The prepared mind: How to Approach Craft

The Prepared Mind: How to approach craft


Photo by  Franck V.

Photo by Franck V.

This past weekend, I attended a conference focused on one of the latest buzz terms “transformative tech.” I’ve been tracking them since they started and it appears to be nice marketing to VCs for—you guessed it—tech, but specifically tech “for mental health, emotional well being, and human flourishing.” For this group, there needs to be electricity, or a battery involved so the work of teachers, coaches, seekers, etc. are not emphasized.

One of the speakers was extrapolating on how one day, we will have tech that “gets us to flow” or “helps us jump quickly to a meditative state.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this idea being discussed and I listened intently, thinking through the potential consequences of what amounts to “skipping the [learning] journey” of learning and moving right into integration.

Learning, the kind that moves us forward in our lives and work, is fraught with struggle. There is struggle to accept a new idea, reason with it, and integrate into a new, broader understanding. Reasoning is a skill that is in precarious decline as reliance on data increases. What depth of experience (and insight) might be lost if technology could help us avoid the ungainliness, awkwardness, anxiety-prone beginner’s mind of a new idea or activity? What would be lost if we were able to skip important phases of developing mastery?

In an age obsessed with tech, repackaged ideas, and Instagram soundbites, some of the great tech thinkers get lost to history. I’d like to share some learning from the great Richard Hamming. Hamming was an American mathematician whose work had many implications for computer engineering and telecommunications. He programmed IBM’s calculating machines. He was involved in nearly all of Bell Laboratories' most prominent achievements. After retiring, Hamming took a position at the Naval Postgraduate School and devoted himself to teaching and writing books. He delivered his last lecture in December 1997, just a few weeks before he died from a heart attack on January 7, 1998.

You can see it here. I call out some of his major ideas as they relate to my research on Master Craftsmen, how they get better at what they do, and what we (in tech and in business) can learn from them.

How to Work With Craft In Whatever You Do

Insight, skill, or the state of consciousness gained by daily, deliberate practice, are rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Picasso referred to “inspiration [existing] but needs to find you at work.” While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities. Perspiration and work are, in my opinion, integral to effective integration.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his 1997 book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn. The book and his 1986 lecture, 'Luck favors the prepared mind', You and Your Research, explore how we do great work. Specifically, he refers to “Nobel-Prize type work.” Nobel level work raises the standards of what we thought possible and teaches us to think in new ways. In many ways, Nobel prize winners are the craftsmen in their respective fields.

From cooking to coding, there are methods to engage in order to do something with Craft. That’s how LEAN, DMAIC. 6Sigma and my other methodologies came to be. There are also mental disciplines we can learn for more effective thinking. But, where to start?

Hamming suggests that preparation is what separates the good from the great. This means the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligently prepare—makes a huge difference in what you can accomplish.

As human beings, we tend fixate on what we can see with our eyes. We think focusing on the concrete is being objective. It’s how we rationalize. When we look at transformations in other people’s lives, we see good luck, natural talent, unfair advantage, or the right connections. We concentrate on the visible signs of opportunity and success. We do this with organizations too — and it’s an illusion. 

The key to any change is insanely simple. Stop fixating on the external and focus on smaller, internal changes. It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what transforms you. 

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

Luck is always part of the equation. Philosophers, political theorists, and strategists have long acknowledged the large role that luck plays in every aspect of our lives. Even Nicolo Machiavelli, the cataloger of each and every lever that a prince can pull in the pursuit of power, acknowledged that “I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” What was true in Italian politics centuries ago is just as true in management today.

Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Galileo Galilei did many great things. So did Newton and Einstein. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have been successful in multiple sectors. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly achieves greatness, it is because they prepared in advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation and the foundation of deliberate practice—greatness is a byproduct. So often, in the attempt to optimize and recreate, we forget that.

Intelligence comes in many forms. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Being smart is nice but it’s better if you know how to apply your knowledge.

Believe that you are capable of doing work that matters.

How you regard yourself and your ability to contribute determines how you experience the people in your life, the work you choose, and the tactics and strategies you choose to solve problems.  

With the belief that you can do work that matters, why is that most of us spend time on work that doesn’t matter?

…direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your values—and a lot of what you are working on, what you are saying and what you are doing isn’t either. Think about that.

Is health important to you? When was the last time you invested in it?

Are relationships important to you? What do you do to invest in them?

