How to Learn Anything Fast: Book Summary of Josh Kaufman’s ‘The First 20 Hours’

Every Discipline, Hobby, or Sport Has Its Learning Curve

'The First 20 Hours' by Josh Kaufman (ISBN 1591846943) One of your core productivity principles should be to learn to do things to a good-enough level—but not to perfection.

In the pursuit of self-improvement, when you start to study a field, it seems like you have to learn hundreds of principles and skills. If you’re interested in no more than gaining an adequate amount of fluency in any skill, you have only to identify the crucial few core principles, learn them, and diligently practice them “in the trenches.”

According to self-described “learning addict” Josh Kaufman‘s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast, with a bit of strategy, you can learn just about any skill to a sufficient level with twenty hours of focused effort:

In my experience, it takes around twenty hours of practice … to go from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re trying to do to performing noticeably well. … It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language write a novel, paint a portrait, start a business, or fly an airplane. If you invest as little as twenty hours in learning the basics of the skill, you’ll be surprised at how good you can become.

Learning is Fun but it is also Dedicated Work

One of the real challenges for rapid skill acquisition, according to The First 20 Hours, is to get past the beginner’s blockade, which is the frustration that occurs when learning something new doesn’t come as naturally as you’d hoped for. The solution is to build in focused learning time into your daily routine.

Make dedicated time for practice. The time you spend acquiring a new skill must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, we tend to want to acquire new skills and keep doing many of the other activities we enjoy, like watching TV, playing video games, et cetera. “I’ll get around to it, when I find the time,” we say to ourselves. Here’s the truth: “finding” time is a myth. No one ever “finds” time for anything, in the sense of miraculously discovering some bank of extra time, like finding a twenty-dollar bill you accidentally left in your coat pocket. If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time.

The First 20 Hours tells you how to use the initial learning time to maximum effect and have as steep a learning curve as possible. To learn a skill, you must deconstruct the skill into its constituent subskills and learn enough about each subskill to be able to practice effectively and self-correct. For instance, Kaufman finds a shortcut to learning how to play the ukulele by memorizing the three chords needed for the majority of songs, which happen to be C, F, and G.

How to Learn Anything Faster

Learning is Fun but it is also Dedicated Work The first three rambling chapters of The First 20 Hours introduce many general principles of rapid skill acquisition and effective learning. The six succeeding chapters give Kaufman’s firsthand accounts of how he applied these principles to learn yoga, programming, touch-typing, a Chinese board game called Go, ukulele, and windsurfing. The chief takeaways from these chapters are,

  • Study, by itself, is never enough. If you want to get good at anything where real-life performance matters, you have to practice that skill in context.
  • Invest your limited time on the sub-skills with most payback and avoid those elements of the skill that are non-essential.
  • Create mental models and checklists for remembering the things you need to do each time you practice. It helps make the learning process more efficient.

Recommendation: Skim Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast. Start with the author’s TED video and then speed-read the first three chapters (39 pages) and the prologues. Read the subsequent six chapters only if the subject matter particular skills fascinate you—these monotonous chapters expose the many nuances of the trial and error in the course of learning.

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

What’s the size of the market for razors in China? How many golf balls does it take to fill a Boeing 747 aircraft? How many piano tuners are there in the world?

Non-standard problems such as these are called “Fermi problems” after the distinguished Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–54.) Fermi delighted not only in creating and solving them, but also in challenging his fellow scientists with similar problems.

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

Physicist Enrico Fermi Was a Master of Guesstimation

Fermi was celebrated for his ability to make fast, excellent approximate calculations with little or no concrete data. In one well-known example, when the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Manhattan Project, Fermi dropped a few scraps of paper as the shock wave from the detonation passed. After some coarse calculation, Fermi estimated the power of the blast from the motion of the scraps as they fell. Fermi’s guesstimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-established value of 20 kilotons. Even though Fermi’s estimate appears 50% off, it was a reasonable order-of-magnitude estimate.

