Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Can I? versus I Can!

Having read many self-help books over the years I’ve constantly encountered the idea of using positive self-talk and affirmation statements to help improve your chances of achieving your goals. Many of these books tell you to write positive “affirmation” statements. Examples would be:

  • I have plenty of creativity for this project.
  • My work will be recognized in a positive way by my boss and colleagues.
  • My co-workers and customers respect and value my opinion.
  • I am successful.
  • I complete tasks and projects on time.
  • I expect to be successful in all of my endeavors. Success is my natural state.
  • I am courageous and I stand up for myself.
  • My thoughts are positive and my life is filled with prosperity.

When I read these books years ago and tried affirmations like this I believe they helped put me in a more positive frame of mind. However, as I wrote in my April 23, 2017 post “Moving Beyond Positive Thinking”, research has shown that if we vividly visualize our goals our mind doesn’t know the difference between the imagined outcome and the actual results! We can end up having less motivation not more. In this post I refer to work done by Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and covered in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Daniel Pink, author of books such as Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, reports on research that says we can be more productive by asking if we can do something then answering with a “yes” rather than declaring “I can do it.” Pink relays research done on a method used by Bob the Builder, an “overall-clad, stop-motion animated construction executive – who debuted on CBBC in 1999 and whose television programme now reaches children in 240 territories and 45 languages – is a management radical. His approach to directing projects, people and himself runs counter to the prevailing wisdom about business performance.”

Most of us believe in positive self-talk. "I can achieve anything," we mouth to the mirror in the morning. "Nobody can stop me," we tell ourselves before walking into a big meeting. We believe we'll do better if we banish doubts about our ability or our strategy and instead muster an inner voice that affirms our awesomeness.

But not Bob. Instead of puffing up himself and his team, he first wonders whether they can actually achieve their goal. In asking his signature question – Can we fix it? – he introduces some doubt.

In a nifty set of experiments, three social scientists explored the differences between what they call "declarative" self-talk (I will fix it!) and "interrogative" self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in "sauce" to spell "cause".) But before the participants tackled the problem, the researchers asked one half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task – and the other half to tell themselves that they would complete the task.

The results?

The self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.

By asking "Can we fix it?", Bob widens the possibilities. Only then – once he's explored the options and examined his assumptions – does he elicit a rousing "Yes, we can" from his team and everyone gets to work.
So the next time you're feeding your inner self a heady brew of confident declarations and bold affirmations, toss in a handful of interrogatives with a few sprinkles of humility and doubt.

The research that Pink reports relates somewhat to Oettingen’s WOOP process. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. You define what you wish [W] to accomplish, determine the outcome [O], identify the likely obstacles [O] then design a plan [P] to overcome those obstacles.

Am I saying not to use positive affirmations? No! I think they have a place. For an interesting perspective see Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Adams in hardly a raving advocate of positive mental attitude but he admits to have tried positive affirmations. I think the key take away is not to expect affirmations to have magical powers that will make things happen without work or without accounting for obstacles that could derail your efforts. We need to have a positive idea where we want to go while also asking ourselves what could go wrong and what can we do to deal with it.

NOTE: for a related post on the power words can have on behavior see this post from 2013.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Process Improvement: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent

Process Improvement: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent

This article by James Clear touches on what I covered in the previous post about journaling. As I mentioned I found that using a journal to record my progress in tennis technique, tactics and my mental/emotional state have helped me become a better player through incremental improvement. Clear's article shows how the British cycling team, which had never won the Tour de France, ended up winning it in 2012 as well as pulling in 70% of the gold medals in cycling in the 2012 Olympics. They did it through “aggregation of marginal gains” as described by Dave Brailsford, General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team.

Keeping a journal helps me keep track of where I'm improving and where I need to spend more time and effort.

While I'm on the subject, Clear also suggests it's better for us to focus on the system we put in place to accomplish goals, rather than the goals themselves. (A point that Scott Adams also makes in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.) Another way of saying it is to focus on the process (the system) rather than the goal (the outcome). Here are some of his examples.

  • If you're a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you're a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you're a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you're an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process. 
Clear goes on to explain the reasons why setting up a system works better than focusing strictly on goals. Rather than repeating them, here is the link.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Continual Improvement Journaling

A couple years ago I read a tennis book that recommended using a journal to rate yourself after each match on how much incremental improvement you made while playing. (Unfortunately I don't remember the book.) It suggested rating yourself on a scale of 1 for low to 5 for high in how much incremental improvement you made in the areas of technique, tactics, mental/emotional, and adjustments. It also asks what you did well and what you could improve. The idea behind this is that we usually don’t drastically improve our games. It’s more a process of continual improvement, often with the quality of our play declining a bit because we’re trying to change things. (This is a common occurrence when people take lessons.)

After doing this for about two years I can say that keeping this journal has been helpful. For one thing, I’ve noticed trends that help me know what to work on, such as I’m not tossing the ball forward enough when serving or I’m hitting overheads long. It’s also been helpful seeing progress as my self-ratings in the categories have increased over time. It probably sounds like bragging but I have to think more about what needs to be improved because I’m making fewer errors or clusters of mistakes in one area.

