Category: Thinking

Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking

The best advice I've ever gotten about thinking came from a private-company CEO who has a thirty-year track record that's up there with Warren Buffett's. One day he said to me, “Shane, most people don't actually think. They just take their first thought and go.”

We're all busy. We've got meetings, phone calls, texts, kids, spouses, parents, friends, and of course the ever-present email. Busyness has become an end in itself, and nothing is more dangerous. What my CEO friend meant was that people are losing the ability to think through a problem.

Most people schedule themselves like lawyers. They work in five- to eight-minute increments, scheduled back to back. The best part of their day is when they manage to sneak away for a quick coffee with a friend before heading into the next meeting they haven't had time to prepare for.

I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I'm in the office and sometimes I'm in a coffee shop. I'm not always thinking about a problem that I'm wresting with. I'm often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I've convinced to give it a try.

The problem with not having time to think is nailed by William Deresiewicz, who said:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else's; it's always what I've already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.

Here's what Deresiewicz says does work:

It's only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn't turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

A lot of people see thinking more than a few minutes as a waste of time, but this viewpoint is shortsighted and flawed. While it might take me 30 minutes to come to the same conclusion that you come to in 5, I'll likely have a better idea of the nuances of the situation, including which variables matter the most. I'll know what to watch for and I'll know how to frame things for other people to appeal to their interests. Not only will collaboration take less time, but I'll make fewer mistakes. That's the real advantage.

Thinking time is non-linear. The time you spend thinking – walking around a problem in a three-dimensional way and exploring all of the various perspectives and mental models – pays you back tenfold in the end. The problem for those who are shortsighted is that this time will appear as a negative for a while because it looks like nothing is getting done. This situation is a great example of what I call first-order negative, second-order positive.

A lot of things in life are first-order positive and second-order negative. Heroin is an obvious one, sugar less so. We have trouble delaying gratification, so we do a lot of things that are first-order positive, second-order negative. We buy bigger houses than we need, only to find that rising interest rates make the mortgage payment untenable. We buy the sexy car only to discover later that it depreciates faster than the commuter car.

A real advantage is conferred on people who can do things that are first-order negative, second-order positive. Especially if these first-order negatives are very visible costs with no immediate benefit in the short term and a non-linear benefit at some future time.

Intuitively we know the value of delayed gratification. We tell our kids that they need to get an education, which is nothing more than preparation for life. And yet once we get out of school and start working full time, we are conditioned to think in terms of today and tomorrow, rather than months or years ahead. Suddenly, everything we do is supposed to provide an instant and visible benefit to the organization. At an individual level, this means that for your organization to value you more, you must run faster and faster. At a corporate level, this means you're ripe for disruption from a competitor willing to play the long game.

Making time to think is a great example of something that's first-order negative with some future payoff that's not easily visible. However, when you think through problems, you'll not only come to better decisions on the whole but you'll also avoid a lot of problems.

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Intuition vs. Rationality: Where One Stops the Other Starts

Here's an interesting passage from Anne Lamott, found in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, that requires some consideration.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn't nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré said something adding to our understanding of the roles that both rationality and intuition play in discovery: “It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

Furthering our understanding, I ran across a quote by Steve Jobs on the same topic: “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.” The source of that quote is Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs:

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

It's not really acceptable to admit but most of the time we make our decisions on intuition, rationalizing them after the fact by cherry picking. (If you want to see what it looks like to make rational decisions and catalouge your data, try using our decision journal for a month.) Intuition can be thought of as subconscious pattern matching, honed over weeks, years, and decades. The more we are within our circle of competence the more likely our intuition proves correct.

The point isn't choosing between cold rationality and intuition but rather understanding that each serves a purpose. If we let it, intuition can be an able guide but we must check it when the consequences of being wrong are high.