Do you value the process, really? When was the last time you valued, really valued the many, many small decisions that enable you to achieve the results you are after?

The question you need to ask yourself if why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area? How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

Be willing to be an outlier. 

Think of this as confidence meets courage. You might look like an idiot because you are doing something new. You might not be immediately understood by those around you because you are challenging the status quo.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Embrace horizonal goals. 

You have to see excellence as a pursuit not an outcome. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of engaging in Craft.

Without such a goal you will tend to remain three degrees off course. You will be headed in the right direction, almost. Three degrees seems small, but that is when you stay the course and say to yourself, “I’m ok, I can still see the hill I’m headed toward.” It isn’t until twenty years later that you realize something isn’t right. You can no longer see that hill. The cumulative effect of being three degrees off course for a long period of time means that it’s either time to backtrack, make a pivot toward that hill, or try some other approach to get you back on course.

…with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

What most people think are the best working conditions, are not—learn to dance between failure and fame.

Constraints can lead to innovation. But constraints is just another word for reality, or the lack of the ideal (budget, resources, environment, or other qualities you are seeking). The feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.

Work with your door open.

I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.   

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

…most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. 

Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The advantage of investing in just one hour a day to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common characteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

Consider that advice against a well-intended behavior not truly lived. Google’s 20% time was eventually abandoned. Only about 10% of Googlers were using it. But that didn’t matter much as long as the idea of it exists, according to Google HR boss Laszlo Bock in his new book, "Work Rules!"

Tolerate ambiguity.

Believe and not believe at the same time. You have to believe that where you work is the best place in the industry, and capable of improving.

It took me a while to discover the importance of ambiguity. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, learn from Craftsmen talk about how they learn and get better at what they do, and more importantly take ownership. Moving forward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving forward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Book Shelf: Thinking, Fast and Slow - by Daniel Kahneman


The topics that Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman addresses are both complex and integral to the human mind: He asks you to think about thinking by considering how your mind habitually contradicts itself, distorts data and misleads you. His prose is lucid, his reasoning rigorous and his honesty refreshing – more than once Kahneman illustrates conflicted thinking with examples from his own life. The result is a fairly slow read, but an ultimately rewarding experience.If you liked “Predictably Irrational” or “Stumbling on Happiness” or any of those pop-psychology books, well, this is the Godfather of all of their work. Huge thorough book gives a great overview of much of his work.

3 Key Points

  • How your mind works “fast and slow,”
  • How your “two selves” affect your perspective, and
  • How to think better.


  • To understand how thinking works, consider this model, which says people use two cognitive systems.
  • “System 1” works easily and automatically and doesn't take much effort; it makes quick judgments based on familiar patterns.
  • “System 2” takes more effort; it requires intense focus and operates methodically.
  • These two systems interact continually, but not always smoothly.
  • People like to make simple stories out of complex reality. They seek causes in random events, consider rare incidents likely and overweight the import of their experiences.
  • “Hindsight bias” causes you to distort reality by realigning your memories of events with new information.
  • “Loss aversion” and the “endowment effect” impact how you estimate value and risk.
  • Your “two selves” appraise your life experiences differently.
  • Your “experiencing self” lives your life; your “remembering self” evaluates your experiences, draws lessons from them and decides your future.
  • These two contrasting systems and selves disprove economic theories that say that people act rationally.


Your “Two Systems” and What They Mean

When you have to make sense of something, you think about it. To understand this process, consider a model that says people apply two cognitive systems.The first is “System 1,” or the mental processing that reads emotions and handles your automatic skills, like driving your car or adding two plus two. System 1 takes over your thinking when you comprehend simple statements (such as “complete the phrase ‘bread and . . .’”), instinctively turn to see where a noise is coming from or grimace when you see a gruesome image. System 1 supplies associated meanings (including stereotypes) rapidly and involuntarily.

“Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.”

By contrast, you use “System 2” when you’re focusing on specific details, like counting or figuring out how to complete your income tax forms. System 2 applies effort consciously, such as when you do complicated math, try new physical activities or search for a specific person in a crowd. System 2 thinking is slower, but you need it for methodical thinking processes such as formal logic.

“The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.”

Human beings tend to value the measured System 2 while dismissing the mechanical System 1, but reality is much more complicated. These mental processes engage in a “division of labor” when it comes to thinking, and they constantly interact. You usually live in System 1’s world, where its fast processing is extremely efficient. In fact, you can be reasoning about a task in System 2, get tired or distracted, and find that you’ve shifted over to System 1 without realizing it. If you’ve ever puzzled over an optical illusion, you’ve experienced what happens when these two systems work at cross-purposes.

