An interesting description of what consciousness is

I’m reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin, at the moment. I’m early on in the book, but it’s already been very good. If you enjoyed Getting Things Done and other things of that nature, you’ll enjoy this one. It looks at how the mind works and why approaches like GTD work. I wanted to share a couple of excerpts I’ve found interesting so far.

Consciousness itself is not a thing, and it is not localizable in the brain. Rather, it’s simply the name we put to ideas and perceptions that enter the awareness of our central executive, a system of very limited capacity that can generally attend to a maximum of four or five things at a time

This one was good, because it talks through some more recent findings about how the brain works. The book mentions that we often have this idea in our heads that certain thoughts happen in different areas of the brain. It turns out a lot of thoughts actually happen amongst different networks within the brain. I’ll need to keep reading to really understand this, but this paragraph about consciousness struck me as being helpful.

To recap, there are four components in the human attentional system: the mind-wandering mode, the central executive mode, the attentional filter, and the attentional switch, which directs neural and metabolic resources among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance modes.

This one appealed to my more logical side. There seems to be four main components to how your brain manages what you’re paying attention to. Included in these four things, is actually the mind-wandering mode, which is that state that occurs when you’re not working directly on a task. Whilst we’re often derisive about this mode, it’s actually crucially important. We can’t possibly focus all the time and so the mind-wandering state is very important for recovering energy and maintaining a broad awareness.

Ping me on if you wanna chat more about this post.

Outliers, 10,000 hours and the Generation 'Z'

I have just finished the new Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fantastic, but instead of give you a standard review I thought I would elaborate and theorise around a question of my own which hit me somewhere through the last third of the book.

“If it takes 10,000 hours to ever get really good at something, and teenagers today cannot focus for more than 5 minutes on one task, where will we be in 10 years time?

In the book, Gladwell discusses a clip of film depicting how a women named Renee went about solving a math problem. Renee, a nurse, has not done any maths since her days at school many years ago. In the clip, she struggles with a basic algebraic problem. It takes her a full 22 minutes, and a heap of iterations, to solve it. What does this mean? Renee is slow? She is terrible at maths? No. Not even the right question, according to Gladwell.

How can solving a maths problem in 22 minutes be a good thing? 

It simply highlights that Renee, for any number of reasons (which Gladwell elaborates on in the book), has the ability to work at a problem until it is solved.Gladwell goes on to interview a teacher who claims the average 8th grader would probably have a stab for a maximum of 5 minutes before asking him to show him to solve the problem.

The contention of Gladwells book, to me, was that success is dependant on a whole host of unique, often inherited, factors which each combine to create an environment where success is able to happen. There is no overnight success story – every successful person, event or idea is actually the result of a whole host of previous, even generational, occurrences and massive amounts of good ol’ fashioned hard work.

Small attention spans and success – the future?

So, if we take Gladwells contention to it’s most extreme point, we see a world where the youth of today (in the Western world, primarily) are potentially being disadvantaged by their own addictions to ‘noise.’ Many kids now don’t have attention span beyond 2 minutes, let alone 22. Watching my brother do homework earlier this year for his Year 12 exams really brought it home. He would sit himself in front of the computer, with MSN, MySpace and music on as well as a game of World of Warcraft on in the background. He gets his results on Monday.

The point I’m trying to make is, in a world where we really need 20 minutes to solve a basic problem and 10,000 hours to master a given subject, our new ability to multitask on 20 different items could create a real problem. Mark Sayers thinks many kids will face a ‘quarter-life crisis’ as they struggle to make meaning of their hyper-consumer lives. Anxiety looks set to become the new depression as the mental illness young people will ‘have to have’. (Excuse the Keating pun).

Mindfulness and ‘batching’ – the new TQM and Six Sigma?

I’ve riffed on Mindfullness before – but Outliers goes one step beyond simply saying we need to have discipline in our thoughts and actions. It goes to say that success is only born from incredibly hard work and intuitively aligned opportunities.

