Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be the best?

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Eric Barker  -  

1) Realize it’s not about natural talent. It’s about hard work.

We all know intelligence is important, creativity is important… but how much do these types of natural talent control really what you can achieve in life?

In ~95% of cases, they don’t.

Via Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else.


2) 10,000 hours is not the whole story

As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his bestseller, “Outliers“, to become an expert it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years), right? Wrong. It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That means actively working to improve. Just showing up doesn’t cut it.

Most people may do something for 10,000 hours (driving a car over the course of a lifetime) but never get anywhere near expert level (Formula One). Most people plateau and some even get worse.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started… In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.


Occasionally people actually get worse with experience. More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.


3) Make your practice as close to the real thing as possible

Nothing beats really doing it.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

“One real encounter, even for a few seconds, is far more useful than several hundred observations.” Bjork cites psychologist Henry Roediger at Washington University of St. Louis, where students were divided into two groups to study a natural history text. Group A studied the paper for four sessions. Group B studied only once but was tested three times. A week later both groups were tested, and Group B scored 50 percent higher than Group A. They’d studied one-fourth as much yet learned far more.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

Practicing under the types of pressures you will face on the big testing day is one of the best ways to combat choking…


During the initial shooting practice, all of the officers missed more shots when firing at a live opponent compared with firing at the stationary cardboard targets. Not so surprising. This was true after training as well, but only for those officers whose practice had been limited to the cardboard cutouts. For those officers who practiced shooting at an opponent, after training they were just as good shots when aiming at the live individuals as they were when aiming at the stationary cutouts. The opportunity to “practice under the gun” of an opponent, so to speak, really helped to hone the police officers’ shots for more real-life stressful shooting situations.


4) Commit to the long term

Merely deciding you’re committed for the long-term vs the short-term makes an enormous difference.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

When McPherson saw the graph, he was stunned. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. Progress was determined not by any measurable aptitude or trait, but by a tiny, powerful idea the child had before even starting lessons. The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.


5) The best goal is merely to “get better”

When challenged, focus on “getting better” — not doing well or looking good. Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy.

Via Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur… The amazing thing was that the people who were pursuing get-better goals (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of our dirty tricks. No matter how hard we made it, these participants stayed motivated and did well.

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Which character in “The Breakfast Club” were you in high school? (It can predict who you’ll be as an adult.)

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Eric Barker  -  

Which character in “The Breakfast Club” did you resemble the most as a tenth grader? The answer often predicts adult personality:

In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. 

This is from a long, fascinating article in New York Magazine called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School.” It references a number of interesting social science studies showing how profoundly that time of life can shape you, damage you and predict who you will be. Some other highlights are below.

Height, weight and attractiveness during high school predict success as an adult better than those factors in general:

it wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16.) Eight years later, Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers, observed something similar about adults of a normal weight: They are far more likely to have higher self-esteem if they were a normal weight, rather than overweight or obese, in late adolescence (Carr was using sample data that tracked weight at age 21, but she notes that heavy 21-year-olds were also likely to be heavy in high school). Robert Crosnoe, a University of Texas sociologist, will be publishing a monograph with a colleague this year that shows attractiveness in high school has lingering effects, too, even fifteen years later. “It predicted a greater likelihood of marrying,” says Crosnoe, “better earning potential, better mental health.”

High school is a very recent phenomenon:

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage… In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescencepsychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

When asked, many popular kids didn’t see themselves as popular. Why? Because staying popular requires so much effort you never really feel you’ve achieved it:

“It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.

One of the reasons high school can be so painful to some is because few relationships are two-way:

In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings.

Why is it a liability to be smart in high school? Because it can be a social liability to be smart in life:

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” …Why is it that in most public high schools across America, a girl who plays the cello or a boy who plays in the marching band is a loser? And even more fundamentally: Why was it such a liability to be smart? The explanations tended to vary. But among the most striking was the one offered by Steinberg, who conjectured that high-school values aren’t all that different from adult values. Most adults don’t like cello or marching bands, either. Most Americans are suspicious of intellectuals. Cellists, trumpet players, and geeks may find their homes somewhere in the adult world, and even status and esteem. But only in places that draw their own kind.

And how good you are at navigating high school might predict how good you are at navigating life:

Thirty-five years later, the authors estimated, boys who ranked in the 80th percentile of popularity earned, on average, 10 percent more than those in the 20th… Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia just found that kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults. “Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation. “And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”

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People want to feel that they’re a part of something.

They want to feel a thing is theirs, that they contributed, and that they have some ownership of it.

These may seem like platitudes but research is showing just how important these feelings are to leadership, influence and motivation.

Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely discusses this in his book:  The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.

Years ago, Pillsbury noticed that their cake mixes had poor sales. They theorized the buyers didn’t feel the cakes were “theirs.” By removing a few of the ingredients and requiring users to do more, sales increased:

One theory was that the cake mixes simplified the process to such an extent that the women did not feel as though the cakes they made were “theirs.” At the time, a psychologist and marketing expert by the name of Ernest Dichter speculated that leaving out some of the ingredients and allowing women to add them to the mix might resolve the issue. This idea became known as the “egg theory.” Sure enough, once Pillsbury left out the dried eggs and required women to add fresh ones, along with milk and oil, to the mix, sales took off.

