A story of failure

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Before I begin, I wanted to give a quick shout out to Getty Images, who has released a HUGE storehouse of images (including the one above) for public use via a direct embed code. Read this Nieman story for more. 

In his 2012 TEDGlobal talk “The Self-Organizing Computer Course,” Shimon Schocken says,

I’d like to say a few words about traditional college grading. I’m sick of it. We are obsessed with grades because we are obsessed with data, and yet grading takes away all the fun from failing, and a huge part of education is about failing. Courage, according to Churchill, is the ability to go from one defeat to another without losing enthusiasm. And [Joyce] said that mistakes are the portals of discovery. And yet we don’t tolerate mistakes, and we worship grades. So we collect your B pluses and your A minuses and we aggregate them into a number like 3.4, which is stamped on your forehead and sums up who you are. Well, in my opinion, we went too far with this nonsense, and grading became degrading. (Emphasis added).

Much has been said about failure during the past decade, which has been largely marked by an invigorated launch of innovation through design thinking. Read this guest post for Forbes written by Edward Hess of the Darden Graduate School of Business for more.

Debates about student loans, critique over the efficacy of the traditional MBA and the increased availability of free education and continued learning opportunities have helped support Schocken’s critique of the state of education as it applies to professional life.

I graduated college with a 3.93 (of 4.0) and completed my graduate work perfectly, according to the GPA standard. Prior to college, I was financially incentivized to make good grades: straight A’s earned me $100 per report card, or roughly $16 per week. Getting good grades has provided a primary way for me to earn rapid validation of my strengths, but has done very little to help me overcome my weaknesses. Anyone who has consistently received high marks or positive professional reviews has likely been frustrated with the entire corporate review process. How, we think, am I supposed to grow without receiving consistent critique of my capabilities?

Failure is a popular concept today because world-class innovators and entrepreneurs have gotten to their position today through both successes and failures. For me, failure, above and beyond success, has served to motive me to grow professionally in ways I likely never would have without it.

chris bosh fail

My most memorable failure came during my freshman year in college. An aspiring biology student in pursuit of pre-med validation with a perfect score on the calculus AP exam, I entered college by enrolling in calculus. In that first week, I recognized how woefully under-prepared I was for the course. And, on the third exam, I scored a remarkable 56 percent, marking the worst score I’d ever received on any assignment ever, much less on an exam.

That score placed me on a fence I hadn’t experienced before. If I didn’t perform spectacularly on my final exam, the likelihood of failing the entire course was very high. The worst part about this reality was that the third exam was largely representative of my growth throughout the course. Math builds upon itself, and I knew immediately that I would have a very, very difficult time turning things around by the final exam simply because I”d failed to establish any noticeable foundation.

By the time of the final, I was overwhelmed with doubt about my own learning and study habits. I questioned my ability grow in knowledge and internalize the concepts necessary to pass the exam and, subsequently, the course. I knew others in the dorm who pulled all-nighters in advance of difficult exams, and I began the evening before my test considering doing the same. By 10 p.m., I was wiped out. I was having trouble completing practice problems and felt, to a large degree, that if I couldn’t get it now, the additional hours awake would, at best, deliver diminishing returns. And, since I’d never stayed up overnight before, I decided the best course was to sleep and ensure what I did know could be recalled the next morning.

On the day of the exam, it took me exactly two hours – the maximum allowable time – to finish. Since the majority of the class took the full time as well, my confidence remained low considering I perceived everyone in that class to have a greater mastery of the content.

In the day’s following, I managed to emotionally convince myself that re-taking calculus was a good thing. And then, the grades dropped. I’d received a C+ in the course. It was my worst grade ever, and although I hadn’t received the result of my exam, it didn’t take a mathematician to calculate that a C+ for the course required at least a B on the exam.

Today, I’ve still never pulled an all-nighter in advance of a major project, though I admit to some late nights. I’ve learned that my mind most clearly functions under conditions of high stress, but only if it is fresh. I’ve also learned that my ability to execute in these high stress moments is a combination of consistent preparation and internal confidence in my own abilities.

