Category: Self-Improvement

The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People

Why is it that some people seem to make constant progress in their professional and personal lives, while others appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over?

While the answer isn’t cut and dry, I’ve noticed an interesting mindset difference between these two groups: they approach obstacles and challenges very differently.

The first group approaches life with an open mind — an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be wrong. The second group digs their heels in at the first sign of disagreement and would rather die than be wrong. The way each group approaches obstacles, it turns out, defines much of what separates them.

So which group are you in?

Before you smugly slap an open-minded sticker on your chest, consider this: closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what’s so dangerous.

It’s a version of the Batesian Mimic Problem — are you the real thing or a copycat? Are you the real deal, or have you simply learned to talk the talk, to look the part?

These are tough questions to answer. Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they’re closed-minded. But the advantages of having that courage are massive. The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them.

What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

So how can you tell what camp you’re in? How do you make sure you’re being influenced by the right group of people?

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, lays out seven powerful ways you can tell the difference.

1. Challenging Ideas

Closed-minded people don’t want their ideas challenged. They are typically frustrated that they can’t get the other person to agree with them instead of curious as to why the other person disagrees.

Closed-minded people are more interested in proving themselves right than in getting the best outcome. They don’t ask questions. They want to show you where you’re wrong without understanding where you’re coming from. They get angry when you ask them to explain something. They think people who ask questions are slowing them down. And they think you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.

In short, they’re on the wrong side of right.

Open-minded people are more curious about why there is disagreement. … They understand that there is always the possibility that they might be wrong and that it’s worth the little bit of time it takes to consider the other person’s views….

Open-minded people see disagreement as a thoughtful means to expand their knowledge. They don’t get angry or upset at questions; rather, they want to identify where the disagreement lies so they can correct their misperceptions. They realize that being right means changing their minds when someone else knows something they don’t.

2. Statements vs. Questions

Closed-minded people are more likely to make statements than ask questions.

These are the people who sit in meetings and are more than willing to offer their opinions, but never ask other people to expand on or explain their ideas. Closed-minded people are thinking of how they would refute the other person’s thoughts, rather than trying to understand what they might be missing.

Open-minded people genuinely believe they could be wrong; the questions that they ask are genuine.

Open-minded people know that while they may have an opinion on a subject, it could count for less than someone else’s. Maybe they’re outside their circle of competence or maybe they’re experts. Regardless, they’re always curious as to how people see things differently and they weigh their opinions accordingly.

(At Syrus Partners, for example, Jeff’s financial analysis trumps mine when we disagree. Why? He’s simply better at it than I am. He finds things that business owners don’t even know about. Do I care that his analyses take precedence? No. Why? Because I want the best outcome.)

3. Understanding

Closed-minded people focus much more on being understood than on understanding others.

People’s default behaviors offer a quick tell. When you disagree with someone, what’s their reaction? If they’re quick to rephrase what they just said or, even worse, repeat it, then they are assuming that you don’t understand them, rather than that you are disagreeing with them.

Open-minded people feel compelled to see things through others’ eyes.

When you disagree with an open-minded person, they are quick to assume that they might not understand something and to ask you to tell them where their understanding is incomplete.

4. I Might Be Wrong, But…

Dalio nails this one. I have nothing to add.

Closed-minded people say things like “I could be wrong … but here’s my opinion.” This is a classic cue I hear all the time. It’s often a perfunctory gesture that allows people to hold their own opinion while convincing themselves that they are being open-minded. If your statement starts with “I could be wrong”…, you should probably follow it with a question and not an assertion.

Open-minded people know when to make statements and when to ask questions.

5. Just Shut Up

“Closed-minded people block others from speaking.”

They don’t have time to rehash something already talked about. They don’t want to hear anyone’s voices but their own. (Dalio offers a “two-minute rule” to get around this: Everyone has the right to speak for two minutes without being interrupted.)

Open-minded people are always more interested in listening than in speaking.

More than that, they say things like, “Sam, I notice you’ve been quiet. Would you like to offer your thoughts to the group?”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. Only One Sperm Gets In

Closed-minded people have trouble holding two thoughts simultaneously in their minds.

