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When Weakness Becomes Strength

The Story of Temple Grandin

When Weakness Becomes Strength


“The first and best victory is to conquer self.” – Plato

As a kid, I always dreamt of what it would be like to be free from the rule of my parents. Even though my parents were super chill, it was their job to provide a supervised environment in which I could learn and grow, and that meant establishing boundaries. As I got older and more knowledgeable, my parents would slowly trust me with more freedoms. But in the back of my mind, I was always incredibly curious about what things would be like when I could leave that supervised environment and enjoy a freedom not previously known.

I remember vividly that day I moved out to go to college. My parents dropped me off, and I realized I probably needed to go shopping. I had never shopped entirely for myself. So with this new freedom I bought six boxes of name-brand cereal, a gallon of milk and a 12-pack of Mountain Dew. I was out of my parent’s house, and I no longer had to subject my advanced palate to the garbage off-brand cereal they bought. And bonus, there was no one around to tell me I couldn’t enjoy a cold Mountain Dew with a bowl of cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was as free as an AOL Online disk at Walmart in 1997. Things were great.

I believe testing the limits of our freedoms is natural. It’s why we stay out till 3am even when we know we have work at 8. Or why we convince ourselves that we deserve a nap after work even though we haven’t been to the gym in a week, or two, or ten…. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but how do you REALLY know unless you try?


The Importance of Self-Discipline

While it’s fine to test the limits of our freedom, we need to realize that we can never get everything we want if we don’t become our own parents. I guess you could call that having self discipline. There is real power in using our freedom to put constraints on ourselves.

“Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from the expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear—and doubt.”

– Harvey Dorfman

Sure, you can stay out till 3am every night—there’s no one telling you not to—but if you’re trying to land a promotion at work, is that really the best use of your freedom? Give yourself a bedtime, and give an early morning routine a try.

Self-discipline is so hard to establish because it goes against the very nature of our society today. Everywhere you go the cries of the lazy and ignorant are cheering for you to be lazy and ignorant with them. It makes them feel better about their own laziness if everyone else is ignoring their own personal potential too. Every day we are thrown on the front lines of a battle to give in to the natural temptations of instant gratification. Sleeping in feels MUCH better than dragging ourselves out of bed and into the gym… or that’s what our body will tell us as we lie in bed. So how do we fix that?

Becoming More Disciplined

Sure, we can talk about becoming more self-disciplined until we’re blue in the face, but how do we actually do it? Here are three tips to help you as you strive to become more self-disciplined.

1. Establish A Goal

A goal will give you an idea of what kind of constraints you need to put on your life. It will make it easier to set those constraints because you understand what the outcome will be from your efforts. If you don’t have a clearly defined goal, you will find it extremely hard to break out of your bad habits.

2. Commit to Action

I am a firm believer in the things that can be accomplished when we commit to something. It’s like all the rules change when you decide for yourself that you are going to commit. No one can do this for you. This is something you have to come to by yourself. If you’re having trouble committing, reevaluate your goals and make sure they really reflect what you want in life. If they don’t, you’ll have a lot of trouble committing to them.

3. Practice Positive Self-Talk

The mind controls what the body does. When you’re feeling low and ready to call it quits, give yourself a quick pep talk. Positive affirmations are basically one-line pep talks. Thousands of successful people have daily affirmations that get them pumped and ready to take on the world. If it helps, write down a few of your own affirmations and memorize them so you can remind yourself what you are working for when things get tough.

If you start with these three things, you’ll be well on your way to living a better, more accomplished life. For example, I set a goal to be healthier, so I no longer use my freedom to eat cereal with a cold Mountain Dew three times a day. Even though it was fun and exciting to begin with, my health is more important than a temporary pleasure. And though I still struggle to be a good parent to myself in other areas, no one is perfect. There’s no shame in taking it one thing at a time.


What are your tricks for being more self-disciplined? Tweet them to me at @bradensthompson, and follow me on Degreed here. Click the button below to get credit for reading this article.

Phillips-Hoang Nguyen-Phan of Dearborn Heights was the July 2015 winner of our Salesforce Build an App Scholarship. We asked Phillips-Hoang Nguyen-Phan a few questions to see what his goals are and get his advice for others-

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.” – G-Man

Tell us one goal you want to accomplish this year

I want to accomplish mastering computer languages that I didn’t learn yet.

How will the scholarship help you achieve your goals?

The scholarship will help me pursue an BS in Computer Science and an career as a video game programmer.

What’s one thing you can teach others?

Computer programming

What would you love to become an expert in?

