Tools for Practice

Building the tools you need to develop a skill will also deepen your understanding of that skill.

The pandemic has offered unprecedented opportunity for reflection and self-improvement. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t see it this way and therefore have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Upsetting the status quo and the familiar – however slight – leads to a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety for many people. The prospect of getting to know their families or themselves better proves uncomfortable enough to drive people toward bing-watching TV, over-eating, alcohol, or any number of other distractions. Anything to avoid introspection. My theory is that this happens because most people have either lost or never had the skills for self-reflection. External validation is the way of the 21st century. That usually ends up with them expending exorbitant amounts of effort justifying their shortcomings or assigning blame to the nearest face they can put on their problems – an “annoying” partner, an “uncooperative” co-worker, etc.

I also believe it takes very little effort to begin the work of reflection, introspection, and self-improvement. Start simple.

When it was clear the pandemic lock-downs were going to go on longer then the “experts” kept saying – evidenced by the weekly movement of the goal posts – I began to wonder how I might use this newfound flexibility for how I organize time. No longer confined to the hours during which I would normally be in the physical office, I could now complete my 8 hours of work – broken into pieces – at almost at any time during my waking hours. Plus the distance I had to commute back and forth from home and work shrank to an incredibly small fraction of what it used to be. This, too, opened up more time. This change didn’t just occur in my world, but globally. And since everyone else still needed to stay employed, many creative people found ways to continue their professions in a virtual environment. Suddenly, engaging in things of interest but were unattainable because of time and space requirements became available.

I had been wanting to rekindle my interesting in playing cello for years. I hadn’t had a lesson in over 10 years and practice had fallen by the wayside. Now, connecting with an instructor was not only possible, but the number of options had exploded. There are now many on-line videos and instructors available. After a little research, I connected with an instructor in New York City and have been taking weekly lessons for the past three months.

The re-introduction of live music – particularly music that I’m playing – has had a surprisingly positive impact on my disposition. As a card carrying introvert, I thought I’d been handling the pandemic lock down pretty well, especially when compared to many of my peers. Yet this small change, focused on personal development, brought warmth and light to mid-winter days.

So that’s the back story. Now that I’m in the groove again with playing cello, I can describe several things about this experience that I’ve learned with respect to practice, particularly deliberate practice.

Along with playing cello, I wanted to deepen my understanding of music theory and learn how to sight read music. During one of my lessons, the instructor and I kicked around the idea of using flash cards. The card would show a single note and the student would play that note. Searching later for such an application was unsuccessful. It probably exists, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend more than 30 minutes trying to find.

All the flash card programs I looked at are designed to teach things in a question – answer format. They work well for subjects like history or learning a new language. But nothing that would simply show a new card after a time delay. So I wrote my own program to accomplish this. In the process, I developed my understanding of the cello’s range of notes and music keys in general. Here’s a screen capture of the first iteration’s MVP:

At an adjustable interval, a new note within the cello’s range is displayed in the selected key. For my skill level, this is immensely challenging. And I can tell it is developing my skills for sight reading and quickly finding a particular note on the instrument.

Developing tools like this is second nature to me and the result of many years of experience working with wood and solving business problems with software. Each of these activities has a tenet that if you can’t find a tool you need, you build what you need from scratch. This tenet is all the more powerful by having stewed in the mindsets associated with hand tools and open source software. In a very real sense, creating tools that support acquiring a new skill are part of the practice. To build an effective tool, you must fully understand the problem it is intended to solve. An effective tool is the result of having asked and answered many good questions. And, of course, all this is driven by an Agile mindset (iterations, tests, experiments, redesign, retest, etc.) design thinking, and understanding the context in which the tool will be used (systems thinking.)


