Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

The Lowdown on Luck

“Good luck!”

It’s a common expression in our lexicon. Obviously, on a gut level we have some sense of the importance of luck—that is, until things go our way. Suddenly, we relegate luck to the cheap seats as we bask in the spotlight, prepared to take full credit for our superior decision-making.

Take the Quaker Oats Corporation, for example.

In 1983, the CEO of Quaker Oats, William Smithburg, sampled some of an up-and-coming sports drink and decided to acquire the company. That beverage was Gatorade, and it was the beginning of a goldmine for Quaker Oats.

So when Smithburg decided to buy Snapple in 1994 for $1.8 billion, he was unchallenged from within his organization. This was the Gatorade guy, after all; surely he knew what he was talking about. Media pundits disagreed, lambasting the decision before the deal was even struck.

Did Smithburg’s superior decision-making prove them wrong? Well, no.

Fast forward 3 years and Quaker Oats was desperately unloading Snapple at a loss of $1.5 billion dollars. To this day, it is widely seen as one of the worst decisions in business history— quite a legacy.

So how could Smithburg screw up so badly? How should we understand what happened at Quaker Oats, polar opposite results from the same CEO?

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has the answer. And for that answer, we must turn to the Israeli Air Force.

For a long time, the Israeli Air Force trained its pilots with the assumption that negative feedback trumped positive. After all, when a trainee pilot was punished for a botched maneuver, the next attempt tended to go better. When that same trainee executed a maneuver perfectly and received praise, their next attempt was generally not as good.

Kahneman was the first to realize that this wasn’t a case of the stick working better than the carrot. It was simple statistics at play.

We all love those magic moments where we outshine our normal capabilities. But there’s a reason your average is your average. So chances are that a better-than-usual outcome is almost certainly going to be followed by something lackluster. The opposite is true as well; if you find yourself performing much worse than usual, the odds favor an eventual upswing.

It’s an old concept in statistics. In the 19th century, Sir Frances Galton found that the children of unusually tall people tended to be a little shorter than their parents, and unusually short parents tended to have children taller than themselves. He referred to this phenomenon as “regression to the mean.”

Kahneman takes this concept beyond height and into the messier real world.

No matter how well you prepare, most enterprises involve a degree of chance. A brilliant business idea may still fail in a lousy economy. An untalented singer might still net a record deal by happening to charm the right person at the right time.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman repeatedly demonstrates that much of our lives are shaped by random events beyond our understanding or control.

Was William Smithburg’s gut decision to buy Gatorade a stroke of leadership genius? Or did he happen to taste the right stuff at the right time?

Kahneman was once asked about his definition of success. He famously replied, “Success = talent + luck, and great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck.”

In other words, luck is not some bit player. It’s an integral part of the human experience, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Kahneman showed luck, good or bad, pretty much guarantees that regression to the mean is always waiting to take center stage.

The Brain’s Allergy to the Big Picture

Do you suffer from Systems Blindness? You almost certainly do.

The problem is that your brain’s hardwiring is designed primarily to keep you alive. Which is fair. But as a result, we specialize in snap-second judgments.

Our living strategy is largely built on using association to connect causes and effects, which in turn drives our decision-making. See a school bully in action and we go out of our way to avoid him. Watch a fellow office worker grown lean through jogging and we might be tempted to hit the pavement ourselves in the morning. In short, we observe, draw inferences and plot our course. This strategy has served humanity well; after all, there are over 7 billion of us on the planet.

Individually, we are amazing at making day-to-day decisions that afford us a certain amount of comfort. But what happens when our comfort is besieged by a huge, unnervingly complicated system like weather or traffic? Here is where Daniel Goleman in his new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, weighs in.

Take traffic, for example. When we’re stuck in rush hour, we might be tempted to think the way my diminutive little grandmother used to: “Why don’t all these damn people stay home?” Aside from the fact that, by her very presence, she is contributing to the problem, this is probably an issue of oversimplification. Too many people = traffic jam.

We might be tempted to answer my grandmother with, “What we really need is more roadways.” Engaging in this kind of reasoning is known as the “illusion of explanatory depth,” Goleman explains. “…we feel confidence in our understanding of a complex system, but in reality have just superficial knowledge.”

We don’t realize, for instance, that access to new highways can energize nearby industry, which can grow communities, which in turn supports restaurants, shopping, and recreation, thereby attracting even more families, which puts more people like my grandmother on the road, which of course means more traffic jams.