To me, failure is only failure if you let it be so. People have the capability to learn from every experience. But, exponential growth happens when one learns through failure. We’re not called to seek out opportunities to fail, but to consider the ways in which we are challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zones day after day while making tangible connections between our diverse historical experiences and the road ahead.

Leslie Knope on NPR and other local media

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One of the things I love most about NBC’s Parks and Recreation is its spoofs of local news media. If you’ve seen the show, there’s not much else I can say to expound on the antics of Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo and Derry Murbles. For listeners of NPR, Derry Murbles’s character, the local NPR host, is absolutely priceless.

So, here are a few clips of some of my favorite spoofs.

Lance Armstrong and the risk of making brands from people

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Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France.

Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

S+G CEO David Srere said it correctly when interviewed for Ad Week’s coverage of the on-going Lance Armstrong doping scandal: “In this age of transparency, in an age where authenticity is actually making a comeback, arrogance is not a characteristic of a great brand.”

Regardless of what users say about social media, its existence has made available a variety of information about people and brands while also raising the expectations of consumers and stakeholders have about the kind of information being made available. And, when non-traditional gatekeepers become informal curators of information, the probability that harmful information will be leaked becomes rather high.

For more than a decade, Armstrong and all of those involved in the so-termed “doping ring” engaged in professional gatekeeping. And, this was done so well that support for Armstrong, his foundation and American cycling skyrocketed during the first part of the 2000s to levels that were previously unseen. The Lance Armstrong Foundation (aka Livestrong), of course, was not founded until 1997, after Armstrong survived cancer. And, during this time, millions found hope in the achievements of the LAF’s founder, whether it be as a survivor, athlete, parent or otherwise.

Now that all of the tangible evidence of Armstrong’s achievements – sponsors, his chair position with the foundation, cycling victories and prize money – are evaporating, will a bad taste be left in the mouth of all those who relied on such evidence for motivation? Unfortunately, this may likely be the case for many money-paying, sporting Americans. Though Trek, for example, did nothing wrong, the company certain grew by leaps and bounds during the years Armstrong was leading the cycling world.

Other sponsors had no choice but to cut ties with the defunct champion, but they should also have been aware of the risks involved in signing Armstrong up front. The human athlete is probably the most risky investment a company can make. Not only is the turnover high, but sports stars are already plagued by the reputations of their more “ethically challenged” counterparts (think Michael Vick or Plaxico Burress in the NFL). The higher the risk, however, the greater the reward.

Armstrong, though, is wholly separate from Vick or Burress. Aside from his sporting prowess, Armstrong sought to do good in the world. But, consumers do not react well to the dichotomy of good actions being done by morally incompetent people. It just doesn’t square with how reality should be. Armstrong should be punished and left alone, we think. There is now no good that can be done by him. His work is tainted.

It will take a long time for those who have felt the burn of this doping scandal to recover, and many will never return. The same is also true for brands, many of whose reputations were built on the backbone of Armstrong’s achievements. But, if doing good for society is the truly the mission of a brand, a person or someone like Armstrong who exists as both, the good intentions of leading cancer patients through their lives will prevail, and we would hope, be utterly indifferent to achievements gained in sport. Wise brand managers would do well to recognize that Armstrong’s achievements, even if they were untainted, would fade away like those of every other athlete, but the legacy he sought to leave with respect to cancer survival will live on.

And, we would hope that, unlike the way in which Michael Vick’s scandal and subsequent return to the league and, don’t forget, to helping those he once hurt, the mass media will do a better job of covering Armstrong’s future efforts to do good and dwell on his past actions.

A legitimate beef with Google?

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Last week, Jeffrey Katz (CEO of Nextag) wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal called “Google’s Monopoly and Internet Freedom” in which he argues that Google “has shifted from a true search site into a commerce site – a commerce site whose search algorithm favors products and services from Google and those from companies able to spend the most on advertising.” In the European Union, the search company has been given a July 2 deadline to clear up issues that have led to anti-trust allegations.

