Shawn Achor’s “Before Happiness”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking > Psychology

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~230 pages ex-notes (272 official)

Blurb/Description: The world confronts us with more information than we can possibly process, so our process for filtering is critically important; Shawn Achor synthesizes new and fresh research into practical, actionable conclusions with a healthy dose of his usual charm.

Summary: Some authors only have one good book in them; some don’t even have that much.  Achor, it turns out, has at least two (I haven’t read his latest one yet.)  Even though The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness naturally overlap in some of their points, Before Happiness is largely fresh and original.

This is, in fact, intentional: Achor notes early on that many books “tend to quote a lot of the same studies.”  So he, instead, is trying to:

“bring you brand-new original research […] as well as pull from lesser-known but equally groundbreaking studies from my colleagues that haven’t seen the light of day in a business book.”

How can this drawing, which *may* have been made by a blind, quadriplegic cat, help you win at work and life? Shawn Achor’s “Before Happiness” will provide you with that scintillating answer.

Highlights: I think he accomplishes that goal and then some with more of the conciseness and humor on display in The Happiness Advantage – in fact, his writing here is even better, in my view.

I particularly like the utility-focused format of Before Happiness, which is chock-full of practical advice and helpful end-of-chapter summaries to help you retain information in your memory.

Several of his suggestions here – ranging from specific advice for reducing “noise” to adding vantage points to taking time to review whether your short-term actions are leading to your long-term goals – made a huge impact in my life.

Lowlights: There are some minor quibbles here and there, like him citing John Paulson as an example of someone with a good process (I’m skeptical.)  Those are par for the course for any book, though.

My much bigger disagreement is with Achor’s anti-defensive-pessimism stance: for all the good thatBefore Happiness did me (and believe me, it was a lot), abandoning defensive pessimism was a painful and emotionally damaging mistake.

I explain my contrasting viewpoint pretty extensively in the notes, but simply put, I think Achor creates a false dichotomy between having a growth mindset and approaching the world with a “positive mental attitude” (as Gonzales might put it), and using a margin of safety to overcome loss aversion.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: schemanonlinearityman-with-a-hammer syndrome,storytelling, sleepempathyfundamental attribution errorcorrelation vs. causationprobabilistic thinkingcommitment biassunk costscontrast biassaliencevividnessstatus quo biasfeedback,activation energystructural problem solvingtradeoffsmargin of safety

You should buy a copy of Before Happiness if: you want a thoughtful (and funny) psychology book interpreting a lot of fresh, under-the-radar research on schema and related topics in a very practical/applicable way.

Reading Tips: None in particular… it’s an easy read.  You should read The Happiness Advantage as well, and also watch Achor’s HILARIOUS TED Talk.  The audience is in stitches and you will be too.

Pairs Well With:

The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor (THA review + notes).  No comment needed.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy” by Dr. Judith Beck (CBT review + notes).  This book provides a much more technical/theoretical/therapeutical look at schema, as well as a lot of practical strategies for how to alter it for the better.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” by Tavris/Aronson (MwM review + notes).  Achor references fundamental attribution error as well as commitment bias (citing research by Elliot Aronson for the latter); T/A basically wrote the book on these topics.

Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales (DpSv review + notes).  Gonzales addresses a lot of the same questions – how should we deal with the filter between us and the world? – in the context of life-or-death survival situations.

The Up Side of Down” by Megan McArdle ( UpD review + notes).  This engaging, wide-ranging book focuses loosely on how failure can be transformed into success, citing research and case studies ranging from breakups in Manhattan to prisons in Hawaii.

10% Happier” by Dan Harris ( 10H review + notes).  I’ve tried and failed at meditation a million times, but I still love this book: it’s funny, heartfelt, honest, and you’ll get value out of it whether or not you end up taking up meditation.  It’s a great explanation of mindfulness.

Nudge” by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler ( NDGE review + notes).  A phenomenal book about how activation energystatus quo bias, and structural problem solving can be harnessed to help us all make better choices.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey ( 7H review + notes).  A lot of the concepts here are mirrored in 7 Habits, one of my favorite books of all time.

Reread Value: 4/5 (High)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

 

Page ix: Achor opens the book by briefly mentioning his own struggles with depression: his first remembered attempt at journaling included the words:

“I don’t remember being happy.”

I talk about this in the  mindfulness model.  I, too, have felt the same way at various points in my life.

