Book Reviews, Methodologies



I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s amazing Podcast, Hidden Brain, the other day.  If you haven’t checked this out yet, give it a listen, it’s worth your time.  Shankar does an in-depth analysis on pretty much anything cognitive.  His guests are almost always interesting and he’s got a penetrating interview style that keeps you riveted for a half hour a week.  In this particular podcast, I was listening to You 2.0: WOOP, There it is!

His guest for this show was psychologist Gabriele Oettingen.  Dr. Oettingen recently authored the book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation.  In the podcast, she discusses how positive thinking can often have a negative effect.  She spent many years studying folks looking for jobs, trying to lose weight, recovering from injury or striving to reach some other goal.  What she found was counter-intuitive, at least to the current social wisdom.  She found that those people that have stronger, more positive fantasies (positive thinking) about hitting their goals were less likely to achieve them.  These folks got fewer job offers, lost less weight and recovered slower.

Interesting.  When you dive a little deeper though, the reasoning becomes a lot more obvious.  Most of these folks are doing just the positive thinking part.  They’re dreamers that aren’t getting off their asses and doing the work.  No wonder they aren’t hitting their goals.

Oettingen offers a very cool, very simple process to help realize your goals.  It is an acronym called WOOP.  WOOP stands for Wish-Objective-Obstacle-Plan.  The idea is that we think about the most important goal we wish to accomplish in the next finite period of time.  We then think about the best possible outcome if this wish is fulfilled.  She asks that we really get into it, really feel as if the outcome has already happened.  We then start to think about the obstacles within us that could prevent us from accomplishing this goal.  The important part of that statement is within us.  We still have very little control over a lot of external factors, but we certainly have control over the fears and weaknesses inside of us.  She asks us again to really feel it, then define and acknowledge these obstacles.  Finally, we build a plan.  The plan is an If – then statement right out of Comp Sci 101.  If obstacle, then plan.

Mental Contrasting

This idea of thinking about the obstacles that get in our way when trying to accomplish a goal is based off of a technique Dr. Oettingen calls mental contrasting.  Mental contrasting is very similar to a technique I’ve been using in business for years called the pre-mortem.  Everyone is familiar with the post-mortem in business.  This is where you analyze how a project went, then start working through all of the lessons you learned from the project so that these lessons can be disseminated through the organization so others can learn from the mistakes and successes of the project.  The pre-mortem is different.  This is a strategy where the folks about to start on the project or organization get together and look into the future and imagine that the project has failed.  They then work their way back from the failure to the present day and try to unearth all of the reasons why the project has failed.  This is a great way to do a risk assessment.

I have learned to use this technique sparingly.  Certain teams react very negatively to this approach.  You most often find this negative reaction with teams that are new to working together or they don’t have a ton of buy-in to the project in the first place.  In these scenarios, it can cause a serious lack of confidence in the project and may bring on the dreaded ‘Chicken Little’ effect.  In strong teams, it is incredibly effective because it brings a much needed dose of reality.  If you’ve ever built software you know that most coders default to thinking they can do the impossible by tomorrow.  This overconfidence has sunk many ships.  This risk along with many other obstacles get quickly exposed in the pre-mortem.

I’d assume the same is true for mental contrasting.  In doing some quick research, it is fair to say this approach is not for those that lack confidence.  Those that lack confidence should spend most of their time in the WOOP exercise on the Wish and Objective phase and only token time on the Obstacle and Plan phase.  A lack of confidence could prevent you from even starting on the goal in the first place if you get totally hung up on the Obstacles.

The idea behind mental contrasting is interesting and loops back to a lot of what Harari said in his book Sapiens that I reviewed previously.  Most visualization that we undertake is of the positive-future imagery flavor.  Our brains have the wonderful capacity to create fictions of the future.  The fact that we can visualize a positive-future imagery tricks our brains into assuming that this visualization is real and attainable.  That’s why it works.  The fiction convinces your brain that the desired future is likely to come true.

However, if you are already a very confident person, this positive-future imagery can burn you.  Your brain starts to assume that the goal is a lot easier to acquire than it actually is.  With that scrambled logic, your brain starts to allocate less energy to the goal and you end up not doing the work.  An interesting tangent to this – this seems eerily similar to why smart kids get so frustrated when they can’t solve something quickly.  They expect it to be easy and are not familiar with the concept of stretching the brain and doing the work.  Their brain is not used to allocating that energy and they get depressed and give up.  This is why it’s important to praise kids for ‘hard work’ over being ‘smart’.  End tangent. To combat this problem of allocating less energy and not doing the work, we developed mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting works because your subconscious mind is a lazy 4-yr old.  It can’t think past a couple of minutes.  This is why long term goals are so hard to hit, your subconscious doesn’t give a damn.  All it wants is for you to be happy and healthy in the now.  It doesn’t understand why exercising is a good idea – all it sees is that running on a treadmill is a pointless waste of time.  Mental contrasting is training for your subconscious.  It connects the dots of future reward with obstacles in the now.  Your conscious mind understands that running and dieting is a good idea but your subconscious mind just wants to finish the whole damn roll of thin mints.  The subconscious speaks in images which is why mental contrasting is so effective.

One note of caution if you are interested in further research on the topic.  I can’t recommend the book.  I would recommend that you just listen to the Hidden Brain podcast.  I thought the book was somewhat poorly written even though the idea of WOOP is a great one.  She has obviously done a ton of research and should be lauded for it.  The presentation of that research in the book however, was not done very objectively.  In all of the great scientific books I’ve read, the results of a study are shown then conclusions are drawn from those results.  Here, I felt like the conclusion was made ahead of time and then the results were shown to support the conclusion.  I’m not making any claims that this is bad science, because I don’t think that’s the case at all, just that the presentation of the science was weak.

