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.
It really is hard work up front to make a checklist. It hurts the brain. So one really needs compelling evidence to invest the effort. Glad this triggered it for you.
I do believe that this post has stirred my attention to the difference between merely having a checklist and having a checklist that one acts upon and constantly refines.
To be honest, I've been meaning to introduce something similar to a checklist into my daily routine. Your post has given me the insight to act upon it. You have my thanks, Shanna.
Definitely agree.. having systems (or checklists) works. Plain and simple.
Personally I feel it's having a concrete process to follow.. and being able to constantly refine and tweak that checklist easily.. which makes it so beneficial..
I do wish this post were a bit more actionable though.
I am very interested in that intersection, too. But I think the real pot of gold is found in the iterative improvement that ritual fosters.
I feel like that would be like ifttt.com recipes. Good place to get ideas, but you'd ultimately have to make them your own.
To make up for spelling his name wrong, it's Atul Gawande, http://gawande.com/the-checklist-manifesto.
Thanks to Joachim S. for the heads up.
Gosh, I like the Wall Street Journal a lot. I like this piece, too -
No You Can't: "Is genius a simple matter of hard work? Not a chance"
I like the whole piece, except I disagree with the conclusions.
You'd need a certain baseline to be able to do the kind of work or craft you want to do. Enough to understand the discipline. But that's not such a high bar.
If you can understand the discipline, then, is it possible to make incremental progress every single week? Could you tighten your fundamentals, study related disciplines for synergy and crossover, and experiment on the hardest problems every single week?
I didn't want to write this. I wanted to scroll to infinity on Facebook and Twitter and then clickity click at imgur. I wanted to flip over to my phone to see if the Twitter mobile app had something different than the computer one and to check the weather again, just in case things changed. Normally I don't get so distracted in the mornings. Usually I have a list of things stored in Evernote ready to spark my checklist checking desires. Checklists are like our last link to our primal ancestors. Seeing them gets me excited like some basic man observing a flock of prey. We both quickly survey the candidates choose the easiest one to go after and are rewarded with our effort by rushes of chemicals to the brain encouraging our success.
It's also important to have a plan. I had a poster in my college dorm inspiring me to find where I was because without knowing that I couldn't find where I was going. I bought it because it was pretty. It was also inspiring but I didn't like it because it was inspiring but rather it could be inspiring. It had the potential to inspire - if I ever found where I was.
I think the poster had it wrong, you don't need to know where you are but do need to know where to go. This post started out blank and filled up quickly once the ideas got going - but it's not a great post. The great posts will come after I continue to write every day. That's probably true for anything in life. Doing your 'it' everyday will mean that someday you get to where you are going, it worked for the cavemen.
Cavemen - besides our checklist link - just wanted to survive and have a full belly. So each day they ate and survived and now look at you. If you're reading this you have a full belly and internet connection. In turn you're doing something each day that will make the future better. Forget where you are, do daily something to get where you are going.