31 min read

Notes for Smarter Faster Better

Below is a detailed notes for Smarter Faster Better, a book written by Charles Duhigg, author of New York Times best seller The Power of Habits.

Productivity, put simplify, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best use of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize is the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. It’s a process of learning how to succeed with less stress and struggle. It’s about getting things down without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.

Rather, productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions. The stories we tell ourselves, and easy goals we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders; These are the things that separate the merely busy from genuinely productive.

Chapter 1 - Motivation

From these insights, a theory of motivation has emerged: The first step in creating drive is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with a sense of autonomy and self-determination. In experiments, people are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands. That’s one of the reasons why your cable company asks all those questions when you sign up for service. If they ask if you prefer a paperless bill to an itemized statement, or the ultra package versus the platinum lineup, or HBO to Showtime, you’re more likely to be motivated to pay the bill each month. As long as we feel a sense of control, we’re more willing to play along.

Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control the specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s the feeling of self-determination that get us going. That’s why Delgado’s participants were willing to play again and again when they felt like they are in charge.

If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier, Quintanilla’s drill instructors had told him. That’s why they asked each other questions starting with “why.” Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.

The Marines complement those insights by helping us understand how to teach drive to people who aren’t practiced in self-determination: If you give people an opportunity to feel a sense of control and let them practice making choices, they can learn to exert willpower. Once people know how to make self-directed choices into a habit, motivation becomes more automatic.
Moreover, to teach ourselves to self-motivate more easily, we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals. That’s the reason recruits ask each other “why”—because it shows them how to link small tasks to larger aspirations.

The choices that are most powerful in generating motivation, in other words, are decisions that do two things: They convince us we’re in control and they endow our actions with larger meaning. Choosing to climb a mountain can become an articulation of love for a daughter. Deciding to stage a nursing home insurrection can become proof that you’re still alive. An internal locus of control emerges when we develop a mental habit of transforming chores into meaningful choices, when we assert that we have authority over our lives.

Neurologists have suggested that this emotional numbness is why some people feel no motivation. Among Habib’s patients, the injuries in their striata prevented them from feeling the sense of reward that comes from taking control. Their motivation went dormant because they had forgotten how good it feels to make a choice. In other situations, it’s that people have never learned what it feels like to be self-determined, because they have grown up in a neighborhood that seems to offer so few choices or they have forgotten the rewards of autonomy since they’ve moved into a nursing home.

This theory suggests how we can help ourselves and others strengthen our internal locus of control. We should reward initiative, congratulate people for self-motivation, celebrate when an infant wants to feed herself. We should applaud a child who shows defiant, self-righteous stubbornness and reward a student who finds a way to get things done by working around the rules.

This is easier in theory, of course, than practice. We all applaud self-motivation until a toddler won’t put on his shoes, an aged parent is ripping a dresser out of the wall, or a teenager ignores the rules. But that’s how an internal locus of control becomes stronger. That’s how our mind learns and remembers how good it feels to be in control. And unless we practice self-determination and give ourselves emotional rewards for subversive assertiveness, our capacity for self-motivation can fade.

Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values. We start to recognize how small chores can have outsized emotional rewards, because they prove to ourselves that we are making meaningful choices, that we are genuinely in control of our own lives. That’s when self-motivation flourishes: when we realize that replying to an email or helping a coworker, on its own, might be relatively unimportant. But it is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do. Self-motivation, in other words, is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs doing.

Chapter 2 - Teams

Psychological safety is a “shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks.” It is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmondson wrote in a 1999 paper. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

There were, however, two behaviors that all the good teams shared.
First, all the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” In some teams, for instance, everyone spoke during each task. In other groups, conversation ebbed from assignment to assignment—but by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.
Second, the good teams tested as having “high average social sensitivity”—a fancy way of saying that the groups were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces.

