Human dreams, #Linchpin, Gary Kasparov and “The Mechanical Turk”


In Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about “The Mechanical Turk”, a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From Wikipedia:

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years … Although many had suspected the hidden human operator, the hoax was initially revealed only in the 1820s by the Londoner Robert Willis

Godin uses this phenomenon to make a point about how simple tasks are becoming automated. And if we can automate them, one of two things will happen. Either we would not need people to do the task or we will pay them very little to do it (and it is already happening).

“The Mechanical Turk” was indeed a hoax, but he was just the precursor for what happened at the end of the 20th century when computers actually began to win against humans in chess games. This process is fantastically described, sometimes from a first person point of view, in Garry Kasparov’s review of the book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Rasskin-Gutman titled The Chess Master and the Computer. Reading the review reminded me of the messages Godin is trying to make so vividly, that I had to put the connection in writing:

The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming. The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This is exactly the point that we need to remember. Computers, analysis, automation. They are all tools. Tools that should allow us humans to create something better. In the last 100 years, we used them to create more. Because in the state the world was, more meant better. And in order to use those tools best, we needed to lock ourselves behind rules and other mechanisms of control. But no more. Now, we need to leave the idea of more and make sure we allow people to create something greater. Not only more, but something new and meaningful and valuable. In the end of the review, Kasparov writes:

This is our last chess metaphor, then—a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a move by searching through millions of possibilities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

From Great to Good. From just more with incremental improvements, we need to move to different that makes a true impact on our lives. And the way to reach those dreams will not be found in productivity and automation. It will be found where dreams are often found. In the human mind. In humans’ creativity and freedom and aspirations. In letting go of the rules and of the control and trying to use the tools that we have to re-invent the game. The game of chess and the game of our world.


Practical wisdom revisited

Cartoon by


I wrote about Seth Godin’s new book Linchpin several times here in this blog since I finished reading it a few weeks ago. The book still runs in my head all the time. I have a list of really great quotes that are waiting for me to do something with. This is one of my favorites:

You can’t say, “Get more excited and insightful or you’re fired.” Actually, you can, but it won’t work. The front-desk worker at a hotel who runs out in the middle of the night to buy gym shorts for a guest isn’t doing it out of fear of being reprimanded. He does it because he was inspired to do so by a leader who wasn’t even in the hotel when the clerk decided to contribute.

Even though I originally liked this quote for the last sentence that reminded me of something I wrote earlier about what will employees do when the manager is not there. However, when I looked at quote today it connected to a concept I have been grappling with and writing about a lot lately – rules. Or more correctly the need to stop with them.

A big part of the Linchpin is an attempt to convince us that the really amazing jobs have no rule book. And that really amazing people, those that make a difference (or Art, as Godin calls it), like this front-desk worker example, do not work according to a rule book. They work according to an internal code. They show practical wisdom.

Because if you think about it, creating a customer experience is not something that you can write rules for. Yes, you can give guidelines, and general principles (like this great list of the 6 laws of customer experience), but you cannot create a detailed rule book. Try it! Try creating a rule that says when a front-desk worker at a hotel should run out in the middle of the night to get something for a customer…

That is why some of the most successful companies that provide customer service, don’t give the call center employees any scripts. Think Zappos:

[E]ncouraging customers to call them about nearly everything. Their call center takes 5,000 calls per day, and employees work independent of scripts, quotas, or call time limits. The longest call to date has been four hours. Zappos views the phone experience as a branding device, and speaks to virtually every customer at least once.

Scripts, as the great cartoon from illustrates are about rules. And rules are redundant mechanisms of control that belong to yesterdays world, a world that focused on productivity and on inhuman and unnatural management. Those days are over. It is time, as Barry Schwartz says in a TED talk that is worth seeing again and again, we use less rules, laws and incentives and more practical wisdom.


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The way to Mastery – the #Drive way or the Freak Factor way

Photo by Gapiningvoid


According to Dan Pink in his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, a big part of “Motivation 3.0”, is the concept of Mastery. The argument goes something like this:

Only engagement can produce mastery – becoming better at something that matters. And the pursuit of mastery, an important but often dormant part of our third drive, has become essential to making one’s way in the economy. Mastery begins with “flow” – optimal experiences when the challenges we face are exquisitely matched to our abilities.

While I really like the concept I feel that the argument for this part of the AMP (Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose) in the book is not compelling as the other parts. One potential drawback that I see with the way Pink approaches the issue of mastery. He takes a too narrow approach to the way success, or better yet, excellence, is actually measured in our world. In his attempt to break some of the conventional wisdoms, Pink falls prays to others.

Let me explain by quoting a short part from the mastery chapter:

Mastery – of sports, music, business – requires effort (difficult, painful, excruciating, all consuming effort) over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade). Sociologist Daniel Chambliss has referred to this as “the mundanity of excellence.” Like Ericsson, Chambliss found – in a three-year study of Olympic swimmers – that those who did the best typically spent the most time and effort on the mundane activities that readied them for races. It’s the same reason that, in another study, the west point grit researchers found that grittiness – rather than IQ or standardized test scores – is the most accurate predictor of college grades. As they explained, whereas the importance of working harder is easily apprehended, the importance of working longer without switching objectives may be less predictable… in every field, grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment”.