This reminds me of the memorable quote by Charlie Munger: “The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” It’s our nature to close our minds around our favorite ideas, but this is not the ideal way to think and learn.

Open-minded people can take in the thoughts of others without losing their ability to think well—they can hold two or more conflicting concepts in their mind and go back and forth between them to assess their relative merits.

7. Humble Pie

Closed-minded people lack a deep sense of humility.

Where does one get humility? Usually from failure—a crash so terrible they don’t want to repeat it. I remember when a hedge fund I was on the board of made a terrible investment decision. We spent a lot of time rubbing our noses in it afterward in an attempt to make sure we wouldn’t repeat the same mistake. In the process, we learned a lot about what we didn’t know.

Open-minded people approach everything with a deep-seated fear that they may be wrong.

***

If you recognize closed-minded behavior patterns in yourself, you’re not alone.

We’re all somewhere on the continuum between open- and closed-minded by default. Further complicating things, it varies by day and subject.

Staying open-minded won’t happen by accident.

When you find yourself exhibiting these behaviors in the moment, acknowledge what’s happening and correct it. Don’t blame yourself. As soon as you can, find a quiet place and reflect on what’s going on at a deeper level. Try to do better next time. Remember that this stuff takes work.

Maybe you have your self-worth wrapped up in being right, or maybe you’re not the right person to make a given decision. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, this is something worth exploring.

I have one more thing to add: Being open-minded does not mean that you spend an inordinate amount of time considering patently bad ideas just for the sake of open-mindedness.

You must have what Garrett Hardin calls a “default status” on various issues in your head. If someone offers you the proverbial free lunch, it’s OK to default to skepticism. If someone offers to build you a perpetual motion machine, I suggest you ignore them, as they’re violating the laws of thermodynamics. If someone offers to help you defraud the government and suggests that “no one will know,” I suggest you walk away immediately. There is wisdom in closed-mindedness on certain issues.

But consider this: Do you know anyone who doesn’t have any blind spots? I strongly doubt it. Then why would you be any different? As Dalio makes clear, you must be active in the process of open-mindedness: It won’t happen by accident.

The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

Why is it that some people seem to be hugely successful and do so much, while the vast majority of us struggle to tread water?

The answer is complicated and likely multifaceted.

One aspect is mindset—specifically, the difference between amateurs and professionals.

Most of us are just amateurs.

What’s the difference? Actually, there are many differences:

  • Amateurs stop when they achieve something. Professionals understand that the initial achievement is just the beginning.
  • Amateurs have a goal. Professionals have a process.
  • Amateurs think they are good at everything. Professionals understand their circles of competence.
  • Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out thoughtful criticism.
  • Amateurs value isolated performance. Think about the receiver who catches the ball once on a difficult throw. Professionals value consistency. Can I catch the ball in the same situation 9 times out of 10?
  • Amateurs give up at the first sign of trouble and assume they’re failures. Professionals see failure as part of the path to growth and mastery.
  • Amateurs don’t have any idea what improves the odds of achieving good outcomes. Professionals do.
  • Amateurs show up to practice to have fun. Professionals realize that what happens in practice happens in games.
  • Amateurs focus on identifying their weaknesses and improving them. Professionals focus on their strengths and on finding people who are strong where they are weak.
  • Amateurs think knowledge is power. Professionals pass on wisdom and advice.
  • Amateurs focus on being right. Professionals focus on getting the best outcome.
  • Amateurs focus on first-level thinking. Professionals focus on second-level thinking.
  • Amateurs think good outcomes are the result of their brilliance. Professionals understand when good outcomes are the result of luck.
  • Amateurs focus on the short term. Professionals focus on the long term.
  • Amateurs focus on tearing other people down. Professionals focus on making everyone better.
  • Amateurs make decisions in committees so there is no one person responsible if things go wrong. Professionals make decisions as individuals and accept responsibility.
  • Amateurs blame others. Professionals accept responsibility.
  • Amateurs show up inconsistently. Professionals show up every day.
  • Amateurs go faster. Professionals go further.
  • Amateurs go with the first idea that comes into their head. Professionals realize the first idea is rarely the best idea.
  • Amateurs think in ways that can’t be invalidated. Professionals don’t.
  • Amateurs think in absolutes. Professionals think in probabilities.
  • Amateurs think the probability of them having the best idea is high. Professionals know the probability of that is low.
  • Amateurs think reality is what they want to see. Professionals know reality is what’s true.
  • Amateurs think disagreements are threats. Professionals see them as an opportunity to learn.

