[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind in what makes peak performance tick with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we look at how Toyota turned the worst automobile factory in America into the best without changing any personnel. We discuss the paradox of choice, paralysis by analysis and the danger of having too many choices. We look at the vital importance of having a multi-disciplinary viewpoint to truly understand reality. We ask if there are any quick fixes for wisdom and much more with Dr. Barry Schwartz
The science of success continues to grow with more with more than 1,000,000 downloads. Listeners in over 100 countries, hitting number one new noteworthy and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, conducting amazing interviews, listening to podcast and more.
Because of that, we created an epic resource just for you. A detailed guide called How to Organize and Remember Everything. You can get it completely free by texting the word “smarter “to the number 44222. Again, It’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we went deep on negotiation, why no matter what you do, it’s essential to master the skill of negotiation. We looked at the barriers that prevent people like you from negotiating effectively. Why the common sense rules of the real world are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusion. We examined the most powerful type of questions that you can use in negotiation, talked about the single biggest mistake you can make at negotiation and much more with master negotiator Kwame Christian.
If you want to learn the proven tactics for influencing someone and getting what you want, be sure to listen to that episode. Lastly, if you want to get all this incredible information, links, transcripts, everything we talk about on this episode and much more, be sure to check out our show notes. Just go to scienceofsuccess.co and hit the show notes button at the top.
[0:02:47.9] MB: Today, we have another amazing guest on the show, Barry Schwartz. Barry is a professor at the Haas school of business at UC Berkeley. He’s authored over 10 books including the paradox of choice, why we work and practical wisdom as well as more than a hundred professional journal articles. He’s been featured on the TED stage three times in the New York Times, USA today, CNN and many more media outlets.
Barry, welcome to the science of success.
[0:03:12.6] BS: Thanks, it’s great to be with you, I appreciate the invitation.
[0:03:15.6] MB: Well we’re very excited to have you on here today. For listeners who may not be familiar with you and your background, tell us your story?
[0:03:23.5] BS: Well, my story is that I only applied for one job in my whole life, I applied for a job as Swarthmore College as I was finishing up my PHD at the University of Pennsylvania. I got the job and I spent 45 years there. Just retired this past June and moved to the west coast to be closer to kids and grandkids. It’s really a remarkably boring life story. At the time I took the job at Swarthmore, I didn’t know what a good job was, I discovered that I had fallen in to what was for me the perfect job and I took full advantage of it, as I say, 45 years.
[0:04:05.4] MB: At Swarthmore, your research took a really interesting arc. I mean I’m sure many people are familiar with the book that you’ve written. How did your quest to kind of understand humans and the way that we behave lead you down that path?
[0:04:20.7] BS: Well, that’s actually one of the great blessings at Swarthmore. My training was in the field of psychology called Animal Learning and mostly derived from the work of BF Skinner who was a very prominent psychologist for half a century but your listeners may not even know who he is anymore.
But he had this view that basically, the way to understand all kinds of creatures including human beings is by looking at the rewards and punishments that our various actions produce. That we were creatures who pursue rewards and avoid punishments and if you understood that, you understood everything.
That always struck me as wrong, as inaccurate, it didn’t seem to fit my own behavior, it didn’t seem to fit the behavior of the people I knew and worked with. I sort of devoted myself to criticizing this approach but I had a very narrow view of what that meant and the great thing about Swarthmore College is that it’s easy to interact with people in other disciplines.
I spent a lot of time with philosophers, with political scientists, with economists and gradually my concerns about Skinner psychology expanded to include this sort of ideology, that economics has purveyed for the last several hundred years. The books I wrote, even the ones before the ones that you mentioned were really focused not just on criticizing a particular view that came out of psychology but also criticizing the dominant ideology of western societies which comes out of economics would never have happened if I had not been at a place like Swarthmore which makes talking across discipline so easy. That’s my history.
[0:06:11.4] MB: Sorry, what were you going to say?
[0:06:13.6] BS: Well, I mean, you know. Students occasionally ask me, well how can you do that? I want to have your career and I tell them, well you can’t. I was just lucky and the world doesn’t support this kind of multidisciplinary activity in the way that it did when I started out a long time ago.
[0:06:34.9] MB: You know, I think multi-disciplinary knowledge and thinking about things form different kind of pools of wisdom, such an important way to understand the world and longtime listeners will know that on the show, we’re huge fans of Warren Buffet’s business partner, Charlie Monger who talks at length about how the only real way to understand reality is to come at it from a multidisciplinary approach.