I think this diary could be used to evaluate how we perform in other areas of our life. Obviously the categories we would use to rate ourselves would be different but the general concept would be the same: the level of incremental improvement. For instance, my job involved making ten or more stewardship presentations a year to customers. (I used the past tense because I’m retired.) If I were to use this self-rating method I would have evaluated how much my technique improved (pacing, variation of my voice, etc.) as well as the design of my slides (layout, simplicity, clarity, etc.) and so on.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

I’ve read a number of books in the last few years that tell us how we think we’re being objective but we’re actually hostage to a laundry list of various biases, many of which influence us subconsciously. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow probably is the most influential of these books based on how frequently it is cited in the other books. While Jacobs’ How To Think tills some of the same ground there is a difference. Jacobs’ personal background helps him see how biases influence how different groups of people perceive the world and think about it. Why do I say this? Because he straddles two worlds. He is an academic (teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University) while also being a Christian. This gives Jacobs a unique perspective where he can see how different groups perceive each other.

When I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think, That’s not quite right. I don’t believe you understand the people you think you’re disagreeing with. And when I listen to Christians talk about academics I have precisely the same thought.

Jacobs differs from Kahneman and others by saying that thinking involves much more than recognizing and fighting our inherent bias. He believes:

[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

Here is Jacobs’ suggested first step how to address this taken from his Can Evangelicals and Academics Talk to Each Other? in The Wall Street Journal.

[T]here is a first step that all of us can take in resisting the hold of our Inner Rings and the reflex to push away our “repugnant cultural others.”

The Inner Ring that Jabobs refers to is from a C. S. Lewis talk titled “The Inner Rings” which describes our fear of being left out of our preferred social group, of being considered an outsider to the ingroup that we want to belong to. Jacobs’ discussion uses his term “repugnant cultural other” (or RCO) throughout his book. RCO captures how we tend to be repelled by those who disagree with us in politics, religion, or issues such as gun control.

Or another way to summarize his approach is:

The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

I do disagree somewhat with Jacobs’ explanation why some people cast those who disagree with them as enemies worthy of being demonized and even disposed of.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. … Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed, it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I wouldn’t label people who think this way necessarily as optimists. I’d say they’re sadly lacking in objectivity. They’re not asking themselves why people who disagree with them could possibly take that position. I’ve seen this especially rampant here in Massachusetts among my liberal friends, where I’ve chosen in some cases not to get into arguments. I know a couple people who have quit talking to me simply because I disagreed with their support for Hillary Clinton as president. Having said that, I’ve also seen conservative, libertarian and Objectivist friends treat people who disagree with them in a less than civil manner.

Jacobs describes how each group creates their own keywords so that allies can easily understand each other while judging other people by their use of these keywords. (It reminds me of Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics in which liberals talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, conservatives cast debates in terms of barbarism versus civilization and libertarians judge whether acts impede our freedom or coerce us.) As Jacobs correctly says, “keywords have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought.” After all, it’s easier to slap labels onto ideas we agree or disagree with than it is to objectively consider them.

Jacobs disagrees with the idealistic image of us as independent thinkers who reach our conclusions unencumbered by the influence of what others think.  “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.” I’m sure we can find examples of people who indeed did heroically work out their ideas in isolation. Based on the summaries of the abundant psychological research I’ve read in the books on how we think, I do believe we are swayed by how our friends think and we tend to surround ourselves with people who tend to agree with us. I agree with Jacobs and others (like Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind) that despite our advancement from our caveman days we still are tribal in nature. However, I also believe that we can strive for objectivity if we follow Jacobs’s advice such as “when faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.” Or “value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’ ”

Before I close let me say that Jacobs doesn’t say we should never come to firm conclusions. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world, any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its root every morning to see how it’s doing.”

I believe if you take the steps Jacobs puts in his final chapter, The Thinking Person’s Checklist, you can still firmly hold and defend your opinions while also accepting that people can disagree with you. You can be secure in your beliefs without demonizing the other person.

At the beginning I said that I’ve read many books, not just on how biases can affect us. For a number of these books after I finish them I sarcastically ask, “Gee, how did the author shoehorn the contents of a three page article into a 300 page book.” By that I mean the author took an idea that made a good magazine article then expanded it into a book by adding filler and stories but not much else. Jacobs’ book sets an example of how to do the opposite: how to pack many ideas into a slim 156-page volume. His book could have been titled How To Think -- and Write.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moving Beyond Positive Thinking | Big Think

Moving Beyond Positive Thinking | Big Think

This article nicely summaries the findings of Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Having read many “positive thinking” books over the years I know that most of these books tell us that we need to vividly visualize the goals that we want to achieve in order to attain them. However Oettingen’s research found that doing these visualizations can actually hamper our motivation!

“Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck.”

In other words if we visualize our goals our mind doesn’t know the difference between the imagined outcome and the actual results! We end up having less motivation not more.

