Category Archives: self-development

To do your best work, focus

To tackle the biggest work challenges, it’s vital to reduce distractions.

In today’s Internet-connected world, it is easier than ever before to spend time without thinking deeply. Texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, web stories: they all serve to attract your attention and keep your mind flitting from one item to another.

For many people, mobile phones have become an addiction, checked at every opportunity. When life becomes just a little boring, out comes the phone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But if your job requires intellectual effort, then it’s vital to be able to focus on the most difficult challenges.

I coordinate a “high-output writing programme” based on research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how to become a productive researcher. The core of the programme is daily writing. I recommend 5 to 20 minutes writing “new words” and then additional time revising previously written text, reading, collecting data and all the other components of research work.

Quite a few participants tell the same story: “If I start work by reading emails and looking at the web, my day is gone. I need to write first, otherwise I get nothing important done.”

Facebook and email can be addictive: “I’ll just check to see if there’s anything important.” One link leads to another, and hours can go by. This undermines the commitment to writing.

Deep Work

In this context, I was attracted to a recent book titled Deep Work. The author, Cal Newport, is a US computer science professor, and a writer. For him, “deep work” refers to intellectual work focused on the most difficult parts of the job. His basic contention is that by devoting more time to deep work, you can dramatically improve your productivity.

Deep Work is aimed at white-collar workers in large US businesses, the workers who are supposed to be contributing to productivity through their ideas. Newport says “Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.” (p. 70) He gives several reasons for this, including that less taxing tasks are more enticing, that looking busy has become more important than achieving goals, and the assumption that everything to do with the Internet must be worthwhile.

You may think, “Well, this book isn’t for me, because I’m not a high-level brain worker in business.” This is a legitimate response, but there’s also a different approach. Rather than judge a book overall, either accepting or rejecting it, instead I often look for useful ideas. Sometimes an author’s work may be flawed, largely irrelevant or just plain annoying, but still there are some valuable things to learn from it.

There are two aspects to increasing the amount of deep work: devoting more time to it, and cutting back time on the more trivial activities, called “shallow work.” Newport tells of some leading figures who cut themselves off from interruptions entirely, for days, weeks or even months at a time. How do they do it? They have assistants who answer messages. This isn’t practical for most people. But it does provide a useful pointer: think of ways to protect yourself from distractions.

Newport points out that great thinkers often work to a routine rather than wait for inspiration. Not coincidentally, this is the basis for the writing programme. Newport quotes journalist Mason Currey, who studied the habits of prominent thinkers such as Charles Darwin:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration – that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where . . . but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. (pp. 118-119)

Newport addresses collaborative work, which has the advantage of sparking ideas. Nevertheless, he recommends separately undertaking individual deep work and, when interacting, for collaborators to push each other towards thinking deeply.

Newport, with young children at home, a demanding job and the self-imposed task of writing books, nevertheless finishes work at 5pm. He advocates working hard when you’re working and then finishing, and being sure to get plenty of rest. For intellectual work, good quality sleep is vital.

Doing deep work

In essence, deep work involves concentrating intensely on addressing an issue or task. It is thinking. Concentrating intensely doesn’t happen automatically. It requires practice to do well. And you can’t do it well, or even practise, if you’re being distracted. Constant distractions, such as reading online posts, make it harder to concentrate even when you have the opportunity. Deep work requires training.

What counts as deep work? If you’re writing a thesis, thinking about the structure and key arguments is deep work whereas attending to emails is not. This much is obvious, but what about other sorts of tasks? Newport provides a useful test: figure out how much training would be required for someone to do the task for you. To prepare someone else to undertake your thesis would probably require years of training, whereas to train someone to sort through your emails, deleting some and selecting others as high priority, might take only a few days or weeks. This criterion can be used when trying to decide whether something you’re doing is high or low priority in your deep-work time.

What about the problem that you have so many demands on your time that you can’t set aside much for thinking deeply? Newport creates more deep-work opportunities by undertaking focused thinking during daily tasks like walking the dog. One of my PhD students, who had a very busy life, used to think through her topic while doing the ironing. Other possible opportunities are while swimming or standing in a queue.

To make full use of such opportunities, it’s necessary to prepare by developing lists of topics to think about, preferably the most challenging ones. Few people do this. My guess is that very few of the people you see checking their phones are thinking deeply about anything.

Newport developed a method for reducing the number of Internet distractions. For any particular service, such as Facebook or Twitter, he says to stop using it for a month, and then to ask two questions.

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)

If answers to both questions are no, then you should quit permanently. Newport says social media are particularly damaging to possibilities for concentrated thinking.

In order to have more time for deep work, it’s important to schedule all your time so it is not frittered away.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. (p. 227)

To schedule every minute might seem constraining. But scheduling is compatible with doing things you find satisfying. When you’re in the moment doing something, you’re not thinking of whether or not it was scheduled.

One of Newport’s counterintuitive recommendations is to schedule your leisure time. Often, leisure opportunities are frittered away in doing what seems easiest at the time, and end up being unsatisfying.


Cal Newport

Satisfaction

When you read about that’s required to engage in plenty of deep work and become highly productive, you might think “Is it really worth all that effort?” Newport has an answer: deep work is satisfying. Engaging in it can involve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” in which you are totally absorbed in exercising a skill at the limit of your ability. More generally, research shows that if you want to be happier, you need to put effort into practices known to improve happiness, such as physical activity, expressing gratitude and being mindful. This clashes with a common belief that happiness simply happens when you do pleasurable things. Having a purpose in life and working towards it brings satisfaction.

Newport comments that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.” (p. 263) It’s easier to engage in social media and other shallow activities and uncomfortable to try to achieve your very best, because you might not measure up to your expectations. But it can be satisfying in a deep way.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anne Melano and Holly Tootell for valuable comments.

Stress: how it can be good for you

By changing the way you think, you can deal with stress more effectively and use it to serve your goals.

A friend complains about being stressed: there’s a deadline at work, one of the kids is sick, the car broke down and she had a nasty argument with a neighbour. Stressful indeed. So the usual goal is to reduce stress, to avoid it. This seems like common sense.

However, when it comes to physical activity, the idea of reducing stress has long been discredited. Exercise is good for you, as long as it’s not too much. For athletes, training is designed to provide the amount of stress on muscles to build them up without causing injury.

Lack of physical stress is disastrous for the body. Lying in bed for day after day is a health hazard, with muscle wastage and other adverse consequences.

If the body needs optimal stress for best performance, what about the mind? Are there actually advantages to stress? The answer to these questions, according to Kelly McGonigal, is an emphatic yes, as indicated by the title of her book The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it).

McGonigal spent many years recommending the usual advice to reduce stress. Then she was stimulated to rethink her position and started looking into research on the benefits of stress.

McGonigal writes in an engaging fashion. She draws on her personal experience and tells about research findings in an accessible way, often providing stories about the researchers or about people who have been changed by adopting a different approach to stress.

Think differently

Here’s the most amazing finding. If you think that stress is good for you, it will actually become better for you.

McGonigal cites research by Alia Crum. In one of Crum’s studies, one group of hotel housekeepers was told that the physical work they did on the job was a form of exercise and good for them; the other group was told only that physical exercise was good for health. Then after a period of four weeks, each group’s physiological parameters were measured. The group that thought of work as exercise did better, including losing weight and body fat and reducing blood pressure. Simply thinking about their work differently changed its effect on their bodies.

Another typical experiment goes like this. Two groups of subjects are prepared for a stressful experience, for example giving a talk in front of a large audience. One group is given the usual advice that stress is not good for you and that they should to try to relax. The other group is told that stress is a useful tool. The group thinking positively about stress performs better according to independent judges.

Then there are physiological tests. One group, put into a stressful situation, is told in advance that they’ll feel nervous and should try to relax. The other group is told they’ll feel excited. The group that interprets stress as excitement actually has lower levels of biomarkers for harmful products.

The implication is that fearing and avoiding stress causes harm, whereas accepting and embracing stress can reduce its negative impacts and enable better performance.

Mindsets

These results reflect an important process: the influence of thinking on behaviour, in particular the role of a mindset, which is a framework for understanding the world, or oneself. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset described two ways of thinking about intelligence and performance. One is the fixed mindset, in which an individual sees performance as reflecting an innate capacity. The other is the growth mindset, in which performance is seen as reflecting effort. The growth mindset is far better for long-term improvement. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges where they might fail, because failure might shake their belief about themselves, whereas people with a growth mindset see failure as indicating they need to work harder.

