Tidbit: Starting Your Day Right

I'm loving this tidbit of wisdom from Seth Godin:

The first thing you do when you sit down at the computer

Let me guess: check the incoming. Check email or traffic stats or messages from your boss. Check the tweets you follow or the FB status of friends.

You've just surrendered not only a block of time but your freshest, best chance to start something new.

If you're a tech company or a marketer, your goal is to be the first thing people do when they start their day. If you're an artist, a leader or someone seeking to make a difference, the first thing you do should be to lay tracks to accomplish your goals, not to hear how others have reacted/responded/insisted to what happened yesterday.

 

Image via Tsylord

Breaking Down: Colors In Cultures

I came across this infographic the other day and while I think the design of it isn't necessarily the best solution to convey the information, I find the actual data really facinating.  The data is a good reminder that colors do in fact have different meanings in various cultures and countries.  As marketers we need to understand how our choices impact the products we sell and the messages we convey.  This emotional connection to the consumer is key and is one of the things that can turn a good campaign into a great one.

Infographic by David McCandless

Wrapping It Up: 2011

2011 was an epic year in so many ways.  I feel like there is no better way to honor it than by presenting....

My Top Ten

One: Brazil. Three weeks discovering my love for maracuja, hours sifting through forgotten record shops frequented by few in the cities of São Paulo and Salvador and exploring the amazing beaches on the tiny island of Boipeba.

Two: My amazing clients that allowed me to collaborate on projects like this and this and this.

Three: Japan: freshly roasted Chestnuts, hiking around temples in Kyoto, Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japanese Maples at their peak fall foliage, underground whiskey bars and 20 course sushi meals.

Four: Lots of dinner parties in our house including platters of paella, tagines and a Cinco de Mayo feast for 25 people complete with homemade enchiladas, budín de elote, albóndigas and plenty of tequila.

Five: Celebrating my Grandfather's 94th birthday.

Six: My new Specialized road bike that led to numerous trips over the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges and long rides out to the Rockaways for tacos from this place.

Seven: India: My first Indian wedding, camel trekking mere miles from the Pakistani border, afternoons reading overlooking Lake Pichola in Udaipur and getting lost in the blue city of Jodhpur.

Eight: Celebrating three years of marriage to my kick-ass husband who has an amazing company, which despite his crazy travel schedule (platinum status is an understatement) makes me incredibly proud of him.

Nine: Sunsets.  I have never seen more beautiful sunsets than the ones I saw this year, regardless if I was is Brooklyn, Austin, Kyoto or Jaisalmer.  They have all blown my mind.

Ten: Matilda Uni Rose, our 4 year old pug, who is quite honestly, the. best. dog. ever.

So thanks 2011 for all of this amazingness.  2012, bring it.

 

 

 

Read: The Elusive Big Idea

Recently in the NYTimes, Neal Gabler made the compelling argument that big ideas are eluding us today. Ideas that used to "ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world, are no longer."  He argues we are living in a post-idea world where "big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them."  In short, information rules our lives; we don't have the time and therefore the ability to transform information into ideas.  Gabler doesn't provide a solution to shift this reality but he certainly made me think that we all should be considering the difference between ideas and information and how we can bring the focus back to using data to create big ideas that change the world we live in.  I also want to note that there are people and companies that are doing this. Check out: Tom's, Opening Ceremony, Madécasse, Warby Parker and Stumptown Coffee.

 The Elusive Big Idea

by Neal Gabler

THE July/August issue of The Atlantic trumpets the “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” Take a deep breath. The ideas include “The Players Own the Game” (No. 12), “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was” (No. 6), “Nothing Stays Secret” (No. 2), and the very biggest idea of the year, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours,” which refers to growing economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Now exhale. It may strike you that none of these ideas seem particularly breathtaking. In fact, none of them are ideas. They are more on the order of observations. But one can’t really fault The Atlantic for mistaking commonplaces for intellectual vision. Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was.

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.

The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.

There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.

But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it. The real cause may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.

We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

Marx pointed out the relationship between the means of production and our social and political systems. Freud taught us to explore our minds as a way of understanding our emotions and behaviors. Einstein rewrote physics. More recently, McLuhan theorized about the nature of modern communication and its effect on modern life. These ideas enabled us to get our minds around our existence and attempt to answer the big, daunting questions of our lives.

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.

The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.

It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right.

BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.

To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.

An artist friend of mine recently lamented that he felt the art world was adrift because there were no longer great critics like Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg to provide theories of art that could fructify the art and energize it. Another friend made a similar argument about politics. While the parties debate how much to cut the budget, he wondered where were the John Rawlses and Robert Nozicks who could elevate our politics.

