Semler continuous challenges the conventions of what it means to work in a company by asking why. Would that more people asked such questions. Why can't we know everyone's salary? Why can't employees negotiate for their salary and benefits? Why do we as a company need to keep track of people's vacation time?
About the same time I was discovering Semler's ideas, Scott Adams was publishing The Dilbert Principle. In one chapter he explains how to tell if your company is doomed. It is likely that every one of the signs he discusses is not present in Semler's company. One in particular that Adams doesn't mention but seems to be a sure sign is another one Semler discusses: having an obsessive focus on how much work your co-workers are doing.
This seems to be a growing obsession in higher education where much of the time spent being a professor is spent documenting your work load to satisfy colleagues who evidently need to know that you're working as much or more than they are. I suspect this trend is occurring in other bureaucratic entities as well.
Meanwhile, Semler is running a company where employees set their own working hours, their own salaries, have no job titles, and do not need to document every hour of work they put it. And, the company is successful. Given this last point you would think there would be intense curiosity regarding how they did it and how it could be replicated elsewhere.
What I also find interesting is that companies like Semler's will have a marked advantage in a world of growing disruptive innovation where creative thinking and problem solving are premium skills. In that world, the one will live in and will continue to live in for the foreseeable future, obsessing over one's own workload and everyone else's will be seen as mindless time-wasting effort which diverts from important work. Doing work that matters is what will matter. The seven-day workweek can be replaced by the seven-day weekend.
As an educator one of the chapters that I liked the best in this book was titled "The Math of Success." In it Adams outlines a list of skills that every adult should have. Among these he includes:
Proper voice technique
Think of the opportunity we all have as parents and educators to teach these skills and think of the benefit to our children and students. And, educators should recognize that we don’t have to teach these skills instead of our regular content. We can teach them with our regular content. Or, if we could get students interested in learning anything we could teach those skills with that interest.
As Adams points out it is not being great at any one of these that usually spells success but being pretty good at a combination of them. Imagine if these skills were taught in every course a student took in school. If every class supported these skills, even in just a small way, we could be graduating students who were articulate, engaging, interesting. Remarkable even. Isn't that what we want for our students?
I think another lesson Adams' book reminds us of is that we have to be willing to fail and embrace that. Make the most of these inevitable occurrences. Unfortunately, our schools do not embrace this mindset of dealing with failure. Instead, failure is to be scorned and avoided at all costs. But the ultimate cost of avoiding failure may be to miss out on some solid chances for success.
When I teach ethics one of the questions we discuss is: Does everyone have different morals? Nearly every student answers yes. I find this an odd and inaccurate answer. But, even when presented with evidence for the sameness of our moral principles they remain unconvinced and continue to focus on the differences to the exclusion of any focus on our common moral foundation. Inasmuch as this has some pretty important implications for our moral discourse I'd like to posit some possible explanations for this focus on differences.
1. We confuse surface disagreements for deeper disagreements. It's easy to see disagreements when we discuss such issues as gun control, abortion, euthanasia, drug legalization. Could those who disagree about these issues really share common moral principles? I think in order to have the conversation at all, they have to. Take the abortion debate. Clearly both sides care deeply about the issue but not as clear is their common moral agreement. But, it is there. Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates believe in the moral principle: babies should not be killed for no good reason. In fact, I would go so far as to say that everyone agrees with this moral principle. The debate over abortion is not over a fundamental moral principle but rather some important factual questions such as whether the fetus should be classified as a baby. While this may be an oversimplification of the issue I think it remains the case that both sides share much in common when it comes to their fundamental moral principles.
2. We assume that having common moral principles would eliminate all debate. The claim is often made that if we all had the same morals, there would be no debate about such issues as abortion, euthanasia, etc. But, is this true? It is put forward as if it were true but rarely is any evidence provided for this claim. In fact, I think it turns out to be false. To illustrate consider an analogy to a simpler example; food. It is a universal human requirement that we need food to survive. But, even though this is a universal agreement, there is a huge variance in what counts as food from one culture to the next. There are even debates about what should and what should not be eaten. What explains these differences? Environment is an important factor as well as cultural traditions. But, the point remains that even with a fundamental agreement there are still debates. The same holds true when it comes to morality. As the philosopher James Rachels pointed out, there are several important fundamental moral principles we all share concerning care of the young, indiscriminate killing, and truth telling. But, while we all share these fundamental principles we still debate over such things as what counts as proper care for the young, who can and who cannot be killed, and when it is permissible to lie.
