Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
At some time or another, we've all sought to make big changes. And almost of all of us have, after making grand plans, discovered that changing some aspect of our lives or organizations, whether adding in a new skill or simply changing an old process, resulted in great backsliding.
Why the disconnect?
As George Leonard discusses in his classic book Mastery, based on his experiences in the patient lifelong practice of Aikido, it's not necessary to beat ourselves up or derive a complicated psychological explanation.
Backsliding is a universal experience. Every one of us resists significant change, no matter whether it's for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed—and it's a very good thing they do. Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up or down by 10 percent, you'd be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body.
This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis. It characterizes all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organization to an entire culture—and it applies to psychological states and behavior as well as to physical functioning.
The simplest example of homeostasis can be found in your home heating system. The thermostat on the wall senses the room temperature; when the temperature on a winter's day drops below the level you've set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal that turns the heater on. The heater completes the loop by sending heat to the room in which the thermostat is located. When the room temperature reaches the level you've set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal back to the heater, turning it off, thus maintaining homeostasis. Keeping a room at the right temperature takes only one feedback loop. Keeping even the simplest single-celled organism alive and well takes thousands. And maintaining a human being in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interweaving electrochemical signals pulsing in the brain, rushing along nerve fibers, coursing through the bloodstream. One example: each of us has about 150,000 tiny thermostats in the form of nerve endings close to the surface of the skin that are sensitive to the loss of heat from our bodies, and another sixteen thousand or so a little deeper in the skin that alert us to the entry of heat from without.
An even more sensitive thermostat resides in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, close to branches of the main artery that brings blood from the heart to the head. This thermostat can pick up even the tiniest change of temperature in the blood. When you start getting cold, these thermostats signal the sweat glands, pores, and small blood vessels near the surface of the body to close down. Glandular activity and muscle tension cause you to shiver in order to produce more heat, and your senses send a very clear message to your brain, leading you to keep moving, to put on more clothes, to cuddle closer to someone, to seek shelter, or to build a fire.
Homestasis seems to be the rule when it comes to systems, yet we often forget about it, or think we're not subject to a simple law of nature. But we needn't totally despair. Homeostasis is often quite positive, and it keeps systems alive and well. Our bodies wouldn't work without it, nor would our social systems.
Homeostasis in social groups brings additional feedback loops into play. Families stay stable by means of instruction, exhortation, punishment, privileges, gifts, favors, signs of approval and affection, and even by means of extremely subtle body language and facial expressions. Social groups larger than the family add various types of feedback systems. A national culture, for example, is held together by the legislative process, law enforcement, education, the popular arts, sports and games, economic rewards that favor certain types of activity, and by a complex web of mores, prestige markers, celebrity role modeling, and style that relies largely on the media as a national nervous system. Although we might think that our culture is mad for the new, the predominant function of all this—as with the feedback loops in your body—is the survival of things as they are.
The problem is that homeostasis, like natural selection and like life itself, is undirected and does not have a “value system” — it doesn't keep what's good and reject what's bad. It's just like inertia: It's a simple algorithim that keeps things in motion as they were.
Let's say, for instance, that for the last twenty years—ever since high school, in fact—you've been almost entirely sedentary. Now most of your friends are working out, and you figure that if you can't beat the fitness revolution, you'll join it. Buying the tights and running shoes is fun, and so are the first few steps as you start jogging on the high school track near your house. Then, about a third of the way around the first lap, something terrible happens. Maybe you're suddenly sick to your stomach. Maybe you're dizzy. Maybe there's a strange, panicky feeling in your chest. Maybe you're going to die. No, you're going to die.
What's more, the particular sensations you're feeling probably aren't significant in themselves. What you're really getting is a homeostatic alarm signal—bells clanging, lights flashing. Warning! Warning! Significant changes in respiration, heart rate, metabolism. Whatever you're doing, stop doing it immediately. Homeostasis, remember, doesn't distinguish between what you would call change for the better and change for the worse. It resists all change. After twenty years without exercise, your body regards a sedentary style of life as “normal”; the beginning of a change for the better is interpreted as a threat. So you walk slowly back to your car, figuring you'll look around for some other revolution to join.