[0:07:00.0] BS: I think that’s right, the trouble is that fields in the sciences have become more and more technical and more and more specialized so there’s a sense that you can’t be good at one thing while you’re trying to learn anything. That’s produced a kind of silo in and tunnel vision on the part of most social scientists and natural scientist too. The inter disciplinary side of things has to be provided by someone else because people working in the lab don’t have time to learn what economist say and what sociologist say and so on.
It falls to people who are writing about what scientist do to try to make those connections across disciplines and then you hope that they actually know enough of the science if they get the science right which is why I tell young people that they simply can’t do what I did. The world won’t allow them to.
I agree with Charlie Monger about the importance of inter disciplinary. It may well be that the way you achieve it is by having multiple people who talk to one another, each of them a specialist but their viewpoints converge on a common problem and out of that emerges a more nuanced and complete picture that any one of them could give.
[0:08:23.4] MB: You know, in many ways, what we try to do here on the science of success is pull from experts like you, people in various different fields and try to deliver in some small way, a glimpse at this rich, multi-disciplinary texture of reality.
[0:08:39.9] BS: No, I very much appreciate it, it’s just you know, a lot of people don’t like to hear as an answer to their question, it’s complicated. They want a simple straight forward answer that points them down the path they have to travel in order to be successful or to be happy or to be whatever it is they think they want.
The truth is that the answers to the questions like this about how to live your life productively and fruitfully are complicated. They’re not simple. If you’re expecting simple answers, you’re either going to be misled or you’re going to be disappointed.
[0:09:19.8] MB: Such an important point and I couldn’t agree more. I think whenever we try to make something too simple and kind of force people down a path of “these are the 10 things you need to do to be happy” or whatever it might be, we miss a lot of the subtlety and the nuance and the understanding that kind of digging in and getting a deeper and richer perspective can really give you.
[0:09:44.9] BS: I think that’s right. I think you should be — your listeners should be very weary of books that have lists.
[0:09:52.3] MB: I’d love to dig in to something you touched on a moment ago, we could talk about this all day but I want to talk about some of the really important concepts that you’ve written about. You mentioned some of the dominant ideologies of western society, specifically economics and BF Skinner, the research he did on with pigeons and the work on the focus on rewards and punishments. Tell me about the way that we view the world today.
What are some of the flaws of that ideology? Specifically I know you’ve discussed and written at length about that within the world of and kind of the field of work.
[0:10:25.1] BS: Yes, you know, the little book I wrote, Why We Work, sort of begins with the views of Adam Smith who is the father of economics and he wrote his book, The Wealth of Nations, 250 years ago and his view was that people are lazy, they don’t want to work, they’d rather just sit on the couch munching chips and watching football games or whatever the 18th century equivalent of that was.
People are lazy, you got to get them off their behinds to do anything. The way you get them off their behinds is by paying them, by giving them rewards. If you give them rewards, it really doesn’t much matter what they do.
Since the only reason they’re doing anything is to get paid, they will do anything that gets them paid. This was an argument for creating workplaces where the work people did was repetitive, mechanical, mindless and relatively unskilled and their virtue of that was it seemed to cater to create efficiency.
I could train you up in 10 minutes to do your job. If the job I was giving you didn’t require much skill. If it required a lot of skill and discretion and judgment on your part then it might take months for you to become a satisfactory employee.
There was no point in creating jobs like that since you were basically only doing it to get paid anyway. That was his ideology and it gave rise to the industrial revolution and it was manifested at various points along the way, there was this discipline called Quote Scientific Management at the turn of the 20th century where people would go through factories with stopwatches and do time and motion studies to try to shape each task on the factory floor into the most efficient economical mindless task you could possibly do.
Again, the same ideology. People work for pay so it doesn’t matter what they do, why not make what they do as easy as possible. Very much like pigeons pecking for food or rats pressing levers for food. You have people pressing pans in a factory for food or for money.
That’s the ideology that has governed the shaping of the workplace in western society and it’s wrong. Yes, people worked for pay but they don’t work only for pay, people care about other things.
They want to be engaged in what they do, they want to have some digression and control over what they do, they want to learn, they want to be challenged, they want to be appreciated by and respected by their colleagues and supervisors and most important, they want to do something that has meaning.
