Saturday, February 12, 2011

Expert or prodigy?

amy chua and daughtersI was listening to a discussion of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her memoir of parenting two child prodigies, on the drive into London this morning.  The ethics of driving exceptional children to excel are central to the discussion, along with provocative ideas about levels, Asian / American stereotypes, over- vs. under parenting, and where the lines lie in treating or mistreating children.

However, I’ve been thinking more about the implied question of whether prodigies can be created in a child gifted with strong but not exceptional talent.

Ms Chua drives both her girls into severe musical training at 3 years old, although there is no way to know whether her children had prodigal talent, much less of what type.  One does, finally arrive at Carnegie Hall as an accomplished pianist at age 8 (the other, a violinist, rebelled).  She credits talent and discipline for developing her daughter’s innate prodigy.

Alternatively, Malcolm Gladwell holds that with 10,000 hours of practice, one can become a world-class expert at virtually anything.  Is that the case here, that a perhaps an ordinary girl became extraordinary through intensively accumulating the requisite hours?  Or did it take something more?

I want to make two cases.

prodigy 11)  Gladwell’s rule is more applicable to physical tasks than to intellectual ones.

Constant practice improves athletic strength, coordination. stamina, and judgment.  I think that this applies directly to musical ability as well: the nuances of fingering, rhythm, pitch, and confidence all build with repetition.  There are good neurophysiologic correlates of strengthened synapses and hypertrophied muscles that develop directly from practice.

But, in the absence of a defined physiologic center, can practice be said to strengthen the neural basis for a talent?  Repetition of sums does not hypertrophy a mathematical organ; repetitive writing does not develop synapses in some literary center of the brain.  Intellectual skills are inherently different than physical ones, they have different substrates and localization (indeed, intellectual skills seem to have no localization in the brain at all).

Prodigy 22)  Gladwell’s rule is more applicable to declarative knowledge than procedural knowledge.

Spelling and geography prodigies, naturalists who recognize birds by color or call, trivia experts, all operate with declarative knowledge: a knowledge of facts.  There is no doubt that drill strengthens memory and recall (a side note: these are also localized functions in the hippocampus), building a store of knowledge that is better organized and more quickly accessed as practice continues.

Procedural knowledge, a knowledge of skills, builds with experience rather than repetition.  One cannot become a great writer simply by writing.  There must be mentoring and learning,growth and maturity, developing the skill of communicating and the expressive touch to reach others through writing.  Again, these draw on diffused skills rather than focused ones.

I think it comes down to technical proficiency vs. true art.

A young Olympic gymnast is technically dazzling, but it results from thousands of hours of practice, not innate prodigal talent.  Anyone with the requisite physical substrate could be brought to that level.  Similarly, a quiz-show prodigy or a chess master can result from acquiring a vast store of knowledge, developed through devoted drill given a requisite level of intelligence and focused drive.

I believe that the distinguishing test is to see what happens when a new situation is encountered.  For a literary student,“Is it a great book?” can be answered by knowing whether the work is on the list, or being able to mimic a great style successfully.  For a literary prodigy, it is answered by intrinsically recognizing and producing great works regardless of the state of the canon.  A mathematical talent can solve problems at an expert level; a mathematical prodigy sees the answer intuitively, differently.

I have known many talented people, and a few that I consider genius.  The difference is not in how hard they work or how many hours they’ve spent, but in their insight, in the way that they conceptualize problems and express answers.

So, in Amy Chua’s case, I think that her talented children were brought to exceptional levels through practice and training in the physical skill and declarative knowledge of playing an instrument.  I think that others could do this (not that they should).

However, I do not think that her children are prodigal or genius, and I don’t believe that her methods would have worked to produce accomplished authors or mathematicians.  Intellectual skills and procedural knowledge build with introspection and experience, and her training would not strengthen these traits.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Removing barriers

I’ve always enjoyed traveling with salesmen.  They know the best customers, tell funny stories, eat good food, offer practical insights.  As an product developer, I see the world see the world in terms of benefits and competition: how is my design better for the user, how does it beat the competition?  I can’t wait to show off our genius when a customer asks for a demo.

The best salesmen know it’s all about adoption.

Closing any sale is a balance between desire and price.  My benefits stimulate a level of desire, but doesn’t address the doubts: parting with money, perceived value, what about the alternatives, taking a risk.  These are all barriers to closing the deal.