Leonard does provide a few possible solutions, or at least an approach to the homeostasis problem. The good thing is that homeostasis isn't all-powerful, it's simply a force that we must work with. He offers five ways to approach the issue:
1. Be aware of the way homeostasis works. This might be the most important guideline of all. Expect resistance and backlash. Realize that when the alarm bells start ringing, it doesn't necessarily mean you're sick or crazy or lazy or that you've made a bad decision in embarking on the journey of mastery. In fact, you might take these signals as an indication that your life is definitely changing—just what you've wanted. Of course, it might be that you have started something that's not right for you; only you can decide. But in any case, don't panic and give up at the first sign of trouble. You might also expect resistance from friends and family and co-workers. (Homeostasis, as we've seen, applies to social systems as well as individuals.) Say you used to struggle out of bed at 7:30 and barely drag yourself to work at 9:00. Now that you're on a path of mastery, you're up at 6:00 for a three-mile run, and in the office, charged with energy, at 8:30. You might figure that your co-workers would be overjoyed, but don't be too sure. And when you get home, still raring to go, do you think that your family will welcome the change? Maybe. Bear in mind that an entire system has to change when any part of it changes. So don't be surprised if some of the people you love start covertly or overtly undermining your self-improvement. It's not that they wish you harm, it's just homeostasis at work.
2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. So what should you do when you run into resistance, when the red lights flash and the alarm bells ring? Well, you don't back off, and you don't bull your way through. Negotiation is the ticket to successful long-term change in everything from increasing your running speed to transforming your organization. The long-distance runner working for a faster time on a measured course negotiates with homeostasis by using pain not as an adversary but as the best possible guide to performance. The change oriented manager keeps his or her eyes and ears open for signs of dissatisfaction or dislocation, then plays the edge of discontent, the inevitable escort of transformation. The fine art of playing the edge in this case involves a willingness to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. It also demands a determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness. Simply turning off your awareness to the warnings deprives you of guidance and risks damaging the system. Simply pushing your way through despite the warning signals increases the possibility of backsliding. You can never be sure exactly where the resistance will pop up. A feeling of anxiety? Psychosomatic complaints? A tendency toward self-sabotage? Squabbles with family, friends, or fellow workers? None of the above? Stay alert. Be prepared for serious negotiations.
3. Develop a support system. You can do it alone, but it helps a great deal to have other people with whom you can share the joys and perils of the change you're making. The best support system would involve people who have gone through or are going through a similar process, people who can tell their own stories of change and listen to yours, people who will brace you up when you start to backslide and encourage you when you don't. The path of mastery, fortunately, almost always fosters social groupings. In his seminal book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga comments upon the tendency of sports and games to bring people together. The play community, he points out, is likely to continue even after the game is over, inspired by “the feeling of being ‘apart together' in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms.” The same can be said about many other pursuits, whether or not they are formally known as sports—arts and crafts, hunting, fishing, yoga, Zen, the professions, “the office.” And what if your quest for mastery is a lonely one? What if you can find no fellow voyagers on that particular path? At the least, you can let the people close to you know what you're doing, and ask for their support.
4. Follow a regular practice. People embarking on any type of change can gain stability and comfort through practicing some worthwhile activity on a more or less regular basis, not so much for the sake of achieving an external goal as simply for its own sake. A traveler on the path of mastery is again fortunate, for practice in this sense (as I've said more than once) is the foundation of the path itself. The circumstances are particularly happy in case you've already established a regular practice in something else before facing the challenge and change of beginning a new one. It's easier to start applying the principles of mastery to your profession or your primary relationship if you've already established a regular morning exercise program. Practice is a habit, and any regular practice provides a sort of underlying homeostasis, a stable base during the instability of change.
5. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. We tend to forget that learning is much more than book learning. To learn is to change. Education, whether it involves books, body, or behavior, is a process that changes the learner. It doesn't have to end at college graduation or at age forty or sixty or eighty, and the best learning of all involves learning how to learn— that is, to change. The lifelong learner is essentially one who has learned to deal with homeostasis, simply because he or she is doing it all the time. The Dabbler, Obsessive, and Hacker are all learners in their own fashion, but lifelong learning is the special province of those who travel the path of mastery, the path that never ends.
Still Interested? Check out the classic (short) book in its entirety: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
Matthew Frederick teams up with Michael Preis to offer some important learnings from the world of business — which isn't really a discipline in and of itself but rather, as they write in the introduction to 101 Things I Learned in Business School, “a broad field of endeavor encompassing such diverse disciplines as accounting, communications, economics, finance, leadership, management, marketing, operations, psychology, sociology, and strategy.” Here are some lessons gleaned from a trip to business school. (Some of them, at least.)
A mission or vision statement driven by consensus is probably so watered down it becomes meaningless. Part of the reason this happens is that when you seek consensus you end up with something that no one at the table can disagree with so you don't really end up saying anything important.
A mission statement describes the current central purpose and goal of an organization, to guide daily decision making and performance. A vision statement describes what an organization seeks to become, or the ideal society to which the organization seeks to contribute.
When drafting and evaluating potential mission and vision statements, ask if the opposite of a proposed statement is obviously undesirable. If it is, the statement is obviously undesirable. For example, a university mission statement that says the institution “seeks to produce highly effective productive citizens” is unlikely to have any real influence on employees or students, since no university seeks to produce its opposite—ineffective, unproductive citizens. A more meaningful statement will assert that which is truly specific to the organization; it describes what the organization seeks to do that many or most of its peers do not.
This is reminiscent of the approach Ken Iverson took at Nucor: The company needs a specific call to a specific action. Otherwise, you're wasting everyone's time with a watered down message.
There are no called strikes.
Billy Beane, who offers compelling insight on making better decisions and avoiding biases, is quoted in Moneyball to have said “You can always recover from the player you didn't sign. You may never recover from the player you signed at the wrong price.” This is reminiscent of what Warren Buffett had to say on the same subject: “In investments, there’s no such thing as a called strike. You can stand there at the plate and the pitcher can throw the ball right down the middle, and if it’s General Motors at $47 and you don’t know enough to decide General Motors at $47, you let it go right on by and no one’s going to call a strike. The only way you can have a strike is to swing and miss.” Turns out we can learn a lot about decision making from baseball star Ted Williams and the fictional character Mr. Market, who was invented by Benjamin Graham.
Adding to our knowledge on Feedback Loops, Frederick and Preis distinguish the difference between positive and negative feedback loops.
In a negative feedback loop, the system responds in the opposite direction of a stimulus, thereby providing overall stability or equilibrium. The Law of Supply and Demand usually functions as a negative feedback loop: When the supply of a product, material, or service increases, its price tends to fall, which may lead to raising demand, which will drive the price back up.
In a positive feedback loop, the system responds in the same direction as the stimulus, decreasing equilibrium further and further. For example, a consumer who feels prosperous after making new purchases may end up making even more purchases and take on excessive debt. Eventually, the consumer (Ed. or Government) may face financial ruin and have to make a major correction by selling off assets or declaring bankruptcy (Ed. read A Parable About How One Nation Came To Financial Ruin). Because positive feedback loops restore equilibrium in their own, often dramatic way, it is sometimes suggested that positive feedback loops occur within a larger, if not directly visible, negative feedback loop.
The Law of Supply and Demand says that if the supply of a given product or service exceeds demand, its price will decrease; if demand exceeds supply, its price will increase. Rising and falling prices impact demand similarly. When supply and demand are exactly equal, the market is at an equilibrium point and acts most efficiently: Suppliers sell all the goods they produce and consumers get all the goods they demand.
