The lazy man’s way to business success

by Daniel on September 11, 2007

I’ve just realised that as well as the new academic year for PhD programs, it’s also graduate intake season in the world of proper jobs, and thus a new generation of CT readers will be entering the workforce. And thus, my “Advice to a Young Person”. I only actually have one tip.

Basically it’s this. If you are a young man or woman of fair-to-middling ability, or even a borderline dullard, but you want to get a reputation as an uncommonly bright and perspicacious thinker, it’s really not that hard to do. The secret weapon is this: take an interest in what happens in other countries.

It’s really quite unusual to find an important issue on which international comparisons aren’t worth knowing about. Even in situations which look purely domestic, you can often get an entirely new perspective on things by looking at your fundamental assumptions in the light of what happens overseas. There are few sights sweeter than the look on someone’s face after they’ve confidently proclaimed something to be impossible, only to be informed that they’ve been doing things that way in Australia for the last twenty years.

It’s also a great way to generate ideas; it’s both easier than coming up with something yourself, and more likely to succeed, to plagiarise something that’s already worked well in a different time zone. So few people bother to keep up with the international news that one doesn’t even need to be an expert in these things; simply reading the relevant pages of your daily newspaper will probably do, whereas reading the superficially more “relevant” domestic or business pages will usually just tell you a load of crap you know already, and tell it wrong.

So my advice to a young businessperson is to save ten minutes a day by not reading the domestic news, and spend them on reading the international news properly. Within six months of the graduate program you’ll see I’m right, not least because at least once or twice you’ll quite likely be asked to prepared an analysis of international comparisons by a senior executive who got where he is by following my method.

PS: another great tip is never put question marks on your Powerpoint slides, it always looks really weak.

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{ 47 comments }

1

stostosto 09.11.07 at 8:27 am

Ah, the old Dutch way of thinking.

2

Tracy W 09.11.07 at 8:44 am

Also learn history. I once spent two years answering questions on innovation and IP on the basis of a 50 minute lecture at university on the history of IP. Whenever someone said something about IP, I would say “Of course, the initial reason for patents was not to provide a direct incentive to innovate, but insteaad an incentive to reveal what you had learnt, so it could be commonly known” and everyone would regard me as having made a deep and profound contribution.

3

chris y 09.11.07 at 8:52 am

Also, make sure your historical knowledge is in the appropriate field, so you don’t spend the first ten minutes of a discussion about IP wondering what all this has to do with Internet Protocol.

4

ejh 09.11.07 at 8:58 am

Old hat. They’ve been giving this advice in Finland for thirty years.

5

fjm 09.11.07 at 9:00 am

I’d settle for “take an interest”. In anything.

I can always predict which of my students (most of whom are quite poorly educated) will do well. The ones who take an interest, taken an interest in anything, will do well. The ones who are always bored, and can’t see “the relevance” will not.

6

dsquared 09.11.07 at 9:00 am

As Ejh correctly notes, the other advantage of my method is that if you take advantage of other people’s ignorance of foreign lands to just randomly make shit up, it is often quite difficult to gainsay you. But that would be unethical.

7

stostosto 09.11.07 at 9:12 am

(*hrrrmmph* The Dutch got there first!)

8

Eszter 09.11.07 at 9:58 am

Good point, although sadly FJM is right as well.

Regarding the question mark, I don’t get it. Depending on the context and placement, a question mark could be just fine. For example, if you set up a question in the beginning and then answer it later in the presentation. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you meant. (Perhaps you meant it specifically in the context of unclear projections?)

9

Dan Hardie 09.11.07 at 10:09 am

My advice would be: never, ever use Powerpoint if you actually want to teach anybody about anything, or change anybody’s mind. Powerpoint does have one vital use: as a hypnotic device to convince people that ‘{some crazy shit I just made up} is the received wisdom on the topic and hence unchallengeable.’

10

dsquared 09.11.07 at 10:10 am

Question marks are OK in text, appearing at the end of an interrogative sentence. On graphics, they just look like you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that the graphic isn’t to be trusted.

11

des von bladet 09.11.07 at 10:17 am

A generalisation of this method, which I have used for several years, is to read about Country A, only (if at all) in the press of countries other than A. If it didn’t make the “International” section of a neighbouring country’s press, it isn’t worth knowing about.

Of course, in practice I earn my living in the hinterlands of academic science, but I did after all make the crucial mistake of acquiring a PhD in my mispent youth.

12

Eszter 09.11.07 at 10:19 am

Dan Hardie, that is complete technological determinism. Just like most tools, you can use it badly or well. Many people happen to do the former with slide presentation software (PowerPoint and others), but that doesn’t mean that it is inherently bad and cannot be helpful.