Dan Pink, author of To Sell is Human, discussed a very similar phenomenon in sales research when I interviewed him:

Basically, these two scholars, they started studying Hollywood pitching. They did a very exhaustive study. Basically what they found, which you know, I’m sure, from your screenwriting days, is that pitching isn’t about convincing somebody, pitching is essentially about inviting them in.

That’s essentially their view. That changed my view on it a little bit. I think pitching is like, “Are you with me?” and actually that’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is, “Here’s the pitch. What’s your contribution?” When the other side contributes, it actually builds something, and it’s usually a little bit better, but also the other side is more invested in it and so forth. The idea of pitching is to begin an engagement with somebody, not to necessarily convince them right there. Then I outlined the six successors to the elevator pitch which are all I think really interesting, backed by some of the social science.

What’s really interesting is, it doesn’t take much.

Just like adding eggs was enough to give a feeling of ownership over a cake, relatively minor adjustments like reordering words increased feelings of ownership and warmth toward ideas and solutions:

Via The Upside of Irrationality:

…we concluded that once we feel that we have created something, we feel an increased sense of ownership—and we begin to overvalue the usefulness and the importance of “our” ideas… Would the simple act of reordering the words to form the solution be enough to make people think the idea was theirs and consequently overvalue it? …even reordering the words was sufficient for our participants to feel ownership and like the ideas better than the ones given to them.

So how can you leverage this?

Lectures, rants, pitches and direct orders need to become conversations if you want the support of others.

Incorporating even their smallest contribution can help people feel a part of something and join your cause.

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What’s the most important question you should be asking?

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Eric Barker  -  


I don’t spend nearly enough time on Quora. There’s some great stuff there, including a crowdsourced list of thoughts on “What is the single most illuminating question I can ask someone?

Some of my favorites from the answer wiki:

  • “What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve learned along the way?”
  • “If you could call yourself five years ago and had 30 seconds, what would you say?”
  • What would you do with your time if you could afford to quit your job?
  • Someone gets a text message from you, and for whatever reason they’re not sure it’s actually you. They’re worried that someone may have stolen your phone. What could they ask to make sure it’s really you?
  • What is the craziest belief (the one that fewest educated people will agree with) that you hold?  Why do you believe it?

Questions have power that statements don’t.

The Socratic method really does help you learn. Rhetorical questions are more persuasive than statements. Hypothetical questions can be used to manipulate you.

What else can questions do?


Questions connect you with others

Researcher Arthur Aron (author of Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy) has shown that which questions you ask can dramatically affect whether you connect with someone and how deeply.

Via Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You:

Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is interested in how people form romantic relationships, and he’s come up with an ingenious way of taking men and women who have never met before and making them feel close to one another. Given that he has just an hour or so to create the intimacy levels that typically take weeks, months, or years to form, he accelerated the getting-to-know-you process through a set of thirty-six questions crafted to take the participants rapidly from level one in McAdams’s system to level two. 

But how effective can this be really? In under an hour it can create a connection stronger than a lifelong friendship.

Via Click: The Magic of Instant Connections:

What he found was striking. The intensity of the dialogue partners’ bond at the end of the forty-five-minute vulnerability interaction was rated as closer than the closest relationship in the lives of 30 percent of similar students. In other words, the instant connections were more powerful than many long-term, even lifelong relationships.

So what are some of the questions?

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

3. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

4. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

5. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

6. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

7. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?

8. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

9. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

10. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

 (More of Aron’s questions are here.)


Questions connect you with yourself

Saying positive statements is supposed to increase your self-esteem and confidence. “You can do it!”

But research is showing that asking yourself if you can do it might be an even better approach. Dan Pink explains in his book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

The researchers instructed the first group to ask themselves whether they would solve the puzzles — and the second group to tell themselves that they would solve the puzzles. On average, the self-questioning group solved nearly 50 percent more puzzles than the self-affirming group. 

Why does this work? Dan explained in my interview with him:

…before an encounter, get over that idea that you should say “You can do it,”… Instead, look at this research that I write about, about interrogative self-talk and instead ask yourself, “Can you do this?” When you ask yourself something, you respond actively, and in the active response are the strategies, tactics, the mechanisms for getting it done.

I had to do a big interview. I thought it through, but instead of saying on the morning of it, “You can do this,” I actually used this. I said, “Can you do this?” I said, “Can I do this? Well, yeah, because I find this stuff really interesting, and I researched the hell out of it, and I think I can talk well about any aspect of it.” “Can you do this?” “Well, I actually went and listened to previous interviews that this guy had done, and so I have a good sense of his style.” “Can you do this?” “Yeah, I have a good sense of what might be some of the tougher questions, and I have fairly good answers for those.” So what I’m doing is, I’m kind of rehearsing, and it’s much more muscular than simply going in there and saying “Oh, you’re awesome, Dan, you’re awesome, you’re just fantastic.” You know? I think that moving from “I can do it” to “Can I do this?” is really, really powerful. It’s a more muscular way of getting prepared for something. 