Google, according to Mr. Katz, has used its market position to become a “brand killer.”

Philosophically, I am persuaded that the internet should be as free as possible. However, I also believe that, if the technology exists, the internet should also be able to aid my searches through the use of cookies and detected trends. If I most often search for news items, I would expect, after several such searches, that my search engine should be able to detect, with relatively good probability, that my next few searches would likely be for news.

Google has, in the majority of search cases, enabled me to find what I am looking for quickly and easily. Most of the time, my result is on the first page of search. Why so efficient? I believe it has much more to do with the searcher than the engine. As a user, if I know what I’m looking for, I’m going to find it independently of the search engine in question. This is also because I know how searching works.

But, many web users are not like this. Not everyone has a definitive purpose when visiting a search engine. People do, as Mr. Katz says, search for “biking shorts” or “ovens.” And, when doing so, searchers are often directed toward sites that engage in e-commerce.  But, Katz does not have a problem with e-commerce. He has a problem with Google’s appeared subjectivity when it comes to e-commerce. Google plays favorites, Katz says, and it does so based on how much companies pay for online space.

To combat the unfairness created in the search market by the giant, Katz offers three suggestions, none of which is truly able reinvent the way the web operates. In truth, Google cannot be blamed for its market share. Google captured the internet moment and rendered services users wanted. Similar to other media companies, Google began to sell advertisements and it used its engine to drive users to its other products – maps, place, shopping, etc. Of course, if you’ve watched television for any period of time,  you know that networks do the same thing. They advertise their own shows, not those of other networks, and they do this in a targeted fashion, advertising sports during sports, drama during drama, comedy during comedy.

So, for those like Mr. Katz who seek to keep the web free, perhaps the correct strategy is not to fight the giants, but empower the individual user. Groups with knowledge of the inner-workings of search algorithms should deliver education on how to recognize and ignore search bias when it occurs. While an opinion article in a major newspaper can encourage some public response, anyone who has studied human communication or models of persuasion knows that it’s very difficult to push readers toward action. All-told, the opinion piece probably won’t encourage anything but a few other blog posts like this one.

Does Mr. Katz have a legitimate beef with Google?

Since beginning this post, Google has responded in its own right. Here is a short summary of the response, via CNET:

Our algorithms rank results based only on what the most relevant answers are for users — which might be a direct answer or a competitor’s Web site. Our ads and commercial experiences are clearly labeled and distinct from the unpaid results, and we recently announced new improvements to labeling of shopping results. This is in contrast to most comparison shopping sites, which receive payment from merchants but often don’t clearly label search results as being influenced by payment.

More than anything, this debate seems to reveal a deeper internal feud that has been represented by Facebook over the past few years: privacy. We’re Americans. This means that we deserve the best technology available. How else do you explain the tendency of consumers to camp out in order to be one of the first owners of an iPad? This also means that, once we have our technologies safely at home and somewhat customized to adhere to our every wish, we expect the technologies, such as search algorithms produced by Google, to back off and quit collecting data. And why wouldn’t we? Privacy should be had without a hitch.

Unfortunately, the only way to achieve this is to leave America for a remote, less technologically enabled wilderness.

Pop culture and poverty

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I’ve been tasked with writing and presenting a paper at this year’s Poverty Summit about the interaction of popular culture and poverty. Here’s my thinking:

Do you know Samantha Brown? Regardless of your answer, please watch the video below.

Brown is just one of the many folks working for Scripps, the parent company for such popular networks as Food Network, Cooking Channel, and Brown’s home, Travel Channel. Many of the shows on these networks, especially Brown’s, highlight some of the ritziest of the ritzy culture in some of the most luxurious areas of the world. And, their networks spend a good chunk of change doing so. Keeping people relaxed, happy, and ever vicariously living their lives through Brown.