Fermi believed that the ability to guesstimate was an essential skill for physicists. A good way to solve physics problems—and complex problems in any line of work—is by coming up with simple shortcuts to make approximate, but meaningful, calculations.

Teaching Physics Students the Fermi Way of Contemplating Open, Non-Standard Problems

Based on Fermi’s technique, at the beginning of many physics courses, professors pose problems such as “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Such questions require students to employ quick reasoning and unsophisticated numerical methods to attack problems without the knowledge of any core physics concepts.

The historical emphasis on the order-of-magnitude calculation was propelled by the lack of computing power available to solve complex problems. Such approximate calculations were considered necessary to decide if an onerous and lengthy full-blown calculation was required.

Classic Fermi Problem: Number of Piano Tuners in the City of Chicago

'Guesstimation' by Lawrence Weinstein (ISBN 069115080X) Fermi problems are typically restructured by breaking them up into smaller problems that are easier for the students to approach than the original problem.

The challenge of estimating the number of piano tuners in the city of Chicago is the classical example of a Fermi Problem. A problem-solver guesstimates the total population of Chicago, then the fraction of families in Chicago that may own a piano, and the frequency of piano-tuning, the time it takes to tune a piano, and so on. This sequence of thinking, accompanied by a few conversion factors, can lead to an adequate assessment of the number of piano tuners in Chicago.

Back-of-Envelope Calculations for Fermi Problems

The Fermi technique is so popular that math buffs organize competitions in Fermi’s honor. Contestants are asked to estimate unusual assessments (the fraction of the surface area of the United States that’s covered by automobiles, the number of cells in the human body, the number of pizzas ordered this year in the state of California, for example) as closely as they can.

One distinctive feature of Fermi problems is that precision is impossible to achieve quickly, but it’s easier to arrive at a fast estimate of the range for the right answer. Before investing a big effort to measure something with precision, problem-solvers can estimate the answer approximately—and only then determine if it’s sensible to do the extra steps to calculate the accurate answers.

The Ability to Guesstimate: A Key Problem-Solving Aptitude

The ability to reach first-order estimations is an important skill in daily life. In a world where we are continuously bombarded with qualitative and quantitative information (and disinformation,) acquiring a solid grounding in numeric literacy has almost become an important intellectual obligation.

'Street-Fighting Mathematics' by Sanjoy Mahajan (ISBN 026251429X) Many problems are too complicated for you to come up with an accurate answer immediate. In analyzing such problems, precision may be impossible, but you can quickly estimate a range for the right answer. Guesstimation enables anyone with basic math and science skills to estimate virtually anything quickly using realistic assumptions and elementary mathematics.

Microsoft, McKinsey Consulting, Google, Goldman Sachs, and many leading businesses use guesstimate questions in job interviews to judge the ability of the applicants’ intelligence, their flexibility to think on their feet, and to apply their numerical skills to real-world problems.

Idea for Impact: Use Effective Guesstimation Techniques Before Undertaking a More Complete and Formal Investigation

Learn to do a first approximation of value and then, if the problem merits, refine your estimate further for much nuanced decision-making. Before putting much effort into calculating anything with precision, make a rough estimate of the answer, then decide whether it’s worth investigating further.

In my line of work as an investor, for example, I use fund manager Eddy Elfenbein‘s “simple stock valuation measure”:

Growth Rate/2 + 8 = PE Ratio

Let me emphasize that this is simply a quick-and-dirty valuation tool and it shouldn’t be used as a precise measure of a stock’s value. But when I’m first looking at a stock and want to see roughly how it’s priced, this is what I’ll use.

For example, let’s look at Pfizer ($PFE). Wall Street expects the company to earn $2.34 per share next year. They also see the company’s 5-year growth rate at 2.79%. If we take half the growth rate and add 8, that gives us a fair value P/E Ratio of 9.40. Multiplying that by the $2.34 estimate gives us a fair price for Pfizer of $21.98. The current price for Pfizer is $22.98, so it’s about fairly priced.

