Show Your Work

“What’s the rule everyone learned in third grade math?”

Mentor and counselor, Doug, asked me that question a few years ago as we sat in his office.  We were discussing what it means to be a curious individual.  By “curious” is meant not simply someone who surfs the internet, looks stuff up on Google, binges on Netflix or scrolls endlessly on Facebook to see what their friends are doing.

“Okay, what was the rule in third grade math?”

I was rusty and decades removed from Sister Siena and third grade math in Bishop Kelley school. Our discussion had to do with authors we read and why.  A curious person, I learned, was one constantly asking questions, seeking to think things through, make connections and, as it were, do the math about life, people, and reality.  Doug pulled a book out of his desk.  I was quite familiar with the book and the author.  He directed me to the endnotes, or lack of them, in the back of the book.

“The rule was ‘show your work’ or you don’t get credit even if you got the right answer.”

“Ah.  Now I remember.” Images of long division appeared in my mind.

Doug then contrasted the book he pulled from his desk (“he doesn’t show his work”) with the works of a scholar we both read and respected, Walter Brueggemann.  A peek at the endnotes and bibliography of any Brueggemann book show that he is 1) curious, having done voluminous research, 2) an author with integrity, giving attribution and not passing off brilliant insights he gleaned in his reading as his own, and 3) humble, realizing that seeking the solitary advice of his own brain was unwise and fraught with danger, if only in the blind spots.  Cave ab homine unius libri (“beware the man of one book”).

What’s my point?

One, question what you hear.  Nobody gets a pass.  Not you, not your parents, not President Trump, not your boss, not mainstream media of the Left or Right, not the Pope, not your minister.  And not the experts.  Review all and do your homework.  Caveat: You will be a pain in the neck to others when you do this, chiefly to the incurious with an agenda.  Be prepared.

Two, give credit when you’ve acquired something, learned something from someone else.  Plagiarism is not sniffed out in schools and print media only.  We are all composites of the people and influences that have touched our minds and lives.  You’re building on the work of others, even if that’s difficult to admit. (Attribution for this insight goes to a friend, Penn.)

Robert Dick Wilson was a biblical scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century.  He mastered forty-five languages and dialects.  (Resume breathing.  I did say forty-five.)  One thing that stirred one of his interviewers was the habit of Professor Wilson giving proof for every statement he made.

He showed his work.

Questions:

  • Are you able to describe the processes you follow to come up with answers? (In Information Technology, we call these algorithms.)
  • Are you curious or simply bored? A curious individual is known for many things, chiefly not accepting simple solutions and pat answers.
  • Do you give attribution, credit where credit is due?

Suggested Reading:

Show Your Work! (Austin Kleon)

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Michael Gelb)

The Craft of Research, Fourth Edition (Wayne C. Booth et al)

 

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Producing or Preparing to Produce?

Producing or Preparing to ProduceSixteen years ago, I worked as the associate to a man who’d enjoyed a successful career as a real estate broker.  We worked together in another field and I admired his diligence and commitment to excellence.

He told me about a valuable lesson he’d learned in real estate.  He said, “In real estate, every minute you spend doing less important things is time away from your primary location: To be in front of customers.”

He was told that if he did not sell on weekends and work Sundays, he’d never make it in real estate.  He had at that time–and still does, as far as I know–an ironclad commitment to make sure he spent plenty of time with his wife and children.  He told his colleagues, “I won’t work weekends but I will succeed.”

And he did.  One of the primary reasons, he explained, was that he spent very little time in the office, and, thus, put himself in the presence of his clients.  While his fellow realtors spent a lot of time putting together fancy office spaces and such, Gary was selling.  And only Monday through Friday.

In life, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  Gary taught me this.

Here’s a couple of good questions to ask yourself with respect to your work, your skills and talents, your pursuits, and goals: Am I working or making plans to work?  Am I actually producing or just preparing to produce?

I have to confess I’ve dawdled away far too much time making impressive plans to do something valuable and productive, making good use of my skill sets.  I’m trying to prune away the unnecessary time wasters (too much social media, pointless web surfing, etc.) and set about actually doing something that will help others, my own, and myself.

Well…how about you?

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Less Is More

Less Is MoreOne of the most fascinating books I’ve read over the past ten years or so is Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney.  In this book, the author unpacks some of the keys to the design and marketing philosophy of Steve Jobs and Apple.  Some of the chapter titles are provocative (Focus: How Saying “No” Saved Apple; Elitism: Hire Only A Players, Fire the Bozos).

Jobs was leery of trying to do too many things with Apple.  In fact, when he took over Apple again in 1997 after a twelve year absence, he slashed and mothballed a lot of projects in the works.  Apple was in deep trouble financially.  He made the decision to focus on a few key products and make them superior to anything in the market.

One of the gnats he had to dispense with early on in his second tour with Apple was feature creep.  “Feature creep” is the IT design practice of creating all sorts of bells and whistles for any new piece of technology, thus increasing the product’s versatility and, therefore, sales.

Steve Jobs had no patience for feature creep.

This impatience was an outgrowth of his Zen minimalism which, in design terms, meant making technology as simple and user-friendly as possible.  So he and his colleagues worked painstakingly to do a few signature Apple devices extremely well.  As Jobs’ famous mantra says, “Focus means saying no.”

In the summer of 2011, Apple passed Exxon Mobil as the most profitable corporation in our country.  Jobs really knew what he was doing.

As a musician, it’s taken me quite a few years to learn that less is more.  Young musicians tend to want to overplay, to “express themselves,” to get everything possible out on their instruments.  Over many years, however, I’ve learned that the spaces between the notes I play are as important, sometimes more, as the notes themselves.  Or, as Dan Fogelberg said as a young studio musician, “I learned that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.”

What have you been given?  What do you do well?  What can you pare down or eliminate to simplify and focus, bringing your contributions to a higher level of excellence? Some suggestions:

  • Social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.  All fascinating platforms but they tend to eat time the way SUV’s suck gas.  Limit your involvements–and unnecessary participation in the drama of others, something you really don’t have energy and patience for anyway.
  • News media: Consider some other outlet to get your news than the Big 5.  BBC or NPR are good places to start.  Again, do you really need five different viewpoints on a story?
  • Pour the extra time and effort thus gained from limiting your involvements in pointless, time-wasting pursuits into honing skills in your vocation and your avocations.  As the song from the Franco Zeffirelli film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1971) says, “Do few things, but do them well.”

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