Mindsets about stress are similarly important. The key thing is that they affect behaviour in systematic ways. Believing stress is bad leads to efforts at distraction, getting rid of feelings (rather than addressing their source), drug use and withdrawal. In contrast, when people believe stress is beneficial, they accept the existence of stressful events, strategise, seek information and advice, address the source of stress and make the best of the situation.

Stress responses

McGonigal traces negative attitudes to stress to Hans Selye’s classic studies of the effects of stress on rats. They were highly traumatised, and these findings were interpreted by doctors and the public as indicating that stress should be avoided. This was not Selye’s intention, because there were important differences between the experiences of his rats and those of most people. Selye’s rats were exposed to electric shocks in a situation in which the shocks were unpredictable, unavoidable and meaningless. In contrast, the stresses that most people experience in their daily lives are fairly predictable, sometimes avoidable and often quite meaningful.

“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.” (p. 45)

One of the ways to benefit from stress is to recognise that it provides the resources to deal with situations. Stress commonly causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat and your attention to become focused. The trick is to realise that these responses are helpful for dealing with challenges: your attention is focused on the issue at hand, your senses are heightened, your energy is mobilised. So rather than trying to dampen the stress response by avoidance, it can be used to take action.

A second dimension of the stress response relates to interactions with others. To benefit from stress, the key is to get beyond the fight-or-flight options and instead adopt a “tend and befriend” response. This means to interact with others, to help others, to be sensitive to others’ emotions, and to defend them.

There is a third dimension to the stress response: it can help you learn and grow. The way your body responds to stress can help integrate experiences.

The first half of McGonigal’s book is about understanding stress, covering these three dimensions. The second half is about transforming stress, addressing the same three dimensions, describing ways to learn how to change stress from a negative to a positive. This involves exercises to use anxiety (a stress response) for achieving goals, to respond to stress by caring for others and thus build resilience, and to become stronger as a result of stress.

This last dimension can seem unfair. If you’re subject to traumatic experiences, why should the onus be on you to use this as a way of becoming stronger? McGonigal repeatedly emphasises that trauma is bad news: it has many downsides and should be avoided. But trauma is an inevitable part of most people’s lives, and it is worth knowing that it is possible to gain something from it. This is a matter of recognising the hardship involved but also trying to gain something from the experience.

Making attacks backfire

Over the past twenty years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals who are concerned about being sued for defamation. Some are worried that something they have said would open them to legal action. Others have received letters from lawyers demanding an apology and a payment for damages. A few have received a writ and are facing expensive court proceedings.

Many of them are frightened, even terrified. They are afraid they might be sued and end up losing their house. To say they are stressed is to put it mildly. They often don’t know what to do and, while looking for information, have stumbled across my website.

McGonigal’s approach to stress offers a different way of thinking about legal threats. Rather than fearing them, they sometimes can actually be welcomed because of the opportunity to try to make them counterproductive for the perpetrators. Truda Gray and I have written about how to use publicity and other means to make defamation threats and actions backfire.

In some cases, there is no easy option, but nonetheless there are options and they need to be carefully considered. The stress of being attacked can be used as a resource to generate courage, seek support and think strategically. Rather than cowering in fear, a better attitude is to think “Come and get me (and beware – you may regret it).”

More on mindsets

In some ways, McGonigal’s biggest challenge is people’s deep-seated beliefs that stress is bad. She is fighting an uphill battle, and experimental findings and stories will only go so far. What is really required is a change of mindset, to rethink stress and how to respond to it.


Kelly McGonigal

McGonigal reports quite a few studies of “mindset interventions.” These are typically group sessions lasting 30 minutes to a few hours designed to change the way people think about themselves and the world. Done well, a mindset intervention can lead to lasting changes in behaviour, for example improved academic performance.

This can be hard to believe. Teachers spend hundreds of hours with students trying to help them learn, and can react with scepticism to someone who says a short session can make a lasting difference. There’s another confounding factor: people whose mindsets are transformed don’t even remember the intervention. They think of things differently and do better because that is their new reality. No extra effort is needed.

If you want to change the way you react to stress, you can create your own personal mindset intervention. Get The Upside of Stress and read some of it. Then write down a brief account of how you could react to stress more positively. Then tell someone else about what you’ve read and how they could change their own reactions. That’s it. It’s not much, and can have lasting benefits.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Dalilah Reuben-Shemia for useful comments.

The advantages of negative emotions

Happiness is a good thing, but there are also advantages in other emotional states.

 

Most people would like to be happy, and strive for it in various ways, everything from eating chocolate and taking holidays to helping others. But in the pursuit of happiness, is something being missed? Are there actually some advantages in being unhappy?

From 2009 to 2016, Chris Barker and I coordinated a course on happiness. We assigned weekly readings, most of which were about activities or ways of thinking that research shows increase happiness, for example physical activity, gratitude, mindfulness and optimism. To give a bit of balance to the readings, and encourage students to question the dominant orientation, Chris and I wanted to include a text providing a critique of research on happiness. However, we had a hard time finding a suitable reading. Most of the critiques of positive psychology are written in a technical and difficult-to-understand style and were not suitable for our course, which included students from engineering, science, law, education and other fields, with many international students.

Too late, I discovered the ideal source: The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, published in 2014. The authors are psychologists who have written extensively on wellbeing. They are fully aware and supportive of the goal of being happy and all the things that contribute to improving happiness. However, they became concerned about an emerging obsession with being happy, an obsession that obscures the advantages of other mental states. In short, they think it is important to be aware of, and sometimes embrace, the “dark side” of human emotions.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a pleasure to read: clearly written without jargon, filled with examples and anecdotes, logically organised, thoroughly referenced and provocative throughout. It is a powerful counter to the usual one-sided emphasis on positive emotional states.

Benefits of the dark side

You might imagine that being unhappy, pessimistic, mindless and manipulative are things to be avoided. It depends, though, on the circumstances. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener cite lots of research showing the advantages of these apparently negative states. Consider, for example, whether it’s better to be happy when on the job. If the task requires close concentration and attention to detail, then happiness can hinder performance. Air traffic controllers, for example, need to be alert and always aware of possible danger. A happy atmosphere would undermine their job performance and put lives at stake.

More generally, it is valuable to be aware of negative emotions, because they provide information that can give courage, stimulate alertness to dangers, and enable creativity. Being positive all the time can hide the information available in negative emotions, and for example lead to poor choices. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advocate embracing negative states (not wallowing in them) as part of the skill of emotional agility, meaning the capacity to use a variety of emotions as tools chosen for their value in specific situations.

Mindfulness, which involves being aware of your own situation, including your own emotions, is rightly touted at a route to deep satisfaction and a counter to cascades of intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness enables maintaining a distance from negative feelings like anger and anxiety, so they cause less damage.

            Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are well aware of the benefits of mindfulness, but they also point to the benefits of mindlessness. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool if used the right way. For example, in making a difficult decision when multiple factors are involved, for example choosing where to live or what job to take, studies have shown that making a decision based on intuition can be better than one based on a careful, conscious consideration of all the information. Furthermore, it may be best to first make a careful study of the options, then to be distracted (mindless) for a period before making a quick, intuitive decision. The point is to harness both the mindful and mindless capacities of the mind.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say there are times when it is possible to take advantage of anger, Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy. Psychopaths, who are characterised as having no empathy, do not have a good reputation, often being put in the same category as serial killers. However, many psychopathic traits are functional in specific situations. For example, you probably want your brain surgeon to be focused entirely on the delicate task and not disturbed by feelings of empathy. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener also cite research showing that in some situations when a person needs help, psychopaths are more helpful than others.

            Similarly, narcissistic personality disorder – having grandiose ideas of personal importance and intense anger at being criticised – is not attractive. Yet there are some positive aspects to narcissism, for example a drive to achieve so as to measure up to self-evaluations and to attract praise from others.

Other dark sides

Looking at the benefits of anger, manipulation and other supposedly negative aspects of human personality and behaviour raises the question of whether there are any “dark sides” that should be totally avoided, such as hatred, sadism, greed and envy. Certainly they can cause severe damage, as documented by Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice.

Consider greed, the desire for more, especially for more than others have. “Greed is good” has become the mantra of winners in the neoliberal economy, so in this context greed might be necessary for success. But what about individuals who desire a more egalitarian society? Are there still circumstances in which individual greed is part of reaching one’s full potential? Or is it simply greedy to pursue self-interest at the expense of others?

Envy is another dark emotion. It has a positive aspect: it can stimulate efforts to emulate the person who is envied. The more destructive side of envy is revealed in efforts to denigrate, undermine or even destroy the envied person. Envy is thus assuaged not by personal achievement but by tearing down envied others. Even so, this potentially has a positive function. In a highly unequal society, in which those who are privileged exploit the underclass, envy can contribute to revolutionary change.

            Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase happiness. Research shows that thinking of a few things you are thankful for just once a week can lead to significant improvements in happiness. This is certainly far easier than doubling your income. Yet might there be occasions when it is better to be ungrateful? Perhaps when someone is showering you with favours, you suspect they are trying to manipulate you. Withholding gratitude might make you more alert to scams.

Then there is physical activity, shown to be one of the most reliable mood-boosters available. Too much exercise can be damaging, to be sure, but what about the opposite of exercise: laziness? Are there occasions when laziness is beneficial? Anyone who exercises regularly needs to recover, and being lazy is an opportunity to do this. But what is the benefit of laziness for couch potatoes who avoid activity at all costs?

Forgiveness – better thought of as emotionally letting go rather than sanctioning another’s actions – enables a person to escape damaging thought patterns. However, the pursuit of justice is sometimes served by remaining vengeful for years or even decades.


Todd Kashdan

The whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable antidote to the one-sided glorification of positive states like happiness, altruism and mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say that a person who is “whole” is able to take advantage of negative as well as positive states. The subtitle of their book states this: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

            They are careful to say that in most circumstances, maybe about 80% of the time, the “good” states are desirable; for the remaining 20%, using your “dark side” can be advantageous to both you and others. By referring to 80% and 20%, they are really saying to draw on negative emotions just occasionally. They also note that “negative” states like anger and selfishness shouldn’t be faked. To obtain full benefits, they need to be genuine, just kept on a leash.


Robert Biswas-Diener

The whole community?

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, like most figures in the field of positive psychology, focus on the individual. They give little sense of how emotions are linked to social arrangements. In part this reflects their US orientation and the fact that most psychological research is carried out in affluent countries, often with university students.

Research indicates that narcissism has been increasing in the US for decades: surveys of university students reveal that personal goals are now more commonly to make money and become individually successful rather than to serve broader community goals. In this context of competitive individualism, linked to the rise of neoliberalism, displaying narcissistic traits can be useful for the individual, and those who are too altruistic can be easily exploited. But in a different sort of society, drawing on negative personality traits may not be so advantageous, or may be required less often.

            Looking at the social function of emotions and behaviours brings up the challenging issue of how best to bring about positive social change. If the goal is a more caring society, with greater equality and support for those who are most vulnerable, what is the role of anger, manipulation and unhappiness? There are no easy answers.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable treatment because it raises questions about things taken for granted. It can lead to a philosophy of moderation or balance. If I were again teaching a happiness course, I would assign one or two extracts from The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then hope to learn more from the response of the students.

“Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of the self will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.” (p. 213)

Brian Martin
mailto:bmartin@uow.edu.au

Daily data: be sceptical

Be careful about data you encounter every day, especially in the news.

 beavis-butthead-and-numbers

If you watch the news, you are exposed to all sorts of numbers, intended to provide information. Some might be reliable, such as football scores, but with others it’s harder to know, for example the number of people killed in a bomb attack in Syria, the percentage of voters supporting a policy, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, or the increase in the average global temperature.

Should you trust the figures or be sceptical? If you want to probe further, what should you ask?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to understand statistics. Taking a course or reading a textbook is one approach, but that will mainly give you the mathematical side. To develop a practical understanding, there are various articles and books aimed at the general reader. Demystifying Social Statistics gives a left-wing perspective, a tradition continued by the Radstats Group. Joel Best has written several books, for example Damned Lies and Statistics, providing valuable examinations of statistics about contested policy issues. The classic treatment is the 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics.

Most recently, I’ve read the recently published book Everydata by John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck. It’s engaging, informative and ideal for readers who want a practical understanding without encountering any formulas. It is filled with examples, mostly from the US.

everydata

            You might have heard about US states being labelled red or blue. Red states are where people vote Republican and blue states are where people vote Democrat. Johnson and Gluck use this example to illustrate aggregated data and how it can be misleading. Just because Massachusetts is a blue state doesn’t mean no one there votes Republican. In fact, quite a lot of people in Massachusetts vote Republican, just not a majority. Johnson and Gluck show pictures of the US with the data broken down by county rather than by state, and a very different picture emerges.

red_state_blue_state-svg
R
ed, blue and in-between states

            In Australia, aggregated data is commonly used in figures for economic growth. Typically, a figure is given for gross domestic product or GDP, which might have grown by 2 per cent in the past year. But this figure hides all sorts of variation. The economy in different states can grow at different rates, and different industries grow at different rates, and indeed some industries contract. When the economy grows, this doesn’t mean everyone benefits. In recent decades, most of the increased income goes to the wealthiest 1% and many in the 99% are no better off, or go backwards.

The lesson here is that when you hear a figure, think about what it applies to and whether there is underlying variation.

In the Australian real estate market, figures are published for the median price of houses sold. The median is the middle figure. If three houses were sold in a suburb, for $400,000, $1 million and $10 million, the median is $1 million: one house sold for less and one for more. The average, calculated as total sales prices divided by the number of sales, is far greater: it is $3.8 million, namely $0.4m + $1m + $10m divided by 3.

The median price is a reasonable first stab at the cost of housing, but it can be misleading in several ways. What if most of those selling are the low-priced or the high-priced houses? If just three houses sold, how reliable is the median? If the second house sold for $2 million rather than $1 million, the median would become $2 million, quite a jump.

sydney-houses sydney-house-expensive
Is the average or median house price misleading?

            In working on Everydata, Johnson and Gluck contacted many experts and have used quotes from them to good effect. For example, they quote Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong, saying “I think the biggest issue we all face is over-interpreting anecdotal evidence” and “It is difficult to force yourself to ignore these anecdotes – or, at a minimum, treat them as just one data point – and draw conclusions from data instead.” (p. 6)

Everydata addresses sampling, averages, correlations and much else, indeed too much to summarise here. If Johnson and Gluck have a central message, it is to be sceptical of data and, if necessary, investigate in more depth. This applies especially to data encountered in the mass media. For example, the authors comment, “We’ve seen many cases in which a finding is reported in the news as causation, even though the underlying study notes that it is only correlation.” (p. 46) Few readers ever check the original research papers to see whether the findings have been reported accurately. Johnson and Gluck note that data coming from scientific papers can also be dodgy, especially when vested interests are involved.

The value of a university education

For decades, I’ve read stories about the benefits of a university education. Of course there can be many sorts of benefits, for example acquiring knowledge and skills, but the stories often present a figure for increased earnings through a graduate’s lifetime.

money-education

            This is an example of aggregated data. Not everyone benefits financially from having a degree. If you’re already retired, there’s no benefit.

There’s definitely a cost involved, both fees and income forgone: you could be out earning a salary instead. So for a degree to help financially, you forgo income while studying and hope to earn more afterwards.

The big problem with calculations about benefits is that they don’t compare like with like. They compare the lifetime earnings of those who obtained degrees to the lifetime earnings of those who didn’t, but these groups aren’t drawn randomly from a sample. Compared to those who don’t go to university, those who do are systematically different: they tend to come from well-off backgrounds, to have had higher performance in high school and to have a greater capacity for studying and deferred gratification.

Where’s the study of groups with identical attributes, for example identical twins, comparing the options of careers in the same field with and without a degree? Then there’s another problem. For some occupations, it is difficult or impossible to enter or advance without a degree. How many doctors or engineers do you know without degrees? It’s hardly fair to calculate the economic benefits of university education when occupational barriers are present. A fair comparison would look only at occupations where degrees are not important for entry or advancement, and only performance counts.

A final example

For those who want to go straight to takeaway messages, Johnson and Gluck provide convenient summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. However, there is much to savour in the text, with many revealing examples helping to make the ideas come alive. The following is one of my favourites (footnotes omitted).

 hamburger

Americans are bad at math. Like, really bad. In one study, the U.S. ranked 21st out of 23 countries. Perhaps that explains why A&W Restaurants’ burger was a flop.

As reported in the New York Times Magazine, back in the early 1980s, the A&W restaurant chain wanted to compete with McDonald’s and its famous Quarter Pounder. So A&W decided to come out with the Third Pounder. Customers thought it tasted better, but it just wasn’t selling. Apparently people thought a quarter pound (1/4) was bigger than a third of a pound (1/3).

Why would they think 1/4 is bigger than 1/3? Because 4 is bigger than 3.

Yes, seriously.