Does this mean Oettingen wants us to abandon positive thinking and become pessimists? No. Her research has shown we achieve more if we try to anticipate obstacles that stymie us and develop plans to deal with them using if-then statements. For instance, we might want to exercise first thing in the morning but we know that we repeatedly hit the snooze button. To deal with this we create the following implementation intention: “If I feel like hitting the snooze button, then I will immediately jump out of bed.”

This sounds too good to be true but studies have shown that this process works. In Oettingen’s studies 80% of those who applied the WOOP approach achieved their goals while only 30% of the control groups did.

Oettingen calls her approach WOOP, Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. You define what you wish to accomplish, determine the outcome, identify the likely obstacles then design a plan to overcome those obstacles.

Here are some links for additional information on this.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The real Super Bowl lesson wasn’t about revenge - The Boston Globe

The real Super Bowl lesson wasn’t about revenge - The Boston Globe

This article nicely captures my feelings about the New England Patriots' incredible come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. As a Pats fan it was sweet to have them win despite Brady's suspension for the first four games of the season due to allegations that the Pats lowered the pressure in their footballs.

But the satisfaction of getting this win (with properly inflated balls) pales to the spectacle of watching the Patriots methodically, relentlessly and calmly chipping away at the Falcons' lead. Meanwhile the Atlanta team could have easily added a field goal to put the game even further out of reach but succumbed to some head-scratching decisions. There easily were half a dozen or more plays that would have thwarted the Pats' comeback if any one of them had not worked in the Pats favor. 

It seems that everything is politicized these days. We know that Robert Kraft (the team owner), Bill Belichick (head coach) and Tom Brady (quarterback) are Trump supporters. We know that some of the players have said they will not attend the team meeting at the White House for political reasons. Yet it's great to see that both sides could set aside these differences (at least publicly) to work toward a common goal.

It was as if everything our parents, our teachers, our coaches had tried to teach us transpired in the last 18 minutes of this magnificent spectacle, this Super Bowl. In the end, it wasn’t about revenge. It was about not giving up, about perseverance, about not panicking, about having a backup plan if the original plan isn’t working, about believing in yourself and your ability and in one another.
The roots of the comeback were embedded in another of our parents’ mantras: that you lay the groundwork for success in ways you often can’t see, simply by persevering. Even after they had fallen behind by so much, the Patriots were controlling possession and running the Falcons defense ragged. In the fourth quarter, and especially during the winning drive in overtime, the Atlanta defenders were gassed, exhausted. 
So many of us had assumed that Tom Brady wanted to win this game so he could rub it in Goodell’s face. But it turns out he really wanted to win the game to put a smile on his mother’s face. There’s something much stronger, sweeter, and more satisfying than revenge. It’s called love.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Myth and Magic of Deliberate Practice | James Clear

I'm sure you've heard the saying that practice makes perfect, that the way to improve, say, our forehand in tennis, is to spend hours practicing our forehands. Yet we often don’t see the improvement we’re hoping for.

Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, knows why. We’re not using “deliberate practice,” a term he coined to describe how world-class performers practice. He compared the practice methods used by world-class performers versus lower level performers in areas such as swimming and playing the violin. He concluded that the top people in their fields practiced in a different way. He presented his conclusions in a paper titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance and in a book written for the laymen, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In a nutshell, “An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practicing a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”

The article referenced in the title of this post is by James Clear in which he criticizes the idea of "deliberate practice." Clear challenges the idea that we can accomplish anything we want if we use deliberate practice. “The myth of deliberate practice is that you can fashion yourself into anything with enough work and effort. While human beings do possess a remarkable ability to develop their skills, there are limits to how far any individual can go. Your genes set a boundary around what is possible.” He shows that top baseball players have better than 20/20 vision or that tennis players like Steffi Graf who when “tested against other elite tennis players as a teenager, she not only scored the highest on physical attributes like lung capacity and motor skills, but also on competitive desire. She was that once-in-a-generation talent who was both the most-gifted and the most-driven person on the court.”

This to me this has the hallmarks of debates (such as nature versus nurture) where neither side is 100% right. I’m sure it’s true that top athletes or other performers benefit from genes that give them a permanent edge on the rest of us who don’t have these genes expressed as strongly. Clear and others who have questioned deliberate practice hold that there are inherent differences that separate those who sit at the lofty peak of performance from us weekend warriors. I think we’re being presented with a false alternative. Yes, our genes can prevent us from aspiring to win a Gold Olympic medal in the slalom. On the other hand we can still apply the principles of deliberate practice to get us to perform better than we would by just blindly practicing without a plan. We might not be able to become the best in the world but we can become the best we can be.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve applied deliberate practice to my tennis game, to skiing and even to my work-related presentations. I know my performance in all three areas has improved. My tennis game has improved more in the last five years while using deliberate practice than I did before applying deliberate practice.

Here is an article that presents both sides: A top psychologist says there's only one way to become the best in your field — but not everyone agrees