I set a goal to do the splits this year.
I've never done the splits. I'm not even close. Here's my laughable starting photo.
And yet the goal doesn't really matter.
What matters is my mental model of how I, Diana, learn to do new things. Sometimes impossible seeming things. And my real goal is to learn the flaws in this model and update it using the splits as my vehicle.
Goals are nothing more than wishes.
And even if you have a plan for accomplishing your goal, that's not as strong as having a mental model for how you as a person generally achieve goals.
This Goals Achievement Mental Model would include answers to the following questions:
My goal is not just to achieve new things each year, it's to refine my philosophy about how I achieve things. Tweaking my mental model each year gives me a clear roadmap to follow, making it easier to stay on track and avoid getting sidetracked or discouraged. And it helps me spend my time better. I'm dedicating 15 minutes a day to doing the splits. That's a very big return on a minimal output.
So while the goal itself may be important, your personal methodology of how you accomplish goals or resolutions is a lot more valuable to your long term growth. If you can upgrade your mental model for achieving goals each year, you'll find that your growth becomes exponential.
Don't get me wrong, I do want to hear about your New Year's Resolutions! It's fun to go for big things! It's just that the goal itself doesn't interest me nearly as much as your mental model to get there.
Many of our daily actions are habitual, meaning they are performed automatically and without conscious thought. It's a useful way for us to save mental energy and streamline tasks that are performed frequently.
These automatic actions are often based on our mental models, which are the assumptions, beliefs, and frameworks that we use to make sense of the world around us. They are like little formulas about how we believe things are supposed to work.
Here's a simple example:
Except this mental model is actually incorrect. Salt doesn't make your water boil any faster (unless your pot is filled with 20% salt). If you want your water to boil faster, it would be smarter to just start with hot water.
And we have tens of thousands of these theories, big and small, secretly governing many of our actions. Here are just some of the categories they fall into:
But we haven't spent much time articulating exactly what our philosophies are in these areas. We're just mindlessly acting based on these hidden rules.
When I was in high school, one of my health mental models (thanks to some brilliant commercials) was that the key to being physically fit was drinking as much milk as possible. Do you remember those, "Milk, It Does a Body Good" commercials? They were very effective.
And when I didn't make the team because I was frothing at the mouth during tryouts (this is what happens when you drink nothing but milk for two days and then engage in aerobic activity!), I didn't question the mental model. I blamed the coaches for having too much running and not enough shooting drills during tryouts. I also declared that I just wasn't a runner. But I held onto that milk philosophy for a decade until I started proactively learning about health and fitness.
We protect these assumptions by never questioning them. Where did they come from? Are they working for us? Do they need updating?
And yet our mental models determine how strategic we are in our actions. If our philosophies are accurate and helpful, they can guide us toward big wins. On the other hand, if our mental models are flawed or limited, they can lead us down the wrong path and prevent us from achieving our goals.
Or, in the words of Charlie Munger, "You get further in life by avoiding repeated stupidity than you do by striving for maximum intelligence."
Method 1: Updating our questions
1. When you ask a question that you ask often, reflect on whether you’re getting the kind of response that you’re hoping for.
Ex: You ask your kid after school how their day was. They say "Fine." You try again. You ask them, "What was the best part?" or "What did they learn?" They don't remember. It feels like a very unsuccessful interrogation. These questions and the mental models that make you think they should be working aren't serving you.
2. Try some other questions instead to see if you get a better response. Ask others about what questions they use to accomplish the same goals.
One question that has worked well for me is: "How was your day on a scale of 1 to 10?"
Method 2. Mental Model reflection
1. Identify an area of your life that you would like to grow or improve. (It's not too late for New Year's resolutions!)
2. Make a list of all the mental models you currently have about that subject and see which ones might need to be updated or might not be serving you.
3. Seek out new perspectives on these philosophies. Consider asking for feedback from others.
4. Update one mental model at a time and come up with a way to test the new approach.
Method 3. Inspiration
1. Find a source of inspiration that regularly challenges your existing mental models. My monthly newsletter attempts to do just that. Ask This Not That is a monthly dose of question makeover – in which I take one common question and offering an alternative that could help you get much better results.