Footnotes

The Art of Having an Informed Opinion

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

The first thing they always do is tell you what they think. When someone has an opinion about everything, they want to share it with you. They often tout stats and research as if they had an imaginary checklist of facts they need to be able to rattle off to establish themselves as an expert in a field they actually know very little about. Because they have an opinion on everything, they are quick to judge others – for their lack of opinions, for their lack of knowledge, for their lack of outrage … the list goes on.

I'm a firm believer that you can learn something from everyone. Sometimes that effort is more time-consuming than others. People who have opinions about everything barf so much noise that it's hard to find the signal. Your brain has to work overtime to figure out if they did the work to come up with their opinions themselves or if they're simply regurgitating some op-ed in a newspaper. Over time, opinionated people also end up in their own prisons and they try to take you with them.

The problem comes from how we see the world. Our opinions are often rooted in how we think the world should work, according to our morals, values, and principles. If we see the world through the lens of our opinions, much of what happens will not agree with us. This is feedback, and how we respond to this feedback is key.

The world never tells you that you're wrong; it only gives you outcomes.

When an outcome is not what you want it to be, things get tough. You can ignore the result and continue to think that you're right. This protects your ego. It also carries the risk of your continuing to believe something that isn't true. Alternatively, you can calibrate your believability on the subject at hand by lowering the odds that you're right. For example, maybe you gave yourself an 85 out of 100 for the ability to hold a firm opinion on this subject, and now you lower your score to 75. If the world continues to provide undesirable outcomes, eventually you get the hint and change your beliefs. Finally, you can give up your opinions and just respond to the world as it is. This option is the hardest.

People who can't change their minds never move forward. Worse still, they see themselves as heroes. And I mean “heroes” in the Hollywood sense. They hold opinions that have been proven wrong over and over again. And they pay a dear price.

They stop getting promoted. Their work colleagues avoid them. Their friends call less often. Their disagreeable dispositions mean that people don't want them around. They are prisoners of their beliefs. They want everyone to see that they're right. If they persist long enough, the only people they have in their circles are people who have the same (incorrect) worldview.

If you insist on having an opinion, carry a mental scorecard. Start it with 50/50 on all subjects and adjust it based on outcomes. Use a decision journal. When you're right – and “right” means that you're right for the right reasons – you raise your score. When you're wrong, lower the score. Over time, you'll calibrate your circle of competence.

If that sounds like a lot of work, just say, “I don't have an opinion on that; why don't you tell me how you got to have such a firm one? It sounds like I could learn something.”

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Get Smart: Three Ways of Thinking to Make Better Decisions and Achieve Results

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
— Abraham Lincoln

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Your ability to think clearly determines the decisions you make and the actions you take.

In Get Smart!: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field, author Brian Tracy presents ten different ways of thinking that enable better decisions. Better decisions free up your time and improve results. At Farnam Street, we believe that a multidisciplinary approach based on mental models allows you to gauge situations from different perspectives and profoundly affect the quality of decisions you make.

Most of us slip into a comfort zone of what Tracy calls “easy thinking and decision-making.” We use less than our cognitive capacity because we become lazy and jump to simple conclusions.

This isn't about being faster. I disagree with the belief that decisions should be, first and foremost, fast and efficient. A better approach is to be effective. If it takes longer to come to a better decision, so be it. In the long run, this will pay for itself over and over with fewer messes, more free time, and less anxiety.

In Get Smart, Tracy does a good job of showing people a series of simple, practical, and powerful ways of examining a situation to improve the odds you're making the best decision.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Long-Time Perspective Versus Short-Time Perspective

Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University studied upward economic mobility for almost 50 years. He wondered why some people and families moved from lower socioeconomic classes to higher ones and some didn't. A lot of these people moved from labor jobs to riches in one lifetime. He wanted to know why. His findings are summarized in the controversial book, The Unheavenly City. Banfield offered one simple conclusion that has endured. He concluded that “time perspective” was overwhelmingly the most important factor.

