Friday, June 29, 2012

Are you making 1 of these 7 Procrastination Errors?

Are You Making One of These 7 Procrastination Errors?

Have you ever suffered from procrastination?

You've got so many things to do and yet you find yourself doing pretty much anything but the task at hand!

I don't know about you, but I've done many mundane things that usually don't get the time of day – all due to procrastination! I've cleaned the entire house from top to bottom, cleared out my email folders, cleared out the wardrobe, all things that aren't really that urgent or important in my life – they just serve as a distraction so I don't have to get on with those big tasks I'm avoiding.

Sound familiar?

There really is nothing more debilitating than being caught in the grips of procrastination. It stops us from focusing on what's truly important to us, which can for many, lead to an unhappy, unproductive life.

To beat procrastination, first we must understand what the triggers are – and why we bother to procrastinate at all. There are a few common errors people make that can lead them down a destructive path of procrastination.

Have a look at the below list to see if any of the errors sound familiar to you. Fear not — there are also some tips for overcoming these errors, so read on…

1. Fear of failure

If we fear that there's a chance we may fail at something, it's common for us to put off even trying. Yet what we don't realise is that failure is a good thing! It provides us wiht valuable feedback so we can move on and learn from our mistakes. All the greats have learned to love failure. It's important to spend some time changing your attitude to failure so this no longer affects your goals.

2. Feeling overwhelmed about a situation

This is related to 'fear of failure'. If we feel that a task is just too big or too overwhelming then again, we will make up excuses to try and avoid tackling it. One thing you can do is to break down big tasks into 'bite size chunks'. By tackling a big task, one step at a time you will feel less overwhelm.

3. Too busy with other things

Often we are unrealistic about what's achievable. We can take on too many things yet plan a really big goal that ultimately needs more time than is available. We need to make sure we have enough time & energy before we take on a new task. This may mean we need to remove other smaller, insignificant tasks form our list to make room.

4. Lack of confidence in the task at hand

If at some level we don't really believe we can do the task, we will put it off. This links to the first point; fear of failure is really the biggest trigger for procrastination. If you have any doubt in your mind then it's highly likely you will find other things to do! Make sure you have built up your confidence before attempting a goal!

5. How important is the task?

This is a big one. Many people will set themselves a goal – but it turns out they're not really that bothered about it. It's essential you get clear about why you have set yourself goals and what the benefit is for you to complete them! If at a subconscious level you're not really sure why you're doing something, your brain will just decide for its self that it's not that important and therefore demote it to the bottom of your priorities. The best thing you can do is prioritise your goals and then cross off those items that aren't that important. This will free you up to focus on the goals that really matter.

6. Is the task really for you or for someone else?

When we are young we pick up certain behaviours and attitudes form our parents. It can be common when we reach adulthood to carry these attitudes with us – yet they are not ours and they are not really important to us. So, when we set a goal – sometimes it can be someone else's goal. This makes it very hard to achieve because on some level we don't really want it. You see this with young adults who have taken a career path into law because their father was a great lawyer. They are doing it for their father and not themselves and at some stage they end up sabotaging the career. Make sure your goals are your goals and no one else's.

7. Lack of Focus

If you surround yourself with distractions then the temptation to procrastinate is much higher! It's essential you remove ALL unwanted distractions so you have the space to focus on the task at hand! Yes — this means no television, no Facebook, no mobile phone and no emails — unless these things help you to focus. Believe me, the world will not end if you 'turn everything off' for an hour so you can focus!

(Photo credit: Snooze Button via Shutterstock)

12 Choices Winners Make Every Day

12 Choices Winners Make Every Day

12 Choices Winners Make Every Day

You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must
plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.
-Zig Ziglar

Follow in the footsteps of a winner.  Don't wake up at seventy-five years of age, sighing over what you should have tried.  Just do it, and be willing to fail and learn along the way.  At least you will know you gave it your best shot.

At the end of the day, whether you choose to go with it, flow with it, resist it, change it, or hide from it, life goes on.  If what you did today didn't turn out as you hoped, tomorrow is a new opportunity to do it differently, or to do nothing at all.  What's important is to realize that you have a choice.

Here are 12 choices winners make every day:

