Thinking In Bets

Today another book is getting added to my reading list, Thinking In Bets by Annie Duke

This is an amazing book that makes the case for understanding how our lives going forward have multiple futures. Annie carefully makes the case for seeing ourselves in this way and provides tools to help the reader live and navigate understanding how possibilities can be predictive, they are not prescriptive.

Annie explains that we often find ourselves judging our decisions by our results. Early the book she demonstrates how this cause-effect thought process is good, healthy, and helped us evolve. Then she demonstrates the limitations of such linear thinking and explains how in poker (a game where chance exists) not everything can be perfectly predictive. Her book offers down-to-earth advice on how to account for the elements in life that involve chance and how to live comfortably in that world where direct cause-effect is no longer king.


I really enjoyed how the book not only makes the case for evaluating events going forward, it also makes the case for evaluating the decisions of our past. Once we can shed the results from our decision process it becomes easier to judge our actions (and those of others) based upon the environment and knowledge they had at the time. This process is perfectly in line with Tomas Sowell’s book Knowledge and Decisions, a classic book that discusses much of the same thoughts from an economics perspective.

I believe this book has other potential benefits as well that haven’t been stated. In Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg discusses some of the challenges Annie faced in her own life. Anyone reviewing her academic record would list her as highly functional (all doctoral coursework complete), yet Annie suffered from anxiety. From having worked around so many people in the military with PTSD and others who have anxiety I believe this book contains helpful instructions on thinking patterns that can reduce the impact of the thinking traps so common among those who live with those issues. One of the reasons why it’s been added to the Book List is because I’ll be recommending it to many of those who struggle to live now because they are haunted by their past.

The book isn’t explicitly written towards that audience. Instead it’s written with a much broader audience in mind. It’s perfectly crafted for those interested from a business, student, and personal perspective and so I’ll certainly be recommending to those in my other professional circles as well.

If you listen to the Audible version you’ll be pleased to hear Annie read the book at her own pace and with excellent inflection. I devoured the audio version on a recent family car ride. When I got home I enjoyed letting her know how much I enjoyed the book. I love living in an age where I can say thank you to someone as famous as brilliant as Annie Duke.

I also really appreciated that she read my tweet and hit the like button.

Apply Your Core Knowledge

Everyone knows something and in order to know something they must have studied what they know.  There’s a wide variety of ways people acquire information and knowledge.  I work with some extraordinarily smart individuals and some of them hate reading.  They find themselves suffering through the four-page zone.  I have another friend of mine who’s a helicopter pilot and is terrific with advanced mathematics but finds himself performing best as a tactile learner.  He’s in his 30’s and always carrying his fidget spinner.

All of these people are high performers.  But sometimes their quirks appear to be their Achilles heel.  As life forces us to get stretched outside of our comfort zones it can be easy to hyper-focus on the problems in front of us instead of focusing on the formulas we’ve used for years to overcome similar problems.  I’ve recently found myself coaching people through this sort of situation and my starting point in the conversation is to ask them about their hobbies.

Hobbies are different than our academics.  All too often necessity has forced us to use multiple-choice tests in academic settings.  They’re a great format for getting people to pass because you’re giving them choice that includes the single right answer.  They’re also terrible because they’ve programmed us to believe in life that we’re looking for a single right answer.  Those who believe in the single right answer syndrome have never had someone they love asks them if an outfit makes them look fat.

The outward expression of our hobbies varies, but the inward process is very much the same.  At first glance, every hobby appears to be a study in that particular discipline.  This isn’t an untrue statement, but it’s not a complete one.  More importantly, a study of a hobby is the study of oneself.  To the individual practicing a particular discipline, the hobby will reveal certain things about themselves that they enjoy learning.

Golf is an apt example.  It involves a very brief interaction with the ball and a metal striking surface of a club.  The contact occurs over a very small surface area and yet the ball can fly towards its target and land over 200 yards later.  The mechanics are amazing, but it’s also a fascinating field to study oneself.  The discipline involved to learn to adjust one’s muscle coordination to impact the angle and speed of impact of the ball.  Golf is not just a study of physics and strategy, it’s also very much a study of oneself.

LARPing will strike most individuals as a bit of an odd past time, but it’s not too far off from the same motivation that has turned Halloween into one of the most popular holidays.  Those who participate in LARPing find themselves developing skills in crafting costumes and writing out scenarios for your characters.  Unlike a book where the reader is only a passive participant, LARPing requires the participant to explore their own emotions and problem-solving skills when faced with the obstacles of the scenario.  While it shouldn’t replace reading, it should be easily recognized as a scenario-driven activity that trains its members.  Its environment may be fantasy, but its exploration of the human condition is very real.