For psychological safety to emerge among a group, teammates don’t have to be friends. They do, however, need to be socially sensitive and ensure everyone feels heard. “The best tactic for establishing psychological safety is demonstration by a team leader,” as Amy Edmondson, who is now a professor at Harvard Business School, told me. “It seems like fairly minor stuff, but when the leader goes out of their way to make someone feel listened to, or starts a meeting by saying ‘I might miss something, so I need all of you to watch for my mistakes,’ or says ‘Jim, you haven’t spoken in a while, what do you think?,’ that makes a huge difference.

Onstage, Bock brought up a series of slides. “What matters are five key norms,” he told the audience.

  1. Teams need to believe that their work is important.
  2. Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles.
  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  5. But, most important, teams need psychological safety.
    To create psychological safety, Bock said, team leaders needed to model the right behaviors. There were Google-designed checklists they could use: Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don’t know. They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once. They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations, and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways. They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion.

If motivation comes from giving individuals a greater sense of control, then psychological safety is the caveat we must remember when individuals come together in a group. Establishing control requires more than just seizing self-determination. Being a subversive works, unless you’re leading a team.

Chapter 3 - Focus

“cognitive tunneling”—a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.
Cognitive tunneling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks. It’s what keeps someone glued to their smartphone as the kids wail or pedestrians swerve around them on the sidewalk. It’s what causes drivers to slam on their brakes when they see a red light ahead. We can learn techniques to get better at toggling between relaxation and concentration, but they require practice and a desire to remain engaged. However, once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus. Instead, we latch on to the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense.

Reactive thinking is at the core of how we allocate our attention, and in many settings, it’s a tremendous asset. Athletes, for example, practice certain moves again and again so that, during a game, they can think reactively and execute plays faster than their opponents can respond. Reactive thinking is how we build habits, and it’s why to-do lists and calendar alerts are so helpful: Rather than needing to decide what to do next, we can take advantage of our reactive instincts and automatically proceed. Reactive thinking, in a sense, outsources the choices and control that, in other settings, create motivation.
But the downside of reactive thinking is that habits and reactions can become so automatic they overpower our judgment. Once our motivation is outsourced, we simply react. One study conducted by Strayer, the psychologist, in 2009 looked at how drivers’ behaviors changed when cars were equipped with features such as cruise control and automatic braking systems that allowed people to pay less attention to road conditions.

People like Darlene who are particularly good at managing their attention tend to share certain characteristics. One is a propensity to create pictures in their minds of what they expect to see. These people tell themselves stories about what’s going on as it occurs. They narrate their own experiences within their heads. They are more likely to answer questions with anecdotes rather than simple responses. They say when they daydream, they’re often imagining future conversations. They visualize their days with more specificity than the rest of us do.
Psychologists have a phrase for this kind of habitual forecasting: “creating mental models.” Understanding how people build mental models has become one of the most important topics in cognitive psychology. All people rely on mental models to some degree. We all tell ourselves stories about how the world works, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.
Cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking occur when our mental spotlights go from dim to bright in a split second. But if we are constantly telling ourselves stories and creating mental pictures, that beam never fully powers down. It’s always jumping around inside our heads. And, as a result, when it has to flare to life in the real world, we’re not blinded by its glare.

Researchers have found similar results in dozens of other studies. People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models. By developing a habit of telling ourselves stories about what’s going on around us, we learn to sharpen where our attention goes. These storytelling moments can be as small as trying to envision a coming meeting while driving to work—forcing yourself to imagine how the meeting will start, what points you will raise if the boss asks for comments, what objections your coworkers are likely to bring up—or they can be as big as a nurse telling herself stories about what infants ought to look like as she walks through a NICU.
If you want to make yourself more sensitive to the small details in your work, cultivate a habit of imagining, as specifically as possible, what you expect to see and do when you get to your desk. Then you’ll be prone to notice the tiny ways in which real life deviates from the narrative inside your head. If you want to become better at listening to your children, tell yourself stories about what they said to you at dinnertime last night. Narrate your life, as you are living it, and you’ll encode those experiences deeper in your brain. If you need to improve your focus and learn to avoid distractions, take a moment to visualize, with as much detail as possible, what you are about to do. It is easier to know what’s ahead when there’s a well-rounded script inside your head.
Companies say such tactics are important in all kinds of settings, including if you’re applying for a job or deciding whom to hire. The candidates who tell stories are the ones every firm wants. “We look for people who describe their experiences as some kind of a narrative,” Andy Billings, a vice president at the video game giant Electronic Arts, told me. “It’s a tip-off that someone has an instinct for connecting the dots and understanding how the world works at a deeper level. That’s who everyone tries to get.

