Wired to Answer Easy Questions

Daniel Kahneman describes one study of German students in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow when exploring heuristic questions. The study asks a group of students the following two questions:

  1. How happy are you these days?
  2. How many dates did you have last month?

When asked in this order, the results show that there was virtually no correlation between the number of dates and a student’s happiness. As Kahneman summarizes, “Evidently, dating was not what came first to the student’s minds when they were asked to assess their happiness.”

The experimenters posed these same questions to another group of students, this time changing the order:

  1. How many dates did you have last month?
  2. How happy are you these days?

Kahneman again, “The results this time were completely different. In this sequence, the correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness was about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get.”

Why were the results of these two experiments so different?

The brains of the students in the second experiment were primed to respond to the unasked question, ‘How happy are you with your love life?’ This process is called substitution. When faced with a difficult question, like the task of measuring your arbitrary happiness, your brain will look for an easier question to answer. In this case, because the students have just determined the number of dates they had had last month, their brain had a quick way to assess their happiness (higher happiness with more dates, lower happiness with fewer dates). The brain determined these two questions were related and provided a quick answer to the second question. Your brain does this too, and the more emotional a difficult question, the more you are likely to substitute the question asked.

The conclusions of this experiment are fun to think about. We can see that the order of the questions matter. We also know that your brain will look for a substitute question to answer when faced with a difficult query. It may be worth thinking about how you answer a difficult question, and challenge yourself before giving an answer to ensure you are answering the question that was asked.


A final thought by way of a quick story. I was at the beach this week with some friends. We had just finished eating doughnuts and were walking through town when we crossed paths with a man and his dog. Upon seeing the dog, my friend, Gina, exclaimed, “Look at that dog, it looks just like a s’more!”. Sure enough, it did, chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow tones dominated the dog’s fur coat. We all laughed, and I smiled a bit longer, knowing that the reason she made the s’mores comparison was because she had just finished eating a s’mores doughnut. The brain looks for associations naturally, sometimes subconsciously, even when there isn’t an association to be had.

[Initial draft written with an Apsara Absolute]


Now Read This: Omaha Edition.

Omaha, NE

Today, I completed this year’s installment of an annual tradition I have of reading Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report. This might seem like an odd tradition to keep, yet I always find great inspiration and worthwhile material in the report. If this sounds like some odd form of torture, I can assure you it isn’t. Unlike most annual reports, the opening 30 or so pages amount to a refreshing and honest letter from the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, none other than Warren Buffett. He offers his investment philosophy, opines about prudent leadership, and shares some of his evaluation of corporate America.

In 1983 Buffett documented “13 owner-related business principals to help new shareholders understand our managerial approach.” These principals have been included in every annual report since, with all 13 remaining in effect. Over 3 decades later, his philosophy to running and growing a business remains true to these principals. Principals 14 and 15 have recently been added, addressing expectations of gains and losses in Berkshire stock value and the value of the company compared to the S&P 500’s performance. It’s an incredible list, and a gift for all of us to absorb. Since many others have written about them in detail, I won’t rehash them, here’s a link to the “Owner’s Manual” which detail all 15 principals.

Recognizing the tremendous wealth created by American’s since 1776, Buffett writes:

From a standing start 240 years ago … Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers.

Starting from scratch, America has massed a wealth totaling $90 trillion.

Buffett moves on to discuss intrinsic value versus carrying value and why he puts so little faith in consolidated earnings reports. The company’s results back up his approach, Berkshire Hathaway has achieved a compounded annual growth rate of 19% over the past 52 years. 52 YEARS!

Sprinkled throughout the report, he shares blunt criticism of corporate America business leaders:

When CEOs or boards are buying a small part of their own company, they all too often seem oblivious to price.

Too many managements are looking for any means necessary to report, and indeed feature, “adjusted earnings” that are higher than their company’s GAAP earnings. Two of their favorites are the omission of “restructuring costs” and “stock-based compensation” as expenses.

… bad behavior is contagious. CEOs who overtly look for ways to report higher numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well.

and one more:

If CEOs want to leave out stock-based compensation in reporting earnings, they should be required to affirm to their owners one of two propositions: why items of value used to pay employees are not a cost or why a payroll cost should be excluded when calculating earnings.

An enjoyable and truthful quote from Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, Charles Munger, referring to managers and their potentially over inflated self-worth:

It’s great to have a manager with a 160 IQ – unless he thinks it’s 180.

One more nugget from Buffett, related to corporate mergers and acquisitions. ” At Berkshire, we never count on synergies when we acquire companies.” When is the last time you heard a CEO discuss a merger that didn’t center around synergies?

Seriously, read the opening letter of the full report, it is full of wisdom from one of the greatest business minds of American industry. Feel free to share what connected with you in the comments.


