Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘competition

Chess as metaphor

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Games have long played a part in literature, representing a competition between humans or supernatural beings. Chess features prominently in many stories. The game’s intellectual nature lends itself to such depictions, with the idea being that if you can beat someone else at chess, you are the better man.

Other games, both real and invented, serve similar roles. For me, the best example is the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ book The Player of Games. The game of Azad is a vast undertaking, with high-level matches often taking a month to play. There are several boards, a combination of team and individual play, and so many pieces as to nearly defy description.

In the story, the game was developed as a metaphor for the structure and values of the Empire of Azad. It was part pastime and part civil service exam. The Azadian home world held a tournament every so often, with the winner crowned emperor. The better you did in the tournament, the higher your position in the government.

The premise of the story is that another civilization, the Culture, sends its best game player to compete in the tournament. Banks was known for a political bent to his stories; The Player of Games is no exception. On its surface a simple diplomatic exchange, our player’s participation and continued success brings the conflict between the two civilizations and their values into sharper relief.

It’s telling that the Culture’s hero only starts to play at a high level when he takes on aspects of the Empire’s philosophy in his own play. Banks manages that conflict magnificently.

Chess is an abstract game with arbitrary but well-balanced rules that allow for a wide range of successful strategies and tactics. Though it doesn’t approach the (admittedly fictional) resolution of a game like Azad, it has long played a role as a metaphor for accomplishment and brilliance. As such, it provides a terrific instructional base.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

NASCAR, Scrutiny, and Success

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There aren’t a lot of NASCAR fans in Portland, OR. I grew up in Rockingham County, Virginia, which is about four hours from Martinsville Speedway and within an hour’s drive of at least a dozen regional and local tracks. I enjoy the competition and, even though some races look like a bunch of guys going fast and turning left for three hours, there’s a lot of strategy and tactics to get right if you want to be successful.

I also enjoy Formula 1 racing, which sets designers and drivers an entirely different set of problems. In open wheel racing, touching another car often means irreparable damage to you, the car you touched, or both. In NASCAR, you can rub, bump, bang, and beat on each other a lot more without necessarily compromising your chances. Formula 1 and NASCAR cars (and drivers, for that matter) also have different weights, aerodynamics, and handling characteristics. Some drivers can race successfully in both types of cars, but most competitors specialize.

Car racing is also a male-dominated sport. There have been some successful female drivers, such as Janet Guthrie who raced competitively at the Indianapolis 500 (an open wheel race), but until recently there hasn’t been a marquee name moving from open wheel to NASCAR racing. All that changed when Danica Patrick, who raced successfully through the junior open wheel series in Europe and in Indy cars in the U.S., made the jump to NASCAR.

Patrick is a skilled racer who has paid her dues, but she’s had a rough transition to the Nationwide series (the second-tier NASCAR circuit) and the Sprint Cup. She’s also a marketer’s dream, with amazing good looks, a winning personality, and the discipline to balance racing and promotional duties effectively. Some commentators claim Patrick was hired for her appearance and not her abilities, but I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. NASCAR, like all major sports, is driven by media coverage. People (and I am a people) like looking at attractive individuals and studies show we remember their messages longer. With media coaches and mandatory sponsor mentions during interviews (“I thought the #666 Dogecoin Chevy SS team put me in a good position to win today…”), criticizing a driver for capitalizing on their appearance is nonsense.

As for racing results, Patrick has struggled. She led the Daytona 500 and finished well in a few races, but her average finish is in the low 20s (out of 40 or so drivers) and she has only a handful of top-10 finishes. Kyle Petty, a moderately successful NASCAR driver, son of driving legend Richard Petty, and media commentator, had an interesting take on Patrick. He was quoted in the USA Today as saying:

“She can go fast, but she can’t race. I think she’s come a long way, but she’s still not a race car driver. And I don’t think she’s ever going to be a race car driver.”

Asked by interviewer Matt Clark why Patrick wouldn’t ever be a race car driver in Petty’s eyes, the eight-time race winner said it was “too late to learn.”

Petty admitted that, even though he won eight top-tier NASCAR races, he never figured out what it took to be a great driver. Even so, he has a point. Drivers such as Tony Stewart and A. J. Foyt grew up running everything they could get their hands on, so they learned general racing skills as well as tactics for each type of car and track. Patrick spent her formative years concentrating on open wheel racing on road courses, so her development was more specific.

Even so, I’ve noticed her car control and race sense have improved. Rather than running consistently at the back of the pack and getting caught in (or causing) avoidable incidents, she’s obviously working hard, listening to feedback, and improving. Will she ever win? Hard to say. There are a lot of really good drivers out there. Will she challenge, especially at Sonoma and Watkins Glen? Probably. As long as she keeps improving and maintaining a positive image for her and her sponsors, she’s likely to have a ride. In the context of NASCAR and its surrounding media environment, that counts as success.