So what’s the solution? If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, of not getting overwhelmed and distracted by the constant flow of emails and conversations and interruptions that are part of every day, of knowing where to focus and what to ignore, get into the habit of telling yourself stories. Narrate your life as it’s occurring, and then when your boss suddenly asks a question or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way.
To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day. While you’re sitting in a meeting or at lunch, describe to yourself what you’re seeing and what it means. Find other people to hear your theories and challenge them. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next. If you are a parent, anticipate what your children will say at the dinner table. Then you’ll notice what goes unmentioned or if there’s a stray comment that you should see as a warning sign.
“You can’t delegate thinking,” de Crespigny told me. “Computers fail, checklists fail, everything can fail. But people can’t. We have to make decisions, and that includes deciding what deserves our attention. The key is forcing yourself to think. As long as you’re thinking, you’re halfway home.

Chapter 4 - Goal Setting

The need for cognitive closure, in many settings, can be a great strength. People who have a strong urge for closure are more likely to be self-disciplined and seen as leaders by their peers. An instinct to make a judgment and then stick with it forestalls needless second-guessing and prolonged debate. The best chess players typically display a high need for closure, which helps them focus on a specific problem during stressful moments rather than obsessing over past mistakes. All of us crave closure to some degree, and that’s good, because a basic level of personal organization is a prerequisite for success. What’s more, making a decision and moving on to the next question feels productive. It feels like progress.
But there are risks associated with a high need for closure. When people begin craving the emotional satisfaction that comes from making a decision—when they require a sensation of being productive in order to stay calm—they are more likely to make hasty decisions and less likely to reconsider an unwise choice. The “need for closure introduces a bias into the judgmental process,” a team of researchers wrote in Political Psychology in 2003. A high need for closure has been shown to trigger close-mindedness, authoritarian impulses, and a preference for conflict over cooperation. Individuals with a high need for closure “may display considerable cognitive impatience or impulsivity: They may ‘leap’ to judgment on the basis of inconclusive evidence and exhibit rigidity of thought and reluctance to entertain views different from their own,” the authors of the need for closure scale, Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster, wrote in 1996.

In the 1940s, GE had formalized a corporate goal-setting system that would eventually become a model around the world. By the 1960s, every GE employee was required to write out their objectives for the year in a letter to their manager. “Simply put,” historians at Harvard Business School wrote in 2011, “the manager’s letter required a job holder to write a letter to his or her superior indicating what the goals for the next time frame were, how the goals would be met, and what standards were to be expected. When the superior accepted this letter—usually after editing and discussion—it became the work ‘contract.’ 
By the 1980s, this system had evolved into a system of so-called SMART goals that every division and manager were expected to describe each quarter. These objectives had to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and based on a timeline. In other words, they had to be provably within reach and described in a way that suggested a concrete plan.
If a goal didn’t meet the SMART criteria, a manager had to resubmit a memo detailing their aims, again and again, until it was approved by upper management. “It was about getting concrete,” said William Conaty, who retired as GE’s head of human resources in 2007. “Your manager was always saying, what’s the specifics? What’s the timeline? Prove to me this is realistic. The system worked because by the time we were done, you knew pretty clearly how things were going to unfold.”
The SMART mindset spread throughout GE’s culture. There were SMART charts to help midlevel managers describe monthly goals and SMART worksheets to turn personal objectives into action plans. And the company’s belief that SMART goals would work was rooted in good science.