3. We don't want to dig deeper to see common underlying moral principles. In other words, we are intellectually lazy. It takes work and deep thinking to see the common moral principles which lie beneath the surface disagreements. It also takes a willingness to enter into a thoughtful dialogue. The only way we can really discover the common values we share is to slow down, ask questions, and listen to the answers we get. Ultimately this is a more valuable activity than trading insults and slogans.
One activity I encourage my students to engage in comes from a TED talk given by Elizabeth Lesser titled Take the Other to Lunch. In this activity you sit down with someone who shares a different view regarding some important issue and have a thoughtful conversation. As part of this conversation you ask them to share some of their life experiences and ask them the following questions:
What issues deeply concern you?
What have you always wanted to ask someone from the "other side?"
The idea is not to persuade but to understand. Perhaps if more people tried this they would see the common morality hidden underneath the surface arguments.
I’ve slowly come to the realization that I’m a musical hobbyist. I have been recording music for nearly 20 years. Each album I record contains improvements in both writing and recording techniques. I enjoy this process immensely. But, no one listens to my music and no one buys it. And, there seems to be little reason to think this will change.
I think there are a number of factors involved in this some of which are in my control and some of which are not. Among the ones I can think of include:
1. A lack of interest in melodic instrumental music. This is what I write and this is what I enjoy listening to. But, the vast majority of people seem to have no interest in melody and even less interest in instrumental music. Nothing I can do about that.
2. Too many choices available. When I was growing up there were probably several hundred bands and individual musicians recording and releasing music. Some succeeded and some didn’t but most at least were heard if they released music. Today, there are probably that many recording artists within a 25 mile radius of where I live and thousands within a 100 mile radius. Just to put that in perspective I do not live anywhere near a music hot spot. I live in rural Kentucky. Once you add in the rest of the country there may be millions of people recording music and releasing it.
3. Too little marketing effort. This is squarely on me and I have not done enough to get my music out there. But, it simply wears me out! The endless posting, tweeting, submitting, blogging, guest blogging, seeking out reviews, and the dozens of other things you need to do to give your music a shot just overwhelms me. After all, even with those efforts, there’s no guarantee that your music will be heard or purchased.
4. No live performances. Again, this is my fault. I’ve done live performances before to limited success but nowhere near enough to justify the cost in time and money and effort to do this again.
So, where does this leave me and what is the point? Well, I continue to write and record music because I enjoy it. I suspect that at some point most of the music written and recorded will be produced from these primary motivations. Virtually no one will be able to support themselves with their musical efforts. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad. I can see points in support of both sides.
For now I simply ask that you take a few moments to give some of my music a listen. After all, the ultimate point of recording music is for someone to hear it. I’m not asking for you to pay for it, promote it, “like” it on Facebook, or anything else. If you wish to, that’s great. I’ll appreciate it. But if not…
There's a lot of discussion lately about raising the minimum wage. And not just a little bit, a few cents or dollars but a lot. I'm not an economist and I don't know what might result, good and bad, from doing so. But, I want to suggest that we do some thinking first.
I write music that no one values. No one buys it and no one seems inclined to do so. In other words, I have a skill with little economic value. Kind of like flipping hamburgers or bagging groceries.
But, I have something else don't I? A right to earn a living wage. Or so the argument goes. So, should I be able to demand a minimum wage for writing my music? Right now, I'd be happy to earn the minimum wage for the time I spend writing my music as I currently earn $0.00 for doing so. But, how could I not be in favor of $15.00 an hour for doing so? That would be great!
I could do what I want and earn a living doing so. I could support my family, save money for retirement, afford health care.
So, is there anything wrong with this? Does it matter that the activity for which I am getting paid has absolutely no economic value? Does it matter that what I am producing is something no one wants or benefits from?
Now, before you get angry let me say that I realize I am in a different position than most of the people who are currently working for minimum wage. For one thing, what they provide does have economic value. At $7.25 an hour they provide a service that others value at that level. Those people bagging groceries and flipping hamburgers are doing something with economic value.
On the other hand, what I do has zero economic value. I come to this conclusion by the fact that no one is willing to purchase my music. At any price. Even free I can't get people to listen to my music! Perhaps my music might have negative economic value. That is, I may have to pay people to listen to it. So, you get what I'm saying?
But, don't I have just as much right to earn a living wage as anyone else. And, I can't do anything else. Nor can I add to my skills or learn anything else to do which might command a higher economic value. I write music. That's all I do and all I can do. So, I'm stuck. I'm just as stuck as any other minimum wage worker except that I don't earn minimum wage.
So, shouldn't someone have to hire me and pay me a living wage? If not, why not? If so, are you willing to be the one to hire me. I'm available to write music at $7.25 an hour!