Image by endri yana yana from Pixabay

The Team Hero

Very good article from Margaret Heffernan, “It’s Finally Time to Retire ‘Good to Great’ From the Leadership Canon.” This quote stands out:

Collins insists that great companies get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off. But how do you identify them proactively? Collins is thin on detail. Their values matter more than skills, but how can you tell? They’re unafraid to face brutal truths — but we all avoid unpleasant realities, so how do serious leaders foster candor? There’s evidence that what distinguishes high-achieving teams is the quality of connectedness between people rather than the individuals themselves, but such systemic thinking is absent from Good to Great, which inhabits a strictly linear universe. You either are Level 5 or somewhere lower on the ladder. The people on the bus are right or wrong. The toughest parts of leadership are, apparently, easy.

This reminds me of the the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race as described by Dennis Perkins and Jillian Murphy in their book “Into the Storm.” Larry Ellison’s purchased professional crew on his yacht, “Sayonara,” put in a mighty fine performance. But the race was won by the scrappy and tight knit little crew on the “Midnight Rambler.”

If the quality of connectedness between people is a distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving teams, what does that say about the team “hero” – that individual who insists on outperforming everyone else on the team? In my experience, the team hero’s contribution to the team effort is much more likely to be disruptive than productive. I’ve observed the following qualities:

  • They manufacture crisis that only they can solve.
  • They work outside the team, pleasing others – particularly people with status – while progress on work assigned to the team suffers.
  • They hoard information and work assignments.
  • Show little interest in mentoring or helping others on the team succeed.
  • Are acutely sensitive to criticism and dismissive of feedback.
  • Display many of the attributes of a fixed mindset.

Managing a team with a hero on it usually means you spend most of your time managing the hero or scrambling to mitigate the adverse effects of their behavior. The team suffers and second order effects soon follow. I’d much rather manage a team of solid performers who understand how to work together.


Photo by Javier García on Unsplash

Concave, Convex, and Nonlinear Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” is a wealth of information. I’ve returned to it often since first reading it several years ago. My latest revisit has been to better understand his ideas about representing the nonlinear and asymmetric aspects of fragile/antifragile in terms of “concave” and “convex.” My first read of this left me a bit confused, but I got the gist of it and moved on. Taleb is a very smart guy so I need to understand this.

The first thing I needed to sort out on this revisit was Taleb’s use of language. The fragile/antifragile comparison is variously described in his book as:

  • Concave/Convex
  • Slumped solicitor/Humped solicitor
  • Curves inward/Curves outward
  • Frown/Smile
  • Negative convexity effects/Positive convexity effects
  • Pain more than gain/Gain more than pain
  • Doesn’t “like” volatility (presumable)/”Likes” volatility

Tracking his descriptions is made a little more challenging by reversals in reference when writing of both together (concave and convex then convex and concave) and mis-matches between the text and illustrations. For example:

Nonlinearity comes in two kinds: concave (curves inward), as in the case of the king and the stone, or its opposite, convex (curves outward). And of course, mixed, with concave and convex sections. (note the order: concave / convex) Figures 10 and 11 show the following simplifications of nonlinearity: the convex and the concave resemble a smile and a frown, respectively. (note the order: convex / concave)

Figure 10 shows:

So, “convex, curves outward” is illustrated as an upward curve and “concave, curves inward” is illustrated as a downward curve. Outward is upward and inward is downward. It reads like a yoga pose instruction or a play-by-play call for a game of a Twister.

After this presentation, Taleb simplifies the ideas:

I use the term “convexity effect” for both, in order to simplify the vocabulary, saying “positive convexity effects” and “negative convexity effects.”

This was helpful. The big gain is when Taleb gets to the math and graphs what he’s talking about. Maybe the presentation to this point is helpful to non-math thinkers, but for me it was more obfuscating than illuminating. My adaptation of the graphs presented by Taleb:

With this picture, it’s easier for me to understand the non-linear relationship between a variable’s volatility and fragility vs antifragility. The rest of the chapter is easier to understand with this picture of the relationships in mind.