Stretch goals “serve as jolting events that disrupt complacency and promote new ways of thinking,” a group of researchers wrote in Academy of Management Review business journal in 2011. “By forcing a substantial elevation in collective aspirations, stretch goals can shift attention to possible new futures and perhaps spark increased energy in the organization. They thus can prompt exploratory learning through experimentation, innovation, broad search, or playfulness.
There is an important caveat to the power of stretch goals, however. Studies show that if a stretch goal is audacious, it can spark innovation. It can also cause panic and convince people that success is impossible because the goal is too big. There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crushes morale. For a stretch goal to inspire, it often needs to be paired with something like the SMART system.
The reason why we need both stretch goals and SMART goals is that audaciousness, on its own, can be terrifying. It’s often not clear how to start on a stretch goal. And so, for a stretch goal to become more than just an aspiration, we need a disciplined mindset to show us how to turn a far-off objective into a series of realistic short-term aims. People who know how to build SMART goals have often been habituated into cultures where big objectives can be broken into manageable parts, and so when they encounter seemingly outsized ambitions, they know what to do. Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach.

Experiments at the University of Waterloo, the University of Melbourne, and elsewhere show similar results: Stretch goals can spark remarkable innovations, but only when people have a system for breaking them into concrete plans.
This lesson can extend to even the most mundane aspects of life. Take, for instance, to-do lists. “To-do lists are great if you use them correctly,” Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University, told me. “But when people say things like ‘I sometimes write down easy items I can cross off right away, because it makes me feel good,’ that’s exactly the wrong way to create a to-do list. That signals you’re using it for mood repair, rather than to become productive.
The problem with many to-do lists is that when we write down a series of short-term objectives, we are, in effect, allowing our brains to seize on the sense of satisfaction that each task will deliver. We are encouraging our need for closure and our tendency to freeze on a goal without asking if it’s the right aim. The result is that we spend hours answering unimportant emails instead of writing a big, thoughtful memo—because it feels so satisfying to clean out our in-box.
At first glance, it might seem like the solution is creating to-do lists filled solely with stretch goals. But we all know that merely writing down grand aspirations doesn’t guarantee we will achieve them. In fact, studies show that if you’re confronted with a list of only far-reaching objectives, you’re more likely to get discouraged and turn away.
So one solution is writing to-do lists that pair stretch goals and SMART goals. Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon.
Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, month? How many miles can you realistically run tomorrow and over the next three weeks? What are the specific, short-term steps along the path to bigger success? What timeline makes sense? Will you open your store in six months or a year? How will you measure your progress? Within psychology, these smaller ambitions are known as “proximal goals,” and repeated studies have shown that breaking a big ambition into proximal goals makes the large objective more likely to occur.

In short, we need stretch and SMART goals. It doesn’t matter if you call them by those names. It’s not important if your proximal goals fulfill every SMART criterion. What matters is having a large ambition and a system for figuring out how to make it into a concrete and realistic plan. Then, as you check the little things off your to-do list, you’ll move ever closer to what really matters. You’ll keep your eyes on what’s both wise and SMART.

Chapter 5 - Managing Others

Every person in an organization has the right to be the company’s top expert at something,” John Shook, who trained Madrid as one of Toyota’s first Western employees, told me. “If I’m attaching mufflers or I’m a receptionist or a janitor, I know more about exhaust systems or receiving people or cleaning offices than anyone else, and it’s incredibly wasteful if a company can’t take advantage of that knowledge. Toyota hates waste. The system was built to exploit everyone’s expertise.

