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Category Archives: Performance

Remembering More of Everything: The Memory Palace

“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’
it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.”

— Joshua Foer

***

That’s a quote from the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the fascinating account of Joshua Foer’s journey investigating memory.

What starts as a routine piece of writing ends with his participation in the USA Memory Championships. While interviewing contestants for the article he was told that anyone could have a memory like these champions if they trained properly. Intrigued, Foer decided to give it a try.

The journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle, and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level. Did that make the brains of these “mental athletes” physically different from yours or mine?

Foer found research where MRI was used to compare the memory specialists’ brains to those of a control group. There was no difference between the brain structure of the two. However, during the act of memorizing, the regions of the brain which “lit up” were completely different. 

Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation.

It turns out the mental athletes were purposefully converting the information they were memorizing into images, and then placing these images into a mentally constructed “palace” — thus the involvement of visual memory and spatial navigation.

Foer goes into great (and fascinating) detail regarding the science of memory (which we’ve covered some before). However, let’s explore the specific techniques that Foer learned while studying the memory athletes.

The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace is a device that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, to help encode their memories for easy retrieval. This was a time before smart devices; if you wanted information at your fingertips you had to put that information in your head. You’d do it through a process the modern memory athletes call elaborative encoding.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

The memory palace technique is about changing your memories into images placed in a familiar mental location. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your Palace looking at your memories to recall them.

They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.

The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our head. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context. Creating a multi-sensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick.

‘Now, it’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily.’ The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.

Try to animate your image so that you watch it move. Try to think of what it might smell like or feel like and make it as vivid as possible. This is you processing your image. Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why this works.

***

Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front porch, try to remember as many details as possible.

Let’s imagine that your spouse has asked you to pick up a few steaks from the grocery store for dinner. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.

Got it?

Okay, now lets try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch, not like a cow would, like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubble gum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about what that bubble gum would smell like or the strange smell of a mixture of bubble gum and cow. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubble gum off of the cow’s face?

Four hours from now when you leave work to head home you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front porch. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks, that you see all the time? Or the gum chewing cow we created?

A professional memory athlete will put objects in multiple places within their palaces and have more than one palace in their repertoire. Some will even design their own fictional palaces in great detail, designed specifically as a place to hang memories.

The Memory Palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember.

What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.

PAO: Person – Action – Object

In this system every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object.

The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.

As you can see this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about Frank Sinatra kicking a cape before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your ‘stock images’ as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.

You may look at PAO and think that it’s a very clever way to memorize numbers, a party trick, but not necessarily useful for most of us from day to day. Maybe true, but Foer shares a great insight into the residual effects of training your memory.

I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.

This reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our life.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory… Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.

We are a culmination of our experiences, how we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavour.

Foer’s personal account in Moonwalking with Einstein is a great starting point for your own mental journey. While you’re waiting for that to arrive, start reading our four part series on our memory’s advantages and weakness, starting here

Becoming an Expert: The Elements of Success

We’re massively impressed by a concert pianist, or a wide receiver, or a truly skillful visual artist. Their abilities seem otherworldly.

But what makes these people so skillful? How did they start out like you and I and then become something so extraordinary?

Part of us wants to believe that it’s something innate and magical, so we can recuse ourself from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears — that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something. 

In reality, it’s a bit of both. 

In the book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed takes a critical look at all the factors underpinning the success of some of the most extraordinary athletes and artists in the world. 

The obvious place to start is with the popular Outliers idea posited by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea that many successful people are a product of their environment rather than ‘gifted’.

Gladwell shows how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with ‘what they are like’ but rather ‘where they come from.’ ‘The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,’ Gladwell writes. ‘But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.’”

We think if you study the life and work trajectory of experts, two patterns seem to emerge.

One, they have specific backgrounds or opportunities, as mentioned above. Two, they put an incredible amount of time and effort into deliberate, effortful practice.

But not everyone will have access to the same facilities or teachers (this goes back to opportunity and circumstance), and some rules/regulations will inevitably favor some and add roadblocks for others in the quest for their 10,000 hours.

A good example of the latter is eligibility cutoff dates for children’s sports teams. If you’ve ever signed up yourself or your kids in a sports league then you’ll know there is always a cut-off birth date for the different age groups.