Video Design

Congrats to Phillips-Hoang Nguyen-Phan on winning the scholarship. Chances are you could use some extra money to learn too! You can apply for the Salesforce Build an App Scholarship here. 


Long-distance running is not an activity to be taken lightly. Running, in general, is the kind of sport that is truly humbling. You, and you alone, are the only person standing in the way of what you define as success. Up until 2013, I had never understood the weight of strength and difficulty that it took to run a half marathon or marathon. I had always considered myself a strong runner, as I was a very committed athlete throughout high school.

In the Spring of 2013, I signed up for a half marathon and marathon back-to-back, just on a whim. I had enough confidence and arrogance from my youth and assumed that it would carry me across the finish line. Little did I know, there was so much more to long distance running than just guts.

Training for a half-marathon or marathon, along with any other race of further distance, requires a great deal of commitment – you submit yourself to months of training yourself physically and mentally, rest, proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and many other factors that come into play during the time leading up to the big race.

After that length of time throughout a marathon training period, one earns knowledge and ability. Becoming stronger in their movements and in-tune with their capabilities. After such an intense training period could one be considered an expert?

Merriam-Webster defines an expert as “having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced”

What makes a person an expert in any given field is the amount of time and work that it took for that person to arrive at where they are; to be able to speak confidently, act, and react with their abilities to handle a given situation.

Marathon training is all about time and effort. The time that it takes to prepare, the time that it takes to recover, and the time that it takes to finish the race. Marathon training is a long game, made up of concentrated efforts that built up over time to create the endurance needed to accomplish a goal.

It may take more time for some individuals to do any of the things required to successfully prepare for a marathon, but that doesn’t discount their level of expertise in relation to knowing what it takes to complete a race of that distance.

A full marathon is 26.2 miles. 26.2 miles worth of mistakes. 26.2 miles worth of pain and joy. 26.2 miles of focus and dedication- just like the journey to expertise.

The average global time it takes for an individual to finish a marathon is 4 hours and 21 minutes.  That’s a lot of time that could be used to accomplish a thousand other things, yet, instead you’re running.

Behind the final race time is weeks and months, sometimes years of preparation. Marathon training teaches us about expertise because it teaches us about time and hard work, the very things that are essential to learning, practicing, and perfecting any skill. The very things that make people into experts.

It’s no secret that Tesla is an innovating machine. Beth Loeb Davies, the company’s Director of Learning & Development, is a force of change when it comes to learning at Tesla. We interviewed Beth for a 3 part series on learning and development. In part II, we explore how Tesla is building its learning machine.

What’s your vision or goal for learning and development at Tesla?

Over and over again people say they want to learn and grow, so I want to satisfy for people the need to learn and grow. Part of that is ultimately around career paths but some of it even is just the growth that happens in your position, that keeps you current.

What are you and your team doing to try to modernize Tesla’s approach to L&D?

There’s a level of respect we treat people with that’s unlike what happens at traditional companies. treating people like adults and treating them with respect. I think to some degree just thinking that way also changes what you do. When you stop becoming parental and when you start just respecting people as the adults that they are, it just leads to some different answers and different solutions

What’s the  infrastructure you’ve got for learning? What are the different pieces of the puzzle at Tesla?

I see my role as the thing that transcends departments, and then we have teams that specifically drill down within departments. That’s how we are organized in terms of the people who cover L&D.

I think one of the mistakes that I’ve seen happening in our field is that people tend to think of technology as a solution but no, it’s a tool, right? You know, LMSs, eLearning… these are all tools that can help us with what we need to do. They are not the answers in and of themselves.

We’ve been trying for probably 3 years to find a Holy Grail as one LMS that would work for all these different groups, and I am no longer holding the belief that the Holy Grail even exists. Different groups have very different needs.

How did you get buy-in from your team to accept new approaches?

I actually find that I make my most progress when I hit real challenges that they are worried about. I plant the seeds of solution, and I keep bringing it up. It becomes part of the story that I was just telling people. I had to have a certain degree of patience, and then I waited, and when we hit a painful process for us, I’ll say “we can have a solution for this”.

Lastly, how’s the role of the learning function changing? What does that mean for you and your team?

I’ve been doing really great work for a long time and yet it didn’t move the needle, people were still saying “I want more”. I started thinking there had to be a better way. It’s also my nature to believe that context is everything and that as the context changes so do the solutions. The context today is very different so the answers have to be different. It’s a bit of that, and this frustration of doing good work for so long and still having people say “we need more formal training.”


