Author Archives: Farnam Street Team

The Motivation Toolkit

It is rare that a book devotes almost half of itself to explaining the concrete implementation of its core ideas. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink includes a toolkit which he says, “is your guide to taking the ideas in this book and putting them into action.”

The toolkit covers ways to increase your motivation in the context of individuals, organizations, parents, educators, and even exercise.

Pink dedicates a section in the toolkit to Strategies for Awakening Your Motivation. There are a few great tips here that are worth highlighting.

The Motivation Toolkit

Give Yourself a ‘Flow Test’

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did more than discover the concept of flow. He also introduced an ingenious new technique to measure it. Csikszentmihalyi and his University of Chicago team equipped participants in their research studies with electronic pagers. Then they paged people at random intervals (approximately eight times a day) for a week, asking them to describe their mental state at that moment. Compared with previous methods, these real-time reports proved far more honest and revealing.

You can use Csikzentimihalyi’s methodological innovation in your own quest for mastery by giving yourself a ‘flow test.’ Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in ‘flow.’ Record your observations, look at the patterns, and consider the following questions:

  • Which moments produced feelings of ‘flow’? Where were you? What were you working on? Who were you with?
  • Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others? How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
  • How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
  • If you’re having doubts about your job or career, what does this exercise tell you about your true source of intrinsic motivation?”

Just Say No – With a List

Most of us have a to-do list. But legendary management guru Tom Peters also has what he calls “to don’t” list – an inventory of behaviours and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and ought to be avoided. Follow his lead and each week craft your own agenda of avoidance. Staying motivated – directing your own life, making progress, and pursuing purpose – isn’t easy. So get rid of the unnecessary obligations, time-wasting distractions, and useless burdens that stand in your way. And the first step in bulldozing these obstacles is to enumerate them. As Peters puts it, “What you decide not to do is probably more important than what you decide to do.”

Stop-doing lists are not new. If you’re wondering what you should stop doing, here are 9 unproductive habits you can stop right now.

Move Five Steps Closer to Mastery

One key to mastery is what Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice – a ‘lifelong period of… effort to improve performance in a specific domain.’ Deliberate practice isn’t running a few miles each day or banging on the piano for twenty minutes each morning. It’s much more purposeful, focused, and, yes painful. Follow these steps – over and over again for a decade – and you just might become a master:

  • Remember that deliberate practise has one objective: to improve performance. ‘People who play tennis once a week for years don’t get any better if they do the same thing each time,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Deliberate practise is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.’
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition matters. Basketball greats don’t shoot ten free throws at the end of team practise; they shoot five hundred.
  • Seek constant, critical feedback. If you don’t know how you’re doing, you won’t know what to improve.
  • Focus ruthlessly on where you need help. While many of us work on what we’re already good at, says Ericsson, ‘those who get better work on their weaknesses.’
  • Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. That’s why so few people commit to it, but that’s why it works.

The toolkit also includes a summary of each chapter and even a ‘Drive Discussion Guide;’ a list of twenty questions designed to start a conversation and help you think more deeply about the concepts he has covered. These are some of the fundamentals of active reading and also remind us a bit of the Feynman technique for learning concepts more deeply.

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Still Curious? Follow up with eight ways to say no, Steve Jobs on focus, and the difference between successful people and very successful people.

J.K. Rowling On People’s Intolerance of Alternative Viewpoints

At the PEN America Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards, J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, received the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Embedded in her acceptance speech is some timeless wisdom on tolerance and acceptance:

Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable. Only last year, we saw an online petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the U.K. It garnered half a million signatures.

Just a moment.

I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.

Too often we look at the world through our own eyes and fail to acknowledge the eyes of others. In so doing we often lose touch with reality.

The quick reaction our brains have to people who disagree with us is often that they are idiots. They shouldn’t be allowed to talk or have a platform. They should lose.

This reminds me of Kathryn Schulz’s insightful view on what we do when someone disagrees with us.

As a result we dismiss the views of others, failing to even consider that our view of the world might be wrong.

It’s easy to be dismissive and intolerant of others. It’s easy to say they’re idiots and wish they didn’t have the same rights you have. It’s harder to map that to the very freedoms we enjoy and relate it to the world we want to live in.

