The London taxi driver study – The 200 words project

In a lengthy study, Eleanor Maguire and Katherine Woollett from the neuroimaging center at University College London followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (people who weren’t in training). Over time, they took snapshots of their brain structure using MRI and studied their performance on memory tasks.

The trainee taxi drivers had to memorize a map of London with all 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks to pass; one of the toughest qualification tests in the world. As a result, only 39 of the trainee taxi drivers passed the test.

The researchers famously saw a greater volume of cells in the successful drivers’ hippocampus. This is the area of the brain associated with spatial memory. Over time, it also showed that the longer the driver’s experience, the larger the hippocampus. And, on the flip side, as time passed after a driver retired, the hippocampus shrunk to normal size.

This hippocampus study famously pushed us to consider the hypothesis that our brains develop with exercise and are not “fixed” as was previously assumed.

So, all this leads us to a big question we’ll tackle next week. Did the taxi drivers who passed have some innate talent or genetic predisposition that enabled them to pass the test?

The human brain remains ‘plastic‘ even in adult life, allowing it to adapt when we learn new tasks. – Eleanor Maguire


Source and thanks to: Peak by Anders Ericsson, The Hippocampus study, Wired’s article on the study

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Giving an A – The 200 words project

In his graduate class at the New England Conservatory, Benjamin Zander gives each of his students an “A” at the beginning of the year and asks them to write a letter describing who they will have become by the following May when the class ends. Teachers, and society at large, he notes, tend to treat “A” students quite differently from students who are given a C minus.

So, when students are given an unconditional ‘A’ in the first class of the year, it makes the students and the teacher committed partners on a fascinating and joyful journey, where, for the time being, standards are in the background, and there is no striving — just engagement, participation, and expression. Mistakes became indicators of that which needed attention, and no longer carried any stigma. Painful comparisons to others melt away. And, rather than focusing on pleasing the teacher, each student explored their own talent, and expanded their own artistry. They are liberated from fear and their performance is likely to surprise and delight their teachers, themselves and all who hear them.

The question for us – do we start teaching/mentoring/parenting by giving the other person an A? What effect would that have?

The practice of giving an A transports your relationships from the world of measurement into the universe of possibility. This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into. – Ben Zander


Source and thanks to: The Art of Possibility by Ben and Roz Zander

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Ray Dalio investment autopsy – The 200 words project

In 1975, at the age of 26, Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater Associates – a hedge fund.

6 years in, Dalio felt the debt levels in the government pointed to the fact that the US was on the brink of a recession. So, he began betting on it and publicizing it. But, to Dalio’s surprise, the stock market surged and it led to a tremendous embarrassment and loss of fortune.

To make sure that never happened again, he began keeping detailed records of every trade he made and began noting what happened with every investment – learning from both his success and painful losses. As Dalio puts it, pain + success = progress. As he reflected on these investments, he kept finding “rules” that governed how markets worked and kept refining it. At Bridgewater, he built a culture of “radical transparency” challenging his employees to question his decision making and assumptions.

As author Al Pitampalli observes in his book, Persuadable – “Does he have an ego? Absolutely. Many say his is over-sized. However, he realizes that having false self-confidence would cost a lot.”

In essence, Dalio built his success by being very persuadable to new assumptions and data with an inspiring process.

(In case you haven’t watched it, his video on “How the economic machine works” comes highly recommended)

Ask yourself – how much do you let what you wish to be true stand in the way of seeing what is really true? – Ray Dalio


Source and thanks to: Persuadable by Al Pitampalli, Principles by Ray Dalio

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Extreme preparation – The 200 words project

Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott had contrasting approaches in their race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott hoped for the best-case scenario. He had one thermometer and one ton of food for 17 men for the trip. He also stashed supplies for the return journey in one spot marked by a single flag (easily missed if they went off course). Amundsen, on the other hand, prepared for every scenario with multiple thermometers, three tons of food and planted 20 markers around their return supplies. Roald Amundsen exemplified extreme preparation and read obsessively for his journey whereas Robert Falcon Scott did the bare minimum.