One could certainly make the same argument about economics, where John Maynard Keynes remains the center of debate nearly 80 years after propounding his theory of government pump priming. This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.

But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of genetics in human nature, or the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has had big and controversial ideas on everything from selfishness to God, or the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been analyzing different moral systems and drawing fascinating conclusions about the relationship of morality to political beliefs. But because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium.

No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts. Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like Steven P. Jobs of Apple, have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional” sense of the word.

Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational. It is thinkers who are in short supply, and the situation probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.

Think about that.

 

Neal Gabler is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California and the author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Welcome: Think Quarterly

A couple week ago, Google put out what they are calling  “Think Quarterly,” a digital magazine of sorts that aims "to help people and organizations navigate a world gone digital."  The theme of their inaugural  issue?  Innovation.  They open the issue by reminding us:

"In 2003, a total of five exabytes of data existed. Now we generate that every two days. We are, literally, more creative than ever.

Where to begin? Right here. We've curated big ideas from heads of industry, leading experts and our homegrown visionaries -- all to help guide your own thinking. In our inaugural US issue, we focus on Innovation. Where can you break molds and shape the future? We hope this gives you inspiration, insight, and some new ideas of your own."

There's lots of inspiration and insight throughout but the piece that struck me the most was written by Google's employee #16, Susan Wojcicki.  Her article, The Eight Pillars of Innovation, boils innovation down to the core.  The two pillars that got me thinking the most were- Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection and Spark with imagination, fuel with data.  What two resonate most with you?

 The Eight Pillars of Innovation

The greatest innovations are the ones we take for granted, like light bulbs, refrigeration and penicillin. But in a world where the miraculous very quickly becomes common-place, how can a company, especially one as big as Google, maintain a spirit of innovation year after year?

Nurturing a culture that allows for innovation is the key. As we’ve grown to over 26,000 employees in more than 60 offices, we’ve worked hard to maintain the unique spirit that characterized Google way back when I joined as employee #16.

At that time I was Head of Marketing (a group of one), and over the past decade I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide range of products. Some were big wins, others weren’t. Although much has changed through the years, I believe our commitment to innovation and risk has remained constant.

What’s different is that, even as we dream up what’s next, we face the classic innovator’s dilemma: should we invest in brand new products, or should we improve existing ones? We believe in doing both, and learning while we do it. Here are eight principles of innovation we’ve picked up along the way to guide us as we go.

Have_a_mission_that­_matters

Work can be more than a job when it stands for something you care about. Google’s mission is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ We use this simple statement to guide all of our decisions. When we start work in a new area, it’s often because we see an important issue that hasn’t been solved and we’re confident that technology can make a difference. For example, Gmail was created to address the need for more web email functionality, great search and more storage.

Our mission is one that has the potential to touch many lives, and we make sure that all our employees feel connected to it and empowered to help achieve it. In times of crisis, they have helped by organizing life-saving information and making it readily available. The dedicated Googlers who launched our Person Finder tool (to learn more see Missions that Matter) within two hours of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan this March are a wonderful recent example of that commitment.

Think_big_but_start_small

No matter how ambitious the plan, you have to roll up your sleeves and start somewhere. Google Books, which has brought the content of millions of books online, was an idea that our founder, Larry Page, had for a long time. People thought it was too crazy even to try, but he went ahead and bought a scanner and hooked it up in his office. He began scanning pages, timed how long it took with a metronome, ran the numbers and realized it would be possible to bring the world’s books online. Today, our Book Search index contains over 10 million books.

Similarly, AdSense, which delivers contextual ads to websites, started when one engineer put ads in Gmail. We realized that with more sophisticated technology we could do an even better job by devoting additional resources to this tiny project. Today, AdSense ads reach 80 percent of global internet users – it is the world’s largest ad network – and we have hundreds of thousands of publishers worldwide.

Strive_for_continual_ innovation, not_instant_perfection

The best part of working on the web? We get do-overs. Lots of them. The first version of AdWords, released in 1999, wasn’t very successful – almost no one clicked on the ads. Not many people remember that because we kept iterating and eventually reached the model we have today. And we’re still improving it; every year we run tens of thousands of search and ads quality experiments, and over the past year we’ve launched over a dozen new formats. Some products we update every day.

Our iterative process often teaches us invaluable lessons. Watching users ‘in the wild’ as they use our products is the best way to find out what works, then we can act on that feedback. It’s much better to learn these things early and be able to respond than to go too far down the wrong path.