Pages xv – xvii, page 3: Before Happiness delves deeper into the concept of schema, mentioned in “The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes).

Achor notes in the introduction here that we’re not talking about the sort of “positive thinking” bullshit that Dan Harris hates so much (see “ 10% Happier + 10H review + notes).

Achor notes that “before emotion, there is your reality” – echoing the cognitive model underlying cognitive behavioral therapy, as discussed by Dr. Judith Beck in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes).

Echoing his thoughts in The Happiness Advantage and those of many other authors (Gonzales in Deep Survival – DpSV review + notes), Achor notes that:

 “the human brain receives eleven million pieces of information every second from our environment, [but] can process only forty bits per second, which means it has to choose what tiny percentage of this input to process and attend to, and what huge chunk to dismiss or ignore.”

Page 4: Galton sighting…

Page 6X: Achor may somewhat understate the relevance of IQ / “g,” and give too much credence to Howard Gardner.  See “ Intelligence by Ritchie ( Intel review + notes).

Page 9: Achor notes here that we’re basically only as effective as our schema allows us to be.  To the extent that our schema mediates the input of the world into our brains,

Page 13: As I mention in the review, I think that this book has the potential to be overinterpreted.  Achor notes (with a wry anecdote) that not wearing isn’t optimism… it’s stupidity.

Or, more pointedly, on the dose-dependency of optimism and the negative effects of overoptimism:

“Irrational optimists see the world through rose-colored glasses without realizing that those tinted lens[es] don’t enhance their vision, they distort it.  

And as a result, their decisions and actions are Pollyannaish and flawed. You can’t sugarcoat the present and still make good decisions for the future.”

In other words, optimism is dose-dependent and the answer to “how positively should I view the world” is a little akin to Jordan Ellenberg’s hilarious “how Swedish is too Swedish?” riff in “ How Not To Be Wrong ( HNW review + notes).

Page 15: Interesting compare/contrast here to “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes) by Gonzales.

On the one hand, Achor notes that it’s important not to overestimate obstacles and points out the importance of keeping your eyes open for opportunities (which Gonzales cites as one of the more critical elements to surviving).  

On the other hand, Gonzales seems to note that the vast majority of people get themselves in trouble by underestimating their surroundings.

I don’t have an answer here… just questions.

Page 19: Kudos to Achor.  I occasionally cite my (mostly kidding, but sort of not) “Samir’s First Law of Psychology Books” which states that every pop psychology book, almost by law, must reference either the marshmallow experiment, the Milgram experiment, or the gorilla experiment (and sometimes even all three).  I have read about those three experiments so many times that I think I could basically compile an entire book of various authors’ interpretations thereof.

Achor notes, similarly, that many books “tend to quote a lot of the same studies.”  So he, instead, is trying to “bring you brand-new original research […] as well as pull from lesser-known but equally groundbreaking studies from my colleagues that haven’t seen the light of day in a business book.”

This makes Before Happiness (as well as “ The Happiness Advantage – THA review + notes) unusually interesting resources.

Pages 23 – 24: In addition to a volunteer firefighter and amateur surfer, it turns out our favorite Renaissance Man Shawn Achor also spent time on a submarine… which he got to drive (pilot?)  

He relays the amusing anecdote of how he learned that the floor doesn’t always equal down… that is just a heuristic that makes sense the vast majority of the time.  The floor, Achor learns, “could be up, down, sideways, or at sixty degrees.”

What is not clear is whether or not Achor has ever read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game,” in which, memorably, pint-sized Ender Wiggin makes similar observations a few decades earlier:

“From now on, you forget about gravity before you go through that door.  

The old gravity is gone, erased.

Understand me?

Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember:

the enemy’s gate is down.

 

Pages 26 – 27: Achor notes the idea of “adding vantage points” as a key to success; basically, this means stepping outside your own schema to view problems from another angle.

Achor explains that research “shows that a [schema] based on only one vantage point is limited and full of blind spots.”  

Or, as Munger would call it, man-with-a-hammer syndrome.  Tetlock might call it a hedgehog.

Pages 30 – 33: Achor cites some of the well-known research on stress – with similar conclusions to Gonzales in Deep Survival – but, true to his promise of bringing in less-cited research, offers a new perspective.

“Research indicates that stress, even at high levels, creates greater mental toughness, deeper relationships,”

and a whole lot of other benefits.

