Erik Calonius & Ten Steps Ahead: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 8th, 2011 by bobmorris

Erik Calonius


Erik Calonius is a former reporter, editor, and London correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He served as Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek Magazine, where he was nominated for the Overseas Press Award, and as an editor and writer for Fortune magazine, where he was nominated for the National Magazine Award. He has collaborated on some 20 books, and recently with Dan Ariely on the NY Times bestseller, Predictably Irrational. He has authored two books: The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails and, most recently, Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us. He has a degree in English Literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and a masters degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Morris: Before  discussing Ten Steps Ahead, a few general questions. First, to what extent did your formal education prepare you for a career in journalism?

Calonius: My formal education helped. But my writing today rests largely on my innate love of storytelling, and my years with the Wall Street Journal. The Journalwas a great place to learn how to write. A very demanding place, I must add. But if you had the stuff to write front page stories (and fortunately I did) they gave you a lot of encouragement and opportunity.

Morris: Who has had the greatest influence of your personal development? Please explain.

Calonius: I’d have to say my son, who from his infancy through his teens taught me patience, forbearance and selflessness. As you will see, Ten Steps Ahead is dedicated to him.

Morris: Who and/or what have had the greatest influence on your professional development? How so?

Calonius: My peers in journalism have been my greatest supporters and mentors. One of my close journalism buddies works at Starbucks now. Another drives a tour bus.  Another is head of Time Inc. Another is the business editor of the New York Times. Another is head of Bloomberg. Wherever they have landed, they have all helped me along my way.

Morris: Now please focus on Ten Steps Ahead. Please explain its title and subtitle.

Calonius: We see people–Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett–who are always ten steps ahead of the rest of us.  These folks are business visionaries. And the question the book asks (the subtitle is “What separates successful business visionaries from the rest of us”) is HOW do they do it?

Morris: In the Introduction, you assert that the brain is a “visionary” device. How so?

Calonius: If you look at the palm of your hand, and then close your eyes, you can see it there. The brain not only allows us to see things like, that, but, in our imagination, to move the parts around. In a greater sense, though, the brain is a visionary device because it allows us to find patterns in life, see missing parts, solve problems. That’s why we are able to take new stock of business visionaries–we, through the new discoveries of brain scientists and cognitive psychologists, have new tools to understand the brain and its effect on our performance and behavior.

Morris: What are neurotransmitters and why are they significant?

Calonius: Very simply, they transmit signals throughout the brain. The interesting thing is that was find that they form constantly–that our brain is very supple, and that (if we use it) we can make all kinds of new connections. So we are constantly learning new things. So many people settle into a rut, into straight and narrow thinking. But they don’t have to.

Morris: What are the “elements of vision”?

Calonius: I think the elements of vision consist, first, of our ability to see patterns. This is as simple as when we find a group of disparate facts suddenly coming together into a moment of clarity. Eureka! Another element of vision is the ability to close our eyes and actually visualize something. We might imagine a product or even a strategy. Intuition, the ability to go with our gut, is another. Emotional intelligence is another element, if not of vision, than certainly of importance to the visionary. EI helps the visionary gather supporters for his or her dream.

Morris: I will now identify a series of several people whom you discuss in the book. For those who have not as yet read Ten Steps Ahead, lease provide a brief explanation of why each is especially important. First, the physician Galen (129-199/217)

Calonius: Galen was the famous physicians from AD 150. The point I make about Galen is that even though his concepts were completely wrong (such as that the heart cooked the blood) they were accepted for a thousand years without much dispute. I bring this up to show how visionaries are often made simply by seeing that conventional wisdom is incorrect.

Morris: William Harvey (1578-1657)

Calonius: In the 1600s, the physician William Harvey showed the flaws in Galen’s description of the human body. Of course, Harvey wasn’t perfect himself: he said that the function of the brain was to cool the blood, like a refrigerator.

Morris: Paul Broca (1824-1880) and Carl Wernicke (1848-1905)

Calonius: Broca found the exact location in the brain of the region that provides speech. And Wernicke found the area that gives us the ability to understand speech. Together they proved for the first time that the brain was neither a refrigerator nor a useless gray organ. We learned that specific parts of the brain give us our abilities to think and to behave as humans. We may take this for granted today, but it had to be discovered.

Morris: Antonio Damasio (1944-    )

Calonius: Damasio demonstrated for us (by inserting electrodes into the brain, that in one moment might make the patient laugh, and in the next, cry) that the brain not only controls our motor functions, but our emotions. In other words, how we behave in the world goes back to the function of cells in our brains.