Richard Feynman on Teaching Math to Kids and the Lessons of Knowledge

Legendary scientist Richard Feynman was famous for his penetrating insight and clarity of thought. Famous for not only the work he did to garner a Nobel Prize, but also for the lucidity of explanations of ordinary things such as why trains stay on the tracks as they go around a curve, how we look for new laws of science, how rubber bands work, and the beauty of the natural world.

Feynman knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. And was often prone to telling the emperor they had no clothes as this illuminating example from James Gleick’s book Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman shows.

Educating his children gave him pause as to how the elements of teaching should be employed. By the time his son Carl was four, Feynman was “actively lobbying against a first-grade science book proposed for California schools.”

It began with pictures of a mechanical wind-up dog, a real dog, and a motorcycle, and for each the same question: “What makes it move?” The proposed answer—“ Energy makes it move”— enraged him.

That was tautology, he argued—empty definition. Feynman, having made a career of understanding the deep abstractions of energy, said it would be better to begin a science course by taking apart a toy dog, revealing the cleverness of the gears and ratchets. To tell a first-grader that “energy makes it move” would be no more helpful, he said, than saying “God makes it move” or “moveability makes it move.”

Feynman proposed a simple test for whether one is teaching ideas or mere definitions: “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word energy, tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.”

The other standard explanations were equally horrible: gravity makes it fall, or friction makes it wear out. You didn’t get a pass on learning because you were a first-grader and Feynman’s explanations not only captured the attention of his audience—from Nobel winners to first-graders—but also offered true knowledge. “Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off.” That is knowledge. “To simply say, ‘It is because of friction,’ is sad, because it’s not science.”

Richard Feynman on Teaching

Choosing Textbooks for Grade Schools

In 1964 Feynman made the rare decision to serve on a public commission for choosing mathematics textbooks for California’s grade schools. As Gleick describes it:

Traditionally this commissionership was a sinecure that brought various small perquisites under the table from textbook publishers. Few commissioners— as Feynman discovered— read many textbooks, but he determined to read them all, and had scores of them delivered to his house.

This was the era of new math in children’s textbooks: introducing high-level concepts, such as set theory and non decimal number systems into grade school.

Feynman was skeptical of this approach but rather than simply let it go, he popped the balloon.

He argued to his fellow commissioners that sets, as presented in the reformers’ textbooks, were an example of the most insidious pedantry: new definitions for the sake of definition, a perfect case of introducing words without introducing ideas.

A proposed primer instructed first-graders: “Find out if the set of the lollipops is equal in number to the set of the girls.”

To Feynman this was a disease. It confused without adding precision to the normal sentence: “Find out if there are just enough lollipops for the girls.”

According to Feynman, specialized language should wait until it is needed. (In case you’re wondering, he argued the peculiar language of set theory is rarely, if ever, needed —only in understanding different degrees of infinity—which certainly wasn’t necessary at a grade-school level.)

Feynman convincingly argued this was knowledge of words without actual knowledge. He wrote:

It is an example of the use of words, new definitions of new words, but in this particular case a most extreme example because no facts whatever are given…. It will perhaps surprise most people who have studied this textbook to discover that the symbol ∪ or ∩ representing union and intersection of sets … all the elaborate notation for sets that is given in these books, almost never appear in any writings in theoretical physics, in engineering, business, arithmetic, computer design, or other places where mathematics is being used.

The point became philosophical.

It was crucial, he argued, to distinguish clear language from precise language. The textbooks placed a new emphasis on precise language: distinguishing “number” from “numeral,” for example, and separating the symbol from the real object in the modern critical fashion— pupil for schoolchildren, it seemed to Feynman. He objected to a book that tried to teach a distinction between a ball and a picture of a ball— the book insisting on such language as “color the picture of the ball red.”

“I doubt that any child would make an error in this particular direction,” Feynman said, adding:

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to be precise … whereas before there was no difficulty. The picture of a ball includes a circle and includes a background. Should we color the entire square area in which the ball image appears all red? … Precision has only been pedantically increased in one particular corner when there was originally no doubt and no difficulty in the idea.

In the real world absolute precision can never be reached and the search for degrees of precision that are not possible (but are desirable) causes a lot of folly.

Feynman has his own ideas for teaching children mathematics.