  1. They don't give up on the things they believe in. – If J.K. Rowling stopped after being turned down by multiple publishers for years, there would be no Harry Potter.  If Howard Schultz gave up after being turned down by banks 200+ times, there would be no Starbucks.  If Walt Disney quit too soon after his theme park concept was trashed by 300+ investors, there would be no Disney.  One thing for sure: If you give up on your dreams too soon, you will miss out on seeing them become a reality.  Read Quitter.
  2. They work with, and spend time with, the right people. – A day spent with the right people is always a day spent well.  Sometimes the most ordinary ideas and projects can be made extraordinary, simply by discussing them and doing them with the right people.
  3. They concentrate on the present. – Remember, you can't reach what's in front of you until you let go of what's behind you.  Today is a new day.  Don't let your history interfere with your destiny.  It doesn't matter what you did or where you were; it matters where you are and what you're doing now.  Never give up on yourself, and never abandon your values and dreams.  As long as you feel pain, you're still alive.  As long as you make mistakes, you're still human.  And as long as you keep trying, there's still hope.
  4. They maintain a positive attitude. – Only you can change your life, no one can do it for you.  Happiness always comes from within, and it's found in the present moment by making peace with the past and looking forward to the future.  Each morning when you open your eyes, think only three things first: Thank you, thank you, and thank you.  Then set out to make the best use of the gift of this day that you can.
  5. They endure the pain. – Maybe there's something you're afraid to say, or someone you're afraid to love, or somewhere you're afraid to go.  Maybe it's going to hurt.  Maybe it's going to hurt because it matters, and because it expands your horizons.  Remember, pain isn't always a bad thing; sometimes it's just another step toward personal growth.  Read The Road Less Traveled.
  6. They ignore the naysayers. – Unless someone has walked in your shoes on the same path that you have traveled, and lived through all of your ups and downs alongside you, they have no right to judge you.  Unless they can look into the core of your heart and see the degree of your passion, or look into the depths of your soul and see the extent of your will, then they have no business telling you who you are or what you can or can't achieve.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone has unique gifts.  Unless that someone is YOU, their opinion of you means nothing in the long run.
  7. They live through love. – Every human thought, word, or deed is based on fear or love.  Fear is the energy which contracts, closes down, draws in, hides, hoards, and harms.  Love is the energy which expands, opens up, sends out, reveals, shares, and heals.  The only question is:  What choice will you make today?
  8. They accept 100% responsibility for their current situation. – The next five years can be the best five years of your life, or just another five years.  The decision is yours.  The best part of your life will start on the day you decide your life is your own – no one to lean on, rely on, or blame.  It takes courage and strength, but you need to say it: "The gift of life is mine, it is an amazing journey, and I alone am responsible for the quality of it."
  9. They take action and plant the right seeds. – Many great things can be done in a day if you don't always make that day tomorrow.  Take positive action and plant the right seeds in your life right now.  Nature herself does not distinguish between what seeds she receives.  She grows whatever seeds are planted; this is the way life works.  Be mindful of the seeds you plant today, as they will become the crop you harvest in the future.
  10. They don't lose themselves in the commotion. – There are two things you shouldn't waste your time on: things that don't matter and people who don't think you matter.  Remember, sometimes in the midst of all the commotion and negativity swirling around, life will force you to make a choice between losing yourself and losing someone or something else.  Regardless of the situation, don't lose yourself.  Stay true to your path and keep moving forward.
  11. They appreciate what they have. – Sometimes people throw away something good for something better, only to find out later that good was actually good enough and better never even came close.  Stop long enough to appreciate things.  When you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value.  When you truly appreciate your life, you'll find that you have more of it to live.  Read The Happiness Project.
  12. They make a positive difference. – Let a person's character be their currency and you will sadly find that a lot of rich people are actually bankrupt.  Being the richest man or woman in the cemetery doesn't matter; going to bed every night knowing that you're making a positive deference in the world is what matters.

Photo by: Las

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning - Peter Bregman - Harvard Business Review

HBR Blog Network

I was late for my meeting with the CEO of a technology company and I was emailing him from my iPhone as I walked onto the elevator in his company's office building. I stayed focused on the screen as I rode to the sixth floor. I was still typing with my thumbs when the elevator doors opened and I walked out without looking up. Then I heard a voice behind me, "Wrong floor." I looked back at the man who was holding the door open for me to get back in; it was the CEO, a big smile on his face. He had been in the elevator with me the whole time. "Busted," he said.

The world is moving fast and it's only getting faster. So much technology. So much information. So much to understand, to think about, to react to. A friend of mine recently took a new job as the head of learning and development at a mid-sized investment bank. When she came to work her first day on the job she turned on her computer, logged in with the password they had given her, and found 385 messages already waiting for her.

So we try to speed up to match the pace of the action around us. We stay up until 3 am trying to answer all our emails. We twitter, we facebook, and we link-in. We scan news websites wanting to make sure we stay up to date on the latest updates. And we salivate each time we hear the beep or vibration of a new text message.

But that's a mistake. The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable (and it's getting worse). But trying to catch it all is counterproductive. The faster the waves come, the more deliberately we need to navigate. Otherwise we'll get tossed around like so many particles of sand, scattered to oblivion. Never before has it been so important to be grounded and intentional and to know what's important.

Never before has it been so important to say "No." No, I'm not going to read that article. No, I'm not going to read that email. No, I'm not going to take that phone call. No, I'm not going to sit through that meeting.

It's hard to do because maybe, just maybe, that next piece of information will be the key to our success. But our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself. We'll exhaust ourselves. We'll get confused, nervous, and irritable. And we'll miss the CEO standing next to us in the elevator.

A study of car accidents by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute put cameras in cars to see what happens right before an accident. They found that in 80% of crashes the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident. In other words, they lost focus — dialed their cell phones, changed the station on the radio, took a bite of a sandwich, maybe checked a text — and didn't notice that something changed in the world around them. Then they crashed.

The world is changing fast and if we don't stay focused on the road ahead, resisting the distractions that, while tempting, are, well, distracting, then we increase the chances of a crash.

Now is a good time to pause, prioritize, and focus. Make two lists:

List 1: Your Focus List (the road ahead)

What are you trying to achieve? What makes you happy? What's important to you? Design your time around those things. Because time is your one limited resource and no matter how hard you try you can't work 25/8.

List 2: Your Ignore List (the distractions)

To succeed in using your time wisely, you have to ask the equally important but often avoided complementary questions: what are you willing not to achieve? What doesn't make you happy? What's not important to you? What gets in the way?