From a leadership perspective, you don’t have to enjoy the same hobbies, but you need to well versed in what’s respectable about each one.

It’s been interesting to see this same thing play out in the home as well.  My oldest boy loves Minecraft and will spend hours watching videos about how to play and build complex things.  Every few months I try to have a conversation with him about his learning patterns for the game and get him to realize that if he applies those same learning patterns to other subjects in his life he’ll be just as successful.

I was a terrible student in high school.  Now I have a Masters in IT & Project Management.  During my 18 months finishing up my bachelor’s at Utah State University I was awarded the Man of the Year award.  What changed?  My parents would attribute it to becoming more mature, but having lived through it the reason seems to be a bit more tangible.  Once I was out of school I had time to think about how I liked to learn.  In college, I chose classes that would allow me to apply my techniques for learning and be successful.  

Now, it’s easier to do new and hard things because instead of following someone else’s prescription for learning I can apply my own.  I know it’s effective and I know it’s fun.  When it needs mentors I know how to find them.

When you take the time to look at the things that are part of your core, that you love to learn take the time to look at how you learn those things.  The how is more likely going to be your method for all your learning and if you can take the time to write it down you might just see how easy it is to follow.

Cost-Effective Mentoring

We’ve all had mentors growing up but don’t often think about our own transitions to becoming a mentor.  When freshly stepping into any role there can be a lot of wasted effort.  In this post, I’d like to share a couple of insights to help make that transition smoother.

Learn About A Person’s Past Mentors

In both jobs I work at I get to interview candidates for available positions. One of my favorite questions to write is “We’ve all had mentors to help us grow in life, can you tell me about a valued mentor, and how they impacted your life?”  I love the question because it’s so universal.  We ask it of all the candidates and the responses are perfectly helpful to make an informed decision.

First, it’s important to remember that the job interview’s purpose is to close the gap between what you already know about an applicant from their resume/LinkedIn etc. to what you don’t know.  The questions are supposed to be revealing enough to close that knowledge gap.   In response to this question, an applicant will usually tell about a time when they were humbled and overcame the obstacle in their life.  In their narrative, they usually reveal the situation, the challenge, the mentor’s attributes, and the plan of action to overcome the obstacle.  This provides me with several key insights to distinguish the applicant among the others applying.

Firstly, I get to understand what work environments they’ve been in in the past.  Secondly, I get to see what sort of situations they’ve found challenging.  Then I get to learn what type of mentorship they respond to and how much effort they put into overcoming the challenge.  Calling someone a mentor who does the work for you isn’t mentorship.  Mentorship is the process to increase the person’s capacity to overcome their own struggles.

We don’t often choose when we enter the mentorship role.  It’s one of those things in life that’s thrust upon us.  How do you know you’re mentoring?  When someone asks for help and you’re the person who responds.

Know How to Read People & Ask Questions

That request for help will sometimes be overt and other times it’ll appear in a person’s body language.  You can see people physically struggling with their responsibilities.  Whether they need external help or not asking them what’s going on will help them communicate their challenges so they can create their own solutions.  This is probably the most cost-effective mentoring situation.  Too bad that’s not the only way life happens.

It’s Not Your Job To Do The Work

I’ve seen plenty of young mentors be asked for help and want to help and end up doing the work for the person needing the assistance.  While there is a time and a place to step down and be a catalyst, that style of response can become a slippery slope that doesn’t lead to the person being more capable going forward.  Generally, it leads to burn out. 

You’re Always Mentoring

Jacqueline Van Pelt, PMP recently shared some of the insights she’s garnered from her mentors over the years.  One of them was the idea that each interaction with people is like training a horse.  Either you’re training them or their training you, but there’s never not a moment where training doesn’t occur.

Develop Your Style

Since every situation involves some amount of learning and from different levels, mentoring is likely occurring from multiple levels as well.  This means that everyone has or will be a mentor.  It’s not a rare occurrence.  It’s a common one.  The lack of mentoring isn’t for a lack of possibilities.  In my opinion, it’s because we aren’t taking the time to develop our style.

Like anything else developing one’s mentorship style follows the same learning pattern as many other things in life.  You need to increase your awareness of the subject, evaluate the available information, and incorporate the parts that allow us to improve.  Some part of this process should feel like you’re doing it the hard way.