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Process vs. Outcome

Feynman proposed that first-graders learn to add and subtract more or less the way he worked out complicated integrals— free to select any method that seems suitable for the problem at hand.A modern-sounding notion was, The answer isn’t what matters, so long as you use the right method. To Feynman no educational philosophy could have been more wrong. The answer is all that does matter, he said. He listed some of the techniques available to a child making the transition from being able to count to being able to add. A child can combine two groups into one and simply count the combined group: to add 5 ducks and 3 ducks, one counts 8 ducks. The child can use fingers or count mentally: 6, 7, 8. One can memorize the standard combinations. Larger numbers can be handled by making piles— one groups pennies into fives, for example— and counting the piles. One can mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces— a method that becomes useful, Feynman noted, in understanding measurement and fractions. One can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10.

To Feynman the standard texts were flawed. The problem

29
+3

was considered a third-grade problem because it involved the concept of carrying. However, Feynman pointed out most first-graders could easily solve this problem by counting 30, 31, 32.

He proposed that kids be given simple algebra problems (2 times what plus 3 is 7) and be encouraged to solve them through the scientific method, which is tantamount to trial and error. This, he argued, is what real scientists do.

“We must,” Feynman said, “remove the rigidity of thought.” He continued “We must leave freedom for the mind to wander about in trying to solve the problems…. The successful user of mathematics is practically an inventor of new ways of obtaining answers in given situations. Even if the ways are well known, it is usually much easier for him to invent his own way— a new way or an old way— than it is to try to find it by looking it up.”

It was better in the end to have a bag of tricks at your disposal that could be used to solve problems than one orthodox method. Indeed, part of Feynman’s genius was his ability to solve problems that were baffling others because they were using the standard method to try and solve them. He would come along and approach the problem with a different tool, which often led to simple and beautiful solutions.

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If you give some thought to how Farnam Street helps you, one of the ways is by adding to your bag of tricks so that you can pull them out when you need them to solve problems. We call these tricks mental models and they work kinda like lego — interconnecting and reinforcing one another. The more pieces you have, the more things you can build.

Complement this post with Feynman’s excellent advice on how to learn anything.

The Four Tools of Discipline

“The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”

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Life is full of problems. We can moan about them or we can solve them. Scott Peck argues in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth that discipline is the toolbox for solving problems.

Peck’s argument is based on the notion that most of us want to avoid problems – they are painful and often lead us to confront our humanity. They are frustrating. There are false starts. We lack consistent frameworks for improvement. They cause us to feel sad and lonely; things we’d rather avoid. The mental pain and strain often rivals physical pain. Yet Peck argues it is in this “whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.”

Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”

This is why some of us come to welcome problems. Most of us, however, fear them.

Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.

Ultimately however the suffering from avoiding reality is more painful than reality itself. You can see where this goes right? Now we want to avoid the pseudo-reality that we created to avoid the reality. And so it builds, layer on layer.

Avoiding problems avoids the growth opportunity. Most of the time problems don’t go away, rather they grow.

This inclination to ignore problems is once again a simple manifestation of an unwillingness to delay gratification. Confronting problems is, as I have said, painful. To willingly confront a problem early, before we are forced to confront it by circumstances, means to put aside something pleasant or less painful for something more painful. It is choosing to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choosing to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.

The Four Tools of Discipline

What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing.

Easy to learn and yet hard to employ. These are the tools to confront problems and thus pain.

1. Delaying Gratification

Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.

2. Accepting Responsibility

The extent to which we will go to avoid responsibility should come as no surprise. Accepting responsibility is emotionally uncomfortable. We often feel, incorrectly, that we can solve a problem by saying “That’s not my problem.” Other times we hope that someone else will just solve it for us.

I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

There are extremes of responsibility.

The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.

Just remember …

Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization, or entity.

3. Dedication to Reality

This sounds a lot like Joseph Tussman’s wise advice. Most of us have problems confronting reality because it does not line up with how we want the world to work. The rise of a political figure that we don’t support baffles us because in our mind the world shouldn’t work that way.

What Peck outlines below is a version of the map and terrority problem.

Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.

While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. … Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.

This biggest problem isn’t that our maps are inaccurate but rather that we fail, especially as we age, to revise them. The world is always changing. As Heraclitus said, No man can step in the same river twice.