Some people already have the first list. Very few have the second. But given how easily we get distracted and how many distractions we have these days, the second is more important than ever. The leaders who will continue to thrive in the future know the answers to these questions and each time there's a demand on their attention they ask whether it will further their focus or dilute it.

Which means you shouldn't create these lists once and then put them in a drawer. These two lists are your map for each day. Review them each morning, along with your calendar, and ask: what's the plan for today? Where will I spend my time? How will it further my focus? How might I get distracted? Then find the courage to follow through, make choices, and maybe disappoint a few people.

After the CEO busted me in the elevator, he told me about the meeting he had just come from. It was a gathering of all the finalists, of which he was one, for the title of Entrepreneur of the Year. This was an important meeting for him — as it was for everyone who aspired to the title (the judges were all in attendance) — and before he entered he had made two explicit decisions: 1. To focus on the meeting itself and 2. Not to check his BlackBerry.

What amazed him was that he was the only one not glued to a mobile device. Were all the other CEOs not interested in the title? Were their businesses so dependent on them that they couldn't be away for one hour? Is either of those a smart thing to communicate to the judges?

There was only one thing that was most important in that hour and there was only one CEO whose behavior reflected that importance, who knew where to focus and what to ignore. Whether or not he eventually wins the title, he's already winning the game.

Editor's note: The original version of this post didn't include a link to the study about car accidents. Here it is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hate Mail and the New Religious Wars in Tech -

Hate Mail and the New Religious Wars in Tech -

Hate Mail and the New Religious Wars in Tech

A note from a reader:
Your article in The New York Times today was idiotic. TheGalaxy S III is a nerd phone, a soul-less, heartless, hardware disaster. This is just another phone with next-gen hardware and nothing to show for it. More pixels with no vision.
You used to know how to write. Now you are pushing trash!?
You should be fired and replaced by somebody who has some clue what he’s doing.
Getting feedback like that is part of the tech critic’s job. I’m sure drama critics, music critics and art critics get their share of joyous mail, too. “Haters gonna hate,” as my teenage son reminds me.
The Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue, keeps you on top of the industry in his free, weekly e-mail newsletter.
Sign up | See Sample
Frankly, these days, my primary reaction is curiosity. What, exactly, is going on with these readers? How could something as inanimate, mass-produced and commoditized as a phone get them so worked up?
Take the reader whose e-mail I quoted above. At the time he wrote that note, the phone was not even available. There’s no possible way he could have tried it out. And therefore, there’s no way he could judge whether or not it’s a “heartless hardware disaster.” So what would drive him to sit down so confidently to write about it?
In the 1980s and 1990s, consumer-tech religious wars were a little easier to understand. Back then, there were only two camps: Apple and Microsoft. Apple people hated Microsoft because (went the thinking) it had gotten big and successful not from quality products, but from stealing ideas and clumsy execution. Microsoft people hated Apple because (went the thinking) its people and products were smug, elitist and overpriced.
There was also an underdog element, a David-versus-Goliath thing. It was fun to cheer for one team or the other.
The hostility for and against Microsoft and Apple hasn’t abated. (At a product announcement last week, I sat next to fellow tech columnist Walt Mossberg from The Wall Street Journal. We laughed about our hate mail; Walt, in fact, has identified what he calls the Doctrine of Insufficient Adulation. That’s when you give a rave review to an Apple product – but you still get hate mail from Apple fanboys because, in their judgment, it doesn’t rave enough.)
But over time, new religions have arisen: Google. Facebook. In photography forums, similar battles rage between proponents of Canon and Nikon. There are even e-book religious wars: Kindle vs. Nook.
And now this: Samsung.
Samsung? Welcome to the big leagues.
So what is going on here? Why would somebody take time out of his day to blast a heap of toxicity to the reviewer of a cellphone?
In politics, scientists describe a communication theory called the hostile media effect. That’s when you perceive media coverage of some hot topic to be biased against your opinion, no matter how evenhanded the coverage actually is.
In electronics, though, that effect is magnified by the powerful motivating forces of fear.
When you buy a product, you are, in a way, locking yourself in. You’re committing to a brand. Often, you’re committing to thousands of dollars in software for that platform, or lenses for that camera, or e-books for that reader. You have a deeply vested interest in being right. Whenever somebody comes along and says, in print, that there might be something better – well, that’s scary.
In that case, you don’t just perceive the commentator to be putting down your gadget. He’s putting you down. He’s insulting your intelligence, because that’s not the product you chose. He’s saying that you made the wrong choice, and all of those thousands of dollars of apps and lenses and books were throwing bad money after good. He’s saying you’re a sap.
The effect in the gadget realm is further amplified by social appearances. We probably have Apple to thank for turning electronics into fashion accessories: you are what you carry.
For example, Microsoft’s Zune was a beautiful, well-designed music player. So why did it die? Because it wasn’t even remotely cool to own one. The iPod was cool. The dancing silhouettes in the iPod ads were cool. You wouldn’t want people to think you’re pathetic, would you?
Here again, a review that pans your chosen gadget winds up insulting you. It’s not just saying, “you made the wrong choice”; now it’s saying, “and you have no taste.”
All right. But why electronics? Why aren’t there flame wars among proponents of different brands of breakfast cereal, or car-rental outfits, or insurance companies?
Partly, no doubt, because these areas haven’t been made into a subject of standard reviews, as have books, theater, movies, restaurants and technology. There is no weekly Times column that reviews breakfast cereals. (Hey editors! Are you listening?)
But in electronics, the Internet is surely a factor, too. Tech products are the subjects of religious wars because the Internet itself is a technical forum. And its anonymity encourages people to vent in ways that would never be comfortable, acceptable or tolerated in face-to-face conversation.
I’d love to suggest that we could all be more civil in our interactions. I’d love to propose that readers write their objections with less vitriol. It would be great if people could learn that they’re worthy individuals no matter what electronics they own.
But that would be like saying, “We should all exercise more” or “Countries should just get along.” Some things are human nature, wired too deeply to change.
Apparently, gadget sensitivity is one of them.