People misinterpreted the size of a burger because they couldn’t understand fractions. (p. 101)

 john-h-johnson
John H. Johnson

mike-gluck
Mike Gluck

John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck, Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day (Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Learning from failure

failure_31946

Imagine you are a teacher and you decide to try an innovative teaching technique. However, it goes horribly wrong. The technique didn’t work the way you expected, and furthermore numerous students make complaints to your supervisor. Luckily, your supervisor is sympathetic to your efforts and your job is secure.

What do you do next?

  1. Avoid innovative techniques: they’re too risky.
  2. Keep innovating, but be much more careful.
  3. Tell a few close colleagues so they can learn from your experience.
  4. Write an article for other teachers telling what went wrong, so they can learn from your experience.
  5. Invite some independent investigators to analyse what went wrong and to write a report for others to learn from.

The scenario of innovative teaching gone wrong has happened to me several times in my decades of teaching undergraduates. Each time, through no particular fault of my own, what I attempted ended up disastrously. It even happened one time when I designed a course that worked brilliantly one year but failed miserably the next.

dont-be-afraid-to-fail

So what did I do? Mainly options 2 and 3: I kept innovating, more carefully, and told a few colleagues. I never imagined writing about these teaching disasters, even using a pseudonym, much less inviting others to investigate and publish a report. It would be humiliating, might invite additional unwanted scrutiny, and might even make innovation more difficult in the future.

Aviation: a learning culture

These thoughts came to mind as a result of reading Matthew Syed’s new book Black Box Thinking. The title refers to the flight recorders in commercial aircraft, called black boxes, that record data about the flight, including conversations among the pilots. When there is a crash or a near miss, these boxes are vital for learning from the failure. Rather than automatically blaming the pilots, an independent team of experts investigates accidents and incidents and publishes its findings so the whole industry can learn from what happened.

blackbox

Some of the greatest improvements in aircraft safety have resulted from studies of disasters. The improvement might be redesigning instruments so confusion is less likely or changing protocols for interactions between pilots. One important lesson from disasters is that the flight engineer and co-pilot need to be more assertive to prevent the pilot from losing perspective during tense situations. The investigations using black-box information occasionally end up blaming pilots, for example when they are drunk, but usually the cause of errors is not solely individual failure, but a combination of human, procedural and technical factors.

Cover-up cultures: medicine and criminal justice

Syed contrasts this learning culture in aviation with a culture of cover-up in medicine. There is a high rate of failure in hospitals, and indeed medical error is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths. But, as the saying goes, surgeons bury their mistakes. Errors are seldom treated as opportunities for learning. In a blame culture, everyone seeks to protect their jobs and reputations, so the same sorts of errors recur.

Syed tells about some hospitals in which efforts are made to change the culture so that errors are routinely reported, without blame attached. This can quickly lead to fixing sources of error, for example by differently labelling drugs or by using checklists. In these hospitals, reported error rates greatly increase because cover-up is reduced, while actual harm due to errors drops dramatically: fewer patients are harmed. Furthermore, costs due to patient legal actions also drop, saving money.

medical-error

So why don’t more hospitals follow the same path? And why don’t more occupations follow the example of aviation? Syed addresses several factors: cultures of blame, excess power at the top of organisations, and belief systems resistant to testing.

In the criminal justice system, one of the most egregious errors is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Police and prosecutors sometimes decide that a particular suspect is the guilty party and ignore evidence to the contrary, or don’t bother to find any additional evidence. Miscarriages of justice are all too common, yet police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to admit it.

In some cases, after a person has been convicted and spent years in jail, DNA evidence emerges showing the person’s innocence. Yet in quite a few cases, the police involved in the original investigation refuse to change their minds, going through incredible intellectual contortions to explain how the person they charged could actually be guilty. Syed comments, “DNA evidence is indeed strong, but not as strong as the desire to protect one’s self-esteem.” (p. 89)

Black boxes

When I heard about Black Box Thinking, I decided to buy it because I had read Matthew Syed’s previous book Bounce, about which I wrote a comment. Syed was the British table tennis champion for many years and became a media commentator. Bounce is a popularisation of work on expert performance, and is highly engaging. In Black Box Thinking, Syed has tackled a related and broader subject: how to achieve high performance in collective endeavours.

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Matthew Syed

The title had me confused at first, because in other disciplines a black box refers to a system whose internal mechanisms are hidden: only inputs and outputs can be observed. In contrast, flight recorders in aircraft, which actually are coloured orange, not black, are sources of information.

Syed’s book might have been titled “Learning from failure,” because this is the theme throughout his book. He presents stories from medicine, aviation, business, criminal justice, sport and social policy, all to make the point that failures should be treated as opportunities for learning rather than assigning blame. Individuals can heed Syed’s important message, but bringing about change in systems is another matter.

Another theme in the book is the importance of seeking marginal gains, namely small improvements. Syed tells about Formula One racing in which tiny changes here and there led to superior performance. Another example is when the company Unilever was manufacturing soap powder – laundry detergent – and wanted to make the powder come out of the nozzle more consistently.

first-nozzle
Unilever’s initial nozzle

Unilever hired a group of mathematicians, experts in fluid dynamics and high pressure systems, to come up with an answer, but they failed. Unilever then hired a group of biologists – yes, biologists – who used a process modelled on evolution. They tried a variety of designs and determined which one worked best. Then they took the best performing design and tested slight modifications of it. Applying this iterative process repeatedly led to a design that worked well but never could have been imagined in advance.

last-nozzle
Unilever’s final nozzle, after 45 trial-and-error iterations

Learning from mistakes in science

Syed presents science as a model for learning from error, seeing the experimental method as a great advance over adherence to dogma. Science certainly has led to revolutionary changes to human understanding and, in tandem with technology, to dramatic improvements in human welfare, as well as to unprecedented threats to human life (nuclear weapons and climate change). However, Syed notes that science students mainly study the latest ideas, with little or no time examining “failed” theories such as aether or astrology: “By looking only at the theories that have survived, we don’t notice the failures that made them possible.” (p. 52).

Even so, overall Syed’s view of science is an idealistic image of how research is supposed to work by continually trying to falsify hypotheses. Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most research is problem-solving within a framework of unquestioned assumptions called a paradigm. Rather than trying to falsify fundamental assumptions, scientists treat them as dogma. Sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science is governed by a set of norms, one of which is “organised scepticism.” However, the relevance of these norms has been challenged. Ian Mitroff, based on his studies, proposed that science is equally well described by a corresponding set of counter-norms, one of which is “organised dogmatism.”

bauer-dogmatism

Although science is incredibly dynamic due to theoretical innovation and experimental testing, it is also resistant to change in some ways, and can be shaped by various interests, including corporate funding, government imperatives and the self-interest of elite scientists.

Therefore, while there is much to learn from the power of the scientific method, there is also quite a bit that scientists can learn from aviation and other fields that learn systematically from error. It would be possible to examine occasions when scientists were resistant to new ideas that were later accepted as correct, for example continental drift, mad cow disease or the cause of ulcers, and spell out the lessons for researchers. But it is hard to find any analyses of these apparent collective failures that are well known to scientists. Similarly, there are many cases in which dissident scientists have had great difficulty in challenging views backed by commercial interests, for example the scandals involving the pharmaceutical drugs thalidomide and Vioxx. There is much to learn from these failures, but again the lessons, whatever they may be, have not led to any systematic changes in the way science is carried out. If anything, the subordination of science to powerful groups with vested interests is increasing, so there is little incentive to institutionalise learning from disasters.

edison-on-failure

Failure: still a dirty word

Although Syed is enthusiastic about the prospects of learning from failure, he is very aware of the obstacles. Although he lauds aviation for its safety culture, in one chapter he describes how the drive to attribute blame took over and a conscientious pilot was pilloried. Blaming seems to be the default mode in most walks of life. In politics, assigning blame has become an art form: opposition politicians and vulnerable groups are regularly blamed for society’s problems, and it is a brave politician indeed who would own up to mistakes as a tool for collective learning. In fact, political dynamics seem to operate with a different form of learning, namely on how to be ever more effective in blaming others for problems.

blaming

I regularly hear from whistleblowers in all sorts of occupations: teachers, police, public servants, corporate employees and others. In nearly every case, there is something going wrong in a workplace, a failure if you want to call it that, and hence a potential opportunity to learn. However, organisational learning seems to be the least likely thing going on. Instead, many whistleblowers are subject to reprisals, sending a message to their co-workers that speaking out about problems is career suicide. Opportunities for learning are regularly squandered. Of course, I’m seeing a one-sided perspective: in workplaces where failure does not automatically lead to blame or cover-up, there is little need for whistleblowing. When those who speak out about problems are encouraged or even rewarded, no one is likely to contact me for advice. Even so, it would seem that such workplaces are the exception rather than the rule.