We’ve got more wisdom coming from Beth in part III of our interview series. Check out part I here, and our other stories of innovations in learning. Tweet us your thoughts on innovation within L&D at @degreed or @toddtauber


When the temperature begins to change from “bearable with a hoodie” to “don’t go out without a coat” you know November is upon us. To me, it seems like once Halloween is over, everyone goes into Christmas mode and November just gets skipped over. I’m a strict no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving kind of guy. I’ve always felt bad for November. So to stick up for the month that gets ignored, here are three things to learn that will help you slow down and appreciate all that November has to offer.

  1. Why Election Day is on a Tuesday in November

Voting is one of the most important functions of our society. Back in the day, states used to be able to hold their voting day any time within a 34-day window before the first Wednesday in December. However, that started to cause some problems. The outcome of earlier elections swayed heavily the outcome of elections held closer to December. In 1845, in order to make the process more effective and fair, congress passed a law that mandated all elections be held the first Tuesday of November.

So what’s up with Tuesday? You can blame that on the farmers. Most people in the 1800s were farmers and the polling locations usually required a day’s worth of travel to get to. Since most people were in church on Sunday and farmer’s markets were generally on Wednesday, Tuesday was decidedly the most convenient day for everyone to be able to make it out to vote.

In addition, the beginning of November was also most the convenient because it didn’t interfere with the planting or harvesting season, and the weather wasn’t usually as cold and unbearable as it is in December. So there you go, we vote on a Tuesday in November because it allowed 19th century farmers to go to church and sell their crops while still being able to cast their votes.

  1. Where Veterans Day came from

On November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m., an armistice to end World War I went into effect. At the time, World War I had been considered the “war to end all wars.” Little did anyone know how untrue that was. However, to commemorate the end to the war, the year after the armistice president Woodrow Wilson organized the first commemoration of Armistice Day.

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

On June 1, 1954, November 11 officially became Veterans Day instead of Armistice Day in order to honor all American veterans “for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

  1. How football and Thanksgiving became two peas in a pod

The annual Turkey Bowl: the one time a year uncle Dave gets to relive his glory days and everyone has to listen to him spout off his tall tales. Even if he did throw the game-winning touchdown in high school, you’d never be able to tell with how many interceptions he throws Thursday morning. The tradition of football on Thanksgiving dates back a lot further than I ever thought. In fact, it’s said that sports and activities were even part of the very first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Football evolved from an apparently “crude game of ball kicking” on college campuses around the 1840’s. Eventually people began implementing rules and football became a popular college sport. The very first organized college game was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. At that time the rules prohibited players from running with the ball. They could only throw it, kick it, or head butt it.

Over the next six years, more college teams formed and an actual Intercollegiate Football Association was created. In 1876, the IFA scheduled the championship game to be played on Thanksgiving Day in front of an eager crowd of paying spectators. From there, football became an integral part of Thanksgiving day.

And there you have it! Three things you probably didn’t know about November. If you have any other interesting facts about November, I’d love to hear them! Leave them in the comments below or tweet them at me @bradensthompson, and  follow me on Degreed here.

Cristina Smith of Peoria, Arizona was the June 2015 winner of our Salesforce Build an App Scholarship. We asked Cristina a few questions to see what her goals are and get her advice for others-

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another. The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience.” –Deepak Chopra

Tell us one goal you want to accomplish this year

In the next year, I’d like to get a summer job or internship having to do with art or design. I want to be a character designer, and I think having experience would help prepare me for a more permanent job after graduation.

How will the scholarship help you achieve your goals?

This scholarship is a big step in helping me pay for college for next semester, and helps me stay a little ahead of possible student debt after I graduate. The scholarship will be going towards my classes and supplies, all helping me toward my goal of becoming a character designer for animation or video games after graduation.

What’s one thing you can teach others?

Perseverance, since this is my first time getting a scholarship outside of the one I’ve gotten from college after applying for three years since attending.

What would you love to become an expert in?

Creating stories and characters inclusive to minorities, to make media just a little more welcoming for everyone. I’d like to expand my design and creativity skills to do all this, and it’d be great to make possible fictional role models for all kids to look up to.

Congrats to Cristina on winning the scholarship. Chances are you could use some extra money to learn too! You can apply for the Salesforce Build an App Scholarship here. 

Brett Allison of DeLand, Florida was the August 2015 winner of our Salesforce Build an App Scholarship. We asked Brett a few questions to see what his goals are and get his advice for others-

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Find your passion and pursue it with everything you’ve got.

Tell us one goal you want to accomplish this year

I want to get married.

How will the scholarship help you achieve your goals?

This scholarship will help me tons in achieving my BS in Environmental Science and then going on to pursue a career in promoting and installing alternative energy in Central America and the United States.