Great Leadership: 10 Essential Leadership Models

Great Leadership: 10 Essential Leadership Models

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

10 Essential Leadership Models

While there have been thousands of books written about leadership, there are a handful of leadership models that have served me well as a leader and leadership development practitioner. These are the tried and true models that have shifted my thinking about leadership and help create teachable leadership moments for others. Mind you, I’m not a scholar, so the models I favor tend to be simple, practical, and I have to had seen evidence that they are effective.

Here are 10 leadership models that I believe any leader or aspiring leader should be familiar with (Kudos to Mind Tools for supplying many of the summaries in the links, and to Vou):

1. Situational Leadership.
Developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey, it’s a timeless classic. If I could only teach one model to a new manager, it might be this one. It’s all about adapting your leadership style to the developmental needs, or “maturity level”, of your employees. It’s easy to understand and can be used on a daily basis. Your only dilemma will be which version to choose: Hersey or Blanchard? I say Blanchard, but that’s because they follow @Great Leadership. (-:

2. Servant Leadership.
A philosophy and practice of leadership developed by Robert K. Greenleaf. The underlying premise here is that it’s less about you as a leader and all about taking care of those around you. It’s a noble and honorable way to lead and conduct your life.

3. Blake and Mouton’s Leadership Grid.
OK, so it’s really more of a management model, but it’s another timeless classic. Explained by a nice, simple 2x2 grid, it’s all about balancing your concern for people and your concerns for getting things done (tasks). You gotta love those 4x4 grids!

4. Emotional Intelligence.
While Daniel Goleman’s book popularized EQ, his HBR article “What Makes a Leader?” does a great job explaining why the “soft stuff” is so essential to be an effective leader.

5. Kouzes and Posner’s Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.
K&P do a nice job breaking leadership down into five practices: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. I’ve always liked the Leadership Practices Inventory 360 degree assessment that supports the model.

6. Jim’s Collin’s Level Five Leadership.
First published in a 2001 Harvard Business Review article, and then in the book, "From Good to Great, Collin’s leadership model describes kind of a hierarchy of leadership capabilities, with level 5 being a mix of humility and will.

7. The Diamond Model of Leadership.
Although not as widely known as Collin’s Level Five model, my colleague Jim Clawson actually wrote the book Level Three Leadership two years earlier than the Collin’s HBR article. Jim introduced the Diamond Model, which describes four elements of leadership: yourself, others, task, and organization.

8. Six Leadership Passages.
Charan, Drotter, and Noel did a nice job explaining six key developmental passages a leader can advance through in thier book The Leadership Pipeline, along with the skills required to be successful for each passage. I actually came up with my own six passages, in which I made a distinction between management and leadership.

9. Authentic Leadership.
I’ve only recently become a fan of Bill George’s work (True North), and it’s made a difference in how I think about leadership and leadership development. Instead of trying to find and copy the prefect set of leadership characteristics, George argues that you’re better off figuring out who you are and what’s important to you, and leading in a way that’s true to yourself.

10. The GROW model.
Widely attributed to Sir John Whittmore (although it’s not certain who really came up with it), GROW stands for goal, reality, obstacles, options, and way, will, or what’s next, depending on which version you use. It’s really more of a coaching model than a leadership model. However, it’s an essential tool for leaders and one of the easiest to understand and effective coaching models I’ve come across.

How about you? What leadership model has served you the best? Please include a link to a summary of the model, and no shameless self-promotions allowed - except for my own. (-:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Public Workers Face Continued Layoffs, and Recovery Is Hurt -

Public Workers Face New Rash of Layoffs, Hurting Recovery

Companies have been slowly adding workers for more than two years. But pink slips are still going out in a crucial area: government.

In California, the governor is threatening to eliminate 15,000 state jobs. When school begins in Cleveland this fall, more than 500 teachers probably will be out of work. And in Trenton — which has already cut a third of its police force, hundreds of school district employees and at least 150 other public workers — the only way the city will forestall the loss of 60 more firefighters is if a federal grant comes through.

Government payrolls grew in the early part of the recovery, largely because of federal stimulus measures. But since its postrecession peak in April 2009 (not counting temporary Census hiring), the public sector has shrunk by 706,000 jobs. The losses appeared to be tapering off earlier this year, but have accelerated for the last three months, creating the single biggest drag on the recovery in many areas.

With the economy expanding, albeit slowly, state tax revenues have started to recover and are estimated to exceed prerecession levels next year. Yet governors and legislatures are keeping a tight rein on spending, whether to refill depleted rainy-day funds or because of political inclination.

At the same time, costs for health care, social services, pensions and education are still rising. Fourteen states plan to resolve their budget gaps by reducing aid to local governments, according to a report by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

So while the federal government has grown a little since the recession, and many states have recently begun to add a few jobs, local governments are making new cuts that outweigh those gains. More than a quarter of municipal governments are planning layoffs this year, according to a survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. They are being squeezed not only by declining federal and state support, but by their devastated property tax base.