Let’s look at IBM ($IBM) which has a higher growth rate. Wall Street sees IBM earning $16.61 next year. They peg the five-year growth rate at 10.58%. Our formula gives us a fair value multiple of 13.29, and that multiplied by $16.61 works out to a value of $220.75. IBM is currently at $201.71.

Recommended Resources for Guesstimation

If you’re interviewing with one of those companies that use guesstimate questions in job interviews, or if you’re interested in developing your ability to make rough, common-sense estimates starting from just a few basic facts, I recommend the following learning resources:

Do Good Deeds Make People Act Bad?

When People Do Something ‘Good’ They Feel Licensed to Do Something ‘Bad’ Later

Ethical moral self-licensing » When People Do Something 'Good' They Feel Licensed to Do Something 'Bad' Later Being—and being seen—as moral, ethical, and principled is an important part of people’s self-concept.

Social psychologists have studied the tendency of people using their prior moral actions to license future morally questionable actions. According to these studies, prior to making morally important decisions, people may survey their previous moral actions. If they recollect engaging in virtuous moral behavior in the past, they may subsequently become less bothered about engaging in morally questionable behavior.

Prior Actions Can Affect Individuals’ Future Behavior

Past good deeds can license people to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, if not problematic—behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. The deep-seated human tendency that makes people feel entitled to do something less moral because they’ve done something moral previously is called “moral self-licensing.”

Psychologists reason that people’s previous actions may cause them to feel more self-possessed in their own moral self-worth. As a result, this claim licenses their choice of a more self-indulgent moral choice.

Conversely, when people appear immoral or devious to others, they subsequently take up positive actions to restore their moral image. Psychologists identify this as “compensation or cleansing.”

When ‘Good’ Behavior Supposedly Counteracts Doing Something ‘Bad’

Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated in several realms of human judgment. However, in my opinion, much of the cause-and-effect narratives seem ambiguous. For instance,

  • In a set of pioneering studies, participants who established their racial non-prejudiced attitudes by endorsing President Obama or through selecting a black person for a consulting firm job were subsequently more likely to make pro-white decisions.
  • In one test, after subjects were given a chance to condemn sexist statements, they were found to be subsequently more likely to support hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
  • One study on consumer behavior suggested that shoppers who brought their own bags felt licensed to buy more junk food.

Contribution Ethic and “Prospective Moral Licensing”

A phenomenon related to moral self-licensing is “contribution ethic” or the “moral credential effect.” When people feel they’ve done their fair share for some noble cause, they decide they need do no more. In one study, after people participated in a pro-social deeds (e.g., doing something good for the cause of the environment,) they felt licensed to behave more selfishly later (e.g., donating less to an environmental program). Another study showed that people who drive hybrid cars tend to get more tickets and cause more accidents than do drivers of conventional cars.

Some studies have suggested that just thinking about past moral behavior or writing about oneself as a moral person can decrease the likelihood of subsequently performing altruistic acts—such as decreasing contributions to charitable causes or being less engaging in cooperative behavior towards friends and colleagues.

Finally, simply planning to do good later can allow people to be bad now. Some studies suggest that when people merely plan to engage in a moral behavior in the future, they feel licensed to respond in a morally questionable way in the present. Psychologists identify this as “prospective moral licensing.”

Idea for Impact: Past Moral Deeds Could Make People Do Morally Wrong Things

Part of becoming wise to the ways of the world and getting along with people is understanding the many peculiarities of human behavior. Learning why people feel licensed to engage in potentially immoral behavior given their demonstrated moral behavior allows for a better understanding of the world in which we live.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

What Type of Perfectionist Are You?

Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism

Psychologists recognize two forms of perfectionism—adaptive and maladaptive. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists have high personal standards—for themselves and for others. However, failing to meet those standards is more stressful for the latter than for the former.

