You Wanna be a Hero? Grow a Set and Systemize
“We don't like checklists. They can be painstaking. They're not much fun. But I don't think the issue here is mere laziness. There's something deeper, more visceral going on, when people walk away not only from savign lives, but making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be-- handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not follow checklists.
“Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
We have a tendency to think of successful people as heroic. A narrative forms around the events of their lives. Their decisions take on import that the never had when they were made. Biographers and journalists cull through their histories, looking for foreshadowing. We want to emulate them! Or at the very least, we want to explain why they are success when we are not. But in out eagerness to pinpoint the character traits, skills and schooling required to become successful, we too often overlook the obvious, unsexy truth.
The most successful people I know are meticulous. Their lives function with a level of planning and oversight that is staggering. They prepare, practice, and analyze. They have nearly always put certain areas of their life on autopilot so that they can focus their attention where they want. The specifics vary, but the broad strokes are the same: they systemize where possible so that they can bring their mental weight to bear exactly where they choose.
Admittedly, they don't carry around a three-ring binder full of SOPs; but they might as well. They've simply internalized the systems they've developed. That's why they look like superheroes: their pageantry is either invisible, or we close our eyes to it to preserve the illusion.
Gawande's checklists are the pinnacle of a streamlined, elegant system; a beautiful hybrid of the most meticulous planning and the transfer of all-important attention to places where will be most useful. It puts god-like perfection within reach of anyone – and yet far from being embraced, it's practically shunned.
Because the truth is, we could all be more meticulous. We could all practice more, analyze better, make better use of our time. We just don't want to. Those people we aspire to be? We want what they've got; their skill, their wisdom – their celebrity. But we close our eyes to the things that got them there in order to keep that crucial escape valve for ourselves. But like Gowande says, I don't think it's simple laziness.
We like to think that success is a meritocracy; tough, but achievable, given enough hard work. Now, checklists have been proven in a myriad of applications to be superior to the unaided human brain. The checklist can make us nearly perfect-- after a certain benchmark of skill is reached, at least. But here's the illogical thing-- the thing we didn't realize before we stumbled into the halls of Valhalla --we don't want to be perfect. We want the struggle for greatness to continue, unabated. How weird is that?
Widespread use of checklists would, we feel, reduce us to mere cogs. And of course people go into medicine, finance, and similar fields to tackle challenging, highly technical problems. They want to compete against themselves again and again. They never want to have “just another day at the office.”
But think about it. That guy who landed a plane in the Hudson river after blowing out his engines shredding a flock of geese? He followed a checklist not only for the glide, but for the evacuation. Not heroic? Not heroic?
This hysteria about checklists is merely a dodge. Think of anyone you like who made it to the pinnacle of their craft. Did that person settle into a holding pattern for the rest of their days? Surely not. Not when there are thousand of other peaks to haul yourself up.
Nope. I think the reason checklists are met with such visceral revulsion is that it just seems too... simple. Surely I didn't flail for so long, work so hard, strain so ridiculously to find out that the secret was... a checklist?!
A checklist. But don't be childish. You can't write a checklist without being intimately familiar with the process. Not a master, perhaps, but at the very least a journeyman. And then, you create a checklist, refine it, and the very act of doing so will catapult you into mastery more quickly than any romantic "hard work" and "struggle." Work smart, not hard. Make a damn checklist and move on to harder problems.
Commentary from Sebastian: Indeed. One of the most underrated technologies of all-time... checklists. You can check out Shanna at Change Catalyst, she moves people to think differently and architect their own life.