The more controversial the issue, the more difficult it can be to escape blaming as a mode of operation. On issues such as abortion, climate change, fluoridation and vaccination, partisans on either side of the debate are reluctant to admit any weakness in their views because opponents will seize on it as an avenue for attack. Each side becomes defensive, never admitting error while continually seeking to expose the other side’s shortcomings, including pathologies in reasoning and links to groups with vested interests. These sorts of confrontations seem designed to prevent learning from failure. Therefore it is predictable that such debates will continue largely unchanged.

Although the obstacles to learning from failures might seem insurmountable, there is hope. Black Box Thinking is a powerful antidote to complacency, showing what is possible and identifying the key obstacles to change. The book deserves to be read and its lessons taken to heart. A few courageous readers may decide to take a risk and attempt to resist the stampede to blame and instead foster a learning culture.

black-box-thinking

“The basic proposition of this book is that we have an allergic attitude to failure. We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it from our lives. We have looked at cognitive dissonance, the careful use of euphemisms, anything to divorce us from the pain we feel when we are confronted with the realisation that we have underperformed.” (p. 196)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Older body, youthful mind

For those who are getting old, there are ways to keep youthful mentally.

Senior lady concentrated

Is mental decline in old age inevitable? Are there habits that can help in maintaining mental acuity in later years? The older I get, the more these questions interest me, and so I keep on the lookout for discussions of relevant research that can be put to practical use. I’ve just read Staying Sharp, one of the most useful contributions in this area.

Academics and the life of the mind

I work as a researcher, among academics who depend on their minds to do their work. Most of my colleagues are over 40. Yet, despite mental capacity being crucial to scholarly performance, relatively few pay a lot of attention to nourishing their brain – “nourishing” interpreted in a variety of senses.

Whatever their views about the mind, many scholars behave as if it doesn’t matter all that much how they treat their bodies, because the mind is this separate entity that can be cultivated autonomously. Some damage their brains through excessive alcohol. More common is a neglect of physical exercise, even though there is ample evidence that exercise benefits mental functioning in multiple ways, including reducing anxiety and depression. Poor diet is also common.

alcohol-attacks-the-brain

The behaviour of intellectuals who neglect their bodies might be related to a status difference between white and blue-collar workers. To distinguish themselves from manual labourers, intellectuals may avoid physical exertion. Or perhaps the status comes from having sufficient income to afford a nice car and drive to work rather than walking or cycling.

Staying sharp

The book Staying Sharp is written by two US health practitioners who seek to combine ideas from scientific research with holistic approaches. Henry Emmons is a psychiatrist with a background in conventional medicine who now includes natural therapies in his practice; David Alter is a psychologist with a PhD who practises in a centre for holistic health. Their book is subtitled 9 keys for a youthful brain through modern science and ageless wisdom. Their focus is on older people, who they euphemistically refer to as being in the “second half of life,” roughly the 40s and beyond.

staying-sharp

After a few introductory chapters, Staying Sharp has 9 chapters addressing each of the 9 keys in the subtitle. The authors have categorised the vast body of relevant research and practice into a convenient package for the non-specialist reader.

Of the 9 keys, three are more overtly about the body: exercise, sleep and diet. If the brain is thought of as a biological organ, then it makes sense that exercise is beneficial: it stimulates the flow of blood throughout the body, including the brain, providing nourishment and removing waste products. A good diet ensures the nourishment is of the highest quality. Sleep allows the brain to recover from inputs during wakefulness, while also performing functions such as consolidating memories.

Emmons and Alter’s other six keys are about mental orientations: curiosity, flexibility, optimism, empathy, relationships and authenticity. It seems plausible that greater curiosity can aid the mind, because it involves becoming exposed to new ideas, developing new connections and brain cells. Many people remain stuck in the same sets of ideas for years or decades, and this can lead to stagnation. I perceive this in myself in my daily writing. When I’m writing about a topic I’ve written about before, the words flow easily, but if I tackle a new topic, it becomes more of a struggle, which might be a sign of greater effort that mobilises less frequently used brain circuits. It is more comfortable to stick with familiar topics. Tackling new topics, as a result of curiosity, is analogous to exercise that pushes the body a bit beyond its comfort zone.

get-curious-pittsburgh-about-curious-george-y1qaei-clipart

Emmons and Alter go well beyond this sort of intuitive assessment. They cite all sorts of scientific studies about curiosity, provide an evolutionary rationale for the advantages of curiosity (but not too much of it), give the case for experiencing boredom (to a certain degree), and provide all sorts of suggestions for fostering curiosity.

For each of the chapters on the 9 keys, Emmons and Alter provide a summary of key concepts, a rationale for the activity, evidence of effectiveness, and practical guidance for engaging in the activity. For example, concerning sleep they report on the prevalence of sleep deprivation in the US, tell about changes in sleep patterns as people get older, describe at some length the benefits of sleep (improved mood, clearing of the mind, repairing the body), give the biological rationale for the importance of sleep (including detoxification), and then pages of details about how to develop habits that promote good sleep.

henry-emmons
Henry Emmons

Of writing for the general reader on the mental side of ageing well, Staying Sharp is the most comprehensive treatment I’ve seen. It draws on a wide range of scientific literature and covers both physical and psychological dimensions. The authors provide detailed practical steps in each area they address.

Out of the vast body of research and writing about the mind and ageing, to highlight 9 areas is a matter of convenience. In practice, all sorts of practices make a difference, but trying to make sense of all the information available is overwhelming. Readers who have been following research in areas covered in Staying Sharp will have their own ideas about priorities. This is only to be expected, because no prescription for productive ageing is ideal for every individual.

david-alter
David Alter

Reservations

Staying Sharp is oriented to affluent people and to life in the US. For those living in poverty or in a different culture, some of the keys would be different. To stay sharp, sometimes the first priority is to stay alive.

The book is written for individuals, even though some of the recommendations are about building connections with others. Individualism is higher in the US than anywhere else, and is probably greater among those who are well off. As a result, Staying Sharp has little about collective solutions for ageing well. For example, towns can be designed so that exercise by walking and cycling is part of daily life, and workplaces can be designed to foster greater optimism and stronger relationships. These involve social change, will be resisted by groups with vested interests, and are unlikely to make a big difference in the short term.

It’s possible to imagine a future in which the insights from Staying Sharp, and the experiences and studies on which it is based, are used to build communities that encourage mind-strengthening throughout life. Until then, a possible substitute is to devote efforts towards moving towards such a future. The efforts will help others and, by following Emmons and Alter’s advice, can contribute to staying sharp throughout one’s own life.

Read the book and visit the Staying Sharp website, https://stayingsharp.aarp.org

exercisebrain780

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Jody Watts for helpful comments.

A title for your article

The title of an article, book or thesis can make a big difference, so it’s worth spending time and effort to find a good one.

article-titles1

When someone reads your article, what’s the first thing they read? The title of course. In fact, it may be the only thing they read. If it’s boring or off topic, they may not bother looking further. If it sounds intriguing, they may proceed even if it’s not their main area of interest.

In 1973, E. F. Schumacher authored a book presenting ideas about economics, for example concerning production, land, resources, ownership and technology. It became well known in part due to its inspired title: Small is Beautiful.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring was a best seller and helped launch the modern environmental movement. Carson was a skilled science writer, but even so the title of her book helped make it an icon. Imagine that it had been called instead Pesticides and Living Landscape, the title of a book by Robert L. Rudd that came out a couple of years later and covered much of the same ground. (The publication of Rudd’s book was delayed by opposition from pesticide supporters.)

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I’m focusing here on non-fiction. Titles for novels, short stories, plays, poems and musical compositions are also important. However, titles alone aren’t enough: the content is crucial. Furthermore, good work can succeed despite an ordinary title. Some of Beethoven’s compositions have special titles, for the example the Pastoral and the Choral symphonies. However, Symphony #5 is well known without having a descriptive word attached to it. Imagine, though, Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries being titled Detective Novel #1 through to Detective Novel #66.

agatha-christie
Agatha Christie

My experience

Somewhere along the line, early in my writing career, I started paying attention to titles. In 1979, I wrote a booklet with the provisional title Activists and the Politics of Technology. Seeking something catchier, I asked some of my environmentalist friends and one said, “Ask David Allworth. He’s good at titles.” So I approached David and gave him some information about my booklet. Before long, he came up with a list of excellent possibilities, and one I loved: Changing the Cogs.