Meaning is a complicated term but largely what it means to say that work has meaning is that at the end of the work day, you’ve done something to make somebody else’s life better even in some small way. All of those things matter to people, they matter more than the paycheck although without the paycheck, people wouldn’t be working.
We have systematically deprived people of opportunities to be engaged, challenged and have some control in their work lives. Gallop which polls people every year about their attitude toward work, finds that roughly 10% of the workforce internationally, describes itself as engaged by their work.
One in 10 people are eager to get out of bed every morning and go to work. That’s just a crime and I think it stems from this ideology that started with Adam Smith 250 years ago that has basically turned people into automata because they don’t have the opportunity to find jobs that they feel make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other people.
That’s what the book was about and there’s ample evidence that people really do care, not just about how they get paid but about what they do to get paid. When they think what they do is meaningful, they do better work. Not only is it better for them, it’s better for their customers and clients and it’s better for their companies because the companies end up being more profitable.
If you’re eager to go to work every day, your company is more successful than if you go to work reluctantly every day, it’s like, how could that not be true? And it is true. That’s what the book’s about.
[0:15:02.8] MB: Tell me about some of the ways that this kind of perspective on human nature has deprived people of these opportunities?
[0:15:11.3]BS: So, you know, the typical ascent, I’ll give you a striking example from about 30 years ago. There was a General Motors factory in Numi in Northern California that was by everyone’s account, the single worst factory in the automobile plant in the United States. The most defects, the slowest production, the most antagonism between labor and management, it was just an unmitigated disaster.
Toyota took over the plant, they wanted sort of a beachhead in the United States and they entered into a partnership with General Motors and took over the plant and over a period of about a year, they introduced the Toyota style of production.
That had many different characteristics but one of the central characteristics is that people on the shop floor were given the authority to stop production if they saw something wrong. That is to say, Toyota really cared about quality and they made everyone on the floor an agent to assure that there would be quality.
Which was very different from the way that GM plant had offered. In the space of two years, the plant went from being the worst automobile plant in the United states to being the best and what’s striking about this example is that the workforce didn’t change, it was the same people.
We used to think a lot of people thought the reason Japanese manufacturing is better than American is that you know, Japanese have all the self-discipline and self-control and they’re willing to do what they’re told and you can’t discipline the American workforce the way you can discipline the Japanese workforce.
This was done, this transformation was done with the same drug taking, alcohol drinking assembly line sabotaging American workers that had made the worst automobile plant in the country for General Motors just a few short years before. One saline characteristic of the Toyota plant is that there were these ropes hanging from the ceiling and anyone on the assembly line can pull on the rope if they see something wrong and it stops the assembly line.
You don’t need to go to a manager, you have autonomy and control and discretion and you are a partner in the pursuit of quality. An equal partner, you pull on the rope, the line stops and people try to figure out what’s gone wrong.
That strikes me as an example of how you can take work that people regard as meaningless and are doing only to get a paycheck and turn it into work that people regard as meaningful. You know, it doesn’t hurt to remind people on the assembly line that what they do has consequences for the health and safety of their fellow citizen’s right?
If you drive a defective car, you may get into an accident and you may get killed and your 18 month old baby may get killed. Every car you make, you have people’s lives in your hands. How much time do you think is devoted to reminding people on the assembly line that they’re responsible for the health and safety of their fellow citizens? I suspect not very much.
If you made that salient, the attitude people brought to the job would be quite different than the attitude they have when they think they’re just putting in rivets to get a paycheck. That’s just one dramatic example, it’s not hard to find others, I write in some detail about hospital janitors, this is work that my friend and colleague Amy Wrzesniewski has done.
You know, hospital janitors are at the very bottom of the hierarchy in hospitals. They’re essentially invisible and most of them are just punching a clock and doing the long list of tasks that they have to do, washing floors, emptying trash, making beds, stuff like that.
But there are some hospital janitors who think their job is to do whatever is necessary to enable to help the hospital to serve its mission of curing disease and easing suffering. They look for opportunities to do things that are not part of the job description, to make the patients feel a little less anxious and depressed, to make the patient’s families feel a little bit more comfortable.
They are always to help a nurse who has to turn a big patient so the patient doesn’t get bed sores. They’re always looking out and asking, what can I do to make the hospital run better? It’s not part of their job description, they don’t get paid for it but when you interview them, they tell you that this is why they love the job.