Say your child plays on a soccer team for kids born any time in the year 2007. If your child is born in January, then they will have almost a 12 month head start on a child born in December, and a year is like a lifetime at that stage of physical development. Those physical skills manifest themselves in playing time, which further develops the child. 

Month of birth is, of course, just one of the many hidden forces shaping patterns of success and failure in this world. But what most of these forces have in common – at least when it comes to attaining excellence – is the extent to which they confer (or deny) opportunities for serious practice. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

Thus, if you have the time and opportunity to devote to practice, you’ve crossed the first hurdle. The second is understanding the characteristics of the type of practice which will push you ahead.

The best type of practice does two things:

  1. It helps us to acquire the skills that speed up/automate processes and feedback (see how Brazil develops its soccer players, for example.)
  2. It pushes us to the edge of our competence and forces us to focus. This is where the learning happens

***

Let’s explain the first point in greater detail, using an example of a specific process happening in the brains of experts.

becoming-an-expert

We all do something called chunking. You probably don’t realize you’re doing it, but you do it all the time. Say I asked you to read the line below once and then, without looking back at the page, repeat the letters back to me.

HOCBTELAKGD

The average person will find this difficult to do. Generally speaking, our mind can only keep track of about seven things at once, and I asked you to try and recall eleven. Now watch what happens when I rearrange the letters.

THE BLACK DOG

These are the exact same letters, but sensibly grouped in a way that your mind can understand: This is chunking.

Now, instead of trying to remember eleven letters you are remembering three words (which is still eleven letters). Even if you were able to recall the letters the way they were presented in the first example, think of how much quicker you could recall them in the second one.

This is one way that experts become so good. They learn how to chunk processes specific to their area of expertise. This helps them to use a sort of autopilot, allowing them to elevate their minds to a higher level. That’s why you’ll hear a great pianist talking about trying to use the instrument to “paint an emotion in the listeners’ minds” while you or I would struggle to eke out a few notes. 

As Janet Starkes, professor emerita of kinesiology at McMaster Univeristy, noted in Bounce,

The exploitation of advance information results in the time paradox where skilled performers seem to have all the time in the world. Recognition of familiar scenarios and the chunking of perceptual information into meaningful wholes and patterns speeds up processes.

This chunking and pattern recognition not only enables the expert to perform faster, it also helps them to make better decisions.

Unfortunately, figuring out how to best recognize, process, and use this information isn’t something that can be learned from a book or a classroom, it comes from experience. This may seem like common sense but it won’t happen just by putting in the time: You have to focus to find these patterns.

This is why (as dozens of studies have shown) length of time in many occupations is only weakly related to performance. Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Put another way, someone with 20 years of experience, might be repeating one year of experience 20 times.

Let’s look at a great example from the book to illustrate this point.

***

Take a look at the anagrams in List A and try to solve them. Then do the same for list B.

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-12-47-16-pm

Both lists are the same words. The only difference is that one list was more difficult to solve. When researchers asked participants to list off words like those in List A, that were easy, the participants had problems recalling them. Their recall soared when asked to list words from more difficult anagrams like those is List B.

To figure out words like those in list B it takes more time, concentration, and effort: You are engaging much more of your brain. This means that if you want to remember something or maintain your focus, make it hard.

This example, taken from the work of psychologist S. W. Tyler, neatly emphasized the power of practice when it is challenging rather than nice and easy. “When most people practice they focus on the things they can do effortlessly,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

This isn’t to say that a certain amount of time and effort don’t go into maintaining a certain skill. But if you want to grow, you need to strain. In other words, you must eat a lot of broccoli; and since most people won’t stomach it, they will never develop a high fluency in their discipline.

…world-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.

It is worth mentioning that this type of deliberate practice can only happen if the individual has made a conscious decision to devote themselves: We can’t make these decisions for other people. We have to go “all in”; no substitute will do. 

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.

In theory we can all be that wide receiver picking the ball from the air, or that musician who speaks to us through their instrument. 10,000 hours of hard, correct work is all it takes.

But as they say, “In theory, reality and theory are the same. In reality, they’re not.”

If you want to make it there, the road is bumpy. It has to be. Only a difficult road will cause you to grow and learn. And you have to personally want to travel this road, because it will be long and if you can’t motivate yourself you’ll never get where you need to be.

