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Dr. Seuss’ Age Old Wisdom

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There is no doubt we are in a tough time economically. And in our world of technology, start-ups, entrepreneurship and innovation, we are feeling the pressure more each day. Today Google announced that they will have layoffs of 200 employees, no different than the layoff news that has come from other companies like Microsoft and Yahoo!  However, when it is Google, poster child for success in our space, it makes one take pause yet again.

Everyone is taking a more conservative approach in their outlooks, some classify it as being more thoughtful and prudent, others hunkering for the long haul to the more dramatic “just survive”.  So there are a lot of people trying trying to figure out how to approach the world we are in today.  Entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how to manage their burn rate so their ideas that were so promising just six months ago will find revenue earlier than planned. Investors are looking more closely at the investments they make.  And there are a number of talented people looking for next career opportunities as well.

Here’s the thing though:  Innovation continues to take place.  Investors are still investing in solid business models.  There are many people trying to do great things in their businesses and will hire individuals that will help them be successful.  This is the outlook I am taking in my own personal approach to the current marketplace.  In fact, my view is that you HAVE to.  What is the alternative?  A positive attitude is what is necessary to move us forward.

I was reading Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, to my daughter today.  Oddly, I’d never read this one before but as I was reading it, the story really resonated with me.  Dr. Seuss had it all figured out, before the first internet bubble burst and certainly before the current situation we find ourselves in.  If you are trying to find you way, pay attention to these words and heed the advice:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

If you need to, read it again. Read the whole book. Whatever your situation, the message is spot on. Rely on yourself.  You know what you know (and you can learn what you need to).  You fully control where you want to go and how to get there.

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Certainty Alludes Us

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I am currently reading a book entitled The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb or NNT as he calls himself throughout.  It is a very thought-provoking read and gets you thinking quite critically with regard to how you assess the probabilities of a given set of circumstances, how sound (or un-sound) are predictive models and obviously the impact of the unexpected (or Black Swan).  Makes sense, after all the sub-title is “The Impact of the Highly Improbable”.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through and find it a strenuous read simply by challenging myself to think through the principles that NNT takes you through.  The concept of certainty and our natural search for causal effects is something he discusses quite thoroughly.  We do often look for the “cause” of what has occurred or what we believe will occur based on a given set of circumstances or by taking a certain course of action.  It is ingrained in our being. He posits that this is often not the right way to look at things.  That the world is too complex to wrap everything nicely in a box with a bow.

We also don’t typically think of things in terms of NOT, usually we always aim for what NNT refers to as confirmation, what IS.  How often do you look at a problem and take the approach to prove your hypothesis is correct?  Well, isn’t the only way to truly do that is to disprove every other possibility?  How can you guarantee that you’ve covered every possibility?  Truth is, we can’t. Certainty for the most part alludes us.

That doesn’t mean we should try however.  I recently read the book Moneyball and cannot help but appreciate its juxtaposition with this book’s concepts.  It discusses quite the opposite view. Billy Beane’s strive to design the best way to predict future performance of baseball players and he was quite successful doing just that (and not in obvious ways). Ironically, Taleb too touches briefly on baseball quoting Yogi Berra, “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future” and referring to him in a way that applies to many of us within our chosen fields:

practitioner of uncertainty, and as a baseball player and coach, regularly faced random outcomes, and had to face their results deep into his bones

One of my favorite lines from the book is:

It is often said that “is wise he who can see things coming.”  Perhaps the wise one is the one who knows that he cannot see things far away.

I cannot help but appreciate the impact of keeping an open mind can help decision-making and on how “certainty” can affect judgment.  Keeping a healthy dose of perspective with regard to the improbability that exists can only help us make sound decisions.  Being consciously aware that even with the best and brightest predictive modeling, there is a degree of chaos or uncertainty in almost everything that we cannot control.  Working through, recognizing it and obviously not falling into ‘paralysis by analysis’ is paramount and applies to everything, in work and in life.

I’ll be honest, reading this book, I can’t but keep thinking of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm, spouting off about ‘chaos theory’.  If a mix of statistical probability and philosophy is something that interests you, I recommend the book.  Of course, how can I not recommend a book that incorporates a chapter entitled, “How to Look for Bird Poop”.

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