But how will this success be born in a generation (including myself here) who don’t really focus on any one thing for more than 3-5 minutes? Do we need to introduce an idea of Six Sigma quality into our thinking patterns? I’ll follow this up with another post when the thought has had a bit more time to stew, but for now here is my current train of thinking.

Six Sigma = Eliminate Defects*

Mindfulness = Eliminate Distractions**

* where a defect is anything that leads to customer dissatisfaction

**Where a distraction is anything which takes a persons individual focus away from solving a problem in the pursuit of mastery of a subject.


Do yourself a favour and buy the book. It’s a great read, and Gladwell has now truly mastered the art of capturing, synthesising and telling a ripping story that teachers and captures our world. Modern day Aesop? Huge call, but i’ll go with it. Enjoy!


Liars Poker book review

Todays been an interesting one, as I’ve been waiting for removalists to come along and provide me quotes for how much it will cost to move ‘stuff.’ It’s also given me some space to consider the book I’m almost finished, and thus quickly write a someone pre-emptive book review on it between appointments.


The book is Liars Poker, by Michael Lewis, and so far it has been an interesting read. The book is set in the heady days of the 80’s based in the Salomon Brothers trading firm on Wall St. As for the authors tone, imagine everything Gordon Gecko meets a less polished Moneyball.

The book traces the path of a young graduate employee at Salomon Brothers who has fallen into the position through sheer luck. The author, in this case, is actually writing from the first person which provides great interest to me as a fan of Michael Lewis’ later work, Moneyball and The Blind Side. This first person voice provides a great perspective on a lot of the things that went on in the 80’s generally, including the rise and rise of the mortgage market in the US at the time, as well as the effects of capitalism on the elite traders of the world. It actually really helped by basic understand of the mess we’re in now with the Sub-Prime Crisis, as most of the damage has stemmed from the decisions made by guys Lewis writes about in Liars Poker.

All up, the book so far is another gem and goes on the list of highly recommended. It hasn’t has such great takeaways as far as ‘things I can put into use’ but still provides a different way to view the world for a time and better understand the system of global finance. 3.5 squiggly-lines our of 5!

The Big Issue with narrow focus

I’ve started reading the Peter Senge’s classic tome, The 5th Discipline this week. It’s a book which I have had for about a year, and has been consistently circling my sphere of influence for a while now. The book talks about how we can solve many of the issues we face in business (and thus, by extension, the world) by taking a whole-of-system approach to problem solving. I’m about a quarter of the way through, and loving it so far. But, the book has also come about as I made an observation this week whilst working in the city. As many of you would know, Melbourne is a town that fully supports the concept that is “The Big Issue,” the magazine which is sold by those that are homeless to help them support themselves. The magazine is fantastic, and a great initiative that is now a national initiative. But, it appears it may now be reaching the limits of its own success.

A friend of mine, Nat, was recently in Vanuatu as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development working to help a non-profit organisation develop good business practices to further help lead their clients towards a better living. One of Nat’s pearls from her time in country was how things that we’re successful because they were different and innovative at a point in time, actually became so popular that their returns diminished quickly for the rest of the community, simply because the whole community was doing it. In Nat’s experience, it was goats.

Goats provide enormous relief and opportunity to small communities in developing countries. They provide milk and all of its by-products, as well as other goats and meat when the goat ‘comes of age.’ Unfortunately, as more and more people witness the success had by those people that had goats, more and more people would find a way to secure their own. The result? A community full of goats and an excess of supply of all its products. Because we find it difficult to think beyond our own situations, these examples tend to replicate in society. To me, something similar is now happening with The Big Issue and it’s sale. The program has been enormously successful, but is seemingly (to me) becoming a victim of its own success. There seems to be a Big Issue vendor on the corner of each city block now, including 4 on each corner at the intersection of Elisabeth and Bourke St.

To me, I wonder how sustainable this is for those people selling the magazine. Increasingly, these heroic people have become marginalised by their own relief and are now spending more and more time on the street to sell less and less magazines per person. I ask, have we suffered the same results as those in Vanuatu? Do we have too many goats and not enough of a market? In a more systemic view of the situation, what else could our society’s marginalised people be doing? Will they be able to come to a new conclusion themselves, or will they simply continue to sell less and less magazines until they find it completely unsustainable? What are your thoughts? And how could we find a more systemic solution that solved one of society’s greatest problems?