Iterating has served us well. We weren’t first to Search, but we were able to make progress in the market by working quickly, learning faster and taking our next steps based on data.

Look_for_ideas_everywhere

As the leader of our Ads products, I want to hear ideas from everyone – and that includes our partners, advertisers and all of the people on my team. I also want to be a part of the conversations Googlers are having in the hallways.

Several years ago, we took this quite literally and posted an ideas board on a wall at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. On a Friday night, an engineer went to the board and wrote down the details of a convoluted problem we had with our ads system. A group of Googlers lacking exciting plans for the evening began re-writing the algorithm within hours and had solved the problem by Tuesday.

Some of the best ideas at Google are sparked just like that – when small groups of Googlers take a break on a random afternoon and start talking about things that excite them. The Google Art Project, which brought thousands of museum works online, and successful AdWords features like Automated Rules, are great examples of projects that started out in our ‘microkitchens.’ This is why we make sure Google is stocked with plenty of snacks at all times.

Share_everything

Our employees know pretty much everything that’s going on and why decisions are made. Every quarter, we share the entire Board Letter with all 26,000 employees, and we present the same slides presented to the Board of Directors in a company-wide meeting.

By sharing everything, you encourage the discussion, exchange and re-interpretation of ideas, which can lead to unexpected and innovative outcomes. We try to facilitate this by working in small, crowded teams in open cube arrangements, rather than individual offices.

When someone has an idea or needs input on a decision, they can just look up and say, ‘Hey…’ to the person sitting next to them. Maybe that cube-mate will have something to contribute as well. The idea for language translation in Google Talk (our Gmail chat client) came out of conversations between the Google Talk and Google Translate teams when they happened to be working near one another.

Spark_with_imagination, fuel_with_data

In our fast-evolving market, it’s hard for people to know, or even imagine, what they want. That’s why we recruit people who believe the impossible can become a reality. One example is Sebastian Thrun who, along with his team, is building technology for driverless cars to reduce the number of lives lost to roadside accidents each year. These cars, still in development, have logged 140,000 hands-free miles driving down San Francisco’s famously twisty Lombard Street, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the Pacific Coast Highway without a single accident.

We try to encourage this type of blue-sky thinking through ‘20 percent time’ – a full day a week during which engineers can work on whatever they want. Looking back at our launch calendar over a recent six-month period, we found that many products started life in employees’ 20 percent time.

What begins with intuition is fueled by insights. If you’re lucky, these reinforce one another. For a while the number of Google search results displayed on a page was 10 simply because our founders thought that was the best number. We eventually did a test, asking users, ‘Would you like 10, 20 or 30 search results on one page?’ They unanimously said they wanted 30. But 10 results did far better in actual user tests, because the page loaded faster. It turns out that providing 30 results was 20 percent slower than providing 10, and what users really wanted was speed. That’s the beautiful thing about data – it can either back up your instincts or prove them totally wrong.

Be_a_platform

There is so much awe-inspiring innovation being driven by people all over the globe. That’s why we believe so strongly in the power of open technologies. They enable anyone, anywhere, to apply their unique skills, perspectives and passions to the creation of new products and features on top of our platforms.

This openness helps to move the needle forward for everyone involved. Google Earth, for example, allows developers to build ‘layers’ on top of our maps and share them with the world. One user created a layer that uses animations of real-time sensor data to illustrate what might happen if sea levels rose from one to 100 meters. Another famous example of open technology is our mobile platform, Android. There are currently over 310 devices on the market built on the Android OS, and close to half a million Android developers outside the company who enjoy the support of Google’s extensive resources. These independent developers are responsible for most of the 200,000 apps in the Android marketplace.

Never_fail_to_fail

Google is known for YouTube, not Google Video Player. The thing is, people remember your hits more than your misses. It’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them fast. Trust me, we’ve failed plenty of times. Knowing that it’s okay to fail can free you up to take risks. And the tech industry is so dynamic that the moment you stop taking risks is the moment you get left behind.

Two of the first projects I worked on at Google, AdSense and Google Answers, were both uncharted territory for the company. While AdSense grew to be a multi-billion-dollar business, Google Answers (which let users post questions and pay an expert for the answer) was retired after four years. We learned a lot in that time, and we were able to apply the knowledge we had gathered to the development of future products. If we’d been afraid to fail, we never would have tried Google Answers or AdSense, and missed an opportunity with each one.

Our growing Google workforce comes to us from all over the world, bringing with them vastly different experiences and backgrounds. A set of strong common principles for a company makes it possible for all its employees to work as one and move forward together. We just need to continue to say ‘yes’ and resist a culture of ‘no’, accept the inevitability of failures, and continue iterating until we get things right.