Questions are powerful. As Picasso once said:

Computers are useless. They only give you answers.

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What does it take to have a happy and meaningful life?

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Eric Barker  -  


Roy Baumeister (author of Willpower), Jennifer Aaker (author of the Dragonfly Effect), Kathleen Vohs and Emily Garbinsky have a new paper that explores the similarities and differences between happy and meaningful lives.

Here are some highlights from the research:

1) Happiness and meaningfulness are related, but distinct.

Happiness and meaningfulness were substantially and positively intercorrelated. As Table 1 shows, the correlations in the two surveys were .63 and .70. Thus, in this sample, being happy and regarding one’s life as meaningful are similar, related attitudes. 

2) Easy lives are happier and difficult lives are more sad. If anything, the trend seemed to be the opposite for meaningfulness. Being healthy and frequently feeling good were both connected to happiness but neither had any connection to meaning.

Finding one’s life to be relatively easy was linked to more happiness. Finding life difficult (a separate item) was linked to lower happiness. Neither variable correlated significantly with meaning, and in fact the trends were in the opposite direction for meaning as compared with happiness. Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness (consistent with the view that some people live highly meaningful but not very pleasant lives, perhaps because their meaningful activities require strenuous and unpleasant activities). Thus, finding one’s life easy or difficult is a matter of happiness and not of meaning. 

Good health is certainly a very basic and rather universal desire. How healthy people considered themselves to be was a positive contributor to happiness, but it was irrelevant to meaningfulness. Healthy and sick people can have equally meaningful lives, but the healthy people are happier than sick ones.

Good and bad feelings often arise from the satisfaction versus thwarting of desires. The more often people felt good, the happier they were. The more often they felt bad, the less happy they were. Neither was related to meaning. 

3) By and large, money had a big effect on happiness but had little effect on meaning.

Being able to buy the things one needs had a significant positive relationship to happiness but was irrelevant to meaning. Another item that asked about being able to buy the things one wants (as opposed to needs) yielded quite similar results. Scarcity of money reduced both meaningfulness and happiness, but the effect was considerably larger on happiness than meaningfulness. In terms of variance accounted for, monetary scarcity was twenty times more detrimental to happiness (5%) than to meaning (0.25%). Overall, then, having sufficient money to purchase objects of desire (both necessities and luxuries) was important for happiness but made little difference as to whether life was meaningful. 

4) Thinking about the present was connected to happiness. The more people thought about the past and the future, the more meaningful their lives were — but less happy.

Meaning links experiences and events across time, whereas happiness is mostly in the moment and therefore largely independent of other moments.

The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. Table 2 reports the effects. The effects were roughly similar for thinking about the future and the past, and these items individually significantly related to happiness (the more thinking, the less happiness) but had marginal trends toward positive relations to meaning. Another item revealed that the more people reported imagining the future, the more meaningful their lives were, but the less happy. Thus, thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.

In contrast, the more time people reported thinking about the present, the happier they were, although this was weak and only marginally significant at p=.07. (The results might be weakened because many unpleasant events force an acute awareness of the present, thereby diluting the statistical effect linking happiness to focusing on the present.) Thinking about the present was irrelevant to meaningfulness. Thus, whereas meaning is found in connecting to past and future, happiness may be mainly in the present. 

5) Time spent with other people was connected to both happiness and meaningfulness. Time spent with loved ones was important to meaning but irrelevant to happiness.

Feeling connected to others was linked independently to both, as was thinking that others feel connected to oneself. Recalling hours spent alone, and predicting future hours spent alone, had significant negative correlations with both happiness and meaningfulness. Frequency of spending time with friends was positively related to happiness and fell just short of a positive correlation with meaning. Percent time spent with loved people was significant with meaning, but surprisingly irrelevant to happiness, possibly because loved ones can be difficult at times. People with more meaningful lives also agreed that “relationships are more important than achievements,” and that item was unrelated to happiness, though it was in the same positive direction and therefore the item did not meet our criteria for inclusion. 

6) Happy people are takers, people with meaning are givers.

Being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, while being a taker was negatively related to it. Meaning is thus about being a giver rather than a taker. With happiness, the correlation trends were in the opposite direction. Although neither correlation with happiness was significant, their difference was, Z=.350, p<.001. Thus, takers may well be happier than givers. In any case, the clear and strong finding is that givers have more meaningful lives than takers.

…Thus, if anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need. But in everyday life, helping others makes the helper’s life meaningful and thereby increases happiness.

7) Are you a worrier? It’s linked to lower happiness — but higher meaning.

Consistent with intuitions, more worrying was linked to lower happiness. However, perhaps surprisingly, greater frequency of worrying was associated with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives. Again, we think this indicates that worrying comes from involvement and engagement with important activities that go beyond the self, and beyond the present (worry is ineluctably future-oriented) and so worrying may often be an unavoidable part of a meaningful life, even though it detracts from happiness.

8) Want a quick summary?

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.

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