As the presidential election cycle begins to heat up we’ll be hearing lots of ideas to address problems with the economy, the environment, foreign policy, income inequality, social issues, and so on.
But, a lot of the ideas will be the same ones we always hear and never adopt. Isn’t it time for some new approaches? Isn’t it time for some new ideas?
It’s surprising how little demand there seems to be for new ideas when it comes to addressing big problems. It’s equally surprising how little attention is given to the research and ideas that are already around that might prove beneficial. In particular the field of behavioral economics includes many useful insights that could be directly applied to many social policy questions.
But, like all areas of politics, if the electorate does not know about this material there is no way they can demand that politicians know about it and take it into account. The same goes for economics, history, or any number of other areas of knowledge that ought to be in the domain of any serious politician. Why do they not seem to know these things in sufficient detail? Could it be because the electorate, being insufficiently knowledgeable, cannot demand this knowledge from politicians?
Many pundits are making the argument that politicians are simply beholden to the 1% and do not listen to the general public. These same pundits argue that the rules of the game are rigged against the middle class or poor people.
Well, when government gets into the business of deciding who should get money and from whom this money should be taken the of course the people with money will take a strong interest in what politicians do and try to influence them. Combine this with a gross ignorance about the fundamental purposes of the federal government (which were never to be in the business of money transfers) and you get the situation we are in now.
It is foolish to think that politicians will argue for a way out of this system. It benefits them too much. Even ones who pay lip service to arguments in favor of strengthening the middle class, helping the poor, and reforming the system often do so knowing that they will neither be inclined or able to carry through on these promises once in office.
In a recent article on Salon.com, Elizabeth Warren made the point this way: “The only way we get change is when enough people in this country say I’m mad as hell and I’m fed up and I’m not going to do this anymore.” She’s right. But, will this happen? Not unless there is a renewed interest in learning about what is going on, thinking about ideas, and a willingness to hold politicians accountable.
History, even very recent history, shows that enough motivated people can create powerful social movements and effect real change. Just look at what is happening with same-sex marriage. Surely, the same could be done with other important social issues. But, we need a critical number of people willing to learn about the issues, take an interest, and then do something.
What if you had to pay your portion of the national debt? Would you begin to wonder what you are getting for your money? Would you demand some real changes in how the federal government is run? It's worth thinking about!
On the heels of our recent election and the impending fiscal cliff my thoughts turn towards ideas to generate change and reform in what is nearly universally regarded as our broken system.Most of the barriers to change lie in the apathy and lack of knowledge that many citizens have about the current state of our fiscal health and how it relates to them. Samuel Johnson once said that "nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged." I think I have an idea that might focus the attention of every citizen in this country!
According to the U.S. National Debt Clock (http://www.usdebtclock.org/) each citizen's responsibility for our 16 trillion dollar debt works out to $186, 822. So, imagine that a law is passed that requires every citizen to pay off in full their portion of the national debt before they retire. They can choose to set up a payment plan themselves or have automatic deductions taken from their paycheck. Either way, they will be facing a direct bill each month to contribute to retiring the debt.
The law should make it clear that this is not a new tax. Each citizen in some small way (or 186,822 ways) contributed to this problem we now face and now the time has come to collect the debt. For some citizens (the much-maligned 2%) they will be able to retire their portion of the debt rather quickly. They may also elect to retire other citizen's debts if they choose. However, the new law should also make clear that in the interest of true fairness the debt should be apportioned equally among all citizens as we are all, in some way, responsible for the debt.
I suspect some of the immediate reactions to this new law would would be as follows.
1. Intense anger at being presented a bill for such a large amount of money.
2. Disbelief that we are all responsible in some way for the debt.
3. Intense lobbying by various groups to have the amount for their individuals lowered and the amount for others raised.
But, once these initial reactions wear out perhaps another reaction will be to examine, closely and honestly, the situation we are in and recognize that spending money we didn't (and don't have) is what got us into the problem we now face. Beginning to pay back the money we borrowed to have these things is what will have to be done at some point.
Perhaps this new law will also force people to recognize that the world is filled with trade-offs. We need to begin to decide whether the things we now regard as necessities are really necessary. If I really want something and can afford to buy it it's fine to say "I need it." On the other hand, if I really want something and cannot afford it, it's wise to recognize that while I may really want it, I may not really "need" it.
As the economist Frederich Bastiat once said "government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." But, now it's time to start paying our own way.
Mind you, this is merely a thought experiment. I think that the abstraction of national debt is sometimes difficult to grasp. Making it personal might motivate demands for real reform like we've never seen!
Failure is a part of everyone's life but your attitude towards it can mean the difference between achieving your goals or not. As Thomas Edison once said I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." With that in mind, here are a few of my own failures and what I learned from them.
