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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The curse of knowledge syndrome

The “curse of knowledge” occurs when a person has such mature and advanced knowledge in a specific area that he cannot remember what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder to identify with people who don’t have this knowledge base. It also inhibits our ability to explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

Some examples will help.

  • I learned to read music when I was 18 years old. Forty-eight years ago. Currently, when I direct an amateur choir I sometimes get frustrated at mistakes the singers make because I have forgotten what it’s like to not be able to read music. 
  • When I turned 60 my personal physician told me to start taking a baby aspirin every day. I asked, “What is a baby aspirin?” He looked at me like I had just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. He knew what a baby aspirin is, but I didn’t.
  • In graduate school I took a course in statistics. The professor was a well-known expert, but he was a bad teacher. He knew the material so well and had for so many years, he just couldn’t fathom what it was like to not know principles of statistics. I ended up dropping the course.

When you suffer from the curse of knowledge you assume that other people know what you know, which causes you to think that people understand you a lot better than they really do.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, December 2006, Chip and Dan Heath wrote: 

“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener.’ Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as ‘Happy Birthday,’ and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

“When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

“The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”

Applications

  1. When you’re functioning in your area of expertise—particularly if you’re relating to people who are not expert in your field—don’t fall prey to the curse of knowledge. Try to communicate to them as if you had just learned the subject.
  2. Periodically, enter into situations in which you’re the beginner, and remember what it’s like to be the neophyte.
  3. Our understanding of the “curse of knowledge” syndrome should inform our approach to communication, reminding us of how very difficult it is to communicate well (“What I’m saying is clear in my mind; why aren’t you getting it?”). 

The first step to avoiding the curse is to recognize that it exists and how difficult it is to overcome. Psychologist Steven Pinker said, “Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.”

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Have a bias toward action

Lee Iacocca was an iconic leader in the American car manufacturing industry. When he was at Ford Motor company he introduced the Mustang (1964). Good decision. When he took over the failing Chrysler Motor company (1979), bold designs and decisions were needed. He introduced the minivan – a practical vehicle never seen before. Another bold and wise decision.

Here’s my favorite Iacocca story:

During the time that Chrysler was crawling back from the brink of bankruptcy, Iacocca felt that consumers would respond well to a convertible. He asked his head of engineering how long it would take to make a convertible for him to test-market; the engineer told Iacocca—three years.  Iacocca wanted it immediately so he told his engineers to go to the assembly line, pull a car off the line, take a saw, and cut the top off. That only took about four hours. That afternoon, Iacocca drove the topless sedan around town. It got so much attention and so many favorable comments that Iacocca was convinced that bringing back a convertible would be a huge boost to Chrysler profits. It was.

There are several lessons to learn from this story (for example, leaders make bold decisions) but the one I want to home in on is: leaders have a bias toward action.

We’ve all heard the adage—ready, aim, fire—which sounds like a logical sequence of events, but sometimes we get transfixed on the aim element. Some organizations (and individuals) get bogged down by over-analyzing and over-thinking details and options. Paralysis by analysis sets in; nothing gets done. 

Perhaps we should consider: ready, fire, aim.

Often, there’s value in acting–just do something. Then you can learn from your actions and make course corrections as problems arise. Sometimes it’s better to do something, even if it is wrong, than get trapped in passivity. It’s difficult to steer a stationary bike; start pedaling and then negotiate direction.

Critics of this approach would warn against the dangers of being impulsive, reckless, and careless. I understand.

As usual, the best path is probably somewhere in the middle: avoid both impulsiveness and inaction. But my suggestion is to have a bias toward action. 

Consider again, Iacocca’s insistence on having a convertible to test-drive—immediately. I can’t see any downside. Just cut off the top of a car so the concept can be tested–immediately.

Note to leaders: Through the years I’ve observed that good leaders share a common trait: they take initiative. They have an agenda. They like forward motion. They are bothered by lethargy. They envision a better future and are impatient about getting there. They have a bias toward action. 

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Look farther down the road

I recently read a Q&A on quora.com, a website where people ask questions and anyone can answer. Someone asked: “What can we learn about driving a car from professional drivers?”

An insightful answer was: “My wife gave me the two-day Porsche Driving School course for an anniversary present. It was a fun experience and I learned a lot of things. 

“One lesson that stuck with me was the idea of looking where you want to go (in the distance) rather than immediately in front of you. Most drivers focus on the space 10–30 feet in front of their car where the immediate action is, but then you’re not prepared for major changes. The instructors told us to focus about 100–300 feet or more in front of where you are and drive to that moving destination. While looking into the distance, our peripheral vision will naturally pick up what is happening closer in.”

There’s a good life-lesson in this anecdote. 

In life, we’re often short-sighted. Instead of “looking farther down the road” we focus on the immediate. Activities that demand our attention (alleged emergencies) get it, and they distract us from more important thoughts, like planning our future. 

  • On a regular basis, take the time to think about the future. What do you want to do and be six months from now? Two years from now? Ten years? Spend time thinking about long-term goals instead of just negotiating short-term issues.  
  • In your conversations, notice where the conversation is and where it should go. Then steer the discussion toward that destination. 
  • Instead of getting stuck in the moment, continually think about the near-future. Even projecting 4-6 hours in the future is beneficial. 

For more on this topic, I recommend Steven Johnson’s book titled Farsighted. It is a terrific, engaging book that gives practical advice about how to “look farther down the road.”

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Focus on making fewer, more important decisions

In an interview with Vanity Fair, former president Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”

He went on to explain that, as Commander in Chief, the act of making a decision, especially minor ones, erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of making bad decisions.  For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions later in the day than they do early in the day. Decision fatigue explains why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and may adversely affect our ability to make more important decisions. 

Here are some ideas to think about.

Make a few major decisions that will preempt having to make multiple minor decisions.

Obama made a major decision—wear only gray or blue suits—which eliminated the need to make wardrobe decisions every morning. Private schools often facilitate the same advantage by requiring students to wear uniforms. Steve Jobs limited his wardrobe to bluejeans and a black turtleneck shirt.

About eight years ago I made a major decision to limit my personal belongings to fewer than 100 items. (See my post titled Enough is Enough.) I currently have 85 objects. This self-imposed restriction has opened up a new space in my life. I seldom go shopping (saving time), I am immune to advertising and marketing ploys (saving mental energy), and I spend very little money on stuff. This one major life-decision eliminates the need to make many smaller decisions. (And it helps me avoid these extremes: The average woman makes 301 trips to the store annually, spending close to 400 hours a year shopping. This amounts to 8.5 years spent shopping during a typical lifespan (NY Daily News).  Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

Notice how these major decisions would simplify your life.  

    • My family and I are going to be active in a local church. 
    • I’m not going to eat processed food.
    • I’ll check my email only four times a day.
    • My expenses will not exceed my income. 

Focus on important decisions.

By limiting his wardrobe choices, Obama could concentrate on more important decisions—responding to the latest threat from Kim Jong-un, or helping craft the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sometimes I catch myself obsessing over minor decisions, particularly monetary ones (I am frugal; sometimes to a fault). Recently, I wasted 20 minutes of my life choosing between different styles and prices of ink pens. I should have devoted that time to writing another blog post.  

Some people expend more brain-resources selecting their lunch entrée than they do choosing and directing the topic of conversation around the table. 

Identify and focus on major decisions; make minor decisions quickly or delegate them to someone else.

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