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The Promise And Peril Of Being ‘Smarter Faster Better’

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Opening a self-help book can itself be an exercise in personal growth. I normally feel mildly anxious, because I don’t want to waste three hours reading a book that doesn’t teach me anything. On the other hand, maybe I will learn something. Do I really want to know what’s wrong with me?

Smarter Faster Better need not be read as a self-help book, but most readers will probably open it in hopes of becoming, well, smarter, faster, and better. Evidently Charles Duhigg expects this, because he starts off with a tantalizing anecdote about his friend, Atul Gawande, who is a Harvard professor, bestselling author, and renowned surgeon, and yet still finds time to take his kids to rock concerts and his wife on romantic getaways. Duhigg wanted to be more like that (don’t we all?), so he set about discovering the secrets of high productivity. You’re welcome, America.

It’s quite the teaser. Can one book turn you into the most accomplished person you know, while also enriching your personal life?

Manage Your Expectations

I’ll cut through the suspense. No, the book won’t do that. Only one book that I know can turn mere mortals into supermen, and it typically has a cross on the spine.

That’s not to say that the book is useless. Like most self-help books, its claims mostly fit into two categories: questionable, and somewhat-obvious-if-you-think-about-it. Too often, though, we don’t notice the somewhat-obvious deficiencies that are holding us back. My self-help rule is that you should read about one such book a year. If you haven’t filled your 2016 quota yet, this is a solid choice.

My self-help rule is that you should read about one such book a year. If you haven’t filled your 2016 quota yet, this is a solid choice.

Duhigg interviewed successful people in a wide range of fields, trying to identify the broader principles that enable their success. He distilled his insights into eight chapters, each imparting some general insight that might help you to become more productive.

Unsurprisingly, some of the chapters are more interesting than others. For instance, in his chapter on successful team dynamics, Duhigg meanders around for pages trying to figure out what enabled the original “Saturday Night Live” team to find their stride. I’d say that mystery eluded him. Perhaps they were just, as Socrates once said of the Athenian poets, possessed by the gods.

Other chapters are somewhat more helpful, combining prudent life advice with genuinely arresting examples of how it can make the difference between success and failure. I’d venture to say that most of Duhigg’s advice is far easier to grasp than to implement. But it still might be worth the three-hour investment.

Distilling Duhigg’s eight chapters into still-broader principles, I would identify two important lessons. Find purpose. And acclimate to reality. People who manage to do these things are far likelier to succeed, regardless of their ambitions.

The Purpose-Driven Life

It should come as no surprise that people are more productive when their activities seem meaningful to them. This is the kernel of truth within the “follow your dreams” advice you got from your grade-school teachers. As a rule, motivated people do better, more efficient work.

People are more productive when their activities seem meaningful to them. This is the kernel of truth within the ‘follow your dreams’ advice.

From the standpoint of building a labor force, there’s an obvious challenge here: the world is full of necessary jobs that almost nobody considers interesting or fun. Even the more rewarding jobs tend to involve some share of drudgery and unpleasantness. Most people figure out at some point that punching the clock pays the bills. But that’s not necessarily the sort of motivation that keeps people in high-performance mode all day long.

How do we get more motivated? To start with, we need some meaningful, big-picture goals or commitments. That’s not Duhigg’s specialty, but he does explain that “stretch goals” (challenging, long-term ambitions) may help keep some fire in the belly. Dream-following has its perils, but it can help get people out of bed in the morning. Even tedious jobs can start to seem more exciting when we envision them as steps towards the achievement of a cherished dream.

The Ten-Thousand-Mile Journey

To sustain that excitement over the longer-term, though, we also need to map the steps. Smaller and immediately-achievable goals can yield the rewards of “cognitive closure,” which is that warm glow we get in checking off an item on our to-do list. To-do lists are an interesting study in themselves; at times they can actually hamper productivity by motivating us to prioritize the quick-and-easy over the challenging-but-necessary. Successful people tend to be those who can find an optimal balance between exciting longer-term goals, and daily cognitive-closure treats.

Basically, we should approach challenges with an active, problem-solving mentality instead of fixating on the things we can’t change.

In addition to the meaningful life plan, motivation also requires action-oriented paradigms. Basically, we should approach challenges with an active, problem-solving mentality instead of fixating on the things we can’t change. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book involved a study conducted in nursing homes, attempting to determine why some elderly people are able to live and thrive for years in institutions, while others rapidly decline.

The study suggested that “subversive” residents (those who disregard minor rules and stubbornly assert their preferences) remain happier and healthier than those who placidly submit. Taking control of our own lives makes us happier, even if the concrete consequences are mostly unimportant.

Making Friends With Reality

Information overload is practically a way of life for modern-day people. We are bombarded almost at every moment with a wide array of messages, stimuli, and tasks requiring attention. A major component of productivity is coping with that reality; learning how to retain and process the important details while relegating the rest to background noise.

