Adjustable Space Shuttle Components - Packing for Mars - Mary Roach - 99 Percent Invisible

Adjustable Space Shuttle Components

Imagine driving your car without an adjustable seat. Imagine if every component of your vehicle was designed for an “average” sized person. Your seat probably wouldn’t fit you right, your legs may not reach the pedals well, or your head might be bumping up against the roof of the car. Standardized sizes that can’t be adjusted and that are based on an average for each person end up failing to actually fit anyone.
But super adjustable seats are not always a great thing either. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach writes about the costs and engineering challenges that adjustable components on space stations present. “As things stand,” she writes, “NASA has to spend millions of dollars and man-hours making seats lavishly adjustable. And the more adjustable the seat, generally speaking, the weaker and heavier it is.”
When quoting NASA Crew Survivability Expert Dustin Gohmert, Roach includes, “The Russians have a much narrower range of crew sizes,” which means that they don’t have to adjust their seats, space suits, and various technology to the same extent as NASA which recruits astronauts with more varied bodies. Roach continues, “This wasn’t always the case. Apollo astronauts had to be between 5’5″ and 5’10”.” Today, however, we don’t want to limit someone’s opportunity to contribute their talents to space exploration and missions, even if they are a tad short or a bit taller than typical. We want the best people on our missions, and that means engineering expensive adjustable components with multiple potential fail points.
Adjustability is important in almost anything we design. Human bodies all come in different shapes and sizes and One-Size-Fits-All garments, seats, and utensils can normally do a good job for most, but not all of our bodies. Making the world more adjustable is definitely a slower and more expensive process, but it generally leads to better inclusion and better results for everyone. This isn’t necessarily the case for the space program, where designing ever more flexibility into the components of the system can mean more failure points and risk for everyone involved. Space travel is full of trade offs, and the trade offs can be expensive, time consuming, and even pose safety risks. Roach explores these tradeoffs in her book and looks at the ways we have calculated these tradeoffs throughout our history to show how much society has changed in terms of inclusion, thinking about designing for the average versus individual flexibility, and what it means to be human in spaces our bodies didn’t evolve to fit.
Imagine driving your car without an adjustable seat. Imagine if every component of your vehicle was designed for an “average” sized person. Your seat probably wouldn’t fit you right, your legs may not reach the pedals well, or your head might be bumping up against the roof of the car. Standardized sizes that can’t be adjusted and that are based on an average for each person end up failing to actually fit anyone.
But super adjustable seats are not always a great thing either. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach writes about the costs and engineering challenges that adjustable components on space stations present. “As things stand,” she writes, “NASA has to spend millions of dollars and man-hours making seats lavishly adjustable. And the more adjustable the seat, generally speaking, the weaker and heavier it is.”
When quoting NASA Crew Survivability Expert Dustin Gohmert, Roach includes, “The Russians have a much narrower range of crew sizes,” which means that they don’t have to adjust their seats, space suits, and various technology to the same extent as NASA which recruits astronauts with more varied bodies. Roach continues, “This wasn’t always the case. Apollo astronauts had to be between 5’5″ and 5’10”.” Today, however, we don’t want to limit someone’s opportunity to contribute their talents to space exploration and missions, even if they are a tad short or a bit taller than typical. We want the best people on our missions, and that means engineering expensive adjustable components with multiple potential fail points.
Adjustability is important in almost anything we design. Human bodies all come in different shapes and sizes and One-Size-Fits-All garments, seats, and utensils can normally do a good job for most, but not all of our bodies. Making the world more adjustable is definitely a slower and more expensive process, but it generally leads to better inclusion and better results for everyone. This isn’t necessarily the case for the space program, where designing ever more flexibility into the components of the system can mean more failure points and risk for everyone involved. Space travel is full of trade offs, and the trade offs can be expensive, time consuming, and even pose safety risks. Roach explores these tradeoffs in her book and looks at the ways we have calculated these tradeoffs throughout our history to show how much society has changed in terms of inclusion, thinking about designing for the average versus individual flexibility, and what it means to be human in spaces our bodies didn’t evolve to fit.
Procedure Over Performance

Procedure Over Performance

My wife works with families with children with disabilities for a state agency. She and I often have discussions about some of the administrative challenges and frustrations with her job, and some of the creative ways that she and other members of her agency are able to bend the rules to meet the human needs of the job, even though their decisions occasionally step beyond management decisions for standard operating procedures. For my wife and her colleagues below the management level of the agency, helping families and doing what is best for children is the motivation for all of their decisions, however, for the management team within the agency, avoiding errors and blame often seems to be the more important goal.