Gonzales touches on this by noting the dose-dependency of stress; i.e. a little is good, too much is bad – but Achor here provides an interesting contrasting perspective that incorporates agency and a touch of the Langer aging experiment discussed in “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).

I.e. that we can actually reduce the negative effects of stress by reframing it and looking for the “meaning” of the stress, using a similar process to the “job vs. calling” bit on pages 78 – 80 of The Happiness Advantage.

Pages 35 – 37, 40 – 41: I will leave it to you to judge whether or not I draw better than, um, a “blind, quadriplegic cat with no artistic training.”  (Shawn’s at his best when he’s making fun of people.  I still giggle every time I think about “there’s one weirdo in the room… I know, I saw you earlier.”) 

No here look, I actually did it… and if you’re wondering why there’s no coffee in the mug, it’s because I DRANK IT ALL.

I think this little artistic experiment with a coffee mug and a saucer is a nice visual example of the “adding vantage points” bit.  Achor suggests practicing expanding vantage points by taking objects and drawing them from different angles; he also suggests trying to come up with at least three viewpoints on your current work life (or some other part of your life).

Riffing a bit, it’s a nice time to mention Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting” (SF review + notes).  It is, in case you were wondering, always a nice time to mention Superforecasting… no but really, one of the big takeaways from Superforecasting is that good forecasters tend to do a lot of “on the one hand… on the other hand” type thinking.  It doesn’t play well on TV, but it’s critical to coming to reasonable conclusions.

This may be straying more into storytelling and confirmation bias and probabilistic thinking and correlation vs. causation, but I find that a helpful exercise in my daily life is, whenever something happens – “oh, this can on our back porch was knocked over” – to counter my naturalstorytelling, cause-seeking narrator – “it must’ve been that possum again, looking for food” – with a few additional explanations – “… but it was also really windy last night during the thunderstorm, and maybe I accidentally kicked it over when I was moving that table.”

I would also, perhaps more directly, refer readers to some of the exercises outlined in Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes), such as the “tell a friend” exercise around pages 170 – 172, or the “cognitive continuum” approach on page 219 – an example of contrast bias – to help force yourself to evaluate things from a different perspective than you’re already in.

Finally, I’d cross-reference to John Lewis Gaddis’s “The Landscape of History (LandH review + notes).  Much of the book discusses how historians take perspective, and so a lot of it applies, but I’d specifically point to the bit around pages 108 – 109, where Gaddis discusses how different perspectives/paradigms can be helpful in analyzing different historical situations and yield more insight than just one paradigm.

Anyway.  Achor also here notes the idea of “perspectival depth” in art, which Jordan Ellenberg hits mathematically in How Not To Be Wrong (HNW review + notes) on pages 261 – 264, if you want more depth.

Pages 38 – 39: I’ve used this reference so many times that it’s not even funny: Achor reviews how and why Yale medical students are required to visit art museums.  Again on  man-with-a-hammersyndrome.

The takeaway is that learning to look at things from different perspectives is beneficial; this is why reading fiction can build empathy and why reading outside your field helps build judgment better than reading inside your field (because you’re not very likely to encounter substantially “different” perspecties within your own niche).

See, of course, Groopman’s How Doctors Think (HDT review + notes) for more on, y’know, how doctors think.

Pages 43 – 44: A nice bit on the importance of sleep.  I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep (Sleep review + notes) and Till Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes) are both phenomenal.  The former is probably more interesting /  useful to a lay audience, and is my candidate for most important book of the century (no hyperbole), but the latter holds a special place in my heart.

Achor also notes that – unsurprisingly – people are irritable right before lunch.

Page 47!: Here’s a nice example of vantage point adding in the business world: drawing your circle somewhat more broadly.  

There are lots of good examples of this; one that stands out to me as a particularly hilarious example of making lemonade of out lemons in Cheniere Energy, profiled (among other companies) in Gregory Zuckerman’s very-engaging The Frackers (FRK review + notes).  

Cheniere spent many years and lots of money building an LNG import terminal and then woke up one day and realized the U.S. was swimming in natural gas and uh, wouldn’t be importing any of it anytime soon.  So what did they do? They flipped it around to export.

