Category: Self-Improvement

Is Our Faulty Memory Really So Bad?

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

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

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

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

— Daniel Schacter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Percent Better: The Compounding of Consistent Incremental Progress

Self-motivated, self-starting individuals are incredibly motivated to find their weaknesses. It’s not far-fetched to say that some of us actually seek to make ourselves perfect — rational, calculating beings making the right type of decisions at just the right times. But we’ve learned from Star Trek; we don’t look to eliminate emotion either and turn ourselves into Mr. Spock. We want just the right amount of emotion in our lives.

“People often overestimate what they can accomplish in one year. But they greatly underestimate what they could accomplish in five years.”

— Peter Drucker

If we’re night owls, we seek to become early risers. (Ben Franklin did it!). If we’re procrastinators, we look to become doers. If we’re always late to meetings, we look to be early to meetings. We want to eliminate our weaknesses and become a little More.

This is, of course, a laudable goal and one of the prime reasons for FS’s existence. But the self-starters among us have probably all run into the same problem: We don’t actually follow through on the things we know will make us better. We don’t eat the broccoli. We get a little too robotic. We get up at 8:30 when we said we’d do 5:30 from here on out. We leave that essay until the last second even though that was never going to happen again. We’re five minutes late. We don’t become lore at all, and the failure to get there makes us feel like less.

The culprit, I think, is the thought that any important change happens quickly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get up early or pick up and implement the Psychology of Human Misjudgment. Anything important happens pretty damn slowly.

From Potential to Useful

And why should it be otherwise? If you were to truly understand, in-depth, and apply the Psychology of Human Misjudgment to your dealings, you’d be way far out ahead of your peers and your former self. The advantage of understanding human nature is incredible. But it takes deep, repeated study and a long gestation period to get there. It takes applying the ideas to the world, feeling them out, forgetting them, re-doubling yourself, and trying again. Not giving up when you forget or fail. It is through the process of refinement that one learns new habits and ideas.

The visual mental model I like for self-improvement is imagining something like a Lathe.

A lathe, for the non-engineer, is a tool that molds a piece of material into some shapely form. A machinist would use a lathe to take a hunk of metal and turn it into a usable engine part, for example. The lathe takes something with potential and shapes it into something useful by slowly refining it and shaving away the excess.

Compounding works in other areas besides money.

The way I think about it, if I can get 5% wiser and better every year, then I will be about twice as wise as I am now in less than 15 years. (Go ahead, grab your calculators.) In less than 30 years, my return will be 4x. This is how the non-gifted among us can surpass otherwise more intelligent people.

Small Improvements, Massive Results

Before you go off trying to figure out how one can measure such an unmeasurable thing as wisdom or usefulness, or whatever it is we’re really aiming at in the self-improvement game, let me be clear that the numbers don’t matter so much as the concept: Small improvements add up to massive differences. Compounding works in other areas besides money. And we want to compound worldly wisdom.

These little mental tricks like the Lathe and the idea of 5% yearly improvement are just ways to remind myself that I’m not going to wake up wiser/nicer/healthier/smarter tomorrow morning or the morning after. And just as importantly, if I backslide on a goal I’ve set or I forget something I thought I’d learned well, that it’s really not the end of the world. I don’t need to give up and call it hopeless. All I have to do is figure out where I slipped, re-double my efforts, and go after it again. All I need is 5% a year to become 4x better in my adult lifetime.

The truth is that whatever bad habits you have or whatever things you’re struggling to learn, there’s probably a good reason. Your biology and your experiences to date have set you in stone to a certain extent, and the older you are, the more likely that is to be true. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. Billion-dollar industries have been built on convincing you that it’s easy to make big changes or to get a lot wiser and better. But it honestly isn’t. It’s hard work.

Yet any study of great individuals reveals that the work is worth doing.

So just imagine if you could make slightly better decisions every year. Whether it’s 5% better consideration of all of your decisions, or making 5% of your decisions differently, or some permutation thereof, it doesn’t really matter. Every year you’ll look back at some part of your old self and wonder how you could’ve been so dumb. And one day, in less than 30 years, you’ll look back and see your old self as almost unrecognizably stupid.

What more could you ask for?

How to Provide Great Feedback When You’re Not In Charge

How often do we give deep thought to how we provide feedback to others? It seems like something we’d all obviously like to do well, but most of the time we stink at it.

When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance?

