August 4, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 28: 1% improvements, pursuing perfection, and understanding cognitive biases

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  Focusing on 1% improvements (aggregation of marginal gains)

"In management, this is known as the 'aggregation of marginal gains.' In a recent article, James Clear described how Dave Brailsford used this concept to revive Great Britain’s ailing professional cycling team. As the new director of British cycling’s Team Sky, Brailsford set about improving everything the team did by 1 percent, believing that those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

“He started by optimizing the obvious: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires. But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else—discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere. Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years’ time. He was wrong—they won it in three years. Then won it again the year after that. Today, Team Sky has won four of the last five Tour de France events.

"The most compelling takeaway is the time over which the 1 percents begin to make a difference. Day to day, small improvements don’t make a difference. On the chart, they’re indistinguishable from small declines. It’s not until around year three that a gap begins to appear. From there, though, the differences begin diverging at a much faster rate. By year ten, the small daily improvements have added up; the line is well above where it started and leagues above the line representing the small daily declines.” — From Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron

In Chasing Excellence, Bergeron describes a philosophy known as 'The Process.' This approach has gained widespread acceptance in sports, most notably by University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. The philosophy extends to all areas of life and consists of focusing on the smallest possible milestones that move you closer to your goals. For Nick Saban, this is having his players focus on their next play, not scoring a touchdown, or winning the game. Saban learned that the average football play lasts seven seconds, and guided his team to focus on repeatedly winning only those seven seconds. He cautions his team to ignore everything outside of their direct control, the scoreboard, game clock, referee calls, and focus only on the variables that they can control or influence.

Inconsequential details are what seed the ground for excellence. The goals will take care of themselves if we get all the little details right along the way.

A goal is broken down into checkpoints. Day to day, or hour to hour, we commit to making progress. In this way, the toughest times become manageable, and audacious goals become achievable. Regardless of size, everything becomes a series of steps broken down into manageable components.

By not following the process and focusing on the end result of an ambitious goal, we remove ourselves from the present moment, which is the only place where progress can be made.

Focusing on the inputs removes the complexity of a goal and allows the outcomes to take care of themselves. To decide what these inputs, or actions should be, Saban uses the "WIN" acronym as his focus filter: What's important now?

The practice of systems over goals is a practical example of the process. A previous issue covered how Stephen King applies this philosophy:

"Stephen King is one of the world's most successful writers. What's his secret? He writes six pages a day, taking 3 to 4 hours. But he does it every day. King keeps the compounding power accumulating by never taking breaks or deviating from his routine. This system has enabled him to write 48 fiction books in 63 years, averaging 0.7 novels a year since 1974. If we include collections, non-fiction, screenplays and short stories, that average increases to 2.4.

This systematic approach emphasizes inputs over outputs. Instead of focusing on writing a novel (a goal), King focuses on writing six pages a day (a system). The goal is the natural outcome of successfully and consistently operating his system."

II. Understanding cognitive biases does not provide immunity

We have discussed cognitive biases in previous issues of Mind Macros, but have never defined them. In Map and Territory, Eliezer Yudkowsky provides the following definition:

“A cognitive bias is a systematic error in how we think, as opposed to a random error or one that’s merely caused by our ignorance.”

Moreover, learning about these biases doesn't prevent us from succumbing to them:

"In a study of bias blindness, experimental subjects predicted that if they learned a painting was the work of a famous artist, they’d have a harder time neutrally assessing the quality of the painting. And, indeed, subjects who were told a painting’s author and were asked to evaluate its quality exhibited the very bias they had predicted, relative to a control group. When asked afterward, however, the very same subjects claimed that their assessments of the paintings had been objective and unaffected by the bias—in all groups!

"We’re especially loathe to think of our views as inaccurate compared to the views of others. Even when we correctly identify others’ biases, we have a special bias blind spot when it comes to our own flaws. We fail to detect any ‘biased-feeling thoughts’ when we introspect, and so draw the conclusion that we must just be more objective than everyone else. Studying biases can in fact make you more vulnerable to overconfidence and confirmation bias, as you come to see the influence of cognitive biases all around you—in everyone but yourself. And the bias blind spot, unlike many biases, is especially severe among people who are especially intelligent, thoughtful, and open-minded." — From Map and Territory by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Quotes to Ponder

I. Vince Lombardi Jr. on the pursuit of perfection leading to moments of excellence:

"We will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence."

II. Carl Sagan on the necessity of evidence:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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