There are plenty of business examples of this if you read entrepreneur stories… another one might be Howard Schultz, in Pour Your Heart Into It (PYH review + notes), where he discusses how Starbucks made the transition from being a somewhat-uppity, Italian-espresso-purist to more of a “make it your way” approach, letting customers customize drinks, which is perhaps now what Starbucks is famous for: can I have a triple-pump vanilla latte with soy milk and extra foam?

And no, that is not my drink order… mine’s girlier. 😛  (In my defense, I make my own coffee at home in a Chemex, which is why I order specialty drinks when I hang out at third-wave coffee shops.)

Pages 51 – 52: Achor here mentions the 3:1 positivity:negativity ratio from The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes).  3:1, it should be noted, is a bare minimum to cancel out our tendency to focus on the negatives – see also Thaler’s Misbehaving (M review + notes) for a great review of loss aversion, which is based on the same principle.

Anyway, Achor here notes that a 5:1 ratio should be seen as the baseline for marriage.  I think Tavris/Aronson cite the same research in Mistakes were Made (but not by me) (MwM review + notes).

Page 54: Achor here references the importance of empathy, i.e. seeing things from other people’s perspectives… and also provides a nice exercise at the bottom of the page.  Do try it.

Pages 58 – 59: Achor references Richard Nisbett here; I wasn’t very impressed by “Mindware” (MW review), mostly because he didn’t cover a lot of new ground, and the second half of the book where he attempts to introduce and defend the idea of Eastern-style “dialectical reasoning” just came across as a load of zen-paradox bullshit (which I, like Dan Harris, have close to zero tolerance for.)

That said, it seems like some of Nisbett’s research may actually be really interesting – there are plenty of researchers (Kahneman, Dweck) who do great work but don’t write great books.  

Here, Achor cites Nisbett as the guy behind the study that found Asians focusing on the context/setting, and Westerners focusing on the foreground. I’ve always thought that was a really interesting metaphor, so kudos to Nisbett…

Page 60: Achor cites some research here that demonstrates the power of empathy: simply feeling understood by someone else can help employees fight negative emotions.

Page 63: Achor here reiterates the importance of sleep, citing Bill Clinton as saying:

“most of the major mistakes I made in my life, I made when I was too tired to know what I was doing.”

Again, I can’t recommend Walker’s “ Why We Sleep (Sleep review + notes) or Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time (IntTm review + notes) highly enough.

Pages 64 – 67: This is one of those somewhat understated chapters that I think is pretty brilliant; as with the agency-driven belief-behavior-matters mantra of “The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes), this part of Before Happiness honestly helped me figure out my life.

What Achor says here, summarily, is that we make mental maps and then follow them.  If you’ve read McArdle’s The Up Side of Down (UpD review + notes) or Gonzales’s Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes), think about “bending the map” – as well as status quo bias from either of those two authors or Sunstein/Thaler’s Nudge (NDGE review + notes).

Okay, that’s not so brilliant, is it?  Well, yeah, because a la Covey, if we have the wrong map, we have a (rhymes with trucking) problem.  “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes) contains an amusing and memorable metaphor: “wrong jungle!”

While I’m preparing to disagree rather vehemently with Achor’s discussion of escape routes, I do agree with him when he says that:

“sometimes we’ve highlighted the wrong meaning markers and chosen a path studded with negatives, rather than the things we truly care about.”

Utility.  Storytime!  I’m not going to give an autobiography because this isn’t a memoir.  But remember in The Happiness Advantage when Achor references those Harvard kids who did not find it amusing to be informed that statistically, 99% of them would not graduate in the top 1%?  Yeah, that was me (except I didn’t go to Harvard.) My life was defined by achievement in the conventional sense: I wanted the important job, the big paycheck, etc etc etc…

… and then one day I saw where it lead.  I was a 21-year-old hedge fund analyst at the Roth Conference at the Ritz Carlton on the beach in Dana Point (Orange County, CA).  The surroundings were beautiful, the service was top-notch, the conference was more an excuse for a party than anything else (Fall Out Boy was playing, to give you an idea, and everybody besides me was pretty much hammered.)

Normally, at parties, I have less fun than everyone else, probably because I don’t drink.  But in this case, I was the happiest guy in the room… and it drove home to me what Achor meant about pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon.  Here I was, just happy to have the opportunity to be out there meeting with companies and getting a bunch of free food and a free concert, and wandering along the beach and finding cool shells when I wasn’t busy… and multimillionaire investors were clearly miserable.  