And as much as we shy away from reality, we can’t also forget the roles of luck and genes in making it to the absolute “top” of a profession. The recent scholarship has been extremely egalitarian, emphasizing the necessary hard work that goes into creating high level performance.

But that doesn’t mean that different folks don’t have different biology — Is there a world in which Woody Allen could have played in the NFL? — and it doesn’t mean that for every Daniel-Day Lewis, there aren’t a few hundred other actors who are extremely talented but for whom life got in the way.

Top 0.01% success is a multiplicative system: Everything’s gotta go right. The world is too competitive to allow for anything else. The magical mix of luck, genes, and correct practice probably differ widely depending on the field.

So in your quest for success, realize that you’ll have to do deep, hard work for many years, you may need the right parents (to an extent) and you’ll need a whole lot of luck.

On a lighter note, even if you just work on the first one, the only one within your control, we suspect you won’t be disappointed with the result.

***

Still Interested? Pick up the Bounce. It has more information on how to reach the top and how not to choke when you get there.

Robert Moses and the Oxygen of Pure Competence

Do you know anyone that’s really, really competent? Like really, ridiculously competent?

They seem to have a work ethic that’s twice as powerful as yours, they get things done as asked, going “above and beyond” the call of duty almost always, and always within a reasonable time. They come up with creative solutions, or absent that, simply know how to get to a solution to keep the process moving. They keep going when others stop.

They’re Competent, with a capital “C”.

Now ask yourself, regardless of the other traits you like or dislike about them, is that person at risk of losing their job, whatever it may be? Are they at risk of “wallowing in the shallows” in life? Are they at risk of true, debilitating failure? Or are they just getting ahead time and time again?

I’m going to guess the latter.

There’s something about the pure and simple “getting things done”-type ability, the pure hustle, which acts like oxygen for most organizations and teams, making the people with that ability super-useful. These super-productive, super-able people, almost regardless of their other traits, seem to rise to the top. (Although, multiplicative type thinking tells us that it depends on how severe the lacking traits are. A drinking problem can kill even the best, for example.)

For the man we’ll study today, the “pure oxygen” of competence outweighed so many awful traits that it’s worth figuring out what lessons we might learn for ourselves.

***

The inimitable Robert Moses was maybe the most powerful man in the history of New York City, responsible for building a large number of the beaches, bridges, tunnels, highways, parkways, and housing developments we all recognize today. Just pulling from Wikipedia the number of artifacts in New York City named after the guy shows you his influence:

Various locations and roadways in New York State bear Moses’s name. These include two state parks, Robert Moses State ParkThousand Islands in Massena, New York and Robert Moses State Park – Long Island, and the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam in Lewiston, New York. A hydro-electric power dam in Massena, New York also bears Moses’ name. These supply much of New York City’s power. Moses also has a school named after him in North Babylon, New York on Long Island; there is also a Robert Moses Playground in New York City. There are other signs of the surviving appreciation held for him by some circles of the public. A statue of Moses was erected next to the Village Hall in his long-time hometown, Babylon Village, New York, in 2003, as well as a bust on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.

By the time Moses’ reign was done in New York City — he held some form of influential power between 1924 and 1968 — he had built seven of the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its boroughs, at least a dozen major roads that would be familiar to all New York area drivers today (416 miles of parkways), over 1,000 public housing buildings, 658 separate playgrounds, scores of dams, State Parks, and beaches (including Jones Beach), Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center…the list goes on. He was the dominant force behind all of them.

His physical — and in many ways, social — mark on New York City is unmatched before or since.

Oh, and did I mention he accomplished much of this during the Great Depression, a time when no one, cities least, had any money, finding incredibly creative ways to corral Federal funds to New York and away from the country’s other great cities? And did I mention he was able to do it without ever winning any elections?

That is “capital-C Competence”.

 

***

But the thing about Moses is that he was kind of a bastard. He did not treat others well. He didn’t seem to care about making others feel good. He certainly did not follow the popular Dale Carnegie type behavior popular back then. Most of the people he had to work with over the years — Governors, Mayors, Commissioners, thousands and thousands of employees — did not like him.

If I described some of his personal traits to you — verbally abusive, racist, classist, demanding, elitist, difficult, insufferably arrogant — you would not conceive of this as the stereotype of someone you’d help rise to power. He “drove” his men, and he “commanded” those around him. He rarely passed up an opportunity to make a new enemy.

