Friday, March 27, 2015

Unlearning What We Know...

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read or write but rather those who are unable to learn, unlearn, and relearn."

                                       ~ Alvin Toffler

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with the product manager of one of OptiFuse’s distributor partners.

While discussing some slight variation of one of our products that one of his might want, we began talking about a wish-list of products that he would someday like us to develop.

He had several good ideas about possible applications and potential markets for these products. 

Currently, about 20% of all the products we sell are customized for specific customer needs.  Usually the changes are typically modifications in a standard product that incrementally helps a customer solve a problem.

In these situations, there is a need, and we help to create a product that solves that need.

What was a little strange about our conversation was that the ideas that we were coming up with, really had no customer demand at this point in time.

This was the "build it and they will come" way of thinking... and it is truly the scariest of all entrepreneurial endeavors. 

This is not a "build a better mousetrap" type of venture... with that type of product... there is a need (mice that need to be rid of) and you have a better, faster, less expensive way of doing it.

No... this is more like "build a new widget that no one has ever used before or that no one knows that they need". 

Very often there is no existing market or perceived need for this product... so a market demand needs to be created from scratch.

This is art at its very core.  Creating something from nothing and introducing it to a market that does not currently exist... at least not yet.

These are the ideas that radically change the world... and the fortunes of its inhabitants.

...but sadly, most people fail at their attempt to create art... they fail because they never start.

The reason people never start is simple... they’ve been taught all their lives to comply with the status quo rather than to take a risk and create something new.

In schools across America and the world, children are given Teachera strict set of rules and told to embrace those rules.  Those choosing to follow the rules are lauded; those choosing to break the rules are punished.

There are seating charts, schedules, lesson plans and rubrics (a standard of performance for a defined population in "education speak").

The rules are there for one expressed purpose... to assist in the management and measurement of teachers and students. 

The famous business management guru, Peter Drucker, summed it up best when he wrote, "you can only manage what you can teach and measure"... and schools have taken measurement to new heights.

Tests are given regularly to students to measure the information stored in their brains.  The more information that they can regurgitated at a moment’s notice, the higher the student’s grade and subsequent positive reinforcement from teachers, parents and peers.

Rarely, if ever, is creativity and innovation taught and even more rare... is it tested...

The reason for this is simple... teachers simply don’t know how to teach it... and creativity can’t be accurately measured with a standard test... and once again if you can’t measure it... you can’t manage it...

I find that in today’s world, especially in America, the situation is exasperated with the over-programming of children’s activities outside of school and the advent of providing kids with a power computer and internet connectivity.

No longer are kids allowed to create new simplistic adventures for themselves out in the world... the kids have now been programmed to only accept highly supervised and highly structured activities.

I was recently talking with my step-daughter and some of her friends while they were over our house the other day. 

They mentioned that they were bored and wanted me to take them to the mall. 

I explained that I was busy at the moment and that maybe they could go outside and build a fort in the canyon behind our house and have an adventure.

They at first stared at me as though I had spoken to them in Chinese... and then all of a sudden they all burst out laughing hysterically...

After some time one of them spoke after perhaps drying her eyes of tears, "Sure... go into the canyon and build a fort... why don’t you just tell us to go down to the zoo and jump into the tigers’ enclosure"... more laughter ensued... as I left the room...

This same attitude then follows the young people as they progress to the universities and colleges after their el-hi education.

While there is some autonomy provided to the students (attendance is not generally taken and homework rarely collected and graded), there is little attention given to those students displaying a great deal of creativity... especially in the scientific, math, or engineering fields... where there is but one correct answer for each question.

It’s no wonder then, when these same students enter the work force, they are ill-prepared and trained to actually think critically and take initiative.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at one of the local college campuses at a career fair.  Hundreds of students came by my table to ask me about the availability of internships as these types of positions seem to be in high demand by students.

I explained that OptiFuse had several potential projects that could be very interesting work for someone wanting to gain valuable practical experience as an intern.  I added that the internship was a paid position because I expected certain tangible results from completing these projects.

I gave each of them my business card and told them if they were self-motivated, highly creative, and interested in developing some new marketable skills that they should call me to set up a meeting where I could explain the details of some of the various projects.

Four weeks later, I have yet to receive a single call or e-mail.