Duality and Collaboration

Which system you use and how you think depends a lot on the effort you are expending. If you are doing something easy, like strolling on a known path, you’re using System 1 and have a lot of cognitive capacity left for thinking. If you push the pace to a speed walk, System 2 switches on to maintain your effort. Now try to solve an arithmetic problem, and you’re likely to stop walking altogether; your brain can’t handle the additional burden. Recent lab studies show that intense System 2 concentration lowers the body’s glucose levels. If your System 2 is busy, you’re more likely to stereotype, give in to temptation or consider issues only superficially.

“People who are ‘cognitively busy’ are...more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language and make superficial judgments in social situations.”

System 1 likes to jump on the straightforward answer, so if a seemingly correct solution quickly appears when you face a challenge, System 1 will default to that answer and cling to it, even if later information proves it wrong. System 1 performs rapid “associative activation.” Pair two words, or a word and an image, and your mind will link them, weaving a story from those scraps of information. In the phenomenon of “priming,” if you see the word “banana” followed by the word “vomit,” your mind creates an instantaneous connection that causes a physical reaction. Similarly, if exposed to the word “eat,” you will more likely complete the sequence S-O-_-P as “soup” rather than “soap.”

“A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability.”

If you want to persuade people, appeal to their System 1 preference for simple, memorable information: Use a bold font in your reports, try rhyming slogans in your advertising and make your company’s name easy to say. These tendencies are markers of System 1’s larger function, which is to assemble and maintain your view of the world. System 1 likes consistency: Seeing a car in flames stands out in your mind. If you see a second car on fire at roughly the same spot later on, System 1 will label it “the place where cars catch fire.”

Making Meaning, Making Mistakes

System 1 prefers the world to be linked and meaningful, so if you are dealing with two discrete facts, it will assume that they are connected. It seeks to promote cause-and-effect explanations. Similarly, when you observe a bit of data, your System 1 presumes that you’ve got the whole story. The “what you see is all there is” or “WYSIATI” tendency is powerful in coloring your judgments. For example, if all you have to go on is someone’s appearance, your System 1 will fill in what you don’t know – that’s the “halo effect.” For example, if an athlete is good looking, you’ll assume he or she is also skilled.

“When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate the surprise.”

System 1 is also responsible for “anchoring,” in which you unconsciously tie your thinking on a topic to information you’ve recently encountered, even if the two have nothing to do with one another. For example, mentioning the number 10 and then asking how many African countries belong to the United Nations will produce lower estimates than if you mentioned 65 and asked the same question. System 2 can magnify your mistakes, though, by finding reasons for you to continue believing in the answers and solutions you generate. System 2 doesn’t dispute what System 1 presents; rather, it is the “endorser” of how System 1 seeks to categorize your world.

“Facts that challenge...basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed.”

The natural tendency to focus on a message’s content rather than its relevance affects your ability to judge. People seize on vivid examples to shape their fears and plans for the future. For example, media coverage of dramatic but infrequent events like accidents and disasters – as opposed to dull but common threats like strokes and asthma – sets those events up as anchors that people use to make wildly inaccurate assessments about where the risks to their health lie.People also reason incorrectly when they don’t recognize the “regression to the mean.” Over time, everything tends to return to the average, but people create and apply “causal interpretations” to what are, in effect, random events. For example, if a baseball player who has a strong first year subsequently falters in his sophomore slump, sports fans will ascribe the decline to any number of rationales – but, in reality, the player was probably just more fortunate in his initial outings than in later ones.

“The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained.”

Distorted Reality and Optimism

Simplification is at work in the “narrative fallacy,” or the mind’s inclination toward the plain, tangible and cohesive instead of the theoretical, contradictory and vague. People derive meaning from stories that emphasize individual characteristics like virtue and skill, but discount the role of luck and statistical factors. You will tend to “focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.” Due to “hindsight bias,” you will distort reality by realigning your memories of events to jibe with new information. And when telling stories about events you’re involved in, you tend to be overly optimistic and predisposed to overvaluing your talents relative to those of others. You also will give your knowledge greater weight than it should have.

“We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true.”