As it says on our homepage, ‘I’m feeling lucky.’ That’s certainly how I feel coming to work every day, and something I never want to take for granted.

 

Monday Morning Inspiration: Kinfolk Magazine

Kinfolk Magazine just launched last week and it is GORGEOUS.  Their mission is to be "a guide for small gatherings."  Given my love for uniting friends around dinner tables, most recently up at Lake Copake with a pan of seafood paella and bottles of Rosé, the concept of the magazine got me from the start.  Add in the photography and it was a done deal...this is my new favorite magazine.  I'll let you discover and enjoy it for yourselves but in the mean time, I'll leave you with their manifesto.

"Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.

Every element of Kinfolk – the features, photography, and general aesthetics – are consistent with the way we feel entertaining should be: simple, uncomplicated, and less contrived. Kinfolk is the marriage of our appreciation for art and design and our love for spending time with family and friends."

*Thanks/congrats to Youngna whose blog post introduced me to Kinfolk and whose story, Cloth Napkins, was included!

Monday Morning Inspiration: Kamikatsu

The 2,000 residents of Kamikatsu, a Japanese village of on the island of Shikoku, have set out create the first zero waste environment by the year 2020.  Forced to rethink the way they managed waste due to strict new regulations on dioxin emissions, which shut down their two incinerators, they formed the nonprofit Zero Waste Academy to create a solution.

Kitchen waste must be composted and everything else is separated into 34 categories. Everything from bottles and batteries to phones, cigarette lighters and razors have a place to go.  Once separated, everything in good condition is neatly organized in the Kuru Kuru recycling store where residents are free to drop off or pick up whatever they like free of charge.  Most categories of trash are recycled in clever ways. Chopsticks are pulped and made into paper and cooking oil is turned into fertilizer.

It's a huge initiative and one that is proving successful.  While their solution is a bit extreme, I hope that their success will continue to inspire others to be more conscious of what they use, reuse and throw away.

You can read more about it here:  Japan’s New Action Plan for Accelerating the Establishment of Sound Material-Cycle Societies Internationally through the 3Rs.”

*photo from here by photographer Robert Gilhooly

Looking Up: NYC Sky

NSKYC, a site designed by Mike Bodge, updates itself every five minutes with a new photo from his view of Noho and the East Village.  The site then aggregates to show a grid of the average color of the sky at that moment.  While the last few days have been sadly varying shades of gloom,  the early morning hours are shades of brilliant blues.

 

*via Gothamist

Breaking Down: A Year of Food

2010 was a tedious year for New York designer Lauren Manning.  She spent the entire year documenting everything she ate, all in the name of her thesis project.  The purpose was to determine the most effective way to visualize information.   40 infographics later, the verdict was that "there is no one answer to which method and style should be used...different methods can all have a place when used in an appropriate setting.”  What is clear is that she has an affinity for chicken and doesn't eat enough of those leafy greens!

 

*Via  Co Design

Read: What it Takes

I'm a big fan of The Corner Office in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times.  The author, Adam Bryant highlights tidbits from his conversations with various leaders across a number of industries.  His new book, "The Corner Office," focuses on the overarching lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders.  This article was adapted from the book. While it's a bit lengthy, I feel it offers some great insight into what it takes to lead a successful organization.  In short, Bryant stresses that these skills that are not genetic.  They are qualities that are developed through attitude, habit and discipline.  Bryant breaks them into five district traits: Passionate Curiosity, Battle-Hardened Confidence, Team Smarts, A Simple Mind-Set and Fearlessness.  Regardless if your goal is to build a successful start up, lead a multimillion dollar organization or be an employee of a established corporation, Bryant makes the case that these skills will "make you stand out and lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress."  I agree wholeheartedly.

Distilling the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s

IMAGINE 100 people working at a large company. They’re all middle managers, around 35 years old. They’re all smart. All collegial. All hard-working. They all have positive attitudes. They’re all good communicators.

So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office?

In other words, what does it take to lead an organization — whether it’s a sports team, a nonprofit, a start-up or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors?

Interviews I conducted with more than 70 chief executives and other leaders for Corner Office in The New York Times point to five essentials for success — qualities that most of those C.E.O.’s share and look for in people they hire.

The good news: these traits are not genetic. It’s not as if you have to be tall or left-handed. These qualities are developed through attitude, habit and discipline — factors that are within your control. They will make you stand out. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress.