Not all products have historically adhered to the Law. When the prices of some luxury or prestige items have been lowered, demand has fallen due to reduced cache. In other instances, rising demand for a product has led to improvements in technology, increases in production efficiency, and the perfection of distribution challenges, all of which have driven prices down. Electronic technologies have tended to follow this pattern.
Experts are expected to know a lot, but often it is better to know how to organize and structure knowledge than to simply have knowledge. Innovative thinkers don't merely retain and recite information; they identify and create new patterns that reorganize known information.
When you don't think about what you're doing, you tend to promote the best performer to manager, which is often a mistake. Echoing James March, Preis writes:
Employees who excel in one area of business are often promoted to supervisory positions. But in management, one's achievements are measured through the actions of others. A first-rate lab researcher promoted to lab supervisor, for example, has to coach, mentor, manage, and help other researchers make discoveries—something that may be beyond his or her abilities or interests. Compounding the problem for the organization is that the department no longer has its best researcher making discoveries on the bench.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher one rises in an organization the longer it takes to implement a decision. (The decisions are more consequential, though.)
Front-line managers can effect immediate changes by directly instructing workers. A sales manager can redirect the activities of sales people immediately, and an accounting manager can make immediate changes in bookkeeping practices. At higher levels of an organization, where employees are more concerned with strategic matters, decisions take more time to implement. If the vice president of marketing wishes to change the style of a product being produced, considerable time will be required to engage feasibility studies, explore design alternatives, investigate the technical methods required, and alter manufacturing practices.
Further to this, the higher one rises in an organization the more one must be a generalist. At the front-line level you often only need direct knowledge of specific activities. Managers need a broader understanding in addition to this knowledge, and they are often missing one or the other.
101 Things I Learned in Business School is a good read; however reading The Letters of Berkshire Hathaway (also freely available) is a better way to understand what an MBA should be teaching. This site, after all, wouldn't exist without the failed education of an MBA.
I could listen to and chat with Rory Sutherland, the Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, for hours. This video, from edge.org, shows you why.
Here are some excerpts.
Game Theory is the Key
… The other problem in overcoming the disproportionate influence of economics is that to understand why conventional economic approaches are wrong—and to understand what is needed to replace them—you possibly don't have to understand one thing, you have to understand about five or six different things. You probably need a bit of game theory, a bit of evolutionary psychology, a bit of behavioral economics, a bit of complexity theory. Now, the problem then is if you have a case where in order to reject the consensus you need people who know a bit about six different things, then simply by statistical averages, the number of people who appreciate all of those five or six different things is going to be a hell of a lot smaller. And that's genuinely the case.
There are some good social scientists—Jon Elster in Explaining Social Behavior, for one—who make this point: that unless you really understand game theory, you can't begin to actually understand human behavior.
We love brands
Whatever you think about McDonald's—it's really, really good at not being bad. If you understand satisficing—which would be another concept hugely important to the understanding of human behavior—we think we maximize and we describe our behavior as if we're maximizing but most of the time we go “I want something that's pretty good and definitely isn't awful.” Why do we go to McDonald's? Is it the best food in town? Probably not. The search cost of finding the best place to eat in town, given that we've only got one shot at having a meal in a strange town, would be pretty high. But also when you go into McDonald's you know you're not going to be ripped off, you're almost certainly not going to be ill. By contrast I've become ill after eating at Michelin-Starred restaurants quite frequently. Once you understand the perfectly sensible evolutionary instinct to satisfice, then the preference for brands is not irrational at all: I will pay a premium as a form of insurance for the reduced likelihood that this product is appalling. Is that called a minimax approach? Someone help me out here.