It’s not because they wash floors, it’s because they contribute to the curing of disease and the elimination of suffering. You can find this in any occupation as long as people are given enough space that they can create the kind of job that they think is worth doing.
We’ve made it harder and harder for people to find that kind of space by over supervising and over incentivizing the work that most of us do.
[0:20:26.3] MB: I think that’s a great point that it’s not part of the job description, it’s not what they’re being paid to do and the focus on just monitor rewards and punishments and incentives obscures something deeper.
[0:20:42.6]BS: Absolutely. I’ll give you another example but there is this chain that you see in malls all over the country called the Container Store, are you familiar with the Container Store?
[0:20:53.5] MB: Yeah, the Container Store is great.
[0:20:55.3]BS: Yeah, it sells pieces of plastic that we put stuff in that we probably shouldn’t have bought in the first place right? That’s what it does, if you walk into that store and I have now been in many of them and it seems to me that the attitude is the same in every one of them, the enthusiasm and knowledge and commitment that the people working in those stores bring to their jobs is unbelievable.
You know, most people working in malls think their job is to sell stuff. But people at the Container Store think their job is to solve your problem. You come in with a problem and they, knowing all of the inventory and stuff, they have the expertise to help you solve the problem.
That’s their job, if it means a sale, well that’s great, if it doesn’t, also great. By solving people’s problems, they will generate and maintain a loyal customer base. The enthusiasm with which the people in those stores do their work is simply extraordinary and it’s because effort has been made to make the work, to remind people that the work they do actually has meaning. The work they do actually makes the lives of other people better.
That’s baked into I think the ethic of the whole enterprise. Any retail sales person, any retail sales person could have that attitude, somebody comes into the shoe store, my job is to solve this person’s problem.
Not, my job is to sell expensive shoes, my job is to solve this person’s problem. That changes everything. It’s not hard to do but if you’re committed to this ideology that people just work for a paycheck, it wouldn’t occur to you to make a point of the mission of meeting names and solving problems.
[0:22:51.8] MB: You know, as you mentioned the Container Store’s, done incredibly well and it’s the kind of place that when you hear about it, you're like, it doesn’t really make sense, how is that even a store? Then when you go in, you have one experience there and you become a huge fan of what they’re doing.
Which underscores another point you made that a little bit earlier that it’s not just good for the people working at these companies. It’s good for the company’s bottom line as well and it creates more engagement, it creates a better experience for the customers and you’ve also written at length or talked about the example of a carpet company. Can you share that story?
[0:23:27.2]BS: Yeah. It’s also a wonderful story. Rey Anderson ran this company called Interface that made carpet tile that you mostly saw in institutional settings like say, airport terminals. Extremely successful company, he has more money than he knew what to do with and he had this epiphany as a 70 year old that he was going to leave his grandchildren piles of money and a planet that was quickly becoming uninhabitable.
This bothered him because it turned out that the carbon footprint of the production process that they used at Interfaced carpet was extremely high right? They were destroying the earth while making a pile of money.
He single-mindedly committed the company to becoming a zero footprint company in the space of 15 years or so. He assumed that it would cost the company money but he didn’t care. He wasn’t in it for the money anymore, he was in it to save the planet.
They slowly introduced a whole — they completely revamped their production process to move to a zero footprint at this point, they’re about 75% of the way there, he unfortunately passed away. They’re making huge progress but the amazing thing is that instead of losing money, the company has become more profitable than it was before.
And his explanation for that is that the workforce was so energized because they were no longer simply making carpet, they were making carpet and saving the planet that they came to work alert, energized, full of suggestions about how they could make the production process both more efficient and less energy demanding. They were on a mission.
Being on a mission made the production process much more effective. Much to his surprise, this enhanced profitability, rather than diminishing it, it’s not why he did it, that was a benefit but this raises a huge mystery. If it’s true in general which I think it is, that enlightened management and work organization and that is enlightened in the sense that the people working there want to be there, enhances profitability, the question that you should be asking is why hasn’t every work place transformed itself?
Even if you don’t care about your employees, you surely care about the bottom line. If the way to have a better bottom line is to give employees work to do that they’re eager to do, why not do that? And yet most workplaces don’t do that and I try to explain, it’s a real puzzle right? Your job as a company leader is to maximize profit. How do you maximize profit, give people work to do that they want to do, why hasn’t every workplace done that?