As an example, here’s how his biographer Robert Caro, in his classic book The Power Broker, describes the general feeling when Moses is named New York’s Secretary of State in 1927 by Governor Al Smith, his main ally:

The depth and unanimity of the feeling transcended party affiliation. Moses had for years been either insulting or ignoring legislators of both parties. And now the Legislature was being asked–for under reorganization the Senate had to approve key gubernatorial nominations–to approve the elevation to the second most important post in the state. One observer says: “When he walked down a corridor in the capitol and passed a group of legislators, you could see their eyes follow him as he passed, and you could see how many enemies–bitter, personal enemies–he had. I really believe that Robert Moses was the most hated man in Albany.

How did a guy like that get the elevation needed to become the Secretary of State, the State Parks Commissioner, the Triborough Bridge Authority, the city “Construction Coordinator,” the Long Island Park Commissioner…? He had more titles than a bookstore, all carrying tremendous power to direct the public purse, hand out thousands of jobs, and physically shape the most important city in the country. 

Pure and simple, the guy was insanely competent. He could get things done that no one else could get done. His administrative abilities were brilliant and his work ethic legendary.

His written reports, starting with his Oxford PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain, were considered classics of the field. The brilliance of that thesis probably got him his first appointments. The following was said about Moses only in his mid-twenties:

Two men who had read Moses’ thesis — it had been published — were Luther C. Steward, first president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and H. Elliot Kaplan, later president of the New York civil Service Commission and executive director of the Civil Service Reform Association. Years later, when Kaplan had read everything there was to read on civil service, he was asked to evaluate the thesis and said simply, “It was a masterpiece.”

There were, he said, “very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew.” Steward’s wife, who had been working beside her husband in 1914, was even more emphatic. “Bob Moses wasn’t one of the men in this country who understood civil service best at that stage,” she said. “He was the man who understood it best.” 

He didn’t just understand it well: He was the best. 

Then again, when Moses got his career started in New York City municipal government, he wrote a report basically alone and in a small apartment (he didn’t have a lot of money), late at night while keeping to his main duties by day.

It was another classic. Speaking of Moses’ 1919 Report of the Reconstruction Commission to Governor Alfred E. Smith on Retrenchment and Reorganization in the State Government, Robert Caro writes:

From the moment on October 10, 1919, that it was published, it was hailed as a historic document, not only by [Al] Smith, who had sponsored it, and not only by the reformers, who saw in it the finest exposition of their philosophy, but, more importantly, by the men Belle Moskowitz had hoped would hail it– the Republican “federal crowd.”

The paper was hailed as “deserving of unreserved approbation,” while another commenter said “This paper is, I think, the most helpful one that I could put in your hands…to give you an idea of…what I believe to be the correct principles of state government.”

With that, Moses got pushed ahead again.

Time and again this would happen: Moses would do something extremely competent, demonstrating great value to this who needed his work, and he would get a boost.

And did he ever work his ass off to keep things moving. As he gathered momentum building up Long Island and Jones Beach State Park in the 1920s, his life became, as Caro puts it, an “orgy of work.”

Sloughing off distractions, he set his life into a hard mold. Shunning evening social life, especially the ceremonial dinners that eat up so much of a public official’s time, he went to bed early (usually before eleven) and awoke early (he was always dressed, shaved, and breakfasted when Arthur Howland arrived at 7:30 to pick up the manila envelope full of memos).

The amenities of life dropped out of his. He and Mary had enjoyed playing bridge with friends; now they no longer played. Sundays with his family all but disappeared. He did not golf; he did not attend sporting events; he was not interested in the diversions called “hobbies” that other executives considered important because they considered it important that they relax; he was not interested in relaxing.

…there was never enough time; minutes were precious to him. To make sure he had as many of them as possible, he tried to make use of all those that most other men waste.

And it was this “orgy of work,” combined with a dedication to being the “best” and not “pretty good” that allowed Moses to rise in spite of his faults.

Even his true enemies, people who truly did not like him or want to see him succeed, like FDR — who was the Governor of New York during the Depression — continued to support his rise, almost against their own will!