Morris: Paul Lauterbur (1929-2007) He invented the MRI machine–with which we can watch the brain react to the world.

Calonius: He invented the MRI machine–with which we can watch the brain react to the world.

Morris: Alan Turing (1912-1954)

Calonius: Turing recognized that one could build a primitive thinking machine simply by having it base all decisions on a series of 0s and 1s.

Morris: John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Calonius: Von Neumann actually built one of the first computers, using Turing’s theories. The computer, with its 0s and 1s, is the perfect metaphor for the brain, whose neurons turn off and on (thereby being similar to the 0s and 1s of computers). So the lungs are like bellows, the heart like a pump, the limbs like levers–and now we had a close metaphor to the brain, in the computer.

Morris: For those who are not familiar with the “Gorilla Experiment” conducted by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, they can click here to see the brief film clip. In your opinion, why is this experiment relevant to your book?

Calonius: Dan Ariely showed me the clip. I watched carefully and counted the number of times the ball was passed. I totally missed the gorilla. The point of the film is that we often don’t see what’s before our eyes.

Morris: What is the relevance of emotional intelligence to the success of business visionaries such as Walt Disney, Edwin Land, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Jeff Hawkins?

Calonius: It is relatively recently that we realized that “emotional intelligence” was an important for success as academic intelligence. In fact, it is probably ore important, because it gives a person that ability to empathize with others, and thereby to win their trust and confidence. The importance of emotional intelligence is that without it, the business visionary might have a great idea, but not the ability to create a group of disciples who believe in the idea. That’s what makes people like Walt Disney, or Jobs, or Branson so extraordinary–they not only create (d) great ideas, they were able to rally people around them to build the idea into an industry.

Morris: Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not Eureka!  (Found it!) but, ‘That’s funny…’” Please explain.

Calonius: This is fascinating to me:  The most transformational ideas are almost always the silliest when they first pop out of the egg. Who needs a personal computer? Why would any adult want to watch a full-length feature cartoon? No one will ever be able to get a heavier than air machine to fly! Most great ideas are not only considered silly, but are rejected by the establishment. But, as Nassim Taleb wisely notes, “We build toys. And sometimes the toys change the world.”

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent do courage and conviction define what a visionary is?

Calonius: Dreamers are happy to stay in bed with their dreams. Visionaries, by definition, go out and make them happen. This is very difficult. As I said above, most new ideas are considered silly. So visionaries have a hard row to hoe: They must take their dreams into the street, searching not only for acolytes, but for hard cash to keep their dreams alive. Most visionaries are strong, determined, and often even ruthless entrepreneurs.

Morris: However different they and their circumstances may be most other respects, what do Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Diane von Furstenberg, Andrew Grove, and Steve Jobs share in common?

Calonius: All visionaries have an idea that moves them. They have a mission. And nothing, no personal or commercial obstacle, will stop them. What’s also common is that no amount of success assuages their drive; once the reach one goal, they begin towards another.

Morris: What does it mean to “scale up” a vision? When and how to do that?

Calonius: In order to make a dream fly, you need people who believe in you. You have to scale up that dream from your personal fantasy to one that others share. As I mention in the book, smart visionaries realize that certain people are better transmitters of this information. That’s why successful business visionaries coddle the media. They know that the press (and now the Internet) is one of the best mediums for taking their idea “viral.”

Morris: What is “emotional contagion” and why is it significant?

Calonius: Emotional contagion is the odd way that humans can pass one emotion on from one person to another, like bees in the hive shaking to their mates until they entire hive is vibrating. What’s amazing is that in businesses run by visionaries, the emotions of the visionary leader are mimicked by the employees. The entire hive is alive. The power of one human being extends to hundreds and thousands of others.

Morris: What are the limits of vision?