 

This disconnect between agency functions, mission, and procedures is not unique to my wife’s state agency. It is a challenge that Max Weber wrote about in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Somewhere along the line, public agencies and private companies seem to forget their mission. Procedure becomes more important than performance, and services or products suffer.

 

Gerd Gigerenzer offers an explanation for why this happens in his book Risk Savvy. Negative error cultures likely contribute to people becoming more focused on procedure over performance, because following perfect procedure is safe, even if it isn’t always necessary and doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. A failure to accept risk and errors, and a failure to discuss and learn from errors, leads people to avoid situations where they could be blamed for failure. Gigerenzer writes, “People need to be encouraged to talk about errors and take the responsibility in order to learn and achieve better overall performance.”

 

As companies and government agencies age, their workforce ages. People become comfortable in their role, they don’t want to have to look for a new job, they take out mortgages, have kids, and send them to college. People become more conservative and risk averse as they have more to lose, and that means they are less likely to take risks in their career, because they don’t want to lose their income to support their lifestyles, retirements, or the college plans for their kids. Following procedures, like getting meaningless forms submitted on time and documenting conversations timely, become more important than actually ensuring valuable services or products are provided to constituents and customers. Procedure prospers over performance, and the agency or company as a whole suffers. Positive error cultures, where it is ok to take reasonable risks and acceptable to discuss errors without fear of blame are important for overcoming the stagnation that can arise when procedure becomes more important than the mission of the agency or company.
Loss Aversion & Golf

Loss Aversion & Golf

Daniel Kahneman presents research from University of Pennsylvania economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer to demonstrate the power of loss aversion in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Pope and Schweitzer specifically look at golf, and how professional golfers perform when putting to demonstrate that loss aversion factors into the golfers’ performance, a conclusion that to me feels both obvious and surprising at the same time.

 

Professional golfers don’t seem like the kind of people who should  be subject to loss aversion on the course. Their performance doesn’t seem like it should be subject to the knowledge that a putt will earn them a birdie, or prevent them from scoring a bogie. However, Pope and Schweitzer challenge this thinking. Kahneman writes:

 

“Pope and Schweitzer reasoned from loss aversion that players would try a little harder when putting for par (to avoid a bogey) than when putting for a birdie. They analyzed more than 2.5 million putts in exquisite detail to tests that prediction.
They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, players were more successful when putting for par than for birdie.”

 

Golfers don’t want to shoot over par. They perform better when they face the possibility of being over par rather than when they have a chance to be under par. Exceeding par is viewed as a loss which the golfers want to avoid while putting for birdie is an achievement to gain. Somewhere along the lines, golfers understand this and their physical performance is altered, decreasing the likelihood of a successful birdie putt, but increasing the likelihood of a successful par putt. Loss aversion is a powerful force, even in places we would not expect, like professional golf putting performance. If even professional golfers, who practice continually and are paid for their performance on the course are not able to avoid loss aversion, then we should recognize that it can play a huge role in our own lives, and we should invest in systems and structures to help us avoid making costly mistakes in our own lives from biases related to loss aversion.
Regression to the Mean

Praise, Punishment, & Regression to the Mean

Regression to the mean is seriously underrated. In sports, stock market funds, and biological trends like generational height differences, regression to the mean is a powerful, yet misunderstood phenomenon. A rookie athlete may have a standout first year, only to perform less spectacularly the following year. An index fund may outperform all others one year, only to see other funds catch up the next year. And a tall man may have a son who is shorter. In each instance, regression to the mean is at play, but since we underrate it, we assume there is some causal factor causing our athlete to play worse (it went to his head!), causing our fund to earn less (they didn’t rebalance the portfolio correctly!), and causing our son to be shorter (his father must have married a short woman).

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman looks at the consequences that arise when we fail to understand regression to the mean and attempt to create causal connections between events when we shouldn’t. Kahneman describes an experiment he conducted with Air Force cadets, asking them to flip a coin backwards over their head and try to hit a spot on the floor. Those who had a good first shot typically did worse on their second shot. Those who did poor on their first shot, usually did better the next time. There wasn’t any skill involved, the outcome was mostly just luck and random chance, so if someone was close one time, you might expect their next shot to be a little further out, just by random chance. This is regression to the mean in an easy to understand example.