Sunk Cost Bias
It's quite a useful thing. “Sunk cost bias” is a very useful concept. Understanding it is very useful because you can correct it in yourself. One of the single moments where I realized this stuff is really useful is when I first tore up a pair of air tickets. My wife and I had some nonrefundable air tickets to go to Paris for the weekend and the day before we were due to travel, both of us went down with flu and were feeling appalling. We were there packing, thinking, we've bought these tickets, they're nonrefundable, we have to go to Paris. And I suddenly said, “Hold on, we're now going to spend another 300 or 400 pounds on hotels, art galleries, and everything else in order to feel crap in a hotel room rather than feeling mildly ill at home.” The moment when I tore up those travel tickets that was almost a little Damascus Road experience where I realized some of this thinking is practically useful in everyday life.
It is true of quite a lot of progress in human life that businesses, in their blundering way, sometimes discover things before academics do. This is true of the steam engine. People developed steam engines before anybody knew how they worked. It's true of the jet engine, true of aspirin, and so forth. People discover through trial and error—what Nassim Taleb calls “stochastic tinkering.” People make progress on their own without really understanding how it works. At that point, academics come along, explain how what works works and to some extent take the credit for it. “Teaching birds to fly” is the phrase that Taleb uses.
“No one ever got fired for buying IBM” is a wonderful example of understanding loss aversion or “defensive decision making”. The advertising and marketing industry kind of acted as if it knew this stuff—but where we were disgracefully bad is that no one really attempted to sit down and codify it. When I discovered Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and the whole other corpus on Behavioral Economics…. when I started discovering there was a whole field of literature about “this thing for which we have no name” …. these powerful forces which no one properly understood—that was incredibly exciting. And the effect of these changes can be an order of magnitude. This is the important thing. Really small interventions can have huge effects.
Most of the progress that's made in business is made through a kind of trial and error where you accidentally stumble on something that's successful. Of course, the way business works quite well is that things that are unsuccessful get killed off fairly quickly and things which are accidentally successful get invested in; a very crude feedback system but it kind of works, broadly speaking.
Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.
Improving our performance is something we all seek to do. Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I'd share my “developing world class performance” file with you.
Joshua Foer writes:
Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.
There is so much to how we practice and who we practice against:
Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)
Feedback loops in practice play an incredibly important role, which explains why we tend to stop getting better at things at work. In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:
You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.
You should work in chunks or pulses (and don't multi-task) Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.
From Talent is Overrated:
The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.
When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers.
From Talent is Overrated:
Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.
Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.
In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.
The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)
So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) but how can we develop the softer skills?
Speed things up. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.
This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”
We can also improve our writing.
Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.
From Talent is Overrated:
Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.
It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …
Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”
Here is a subsection I call the science of everyday performance.
To do our best work we need to focus.
One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.
We all need routines or rituals, in part to make sure our decision-making energy goes toward the hard things, not what we're ordering at Starbucks.
A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.
The energy saved from routines and rituals gives us more energy to make better decisions. Some companies, like Google, take this very seriously.
From Your Brain At Work:
The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.
When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resources for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”
Mark McGuinness argues that you should move your creative or mentally intensive work to the start of your day.
The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.
We also shouldn't forget the importance of leisure. This, in addition to health benefits, makes us more creative.
What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.
Oh, and you should exercise.
Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.
Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.
From A Philosophy of Walking:
Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.
Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.
People often ask me how they can improve their ability to make decisions over time. This question makes a lot of sense. After all, in most knowledge organizations, your product is decisions.
We all have a vested interest in getting better at decisions. As an entrepreneur, I live and die by my decisions. I'm not alone. In almost any organization, you are the result of your decisions. While good decisions might not get you promoted, bad ones will almost certainly get you fired.
One reason we struggle to get better at making decisions is because we rarely receive feedback on the quality of our decisions. Think about it, there is no Yelp for decision ability where you can leave a review. It's like we're operating a restaurant but the customers can't give us feedback. So we never learn that the steak has too much salt or the spaghetti has too much sauce. Because we can't learn and get better, we go out of business. Good decisions don't ensure success but bad ones almost always ensure failure.
The way to test the quality of your decisions, whether individually or organizationally, is by testing the process by which they are made. The best way to do that, according to the dean of biases and Nobel winner, Daniel Kahneman, is to use a decision journal. Kahneman said:
Go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions. And the specific idea is whenever you're making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think.
