Pressure vs. Performance, Thinking Differently, & More
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Today at a Glance
- Quote: Create your own stories.
- Framework: Pressure and performance.
- Tweet: Thinking outside the box.
- Article: Falling back in love with reading.
- Podcast: Making great decisions.
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The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.
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How to customize formatting for each rich text
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"Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth." - Rumi
The world is filled with those who read, but never do.
Always maintain a bias for action. Create your own adventure.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a simple model of the relationship between performance and stress.
It was created in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, who formulated their conclusions on the basis of the study of Japanese dancing mice.
In simple terms, the Yerkes-Dodson Law says that stress and performance are positively correlated, but only up to a certain point, after which more stress reduces performance.
Anecdotally, this probably checks out for most people:
- We like to procrastinate a bit on big projects or tasks. The pressure of the approaching deadline gets us into a focused state that pushes us through to the finish. If we procrastinate too much on that same project or task, the pressure becomes overwhelming and our performance starts to suffer as the deadline rapidly approaches.
- We perform better in the game than during the practice. The bit of added stress—from the bright lights of the arena—elevates our performance. But if the situation gets too pressure-filled, we may start to crumble.
There are effectively three states to be aware of:
- Low Stress: This is a state of low arousal. This state is necessary for recovery, but it is generally not conducive to performance. Working on important tasks while in this state is not ideal.
- Optimal Stress: This is the optimal state of arousal. It's the "Goldilocks" level—not too hot, not too cold, just right. When you're in this state, you are well-positioned to work on important tasks.
- High Stress: This is a state of high arousal. This is typically where we see a biological fight-or-flight response kick in. It may lead to a complete shutdown from system overload. Working on important tasks while in this state is not ideal.
As you think about optimizing your own performance, mapping your curve is an important first step.
For a week, log your levels of stress while completing various activities through an average day, and then log your relative performance on these activities. Look for trends in activities, stress levels, and performance outcomes. Create a mental map of your curve—develop an awareness of where you are on the curve at any point in time.
When working on important tasks, leverage this newfound awareness to spend more time in an optimal stress state and less time in a low or high stress state.
Importantly, while the three general states are the same for everyone, the absolute levels of stress that place you into a given state can be very different.
Lewis Hamilton is probably capable of performing at an optimal level under much higher relative stress than an average knowledge worker.
There are countless examples of athletes who seem to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments—Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods come to mind.
There are certainly genetic factors at play, but you can also train yourself to handle and manage stress more efficiently.
Place yourself into controlled stressful environments and work on managing your mental and physical faculties.
Example: Get into a cold shower or ice bath and see if you can focus and perform a mental task (simple math, reciting a poem, etc.) for a fixed period of time.
This type of training may flatten the right side of your curve—i.e. slow the decay in your performance at higher stress levels—thereby enabling you to perform in a wider variety of situations.
Learning to manage stress is the first step.
Learning to wield it as a weapon in your personal arsenal is the next step.
Note: I am thinking of doing a deeper dive on stress, performance, and strategies for effective stress management in a future piece. Reply "Yes" if you'd like to see this!
This is a really neat thread on a 2009 Stanford business school project.
Each student team was given $5 and told to generate the highest return possible on that $5 investment within 2 hours. They would each give a presentation on their approach at the end of the time.
The teams approached it as follows:
- Team 1: Used the $5 to buy some stuff at a store and then tried to flip it for more than they bought it for. Modest ROI.
- Team 2: Set the $5 to aside. They made and sold reservations at a fancy restaurant to help people skip the line. Solid ROI.
- Team 3: Realized the presentation time at the end would be valuable to someone. Sold ad space in their presentation to a local company. Incredible ROI.
This is such an interesting story because it shows the merits of first principles thinking when faced with a problem.
- Team 1 was so tied to using the $5 that they had been given. They were handcuffed by it.
- Team 2 stripped away this flawed assumption, which allowed them to generate a much better return, but they still failed to think about the fundamental underlying value of the situation.
- Team 3 thought from first principles. What is the most valuable asset in this situation? They slowed down and approached the problem from a position of much higher leverage.
Key Lesson: Non-linear outcomes are only made possible by creative, non-linear thinking.
This thread sparked me to start writing a deep dive on first principles thinking and leveraging Socratic questioning to unlock it. Stay tuned!
I loved reading when I was a kid. I would find a quiet spot and get completely lost in a book (especially SciFi or fantasy novels). But somewhere along the way, the mandatory reading lists of my school years sapped my love. I'm sure a lot of you had the same experience.
Fortunately, I reclaimed my lost love in my mid-late 20s and haven't looked back. This article has some great advice on reclaiming your love of reading.
A few of my key takeaways:
- Read What You Love: Stop worrying about what you are reading and focus on the act of reading. There's a tendency to put pressure on yourself to read "useful" or "improving" books when you're an adult. Let that go. I've learned more about investing from reading Sci-Fi novels than I have from reading any book on investing. Read what you enjoy!
- Quit More Books: I used to have an dogmatic obsession with finishing every book I started. I would get 20 pages into something, absolutely hate it, and then force myself to slowly, painfully work through it. That is just silly. If something doesn't grab you, stop reading it and move on to something that does!
- Read to Live: People who read seem to live longer! The article cites some research that people who read for a few hours a week live longer than those who don't. Maybe there are other factors at play, but the consistent cognitive load will certainly keep your mind nimble for the long run.
- End the Vanity Game: The numbers of books read became a weird adult vanity metric in recent years. I was a primary culprit—I used to humble brag about the number of books I read per year. Don't do this. It's much more impressive to read one book and be deeply changed by it than to read 50 books on 5x speed and never feel a thing.
I have a specific set of practices around reading non-fiction that I'd be happy to share in a future post. If you're interested in learning about how I read and retain information, reply "Yes" to this email.
The Knowledge Project: Insights For Making Better Decisions
Great discussion with psychologist Gary Klein, who has spent his career studying decision making and deconstructing why people make the (good and bad) decisions that they do.
A few actionable insights I took away from the episode:
- Create a Decision Journal: This is a neat idea to create a simple journal where you log the salient information around an important decision at the time of making it. You'd write down things like the situation, problem, key variables, alternatives considered, range of outcomes, probabilities of each outcome, and costs of being wrong. You then come back to it in ~3-6 months and do a post-mortem on the decision that was made. It struck me as an interesting way to level-up the thoughtfulness of your big decisions and improve over time with the reviews. I'll probably start trying this. If you'd like to see a piece on my process in the future, reply "Yes" to this email!
- Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Idea of helping people build expertise and become adaptive by preventing them from locking in to routines or "standard" ways of doing things. I think about this a lot in the context of my own learning or physical training regimen. You have to train your body and mind in different ways in order to continue to stimulate growth.
- Pre-Mortems: I love conducting "pre-mortems" on big decisions. I view it as a part of leveraging inversion in my day-to-day life. If this project were to completely fail, what went wrong? What were the key misses along the way? How can we mitigate those risks? This is also one of my favorite questions to ask founders before I invest. If you fail spectacularly, what happened?
Worth a listen for anyone trying to level up their decision making capabilities.