[The initial draft of this article was written with a Viking Skjoldungen 400 office pencil – HB]

My Problem with “r”

Somewhere along the way I lost all confidence in writing the lower case “r”. My “r” might look more like an “n” or a “v”. Sometimes an “r” might lack the left top, consisting of a simple curve to the right, like a tilted parenthesis, nearly a “c”. Or worse, just a bottom-left to upper-right slash.

To mask the trepidation I would feel as I approached a word with an “r”, I began to replace a lower case “r” with a smaller version of an upper case “R”. I made this switch so often that it became habit, allowing me to write at speed, easily substituting all “r”s with “R”, giving it little conscious thought.

Of course I realized this was all foolishness, for when I put my mind to it I could write the most beautiful “r”. One with a clearly defined stem and a gentle, consistent curve to the right … and yet this lack of confidence persisted.

I’m spending more time writing with pencil and paper these days, and with this process I’ve vowed to tackle my “r” fears. I’ve found that it helps to keep the lead sharp, providing more opportunities for a clearer definition to the shape of the letters.

Some "r"s
The author’s examples of  the lower case “r”

There are 73 “r”s or “R”s in this article.
I mistakenly wrote 6 upper case “R”s where I should have written “r”.
0 of them look like “n”.
12 of them look like “v”.
16 of them lack the proper stem.
4 of them look like a slash.

It is clearly a work in progress.

Now I’ve noticed that sometimes I write the letter “t” with a curl to the right, like a backwards “j” and sometimes I don’t … hmmm …


[The initial draft of this article was written with a well sharpened Switzerland made Caran D’Ache Yellow School Pencil – HB]

Squandering Good Intentions – A Tale

Yesterday I played 14 1/2 holes of golf. That’s an unusual number of holes by anyone’s count. What started out as an enjoyable round of golf on a temperate summer day, ended in frustration, out of golf balls, and with the loss of a 4-iron.

I parred the first two holes, thinking to myself, “this is turning out better than expected”. I haven’t played much golf in recent years, usually only getting a round or two in for an entire year. Having, surprisingly, found myself with the summer off, I planned to work on my game. I had played a fair amount of golf as a youth and enjoyed both the sport and the manicured walks. Plus, this counts as exercise, right?

As I approached the third hole tee box, two golfers ahead of me waved me on. Solo play is sometimes frowned on by groups because the pace of play can create the feeling of pressure to a group in front of a lone golfer. It is a courtesy to wave a single player on, many courses give no status to a solitary player.

Golf, in many ways, is a game of rhythm. Break the established cadence and the results can change widely. Subtle variations in swing tempo or stance are amplified in erratic ball flight.

I had planned to take a drink of water, already unscrewing the cap from my bottle. Before I could take a sip, I saw the arm raise and signal for me to come hit. Moving too quickly, I felt the pressure of these two fellows waiting for me to play through. I capped my water, grabbed a 3-wood, and half-jogged to the tee box.

Golfers can already guess what happened next. I thumbtacked my tee into the lush grass, placed my ball on top, quickly lined up my shot, and set my stance. I don’t take a lot of practice swings. My philosophy, right or wrong, is that as long as my muscles are warmed up and I take a moment to visualize what I am attempting to do, I will conserve my swings for actually hitting the ball. I’ve watched a tremendous amount of golfers swing half-a-dozen times before nearly every shot, they take 6 or 7 times the number of swings I do in a round, and generally they appear out of gas on the back nine.

Before I hit the ball, I try to take a nice deep breath, it slows the heart rate and allows me to relax my shoulders. Whenever I’m dealing with tension or stress, it seems to accumulate in my shoulder muscles. Some people get pressure headaches, I get a stiff neck.

Forgetting to breath, with an accelerated heart rate from rushing to tee off, I swung the club. While I did manage to hit the ball, it was a glancing blow, topping the dimpled sphere, driving it down into the grass inches from my hastily placed tee. The ball traveled maybe 60 yards. The two idle golfers eyed me suspiciously. In my imagination I could hear them say, “Oh man, why did we let this guy in front of us”.

Since my ball hadn’t travelled enough distance to pass where they stood, I got to repeat my performance for this small audience. I drove the golf cart forward, and to my embarrassment, well past where my ball came to rest.  A sharp whistle from my fellow golfers and a stern pointing behind me caused me to U-turn.

My second shot was not redeeming, coming off the club head left and landing in the tall grass amid some trees, a meek 100 feet away. Avoiding looking towards the golfers, all I could do was drive the cart forward, not bothering to put the club back in my bag. I punched the ball back to the fairway, now lying 3 at a distance less than I am normally capable of driving from the tee box. I half-heartedly raised my arm to acknowledge the gesture of letting me play through. I’m certain if I had looked back I would have seen the smirks and the proverbially shaking of heads.

