Learning How To Learn

Image courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt
Image: D Sharon Pruitt

I read a lot…mostly nonfiction; business books, history, science, and cognitive psychology, not to mention the endless online journals, blogs, software tutorials, and news articles. When it comes to the practical application of Big Ideas retention rapidly fades. I have so many books I want to read I jump into the next one, hoping that all of this information is somehow being stored in my personal cerebral cloud for later recall. It is easy to become addicted to the novelty of something new.

To apply my rudimentary understanding of cognitive bias or Bayesian inference to a problem, it is not enough to have a broad conceptual familiarity these complex and counterintuitive ideas. I need to strengthen my thinking skills, and that requires intentional practice.

Ideas and skills are encoded in the brain through the process of recall, particularly randomized recall that allows some in-between time for forgetting to occur; not too much forgetting, just enough to create cognitive effort and some failure when recalling the skill. It turns out that contrary to what many of us have been taught, mass repetition (repeating that difficult four-bar musical passage for an hour until you go into a trance) is not the most efficient way to learn; better to spread the drilling over several days and contexts.

Some books are designed around how we learn, continually coming back to key ideas, synopsizing chapters, and building quizzes into the text. I have tried the time consuming task of taking extensive notes while reading, but my notes tend to be forgotten when I move to the next field of study.

Lately I have begun experimenting with flash cards. While reading, I note ideas I want to learn, dig deeper with additional research, and develop flash cards to quiz myself. I am using a program for the Mac and iOS called Flashcard Hero. The program allows you to easily create you own card decks which are stored in the cloud and sync to a free iPhone app. It is easy to quiz yourself anytime, customize the look of the cards, and shuffle them randomly. We’ll see how this goes.

What learning techniques work for you?

Beethoven’s Morning

Beethoven_2089781b“Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care – he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity. (Perhaps for this reason, Beethoven’s productivity was generally higher during the warmer months.)” -from the book, Daily Rituals, How Artists Work by Mason Curry

Musicians Are Natural Entrepreneurs

Berkle article clip imageBerklee Today, the journal for alumni of Berklee College of Music, recently gave me the opportunity to explore the relationship between musical training and the skills of entrepreneurs. I interviewed several Berklee alumni who have gone on to create groundbreaking music technology companies serving independent artists.

Each of these companies provides tools that help musicians distribute music, raise funds and market themselves, but what struck me was the similarity between direct-to-fan and lean startup practices. Direct-to-fan platforms give artists a strong connection with their super-fans, providing valuable feedback and ongoing engagement. In particular, early-stage pre-release platforms like PledgeMusic show artists what their fans value and how they want to be engaged. By the time the funding cycle is complete the artist knows their customer and has had the opportunity to tweak their offerings. Each person I interviewed described their musical training as fundamental preparation for working in a startup environment.

You can read the full issue of Berklee Today here or download a pdf of the article. Please check out each of these inspiring entrepreneurs and their companies. You will be amazed!

The rare and valuable skills of musicians

Daniel IndartI recently had the opportunity to create a presentation for Daniel Indart’s Music Entrepreneurship students at the Cornel School of Contemporary Music at Shepherd University in Los Angeles. My presentation: Thinking Different(ly)…The Rare and Valuable Skills of Musicians discussed the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset in today’s music industry. While business and music are diametrically opposed activities, they are complimentary. The life of professional musicians is remarkably like a startup company. We may not think of ourselves in that light, but the similarities are striking. Musicians can learn a great deal by thinking metaphorically and studying lean startup practices. We are uniquely equipped to learn new skills because we understand the process of deep, deliberate  practice. This also makes musicians valuable in a continually disrupted economy where innovation, flexibility, and intrinsic motivation trump past work experience and training.

The students were inspiring and I had a great time. You can check out my slides, a list of related resources, and a survey of revenue streams for musicians from the awesome folks at the Future of Music Coalition.

Please be sure to find out more about Daniel Indart and Latin Music Specialists. Daniel is one of the premier authorities on all genres of Latin music, a prolific composer/producer and a wonderful educator. Thanks for inviting me!

RCM: Business books and resources

A list of business-related books referenced in my recent seminar at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden:

  • ReworkJason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

RCM: Creativity, problem solving, and skill building resources

A list of creativity, problem-solving, skill-building and teaching/coaching resources. referenced in my recent seminar at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden:

  • SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath

Book Review: We First – How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World

We First logoIn his new book, We First – How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, creative director and blogger Simon Mainwaring makes a compelling argument for the need to redefine capitalism, factoring the social and environmental footprint into how we evaluate and support corporations. Social communication technologies provide consumers with an increasing array of tools fostering transparency and intentional, purpose-driven consumption.