The key to doing this is that it prevents something called hindsight bias, which is no matter what happens in the world, we tend to look back on our decision-making process, and we tilt it in a way that looks more favorable to us, right? So we have a bias to explain what has happened.
A decision journal helps you collect accurate and honest feedback on what you were thinking as you made the decisions. This also helps us see when we're lucky. Sometimes things work out for very different reasons than we thought they would. The key to understanding the limits to our knowledge (see: circle of competence) is to check it against what you thought was going to happen and why you thought it was going to happen. That feedback loop is incredibly powerful because our minds won't do it by themselves. I'll give you the spoiler right now. We don't know as much as we think we know. We're fooled into thinking that we understand something when we don't and we have no means to correct ourselves.
Our minds revise history to preserve our view of ourself. The story that we tell ourselves conflates the cause and effect between a decision that we made and the actual outcome. The best cure for this is the decision journal.
You can think of a decision journal as quality control — something like we'd find in a manufacturing plant or a restaurant.
Conceptually this is pretty easy but it requires some discipline and humility to implement and maintain. In an interview I did with Michael Mauboussin he offered some great advice:
The idea is whenever you are making a consequential decision, write down what you decided, why you decided as you did, what you expect to happen, and if you’re so inclined, how you feel mentally and physically.
The act of writing alone helps you. Carol Loomis once said:
Writing itself makes you realize where there are holes in things. I'm never sure what I think until I see what I write. And so I believe that, even though you're an optimist, the analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down [to write] … You think, ‘Oh, that can't be right.' And you have to go back, and you have to rethink it all.
What does a Decision Journal Look like?
Here's mine. (Click on the image for a printable pdf).
Whenever you're making a consequential decision either individually or as part of a group you take a moment and write down:
Things are complicated, I get it. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you implement your decision journal.
Journals can be tailored to the situation and context. Specific decisions might include tradeoffs, second order effects, weighting criteria, or other relevant factors. This is only to get you started.
Don't spend too much time on the brief and obvious insight. Often these first thoughts are system one, not system two. William Deresiewicz said these first thoughts represent the thinking of someone else and not our own thinking.
Any decision you're journaling is inherently complex and may involve non-linear systems. In such a world small effects can cause disproportionate responses whereas bigger ones can have no impact. Remember that causality is complex, especially in complex domains.
There are two common ways people wiggle out of their own decision: hindsight bias and jargon.
I know we live in an age of computers but you simply must do this by hand because that will help reduce the odds of hindsight bias. It's easy to look at a print-out and say, I didn't see it that way. It's a lot harder to look at your own writing and say the same thing.
Another thing to avoid is vague and ambiguous wording. If you're talking in abstractions and fog, you're not ready to make a decision, and you'll find it easy to change the definitions to suit new information. This is where writing down the probabilities as you see them comes into play.
Your decision journal should be reviewed on a regular basis—every six months or so. The review is an important part of the process. This is where you can get better. Realizing where you make mistakes, how you make them, what types of decisions you're bad at, etc. will help you make better decisions if you're rational enough. This is also where a coach can help. If you share your journal with someone, they can review it with you and help identify areas for improvement.
And keep in mind it's not all about outcome. You might have made the right decision (which, in our sense means a good process) and had a bad outcome. We call that a bad break.
Odds are you're going to discover two things right away. First, you're right a lot of the time. Second, it's often for the wrong reasons. This can be somewhat humbling. It's also how we learn.
Bruce Feiler's book — The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More — explores the hidden secrets of improving your family life.
Despite all of the recent research about individual happiness, a lot of life happiness comes from spending time with people you care about. In fact, it is the number one predictor of life satisfaction.
Simply put, happiness is other people, and the other people we hang around with most are our family. So how do we make sure we’re doing that effectively?