It appears that the young adults I spoke with are incapable of taking initiative to actually reach out and set a meeting... they would rather sit passively waiting for me to call them than to actually pick up the phone and risk rejection.  

This type of passiveness isn’t relegated to students.

There are plenty of people whom I know personally who are deathly afraid of "creating waves" or "rocking the boat" at their job... they have been trained well... to put their heads down...

and stay busy... stay compliant... stay the course...

Don’t do anything extra... don’t look for new ways to do things... don’t take on more responsibility (unless it comes with more money and/or better title)... and never ever ask questions.

I too have been found guilty myself of these same crimes...

Being too busy with the urgent to focus on the important... designing products that are incrementally better rather than creating new unique products from scratch... keeping my head down instead of looking up to take notice of my surroundings...

We all need to find a way to unlearn the lessons of mediocrity and compliance and instead retrain our brains to find the creativity and excellence that is buried in each of us.

It’s a scary proposition... but in this new age what is our alternative?

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse as we join together to create new ideas that will change the world...

Friday, March 20, 2015

Adventures of the Mind...

"Education is not the memorization of facts, but instead teaching the mind to think"

                                 ~  Albert Einstein

One of my life-long ambitions is to not only go to TED... but to one day, be invited to actually speak there.

TED - Technology, Entertainment, Design - is an annual global conference (now an entire set of conferences) founded in 1984.

The primary purpose Ted Talksof TED is to bring together a group of world-renown speakers to introduce original ideas and unique concepts to their live audience, and now due to the magic of the internet and on-demand broadcasting; the world. 

TED’s mission statement is to present "Ideas Worth Spreading".

Speakers at TED are given a maximum of 18 minutes to share their perspective on a particular topic of research or thought.  The talks are generally entertaining with the aid of multi-media and demonstrations.

The best presentations however, are made through the use of story-telling and personal experiences.

Past presenters have included luminaries such as Bill Clinton, Malcom Gladwell, Bill Gates, Bono, Jeff Bezos, Al Gore, James Cameron, Seth Godin, Billy Graham, and Richard Branson as well as thousands of other, perhaps slightly less famous but equally as important scientists, artists, philanthropists and deep thinkers.

I have never actually attended a TED conference, although there are now many smaller conferences held around the country known as TEDx conferences (but actually going to a TED conference is on my short list of goals before the end of 2016).

The interesting thing is that although I’ve never been to TED, I have probably seen enough TED presentations to fill the time of twenty TED conferences.  There are approximately 1,900 taped TED presentations available for viewing on at no cost.  As of 2012, there have been over 1 billion views of TED talks by people around the world.

While I still have the dream of being a TED presenter one day, I have since found a new passion.

The one downside to TED is that presenters talk to their audience.  It’s strictly a one-way street... and in fact... a TED talk doesn’t really need to be taped in front of a live audience at all.  It could just as easily be recorded on a sound-stage in someone’s basement.

After a speaker’s 18 minutes are completed, they leave, stage right and another speaker enters, stage left to give another performance.  At no time during the conference does a presenter actually interact with their audience... or should I say... does the audience interact with the presenter.

I understand the reasoning behind this format... but just because I understand it... it doesn’t mean that I like it.

Great ideas aren’t passive... they are interactive.  They are formulated, discussed, massaged, and debated.

Each year I am fortunate to attend a 5-day conference in Boston called the "Gathering of Titans" (GOT).  It is an outcropping from an entrepreneurial program I studied while at MIT in the late 1990’s.

Each April, 80 entrepreneurs gather to listen and interact with many of the exact same lecturers presenting at TED.  However, instead of a simple 18-minute highly rehearsed speech, we have the privilege to listen, ask questions, and break-bread with some of the greatest thinkers and doers on the planet for sometimes more than 2-hours at a time.  The sessions are fully interactive and never rehearsed.

I use the word "privilege" because that is exactly what it is...

Due to the high cost of bringing in top-notch presenters, attending the conference has a steep cost associated with it... but I gladly pay it... because I place a high value on this type of education and take away a great learning experience.  I concede that the conference is elitist and offer no rationalization to the contrary.

Now contrast GOT with another program that I have recently become associated with...