There are a host of other differences, but they can effectively be boiled down to two things: fear and reality.

Amateurs believe that the world should work the way they want it to. Professionals realize that they have to work with the world as they find it. Amateurs are scared — scared to be vulnerable and honest with themselves. Professionals feel like they are capable of handling almost anything.

Luck aside, which approach do you think is going to yield better results?

Food for Thought:

  • In what circumstances do you find yourself behaving like an amateur instead of as a professional?
  • What’s holding you back? Are you hanging around people who are amateurs when you should be hanging around professionals?

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Footnotes
  • 1

    Ideas in this article from Ryan Holiday, Ramit Sethi, Seth Godin and others.

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 Many Ways Our Memory Fails Us (Part 2)

(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)

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In part one, we began a conversation about the trappings of the human memory, using Daniel Schacter’s excellent The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide. (We’ve also covered some reasons why our memory is pretty darn good.) We covered transience — the loss of memory due to time — and absent-mindedness — memories that were never encoded at all or were not available when needed. Let’s keep going with a couple more whoppers: Blocking and Misattribution.

Blocking

Blocking is the phenomenon when something is indeed encoded in our memory and should be easily available in the given situation, but simply will not come to mind. We’re most familiar with blocking as the always frustrating “It’s on the tip of my tongue!

Unsurprisingly, blocking occurs most frequently when it comes to names and indeed occurs more frequently as we get older:

Twenty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds kept diaries for a month in which they recorded spontaneously occurring retrieval blocks that were accompanied by the “tip of the tongue” sensation. Blocking occurred occasionally for the names of objects (for example, algae) and abstract words (for example, idiomatic). In all three groups, however, blocking occurred most frequently for proper names, with more blocks for people than for other proper names such as countries or cities. Proper name blocks occurred more frequently in the seventy-year-olds than in either of the other two groups.

This is not the worst sin our memory commits — excepting the times when we forget an important person’s name (which is admittedly not fun), blocking doesn’t cause the terrible practical results some of the other memory issues cause. But the reason blocking occurs does tells us something interesting about memory, something we intuitively know from other domains: We have a hard time learning things by rote or by force. We prefer associations and connections to form strong, lasting, easily available memories.

Why are names blocked from us so frequently, even more than objects, places, descriptions, and other nouns? For example, Schacter mentions experiments in which researchers show that we more easily forget a man’s name than his occupationeven if they’re the same word! (Baker/baker or Potter/potter, for example.)

It’s because relative to a descriptive noun like “baker,” which calls to mind all sorts of connotations, images, and associations, a person’s name has very little attached to it. We have no easy associations to make — it doesn’t tell us anything about the person or give us much to hang our hat on. It doesn’t really help us form an image or impression. And so we basically remember it by rote, which doesn’t always work that well.

Most models of name retrieval hold that activation of phonological representations [sound associations] occurs only after activation of conceptual and visual representations. This idea explains why people can often retrieve conceptual information about an object or person whom they cannot name, whereas the reverse does not occur. For example, diary studies indicate that people frequently recall a person’s occupation without remembering his name, but no instances have been documented in which a name is recalled without any conceptual knowledge about the person. In experiments in which people named pictures of famous individuals, participants who failed to retrieve the name “Charlton Heston” could often recall that he was an actor. Thus, when you block on the name “John Baker” you may very well recall that he is an attorney who enjoys golf, but it is highly unlikely that you would recall Baker’s name and fail to recall any of his personal attributes.