Adapt All the Time
Almost everyone feels completely overwhelmed by the pace and pressures of daily life, and that exhaustion is exacting an enormous toll on family well-being. Survey after survey shows that parents and children both list stress as their number one concern. This includes stress inside as well as outside the home. And if parents feel harried, it trickles down to their children. Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children’s brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay.
Kids wish their parents were less tired and stressed.
Jeff Sutherland, implemented an agile approach at home.
That sounds like inversion and it turns out that acknowledging that things can go wrong and introducing a system to address those things works the same in business and at home. Hello family meetings.
The centerpiece of the program is a weekly review session built on the principle of “inspect and adapt.”
Three questions get asked:
1. What things went well in our family this week?
2. What things could we improve in our family?
3. What things will you commit to working on this week?
This is a mechanism for communication.
“What works about the family meeting,” he said, “is that it’s a regularly scheduled time to draw attention to specific behaviors. If you don’t have a safe environment to discuss problems, any plan to improve your family will go nowhere.”
“The purpose of the meeting is not to talk about each of you as individuals. It’s to focus on how you’re functioning as a family.”
As well as talking about the things you want to focus on you need to talk about rewards and consequences too. Within limits, you need to let the kids decide.
Empowering children works.
A significant amount of recent brain research backs this up. Scientists at the University of California and elsewhere found that kids who plan their own time, set weekly goals, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that help them exert greater cognitive control over their lives. These so-called executive skills aid children with self-discipline, avoiding distractions, and weighing the pros and cons of their choices.
By picking their own punishments, children become more internally driven to avoid them. By choosing their own rewards, children become more intrinsically motivated to achieve them. Let your kids take a greater role in raising themselves.
One takeaway I got from agile is that whenever I see friends with checklists— chores, schedules, allowance— I ask whether the adults or the kids are doing the checking off. Invariably it’s the adults. The science suggests there’s a better way. To achieve maximum benefits, have the children do the scoring. They’ll develop a much finer sense of self-awareness. Even if this approach doesn’t work on every occasion, it’s about teaching your kids an approach to problem solving they can carry with them the rest of their lives.
There is a right way to have family dinner: what you talk about matters as much as what you put in your mouth.
“When you start to look at the research, which is staggering,” Laurie David, the Oscar-winning producer of An Inconvenient Truth and the author of The Family Dinner, says “you realize all the things you worry about as a parent can be improved just by sitting down to regular dinners.”
A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.
It's not about the dinner, it's about the people. Use meals to share family history.
The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. … (Marshall Duke) says that children who have the most balance and self-confidence in their lives do so because of what he and Robyn call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
More ideas? Try the 10-50-1 formula.
10. Aim for ten minutes of quality talk per meal. .. 50. Let your kids speak at least half the time. … 1. Teach your kids one new word every meal.
1. Show them the money. (Byron) Trott (Buffett called him “the only banker I trust”) said most parents have an instinctive reluctance to be honest with their kids about money— how it’s made, lost, invested, and spent. He said that 80 percent of college students have never had a conversation with their parents about managing money. Trott advises his clients to fling open the doors to the vault.
“I tell my clients that forcing their kids to have financial literacy is one of the most important things they can do,” he said. He quoted statistics that say the more parents talk to their kids about debt, the less debt they rack up; the more they hear about savings, the more they sock away.
“What happens to a lot of families is they depend too much on osmosis,” he continued. “I sat down with one of the richest women in America recently and told her she had to talk openly with her children. She said she didn’t want to burden them with the truth, but burdening them with ignorance is really much worse.”
2. Take off the training wheels. “One of the biggest problems I see in families,” Trott said, “is a reluctance to let your kids make decisions for themselves.” As an example, he cited the story of Jack Taylor, the founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who with a net worth in excess of $ 9 billion has been ranked as high as the eighteenth richest American. When his son turned thirty-two, Taylor handed him the company and never looked back. “Most parents meddle,” Trott said.