The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot. Even when we’re well-intentioned, the message gets lost in the transmission. It’s like the old saying “What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard.” We respond emotionally to criticism, even if it’s just implied criticism. (Are you sure you still fit into that dress?) This makes it difficult to help others improve. In other words, we fail to understand and appreciate human nature.

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp address this very effectively in their book Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. The major idea is that while we think feedback is feedback, there are really three distinct types of feedback, and each needs to be used appropriately to effectively help others.

There are at least three different kinds of feedback that may be appropriate in a given situation:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

The habit you want to develop is to know your purposes when you offer feedback, and to make your comments in a form appropriate to accomplishing that purpose.

This is a very valuable framework because it brings our motivations to the surface.

Are we trying to show appreciation, offer advice, or offer an evaluation? (As in a grade or a performance review.) We think we can do it all at the same time, but that tends to be counter-productive. Take for example a professor handing out grades:

A college professor spends a large part of her weekend writing exhaustive comments on a student’s paper. When it is handed back, the student flips to the last page to see the grade. If he gets an A, he is overjoyed. If he gets a C he mopes the rest of the day, muttering that the grade was unfair. In either case, he spends little time trying to learn from all the suggestions the professor had made. The emotional impact of being graded tends to drown out the advice on improving performance.

The emotions involved in receiving your evaluation — good or bad — trumps the value of the coaching. The two objectives are at cross-purposes. And thus we must learn to use them more strategically.

It is best to offer different kinds of feedback at different times. At the very least, you should explicitly signal when you move from one purpose to another. Above all, it helps to separate both advice and appreciation from the anxiety that typically accompanies a performance review — evaluation. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes.

Here are a few specific ways we can go about separating the various methods of feedback and using them more judiciously.

1. Express Appreciation to Motivate

When should you offer appreciation? Always. It’s always a good time to spend a moment boosting someone else’s mood, and thus boosting their productivity. The cost is low: it takes only a minute to drop by someone’s office and say, “I’m grateful for your hard work.”

This, of course, mirrors the old Dale Carnegie saying “Be hearty in your approbations and lavish in your praise.” Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated, regardless of their level of work? This a deep emotional need, and one that’s very easy to meet. Charlie Munger once said that withholding deserved praise was basically immoral. Once we realize that expressing appreciation can be separated from offering useful feedback or constructive criticism, we’re free to offer it without risking a chance to push for specific improvement.

It’s also key that we offer honest praise. Most of us can see through false praise, and it tends to backfire. Telling someone who obviously failed that they “Did a great job!” is not a good idea, even if it sounds nice. Instead, try telling them that they obviously tried hard and that you appreciated their work, and then asking if they’d like your advice to help improve it. That way you’ve offered honest appreciation and help without the empty flattery.

2. Offer Advice to Improve Performance

In the appreciation phase, we were trying to direct our comments at the person directly: I value you and I value your effort. It has not gone unnoticed.

The advice phase is different — we want to talk about the task. A mentor of mine frequently called this “Separating the issues from the people” or being “Hard on the issues, easy on the people.” Either way, we’re trying to build the person up emotionally while also improving their performance. The key is to be specific.

The more general the coaching advice, the more it is taken as a personal indictment, rather than a professional analysis of the behavior…Telling someone “good job” doesn’t help him know which particular things to repeat. Specificity allows others to understand what exactly you saw them do, and why you liked it. That makes it more likely that they will make it part of their own thinking…Remember, the goal is to find better methods, not to be right. Sharing the specific data makes us partners in the job of finding better methods.

Notice the subtle shift of emphasis: “Let’s find better methods together” works better than “You suck and here’s why.”

The two specific categories of feedback we want to offer are reinforcements of what worked well and suggestions on what could be done differently. We tend to focus heavily on the latter, while too frequently ignoring our responsibility to reinforce what worked. If we spend time in both categories, being specific and backing our conclusions up with sound reasoning, we can help the person feel better about themselves while hopefully encouraging them to change specific aspects of their performance.

Skip the generic back-patting (“You did great!”) and tell them specifically what they did well: “You handled that conversation so calmly that the customer clearly knew you were on their side. I think that went a long way towards increasing their comfort with us and closing the deal.” Only then do we want to proceed to explain which changes can be made.

Each step in the process — offering appreciation, reinforcing what went well, encouraging togetherness — softens the final blow of “here’s what you might change.” This is how we increase the chance of our message being transmitted successfully. We must always put ourselves in the shoes of the feedback-receiver.