While Amundsen’s team made history, Robert Scott’s team tragically died due to fatigue, hunger and frostbite.

In their analysis of great businesses and leaders, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen found that the ones that executed most successfully did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.

As simple as this sounds, perhaps it is worth asking ourselves before our next meeting – did we do the reading?

Outstanding leaders embrace a paradox of control and non-control. On the one hand, they understand that they face continuous uncertainty and that they cannot control, and cannot accurately predict, significant aspects of the world around them. On the other hand, they reject the idea that forces outside their control or chance events will determine their results; they accept full responsibility for their own fate. – Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, Great By Choice


Source and thanks to: Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Lady Gaga’s product advice – The 200 words project

A few years ago, one of YouTube’s product leads was giving Lady Gaga a private look at some proposed UX revisions. Lady Gaga was visiting Google to be interviewed and was a YouTube power user. The team had mocked up a few designs – one of which that had a “premium” style look.

Immediately, Lady Gaga stopped the product manager and said, “No, keep YouTube looking shitty.”

Gaga elaborated to explain that, as a community product, it was important that YouTube didn’t lose the authenticity of the product in an effort to upgrade the look and feel. A creator or fan needed to feel like their “fingerprints” could be left on the site and that the site would be different for their participation. Incrementing a view count, commenting to a creator, “liking” a video, leaving a response – all of these features were meant to increase the feeling of accessibility and engagement and to allow folks to feel “I WAS HERE AND I MATTER.”

Keep usability separate from shine. And, remember who or what you are optimizing for. Thanks Lady Gaga.

Looking “shitty” isn’t an excuse for poor design but it is important to remember that product design is about producing emotion and spurring actions. Product designs optimize for usability and not how they look when framed and hung on a wall. – Hunter Walk


Source and thanks to: VC Hunter Walk’s blog

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Achievement vs. potential – The 200 words project

Researchers tested two different Facebook ads for the same comedian. Half the ads said the comedian, Kevin Shea, “Could be the next big thing.” The other half said, “He is the next big thing.” The first ad generated far more click-throughs and likes than the second.”
Studies around candidates applying for new jobs showed that applicants had better chances emphasizing potential.

People often find potential more interesting than accomplishment because it’s more uncertain, the researchers argued. That uncertainty can lead people to think more deeply about the person they’re evaluating. The more intensive processing that is required can lead to rationalizing by generating more and better reasons as to why the person is a good choice.

The implication? When selling our skills, we should consider emphasizing our potential as much or more than our past achievements. Potential is interesting.

The potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. – Dan Pink, To Sell is Human


Source and thanks to: To Sell is Human by Dan Pink, Original study by Michael Norton (HBS), Zakary Tormala (Stanford), Jayson Jia (Stanford)

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Monsters in the basement – The 200 words project

When Fred Kofman’s son asked him to accompany him to the basement, Fred asked him why he needed company. He said – “Dad, I’m scared of monsters.”

Fred’s initial instinct was to question the emotion of fear his son was feeling. But, he realized that if he believed there were monsters, he would be scared too. So, he asked his son why he didn’t see monsters when he went down. His son responded – “They go away when you grow up.” :)

In his work as an executive coach at leading companies all over the world, Fred finds that we generally respond to difficult emotions by telling people to suppress them. Telling someone “don’t be afraid” or “don’t feel bad” isn’t helpful. We’re effectively saying – “Push it away as it makes me uncomfortable.” And, bottling emotions up is akin to coiling a spring – they only come back with stronger force.

Difficult emotions are simply reactions to beliefs. Instead of challenging them, we must allow them to be felt. Then, we can discuss or challenge the beliefs.

To manage emotions, we have to learn to be comfortable with them and then inquire to the source of them. – Fred Kofman


Source and thanks to: Conscious Business by Fred Kofman

Lessons learnt from the sugar conspiracy – The 200 words project

(continued from parts 1, 2, 3).  I took away a few lessons from the sugar conspiracy –

1. A calorie is not a calorie – thanks Dr Lustig.

2. Avoiding confirmation bias is critical to getting to the truth. A habit of seeking out disconfirming evidence is among the best habits we can develop.