They couldn’t tear their eyes off their mobile Bloomberg screens on their phones. They were griping about minutiae about the decor, or their rooms. They were clearly sleep-deprived, burned out by stress, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if a decent chunk was hopped up on Modafinil (or worse).

And I realized this… this was the best that my career path has to offer.  If I get everything I want, this is exactly what it’s gonna look like.

And I suddenly realized, holy shit, I’d rather be anywhere but here measuring d – I mean, bank accounts – with these neurotic (blank)holes.  I’d rather be sleeping in a tent on the beach. (To be clear, I wasn’t staying at the Ritz-Carlton, but I was at a very nice hotel a little ways down the PCH.)

Nothing against Roth, of course; one of their analysts in fact seems very nice and smart.  But when I looked at most of the professional investing industry, I didn’t see something I liked.

What Achor is talking about here is making sure that what we do is “steer[ing] us toward accomplishing meaningful goals.”  In other words, making sure that our mental maps lead somewhere we want to go: that where we’ll get is somewhere that has utility for us.

When I got back from Roth, I started thinking long and hard about what drove utility for me, and whether I was going to find it on the path I was on.  It became very clear I wasn’t. And so I started remapping my life in the direction of somewhere I actually wanted to go… and here I am, making way less money and not regretting a minute of it.

There are a lot of books that touch on this in different ways – Cal Newport’s “ Deep Work” ( DpWk review + notes) and others focus on the local vs. global optimization problem of getting so caught up in “executing” that we never stop to think about whether what we’re executing on means anything or not.  But Before Happiness will always hold a special place in my heart.

Page 69: Achor’s a great storyteller.  Definitely better than I am. I should return to his stories from time to time just to get a feel for the cadence…

Pages 72 – 73: Achor here reiterates some of the “job vs. calling” stuff from THA, but also provides more data on the empirics of meaning in jobs, which (no surprise) correlates to health outcomes as does control, stress, etc.

Page 74: Achor references Brian Little here.  I remember enjoying his TED Talk on introversion.  Haven’t watched it in yearssssssss though.  Need to circle back.

Pages 74 – 75: This is a really fascinating bit… by having students draw maps of their surroundings, you get a great example of schema / selective perception.

Pages 79 – 80: Talking about “map hijackers,” Achor notes that often you can be pursuing things that don’t really matter.  See also the “downward arrow” technique in Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT notes), which is a similar process of figuring out why certain objectives (mediated by thoughts) mean something to you.

Pages 90 – 92: Achor discusses the classic fundamental attribution error example of “those bad drivers” – see Tavris/Aronson’s “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) ( MwM review + notes) for a very thorough deconstruction of this phenomenon.

Anyway, Achor here notes, with an anecdote about accidentally spilling some water on someone, what is essentially the classic (apocryphal) quote “you wouldn’t worry what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.”  Research has confirmed this: see, for example, the t-shirt experiment on page 61 of Sunstein/Thaler’s “ Nudge ( NDGE review + notes), wherein only 1 out of 5 people noticed a study subject wearing an embarrassing t-shirt… rather than the nearly 1-in-2 estimated by the participants.

Page 93: Achor here notes his own research on the very high correlation between social connection and happiness – he notes that it is “significantly higher than the connection between smoking and cancer.”

Pages 96 – 101X: I do have a lot of admiration for Achor, but it isn’t idol-worship (not anymore, anyway!)  Here, Achor presents what I view as a misguided attack against the idea of “defensive pessimism” – or, more broadly, preparing for the worst case.  (Engineers would shudder at Achor making fun of pointing out the fire escapes.)

I struggle with this because on the one hand, I don’t disbelieve Achor’s own research, as well as his synthesis of that conducted by other people.  What I have found, however, is that in my own personal life, using a split approach of defensive pessimism for the future and active optimism for the past and the present is the best approach.

Both THA and Megan McArdle’s “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes) reference the challenge of salesmen to “smile and dial.”  Responding to adversity, of course, is critical but difficult.

Achor and McArdle both talk a lot about agency, i.e. our belief that behavior matters, and the growth mindset, i.e. treating failure as a way to do better.  With that in mind, I think Stephen Colbert’s “at every moment, we are volunteers” and “it would be ungrateful to not take everythingwith gratitude” is a useful way of looking at things.

McArdle and Achor both note that catastrophic life events can be the best thing that ever happens to you… so it seems adaptive to look at the past with a positive view.