3. Evaluate Only When Needed

This is a simple one: Evaluation is frequently not the best way to improve performance. If we separate coaching from evaluation, as discussed above, this becomes more clear. We don’t need to assign performance grades all the time if we’re constantly reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones in an effective way. Immediate and clear feedback is so much more effective than a delayed performance review.

Reviews will, of course, be necessary at times when we must make tangible decisions about personnel — hiring, firing, promoting, etc. In those cases, make the evaluation swift and fair. Otherwise, steer clear of using evaluation as your main tool for improvement and motivation unless you’re specifically trying to deliver a message.

Evaluation is sometimes needed to give somebody a “kick in the pants” — to make them try harder. In selecting which of a dozen law students in an advanced negotiation seminar should be invited to become teaching assistants, Roger once asked all twelve to rank anonymously everyone in their class for their ability to be a good teaching assistant. No opportunity was given for collusion or bargaining. Eleven of the students ranked one student as number twelve, and one ranked that student as number one. The results suggested that that student needed some candid evaluation of how he was doing.

4. Take the First Fall

In the end, what we really want to do as leaders, whether we’re technically in a leadership position or not, is to create an environment where feedback is shared in a helpful and useful way. The best way to do that besides giving great feedback is volunteering to take some as well. As they say in Aikido, be willing to “Take the first fall.”

The best way to create an atmosphere in which coaching is shared is not to put someone else in the hot seat, but to volunteer to take it yourself. You can encourage others, whether bosses, colleagues, or subordinates, by asking for their observations about your performance. A request for coaching will have the most impact on people at your level or below. If you want your subordinates to ask for feedback from their subordinates, the best thing you can do is to show them that you are willing to do so as well.

Still Interested? Check out Getting it Done by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, or Getting to Yes, the best-selling and most useful book on negotiation ever produced.

Why We Choke

The book Bounce by Matthew Syed is an interesting look at the science of success, filled with stories and interviews of some of the most recognized names in sport.

While Syed focuses the majority of the book on what it takes to excel in sport or anything for that matter, there is a really interesting chapter on why we choke.

For those of you familiar with the Farnam Street mental models, you’ll recall the concept of inversion. If we want to know how to succeed, we also need to know how to avoid failure.

Why We Choke

Syed himself choked in one of the most important games of his career.

He had made it to Sydney Olympics in 2000 and it was the first time he had been a medal hopeful. He was 29 at the time and already a decorated table tennis player.

He was at the top of his game and was filled with confidence – so why did he choke?

Well to understand that let’s first look at what happened to him that day.

Franz stroked the ball into play – a light and gentle forehand topspin. It was not a difficult stroke to return, not a stroke I would normally have had any trouble pouncing upon, and yet I was strangely late on it, my feet stuck in their original position, my racket jabbing at the ball in a way that was totally unfamiliar. My return missed the table by more than two feet.

I shook out my hand, sensing that something was wrong and hoping it would rectify itself. But things got worse. Each time my opponent played a stroke, I found my body doing things that bore no relation to anything I had learned over the last twenty years of playing table tennis: my feet were sluggish, my movements alien, my touch barely existent.

I was trying as hard as I could; I yearned for victory more intensely than in any match I had ever played, and yet it was if I had regressed to the time when I was a beginner.

So why would an elite athlete suddenly play like a beginner?

It comes down to the two ways your mind functions when completing tasks; it uses explicit and implicit monitoring. A novice will use much more conscious or explicit monitoring as they are learning, trying to focus, and trying to remember. An expert has put in the time and gotten to the point where there is a switch to the unconscious or implicit mind. Syed explains:

… the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal ganglia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel.

This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole …, something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.

This transition between brain systems can be most easily understood by thinking about what happens when you learn to drive a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently in order to move the gearshift while keeping the steering wheel in the right place, pushing on the clutch, and keeping an eye on the road. In fact, at the beginning, these tasks are so difficult to execute simultaneously that the instructor starts you off in a parking lot and helps you slowly to integrate the various elements.

After a few years of driving your car, you don’t think much at all about all the elements that are coming together to help guide you down the road. In fact, you are so comfortable with the act that you can sip coffee and sing along to the song on the radio while doing a task that, at one point, was very difficult for you to master. But what happens if something occurred to suddenly shift you from implicit back to explicit, from the unconscious back to the conscious?