Not only does a Governor not interfere with an official like Robert Moses; he heaps on him more and more responsibilities. No matter what the job was, it seemed, if it was difficult Roosevelt turned to the same man. During 1930, 1931, and 1932, Moses handled more than a dozen special assignments for Roosevelt and produced results on every one. And if increasing Moses’ responsibilities meant increasing his power–giving him more money to work with, more engineers, architects, draftsmen, and police to work with–well, the Governor simply had no choice but to increase that power.

No two men in New York would come to hate each other more than Moses and FDR, yet there was FDR, dumping more and more power and more and more work into Moses’ lap. Why?

He could be trusted to get it done and do it well. It was that simple. Competence is oxygen.

***

This aspect of the life of Robert Moses, a life worth studying for so many reasons, illustrates a few simple points.

The first is the pure value of capital-C Competence: Hard, correct work, repeated ad infinitum with no intermittence, will get almost anyone very far, even if they’re missing other desirable traits. Moses, in spite of faults that would likely stop any mortal in his or her tracks, rose near the very top on the back of it. You can probably think of ten other individuals in your head who demonstrate a similar reality.

But as interesting, true, and instructive as that is, it brings up a very interesting historical counterfactual:

What if Bob Moses had that driving competence but also folded in things like humility, empathy, good temper, fairness, desire for group success over individual gloryand other traits we all desire in our own leaders? Wouldn’t he be considered one of the most inspiring and beloved figures in the history of the United States? Might he have been the President instead of FDR? Might he have lived a much more pleasant and less contentious life than he did?

A great debate lingers even now about whether his actions to reshape the City were on balance a positive or negative — he created a lot of misery in his march to physically reshape New York City. He made it a very car-heavy, traffic-heavy city. He created slums. He destroyed a lot of neighborhoods. And so on. Might a bit of humility and respect for others’ goals and opinions have built a New York City that people are less troubled about today? He could have a record of accomplishment and the unabashed respect of history.

It’s hard to know — traits like Moses’ work ethic are often “co-located” with traits that are not so desirable. But it is interesting to ponder, for our own lives, both the value of pure ability and the value of balancing it out with the other traits that can get us even further. Good is not always optimal.

And most of us probably don’t have the pure ability and fire that Moses did, all the more reason to work on our “soft” skills. We may need to either work harder on our competence and work ethic or find a way to compensate for it in “softer” ways like true leadership ability.

But even as we do that, it’s important to never forget the reality that competence and hustle go pretty far. Sometimes we’re getting “beat” simply because others are providing more “oxygen” than we are, even if they’re not pleasant people. It’s just a part of reality.

So if we’ve already got the “soft skills” down, perhaps we need to do the hard work in figuring out how to raise our competence level.

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.

Is Our Faulty Memory Really So Bad?

“Though the behaviors…seem perverse, they reflect reliance on a type of navigation that serves the animals quite well in most situations.”
— Daniel Schacter

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[This is the first of a four part series on memory. Also see Parts One, Two, and Three on the challenges of memory.]

The Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has some brilliant insights into the human memory.

His wonderful book The Seven Sins of Memory presents the case that our memories fail us in regular, repeated, and predictable ways. We forget things we think we should know; we think we saw things we didn’t see; we can’t remember where we left our keys; we can’t remember _____’s name; we think Susan told us something that Steven did.

It’s easy to get a little down on our poor brains. Between cognitive biases, memory problems, emotional control, drug addiction, and brain disease, it’s natural to wonder how the hell our species has been so successful.

Not so fast. Schacter argues that we shouldn’t be so dismissive of the imperfect system we’ve been endowed with:

The very pervasiveness of memory’s imperfections, amply illustrated in the preceding pages, can easily lead to the conclusion that Mother Nature committed colossal blunders in burdening us with such a dysfunctional system. John Anderson, a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, summarizes the prevailing perception that memory’s sins reflect poorly on its design: “over the years we have participated in many talks with artificial intelligence researchers about the prospects of using human models to guide the development of artificial intelligence programs. Invariably, the remark is made, “Well, of course, we would not want our system to have something so unreliable as human memory.”

It is tempting to agree with this characterization, especially if you’ve just wasted valuable time looking for misplaced keys, read the statistics on wrongful imprisonment resulting from eyewitness miscalculation, or woken up in the middle of the night persistently recalling a slip-up at work. But along with Anderson, I believe that this view is misguided: It is a mistake to conceive of the seven sins as design flaws that expose memory as a fundamentally defective system. To the contrary, I suggest that the seven sins are by-products of otherwise adaptive features of memory, a price we pay for processes and functions that serve us well in many respects.