At the same time, when it comes to the present, those authors’ perspective on agency and learned helplessness – as well as Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, etc – would seem to suggest that you can either let adversity beat you, or you can choose to be bigger than it.  Again, the “positive” focus here seems reasonable: focus on controlling what you can control.

But I think when it comes to the future, it totally makes sense to have a margin of safety.  In “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes), Gonzales expounds on this in several ways: for example, in the Napoleon Solo expedition bit on page 195, he notes that Steven Callahan survived adrift at sea for a long time in part because he had, in fact, prepared for the worst case and had better safety gear as a result.

Similarly, earlier in the book (pages 111 – 118), Gonzales notes the importance of looking at base rates for certain types of situations: for example, knowing that lightning is prevalent on mountaintops around 3 PM means you should try to summit peaks early in the day.  Normally, as a hardcore night owl, I’d be like “yeah no thanks I’ll get up when I like,” but I’m not gonna mess with lightning.

Even in less critical, non life-or-death type situations, I think that preparing for the worst can be helpful.  To start with, let’s excerpt Achor from his prior outing: circa pages 69 – 70 of THA, Achor stated expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world.”

Well, what happens when those expectations meet an unfortunate reality, in the context of loss aversionMcArdle notes that dopamine levels rise in anticipation of something happening and plummet if they don’t.  We know from a large body of research – epitomized by Thaler’s “ Misbehaving ( M review + notes) – that losses hurt more than gains.

So if we expect something and it doesn’t happen, we end up worse off than if we had never expected it in the first place… as anyone who has gone through a breakup can attest.

Here it is in tabular format:

So there’s no scenario where you enjoy life more if you expect the downside case than if you expect the upside case.  At worst you’re even; at best you’re better.

I’ve certainly found this to be helpful myself: when I started ACM, I naively believed that every phone call with a prospective client who had reached out to me would end up in an investment… when most of them went nowhere or turned into explicit “no”s, it was disappointing, and in some cases even devastating (when a series of good conversations had led me to believe that a major check was coming.)  

On the flip side, now that I approach each prospective interaction with the probabilistic understanding that the vast majority will turn into nothing, I have much less emotional fallout.

Achor may be right that your odds of success in any one event are higher if you assume success rather than failure; Gonzales notes, for example, that all survivors “decide” they’re going to live (even if the odds are woefully against them).  

Outside of these sorts of life or death situations, however, I think you have to take the local vs. global optimization view: for example, in Alex Soojung Kim-Pang’s otherwise-good “ Rest” (rest review + notes), he makes a brutally misguided argument in favor of forcing yourself to wake up early because you might perform better on certain tasks… and he completely ignores the long-term consequences of sleep deprivation (which, as Roenneberg has demonstrated conclusively in “ Internal Time – IntTm review + notes – is an unavoidable consequences of this approach if you’re not naturally a morning person.)

The fallout from sleep deprivation over the long term far outweighs any (minor) one-time benefits from getting up early.  Similarly, the easiest way to combat stress and negativity is structural problem solving: avoid it, and don’t put yourself in situations where it’s created.

McArdle notes smile-and-dial is a process above all else; if you’re so depressed or busy combating stress after persistent rejections that you can’t put your best foot forward for the next attempt, you’re not going to make it very far.  I find it completely possible ( adaptive and optimal, even) to try my best while expecting the worst, and being pleasantly surprised when things work out.

And, contrary to what Achor says, I think the CFO from Michigan on page 97 has it right: you canplan for all your contingencies without falling into the trap of only looking for the negatives.  I consider myself a very positive, optimistic, grateful, growth-minded person, and also a defensive pessimist, and the two work together seamlessly.

Attempting to abandon defensive pessimism after reading Before Happiness was one of the more emotionally damaging decisions I’ve ever made, because life disappoints you a lot.

In fairness to Achor, he does start the book by calling it stupid to not wear a seatbelt; that said, I think readers will do better if they overlook this section of the book.  You can cultivate gratitude without giving up the emotional shield of defensive pessimism.

Page 103: This is a nice tangible example of the Roth bit I discussed earlier; Achor notes that a book editor realized that at some point in her career, “progression” might take her away from doing what she loved (reading books).

