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KF #12. Decision Quality Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

728: Uncovering the Hidden Elements that Influence Decisions with Eric Johnson

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Eric Johnson says: "You are a choice architect. You are a designer. You make the decisions whenever you present somebody with a choice."

Professor Eric Johnson shares compelling research revealing the tiny factors that have a huge impact on what we (and others!) end up choosing.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How changing order drastically changes what we choose 
  2. The key to minimizing indecision
  3. The biggest decision-making mistake people make 

About Eric

Eric J. Johnson is the Norman Eig Professor of Business and the director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School. He has been the president of both the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and the Society for Neuroeconomics. He lives in New York City. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Eric Johnson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Eric, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Eric Johnson
Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom when it comes to decision-making. It’s one of my favorite topics. We’ve had luminaries like Annie Duke and others on the show, so excited to get into your perspective. But I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing a particularly tricky decision that you’ve had to make in life and kind what was hard about it and how did you, ultimately, come to that decision?

Eric Johnson
So, one of the things that was most devastating in my life was actually a diagnosis of stage 4 Hodgkin’s. Now, granted, that’s a buzzkill to kick this off, but one of the things that got me thinking about is how people make such serious decisions about treatment, and the way that people actually pose those options to people, changes what they choose. And I became madly obsessed with the literature, and that sort of kicked me off, a lot of my interests in choice architecture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, that’s fascinating right there. So, life or death, high-stakes decisions, you would think, unlike software where you have like a bold, blue, highlighted choice of the two, which is nudging you that way, that people might be a little bit more robust in working through this. But can you expand upon that? Like, how might presenting the options lead people to choose one treatment or approach more or less often than another?

Eric Johnson
So, my experience is interesting but there’s actually a nice study that makes the point even better, and that is they were looking at, actually, patients who were at the end of their life. For some reason, this is going to be a depressing day today but I’ll try it not to be. And they gave them the choice of two different kinds of end-of-life care, “Just pre-check one box or the other. One is called comfort care. The other is called, essentially, extreme care. We’ll do everything we can to keep you alive and the other case, we’ll just take care of your pain.” And there was a 30% difference between people’s choices.

And the question is “Why is that the case?” It’s because that’s not something we’ve thought a lot about. So, you might think an important decision is something where it doesn’t matter how you ask the question. Well, this is an important decision we don’t get to make very often. Hopefully, almost never. And so, lots of the decisions we make in life are things where we don’t have a clear preference, and that’s one of them, but some of them are pretty common.

Like, “What are you going to eat in a restaurant?” You may have a rough idea, “I don’t like liver,” but there are a lot of options out there. You’re trying to predict what you’re going to like in a half hour when you’ve actually finished the meal.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, yeah, that’s powerful and, in some ways, and I guess the why behind it being a number of things, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, I guess this is what’s checked, that’s what most people do. I guess this is the standard or recommended go-to option if it’s the one that’s checked.” Or, maybe it’s like, “This decision is so overwhelming and intimidating that it’s kind of a relief that something has been sort of been checked for me, so I’m just going to roll with it.” We’re speculating here but what do you think is behind that?

Eric Johnson
So, you got two of the three things, I think, happens. One is basically it’s easier to take the default – ease. Second thing is endorsement. It’s as if the person who designed the menu, chose something for you so that must be the best thing. But there’s something that’s a lot more fundamental, which is we actually think about things differently depending upon how they’re framed.

So, there’s a great study I love, which actually gives people the choice between 70% lean hamburger or 30% fat hamburger. Now, you’re smart, your audience is smart, you realize that’s the same thing. But, yet, people, when they have the word fat as a description, think about the hamburger differently. They think about clogging their arteries. They think about it being juicy. When it’s lean, they think about protein and muscle mass. It’s actually as if they’re eating two different things even though the label is the only thing that differs.

When you ask about how much they’ll pay, they pay different amounts. Or, you ask people how good the burgers taste, they rate it differently. So, that study shows that when we’re in these situations, what I call assembled preferences, it’s actually the label that changes what we think.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. And so, the 70% lean won on all the dimensions of measurement.

Eric Johnson
Except unless you like a really juicy burger.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Okay. Well, so that’s one big surprise right there in terms of just the way things are presented to us changes how we think about them, and, thus, what we select even if it’s high stakes. Any other really big surprises or discoveries you’ve made over your lifetime of work in this domain?

Eric Johnson
So, that first thing is called a default. I want to give it a name so we have a handy name. It’s not default like going broke. It’s like default in what happens when we don’t take an action. A second thing that surprised me, actually, as I was writing the book, is the effect of order. What you see first can be more attractive. This is why you go down to a supermarket, people actually pay to be in different positions of the aisle so you’ll see them. So, something at eye level is actually, typically, gets more attention and is seen first. So, it turns out when you look at the many studies that have been done, effective order is surprisingly large.

Pete Mockaitis
And first is where you want to be if you want to be chosen. Is that right?

Eric Johnson
Well, almost most of the time, particularly if it’s a place where the decision-maker is in control. So, they look at first, they look at second, and then they stop. So, on lots of websites, for example, people only will look at one or two options, click on them to look at them more carefully. But let me give you the counter example. Imagine, instead, we’re going back to the same restaurant we had the menu at before, but now the waiter, it’s a fancy place, is reading you the menu. Now, are you going to pick the first or what else is going on there?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so funny, that happened to me a few times, whatever that says about my dining choices, but I remember I feel like a little bit nervous, like, “Okay. All right. I really got to strap in, listen, pay a lot of attention.” And I’m thinking, I don’t know if this is what most people do, but like, “Okay, I got to think. I’ve got to give something, a judgment of like thumbs up or thumbs down.” Like, “You’re a finalist or you’re out,” like right away, or else I just can’t even process seven options given to me verbally.

So, I’m like, “Okay, don’t even need to think about that one. Okay, don’t even need to think about…oh, maybe. Prime rib. Interesting. Remember that one.” And so, I’m trying to hold finalists in my head, and then I usually have to ask them and repeat something, like, “What was the third one again?”

Eric Johnson
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s me but I might be an anomaly.

Eric Johnson
But you’ve gotten a great intuition for it. Because what happens, of course, is what’s the one that’s not going to be clobbered by the next one? The last one. And it turns out, in those situations, where the decision-maker is losing control, last has a big advantage. One of my favorite studies of this is, you may or may not have seen it, but there’s a famous song contest that’s been held for over 50 years in Europe called the Eurovision Song Contest.

And it turns out, people have done studies, last has a big advantage there because people remember it. Memory is really important in both cases, but, yeah, between the head, “Who knows what Estonia…” I’m sorry, any Estonian listeners, “But who knows what Estonia did in the second song?” You remember who was the last. So, order, to go back to your question, is surprisingly important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, it sounds like we’ve, maybe, potentially mentioned this, but just to make it explicit, can you give us what is the big idea, core thesis, behind your book The Elements of Choice? It sounds like we’re hitting it. There are things like this that are impacting our choices. Or, how would you articulate the main idea?

Eric Johnson
So, there are two main ideas. The first one is how questions are posed make a difference. But the second one that’s probably most relevant to your listeners is that you are a choice architect. You are a designer. You make the decisions whenever you present somebody with a choice, whether it be your spouse, someone who reports to you, someone you report to. Whenever you’re presenting choices, you’re actually a choice architect. You have control over many of these things, like what the default is, what the right order is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then give us some core principles then in terms of if I have something…Well, I guess, first of all, this presupposes that you’re offering people choices as opposed to saying, “This is what we’re doing now.” Now, I guess you may or may not have the authority or power, influence, sway, relationship, to just, by fiat, say, “This is what’s happening now.” But, maybe, before we delve into the how do we present choices, I’d love to get your take on under what circumstances is it optimal to present multiple choices versus just the, “Hey, I’d like to do this,” or, “How about we do that?”

Eric Johnson
Well, it’s interesting. You say it in a way that says, “How about if we do that?” and in your voice there was a question mark, as if I can come back and say something else. An extreme would be, by fiat, “We are going to go and order this,” and that certainly saves lots of work in decision-making but people often feel like they have lost a lot of power or input or it can be demotivating.

So, a slightly gentler version of that is how many options do you give somebody? Do you give them one, which is your extreme case, in which case, it’s not really a choice? Or, do you give them two, or four, or five? It’s actually quite an interesting aspect of choice architecture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes. And so, I’m curious, are there certain…what are the criteria or factors which might lead me to think, “Hmm, I’m going to go with one choice or option versus a multiple choice or option”?

Eric Johnson
So, how well do I know the person making the decision? If I know a lot of their taste, I can cut down the number of things I show them. So, a menu, when I tell my wife, “What’s on the menu?” Let’s say I’m calling her and saying, “What’s on the menu?” because she’s running a few minutes late and wants me to order for her, if I know her taste, I can give two or three. If it’s somebody I don’t know, I’m going to expand the number of options. I’m going to try and figure out what options are different. So, the more I know the person who’s making a choice, assuming I’m trying to help them, the fewer options I can give them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it makes sense certainly as a principle. Okay. And then I’m thinking if it’s just from a general, like influence-mastery perspective, I’m thinking in the course of, let’s just say, I want boss, or collaborator, peer, to come my way with something. And I guess there’s a whole another set – we had Bob Cialdini on the show who was awesome – of principles associated with being influential. But here, it seems like we’re specifically zeroing in on, in a world where we’re sharing multiple options and we would like them to pick the one we want them to pick, how do we do that?

Eric Johnson
So, I think we’ve covered two things already. One is default, say, “If you don’t have anything else in mind, here’s the default.” So, I’ll give you an example of that that turns out to be very handy in my life. I could say to somebody, “Oh, we should get together for a meeting. What’s good for you?” That’s giving them, in essence, an infinite number of options. Instead, I could say, “Look, 9:30 on Tuesday is good for me, but I’m flexible.”

Now, from my perspective, as the designer, as I call that person, I’m going to increase the probability that gets chosen and it’s better for me. From the other person’s perspective, it saves them a little bit of effort. Instead of having to go through their whole calendar, they can look first and start with that as a starting point. And so, that actually probably makes both the designer and the chooser, or the person making the choice, better off.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And then, it’s funny as I’m thinking about, I’ve had some conversations with some sales-type folk in which they’re reaching out, and they say, “Hey, would you like to meet at this time or that time?” And I’m thinking, “Well, neither of those times because I don’t want to meet with you at all.” Any thoughts on, I don’t know if you call that presumption, or when there’s a good possibility that they don’t want none of your options? Like, how does that come across in terms of this little…?

Eric Johnson
So, let me step back one second. The premise of the book is actually a little bit different than it would be if I was doing sales. And it’s basically you’re trying to make the chooser make the choice that’s in their best interest. And the world we’re talking about, of course, that may not always overlap but you probably want to get a time that doesn’t get somebody that has to drive into work an hour early for the meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. And if you’re an ethical salesperson, hopefully, your solution really is, worth their time and effort relative to the alternatives.

Eric Johnson
And, in fact, I’m an optimist, and I think they’re trying to get the right product to you or make you a repeat customer.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure, I’m with you.

Eric Johnson
So, default would be one. We’ve already talked about sorting, what would be first, second, third. And if it’s a salesperson, that’s actually getting closer to a place where it’s a verbal list so you have to be careful that the last is going to be something that’s also remembered. You have to be careful in that decision as well. So, those would be two very concrete steps you could make in setting appointments.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And so then, let’s hear some of the others. We’ve talked about the ideal number of options. So, there’s the one or there’s the infinite, and then there’s some discrete numbers in between. How do we think about that?

Eric Johnson
Well, I think there, the issue is basically, again, a lot of us are going to be thinking about the decision-maker and how well you know them, but let me give you a sort of application that’s not exactly how to be great, at least on your job per se. But there’s a really nice example at dating sites. Dating sites differ in the number of options.

So, let me ask you how you do this. If you go to Tinder, the number is infinity. There’s actually something called Tinder thumb for swiping too much. Now, on the other hand, there was a site called Coffee Meets Bagel.
Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I utilized that back in the day. That’s great.

Eric Johnson
It gave you one option, originally, or a small number of options, and they were good. Now, the thing about the chooser who thinks about those two things differently. In Coffee Meets Bagel, you would read the profile and go beyond the picture.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have more time.

Eric Johnson
Yeah, you have more time and you’re not screening. On the other hand, with Tinder, you’re looking at pictures, I suspect, and then pictures get a big weight, and all the other things like personality get almost no weight. So, it depends on what you want the person to do. If you want them to make a good choice, it’s probably a reason to reduce the number of options.

So, if I gave them too many options, that can result in a poor choice because they may be more shallow in their evaluation, kind of like a Tinder effect, versus if I gave them a limited number of choices, like, “Hey, here’s three really good options,” as opposed to, “Well, there’s 14 things we can do,” then they’re like, “Well, I don’t know. That consulting firm seems to have a cool name, so let’s go with them,” versus, “Oh, three. Okay, I can kind of get into a little bit of detail here and think through the pros and cons of this.”

Eric Johnson
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, so then, three, I said, was kind of arbitrary. But do you have some thoughts on two versus three versus four versus five?

Eric Johnson
Right. Well, one of the things that’s very tempting to write a book like this is to say five is the magic number. But imagine we’re designing an airplane, would I say, “Two engines is always the right number of engines”? No, it depends on the kind of plane it is. So, rather than say three, I want to give you the principles to think about, which is one thing is that you increase the number of options, people get more variety, but they tend to get overloaded.

So, there are lots of cases where you want to give people variety, particularly if they don’t know you well, but I don’t want to go, like the New York City school system gives kids 769 different high schools they could choose between. That’s a bit too many.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m thinking about my toddler, I kind of give him two shirts, generally, to choose from, and that seems to work pretty well. What do you think?

Eric Johnson
As they get older, they may want a little more, a couple more. But, notice, you’re doing something super important there, which is you’re limiting the choice or the options you want by assuming…you picked those two shirts.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s cold outside so I’d like the long sleeve situation, “This one is cleaner than the other one and a nice shirt.”

Eric Johnson
A friend of mine solved a problem, how to get their three-year old, so this might be useful, to bed by changing it to, “Do you want to go to bed or not go to bed?” to, “Do you want to fly in the bed or do you want to bounce in the bed?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I did that one.

Eric Johnson
No more fighting but, notice, control of the choice set is a lot of control there. And I think, as a parent, you’d argue it’s in both your and their best interest.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Like, “Do you want to fly to the car like an airplane or hop to the car like a kangaroo?”

Eric Johnson
You’ve done this before.

Pete Mockaitis
I can’t get away with that with grownup professionals. “You pay them with a check or with Venmo?”

Eric Johnson
Right. But you could, for example, limit…let’s take a common that many of your listeners have, which is pension plans. How many pension plans are you offered? Which ones? That’s a real-world example that I think is really important. And the funny thing is, for many of these things we’re talking about, people aren’t aware of their effects.

So, the defaults, people have actually done studies where they say, “Okay, now you’ve made a choice,” people see different defaults, they choose different things. And you say, “Did the default affect what you chose?” And they say, “No. It might affect other people but I made my decision based on what I wanted.”

So, the interesting thing for folks here is that the choices you make as an architect, as a designer, actually are things that will influence people and often they won’t realize the influence you have.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful and the results can be massive when you come to retirement age, like, “Oh, shoot. There might’ve been a whole lot more money had I chosen a different option,” or a whole lot less. So, okay, we got a number of elements. Any other key elements you want to cover?

Eric Johnson
I think we’ve gotten a big list. The only other one that I think would be important is when you give people choices, you often describe the choices.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Eric Johnson
So, what might be called attributes, so price, quality. For a car, it’s how many miles per gallon it gets, how fast it gets. Another thing that a designer does is present attributes. Imagine you’re giving someone a choice between two consulting assignments. You might use travel. You might use challenge. You might use opportunity for advancement. You, as a designer, get to choose which attributes are first and what’s presented.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true.

Eric Johnson
So, I know it’s a long list but these all are things that you, as the designer, have as tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you describe choices or attributes, are there any best or worst practices there? Because, again, I’m thinking about the overwhelm, I guess there’s relevance, like, “I might not care about your liter is a turbo horsepower or whatever. Like, those numbers don’t mean things to me.” And maybe I should be better educated about vehicles. That’s come up before. “But I’m just not.” So, any pro tips on best and worst practices for great descriptions within the attributes?

Eric Johnson
So, I think one of the things that is a classic result is imagine calories. Now, if you’re really concerned about your weight, you probably understand calories, but a very nice example is to convert that into the number of miles walked you would have to do to walk off those calories.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Got you.

Eric Johnson
The general principle is making sure the attribute is in a concrete way that people understand.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I think that’s a great in terms of I think like computer things, in terms of like I understand very much what the impact of a 1-terra byte versus a 2-terra byte drive is, and I just bought a 2-terra byte, versus others, like, “What’s that even mean in terms of movies or songs or pictures or whatnot?” Because I often find myself, if I’m reading something and I’m just sort of out of my depth, I don’t know, I’m thinking about power tools or drills or impact drivers or something, they have numbers, like, “Is that good? I hope. It’s probably not horrible if you’re telling me about it. So, certainly, it has to be kind of relevant and understandable.”

