The commencement speech problem

Many of us picture commencement speakers giving variations of the “Take more risks, work hard, do good” speech. The good news is that the proportion of speeches that contain such advice seems to be going down. Understanding why is useful for all of us as we often end up giving others advice from time-to-time.

The trouble with generic advice is that it doesn’t work for a large group of people. Some people need to take more risks while others don’t. Some folks need to work harder to earn their privilege while others need to be careful about avoiding burn out. Such advice is easy to give – but is generally flawed because it is either self serving (quit college and start companies so I can invest in the best of them) or designed for people similar to the advice giver.

While the best advice is given once you understand a person and their proclivities, that doesn’t scale. The better approach, then, is to focus on principles. For example, a career principle might be to – invest in understanding yourself and use that understanding to make better decisions and develop good judgment.

The challenge with principles is that getting to them takes considerable thought – the sort that should be a pre-requisite to giving advice.

(H/T Julia Galef, Shripriya Mahesh for notes/discussions on this)

Skipping the coffee queue

A close someone had set up a meeting with someone she’d never met to discuss potential career opportunities. These kinds of meetings tend to be uncomfortable for most people. So, she got to their meeting point well ahead of time. As she was waiting, she decided to ask the person she was meeting what kind of coffee they’d like. A few minutes before their meeting time, she got on the queue and bought coffee for both of them.

Now, by the time the person came, the coffee was hot and ready. They skipped the awkward small talk while standing in the queue and ended up having a really nice discussion.

Would they have had a good discussion even if they spent those 5 odd minutes in the queue? Probably. But, did doing this help? Absolutely.

Sometimes, small amounts of thoughtfulness can make a big difference in changing the environment and showing that you care. And, these opportunities to be thoughtful are rife in every day interactions. Consider how many times you have met people for coffee. I certainly found myself reflecting at the many missed opportunities in the past where I could have done something like this.

In the long run, we don’t always have the opportunity to do big things for people. But, we almost certainly have the opportunity to do small things with extraordinary care.

IQ versus DOT

Growing up, we’re often told implicitly that raw intelligence/IQ or intelligence quotient is a big deal. There are, however, two things we aren’t told.

First, after a point, IQ actually doesn’t matter all that much. Some of the greatest scientists of all times didn’t possess high IQs.

Second, in a battle between raw intelligence and a combination of discipline, organization and thoughtfulness (let’s call them DOT), DOT nearly always wins. And, this is in every measure – from building a successful career to, perhaps the most important, having a good life.

And, the best part? IQ is something we are born with. Discipline, organization and thoughtfulness, on the other hand, are traits we build – much like building our biceps.

And, as far as muscles go, they don’t get more powerful than those.