A person’s name is the weakest piece of information we have about them in our people-information lexicon, and thus the least available at any time, and the most susceptible to not being available as needed. It gets worse if it’s a name we haven’t needed to recall frequently or recently, as we all can probably attest to. (This also applies to the other types of words we block on less frequently — objects, places, etc.)

The only real way to avoid blocking problems is to create stronger associations when we learn names, or even re-encode names we already know by increasing their salience with a vivid image, even a silly one. (If you ever meet anyone named Baker…you know what to do.)

But the most important idea here is that information gains salience in our brain based on what it brings to mind. 

Whether or not blocking occurs in the sense implied by Freud’s idea of repressed memories, Schacter is non-committal about — it seems the issue was not, at the time of writing, settled.

Misattribution

The memory sin of misattribution has fairly serious consequences. Misattribution happens all the time and is a peculiar memory sin where we do remember something, but that thing is wrong, or possibly not even our own memory at all:

Sometimes we remember events that never happened, misattributing speedy processing of incoming information or vivid images that spring to mind, to memories of past events that did not occur. Sometimes we recall correctly what happened, but misattribute it to the wrong time and place. And at other times misattribution operates in a different direction: we mistakenly credit a spontaneous image or thought to our own imagination, when in reality we are recalling it–without awareness–from something we read or heard.

The most familiar, but benign, experience we’ve all had with misattribution is the curious case of deja vu. As of the writing of his book, Schacter felt there was no convincing explanation for why deja vu occurs, but we know that the brain is capable of thinking it’s recalling an event that happened previously, even if it hasn’t.

In the case of deja vu, it’s simply a bit of an annoyance. But the misattribution problem causes more serious problems elsewhere.

The major one is eyewitness testimony, which we now know is notoriously unreliable. It turns out that when eyewitnesses claim they “know what they saw!” it’s unlikely they remember as well as they claim. It’s not their fault and it’s not a lie — you do think you recall the details of a situation perfectly well. But your brain is tricking you, just like deja vu. How bad is the eyewitness testimony problem? It used to be pretty bad.

…consider two facts. First, according to estimates made in the late 1980s, each year in the United States more than seventy-five thousand criminal trials were decided on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Second, a recent analysis of forty cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that thirty-six of them (90 percent) involved mistaken eyewitness identification. There are no doubt other such mistakes that have not been rectified.

What happens is that, in any situation where our memory stores away information, it doesn’t have the horsepower to do it with complete accuracy. There are just too many variables to sort through. So we remember the general aspects of what happened, and we remember some details, depending on how salient they were.

We recall that we met John, Jim, and Todd, who were all part of the sales team for John Deere. We might recall that John was the young one with glasses, Jim was the older bald one, and Todd talked the most. We might remember specific moments or details of the conversation which stuck out.

But we don’t get it all perfectly, and if it was an unmemorable meeting, with the transience of time, we start to lose the details. The combination of the specifics and the details is a process called memory binding, and it’s often the source of misattribution errors.

Let’s say we remember for sure that we curled our hair this morning. All of our usual cues tell us that we did — our hair is curly, it’s part of our morning routine, we remember thinking it needed to be done, etc. But…did we turn the curling iron off? We remember that we did, but is that yesterday’s memory or today’s?

This is a memory binding error. Our brain didn’t sufficiently “link up” the curling event and the turning off of the curler, so we’re left to wonder. This binding issue leads to other errors, like the memory conjunction error, where sometimes the binding process does occur, but it makes a mistake. We misattribute the strong familiarity:

Having met Mr. Wilson and Mr. Albert during your business meeting, you reply confidently the next day when an associate asks you the name of the company vice president: “Mr. Wilbert.” You remembered correctly pieces of the two surnames but mistakenly combined them into a new one. Cognitive psychologists have developed experimental procedures in which people exhibit precisely these kinds of erroneous conjunctions between features of different words, pictures, sentences, or even faces. Thus, having studied spaniel and varnish, people sometimes claim to remember Spanish.

