Believing we’re right vs. being right. Sensing we’re right is an addiction of confidence that correlates with our inborn need for certainty. It helps us give meaning to our lives. But this self-induced assurance is no guarantee of being right. According to Daniel Kahneman, who studied when we should trust our gut and when we should not, at least two conditions must be met before we can trust our “sixth sense.” First, you have a proven track record of expertise (for example, you would be fool to pick stocks solely by relying on hunches). Second, you’re receptive to feedback on whether you’re on the right path or veering towards nonsense or, worse, failure.
The gut is older than the head by thousands of centuries. Hence, it’s a more powerful engine of condensed reasoning. Intuition is knowing something without knowing why. But it’s generally vulnerable to wishful or convoluted thinking. In a rather fascinating way, our biases are the reason why we don’t understand them. I’m an advocate of relying on the gut (vs. the head) in times of uncertainty, complexity or risk. It took me a long time to appreciate the power of my subliminal mind over the machinery of my conscious wits in those circumstances. That said, if you do choose to go with your gut, never overestimate its peculiar limitations.
When to multitask vs. when not. Decades of research by cognitive psychologists say it’s impossible to multitask without a loss of productivity, creativity or efficiency. The brain simply cannot do two things at once without slowing down. Hence multitasking is no more than multi-switching between activities with sub-optimal results. Plus, multitaskers lose their focus rather quickly – they are easily distracted. Juggling certain mundane or routine tasks may occasionally increase our productivity but it certainly does not improve our effectiveness.
If you want to be a better multitasker (mindful of its drawbacks), do it when one task is a proven skill, like entering data while formulating conclusions or when parallel activities actually reinforce one another, like taking notes during a meeting. Do not multitask when you might miss an important detail (like skimming email on your cell phone during a negotiation). Don’t even think about task switching when you’re trying to focus on high-stakes priorities or risk management issues, like texting while driving. And it’s just rude to check your email in the presence of family or friends.
Planning vs. serendipity. I am a planner by nature. Yet I prize openness, flexibility and serendipity when it comes to emergent or unexpected possibilities. I didn’t plan my career path. Opportunities just emerged, time and time again. I tried a lot of different things until I discovered what my talents are. Eisenhower may have captured this contradiction best when he observed that plans are useless but planning is everything. A plan is a statement of intention. It especially has value when limited resources are a factor. Good planning identifies risks that might impair what we think or hope will happen. Resources dictate what we can do, priorities inform us why we want to do it and process tells us how you do it.
Planning is usually top down; serendipity is always bottom up. Plans are made or approved by those in charge; serendipity comes from within, where ideas percolate and imagination rules. Our imagination channels our intelligence and serendipity happens when we take the time to listen to ourselves and then question our assumptions about what the future may bring. It liberates the opportunities that await in the shadows of uncertainty and flows from relentless experimentation. Emerson said: “All life is an experiment.” You can talk all you want about the merits of having a good plan but, ultimately, this means little if you’re not open to possibilities.
Grit vs. quit. I repeatedly extol the benefits of grit. But, sometimes, quitting can be the smarter choice. I wrote a book decades ago called The Game of Life. Its thesis can be summarized as follows: See your people puzzles as opportunities and adventures, not as problems or frustrations. To play the game masterfully, we must learn its rules, understand the machinations of the especially difficult (if not artful) players, and use tactics that disarm rather than energize those adversaries. In pursuit of our goals, we must acknowledge our limitations and understand the implicit trade-offs. We must know that creativity, tact and persistence is the formula for winning consistently.
That said, we also need to know the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. We must appreciate the concept of opportunity cost. As Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” Quit is not the opposite of grit. Quitting frees up time to do what may actually matter more. Quitting is often about maturity: there comes a time when the fight is not worth the effort, where goals must be realistically assessed, re-calibrated as necessary, and sometimes recognized as unattainable. We can’t avoid our fate but we can choose our destiny. Grit is relentlessly testing, challenging and exploring the possibilities. Quit is letting go and learning from the experience. Both enrich the meaning of life.