 

But what happens when we don’t recognize regression to the mean in a random and simplified experiment? Kahneman used the cadets to demonstrate how random performance deviations from the mean during flight maneuvers translates into praise or punishments for the cadets. Those who performed well were often praised, only to regress to  the mean on their next flight and perform worse. Those who performed poorly also regressed to the mean, but in an upward direction, improving on the next flight. Those whose initial performance was poor received punishment (perhaps just a verbal reprimand) between their initial poor effort and follow-up improvement (regression).  Kahneman describes the take-away from the experiment this way:

 

“The feedback to which life exposes us is perverse. Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty.”

 

Praise a cadet who performed well, and they will then perform worse. Criticize a cadet who performed poorly, and they will do better. Our minds overfit patterns and start to see a causal link between praise and subsequent poor performance and castigation and subsequent improvement. All that is really happening is that we are misunderstanding regression to the mean, and creating a causal model where we should not.

 

If we better understood regression to the mean, we wouldn’t be so shocked when a standout rookie sports star appears to have a sophomore slump. We wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon when an index fund had an exceptional year, and we wouldn’t be surprised by phenotypical regression to the mean from one generation to the next. Our brains are phenomenal pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes they see the wrong pattern, and sometimes that gives us perverse incentives for how we behave and interact with each other. The solution is to step back from individual cases and try to look at an average over time. By gathering more data and looking for longer lasting trends we can better identify regression to the mean versus real trends in performance over time.
Performance and Mood

Performance and Mood

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic, but it comes at a time when companies are starting to radically re-think the work environments they set up for their employees. I worked for a time for a tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw first hand the changing thoughts in how companies relate to their employees. Every day wasn’t a party, but companies like the one I worked for were beginning to recognize how important a healthy, happy, and agreeable workforce is to productivity and good outcomes as whole. The pandemic has forced companies to think even more deeply about these things, and some blend of remote and office work schedules will likely remain for a huge number of employees. Hopefully, we will walk away from the pandemic with workplaces that better align with the demands placed on people today, and hopefully we will be more happy in our work environments.

 

Research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggest that adapting workplaces to better accommodate employees and help them be more happy with their work could have huge positive impacts for our futures. Regarding tests for intuitive accuracy, Kahneman shares the following about people’s performance on tests and their mood:

 

“Putting participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.”

 

Our mood impacts our thoughts and our thinking processes. When we are happy, we are better at making intuitive connections and associations. If we need to be productive, accurate, and intuitive, then we better have an environment that supports a relatively high level of happiness.

 

If our work environment does the opposite, if we are overwhelmed by stress and must deal with toxic culture issues, then it is likely that we will be less accurate with our tasks. We won’t perform as well, and those who depend on our work will receive sub-par products.

 

There is likely a self-perpetuating effect with both scenarios. A happy person is likely to perform better, and they will likely be praised for their good outcomes, improving their happiness and reinforcing their good work. But someone who is unhappy will likely have poor performance and is more likely to be reprimanded, leading to more unhappiness and continued unsatisfactory performance. For these reasons it is important that companies take steps to help put their employees in a good mood while working. This requires more than motivational posters, it requires real relationships and inclusion in important decisions around the workspace. In the long run, boosting mood among employees can have a huge impact, especially if the good results reinforce more positive feeling and continued high quality output. Changing work schedules and locations as forced upon employers by the pandemic can provide an opportunity for employers to think about the demands they place on employees, and what they can do to ensure their employees have healthy, safe workplaces that encourage positive moods and productivity.
The Ideomotor Effect

Ideomotor Effect

I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.

 

I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.

 

Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.

 

Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

 

Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.

 

So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.
Skill Versus Effort

Skill Versus Effort

In the world of sports, I have always enjoyed the saying that someone is so good at something they make it look easy. While I usually hear the saying in relation to physical activity, it also extends to other generally challenging activities – Kobe made the fadeaway jumper look easy, Tyler Cowen makes blogging look easy, and Roman Mars has made podcasting look (sound?) easy. But what is really happening when an expert makes something look easy? Daniel Kahneman argues that increased skill makes things look easy because skill decreases the effort needed to do the thing.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes, “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion.”

 

while I was at a UCLA summer basketball camp years ago, Sean Farnham told me a story about Kobe – he used to work out at the UC Irvine Gym every morning. He drew such a big crowd to the gym that UC Irvine asked him to either stop coming to the gym, or to arrive at a different time. Kobe didn’t stop, he just changed his hours, working out at 4 or 5 a.m., before the gym would be packed. Farnham told me that Kobe had a training entourage with him, so that when he would pass out on the court from physical exhaustion of working so hard, his staff could pull him to the side, get him some fluids, and help him get back out on the court until he would pass out again.