Tracy picks us up here:

At the lowest socioeconomic level, lower-lower class, the time perspective was often only a few hours, or minutes, such as in the case of the hopeless alcoholic or drug addict, who thinks only about the next drink or dose.

At the highest level, those who were second- or third-generation wealthy, their time perspective was many years, decades, even generations into the future. It turns out that successful people are intensely future oriented. They think about the future most of the time.

[…]

The very act of thinking long term sharpens your perspective and dramatically improves the quality of your short-term decision making.

So what should we do about this? Tracy advises:

Resolve today to develop long-time perspective. Become intensely future oriented. Think about the future most of the time. Consider the consequences of your decisions and actions. What is likely to happen? And then what could happen? And then what? Practice self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-control. Be willing to pay the price today in order to enjoy the rewards of a better future tomorrow.

Sounds a lot like Garrett Hardin‘s three lessons from ecology. But really what we're talking about here is second-level thinking.

2. Slow Thinking 

“If it is not necessary to decide, it is necessary not to decide.” 
— Lord Acton

I don't know many consistently successful people or organizations that are constantly reacting without thinking. And yet most of us are habitually in reactive mode. We react and respond to what's happening around us with little deliberate thought.

“From the first ring of the alarm clock,” Tracy writes, we are “largely reacting and responding to stimuli from [our] environment.” This feeds our impulses and appetites. “The normal thinking process is almost instantaneous: stimulus, then immediate response, with no time in between.”

The superior thinking process is also triggered by stimulus, but between the stimulus and the response there is a moment or more where you think before you respond. Just like your mother told you, “Count to ten before you respond, especially when you are upset or angry.”

The very act of stopping to think before you say or do anything almost always improves the quality of your ultimate response. It is an indispensable requirement for success.

One of the best things we can do to improve the quality of our thinking is to understand when we gain an advantage from slow thinking and when we don't.

Ask yourself “does this decision require fast or slow thinking?” 

Shopping for toothpaste is a situation where we derive little benefit from slow thinking. On the other hand if we're making an acquisition or investment we want to be deliberate. Where do we draw the line? A good shortcut is to consider the consequences. Telling your boss he's an idiot when he says something stupid is going to feel really good in the moment but carry lasting consequences. Don't React.

Pause. Think. Act. 

This sounds easy but it's not. One habit you can develop is to continually ask “How do we know this is true?” for the pieces of information you think are relevant to the decision.

3. Informed Thinking Versus Uninformed Thinking

“Beware of endeavouring to be a great man in a hurry.
One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed: these are fearful odds.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

 

I know a lot of entrepreneurs and most of them religiously say the same two words “due diligence.” In fact, a great friend of mine has a 20+ page due diligence checklist. This means taking the time to make the right decision. You may be wrong but it won't be because you rushed. Of course, most of the people who preach due diligence have skin in the game. It's easier to be cavalier (or stupid) when it's heads I win and tails I don't lose much (hello government).

Harold Geneen, who formed a conglomerate at ITT, said, “The most important elements in business are facts. Get the real facts, not the obvious facts or assumed facts or hoped-for facts. Get the real facts. Facts don’t lie.”

Heck, use the scientific method. Tracy writes:

Create a hypothesis— a yet-to-be-proven theory. Then seek ways to invalidate this hypothesis, to prove that your idea is wrong. This is what scientists do.

This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They come up with an idea, and then they seek corroboration and proof that their idea is a good one. They practice “confirmation bias.” They only look for confirmation of the validity of the idea, and they simultaneously reject all input or information that is inconsistent with what they have already decided to believe.

Create a negative or reverse hypothesis. This is the opposite of your initial theory. For example, you are Isaac Newton, and the idea of gravity has just occurred to you. Your initial hypothesis would be that “things fall down.” You then attempt to prove the opposite—“things fall up.”

If you cannot prove the reverse or negative hypothesis of your idea, you can then conclude that your hypothesis is correct.

 

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One of the reasons why Charles Darwin was such an effective thinker is that he relentlessly sought out disconfirming evidence.

