Archives For January 2013

An article in which I explore skill acquisition, the beauty of practicing skills for the sheer appreciation of the craft, and announce that I’ve teamed up with software firm TransLoc…

Magical Thinking & Joshua Foer as Skill Acquisition Gonzo

In 2010 Joshua Foer burst onto the non-fiction literary scene with the book Moonwalking with Einstein (1). It’s a brilliantly conceived piece of gonzo writing in which Foer combs through the academic literature on skill acquisition theories and applies them in his own quest to improve his memory.

Joshua-Foer

Joshua Foer, Memory Champ

Foer is a good writer with a knack for unearthing compelling real-life stories to illustrate his points. In the case of this book, he is the story. The techniques he learned (and practiced religiously) carried him through to become U.S. memory champion – yes, there is such a thing – in about a year’s time.

He went from having an average memory to being a champion by approaching memory as a skill…something that can be developed and improved.

It’s a tremendous feat and an even better book. It should come as no surprise when it landed on many 2010 must-read lists, including that of Bill Gates. This interest in skill acquisition and development is a refreshing trend to watch. It once held a prominent place in our cultural discussions of success. Now we seem to focus more on inborn talent driving outcomes. Or we become sloppier yet, ditching our critical natures altogether when achieving an outcome we want. We neglect our post-mortems; eschewing the autopsy and contenting ourselves with the crudest explanations of why some activity turned out the way it did.

Joshua Foer didn’t become U.S. memory champion because he was endowed with a great memory. Nor was it because he was recipient of a gushing torrent of luck (though luck always plays a role). He achieved the outcome because he considered memory ability holistically, broke it down into a finite set of skills, found techniques for mastering those skills, and then practiced like crazy.

That same methodology can be applied to virtually any set of skills in which anyone wants to get better. It can also be applied to the complex combination of hard and soft skills that compose a craft.

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Bill SpruillPhoto Credit: Bill Spruill

Bill Spruill
Photo Credit: Bill Spruill

When an investor believes he has an edge, he’s supposed to stay quiet. He’s supposed to focus his energy on exploiting his advantage, not on trying to teach others the methods behind his approach. That’s conventional wisdom anyway.

And yet here I find Bill Spruill, an angel investor who backs software startups (and a stranger to me just a few months ago) explaining his investing strategy in painstaking detail. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and we’re sipping warm beverages at the Whole Foods café near my home in Raleigh. We’ve rendezvoused at local coffee houses since September, and at each meeting – despite knowing I’m both an investor looking for ideas and a writer likely to tell my readers all that I learn – he reveals a little more about what we’ve come to call the Spruill Theorem for Reasonable Angel Returns.

In a calm and thoughtful manner befitting a college professor, Bill presents case after case for me to consider. This morning he pushes a folded copy of the day’s Wall Street Journal across the table and points to an article about a high-flying social media venture attempting to raise a fresh round of funding. Its prospects are a bit dimmer than the last time it went looking for cash. “What’s going to happen to the early investors,” Bill asks me in his Socratic style of teaching-by-interrogation, “if this effort fails? What’s going to happen to other promising startups looking to get off the launch pad?”

Those two questions signal the reasons Bill wants to tell me and other prospective angel investors about his insights. What we think we know about the risks of these investments may be misguided. And sticking to conventional wisdom carries with it consequences not only for individuals but for the larger dynamic between investors with cash and entrepreneurs with their creative visions.

It’s bigger than Bill’s portfolio.  It’s bigger than any one startup. It’s an ecosystem issue. And Bill believes that debating the ideas of the Spruill Theorem will make for better informed angel investors and ultimately a healthier ecosystem of software startups in our Triangle community.

“Angel investors are heeding the wrong models,” he tells me. “We’re trying to copy the huge successes, thinking we’ll get the same outcomes. But these stories can be dangerous. These models rarely work for angels.”

He pauses for a moment before adding, “We need new models to follow.”

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