Monday, 13 October 2008

Sudoku & Mental Agility

Kevin was huddled over his handheld computer at the restaurant. My wife and I were joining him and had picked up his wife Joanne on the way. As we approached the table, she said, “He’s probably doing Su-do-ku. He says it helps with his mentally agility.”

Kevin showed me how his computer let him enter the numbers one through nine into a grid so that each box, row and column had each number only once. It was an impressive system, letting him store possible answers in each cell until he decided the right one. If you haven’t tried Sudoku, it’s quite an intricate puzzle.

“I too have a Japanese way to stay mentally agile,” I said. “It even sounds a little like yours. It’s called Ai-ki-do.”

“Never heard of it. Can you get it on the Blackberry?”

If you haven’t heard of Aikido, here’s a comparison between it and Sudoku:

Logical Relationships2 dimensions3 dimensions
Language ProcessingNoneJapanese vocabulary
Mental ManipulationNumericalSpatial
Co-ordination Hand / Eye Fine MotorHand / Leg / Body / Eye Gross and Fine Motor
LevelsBeginner / Intermediate / Advanced5 beginner levels, 7 master levels

OK, Aikido is not really comparable to Sudoku. It’s a martial art like Judo or Jujitsu. Maybe it’s silly to compare a numerical puzzle to a martial art, but the point I want to make is that, as accountants, our ability to manipulate numbers is already well developed and maintained by our work. The area we typically ignore is physical fitness. And your mental agility is intimately connected to your physical well being.

Oh No, Not Another Fitness Lecture

Like many people who divide their time between deskwork and business travel, I am somewhat overweight and underfit. Some things I have tried and learned from:

  • Swimming – I joined the YMCA, which had the advantages of having a club in every city I travelled to, and always having at least one lane open for lengths. Swimming proved to be a great way to relax after a day of meetings. It has many fitness advantages, such as very low impact on knees and other joints, but it did not prove effective for weight loss.
  • Dieting Atkins taught me the value of a high protein breakfast and lunch. A friend taught me about an apple in the middle of the afternoon to ward off drowsiness. I have already written about visiting a nutritionist who helped me navigate fast food restaurants. But I take the point that changing your overall eating habits is more effective than going on and off diets.
  • Personal Trainers – The accountant in me objects to the cost and perceived luxury of a personal trainer. I thought that I could guide myself through the exercise machines in the gym by reading the directions, thank you very much. The reality is that a good trainer knows
    • How far to push you without hurting yourself
    • How to translate your goals into specific exercises
    • How to stretch out before and after exercise
    • Which muscles to target and when your body is overcompensating.

    The fact is that my weekly appointment with the trainer keeps me from making excuses not to go to the gym, something I am prone to do. I have reconciled myself to the cost by limiting sessions to one per week, but going at least one other time (as well as Aikido twice a week.)
  • Aikido – Somehow, the addition of martial arts to the above made the difference for me: I actually started losing weight. But Aikido is much more than just exercise. It really is a test of mental alertness as you struggle with the Japanese terms, try to emulate the instructor, learn the moves, repeat the exercises and strive to remember and apply what you’ve learned. The support is excellent. It feels like there is a room full of people working to help me stop tripping over myself. While martial arts are generally about one person attacking another, Aikido is based on the idea of self-defense and doing minimal damage to your opponent, a lesson the business world could definitely use! Another advantage that I, as a beginner, have experienced is the idea of staying relaxed even while you are being attacked, again a good lesson for business.
  • Fun – Working muscles and counting calories meet nobody’s definition of enjoyment. But finding an activity that my whole family can do together as well as being thrown by my 13 year old daughter do count as fun.

    In the end, I don’t want to knock Sudoku. It’s something you can do on the subway or while you’re waiting for someone in a restaurant. Just don’t forget that there’s a physical side to mental agility.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Professional Development: The Trick

Most professional accountants remember their final exam. Even people in their eighties can tell you about the question they aced or totally blew. One memory that stuck with me was my friend Jim remarking to me as we exited the exam center, "If I ever learn anything else it will be by accident."

Well, times have changed. The accounting rules we learned may have seemed absolute and immutable at the time, but sadly that hasn't proved to be the case. I remember deciding not to specialize in tax because of the arbitrary way they could be altered by the stroke of a legislator's pen. So, what did I specialize in? Computers, where if something is three years old, it's ancient and obsolete.

About a decade ago I applied for a job. I remember thinking that the interview was going particularly well, that is until the interviewer said, "I see you got your accounting designation back in 1983. What have you done lately?" It was a fair comment. I realized that I had not paid enough attention to my skills. That propelled me to go for my specialist designation as well as a designation in project management. On the job experience is invaluable, but you have to keep up on the theory as well. Experience tells you what works. Theory tells you why.

So, I'm a big fan of continuing education for professionals. I cheered when compulsory professional development rules were introduced. The trick is to choose your courses strategically: make each course serve more than one purpose. For example,

  • If you have two designations, find courses that will qualify as professional development for both.
  • Try to combine professional development with an interest. If you want to be a better presenter, try giving courses instead of taking them.
  • Treat each course as a networking opportunity with both the lecturer and the other students.
  • Go beyond networking and look for new friends.
  • Try going beyond your comfort zone and try something related but new. It may just change your career direction.
  • Try to reuse your work. If you write a good essay, turn it into a presentation at the office, an article in a professional journal, or add it to your company web site or blog.
Finally, don't limit yourself to the education you have to do. Try thinking about things that you think it would be cool to learn. Don't worry whether they have any practical application, go with your gut. You'd be amazed how useful the knowledge will prove in the future.