Today is the first day of school around here. If these kids are like many of the ones I’ve met over the years (and maybe even the two we raised), at some point the inevitable question pops up:
Why do I need to go to school?
As they get older, the question changes a bit (probably because they enjoy seeing their friends at school every day):
Why do I need to learn this stuff?
That’s our topic today, and I think it’s something that applies to the business world as well. The answer to the first question is pretty obvious, and it’s not just because your parents are exhausted after driving you around all summer and need you gone for a bit. I’m a lot more interested in the second question because I think that most students, parents, and teachers get the answer wrong. You don’t need to learn “this stuff.” I can’t think of a single instance in my adult life where understanding differential equations or the structure of the carbon atom has been required.
So as a public service, I’m going to give you the answer to the second question which hopefully also answers the first. I’ve given it out before but hey, it’s the first day of school and the questions might come up again so you’re welcome.
You go to school to learn two things.
- How to locate and verify pieces of information (let’s call them facts) in order to formulate your thoughts.
- How to express the thoughts you formulate both orally and in writing to communicate your thinking.
That’s it. Learn those two things and you can pretty much do anything you choose to do in this world. Ask yourself how many business people you know who can do those two things successfully and I’ll bet you also have a list of the best business people you know. In an era when “fake news” is a term thrown around like beads at a Mardi Gras parade, understanding how to determine what news is really fake and what’s just being labeled as such to distract you from facts is critical. Not everything you read in your school books is accurate, but if you don’t have a well-developed BS detector as well as the skills to track down the truth, how will you create accurate thoughts from inaccurate information either in school or beyond?
Please feel free to print this off and hand it to your kids, large or small, who are wondering about school. Feel free to ask yourself if you managed to learn those things along the way as well. If not, maybe it’s back to school for you too?
Some of you know that my professional training was as an educator. Hopefully that shows on the screed from time to time. In fact, my wife and eldest child are also trained teachers and my youngest does education as part of her profession. Focusing on the skills people need is a big deal in our house and that got me thinking about what those skills might be.
I spend a ton of time in the tech world. There are new skills that my clients feel as if they need to acquire almost every day. What is the latest and greatest way to code? How do we employ the social media platform du jour in order to stand out and engage our customer base? What’s the best way to run an A/B test of landing or other pages to optimize conversion rates? Those are only a few of the components of the rapidly changing skill set business people might need these days. You probably won’t find me working with them on those initially.
Instead, I like to start with the skills that matter. First and foremost of these is critical thinking. How would I define that? This is from The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, way back when in 1987 and I think it says it pretty well:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
That skill trumps the others. It’s the ability to figure out what data points matter and why. It’s understanding core business issues and not permitting the noise of the business world to clutter up that understanding. It’s what you use, having achieved that understanding, to choose the tools with which to carry out the business goals, strategies, and tactics. The point is this: the tools will change; the need to possess the ability to think critically won’t. Kids learning Word in the schools today may not use it in 10 years. I guarantee they will need to be able to figure out the world around them.
There are other key skills, of course. Writing and speaking clearly are the next in line for me since if you can’t explain your excellent thinking it does little good to the business. First things first, however. That’s how I see it. You?
This TunesDay I want to focus on something that every musician does – woodshed. That isn’t a non-sequitor.
(Photo credit: The Year of Mud)
With respect to music “woodshedding” means practicing your instrument but it’s so much more than that. The term comes from that people would go to their woodshed to practice without being overheard. Well, more like not imposing their unrefined craft on people until it had been honed. As a young guitar player, I’d sit in my room for hours listening to music and trying to play along. I think I did that all the way through college even though I was playing in a band (for pay!) by then. It wasn’t just about learning to play – I knew how to do that after a while. It was about getting better, internalizing the actions my fingers would take on the fretboard so they’d happen without thought. The goal was to let my brain hear what I wanted to play and for my fingers to play it, almost like walking or breathing.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10,000 hour rule. While “Outliers” may have popularized it, the concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. The notion is that “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years”. But Gladwell (“Outliers”) oversimplified the concept and ignored the fact that talent has something to do with the progress one makes. You can practice all you want and you might get better, but the true elite at an activity generally have some natural gifts that are brought out and improved by all the practice.
Why this thought today? Sometimes when I encounter a young businessperson they ask about how to grow: improve their skill set, learn more, make better decisions. We talk about woodshedding and the fact that a musician plays something wrong the first dozen times but eventually learns it. Making mistakes – playing it wrong – is an important part of the process. So are the hours you put in practicing. In business terms that can mean reading books, going to seminars, or taking online courses to refine and grow. You want to pick the right instrument too. You must have some basic talent – if you are terrible at math and not detail-oriented, accounting might not be your best choice.
If you aren’t always practicing, you’re falling behind those competitors who are. Your call.
It’s Foodie Friday, and the topic today is culinary school. There is an ongoing debate in food professional circles about the value of, and need for, culinary school educations and I think it’s a discussion that has broader implications for those of us not in the food business. Basically the debate boils down (should I say “reduces” since we’re discussing cooking?) to this: is it preferable for new cooks to learn in school or learn by working?