And I guess I’m also thinking about just like, “How much is too much?” And now I’m thinking about sales landing pages on websites. And some of them can just go for dozens of pages, like, “Wow, people are reading that?” And others are pretty darn quick in terms of header, subhead, couple bullets, and then that’s that. How do you think about how we make the decision for more versus less?

Eric Johnson
The really interesting thing about your point is that people seem to be very sensitive to the initial cost of information. So, if you land on a page that has an ugly font and it’s hard to look at, even if the offer is attractive, you’re likely to bail. So, we know a lot just by watching firms do their customer funnel, how they actually acquire customers, that each click is very important, and to minimize the effort for each of those clicks is terribly, terribly important in attracting customers. And, again, if you think about trying to get somebody at work to sign on for a project, very similar stories apply.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reducing the friction, making it as easy as possible to do that.

Eric Johnson
Particularly at the beginning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then I’m curious about, so the flipside, any sort of like mistakes, or cognitive biases, or things we really got to be on our guard for when we are trying to make optimal decisions and present choices optimally to others?

Eric Johnson
So, the first big mistake is most of us don’t realize we’re designers so we’re doing this very haphazardly. So, we use what is first in our mind is what we tell people. So, if you’re saying, “Where do we go to lunch?” well, what happens is the thing that you think of first, it may not even be where you want to go. But, in general, I think neglecting choice architecture is the biggest mistake that we make. It’s because we don’t think it affects us, and, in fact, we don’t even realize how it affects other people. So, there are now a lot of studies showing that people don’t do things that would be in both their best interest and that chooses best interest.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Eric Johnson
Well, I think the only thing I would say is realize that deciding how to present information to people is almost a secret power that you have, that it’s actually something that is a source of your ability to help other people, that if you don’t know about it, you’re neglecting a really important aspect of your job as a boss, or as a colleague, or as a report, any of the above.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about power, that makes me think, can you share with us some more of the most sort of eye-popping sort of results or case studies and how little changes make huge differences? So, that pre-checked thing, that was pretty wild in terms of, “How do you want to be taken care of in your final years?” I mean, wow, what a huge impact just to pre-check can make. Any other striking examples or cases that leap to mind?

Eric Johnson
Well, let me talk about another of the tools we’ve talked about, which is order, what’s presented first. It turns out, on ballots, somebody is first, someone is second, etc. What research shows is the first choice gets about 2% more vote even in presidential elections. So, if we think about go back to the year 2000, Gore versus Bush, remember it all came down to Florida. In Florida, there was like 500 votes separating them.

It turns out, Bush, George W. was first in the ballot in Florida because the governor, his brother, Jeb, got to pick who was first. And, of course, any governor would pick the member of their own party. It wasn’t because it was his brother. That probably made the difference in who was elected president of the U.S.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. That was a big case study. Thank you, Eric.

Eric Johnson
It’s not my research but it’s actually there was a case, by the way, in Texas where two Supreme Court justices who ran against each other, Pete Greene versus Rick Greene, whichever Greene, there they randomized. That’s how we know it made a difference. They picked one first in half the time, the other first the other half the time. There was a 20% difference between who got the vote depending upon who was first.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! So, it was 20% when we actually got to randomized it, so it might be much bigger than 2%.

Eric Johnson
Right. In that case, because they had the same last name, and nobody knew who they were, that’s one of the reasons it’s 20%.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, fair enough. Well, that’s really heavy. I’m just sort of sitting and processing that for a moment. And then for our elections in the U.S., is that normally how it goes, the governor gets to pick? Or is alphabetical? Or does it vary state by state?

Eric Johnson
It varies a bunch by state by state but often it’s, in some places, the incumbent, which gives them an advantage. In other states, it’s the party in power that gets to be first. In Delaware, it turns out, just to be equally surprising, the Democrats always are the first slot in the ballot.

Pete Mockaitis
Always. Okay. All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Eric Johnson
So, something I’ve thought a lot about is a quote that I saw when I was a young person reading science magazines, and it was a Browning quote, “For a man’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” In other words, keep striving. You’re not going to get there, but go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Eric Johnson
Well, I think I have to admit that I very much like one that I did, which used the default manipulation to change people’s willingness to be organ donors.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us the result. What went down?

Eric Johnson
Well, basically, if you look at people’s willingness, not necessarily to be a donor, but to be willing to be a donor, there is a 40% gap between those people where you are a donor by default, which happens in several European countries, and countries like the U.S. where you have to choose to be an organ donor. So, the default actually can change people’s willingness to be an organ donor.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. And a favorite book?

Eric Johnson
When I was very young, I read two books at the same time practically, and they would change my life. One was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The other was Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And growing up in New Jersey and not seeing much of the world, this really opened up my eyes.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Eric Johnson
I actually use, I’ve tried a lot, like many people, many different kinds of planning software. I use something called Marvin, but the important point is not the software. It’s basically sitting down every day and doing a to-do list that includes time, not just, “I’m going to do it in this order,” but, “I’m going to do it at this time.”

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, something that really connects and resonates with folks you’re chatting with?

Eric Johnson
One of the things that I find interesting about using social media and, particularly, to promote the book, is to see what other people are saying. And I think one of the things that I hear people are repeating, so I let them choose, is basically, “Being a choice architect is something that’s a power that I didn’t know I had.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Eric Johnson
Well, really good, Twitter is @ProfEricJohnson. And there’s also a nice website on TheElementsofChoice.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Eric Johnson
I think, basically, realize that you actually have the power whenever you present choices to another person that, if you don’t think about it, you’re going to waste an important part of what you can do on your job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eric, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with all of the choices you make and present.

Eric Johnson
Thank you very much. It’s been a lot of fun, Pete.

580: How to Stop Overthinking and Become More Decisive with Anne Bogel

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Anne Bogel says: "Any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn't deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can't spend on something that really deserves it."

Anne Bogel discusses how to stop second-guessing yourself and make decision-making easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What we lose when we overthink
  2. Telltale signs you’re overthinking
  3. How to stop overthinking in three to eight minutes

About Anne

Anne Bogel is the author of Reading People and I’d Rather Be Reading and creator of the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcasts What Should I Read Next? and One Great Book. Bogel has been featured in O, the Oprah MagazineReal SimpleBustleRefinery 29The Washington Post and more. Bogel’s popular book lists and reading guides have established her as a tastemaker among readers, authors, and publishers. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Anne Bogel Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Well, so tell me, you’ve got another book out. It’s about making decisions, and I thought that was kind of meta in a way because your podcast is called What Should I Read Next? which is a decision that you’re making again and again and again. So, maybe to tee it up, could you tell us, how do you, in fact, decide what to read next?

Anne Bogel
Well, this is true about my podcast but I have to tell you, I did not understand the connection between the podcast and the book until I think, I don’t know, a week or two before my first book tour event for this book. And one of my team members said, “Well, the podcast is tailor-made to help people know everything about their reading life, so just talk about how you put together the show and why it works.” And I was like, “It is? Oh, it is, isn’t it?”

Well, the secrets there are go to a trusted source, get a couple of options but not too many, and know that there is always another book because you don’t get all caught up in perfectionism and second-guessing if you know that there’s always going to be another book after the one you finished. Also, as a podcast host, it’s easy not to be like overcome with regret and second-guessing because I know there’s always going to be another episode.

So, if I remember in the shower the next morning, “Oh, now I know the perfect book for that guest that I talked to yesterday, and that ship has sailed, I can’t change my recommendations now,” because every episode I recommend three books live on the fly that I think will be good for the guest based on our conversation. It’s helpful to know, “Well, I could always put that in the newsletter. I could always put that in the bonus episode, or I can always save that for another guest that it just might be perfect for.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s how you’re helping folks with those decisions. Your book is called Don’t Overthink It. So, maybe you could start by telling us, why not overthink it? What’s the problem with the cost associated with, in fact, overthinking it?

Anne Bogel
Oh, well, okay. At the best, it’s a distraction. But, at the worst, I mean, I used to think that this was more a nuisance than a massive huge deal for many people but I’ve really come to believe that overthinking, it always comes with an opportunity cost that isn’t worth paying. Because when you’re spending your life overthinking things, any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn’t deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can’t spend on something that really deserves it.

And when I talk about overthinking, I’m talking about those thoughts that are repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful. It’s when your brain is working really hard but it’s not taking you anywhere. Nobody wants that. Those thoughts are exhausting. They make you feel miserable. So, just so we know what we’re talking about, and why you really don’t want that in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s handy. So, you’re defining overthinking perhaps a bit more broadly than some might assume. It’s not just you’re spending too much time on a given decision or a plan of action, but just overthinking in places that don’t need those thoughts at all, eh?

Anne Bogel
I am. Some books about overthinking do restrict it to just rumination, where that word comes from the oh-so-flattering image of a cow chewing its cud, returning to the same food again and again for digestive purposes. But if you’re a person who’s overthinking, thinking about whatever that is over and over again, it doesn’t help you reach a decision. It’s a loop that takes conscious intervention to get out of.

And, yeah, I believe that we’re all happier and healthier, and can spend more of our resources, our time, energy, and attention on the things that really matter when we give decisions and other things in our lives the amount of energy they deserve and not more. I mean, it’s not overthinking if you give something the amount of thought you want it to, even if your choice may look hard to believe for some people.

Like, if you know someone who really genuinely enjoys researching. Oh, wow, Pete, I was about to use a travel analogy. Okay, let’s go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m in.

Anne Bogel
Let’s go for it and hope those days will come again. If you have a friend who really enjoys researching, like, 40 different places they may visit to camp on spring break because that is fun for them, that is part of the adventure, that is part of the experience, that’s not overthinking for them. It might be overthinking for you because that’s not fun for you. That’s perfectionism-driven research looking for just, you know, “I’ll just check one more site, one more site, one more site.” But if you’re giving something the amount of attention you want to, that’s just fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that because it really just opens it up a whole lot in that it may indeed be shocking or overwhelming and surprising to some people, when you’re just like, I guess, sort of nerding out and doing what you’re doing. I was thinking recently about, I might do this, I’ve been playing a little bit of Fortnite, the smash hit sensation game which I guess is for 12-year old boys but I play it too.

And I’ve been thinking about, like the trigonometry associated with when you jump out of the Battle Bus and how you might optimize the timing of it so you hit exactly the spot you want to hit as fast as possible. In a way, I mean, it’s just a silly game. I’m never going to go pro and it’s just sort of amusing to be. But I love that definition because it’s like, “Well, no, if I’m having a hoot just figuring that out for the sheer fun of figuring it out, I’m not overthinking it,” versus, if someone who has more fun just playing the game and blasting people away, then they would be overthinking it. It’s very subjective and individual-dependent.

Anne Bogel
Yeah. If you’re enjoying your trig exercising with Fortnite, have at it.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Okay. Cool.

Anne Bogel
Actually, you know what? If you do find yourself caught in an overthinking loop, when your brain is like the hamster on the wheel and you can’t stop talking, it sounds like what you’re describing is a really excellent potential distraction for your mind. It gives it a puzzle to work on that requires a kind of creative mental energy that forces out the things you don’t want to be thinking about. Because all your attention is required to focus on this problem you’ve created for yourself because you enjoy it and because it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that just kind of makes me think it’d be great just to have a list of those at the ready for when you’re caught in a loop, it’s like, “Oh, I need to escape. Oh, here’s my handy list of fun puzzles I can go and solve.” And I find that a little bit even with, I guess there’s research on this, like knitting or crafts. Like, I’ve experienced that when I’m doing that sort of thing, it’s like, “Oh, this is very soothing because my brain is focused on that thing instead of many, many, many thoughts, issues, questions I’m trying to nail down.”

Anne Bogel
Yes. I don’t know if you or someone who turns to stress baking when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but this is a real thing, and it serves the same purpose. If you’re following a recipe for the first time, or one you’re not familiar with, your hands are occupied, your brain is occupied, it’s tactile, and it requires all your concentration, or you’re going to screw it up, so there’s not room for that mental loop to play. Also, it goes, “Did I say the wrong thing? Did I say the wrong thing? Why won’t they call? What’s happening? Why are they running late?” because your brain is completely occupied. You don’t have the bandwidth to entertain those thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m digging this. So, overthinking is giving more thought than something deserves. It’s problematic because there is an opportunity cost that you could be spending your time, energy, attention, thinking on something that’s more fun and joyful. Maybe could you help us identify when we’re overthinking faster, in terms of what are sort of the canaries-in-the-coal-mine, the telltale signs, or maybe even just frequent categories of stuff subject to overthought?

Anne Bogel
That’s a great question, and it’s almost hard to give a list because overthinking, more than I realized when I launched into this personal project, is insidious. Like, it’s the river that’s a mile wide and of varying depths for some people. But it’s a good question because the first step to overcome any kind of overthinking is to realize you’re doing it. Because if you don’t realize your behavior is problematic or impacting your life in negative ways, then you wouldn’t even think about changing it. You wouldn’t feel like you had a reason to.

I would say that noticing when you feel tired, noticing when you feel crabby, noticing when you feel stressed about making certain decisions or uncertain moments. Some people, if you ask them, “Are you an overthinker?” they can immediately say, “Oh, my gosh, yes. Like, I was up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning worrying what might happen if…” fill in the blank. I won’t give you any scenarios. The people who do that can certainly come up with them on their own. I know there have been times when I certainly could.

But, also, it may help to review a list of things that are known triggers for a lot of people, even those who don’t typically characterize themselves as constant overthinkers. Relationship is a big one. Work is a big one for a lot of people. Also, money trips up a lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be chronic overthinkers. And we could be talking about tiny purchases, like, “Why would I buy G2s when the big sticks are so much cheaper?” I mean, some people will find themselves paralyzed by these small questions. Ghirardelli instead of Hershey’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Trying to ride on experiences, luxurious and joyful is my answer, Anne.

Anne Bogel
Exactly. Or it could be justifying a splurge, like a nice dinner out, or a vacation that’s outside the bounds of what you would typically spend for a vacation in the summer. These are things that are big triggers for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And now I’m really feeling what you’re saying with regard to how it can be a thief of joy there in terms of if you’re agonizing, or it’s like, “Oh, that seems like such a cool vacation. Oh, but it cost so much money.” So, I think you can just really go back and forth and put yourself in a tough spot which is unpleasant. As opposed to, I guess, if you just knew, “Well, hey, the vacation budget is this, greater than, less than. Okay, I guess we can move on,” or, “This seems like an exceptional opportunity. Hey, spouse, or travel companions, what do we think about shifting some budget from one place to another?” That’s excellent in terms of just the angst, “I’m feeling it,” that can come when you’re doing that.

Anne Bogel
You know what you just did though was you cut out the inclination to maximize that so many people who struggle with overthinking do on a regular basis. Because, sure, if it’s in budget, that’s great. And if it’s not, that’s a problem. But what if you could get a little more for your money? What if you might be like more meaningfully fulfilled if you went to one place or another? Maybe you just really need to stay home I mean, there are so many options to consider that, without having a clear idea of what you want and where you’re going, it’s easy to succumb to.

Also, another big trigger of overthinking in a lot of people is shopping. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the grocery, or oh, my gosh, if you’re buying jeans, or school supplies for your kids. Any situation where you have to make a lot of decisions really quickly can really take a toll on your mental stamina.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the stamina piece for a bit. So, decision fatigue is a real thing. Can you tell us, what is it and how do we deal with it?

Anne Bogel
Decision fatigue has become quite a buzzword. I find that most people know what this is now but not everybody. We’re talking about that state when your brain is tired from making many decisions, and you simply reached the point where you can’t make any more effectively. And this is because, when it comes to making decisions, we don’t have an endless capacity to do so. We can only handle so many decisions in a day but we make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every day depending on what we do.

And so, how we allocate our energy to make those decisions, and how we can structure our lives to make fewer of them, really matters. And if you want to nerd out about this, there’s all kinds of interesting research on everything from kids in the classroom to judges sitting on a court bench.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right.

Anne Bogel
Officers making parole decisions that show, oh, you want to be in front of whoever is deciding something on your behalf when they are fresh.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Anne Bogel
Because, yeah, if you come at the end of the day, or the last cases before lunch, you are screwed. When people don’t know what to do, they default to the status quo, or they decide nothing at all because it takes less brain power.

Pete Mockaitis
You gotta ring on the stickers when you’re on trial, “Your Honor, would you please…?”

Anne Bogel
If you can’t be on the docket before 8:00, that probably is your next best bet. But, truly, this matters. Like, we don’t want to think we live in a world where the fates of people are determined by where you fall on the docket. But being aware of how these human limitations affect your life, whether you want them to or not, helps you do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, decision fatigue, it happens. We have a finite capacity to make decisions over the course of the day. It becomes depleted and we’re sleepy. So, what should we do about it? Schedule big decisions for when we’re fresh. Or what are sort of the top practices to address this?