The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing.

When we’ve worked so hard over so many years to create a map that we believe represents the world, we tend to ignore information that would suggest we need to redraw our map. We become defensive. Often we don’t even passively ignore this information. We go further. We denounce it or crusade against it. We feel that people who listen to it are idiots and we are the only ones who see the truth. Rather than change our map, we often try to (mentally) destroy the new reality and those that subscribe to it.

Pride and ego come into play.

Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say that we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.

Openness to Challenge

What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.

The only way we can ensure our map is correct and accurate is to expose it to the criticism of others. There might be a better answer than the one you have. We need an outside view, otherwise we live in a closed system. The tendency to avoid being challenged is a characteristic of human nature.

4. Balancing

Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.

[…]

To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and hotly. We therefore not only need to know how to deal with our anger in different ways at different times but also how most appropriately to match the right time with the right style of expression. To handle our anger with full adequacy and competence, an elaborate, flexible response system is required. It is no wonder, then, that to learn to handle our anger is a complex task which usually cannot be completed before adulthood, or even mid-life, and which often is never completed.

[…]

Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.

The Four Tools of Discipline. Click To Tweet

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The Road Less Traveled is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human and to struggle to get better.

Lee Kuan Yew on the Proper Balance Between Competitiveness and Equality

Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and the one responsible for its rise from third world to first in only a generation, is a great source of wisdom.

In this excerpt from, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, he talks about the necessary balance between competitiveness and equality.

To be successful, society must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society.

If everybody gets the same rewards, as they do under communism with their iron rice bowl, nobody strives to excel; society will not prosper, and progress will be minimal. That led to the collapse of the communist system. On the other hand, in a highly competitive society where winners get big prizes and losers paltry ones, there will be a great disparity between the top and the bottom layers of society, as in America. … At the end of the day, the basic problem of fairness in society will need to be solved. But first, we have to create the wealth. To do that, we must be competitive and have a good dose of the “yang.” If we have too much of the “yin” and over- redistribute the incomes of the successful, then we will blunt their drive to excel and succeed, and may lose too many of our able, who will move to other countries where they are not so heavily taxed. On the other hand, if too many at the lower end feel left out, then our society will become divisive and fractious, and cohesiveness will be lost. Communism has failed. The welfare state of Western democracies has also failed.

There is a continual need to balance between a successful, competitive society, and a cohesive, compassionate one. That requires judgment, to strike a bargain or social contract. Each society must arrive at that optimum point for itself. Between the two ends, the highly competitive and the excessively equal, lies a golden mean. This point will move with time and changing values.

I can best explain the need for balance between individual competition and group solidarity by using the metaphor of the oriental yin and yang symbol. … The more yang (male) competitiveness in society, the higher the total performance. If winner takes all, competition will be keen, but group solidarity will be weak. The more yin (female) solidarity, with rewards evenly distributed, the greater the group solidarity, but the weaker the total performance because of reduced competition…. We have arranged help, but in such a way that only those who have no other choice will seek it. This is the opposite of attitudes in the West, where liberals actively encourage people to demand entitlements with no sense of shame, causing an explosion of welfare costs.

7 Things I Learned in Architecture School

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context
—a chair in a room, a room in a house,
a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

— Eliel Saarinen

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Things I learned in Architecture School

“The following lessons in design, drawing, creative process, and presentation first came to me as barely discernible glimmers through the fog of my own education,” writes Architect Matthew Frederick in the insightful book 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The series of books, which we’ve covered before, includes law school, business school, and engineering school. Like others in the series, the book on architecture offers many lessons in thinking and design that transcend one discipline.

Here are some ideas and nuggets of wisdom that stood out as I read the book.

  1. Be specific. “The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon a specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.”
  2. Ideas can take away from or add to the essential idea. “When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.”
  3. Throw away your best loved ideas. “A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea.”
  4. The most important skill for a designer to develop. “Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”
  5. Think about how you think. “The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” This means you’re aware of how you’re structuring your thoughts while you’re thinking. You want to test ideas, challenge yourself, see if you understand the other side of the argument, criticizing, and redirecting your thought process.
  6. Don’t make it too complex. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”
  7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”