These aren’t theories. They come from decades of collective experience of top executives who have learned firsthand what it takes to succeed. From the corner office, they can watch others attempt a similar climb and notice the qualities that set people apart. These C.E.O.’s offered myriad lessons and insights on the art of managing and leading, but they all shared five qualities: Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mind-set. Fearlessness.

What follows are excerpts from chapters on each of them.

Passionate Curiosity

Many successful chief executives are passionately curious people. It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that. In business, C.E.O.’s are supposed to project confidence and breezy authority as they take an audience through their projections of steady growth. Certainty is the game face they wear. They’ve cracked the code.

But get them away from these familiar scripts, and a different side emerges. They share stories about failures and doubts and mistakes. They ask big-picture questions. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories, and what they do.

It’s this relentless questioning that leads entrepreneurs to spot new opportunities and helps managers understand the people who work for them, and how to get them to work together effectively. It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the C.E.O.’s job: “I am a student of human nature.”

The C.E.O.’s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students — the letters could just as easily stand for “chief education officer.”

“You learn from everybody,” said Alan R. Mulally, the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around — why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work.”

Why “passionate curiosity”? The phrase is more than the sum of its parts, which individually fall short in capturing the quality that sets these C.E.O.’s apart. There are plenty of people who are passionate, but many of their passions are focused on just one area. There are a lot of curious people in the world, but they can also be wallflowers.

But “passionate curiosity” — a phrase used by Nell Minow, the co-founder of the Corporate Library — better captures the infectious sense of fascination that some people have with everything around them.

Passionate curiosity, Ms. Minow said, “is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.”

Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions. They recognize that they can’t have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.

“In business, the big prizes are found when you can ask a question that challenges the corporate orthodoxy,” said Andrew Cosslett, the C.E.O. of the InterContinental Hotels Group. “In every business I’ve worked in, there’s been a lot of cost and value locked up in things that are deemed to be ‘the way we do things around here.’ So you have to talk to people and ask them, ‘Why do you do that?’ ”

It’s an important lesson. For all the furrowed-brow seriousness that you often encounter in the business world, some of the most important advances come from asking, much like a persistent 5-year-old, the simplest questions. Why do you do that? How come it’s done this way? Is there a better way?

Battle-Hardened Confidence

Some qualities are easier to spot than others. Passionate curiosity? It’s there for all to see. There’s an energy from people who have it. Other qualities are tougher to discern, especially the ability to handle adversity. Some people embrace adversity, even relish it, and they have a track record of overcoming it. They have battle-hardened confidence.

If there were some test to find out whether a person had this quality, it would be a huge moneymaker. But people, and companies, reveal how they deal with adversity only when they are faced with potential or real failure, and the status quo is not an option.

The best predictor of behavior is past performance, and that’s why so many chief executives interview job candidates about how they dealt with failure in the past. They want to know if somebody is the kind of person who takes ownership of challenges or starts looking for excuses.

“I think hiring great people remains extremely, extremely hard,” said Jen-Hsun Huang of Nvidia. “You can never really tell how somebody deals with adversity. When you have a difficult situation, some people just take it and run with it. Some people see adversity and they cower, as talented as they are. You could ask them about the adversity they had in the past, but you never really know the intensity of that adversity.”

Many C.E.O.’s seem driven by a strong work ethic forged in adversity. As they moved up in organizations, the attitude remained the same — this is my job, and I’m going to own it. Because of that attitude, they are rewarded with more challenges and promotions.

“I like hiring people who have overcome adversity, because I believe I’ve seen in my own career that perseverance is really important,” said Nancy McKinstry, the chief executive of Wolters Kluwer, the Dutch publishing and information company. “I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, and what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it?’ The people I’ve hired who have had that ability to describe the situation have always worked out, because they’re able to sort of fall down, dust themselves off, and keep fighting the next day.”

The chief executives’ stories help bring to life a concept known as “locus of control.” In general, it refers to people’s outlooks and beliefs about what leads to success and failure in their lives. Do they tend to blame failures on factors they cannot control, or do they believe they have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what they can control? It’s a positive attitude mixed with a sense of purpose and determination. People who have it will take on, and own, any assignment thrown their way. They say those words that are music to a manager’s ears: “Got it. I’m on it.”

Team Smarts

At some point, the notion of being a team player became devalued in corporate life. It has been reduced to a truism — I work on a team, therefore I am a team player. It’s a point captured in a cartoon, by Mike Baldwin, in which an interviewer says to a job candidate: “We need a dedicated team player. How are you at toiling in obscurity?”

The most effective executives are more than team players. They understand how teams work and how to get the most out of the group. Just as some people have street smarts, others have team smarts.