2. Join a group of people who like to talk about this topic. There are strategic thinking groups on both LinkedIn and Facebook.
Whatever method you choose, understand that the quality of your strategic thinking is determined by the life philosophies swimming around in your head. Identifying and upgrading these mental models can help you make better decisions, solve problems faster, and identify big opportunities.
The big idea:
It’s a tiny book with some powerful principles on how to create the right philosophy to be successful. It's not just for sales people. The principles this book teaches could be applied by anyone.
Og Mandino published the Greatest Salesman in the World, in 1968 at the age of 45. It was his first book. It was also his most successful book. In all, Og has sold more than 50 Million copies of his 19 books!
During WWII, Og was a bombardier, flying 30 missions over Germany. After the military, he became an insurance salesman, but he just couldn't get his life together. He became estranged from his wife and young child, developed a drinking problem, and was contemplating suicide, when he went to a library and started reading self-help books. The one he credits with changing his life is Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill and Clement Stone (I've put it on the list to review). He was so moved by the book that he took a job with Clement Stone's sales organization working his way up and breaking sales records.
Fun fact: actor Matthew McConaughey says the book changed his life. He started reading it right before taking exams to go to law school and says that it gave him the courage to pursue acting.
The book is a parable about a young man named Hafid in in Biblical times. Hafid gets his hands on 10 Scrolls that hold the secret to becoming successful. You're supposed to read each scroll 3 times a day, morning, noon and night for a month straight before you move onto the next. So, in theory, the book should take you 10 months to read.
Top 3 Takeaways:
When I want to read it with True:
I cannot wait to read this book with True. I've already told him about it. I think it would be best in the 11th grade. That's my current plan.
I love this little book.
I will say, that in the final two chapters, it takes a hard left turn towards Christianity. And that’s either going to be bonus content for you, or you can ignore it, it doesn't negate any of the books value. Just know that it's coming, and it will be less jarring.
It's a book I want to keep close by so that I can review it again and again.
For the past 60 years the financial services industry has been booming. Since 1980, year over year growth rates tripled and large entities flourished as smaller competitors crumbled. With low interest rates and new regulations, banks grew quickly as the rest of the marketplace piggybacked off their success. Savvy and risk-averse business men and women flocked to the industry; a career in financial services seemed like a safe bet.
Such a prolonged period of success is both a blessing and a curse. What made the financial services sector soar has also been responsible for nearly crippling it and taking our economy with it.
By succeeding for so many years – practically a lifetime in the business world – financial service firms remained virtually untouched while other industries were being disrupted. This made them dangerously comfortable. The strategies that once promoted growth stopped working in the same ways in today’s hyper competitive economy.
Ignoring changing tech and forgoing innovation for “guaranteed profits,” created the ideal environment for disruption.
In stark contrast to large, collateral backed loans, today’s financial innovators focus on small and specialized services like micro-loans, peer to peer lending, and small business lines of credit. The walls that once separated consumers from their finances gave way as startups like Square, Stripe, Coin, and Dwalla eliminate fees while providing new value.
Even business we typically wouldn’t consider part of financial services got into the game and expanded the field of competitors. Home Depot now offers loans for home remodeling projects. Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A created an app to speed-up payments and create financial loyalty. Walmart, Google, Apple Pay, Paypal are now viable forms of currency. The threats are ever increasing, and the financial services industry isn’t prepared to innovate and adapt.
While it's not fair to blame success for the impending doom, it is important to address the traps of reaching expert status. Yes, being really good at something, being an expert, can be what stifles innovation.
Enter: The Expert Traps. The silent and unseen killers of creativity and creation. When we feel like experts at what we do, the following traps await us:
Trap #1: We Stop Trying to Learn and Improve
Confidence in your skills is important. We’d all like our bankers, lawyers, and employers to be good at what they do. It’s a valid and honorable trait. However, when confidence grows without limits and exceeds its true skill, we lose the incentive to improve.