I also believe that both the character lab site using WOOP and the Woopmylife site are both excellent and deserve a look.

Personal Improvement Plan

So how does this all tie back into the personal improvement plan?  I talked about SMART goals in a previous post.  The WOOP approach will complement SMART goals very nicely.  This is how we will get from knowing thyself to a scorecard.  I’ll start with some examples of this in my next blog on the process.







Know Thyself IV

Skills and Mastery

Thus far, in the search of know thyself, I have spent all of my time understanding who I am.  This is time well spent but I have taken almost no time in understanding what I can do.  This is the next step, understanding skills and passions.  It is important to look at both the skills and passions we already have as well as those that we wish to acquire.  Understanding our current skills and acquiring new ones are a critical part of the personal improvement plan.

Let’s first take a deep dive into what we mean by skills.  A skill in its most basic form is the ability to carry out a task with pre-determined results within a given amount of time and energy.  That is a very definition-y approach to something that constitutes what we can do.  Let’s go deeper.

Wikipedia categorizes skills into six buckets: Labor Skills, Life Skills, People Skills, Social Skills, Soft Skills and Hard Skills.  There is a fair amount of overlap between each of these buckets based on different perceptions and categorization schemes.  I won’t waste your time discussing any one type more than once.

Let’s look at the Labor skills first.  These are the skill sets that allow us to operate in the marketplace.  They break down into the sub categories of foundation, transferable and technical and vocational skills.  The foundational skills are the very basics that allow us to acquire new skills.  These are things like literacy and math.  It’s pretty damn hard to learn how to code if you can’t read or do addition.  The next is the transferable skills.  These are the skills that transfer from one line of work to the next.  Many of these are the soft and people skills that we’ll talk about in a little more detail later.  The third is the technical and vocational skills.  These are your hard skills, things that require technical know-how and specific training.

Next we have our general life skills.  These skills allow us to navigate the ship and manage the demands and challenges that life throws at us.  The nerdy term for this skill set is psycho-social.  The folks that struggle with these type of skills typically struggle to find their place in society.  They could be troubled youth, substance abusers, on the autism spectrum, or any other number of other reasons.  These are the very basics: decision making, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, self-awareness, empathy, relationships, assertiveness, coping, communication and resilience.  At this level we are not talking about our people skills, but something deeper.  Life skills form the foundation for things like people skills and soft skills.

With that segue, let’s cover people skills next.  These are the skills that determine how well you play with others.  Most of these are covered in kindergarten but people skills are the ability to effectively communicate, understand and empathize with others.  Strong people skills build trust through sincerity.  These are a must have to interact respectfully with others to develop strong working relationships.

I’m going to cover social skills as well.  There is a fair amount of overlap between social and people skills.  The reason I’m covering social skills separately is that I like the list of social skills that the Employment and Training Administration has identified: Coordination (adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions), Mentoring, Negotiation, Persuasion, Service Orientation and Social Perceptiveness.  Learning these skills is known as socialization.

Soft skills are another categorization of a lot of the other skills we already looked at.  These are less quantifiable like people and social skills and serve as a good complement to hard skills.  Hard skills are more technical and quantifiable.  The hard skills fit nicely in the technical and vocational bucket under labor skills.

Hopefully, this study on skills was interesting even if it was a little dry.  Stay with me though, there is a point to all of this.  To build an effective personal development plan, we need a way of getting from who we are to a better version of us.  Some of that comes from understanding ourselves but a larger part is going to come down to strapping in and working on those skills that we want to improve.  We all have soft and hard skills that could use a bit of work.


Before I share the skills that I am choosing to work on, I would first like to discuss motivation and mastery for a second.  Daniel Pink has done some amazing studies on what motivates us.  He has done a couple of TED talks and written a book on motivation but my favorite is the RSA Animate version of his talk.  We are going to use these tools heavily in making sure we stay on track on our plan.  What he found is that the three biggest factors in motivation are: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  You will have total autonomy in how you build your plan.  We will also spend some time defining your purpose when we build out the vision that the plan is based on.  Mastery however is going to be an ongoing goal for the rest of your life so it’s worth spending a couple cycles on that now.

The scale of mastery that we use comes from the four stages of competence.  This was a theory built by Noel Burch while working with the Gordon Training International.  In the first stage, we are incompetent and ignorant of the fact.  The way to progress out of this stage is by showing a serious desire to learn.  We classify folks at this level as novice, because at this stage you don’t even know what you don’t know.

Personal Improvement Plan Mastery Arrow

In the next stage we have conscious incompetence.  This is where folks start to understand how much there is to know and how little they know of it.  They can recognize their deficits as well as the value of the new skill.  We classify folks at this level as apprentice, because they are starting on the journey to mastery.  In the third stage, the practitioner knows how to do the skill but it takes intense concentration.  They may have to break it down into its component parts and a ton of focus is required.  We call this level journeyman.

In the final stage, you have reached mastery of the skill.  It’s something that can be done with your eyes closed.  Many times, you can execute the skill while doing something else.  A good example of this is driving.  You don’t think about how you are going to pull out of the driveway in the morning, you just do it while you are thinking about what you have to get done for the day.  This stage is mastery.

The first step in the skill breakdown is listing out all of your skills and assigning your current mastery level to those skills.  This was a fun step for me that allowed me to flesh out my quiver of all the things that I know how to do or that I want to learn how to do at some point in the future.  The list ends up being far too long to manage though, so I will share the next step which is narrowing down the list to just those skills I plan on using in the next two years or the skills that I hope to acquire in that same time period.


This list becomes the launch pad for the next part of the process of building our vision and scorecard.  I will cover my version of those steps in the next several blogs.  There will be a final know thyself blog though that covers all of the other tools that we tried and decided not to incorporate into the process and why.  Stay tuned!