DSquared, I see your point. Even then, I’d argue that if you are using the question marks in a way to quiz the audience about findings you will later uncover (including a full graph with question marks removed and figures substituted), it can be just fine. But again, I don’t think that’s what you meant.

13

dsquared 09.11.07 at 10:25 am

hmmm I see what you mean Eszter, but I think that’s a much more usual thing to do in an educational context than a business one. Also NB that most business Powerpoints are delivered in small meetings across a desk, rather than in a lecture theatre to a big audience, so you’d be less likely to adopt that strategy. I quite like Powerpoint slides as a way of going through the key points of a piece of research.

14

Dan Hardie 09.11.07 at 10:25 am

I’d also add that ‘knowing something about a foreign country’ is not equivalent to ‘repeating what you just read in the Economist about (eg) France’s backwardness in the gravest possible voice’. Be careful who you say this to, since in the more excitable parts of Manhattan or the City of London, the natives believe that the expression of such blasphemy justifies lynching.

15

dsquared 09.11.07 at 10:25 am

(although to be honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that the main purpose of powerpoint slides is to convey the message “see, I cared enough about this meeting to do some powerpoints for it”).

16

Dan Hardie 09.11.07 at 10:27 am

Oh, poor Dsquared. He puts up a jokey post which is actually quite funny, and along comes a Hungarian determined to prove that Germans don’t have a complete monopoly on Central European humourlessness.

17

ejh 09.11.07 at 10:46 am

(although to be honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that the main purpose of powerpoint slides is to convey the message “see, I cared enough about this meeting to do some powerpoints for it”)

Or “Christ, I suppose they will expect me to do a sodding Powerpoint presentation for this one”.

18

Richard J 09.11.07 at 10:53 am

I happen to know that one of the Big Four accountancy firms uses Powerpoint for its due diligence reports. (Which is insane – our heavily customised Word document is bad enough.)

19

Mrs Tilton 09.11.07 at 11:42 am

Richard @18,

that’s nothing. A number of years ago some guys at a bank, responsible for preparing and sending to me a section of a listing prospectus, prepared the thing as an Excel file. That’s right: in addition to using Excel for the tables, they put the (vastly more voluminous) surrounding text into cells.

20

Barry 09.11.07 at 12:29 pm

Mrs. Tilton, I’ve seen that a lot.

Dsquared: “As Ejh correctly notes, the other advantage of my method is that if you take advantage of other people’s ignorance of foreign lands to just randomly make shit up, it is often quite difficult to gainsay you. But that would be unethical.”

Merging with the sub-thread about IP and patents, the other problem would be the lawsuit from Thomas Friedman. And that wouldn’t be prosecuted along a timeline of FU’s; he’d tell his lawyers to put your head on his desk by next week.

21

Eszter 09.11.07 at 12:53 pm

DSquared, got it, I wasn’t sure if you’d meant business context only.

The core of your post, btw, relates to an idea I’ve had for a long time (and may have already brought up elsewhere before on CT). I’ve long thought that people getting PhDs in social science areas should seriously consider living abroad for a while. It’s for reasons similar to the ones you state. What better way to shed taken-for-granted assumptions about how things work in any particular national context?

22

Ted 09.11.07 at 1:31 pm

Or you could just read the foreign press:
http://www.watchingamerica.com/index.shtml

23

stostosto 09.11.07 at 1:42 pm

Eszter, did you click on dsquared’s link? I perceived dsquared’s ppt-remark as mainly a swipe at Petraeus. His use of question marks relates to the time frame for a military drawdown in Iraq. It somewhat subtracts from the matter-of-fact-like decisive appearance that Petraeus supposedly aims to project.

In fact, it’s already been compared to the famous three-phased Underpants Collection business plan of the Gnomes:

1) Collect Underpants
2) ?
3) Profit

24

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 09.11.07 at 2:47 pm

“Basically it’s this. If you are a young man or woman of fair-to-middling ability, or even a borderline dullard, but you want to get a reputation as an uncommonly bright and perspicacious thinker, it’s really not that hard to do. The secret weapon is this: take an interest in what happens in other countries.”

Yup. It can work in private life as well. When my wife first met me, she thought I was a disheveled dork; but when I started to talk semi-knowledgeably with her smartest colleague about the Maastricht Treaty, she decided I was worth a second look.

Thank you, Eurocrats!