At first I thought Mainwaring was preaching to the choir, but as I continued to read this thorough and well documented manifesto I became more and more excited. There are many innovative examples and practical ideas here that can be applied by corporations, consumers, government agencies and non-profits to foster sustainable business practices and create a better world.

Highly recommended.

What Is the Unmet Need?

Companies are most successful when their products meet fundamental human needs. Focusing on the unmet need creates an environment for product design and communication that speaks directly to human beings.

What I learned from wraparound…

As a product manager I sensed this intuitively, but I really saw it in action when I worked on wraparound teams organized to help at-risk kids and their families. Wraparound is a non-clinical planning process not dissimilar to product management, creative problem solving, and business model design. The process is simple to describe but very difficult to pull off successfully, in part because people are not used to thinking and speaking in the language of needs.

A wraparound team is organized around the family and their natural community. The process begins by creating an inventory of the strengths of each team member. Next the team develops needs statements, and brainstorms strategies to meet those needs. The strategies are filtered to best align with the identified needs and the strengths of the team. Finally, the plan is executed and adjusted.

Sounds simple, but guess what? If the needs are not correctly articulated the strategies are rarely successful. For example, “He needs to finish high school” or “She needs to stop taking drugs” are goals and outcomes not needs. Perhaps the real unmet need is knowing he can take care of himself, or that she can experience joy. That changes the entire conversation.

Business is all about people too…

The same ideas hold true in business. Every successful product solves a problem by meeting a basic human need. Companies that understand this are able speak to customers directly about why they are in business without becoming trapped in describing  what they do and how they do it. Simon Sinek discusses this in his book, Start With Why. As Marty Cagan says in his great book for product managers, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love:

“I find it ironic that so many of us in the product world come from science and business oriented backgrounds, yet such a large part of what we do every day is really about emotion and human psychology. Most of us may not think of our job this way, but we should.

People buy and use products largely for emotional reasons. The best marketing people understand this, and the best product people ensure that their products speak to these emotions.

… Once you have clearly identified and prioritized the dominant buying emotions your customers bring to your product, focus on that emotion and ask yourself where else they might be able to get that need met? That’s your real competition. In many cases you’ll find that the competition you should be worrying about is not the startup or big portal that’s after the same thing you are, but rather the offline alternative.”

Apple and eBay

Apple is in the business of empowering individuals. This mindset enabled them to invert the carrier/hardware equation for the entire wireless industry. I recently caught a Harvard Business Review podcast with John Donahue, CEO of eBay. He described the company as being in the business of ‘connecting buyers and sellers’. Each acquisition and product development decision is measured against this simple mission, which clearly describes the basic need the company addresses.

Imagine your company makes electric chairlifts for the elderly living at home. Think how your products and communication would differ with these two perspectives:

The elderly need to get up and down the stairs when their mobility becomes limited.

The elderly need to know they are independent and can stay connected with their family.

In the first case you might talk about the features of the chair, reliability of the motor, ease of installation, etc. In the second scenario I imagine the conversation would be quite different.

If you are not used to thinking of products, and services in terms of the needs they meet, you might want to take a look at this needs inventory courtesy of the Center For Non-Violent Communication.

The idea here is to continually ask yourself, “What need does my business meet? What problem does it solve?” It is  easy to be swept away by particular strategies and technologies. If you lose the human focus you may also lose your customers.

What do you think makes products and businesses successful? Join the conversation!

Social Norms & Market Norms

As behavioral economist Dan Ariely notes in his book, Predictably Irrational, we live simultaneously in two worlds; one ruled by social norms, and the other determined by market norms. If you hire a professional designer to develop a website for you, they  expect to be paid in cash. If they invite you to Thanksgiving dinner, it would  be inappropriate to offer them $200 for the wonderful meal! Bringing a dessert or a bottle of wine and offering to help clean up would fit the social norm.

Social Networks are, well, Social…

Online social networks arise spontaneously and are built on trust. Permission to join a network and share your art, requires an understanding of that community’s purpose and rules. People connect online out of a need to be acknowledged; to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, express themselves, create, have fun, show off a bit and share opinions. Before you start talking about your business, your next gig, or your latest album, ask yourself what the network values.

What have you learned about the online communities you participate in? What  contributions have gotten the conversation going?