5 Categories of Teams

  1. Star Culture
    At these firms, executives hired from elite universities or other successful companies and gave employees huge amounts of autonomy. Offices had fancy cafeterias and lavish perks. Venture capitalists loved star model companies because giving money to the A-Team, conventional wisdom held, was always the safest bet.
  2. Engineering Culture
    Inside firms with engineering cultures, there weren’t many individual stars, but engineers, as a group, held the most sway. An engineering mindset prevailed in solving problems or approaching hiring decisions. “This is your stereotypical Silicon Valley start-up, with a bunch of anonymous programmers drinking Mountain Dew at their computers,” said Baron. “They’re young and hungry and might be the next generation of stars once they prove themselves, but right now, they’re focused on solving technical problems.” Engineering-focused cultures are powerful because they allow firms to grow quickly. “Think of how fast Facebook expanded,” said Baron. “When everyone comes from a similar background and mindset, you can rely on common social norms to keep everyone on the same path.
  3. Bureaucratic Culture
    In the bureaucratic model, cultures emerged through thick ranks of middle managers. Executives wrote extensive job descriptions, organizational charts, and employee handbooks. Everything was spelled out, and there were rituals, such as weekly all-hands meetings, that regularly communicated the firm’s values to its workers.
  4. Autocracies Culture
    An autocratic culture is similar, except that all the rules, job descriptions, and organizational charts ultimately point to the desires and goals of one person, usually the founder or CEO. “One autocratic chief executive told us that his cultural model was, ‘You work. You do what I say. You get paid,’ ” Baron said.
  5. Commitment Culture
    It was a throwback to an age when people happily worked for one company their entire life. “Commitment CEOs say things like, ‘I want to build the kind of company where people only leave when they retire or die,’ ” said Baron. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the company is stodgy, but it does imply a set of values that might prioritize slow and steady growth.” Some Silicon Valley executives told Baron they saw commitment firms as outdated, remnants of a corporate paternalism that had undermined industries such as American manufacturing. Commitment companies were more hesitant to lay people off. They often hired HR professionals when other start-ups were using precious dollars to recruit engineers or salespeople. “Commitment CEOs believe that getting the culture right is more important at first than designing the best product,” Baron said.

One of the reasons commitment cultures were successful, it seemed, was because a sense of trust emerged among workers, managers, and customers that enticed everyone to work harder and stick together through the setbacks that are inevitable in any industry. Most commitment companies avoided layoffs unless there was no other alternative. They invested heavily in training. There were higher levels of teamwork and psychological safety. Commitment companies might not have had lavish cafeterias, but they offered generous maternity leaves, daycare programs, and work-from-home options. These initiatives were not immediately cost-effective, but commitment firms valued making employees happy over quick profits—and as a result, workers tended to turn down higher-paying jobs at rival firms. And customers stayed loyal because they had relationships that stretched over years. Commitment firms dodged one of the business world’s biggest hidden costs: the profits that are lost when an employee takes clients or insights to a competitor.

Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decisionmaking authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success. A sense of control can fuel motivation, but for that drive to produce insights and innovations, people need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored, that their mistakes won’t be held against them. And they need to know that everyone else has their back.

The decentralization of decision making can make anyone into an expert—but if trust doesn’t exist, if employees at NUMMI don’t believe management is committed to them, if programmers at the FBI aren’t trusted to solve problems, if agents aren’t encouraged to follow a hunch without fear of admonishment, organizations lose access to the vast expertise we all carry within our heads. When people are allowed to stop the assembly line, redirect a huge software project, or follow an instinct, they take responsibility for making sure an enterprise will succeed.

Chapter 6 - Decision Making

It’s normal, of course, to want to know how things will turn out. It’s scary when we realize how much rides on choices where we can’t predict the future. Will my baby be born healthy or sick? Will my fiancée and I still love each other ten years from now? Does my kid need private school or will the local public school teach her just as much? Making good decisions relies on forecasting the future, but forecasting is an imprecise, often terrifying, science because it forces us to confront how much we don’t know. The paradox of learning how to make better decisions is that it requires developing a comfort with doubt.

There are ways, however, of learning to grapple with uncertainty. There are methods for making a vague future more foreseeable by calculating, with some precision, what you do and don’t know.

Contradictory futures can be combined into a single prediction. As this kind of logic gets more sophisticated, experts usually begin speaking about various outcomes as probability curves—graphs that show the distribution of potential futures.

