The first chapter of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath (link to my review) tells the story of Jerry Sternin, who came to Vietnam in the 1999 with a big mission and a small budget. Sternin had the task of fighting child malnutrition in poor villages, without government support and only limited resources of his own.
Most of us can relate to feelings of despair that come up in overwhelming situations. The goal seems impossible and the trip hopeless, so why bother at all? It’s easy to just give up.
Sternin took a different path. He went out to the villages and looked for cases where the children weren’t starving, and then copied that solution. Within a year, while the problem wasn’t solved, there were measurable, and almost unbelievable, improvements. Because Sternin focused on what was working, rather than everything that was wrong and in his way, he got results.
The Heath brothers used Sternin’s story as an example of finding the bright spots. When you’re looking for a solution, you don’t focus on all the facts that, no matter how correct, don’t help you solve the problem. You look at what is working and you copy it.
The human mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re wired to focus excessively on the downsides and drawbacks and to ignore the positives. We make up our minds unconsciously and then rationalize our decisions after the fact — what’s called motivated reasoning.
There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions.
You want to be right, and being right means everyone else must be wrong, or stupid, or your choice of derogatory term. Your brain then makes that happen and convinces you that you’re being objective and reasonable.
When faced with a large and challenging problem, whether a project at work or trying to stick to a diet, it’s easy focus unduly on how hard it will be, on all the drawbacks, potential risks, and all the reasons why trying to pull off this forsaken scheme from HP Lovecraft’s imagination is a bad idea.
This is where perfectionism originates.
You can quote facts all day long. In human decision-making, facts are largely irrelevant. We’re so inherently biased that we will give less weight to facts that disagree with us, to the point of ignoring or outright dismissing them. Meanwhile, the facts that agree with us are elevated far beyond their relevance.
Chris Mooney recently wrote an excellent piece titled The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science, which covers the power of cognitive biases and motivated reasoning. This article is well worth the read for a summary of the field as it stands. We see that humans are not pure rational beings, but instead engines of rationalization who create fictional narratives based on a loose approximation of the real world.
Believing that a project will be difficult to the point of impossible means that you’re quite likely correct. Facts alone can’t change that. As much as we love to immerse ourselves in the concrete world of science and reductionist materialism, as much as we want to base our actions on research, this information is largely worthless when it comes to getting things done.
Perhaps most insidious, even a research-informed viewpoint is subject to potentially immense biases — the educated and informed are not exempt from the slimy tendrils of motivated reasoning. Consider that next time you’re evaluating an allegedly informed source. Not adhering to your arrived-at set of beliefs doesn’t make a person stupid or ignorant. It makes them human.
And if you want to persuade human beings, your best bet is not to put them on the defensive or bombard those people with endless series of useless factoids. Jerry Sternin referred to info-dumping as facts which were True But Useless — information which is technically true and probably correct from a factual standpoint, and entirely useless for generating solutions.
At this point I stop, review my older writing, and cringe. How much time did I spend on True But Useless information? I hardly want to think about it.
We’re supposed to focus on solutions. Pontificating over useless truths and acting obnoxiously pedantic over every last piece of trivia is not productive. As the Heath brothers said, find the bright spots and ignore the rest.
Find what works, take away what you can use, and don’t worry about anything else.
Consider my recent review of the paper on light-load constant tension training, and some of the skeptical responses this paper generates. Every criticism in the world can be leveled at this paper. They didn’t use a mid-range group to test between the extremes of heavy and light loads (this wasn’t the point of the paper). They didn’t control for the results. There’s always something wrong with a paper if it disagrees with your previously established viewpoint. Everybody has a motive.
But that’s not helpful. That doesn’t provide a solution.
Find the bright spot. What’s bright about this paper? It shows us that there is a physiological mechanism to explain how light, constant-tension ‘pump’ training can build muscle. It doesn’t say ‘drop all heavy work and do nothing but light training’. It says ‘here’s how light training might work’. It says ‘maybe this is why bodybuilding methods using light isolation exercises build muscle’.
The subtext is that things we observe happening in the Real World can be explained. The research provides an explanation for why it works. The paper isn’t perfect — so what? What benefit do I get from pointing out that there are largely irrelevant flaws in research methods? Does that help me achieve what I want from the gym?
Sitting on forums and deconstructing the fine trivia of workouts or research studies or diets I don’t like isn’t a productive use of time. Caving in to the petty nitpicking urges of motivated reasoning is not useful.
Over the last few years I’ve become more and more frustrated with nitpicking and obsession with True But Useless details. This mindset becomes negativity for negativity’s sake, whether for ego-building or arguing for the sake of arguing. Either way, nothing useful comes out of it.
I’d rather focus on what works, find the bright spots, and take away those things that help me.