Schacter starts by pointing out that all creatures have systems running on autopilot, which researchers love to exploit:

For instance, train a rat to navigate a maze to find a food reward at the end, and then place a pile of food halfway into the maze. The rat will run right past the pile of food as if it did not even exist, continuing to the end, where it seeks its just reward! Why not stop at the halfway point and enjoy the reward then? Hauser suggests that the rat is operating in this situation on the basis of “dead reckoning” — a method of navigating in which the animal keeps a literal record of where it has gone by constantly updating the speed, distance, and direction it has traveled.

A similarly comical error occurs when a pup is taken from a gerbil nest containing several other pups and is placed in a nearby cup. The mother searches for her lost baby, and while she is away, the nest is displaced a short distance. When the mother and lost pup return, she uses dead reckoning to head straight for the nest’s old location. Ignoring the screams and smells of the other pups just a short distance away, she searches for them at the old location. Hauser contends that the mother is driven by signals from her spatial system.

The reason for this bizarre behavior is that, in general, it works! Natural selection is pretty crafty and makes one simple value judgement: Does the thing provide a reproductive advantage to the individual (or group) or doesn’t it? In nature, a gerbil will rarely see its nest moved like that — it’s the artifice of the lab experiment that exposes the “auto-pilot” nature of the gerbil’s action.

It works the same way with us. The main thing to remember is that our mental systems are, by and large, working to our advantage. If we had memories that could recall all instances of the past with perfect precision, we’d be so inundated with information that we’d be paralyzed:

Consider the following experiment. Try to recall an episode from your life that involves a table. What do you remember, and how long did it take to come up with the memory? You probably had little difficult coming up with a specific incident — perhaps a conversation at the dinner table last night, or a discussion at the conference table this morning. Now imagine that the cue “table” brought forth all the memories that you have stored away involving a table. There are probably hundreds or thousands of such incidents. What if they all sprung to mind within seconds of considering the cue? A system that operated in this manner would likely result in mass confusion produced by an incessant coming to mind of numerous competing traces. It would be a bit like using an Internet search engine, typing in a word that has many matches in a worldwide data base, and then sorting through the thousands of entries that the query elicits. We wouldn’t want a memory system that produces this kind of data overload. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have argued persuasively that the operation of inhibitory processes helps to protect us from such chaos.

The same goes for emotional experiences. We often lament that we take intensely emotional experiences hard; that we’re unable to shake the feeling certain situations imprint on us. PTSD is a particularly acute case of intense experience causing long-lasting mental harm. Yet this same system probably, on average, does us great good in survival:

Although intrusive recollections of trauma can be disabling, it is critically important that emotionally arousing experiences, which sometimes occur in response to life-threatening dangers, persist over time. The amygdala and related structures contribute to the persistence of such experiences by modulating memory formation, sometimes resulting in memories we wish we could forget. But this system boosts the likelihood that we will recall easily and quickly information about threatening or traumatic events whose recollection may one day be crucial for survival. Remembering life-threatening events persistently — where the incident occurred, who or what was responsible for it — boosts our chances of avoiding future recurrences.

Our brain has limitations, and with those limitations come trade-offs. One of the trade-offs our brain makes is to prioritize which information to hold on to, and which to let go of. It must do this — as stated above, we’d be overloaded with information without this ability. The brain has evolved to prioritize information which is:

  1. Used frequently
  2. Used recently
  3. Likely to be needed

Thus, we do forget things. The phenomenon of eyewitness testimony being unreliable can at least partially be explained by the fact that, when the event occurred, the witness probably did not know they’d need to remember it. There was no reason, in the moment, for that information to make an imprint. We have trouble recalling details of things that have not imprinted very deeply.

There are cases where people do have elements of what might seem like a “more optimal system” of memory, and generally they do not function well in the real world. Schacter gives us two in his book. The first is the famous mnemonist Shereshevski:

But what if all events were registered in elaborate detail, regardless of the level or type of processing to which they were subjected? The result would be a potentially overwhelming clutter of useless details, as happened in the famous case of the mnemonist Shereshevski. Described by Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who studied him for years, Shereshevski formed and retained highly detailed memories of virtually everything that happened to him — both the important and the trivial. Yet he was unable to function at an abstract level because he was inundated with unimportant details of his experiences — details that are best denied entry to the system in the first place. An elaboration-dependent system ensures that only those events that are important enough to warrant extensive encoding have a high likelihood of subsequent recollection.