This is probabilistic thinking. It is the ability to hold multiple, conflicting outcomes in your mind and estimate their relative likelihoods. “We’re not accustomed to thinking about multiple futures,” said Barbara Mellers, another GJP leader. “We only live in one reality, and so when we force ourselves to think about the future as numerous possibilities, it can be unsettling for some people because it forces us to think about things we hope won’t come true."

Learning to think probabilistically requires us to question our assumptions and live with uncertainty. To become better at predicting the future—at making good decisions—we need to know the difference between what we hope will happen and what is more and less likely to occur.

It doesn’t matter that this hand is uncertain. What matters is committing to odds that pay off in the long run.

“Most players are obsessed with finding the certainty on the table, and it colors their choices,” Annie’s brother told her. “Being a great player means embracing uncertainty. As long as you’re okay with uncertainty, you can make the odds work for you."

Even if we have very little data, we can still forecast the future by making assumptions and then skewing them based on what we observe about the world. For instance, suppose your brother said he’s meeting a friend for dinner. You might forecast there’s a 60 percent chance he’s going to meet a man, since most of your brother’s friends are male. Now, suppose your brother mentioned his dinner companion was a friend from work. You might want to change your forecast, since you know that most of his coworkers are female. Bayes’ rule can calculate the precise odds that your brother’s dinner date is female or male based on just one or two pieces of data and your assumptions. As more information comes in—his companion’s name is Pat, he or she loves adventure movies and fashion magazines—Bayes’ rule will refine the probabilities even more.
Humans can make these kinds of calculations without having to think about them very hard, and we tend to be surprisingly accurate. Most of us have never studied actuarial tables of life spans, but we know, based on experience, that it is relatively uncommon for toddlers to die and more typical for ninety-year-olds to pass away. Most of us don’t pay attention to box office statistics. But we are aware that there are a few movies each year that everyone sees, and a bunch of films that disappear from the theaters within a week or two. So we make assumptions about life spans and box office revenues based on our experiences, and our instincts become increasingly nuanced the more funerals or movies we attend. Humans are astoundingly good Bayesian predictors, even if we’re unaware of it.

So how do we get the right assumptions? By making sure we are exposed to a full spectrum of experiences. Our assumptions are based on what we’ve encountered in life, but our experiences often draw on biased samples. In particular, we are much more likely to pay attention to or remember successes and forget about failures. Many of us learn about the business world, for instance, by reading newspapers and magazines. We most frequently go to busy restaurants and see the most popular movies. The problem is that such experiences disproportionately expose us to success. Newspapers and magazines tend to devote more coverage to start-ups that were acquired for $1 billion, and less to the hundreds of similar companies that went bankrupt. We hardly notice the empty restaurants we pass on the way to our favorite, crowded pizza place. We become trained, in other words, to notice success and then, as a result, we predict successful outcomes too often because we’re relying on experiences and assumptions that are biased toward all the successes we’ve seen—rather than the failures we’ve overlooked.

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

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

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

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

How do we learn to make better decisions? In part, by training ourselves to think probabilistically. To do that, we must force ourselves to envision various futures—to hold contradictory scenarios in our minds simultaneously—and then expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of successes and failures to develop an intuition about which forecasts are more or less likely to come true.

We can develop this intuition by studying statistics, playing games like poker, thinking through life’s potential pitfalls and successes, or helping our kids work through their anxieties by writing them down and patiently calculating the odds. There are numerous ways to build a Bayesian instinct. Some of them are as simple as looking at our past choices and asking ourselves: Why was I so certain things would turn out one way? Why was I wrong?

Regardless of our methods, the goals are the same: to see the future as multiple possibilities rather than one predetermined outcome; to identify what you do and don’t know; to ask yourself, which choice gets you the best odds? Fortune-telling isn’t real. No one can predict tomorrow with absolute confidence. But the mistake some people make is trying to avoid making any predictions because their thirst for certainty is so strong and their fear of doubt too overwhelming.

