Compare Yourself to Yourself

I’m a big proponent of using scorecards to monitor progress to well-defined objectives. Earlier in my career, I ran a software company that used scorecards to help dozens of companies around the world ensure their execution was in line with their strategy. When using scorecards, I’ve cautioned that unless you compare yourself against an external benchmark you might not know whether you’re really making progress.

This quote from the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett made me think about these long-held beliefs:

The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.

For individuals, an outer scorecard could turn into an unhealthy comparison to what others have. This might be based on unrealistic expectations (“I wish I was as tall as he is”) or material comparisons (“she has more money than I have”). While comparing yourself to others can be motivational, too often it becomes destructive and, in the extreme, can allow others to drive your behavior. To make matters worse, you often compare their best features against your average ones.

On the other hand, an inner scorecard relies on internal comparisons. You ask yourself whether you are improving your performance, making progress towards goals, or focusing on things important to you. Relying on self-motivation can be difficult for many people but, when done well, forces you to focus on your values and beliefs.

While I understand Buffet’s caution, I believe a blend of internal and external comparisons can work for both individuals and corporations. The key is to focus and to understand you can’t be the best in everything. For example, if you want to compare yourself on ten different dimensions, pick one or two you want to excel in (best in class or nearly so). For these one or two focus dimensions, use an outer scorecard to compare yourself to everyone else.

For the rest of the dimensions, an outer scorecard should show that you are above average. Instead, an inner scorecard is usually preferable for these dimensions, as its more important to show you are making continuous improvements rather than external comparisons.

In other words, for most things you should compare yourself to yourself. Except for those things you want to be best at.

Darwin Comes to Town

Charles Darwin is well-known for his contributions to the science of evolution and has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. But he certainly wasn’t infallible. Darwin claimed the effects of natural selection took hundreds of years. As he wrote in On the Origin of Species,

“We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages. And then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”

In the 1950s Oxford University’s Bernard Kettlewell conducted a landmark experiment which explained why England’s peppered moths changed from mostly white to almost all black. Over a three-year period, Kettlewell tracked hundreds of moths near the polluted city of Birmingham and in a cleaner coastal forest. Near Birmingham, black moths avoided being eaten by sparrows because they were camouflaged by soot-stained trees; in contrast, white moths were easy to spot and more readily eaten. The exact opposite occurred in the coastal woods. As Britain became more urban, moths demonstrated natural evolution by turning mostly black in less than 50 years.

In his book Darwin Comes to Town, evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen catalogues multiple examples of human-induced rapid evolutionary change (HIREC). Urban environments are very different than rural ones; they have artificial lights, are noisy, and have lots of concrete. These concentrated environments encourage genetic variations – those which increase the likelihood a species will survive – leading to a more rapid evolution of the species.

For example, there are significant genetic differences in bobcats living in Southern California, as separated by the 405 and 101 freeways. In the early 2000’s, a mange epidemic in the bobcat population north of 101 caused a high mortality rate. This produced a natural selection of bobcats more resistant to mange, but only for those living north of 101. The other nearby bobcats were less mange-resistant as they were isolated by the freeways and weren’t forced to adapt.

One of my favorite examples involves the crows of Sendai, Japan. For many years, the crows had been feeding on walnuts by dropping them from great heights. At some point during the 1980’s, some crows discovered it was easier to place a walnut under the wheel of a slowly-moving or recently-stopped car, such as at a traffic light. Over a few years, this habit spread to other crows in the city and is now commonplace.

The urban evolution of animals provides a cautionary tale as well. City lights suppress birds’ estrogen and testosterone, changing their singing, mating, and feeding behaviors. Controlled experiments have shown male blackbirds did not develop reproductive organs when they were exposed to light at night for two years. Behavioral scientist Vincent Cassone warns us about these changes: “If you see these deleterious effects in the birds, you’re likely to see them in humans in short order. The smart thing to do is to pay attention to avian life.”