A year later, I had another booklet ready for publication. A descriptive title would have been “A critical analysis of the pro-nuclear views of Sir Ernest Titterton and Sir Philip Baxter.” I forget how, but the title became Nuclear Knights: Titterton and Baxter had been knighted. Alliteration is valuable in a title. The publisher was Rupert Public Interest Movement, at the time campaigning for freedom-of-information legislation. John Wood, a key figure in Rupert, drew a memorable cover graphic showing Baxter and Titterson as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills. Covers can be as important as titles, but that is another topic.

nuclear-knights-cover

A few years later, I wrote a book tentatively titled Grassroots Action for Peace. I wracked my mind for something catchier and came up with Uprooting War. Again, my publisher provided an inspired graphic.

uprooting-war-cover

On another occasion, I made the mistake of making a title more academic. The title I chose was Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate. It’s descriptive but not easy to remember. In retrospect, I should have stuck with my original idea, Fluoridation and Power.

For academic works, a common practice is to provide a short attractive main title and a more descriptive subtitle, but if the main title is too general, it can be misleading. For example, the title Power Politics could refer to lots of things, including electricity politics or any number of politicians or political events. You see the title and then discover the subtitle, such as Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles.

I wrote the title of this post as “A title for your article,” but so far I’ve written about books, not articles. Most people write far more articles than books. I could have more accurately titled the post “How to find a good title for your article, book or thesis.” There’s often a trade-off between brevity and descriptiveness. A short title is bound to leave something out. It’s useful to think of a title as a handle, as something that makes it convenient to use. Though brevity is often better, lengthy titles can sometimes be effective. One of my favourites is Barrington Moore Jr’s book Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them.

I’ve written several articles about the debate over the origin of AIDS, looking at the treatment of the theory that the disease entered humans via contaminated polio vaccines used in Africa in the 1950s. One of my articles was about my own involvement in the debate as a social researcher, and I came up with the title “Sticking a needle into science: the case of polio vaccines and the origin of AIDS.” The main title, “Sticking a needle into science,” draws on the imagery of vaccination involving an injection using a needle. Actually, the polio vaccines in question were administered orally, with the vaccine squirted into recipients’ mouths.

polio-vaccine

Brainstorming titles

At a meeting some years ago with a group of my PhD students, we helped Patrick decide on a title for his thesis, which was nearly ready for submission. Patrick briefly explained that his thesis dealt with methods used by key groups in the debate over climate change. I knew more detail, of course, but most of the others didn’t. I asked everyone to write down at least ten possible titles for Patrick’s thesis as quickly as possible, saying there was a prize for the best title and another for the funniest.

Individual brainstorming can be more productive than the collective form. The point of quickly writing numerous possible titles is to move thinking from the logically oriented left hemisphere of the brain to the more creative right hemisphere. Most scholars need to loosen up to be more creative. Offering a prize for the funniest title helps.

brain-logical-creative

After a while, I called a halt, and everyone gave their lists of titles to Patrick. Not everyone had produced ten possible titles, but some had produced more. Then Patrick read them all out loud, starting with #1 from each list, then #2 from each list, and so on. The best title was judged by Patrick and the funniest title was judged by the most laughter – and there was plenty. The prizes were trinkets or chocolates, more symbolic than substantial.

Patrick ended up titling his thesis using a combination of a couple of the suggestions. It was “Climate conflict: players and tactics in the greenhouse game.”

This technique of generating title ideas has worked well every time I’ve tried it with a group. Sometimes none of the suggested titles is ideal, but the process helps the author to think up something better. Those suggesting titles don’t need to be knowledgeable about the topic. In fact, it can be better if they know only a little, so they are less inhibited by expectations.

There are many considerations to take into account in deciding on a title, including key words for web searches, relevance to readers in the field and beyond, acceptability to editors, and conventions in the genre. The thing I’ve learned is that it’s worthwhile spending a fair bit of time and effort choosing a title, and also worthwhile enlisting others in the task. People read your titles more than anything else you write, so why not make them as good as you can?

Brian Martin

bmartin@uow.edu.au

Are you lucky?

Luck plays a greater role in success than usually recognised.

 luck-skill

I’ve been lucky in my life. I was lucky to be born in an affluent society of loving and supportive parents. They were well off yet thrifty, and encouraged me in valuable habits. They started me on the clarinet, drove me to weekly private lessons and pushed me to practise daily for several years until I learned to love playing and was self-motivated. They encouraged me in reading and learning, but did not push me to get good grades in school.

I was even lucky when I was called up for military service and decided to leave the US for Australia. It was disruptive at the time, but caused me to rethink my views and led me to a lifetime of activism and research.

draft lottery

In my career I was lucky in getting some jobs and not getting others. Just after finishing my PhD, I applied for a lectureship at a new university and just missed out on what I thought would be an exciting opportunity. Decades later, I happened to talk to the physicist who got the job. He told me, “Brian, you’re so lucky you didn’t end up here!”

Most people’s lives are affected by chance events in many ways, large and small. Yet seldom is this factored into thinking about success and failure because, in meritocratic societies, the assumption is that success is due to talent and hard work and therefore justified.

These thoughts are stimulated by a new book by Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank is a prominent economist who has studied the implications of psychology for economics. His earlier books, such as Luxury Fever and The Winner-Take-All Society, are readable and insightful analyses of economic inefficiency caused by wasteful competition.

Success and Luck is part analysis and part personal testament. Frank describes playing tennis and experiencing an episode of sudden cardiac death, which has a 2% survival rate. Frank fully recovered, very much against the odds, because an ambulance happened to be nearby. That he was alive to write his latest book might be said to be a miracle, except that for a mathematically minded economist it was like winning a lottery in survival.

 Robert-H-Frank
Robert H Frank

The role of luck in success

Many successful people would rather not acknowledge the role of luck in what they have achieved in life. If what they have and do is due to their talent, drive and hard work, they can feel assured they deserve everything they have. If chance events were important, then perhaps other people, just as talented and hard working but less fortunate, deserve as much.

In academia, luck is involved in obtaining research grants. Much depends on the choice of assessors and on the individuals sitting on granting boards. When success rates are low, there are many good applications near the cut-off: those above the cut-off receive grants and those below do not.

research-grant-good-luck

            However, as a recipient of a major grant, it is natural to feel the grant is deserved – after all, a lot of work went into the application as well as into all the prior research – and to discount the role of luck. Losers might complain but winners are more likely to feel their award was justified. A grant success then leads to more opportunities to do research, and grants are treated by granting bodies as evidence of high performance, so a single award can lead to a cascade of further grants and research outcomes. Just a tiny bit of luck can make the difference between a stellar research trajectory and a solid but much lower profile career, or even a failure to make the grade as an academic. I’ve known quite a few brilliant scholars who, due to hostile supervisors, biased appointment committees or unsympathetic editors, never had a break and languished their entire careers without even obtaining a permanent position.

Winner-take-all

Frank’s previous studies of winner-take-all markets are relevant here. In the men’s 100-meter final in the 2016 Olympics, the difference between the first and the fourth-place finishers was  0.12 seconds, yet the rewards for the gold medallist, in terms of recognition and endorsements, are far greater than for finishers without medals. You could be fourth best in the world yet receive only a small fraction of the rewards for the first place finisher. Furthermore, you might have had a slower-than-usual start, and the gold-medallist a faster-than-usual start, that made all the difference. That is the potential role of luck.

Olympics 100m final 2016

            It used to be that most competitions for career success were localised. If you’re the best lawyer in town, you’ll get many more of the most lucrative cases. However, cheaper travel and communication mean you may now lose out to even better lawyers across the country. The market has expanded: you’re competing against a bigger field, and even a slight advantage can make a huge difference in outcomes.

Let’s say you’re a specialist in corporate mergers. A company worth billions of dollars wants to have the very best lawyers. Because of the huge sums at stake, even a slight advantage is worth paying for. So the salaries of the very best corporate-merger lawyers shoot through the roof.

merger-and-acquisitions

            This winner-take-all process, resulting from the breakdown of previous market barriers, is a prime driver of economic inequality. Frank has written previously of how this happens, and has recommended ways to counter it. In Success and Luck, he draws on this research to make the point that the larger the number of competitors, the more likely it is that luck will play a significant role in determining the winners.

To be clear: every one of the winners in these markets is talented and hard-working. The point is that others are just as talented and hard-working and only lose out due to bad luck. Frank provides tables showing that if outcomes are determined mainly by talent and hard work, with luck contributing only 2%, then when there are many competitors it becomes almost certain that the winner is very lucky and that there are others who are more talented and hard working but less lucky.