The pilots could have saved the flight if they had diagnosed the problem correctly. Instead, 228 people were the victims of a massive brain freeze.

These issues have been explored in some depth by thinkers like Matthew Crawford and Sherry Turkle. Duhigg touches on the matter more briefly by way of warning us about the effects of “cognitive tunneling,” which is what happens when information overload moves us to seek relief in familiar routines. That’s not always a problem, but it can be if it leads us to misread a serious situation that requires action. Instead of responding to the problem that’s actually in front of us, we “solve” the problem we wish we had.

Duhigg illustrates this through the tragic story of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 as the puzzled and panicked pilots stood in the cockpit, being pelted with warnings and notices from the plane’s many “helpful” instruments. They could have saved the flight if they had diagnosed the problem correctly. Instead, 228 people were the victims of a massive brain freeze.

It’s easy to understand the problem; the solution is harder. Duhigg recommends that we build “mental models” that can be adapted to a wide variety of circumstances. He contrasts the story of Flight 447 with the story of Richard de Crespigny’s successful landing of Quantas Airways Flight 32, after a catastrophic mid-air explosion. With flashing lights and alarms all around him, De Crespigny focused his attention on what was still working, and then imagined that the massive Airbus was a tiny, single-engine Cessna plane, which he had flown early in his career. He brought the massively damaged airliner to a smooth landing without a single injury.

The moral seems to be that we avoid cognitive tunneling by understanding the underlying principles of whatever we do, and then applying them appropriately. Clearly, that’s easier said than done, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves that there is real value in accumulating experience and understanding, and in continually forcing ourselves to confront less-familiar situations from which we might learn.

Playing The Odds

Duhigg tips his hat to reality once again in his chapter on good decision-making. This was actually one of the book’s weaker chapters, but it does correctly warn us of the dangers of sloppy induction.

Noting that human beings and computers make predictions in different ways (humans think inductively, expecting the future to follow familiar patterns, while computers can incorporate larger amounts of data without the biases of personal experience), Duhigg marvels at how successfully humans employ induction. We seem to have a strong ability to note patterns and identify relevant details even with relatively limited data sets.

The best players are those who learn to control their emotions and expectations, letting their choices be guided by ruthlessly data-driven calculations of what they do and don’t know.

Nevertheless, Duhigg uses world-class poker players to illustrate the benefits of playing the odds instead of simply relying on personal experience. The best players are those who learn to control their emotions and expectations, letting their choices be guided by ruthlessly data-driven calculations of what they do and don’t know.

It’s rather a curious point to make following on the “mental model” chapter. Is a poker table a good analogy for most of life’s challenges? Might it not be better to play to our strengths as “inductive geniuses” rather than limping through life as low-functioning hard drives? Richard de Crespigny didn’t successfully land Quantas Airways Flight 32 by sitting down and obsessively calculating the odds.

Disappointingly, Duhigg doesn’t broach these questions. Reflecting on the matter ourselves, though, we might conclude that both approaches have their place. In the midst of a crisis at ten thousand feet, there’s no time for statistical wonkery. We have to develop good instincts, and then trust them. Many ordinary activities are like that, even if the stakes are usually lower. Life moves too quickly to second-guess (and third-guess) every decision, so we make some avoidable mistakes. Over time we get better at most things, from kneading rolls to making left turns at a stoplight.

On the other hand, our instincts can lead us wrong, sometimes in predictable ways. Poker is interesting as a game that cultivates people’s ability to disregard some of their emotional and intuitive cues in favor of a more data-oriented approach. Sometimes that can be good. Successful people are often those who learn how to “manage” their own instincts, whether that means eating a snack before grocery shopping (which diminishes our temptation to impulse-buy), or exercising before sitting down to work (so you can benefit from the natural dopamine rush).

Duhigg notes that successful people or ventures tend to live more in the public eye, which leaves most of us with a skewed sense of how various sorts of endeavors are likely to develop. Productive people force themselves to look soberly at the failures, asking why this restaurant, publication, or musical career failed to launch. We need to identify the pitfalls in order to plan strategically for the future.

Climb Every Mountain

Feeling inspired? If not, Duhigg’s book may not be for you. Not all of his insights can be addressed in one column, but all are of this sort: fairly abstract, and challenging to implement. By the end, I had concluded that my odds of transforming into the hyper-accomplished Atul Gawande were exceedingly slim.

At the same time, the book does offer some commonsensical touchstones for addressing a question that almost all of us find interesting: what does it take to make a project succeed? To some extent there is a science of success that transcends any particular field. It’s more than inspiration (whatever that means), and it’s more than perspiration. Smarter Faster Better gives us some perspective on what that “more” might entail.