The program is called Adventures of the Mind, and is the brain-child of Victoria Gray, a Washington, DC based attorney.

Adventures of the Adventures of the MindMind is a bi-annual, week-long summer-camp for high school aged children (15-18 years old) who demonstrate great intellectual promise and an inquisitive nature.

These young-adults come from all over the country to meet and interact with their intellectual peers often creating life-long bonds with the peers and mentors.

More often than not, the kids come from at-risk segments of the population and/or from the small towns spread across America where advanced educational opportunities are few and far between. 

There are lots of summer camps available to kids... so what makes Adventures of the Mind so special?

Well... first there are the "camp counselors"...

Adventures of the Mind is not staffed with your typical camp counselors but rather is comprised of an all-star instructional staff who are often asked to speak at conferences like TED and GOT. 

It’s not an 18-minute speech... it’s not a 2-hour Q&A session...

These dedicated individuals act as mentors, often spending the entire week providing hands-on learning experiences side-by-side with the kids.

They share inspiring stories of their humble beginnings, the overcoming of great obstacles placed in their path, and their unrelenting passion for their craft.   

The mentors have included scores of Nobel Laureates and Poet Laureates.  Best-selling authors like Amy Tan and James Ellroy, high-tech entrepreneurs like Google founders Sergy Brin and Larry Page and Kickstarter founder Perry Chan. 

World famous and award-winning artists, rocket scientists, photographers, physicist, doctors, master chefs, fashion designers, NASA astronauts, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, engineers, archaeologists, chess champions, professors, paleontologists, and computer scientists all have devoted a significant portion of their precious time to help mentor students at Adventures of the Mind.

Adventure of the Mind is often referred to as a mentoring summit due to the extremely high ratio of mentors to students. 

Additionally, unlike my GOT conference, there is no such thing as elitism at Adventures of the Mind.  The cost of tuition is determined strictly based on the ability of the family to cover the $2,975 cost.  Over one-half of all the students attending Adventures of the Mind are on full-scholarship and many others on partial scholarships.

The idea is to allow our brightest and our best minds to meet together no matter where they come from or what the families can afford.

In August of 2015, Adventures of the Mind will convene on the campus of Rosemont College near Philadelphia bringing 200 talented young people together with scores of adult achievers to begin a week of exploration and inspiration.

Applications are currently being accepted to attend.  There is no application fee.

If you have an exceptional child, grandchild, niece, or nephew... or perhaps you might know of a teenager who might benefit from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I highly encourage you to ask them to apply.

In addition, I’m imploring you to forward this week’s blog to someone you might know who can take advantage of this fantastic program or perhaps just re-post it to your favorite social media site.

To apply for Adventures of the Mind - Click HERE... of go the their website. 

As many of my regular readers know, I am a huge proponent of continuous learning, mentorship, and giving back to the community in which we all belong.

Join me in saluting Victoria Gray for her tireless and herculean efforts in organizing, staffing, marketing, fund-raising, and operating Adventures of the Mind... for kids just like yours and mine...

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse where we are pleased to support the education and inspiration of the next generation...

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's Simply Elementary...

"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes"
                                         ~Sherlock Holmes

Last summer I was on vacation in the mountains of Wyoming with some friends when I pulled over and stopped at the side of the road to take a few pictures of a gorgeous vista with the Teton Mountains in the background.

After I took several photos I returned to the car where my friends were all in a gasp.

"So did you get it?" asked one of my friends.

"Get what?" I replied.

"The big elk that was standing right next to you."

"What big elk?" I said in a haze, "I didn’t see anything."

"There was a giant elk eating some grass no more than 4 feet away from you!!... you didn’t see him??!!"

The other passengers in the car starting laughing hysterically... at my expense.

"I can’t believe that you didn’t see this 8 foot monster RIGHT NEXT to you!"

Well I suppose in my defense I wasn’t looking for an elk... I was concentrating on capturing the perfect photo of the valley below.  I was so singly focused on what’s in front of me, that I didn’t even bother to look to my side.

How often do we go through life only focused on what is directly in front of us but not paying any attention to what is happening beside us or even behind us?

We like to call this "out of sight... out of mind".

Now for some people... just the opposite is true.  Those people find it nearly impossible to focus on the task at hand but rather they are constantly looking at the peripheral distractions unable to concentrate on the important things in front of them.