What’s one thing you can teach others?


What would you love to become an expert in?

Alternative Energy.

Congrats to Brett on winning the scholarship. Chances are you could use some extra money to learn too! You can apply for the Salesforce Build an App Scholarship here. 


“Choose to struggle with something – we live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy.” – Jake Weidmann, One of only 12 Master Penmen in the world

Becoming an expert at anything takes just a tad more effort than typing those six letters into your Twitter profile—though a lot of people try to get away with it.


Expertise is elusive. Too often people get stuck in the doldrums of partial expert somewhere between “holy crap this is too difficult” and “just one more episode…”. Becoming an expert at anything takes patience and focus, but those traits are continually thrown under the bus in search of instant gratification. There is a silver lining to the increasing acceptance of half-assed effort: there is plenty of room at the top for those who are willing to put in the work.

Experts in Practice

I live for the knowledge I can find between the covers of a book. I could go on for days about how books can pave your path to expertise, but I’ll save that for another time. A few years ago I cracked open my first Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers. In the book, Gladwell dives into all kinds of research and elaborates on a myriad of stories to show why some people become extraordinary. Arguably one of the most popular ideas from his book is the concept of how much time someone needs to spend devoted to their work to become an expert.

In 1973, Herbert A. Simon and William G. Chase analyzed the intensely strategic game of chess in a paper titled, Skill in Chess. The purpose of their research was to try and understand exactly what it took to become an expert (an actual level of expertise in the field of chess), a master and a grandmaster—grandmaster being the highest possible ranking.

What they found was actually pretty cool.

“There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions.”

These findings led to the creation of an entire field of study within psychology. One of the spin-off studies came from psychologist John Hayes. He found that in a study of 76 classical composers, 73 of them didn’t write their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years.

Gladwell drew from both of these studies and brought to light some other examples that fit in with this 10,000 hour rule (estimating 1,000 hours a year.) For example, if you didn’t grow up under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Beatles. Though they established themselves as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, they were a pretty subpar band when they started. What eventually set them apart from other bands was a gig they landed as a house band in a strip club. Not exactly what you would imagine as the most ideal environment for becoming great. In just over a year and a half during their residency, they played together 270 nights. In 1964 when The Beatles really started to gain some traction with their music, they had performed live roughly 1200 times. Just try to fathom that number for a second. Most bands never perform 1200 times in a lifetime. By the time they put out their best work, they had easily surpassed their 10,000 hours. 

The Language of Expertise

Gladwell also talks about experts in computer programming, one of those being Bill Joy. If you don’t know, Joy’s contributions to the world of computers is right up there with Bill Gates. In the 70’s, Joy wrote vi, one of the first screen-based text editors, which is astonishingly still used today. His company, Sun Microsystems, also wrote the programming language, Java. I don’t know much about computers, but I know enough to know that that’s pretty remarkable.

But reading through Joy’s story, one particular instance really caught my interest. When Joy was taking his oral exams for his PhD, he confounded his examiners with an elaborate algorithm that he just made up on the spot. How could he have done that? Complex algorithms shouldn’t just appear out of thin air.

In the Skill in Chess paper, Simon and Chase found that proficiency in Chess is strangely similar to proficiency in language.

As the two began to try and understand the possibilities of moves in a single game, they came to the conclusion that a master knows roughly 50,000 different patterns. From that number, they drew another fascinating conclusion: the time a master needs to spend perfecting his or her chess game is comparable to the time a highly literate person (someone knowing 50,000+ words) must spend reading.

For the most elite chess players, the moves of the game become like words and sentences of an entirely new language. Eventually a player can become so expert at the game that they begin to recognize a good strategic move in mere seconds.

When someone asks you a question in a conversation, you can quickly pull words and phrases together to form a sentence without even really thinking about the complex process of identifying words, processing their meaning, coming up with a response, and then voicing that response.

You have spent thousands of hours storing thousands of combinations and rules in your brain to be used for communication. Eventually, you reached a level where those processes run automatically. When Bill Joy was presented with a question in a language he knew as second nature, his years of practice and study took over and he came up with an algorithm that, as one of the examiners stated, was like “Jesus confounding his elders.” 

The Problem with “Magic Numbers”

Since so many things seem to match up with this 10,000 hour rule, it’s easy for people to shoot for that number like it’s a magic number for obtaining expertise. As with every one-size-fits-all theory, the 10,000 hour rule has been the subject of some intense criticism.

Though Gladwell didn’t actually come up with the idea, he took it and popularized it. If you search Ask Jeeves (or whatever search engine you prefer) for “Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule,” you’ll find pages of articles refuting the idea.