Adaptive perfectionism is the normal, healthy form of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists endeavor for success—they tend to complete tasks in good time and have high standards for their work. They take into account their strengths and limitations and don’t overexert themselves unless it really matters.

Perfectionism turns out to be maladaptive when people become terribly concerned with the notion of “just the thing”—they strive for perfect performance. So nearly nothing turns out to be “good enough.”

Failing to meet high standards is more stressful for adaptive than for the maladaptive perfectionists

The #1 Pitfall: Maladaptive Perfectionism Rigidifies Behavior

Maladaptive perfectionism may cause people to dodge tasks for fear of making an error or for not being able to complete tasks to their lofty standards. They tend to want to control their environment. When events do not go as planned, they develop negative attitudes. They are inclined to striving to achieve goals in their own way; consequently, they regard their personal and professional settings as competitive and handle relationships more aggressively.

Many maladaptive perfectionists aren’t necessarily high achievers because their drive for perfection leads them to chronic procrastination and to never-ending, futile agonizing.

Even success can be imperfect to maladaptive perfectionists. Their reaction to reaching a goal is often “so what?” followed by “what’s the next big thing?” with nary a pause for “I did it! Let me celebrate.”

Idea for Impact: Prioritize Your Perfection

Perfection can boost your satisfaction too much can be paralyzing There’s nothing wrong with high standards. Soaring, impracticable standards are another matter, however.

While a reasonable dose of perfection can boost your satisfaction, too much can be paralyzing. In the real world of constraints and limited resources, perfection is hard to achieve and your quest for the ideal can suck up precious time, energy, and money that could produce superior results elsewhere.

You don’t have sufficient resources to do everything, so commit them where they can bring the greatest overall improvement. (I’ll write about the concept of opportunity cost next week.)

If you’re an obsessive perfectionist, recognize that your compulsion to “get it right” can endorse a rigidity of character and action that is limiting.

Prioritize your perfection. It’s impractical to reach perfection in all areas of your life concurrently. Rather than trying to master everything, pick some areas of life you want to excel in, and go for average in others.

5 Minutes to Greater Productivity [Two-Minute Mentor #11]

How to Get Unstuck---5 Minutes to Greater Productivity

When you’re stuck—whether it’s at work, play, love, or some other facet of your life,—don’t wait for external change to come about and inspire you. As I’ve written before, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

When you’re stuck, if you can take time out and reflect on your current difficulties, many opportunities may open up that can help you get unstuck.

  • Clearly understand your objectives and your problems. Identify what you must do to solve problems or meet goals as efficiently as feasible. Get honest with yourself and reconsider your motivations. Being realistic can allow you to think more flexibly and creatively.
  • Target the causes of your problems and the reasons behind what you are doing. Analyze your current actions to determine whether they will effectively accomplish what they should. Look for ways to simplify your goals and targets.
  • Check if your perfectionism is holding you back. Folks who tend to be perfectionist are afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and that they won’t measure up. Could you lower your standards?
  • Organize your options. Are there faster-but-equally-effective alternative methods to the ones you’re currently trying? Could you learn new methods or delegate parts of your responsibilities to help you save time? Could you break your work into smaller, more manageable chunks? Focus on the next small step that will move you forward and set in-between deadlines.
  • Plan your work and carry on. Initiate the most efficient action plan to get the results you want. If you find yourself uninspired, take action—even a small step. Often, beginning to do a task builds momentum and motivation kicks in within a few minutes. Doing is everything.

Idea for Impact: The most effective form of change doesn’t happen to you—it comes from within you. To free yourself when you feel limited or stuck, take a breather and organize yourself. Introspection can unlock more adaptive behavior.

Death Should Not Be Feared

The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day

A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.

Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)

You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…

Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life

When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Accept the impermanence of health and life. Appreciate and live each moment wisely.

Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality

The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death

We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.

Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.

Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.