Our brains understand cause and effect at a local level, but as the causes and effects grow larger and more distant, our reasoning suffers. The effect of slamming your fingers in a car door is pretty immediate: the amygdala, the fear center of your brain, fires off a warning and your sensory system administers a shot of pain. Global warming, on the other hand, operates on an almost impossible level of remove.

We are designed to create short-term solutions, and as our societies have grown larger and more complex, system blindness becomes increasingly more dangerous. I can’t see the seas rise as the result of a carbon-loaded atmosphere, so I don’t merely dismiss the impending long-term threat, my amygdala is as complacent as the Maytag repair man.

Luckily, as our ability to generate and analyze large quantities of data has improved, our awareness of systems is growing too. Google’s foray into plotting flu epidemics is but one example.

Hopefully the more data mining that takes place for things like global climate change, the more each of us will begin to consider that we are part of something far larger than the hunk of land on which we live and drive. In the meantime, in regards to our carbon footprint, maybe my grandmother was onto something. “Why don’t all these damn people stay home?”

The Morality Lag: Smartphones and Dumb Feelings

Your smartphone has more computing power than the computer that took Neil Armstrong and crew to the moon. And this is only one of the staggering technological advancements we’ve made in the last 50 years.

Have you ever wondered why technological advancements, a byproduct of the analytical brain, have far outrun our ability to create any kind of significant improvements in our emotional governance? Wars, murder, and mayhem have gone unabated for thousands of years, and yet this week Apple announced the introduction of a new iPhone with fingerprint recognition.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Mark Twain said something along the lines that any newspaper publisher, regardless of the era, could always bank on headlines like “Trouble in the Middle East” and “Revolution in South America”. Twain was uncanny about the consistency of humanity’s inability to live and let live.

So why have our emotional brains hit a roadblock? Why haven’t we wiped out jealously, avarice and greed the way we knocked out polio? More importantly, when can we expect the next big upgrade to the emotional brain?

Sadly, not any day soon. The brain’s emotional decision-making powers have their roots firmly entwined in our most primitive survival instincts. There is a reason why neuroscientists refer to this part of the brain as our reptilian brain: we share this subcortical structure with the creatures found in the Florida Everglades. The drive to survive trumps just about every other kind of judgment, including the moral ones.

Individually, some may attain enlightenment, but it’s not exactly a product that can be monetized like Tang. And so collectively, we have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about the way emotions wreak havoc on our everyday lives.

It feels much better for us to share in, and highlight technological advancements. Take for example the second sentence in this post:”And this is only one of the staggering technological advancements we’ve made in the last 50 years.” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have much to do with the creation of the smartphone.

Technological advancements are built on the backs of the very special few. Although we all enjoy the latest creations that come in the form of cameras that are phones or phones that are cameras, who among the unwashed masses is capable of developing the next great innovation?

Let’s face it, most of us are essentially still cave people. We may wear nicer clothes, but if a cataclysmic event rendered electricity, and therefore our microwave ovens, useless, we’d pay to have one of our ancient relatives from the Chauvet Cave in Southern France explain how to start a fire without propane or matches.

A handful of impressive achievements have altered the way we live our lives, but they haven’t fundamentally altered who we are. We are the same people who engaged in war over territory and treasure since recorded time. Our weapons may have improved, but our intentions haven’t.

It’s easy to conflate technological leaps with some improvement in human pathos. They have a connection, but by no means are they the same thing.

We often give ourselves credit for having evolved far more than we actually have. It’s theorized that our current brain system have been around for roughly 40,000 years, apparently without fundamental change.

Like the saying goes, “Same story, different day.”

One can confirm this by simply gazing at the next heartbreaking newspaper headline.

After all, it’s just one click away on your new smartphone.

Cause and Correlation, or the Pirate Problem


As you can see from the above graph, global warming is pirate-based.  It’s something I think we all suspected, but were hesitant to advance until the facts could be summarized in a handy graphic.

There is something about information delivered via graph that instantly lends an air of unassailable authority. The person trapped in the cube next to you, or even the guy down at the gas station couldn’t possibly carry the credibility of a simple graph.

It is an axiom of business that any presenter worth his or her salt is going to fill their PowerPoint with charts and graphs. The more the better, and the more oblique and difficult to read the best. Data delivered with a graph says “Here is the evidence, plain and simple. Let the ascending and descending lines tell you the story.”

The problem with the story, as with the graph above, is that we aren’t just suckered into believing correlation implies causality. We start thinking correlation is causality. Governments, businesses and individuals make this mistake on a daily basis. It’s impossible to calculate the frequency or the magnitude of the resulting financial loss, but it’s enormous.

