Monthly Archives: February 2014

When I look, see, but don’t recognize.

On the sitcom Friends, first-time pregnant Rachel sees an obstetrician for ultrasound, nods her head and smiles as the monitor shows her future child.  Then, she returns home and exclaims, “I don’t see it!”

Radiology trainees struggle with the fear of “not seeing it” as well.  As a radiograph, MRI or ultrasound displays on screen, at first we just see nothing.  Then, there is the proverbial sinking feeling in the chest as we slowly come to the realization that something is amiss.  Something doesn’t look quite right – except we don’t see it.  It can be intensely frustrating, resolved only by a supervising radiologist pointing with a finger, and we think, “ah, I knew I saw something.”

There is something about that initial sinking feeling when we see something is wrong without consciously knowing why.  It shows that we are now aware of our ignorance (as opposed to unaware – which is infinitely worse).  It’s the strange category of unknown knowns, where we don’t yet consciously know something that we can already pick out.

It is a sign of learning.

The calculated risk of ordering the house special

Gently lit by low wall lights and candles on the table, slow pentatonic music in the background, my girlfriend and I brushed off the speckled snow on our coats and sat down for our highly anticipated dinner at a local sushi restaurant one evening.

What caught our eyes on the menu were rolls topped with House Special Sauce.

There is something about a restaurants’ “secret sauce,” the exclusive special dish that makes them particularly appealing, that is counter-intuitive.  After all, commercial sauce-makers are known for – well, sauce.  Mayo mayonnaise, sriracha chili sauce, and Heinz ketchup are all popular because they are backed by large R&D funding, tasting tests, and marketing.

So why would anyone not choose a time-tested favorite and go for the house special sauce?  An independent restaurant has but a single percentage of the resources of a large conglomerate.  They are outmatched in almost every way.

It’s David versus Goliath.

But sometimes we favor the underdog, the adventure of the limited, the David who did defeat Goliath. We believe something may be better because it is limited in quantity or limited availability.  It is a secret, and secrets are good.

We convince ourselves that independent “specials” can sometimes end in a pleasant surprise.  We try the homemade potato chips over Lay’s, or the hole-in-the-wall eatery out in the suburbs over Applebee’s, or house special sauces over Kikkoman’s sushi sauce.

Every time we make such a decision, we implicitly take the risk that things can work out the other way – that the homemade chips can end up soggy and soaked in grease, or the hole-in-the-wall may serve thawed frozen fish fillets.

Or the house special sauce may end up being a concoction whose off-center flavor profile fully explains its limited availability.

Fit versus qualification

Substantial research has shown that we substitute a difficult decision with an easier one without realizing it.  When applying for colleges, graduate schools, or a job position, we cognitively understand the importance of finding the best fit – the culture, the environment, the location, the available resources.  This is an extraordinarily difficult question partly because we do not understand what constitutes “good fit.”  It is, however, much easier to look at metrics like USNews rankings, funding, or teacher-to-student ratios.  Advisors frequently recommend that applicants “go with the gut feeling,” not the numbers.

The same is true for those on the other side of the interview table.  It is difficult to prove whether a candidate is an excellent fit to the organization; it is much easier to evaluate their test scores, grades, recommendation letters.  Selection committee members are frequently cautioned against judging solely at the scintillating “objective data” on an application.

Medical school 101 teaches aspiring physicians to treat the patient, not their x-ray or labs.  Each individual piece of objective data contributes but does not replace good – albeit imperfect and subjective – clinical judgement.

The reason why this lesson is frequently repeated in almost every cognitive discipline is simple: it is very easy to forget that we are constantly making judgments using imperfect information.  Deciding whether you are qualified for a position is a metrics game – formal education, prestigious pedigree, ample experience.  But maybe we’ve had it wrong all along – maybe qualification is a threshold and not gradient.

Determining “fit” is a more process for which qualification is but one element – will you be happy being part of this organization?  Do you see yourself performing maximally in this setting? Because we place more emphysis on those we can measure, clinicians sometimes focus on small aberrations in laboratory values while forgetting the patient, and radiologists sometimes mull over the small findings regardless of their clinical significance, just as investors are frequently faulted for focusing on the day-to-day fluctuations of the market rather than on the overarching economic trend.

For the rest of us, we sometimes put unwarranted amount of emphasis on metrics-driven qualification and forget the fit because numbers are easier to interpret than people.

Don’t eat your marshmallow

You are four years old, recently having discovered the perfect cream-white texture, the chewiness, the delicious fulfillment that is the sweet goodness of a marshmallow.

Then you are in a room, and there is just you and a single marshmallow resting silently on a plate.  You gaze intensely at it, pondering whether to reach out for gratification.  It stares back at you, quietly reading your thoughts, watching your watering mouth.  Smirking.  

You look around.  You are alone.  You want the marshmallow, and there is no one to stop you.

But there is one catch – If you can wait 15 minutes, you get two marshmallows instead.  Two!

It is often easier to promise ourselves productivity in the future than to get something done now. Economists call this common phenomenon present bias — a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow; losses in the future is better than losses now.

But we are not always so characteristically myopic.  Many scientists agree that humans are the only animals capable of envisioning a “future self,” performing behaviors seemingly counter-intuitive.  Earning a living is generally less pleasurable than spending money, but most of us accept the investment necessary for a better future.

So if you were among the group of children who managed to fend off temptation for 15 minutes, research data show that you may become more successful as an adult.