Telecommunications: I majored in telecommunications in college thinking I would go into audio or video production. Nearing the end of my course work I realized that the program I had chosen was ill preparing me for that area in telecommunications, the degree being much more theory based than practical. The ultimate realization of this came when I interviewed with the C.I.A. and was asked what I knew about satellites. I had to reply, in all honesty, that I knew next to nothing about satellites. So much for a career in intelligence!
Lesson Learned: Nothing you learn is truly wasted. today I teach primarily online and use telecommunications technology everyday. I record podcasts, videos, musical compositions, and use web 2.0 extensively. It's a good thing I maintained an interest in the field!
PhD in Philosophy: Having failed to land a job in intelligence, I resolved to use my own intelligence and my minor in philosophy to pursue graduate work. I was accepted into the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Kentucky and was set to become an academic. Several PhD qualifying exams later (one of which I failed twice) and my career as a college professor looked to be in jeopardy. Failing these exams meant an end to funding and without that there was no way to continue in the program.
Lesson Learned: Sometime you can learn something and still fail the exam. My method for studying for the qualifying exams was to read philosophy books. This was, in fact, a great way to learn philosophy but a poor way to prepare for exams. I believe my knowledge of philosophy is now more extensive as a result of all that reading but at the time it cost me a degree and it seemed a career.
Picway: In need of a job and out of options for funding an academic career I availed myself of the career services at the university, went on several interviews, and finally landed a management position at a retail chain called Picway. I was to go into training in a store (selling shoes) for a year and then move on to upper management. My time there was well spent only because I had a lot of free time to read books. I did not take to selling, selling shoes, or managing a retail store.
Lesson Learned: Go with your passion. I needed to be in academia. It took a year in exile to fully realize that. My time was spent in retail but my mind was occupied with philosophy. This was what I was passionate about and I needed to pursue it no matter what. I moved back home, enrolled in a Master of Arts program in philosophy at the University of Louisville and earned my MA in Philosophy. Sometimes you do get a second chance. I was back in academia!
Waiting for the Slipstream: Having secured part time teaching positions at several local colleges I turned to my other passion which was (and still is) making music. I recorded my first CD titled Waiting for the Slipstream, released it, and waited for it to take off. It did not. In fact, it barely sold 300 copies. A subsequent release of a CD of Christmas carols fared a little better but I wouldn't be quitting my day job on the royalties.
Lesson Learned: Persistence is an necessary key to success but is not sufficient to guarantee success "If you build it, they will come" does not always work. It is very difficult to get people excited enough about your music to become evangelists and help spread the word. I still don't know what the secret is to writing and recording music people will love and share but I'll keep at it nonetheless.
The 11-11-11 Project: My most recent failure was an idea I had for a music project which would connect music with the cause of world peace. The 11-11-11 Project was intended to emphasize the connection between the 11-11 date (Veteran's and the end of World War I) and pursuing world peace. It seemed that using music would be a good way to engage people in this cause. It seemed that providing a unique point in time would be a good way to mobilize interest. It seemed that asking musicians to contribute recordings to a compilation CD would be a good way to encourage participation and spread the word. All of these turned out to be wrong.
Lesson Learned: To be honest I'm not sure what lessons I've learned from this latest failure and that seems like a problem since it virtually guarantees more failures of a similar kind. I do know that good ideas alone mean very little and it is extremely difficult to get people's attention. Part of this is dues to there being so many demands on that attention. But, limited attention and competition aside it is more than a little difficult to mobilize people. I don't know if this is a function of the quality of the ideas or the quality of the marketing behind them.
There are other projects I am working on which may be subject to the same epic failure as these due in part to the difficulty I seem to have in learning from prior failures. I do know I will continue to work on ideas that interest me and I will continue to share them and propagate them as best I can on the web. The optimist in me still believes this will yield results in the long run.
Any thoughts you'd like to share? I welcome your comments and insights!
A popular topic of education reform articles lately is the subject of student engagement. A common diagnosis for the lack of student engagement is that students are not finding the information presented in class relevant to them. The proposed solution is often that professors must show students how the subject they’re studying really is relevant. I disagree!
If students are not finding the subjects they study relevant, then they are not looking for relevance. Why is it that professors must point out relevance? What responsibility do students have for making their own education meaningful?