This situation has been re-created by Robert Gray, a psychologist at Arizona State University. He took a group of outstanding intercollegiate baseball players and asked them to swing at a moving ball while listening for a randomly presented tone to judge whether the tone was high or low in frequency. As expected, the tone-listening task had no detrimental effect on the efficiency of their swings… Why? Because baseball hitters have automated their shot-making.

But when hitters were asked to indicate whether their bat was moving up or down at the instant the tone sounded, their performance levels plummeted. Why? Because this time the secondary task forced them to direct their attention toward the swing itself. They were consciously monitoring a stroke that was supposed to be automatic. Explicit monitoring was vying with implicit execution.

Their problem was not a lack of focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the implicit system. The sequencing and timing of the different motor responses were fragmented, just as they would be with a novice. They were, effectively, beginners again.

So choking is a form of psychological reversion.

A complex task that you were able to do unconsciously suddenly comes into sharp focus and the complexity of it is really too much for your conscious brain to handle. And, now that your conscious brain is wrapped up in trying to figure out the nuance of this thing you used to know, you can forget about any higher level thinking. In an instant, your switch in focus has turned you from an expert back into a beginner.

Syed explains in more detail:

Consider what happens when executing a simple task, like keeping a cup of coffee upright under pressure – say, because you are walking across a very expensive carpet. In these circumstances, explicit attention is just what you need. By focusing on keeping the cup vertical, you are far less likely to spill the contents because of inadvertence or a lack of concentration. On simple tasks, the tendency to slow down and take conscious control confers huge advantages.

But precisely the opposite applies when executing a complex task. When an expert hits a moving table tennis ball or strikes a fade on a golf shot, any tendency to direct attention toward the mechanics of the shot is likely to be catastrophic because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle (this is another example of combinatorial explosion).

Choking, then, is a kind of neural glitch that occurs when the brain switches to a system of explicit monitoring in circumstances when it ought to stick to the implicit system. It is not something the performer does intentionally; it just happens. And once the explicit system has kicked in (as anyone who has been afflicted by choking will tell you), it is damned difficult to switch out of.

So how do we overcome choking and stop the explicit system from taking over?

Considering that choking only ever occurs in highly pressurized circumstances, what better way than to convince oneself that a career-defining contest doesn’t really matter? After all, if the performer does not feel any pressure, there is no pressure – and the conscious mind will not attempt to wrestle control from the implicit system.

In the end, Syed worked with sports psychologist Mark Bawden to help him overcome his issues with choking. They came up with strategies to lessen the pressure of big matches.

I worked with Bawden for many years after the Olympic Games in Sydney to ward off choking. My method was to think about all the things that are so much more important than sport: health, family, relationships, and so on. During my prematch routine, I would spend a few minutes in a deeply relaxed state, filling my mind with these thoughts, finishing with an affirmation…: ‘It’s only table tennis!’ By the time I reached the court, my beliefs had altered: the match was no longer the be-all and end-all.

This is a good strategy for the next time you have an important meeting/interview/presentation, counter-intuitively tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal. Remind yourself of all the things that are more important and maybe even calm yourself with some stoic negative thinking. Be confident and try not to overthink.

The Biggest Barrier to Accomplishing Great Things

At some point, we all give up trying to get better at something. But Why?

Let’s say you want to play the piano. In the beginning, it’s quite rewarding. You start to take lessons and notice immediate progress. Your teacher comments on your talent and you see it being actualized into skill on a consistent basis with seemingly little skill. You pick up the elementary aspects in no time. But then the rate of progress diminishes. Improvement becomes harder and harder.

This is where perseverance matters.

In their book, Human Performance, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner call this stage of skill mastery the autonomous phase.

The only thing that is going to get someone who is proficient out of their plateau is to isolate some small component that needs improvement and concentrate there.

“If you’re myopic and only look at the next moment in time and you base your decisions on ‘what am I going to get out of this in the next nanosecond’ versus ‘what do I have to put into this in the next nanosecond,’ then when you hit a plateau, your natural conclusion is to quit and move to the next thing. If you’re able to think about things in much bigger chunks, you can make good long-term choices and investments of your effort and time.”

— Angela Duckworth

This deliberate practice approach relies on something called “augmented feedback,” from expert coaches. It’s how a good golfer turns great – a hundred more rounds of golf likely won’t improve their skill level but sessions with a pro that focus on a nit in their swing will. It’s how a skilled pianist turns into a master.