"The unfortunate reality is our revenue streams have not rebounded," said Timothy R. Hacker, the city manager of North Las Vegas, which has cut its work force to 1,300 from 2,300 and is about to lay off 130 more. "Shaking this recession is becoming increasingly difficult."

Pennsylvania, for example, has shed 5,400 government jobs this year, and many school districts and social service agencies are contemplating more layoffs. "We have slipped to the middle of the pack in terms of job growth," said Mark Price, a labor economist at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. "And that was driven mainly by the fact that we lost so many jobs in the public sector."

Public workers became a point of contention in the presidential campaign recently when Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, criticized President Obama for wanting to increase the number of government employees through stimulus measures. "He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers," Mr. Romney said, adding: "It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Mr. Obama has made the counterargument that during past recessions the government sector has grown, rather than shrunk. The White House later said he meant recessions and the recoveries that followed.

"Each time there was a recession with a Republican president," he said, "we compensated by making sure that government didn't see a drastic reduction in employment."

If governments still employed the same percentage of the work force as they did in 2009, the unemployment rate would be a percentage point lower, according to an analysis by Moody's Analytics. At the pace so far this year, layoffs will siphon off $15 billion in spending power. Yale economists have said that if state and local governments had followed the pattern of previous recessions, they would have added at least 1.4 million jobs.

Conservatives have argued that the government was bloated after a hiring surge during the housing boom and is now returning to a more appropriate size. Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, criticized the president's budget proposal to give states an additional $30 billion for teachers, police officers and firefighters. "Those new public sector jobs must be paid for with more debt and taxes borne by the private sector," he wrote.

But those with disappearing jobs say that the effects are not just economic — they mean longer response times to fires, larger class sizes, and in some cases lawsuits when short-staffed agencies are unable to provide the required services.

After 32 firefighters were laid off in Muncie, Ind., the area that could be reached within eight minutes was cut by half, said Mike Whited, the president of the firefighters union. A federal grant restored 25 workers, but the city does not know if it will be renewed.

Mr. Whited chafed at portrayals of public workers as overpaid or greedy, saying his union and others had made concessions, including paying more for their health insurance and forfeiting raises. "I think a lot of people don't understand what we do," he said. "They're looking for somebody to blame, and I think they're being led the wrong way."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 20, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of government jobs lost since the postrecession peak in April 2009 as 657,000, rather than 706,000.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog: A Father's Advice: F. Scott Fitzgerald on What to Worry About

A Father's Advice: F. Scott Fitzgerald on What to Worry About

Weekend Supplement

In the hundreds of letters authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald that have been collected, we have this one dated August 8, 1933. In it, he offered the following advice to his 11-year-old daughter Scottie, while she was away at camp. It is still good advice today.


I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy--but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed page, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare's in which the line occurs Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds....

Half-wit, I will conclude. Things to worry about:
    Worry about courage
    Worry about Cleanliness
    Worry about efficiency
    Worry about horsemanship
    Worry about…
Things not to worry about:
    Don't worry about popular opinion
    Don't worry about dolls
    Don't worry about the past
    Don't worry about the future
    Don't worry about growing up
    Don't worry about anybody getting ahead of you
    Don't worry about triumph
    Don't worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
    Don't worry about mosquitoes
    Don't worry about flies
    Don't worry about insects in general
    Don't worry about parents
    Don't worry about boys
    Don't worry about disappointments
    Don't worry about pleasures
    Don't worry about satisfactions
Things to think about:
    What am I really aiming at?
    How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
    (a) Scholarship
    (b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
    (c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

leadership blog

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Friday, June 15, 2012

What Republicans Think -

What Republicans Think

Democrats frequently ask me why the Republicans have become so extreme. As they describe the situation, they usually fall back on some sort of illness metaphor. Republicans have a mania. President Obama has said that Republicans have a "fever" that he hopes will break if he is re-elected.

I guess I'd say Republicans don't have an illness; they have a viewpoint. Let me describe it this way: In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state. Between Ike and George W. Bush, Republican leaders basically accepted that model. Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but, in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats.

But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called "Our Age of Anxiety":

"We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. ... We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism."

To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards.

America's economic stagnation is just more gradual. In the decades after World War II, the U.S. economy grew by well over 3 percent a year, on average. But, since then, it has failed to keep pace with changing realities. The average growth was a paltry 1.7 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. It averaged 0.6 percent growth between 2009 and 2011. Wages have failed to keep up with productivity. Family net worth is back at the same level it was at 20 years ago.

In America as in Europe, Republicans argue, the welfare state is failing to provide either security or dynamism. The safety net is so expensive it won't be there for future generations. Meanwhile, the current model shifts resources away from the innovative sectors of the economy and into the bloated state-supported ones, like health care and education. Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle.

The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has now become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly.

This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing.

Mitt Romney hasn't put it this way. He wants to keep the focus on President Obama. But this worldview is implied in his (extremely vague) proposals. He would structurally reform the health care system, moving toward a more market-based system. He would simplify the tax code. He would reverse 30 years of education policy, decentralizing power and increasing parental choice. The intention is the same, to create a model that will spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival.