It is often conceded by educators that, in fact, the subject they’re teaching is not relevant so they simply change what they are teaching to suit the demands of students. This is a serious mistake. It ignores the real relevance that every (yes, I said every) subject has to a student’s experience. It ignores the importance of students finding out for themselves how a subject is relevant. And, it implicitly concedes that the only subjects worth studying are those whose relevance is immediately obvious. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Every subject is relevant: While this point may be difficult to demonstrate, it can be done with every subject in a standard curriculum. For example, if you have a student majoring in allied health and they want to maintain that taking your course in philosophy or economics or psychology is not relevant to their major that means they are not being active learners and searching for relevance. In fact, you can pick any major and any course not directly related to that major and find the relevance between them if you are willing to actively search. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. If you can’t find the relevance email me and I will provide you some guidance. Challenge your students to make these connections confident in the knowledge that they are there. After all, Steve Jobs famously found calligraphy relevant to his interest in computers.
Students need to be active in their learning: This is an important component of student engagement but it is not often enough expressed in terms of the student’s responsibility. Why should instructors always be responsible for making a subject engaging? Does the educator owe the student an entertaining class? I don’t mean to imply that courses ought to be boring. But, a truly active learner can find the interest in any subject matter. Sometimes they will be able to do this because of the professor’s engaging style. But, sometimes they may have to do this in spite of the professor’s lack of engagement. So much the better for the life lesson this presents. Everything useful will not be presented in a palatable form. Sometimes you have to do your own digging.
Relevance is not the only educational value: In the mania for relevance we often forget that this is not the only reason for studying a particular subject. Art History is not relevant to the accounting major? So what! It might be that the study of art is a good thing irrespective of its relevance. Yes, I still maintain that it is possible to find the relevance but if you cannot this is no reason to maintain that a subject is not worth studying.
Some academic subjects may never help your job prospects or contribute monetarily to your career. But, studying these subjects may end up doing much more for you. They may broaden and enrich your experience, introduce you to new interests, challenge you to think in new ways. The search for relevance seems somewhat narcissistic in that it rests on the assumption that the only things worth studying are things I care about. But, we don’t live in a solipsistic world. We live in a world of other people, other cultures, and other interests. Learning that might be one of the most important lessons to be gained from your academic studies. Is that relevant enough?
On September 10, 2010 I read my 1,000th book. I started counting books I completed in 1987 so it took a little over 20 years to reach my 1,000th book.
Upon reaching the milestone of reading 1000 books, it seems appropriate to reflect on what I have learned as a result of all that reading. The temptation is to enumerate a list of facts or insights gained from individual books. Doing this might be a worthwhile project but would be a book unto itself and might not yield any insights to other readers. Instead I want to reflect on a few general points.
As Wittgenstein wrote in On Certainty, When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.) I believe this is how learning occurs. That is, light dawns gradually over the whole. The more you read the more you are able to connect the parts and begin to see a coherent whole.
One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years of reading is how various seemingly unrelated subjects are in fact connected. Making these connections is an important part of understanding and it is particularly satisfying to read a book which references ideas or concepts previously discovered in another book. The more this happens the more it strengthens the connections and increases retention of learning.
Another important lesson which comes from reading books other than textbooks is how incomplete a textbook based education really is. Although not a poor high school student I started college with many gaps in my learning. As a college student my performance in class greatly improved over high school and my grades reflected this. However, at the end of four years and a bachelor’s degree there were still significant gaps in my knowledge. Independent reading is the best method for filling in these gaps.
By some estimates it takes over 10,000 hours to master a skill or discipline to such an extent that you can be considered proficient. There is no secret to shortcut this process. If you want to gain a certain proficiency in a subject you have to put in the time. If you want to learn about a subject (or many different ones) you need to put in the time reading about them. This reading has to go beyond textbooks or summaries. You have to read full length books.
But, do you need to read a thousand books? If my theory about education is correct them you do need to read a fair amount in order to make the connections which are such an important part of a good education. I have outlined in several essays above the importance of studying the various subjects in the curriculum. A true study of these subjects involves reading to a great extent.
Of course not everything can be learned from reading books. But, the criticism that someone only has book smarts is misguided as well. For someone who truly has book smarts ought to be able to learn new things easily, connect new ideas to old ones, apply ideas in new ways, think creatively and be a good critical thinker. All of these important skills develop as a direct result of extensive reading. After all, how can one be a creative, critical thinking, problem solver without the knowledge to think creatively and critically about? You need content to be able to apply it and this is what extensive reading provides.
Is 1000 books enough? Of course, I plan to continue reading because there are still gaps in my knowledge; gaps that a lifetime of reading will never completely fill. But, this too is an important lesson learned from reading extensively. As much as anyone can read there is still an entire pool of knowledge to explore. One thousand books barely scratches the surface. But, the journey has been rewarding and I hope to report even more gains in knowledge and insights upon completing my second thousand books.