Chapter 7 - Innovation

They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, 90 percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.
If you consider some of the biggest intellectual innovations of the past half century, you can see this dynamic at work. The field of behavioral economics, which has remade how companies and governments operate, emerged in the mid-1970s and ’80s when economists began applying long-held principles from psychology to economics, and asking questions like why perfectly sensible people bought lottery tickets. Or, to cite other juxtapositions of familiar ideas in novel ways, today’s Internet social networking companies grew when software programmers borrowed public health models that were originally developed to explain how viruses spread and applying them to how friends share updates. Physicians can now map complicated genetic sequences rapidly because researchers have transported the math of Bayes’ rule into laboratories examining how genes evolve.

By drawing on their own lives as creative fodder. We all have a natural instinct to overlook our emotions as creative material. But a key part of learning how to broker insights from one setting to another, to separate the real from the clichéd, is paying more attention to how things make us feel. “Creativity is just connecting things,” Apple cofounder Steve Jobs said in 1996. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” People become creative brokers, in other words, when they learn to pay attention to how things make them react and feel.

"Most people are too narrow in how they think about creativity,” Ed Catmull, the president of Disney Animation, told me. “So we spend a huge amount of time pushing people to go deeper, to look further inside themselves, to find something that’s real and can be magical when it’s put into the mouth of a character on a screen. We all carry the creative process inside us; we just need to be pushed to use it sometimes."

“This lesson isn’t limited to movies or Broadway. The Post-it note, for instance, was invented by a chemical engineer who, frustrated by bookmarks falling out of his church hymnal, decided to use a new adhesive to make them stay put. Cellophane was developed by an exasperated chemist looking for a way to protect tablecloths from wine spills. Infant formula was created, in part, by an exhausted father who suspended vegetable nutrients in powder so he could feed his crying child in the middle of the night. Those inventors looked to their own lives as the raw materials for innovation. “What’s notable is that, in each case, they were often in an emotional state. We’re more likely to recognize discoveries hidden in our own experiences when necessity pushes us, when panic or frustrations cause us to throw old ideas into new settings. Psychologists call this “creative desperation.” Not all creativity relies on panic, of course. But research by the cognitive psychologist Gary Klein indicates that roughly 20 percent of creative breakthroughs are preceded by an anxiety akin to the stress that accompanied Frozen’s development, or the pressures Robbins forced onto his West Side Story collaborators. Effective brokers aren’t cool and collected. They’re often worried and afraid.

Eventually, Connell began noticing something similar at the center of each pocket of biodiversity: There was often evidence that a large tree had fallen. Sometimes he would find a decaying trunk or a deep indentation in the soil. In other verdant pockets, he found charred remains underneath the topsoil, suggesting that a fire—perhaps caused by lightning—had blazed for a brief but intense period before the rain forest’s dampness had extinguished the flames.

These fallen trees and fires, Connell came to believe, played a crucial role in allowing species to emerge. Why? Because at some point, there had been a “gap in the forest where the trees had come down or had burned, and that gap was big enough to let sunlight in and allow other species to compete,” Connell told me. Retired now, he lives in Santa Barbara, but he remembers the details from those trips. “By the time I found some areas, years had passed since the fire or the tree fall, and so new trees had grown in their place and were blocking out the sun again,” he said. “But there had been a time when enough light had made it through that other species were able to claim some territory. There had been some disturbance that had given new plants a chance to compete.

It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance—like a tree fall or an occasional storm—that temporarily upset the natural environment. But the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. “Intermediate disturbances are critical,” Connell told me.

Within biology, this has become known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that “local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent.” There are other theories that explain diversification in different ways, but the intermediate disturbance hypothesis has become a staple of biology.

The idea is that every habitat is colonized by a variety of species, but over time one or a few tend to win out,” said Steve Palumbi, the director of Stanford’s marine station in Monterey, California. This is called “competitive exclusion.” If there are no disturbances to the environment, then the strongest species become so entrenched that nothing else can compete. Similarly, if there are massive, frequent disturbances, only the hardiest species grow back. But if there are intermediate disturbances, then numerous species bloom, and nature’s creative capacities flourish.