Democrats have had trouble grasping the Republican diagnosis because they don't have the same sense that the current model is collapsing around them. In his speech in Cleveland on Thursday, President Obama offered an entirely different account of where we are. In the Obama version, the welfare-state model was serving America well until it was distorted a decade ago by a Republican Party intent on serving the rich and shortchanging the middle class.

In his speech, Obama didn't vow to reform the current governing model but to rebalance it. The rich would pay a little more and everyone else would get a little more. He'd "double down" on clean energy, revive the Grand Bargain from last summer's budget talks, invest in infrastructure, job training and basic research.

Obama championed targeted subsidies and tax credits. Republicans, meanwhile, envision comprehensive systemic change. The G.O.P. vision is of an entirely different magnitude: replace the tax code, replace the health care system and transform entitlements.

This is what this election is about: Is the 20th-century model obsolete, or does it just need rebalancing? Is Obama oblivious to this historical moment or are Republicans overly radical, risky and impractical?

Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions about how much change is needed. I suspect the likely collapse of the European project will profoundly influence which perception the country buys this November.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Follower Problem -

The Follower Problem

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.

The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That's because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject's nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.

As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a "differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker." Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September.

Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.

Why can't today's memorial designers think straight about just authority?

Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It's hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those "Question Authority" bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don't believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we're proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don't know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don't trust their institutions. That's not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It's mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

In his memoir, "At Ease," Eisenhower delivered the following advice: "Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you." Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.

To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog: Colin Powell's 13 Rules

Colin Powell's 13 Rules

It Worked For Me
Colin Powell has written a valuable memoir. It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership is a collection of lessons learned and anecdotes drawn from his life. The 44 stand-alone chapters are an easy read and the stories make good points. The theme of the book is that it is all about people and relationships.

The book begins with his 13 Rules and why he has hung on to them over the years. Here they are with some of his thoughts on each:
  1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning. This rule reflects an attitude and not a prediction. I have always tried to keep my confidence and optimism up, no matter how difficult the situation. Things will get better. You will make them better.
  2. Get mad, then get over it. I've worked hard over the years to make sure that when I get mad, I get over it quickly and never lose control of myself.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it. Accept that your position was faulty, not your ego. Loyalty is disagreeing strongly, and loyalty is executing faithfully.
  4. It can be done! Don't surround yourself with instant skeptics. At the same time, don't shut out skeptics and colleagues who give you solid counterviews.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it. Don't rush into things.
  6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. Superior leadership is often a matter of superb instinct. Often, the factual analysis alone will indicate the right choice. More often, your judgment will be needed to select from the best courses of action.
  7. You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours. Since ultimate responsibility is yours, make sure the choice is yours and you are not responding to the pressure and desire of others.
  8. Check small things. Success ultimately rests on small things, lots of small things. Leaders have to have a feel for small things—a feel for what is going on in the depths of an organization where small things reside. The followers, the troops, live in a world of small things. Leaders must find ways, formal and informal, to get visibility into that world.
  9. Share credit. People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water. Share the credit, take the blame, and quietly find out and fix things that went wrong. Whenever you place the cause of one of your actions outside yourself, it's an excuse and not a reason.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind. In the "heat of the battle"—whether military or corporate—kindness, like calmness, reassures followers and holds their confidence. Kindness connects you with other human beings in a bond of mutual respect. If you care for your followers and show them kindness, they will recognize and care for you.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding. Purpose is the destination of a vision. It energizes that vision, gives it force and drive. It should be positive and powerful, and serve the better angels of an organization.
  12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Fear is a normal human emotion. It is not in itself a killer. We can learn to be aware when fear grips us, and can train to operate through and in spite of our fear. If, on the other hand, we don't understand that fear is normal and has to be controlled and overcome, it will paralyze us and stop us in our tracks. We will no longer think clearly or analyze rationally. We prepare for it and control it; we never let it control us. If it does, we cannot lead.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. Perpetual optimism, believing in yourself, believing in your purpose, believing you will prevail, and demonstrating passion and confidence is a force multiplier. If you believe and have prepared your followers, the followers will believe.

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Research Shows That the Smarter People Are, the More Susceptible They Are to Cognitive Bias : The New Yorker



Here's a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we're not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don't carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren't a faster way of doing the math; they're a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Although Kahneman is now widely recognized as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, his work was dismissed for years. Kahneman recounts how one eminent American philosopher, after hearing about his research, quickly turned away, saying, "I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity."

The philosopher, it turns out, got it backward. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that's why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.

West and his colleagues began by giving four hundred and eighty-two undergraduates a questionnaire featuring a variety of classic bias problems. Here's a example:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Your first response is probably to take a shortcut, and to divide the final answer by half. That leads you to twenty-four days. But that's wrong. The correct solution is forty-seven days.

West also gave a puzzle that measured subjects' vulnerability to something called "anchoring bias," which Kahneman and Tversky had demonstrated in the nineteen-seventies. Subjects were first asked if the tallest redwood tree in the world was more than X feet, with X ranging from eighty-five to a thousand feet. Then the students were asked to estimate the height of the tallest redwood tree in the world. Students exposed to a small "anchor"—like eighty-five feet—guessed, on average, that the tallest tree in the world was only a hundred and eighteen feet. Given an anchor of a thousand feet, their estimates increased seven-fold.