If this occurs in children... we call it "ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder".

If this occurs in adults... we call it "multitasking".

One of my all-time heroes is a fictional character.  This person has an incredible talent.  He can focus intently on the task in front of him... pondering a riddle or puzzle for days on end... hardly eating or sleeping... after which some time his brain discovers the solution to the riddle.

This person also has the innate ability to make keen observations about the mundane world around him with perfect recall as to what he has seen.

He may note, for instance, that the number of stairs needed to walk up to a particular doorway... whether or not someone walks favoring one foot or another... or how many cars and what types of vehicles had passed a certain intersection during a particular time of day.

The person I am speaking of is of course Sherlock Holmes, the fictional "consulting detective" created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887.

Although I already Sherlock Holmesknew the name, I wasn’t really formally introduced to Sherlock Holmes during my freshman year of college while taking a required introductory literature course.

I was enthralled with Holmes’ unbelievable use of logical deduction and reasoning as well as forensic science to solve complex criminal cases that baffled the police and other experts.

In addition to his innate powers of reasoning, Holmes developed other expertise in other skills such as marksmanship, identification of the ashes of cigarettes and cigars, the use of disguises, boxing, chemistry, soil identification and swordplay.

He was also an avid yet amateurish musician, particularly the violin.

Sherlock Holmes was also a master of his emotions.  He concerned himself with only the facts, with a logical progression to the truth in any matter.  He did not let his own personal feelings sway his reasoning.

I have often wondered how someone like Sherlock Holmes would operate in today’s world. 

There is so much information available to anyone with an internet connection.  So much information in fact, that one cannot possibly discriminate all of the facts from all of the opinions and non-facts. 

There is also the case of several different random data points being aggregated into a model that very accurately describes the past but has nothing to predict future data points.

A great example of this situation is when economists use incredibly complicated equations to precisely model the past performance of the stock market... but these same curves cannot, with any real correctness, predict what will actually happen to the market in the future.

The "noise" that is constantly screaming at us from all directions prevents us from focusing on the critical information that will help us to solve complex problems or allowing the creativity inside each of us to percolate outwards from our brains.  

With so much noise and distraction around us each and every moment... <ding>... wait hold the thought for a second... I need to check the text that just came in...

Okay back...

Now what was I talking about...

Oh yeah... distractions and noise...

This is the very fallacy of being able to multi-task.

Multi-tasking does not actually save us any time, due to the inordinate amount of time it takes us to try and refocus our thoughts onto the matters at hand.  And in fact, multi-tasking tends to make us less productive.

Yet, we are prone to attempt this super-human feat.  Why?

The primary reason that people try to multi-task is because they actually believe that they are proficient at it... despite all of the evidence that we have to the contrary.

Several large-scale university studies have been conducted showing a great correlation between multi-tasking and inefficiency, including a 2009 Stanford study where people actually took a great deal of pride in their perceived ability to multi-task, but were actually found to be less efficient in their work than the control group.

The biggest problem that most researchers have found was the inability of subjects practicing multi-tasking to filter out what is and is not important to meet the objectives of the work in front of them... wildly jumping from one idea to another while completing very little.

Which brings me back to my fictional hero... Mr. Holmes.

The very idea of someone being able to completely shut out distractions and seeing through all of the noise to solve complex problems holds my highest admiration and respect mostly because I am unable to accomplish such a feat myself. 

In the same way I respect baseball players who can hit a major-league curve ball or opera singers that can hit a note with perfect pitch. 

It takes an immense amount of innate skill and years of focused training... to become great at something...

I truly wish that I had the abilities of Sherlock Holmes to remain focused on the tasks in front of me...

...excuse me... I just heard my phone ringing... gotta take this call... talk to you next week.

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse where we try our best to focus all of our attention on our meeting our customers’ needs...

Friday, March 6, 2015

Our Future Is Now...

"When my ship finally comes in...I’ll most likely be waiting at the airport"
                                            ~ Bernice Walsh

As noted before, one of my all-time favorite books is Viktor Frankl’s "Man’s Search for Meaning" published 1959, which chronicles Frankl’s Nazi Holocaust experiences.