Anne Bogel
That’s a good question. Okay, I’m going to zoom out a little bit. So, I found that when it comes to overthinking, so many of us start by thinking, like, “Okay, I’m standing at the kitchen counter, I’m looking for my friend to pull into the driveway because they’re supposed to be here any minute but they’re running late. Are they in a ditch? Is there something wrong? Do they actually hate me and they’re not coming? What is happening now?”

We think like, “Okay, I need to do something in this moment to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again.” But, really, so much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. We lay the foundation by how we treat our bodies. Studies show that we don’t overthink when we’re well-rested. We don’t overthink when we’re peaceful. We overthink when we eat Doritos for dinner, when we’re tired, when we stayed up too late. We overthink when we’re not taking care of our bodies. We overthink when our shoulder hurts because we’ve been sitting hunched over our desk all day.

So, the first thing we can do is really set ourselves up for success by taking care of those really simple boring adult human maintenance things that we know we should do but we don’t always make time for because they don’t seem so productive in the moment. And, Pete, I got to tell you, I was really disappointed to read this research because it’s not fun. Like, it’s not sexy like a good productivity hack is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it doesn’t get you the clicks on social media.

Anne Bogel
No. No, but…

Pete Mockaitis
Not a weird trick.

Anne Bogel
I don’t know who needs to hear this but, truly, like going to bed when you know you should will make it so much easier to make decisions at 2:00 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think when it comes to a lot of this, this boring but helpful and true information, I think what helps get me fired up about it, and I talked to this mindfulness thought leader Rasmus Hougaard, and I loved that he brought a lot of sort of numbers and facts and research to bear in terms of like, “Okay, sure enough, there’s a great ROI associated with sort of sitting and breathing and mindfulness practice.”

So, maybe can you share, did you find anything striking with regard to, “Wow, if you spend just a couple of minutes doing this thing, it yields a whole lot of minutes of not overthinking”? In terms of like, when I see huge ROI or bang for the buck, I get excited. And sleep, I just love sleeping, but sometimes I think, “Well…”

Anne Bogel
I don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like, “Well, okay, sure, six hours versus eight hours is going to make a big difference but that’s two whole freaking hours. Is there anything I can do that’ll take me like four minutes that’s going to yield 12 minutes of benefit on the other side?” That’s how I overthink things, Anne. Welcome to my brain.

Anne Bogel
I love that I said I hate that this is true because you can’t hack your way out of it, and now you’re asking for a hack.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I want.

Anne Bogel
I see what you’re doing. Something that did help me truly was to hear a productivity expert, a friend of mine, Lauran Vanderkam, say, we could point to these studies, but that, “Sleep and exercise truly, they don’t take time, they make time. When you invest the time in getting the sleep you know you need, and stopping to exercise, you think better all day long.”

And she really recommends getting your exercise before 3:00 p.m. for that reason, not that it won’t help you more globally for the long term but on a daily basis your attention is sharper after you exercise. Oh, but after that, that makes me think of a research that shows that if we, this is going to sound like a funny word in this context, if we invest 15 minutes in overthinking, if we’re prone to overthinking, or in worrying, if we’re prone to worrying, and schedule it on our calendars for a certain time each day, and concentrate on getting it all in then, it’s almost like David Allen.

The brain wants a system it can trust. If your brain knows that its overthinking concerns will be heard from 3:45 to 4:00 p.m. every day, your brain is truly more likely to leave you alone the rest of the time because it knows, “3:45, we’re going to hit my issues, the system is in place, we got it handled.” So, it’s possible that consciously, not possible. Studies show that consciously deciding to overthink for those 15 minutes really can ease the burden the rest of the day.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s true and I’ve done that a couple of times. And when I have, I found that it’s almost fun. Like, the worrying or the overthinking is like, “Argh, I’ve been holding it in, and here we go.” It’s just like a frenzy, and it’s sort of enjoyable. Like, for me, sometimes it’s sort of like there’s all these creative thoughts that I really want to go explore and, in some ways, that might not technically qualify for definition because I’m having fun with it. But, nonetheless, they’re distracting from the matter at hand which is more pressing and urgent and important.

And so, when I schedule like sort of creative frenzy thought time, it’s so fun to go there, and it’s so liberating that I don’t feel as much of the thug just knowing I see it visually in color on the calendar. It’s going to land there and it’s fine.

Anne Bogel
Yeah, it’s handled.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. All right then, let’s hear some more takes on changing negative thought patterns. How do we go about making that happen?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, okay. Well, again, the first step is to notice they’re happening, but it’s so true. I don’t know your experiences. In my experience, I talked to so many women, friends, or even just blog readers who say, like, “Ugh, I’m just an overthinker. Like, It’s who I am, I’ve always done it,” and they assume there’s nothing they can do about it. But what happens is that we get really good at anything we practice, and so many of us have put in a lot of almost deliberate practice over the years into developing these patterns of overthinking.

And I just want to say for anyone who needs to hear that if you feel like you’re a champion overthinker, yeah, it’s because you’ve been practicing for a long time. But when you practice more positive thought patterns, it’s hard at first but that’s not because you’re not a natural. You weren’t a natural overthinker either. Although it is true that some people are more inclined to overthink than others, but over time, slowly learning how to interrupt those overthinking moments when they happen, and learning to lay a better foundation the rest of the time really can help you train your brain to go in a healthier direction on a regular basis.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked a bit about the foundations in terms of like sleep and exercise and nutrition. How do you recommend we execute an interruption in the heat of the moment?

Anne Bogel
So, when you find yourself in an overthinking moment, it may be helpful to think of it as riding out a craving. You don’t have to resist that overthinking moment forever. Like, the typical food craving abates in three to eight minutes. So, if you can give yourself a meaningful distraction for three to eight minutes, then you are likely to be A-Okay for a little while. But the meaningful distraction is important.

Scrolling Instagram on your phone doesn’t count. That’s way too passive. You need to do something that uses different areas of your brain, and demands a lot of your attention. So, for some people they like the combination of working jigsaw puzzles and listening to audiobooks or music at the same time, so your brain is working on two different puzzles. Basically, one is you’re decoding the book and you’re decoding the puzzle.

Tetris is actually a remarkably effective game for those who don’t like Fortnite because it does also fire up your brain in all kinds of different regions. We already talked about stress baking. Exercise is a really effective strategy for a lot of people which combines several different ways to overcome overthinking. But it depends, of course, on what you do.

Somebody who was raving to me recently how trying to do their double-unders with their jump rope was really effective because they had to concentrate to not whack themselves in the knees. But I’m a runner, but if I want to not overthink, I can’t just like run on the loop at the park when nobody is there because it’s easy for my brain to wander. But if I’m running trails, I have to pay attention or I’m going to trip on the tree roots, and that is really distracting. That’s a hardcore distraction because I would have to like change my clothes, and we’re talking about a 45-minute run. But even small things like calling your mom, talking to a friend, can be really helpful, which is three to eight minutes. That’s all you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, that’s very helpful to know. You can sort of set a timer and then not let it go too long. I’m reminded now of one time I was at a date at a coffee shop, and then this dude showed up, and he sat down with his cup of coffee, his headphones, and his knitting needles, and just went to town. And I just thought it was kind of funny that he chose this time and place in close proximity to us to do that, but it looks like he was onto something. He was taking a strategic break that makes a world of difference with that combo there.

Anne Bogel
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, you had a great teaser on the back on the back of your book, and I can’t resist. What are the three things we should do for a healthier thought life?

Anne Bogel
Well, we already talked about how you can set yourself up for success. So much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. It starts well before that because of the foundation you laid. You know what we didn’t talk about? So, we haven’t talked about perfectionism yet. Like, identifying and consciously thinking of ways to overcome perfectionism is a huge thing for tons of people.

I did not understand the connection between perfectionism and overthinking until just in the past couple of years, and I’ve been living with both for a long time. And, truly, just seeing how they’re linked has really helped me put more overthinking aside because I know perfectionism is unhealthy and that it doesn’t take me to good places. And I know that when I recognize that thought pattern in myself, I need to put it aside, and I, more or less, know how to do that.

But perfectionism, like overthinking, is sneaky. And when I don’t realize that the issue I’m overthinking is driven by perfectionism, I can be looking at the question on the table like it’s completely reasonable. But when I realize, “Anne, you’re being a perfectionist,” like then it’s easy to put it aside. And, Pete, let me give you an example because I find when it’s abstract, you think, “Oh, that sounds great in theory, but what the heck are you talking about?”

I’m thinking about things like figuring out the best way to drive across town during rush hour because you have to do it, because you need to be at that thing. Like, I could make myself crazy trying to figure out, “What if I left earlier? Could we just move the meeting 15 minutes? But is there a better way? What if someone rode with a friend? Could we work this out in a different way?” But realizing, like, “You’re trying to maximize this situation and make it the most efficient it can possibly be,” and it’s not worth the mental gymnastics you’re doing. Like, you’ve not spent more time solving the problem than it would take you to just get in the car and drive. Like, that’s perfectionism, just put it aside. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to follow up on that. I think that’s excellent in terms of the awareness and the catching of it, and what perfectionism sounds like there. And I think I’ve done that with maybe Amazon.com purchases in terms of, like, “What’s the absolute best plumber’s wrench, or whatever, that I can acquire?” And then you come to realize, “Well, Pete, if you spend half an hour on that, then that far exceeds the cost difference of these wrenches. Like, you can just get them all and see for yourself.”

Anne Bogel
Now, maybe you’re a craftsman who really enjoys looking at all the specs.

Pete Mockaitis
Good point. If that’s fun for you, hey, enjoy it. But if it’s not, yeah, move on.

Anne Bogel
But that wouldn’t be how I would choose to spend my leisure time, which we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you. Thinking about something like an hourly rate has really helped me make some of those decisions because, oh, my gosh, I hear you. Barnes & Noble has these three-for-two sales if you walk into their store. They’ll have these tables full of paperbacks that are three for the price of two.

And I tell you what, those first two come to me immediately. Like, I know exactly what I want. But then I could spend 20 minutes, like staring at all the books, thinking, “Well, I don’t really love any of these, and, oh.” I mean, retailers are not on your side when it comes to overthinking. The longer you spend looking, the more you buy. I guess they’re not considering that you may just throw up your hands in frustration and leave, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess not enough of us do that.

Anne Bogel
Clearly not.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Anne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Anne Bogel
For a long time, I knew that we overthought things. I mean, I could see myself thinking my way out of happiness because it made me miserable in the moment. But I never really realized until these past few years how often I would actually talk myself out of small joys I feel now like I’m losing twice when I do that. So, I’m spending this time debating something that doesn’t deserve my time and energy, and also I lose out in the process.

And we talked about pens earlier. Like, pens are a good example. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, “Well, I don’t really need the uni-ball VISION because I have a pen from the bank. That’s not great. It’s not a great tool. I’m a writer. But, still, like do I really need to spend an extra $1.80 on a uni-ball VISION?”

Anne Bogel
They cost a little more than the baseline to get a nice pen, and so I’d be like, “Well, is it worth it? Well, is it the most efficient? Well, can I justify it?” Well, Pete, I finally realized, like, “What am I debating here? Like, it’s a tool. I’m a writer. But even if I wasn’t, the pleasure you get for like six months of writing with a pen that cost a little bit more that’s actually decent, like it’s a small joy every time you pick it up, if you’re a total pen dork, which I am.” And so, why would I talk myself out of that?

And by talk myself out of it, I don’t just mean in the moment. I mean, lots of concentrated thought about what kind of pen I want to buy. So, I realized that I was just cutting myself off from these small simple joys. Like, there’s flowers on the front of the book, and the reason there’s flowers on the front of the book is, for years, I would drive myself just bananas at Trader Joe’s, thinking, “Well, can I justify getting the flowers? I don’t really need the flowers.” I really love flowers on my kitchen counter but they’re not like an essential to live a good life. And I finally realized, like, “Anne, you have $4. You can just buy the flowers, you can put them on your kitchen counter, and you can enjoy them all week.”

So, I would just hope that listeners would think about how, not only is overthinking something that you can stop doing because it’s making you miserable, but when you put it aside, you really can open the door to bringing these simple life pleasures into your life in a more abundant way.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Anne Bogel
“I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite tool, maybe it’s a pen, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Anne Bogel
I like this thing, it’s called a Lettermate, I think. It calls itself a handy tool to write in a straight line for those who have terrible handwriting, which I do. So, I keep it on my desk and I use it to write in a straight line in my blank journal, and it makes me happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, walking the dog in the morning before it gets hot.

Pete Mockaitis
And a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

Anne Bogel
Reading is not a competition. Quality over quantity. Also, don’t apologize for not reading Jane Austen. It really is okay. People may not say that to you but my blog is named after Jane Austen’s character so I get that all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think that’s funny that that’s your life.

Anne Bogel
Every day.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Anne Bogel
My hub on the web is my blog ModernMrsDarcy.com or the podcast What Should I Read Next? is in your favorite podcast app.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, yeah. Put your butt in the chair and do the work. I mean, you probably know what to do. Make yourself some coffee, or grab whatever you love instead, and do the thing instead of talking how much you wish you could.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anne, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you might be tempted to overthink it.

Anne Bogel
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And it was great to be back.

574: How to Navigate Overwhelming Data and Choices to Make Optimal Decisions with Vikram Mansharamani

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Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani discusses how to break free from blind thinking and make more impactful decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The danger of deferring to experts and technology 
  2. Two critical steps for smarter decision-making
  3. How to better predict the future with “prospective hindsight” 

About Vikram

Financial Bubbles Before They Burst and his latest, THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. He is a frequent commentator on issues driving disruption in the global business environment, and his ideas and writings have appeared in Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, Worth, and many other publications. LinkedIn listed him as the #1 Top Voice for Money, Finance, and Economics for both 2015 and 2016, and Worth magazine profiled him as one of the 100 most powerful people in global finance in 2017. In addition to teaching and writing, Mansharamani also advises several Fortune 500 CEOs on how to navigate uncertainty in today’s dynamic global business and regulatory environment. He holds a PhD and two master’s degrees from MIT as well as a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Vikram Mansharamani Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Vikram, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Vikram Mansharamani
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your good stuff. We’re talking decision making. And I understand you’ve got a lot of decision making in a place many people say there’s no hope for good decisions, and that’s Las Vegas, and there are more than 50 times. What’s the story?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, that’s a fascinating place to start here, Pete. I mean, Vegas is one of my real soft spots in life. I love everything about that city. I love the gaming. I love the restaurants. I love the pools. I love the hotels. I love the shows. I love the spas. The whole experience is just fabulous. The story as to why I went there so frequently is it was actually the topic of my dissertation.

So, I studied the gaming industry for my doctoral work at MIT. And I did that for various reasons, but the biggest reason was I was about to quit the PhD program at MIT that I was enrolled, and one of my professors and advisor, who I really trusted, who had become a mentor, said, “Vikram, that’s a really bad idea. You should get this done. What are you excited about? What do you enjoy? What wouldn’t feel like work to you?”

And I think I’d just gotten back from a trip to Las Vegas, perhaps with some college buddies, and I said, “You know what’s really fun? Las Vegas. I love Las Vegas.” And he said, “Why don’t you study the gaming industry?” And then there you go. So, it was research that took me to Vegas many of those times, but not all.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, I’m curious, in your gaming, are you up, are you down?

Vikram Mansharamani
I’m pretty sure I’m down but I think most people that do any amount of gaming end up down, but for me it’s the cost of entertainment. Look, there’s different ways to spend money to be entertained, and if I can do it socially sitting at a craps table with a bunch of friends and folks that I know, and have a nice time, and people give you some adult beverages while you’re there, that’s really the cost of entertainment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, now I want to dig into your wisdom, and your latest is called Think for Yourself I want to hear, what’s one of the most fascinating and surprising discoveries you’ve made about us humans and how we go about decision-making?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, there’s a lot of surprises there but the fundamental truth is I think we tend not be rational in this strict model optimizing sense that some traditional economists think we are. And what does that mean? That means that we sometimes make decisions, as I’m sure you’re aware of through behavioral finance and behavioral economics thinking, based on emotions, or fairness, or some of these things that might not make sense from a strict economic perspective.

So, I think just the sort of seeming irrationality of the human being in decision-making context is in of itself kind of surprising where people do things that might not be in their obvious self-interest. And so, yeah, I think that’s probably one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m so intrigued by your title there Think for Yourself because I think a lot of people would say, “Hey, I think for myself, Vikram. Come on, buddy.” So, when we’re not thinking for ourselves, what are we doing?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me use a couple of examples, Pete. I think this will actually make it tangible, real, and I think the audience will appreciate this. Let’s say you get up in the morning, you’re getting into your car, you’re heading to a destination east of your current location. It happened to have snowed last night, the schools are closed, but since you’re not 100% sure where you’re heading, you put it into your GPS device or your Nav system in your car.

Now, the algorithm turns around and tells you, “Uh-oh, you’re going east to this location, but there’s an elementary school and it’s currently 8:30 in the morning. Yeah, we’re going to send you north to go around and then come down to the east.” Now, you pause and you think to yourself, “Huh, it’s probably because of the school there.” But the reason it’s suggesting to go around the school is because of the traffic at this time of the morning. You’ve done this before. You know that your system does that. You also know that the school is closed because of the bad weather on a snow day. Do you follow the device or not? There’s a simple question. I’ll give you one other example which may feel like it’s higher stakes.