As the psychologist Jerry Jampolsky once wrote, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

It is amazing how many people come up with a new product or service idea and then fall in love with the idea long before they validate whether or not this is something that a sufficient number of customers are willing to buy and pay for.

Keep gathering information until the proper course of action becomes clear, as it eventually will. Check and double-check your facts. Assume nothing on faith. Ask, “How do we know that this is true?”

Finally, search for the hidden flaw, the one weak area in the decision that could prove fatal to the product or business if it occurred. J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, was famous for his approach to making business decisions. He said, “We first determine that it is a good business opportunity. Then we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that could happen to us in this business opportunity?’ We then go to work to make sure that the worst possible outcome does not occur.”

Most importantly, never stop gathering information. One of the reasons that Warren Buffett is so successful is that he spends most of his day reading and thinking. I call this the Buffett Formula.

 

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If you're a knowledge worker decisions are your product. Milton Friedman, the economist, wrote: “The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions.”

If there were a single message to Get Smart, it's another plus in the Farnam Street mold of being conscious. Stop and think before deciding — especially if the consequences are serious. The more ways you have to look at a problem, the more likely you are to better understand. And when you understand a problem — when you really understand a problem — the solution becomes obvious. A friend of mine has a great expression: “To understand is to know what to do.”

Get Smart goes on to talk about goal and result orientated thinking, positive and negative thinking, entrepreneurial vs. corporate thinking and more.

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind

We think that we're in control. We believe that our conscious mind directs our thoughts and somehow controls our subconscious mind. We're wrong.

In Richard Restak's The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own:

At the moment of decision we all feel we are acting freely, selecting at will from an infinity of choices. Yet research suggests this sense of freedom may be merely an illusory by-product of the way the human brain operates.

Restak gives the example of reading this essay. You scan the title and a few sentences here and there and eventually make a decision to stop reading or read on. You might then go back to the beginning and start reading, or you might start reading wherever it was in the article when you decided to stop skimming.

“The internal sequence,” Restak writes, “was always thought to be: 1. you make a conscious decision to read; 2. that decision triggers your brain into action; 3. your brain then signals the hands to stop turning pages, focuses the eyes on the paragraph, and so on.”

But this isn't what happens at all. “An inexplicable but plainly measurable burst of activity occurs in your brain prior to your conscious desire to act.”

The subconscious mind controls a lot of what we think and the connections we make. And, of course, our thoughts influence what we do.

In The Thinker's Toolkit, Morgan Jones recalls the story found in David Kahn's The Codebreakers.

Breaking codes in World War II was perhaps the largest big data project ever to happen in the world up until that point. The conscious mind could only do so much. One German cryptanalyst recalled, “You must concentrate almost in a nervous trace when working on a code. It is not often done by conscious effort. The solution often seems to crop up from the subconscious.”

Believing that the conscious mind calls the shots prevents us from understanding ourselves, others, and how to make better decisions to name but a few things.

In Plain Talk, Ken Iverson offers some insight on how to turn these thoughts into practical utility.

“Every manager,” he writes “should be something of a psychologist—what makes people tick, what they want, what they need. And much of what people want and need resides in the subconscious. The job of a manager is to help the people accomplish extraordinary things. And that means shaping a work environment that stimulates people to explore their own potential.”

We place too much emphasis on the conscious mind and not enough on the subconscious one.

Unless you manage your environment, it will manage you. The old question ‘would you rather be the poorest in a wealthy neighborhood or the richest in a poor neighborhood?' is based on how the environment controls our subconscious and our subconscious controls our happiness.

Rich Thinking Versus Poor Thinking: Why it Matters

“Thought is the original source of all wealth, all success, all material gain,
all great discoveries and inventions, and of all achievement.”
—Claude M. Bristol

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One of the most controversial chapters in Brian Tracy’s book, Get Smart!, is “Rich Thinking versus Poor Thinking.”