And you know what? A lot of the differing opinions are right. However, most of them appear relevant on the outside but are actually comparing apples to oranges. And Gladwell has made many of his own counter arguments to that point.

Gladwell clarifies in a New Yorker article that not anyone can practice anything for 10,000 hours and become a world-class expert. There has to be some level of innate talent present. For example, Gladwell refers to a South African researcher who tested over ten thousand boys and never saw a slow boy became fast. 

“Achievement is talent plus preparation.” – Gladwell

If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But on the flip side, Gladwell acknowledges the story of a high jumper, Donald Thomas, who became world class after only a few months. So there are definitely instances where the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t apply.

To further that point, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, found that some sports like skeleton, darts or wrestling don’t follow the 10,000 hour rule. The argument in these cases is that these activities are simple (compared to chess or computer programming) and don’t require the same depth of complex knowledge to perfect.

“Cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.” – Gladwell

Your Mom Was Wrong

So what’s the take away from all this? Contrary to what your mom tells you, you probably can’t be an expert at anything you want—even if you give it your all. At the very least, you need to have some level of innate talent in the skill you wish to master.

But what this does mean is that you can be an expert at something! (That is, if you’re willing to put in a ridiculous amount of work) No one is talentless. You may just have to work harder at finding what you are talented at, but I promise it’s in there. Don’t give up no matter how many times you find yourself thinking, “Holy crap this is too difficult!”- push through the challenge.

Struggle for something worthwhile. Become an expert. Change the world.



It’s no secret that Tesla is an innovating machine. Beth Loeb Davies, the company’s Director of Learning & Development, is a force of change when it comes to learning at Tesla. We interviewed Beth about her experiences and ideas to get these 3 pieces of advice for L&D pros.

Many L&D professionals know they need to start to convince their leadership to invest differently or convince HR and L&D people that they need to work differently. What’s your advice?

Find the trigger points for your organization. I actually put together my own presentation targeted to my VP and I know him well enough to know what his trigger points are. And one of his trigger points is, of course, making our CEO happy right? Inevitably people are always asking the CEO for more formal training, tuition reimbursement, some form of more formal training- some individuals believe that if they’re not in a class they’re not learning. I communicated firmly that my overall goal was to never have ‘more formal training’ be asked again. So how do we do that? Two ways: we help people change their perception that formal training is the only way you learn, and then we have to get other stuff out there so they realize formal isn’t the only way.

If you had to start over with a blank sheet of paper what would you do?

Trying new things within L&D is all about leadership. It’s about being that person who sees the new road ahead, the new path ahead. It’s just like if you were hiking. If you were in the front of the pack, to say “Look the best way to go is over here” but right in front of the group is a bunch of brush. It’s gonna be the better way but we’re gonna have to clear the brush first, we’ve got to knock it down.

Anybody else standing behind you is gonna pull you back and go “Wait hold on! There’s a clear path to the right. We should just go on this clear path instead.” As the leader, you know that’s the path that everybody else is taking but you can see over the brush to the other side. One of the hard things is over and over again people wanna pull you back and say “ I don’t see that path that you see. I only see the other path.” You need to have this fortitude and conviction to tell them “No. I really do see another, better path for us. I may have to take you down with me step by step but I’m not going to let you pull me back.”

How did you learn what you need to know to stay on top of your job and ahead of your career?

It’s probably everything you’d expect it to be. I am going to things like the ATD conference and then I am poking around constantly at different articles and blog posts and those kinds of things just to see what’s being written. I’m finding people that I believe in and agree with and following them. I’m also rejecting the ones that I don’t. I try to connect ideas and make sense of them, I think it’s in part the way my mind works. I’m not looking for somebody else to spoon feed me what’s going on. I’m looking to find out myself.


We’ve got more wisdom coming from Beth in part II and part III of our interview series. Check out other stories of innovations in learning, and tweet us your advice for innovating within L&D.

We say that innovation is a lot like learning – it works best when you do a little bit every day. Xerox Services University (XSU) is innovating and rethinking learning in two important ways. First, by reworking learning to more closely link development to career growth. And second, by investing to build a culture of continuous, everyday learning. Both initiatives are possible because XSU is embracing the new learning ecosystem.
In this presentation, from the Human Capital Institute’s 2015 Learning and Leadership Development Conference, XSU’s VP of Learning Strategy and Delivery, Kerry Hearns-Smith, joins Degreed’s Todd Tauber to show you how she and her team are making L&D more efficient, more engaging and more empowering for Xerox Services’ employees.

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