This is meaningfully similar to why I’m closing ACM at ~$50MM in FPAUM: all investors universally say that the bigger your shop gets, the more your time is spent on things that are not investing.  And I don’t really have a lot of interest in all those things…

Achor notes, insightfully, to “take time each month to make sure that your short-term plans are still leading you toward your career and life goals.”

 Local vs. global optimization.

Page 109: Achor presents a unique take on contrast bias here: he brings up the idea of an “X spot,” noting a bunch of research that suggests the closer we are to our goal, the faster we work to achieve it.

Page 114: Great Achor quip here about anger management… as well as “mesearch.”  He might as well have been talking about writers.

Pages 117 – 120: Really fascinating research here on loyalty cards and some other topics; the point is that smaller goals (and head starts) are motivating compared to what seems like long, far-away trudges.  Focus on what you’ve already done rather than just what you have left to do.

Achor also notes commitment bias and sunk costs here; see Thaler’s “ Misbehaving ( M review + notes) and Tavris/Aronson’s “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) ( MwM review + notes) for more depth.

Pages 122 – 124: Another fascinating, unique example of contrast bias: when we make things look easier by surrounding them with harder things… they actually get easier.  The putting study is memorable.

Pages 129 – 130: Achor notes here the importance of setting reasonable goals… I would also note, here, the importance of clear and consistent feedback: if your goals are absurd, then it’s difficult to ascertain anything about your process.

See also Megan McArdle’s ‘ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes) and the  feedback mental model… nothing, nothing, nothing, BAM.  It’s memorable.

Pages 131 – 133: Achor here notes the idea of decision fatigue and willpower depletion with a new twist via THA (and introverts will appreciate his discussion of how much energy social events can take out).  He notes the structural problem solving approach, as well as decreasing activation energy and using  disaggregation to break down the problem.

Pages 136 – 137: Achor notes, on time perception, that a week is a lot longer to an eleven-year-old than a fifty-five-year-old relative to their life (which I’ve used to explain various phenomena).  He also notes that time seems to pass faster to the elderly.

Csikszentmihalyi sighting!  Achor notes that losing track of time makes it go faster… cover the timer on the elliptical at the gym.  (It really works, y’all.)

Pages 139 – 142: Focus on what you want, not on what you want to avoid… but don’t have “unrealistic fantasies,” which, per research, are bad.

This reminds me a bit of the Brene Brown bit where she discusses a class activity where she has students sit down with magazines and try to create their “ideal body.”  The students literally end up cutting out parts of different people’s bodies – that person’s hair, this person’s torso, another person’s butt… and the point is that it’s totally unrealistic and, among other things, ignores tradeoffs.

Anyway, back to Achor: he notes another study which is a bit like the one he cited in THA about maids and exercise, except here, simply visualizing exercise can make you stronger.

Pages 146 – 148: ahahaha confirmation bias.  Also, Achor notes that the easiest way to deal with noise is structural problem solving: get rid of it.  I stopped reading the news and quit social media for a while thanks to Before Happiness, and both decisions resulted in me being meaningfully happier and more productive.

Page 150X: A criticism here: Achor points to John Paulson – specifically, to a book written by Gregory Zuckerman (yes, the same one who wrote “ The Frackers,” which I love) – as an example of sifting out the noise.

Um yeah no, actually, not really.  It’s a luck vs. skillprocess vs. outcome kind of thing.  Paulson’s subsequent track record (along with that of, for example, Kyle Bass) suggests that his approach was more noise than signal… broken clock… etc.

Most value investors I know consider Paulson/Bass/a few others to be the function of the “improbable things are probable” probabilistic phenomenon discussed, variously, in Tetlock’s “Superforecasting ( SF review + notes), Ellenberg’s “ How Not To Be Wrong ( HNW review + notes), etc… given enough of a sample size, you’ll have plenty of weird things happen.

See also Michael Mauboussin’s “ The Success Equation ( TSE review + notes).

Page 153: A nice practical example of selective perception.

Pages 156 – 158: Achor’s definition of “noise” here is stunningly insightful and ranks up there with MusicLab in Mauboussin’s book The Success Equation – TSE review + notes – as “three of the most valuable pages anywhere.”  Achor’s paradigm uses  disaggregation to break down information consumption and analyzes its utility.  Achor argues that if information won’t change your behavior or make you any better off, then it’s noise and you shouldn’t consume it (though of course his phrasing is infinitely more elegant.)