3. A large data set is useless if experiment design and analysis is flawed.

4. If you build it, make sure you do a good job selling it. To bring about change, ideas need to be adopted.

5. Be mindful of the politics surrounding important decisions. As this story demonstrates, strong personalities who refuse to listen to reason can cause decades worth of collateral damage.

6. When you are presented with research based results on topics like nutrition, take the time to understand the principles and run a gut check.

As I write this, I’d like to salute John Yudkin and Robert Adkins for being well ahead of their time. While they didn’t get the recognition they deserved, they serve as role models for us to strip issues down to basic principles and reason our way to understanding how things work.

And, thanks to Ian Leslie for a fantastic article.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. – Max Planck


Source and thanks to: The Sugar Conspiracy by Ian Leslie in the Guardian

Thanks to Fenny’s world for the image

The sugar conspiracy – The 200 words project

(continued from parts 1, 2 – this is part of a 4 part series based on a wonderful piece of scientific reporting on “The Guardian” about a war among nutritionists that has affected our generation in more ways than we know).

Knowing that John Yudkin posed a hypothesis about sugar that challenged his own hypothesis about fat being the enemy, Ancel Keys went on a political offensive. Yudkin was a mild-mannered man, unskilled in the art of political combat. Over time, Keys’ campaign to discredit Yudkin worked – his book “Pure, White and Deadly” was rubbished as science fiction and he died in 1995 – a disappointed and forgotten man. Robert Adkins, a Cardiologist, who recommended a high-fat, low carb diet also became a hate figure thanks to the Ancel Keys movement.

In the last decade, a collection of scientists led by Robert Lustig have re-invigorated research on the effect of sugars and awareness has been on the rise. However, even in 2015, the US dietary guidelines didn’t incorporate the new research. Steven Nissen, chairman of Cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, called the new guidelines “an evidence-free zone.”

Yudkin once said that if only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned.

It is only now that that message is reaching the collective consciousness.

The final edition with lessons learnt coming up next week.

When I asked Lustig why he was the first researcher in years to focus on the dangers of sugar, he answered: “John Yudkin. They took him down so severely – so severely – that nobody wanted to attempt it on their own. – Ian Leslie

The sugar conspiracyThanks to Pete Gamlen for the image


Source and thanks to: The Sugar Conspiracy by Ian Leslie in the Guardian, more about Robert Lustig here

The fat hypothesis – Part II – The 200 words project

(Continued from “The Fat Hypothesis – Part 1‘)

Despite making fat the enemy in the 1980s, replacing butter with margarine and eggs with muesli, it emerged the obesity rates in the US and UK more than doubled in 20 years.

It turns out that despite its monumental stature, the Ancel Keys 7 Countries Study was horribly constructed. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that Keys chose the 7 countries because he suspected they would support his hypothesis (he omitted France and Germany from a list of European countries presumably knowing they had low hard disease rates despite saturated fats rich diet). And, when the study’s lead Italian researcher, Alessandro Menotti, went back to the data, he found that the food that correlated most closely with deaths from heart disease was not saturated fat, but sugar.

The most prominent doubter of Keys’ fat vilification drive was John Yudkin, then the UK’s leading nutritionist, who noted that while humans have always been carnivorous, sugar – a pure carbohydrate stripped off fiber and nutrition – had only become part of our diets recently. Saturated fats, by contrast, are so intimately bound up with our evolution that they are abundantly present in breast milk.

Unfortunately, Keys was not open to debate.. (more next week)

fat hypothesisThanks to Lane Kenworthy for the image

If Yudkin published a paper, Keys would excoriate it, and him. He called Yudkin’s theory “a mountain of nonsense”, and accused him of issuing “propaganda” for the meat and dairy industries. – Ian Leslie


Source and thanks to: The Sugar Conspiracy by Ian Leslie in the Guardian – a fantastic piece of journalism that inspired this 4 part series.