Mark Pincus, the C.E.O. of the Zynga Game Network, the online gaming company, said he learned lessons about teamwork playing soccer in school. Even today, when he plays in Sunday-morning games, he said, he can spot people who would be good hires because of how they play.

“One is reliability,” he said. “There are certain people you just know are not going to make a mistake, even if the other guy’s faster than they are, or whatever.  And are you a playmaker? There are people who have this kind of intelligence, and they can make these great plays. It’s not that they’re star players, but they will get you the ball and then be where you’d expect to put it back to them. It’s like their heads are really in the game.”

Team smarts is also about having good “peripheral vision” for sensing how people react to one another, not just how they act.

George S. Barrett, the chief executive of Cardinal Health, described an example of how he assessed managers when he moved into a new role.

“We were sitting with a group of about 40 to 50 managers, and people were standing up to raise certain issues,” he recalled. “And I watched this one executive. People were riveted to him, really listening and engaged. And then this other executive addressed the group, and I watched everyone’s eyes. And their eyes went back down to their tables. It was a clear signal that said, ‘You’ve lost us.’ So sometimes you don’t know what the messages are that you’re going to get, but you have to look for them. They come from your peripheral vision.”

Companies increasingly operate through ad hoc teams. Team smarts refers to the ability to recognize the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal.

“Early on, I was wowed by talent, and I was willing to set aside the idea that this person might not be a team player,” said Susan Lyne, chairman of the Gilt Groupe. “Now, somebody needs to be able to work with people — that’s No. 1 on the list. I need people who are going to be able to build a team, manage a team, recruit well and work well with their peers. The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilize people who are not their direct reports.”

A Simple Mind-Set

There is a stubborn disconnect in many companies. Most senior executives want the same thing from people who present to them: be concise, get to the point, make it simple. Yet few people can deliver the simplicity that many bosses want. Instead, they mistakenly assume that the bosses will be impressed by a long PowerPoint presentation that shows how diligently they researched a topic, or that they will win over their superiors by talking more, not less.

Few things seem to get C.E.O.’s riled up more than lengthy PowerPoint presentations. It’s not the software they dislike; that’s just a tool. What irks them is the unfocused thinking that leads to an overlong slide presentation. There is wide agreement it’s a problem: “death by PowerPoint” has become a cliché.

If so many executives in positions of authority are clear about what they want, why can’t they get the people who report to them to lose the “Power” part of their presentations and simply get to the “Point”?

There are a few likely explanations. A lot of people have trouble being concise. Next time you’re in a meeting, ask somebody to give you the 10-word summary of his or her idea. Some people can do a quick bit of mental jujitsu, and they’ll summarize an idea with a “Here’s what’s important ...” or “The bottom line is ... .” Others will have trouble identifying the core point.

Another possible explanation is that a lag exists in the business world. There was a time when simply having certain information was a competitive advantage. Now, in the Internet era, most people have easy access to the same information. That puts a greater premium on the ability to synthesize, to connect dots in new ways and to ask simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities.

“I’d love to teach a course called ‘The Idea,’ ” said Dany Levy, the founder of DailyCandy.com. “Which is, basically, so you want to start a company, how’s it going to work? Let’s figure it out: just a very practical plan, but not a business plan, because I feel like business plans now feel weighty and outdated. It seems, back in the day, that the longer your business plan was, the more promising it was going to be. And now, the shorter your business plan is, the more succinct and to the point it is, the better. You want people to get why your business is going to work pretty quickly.”

Steven A. Ballmer, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, said he understood the impulse in presentations to share all the underlying research that led to a conclusion. But he changed the way he runs meetings to get to the conclusion first.

“The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven’t seen in a slide deck or presentation,” he said. “You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call ‘the long and winding road.’ You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion.

“I decided that’s not what I want to do anymore. I don’t think it’s efficient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: ‘I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.’ That lets us go, whether they’ve organized it that way or not, to their recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus.”

Fearlessness

Are you comfortable being uncomfortable? Do you like situations where there’s no road map or compass? Do you start twitching when things are operating smoothly, and want to shake things up? Are you willing to make surprising career moves to learn new skills? Is discomfort your comfort zone?

In other words, are you fearless?

Risk-taking is often a quality associated with entrepreneurs, the kind of people who make bet-the-farm wagers on a new idea. But risk-taking doesn’t quite capture the quality that many C.E.O.’s embody and look for and encourage in others.