25

Barry 09.11.07 at 3:02 pm

I hate to break it to ya, sock puppet, but it wasn’t a gleam of romance in her eyes. Rather, it was the realization that her life-long insomia problem was finally solved :)

26

Tufte Admirer 09.11.07 at 6:03 pm

No thread that includes a discussion of Powerpoint is complete without a link to Edward Tufte’s marvelous “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” It can be had for a trifling 7USD here:

http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint

I bought it. The cover alone is worth the asking price.

And if you’re not familiar with Tufte’s other work, this is a great chance to remedy that failing.

27

Planeshift 09.11.07 at 8:03 pm

My advice to most new graduates would be you realise that a degree on its own doesn’t make you stand out from the crowd and that you’re unlikely to get a job in a field related to your degree subject unless you are rich enough to finance yourself through the internships, so prepare yourself for 8 months on the dole/doing shelf stacking or bar work before you get lucky and apply for the job nobody else did.

28

Shelby 09.11.07 at 8:39 pm

I’m not sure Daniel strikes quite the right tone in categorizing his own advice under “Intellects vast and warm and sympathetic”.

29

loren 09.11.07 at 9:51 pm

“I’d also add that ‘knowing something about a foreign country’ is not equivalent to ‘repeating what you just read in the Economist …”

damn.

30

nick s 09.11.07 at 10:48 pm

Those question marks on the Magic Rainbow Stairway To Getting Out Of Iraq (improved version) look even more embarrassing than a ‘TK’ on a manuscript that gets past the subeditors.

my advice to a young businessperson is to save ten minutes a day by not reading the domestic news, and spend them on reading the international news properly.

Or, for the reading-disinclined, listen the BBC World Service every so often. I’m not convinced by Business Daily’s analysis, though the ‘what’s happening in [foreign country]‘ reportage, especially for its weekly review programme, can be insightful.

31

Megami 09.12.07 at 1:52 am

@19 I have seen this to. The reason? Some people only ever bothered to learn how to use Excel, so they just use what they are comfortable with, rather than using the right tool for the job.

The ‘look at countries other than your own’ is not just a US thing. Here in Australia it amazes me how little people know of the ‘outside world’, especially considering how small we are in the grand scheme of things. I have had the pleasure of living in other countries, and will attest that it gives you a real edge over others. (And yes, I am usually this smug).

32

Tom T. 09.12.07 at 2:35 am

There are few sights sweeter than the look on someone’s face after they’ve confidently proclaimed something to be impossible, only to be informed that they’ve been doing things that way in Australia for the last twenty years.

The use of deliberate humiliation, however, requires a certain deftness in choice of target. Aim sideways or down, not up.

33

joel turnipseed 09.12.07 at 2:56 am

Well, this advice is fine, so far as it goes. But honestly? 1) Just plain read, 2) pay attention, and 3) don’t internalize external (and often intrinsic) conflicts. So few people do these two things with any regularity or consistency of effect that if you do them for the first couple of years of your career, and keep them up, you will have built up an insuperable advantage over your peers. If you do them for the first ten years of your career, you will look around and find yourself, if not a giant, at least larger-than-life.

Whether it’s been in writing or in business, the number of people who fell by the wayside by becoming ignorant, passive, and bitter far outnumbers the few who kept up, kept alert, and stayed focused on what they could do and minimized the damage from the things they couldn’t avoid. While luck has played a role, and not all of the latter group can be counted wild successes (myself included), everyone among my friends and acquaintances who’ve followed these principles is in some way successful.

34

Doug 09.12.07 at 11:10 am

25, edited: “I’ve long thought that people getting PhDs in social science areas should seriously consider living abroad for a while.”

35

stuart 09.12.07 at 1:22 pm

There are few sights sweeter than the look on someone’s face after they’ve confidently proclaimed something to be impossible, only to be informed that they’ve been doing things that way in Australia for the last twenty years.

Although you would think that would be true, try arguing to an american (of certain stripes) that universal healthcare can work, and they still contend that it is completely impossible and would lead to a breakdown of the system in short order.

36

JH 09.12.07 at 6:14 pm

Loren:

“I’d also add that ‘knowing something about a foreign country’ is not equivalent to ‘repeating what you just read in the Economist …”

damn.

There’s no excuse to read The Economist, if you have the internet. You should be saying ‘hooray’, Loren.

37

aaron 09.12.07 at 10:33 pm

jh:

There’s no excuse to read The Economist, if you have the internet.

How true! Why read The Economist when you can read Crooked Timber instead.

(Yes, good fellows, that was sarcasm)

Personally, I’d say that for a liberal with anti-capitalist tendencies, there is no better single publication to read than The Economist. As long as one reads between the lines, it does a great job of focusing on important news around the world (rather than the latest comment so-and-so has made about the Iraq War). I’m not trying to criticize Crooked Timber here, I’m just saying that The Economist does a good job of doing what it does: finding stories that people with a direct interest in the international economy will find interesting.