Calonius: Pattern making is one of the greatest functions of the brain. Rather than having to figure life out anew every morning, the brain depends on familiar patterns to get us up out of bed and on our way. We don’t look for the door handle–our hand extends to it automatically. But this same gift can hold us back. The patterns that we form in our brain are often irrational. For instance, when we are confronted with a high priced item, a low priced item, and a middle priced item, we almost always take the one in the middle. That’s just the way we are hardwired. Another of these hardwired behaviors is this: When we first hear an opinion, and like it, was often adopt it. This is called anchoring. The problem is that when the circumstance change, we may not want to move our anchor. We become like the carpenter with the hammer, for whom every problem is a nail. In Ten Steps Ahead, I talk about Steve Jobs and Pixar. For many years Jobs could not see Pixar as anything more than a computer company. He nearly sold the company, neglecting the value of its talented animators. He pulled back on the sale just at the last moment–as Pixar’s animators came out with their first full-length film Toy Story. It was Toy Story, not computers, by the way, that first made Jobs a billionaire.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Ten Steps Forward, you observe in Chapter Nine that “nature has not installed memories in us for nostalgia’s sake, but for the purpose of survival. They help us stay alive another day in this complex world.” Please explain.

Calonius: Nature didn’t give us memories so we could review our summer vacations. It gave us memories so that we could leverage our previous experiences into the future–and in so doing give us some foreknowledge of what is about to transpire. If we slip on a stretch of ice, we don’t have to guess what’s about to happen next; previous experience fills us in. The problem with using memories to forecast the future, however, is that memories are terribly faulty. The human memory is not like a hard disk drive, or even a Kodak print. It’s a murky picture that can get more distorted as the years go by. Such is life. But the crisis comes when we try to use murky memories as the tool to predict the future. When we can’t even remember clearly and dispassionately what happened in the past, how can we nail future forecasts? That’s why “visionaries prixe fix,” as I call prognosticators who go on TV with great predictions for political or economic events, rarely see with any clarity at all.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between “streaks of randomness” and “meaningful patterns”?

Calonius: Most of us think that luck is a random thing. But actually, luck can occur in clumps or streaks. So a batter who is “hot” and hitting the balls out of the park may be hailed as fabulous athlete–when actually he’s in the midst of a streak of luck.  The problem with this phenomenon crops up when “visionaries prixe fix” assign meaning to these lucky streaks. For instance, a company CEO with three years of great success: is it really something the CEO is doing right, or merely a clump of luck? Professional forecasters (including analysts and brokers) like to think it’s something the CEO is doing right. Journalists like it, too: It makes a better story.

Morris: Is it possible to “learn vision”?

Calonius: One of the profound breakthroughs in brain science over the last 50 years is the discovery that the brain contains no magic goo. It’s all carbon-based gray matter. And so, although visionaries were hailed as gods in the past, today we can say that in terms of their biology, they’re just like the rest of us. That said, visionaries do seem to have many gifts: Emotional intelligence, intuition, courage, persistence, that ability to see patterns and things that the rest of us just miss. So can we do that, too? The answer is yes. There are ways to spike our emotional intelligence. We can use intuition forcefully as well, once we understand something about it. Courage can be raised through practice. And we can start to assemble new patterns around us–once we recognize that new ideas are often made from reshuffling the old ones.

Morris: How does learning allow us to “transcend our genes”?

Calonius: In recent experiments by Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, he has shown that learning new things not only builds new synaptic connections in the brain, but actually changes the genetic material of the cell. Does this mean that your acquired knowledge can be passed down like the color of your eyes? It’s a conclusion that has drawn some controversy, but it just may be true.

Morris: Why is intuition “the critical skill that visionaries employ”?

Calonius: In the book I talk about Steve Jobs deciding to reduce Apple’s commitment to hundreds of products, and focus on just a very few. So how did Jobs choose which products to keep, and which to discard? Obviously he had a lot of input. But in the end it was his decision. No one could tell which path would lead to success. So how did Jobs do it? He went with his gut. When you have no other choice, and visionaries are often in this place, you have to go with what you feel. That is intuition.  The most successful visionaries are familiar with their intuition. They can sense when their gut feelings may not be accurate. They know when it would be better to punt the decision to someone else. But they also know when their gut is telling them to take one particular path, rather than another.

Morris: What does it mean to “tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities” as possible?

Calonius: “Black Swans” are completely unexpected events. Often they are the mishaps that lead us to discoveries. We cannot know when favorable Black Swan will appear–but the more we are out there, exposing ourselves to black swans, the more likely they will bring us opportunities.

Morris: To what extent do successful business visionaries resemble black swans?

Calonius: Business visionaries pull the unpredictable out of the air. The iPad is a great example. Google is another. In the larger context, Black Swans can be bad things (like volcanoes suddenly exploding) but in the context of visionaries, they are mostly good.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Calonius: Can’t think of a thing! Of course, it’s past midnight and my brain is about to shut off its light!


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