A trusty 6-iron put me just to the right of the green. A chip and then two putts gave me a 7 for the par 4 hole. I’ve had plenty of 7 scores, and higher, but this one felt especially bad. I couldn’t get to the golf cart fast enough so I could get away from the scrutinizing eyes of the, now behind me, golfers. For the next six holes, even though I was playing solo, and therefore theoretically faster, and I was driving a golf cart while they were walking, I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see them waiting on me.

My scores didn’t really improve and I lost several balls on bad shots. (I did have a picture perfect 6-iron from 165 yards to the green on the 9th hole – I feel you only need a shot or two like this that gives you hope and keeps you coming back to work on your game). On hole 14, my second shot, I lined up a 4-iron, took a breath, and promptly broke the club head from the shaft on contact with the ball. The ball, mercifully, went straight, the club head went way left, tumbling down the fairway. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. So I did, sticking the broken parts in my bag.

My drive on hole 15 went out of bounds, and I determined I had had enough. I put the driver in my bag, pointed the cart toward the clubhouse and left. Game over, 14 1/2 holes.

Why had a courteous gesture to let a quicker playing golfer by so altered my play that I eventually quit the round? Of course, they had done nothing wrong. It was all how I had reacted to the events.

E + R = O
Event + Reaction = Outcome

I got in my own way, breaking my own rhythm, suffering because of the perceived pressure I created. While my story was about golf, the reality is we all create this fictional stress in our own lives, at home and at work.

Maybe the intentions you associate to your boss or co-workers aren’t based on fact, maybe you’ve created them to justify your reactions. I ran into two friendly golfers who allowed me to pass them so they weren’t holding me up. Too bad I squandered their good intentions.


[Draft initially written with a Viking SKJOLDUNGEN 400 OFFICE PENCIL – HB on June 17, 2017]

Sustainable Performance Plans

As I write this article the Washington Nationals have the highest batting average in the Major Leagues. This should come as no surprise to Nats fans who already appreciate the work of hitting coach Rick Schu. Under Coach Schu’s tutelage the Nationals have been in the top of nearly all of baseballs hitting categories for the past few years, including 6 players who hit 20 or more homeruns last year.

I watched 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy belt a homerun the other night. After rounding the bases and heading into the dugout the camera crew showed him discussing his hit with teammates, demonstrating his hand moves and discussing the pitch. Murphy was clearly sharing his observations of the pitcher and deconstructing the hit in an effort to help his teammates also be successful. Murphy appears to me, after watching him the past two seasons, to be someone who embraces deliberate practice. Even though he has led the team in many hitting categories, he continues to work on his swing and analyzing his approach, dedicated to achieving big results.

We often assign coaches or build performance improvement plans for employees who aren’t performing well. While I certainly support these efforts and have witnessed many cases where poor performing employees have gone on to great success, the realty is we often don’t give the same attention to employees who are performing well. I have seen many coaches hired to help executives who seem to be struggling in their roles, yet we fail to do so for those that appear to be doing well as people leaders and business managers. While watching Murphy interact with his teammates, it occurred to me that we need performance sustaining plans for the best of workers, not only performance improvement plans for those failing to live up to expectations. 

If we fail to create sustainable performance plans, we leave to chance that the quality of our work and our effort will not deplete. One could argue that under performing employees left unchecked will affect the performance of those around them. While true, I would also argue that investing in top talent provides more opportunity to lift the performance of all colleagues and pays higher dividends.

Cheer For or Cheer Against, You Decide

“Drop it”, the third base coach shouted to the pitcher as she fielded a ball hit back to the mound and tossed it to first for the out. In that moment, the visiting team coach decided to root for the opposition to make a mistake rather than cheering on his team to reach first base.

We can choose to root against someone hoping to get the desired outcome or we can choose to cheer for our team letting our experience, expertise, and preparedness achieve success.

“Winning” by hoping for an error from someone else is short term.

Winning by honing our skills, building a competitive edge, and preparing is long term.

When a girl from the visiting team struck out, the coach made her do pushups in front of the dugout. I’m certain this was humiliating, having her face in the grass in front of her teammates, parents, and opposing team. When our girls struck out, we pat her on the helmet as she heads back into the dugout to high-fives and encouragement from her teammates. The coach may provide a tip for the next at bat while calling out a few good things about her stance, swing, or how she tracked the pitch.

Creating a safe place to analyze mistakes builds a learning environment.

Berating someone for an error creates a culture of fear.

Leadership by fear is temporary and always produces poorer results.

Leadership by example generates trust and produces the highest quality results.

Our girls went on to win. At the end, when the teams were shaking hands and saying “good game”, I said to the coach “Your girls played well, I was cheering for them”.