3. Accept their passions, any passions. Buffett is famous for not wanting to spoil his kids. Instead, after his wife gave each of their three kids $ 100 million, and the money didn’t ruin them, Buffett gave each one a $ 1 billion foundation. Trott was privy to that decision, and I asked what he thought of it. Does money inherently spoil children?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve seen too many really rich kids who are great people. In my experience, great people are great because they find their passion. For some that’s in business, but for others it’s in philanthropy. One of Warren’s sons is a farmer; another is a musician. Most families really don’t let their kids follow their passions. They assume the parents’ passion is the children’s passion, and usually it’s not. You should allow them to be outliers in their dreams.”
4. Put them to work. There’s a lot of vagueness in academic circles about children and money, but the research is clear that part-time jobs are great for kids. The Youth Development Survey in St. Paul, Minnesota, followed a number of children from ninth grade through their midthirties to determine whether childhood should be the sanctuary of play and learning or if work can be a productive part of it. The study found that those who work don’t lose interest in school and don’t cut back on family, extracurricular activities, or volunteering. They even become better at time management.
As the survey’s lead researcher, Jeylan Mortimer, observed: The more “planful” adolescents are about their future, the more successful and satisfied they are likely to be as adults. Trott agreed. “The most successful adults I know were all involved in business at a young age,” he said. “All of them. Warren believes it’s the secret to success. Your kid has to be involved in business. Warren thinks I’m successful because I had a lawn mowing business, a clothing store, all these different businesses as a kid, so I understood money, even though I never studied economics. What he thinks is necessary for someone to be successful in business is early exposure to business. So if you really want your daughters to understand money, have them open a lemonade stand.”
Well, at least mine does.
Countless studies have shown the extraordinary benefits grandmothers have on contemporary families. A meta-analysis of sixty-six studies completed in 1992 found that mothers who have more support from grandmothers have less stress and more well-adjusted children. The more involved the grandmothers are, the more involved dads are, too.
Now you see why Hardly called grandmothers humanity’s “secret benefactors.”
So what are these grandmothers actually doing? They’re teaching children core social skills like how to cooperate, how to be compassionate, how to be considerate. Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah interviewed 408 adolescents about their relationship with their grandparents. When grandparents are involved, the study found, the children are more social, more involved in school, and more likely to show concern for others. Also, as lead scientist Jeremey Yorgason said, parents take the lead in disciplining negative behavior, leaving grandparents free to encourage positive behaviors.
“Peter Pronovost’s miracle invention was not a drug, a device, or a procedure. It wasn’t revolutionary at all. It’s one of the oldest, most mundane things on earth. It’s a checklist.”
By adding checklists with preposterously basic items such as “wash hands with soap” and empowering anyone in the room to speak up when something was wrong, hospitals saves lives, money, and time.
I was interested in applying his technique to the problems families face when leaving home for a trip. He gave me a number of recommendations.
1. Create different lists for different times in the process. “Checklists have to be linked in time and space,” Pronovost said. “So I have a checklist for ICU admissions, and another for blood transfusions. You should have a checklist for one week before the trip. Then two days before you’ll likely need another. Then one more for when you’re walking out the door. But you always need time to recover, so if you have one for when you’re at the airport, it’s too late.”
2. Make it specific. “A checklist should take less than a minute to complete,” he said. “Each item should be a very specific behavior. Avoid vague language.”
3. Killer items only. “Target your checklist on things that commonly go wrong,” he told me. “If you put down things you don’t fail at, you’ll drive people crazy. This has been borne out in aviation, where accidents have been caused by checklist fatigue.”
4. The rule of seven. “I have a rule that checklists can be only seven items,” Pronovost said. “It’s the same reason our telephone numbers are seven digits. Otherwise, people will take shortcuts and items will get missed.”
5. Include the kids. “I would sit down with them and say, ‘Hey, girls, I’m trying to improve how we travel, so I made a checklist. Does this make sense to you? What else can you add?’”
The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More will remind you about family agility, the power of talking, and how to have fun.