Improving performance

New York Times writer Charles Duhigg uses powerful stories to explain how one can become more efficient

Published 7 years ago on Jun 24, 2017 3 minutes Read

Many successful people, in contrast, spend an enormous amount of time seeking out information on failures. They read inside the newspaper’s business pages for articles on companies that have gone broke. They schedule lunches with colleagues who haven’t gotten promoted, and then ask them what went wrong. They request criticisms alongside praise at annual reviews. They scrutinize their credit card statements to figure out why, precisely, they haven’t saved as much as they hoped. They pick over their daily missteps when they get home, rather than allowing themselves to forget all the small errors. They ask themselves why a particular call didn’t go as well as they had hoped, or if they could have spoken more succinctly at a meeting. We all have a natural proclivity to be optimistic, to ignore our mistakes and forget others’ tiny errors. But making good predictions relies on realistic assumptions, and those are based on our experiences. If we pay attention only to good news, we’re handicapping ourselves. 

“The best entrepreneurs are acutely conscious of the risks that come from only talking to people who have succeeded,” said Don Moore, the Berkeley professor who participated in the GJP and who also studies the psychology of entrepreneurship. “They are obsessed with spending time around people who complain about their failures, the kinds of people the rest of us usually try to avoid.”

This, ultimately, is one of the most important secrets to learning how to make better decisions. Making good choices relies on forecasting the future. Accurate forecasting requires exposing ourselves to as many successes and disappointments as possible. We need to sit in crowded and empty theaters to know how movies will perform; we need to spend time around both babies and old people to accurately gauge life spans; and we need to talk to thriving and failing colleagues to develop good business instincts.

This is hard, because success is easier to stare at. People tend to avoid asking friends who were just fired rude questions; we’re hesitant to interrogate divorced colleagues about what precisely went wrong. But calibrating your base rate requires learning from both the accomplished and the humbled.

So the next time a friend misses out on a promotion, ask him why. The next time a deal falls through, call up the other side to find out what you did wrong. The next time you have a bad day or you snap at your spouse, don’t simply tell yourself that things will go better next time. Instead, force yourself to really figure out what happened.

Then use those insights to forecast more potential futures, to dream up more possibilities of what might occur. You’ll never know with 100 percent certainty how things will turn out. But the more you force yourself to envision potential futures, the more you learn about which assumptions are certain or flimsy, the better your odds of making a great decision next time.