My explanation for that is that we’re so in the grip of this ideology that started with Adam Smith that it doesn’t even occur to people that they should care about creating a workplace where the employees care about what they do. They have blinders on collectively which is making workers miserable and making the goods and services less satisfactory.
[0:26:54.0] MB: So for somebody who is listening that maybe is in a management position or kind of doesn’t have the ability to implement some of these changes from a high level, how can they harness some of these lessons?
[0:27:07.0]BS: Well the answer to that question is really, that it depends, if you’re in a workplace where you are not excessively stringently supervised, you can ask yourself, how can I recraft my work so that while this front and center is the way in which what I do, serves to my customers and clients, right?
Anybody who works retail can walk into the store ever day with a different attitude. “I’m here to solve a problem,” not, “I’m here to sell you shoes.” If you’re excess — and that will change everything because now you develop a relationship with your customer, you’re really interested in what the problem is that the customer’s trying to solve, you apply your expertise to assist in finding out a solution and you feel satisfied even if the customer walks out without a pair of shoes.
As long as the customer feels like the problem has been solved. If however you got somebody looking over your shoulder, if you have to make a number every quarter or else you lose your job, then you don’t have the luxury to recraft your work in this way and so excessively controlling managers may make it so that the people who are listening to you, who are not in management positions really can’t do anything.
You need a certain amount of freedom, those hospital janitors who worry about the care and comfort of the patients are not just the cleanliness of the rooms, we’re able to do that because they didn’t have a supervisor walking around behind them, shaking a finger anytime they did something that wasn’t part of their job description. You could easily imagine a hospital cutting its staff so that now the janitors had to clean twice as many rooms as they had before and they no longer have time to do the work the way they think it should be done.
Now all they’re doing is emptying trash and washing floors and there’s somebody watching them to make sure that that’s what they’re doing. You need a certain amount of benign neglect by the people who supervise you in order to have the freedom to reinterpret your work in a way that makes it more meaningful. A lot of us are in that position but not all of us are in that position.
[0:29:24.9] MB: In many ways, some of this lessons underscore a lot of the concepts you talked about in your previous book about wisdom. I’d love to Segway into that topic. Tell me how do you define the concept of wisdom?
[0:29:39.2]BS: Well, you know, I’m not a big fan of definitions, especially definitions of highly difficult ideas like wisdom but what my co-author Ken Sharp and I did was basically, we took Aristotle, the philosopher Aristotle’s definition and describe wisdom as knowing, doing the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason.
Now that’s quite vague, what’s the right thing, what’s the right way, it was deliberately vague because what we try to suggest is that when you are a doctor treating patients, you have to start out asking, what’s the appropriate goal of this activity? What am I here for? What would it mean to be a good doctor?
And having answered that question for yourself, you then said about behaving in ways that pursue that appropriate goal and it could mean different things with different patients. Wisdom requires judgment with some patients, you have to tell them what to do because if you’re not forceful and directive, they won’t follow your advice, other patients you may have to lead them so that they discover what to do, how to change their diet, how to get more exercise and what have you.
There is no formulaic approach to treating patients because so much of it depends on the patient who is sitting across the examining tables from you. This I think is obvious when it comes to parenting, nobody who actually had experience being a parent believes that there is a formula for good parenting.
Every child presents parents with unique challenges. Reckless kids, you need to be protective. Timid kids, you need to sort of push them a little bit. Once ripe for the kid depends on the kid. Wise parents know this, are perceptive about what their kids are like and what their kids need but their aim always is to give each child what he or she needs at the moment when that need is presented.
Same thing is true with teachers. Every kid in the second grade class needs to be approached somewhat differently. The effort to supervise and monitor and assess teachers has essentially led to a kind of sort of teaching by script you know? Somebody sitting in some room in the central board of education will come up with a script for teaching I don’t know what, math second graders and then you just follow the script.
Well, any good teacher knows that that’s a terrible way to teach. That the script is not right for any student, certainly not right for every student and instead, you have to find ways to deviate from the script in ways that will help Johnny over here and Jane over there. A good teacher needs to be a wise teacher, a good parent needs to be a wise parent, a good spouse needs to be a wise spouse, a good doctor needs to be a wise doctor.