I’ve had some wonderful discussion with salesmen about the process of closing, and how it’s all about removing the reasons to say ‘No’.  (Painfully, one of them not to show the product unless the customer asks to see it.  Perceptions are a tricky thing, and people are as likely to pick out something that they don’t like as something that they do.).

Here’s a process illustration that I particularly liked:

 Adoption Process

Basically, the idea is to start at the bottom of the pyramid: Does it work? Can you prove it?  Do the people who matter (KOL = Key Opinion Leader) buy into it?  That establishes market readiness.  After that, it is a process of removing structural and behavioral barriers, at both personal and institutional levels.  At best, with all barriers removed, the product becomes the default choice, the Standard of Care (SoC).

This is all on my mind today because I’m in the late phases of two business deals that I’ve been working on for the past year.  One seems to be ending successfully, the other is running into brinksmanship that will either destroy or complete the deal. 

Two things I know.

Closing, in general, is a hard process.

It’s harder if I only talk about the benefits (“We’re going to make a lot of money!”), ignoring the barriers (“I don’t trust these folks!”).

People will only part with money when they adopt the deal.  And, this week, it’s all been about addressing the barriers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Homeward bound

homeward boundNo, not me, but there’s been a lot of transitions within the local expat community the past month or so.  I went through my feed-reader this evening and at least 4 or five expat-Dutch bloggers have repatriated over the holidays, while an equal number have gone dormant since late 2010.  This includes a number of folks who I’ve followed for a long time and who always gave valuable local advice; I’m sorry to see them moving on and wish them well.

The expat community is, by definition, a transient one, where change is the norm and “home” is a state of mind.  I’ll look forward to finding the new voices that come along, and to following the continuing adventures of those who remain.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Expats and the job market

A recruiter called me a few weeks ago: a major new diagnostic testing facility was going to open in Maastricht in the next year and they are looking for an experienced leader.  Would I know anyone qualified for the position?

The facility will have state-of-the-art instruments, found nowhere else in Europe.  It will be run as an academic / government / commercial partnership, bringing together sharp minds and leading ideas with commercial links and technology transfer opportunities.  And it will be pan-European, with an expectation of having a Continental flow of patients and research, partnerships and spin-outs.

Intriguing stuff: I applied and passed the screening interview.  To my credit, I’d worked in business startups, commercial-academic collaborations, organizing teams, and technology transfer.  However, I was new to this particular field, had managed products instead of services, and was an expat applying for a high-profile position in a government sponsored venture.  I did my homework, reviewing business plans, visiting similar facilities, and planning a strategy for branding, supply chain, pricing, and costs that would establish a solid operating footing and a growing customer reputation within one year.

And, in those aspects, the formal interview (2 hours long) went well.  As with all Dutch negotiations, the folks were well prepared, had practical and pointed questions, and genuinely listened and dug beneath my answers.  Well and good: after four years I’m comfortable with that style and was ready with references and anecdotes from working with scientists in for-profit Dutch settings.

The hardest questions were about how I might handle press interviews and investor meetings as an expat and without Dutch fluency. I can see the worry: in times of economic stress and public debate about immigration, integration, and cultural homogeneity, a non-Dutch CEO could be controversial.

And, while praising my preparation, plans, and style in the interview, they did chose someone else.

I hate to lose, but I don’t feel too bad about this one: I would have made the same choice.

But it does set me to thinking about how expat applicants compete in the professional job market.  It seems like there are two alternatives:

One is to go toe-to-toe for professional positions against qualified Dutch applicants.  In that case, you do have to be both ordinary and exceptional.  Ordinary in the sense that I would have an established local presence, know the language fluently, and integrate transparently into both style and culture.  Exceptional in the sense that I would still need to bring an international reputation, a network of established connections, a history of high-profile success.

The alternative is to serve international markets, more in the style of a trader and facilitator, conducting business from US perspective within a Dutch base.  In this role, I am ordinary in being comfortable in either setting, exceptional in having dual sets of local knowledge and experience, parallel access to resources and network.

I’m probably more effective in the latter role, building on my expat status rather than suppressing it.  It’s an important distinction from a practical sense to: from skill-building to personal branding, the choice drives many decisions that build into business and personal success.


Sculptures and paintings by Lucia Nogueira, on exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.  Photos of Untitled, 1989, metal, glass lenses, gauze, which was my favorite, for the way the work changes as the viewer moves through the space around it.