What’s happening is a misattribution. We know we saw the syllables Span- and –nish and our memory tells us we must have heard Spanish. But we didn’t.

Back to the eyewitness testimony problem, what’s happening is we’re combining a general familiarity with a lack of specific recall, and our brain is recombining those into a misattribution. We recall a tall-ish man with some sort of facial hair, and then we’re shown 6 men in a lineup, and one is tall-ish with facial hair, and our brain tells us that must be the guy. We make a relative judgment: Which person here is closest to what I think I saw? Unfortunately, like the Spanish/varnish issue, we never actually saw the person we’ve identified as the perp.

None of this occurs with much conscious involvement, of course. It’s happening subconsciously, which is why good procedures are needed to overcome the problem. In the case of suspect lineups, the solution is to show the witness each suspect, one after another, and have them give a thumbs up or thumbs down immediately. This takes away the relative comparison and makes us consciously compare the suspect in front of us with our memory of the perpetrator.

The good thing about this error is that people can be encouraged to search their memory more carefully. But it’s far from foolproof, even if we’re getting a very strong indication that we remember something.

And what helps prevent us from making too many errors is something Schacter calls the distinctiveness heuristic. If a distinctive thing supposedly happened, we usually reason we’d have a good memory of it. And usually this is a very good heuristic to have. (Remember, salience always encourages memory formation.) As we discussed in Part One, a salient artifact gives us something to tie a memory to. If I meet someone wearing a bright rainbow-colored shirt, I’m a lot more likely to recall some details about them, simply because they stuck out.

***

As an aside, misattribution allows us one other interesting insight into the human brain: Our “people information” remembering is a specific, distinct module, one that can falter on its own, without harming any other modules. Schacter discusses a man with a delusion that many of the normal people around him were film stars. He even misattributed made-up famous-sounding names (like Sharon Sugar) to famous people, although he couldn’t put his finger on who they were.

But the man did not falsely recognize other things. Made up cities or made up words did not trip up his brain in the strange way people did. This (and other data) tells us that our ability to recognize people is a distinct “module” our brain uses, supporting one of Judith Rich Harris’s ideas about human personality that we’ve discussed: The “people information lexicon” we develop throughout our lives is a uniquely important module we use.

***

One final misattribution is something called cryptomnesia — essentially the opposite of deja vu. It’s when we think we recognize something as new and novel even though we’ve seen it before. Accidental plagiarizing can even result from cryptomnesia. (Try telling that to your school teachers!) Cryptomnesia falls into the same bucket as other misattributions in that we fail to recollect the source of information we’re recalling — the information and event where we first remembered it are not bound together properly. Let’s say we “invent” the melody to a song which already exists. The melody sounds wonderful and familiar, so we like it. But we mistakenly think it’s new.

In the end, Schacter reminds us to think carefully about the memories we “know” are true, and to try to remember specifics when possible:

We often need to sort out ambiguous signals, such as feelings of familiarity or fleeting images, that may originate in specific past experiences, or arise from subtle influences in the present. Relying on judgment and reasoning to come up with plausible attributions, we sometimes go astray.  When misattribution combines with another of memory’s sins — suggestibility — people can develop detailed and strongly held recollections of complex events that never occurred.

And with that, we will leave it here for now. Next time we’ll delve into suggestibility and bias, two more memory sins with a range of practical outcomes.

The Many Ways Our Memory Fails Us (Part 1)

(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)

***

Recently, we discussed some of the net advantages of our faulty, but incredibly useful, memory system. Thanks to Harvard’s brilliant memory-focused psychologist Daniel Schacter, we know not to be too harsh in judging its flaws. The system we’ve been endowed with, on the whole, works at its intended purpose, and a different one might not be a better one.

It isn’t optimal though, and since we’ve given it a “fair shake”, it is worth discussing where the errors actually lie, so we can work to improve them, or at least be aware of them.

In his fascinating book, Schacter lays out seven broad areas in which our memory regularly fails us. Let’s take a look at them so we can better understand ourselves and others, and maybe come up with a few optimal solutions. Perhaps the most important lesson will be that we must expect our memory to be periodically faulty, and take that into account in advance.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground, so this one will be a multi-parter. Let’s dig in.