I thought about this and decided that social media usually just wasted my time and made me feel worse (research confirms this), so I shut down my Facebook for several years (and, now that it’s back, use it in a much more limited and different way than I used to.)  I also stopped reading most news – both financial and general-interest – restricting myself only to NFL/Cowboys-related news, which I enjoy (therefore it has positive utility).  I find myself profoundly better off for having done so; any information I actually need filters to me through my investing work.

Of course, there’s a tradeoff here – certainly I’m missing some good stuff!  But I’d point to the “any benefit” justification discussed by Newport in “ Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes) – probabilistic thinking suggests that the ex-ante expected value of reading the news is quite low, relative to pretty much anything else I could do… so the mathematically sound decision is to not read the news.

Achor notes that he used the time he saved from reading/watching news to focus on research… here’s to “evergreen” material that never goes out of style, vs. the 24-hour-news-cycle.  Recurring payoffs.

Pages 159 – 162: Honestly I eat enough vegetables to be a prehistoric rabbit, but anyway, this section is a nice bit on various cognitive biases… contrast biasvividnessetc.  He also cites the famous jam-jar experiment about choice overwhelming consumers; unfortunately, Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice ( PoC review) doesn’t go far enough beyond this, in case you were wondering.

Pages 164 – 167: Achor here addresses the opportunity cost issue… with research.

Pages 170 – 171: Again, I don’t agree with Achor’s take on defensive pessimism.  Nonetheless, I strongly do agree with his advice on worrying in proportion to outcomes, and on the dose-dependency of margin of safety: as variously noted by Gonzales in “ Deep Survival” ( DpSv review + notes) and even (gasp) engineer Henry Petroski in “ To Engineer is Human(TEiH reiew + notes), we’ll never do anything interesting if we never take any risks.

Pages 172 – 175: Munger might call this bit about icing the kicker the “do-something tendency” or something like that.  ( Product vs. packaging.)

Anyway, Achor recommends base rates for dealing with worries: if you’re scared of failing a test, ask yourself how often you’ve actually failed a test.

Pages 177 – 178: Worthwhile bit here on the opportunity costs of worrying and being too negative.

Page 189: Being nice to shoppers or hotel guests matters because of empathy.  Cross-reference, for example, Tindell’s “ Uncontainable ( UCT review + notes) where, among other things, he mentions that some Container Store shoppers come in just because they want someone to treat them nicely…

Pages 191 – 193: Achor here notes that patients who feel connected to doctors are more compliant with their treatment… an interesting application of social connection to what McArdle called, in Up Side of Down, a “hard problem.”  Achor also goes back to mirror neurons, which may play a role in some social proof type situations.

Pages 202 – 203: On the importance of being first in a conversation, and the stickiness thereof: Achor notes that a lot of times, the final answer of a group is the first one mentioned.  See also Sunstein/Thaler in “ Nudge” ( NDGE review + notes) on culture and status quo bias

Achor goes on to explain why we shouldn’t start emails or conversations with apologizing for being busy (negative tone).

Pages 204 – 205: Fascinating example of feedback: people with Botox who have trouble smiling actually have trouble being happy… Achor also references some of the research on emotional suppression, though he doesn’t go very deep.

(I love Achor’s interjections about review board permission.  It is hilarious that he has so much trouble when other experimenters get approved for poison ivy and Botox injections and, apparently, experiments in which Achor was bruised and battered by a moving floor.”

Pages 207 – 209: Achor points out the importance of humor and also notes that it’s a learnableskill

Page 214: On storytelling and saliencevividness heuristic… and social proof I guess: using “pathos” is usually more effective than just “logos” (sorry, jargon: basically, having one person tell their story is more effective than a bunch of statistics.)  see also Thaler on identified vs. statistical lives.

Pages 216 – 218: Achor on commitment bias and sunk costs: he cites Elliot Aronson, among other research.  See MwM…

Page 221: Achor cites Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.”  It’s a good book and Zappos is a cool company.  Nonetheless, I prefer Tindell’s aforementioned “ Uncontainable (UCT review).

Page 229: On the power of not thinking about things.  See also Richard Rhodes’ “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb ( TMAB review + notes) for more examples of this from scientists.  Now isn’t that a happy note to end on? 🙂  [That was a joke, to be clear.]

 

 

First Read: 2014

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: a bunch.  5?

Planning to Read Again?: maybe

 

Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018