You go to your cardiologist. Your cardiologist tells you, “You know what, Pete, I’m sensing a little bit of cholesterol levels creeping up on you here.” She happens to be younger than you, and she says, “You know what, I had the same problem. I’m starting to take this statin. I think you should take this statin. By the way, every other cardiologist here in the hospital complex, they’re taking a statin. My medical school peers, they’re all taking statins and I think you should take a statin.” Do you push back or do you take the statin?

And so, these are examples where we may not realize it but we’re not thinking for ourselves. We’re outsourcing our thinking to experts and technologies. And that may not always be bad but it’s something I think we should do mindfully rather than passively and sort of as a default setting.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, well, it’s funny, we’re talking about health issues, and as we speak, I am engaging the daunting process of shopping for health insurance since my wife is shifting to full-time mothering, and I am shifting onto adopting a tremendous financial burden in the United States. Wow!

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re right. It’s like experts say stuff and it’s just like, “Well, geez, I don’t know. This seems like there’s a lot of complexity and it’s intricate and hard to get to the bottom and become super-knowledgeable about all my options. Well, hey, this is golden. It’s Blue Cross and it’s PPO and you all say it’s good. I guess that’s what I’m going to get.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, think about that, and what you’re getting at, which is actually how I start off most of my book here, is we are facing an environment of overwhelming data. And with overwhelming data, comes overwhelming choice. All of us have become conditioned to believe that more choice is better, that more choice lets us find the exact, optimal, perfect combination of features that was what we need. And the reality is we get overwhelmed by that choice.

We are sort of given this illusive ideal of perfection, and it’s never really achievable, leaving us with this low-grade fever of something we call FOMO. We’re missing out on that perfect choice, “There should be a perfect choice.” And so, what do we do? We run headlong into the arms of experts and technologies that promise us salvation from this anxiety of being overwhelmed by choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, that sounds like a fair synopsis of where we are right now. I buy it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, even just think about your medical insurance dilemma, right? I’m sure there’s an online choice aid that exists that says, “Well, how many dependents do you have? Do you think you want high deductible or low deductible? Do you like your doctor? Do you want to be in a network? Do you need referrals? Do you not want referrals? Do you just want to be able to go anywhere in a network?” All of these things create these permutations and combinations which overwhelm us. In fact, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t overwhelmed, which is why we then go to people who promise us the hope. And, in the process, we actually stop thinking for ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so in a way, that’s a bit of a pejorative context or phrase in terms of, “Hey, you’re not thinking for yourself.” It seems like something, at least the way I interpret it, the emotional valence I’m sticking on it, is that to think for one’s self is a good and noble worthy thing. And to not think for one’s self is something that foolish sheep do, and they need to step up.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, I’m going to get a little meta on you here. So, thinking for yourself, you may, in fact, think for yourself while outsourcing your thinking. But if you do it proactively, mindfully, then it’s okay, then you are, in fact, thinking for yourself when you’re letting someone else think for you if you proactively make that choice. It’s the default condition without thinking about how you’re making your choices that I have issues with. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t rely on experts or technologies. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. We should rely on experts and technologies but we should do so mindfully. We should keep them in their role where we are the lead actor. They can be supporting actors. And so, that’s really the objective.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you gave us a couple of examples which make it real with regard to the GPS and the doctors. And so, where are some danger zones, specifically for professionals and career people, that it’s like, “Hey, timeout. You may not be thinking for yourself about these sorts of things, and you could be falling for these kinds of traps. Warning! Think about this.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one area, I think, for career-oriented folks who are thinking about doing well in their jobs, climbing the corporate ladder, etc., advancing, is that we’ve developed this core belief system, I think, that expertise, core competence, unique skills, if you will, put capitals on all of those words, are the ultimate destination and the keys to rising in one’s career advancing as well as increasing your income.

And I want to suggest for a moment that actually breadth of perspective may be equal, if not more important than depth of expertise. And part of this has to do with the siloization that’s occurred of knowledge and how people make decisions. We tend to think of the world as broken down in domains. There’s a heart doctor, cardiologists, “Okay, I got to go see someone different for a different part of my body.” But the system is a whole.

And so, what I’m suggesting is rather than hang our hat on developing unique skills and depth of knowledge, I want to suggest that you can actually benefit from being broad, being an integrator of disparate ideas, being a generalist, if you will.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, we had David Epstein on the show, and that was one of his key messages there.

Vikram Mansharamani
David is a good friend.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think I buy it. So, how do you suppose we fall for the default assumption that specialization is where it’s at?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it has to do with the overwhelming amount of data, information, and complexity in our world, or how complicated it’s become. And so, the way most organizations deal with this is they silo people into working on parts of a problem. That’s how we try to do this. And so, as a result, we outsource our career trajectories often to the organizations within which we work. And a little pushback on that would be healthy.

And what it also means is reconceiving the concept of a career trajectory away from rising through a corporate ladder, perhaps thinking about it differently. Maybe it’s a corporate jungle gym and the best way to get to the top is not by going up on every step but by going laterally down to the left, to the right, down three steps, over, up. There may be a different way to get to the top.

Now, what does that practically mean? I mean, it’s a fun analogy to talk about a corporate jungle gym. But it may mean, all right, if you’re rising through the finance function of an organization, maybe it makes sense to stop and do a tour of duty in the marketing department. Possibly, take a demotion rather than a promotion and go into operations. Go run a factory. Possibly, come back and go involve with technologies or call centers or what have you. Develop a portfolio of skills through multi-functional, multi-geographic experiences that could possibly have you leapfrog the trajectories of those who stay within a silo. I guess that’s really what I’m getting at.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ll tell you, in terms of a universal skill, which we’re all about here, that is handy across each of these functional and industry domains is just this, some of that decision-making smart thinking for yourself skills. So, I’d love to get your take then on some of the top do’s and don’ts in terms of, “Okay, if I have decided that I’m going to go about making some decisions, and I’m going to have the experts on tap, not on top…” one of your turns of phrase which I like, “…I’m going to receive input from them but I’m not going to let them just blindly call the shots,” how do you recommend we go out doing research, generating options, selecting the best option for us?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one of the things that I think is absolutely critical, Pete, is people should spend more time paying attention to the context. Far too often, we focus on what’s in front of us and where we’ve shone the spotlight and not on the related contextually developments that may impact even our decision choices, even the possible selections we can make. So, I think paying attention to the context matters.

Now, again, that sounds very abstract. Let’s make it real. Let’s say you’re in the world of retailing. Do you pay attention to US-China relations? “Maybe. It seems kind of like general knowledge. Is it going to impact me? Is it not going to impact me? I don’t know. I’m in a retail sector. I’m local.” If you’re paying attention to political developments. Obviously, we know there’s an election in the United States, but do we know what’s happening in the political dynamics of our largest trading partners or what have you? Maybe that’s going to potentially come home to impact us. So, advice piece number one is pay attention to context.

Number two, I always encourage people making tough decisions to make sure you get some disagreement in the advice you get. Don’t go out and seek the same advice that you know is confirming your already pre-existing inclinations. Seek disagreement. That’s something that far too few people do this.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s a great perspective but, boy, it’s a frustrating one. I’m thinking back to I had to get a new roof for my home, and I don’t know about roofing, but I had a heck of a hard time just getting anyone to show up and do something it seems in the realm of home renovation. So, I thought, “Well, I better just call 20 roofers so that I can get three quotes.” But I got like nine to show up and weigh in on the matter.

And then it was, huh, boy, it was complex and overwhelming because it’s sort of like, okay, well, this guy costs twice as much as that guy. But why? Is he doing more? Is he better? Is it higher quality? This person says I absolutely have to have it torn off and redone, and that one says, “No, no, no, you don’t need to do that. You can just put another layer.” And this one says, “You don’t even need a layer.” I can just get a sealing and a coating.

And so, it’s like, “Why am I, the person who does not know about roofing, charged with the task of determining who is correct and who is incorrect?” I found myself some disagreement and, I mean, it was tough to sort to the bottom of it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me ask you this. Do you feel you were more informed about roofing now that you did that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m vastly informed about roofing, and I wish I weren’t.

Vikram Mansharamani
Far more than you want to be. Exactly. Well, so then the question becomes, “Do you think you could make a better decision having had those conversations or not?”

Pete Mockaitis
You mean going forward or looking backward?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, ultimately, before you replaced your roof, you presumably had to make a choice, and you, I think, made an informed choice. It might’ve had some costs with developing the options, and seeking the disagreement, and getting a lay of the land, but that mere process, I think, informed you on an area that you would’ve otherwise made a decision blindly in.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did inform me, and I suppose what I’m really getting at is once I’ve gotten some disagreements, how do I make a call?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Sure. Well, that’s ultimately where you need to think for yourself, right? What are the variables that matter to you? Do you want a 40-year life roof or do you care if it’s a 20-year life roof? Do you want to have the guarantee in case there’s a leak and a hurricane comes through, or do you not worry about the guarantee because you think you may sell the house the next year? So, I think there’s some tradeoffs that one needs to think about themselves.

But part of the reason I encourage the disagreement is there’s a quote, a very famous quote, that Alfred Sloan used it says, “If we’re all in agreement on this decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” Disagreement helps to understand. So, that’s part of the reason I focus on generating a little bit of disagreement.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s certainly true. That helps generate understanding and, partially, just because it’s psychologically, internally, there’s this tension. It’s like, “Well, what’s right? Aargh.” Because I’m sort of frustrated, I really want to hunker down and get deep into the wisdom because there’s this tension I want resolved and what’s correct.

So, what are some of your pro tips in terms of, I guess, one, you’re getting clear on what you want in your own criteria in rubrics there? But, I guess, part of what I figured out was I had to sort of make some rules of thumb for, “Who am I going to believe and who am I not, and why?” And part of it was I am more inclined to believe people who tell me something that works against their self-interest, where like, “Hey, I can’t do anything for you right now because you got to take care of that masonry first.” It’s like, “So, you’re just going to walk away from the money I want to give you.” I’m inclined to think that that’s a true thing he said about the masonry because it goes against his self-interest.

Or if someone gives me a why, a reason, because underneath what they’re saying, then I’d buy it more than the guy who did not. Like, “You’re going to have to tear off this roof because you can tell from this thickness right here that there’s already three layers, which is already more than the building code allows for. And if you observe this, you’ll see some sagging in the rafters,” versus the guy who’s like, “Nah, we can just put another layer on it.” It’s like, “You didn’t tell me why we could put another layer on it. Like, you didn’t say, ‘Hey, I can tell from this thickness that we have.’” He just said, “Nah.”

So, if you give me a reason versus not a reason, I want to go with the person who gave me a reason. So, those are just a couple of the rubrics I ended up inventing on the spot to make sense of my roof. But what else would you point us to in terms of sorting things out?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, I mean, look, ultimately, we need to think about just satisficing, if you will. Pete, we’ve so often, because of these overwhelming sets of options and the overwhelming data deluge that we’re suffering, we think there’s an ideal so we never settle on “good enough.” I mean, I can imagine, and I don’t know you that well, but you might’ve been a person who got so analytical you could imagine a spreadsheet on which roofing contractor to hire.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s absolutely multiples.

Vikram Mansharamani
Right? At some point, we just need to decide. You can overanalyze these things. And so, when I tell people to focus on decision-making, I say, “Look, you can satisfice, that’s from Herb Simon, a Nobel prize winner, who suggested that actually maximization logic or optimization logic sometimes can mislead us, just the pursuit of it even, into expending more costs on trying to optimize than we get value from the incremental optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, agreed. Time, I mean.

Vikram Mansharamani
So, I’ll give you an example from the book, which is a fun personal example, and it has to do with selecting a movie to watch. Every now and then, when the kids, my kids are asleep, my wife and I will jump on the couch and try to get a movie and just watch a movie in the comfort of our home, more so these days since we don’t go out during this lockdown. But, inevitably, what happens is one of us gets to the couch first and sees a preview or two, and then the second one arrives, and I got to be on the same informational footing, “I got to see the same previews you watched. There’s no way I’m making a choice without you…you have an informational edge here. I need to get involved here.”

And so, we’ll watch a couple. Both of us are in different moods, possibly realizing that, “My goodness, Xfinity has 10,000 movies available, we got the Apple TV, which has another 50,000, we got Netflix which can give it to us all of those 100,000 movies in seven different languages, and we got to be able to find the perfect movie.”

And so, an example I use in the book is my wife, eventually, is like, “Fine. It sounds like you really want to watch it. Let’s just watch that movie.” Except it’s taken us an hour to choose the movie. I fall asleep halfway through the movie, go to sleep, and she turns around and says, “I chose this movie because you wanted to watch this movie.” She’s upset. I fell asleep. I go to sleep. She then wakes up next morning. She watched half of the movie she didn’t want to watch, and half of the movie she did want to watch, and is frustrated by the whole evening.

That’s what happens with too much choice and not satisficing, and we’re all subject to it. Sometimes it’s fine to just make a choice. There’ll be more choices in the future. No reason to stress out about things. Some things shouldn’t be stressed about.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny that you and I are having this conversation. My company is called Optimality, LLC. That is my business name. I love things being optimal. And I think I’m the weird one compared to my friends and family in terms of others are more fine with satisficing. But I think that’s really a great point in terms of, again, thinking for yourself, in terms of, “What are we looking to do here? Do we need to optimize the crap out of this?” And some things you really do. It’s like, “This will make a tremendous impact if it’s 2% better, so we’re going to get there.”

And other things it doesn’t in terms of if you found the best possible movie ever that was, from thence forth, all of your favorite movies, one, that’s highly improbable, wildly occur, because how can you top Life is Beautiful. Wow! What a film. But the payoff isn’t that extraordinarily huge and the quest could take forever. So, I think that’s really great point right there. It’s just we got to decide, “What do we got to do here? Do I get a perfect optimization, a rough optimization, or just a quick good enough?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, and I think it has to do obviously with the stakes. When the stakes are low, our default is we tend not in our decision processes to factor in the stakes of the outcome. This is a trivial thing. We’re watching a movie. Why stress about optimizing? Just go with one. It’s good. We’ll have another choice next week. We’ll have lots. This is a repeated choice and the stakes are so low. So, yeah, I think incorporating how big a decision and how high the stakes are should come into that decision of optimize versus satisfice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, it’s so funny, as we talk about it, it’s like, “Well, boy, if you really want to optimize the bejesus out of movies selection, you just got to go to IMDB or Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, go top to bottom.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, Pete, you’re hinting at a great point where we outsource our thinking. How many of us go to the recommended, “People who watched this movie will also enjoy this movie”? And don’t we just naturally go there and explore those? When you’ve purchased a book online from your favorite large retailer, do you go down and say, “Well, people who bought this also bought this. You may also enjoy this”? Or do you get an email from someone? Are they channeling our focus in a way that prevents us from scanning? And so, we end up becoming exploiters, i.e. narrow and deep, rather than explorers, wide and broad. So, I think we’re outsourcing some of our thinking even unknowingly in times like those.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, if you think about just that notion of exploiting versus exploring, you would probably have a very different approach and mindset toward exploring if it wasn’t in the heat of battle, if you will, like, “We’re going to pick a movie to watch now” versus, “Why don’t I just get a list of candidates ready for the future moment in which we’re going to watch a movie.” You’ll probably be a little bit more open-ended in terms of, “Huh, what’s that about?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think actually some of these large tech companies giving us media have thought about this decision problem, and that’s why I think, I don’t know for a fact, but I think that’s why we have the Wishlist, or the My List, or I think every streaming service has their own one where you put down what your future potential movies to watch are. So, even there I think they’re trying to overcome that problem. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Vikram, tell me, before we shift gears, any other top do’s and don’ts for wise thinking, decision-making, we should lock in?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, one of the things that I think is critical that very few people spend enough time thinking about is the future. Of course, all of us think about the future, singular, but I think we need to think about futures, plural. And thinking about multiple futures is a different way to think. It’s thinking probabilistically of how things can transpire.

And so, that’s a big-picture topic but I think it has to do with the context. As I said earlier, the context is critical to how you make decisions, the environment in which you’re making the decisions, the stakes of the decision you’re making, but also related to that is some version or vision of the future. And I rather you not have one vision of the future or one version of the future, but rather multiple futures that you’re envisioning or foreseeing.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I might sort of imagine what’s the future that I’m delighted with, what’s the future that I’m furious about, how do these come about.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. I mean, look, one of the decision tactics I use in some of my advisory work is I use, from the academic literature, something called prospective hindsight. Now, what does that mean in plain English? In plain English that means it’s called a pre-mortem analysis. What does that mean in real plain English? Imagine failure in the future for a decision you made today, and then paint a story of why that decision failed.

So, you decided to go with one roofer. A hurricane came through and, you know what, you shouldn’t have done the multiple layers because it ripped off. That’s horrible. One possibility of failure in that decision is you went with a choice that optimized for the short term, not thinking about some of these bigger risks.

