Details are important

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from small things, I am tempted to think…there are no small things. — Barton

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred when it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of seven crew members. Disintegration began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank.

Why did the O-ring fail? The morning of the launch, the temperature was unusually cold and the rubber O-ring became brittle. NASA scientists overlooked (or underestimated) the importance of that one small detail, and the result was catastrophic.  

Charles Eames, the famous American architect and furniture designer, once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Everything is composed of details so every detail is important.

I used to pride myself on my disregard for details, thinking that I was a “big picture” guy who was too concerned with macro issues to worry about micro ones. I was wrong. Being detail-oriented and maintaining a broad view are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.

Small things can have a big impact. 

When Johnson & Johnson heard complaints in 2009 about a musty odor coming from Tylenol Arthritis Pain caplets, it retraced its entire supply chain to find the cause. The culprit: shipping pallets.

The pill packages had likely been contaminated by trace amounts of a fungicide used to treat the six-inch-tall wooden platforms, which carried them from factory to warehouse to retailer. The cost of lost production and yanking Tylenol and Motrin off store shelves: $900 million. [Forbes, May 31, 2018, pg. 46]

In all aspects of life and leadership, pay attention to details. 

  • Great artists are obsessed with details—Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell to Arms.
  • The health of personal relationships often hinges on small courtesies—a friend called me last week to ask about a project I’m working on; I was so pleased that he remembered.
  • When writing, details are essential—There’s a difference between “I’m going to eat, Mom” and “I’m going to eat Mom.” 

I’ll end with a great story of an artist who insisted on perfection, particularly in the details of his work.

Librettist and theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein II once remarked on an aerial photo of the Statue of Liberty taken from a helicopter. He described how the photo revealed finely etched strands of hair atop the head of Lady Liberty, details placed there by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. It’s important to remember that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886, almost two decades before the Wright brothers’ first flight. In those days, no one believed that human beings would ever be able to fly over the statue and look down on the top of Lady Liberty’s head. Yet Bartholdi refused to cut corners with his sculpture. He paid attention to the little things, to the fine details he thought no one would ever see. (from Coach Wooden’s Greatest Secret by Williams and Denney, pg. 119)

Big doors swing on small hinges, so get the hinges right.

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You’re not as good as you think you are 

Also - Pictures from Tale of Three Cities trip

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. – Stephen Hawking

Several years after graduating from medical school, a group of physicians who had graduated from the same class were each asked how he or she ranked in their graduating class. They all responded “in the top 50%.” 

At least 50% of the group suffered from a cognitive bias known as illusory superiority—most of us think we are better than we really are. We overestimate our own qualities and abilities relative to the qualities and abilities of other people.

Most people, when asked to rate themselves relative to certain abilities and traits—such as intelligence, charitableness, or how well they can drive—give themselves above-average grades, such as a score of 7 out of 10. But by definition, it’s impossible for a majority of people to be above average. 

David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell adds to the conversation:

  • Studies have shown that incompetent people are more likely to overestimate their skills, whereas top performers are more likely to underrate themselves. 
  • Most people do well assessing others, but are wildly positive about themselves. “When it comes to us, we think it’s all about our intention, our effort, our desire,”
  • North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. In general, Western culture values self-esteem, while Eastern cultures value self-improvement. [From WiseGeek.com September 17, 2018]

Here’s a great YouTube video about illusory superiority (also called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOLmD_WVY-E

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people are so full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell

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Tale of Three Cities trip

Last month, 36 friends joined me on a 15-day European tour to London, Paris, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Toulon, Florence, and Rome. Traveling with friends is among the most rewarding experiences in life. We had an unlawful amount of fun, made memorable moments together, learned a lot, ate too much, and returned safe and sound.

I’ll announce the next travel-with-friends trip in January.

An untrained mind – part one – don’t think the same thought twice

Ninety percent of the time, we live solely with our own thoughts. Sometimes we are entertaining someone else’s thoughts—when we read a book, watch a movie, engage in conversation, or listen to a podcast—but during most of our waking hours, we only hear our own “voice.”

Our thoughts are enormously powerful; they affect and influence our behavior and eventually shape our lives. So let’s develop a disciplined mind.

A disciplined mind is a mind under control. It is structured. It is monitored and regulated. It has boundaries. It is not like an undisciplined dog that gets out of the backyard; it is trained.

A disciplined mind is progressive, it is moving from point A to point B. It’s not like running on a treadmill, expending a lot of energy but going nowhere.

The first step in disciplining your mind is to constantly be aware of what you’re thinking. Think about what you’re thinking. Analyze your thoughts as if you were an editor editing a manuscript. Or, observe your thoughts as if you were another person who has been assigned to monitor and record your thoughts. Only then can we begin to regulate and train our minds; you can’t manage what you don’t know. 

One aspect of training my mind that I’ve worked on for several years is: I don’t want to rethink a thought I’ve already had. There is no value in continuing to replay a “tape” that has played before. It takes up “space” in my mind and it wastes time I could otherwise use thinking new thoughts.

Similarly, think about the downside of reading just one book, over and over. The same stories, the same phrases, a singular perspective, nothing new or more developed. That might lead to a mental mortuary and a narrow-minded life. We suffer the same disadvantage when we think the same thoughts over and over again.  

Or, imagine being incarcerated with one other person for many years and only hearing his thoughts and stories, over and over again.

I’m trying to train my thought-life to include not thinking thoughts that I’ve thought before. 

I allow myself several exceptions:

  • If I’m continuing to develop a thought I might allow myself to revisit a previous thought because there might be some overlap between old and new iterations of the thought. But I make sure I’m not just regurgitating old impressions.
  • If a thought gives me pleasure I may rethink it. For instance, if I have a fond thought about spending time with my grandson, Benjamin, I will allow myself to replay that tape because it gives me joy.
  • Sometimes I may need to be reminded of a principle or truth, or may need to share the thought with someone else. Professionals are required to do this often.

But given these exceptions, we should continually feed our minds with new thoughts. This is one of the joys and benefits of reading: we get to think another person’s thoughts. Also, when we engage in conversation with intellectually fresh people we encounter new thoughts. 

We should avoid replaying mental tapes that coddle unhealthy messages which can produce mental and emotional unhealth (anxiety, suspicion, paranoia, insecurity, pride).  

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Don’t coddle your children (or adults)

When I was growing up…

  • As a child, on Saturday mornings I often left the house in the morning, explored Five Mile Creek during the day, and returned at supper-time. 
  • A bully at school intimidated me on the playground. I worked through that, unassisted by adults, and learned a lot. 
  • In middle school I would take the city bus to the YMCA in downtown Dallas to take karate lessons, returning by bus after dark. I encountered all types of people, learned how to navigate the bus system, got lost a few times, but lived to write this post.  
  • In high school three of my friends and I decided at the last minute to go to Mexico for Christmas. We drove 38 hours straight, through the interior of Mexico to Acapulco, then camped out on the beach for five days and drove back. Perhaps that’s why I love to travel and know how to navigate complicated trips. 

Were my parents uncaring and neglectful? No. They simply allowed me to experience things that strengthened and shaped me. 

We often over-protect and over-supervise our children, which is stunting their mental, emotional, and social development. 

I just read The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I highly recommend it. They present a compelling case that we are harming our children, college students, and fellow adults by constructing “too-safe” environments. Our coddling is counterproductive.

In June 2017, John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States, gave the commencement address at his son’s graduation from middle school. (Note, not Yale or Harvard…middle school.) Here is an excerpt from his speech.

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” 

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