An Uncomfortable Privilege Walk

I attended the 2017 MAKERS Conference a few weeks ago. If you are unfamiliar with MAKERS, it is a storytelling platform for the trailblazing women of today and tomorrow. MAKERS.com features greater than 4,500 original videos and more than 400 MAKERS interviews. These are incredibly compelling stories and incredibly compelling women. I strongly urge you to go get inspired and check out the site.

The 36-hour conference was packed with inspiration, energy, and great people. I’ve been reflecting back on this experience and wanted to share today, on International Women’s Day, the most impactful moment of the conference for me.

To set the stage, there were roughly 500 women invited to attend. My unofficial count of men in the audience stands somewhere below a handful.

The last day of the conference included a choice of 6 interactive sessions on a wide range of topics from personal branding, gender equity, and ideas to shape the makeup of corporate boardrooms. I chose a topic on personalizing diversity and inclusion simply because I had seen one of the moderators talk earlier, Luvvie Ajayi, and she had such great energy that I wanted to hear more from her.

I walked to the assigned room, a square conference room with chairs lined up against the four walls all pointed toward the center of the room. There were 36 women, including the 2 facilitators, and me, the only guy.

I had lobbied (maybe begged fits better here) to come to this conference, not just this year, but for the past three years. I wanted to be here. I knew I would be gender outnumbered, I wanted to put myself in that uncomfortable, and unusual position, of being a white male in the minority, participating in discussing topics important to these women. I was prepared to take some arrows, to shake my head in disbelief as I heard the obstacles these women have overcome (many of these challenges created by people who look like me), and actively listen to their stories and experiences.

As Luvvie, a self described “Author. Speaker. Red Pump Rocker. Techie. Professional Troublemaker.”, and her co-facilitator, Jana Rich, a seasoned headhunter and founder of Rich Talent Group, kicked off the session, I knew I was in for something unusual. Little did I know how powerful this next hour was going to be.

Rather than sit in a conference room, we were all ushered to the sculpted lawn on the grounds of Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Here we were directed to stand in a straight line, our feet sinking into the soggy grass, provided by a days long, steady downpour that had fortunately stopped earlier that morning. Several women took off their shoes to spare the mud and water damage. We placed our right hands on the left shoulder of the person standing next to us and learned we were about to start a privilege walk.

walking.. - lucio zandonati - https://flic.kr/p/rc8cuW


Now, I’ve never done a privilege walk, nor had I even heard of a privilege walk. In case you haven’t either, let me provide a quick overview. It is a physical exercise meant to visually display benefits or detriments award by society based on things like race, gender, or sexual orientation. Privilege isn’t earned, it is simply unmerited grants to an individual.

A facilitator reads 30 to 40 questions out loud to the participants. After each question, you either step forward, representing a positive merit, or backwards, representing a disadvantage. The connection with the two people next to you, one with their hand on your shoulder, and the other where you are resting your hand on their shoulder, provides a physical bond. A bond that breaks as these questions are asked and each participant moves based on their response.

Everyone begins in a straight line to represent an equal beginning. Within three questions, I had lost the physical contact with both women on either side of me as they retreated and I moved forward.

Typical questions might be, “Step forward if both of your parents have college degrees” or “Step backward if you feel safe walking alone at night in your neighborhood”. If a particular question is too personal, you just hold your ground and wait for the next one.

I can tell you it’s a powerful moment when the question “Take a step back if you have ever been sexually harassed” and every single person moved except me. It still gives me chills writing this down and thinking about that question. All 34 women took a step back, and I stood still.

By the time we had finished the questions, the division was clear. I stood the farthest forward of anyone, simply because I’m a white male. There were white women closest to me, within a few steps. The middle of the pack was populated with black women and Latinas, the farthest in the back were southeast Asian women.

The facilitators asked for our reactions and thoughts on the exercise. “White Male Privilege” was a phrase that floated around. I felt a bit embarrassed, certainly uncomfortable, yet mostly grateful. Grateful for having the opportunity to participate with these women on something that was so important to recognize. Many women spoke, sharing more about their personal stories: mental illness in the family, having people speak for them when they weren’t asked to, being passed over for job advancements. I listened to everyone of them.

Near the end I shared a quick observation myself, which is simply this:

As I moved forward, I lost sight of all those behind me, I could no longer see if they were moving forward or back after each question. I had lost the perspective and the benefit of seeing and knowing their experiences. This was a reminder that I am surrounding by people I’m not consciously seeing everyday. Good people with amazing stories, talents, ideas.

While I can’t change the privilege I’ve been granted simply by being born white and male, I don’t have to behave as if I’m entitled to every advantage either.

Today we recognize International Women’s Day, let’s do this again tomorrow, and the day after that…