This intense, pervasive optimism is useful for the economy in many ways because entrepreneurs and inventors tend to start new businesses all the time, notwithstanding the overwhelming odds against them. Despite knowing that roughly only a third of enterprises make it to their fifth anniversary, more than 80% of American entrepreneurs rate their ability to beat that statistic as high; fully a third “said their chance of failing was zero.”

Experts and Risk

System 1 influences how candidly people assess their own “intuition and validity,” which means that not all experts always provide great counsel. Expertise relies on an individual’s skill, “feedback and practice.” For example, firefighters’ repeated practice in weighing the risks posed by specific types of fires and their experience in extinguishing those fires give them an impressive ability to read a situation intuitively and identify crucial patterns. Similarly, an anesthesiologist relies on regular, immediate medical feedback to keep a patient safe during surgery.

“Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.”

However, don’t put too much trust in the judgment of experts in fields where challenges vary greatly, where luck determines success, and where too great a gap exists between action and feedback. Those who predict stock values and political contests, for instance, are prone to fall into this category. Because System 1 lulls experts with “quick answers to difficult questions,” their intuition may be flawed, but your System 2 is unable to detect those inconsistencies.

“Organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences.”

You’re especially prone to unclear thinking when making decisions about risk and value. Most people are “loss averse”: You hate to lose $100 more than you like winning $150. But financial traders tend to demonstrate less of an emotional, System 1-type reaction to losses. Individuals also suffer from the “endowment effect”: When something belongs to you, even if only for a brief period of time, you tend to overestimate its value relative to the value of things you don’t own. Homeowners exemplify the endowment effect, often overvaluing their properties.When you combine all this with the fact that people misjudge how likely rare events are or, alternatively, give rare events too much weight when making decisions, you have the foundations of the modern insurance industry. How you frame risk shapes your evaluation of it. For example, if you hear a life-saving vaccine has “a 0.001% risk of permanent disability,” your reaction is much different than it would be to the same treatment that leaves one of 100,000 individuals forever incapacitated. Yet the two are identical. When you take all these tendencies into account, it is hard to believe any economic theory based on the idea that people are rational actors. But making good decisions depends on paying attention to where your information comes from, understanding how it is framed, assessing your own confidence about it and gauging the validity of your data sources.

“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion.”

“Two Selves,” One Mind

Just as two systems interact in your mind, two selves clash over the quality of your experiences. The “experiencing self” is the part of you that lives your life; the “remembering self” is the part that evaluates the experiences you have, draws lessons from them and “makes decisions” about the future. For the remembering self, happiness is not cumulative, and the final stages of any event play a critical role in your recollection of its quality. For example, when researchers asked subjects to evaluate the life of someone who lived happily to the age of 65, relative to someone else who lived happily through 65 but was only moderately content for another five years, the subjects rated the first life as more desirable.

“The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from experience, and it is the one that makes decisions.”

Your remembering self’s evaluation of your life story is one part of how you judge whether you are happy. You rate your life by standards or goals you set. The moment-to-moment assessments of your experiencing self provide the other side of your happiness. These conclusions may conflict because they account for different aspects of reality. Work benefits and status that affect “general job satisfaction” do not shape people’s everyday moods at work. Instead, job context contributes more to happiness, including such factors as chatting with co-workers and being free from “time pressure.”The things you pay attention to have major implications for your mood. “Active forms of leisure,” like physical activity or spending time with good friends, satisfy you a lot more than the “passive leisure” of, for example, watching television. You can’t necessarily change your job or your disposition, but you can change what you focus on and how you spend your time. Focus shapes your self-assessments: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”

Your two selves are intertwined with your two mental systems: System 2 constructed your remembering self, but your tendency to weigh experiences by their final moments and to favor “long pleasures and short pains” comes from System 1. The relationship between your selves holds implications for philosophers and policy makers. You would make different decisions about which social, health and economic issues to address, and how to address them, depending on whether you see the perspective of the remembering self or of the experiencing self as primary.In general, recognizing how these different mental systems work can help you realize that the purely rational beings favored by economic theory are fictional, and that real people need help making better judgments in their financial and life choices. Understanding how your mind works can help you advocate for policies that take those issues into account. The converse is also true: Because your mind doesn’t function optimally in all instances, rules should protect people from those who would “deliberately exploit their weaknesses.” Because individuals find it difficult to catch glitches originating in their own System 1 processing, an organization can operate with more methodical rationality than can the separate individuals within it. 