Transience

The first regular memory error is called transience. This is one we’re all quite familiar with, but sometimes forget to account for: The forgetting that occurs with the passage of time. Much of our memory is indeed transient — things we don’t regularly need to recall or use get lost with time.

Schacter gives an example of the phenomenon:

On October 3, 1995, the most sensational criminal trial of our time reached a stunning conclusion: a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder. Word of the not-guilty verdict spread quickly, nearly everyone reacted with either outrage or jubilation, and many people could talk about little else for weeks or days afterward. The Simpson verdict seemed like just the sort of momentous event that most of us would always remember vividly: how we reacted to it, and where we were when we heard the news.

Can you recall how you found out that Simpson had been acquitted? Chances are that you don’t remember, or that what you remember is wrong. Several days after the verdict, a group of California undergraduates provided researchers with detailed accounts of how they learned about the jury’s decision. When the researchers probed students’ memories again fifteen months later, only half recalled accurately how they found out about the decision. When asked again nearly three years after the verdict, less than 30 percent of students’ recollections were accurate; nearly half were dotted with major errors.

Soon after something happens, particularly something meaningful or impactful, we have a pretty accurate recollection of it. But the accuracy of that recollection declines on a curve over time — quickly at first, then slowing down. We go from remembering specifics to remembering the gist of what happened. (Again, on average — some detail is often left intact.) As the Simpson trial example shows, even in the case of a very memorable event, transience is high. Less memorable events are forgotten almost entirely.

What we typically do later on is fill in specific details of a specific event with what typically would happen in that situation. Schacter explains:

Try to answer in detail the following three questions: What do you do during a typical day at work? What did you do yesterday? And what did you do on that day one week earlier? When twelve employees in the engineering division of a large office-product manufacturer answered these questions, there was a dramatic difference in what they recalled from yesterday and a week earlier. The employees recalled fewer activities from a week ago than yesterday, and the ones they did recall from a week earlier tended to be part of a “typical” day. Atypical activities — departures from the daily script — were remembered much more frequently after a day than after a week. Memory after a day was close to a verbatim record of specific events; memory after a week was closer to a generic description of what usually happens.

So when we need to recall a memory, we tend to reconstruct as best as we can, starting with whatever “gist” is left over in our brains, and filling in the details by (often incorrectly) assuming that particular event was a lot like others. Generally, this is a correct assumption. There’s no reason to remember exactly what you ate last Thanksgiving, so turkey is a pretty reliable bet. Occasionally, though, transience gets us in trouble, as anyone who’s forgotten a name they should have remembered can attest.

How do we help solve the issue of transience?

Obviously, one easy solution, if it’s something we wish to remember specifically, and in an unaltered form, is to record it as specifically as possible and as soon as possible. That is the optimal solution, for time begins acting immediately to make our memories vague.

Another idea is visual imagery. The idea of using visual mneumonics is popular in the memory-improvement game; in other words, associating parts of a hoped-for memory with highly vivid imagery (an elephant squashing a clown!), which can be easily recalled later. Greek orators were famous for the technique.

The problem is that almost no one uses this on a day to day basis, because it’s very cognitively demanding. You must go through the process of making interesting and evocative associations every time you want to remember something — there’s no “general memory improvement” going on, which is what people are really interested in, where all future memories are more effectively encoded.

Another approach — associating and tying something you wish to remember with something else you already know to increase its availability later on — is also useful, but as with visual imagery, must be used each and every time.

In fact, so far as we can tell, the only “general memory improver” available to us is to create better habits of association — attaching vivid stories, images, and connections to things — the very habits we talk about frequently when we discuss the mental model approach. It won’t happen automatically.

Absent-Mindedness

The second memory failure is closely related to transience, but a little different in practice. Whereas transience entails remembering something that then fades, absent-mindedness is a process whereby the information is never properly encoded, or is simply overlooked at the point of recall.