My own style has developed the hard way over many years.  I can see mentoring opportunities on a daily basis and leverage them to help others confidently move to the next step in their development.  Somewhere along the way I’ve moved past the point where I just help them through their challenge.  Now, when I interact with others I work to help them through their challenge in a way to make it memorable for when they need to mentor the next generation.

Questioning Value

The obvious thing to do isn’t always the right thing and the right thing to do isn’t always obvious. As we get working and busy our minds are often so focused on the task we’re doing that we forget how what we’re doing connects to adding value. For a brief time in life, I had the job of a dishwasher at a brick oven pizzeria. It was a pretty mechanical job. Sort, load or scrub, dry and stack. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I had no idea what I was doing but knew everything about the tasks I was performing.

It’s easy for all of us regardless of our station to fall into this trap. Thankfully it’s also simple for us to pull ourselves out of it. Ask yourself the question: How do your actions add value to the organization’s stakeholders?

Let’s use the dishwasher for this exercise. It’s a pretty low-level job. Probably didn’t have much impact right?

Who were the stakeholders for a dishwasher and how did I add value? Well, there’s the cooks who needed the clean pots, the wait staff who needed clean cups and plates, and the customers who wanted to eat without the worry of getting sick. OK, so that’s cooks, wait staff, and customers. That’s pretty much everyone.

Too bad I didn’t see it when I had the job. Night after night of working my brain got trapped thinking that the only place in the world was the back corner of that restaurant. I never thought of my impact because I’d gotten so focused on what I did I didn’t even have to think about it anymore. Sort, load or scrub, dry and stack.

I was just doing the work, got frustrated, and quit because I didn’t see the value in the work that I was doing. If you see someone frustrated you don’t have to confront their attitude, just ask them questions that help them see the value they bring to the organization. Our society is pretty used to responding to the “what do you do question.” So, it’s not too much of a stretch to take that response and start a conversation about adding value.

So many negative feelings go away when we see how valuable our efforts truly are.

Starting Where Here Is

A profound concept is one that’s worth learning well. It’s also one that when revisited still has deeper meaning than when the lessons were first learned. I’ve learned a lot of my lessons in life painfully. I had good mentors in the military who were able to apply a good deal of leadership influence to reinforce the good behavior they needed from me as part of their team. Often times this reinforcement took the form of push ups.

As my muscles got stronger so did my resolve to be better and do better. Over time I found myself in positions of responsibility rendering similar corrective training to those who worked for me.

Every leader wants to take their team somewhere. In some cases that somewhere is a literal location In other places that somewhere is passing the next audit or a good performance evaluation. The team has the job of charting the course to get there with most of that responsibility falling on the team’s leader. Immature leaders often get frustrated by having a clear vision of the goal, but not being able to get there. Frustrated they ask the question. How do we get there?

We get there, by starting here.

Where’s here?

Where is here? Where are you? Where is your team? Where are you starting from? These are good questions that should encourage anyone to do some self assessment of themselves and their team. As each day moves on your team writes another page in its story. Answering where you can be as simple and quick as an establishing shot on a sitcom, or it can be as detailed as a Tolkien novel. Trying to write a story without understanding where you’re at in the story builds confusion from both the reader (your boss) and your characters (your team).

There are lots of different frameworks for teams. One of the most popular is Tuckerman’s framework (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing). While this theory has severe limitations, its popularity is due in large part to its generalized accuracy and simplicity. To use it effectively you’ll need to take a step back and be honest with yourself. As much as the destination has been on your mind you’re not going to get there without taking a minute to realize where you are. You get there by starting here.

Writing Fiction to Improve Leadership

For a brief moment in my life I thought acting would be fun. Not as a career, but as a hobby. I did a couple of school plays, but I mostly did it because I didn’t want to do homework. During a skit rehearsal someone explained that acting better when you can learn what motivates and sympathize with the character you’re trying to portray. This is one of the few pieces of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years.

When I wrote my first book I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I was working on a project. I had something to say. Once it was complete I realized I had broken through the mental barrier of writing and had written something of substance. I decided to write more. So I dabbed my hand in fiction. It was a bit of an odd choice because I typically don’t read fiction. I get too lost in the characters.

For me I started writing fiction because I had something to say and the most efficient way for me to say it was through characters I created. Now I’ve written two pieces of fiction. Nothing to brag about, but they were fun projects and each had a purpose. They’ve also been extremely helpful with teaching me leadership.