About the Author

Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus at Princeton and a Nobel laureate in economics, has written extensively on the psychology of judgment and decision making.

Pete Carroll's Book Recommendations


When I mentor folks, or even in my client work, I emphasize the context of decision making. Too often people look at the end result of someone's performance, or a flashy title--they see the external outcomes.It's an illusion. What matters is someone's internal processing. When people are looking outside of themselves for advice, common questions include:

  • Looking for guidance on how to get to the next level? Who do you look to?

  • See someone who's career or life situation looks appealing? How did they get there?

  • Want to learn a skill that someone else is good at? How did they learn what they know?

It's so important to understand their influences, beliefs, and underlying values. If you are looking at a leadership figure for advice, ask what they read. It can give you a lot of insight into how they think, what motivates them, and how they define success.

The Road to Character by David Brooks--via USAToday. The book draws upon historical figures like Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Augustine, George Eliot, and President Dwight Eisenhower to show how selfless qualities sometimes considered to be old-fashioned in today’s individualistic society can lead to a greater good. The common thread in each tale is a humbling triumph. In each path, however, there first comes rock bottom.

It has affected my language in almost everything I tell them about leadership and serving each other.

Grit by Angela Duckworth.--via The Next Big Idea Club This book is a great read for anyone interested in psychology and personal development. Grit describes what creates outstanding achievements, based on science, interviews with high achievers from various fields and the personal history of success of the author, Angela Duckworth, uncovering that achievement isn’t reserved for the talented only, but for those with passion and perseverance.

In terms of being resilient, we can find ways to instill resilience by training people to believe that they have abilities that allow them to maintain hope. The reason you bounce back is because you know you have a chance and you believe.

Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Successby John Wooden. via The News Tribune When it comes down to it, success is an equal opportunity player. Anyone can create it in his or her career, family, and beyond. Based on John Wooden's own method to victory, Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success reveals that success is built block by block, where each block is a crucial principle contributing to lifelong achievement in every area of life. Each of these 32 daily readings takes an in-depth look at a single block of the pyramid, which when combined with the other blocks forms the structure of the pyramid of success. Join John Wooden and Jay Carty to discover the building blocks and key values--from confidence to faith--that have brought Coach to the pinnacle of success as a leader, a teacher, and a follower of God.

In the bottom-right corner as a foundation of his “Pyramid of Success” for leaders and coaches, Wooden wrote: “Enthusiasm: Brushes off upon those with whom you come in contact. You must truly enjoy what you are doing.”

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. via Sports IllustratedWith more than 800,000 copies sold since it was first published thirty years ago, this phenomenally successful guide has become a touchstone for hundreds of thousands of people. Not just for tennis players, or even just for athletes in general, this handbook works for anybody who wants to improve his or her performance in any activity, from playing music to getting ahead at work. W. Timothy Gallwey, a leading innovator in sports psychology, reveals how to

  • focus your mind to overcome nervousness, self-doubt, and distractions

  • find the state of “relaxed concentration” that allows you to play at your best

  • build skills by smart practice, then put it all together in match play

Whether you're a beginner or a pro, Gallwey's engaging voice, clear examples, and illuminating anecdotes will give you the tools you need to succeed. "Habits are statements about the past, and the past is gone." (page 74)

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday--via Sports IllustratedThe book draws its inspiration from stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy of enduring pain or adversity with perseverance and resilience. Stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity to get better, stronger, tougher. As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Ryan Holiday shows us how some of the most successful people in history—from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs—have applied stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations. Their embrace of these principles ultimately mattered more than their natural intelligence, talents, or luck.

Mental Models: Limited Choice


How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

The most common way of confusing someone is to overload them with too many choices. They will eventually crack, and avoid deciding at all. This approach is especially effective if what you are saying is of interest and makes them think and want to respond. Overload is multiplied when what is being communicated is complex or difficult to understand. This effectively shortens the time to the point where the other person becomes overloaded and needs to stop and process the information given to them.

How might this apply to your business?

For each page or state of your site, feature in your product or level of your service, how many choices do you offer? Can this be reduced?

Also, consider the sequence of decision points people encounter—can you simplify this decision path, presenting the more pressing choices first?


There are many written and unwritten rules of conversation and interpersonal communication. People expect you to follow those rules. If you break them, they will quickly become confused.

See Also

Status Quo Bias, Scarcity, Limited Duration, Contrast, Sequencing


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.