Given these radical changes in animals, it’s fair to wonder how humans will adapt to cities over time.

The Best Songs For Halloween

For more than 20 years, I’ve been playing the song Dead Man’s Party by Oingo Boingo repeatedly on Halloween. My tradition started in 1996, a year after Oingo Boingo last played the song at their farewell concert on Halloween 1995. I’ve been doing this for so long that the song has become synonymous with Halloween to me.

Here’s one of the classic lines in the song:

Goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive

Spooky, right?

As seems to happen frequently, a close friend of mine recently challenged my belief that Dead Man’s Party is the quintessential Halloween song. Over a Halloween-themed dinner, we debated a list of five other great songs. It took a while but here’s what we finally agreed to:

In case you don’t know, Danny Elfman was the frontman for Oingo Boingo so it’s likely not a coincidence he’s on the list. Elfman is the composer for the soundtracks for the movies Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Clearly, spooky songs are Elfman’s forte.

Halloween is one-part entertainment and one-part scare tactics. Entertain and/or scare me by putting your favorite Halloween song in the comments.

The Many Sides of the Truth

If you were to ask people in the technology industry to name the best commercial ever made, the majority would likely cite “1984” from Apple. That commercial, which aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, introduced the Macintosh personal computer. In fact, Advertising Age ranked “1984” as first on its list of the 50 greatest commercials.

The Apple commercial is incredibly well-done but I find another from the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. to be even more memorable. Like 1984, “Points of View” also relies on black-and-white imagery and a simplistic voice-over. Watch it:

The commercial shows the same event from multiple perspectives, each with a different interpretation of what is happening. The payoff line is powerful: “It’s only when you get the whole picture you can fully understand what’s going on.” The commercial reinforces Guardian’s position of “open, honest, fearless journalism” and suggests it provides fair and balanced coverage. Balance is something we all need even more now; 30+ years after the commercial first aired.

I was reminded of the “Points of View” commercial while reading the book ‘Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality.’ The author, Hector Macdonald, doesn’t try to differentiate truth from falsehood. Rather he reminds us how dangerous it is to assume that we have the truth and others do not. We all suffer from confirmation bias – we see the world through distorted lenses which support our existing beliefs and filter out contradictory ones.

Due to this bias, Macdonald says there can be “competing truths” which are supported by three kinds of people: advocates, misinformers, and misleaders.

  • Advocates select competing truths to create a reasonably accurate impression of reality so as to achieve a specific result.
  • Misinformers innocently propagate competing truths which unintentionally distort reality.
  • Misleaders deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality they know is not true.

Most people fall in the category of misinformers, repeating information they have read/heard without stopping to ask if there are other points of view.

Disappointingly, Macdonald doesn’t provide any guidance on how to differentiate between the three types of people nor any method for judging which of the competing truths are better than others. For me, I combat fake news through rigorous fact-checking and use of the baloney detection kit. When I have a strong point of view, I try to be open-minded by asking myself what would cause me to change my opinion and then diligently look for that evidence.

Science trains us that there is a single answer to most questions. But, as the Guardian commercial vividly shows, in life there can be many sides of the truth.

Unusual Town Names In Every U.S. State

On a recent trip to Ireland, a local told me that Ireland had lots of unusually named towns. His favorite was Bastardtown in Wexford County but a close runner up is the difficult-to-pronounce and spell Muckanaghederdauhaulia. Seriously?

After I returned home, a close friend reminded me that unusual names for towns wasn’t just an Irish phenomenon. He pointed out Bridal Veil, Oregon (a popular source for wedding invitations) and Hell, Arizona (perhaps a potential location for divorce notices?). Of course, little kids’ Christmas letters get mailed to North Pole, Alaska.

This got me thinking – what are the most unusual town names in each U.S. state? Here’s my list:

There are some fantastic names on this list but each state has many others to choose from.

Do you know of an unusually named town that should be on the list? Share it in the comments below.