System Dynamics and Causal Loop Diagrams 101

Reading causal loop diagrams can be a little counter-intuitive. It will be important to understand how to read them in order to understanding the dynamic quality of the models that will appear in subsequent posts. The interactions between the various elements and the effects of those interactions on stocks and flows are typically represented by a solid black arrow (Figure 1.)

Figure 1

“A” has an interaction with “B” and that interaction is in the direction of “A” to “B.” But what’s the effect of “A’s” interaction with “B?” To display this effect, a green open head arrow or a red closed head arrow is used to describe the type of interaction between the two elements.

Figure 2
Figure 3

A green open-head arrow (Figure 2) is a direct relationship. A red closed-head arrow (Figure 3) is an inverse relationship.

To help understand these relationships, consider the analogy of being in the driver’s seat of a car. Imagine the car has a constant speed of 40 miles per hour. The car has been designed to go this speed with your feet off the peddles. (Not a particularly safe design feature, I’ll grant. But this is a thought experiment. So ride along with me for a little while. I promise we won’t crash.) Now, when you increase (↑) pressure on the gas peddle the car’s speed increases (↑). If you then decrease (↓) pressure on the gas peddle the car’s speed decreases (↓) until it returns to the original 40 MPH. That’s the direct relationship illustrated between “A” and “B” in Figure 2. As “A” increases, so does “B.” Increase pressure on the gas peddle and the speed of the car increases. As “A” decreases, so does “B.” Decrease pressure on the gas peddle and the car speed decreases until it slows down the the original 40 MPH. More of “A” results in more of “B” (↑↑) while less of “A” results in less of  “B.” (↓↓)

Now for the brake. If you increase (↑) pressure on the brake peddle the car’s speed decreases (↓) – it slows down to something less than 40 miles per hour. Increase the pressure on the brake enough and the car will stop. However, if you decrease (↓) pressure on the brake the car’s speed begins to increase (↑). If you remove all pressure on the brake peddle, the car returns to the constant 40 mile per hour speed. That’s the inverse relationship illustrated between “A” and “B” in Figure 3. As “A” increases, “B” goes the opposite way and decreases. Increase pressure on the brake peddle and the speed of the car decreases. As “A” decreases, “B” goes the opposite way and increases. Decrease pressure on the brake and the speed of the car increases until it is once again moving at 40 MPH. More of “A” results in of less of “B” (↑↓) while less of “A” results in more of  “B.” (↓↑)

For an example of these relationships in action, let’s look at the dynamics behind two cosmic quandaries: Which came first, the chicken or the egg and why do chickens cross the road?

No matter which came first, eggs come from chickens and chickens come from eggs. If the number of eggs increase, the number of chickens will increase. If the number of eggs decrease, the number of chickens will decrease (Figure 4.)

Figure 4

If the number of chickens increase, the number of eggs will increase. If the number of chickens decrease, the number of eggs will decrease (Figure 5.)

Figure 5

These are direct relationships as described for Figure 2. Taken together, the causal loop diagram is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

If times are good, there are more and more eggs leading to more and more chickens and Chicken World starts to get a bit crowded. In search of a better life, some of the chickens decide to cross the road (now you know why they cross the road!) Another direct relationship in the system (Figure 7.)

Figure 7

However, life is so good on the other side of the road that chickens never cross back over to where they started. An increase in the number road crossings result in a decrease in the number of chickens. (Figure 8.) This is an inverse relationship as described for Figure 3.

Figure 8

Connecting all the pieces, the very simple causal loop diagram describing Chicken World is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9

This simple example illustrates how systems stay balanced. If there are too many eggs, leading to too many chickens, more chickens cross the road until the population is restored to a sustainable level. If too many chickens cross the road, the number of chickens decrease and therefore so do the number of eggs which means there are fewer chickens crossing road. Once again, the population is eventually restored to a sustainable level.

That’s all the system dynamics you’ll need to read the causal loop diagrams presented in subsequent posts.