And this is what suffocated innovation in the financial industry. Big banks and firms were killing it (as in, they were raking in the profits). They were the best of the best; taking the time to reassess their offering would have only distracted them from continuing to win. Or so they thought.
This dangerous confidence convinces experts that it isn’t necessary to test and question the status quo. Hubris whispers “You know what you’re doing. You’ve got the track record to prove it.” While the beginner or the novice looks for opportunities to improve, the expert believes they will always be the best of the best, even as their stock prices plummet. This is one of the reasons they never saw the 2008 collapse coming.
Trap #2: We Don’t Examine Our Successes
Looking backward is a no-brainer when we lose. We can learn from our mistakes. Being a loser incentivizes us to examine what went wrong. But when we win, the opposite happens. Why look back when the future's so bright? By assuming the win was a result of perfect strategy and execution, you could ignore big opportunities to improve.
Winning is awesome. You will never find me happy with a loss. However, constant improvement and innovation demand we approach both losses and successes as a beginner. And a beginner never stops reflecting. If a beginner receives unexpected praise from a superior, the novice will ask, “What did I do and how can I do it again?”
So hold your head up high. Things are going well! Now turn around and take a hard look at how you got there. Can you repeat it? Was it luck? And most importantly, what could you have done better? Ask the hard questions and live to succeed another day.
Trap #3: We Play it Safe
Ah, to be the best of the best. It feels great to be at the top. So great, in fact, you’d rather not look down. Falling from such heights could be deadly.
For many in the financial industry, reaching the top triggered the instinct to survive. How can we avoid falling? What can we do to stay absolutely still and not compromise our position? Delaying or completely avoiding action feels like the safer option when you’ve fought so hard to get there.
But a beginner has nothing to lose. The beginner defaults to action, to responsible experimentation and seeing what happens. For the beginner, the opportunity to learn something new is more motivating than potentially making a mess. Failure is inevitable for a beginner, so why not try?
This doesn’t mean beginners experiment with reckless abandon, the goal is success after all. Beginners forgo guaranteed success in favor of growing their abilities. Experts hunker down and hold their position, even if it means ignoring an oncoming catastrophe.
Understanding the traps is a great first step. But it’s not enough. Research on cognitive biases shows that being aware of biases/expert traps doesn't do much to reduce their effects. All of the above traps happen subconsciously. Trying to “watch out” for the traps is just as difficult as “watching out” for how you’re breathing while you sleep.
The only way to control for the traps of success and expertise is to implement guardrails to keep your work on the right path. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Look for Negative Evidence
When you’re making a decision or choosing a strategic direction, assign someone to challenge your bias for a particular direction. The military calls them red teams, some in business call them a devil's advocate, and I call them provocateurs. Either way, find an individual or team of outsiders who have no vested interest in your project. They care enough to help, but not enough that they will be affected by the outcome. These individuals are in the best position to open your eyes to blind spots.
2. Retrospectives to Examine Success and Failure
Schedule a meeting at least once a year to look back at your project or company and examine the processes and results. Retrospectives create a structure for reflection, learning, and planning. No matter how well things are going, A Retrospective shows you how to correct glaring strategic mistakes that are invisible when you’re executing on day-to-day activities. I’ve used this process countless times and if you’re not sure where to start, you can use my 20+ page guide to running a successful Retrospective here.
The most innovative companies are only so because of constant experiments. Experiments to see if they can improve things that are already working well. Experiment to find solutions to pervasive problems. Experimentation increases the velocity of decision making. It helps kill or change projects that aren’t working and lowers the cost of finding solutions. The best experiments use the scientific method, and if you’re not sure how to set up your next test, check out my template here.
Complacency is the enemy of innovation. The more comfortable you are, the less you work to improve and create new value. And complacency always takes its toll. As the pace picks up, the expert falls behind. Only those focussed on constant growth and improvement, even in good times, will be the ones to achieve sustained success.
Adopt the mindset of a beginner, build your retrospective strategy, and never stop fighting to improve. If you never settle, you will never peak! Let’s make the financial services industry boom for another 60, shall we?