What I'm reading at the moment: Mavericks at Work

I thought I would post what I am reading at the moment, seeing as I suggested last post that I havn’t read the Craig Hassed book yet.

I’m currently reading Mavericks at Work: Why the most original minds in business win. The title is okay, if not a little wanky. But, the content is quite good. It is written by William Taylor and Polly LaBarre. Taylor, of course, is a cofounder of Fast Company and the founding editor, whilst LaBarre was a journalist for the funky business mag. As you can imagine – the content is very similar to the magazine, which is fantastic. Imagine some of the magazines best articles and themes, extrapolated and then discussed in more detail. It’s an excellent read so far.


One turn of phrase I would like to share, is the Rule of Crappy people. World Vision is looking for people right now, and as always, are looking for the best, so my head has been in the space of thinking ‘who might fit that role?’ Apparently, Starbucks came up with an idea where their staff carry with them a card with a free coffee on it and a private number, patched straight through to a Starbucks Talent Seeker, that they can give out to someone random they think has the Starbucks quality. Be it a great checkout chick or storeperson. Starbucks Big Cheifs rightly claim that they have 10.000 employees that are everywhere, and often better at recognising what it takes to be a Starbucks employee than most. The card allows people to call, get noticed, and then get tracked by Starbucks – there may not be a position yet, but the company ackmowledges that keeping in touch allows them to offer positions to talent first, instead of advertising. Cirque De Soliel has a beefed-up (scientific term) tracking system, which logs a database of 30,000 potential circus people. Each one is kept in touch with personally, and constantly invited to audition for different, specifically tailored roles.


A dream of mine, would be to see organisations such as World Vision act the same way. At the moment, there is a clear want to ‘follow a transparent’ process – which I completly understand and appluad. But, I think the process falls down because it only kicks into action when there is a need to fill a gap. People line up and volunteer at WV for years, just trying to get in to work for a company they have a real passion for. And, there are a number of incredibly talented people plying their trade here that will have very switched on friends and networks. Yet, there is no ‘Starbucks Card.’

Here is what I would do, putting on my ‘Head of People’ hat.

1) Create a role within the HR team dedicated to building a talent list, compiled from people either employed now/days gone of World Vision.

2) Create a Starbucks card type system, encouraging people to pass on to people who are ‘World Vision like.’ These people get direct access to te position created above.

3) Start a HR Blog, displaying all the positions WVA is currently trying to fill. This blog, moderated by the person created in #1, will answer questions about the roles, as well as questions about the org, and how people should best apply. This allows them to ENGAGE with people, rather than hope people carry out the incredibly arcane and transaction action of ‘sending in a resume.’ (Resume’s, and job-recruitment in general, have not changed since the days of the typewriter. Yes, we now have (hear me shudder), but that has only changed the method by which people submit their resumes. The game has not substantially changed in 50 years. sigh.

4) Ask new employees to provide details of their favourite co-workers from their past employees. This is a touch personal, but if you recruit talent, chances are they had a few kindred spirits wherever they came from. Get the logged, sign them up to the RSS for the job-blog, and then start havign conversations with them.

5) People share – this one, I’m claiming as my own. Non-profits, especially, lose good people to corporates because they can’t match the 1) diversity of work people get in larger, commercial companies and 2) the salaries. Yet, the skill set of the NGO class are highly relevant to todays commercial and corporate world (building grass-root networks, building campaigns, being entrepreneurial with small budgets and big objectives, creating communities and advocacy for a cause.) We shoudl staff share. Why, oh why, can’t Big Corp X share a FTE position with Big NGO Y? Telstra and WVA, share a marketing star??? The shared learning would be enormous, and the person in the position would develop a kick-arse skill set.

Just some thoughts – what are yours? How would you keep talent around? Anythign wrong with #1 thru 5?