Am I the only one who is baffled here? Predictor of college grades? I am sorry, but since when college grades is a predictor of anything? As Seth Godin says in Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, the only thing that being good at school means is – that you are good at school (!):

You have been brainwashed by school and by the system into believing that your job is to do your job and follow instructions. It’s not, not anymore.

Following instructions with grittiness and determination might lead to successes. But it also might be exactly the kind of thinking that leads us to being cogs in the big factories of productivity. I am not sure that the success, as measured currently by society, is what we should all aspire for. I am not saying that effort or grittiness is not important. I actually believe that sometimes dying on the treadmill is all that matters. It is just that it is not the right fit for everybody. For some, mastery can be found not in grittiness, but in being impatient. Here is one example of a very successful man, from the freak factor blog:

My mantra, as well as my business plan, is ‘If you always do fun stuff, there will always be plenty of fun stuff to do.’ This works incredibly well for me, as I’m allergic to doing stuff that’s not fun. Consequently, I have the grooviest career, biz & life I can imagine as the Rock and Roll Guru.

Another significant ‘flaw’ is my attention span, or lack thereof. The strength here is that I’m working on so much cool stuff that I never get bored. There’s always another fun project to which I can turn my attention, however briefly. For example, I’m working on a series of themed Daffynitions books, including Biz, Parenting, Relationships & Self-help. Additionally, I’m writing the Rock & Roll Dictionary, which is based on the Daffynitions model.

Yes, in his own way, over a long haul of time, Joe Heuer shows grittiness. But it is not in the way Pink talks about. More importantly, Joe Heuer is a wonderful example of mastery leading to excellence.

I am not against mastery. I am all for it. I do believe in its power. We just need to remember that there are many ways to achieve mastery and that we need to be careful in the ways we measure success, as they might limit the ways we manage people. Mastery can be reached by working hard and not giving up. Mastery can also be achieved by letting go and trying many different things. And that is exactly the point. Differences should be embraced. Paths should be explored. Given the right support, people will find their way to excellence.


Does management emanate from nature?

Photo by Ben Sutherland


Finally, I have finished reading Daniel Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I don’t think the book needs another review (for a much better review than any I can write, see here). However, in the next few days I want to elaborate on and/or argue with some of the concepts in the book.

I want to start with this quote (an idea Dan mentions in his TED talk as well):

We forget sometimes that “management” does not emanate from nature. It’s not like a tree or a river. It’s like a television or a bicycle. It’s something that humans invented. As the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, management is a technology. And like motivation 2.0, it’s a technology that has grown creaky. While some companies have oiled the gears a bit, and plenty more have paid lip service to the same, at its core management hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. Its central ethics remains control; its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators…

While I agree that management hasn’t changed a lot over the last 100 years and that it is still built around misguided Taylorism based conventional wisdoms that is about time we break, I find it hard to agree with the main claim. Management does emanate from nature. In fact, the problem with management today as I see it is that we stopped doing what is natural and human and started using artificial methods to deal with people.

Being empathic, creating connections and socializing, talking and listening and even respecting our fellow human beings are not unnatural things.

When you start treating management as a race for productivity you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you start using carrots and sticks like people are jackasses you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you rely only on measurement of only the things you can measure to fuel management you get an unnatural phenomenon.

Pink claims that we should throw the word “management “onto the linguistic ash heap alongside words like “icebox” and “horseless carriage”. He claims that today we see many companies getting rid of “middle management” which leaves fewer managers with more people to manage. I think exactly the opposite.

I think what this world need is more managers. More discussions of the word and what it means to be a real manager of real people. Not more of the word that goes with every other role in every other company, but the word that describes the true role of a manager – people. more discussion about a manger who brings the best out of people. About a manager who listens to people and helps them excel. About the manager who takes out the linchpin and the artist in people. About a manager that brings out the natural human being in people.

I don’t think there is anything more natural than management. We just need to wake up, understand that we have been talking about the wrong thing and making the wrong assumptions and start being actual human beings again.


Shorts: #Linchpin on Teamwork


Seth Godin, Linchpin:

There are plenty of bosses who fear the idea of indispensable employees and would instead encourage you to focus on teamwork. “Teamwork” is the word bosses and coaches and teachers use when they actually mean, “Do what I say”. It’s not teamwork to stand by and do whatever the captain or supervisor tells you to. It might be cooperative or compliant or useful, but it’s not teamwork.

And I will take this idea a step further. In the world that is developing all around us, the old kind of teamwork, where they say “teamwork” but actually mean “Do what I say”, just cannot work. It cannot work, because managers just don’t know enough anymore. Their employees are smarter than them. And by smarter I don’t necessarily mean IQ smarter, but that they have different strengths and different areas of knowledge. The world is too complicated and too specialized for every manager to know and be able to do each job better than the employees who do it every day. Thus, teamwork becomes an exercise in the indirect approach. By letting go of the control, you create a more cohesive team. By letting every employee become the master of his own domain within the large purpose of the team, you create real synergy.