With the business world in seemingly endless turmoil, maintaining the status quo — even when things appear to be working well — is only going to put you behind the competition. So when chief executives talk about executives on their staffs who are fearless, there is a reverence in their voices. They wish they could bottle it and pass it out to all their employees. They’re looking for calculated and informed risk-taking, but mostly they want people to do things — and not just what they’re told to do.

“One of the things that I characterize as fearlessness is seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken,” said Ursula M. Burns, the C.E.O. of Xerox. “Someone will say: ‘Things are good, but I’m going to destabilize them because they can be much better and should be much better. We should change this.’ The easiest thing to do is to just keep it going the way it’s going, especially if it’s not perfect but it’s not broken. But you have to be a little bit ahead of it, and you have to try to fix it well before you have to. Companies get into trouble when they get really complacent, when they settle in and say, ‘O.K., we’re doing O.K. now.’ ”

Many executives said fearlessness was one of the top qualities they’re looking for when they were interviewing job candidates.

“Specifically, in this culture I have to have people who not only can manage change but have an appetite for it,” said Mindy F. Grossman, the C.E.O. of HSN, the parent company of Home Shopping Network. “They tend to be more intellectually curious, so they don’t just have vertical climbs. I ask for those stories. I love hearing them and it gives me a real sense of the person.”

Like the other four keys to success, fearlessness is an attitude, and because attitude is one of the few things over which everyone has complete control, it is a character trait that can be developed. It can be fostered with a simple approach to taking more risks.

Chief executives advise that you will be rewarded for fearlessness, because so few people live that way and bring this attitude to work. It is risky. You may unsettle people by shaking up the status quo. But if you have the best interests of the organization in mind, you can unlock new opportunities for the company and for yourself.

These five qualities help determine who will be chosen for bigger roles and more responsibility. Those promotions will inevitably bring challenges that require learning through trial and error.

C.E.O.’s can act as mentors to speed people along that learning curve. They may not develop silver-bullet theories, but they are experts in leadership because they practice it daily. And many of them have spent years honing their leadership styles, studying what works and what doesn’t, and then teaching others.

Chief executives face criticism from many corners, and it is often deserved. But there is no arguing that they have achieved a great deal.

Through their stories, lessons and insights, they have much to offer beyond the hard numbers.

Monday Morning Inspiration: 110 Things

In case you missed this fantastic article published in the NYTimes this weekend.

The 110 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2010

By STUART EMMRICH

It was a year in which the daughter of one president was married in a largely private ceremony on a gorgeous summer day and one in which the daughter of a possible future president went on a prime-time dance show to give “a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me.

It was a year in which one political candidate threatened to punch out a member of the news media, another resigned from office because of “tickling” sessions with male staff members and a third coined the political rallying cry of the year: “The rent is too damn high.”

It was a year in which Gwyneth Paltrow went on “Glee” and all but erased the memories of the smug, unbearable scold she had evolved into in recent years, while Taylor Swift put Kanye West in his place, broke the heart of poor Taylor Lautner and, with her new romance with Jake Gyllenhaal, proved she was no kid anymore.

It was a year in which New Yorkers talked about these 110 things.

1. Bedbugs.

2. Pee-wee Herman’s comeback.

3. Larry King’s farewell.

4. The best campaign slogan of 2010: “I am not a witch.”

5. Ricky Martin comes out.

6. Steven Slater wigs out.

7. Four Loko, R.I.P.

8. Justin Bieber gets a new haircut.

9. There is no justice: Mondo loses to Gretchen on “Project Runway.”

10. Well, maybe there is: Bristol Palin finally is ousted on “Dancing With the Stars.”

11. The Sally Draper plotline on “Mad Men.”

12. Gwyneth Paltrow’s sudden charm offensive.

13. Caroline Giuliani, the daughter of Rudolph W. Giuliani, is arrested on shoplifting charges.

14. Anthony D. Marshall, the son of Brooke Astor, is convicted of stealing from and defrauding his mother.

15. Debrahlee Lorenzana’s allegation that she was fired from Citibank for being “too sexy.”

16. In September, Marty Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, writes on his blog that he wonders whether Muslims are “worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment.”