Alternatively, you failed because you went with the high-price guy who was going to do it perfectly, strip the roof, rebuild the masonry, do it all, and charge you an arm and leg. Well, now, how does that fail? Yeah, the failure there may be that, “Well, I spent too much money. I never really got the value of it,” or what have you, or there’s other versions that you can think about.

And so, you can think in terms of possible regrets for decisions made, trying to project yourself into the future and looking back to say, “Why did that decision go wrong?” And that oftentimes helps for some interesting thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote? You gave us one. Do you have another?

Vikram Mansharamani
I do. Peter Drucker, fabulous management theorist, and it’s related, again, in the domain of decisions, I think it’s the fabulous one, he says, “A decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw.” I figure I’d bring that in given the Vegas connection too. But, yes, the key is it’s not a choice. It’s not a decision if you only have one alternative you come up with. And this has to do with also that disagreement logic. So, that’s a fun quote.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Vikram Mansharamani
There’s a lot of them out there that I find fascinating. Obviously, Kahneman and Thaler. Kahneman and Tversky have done a lot, but Thaler has done a lot in behavioral decision-making, and I find almost all of their work fascinating. Some of their earlier work where they decided to actually go and try these sorts of studies on people.

One of my favorite ones, it’s referenced very slightly, but I think it says so much about us humans, was when they stepped in front of an audience and spun one of those wheels of fortune that resulted in a number, I think, between a zero and a hundred, and then they asked the audience, “What percentage of African nations were members of the United Nations?” And they got a number. They did these many times. Other groups spun the wheel of fortune, got a a random number. Everyone saw it was a random number. And then they asked the question, “What percentage of African nations are members of the United Nations?”

And the numbers that the groups came up with for percentage of African nations that were members of the United Nations were influenced by the random number. And the anchoring effect is so visceral at that point. Like, we know this number is random and yet that’s in our head. We can’t get it out of our head. And we approach the answer to the question closer to that than we otherwise should. I find that fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I saw one where judges, there’s a study with judges, who had an address on the stationery of the document that influenced how much of a monetary award they thought a plaintiff deserved, which was wild. These are judges.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, you’d think it wouldn’t be that way but, unfortunately, it is. The other study that I’ll just highlight, is Philip Tetlock wrote a book called Expert Political Judgment. And in that book, he talks about experts’ forecasting and the long-range forecasts of many experts. And what he found was experts were less accurate in their area of expertise than non-experts were, vis-à-vis the predictions made over a long term and with lots of predictions. Then I think he had 80,000 predictions over lots of years and lots of forecasters, and sort of came back to the logic that sometimes it’s better to be broad rather than narrow.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, one of the books that I really do love is The Four Agreements which is a bit of philosophy. It’s a book that’s not quite spiritual in the sense but it’s a sort of Toltec wisdom guide to self-freedom or something like that. I forget the subtitle of it. But, really, it’s a book that forces you to step back and put things in context personally, professionally, etc. I find it a really empowering book. It’s a book that I sometimes leave in my suitcase back when I was traveling more, and would happily pick up and read through and re-read. It’s a book that I think is quite powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Vikram Mansharamani
I actually think sometimes just disconnecting from the stuff I’m working on. And if that’s go out for a run or, and I talk about this also as a tool to inspire creativity, literally, just get lost in a movie in the middle of the day. So, sometimes if I’m writing and in a rut, I will go turn on a movie in the middle of the day, watch it, watch half of it. Of course, obviously, I don’t think this is unusual advice, but working out and sort of breaking the rhythm. But those are some of the tools I use to really break up the rhythm.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re really known for, it’s quoted back to you often?

Vikram Mansharamani
I think the phrase that you’ve already quoted that I do like to use and a lot of people associate with me is sometimes keep experts on tap not on top. That’s one of the things there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn or get in touch, where would you point them?

Vikram Mansharamani
I think my website is probably the best place, which is just my last name dot com, www.Mansharamani.com or my Twitter account which is @mansharamani.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, I think it’s really, really important to try to take a step back and think about these multiple futures. And I know lots of people that are professional and focus on their careers are devout readers of non-fiction. But I want you to take some time to read fiction, to watch movies. I think the creativity that it inspires helps you to think about multiple futures. I teach this class at Harvard called Humanity and Its Challenges. It’s a systems-thinking class taught at the engineering school. And I use novels in this class.

Now, this throws engineering students off because their first inclination is, “Wait. What? That’s not real though, Vikram. That’s not real. That’s fake. That’s a fiction story.” And I was like, “Yes, read it. You’ll understand.” Or watching movies, they’re like, “But that’s not real. We’ll watch a documentary, not a movie.” But the point is some of these narratives of future scenarios can really help you navigate through uncertainty as it comes. It helps you get a lay of the land of what may be in front of you.

Five years ago, when I started teaching this class during the year 2016-2017 academic year, one of the cases, and we’ve used it since then, is the risk of a global pandemic. We had students watch the movie Contagion. We had the students watch other movies for other cases. And they dismissed it back then as Hollywood-esque drama, “This isn’t real. This is fake.”

Today, a handful of those students that gave me that feedback back then, are turning around and saying, “Wow, I’m glad you made us watch some of those things. It gave us a version of how the future could unfold that even though we didn’t fully appreciate at the time, we now do.” So, that’s a little tidbit, sort of think in terms of futures.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Vikram, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best of luck in the ways you’re thinking for yourself.

Vikram Mansharamani
Great. Thanks very much, Pete.

518: Why to Never Go With Your Gut with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky says: "When you have comfort... that's the time to most suspect your decision."
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky explains why we often make disastrous decisions—and how to make smarter ones.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest decision-making mistake people make
  2. Three handy debiasing techniques
  3. Five questions to guide everyday decisions

About Gleb

Known as the Disaster Avoidance Expert, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky protects leaders from disasters by developing the most effective decision-making strategies via his consulting, coaching, and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts. A cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist, Dr. Tsipursky writes for Inc., Time, and CNBC. A best-selling author, his new book, available on Amazon and in book stores everywhere, is Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gleb Tsipursky Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gleb, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much for inviting me, Pete. It’s a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to learn all about you have an interesting brand for your business. It’s called Disaster Avoidance Experts. Tell us, first of all, what do you mean by disaster? What are we avoiding here?

Gleb Tsipursky
Any sort of things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way. Now, that might mean things like having a key employee leave, or having your website crash unexpectedly, or lacking a succession plan as I mentioned before. Let’s say, what happens if you have a disability and you can’t work for a while. What happens then? If your key client leaves and you’re really dependent on that client, that’s a problem. So, that’s one area of disaster, things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way.

Another area of disaster which people think about less, but just as impactful, is when you don’t take advantage of opportunities. So, let’s say your competitor goes bankrupt and you have all your money and resources devoted to your current business plan, that means you can’t take advantage of the competitor’s bankruptcy to get their employees, key employees on board with you. You can’t take advantage of your competitor’s bankruptcy to get their clients if all of your money and resources are devoted to something else.

Or other sort of opportunities to open up, let’s say the political situation. You know, you have some tariffs going on so people are changing their supply chains and you have an opportunity to be their new supplier but you’re already locked into contracts that keep you with others, with people you’re currently supplying to. That’s another problem. So, people don’t think about missing opportunities as disasters but they could be just as disastrous as threats. So that’s what I mean by disasters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’m intrigued then, what in your client experience would you estimate is the biggest disaster that you’ve helped somebody avoid?

Gleb Tsipursky
Oh, the biggest disaster. Well, that’s a tough one because it really depends on how you think about jobs or careers. I do a lot of coaching for executives which includes coaching on their careers. So, I’ll give you an example. There was this executive who was thinking about making a job switch to create an enterprise, to be a startup leader, and we talked through the situation. He was excited. He wanted to make the jump. We talked through the situation kind of what was he excited about, what were his long-term plans.

And what we discovered was that he was excited about the idea of a startup, he was excited about kind of the financial potential of a startup, the impact on the world. But when I talked to him about, “Hey, do you know what it’s like to work in a startup? Have you ever worked in that environment?” it turned out that he wasn’t really prepared for the chaos and stress of that is involved in a startup, and especially the failures.

When you start up a business and entrepreneurial in you knows, you have a ton of failures, not the whole business itself, but when you’re trying to figure things out, how your system is going to work, how your processes are going to work, who are going to be your clients. He really wasn’t prepared for that. He was very much a perfectionist and he took failure poorly so he really wasn’t prepared for the chaotic entrepreneurial nature of a startup and especially a failure, so he decided not to go for it. He stayed in corporate America and spent the rest of his career there. He was quite happy and he would’ve been very stressed out if he went for a startup. So, that’s one example with a personal career move.

Now, another career, another situation would be with a company. There was a company that I was consulting with which was a midsized manufacturing company here in the Midwest about 2,000 people, and they were going to buy another company of about 1500 people, another mid-sized manufacturing, this time in the Southwest. And so, what happened was that they really were excited about buying it. They looked at the company. They looked at the company’s financials; the financials looked good. They looked at the company’s products; the products looked good. They would fulfill a gap that the buying company currently had.

But what they didn’t think about, they didn’t really think about the internal systems and processes of this company, the company culture. Now, I worked with a company that was my client for a while to get their internal culture more team-oriented and more flat, less hierarchical. But the company that they were going to buy was much more hierarchical and its culture was much more hierarchical top down, and its internal systems and processes were much more hierarchical top down, so, honestly, they would’ve really clashed in a really bad and harmful way.

And I’ve seen companies, I mean, if you think about mergers and acquisitions, you look at the research on this topic, about 80% of mergers and acquisitions fail. So, this would’ve definitely been one of those 80% that failed, and I’m very thankful that my client decided to avoid that merger and went and stepped away from it. So, those are two disasters that I helped leaders and businesses avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’d love to hear then, in terms of humans and decision-making, what have been some of the most striking discoveries you’ve made about how we go about decision-making and often poorly?

Gleb Tsipursky
I think the most important thing that I have discovered, and I have been doing this, just to be clear, for over 20 years in consulting, coaching, training and decision-making, so I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve also went into high academia. I researched this topic. I’m a cognitive scientist and behavioral economist, that’s where my research is, and research level doing peer-reviewed research.

What I found was that, really surprising and very bothersome, was that people very much tend to go with their gut, with their intuitions, what they feel is what they do. So, they equate the feeling of rightness and correctness and intuitiveness, “This is the right thing to do. I feel it in my gut.” They equate that with truth and the rightness and what’s best for their bottom line, what’s best for their long-term goals, and that’s terrible.

Our gut evolved for the savannah environment. It’s evolved for small tribes of 15 people to 150 people, and the saber-toothed tiger-response when we need to flee from a saber-toothed tiger. That’s what our gut is adapted for. We are the descendants of those who jumped at a hundred shadows and successfully avoided that one saber-toothed tiger. In our current environment, that’s really bad to jump at a hundred shadows. We get so much stress, so much problems, there are so many people who are anxious and depressed because of these excessive reactions from our gut. But people still trust their gut, they trust their feelings, they trust their intuitions, and they make really bad mistakes as a result.

The most fundamental thing I convey to my clients that has helped them so much is to distance themselves from this feeling of rightness, from this feeling of comfort. When you have comfort, when you’re comfortable about a decision, that’s the time to most suspect your decision because you’re often going to make the most wrong decision when you feel most comfortable with it. It’s counterintuitive but that’s the civilized thing to be, just like it’s counterintuitive to eat with our fork and knife. We had to learn how to eat with forks and knives. Now, it would be very weird if we don’t eat fish and steak with your fork and knife, but that’s something you had to learn to do. But we still make decisions as though we eat with our hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So much there. I think that makes a lot of sense, is to know there’s a wide distinction between the feeling of rightness and truth. And often, when you’re the most comfortable, that is not an indicator that it’s right, and especially if in the sense when you’re trying to do something new and different and challenging, or that sort of stretches you in some way, it’ll naturally be uncomfortable. So, I guess I’m wondering then, so are you saying then that intuition has no place? Or how would you contextualize and position intuition in the scheme of decision-making?

Gleb Tsipursky
So, intuition is a complex concept, and we need to separate two things here. We have to separate gut reactions which have to do with our evolved tribal intuitions, and that’s kind of coming from our instinct, from our savage primitive environment. That’s when we were babies and we responded to things. That’s intuition, that’s inborn, that’s genetics, and that’s really, really harmful in the modern world.

In a modern business environment, you don’t want to use the genetic, inborn intuition, that tribal response where you think, where you look at a person, and if the person seems like that person is like you, you will like that person much more. That’s the halo effect where we tend to like other people who look like us, who think like us, who feel like us, who have our color, our skin color, and someone who have our politics, our value sets. That’s very dangerous. And, of course, we don’t like people who don’t have that. That’s called the horns effect.

Now, in the current business environment, it’s very bad to use this tribal sensibility to make decisions because then you’ll hire other people, let’s say you’re a business leader, you’ll hire other people who are like you, and then you’ll be making very bad decisions because you’ll be all thinking alike and you won’t question each other’s decisions. Same thing if you’re a solopreneur, you’ll be collaborating with other people who are like you and you will not be getting the huge benefit of collaborating with different people. So, that’s kind of one area where you want to very much be aware of these inborn intuitions.

Now, where intuitions are helpful. Here’s an area where they’re helpful. They’re helpful where you have learned overtime to make good, quick, effective decisions. For example, right now, pretty much any professional has learned how to look for their email and quickly separate the spam from the quality email. You don’t need to think about that for a long time, you just say, “Okay, this looks like spam.” Leaders, people who are in leadership positions, have learned how to organize judgment and decision-making, delegation effectively. How could you delegate effectively to other people? You can do that effectively now but that’s a learned habit.

Now, people who have been working effectively for a long time have learned good productivity and organization systems. They’re really productive. They know how to do that. But, again, they had to learn these things. So, now they feel intuitive just like eating with your fork and knife feels intuitive. But what they are is healthy learned mental habits. It’s kind of like driving a car. You have to learn how to drive a car. It took a lot of time. It took a lot of effort. I remember driving, learning how to drive a car myself. I failed my first driving test. I couldn’t pass it the first time. Now I can drive a car very easily and it feels like I’m driving on autopilot, which feels like I’m using my intuition, but what I’m actually using is healthy learned mental habits. So you want to differentiate those savage primitive instincts from those healthy learned civilized mental habits, that natural state to the civilized state.

And so, the intuition is useful when you’ve been doing the same thing in a specific domain for a long time and you’ve been correct there. What you don’t want to do is apply to new domains. So, for example, many business owners trust their ability to hire people based on interviews. They have someone come in, they talk to this person, they hire this person or not. Extensive research has shown that that’s a terrible decision, that’s really bad strategy for hiring people because they don’t have enough experience in hiring people. They don’t really know how to do it effectively and some people might be offended by it when I say that, but, hey, I’m just telling you what the research shows.

Another area is when you sell your business. When people are selling their business, they make many, many, many mistakes because they haven’t done this before, and they haven’t done this often. Same thing in mergers and acquisitions, they haven’t done this often so they don’t know what to watch out for. So, any new area, anything you haven’t done before, anything important and significant, anything emotionally salient, anything that really pulls at your emotions, you want to be especially aware of and not use your intuitions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m curious in particular about intuition when it comes to, let’s say, the matter of trusting another person. You know, it seems like they have a proposal for you, maybe it’s a business-related thing in terms, hey, there’s this new vendor. They can provide this thing at this price and they seem to have all the right answers and check the right boxes based on your criteria but there’s just something inside you that says, “You know what, I kind just don’t trust this guy. I think he’s going to not deliver the goods.” Is that a particular type of intuition and what’s your take on that one?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, that’s bad. If you don’t know this person for a long time, it’s likely that it’s your tribal intuitions. If this guy is a slick salesman, and he’s able to sell you it’s because it’s a famous salesperson technique to make it look like and appear like he is similar to you. They try to mimic you, they try to use your wording, so this person is most likely just not a very good salesperson and doesn’t fit your idea of what it looks like your tribal member should be. So, you don’t want to trust your instincts around new people.

This is going to offend a lot of people. It already has. The research shows it offended a lot of people, and it’s okay. I’m just telling you what the research says. You shouldn’t trust your instincts around new people. You need to look at that person and say, “Hey, is this person any way significantly different from me, different in race, ability, gender, sociality, politics, the way this person speaks, this person’s background?”

I’ll give you an interesting example. So, I was doing a presentation for over a hundred HR professionals at a diversity inclusion conference here in Columbus, Ohio. And Columbus, Ohio is, of course, famous as the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, our football team, “Go, Bucks!” and it’s very, very popular around here. So, our big rival is the University of Michigan up north, the Wolverines, not very popular around here.

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, those Michigan people.” I went to the University of Illinois. It’s fun to hate people who went to Michigan. No offense, Michigan listeners.

Gleb Tsipursky
There you go. Well, let’s hate Michigan, I agree.

