“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Your ability to think clearly determines the decisions you make and the actions you take.
In Get Smart!: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field, author Brian Tracy presents ten different ways of thinking that enable better decisions. Better decisions free up your time and improve results. At Farnam Street, we believe that a multidisciplinary approach based on mental models allows you to gauge situations from different perspectives and profoundly affect the quality of decisions you make.
Most of us slip into a comfort zone of what Tracy calls “easy thinking and decision-making.” We use less than our cognitive capacity because we become lazy and jump to simple conclusions.
This isn’t about being faster. I disagree with the belief that decisions should be, first and foremost, fast and efficient. A better approach is to be effective. If it takes longer to come to a better decision, so be it. In the long run, this will pay for itself over and over with fewer messes, more free time, and less anxiety.
In Get Smart, Tracy does a good job of showing people a series of simple, practical, and powerful ways of examining a situation to improve the odds you’re making the best decision.
Let’s take a look at a few of them.
1. Long-Time Perspective Versus Short-Time Perspective
Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University studied upward economic mobility for almost 50 years. He wondered why some people and families moved from lower socioeconomic classes to higher ones and some didn’t. A lot of these people moved from labor jobs to riches in one lifetime. He wanted to know why. His findings are summarized in the controversial book, The Unheavenly City. Banfield offered one simple conclusion that has endured. He concluded that “time perspective” was overwhelmingly the most important factor.
Tracy picks us up here:
At the lowest socioeconomic level, lower-lower class, the time perspective was often only a few hours, or minutes, such as in the case of the hopeless alcoholic or drug addict, who thinks only about the next drink or dose.
At the highest level, those who were second- or third-generation wealthy, their time perspective was many years, decades, even generations into the future. It turns out that successful people are intensely future oriented. They think about the future most of the time.
The very act of thinking long term sharpens your perspective and dramatically improves the quality of your short-term decision making.
So what should we do about this? Tracy advises:
Resolve today to develop long-time perspective. Become intensely future oriented. Think about the future most of the time. Consider the consequences of your decisions and actions. What is likely to happen? And then what could happen? And then what? Practice self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-control. Be willing to pay the price today in order to enjoy the rewards of a better future tomorrow.
Sounds a lot like Garrett Hardin‘s three lessons from ecology. But really what we’re talking about here is second-level thinking.
2. Slow Thinking
“If it is not necessary to decide, it is necessary not to decide.”
— Lord Acton
I don’t know many consistently successful people or organizations that are constantly reacting without thinking. And yet most of us are habitually in reactive mode. We react and respond to what’s happening around us with little deliberate thought.
“From the first ring of the alarm clock,” Tracy writes, we are “largely reacting and responding to stimuli from [our] environment.” This feeds our impulses and appetites. “The normal thinking process is almost instantaneous: stimulus, then immediate response, with no time in between.”
The superior thinking process is also triggered by stimulus, but between the stimulus and the response there is a moment or more where you think before you respond. Just like your mother told you, “Count to ten before you respond, especially when you are upset or angry.”
The very act of stopping to think before you say or do anything almost always improves the quality of your ultimate response. It is an indispensable requirement for success.
One of the best things we can do to improve the quality of our thinking is to understand when we gain an advantage from slow thinking and when we don’t.
Ask yourself “does this decision require fast or slow thinking?”
Shopping for toothpaste is a situation where we derive little benefit from slow thinking. On the other hand if we’re making an acquisition or investment we want to be deliberate. Where do we draw the line? A good shortcut is to consider the consequences. Telling your boss he’s an idiot when he says something stupid is going to feel really good in the moment but carry lasting consequences. Don’t React.
Pause. Think. Act.
This sounds easy but it’s not. One habit you can develop is to continually ask “How do we know this is true?” for the pieces of information you think are relevant to the decision.
3. Informed Thinking Versus Uninformed Thinking
“Beware of endeavouring to be a great man in a hurry.
One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed: these are fearful odds.”
I know a lot of entrepreneurs and most of them religiously say the same two words “due diligence.” In fact, a great friend of mine has a 20+ page due diligence checklist. This means taking the time to make the right decision. You may be wrong but it won’t be because you rushed. Of course, most of the people who preach due diligence have skin in the game. It’s easier to be cavalier (or stupid) when it’s heads I win and tails I don’t lose much (hello government).
Harold Geneen, who formed a conglomerate at ITT, said, “The most important elements in business are facts. Get the real facts, not the obvious facts or assumed facts or hoped-for facts. Get the real facts. Facts don’t lie.”
Heck, use the scientific method. Tracy writes:
Create a hypothesis— a yet-to-be-proven theory. Then seek ways to invalidate this hypothesis, to prove that your idea is wrong. This is what scientists do.
This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They come up with an idea, and then they seek corroboration and proof that their idea is a good one. They practice “confirmation bias.” They only look for confirmation of the validity of the idea, and they simultaneously reject all input or information that is inconsistent with what they have already decided to believe.
Create a negative or reverse hypothesis. This is the opposite of your initial theory. For example, you are Isaac Newton, and the idea of gravity has just occurred to you. Your initial hypothesis would be that “things fall down.” You then attempt to prove the opposite—“things fall up.”
If you cannot prove the reverse or negative hypothesis of your idea, you can then conclude that your hypothesis is correct.
One of the reasons why Charles Darwin was such an effective thinker is that he relentlessly sought out disconfirming evidence.
As the psychologist Jerry Jampolsky once wrote, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”
It is amazing how many people come up with a new product or service idea and then fall in love with the idea long before they validate whether or not this is something that a sufficient number of customers are willing to buy and pay for.
Keep gathering information until the proper course of action becomes clear, as it eventually will. Check and double-check your facts. Assume nothing on faith. Ask, “How do we know that this is true?”
Finally, search for the hidden flaw, the one weak area in the decision that could prove fatal to the product or business if it occurred. J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, was famous for his approach to making business decisions. He said, “We first determine that it is a good business opportunity. Then we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that could happen to us in this business opportunity?’ We then go to work to make sure that the worst possible outcome does not occur.”
Most importantly, never stop gathering information. One of the reasons that Warren Buffett is so successful is that he spends most of his day reading and thinking. I call this the Buffett Formula.
If you’re a knowledge worker decisions are your product. Milton Friedman, the economist, wrote: “The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions.”
If there were a single message to Get Smart, it’s another plus in the Farnam Street mold of being conscious. Stop and think before deciding — especially if the consequences are serious. The more ways you have to look at a problem, the more likely you are to better understand. And when you understand a problem — when you really understand a problem — the solution becomes obvious. A friend of mine has a great expression: “To understand is to know what to do.”
Get Smart goes on to talk about goal and result orientated thinking, positive and negative thinking, entrepreneurial vs. corporate thinking and more.