Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Cross-train your brain to do four things really well

A condensed version of this post originally appeared in the Accenture Careers blog.

Do you want to excel in your career, today and in our uncertain future? Below are the four not-so-simple areas of focus.

But first a cliché warning: Smarter people than I have tread this terrain and stepped in a few. I’m thinking specifically about this from David Foster Wallace, from his famous commencement speech This is Water, where he began by talking about how higher learning should be about “teaching you how to think” …

If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted … The fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think … [but this] cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.

Not that long ago you could graduate with many types of degrees, having absorbed facts and their interrelation, and expect to build a nice career. Naturally you would continue learning after graduation, but in that pre-digital era, when access to knowledge was constrained, learning was primarily absorbing new facts. Here I’m imagining my dad’s career …

Adopting Learning Skills For Today’s Work Environment

My late father was co-founder of a small-town accounting firm. As a CPA, he and his partners would turn to an imposing set of heavy, beige tax law books that filled to bursting the bookshelves his firm had built for them. To me, as a child, they reached so wide and high they appeared to hold the whole business up.

I wasn’t that far off. In that analog world, the folks closest to the facts got the job done. And got the raises. And the promotions.

What’s changed? For one, digitization – a democratization of knowledge. With sites like Google, Wikipedia, plus more specialized sites like The Markup, the world of information is in all of our pockets. What else has changed is complexity, and mass disruption. Our world is many factors more complex than my father’s, or yours.

It’s also clear that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.

How to cope? Here’s a comprehensive list. It’s the “Four Cs.” I discovered them in Yaval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (originally sourced from this NEA white paper). They are 1.) Critical Thinking, 2.) Creativity, 3.) Collaboration and 4.) Communication.

1. Critical Thinking

Consider Accenture’s Problem-Solution Mapping (PSM). It’s a hybrid of several mental models, including the thinking processes of Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. Here’s a video introduction:

It’s no accident that the first part of PSM is about stepping back and looking objectively at what we want to accomplish and why. It’s also about looking deeply into the problems identified to find root causes. Only once this is done do we construct hypotheses to test in pursuit of solutions.

Or consider the advice of Charlie Munger, someone best known as the behind-the-scenes member, with Warren Buffett, of the duad that built Berkshire Hathaway. In a speech Munger put it this way:

You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models.

Or finally, consider the words of my friend from a conversation I had with him this weekend. He’s a leader in a multi-billion-dollar e-retailer. He told me, “I’m advising my daughter to learn Python as a way to put her data science degree to work. In fact, we’re going to learn it together. But I’m also stressing the importance of learning how to define the right problems to solve, and finding a framework for their solution.” She’s got a smart father.

2. Creativity

Once you’ve identified the best problems to solve, it often takes creativity to solve them. In their new book Pivot to the Future, Accenture colleagues Larry Downes, Omar Abbosh, and Paul Nunes remind us that automation will place greater intellectual demands on all of us (emphasis below is mine):

We are not among those who think AI [artificial intelligence] will displace knowledge workers to a significant extent. We do, however, believe they will substantially alter the nature of work and in a positive way. Today, too many jobs are boring and repetitive leaving workers unmotivated or Worse. AI Technologies offer an opportunity to redesign work away from the mundane and toward tasks that require human reasoning, empathy, and creativity.

I agree with their belief that AI is not to be feared. We need to look at it as another tool for getting work done, and try not to listen to what scholars call “moral panic” over new technology. What it means is we need to develop the qualities that machines will be less effective at “learning.” Human creativity is at the top of my list.

3. Collaboration

In her TED Talk and best-selling book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game developer Jane McGonigal makes a case for how multi-player video games develop crucial learning skills.

Arguably, the highest on her list is collaboration. She reminds us how these games are rehearsals for the modern work world, where delegating, co-creating and supporting each other are crucial keys to team success.

At Accenture, collaboration is priced into every project. What’s more, our commitment to inclusion and diversity helps ensure a working environment of psychological safety – something that Google’s research has found to be one of the keys to a winning team.

4. Communication

Of the four, this may be the easiest to practice – but the hardest to get right! In their excellent book on business communication, Weekend Language, authors Andy Craig and Dave Yewma describe what happens to our storytelling abilities when the weekend is over and we’re back at the office:

We’re full of feature lists and ten-point plans, ‘high level’ terms and nonsense. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we beat the snot out of our audiences with 118-slide PowerPoint presentations chock-full of text.

Audience members typically don’t remember anything.

Their book trains readers to tell stories instead, and to tell them effectively to achieve business goals. If you’ve read their book, you may have noticed some of their recommendations here. I’ve peppered this with anecdotes, metaphors, and other ways to (hopeful) bring my content to life for you.

How important is storytelling to Accenture careers? Consider this:

I work out of the Digital Hub in Chicago’s Accenture offices. And every month our Storytelling Club meets to isolate and strengthen these communication “muscles” in front of a live audience. It’s an invaluable resource.

Focus Your Thinking On the Four Cs

Now that you’ve learned “what to learn,” know that Accenture can help you. Consider joining us, learning from and working with some of the industry’s best and brightest. Find your fit with Accenture.