Failed encoding explains phenomena like regularly misplacing our keys or glasses: The problem is not that the information faded, it’s that it never made it from our working memory into our long term memory. This often happens because we are distracted or otherwise not paying attention at the moment of encoding (e.g., when we take our glasses off).

Interestingly enough, although divided attention can prevent us from retaining particulars, we still may encode some basic familiarity: 

Familiarity entails a more primitive sense of knowing that something has happened previously, without dredging up particular details. In [a] restaurant, for example, you might have noticed at a nearby table someone you are certain you have met previously despite failing to recall such specifics as the person’s name or how you know her. Laboratory studies indicate that dividing attention during encoding has a drastic effect on subsequent recollection, and has little or no effect on familiarity.

This phenomenon probably happens because divided attention prevents us from elaborating on the particulars that are necessary for subsequent recollection, but allows us to record some rudimentary information that later gives rise to a sense of familiarity.

Schacter also points out something that older people might take solace in: Aging produces a similar cognitive effect to attention-dividedness. The reason older people start feeling they’ve misplaced their keys or checkbook constantly is that the brain’s decline in cognitive resources mirrors the “split attention” problem that causes all of us to misplace our keys or checkbook.

A related phenomenon to this poor encoding problem is one called change-blindness — failing to see differences in objects or scenes unfolding over time. Similar to the “slowly boiling a frog” issue most of us are familiar with, change-blindness causes us to fail to see subtle change. This is the Invisible Gorilla problem, made famous through its vivid demonstration by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.

In fact, in another experiment, Simons was able to show that even in a real-life conversation, he could swap out one man for another in many instances without the conversational partner even noticing! Magicians and con-men regularly use this to fool and astonish.

What’s happening is shallow encoding — similar to the transience problem, we often encode only a superficial level of information related to what’s happening in front of our face, even when talking to a real person. Thus, subtly changing details are not registered because they were never encoded in the first place! (Sherlock Holmes made a career of countering this natural tendency by being super-observant.)

Generally, this is totally fine and OK. As a whole, the system serves us well. But the instances where it doesn’t can get us into trouble.

***

This brings up the problem of absent-mindedness in what psychologists call prospective memory — remembering something you need to do in the future. We’re all familiar with situations when we forget to do something we clearly “told ourselves” we needed to remember.

The typical antidote is using cues to help us remember: An event-based prospective memory goes like this: “When you see Harry today, tell him to call me.” A time-based prospective memory goes like this: “At 11PM, take the cookies out of the oven.”

It doesn’t always work, though. Time-based prospective memory is the worst of all: We’re not consistently good at remembering that “11PM = cookies” because other stuff will also be happening at 11PM! A time-based cue is insufficient.

For the same reason, an event-based cue will also fail to work if we’re not careful:

Consider the first event-based prospective memory. Frank has asked you to tell Harry to call him, but you have forgotten to do so. You indeed saw Harry in the office, but instead of remembering Frank’s message you were reminded of the bet you and Harry made concerning last night’s college basketball championship, gloating for several minutes over your victory before settling down to work.

“Harry” carries many associations other than “Tell him something for Frank.” Thus, we’re not guaranteed to recall it in the moment.

This knowledge allows us to construct an optimal solution to the prospective memory problem: Specific, distinctive cues that call to mind the exact action needed, at the time it is needed. All elements must be in place for the optimal solution.

Post-it notes with explicit directions put in an optimal place (somewhere a post-it note would not usually be found) tend to work well. A specific reminder on your phone that pops up exactly when needed will work.  As Schacter puts it, “The point is to transfer as many details as possible from working memory to written reminders.” Be specific, make it stand out, make it timely. Hoping for a spontaneous reminder to work means that, some percentage of the time, we will certainly commit an absent-minded error. It’s just the way our minds work.

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Let’s pause there for now. In our next post on memory, we’ll cover the sins of Blocking and Misattribution, and some potential solutions. In Part Three, we check out the sins of Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence. In the meantime, try checking out the book in its entirety, if you want to read ahead.