Pete Mockaitis
Not everybody but some of them are really obnoxious so you got to stick it to them. Please continue.

Gleb Tsipursky
I know, I’m joking. But, anyway, what I asked these HR professionals who are leaders in diversity inclusion here in Columbus, Ohio was, “Hey, would you hire somebody who’s a University of Michigan fan?” So, out of those hundred people only three people indicated that they would hire a University of Michigan fan, and these are experts in diversity inclusion. They would not hire a Michigan fan. Just because that person is a Michigan fan that would exclude that person from hiring, so that shows you the importance of tribalism in something so, you know, I mean, everyone likes to hate a Michigan fan but, honestly, it’s kind of a trivial thing which is extremely rude for. It’s just about which team. It doesn’t really matter for your work performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe in that context, I wonder if they were sort of afraid to raise their hand because people would look at them and go, “Ugh!”

Gleb Tsipursky
No, no, I mean, that’s indicative, that’s why they wouldn’t hire this person, right, because they know that other people would be like, “Why the heck did you hire this University of Michigan fan at their job?”

Pete Mockaitis
I would hire them and tell them not to let people know that they’re a Michigan fan.

Gleb Tsipursky
It’s not a viable scenario. It’s not a scenario we should have, but that’s the way our brains work. So, just because someone is from the University of Michigan. So we should not trust our intuitions about new people. That’s the critical important thing.

What you want to do if this is a new person, you want to bring in someone quite different from yourself if you are kind of serious about using this person as a new vendor, and use this external trusted advisor to evaluate this person and see what they say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah, that makes sense in terms of, you know, and then the intuition still is serving a function. It has given you some bit of information which may be confirmed or denied, and that probes you to go a little further in your investigation versus if they weren’t there, you might be like, “All right, we’re good to go. No need.”

Gleb Tsipursky
And that’s something to be afraid of also because if this person is a slick salesperson and sells you a bill of goods, if you feel very comfortable with this person, you want to step back and see if this person is using typical salesman techniques like copying you, mimicking you, echoing you. These are techniques that you can learn about and protect yourself from. But if you don’t know, if you just go with what’s comfortable for you, and you don’t protect yourself from this comfort feeling techniques, then you will be sold the bill of goods.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. So, that’s handy. Well, then let’s talk now about cognitive bias. First, could you define that for listeners who are not familiar with the term? And then list out just a couple of what you’ve observed to be the most pervasive and disastrous cognitive biases in the workplace.

Gleb Tsipursky
So, cognitive biases are mistakes that we make because of how our brain is wired. A lot of it is due to our heritage. Like I mentioned before, tribalism, the flight or fight response. Other aspects are due to just our information processing is imperfect, just the way we process information, our brain is far from perfect, and so that is why we have systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from the perfect decision-making.

So, the perfect decisions are decisions that most benefit in the workplace, so just in the workplace, most benefit your bottom line. In other life spheres, it’s going to be decisions that most benefit your life goals or your professional goals, or whatever goals you have. So, that’s the perfect decisions, the ones that can give you the most benefit. Cognitive biases are systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from these perfect decisions. I gave you an example before already of the halo effect and the horns effect. Another cognitive bias that a lot of people get struck by very problematically is called the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy is an interesting one because it’s where we tend to assume that everything will go according to plan. We invest a lot of resources. I mentioned before what are disasters. Disasters are when we don’t anticipate the risks and when we don’t anticipate opportunities. So, we invest all resources into our plan, and when problems happen or opportunities happen, we don’t have enough resources to take care of them, and we don’t anticipate, we don’t look for these opportunities or threats in advance, and we are unable to address them because of that. So, that’s the planning fallacy.

And you’ll often hear the phrase “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Again, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This is a common phrase. It’s very common, just like “Go with your gut” is a common phrase. They’re both wrong. They’re both problems. You don’t want to go with your gut and you don’t want to think that failing to plan is planning to fail, because our plans, we tend to make perfect plans. So, what you want to think about is never go with your gut and, for the other one, you want to think “Failing to plan for problems is planning to fail.”

Again, failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. What you want to do is plan for what kind of problems might come up and address these problems in advance. And the same thing for opportunities. What kind of opportunities might come up and address these opportunities in advance, as well as reserve some resources for unexpected threats and unexpected opportunities, so that’s the planning fallacy, that’s one.

Another one that a lot of business leaders run into is overconfidence bias. Overconfidence bias is our tendency to be way too confident about our decisions. And, honestly, the higher up a leader is, the more experienced somebody is, the more they tend to be confident and the more biased they tend to be, the more excessively confident they tend to be. Not everyone, but this is the general tendency.

So, for example, we found research that if somebody says, “I’m 100% confident about this. Yes, I’ll bet the company on this. I’ll bet my career on this.” They’re only going to be right about 80% of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. Those who say, “I’m 100% sure about this,” are right 80% of the time.

Gleb Tsipursky
That’s correct and that’s horrible because they lose the company and they lose their careers, so 20% of the time, so this is very dangerous for people who say they’re 100% confident definitely in this thing, just because of the way our brain works. So, we have to be very careful to develop a sense of humility, and this is really important. Humility is such an underappreciated business emotion. We need to be able to have this sense of humility, have this sense of, “Oh, hey, I might be wrong, and it’s okay. Let me step back and let me evaluate this situation. Let me be less confident than I intuitively am. Let me ask others for strategies.”

My book Never Go With Your Gut goes for a whole bunch of strategies that you can use to evaluate the situation, address threats, seize opportunities. So, you want to be more humble, and that is one of the critical emotions that you want to develop in order to get yourself to use these strategies effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got a number, a dozen, of de-biasing techniques. Could you share what’s perhaps the most one or two powerful or efficient means of really helping remove some bias and improving the decision-making of every professional?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll share a very quick one, and then some more complex ones. The quickest one is counting to ten. Your mom probably told you, “Count to ten before you do something emotional, especially when you’re angry.” And that actually works. The recent research has shown that counting to ten, delaying your decision-making works quite effectively for day-to-day decisions. That’s really one good useful strategy that you can effectively deploy. Counting to ten, taking the time to think about it at least for 10 seconds before day-to-day decisions. So, that’s one.

Another one that many people don’t use but it’s incredibly helpful is making predictions about the future. Again, making predictions about the future. Let’s say you are in a meeting of the C suite, and people are saying, “Hey, this product will go great,” or, “This product will not be good at all that you’re about to launch.” Have everyone make a prediction, have everyone make, “Hey, here’s how I think it will do in the next 6 months,” and make sure that you check back on what happened 6 months ago, that way you’ll calibrate.

How well do you think your business, if you’re a solopreneur, is going to do? Or, if you’re the business leader, how well do you think it’s going to do? How well the specific aspects of your business, how well as they going to do? How well is the client, a specific client, going to be with you? How much will they order? Thinking about these things. Make predictions about the future and then check yourself, and you will slowly improve your ability to make good decisions because you’ll calibrate yourself over time. So, that’s another one that I want to mention.

And another one that I think is incredibly important is to get an outside view, or have an external perspective. Step back from your current context. So, people tend to be greatly overconfident, business leaders especially tend to be very optimistic. I’m an optimist myself. I tend to be too optimistic. I think the grass is greener on the other side of the hill, things are less risky than they seem. However, what’s really helpful for that optimism and overconfidence is stepping back and say, “Hey, if somebody else was launching a product just like that, how do you think it would work? What is the typical situation for mergers and acquisitions?”

So, a typical situation for mergers and acquisitions is that 80% fail. So, if you’re going through a merger and acquisition, you shouldn’t think that you are better than all the other business leaders who’ve gone into mergers and acquisitions. You should assume that the most likely situation, four out of five times you’ll fail, so you have to really work hard to make sure that your specific merger or acquisition is going to be so extremely good that it overcomes this very, very high typical rate of very smart people. I mean, business leaders who do mergers and acquisitions are pretty smart people, and you have to make sure that it will not fail and it overcomes a pretty high barrier. So, those are three things that I would share with people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, you also spent a period of time discussing our human tendency to try to minimize loss. And so, what’s going on there and what should we do about that?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yes, so we as human beings tend to minimize loss, and that is a big problem because we don’t look sufficiently at gains, and this is a tendency called loss aversion. So, for example, when somebody, let’s say, has invested their money, and loss aversion, the tendency to minimize loss is there are a couple of cognitive biases around that.

So, for example, when somebody has invested money into some project, let’s say, I was working with a client who invested 2.5 million into a manufacturing project. And the client was really reluctant to look at the situation and see the external environment changed. It actually changed because of the recent tariffs, and there was nothing nearly as much demand for the product anymore because of the changing supply chains. And I was helping this client, I was pointing out the situation, and he was really reluctant to let go of his vision of the future. So, he didn’t want to lose this. He didn’t want to lose his vision of the future because he invested a lot of emotions and he felt a lot of positive emotions over it, and he didn’t want to perceive himself as someone who made a mistake, as someone who’s a loser. So, that’s one of the worst emotions for business leaders.

When I do trainings for business leaders, and I talk these examples, “What are you most afraid of?” Failure is probably the biggest, biggest most common thing I hear about. People don’t want to be perceived failing, they don’t want to be perceived as losers, so they are trying to do a lot of things to avoid these losses, and they throw a lot of good money after that. So, he kept going quite a bit longer with that project than he should’ve. Eventually, he got out of it, fortunately. But that was a pretty bad investment. At the time he made it, it wasn’t really terrible but he put quite a bit more money into it than he should have. And that’s a tendency that’s called sunken cost where we tend to sink too much money, too much resources after previous resources we have made because we don’t want to feel like losers, and we don’t want to lose these initial resources.

What’s much more effective, the strategy to address this loss aversion, this sunken cost is to say, “Hey, okay, these resources, they’re lost. Let them go. Just from the situation where you are right now, what is the best decision to make for your long-term goals, whatever your long-term goals are in this professional activity, let’s say, for your bottom line?” The same thing applies to personal life, in relationships. So many people sink a lot of their time, resources, into relationships that really aren’t going to work out that they should’ve cut off a long time ago. So, that’s a common thing that happens in relationships unfortunately.

So, you want to be thinking about, “Hey, ignoring the previous investments, what’s the situation now?” Because of your previous investments, you might feel bad about them, but it doesn’t really matter from that perspective. You want to think about your current position. And from your current position, what kind of steps do you want to take to maximize your long-term future returns in all life areas? And so, that’s a strategy that you can use to address loss aversion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gleb, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Gleb Tsipursky
One of the things I want to mention, to make sure is that there are techniques that people can use to very effectively and quickly address their decision-making problems that we all tend to have, and these are five questions that you can use to avoid decision disasters. So, here are the five questions that you should use for everyday decision-making, and you can even use them for major decision-making when you don’t have time to do a more thorough technique.

First, “What important information did I not yet fully consider?” You want to especially look for information that goes against your comfort levels, that goes against your intuitions because this will tend to hide the kind of problematic aspects of your decisions. So, you look at information that goes against your intuitions especially.

Second, “What dangerous judgment errors, cognitive biases have I not yet addressed?” In my book, Never Go With Your Gut goes over the 30 most dangerous ones. Third, and I mentioned this before the program, “What does a trusted and objective advisor suggest that I do?” So, imagine a little bit little Pete on your shoulder, and think about, “What would Pete suggest that you do?” Or somebody else that you trust who’s an objective advisor to you. Now, those are the first three questions that have to do with making a decision.

We’re transitioning into the last two questions about preventing failure and optimizing success in implementing the decision. First, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Again, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Think about all the potential problems, realistic problems you can anticipate, and address them in advance. And the same thing for opportunities.

Finally, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” Again, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” You really should make this information identified as in advance of implementing the decision because in the heat of the decision-making implementation, you will tend to run into situations where you want to, “Oh, maybe I should change my mind. Maybe I should revisit the decision.” It’s much more effective if you already decided what would cause you to revisit the decision or rethink things in advance.

Pete Mockaitis
What I also love about that question, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” is it can reveal your sort of, I guess, one-track mind, obsessed, like, “If the answer is nothing. This is what we must do.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s probably a red flag that there should be something that could possibly cause you to revisit it. And if nothing comes to mind, we’re probably not done thinking about it yet.”

Gleb Tsipursky
Yup, you’re not thinking about it straight is the problem, that pretty much any decision can be and should be revisited if you have specific information. And if you can’t falsify this decision, that you can’t falsify this choice, if you can’t say, “Hey, this would make me change my mind,” then you’re probably way too overcommitted to this decision

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gleb Tsipursky
Sure. I really like Ben Franklin’s quote that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s a very insightful quote, and it’s something that I live by, and I encourage everyone that I meet to live by because we tend to spend way too much time dealing with disasters as opposed to preventing them in advance.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or a piece of research?

Gleb Tsipursky
I really like a study where, and this was a good study, I don’t know from which university it was done, let’s say it was Ohio State, where a bunch of students were given a math test as an experiment. They were paid for the math test, and they were paid for how many questions they would get right on the math test, and they were given the opportunity to score themselves. So, everyone in the Ohio State was given the math test, and then there was one student who was obviously cheating, very obviously, very clearly cheating.

And this student, in one set of experiments, was wearing an Ohio State uniform, so he’s kind of part of the tribe. And at that set of experiments, many, many other students cheated, a whole bunch of other students cheated. Now, in another set of experiments, that student who was wearing a University of Michigan uniform…

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those cheaters from Michigan. That sounds about right.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, exactly. And pretty much nobody else was cheating at that experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
So, no one else ended up cheating. They were not influenced by the outsider.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, nobody else. Influenced by tribalism. The first experiment where this person wore an Ohio State uniform, it’s like, “Oh, my tribe is cheating, therefore, this is a good thing. Therefore, this is appropriate.” The second set of experiment is the enemy is cheating, “No, we will not cheat. We will do the true, honest, ethical thing.” So, it shows us how much we’re influenced by tribalism. And so much of this is very, very applicable to culture within organizations.

So, whenever you see people within an organization cheating, it’s because this culture induces cheating. Whereas, if you see people in an organization being honest, it’s all about the culture causing honesty. We’re very much influenced by our culture and the people around us much more than we tend to believe we are.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Gleb Tsipursky
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is the seminal book on cognitive biases. I really like it. It’s part of that older generation of scholars. Daniel Kahneman is part of the first generation of scholars on cognitive biases. I really like his work and I think it’s incredibly important as a foundational base for all future work that was done on this topic.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you recommend a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, what I have found is that I really like flexible tools, and the flexibility of Trello as an organizational tool. I’m not being paid by Trello, I’m not an affiliate of Trello in any way. But Trello is a system of essentially Kanban board where it uses a combination of index cards, cards that you move around from different columns. So, I use it all the time for my organization and for various projects that I do because it’s very flexible and that’s kind of pretty intuitive for me to use, kind of index cards. So, that’s my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit, something that you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gleb Tsipursky
My favorite habit that’s really important is, as part of my routine, I always do journaling in the morning about what I learned from the last day and what I’m grateful for and a couple of other things. But that’s the essence of the journaling, kind of what I’ve learned and what I’m grateful for. So, the first one, what I’ve learned, helps me keep a constant habit of self-improvement throughout my life.

The gratitude, what I’m grateful for, helps improve my mood. And we tend to greatly underestimate the importance of mood. So, the research on this topic shows that we are about 80% to 90% driven by our emotions. Again, 80% to 90% driven by our emotions to do what we do, to make the decisions that we make. So, I make sure to take care of my emotions, and that’s one of the ways I take care of my emotions, by having a gratitude diary.

Pete Mockaitis
And, tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you often?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll tell you, something I mentioned in the presentation, in the podcast earlier, is that you want to avoid, avoid, avoid equating the feeling of comfort with trueness. So, avoid. Comfort is not true. So, whatever you feel is comfortable and intuitive is often going to be the worst thing for you to do, so you want to very much question that feeling of comfort and intuitiveness even if it feels right, even though it feels right. That’s exactly that time when you need to most question it in order to make the best decisions going forward.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, they can check out my book Never Go With Your Gut. They can check out my website DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com for blog, videos, podcasts, and so on. And they can check me out on LinkedIn, connect with me there please. That’s Dr. Gleb Tsipursky on LinkedIn. And if you have any questions about anything you heard today, I welcome you to contact me by email at gleb@disasteravoidanceexperts.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gleb Tsipursky
I want you to remember to be aware of going with your gut. Going with your gut is a very common piece of advice. It’s probably one of the most common pieces of advice, and I want to challenge you to question this piece of advice. It’s very dangerous to just go with your gut. It causes you to run to serious career disasters, serious business disasters, and you don’t want that to happen to you like it happens to so many people.

Don’t trust your gut. That’s one thing. And the other part of this that I’ve also talked about is “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Don’t trust that. Our plans tend to not survive contact with the enemy and you want to make sure to think that failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. So, those are the challenges that I want to give folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gleb, it’s been lots of fun. I wish you much luck and fun in all your upcoming decisions.

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much, Pete. And I wish you the same and thank you so much for helping people be awesome at their jobs.