Johannes Eichstaedt, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (and a collaborator of Angela Duckworth), believes that human achievement is the function of a set of variables.

“We think about achievement, skill and talent sort of like distance traveled, velocity and acceleration,” says Eichstaedt, in The Plateau Effect.

“We think about achievement, skill and talent sort of like distance travelled, velocity and acceleration,” he says. In his model, achievement can be thought of as the sum of all your accomplishments. This is a value that never decreases and is constantly building over time. Skill is velocity, the rate at which achievement is attained. Someone who is a highly skilled golfer for example will accumulate achievement (such as tournaments won) at a much faster rate than an amateur. The golf pro is travelling down the freeway of achievement at 90 mph in a Maserati while the amateur pedals along on a bicycle. Eichstaedt sees talent as acceleration, the rate at which skill increases. Think of it as achievement potential. To continue on the car metaphor, a Maserati has a much higher capacity for speed than a bicycle (even if Lance Armstrong is pedaling it).

To get an increase in skill you multiply talent by units of time using deliberate practice. The less talent the harder you have to work.

“That’s where people are a little different in terms of their talent, and then it’s a function of time on task that actualizes talent into skill,” Eichstaedt says.

This is where grit comes in.

Gritty people put in the effort to move from talent to skill and then from skill to achievement. This model may also help explain why people with high IQ’s (akin to talent in Eichstaedt’s model) can become skilled with little effort but also how people with an average IQ through the hard work of focused effort can get to the same skill level. The model underscores why then it is so important to teach grittiness to children (and adults).

According to Eichstaedt, Ericsson, Duckworth and others, it is this combination of potential and tenacious pursuit of one’s goal that is the hallmark of consistently high achievers. What is interesting about this model is that it has a heavy dependence on “time on task” – meaning that if a person is able to marshal all their skills of concentration and focus, they can control the most dominant factor in their own success: time spent working on a task.

How we plateau

A plateau then can come from a few different places: we can either stop putting in the effort – the time on task – to turn skill into accomplishment, or we can exhaust our talent. “At some point we run out of that potential to be actualized into skill through focused effort and we plateau.”

It’s at this point that people settle into an equilibrium that is comfortable.

Most people are happy to be a mediocre plus keyboard player or typist. According to Eichstaedt, at some point many people prefer to focus on turning the skill that they’ve acquired into accomplishment instead of focusing on turning their talent into additional skill. For the occasional pianist that might mean learning to play a few intricate pieces.

“Further skill development beyond the exhaustion of their talent potential tends to be not as rewarding,” Eichstaedt says.

What are the biggest barriers to doing great things?

“I think the biggest barriers to doing great things are not cataclysmic events that require heroic action. It’s more important to focus on incremental effort and results than the heroic acts that typically get the lion’s share of the attention,” Angela Duckworth argues in The Plateau Effect.

Read next: The Single Most Important Change You Can Make In Your Working Habits.

Still curious? Check out The Plateau Effect and Daniel Coyle’s Little Book of Talent.

The Secret Ingredient for Success: The Brutal Discipline Necessary for Self-Assessment

Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, came out with an op-ed in the New York Times.

The interesting argument, one that is echoed by Charles Darwin, is that the to success is a brutal self-assessment.

“Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong … Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves [and] toward the society in which we live.”

— Massimo Vignelli

What happens to organizations and people when they find obstacles in their paths?

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

In interviews we did with high achievers… we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavoured to achieve them.

In part, an accurate self-assessment allows for the feedback necessary to grow. It’s the evidence you need to move forward. It doesn’t matter if it comes from nobodies or somebodies, a coach or anyone else, which is precisely the point of being open to what others have to say if you are really interested in improving your own skills.

The discipline of self-assessment is only the start. It produces knowledge that allows us to understand the edge of our competency, which is the key to learning. What you do with that knowledge matters and there is a difference between the good and the great.

Average performers believe their errors are caused by things they don’t controla fixed mindset if there ever was one. Top performers, however, as Geoff Colvin writes in is book, Talent is Overrated, “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 though 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. (more)

It’s precisely the combination of a brutal self-assessment and a growth mindset that tilts that increases the odds we become better. And these skills come down to discipline.

As Anna Deavere Smith wrote in Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind,

Discipline — both mental and physical — is crucial.