Using judgment and discretion in the service of goals that are appropriate to the activity, that’s I guess as close as I can come to defining what I mean by wisdom. The reliance on rules and incentives to get people to behave properly is the enemy of cultivating wisdom, the more you have to follow rules, the less opportunity you have to develop your judgement and the more you control by incentives, the less you’re controlled by the appropriate objectives of the activity.
Stimulating the minds of kids if you're a teacher, curing disease if you're a doctor, what have you. That’s what wisdom is about, we think the appeal to rules and incentives is a substitute for what we really need which is a bunch of people in various positions who want to do the right thing and have the judgment to figure out what the right thing is in a given situation.
[0:33:56.4] MB: How do we cultivate the machinery of wisdom and the idea, the ability to make those decisions and understand when to step away from the rules or when to improvise?
[0:34:10.0]BS: You have to — one of the things that Ken and I say is that wisdom is learned but it can’t be taught and what we mean by that is you can’t give a course on wisdom that teaches people to be watched. You can give a course on wisdom which we did that teaches people why wisdom is important but the way you learn to be wise is by trying and failing, you know?
A wise doctor doesn’t start out as a wise doctor. Tries things, gets feedback, is sensitive to feedback, adjusts his or her approach to the situation at hand on the basis of that feedback and over time, starts to make these judgments right most of the time.
There’s a wonderful article that appeared in The New Yorker by an oncologist named Jerome Groopman who writes frequently for The New Yorker Magazine. It’s called Dying Words and in it he describes how he learned how to give patients bad news. As an oncologist, he has to give patients bad news often unfortunately. So he describes telling a 20 something year old woman that she has metastatic breast cancer and is probably going to be dead in two years and the subtlety and nuance with which he has the conversation, making sure that she’s not completely crushed by the news but also making sure that she isn’t unrealistically optimistic about what her future is and the more optimistic she looks, the more he gives her pieces of the dark side of the story.
The more depressed she looks, the more he gives her pieces to be hopeful about. He’s calibrating everything he says and the way he says it based on the kinds of questions she asks and her facial expressions. It’s a beautiful account of a wise interaction over an extremely difficult topic.
But then he says, “You know I’m pretty good at this. How did I learn?” and he describes how bad he was at in the beginning of his career. He started out thinking you just have to be honest with patients and he wrecked somebody’s life by just being brutally honest. “You’re going to be dead in two years” well she ended up six years and she spent every day basically in fear that this was the day that the hammer would fall and her life would be over.
So the next patient, he hid the seriousness of the disease and the result was he was this guy who died incredibly uncomfortable tied to a million tubes and wires and slowly overtime, he found the sweet spot, this place in between brutal honestly and completely dishonesty where he mostly found the right approach with every patient although of course, like anyone else, he sometimes gets it wrong. So you learn by doing, by getting it wrong and by correcting your mistakes.
It helps a lot to have a mentor, somebody who’s already been through the process. Who you can watch so that you can do some of your learning without having the patient suffer from your mistakes and that’s another point that Groopman makes in this article is that when doctors have these conversations with their patients, the door to their office is closed so that young doctors who are learning don’t get to see it in operation.
The first time he ever had to do this with a patient was also the first time he had seen anyone do it and that’s why he was so bad at it. So trial and error, mentoring, modeling are the way we gradually move to being wiser at our tasks which is another way of saying there’s no quick fix. You have to be in for the long haul and be prepared occasionally to get it wrong and if you are a supervisor you have to be prepared for the people you supervise sometimes to get it wrong.
The hope is that overtime they get it wrong less and less, they get it right more and more and the result is that clients and customers or students or patients benefit. That’s what that book is about.
[0:38:25.9] MB: It’s such an important point that it is okay to be wrong and that it’s actually a necessary part of the path to wisdom. I think so often in our society, at school, in the workplace and many instances, the incentive seemed to be lying around trying to never be wrong or trying to hide whenever you’re wrong when in reality, you should actually in many ways set out and try to make mistakes so that you can learn from them and become better.
[0:38:53.2] BS: That’s right. Now obviously there are certain circumstances where mistakes can’t be tolerated although they are inevitable, right? If you’re doing open heart surgery, you really don’t want to encourage surgeons in training to be making mistakes but most of the situations that we face in life aren’t like open heart surgery. You can make a mistake and you can correct it but I think you’re right that the culture is a culture in which the idea is to reduce error to zero.