We all know the crowing of the rooster doesn’t cause the sun to rise. But when rates of breast or prostate cancer is associated with soymilk, or some new drug, it can frequently drive us towards some definitive action, even though the connection of data points might in actuality be more rooster/sun than cause/effect.

The correlation/causality problem goes back a long way. The early human brain, confronted by the rustling of the bush, might naturally assume it was a tiger and not the wind. Erring on the side of safety could make the difference between life and death. Assuming correlation as causality was a small price to pay. This evolution based brain bias is still part of our biology today.

Here are four questions worth considering the next time you’re faced with the seductive whisperings of an X-axis.

1. Where do the represented data points come from?  Groups and individuals might be selectively mining the facts based on their own private agenda.

2. What do the data points represent?  Tiny samples can lead to casual conclusions that would be dismissed in a more robust survey population

3. Was this a blind study? A control group gives you some yardstick by which to judge the rest of the information.

4. Could other factors be in play?  This is probably the most abused problem with the correlation/causality mix-up. Maybe there is some relation between the X axis and the Y axis, but they could just as easily be responding to some other, third influence.

In the case of the rooster/sun problem, you’d want to consider both planetary revolution and the circadian rhythms of diurnal animals. (Additionally, if you’ve ever been on a farm, you’ll know that while roosters do crow at daybreak, those feathery little jerks will also sound their alarm in the middle of the night.)

So the next time some newscaster announces that eating peanut butter has “been linked to” autism, think back to our little graph. And remember: despite the insistence of Pastafarians everywhere (a group inspired by a modern-day Russell’s teapot analogy), most meteorologists agree that pirates have next to no effect on the climate.

Fans of buccaneers, privateers, and skallywags can let out a “Yarr!” of relief.

Crayon Eaters, The Dude, and What’s Wrong With American Politics

After I graduated from college, I spent the first seven years of my professional career teaching school. If you think back to your own school days, you probably remember there was always one kid sitting in the back, not quite with the program, off on a secluded mental island where white sands and a steady sea breeze allowed him to float downwind from the cacophony of classroom chatter, unrestrained flatulence and the general din of anything I might be trying to teach. His unique approach also made it acceptable to eat a crayon from time to time, usually the red ones. (“Ah,” you say, “yeah, I remember that kid…”) Continue reading

Coin Flips, Constipation, and Presidential Politics

You flip a coin three times in a row. All three times, it comes up heads. How do you predict the next toss would land? The pessimist will suggest that the pattern is bound to break. Their best guess is tails. The optimist will think, “Hey, I’m on a roll! Heads all the way, baby!”

Of course, the actual answer in both cases is always the same: 50/50 for heads or tails.

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The Burstiness of Shuffle Mode

When techno wizard Steve Jobs and his crew first brought us the iPod, it came pre-installed with a nifty program called ‘shuffle mode.’ This, of course, was designed to free your playlist from the monotony of memorized order. (Your brain is really good at identifying and then getting bored with the tedium of pattern. Case in point: those Empire carpet commercials.)

Then the complaint calls started to to flood in. “Hey, my shuffle function is busted,” people would say. “What gives?” That’s when Apple knew they had a problem.

Was their shiny new gizmo malfunctioning? Hardly; Apple’s problem was it was working too well.

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The Rise and Fall of Caleb Weatherbee, or Punditry, Prognosticators, and Poblano

So imagine it’s 1826 and you want to know what the weather will be doing tomorrow. You really have one choice: pull out your trusty Farmer’s Almanac and get down to business.

The Almanac is still around today. As Sandy Duncan, managing editor, says, “The formula we use dates back to 1818. It is a mathematical and astronomical formula that takes sunspot activity, tidal action of the moon and position of the planets into consideration. The complete formula is known only by our weather prognosticator: Caleb Weatherbee.”

Sounds pretty cool. There’s only one problem: analysis shows that its accuracy falls in the 50/50 range. That is to say, garden variety coin toss territory.

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The Mouth: The Brain’s Indispensable Third Hand

One day, back when my son was in the crawling phase, he honed in my wife’s grandmother’s antique comb and brush set. I found him delightedly motoring around the living room floor clutching the fragile comb in one hand and brush in the other. Recognizing that taking these away would launch him into tears, I devised a plan.

I picked up his favorite ball, got down on my hands and knees and presented him with the new option. I figured he’d undoubtedly chose the ball and surrender one item of his current booty. Then I simply had to find one more toy, repeat the process and I would come away with both heirlooms, tear-free, allowing general happiness and world peace to ensue.

Clever, right? However. Continue reading