So, my question is, What effect, if any, does this sort of television have on individuals’ levels of response to poverty? I wonder if, on a grand scale, people are less aware of the flooding in Pakistan or the still terrible conditions in Haiti. Does this sort of television decrease the time it takes for us to experience disaster fatigue? On the local level, how unlikely are we to see poverty in our own cities, states and nations when we spend more time watching television that glorifies luxurious living?

All these questions need to be answered.

Writing again – for folks like me, but mostly just me

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As much as I’d hoped it wouldn’t, the writing halted once it was no longer required for class (back in May). And, as fall courses rapidly approach, the need to once again begin writing (publicly, that is) has hit me head on. Just yesterday, I submitted an essay entry into an Anthony Bourdain contest, which requires people to vote on your essay. I have a feeling the contest is as much about writing as it is about cooking, both of which probably trump the actual voting. But, you may click here and vote if you so desire.

Another reason I’ve moved back to the keys and quill is because I’ll soon have to write a thesis – one I will hope and pray is somewhat compressible to normal folks. And, as anyone who has been in this position knows, picking a topic is as time consuming as the research, especially when the pressure to be original only increases as time fades away. I also have a horrible feeling that the “original” ideas I’m coming up with are already being researched, but have not been published yet.

My first topic choice is too continue research into the various phenomena associated with religion and the media. I’ve written two papers in this vain that have absolutely nothing do with one another. This only confuses me more because I’m interested in both the relationship between science and religion (and then the mediating effects of the media), and in religion and its response to new technology.

Finally, there’s a fear that any research I do, even if it is original, will simply be following trends. And I’d rather be a trend setter. I know this is the lamentation of most, if not all, writers, and therefore, if anyone out there has advice for how to overcome these reservations, it would be much appreciated.

The martyrdom of news

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I’m pulling out the Christian history and theology readers for this one. Sometime between the first and second centuries, a Christian man named Polycarp was supposedly burned alive for his beliefs. The exact reason for his being targeted is unknown, but Chidester (2000) argues he was most likely indited on charges of treason and atheism, consistent with the common charges against religious extremism of the time (77).

Here’s the story from Chidester’s point of view taken from “Martyrdom of Polycarp“:

The Roman governor offered him a way out. “Take the oath,” he said, “and I will let you go.” Polycarp refused…. When his interrogators threatened him with death by fire, Polycarp responded, “The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little.”

Regardless of our religious convictions, most all of us have morals or point of views we claim to live by. And, it seems like a very heroic act to stand up for those morals in a way that allows others to see our commitment and possibly become an activist as well. This is why I’m partly surprised that Roxana Saberi’s actions while in Iran’s Evin prison are being called “heroic,” at least by CNN’s morning show.

Saberi’s story is truly worth listening to, and the chapter of her book on NPR’s Web site made my heart pound within the first few paragraphs. When in prison, she was provided with the same options given to Polycarp as he was threatened with death by the Roman government – recant or be killed.

And recant she did, offering up a false confession for fear of loosing her life and the consequences it would have for so many loved ones. Soon, however, she recognized the confession did not align with who she was, and she admitted the lie to her captors – a decision many of us call “heroic” because we couldn’t fathom acting the same way.

What’s most interesting about this story is that Saberi wasn’t arrested for religious fanaticism or activist idealism, but for being a journalist. At what point did being a journalist become a threat to our livelihood? And, at what point did practicing journalism become a kind of religion?

It’s becoming increasingly obvious to those of us in the Western world that standards of information and objectivity are not always shared by others in the same way that Western Christian doctrines are foreign and at times threatening to the lives of others abroad.

So, do we retreat as many in Christianity did during the early persecutions, or do we journalists take a lesson from Polycarp and Saberi and remind everyone that the captors’ actions last only an hour while our stories will reveal the truth? Sure this sounds idealistic, but Polycarp and Saberi are still telling their stories, and I think we can all judge for ourselves who are the heroes of their tales.

Chidester, D. (2000). Christianity: A global history. New York: HarperCollins.