I can tell she wants to win, not just race. She won at every level moving up and, even if she doesn’t have the NASCAR-specific skills required to win consistently at the top level, she’ll keep giving it all she can.

Kyle Petty also characterized Patrick as a “marketing machine” rather than a racer. Her commercial success has certainly outpaced her results on the track, but there’s no public-facing industry where looks and talent don’t operate in tandem. We’re all working so we don’t have to work any more, so I offer Patrick the same advice Darrell Waltrip gives to drivers right before a late-race restart: “Go out there and getcha some.”

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

The National Coin Flip Lottery

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On January 23, 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a paper citing income inequality as a threat to economic security in developed and developing countries. In part, they found that:

  • Income inequality has increased in both advanced and developing economies in recent decades.
  • There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.
  • Fiscal policy is the primary tool for governments to affect income distribution.

Unfortunately, the IMF declined to offer a solution, stating that “[t]his paper does not advocate any particular redistributive goal or policy instrument for fiscal redistribution.”

That’s where I come in.

Gettin’ Rich Ain’t Easy

Warren Buffett once remarked that if a person won $1 million flipping coins, he could sell a book entitled How to Make One Million Dollars Flipping Coins. His point is that some investors, regardless of how unskilled they are, will get lucky every now and then. We should not attribute everyone’s gains to great skill.

That said, there is a general pattern we can follow. People get rich by combining two abilities: making money and keeping money. The problem is that when you keep money it doesn’t flow through the system. Trickle-down economics in an age of hyper efficiency doesn’t work as well as it might. What we need is a low-impact system for wealth redistribution.

In the interest of creating up to 334 new millionaires every day, I propose a National Coin Flip Lottery. All 350 million Americans, regardless of age or income, must contribute one dollar per day to the lottery. We all need car insurance if we want to drive and we all need health insurance if we want to live, so this slight imposition is little more than an annoyance. If you have a Social Security number, you have to pony up.

Every morning at 5 AM Eastern time, a computer divides the database of American citizens into two groups: Heads and Tails. A representative flips a coin, probably a virtual coin because quarters come up heads slightly more often than tails, and eliminates the losers. The computer then randomly re-divides the population into halves and continues until we have 334 winners. That’s correct: after just 20 flips we will have 334 lucky millionaires.

The system collects $350 million every day, but the excess can fund lottery operations, reduce the national debt, and support a special lottery held every February 29. Let’s say we hold back $1 million of the $16 million excess from each drawing. There are 1,460 days between leap days, so we could give away enough money to create 1,460 new millionaires on that day alone.

Supporting the Public Interest

Just think about the positive social impact that creating 334 new millionaires every day could have on society. Yes, the less socially responsible winners would just blow their newfound riches and hope to win again, but quite a few of the lucky individuals will redistribute the wealth among their family and community. That level of liquidity would free up small-scale investments, provide competitive pressure for traditional lending institutions, and relieve poverty for a small percentage of the population every day.

It would be cruel for citizens to win 19 straight coin tosses and lose when they are on the cusp of being a millionaire. Therefore, I propose that individuals may enter a preference to split their prize at the $32,768 level or higher. If two individuals who are willing to split meet at a given level, they both automatically get the prize.

Given the raging expansion of gambling across the United States, with the quaint exceptions of Hawaii and Utah, this modest proposal fits comfortably into the American zeitgeist. Next February 29, join me in celebrating our new national holiday: Millionaires Day!

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Helping Your Team (and Teammates) Succeed

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Most improv is a team sport. Except for solo acts, everyone else has to interact and cooperate with other individuals to create their product. If everyone goes on stage looking for glory, you won’t get a solid product. Rather than setting the base for a solid scene where one or two performers can deliver the lines that get the big laughs, you’ll get a bunch of one-liners delivered to an increasingly uncomfortable audience that realizes no one’s cooperating.

Performers support each other, as do athletes. Olympic athletes are part of a team and, even if they compete in individual events like luge or ski jumping, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. That’s what makes Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio’s selfless actions this week so special. Junio skated in the 500m event, finishing 11th. He had also qualified for the 1,000m, but gave up his spot to his teammate Denny Morrison. As Junio said:

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races. To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honor and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance.”

Morrison went on to win the silver medal in the 1,000m event and has nominated Junio to be the Canadian flag bearer during the closing ceremonies. I think it’s a great idea and, if he’s chosen, hope Junio stays in the Olympic Village to accept the honor.

Congratulations to Denny Morrison for winning the silver, much respect to Gilbert Junio for putting the team first, and good luck to Canada in the rest of the Games. You’re doing it right.

Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.