And the only way to reduce error to zero is to get people scripts to follow. When you give people scripts to follow, you get mediocrity not excellence. You may prevent catastrophic errors but you also prevent extraordinary achievements and I don’t think that’s something we should be aspiring to.
[0:39:43.2] MB: One of your other books that is incredibly popular is the book “The Paradox of Choice”. I think a lot of people have heard about that, maybe think that they sort of understand it but may not really grasp the fundamental lesson from that book. Can you share that concept?
[0:39:59.6] BS: Sure, the lesson is pretty simple. We, in western societies, are committed to the view that the more freedom people have, the better off they are and the way to give people lots of freedom is to give them lots of choice. So the more choice people have, the better off they are and the thesis of the book is that while it is certainly true that people need choice, discretion and control over their lives and that choice is a good thing.
There can be too much of a good thing and when there is too much which is sort of a way modern life has become at least for Athlon people, when there is too much choice instead of being liberated by it, people paralyze. They can’t pull the trigger. Paralysis by analysis. When they do pull the trigger, they’re more likely to make bad decisions and even if they manage to make good decisions, they’re less satisfied with them because it’s so easy to imagine that one of the alternatives would have been better.
So the paradox of choice, the subtitle is “why more is less”, there is some amount of freedom and choice that is terrific for us but when you exceed that amount, these negatives, the paralysis and the dissatisfaction start to overwhelm the positives and we end up even when we choose well, dissatisfied with what we’ve chosen and I think when the book came out, there’s a new edition of it that just came out but originally it was published 10 years ago.
When the book came out people were going through life in affluent industrial size, vaguely dissatisfied and with this vague sense that something was wrong and they couldn’t put their finger on it and the book hit a nerve. As soon as I said “there could be too much choice” it was like, “Ah! That’s what’s driving me crazy! That’s why I can’t go shopping anymore. That’s why I can’t pick out a cellphone” blah-blah-blah. That’s why it had the impact that it did.
Although I must say, it’s not like I’ve seen companies thereby reduce the number of options they give people and the book, two of trivial things, like choosing cereal in a supermarket but I also see it with undergraduates. Very talented undergraduates who are interested in a lot of different things and go to a lot of different things and graduation is the point where they have to decide what they are going to be as a grown up and they can’t pull the trigger.
They know that if they walk through one door, the medical school door say lots of other doors are going to be slammed shut and they want to be damn sure that the door they’re walking through is the right one and the result is a kind of paralysis that can leave them basically running in place for months or years hoping one morning they’re going to wake up knowing what they should do with the rest of their lives. It’s very anxiety producing.
I think many college students are close to basket cases because they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do as grownups and we don’t help them.
[0:43:01.6] MB: I think that’s a struggle that millennials probably face even when they get out of undergrad and get into the workplace thinking about “Is this the career path I want to go down, is this the opportunity that I want to be pursuing,” how can we help strike that balance or how can we help move beyond the paradox of choice and try to simplify our own lives?
[0:43:23.4] BS: Well it’s not easy when you try it and the world won’t just let you by rubbing a new shinny object in your nose and all seems “why don’t I have that? Should I have that? Should I have that version of it?” I think the single most important attitude that people can have when it comes to facing all of these choice is that good enough is virtually always good enough. You don’t need the best cereal or the best cellphone or the best cellphone plan or even the best job.
You need a good enough form and what this does is it simplifies the choice problem because you don’t need to look at every job and you don’t need to look at every cellphone. You just need to look at them until you find one that meets your standards and then you choose it and you don’t worry about alternatives that you have and investigate. This also seems so un-American. I mean who would settle for good enough when somewhere out there is the best?
I think and we have some empirical evidence that people who aspire to the best get better results and feel worse about them than people who are just looking for good enough. So going through life asking “What is a good enough restaurant, what’s a good enough vacation? What’s a good enough apartment? What’s a good enough job?” is the single best remedy to this explosion of choice that we all face but it’s not like you snap your fingers and you suddenly become content with good enough.
It takes practice. It’s going to make you uncomfortable for a while. Eventually you’ll get used to it and you discover that a good enough phone is pretty much as good as the best phone and you stop worrying that maybe you’ve left a better option on the table somewhere. So that’s the guidance that I would give people. My experience is that it is very hard to convince young people to adopt this attitude. That experience teaches you that good enough is almost always good enough.
But when you are in your 20’s it seems unambitious almost contemptible to go through life just looking for good enough options so you have to learn the hard way.