17. In December, Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, announces he is quitting.

18. Willow Smith, the daughter of Will Smith, and her “Whip My Hair” video.

19. Jerry Seinfeld’s hilariously cranky “Why am I here?” appearance on Andy Cohen’s talk show.

20. Kanye’s Twitter posts.

21. The rebirth of Don Hill’s.

22. James Franco and Kalup Linzy perform at Webster Hall.

23. James Franco.

24. The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery.

25. Chelsea Clinton marries a nice Jewish boy.

26. Julian Assange.

27. Steve Martin, in promoting his new novel set in the art world, talks about art. The audience is not amused.

28. Natalie and Benjamin.

29. Taylor and Jake.

30. The new Norman Foster-designed Sperone Westwater gallery on the Bowery.

31. Nail salons that serve alcohol.

32. Those damn vuvuzelas.

33. The iPad.

34. That Fran Lebowitz documentary on HBO.

35. Tina Brown.

36. Tina Fey.

37. Rex Ryan on his reported foot fetish: “It’s a personal matter.”

38. The kids — Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson — in “The Kids Are All Right.”

39. Patti Smith wins the National Book Award for “Just Kids.”

40. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, unlikely YouTube sensation.

41. Wills and Kate are engaged.

42. Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens break up.

43. As do Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson.

44. The party of the year: Alexander Wang’s carnival-themed bash held in a parking lot under the High Line during New York Fashion Week.

45. Kellan Lutz’s Calvin Klein underwear ads.

46. The Dow’s 1,000-point plunge in May.

47. Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin go camping. It does not go well.

48. Mark Madoff’s suicide.

49. The eerily predictive Madoff suicide plotline on “Damages.”

50. Columbia Business School has to remind its first-year students to brush their teeth and use deodorant before a job interview.

51. Charlie Sheen enters “pre-hab,” and a term is coined.

52. Charlie Sheen trashes a hotel room. Back to plain old rehab?

53.Don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed.

54. Jimmy Carter says he thinks the country is ready for a gay president.

55. Oh, the irony: Gawker is hacked.

56. Anna Wintour’s girl crush on Blake Lively.

57. In his author video to promote “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen complains about author videos.

58. Page Six’s Richard Johnson leaves for Los Angeles.

59. So does Jeffrey Deitch.

60. Dina Lohan thinks her daughter Lindsay should move to New York.

61. “Defriend” and “BFF” enter the Oxford American Dictionary.

62. Sandra Bullock’s Oscar.

63. Sandra Bullock’s divorce.

64. The sheer awfulness of “The A-List.”

65. Marc Jacobs starts his September runway show at the Armory exactly on time, leaving stranded outside in the rain hundreds of people who had gotten too used to “Marc time.”

66. Marc Jacobs’s ex-boyfriend on “The A-List.”

67. The valedictorian of this year’s graduating class at Columbia University plagiarized part of his speech from a YouTube video posted by the comedian Patton Oswalt.

68. Conan O’Brien returns to late-night TV. No one notices.

69. Bernadette Peters in “A Little Night Music.”

70. The increasingly scary body count in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

71. Elizabeth Edwards.

72. Tipper and Al’s divorce.

73. Amar’e Stoudemire, man about town.

74. George Steinbrenner dies and still is not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

75. Five Columbia University students are arrested on charges of selling an array of drugs at several fraternity houses and other campus residences.

76. Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.”

77. The murder at Soho House.

78. Brad Goreski leaves the Rachel Zoe nest.

79. Marina Abramovic.

80. Carl Paladino’s campaign for governor: The gift that kept on giving.

81. New York Fashion Week’s move to Lincoln Center.

82. Mika and Joe.

83. Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network.”

84. The “Ring” malfunction at the Met.

85. Roger Stone in “Client 9.”

86. A writer for Marie Claire sets off a Web firestorm when she blogs she was “grossed out” by the overweight characters on “Mike & Molly.”

87. Cathie Black.

88. That ghost stroller in Park Slope.

89. Gregg Allman returns to the Beacon Theater.

90. John Boehner’s tears.

91. Kim Kardashian flaunts her assets in W.

92. A Columbia University professor is accused of having a consensual incestuous affair with his 24-year-old daughter. Columbia is having quite the year.

93. Anderson Cooper finally gets to meet NeNe Leakes. He seems the more star-struck of the two.

94. The KFC Double Down sandwich.

95. Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

96. Derek Jeter stays with the Yankees.

97. Cliff Lee goes to the Phillies.

98. In “A Piece of Work,” Joan Rivers reminds us how funny she still is.

99. That “rent is too damn high” guy.

100. The never-ending downtown mosque controversy.

101. Naomi Campbell testifies in the “blood diamonds” trial of Charles Taylor.

102. Lanvin comes to Madison Avenue.

103. Barneys Co-Op goes to Brooklyn.

104. The new divorce site on Huffington Post.

105. Eric Massa’s Navy years suggest a whole new meaning to the term “snorkeling.”

106. The Brett Favre “sexting” controversy.

107. Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. Train wreck.

108. Courtney Love.

109. “I would like my life back.”

110. End of an era: Elaine Kaufman dies.