The other case comes from more severely autistic individuals. When tested, autistic individuals make less conflagrations of the type that normally functioning individuals make, less mistaking that we heard sweet when we actually heard candy, or stool when we actually heard chair. These little misattributions are our brain working as it should, remembering the “gist” of things when the literal thing isn’t terribly important.

One symptom of autism is difficulty “generalizing” the way others are able to; difficulty developing the “gist” of situations and categories that, generally speaking, is highly helpful to a normally functioning individual. Instead, autism can cause many to take things extremely literally, and to have a great memory for rote factual information. (Picture Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man.) The trade is probably not desirable for most people — our system tends to serve us pretty well on the whole.

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There’s at least one other way our system “saves us from ourselves” on average — our overestimation of self. Social psychologists love to demonstrate cases where humans overestimate their ability to drive, invest, make love, and so on. It even has a (correct) name: Overconfidence.

Yet without some measure of “overconfidence,” most of us would be quite depressed. In fact, when depressed individuals are studied, their tendency towards extreme realism is one thing frequently found:

On the face of it, these biases would appear to loosen our grasp on reality and thus represent a worrisome, even dangerous tendency. After all, good mental health is usually associated with accurate perceptions of reality, whereas mental disorders and madness are associated with distorted perceptions of reality.

But as the social psychologist Shelley Taylor has argued in her work on “positive illusions,” overly optimistic views of the self appear to promote mental health rather than undermine it. Far from functioning in an impaired or suboptimal manner, people who are most susceptible to positive illusions generally do well in many aspects of their lives. Depressed patients, in contrast, tend to lack the positive illusions that are characteristic of non-depressed individuals.

Remembering the past in an overly positive manner may encourage us to meet new challenges by promoting an overly optimistic view of the future, whereas remembering the past more accurately or negatively can leave us discouraged. Clearly there must be limits to such effects, because wildly distorted optimistic biases would eventually lead to trouble. But as Taylor points out, positive illusions are generally mild and are important contributors to our sense of well-being. To the extent memory bias promotes satisfaction with our lives, it can be considered an adaptive component of the cognitive system.

So here’s to the human brain: Flawed, certainly, but we must not forget that it does a pretty good job of getting us through the day alive and (mostly) well.

This is the first of a four part series on memory. Now check out Parts One, Two, and Three on the challenges of memory.

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Still Interested? Check out Daniel Schacter’s fabulous The Seven Sins of Memory.

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have

one-leg-man

Echoing the comments of William Deresiewicz, Charlie Munger offers some sage advice on multi-tasking:

I will say this, I know no wise person who doesn’t read a lot. I suspect that you can read on the computer now and get a lot of benefit out of it, but I doubt it will work as well as reading print worked for me.

I think people that multitask pay a huge price. They think they’re being extra productive, and I think they’re (out of their mind). I use the metaphor of the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest.

I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.

Concentrating hard on something that is important is … I can’t succeed at all without doing it. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.

It sounds counter-intuitive but if you want to increase discretionary time and reduce stress you need to schedule time to think. The tiny fragments of time many of us find ourselves with have a negative effect on our ability to think deeply about a problem. Furthermore they impede our ability to learn — we stay at a surface level and never move into a deep understanding.

Deresiewicz warns: “You simply cannot (think) in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”

The opposite approach is to focus on a problem or subject and try to achieve a deep fluency. How many of us, however, have time? We don’t do the work required to have an opinion. Instead we operate with surface knowledge. We tackle problems with the first thought that comes to mind. Because we make a poor initial decision, we spend countless hours attempting to correct it. No wonder we have no time to think. We’re not heeding the advice of Joseph Tussman and letting the world do the work for us.

We sound good and yet and we fail to learn — in part because everyone else is doing the same thing. Well, when you do what everyone else does, don’t be surprised when you get the same results everyone else gets.

If you want to get off the same track that everyone else is on, start scheduling time to think. That’s what Munger did when he sold himself the best hour of his day. Structure your environment in a way that promotes thinking and reduces interruption. And match your energy to your task.