And the manager?

He stops dealing with control that demands surveillance, motoring, giving answers and micro-measuring. Instead he starts dealing with enabling excellence – which involves creating communications and understanding, taking hurdles out of the way, showing them how they create a difference, helping people find their strengths and asking the right questions.

Finally, another quote from Linchpin:

If you want a job where the people who work for you do exactly what they’re told, don’t be surprised if your boss expects precisely the same thing from you…

Great bosses and world-class organizations hire motivated people, set high expectations, and give their people room to become remarkable.


Managers’ responsibility – helping people overcome the resistance

Photo by The U.S. Army


I did it. I finished reading Linchpin, Seth Godin’s new book. As I twitted a few days ago, I am still not sure if it is about management, education, philosophy or a self-help book, but is a very profound book that makes you think. The book touches on so many subjects that it will be hard to cover it in one post. So in the next few days (or hours, I might feel the desire) I will post my thoughts with some of the greatest quotes in the book.

Godin actually writes a manifesto for you. And me. And everybody. Trying to convince us that we should wake up and defeat the resistance, the small voice inside our head that tells us not to do remarkable things. He wants us to not only do our job but to do The Work, which is something meaningful, different, that changes the world, what he calls a gift of Art.

The thing is, a big part of the book is devoted to explaining exactly how hard it is to do just that. To describing how many mechanisms are present – some created by society and some are just part of natural evolution from pre-historic hunters – to prevent us from being indispensable and engaging with our Art. These resistance mechanisms have become such a big part of our culture and they are everywhere:

In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do. Sure, many of us pretend that we’d love to have control and authority and to bring our humanity to work. But given half a chance, we give it up, in a heartbeat. Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedoms and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do.

I have written about this before:

The conventional wisdom that a manager needs to say to its employees how to do their work is already intertwined into people’s expectations.

And all I could think while reading the book is that we all need someone to help us help ourselves. Someone to nudge us in the right direction. Someone who will resist giving us the answers and will make us confront our fears and find our Art:

Your employee comes to you with a problem. He expects you to solve it for him, to tell him what to do. That is the conventional wisdom. But, that is exactly what you should not do in most cases. The famous creed: “don’t give a hungry man a fish, teach him how to fish” is on the spot but not implemented enough. We need to resist the temptation and try to give solution or answers and move to letting people find their own ways. So they will be able to do the job when you are not there. Tell them what the desired outcome is and let them find the solution. Give them the support and help, but not the solution. Resist the temptation.

And just like my initial thoughts after the presentation at the launch of the book, I point my fingers to managers.  I call our to them to start resisting the temptation to give answers. To stop with the rules. The let go of the mechanisms of control.

I know. It is hard. It is more than hard. It is terrifying. Trusting people is frightening. Letting go of our control is hard. Understanding that they are better than you in some respects, that they can do something you can’t is paralyzing. But it is worth it. Because that is the Art of great managers. That is the gift that they can give. And because In today’s world, there is no other choice. I will finish with the quote from the book:

Rick Wagoner lost his job at GM because he told everyone what to do (and he was wrong). Far better to build a team that figures out what to do instead.

What is your Art as a manager? What gift do you give your employees everyday? Who do you nudge them to find their Art?

We don’t only need indispensable people who can ignore the lizard brain and defeat the resistance. We need indispensable managers who will nudge people to become indispensable.


Are you worthy?

Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives


Dale Breckenridge Carnegie wrote in 1905 (!) the following paragraph in the introduction to his book, The Art of Public Speaking:

Training in public speaking is not a matter of externals – primarily; it is not a matter of imitation – fundamentally; it is not a matter of conformity to standards – at all.  Public speaking is public utterance, public issuance, of the man himself; therefore the first thing both in time and in importance is that the man should be and think and feel things that are worthy of being given forth.

Isn’t this something that should be always true? Yes, the externals – visuals, speaking tools, metaphors – are all important. However, in the end, it boils down to the question – is what I am saying worthy? When you next go to give a presentation – ask yourself – what do I have to say? And I know what you are going to tell me. “I am going to talk about something boring and banal; there is nothing for me to ‘say’ in it”. And my answer –if there isn’t don’t talk.

If you can’t find the passion inside, the understanding of how you are making a difference, some kind of difference, small as it may be, in somebody’s life by giving this next presentation, don’t present. The title of Carnegie’s books includes the word art – and I would like to think of it as Art in the way Seth Godin thinks about Art in his new book Linchpin. There are many painters but there are only a limited number of artists who paint. There are many speakers, but there are only a limited number of people who deal in the Art of public speaking.

I will take this idea one step further. If you are a manager, this applies to your everyday work life too. When you wake up tomorrow morning and go to your office, what kind of mind set do you bring with you to the office? Are you doing things that are worthy? Do you feel that you have something to give, something of importance, that you are changing your employees’ lives?  What kind of passion do you bring to your partnership with them? Dan Pink tells us to ask ourselves two questions every morning. I think there is only one. Are you worthy?