Human creativity, of course, is different from biological diversity. It’s an imprecise analogy to compare a falling tree in the Australian rain forest to a change in management at Disney. Let’s play with the comparison for a moment, though, because it offers a valuable lesson: When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper. So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.

Creativity can’t be reduced to a formula. At its core, it needs novelty, surprise, and other elements that cannot be planned in advance to seem fresh and new. There is no checklist that, if followed, delivers innovation on demand.
But the creative process is different. We can create the conditions that help creativity to flourish. We know, for example, that innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways. We know the odds of success go up when brokers—people with fresh, different perspectives, who have seen ideas in a variety of settings—draw on the diversity within their heads. We know that, sometimes, a little disturbance can help jolt us out of the ruts that even the most creative thinkers fall into, as long as those shake-ups are the right size.

If you want to become a broker and increase the productivity of your own creative process, there are three things that can help: First, be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you think and feel. That’s how we distinguish clichés from true insights. As Steve Jobs put it, the best designers are those who “have thought more about their experiences than other people.” Similarly, the Disney process asks filmmakers to look inward, to think about their own emotions and experiences until they find answers that make imaginary characters come alive. Jerry Robbins pushed his West Side Story collaborators to put their own aspirations and emotions on the stage. Look to your own life as creative fodder, and broker your own experiences into the wider world.

Second, recognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart. Rather, it’s the condition that helps make us flexible enough to seize something new. Creative desperation can be critical; anxiety is what often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. The path out of that turmoil is to look at what you know, to reinspect conventions you’ve seen work and try to apply them to fresh problems. The creative pain should be embraced.

Finally, remember that the relief accompanying a creative breakthrough, while sweet, can also blind us to seeing alternatives. It is critical to maintain some distance from what we create. Without self-criticism, without tension, one idea can quickly crowd out competitors. But we can regain that critical distance by forcing ourselves to critique what we’ve already done, by making ourselves look at it from a completely different perspective, by changing the power dynamics in the room or giving new authority to someone who didn’t have it before. Disturbances are essential, and we retain clear eyes by embracing destruction and upheaval, as long as we’re sensitive to making the disturbance the right size.

There’s an idea that runs through these three lessons: The creative process is, in fact, a process, something that can be broken down and explained. That’s important, because it means that anyone can become more creative; we can all become innovation brokers. We all have experiences and tools, disturbances and tensions that can make us into brokers—if, that is, we’re willing to embrace that desperation and upheaval and try to see our old ideas in new ways.

"Creativity is just problem solving,” Ed Catmull told me. “Once people see it as problem solving, it stops seeming like magic, because it’s not. Brokers are just people who pay more attention to what problems look like and how they’ve been solved before. People who are most creative are the ones who have learned that feeling scared is a good sign. We just have to learn how to trust ourselves enough to let the creativity out.

Chapter 6 - Absorbing Data

In our own lives, the same lesson applies: When we encounter new information and want to learn from it, we should force ourselves to do something with the data. It’s not enough for your bathroom scale to send daily updates to an app on your phone. If you want to lose weight, force yourself to plot those measurements on graph paper and you’ll be more likely to choose a salad over a hamburger at lunch. If you read a book filled with new ideas, force yourself to put it down and explain the concepts to someone sitting next to you and you’ll be more likely to apply them in your life. When you find a new piece of information, force yourself to engage with it, to use it in an experiment or describe it to a friend—and then you will start building the mental folders that are at the core of learning.

Every choice we make in life is an experiment. Every day offers fresh opportunities to find better decision-making frames. We live in a time when data is more plentiful, cheaper to analyze, and easier to translate into action than ever before. Smartphones, websites, digital databases, and apps put information at our fingertips. But it only becomes useful if we know how to make sense of it.