Practice your art
6. Aspire to excellence
Aspire to world class opportunities.