Some very high-profile chefs have weighed in or either side of the question. Some such as Daniel Boulud feel that a formal culinary school education is indispensable. Other such as David Chang think that path is overrated and that the time is better spent working in a professional kitchen. Or as he puts it:
If you look at all my heroes, the chefs around the world, most of them never went to cooking school. What they did is they had a great mentor. You name a chef that’s awesome and people want to work for him, I’d say a majority of the time they never went to cooking school.
He goes on to make a point that culinary school students will learn skills in a very elementary fashion without any frills or shortcuts that they might learn in a professional kitchen, which is also a great broader business point and that’s my focus today. I’ve worked with people who went to business school and with those who spent the time working. While there was no question that the B-school folks knew what to call certain types of analyses, many of them had a totally unrealistic view of what business was about. As many of you know, it’s not exactly as it appears in textbooks.
Technical training is valuable. I think, however, it’s most valuable in fields such as law or medicine where there are standards to be met. Most other businesses have no such standards – the food world certainly doesn’t. I think a young person is better served working in a profession and, and Chang says, finding a great mentor. Coming out of a culinary school or a B school laden with debt affects how you can approach your career – and life – every day going forward. Is it really needed?
I suppose it’s Twain‘s reference to schooling vs. education or maybe it’s just seeing vs. doing. I come down on the side of doing. Where do you stand?
As we’ve discussed before here on the screed, I went to school way back in the last century to become a teacher.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
To do so where I went to school you had to major in both your field of choice (English in my case) as well as in Education. You studied the information you were going to teach as well as the teaching process itself.
There was a flaw of sorts in that education. English majors do not spend a lot of time on grammar or spelling (even if we do get beaten up about it by our professors). We teachers-in-training had to take a course in philology which other English majors didn’t, but in general our subject matter learning wasn’t much different from our peers who weren’t getting teaching licenses. I hasten to add we DID have to take a lot of courses about how to teach but they were for anyone becoming a teacher no matter the subject area. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was something that I’ve since learned:
If you want to learn something, teach it.
A fairly sizable part of what we do in business is teach. It may be that we need to develop staff or it may be that we’re trying to educate a potential customer about our product. Either way, we’re teaching. The funny thing is that you discover immediately that it’s impossible to educate someone about the subject if you don’t fully understand it yourself. You find the holes in your knowledge base. Many of us have had teachers who we thought were one chapter ahead of the class in terms of their knowledge. It’s the same in business – I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a salesperson who knew less that you did about a product or who couldn’t answer a question without running for an information sheet.
So today’s business point is this: if you want to understand a topic or a product fully, prepare a lesson plan about it as if you were going to teach a class on it. You’ll learn a great deal about it as you flesh out the various outlines. This works for almost anything – it’s almost impossible to explain something if you don’t understand it. Then let me know what you think!
Foodie Friday again, thank goodness.
Apprentice. Man and boy making shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As we end the week, let’s talk about the professional kitchen, which may be one of the last great bastions of the apprenticeship system. Escoffier invented the notion of the “Kitchen Brigade.” This system is still used in many restaurants and kitchens and forms the basis of the hierarchy in which people learn. Typically, aspiring chefs take on the most menial tasks like peeling and prepping vegetables before they’re allowed to have a “real” station. What’s going on in that world is a business point as well.
Culinary schools have changed the apprenticeship dynamic. Now applicants come to kitchens feeling as if they’ve been through the grind of the line. Putting aside having never been under the stress of a real dinner service for days at a time, the reality is that they are “book-smart” and the real world is a very different place. They want to run before they really know how to walk. This from a respected chef, Mark Vetri:
I once had a young cook who used to bring in modern Spanish cookbooks because he wanted to make things like mango caviar eggs and chocolate soil. I told him, “Hey, how about you learn how to blanch a goddamn carrot first, cook meat to a correct temperature, clarify a broth and truss a chicken? Once you can do these things then, and only then, should you try to learn these other techniques.” Trust me when I tell you that José Andrés is a master of the basics. You should strive to be one too.
This isn’t limited to the professional kitchen. If you’ve ever managed younger people, many of them think they know the business thoroughly because they have an MBA or a couple of years in an office. The reality is that much of what we teach as managers are basic skills that either aren’t taught at all in schools or are given a week’s worth of attention. Listening, politicking, presentation skills, office culture, and the knowledge specific to an industry are generally not areas in which young folks come prepared. Try to tell them that!
I was managing people (some older than me) when I was 23. I was a department head by 25. In retrospect, I was lucky not to have screwed up more often than I did because I was learning as I went and much of what I was learning were basic skills. As in the kitchen, learning the building blocks of the industry and business frees you up later on to be able to do anything. Walk first!
From time to time I chat with folks who are just starting their professional lives. One of the things many of them discover pretty early on in their job searches is that they have spent a lot of money obtaining a degree that might not qualify them to do much. This isn’t something new: my degrees are in English and Education which have, on the surface, very little to do with a career in traditional and digital media, sales, and sports.
The question I get asked a lot is “how did you get to where you are?” – what was my career path, etc. Inevitably, the specific knowledge one needs to advance down a particular road comes up and then the question becomes “where did you learn this stuff?”. Good question, and not as simple an answer as you’d think. Continue reading