But West and colleagues weren't simply interested in reconfirming the known biases of the human mind. Rather, they wanted to understand how these biases correlated with human intelligence. As a result, they interspersed their tests of bias with various cognitive measurements, including the S.A.T. and the Need for Cognition Scale, which measures "the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking."

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, "people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them." This finding wouldn't surprise Kahneman, who admits in "Thinking, Fast and Slow" that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. "My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy"—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—"as it was before I made a study of these issues," he writes.

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the "bias blind spot." This "meta-bias" is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn't a new concept, West's latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called "framing effects." In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

And here's the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of "cognitive sophistication." As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, "indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots." This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes. Education also isn't a savior; as Kahneman and Shane Frederick first noted many years ago, more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.

What explains this result? One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

Drawing by James Stevenson.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Aspirin for Aneurysms « Leadership Freak

Aspirin for Aneurysms


Aspirin for aneurysms won't help much. Poorly solved problems return and multiply when pain goes away.

The good thing about pain is it motivates our search for solutions. The bad thing about the absence of pain is wrongly thinking problems are solved when they aren't.

Pain drives us toward inadequate solutions
when the goal is making pain stop.

The absence of pain doesn't indicate the absence of problems.

Pain is bad when we:

  1. Focus on making pain stop.
  2. Solve surface issues.
  3. Neglect systemic issues.

Neglecting systemic issues creates cycles of failure – pain – surface solutions – failure …

Pain is good when we:

  1. Look for root causes.
  2. Avoid blame and seek solutions.
  3. Think long-term rather than quick fix.


Chronic pain-points call for system-solutions. More importantly, maximizing strengths and capitalizing on opportunities demands system thinking. Success calls for:

  1. Communication systems.
  2. Accountability systems.
  3. Transparency systems.
  4. Leadership development systems.
  5. Problem solving and conflict resolution systems.


Think of systems as:

  1. Repeated behaviors.
  2. Pre-determined behaviors designed for specific situations. You know what to do before it happens.
  3. Pathways to success.
  4. Confidence builders.
  5. Clarity creators.

The danger of systems is complexity and oppression. Systems, however, can be as simple as asking the same questions at the beginning of weekly team meetings. For example:

  1. What are this week's greatest opportunities?
  2. How will we capitalize on our greatest opportunities?
  3. Who's the champion of this opportunity?
  4. How do we know we're winning?

Systems could be check lists or standard operating procedures (SOP's).


The path toward exponential success is paved with systems. Without systems you'll fall into the cycle of failure – pain – surface solutions.

More on the power of systems: "Thriving Through Processes."

What systems have been most useful for you or your organization?

Where would systems be most helpful to you or your organization?

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2012 at 8:07 am and is filed under Communication, Insecurity, Leading, Marks of leaders, Personal Growth, Power, Strengths, Stress, Taking others higher, Teams. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Moral Diet -

The Moral Diet

In the 1970s, the gift shop at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was an informal affair. It was staffed by about 300 mostly elderly volunteers, and there were cash drawers instead of registers. The problem was that of the shop's $400,000 in annual revenue, somebody was stealing $150,000.

Dan Weiss, the gift shop manager at the time who is now the president of Lafayette College, investigated. He discovered that there wasn't one big embezzler. Bunches of people were stealing. Dozens of elderly art lovers were each pilfering a little.

That's one of the themes of Dan Ariely's new book "The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty." Nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little. Ariely and his colleagues gave thousands of people 20 number problems. When they tackled the problems and handed in the answer sheet, people got an average of four correct responses. When they tackled the problems, shredded their answers sheets and self-reported the scores, they told the researches they got six correct responses. They cheated a little, but not a lot.

That's because most of us think we are pretty wonderful. We can cheat a little and still keep that "good person" identity. Most people won't cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

Ariely, who is one of the most creative social scientists on the planet, invented other tests to illustrate this phenomenon. He put cans of Coke and plates with dollar bills in the kitchens of college dorms. People walked away with the Cokes, but not the dollar bills, which would have felt more like stealing.

He had one blind colleague and one sighted colleague take taxi rides. The drivers cheated the sighted colleague by taking long routes much more often than they cheated the blind one, even though she would have been easier to mislead. They would have felt guilty cheating a blind woman.

Ariely points out that we are driven by morality much more than standard economic models allow. But I was struck by what you might call the Good Person Construct and the moral calculus it implies. For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I'm still a good person.

The Good Person isn't shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It's enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

Obviously, though, there's a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can't buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently: I was honest with that blind passenger because I'm a wonderful person. I cheated the sighted one because she probably has too much money anyway.

The key job in the Good Person Construct is to manage your rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep them from getting egregious. Ariely suggests you reset your moral gauge from time to time. Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations. So step back. Break your patterns and begin anew. This is what Yom Kippur and confessionals are for.

Next time you feel tempted by something, recite the Ten Commandments. A small triggering nudge at the moment of temptation, Ariely argues, is more effective than an epic sermon meant to permanently transform your whole soul.

I'd add that you really shouldn't shoot for goodness, which is so vague and forgiving. You should shoot for rectitude. We're mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.

Ariely is doing social science experiments and trying to measure behavior. But I thought his book was an outstanding encapsulation of the good-hearted and easygoing moral climate of the age. A final thought occurred to me. As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, given our natures, or is it settling for mediocrity?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The New Neuroscience of Choking : The New Yorker



Last Sunday, at the Memorial golf tournament in Dublin, Ohio, Rickie Fowler looked like the man to beat. He entered the tournament with momentum: Fowler had recently gained his first ever P.G.A. tour victory, and he had finished in the top ten in his last four starts. On the first hole of the final round, Fowler sank a fourteen-foot birdie putt, placing him within two shots of the lead.