When I’ve sat down to develop characters and their back stories I’ve had to ask myself, what is this character’s motivation? Why would they be motivated to play the role I need them to in my story? Pro tip, if you want your book to be marketable and enjoyed make sure you pick motivations that a large audience can relate to. Something odd happened as I was building characters. I started seeing more dimensions to the people I was working with. I started noticing and caring more about their lives and what they were doing because I could see how their lives were impacting their work. Finding that connection made being personable a lot easier, because I was able to more easily see its purpose.

Sometimes someone will just need someone else to listen to their story. When we tell stories we reveal a lot about ourselves. We share our world view, group identities, and factual information. When someone’s talking you get to hear their perspective and if you listen carefully, you can hear what motivates them.

This fall I moved to a new job and have spent several months listening and talking to people so they could get to know me and so I could get to know them. We have one employee who has a wonderful history and is a bohemian combination of various skills. After I was done talking with her I started to ask myself, why does she have so many varying interests? What’s the thread that connects them all?

The answer is the way she asks questions and the confidence she carries from having answers. This employee has a hard time walking away from a question she doesn’t have an answer to or something she doesn’t understand as well as she’d like to. So, when she had questions about photography she studied and learned photography. When she had questions about how computers worked, she’d studied and learned computers.

When she got the job here she studied and learned everything she needed to know to be functional, but that doesn’t mean she knew every part of the job. With an audit coming up I visited this employee with a copy of the audit questions. I knew that it would be valuable to sit down with her, but I let her control when we scheduled the time. I’m always impressed by how good employees will take the time to hear and prioritize a leader’s goals.

When the time came to sit down I didn’t need to tell her how to do her job. We just talked and read the questions. She had answers to all of them, but I could tell in the tone of her voice that she was less confident about some of her responses than she was when she was talking about the things she was passionate about. It took a few very minor verbal and nonverbal clues for her to realize where she was lacking and at the end of the conversation we didn’t commit to a time line for a follow up. I knew I didn’t need to.

I was right not scheduling the follow up. Let’s be clear, I’m not against follow up. I planned to follow up, but I didn’t schedule it. The next day she came up to me and informed me that because she had budgeted the time to meet with me, she also budgeted the time for self improvement. She spent the rest of that day researching all of the answers where her confidence wasn’t as high. I listened. As she talked I could hear her proudly relate specific answers to certain questions where the day before we only had generalizations. Listening to this conversation allowed me to acknowledge her effort and rehearse for the upcoming audit.

Listening is an important skill for leaders, but taking the time to understand what motivates your team members is what makes listening worth while. Not everyone I’ve worked with is as self motivated as this employee, but everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by something, and taking the time to figure out what that is isn’t just a good idea, it’s a big step on the road to making good people great performers.

Acknowledging Value

Great leaders acknowledge the value of others. Over the years I’ve benefitted from some tremendous mentors and coworkers. In this post I’d like to propose three ways individuals across an organization can make a more positive impact during their day. All of this of course is designed to increased productivity of the individual and the team.

1. Seek out interactions. An office is a great place to be able to focus on getting work done, but it is by definition separated from others. It’s also a hard place to focus when you have to look to see who’s knocking on your door for a visit or a quick chat. Getting out of the office and having that quick chat in an employee’s space puts them more at ease, allows you to see nonverbal cues about their effort and organization. If you say you care, care enough to viist.

2. Be engaging when you’re engaging them. It’s one thing to be there, it’s another to be engaged. Bring some energy with you as you’re interacting with employees. Energy levels are contagious. In my current position I see a lot of individuals who aren’t used to be up early. I’ve found that if I can inject a positive energy level into their routine they generally respond in kind. They’re more engaged and focussed to accomplish the tasks they need to do making the process run smoother.

3. Follow up. Not everyone is good at remembering names. Remembering names is great, but it’s not everything. It’s a good idea to remember something about the conversation you’re having. If this means you need to spend a few minutes writing down notes when you get back to the office, do so. But remember something and bring that something up during a future engagement. If you’re the boss a lot of times an employee will share an idea or relate a personal or professional challenge to you. These are oportunities for you to posture yourself as a partner. Doing so will generally maximize their performance.

From my experience an employee who feels valued contributes significantly more than those who feel insignficant. These three tips are simple and don’t take too much time. I found it actually saved time by increasing productivity and reducing interruptions during the day from both me and those that I worked with.

A large part of the value I’ve learned to see in myself is built upon the value others have seen in me. Are you making the same impact as the mentors you’ve worked with?