514: How to Make More Winning Decisions with Alec Torelli

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Alec Torelli says: "I care only about what I can control."Professional poker player Alec Torelli shares his tips for making wise decisions during high-stakes situations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to keep emotions from overtaking logic
  2. When to go with your gut
  3. How to better read people and situations

About Alec

Alec Torelli is a professional high stakes poker player turned digital entrepreneur and keynote speaker, who shares how the lessons he learned from poker can be applied to life and business.

Alec is the founder of Conscious Poker, a popular poker training platform, and after spending the last 14 years making decisions for hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single hand, he now gives talks in which he dissects the anatomy of decision making to help others hone the way they make choices.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Alec Torelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Alec, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Alec Torelli
Pete, I love what you’re doing and flattered to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to really dig into some of your wisdom associated with decision-making and keeping your cool and all that good stuff. But, for starters, maybe you could regale us with an exciting tale from the land of professional poker.

Alec Torelli
A specific story or…?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just like the most riveting, like, “Whoa! That’s awesome.” No pressure, Alec.

Alec Torelli
That’s fine. So, I’ve been playing for 15 years. It’s interesting to pick out one thing that comes to mind. I guess, for me, personally, I think the coolest story, the first one that comes to mind, so I was 22 years old at the time. This is about a decade ago. And it was a Wednesday night, I was at my apartment in Las Vegas, and it was 7:00, 8:00 p.m., kind of like nothing going on. And I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just head over to Bellagio and see what’s going on and play whatever poker game is running.” Clearly, like a Wednesday night, not expecting anything to happen.

Go down with some money. Show up and there’s a game running with a $2,000 buy-in, so it’s 10, 20 or the blinds, or the forced antes. It’s a pretty normal-sized poker game, nothing out of the ordinary. So, I show up and I have, I don’t know, I bring $10,000 or $20,000 to the table, which is allowing myself a few buy-ins to the game, not knowing what to expect.

Playing for a couple of hours and the foreman comes over to me and says, “Hey, Alec, I know you sometimes play higher-stakes games, and there are three businessmen that showed up with Doyle Brunson…” who’s like the godfather of poker, “…and they’re looking for more people to play to start a poker game. They don’t want to just start with four people. Do you, or does anybody in this game, want to play?”

So, I’m like, “Sure, Matt, I would love to play,” but, of course, I completely know it’s a Wednesday night, I was completely unprepared. I’m sitting here with a small amount. They’re playing some very high-stakes poker game, and I don’t have money on me and I’m not even sure I can afford to play this game. I have no idea. They might be playing for $100,000 to buy into the game.

So, I walked over to Bobby’s room, and he says, “Well, just go talk to Doyle, and he’s looking to play.” So, I walk in and, of course, Doyle is my idol. I read his books growing up, I watched him on TV.

So, I walked into Bobby’s room and I’m like, “You know, Matt said that there was a game. I’d love to play. I’m not sure that I have the money or what size game you are playing.” And Doyle is like, “Well, the buy-in is 50,000.” I’m like, “Look, I only brought 20 with me and I was up a couple thousand. I have maybe half of that.” And Doyle looked at me, he has no idea who I am, he’s like, “You look like you know what you’re doing. How about I give you 25,000 and take half your action, and we start a poker game?” And I’m like, “Is this real? Like, am I in a movie?” So, I’m like, “Okay, sure.”

So, I sit down, by this time it’s like 8:00 or 9:00 or 10:00 at night. I don’t remember exactly, and now the VIPs, the businessmen, they’re like ordering these crazy bottles of wine, they’re ordering all these food and oysters. So, we’re drinking wine, I’m sitting here talking to my childhood hero, we’re telling stories. I ended up winning, it’s crazy, you think I would remember, but I ended up winning a large amount in the game, I don’t remember how much, and Doyle kind of hit it off at that time. Clearly shared a unique experience.

And when he went to go start his poker site, Doyles Room, because of that interaction, I became the first sponsored pro of the site. And so, that was something that I’ll always remember, where preparation meets opportunity. I had a good session in the game, I won, I made a good impression, but I was just involved in a crazy serendipitous moment, and that was one of the highlights of my poker career.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so intrigued. So, Doyle said, “You seem like you know what you’re doing.” And I wonder, did he recognize you? Did he have prior information? I’m just sort of wondering what kind of triggers that reaction or response?

Alec Torelli
Well, if you’re in your early 20s and you’re in the Bellagio at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday with 20 grand, you probably know what you’re doing. Like, you’re probably a professional poker player. Like, there’s not many things that you could be doing. And so, it was he didn’t know who I was, for sure, but you could kind of identify if someone is good or not based on how they look and come across. Like, you could pick out, if you just look at a table and you’ve never seen anyone, you could typically tell if someone is very confident, or if they’re a professional, or if they’re likely to be an amateur, or if they’re a very experienced player.

And I think he just kind of gathered that I was probably a professional poker player. There was a lot of young guns playing professional poker at the time, and so he figured I’m probably going to be a big favorite in the game given that the other three people were not professionals, let’s just say, the least, and so it was going to be a profitable investment. And, also, frankly, I think the game wasn’t going to start unless there was more than the four of them sitting there, and so part of it is just being aware of what’s going to kickstart the action. And you can’t make money if there’s no game, so he’s like, “Look, I got to do what I got to do.”

Doyle has been around the block a few times, so it was just being at the right place at the right time. And then I think having the image of, “Look, I clearly know what I’m doing.” Actually, it’s one of the few times that it helps you. I think poker players, most people don’t want to play with professionals because they don’t want to be in a game where they’re going to lose. But, in this case, Doyle actually valued that I was a professional and he figured, “Hey, look, if this professional is going to sit in my game and be a favorite to win and make money, I might as well get a piece of the action.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, that adds up. Makes sense. So, I love that the story is so meta there because we’re talking about opportunities and decision-making, and then even another poker player’s decision-making that made a lot of sense once you unpack it a bit. So, we’ve interviewed Annie Duke previously, another professional poker player.

Alec Torelli
Yes, that’s how I found you there. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And that was one of my faves, so we’re going to – I’m sure there’s a poker term – double up. Thank you.

Alec Torelli
Double down, yeah. Double down, that’s more of a blackjack term. But she’s awesome. I like Annie a lot and she has a great book for those that are out there thinking in bets. Highly recommend it on my shortlist. So, yeah, she’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s dig into it now. In your view, what do you think are some of the key principles of smart poker playing that are absolutely applicable to professionals looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alec Torelli
Oh, man, there’s so many. One of them is decision-making, in general, and just being able to objectively make decisions without emotion, and using a combination of logic and intuition to make good decisions and not make emotional ones. I think another one is separating the facts from the noise and focus on the merit of making good decisions and not being preoccupied by the outcome.

And not basing the quality of your decision based on the outcome but based on the expectation that the decision will produce that outcome in the long term, and understanding that in the short term, or in an N1 sample, meaning a sample size of one, there is variance, meaning there is volatility there. There’s non-zero probability that you’re going to have a different outcome because there’s luck. So, it’s being able to step back from the results of the decision you make and evaluate the process of the decision. And that’s really what you’re after in poker.

And then I think another one is what poker players call bankroll management, which is shorthand for being able to manage your money in a way that allows you to properly evaluate your risks so that you can reach the long term and that luck is not the deciding factor in your success. And casinos do this as well where they have betting limits per hand so that they manage their risks so that no one hand of Blackjack, Roulette, Craps, whatever, can sort of break the house. And they know that in the long run, the odds are in their favor but they’re mitigating their risks along the way so that no one hand is significant and they can reach that long term.

Poker players practice the same thing using bankroll management to ensure that no one hand, or one session, or one tournament is significant in the grand scheme of things. So, these are, I think, three of the core principles that poker has taught me. And maybe self-awareness is another one, to look at things objectively, and try and screen for your cognitive biases as well. So, those are some of the big ones.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, yeah, there’s a lot that we can dig into.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, a lot to unpack there, I know.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about emotions. Now, you know, we have them, they’re there. So, I would love it if you could sort of, first, lay out, in terms of, “Hey, when you’re experiencing these kinds of emotions, you tend to make these sorts of mistakes in logic.” For example, I believe I’ve heard and experienced in my life that if you’re feeling stressed, rushed, too busy, we tend to prioritize the short-term immediate relief, whether that’s undisciplined eating pizza or just like hurry, “Just get it done. I don’t care what it costs. You know, fine,” and we overspend on getting some help because we’re really desperate and we need it. So, I think that’s one connection between emotions and suboptimal decisions that tends to pop up. What are some others and what do we do about that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, I think if you look at the types of decisions you can make fundamentally, I typically break them down into three categories. So, logic or analytical, and this is well-thought out, pros and cons, analytical-type of decision-making. Then there’s intuitive decisions, which is trusting your read, or feeling, or gut instinct. And this sometimes gets confused with the third type of decisions, which are emotional, and those are the worst decisions we make, right? Impulsive, frivolous, frantic types of decisions.

So, I think, in poker, the challenge is to eliminate the emotional decisions and work with the other two. At the poker table, this is called tilt, meaning you make decisions when you’re in a state of mind that is suboptimal and you’re frustrated by the previous results, or lack thereof, and you’re trying to compensate for that or make overly-aggressive plays to win money in a short period of time. And this causes people to play poor hands, make bad decisions, bluff at the wrong times, chase when the odds are not in their favor, and, ultimately, in the long run, lose lots and lots of money. This is the ruin of many players.

So, otherwise, good players sometimes can’t win in the long term because they can’t manage their emotions. So, your talent is only one part of it. It’s being able to execute consistently that is another part. And so, poker really is extremely punishing if you’re not, I would say, great or excellent at this because it’s unforgiving in the sense that, unlike the real world, you don’t have a lot of time to come back to calm yourself down or to step back from an emotional state of mind and make a rational decision later on.

So, for example, if you get a completely unwelcoming email or something like that, you can emotionally be charged but you could decide not to respond to that in real time, right? You can make a rational decision later. But at the poker table, every hand is dealt consecutively, like it’s a continuum, so if you’re not able to shift from an emotional charge from the last hand, to completely present, logical state of mind in the current hand, you’re just going to get killed. So, it really is unforgiving in that way.

But I think one thing that’s helped me do that is to try and have a process that I go through every hand of poker I play, kind of like a tennis player does in a sporting match. So, if you watch them play from one point to another, they might be like really charged up after winning a point, or they might be really frustrated after hitting an easy volley into the net, and they might be pissed or slam their racket. But the next points, inevitably, they come back to the line and they have this little meditation process they go through to get them ready for the next point, mentally, to serve the ball and play optimal tennis.

And so, I’ve tried to apply that same philosophy to my life in poker, and it’s through exercising that muscle that I’ve been able to translate that over into the real world as well. And I’m happy to share some concrete ways I do that, too, if that sounds interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please. Now, this tennis, in particular, sounds familiar. Was there a book, The Inner Game of Tennis that discussed this matter?

Alec Torelli
Great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s ringing a bell. I don’t think I read it. Maybe I read the Blinkist summary.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. Either way it’s a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Understood. Timothy Gallwey, 1997, okay. And I recall from that book or something that that was a key differentiator between championship players and not-so championship players, was the ability to do exactly that. So, let’s hear, hey, in practice, if we want to do a quick reset when necessary, say, “Okay, I’m flustered. I got some feedback which I thought outrageous and unfair,” or, “I feel offended, slighted, dissed, or just anxious, tired, unmotivated, don’t feel like it,” you know, there’s some emotion that’s there, and we can sort of deal with it, process it, think about it, work on it at some point, but, for right now, we got to reset and take care of business. How does one do that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and I think you find this in personal life as well. You mentioned just like unmotivated being one of them, like just letting emotion come into your decision-making process in the morning. For example, just like deciding you don’t want to exercise because you’re unmotivated. So, I think this plays out in a lot of facets of life.

I’ll kind of walk you through my process a little bit and then also go through how I have used that to navigate the real world, so bear with me here for a sec. In poker, it’s a little bit different because you’re trying to…you’re just like in a performance state so it’s a little bit more contrived in the sense that, right away, I’m just trying to be like, “Okay, I only have 30 seconds between one hand and another. I have to reset right away.”

So, the first thing I do is just sort of, as cliché as it sounds, just take a deep breath, right? So, when you focus on your breath, or you breathe, you automatically release stress, so that’s just like the first thing to do, and I think it’s just training that muscle that helps you just automatically respond in that way. And then I really am trying to release the charge of the previous hand and focus my process on what I can control.

So, a lot of times when we’re in an emotional state of mind, especially in poker, there’s a lot that’s outside your control. Like, you can’t control what cards you’re dealt, only how you play the hand. So, trying to bring the focus back to what I can control to feel empowered to make a good decision, so I say to myself, I’ll tell myself something positive, I’ll repeat something to myself, a command to myself as I close my eyes for a second, take a deep breath, and I’ll say to myself, “I’m present and focused at the poker table. I care only about what I can control. My goal is to play this next hand the best way possible.”

And so, now I just bring the focus back to something that’s very simple. And, instead of looking outward 100 miles into the future trying to imagine like all these futures that I can’t play for, I’m just looking at, “What is the very next step that I can take? Like, where is my foot going right now?” And where it’s going right now, the only thing that I can really focus on, the only thing I can control, actually, the only thing that exists or matters is the next hand, the current hand, that’s going to be dealt. And if I want to win back the $50,000, $100,000 I just lost in the hand before maybe because I made a mistake, maybe because I got unlucky, the only way I could do it is through this very current next hand.

And I think that mindset really helps and take that mindset with you to the real world as well. Like, maybe there’s this seemingly insurmountable mountain, like you lose your job, or you’re fired, like, “How am I ever going to come back from this relationship I just ended?” or whatever it is. But the only way forward is what you could do this current moment, this next day. And so, instead of focusing on…I mean, it’s good to be prepared like for long-term planning, but just being able to focus on something that you could do tangible right now to kind of bring back your sense of control to the situation and feel empowered, like the action you’re taking matters, really helps setup that domino effect of getting motivated again to make good decisions.

And then, I think when it comes to everyday action, it’s about separating myself from my emotions. So, I talked before about emotional, logical, and intuitive decisions. So, when you’re navigating, I think, your daily life, it’s really important to focus on making logical decisions and not emotional ones. And emotion is something that speaks very loudly in your mind at any current time, like you’re lazy, you’re tired, you don’t feel like exercising, you’re craving something you want to eat, a piece of cake, you’re kind of like, “Oh, I don’t feel like working. I want to watch Netflix.” If you listen to the emotions, it’s easy to get swept away in this current and not ultimately do what’s best for you.

So, what I’d like to do is I like to treat myself like I’m a parent managing a child, and that I’m talking to myself in the third person. So, I’m creating space between my emotions, or my ego, and what I know is my higher self, or what is best for me, and I talk to myself in the third person, and I say, “What should Alec do? Or, Alec, what is the best decision that you can make right now?” And so, I get up in the morning and I don’t feel like exercising, or maybe I need a day off, so it’s not about asking yourself these questions to push yourself to always do the hardest thing. Sometimes the correct answer is taking a day off or eating a piece of pizza because that’s the right thing to do because you need that balance, and that’s fine.

But I’m always trying to focus on the quality of making the right decisions. So, I’ll say, “Alec, what should you do right now? Or, what should you do tomorrow?” As I’m mapping out my day the night before, I’ll say, “What should you do?” And then I’ll write out the things that I know that I need to do that I should do, not the things that I might emotionally want to do in the moment.

And so, this is something that I can come back in real time as I’m making decisions. I was doing this today, for example. I had the choice between spending a couple more hours working on this book I’m writing, or coming home and doing something else. And so, I was kind of confused and I felt emotionally connected to one thing, but I asked myself, “Alec, what should you do right now?” And I realized staying in the library and focusing on writing was more important even though I didn’t really want to do that emotionally. So, I think that really helps to create space and helps me to navigate decisions in a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, third person, like a parent to a child.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, you have to do it because sometimes you’re just, at least for me, like so susceptible to, like, “Today I feel unmotivated, or today I feel like doing this, or I don’t feel like doing that, or whatever.” But at the end of the day, you know you’re going to feel better if you do the things that you know, logically, you should do that matter, right? So, I know that if I go through the motions of meditating in the morning, and doing my HIIT Cardio, and taking a cold shower, like having a healthy breakfast. I know in two hours I’m going to feel great, but emotionally, right then before I do all that, I’m looking at these tasks that are on my lists, and I’m like, “I don’t want to do any of that.” But if I listen to emotion, at the end of the day I’m going to feel worse. But if I listen to logic, I’m going to feel worse in the short term. But it’s about optimizing for what I think is the best long-term process so that’s part of the reason why I think that’s important.


Pete Mockaitis
And the question is, “What should you do?” I imagine there’s a number of ways you could articulate that but that’s how you do it, it’s like, “What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or, “What is the best decision?”

Pete Mockaitis
“What is the best decision? What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, “What should you do right now?” Like, “What is the best decision?” And sometimes I just close my eyes and I’d pose that question to my subconscious. Like, I’ll just sit on the couch and pose it, and then I’ll think about it for a minute, and I’ll let the answer sort of come to me. I’ll listen for the answer in a way that’s like a little bit more intuitive or maybe it’s something that requires a little bit more thought. I’ll write down some ideas. I’ll just write like a stream of consciousness and write for 30 seconds or a minute.