Yes, there is evidence-based correlation between a child’s ability to postpone the pleasure of eating a marshmallows and future success.

In today’s world, marshmallows are among the less common objects of temptation for children and adults alike.  Instead, we are driven by the intense desire to check text messages even when driving, the need to reduce news to sound bites, following microblogs lasting 140 characters or less.

There are established implausibility and flaws in the marshmallow study, but one underlying lesson is still valid – the skills that enables one to balance between immediate gratification and long-term reward is a component of success.  (In marginally-related news, napping – a strategy used by some children in the original study – is later thought to actually improve productivity.)

Not a sum of our parts

Pull out a hip new mobile device and people will ask you about Twitter, Vine, Pinterest (social network, 6-second videos, social scrapbook).

Spend four years in medical school, and people will approach you with aches and pains.

Put on a nice suit for a job interview, and people will be more likely to hire you over the next guy in T-shirts, even if no one ever wears suits to work at that company.

Our personal decisions have a way of exuding information – intended or otherwise – to those around us. At the same time, we constantly take in cues from body language, facial expressions, even outfit, and make subconscious preliminary assumptions about others. It’s part of our evolutionary advantage – to see danger before it pulls out a giant wooden sign saying so in bold letters.

It means being human.

Finding your niche

Finding a niche is a common advice for young professionals and new start-up companies alike.  How do you become the world expert in something?  Easy – Just make sure that “something” is so specific that few people in the world knows anything about it.

But maybe the phrase “finding your niche” is a misnomer – maybe the ideal niche career doesn’t sit in the heart of a trigger-laden cave waiting for the clever paleontologist with a famously clingy hat to discover it.

Innovation guru and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen applies his life’s work on how innovative startups defeat business giants by finding a niche market (described in Innovator’s Dilemma).  Most successful companies switched “jobs” over its career.  Mini-mills in the steel industry were not revolutionarily powerful innovations; the initial concept was to make it cheaper to make scrap metal – the throw-away market in steel operation.  But through hard work and willingness to adapt, mini-mills finally began to enter the lucrative sheet steel market.

Netflix began with the bottom of the market, holding customers only in areas that had no Blockbuster stores; today Netflix’s popularity is not so much in the initial niche concept of mail order DVDs as much as in its ability to move to the internet with the rest of the world.  Apple is best known today by its mobile devices, but as recent as 10 years ago it made money mostly on personal computers.

People are similar to businesses in one respect – our careers will take frequent turns before they settle.

For people and businesses alike, there are few truly brilliant niches in which to grab and ride into the sunset.  Instead, success is a good idea that take on additional features and become its own niche overtime.

A career is not found; it is built.  So may be it doesn’t matter too much where we start.  The key is keeping an eye on the road and be willing to make a few corners – even if a few of them are U-turns.

What happened to ‘happily ever after’?

I finished reading novel, I’m not happy with the ending, and that might be a good thing.

With the success of G. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (better known by the name of its first book, also the television namesake, A Game of Thrones), in today’s young adult fiction genre, gritty – or “realistic” – fantasy is all the rage.  And gritty fantasies do. not. end. happily.

Gritty fantasies are about being unpredictable in a way that real life might be – killing epic heroes in mundane ways. If Homer’s Odyssey were a gritty fantasy, Odysseus, after winning countless impossible battles and won against all odds may step on a rusted nail on his way disembarking his ship and die of a tetanus infection.  Lord of the Rings may end with Frodo getting forever lost, having never travelled outside the Shire.  And Ron in the Harry Potter series, being prone to magical misfires and misfortunes, may have ended up losing a few limbs in a gritty fantasy.

It is almost as if the author is trying to create a world that simply lives on parallel to our own – a world with different physical and magical laws, but somehow operates in the same ruthless and moral-neutral manner as our own.  A world where good guys don’t necessarily win, trying hard doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and being lawful doesn’t protect against a guilty verdict.

What makes a character live successfully in the world of gritty fantasy reflects that in the real world: power, money, exploitation.  No one likes to read the endings of dark, gritty novels, but there is something about the deeply unsatisfying ending that makes us ruminate about the journey itself, the little flakes of joyfulness that are scattered variously in fiction and in real life.

It’s a lesson about appreciating life in spite of the possibility for an unhappy ending.

First, take your own pulse

The brain is home to 86 billion neurons and is the organ that makes humans unique.  The ability to think and process information is long thought to be the unique evolutionary advantages humans have over other animals.

So it must be strange when such problem as “overthinking” exists.  It’s like saying that the cheetah runs too fast or that the iPad Air is too thin.

The problem of overthinking comes with stress, anxiety, or otherwise feeling the need to be in control – choking during a basketball championship, getting stage fright, or blanking out in front of a gorgeous date.

The irony is that the desire to increase control forces us to think harder, which unfortunately loosens our grips on the situation.

The natural course of thinking is towards simplicity.  With more practice, fewer neurons actually fire when we perform a learned action, and we are less aware of it.

It is when we no longer need to think about doing something that more brain capacity is opened up for creativity, for innovation, for breaking the dogma. At least one Nobel-prize winning idea was conceived during a routine car drivesongwriters often come up with new ideas in the shower, and the best comebacks to an debate usually happens on your way home.

It’s as if we have an entire other brain dedicated to perform learned tasks, so that the thinking brain can take a break and daydream.  It turns out that we do, and the system has been described and vetted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and journalists, to name a few.

In the end, although much sarcasm brims The House of God, it has one sensible rule:

Rule #3: At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.