And that's when things fell apart. Fowler pulled a shot on the second hole and never recovered. On the next hole, he hit his approach into a greenside bunker and ended up three-putting for a double bogey. He finished with an eighty-four, his worst round on the tour by five shots. Although he began the day in third place, he finished in a tie for fifty-second, sixteen shots behind the winner, Tiger Woods.

In short, Fowler choked. Like LeBron James—who keeps on missing free throws when the game is on the line—he seems to have been undone by the pressure of the situation. And choking isn't just a hazard for athletes: the condition also afflicts opera singers and actors, hedge-fund traders and chess grandmasters. All of sudden, just when these experts most need to perform, their expertise is lost. The grace of talent disappears.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his 2000 article on the psychology of choking, the phenomenon can seem like an amorphous category of failure. Nevertheless, choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much. The sequence of events typically goes like this: When people get anxious about performing, they naturally become particularly self-conscious; they begin scrutinizing actions that are best performed on autopilot. The expert golfer, for instance, begins contemplating the details of his swing, making sure that the elbows are tucked and his weight is properly shifted. This kind of deliberation can be lethal for a performer.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has documented the choking process in her lab. She uses putting on the golf green as her experimental paradigm. Not surprisingly, Beilock has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. By concentrating on their golf game, they can avoid beginner's mistakes.

A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt—once they have memorized the necessary movements—analyzing the stroke is a dangerous waste of time. And this is why, when experienced golfers are forced to think about their swing mechanics, they shank the ball. "We bring expert golfers into our lab, and we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up," Beilock says. "When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't need to pay attention to every step in what you're doing."

But this only raises questions: What triggers all of these extra thoughts? And why does it only happen to some athletes, performers, and students? Everyone gets nervous; not everyone chokes.

A new study in Neuron, by a team of neuroscientists at Caltech and University College of London, begins to solve this mystery. The experiment featured a simple arcade game, in which subjects attempted to move a virtual ball into a square target within two seconds. To make the task more difficult, the ball appeared to be weighted and connected to a spring, which flexed and bent as if it were real.

After a short training period, the subjects were put into an fMRI machine and offered a range of rewards, from nothing to a hundred dollars, if they could successfully place the ball into the square. (The subjects were later given an actual reward based on their score.) At first, their performance steadily improved as the incentives increased; the extra money was motivating. However, this effect only lasted for a little while. Once the rewards passed a certain threshold—and the particular tipping point depended on the individual—the scientists observed a surprising decrease in success. The extra cash hurt performance; the subjects began to choke.

Because the game was unfolding inside a brain scanner—an admittedly imperfect tool, which uses changes in blood flow as a proxy for neural activity—the scientists could begin to decipher the mental mechanics behind this process. They quickly zeroed in on a subcortical region called the ventral striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of various pleasures, from taking cocaine to eating ice cream to receiving cash gifts. (The striatum is dense with dopamine neurons.) As expected, the striatum tracked the financial stakes of the game, so that telling subjects about a bigger payout led to increased activity in the brain area. So far, so obvious: the extra money led people to get more excited about the potential rewards, which led them to work harder. This is why businesses give people bonuses.

However, when the subjects actually began playing the video game, the striatum did something very peculiar. All of a sudden, the activity of the brain area became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward; bigger incentives led to less excitement. Furthermore, activity in the insula was closely correlated with success, with decreased activity leading to decreased performance.

What explains this result? The researchers argue that the subjects were victims of loss aversion, the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good . (In other words, the pleasure of winning a hundred dollars is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount.)

At first glance, this hypothesis doesn't make much sense, since there were no actual losses in the experiment; subjects were never punished for failure. According to the scientists, however, the act of playing the game leads people to "encode" the potential gain as an actual gain, which means they start worrying about losing it. They are counting chickens that haven't hatched, contemplating payoffs that have yet to be paid, thinking about tournament wins they haven't achieved.

And this is why the striatum, that bit of brain focussed on rewards, was going quiet. Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure. What's more, the scientists demonstrated that the most loss-averse individuals showed the biggest drop-off in performance when the stakes were raised. In other words, the fear of failure was making them more likely to fail. They kept on losing because they hated losses.

Such results should probably make us rethink the role of incentives in the workplace. Although we assume that there's a simple, linear relationship between financial rewards and productivity—that's why Wall Street gives its best employees huge bonuses—such rewards can backfire, especially when the task is difficult, or requires expertise. Consider a classic study led by the psychologist Sam Glucksberg in the early nineteen-sixties. He gave subjects a standard test of creativity known as "Duncker's candle problem." A "high drive" group was told that the person solving the task in the shortest amount of time would receive twenty dollars. A "low drive" group, in contrast, was reassured that their speed didn't matter. To Glucksberg's surprise, the subjects with an incentive to think quickly took, on average, more than three minutes longer to find the answer.

There is something poignant about this deconstruction of choking. It suggests that the reason some performers fall apart on the back nine or at the free-throw line is because they care too much. They really want to win, and so they get unravelled by the pressure of the moment. The simple pleasures of the game have vanished; the fear of losing is what remains.

Photograph of LeBron James by Jim Rogash/Getty Images.