Motivation and luck

Frank points out that there can be advantages in discounting the role of luck: it can cause you to try harder. If you believe outcomes are due to hard work, you might be more willing to keep putting in the effort. On the other hand, if hard work isn’t enough and good luck is needed too, is it really worthwhile working quite as hard?

motivation

            A more important point made by Frank is that if the role of luck is recognised, it becomes more difficult to justify huge differentials in outcomes. If becoming a CEO is partly due to luck – in having the right parents, upbringing, education and opportunities – then why should a CEO have a salary dozens or hundreds of times greater than workers? Some rank-and-file workers, with the same opportunities, might have had what it takes to become a CEO.

Frank thinks that greater awareness of the role of luck may have a beneficial effect in moderating inequality. But there’s a problem. Winners benefit from the belief that their success is due to being superior and so will use their power and influence to help maintain this belief. I would like to believe in Frank’s view but I will wait to hear any leaders give a proper recognition of the role of luck and then try to justify huge levels of inequality.

Frank writes mainly of the US, where economic inequality is extreme, social mobility is limited and yet the belief that commitment and hard work can triumph over adversity remains almost sacred. In many other countries, for example in Western Europe, more generous welfare systems might be seen as recognition that those who are less well off deserve support.

It seems to me there is something different or deeper in the way US policies for disadvantaged people are so much harsher than in most other rich countries, something beyond a lack of recognition of the role of luck. Consider for example someone born with a serious intellectual disability. No one could imagine that such a person’s failure to advance in the meritocracy is anything other than bad luck. So how can a successful entrepreneur justify receiving more than the person with a disability? How does a belief in meritocracy address the issue of people with profound disabilities? This should be the source of cognitive dissonance, so the issue is hardly ever addressed.

meme-male-white-privilege

            Furthermore, anyone could, on any day, become seriously brain-damaged through an accident or stroke, largely as a matter of bad luck. This should be the basis for compassion and support for others, because it could just as easily be yourself.

Frank is tackling the issue of luck at the other end of the spectrum of capabilities, among those who are high achieving. But given that the impact of genetic luck is not seen as an issue for those with serious disabilities, Frank’s hope for change might seem forlorn. However, he found that after conversations about the role of luck, both liberals and conservatives could change their minds. Would they have changed their minds just as readily by raising the issue of serious disabilities?

The progressive consumption tax

In Success and Luck, Frank makes the case for a progressive consumption tax, an alternative to the usual income, goods and other taxes. He and others have been advocating this tax for years. Frank argues that it can painlessly provide the government with revenue to restore US infrastructure and enable people to have the resources to pursue their dreams.

Without going into the details of the tax, suffice to say that its apparent magic is based on addressing status races. As Frank explains, if every rich person has a car, house and wedding worth half as much, they will be just as happy because, in comparison to others, they are just as far ahead. Furthermore, for those who are well off, research shows that extra possessions give little or no extra happiness.

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            Frank repeatedly uses a revealing example. Which would you rather have: a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo and well maintained roads to drive it on, or a $333,000 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta to be driven on roads with potholes? The point is that when public expenditure – on roads, education, health and much else – declines, private wealth cannot compensate.

Ferrari-F12-Berlinettapotholes

            Frank’s arguments are very good. The question is whether good arguments are enough to bring about a policy change, no matter how rational and socially beneficial for everyone. Frank says that public opinion can shift rapidly, as it has for example on same-sex marriage. As much as I would like to see a policy change that reverses the trend towards greater economic inequality, it seems to me that good ideas need to be taken up by social movements. At the moment the movements for equality need all the help they can get. So if you’ve had a fair bit of success in your life and are willing to accept that you had lucky breaks along the way, then perhaps one way of saying thanks is to join campaigns for greater equality.

A more radical position is the socialist principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Given that research on altruism shows that helping others can bring great personal satisfaction, often far more than personal achievement, it is possible to develop a rational argument for applying this principle. Wouldn’t the world be different if rational argument – and compassion – were the primary factors in decision-making?

Success-and-luck

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Stick with it

Willingness to keep trying is crucial to success, even more than talent.

 stick with it

When you decide to do something, do you persist even when it seems hopeless? Or do you shift to something else that seems more doable? Here’s a simple set of ten questions: http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/

This little questionnaire has remarkable predictive value. For example, in studies of US high school students, scores on this questionnaire can better predict success in college than scores on standardised tests like the SAT. In studies of which military recruits complete West Point’s extremely challenging Beast Barracks, answers to this questionnaire are more predictive than any other measure, including high school grades, test scores and leadership experience.

The researcher who came up with this questionnaire is Angela Duckworth, and she calls what is measured “grit”. It is a combination of two attributes, passion and perseverance. “Passion” may not be quite the right word, because it suggests emotionality. What’s involved is consistency: sticking with the same challenge over time.

 Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth

Duckworth has been researching this area for years, with a number of collaborators, and her papers are regularly cited in commentary about achievement. Now she has written an accessible book explaining her research and findings, titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is engaging, informative and inspiring.

“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” (p. 8)

As Duckworth’s work became better known, for example through her talks, she was contacted by all sorts of people interested in pursuing excellence, for example the coach of the Seattle Seahawks professional gridiron team. In this way she learned even more about grit and how to develop it.

grit hand

            Grit, to a large degree, is learned. Parents can encourage their children to persist, and Duckworth devotes a chapter to grit and parenting. Another way to develop grit is through observing role models. I was greatly influenced by my initial PhD supervisor, Bob May. I helped him with calculations for a model of how interactions between voters influence outcomes and he generously made me a co-author. But getting the paper published was a challenge. Bob sent it to a top political science journal where it was roundly rejected by several referees, but Bob was not deterred, writing to the editor challenging the referees and demanding a new round of refereeing. When this led to another rejection, he tried another journal with the same results. When he left Sydney University for Princeton, I took over the submissions and the paper was finally published. The lesson for me was never to give up on a paper, at least not on one saying something worthwhile. My record is having a paper published after rejections by 14 journals.

One of the lessons from grit research is that, in the long run, it is not beneficial to be protected from failure. Individuals who seem to have a charmed life, always succeeding at whatever they do, may come unstuck when eventually they run into serious obstacles.

success

            Duckworth’s research ties in with that from related areas. Carol Dweck looked at people’s “mindsets.” People with a fixed mindset believe performance is determined by innate talent and will be discouraged by failure because it implies they lack talent. In some cases they will not attempt a task, or drop out of a competition, because they fear failure. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe performance depends on effort. When they fail, they try to figure what to do to improve in future. People high in grit usually have a growth mindset.

Anders Ericsson has studied what it takes to become an expert performer, arguing that world-class performers inevitably have to spend thousands of hours in a special type of practice called deliberate practice. He is yet to find anyone who can play chess, do mathematics, play the violin, do the high jump or undertake any other highly skilled activity at elite levels without years of dedicated practice. To persist in the required effort and overcome obstacles and plateaus in performance requires grit.

Young female rock climber at sunset, Kalymnos Island, Greece

One way to develop more grit is to develop a new skill and stick with it for a couple of years. Duckworth undertook studies of US high-school students and how well they performed at university, looking in particular at extracurricular activities such as sport or music. Students who spent at least two years in such an activity later showed more grit, even when it was in a different area. In comparison, students who tried out a whole range of activities but didn’t stick long with any of them had no advantage. The implication is that persisting with a new activity for at least a couple of years is useful training in grit that can provide benefits later on in a different area.

“Teachers who, in college, had demonstrated productive follow-through in a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, were more effective in producing academic gains in their students. In contrast, persistence and effectiveness in teaching had absolutely no measurable relationship with teachers’ SAT scores, their college GPAs, or interviewer ratings of their leadership potential.” (p. 232)

Luckily, it’s not necessary to pick a challenge at age 5 or 15 or 25 and persist against obstacles ever after. Having grit doesn’t mean always striving in the same area. If you spend years training to be a skier but sustain a permanent injury, then it makes sense to switch to a different goal. Having grit doesn’t mean persisting against insurmountable obstacles. In fact, part of being successful in achieving a goal is to rethink strategies when necessary. After multiple rejections of my article, I might well have chosen another option such as publishing it on my website or turning it into a chapter in a book.

grit-over-gift

What’s wrong with grit

Grit sounds great, but it does not automatically lead to positive outcomes because not all goals are worthwhile. Becoming a successful criminal certainly requires persistence in the face of obstacles, but this is a case of grit for a harmful goal, at least harmful for the criminal’s victims. Furthermore, just because some achievements are socially valued does not mean they are unquestionable. Duckworth gives the example of grit as a key to success in military training, but anti-war activists would argue that grit would better be turned to campaigning against military methods. Duckworth also gives the example of grit in rising to the top of corporate hierarchies. Advocates of workers’ self-management would prefer to see grit deployed to promote greater worker participation and flatter organisational structures.