Frankl was a Jewish physician and psychiatrist before WWII.  After the Nazi’s seized control of Germany and most of Europe, Frankl and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where, despite all of the atrocities committed against him by his captors, he somehow managed to survive.

After he was released in April of 1945, he chronicled many of the observations and experiences that he had while incarcerated.  His detailed accounts of the events that took place are both horrific and mind-numbing.

One of his observations was most interesting to me as I read his book.  He noted that one of the lowest inmate survival rates came from those men he called the "optimists"... those men who lived their lives in the hopes of a better future rather than dealing specifically with the present conditions as they were.

The reason for their demise, he suspected, was due to their disappointment of things not turning out exactly like they had hoped... in the time frame that they had hoped.  When things went from bad to worse... the optimists just threw in the towel and quit.

Instead of being the blade of grass bending in the wind... they stood firmly planted like a tree and when the strong wind turned into a hurricane, they were easily uprooted and destroyed.

I am not writing this to advocate yielding to an aggressor or telling you that putting up a valiant fight isn’t warranted or justified in certain situations... because this is not the point I’m trying to make.

My intention today is instead to write about the pitfalls of living in the future rather than dealing with the present.

My contemporaries and I are now at the age when we mostly talk about 3 things... our kids... our health... and our plans for retirement.

It is the latter of the 3 that I find most interesting...

A small majority of my friends seem to be waiting for some enchanted moment in time when all of their cares and worries will be somehow alleviated.  They collectively call that magical day "retirement" (or some other label) .

A typical statement from them starts off with the same basic premise, "my life will be so much better when I finally retire because... "

That "because" can be represented with several multiple-choice answers: 
  • I can play golf (or another hobby) every day
  • I will no longer have to work
  • I can finally spend time with my spouse / children / grand kids
  • I can find some time to do the charity work I’ve always wanted to do
  • I’ll have the time to travel and see the world
  • I’ll have the opportunity to go back to school
Essentially this type of thinking involves imagining how much better life will be when certain conditions are met at some specific future point in time.

This manner of thinking is not limited to retirement... although this is what I’ve been hearing from many of my acquaintances mostly due to our ages... but it can also reflect the thinking of anyone at any age.

I’m certain we’ve all heard someone lamenting... "My life will be so much better when I... "
  • Meet and/or marry the right person
  • Move to a new place
  • Find a better job
  • Finally get that raise
  • Have kids
  • Win the lottery
  • Fully fund my 401K
These people are seemingly postponing their happiness until an undetermined point of time in the future instead of living a fulfilling, effective and joyful life in the present.

This is not to say that we can’t set future goals that stretch us to become better and achieve more.  However, it’s just as important that we try to live in the present, enjoying some of the fruits of yesterday’s labor instead of constantly doubling down while waiting for tomorrow.

We sacrifice the actual moments of life in exchange for moments that exist only in our imaginations.  That imagined future may or may not ever arrive... or be significantly changed once the future finally arrives.

The cousin of "hoping for great things to come"... is spending time and energy worrying about future events that are beyond your control. 
  • What if my kids don’t get into the best college?
  • What happens if my boss doesn’t like my proposal or gives me a bad review?
  • How will my travel plans be affected if that storm arrives?
  • What will happen if the stock / real estate / bond market crashes?
  • What if I fail?  What if I succeed?  What if I don’t try?
  • What if I’m diagnosed with cancer?
Worrying about imagined calamities creates undue stress... and stress prevents us from living a happy life (as well as causing a variety of real and unimagined health issues).

Once again... I’m not advocating always throwing caution to the wind... that would simply be foolish.

While I never expect to crash on my bicycle... I still wear a helmet each and every time I ride just in case I do...

Living life in the present is vitally important for our health and well-being.

If we are unhappy where we are today... then most likely... we’ll be unhappy tomorrow as well...

The key to living is trying to find a way to be happy today... we are the only ones who can control our own happiness...

People and/or events can cause us great suffering and pain... but they cannot control what we feel or our ability to be happy... that is our own choice and it is found deep inside of us... this is our last great freedom that no one has the power to take from us...

We need to remember that today is the most important day of our lives... not tomorrow or the day after that.

Our future is now...

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse where we attempt to assist with the present rather than worrying about the uncontrollable future...