In that chapter, he shares a series of simple ideas you can learn and apply. While I fundamentally disagree with much of the gross over-simplification, there are veins of excellence that we can use to add to our mental toolkit.

(Pause for a second before we continue. Just to be clear, this isn’t an article about going from zero to a million in a lifetime. No clickbait here. No, this article is about giving you tools you can add to your mental toolbox.)

The Role of Mindset

Best-selling author Og Mandino says:

There are no secrets of success. There are simply timeless truths and universal principles that have been discovered and rediscovered throughout human history. All you have to do is to learn and practice them to enjoy all the success that you could desire.

Sounds a lot like what we’re trying to discover.

Fearing Failure

A lot of us do things not to succeed but to avoid failure. This is what Elon Musk calls the fundamental problem with regulators. Tracy writes:

Because of destructive criticism in early childhood and mistakes they have made as adults, they are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, of losing their time or money. Even if they are presented with an opportunity, they go into a form of paralysis.

Their fear of failure causes them to create all kinds of reasons not to take action. They don’t have the time. They can’t make the minimum investment. They don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills. Like a deer caught in the headlights, they are paralyzed by the idea of failure, which causes them to never take any action at all.

As it happens, most fortunes in America were started by the sale of personal services. The people had no money, but they had the ability to work hard, to upgrade their skills, and to become more and more valuable. As a result, more and more doors of opportunity opened up for them.

Fearing Disapproval and Criticism

This relates to our fear of criticism and disapproval, which results in approval-seeking behavior. And when we’re seeking approval and acceptance, we’re more likely to think conventionally. And when we think conventionally, we're unlikely to get above-average results.

We don’t want to look different. As a result, we stop learning and growing.

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“I will study and prepare myself and someday my chance will come.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Tracy writes:

To achieve something you’ve never achieved before, you must learn and practice something that you’ve never done before.

If you’re learning something universal you’ll always have an opportunity to practice what you learn.

Putting all of this together becomes tricky.

Often we have the courage to think and act differently, we mentally prepare ourselves for the critical feedback and then we dip our toe in the water only to find it’s not to our liking.

This is where persistence comes in.

Most of us are simply unwilling to sacrifice in order to succeed. We want our cake and we want to eat it too. Most of the people I know that are incredibly successful have suffered some setback that they had to overcome. A lot of people would have given up. Only they persisted. (Of course, there are plenty of people that persist and fail too.) I’m generalizing a bit here but the people who look for the nearest exit when things get tough are usually the ones with the average results.

Something-For-Something

There is only one type of relationship that is sustainable over a long period of time and that's one where everyone wins. Tracy writes:

Rich people are always looking for ways to create value, to develop and produce products and services that enrich and enhance the lives and work of other people.

They are always willing to put in before they take out. They do not believe in easy money or something for nothing. Rich people believe that you have to justly earn and pay for, in terms of toil and treasure, any rewards and riches that you desire.

Poor people lack this fundamental understanding, the direct relationship between what you put in and what you get out. They are always seeking to get something for nothing or for as little as possible. They want success without achievement, riches without labor, money without effort, and fame without talent.

Poor people gamble, buy lottery tickets, come to work at the last possible moment, waste time while they are there, and then leave work at the first possible minute. They line up by the hundreds and thousands to audition for programs like American Idol, thinking that they can become rich and famous without ever having paid the price necessary to develop the level of talent and ability that enables them to rise above their competitors.

One of the great secrets of becoming wealthy is to always do more than you are paid for. If you do, you will always be paid more than you’re getting today. And there is no other way.

Go the extra mile. Be willing to put in far more than you are taking out. There are never any traffic jams on the extra mile.

Fear can often keep us mediocre. We don’t risk being wrong.

Getting rich isn't as simple as changing your mindset. However changing your mindset can go a long way to changing the way you see the world. And when you see the world differently you can behave and respond differently to the stimuli around you. When you do that, you have the potential to outperform.