Unfortunately, those with the most money and power are in the best position to take advantage of grit research. Duckworth, to her credit, wants everyone to know what’s involved. Although she has consulted with top executives and sports coaches, she also has tried to help disadvantaged children and she has written the readable book Grit. If you care about injustice, you can learn from Grit how to be more effective.

Grit-cover

 Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Practise, and keep practising

Do you want to become really good at a skill? The world’s greatest authority on expert performance, Anders Ericsson, tells how.

anders-ericsson
Anders Ericsson

Pick a skill you’d like to improve, say chess, golf, piano, writing, Mandarin or mathematics. You need to find a good teacher, someone who understands the skill and will assign you tasks just beyond your current ability. You start practising, putting your full concentration into doing the tasks and overcoming shortcomings. And you keep practising, with your teacher’s guidance, tackling ever harder challenges.

For decades, Ericsson has been studying what it takes to become a top performer. Here’s the surprise. Natural talent doesn’t seem to make much difference. Think of geniuses like Mozart or Einstein. Natural talent for music or physics? No. Their supreme achievements can be explained by intensive practice from a young age. Ericsson has now written a popular account of his research, titled Peak, co-authored by science writer Robert Pool. It is clearly written, filled with examples and addresses the most common criticisms.

peak

            Ericsson is often credited with the so-called 10,000-hour rule, which loosely stated says that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become a world-class performer. The rule was popularised by science writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, but Gladwell got lots of things wrong. There’s no magic number for the number of hours of practice, nor does any old practice suffice. Gladwell said the Beatles obtained 10,000 hours of practice performing in Hamburg from 1960 to 1964. Ericsson cites a Beatles biography saying the figure was probably closer to 1000, and anyway the Beatles weren’t practising to play other groups’ songs to a high standard. Their fame rests on original compositions by Lennon and McCartney, so the key to the Beatles’ success is the time these two spent practising composition.

The one thing Gladwell got right was that becoming a great performer requires a lot of practice, usually thousands of hours.

“By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice.” (p. 96)

There’s also hope for those of us with lesser ambitions, who just want to become a lot better than we are. The key is the right sort of practice.

dilbert_rev1

            Most people, when learning a new skill like driving a car, practise enough to acquire a basic competence. After that, deploying the skill becomes automatic, and there’s little further improvement. We are using the skill, not practising to improve. If you want to improve as a driver, you need new challenges, such as racing.

The same pattern holds for most people in most fields. After obtaining their medical degrees and beginning their regular work, doctors acquire some new skills through exposure to patients and procedures, but then level off. Ericsson cites evidence suggesting that for many purposes, doctors with decades of experience are no better than those who graduated a few years ago. Indeed, recent graduates might be better because they have learned the latest techniques.

In fields such as teaching, business and law, practitioners may be skilled, but few keep improving. Just doing the job won’t make you better. You need to practise.

To learn how to keep improving, it’s valuable to look at areas where excellence can be judged with little ambiguity, for example chess (where rankings reflect tournament success), sport (especially individual sports like tennis), and performing arts like ballet and classical music (where judges of performance generally agree). In all these areas, there has been a lot of research into the sort of practice that enables ongoing improvement.

Deliberate practice

Only a particular sort of practice will make much difference. Ericsson calls it “deliberate practice.” It requires intense concentration on attempting to improve at the limits of your capacity. Consider reading, a skill that nearly everyone develops at a basic level and some take to advanced levels. Children can find learning to read both fun and challenging; by trying to read gradually more difficult writing, reading skills are developed.

Most adult readers stop pushing themselves and settle into a steady diet at the same level, reading novels, newspapers or text messages, or perhaps poetry or scientific papers. If you want to continue to improve as a reader, you need to find pieces of writing that challenge you, and you need to concentrate intently on understanding them. If you’ve read lots of crime novels, reading another one won’t be deliberate practice, but picking one that is especially difficult could be.

In classical music, good teachers know what it takes to become an outstanding performer: using the right technique and practising intently on ever more difficult music. But in most fields, practitioners stop improving because they seldom engage in deliberate practice.

piano teacher

            To improve requires lots of deliberate practice, usually under the guidance of a good teacher, using the most advanced methods, and in situations where there is prompt feedback. Few people have the advantage of a personal teacher or trainer who can give immediate feedback throughout practice every day. (Wolfgang Mozart’s father Leopold provided this sort of personal guidance.) In music, the next best option is having weekly private lessons, in which the teacher assigns music to be practised, monitors improvement and assigns new music of ever increasing difficulty. For this sort of teaching to work, the music student has to practise. To the chagrin of many a music teacher, quite a few young pupils don’t improve, and invariably it’s because they don’t practise. So having or developing the self-discipline to practise is crucial. Supportive parents often make the difference, providing encouragement and structure for practising in early years, until the child becomes self-motivated.

According to Ericsson, hardly anyone finds this sort of practising fun. Deliberate practice is hard work. Elite professional musicians may practise several hours per day throughout their careers, but never find it relaxing.

 benedetti-violin-large

Implications

Not everyone aspires to become a chess grandmaster or a violin virtuoso. Even for lesser achievements, though, the methods of developing expert performance can be applied, sometimes with dramatic effect. Ericsson reports on an application of expert performance principles to the teaching of physics — students in groups engaged with the material and received rapid feedback — that gave an astounding improvement. The promise is that applying the principles to a range of areas can speed learning.

For those who want to improve their swimming, application of the principles can accelerate learning and gains, even if world-beating performance is not a goal. High levels of fitness can become more achievable with less effort.

Ericsson says deliberate practice can revolutionise the way we think about human potential. Rather than being limited by innate talent, the implication is that nearly everyone can become really good in any of a wide range of skills. When people say “I’m no good at maths,” they assume some sort of genetic limitation. Instead, the assumption should be that anyone, with the right sort of training and motivation, can become good at maths, and about anything else you can name. In some fields, early training is essential for world-class achievements, but even that can be factored into education in the future. There are potential applications in education, business, health, science and other fields, as described in Peak and previous books presenting research findings in the field for a general audience.

Obstacles

For the revolution of improvement to occur, much more investigation is needed. Ericsson notes that in lots of fields, little is known about how to measure expert performance or about the mental representations used by top performers.

There will also be another obstacle: many top figures in a range of fields have a stake in the present system. Consider education. A transformation could occur, and it involves changing from a priority on learning knowledge to a priority on learning skills. The problem is that this would shake up educational hierarchies, in which teachers are in charge of dispensing knowledge, administrators run the systems and there is little scope for individualised training programmes. Perhaps the most promising area for uptake is in home schooling, with informed parents applying the principles and recruiting specialist teachers as appropriate. Just as private tutoring is the basis for expert performance in music, so it may become more common in a range of learning areas.

education

            The long-term implication might be that educational bureaucracies will become obsolete, replaced by networks of individualised learning embedded in the community. This is reminiscent of the ideas of Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. It would be wishful thinking to imagine that this will happen quickly, if at all.

The idea that anyone, with the right sort of teaching and support and lots of deliberate practice, can become very good at something is potentially threatening to power-holders in all sorts of areas, including corporate management and politics. Governments and corporations operate on the principle that their leaders know best, either individually or via experts on tap. If anyone can develop high-level expertise, present power systems may be threatened. Deliberate practice promises to democratise human capacities. The implications are potentially profound, so those with the most power will use it to keep changes under control.

Reservations

Expert performance: who could be against it? Everyone wants surgeons to be highly skilled when undertaking operations. But there is a wider set of considerations: expertise needs to be deployed for worthy causes. For surgeons to be more highly skilled is fine, but the wider question is the level of effort put into preventive health measures, now minimal compared to medical interventions against ill health. What is also needed is expertise in promoting exercise, good diet, a clean environment and mental calm, and these areas are poorly funded and less well developed than medical specialities such as surgery.

shooter

            Then there are areas where expert performance is undesirable. Torture is an example: militaries experiment with torture techniques, and some practitioners become very good at them. It might also be argued that improvements in military performance are undesirable, and that efforts should instead be put into improving performance in conflict resolution, nonviolent action, and promotion of social justice. Initiatives to improve human performance need to be linked to worthwhile social goals. So it should be a priority to learn about expertise in promoting freedom and equality, so more people can apply deliberate practice to methods for making the world a better place.

If you want to become a lot better at some skill, Peak should be on your reading list. It is systematic yet accessible, with lots of examples. On its own, reading it won’t make you better, but deliberate practice will.

“Deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities that you may have been convinced were out of reach. Open that door.” (p. 179)

Robert Pool
Robert Pool, co-author of Peak

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au