And usually it’s pretty easy to come to the right answer and you can usually separate out, “I don’t feel like doing this but I know this is what I should do,” type of logic that you can get down on paper, or sometimes you can do it meditatively, or whatever. And I feel like that helps come to that conclusion. But I think it’s about priming yourself for those questions is a good place to start.

And if you’re really honest with yourself, and you listen, I think most of the time you’ll know what the right answer is.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think the “What should you do?” I guess that’s almost like a shorthand, or, “What’s the best decision?” It’s sort of like it’s based on something in terms of like there are embedded criteria, whether it’s your life’s purpose or mission or vision or values or kind of long-term goals that matter to you a whole lot. It’s sort of because that’s the first thing that my mind fires back. It’s like, “Based on what? Under what criteria? Toward what end?” And so, I guess, there’s some pre-work there associated with having some clarity on that such that your current moment decisions are in congruence with that.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. So, in poker, before you make any bets, I always tell my clients to think about what you’re trying to accomplish before you make a bet. So, sometimes, people are like, “Oh, I bet because the other guy checked,” or, “I bet because the action was on me.” But it’s like, “Why are you trying to bet? What are you trying to accomplish?” And I think in the same vein, that sort of applies to life as well, and I call this having my North Star. And that’s really trying to identify, like, “What are the core values in your life that you’re trying to optimize for?” So, like, “What are the important things that the rest of the decisions that you’re making are helping you maximize?”

So, for example, for me, I try and maximize my decisions around the values of freedom, excitement, and choices. And so, I think freedom is like the main one that I’m trying to optimize for, and so I think money is a great tool and it helps, but it helps in terms of achieving more freedom units. So, a lot of times, I’ll perhaps find an opportunity or a situation where I’ll be passing up something that is potentially monetarily rewarding because it lowers my freedom. Like, it’s a big, huge commitment either to an activity or a time or a location or I’d have to be somewhere at a certain time, and like even though that could present a monetary reward, it could lower my freedom. But by understanding your priorities, it helps to maximize your aim.

So, for example, that’s like on the macro, right? Those are like the big decisions that you make structurally in the scope of your life, like what job you’re going to take, or where you’re going to live, or how much you want to have, how much you want your mortgage to be, might affect your ability to travel, which might affect your freedom, like those are some things. But I think, on a micro level, it also is important as well to have your other short-term goals, or maybe your lesser goals.

So, for example, when you go to a restaurant and you say, “What should I order?” If you’re in a period of your life where your macro goal is to lose 10 pounds, well, that might be the way that you decide to optimize those decisions. And so, you might decide to make an ordering decision based on that objective. So, I think it’s about understanding the big picture and then reverse-engineering to make sure the decisions you make are mapped towards your ambitions.

And then, also, being aware that success is not a linear path. It’s not a straight line to your goal. It’s like a curved line where there’s setbacks and ups and downs. So, the idea of trying to lose 10 pounds might mean eating healthy five or six days a week and a couple of times having a pizza even though it’s not, in a vacuum, the best decision to reach your goal of losing 10 pounds, but it’s also about being aware that, “Hey, I’m out with friends on a Friday night, and everybody is having a glass of wine, and we’re enjoying a nice restaurant. Like, I’m going to be okay with not necessarily going the most expedited route to my goals because it’s part of life as well.”

So, it’s about being able to be intuitive in those moments and being, what I call, situationally aware, which is a concept we use often in poker. There’s typically rules that you follow, where like these hands are the correct hands to play in certain situations, but there’s always circumstances where the rules are broken, and I think it’s important to be aware of where those apply in your life as well.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take on intuition. To what extent should we trust it? How should we use it? And how do you think about it?

Alec Torelli
I think about intuition as the first part of the decision-making process. And so, for example, when I play a hand of poker, I’m typically looking for intuitive read about the situation. And this is something that’s hard to quantify. It doesn’t come from my logical mind. It just comes as a feeling right away. And this happens in real life, too, like when you meet someone for the first time, it’s hard to logically express whether you like them or why. So, you’re not going to say something like, “Oh, well, I like him, or I’m attracted to him, because of his black shirt.” It’s just about their aura, their essence, their personality, the vibe you get. These are all sort of intuitive things. And this is like the first part of the decision-making process. It’s primal. Instinctual.

And then after that, you use logic or reason to confirm your hypothesis, so you might get to know the person better. You might understand their values and see if their priorities or North Star align with yours, and then you might be able to confirm with now your intuitive read. And this is also what I’m doing at the poker table, right? Like, if I have an intuition that my opponent is bluffing, then I’ll analyze their betting patterns and I’ll work my way through the hand to see if their betting patterns confirm this idea that it’s likely that they are bluffing. And, in fact, when my intuition and logic are pointing to the same conclusion, that’s when I feel like I make my best decisions, when both of those things are in harmony. It’s like a marriage of both of those things to make a good decision.

But, lastly, on that subject, I typically find that I don’t always have intuitive reads. I don’t want to overemphasize making intuitive decisions or that you should be like just sort of meditating your way to make a decision in every facet of your life, because most of the time I don’t have intuitive reads. Like, I‘m watching my opponents, I’m looking for betting patterns, or what we call tells, meaning physical actions that allow someone to deduce the strength of your opponent’s hand. But I don’t get that read every hand, right? So, most of the time, I’m making logical decisions, I’m analyzing pros and cons, I’m weighing probabilities, I’m using logic and math and those sorts of things to make my decisions probably 90% of the time.

But the 10% of the time where I do have a strong instinctual read about a situation, a person, a business deal, a relationship, it’s typically right. And it’s the situations in which I override my intuition with logic that I end up paying the price. So, for example, at the poker table, when I really get the gut feeling that my opponent has a very strong hand, I know the right decision is to fold, but I can’t quite explain why logically. And then I start letting my conscious mind override my intuition and talk myself into calling because I try and use logic to kind of like override my intuition. I say, “Well, I can’t fold here because of this,” or, blah, blah, blah. And then I call, and he usually has it.

And I feel like this is true in life as well. Like, when you have a strong feeling, like, “This guy is bad news,” or, “I can’t trust this person,” or, “I shouldn’t go into business with him,” or, “I can’t take on this project,” or, “This job isn’t right for me,” or, “Something about this isn’t right.” That is usually something to listen to, and I feel like it’s the situations where you kind of try to override that by talking yourself into something that you intuitively know is wrong that we end up paying the price. So, that’s a little bit about my relationship with those things and decision-making on and off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to, you mentioned the tells, I’m intrigued. Let’s talk for a bit about reading people. To what extent can it be done? Are there any kind of telltale signs that you think are pretty reliable?

Alec Torelli
In poker, yeah. But, unfortunately, they don’t necessarily directly apply to decisions off the felt. So, for example, in poker, a common tell is your opponent’s hands are shaking when they’re betting.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they have happy feet.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or that’s indicative of a strong hand. That’s a release of tension. They usually have a very good hand. Inversely, when they call a bet very quickly, they act extremely fast, they usually have a weak hand. They’re trying to intimidate you by acting quickly, by saying or conveying the message that, “Hey, look, I’m going to call you right away. I have something,” when, in fact, they don’t.

But, typically, like that specific, those specific actions don’t quite translate to the real world. It’s not like if someone shakes their hand, their hands shake, they’re lying to you or something. This doesn’t work like that. But what I will say is that being forced to interpret body language or basically infer people’s true intentions without words has helped me off the felt as well. And I think it’s a good skillset to practice because, in poker, you’re basically communicating with people that don’t speak your language. It’s sort of like doing that because people aren’t really talking to you.

And even if they are, the words, you can’t trust that the words they’re saying are indicative of their hand strength obviously, right? They’re not obliged to say, “Hey, I have a good hand,” when they have a good hand. Nobody is going to do that. So, you can’t really listen, I mean, you can listen but you can’t really trust that what they’re saying or the information they’re conveying. You have to read into it. And I think that’s a good skillset as well to help get to truths within relationships, avoid potentially problematic situations when you’re able to read people or situations a little bit better because people aren’t always conveying things accurately, sometimes for malicious reasons, other times just for protection. They don’t want to say something to offend you, or to get involved in a hard conversation, or it’s tough for people to express their true feelings. So, being able to read people is like a muscle, I think, that you could exercise, and poker helps you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, with the exercising of it, what are the activities or practices that one does to exercise it?

Alec Torelli
So, there’s not like a specific body language thing that I think correlates, but I think it’s just about being more present and aware of the subtleties when talking to someone and really trying to infer if what they’re saying is representative of how they’re actually feeling and kind of like just being aware of this process, and then looking back on it and analyzing it. I don’t have a great practice for doing this in person, but I think, yeah, in so far that you can try, I think it’s a useful practice to do. I wish I had more, a little bit more of a tangible thing here to do for someone looking to do that off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it sounds like simply observing and making a note to asking yourself internally, “Is there a congruence and consistency here between what they’re saying verbally and what I’m picking up elsewhere?” and then just sort of make a note of that and look at it later can be handy as opposed to just sort of letting it flow right by in terms of you’re not even kind of paying attention to those non-verbals in the first place.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and like just kind of starting to observe for and just being conscious of it and then watching for reactions. I mean, your intuitions are usually right. You can tell if someone is giving you a false compliment or if someone genuinely is interested in something you’re saying, right? Like, you were doing this all the time whether we’re aware of it or not, right? Like, if you are talking to someone and their eyes are wandering and they’re looking disinterested. It’s hard to quantify exactly what the tells are for that non being interested in what you’re saying, but you can typically tell if you’re boring someone during your conversation, and then you might change the subject. But you might just do this subconsciously without even thinking about it.

But I think going into the conversation conscious of it and saying, “Okay, what was it that made me realize that that person wasn’t interested in what I was saying? And why did I just change my subject of conversation there? Or, I could tell that person wanted to say something. Why was that? And why did I pause and let him talk?” or whatever it is. So, I think just going into it with a sense of curiosity, I would say, is probably the best word, allows you to kind of explore this a little bit more. And I think people will find that it’s a fun game to play and it’s also quite a useful skill.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, tell me, Alec, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Alec Torelli
No, this is awesome. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alec Torelli
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. And small minds discuss people.” I think that’s a great quote.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And how about a favorite book?

Alec Torelli
I think a book that had a big impact on my life, I guess you have to be at the right place for it, is Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a professor at Harvard, and I think it’s in Economics, something unrelated completely to this subject. And he taught a course on happiness and it became the most popular course at Harvard, and then he wrote a book about his findings.

He has a subsequent book called Perfect as well about how perfectionism is an unattainable thing that it’s a quest that leads people to be unhappy. But Happier was really good. And I actually went through it and there’s these exercises in the book, and I was at a point where I was in the mood to kind of like do them and be tangible with it. And I found that was a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And, tell me, how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Alec Torelli
Like, what’s an example?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, some people would say the Trello app is amazing.

Alec Torelli
Trello, I was going to say that. That was the first thing that came to my mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how about that? There’s my intuition, Alec.

Alec Torelli
Okay. Good job. Well, that’s crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Trello it is.

Alec Torelli
Yes. So, I would say Trello as a good tool, but since I feel like other people might’ve already said that, I will say SaneBox to filter email on Gmail is incredible. So, it allows you to put email in a lot of different folders depending on who sends it, and set reminders, messages go to your inbox at different times. It’s incredible. It completely organizes your email. And one more, I would say, would be some sort of meditation app. And I like Waking Up by Sam Harris, and I think that’s a great tool as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Alec Torelli
I guess I’ve been more interested in meditation recently, and I think looking at some of the effects that it has on long-term meditators and how it changes certain aspects of the brain, and improves memory, and reduces stress, and makes people potentially live longer, I think that was pretty profound and insightful.

Pete Mockaitis
And have you found that to be your experience as you embark upon meditation?

Alec Torelli
So, okay, I’m nowhere near at some super advanced level. I’ve been doing it for four years and I would say the first-year average, like 10 minutes a day, and then 20 minutes a day, and then 30 minutes a day, so that’s kind of been where I’m at. But it’s one of those things that you really, I feel like, at least for me, have to get through this initiation phase. And I feel like a lot of people probably would be inclined to quit before that point.

And so, I think if it’s something that you’re going to start, it would be to commit to doing like at least 30 days to two months, and do like 20 minutes a day every single day. And then don’t start unless you can commit to that because it’s only then when you start to kind of realize, like, “Oh, there’s something here. I’m not just sitting and thinking randomly about nothing, or bored.” But I have noticed there is this sort of tipping point where things start to click, and then it becomes incredibly interesting and insightful and quite productive, profound, I think so. Yeah, I have noticed that. It took a while though.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious with the word productive there. If you think about all the minutes you’ve spent engaged in meditation as compared to the benefits it’s yielded, would you say that those minutes have paid for themselves? Or what kind of ROI have they delivered?

Alec Torelli
Good question. Yeah, I know it seems counterintuitive, and I thought this in the beginning as well, that typically people are short on time, “Of course, I don’t have time to meditate. I could be doing something more productive.” But I think what meditation really helps you with is focus. And to do anything great, you have to be really, really focused. And so, I think it helps me get clarity in a lot of things, and get re-energized, and really focused on what’s important.

And so, for example, let’s say I’m working all day, and it’s like 2:00 p.m. and I’m kind of tired, I can sit for 5 to 10 minutes, close my eyes and just meditate, and let my mind unwind, and all the thoughts of my day will kind of come out from my subconscious, to like I can kind of watch my thoughts go by. And sometimes in that moment, like letting my thoughts unwind, I will get great ideas. And ideas will come to me that I couldn’t think about during the course of my day because I was actively engaged in all these activities. So, then I’ll sometimes stop meditation and write them down, of course, on Trello, or otherwise, after, my mind will just kind of unwind, and the noise of my mind will unwind, and then I could sit down after that and focus for another two hours.

So, it’s actually like taking a half a step back to take four steps forward. Whereas, if I just try to plug along, at 2:00 o’clock I try to take a break and did something else during that break, even if that break was longer, like a 30-minute break or an hour break, but during that break the state of my mind was engaged still, even if it was not engaged necessarily like learning something, but even just like you’re talking to people or you’re doing activities, and your mind is wandering and thinking while you’re involved in the physical world and doing all these activities, I don’t feel like I rest as much. But if I take 10 minutes, like I’m just charged for another couple of hours. So, I feel like it’s this superpower almost if you get to a little bit of proficiency with it, where it’s just unlocks this potential that I have to be more focused in the activities that I’m doing. You also learn a lot about yourself.

Like, I think there’s a great video by Jay Shetty, who was a meditation monk at one point, and then he’s come back to the business world and is a speaker, that, “Meditation Made Me A Bad Person.” It’s kind of an interesting title because it really forces you to look at some aspects of yourself that you might not have been aware of before. At least for me, I’m realizing, like, “Wow, I typically have these thoughts, and I typically behave this way. Like, these are things that I’d like to change or improve. Or these are some my strengths, and I wasn’t aware of that.”

So, all these things help you be, help you win more in the long term, however you want to look at that, whether it’s productivity or focus or whatever it is. I think it’s a net positive when you add up the minutes and then you look at the increase in productivity. Or if you measure with another metric, like stress or happiness or gratitude or connectivity with other people, all those things are greatly advanced. So, yeah, it’s been awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Alec Torelli
Well, I do have a YouTube with there’s like 500 or 600 videos on poker and ideas and lessons from poker that apply to life and business as well. You can look up Conscious Poker, or just Alec Torelli, and you’ll find it. Otherwise, ConsciousPoker.com if you want to learn poker strategy and get better at the game. But if you are more interested in the lifestyle side of things, I keep a blog at AlecTorelli.com with more of my personal thoughts and content as well.

I’m also very active on social media @AlecTorelli, Instagram, Twitter. Come say hi and shoot me a DM or send me a message or leave me a comment. I do read them all. Let me know you found me on here, I’d love to see it.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alec Torelli
Just to always try and work on yourself, even if that means looking at things that are sort of hard or uncomfortable or potentially receiving painful feedback from people that are close to you or loved ones, to reframe that as an opportunity for growth, to look at the feedback that’s coming, or potentially even the things that you label as negative as opportunities for growth and challenges to get better, whether that’s a setback, or a demotion, or getting fired, or breakup, or whatever it is.

Instead of looking at it like, “This happened to me,” but perhaps, “This happened for me. And how can I learn from this experience, or grow from this experience, or get better from this experience? And what could I have done differently?” And that’s one of the questions that I always ask myself in poker that’s really helped me off the felt. It’s like, even if I win a hand, or even if things go well, I’m always asking, like, “What could I have done differently? How could I have played this hand better? What decisions could I have made to led to a better result?”

And I think focusing on that process and really looking to improve in every hand you play is a good framework that I think will help on and off the felt. So, I hope that’s a good challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alec, thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck to you.

Alec Torelli
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.