[0:45:37.9] MB: And what would you say to somebody’s who’s a younger listener that feels like this is the equivalent of saying “you just settle and not try to strive to be the best and achieve the most”?
[0:45:53.7] BS: Well here’s the thing: I am saying that you should settle but settle doesn’t mean have no standards. You don’t need to strive to be the best, you need to strive to be excellent. You don’t have to strive to have the most, you need to strive to have enough. So I’m not saying that “don’t be an ambitious, have no standards, eat whatever somebody puts in front of you, take the first job that comes your way,” I am not saying that at all.
Have standards, have high standards but don’t feel like if you haven’t gotten the best and if you haven’t scored the best you are a failure. You don’t need to get into the best college as if we know what that even is. You just need to get into a good college. There are lots and lots of good colleges. There is only one best college and nobody knows what that one is because there is no metric. We are only processing it but if you’re convinced that there is a best college and you don’t get into it you feel miserable.
There is a cartoon I show when I talk about this of a young woman wearing a sweatshirt that says “Brown but my first choice was Yale.” You don’t want to go to Brown and spend four years there thinking you have been better of only if you have gotten into Yale and a lot of people go through their lives in exactly this way and it makes them take less than full advantage of wonderful opportunities because they think right around the corner were better opportunities that somehow were not made available to them.
So yeah, this is not an argument for those standards, it’s an argument that settle is not a bad thing although usually when people say you’re just settling, it implies that you’re not ambitious enough, you don’t have high enough standards. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
[0:47:50.8] MB: I think it’s a great point and the idea that you don’t have to necessarily strive to be the very best as long as you have standards of excellence and high enough standards, you’re still ultimately going to end up in a pretty good place or be okay and as you said, good enough is virtually always good enough.
[0:48:09.1] BS: Well that’s the mantra. You need to go through life which brings to yourself good enough is almost always good enough. Good enough is almost always good enough and then you won’t feel that you have to examine every pair of jeans in the city before you decide which pair of jeans to buy.
[0:48:28.1] MB: So for listeners who want to implement concretely some of the ideas that we’ve talked about today, what is one piece of homework that you would give them to start with these concepts?
[0:48:39.2] BS: Well, the book “The Paradox of Choice” has in its last chapter a set of 10 or 11 suggestions about what people can do to make the choice problem less of a problem and rather than rehearse them, I would encourage people to have a look at the book. It’s not hard to read. The question about, with making work worthwhile and about wisdom is to look at A, when you are choosing a job focus on its meaningfulness more and its material benefits less.
Focus a lot on the nature of organizational structure and management of the enterprise. Are you going to have freedom and flexibility? Are you going to be permitted to fail? Is this work organized around some objective that does more than simply line the pockets of the company? Does it make a difference to somebody in the world? If you choose work that pays less well but makes a difference, you’ll get much more satisfaction out of it than if you choose work that seems to be completely pointless but is very generous in compensation.
So you want to choose the work based on the things that actually matter to people more than salary and then you want to look for opportunities within the job for you to use your discretion and autonomy and make judgments about how best to do the task where you don’t feel completely constrained by the management structure to follow a narrow company work. So you can do a lot of crafting of your work as we said before as long as you’re not over supervised.
So I think of these as features of work what’s it’s point, how much control and discretion am I going to have, will lead to better job choices then what’s the salary benefit and vacation schedule and I think most of the people listening to this probably already know this but it can’t hurt to emphasize that you need to have the right criteria in choosing what kind of work to do and where.
[0:50:58.2] MB: And where can listeners find you and your books online?
[0:51:03.6] BS: Well Amazon has them all and I don’t really have much of an online presence. In an effort as you have asked before, to simplify my life, I don’t blog. You can find talks that I have given in various places online all over the place including those three Ted Talks that you mentioned and that’s of course the most painless way to get a sense of the ideas and The Choice Book and The Wisdom Book and The Work Book.
There are these three 15 minute talks that basically tell you my whole story. Lots of people have watched them and apparently appreciated them. So I would say start with Ted if you want something online and the books are all available in Amazon. They are all still in print happily.
[0:51:51.8] MB: Well, Barry thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom with our listeners. I know that they are really going to get a lot out of these concepts and all of the suggestions that you made.
[0:52:02.6] BS: Well thank you, it’s really been a pleasure. Your questions have been wonderful and I hope listeners find at least some of it useful and relevant.
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