38

john b 09.13.07 at 9:35 am

“I happen to know that one of the Big Four accountancy firms uses Powerpoint for its due diligence reports. (Which is insane – our heavily customised Word document is bad enough.)”

all 4 of them do, I believe. which seems like a good idea, forcing the writer to focus on key issues rather than infinite waffle.

39

Dan Hardie 09.13.07 at 10:24 am

I think everybody bar Eszter realises that I’m not saying that 100% of PowerPoint presentations are rubbish. It’s merely, in my experience, that something like 90% of them are….

As a reporting medium, I don’t like the way Powerpoint favours putting lots of graphics on the screen and only a certain amount of text. It’s okay when the PP presentation is a summary of a complex document, but all too often (including for due diligence) the document presented is simply a bound copy of the Powerpoint slides. There are just some issues that can only be properly grasped by sitting down with raw data as well as someone’s (possibly erroneous, almost certainly partial) interpretation of said data: and Powerpoint militates against including big chunks of data and in favour of setting up a nice series of slides showing arrows connecting various geometrical shapes containing large-print text boxes (often just slogans). A lot of amateur historians know that Churchill used to demand policy documents written on ‘one sheet of paper only’, or even one half sheet. What’s less well-known is that he used to demand huge reams of original data, for example the Enigman decrypts, and spend hours poring over them and asking stubborn questions both of the senior officers or civil servants sent to brief him and the juniors who actually understood the stuff.

As an instructional tool, I recently did a trauma medicine course- much of which was ‘death by PowerPoint’. The best single instructor we had came in, switched off the projector and said ‘people just stare at these damn slides and it hypnotises them. Take out your notebooks, pay attention, write down the key points only and if you don’t understand anything ask questions. And we’re going to be doing a lot of practice.’

Now none of these learning methods are actually ruled out by the use of PowerPoint, but one does find that PowerPoint based lessons are a dream for the lazy instructor and the lazy student: one just flips the ‘next’ button on a presentation she may or may not have written herself, the other just reads a screen and listens vaguely to a voice.

PowerPoint appears to make instruction effortless, which is not a good thing. And the reliance on graphics over text means that people don’t get detail- which may sometimes be un-necessary but is often vital, particularly if someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes- and encourages people to accept over neat schemes of causation.

40

abb1 09.13.07 at 11:53 am

PowerPoint appears to make instruction effortless, which is not a good thing.

It ain’t no good, no Sir. And it’s been downhill ever since they criminalized corporal punishment…

41

Richard J 09.13.07 at 12:55 pm

Brief DD reports in Powerpoint? Given the 119 page Word document needing from the German interpretation of English that’s just landed in my inbox, I wish…

42

Dan Hardie 09.13.07 at 2:48 pm

I actually saw a CV written in PowerPoint last November: a page full of swirling arrows linking into explosions, signifying either great personal dynamism or a tendency to wander in circles and periodically blow up…

43

Richard J 09.13.07 at 5:07 pm

A friend of the fiancée once received a CV headed with the words ‘The story so far…’

Funnily enough, the applicant wasn’t called for interview.

44

abb1 09.14.07 at 1:05 pm

Mark Ames says The Economist is crap.

45

abb1 09.14.07 at 1:10 pm

Ha, good quote:

How did The Economist get to such a vile state?

The horrible answer is, it’s always been this vile. If you go back to The Economist’s beginnings in Victorian England, you’ll find, for example, the magazine’s brave stand on the Great Irish Famine, the English-led genocide that left up to two million Irish dead. When a cry went up to stop the famine, The Economist countered, “It is no man’s business to provide for another. If left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserve more would obtain it.”

And speaking of Hitlers, in the mid-1930s, The Economist even found time to praise you-know-who: “Herr Hitler is showing encouraging signs of statesmanship.” Yes, they really did write that.

The first and last example of genuine wit that The Economist ever produced.

46

dsquared 09.14.07 at 4:54 pm

I think that actually most people in the due diligence and related industries would agree, if we were starting from a completely blank slate, that Powerpoint isn’t the best way to do due diligence reports. However, before Office 2000, this was basically the only way to combine charts and text without crashing all the time. I think that’s why they started, and once you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in getting the template just so, QWERTY effects take over.

47

loren 09.14.07 at 5:11 pm

“They become smarter by osmosis simply by being in the imagined drawing room of The Economist‘s wit-slinging editorial offices.”

Oh. I thought he was talking about The Onion.

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