 

Tyler Cowen writes every day. On his podcast and in other interviews, he has explained how writing every single day, even on Christmas and your birthday, is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be a good writer and clear thinker. Much of his writing never gets out into the public, but every day he puts in the effort and practice to build his skill.

 

Roman Mars loves radio, and his hit podcast 99% Invisible is onto episode 410.  In a 2012 interview with Debbie Millman Mars talked about learning to love radio early on and how he developed a passion for audio programming, even if no one was listening.

 

Kobe, Cowen, and Mars all practice a lot, and have developed a lot of skill from their practice. As Kahneman explains, their daily practice doesn’t just allow them to make things look easy. For those who practice as much as these three, things really are easier for them. Kobe’s muscle memory meant that he was more efficient in shooting a fadeaway jump shot, literally needing less energy and less mental focus to pull off a perfect swish. Cowen writes every day and the act of starting a piece of writing for him probably requires less brain power to begin putting thoughts together. Similarly, Mars probably slips into his radio voice effortlessly, without consciously having to think about everything he is about to say, making the words, the voice, and the intonation flow more simply and naturally.

 

Kahneman and the three examples I shared show how important practice is for the things we want to do well. Consistent practice builds skill, and literally alters the brain, the chemical nerve pathways (via myelination), and the physical strength needed to perform a task. With practice, tasks really do become easier and automatic.
Switching Tasks - Deep Work - Joe Abittan

Switching Tasks

The big problem with multitasking is that our brains literally cannot do it. Our brains don’t work on multiple problems at the same time, instead, our brains switch between tasks rapidly to make it seem like we are multitasking. What we are really doing, however, is inconsistently working on one task for short bursts.

 

It turns out, this is a terrible approach to actually doing great work. As Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” [Emphasis in original]

 

Being mediocre in our work is fine if we don’t care about our work. If we don’t care whether we are in a position that might be cut during tough times, if we don’t care whether our work makes a difference, and if we just want to get paid and go home, then we can be mediocre. However, if none of those things are true, then it matters whether we are exceptional or average.

 

To be one of the top producers in our field, to stand out in our firm, and to be a crucial team player who is promoted, retained, and given important responsibilities, we have to perform at our best. High quality performance requires mental focus and grit. The only way to build focus and grit as habits that we can maintain for substantial stretches day in and day out is to practice engaging in deep work.

 

Multitasking (or multiple task switching as it might be better described) harms our ability to focus. Newport writes the following about switching tasks, “When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about he original task.” You can’t get into deep work if your mind is not completely focused on the task at hand.

 

Checking email constantly, working on a project for 15 minutes before allowing someone else to pull you into another project for 15 minutes, and trying to do meaningful work in the extra 5 minutes before meetings is a dangerous work strategy if producing high quality work is important for you. There may be times where it is good to step away from a difficult problem, to let the subconscious chew things over a little bit, but doing so continuously is unhelpful. The brain needs time and space to dive into one area to focus consistently, otherwise it is not fully applying itself to the task at hand, and the results will be as haphazard as our thinking process.
Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

My last two posts have been about deep work and shallow work, with one post looking at what deep work really entails, and one post considering when you should plan your shallow work relative to your deep work. Today’s post is more directly on the costs of shallow work. Yesterday’s post discussed the importance of doing deep work when we are most focused, and an unwritten but implied aspect to shallow work is that doing shallow work when we are most focus robs us of the time and mental energy that we could use to do our most important work. But that is not the only cost of shallow work – the downsides to shallowness extend beyond the opportunity costs of doing more important work instead of the shallow busy work.

 

Cal Newport in Deep Work writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

 

Newport’s warning is very important and extends far beyond losing a few hours where we could be more productive. It extends beyond even our work schedule and the time we are in the office. The warning is this: the more time you spend distracting yourself in line at the grocery store with your phone, the more time you spend fluttering around twitter at work, and the more time you spend scrolling down Facebook before bed, the worse your brain will be when it needs to focus most. Our poor digital habits reduce our ability to focus.

 

Deep work requires that we keep our mind focused on one thing for a long period of time. It requires that we make connections by truly learning and understanding the material we are focused on. In the long run, it makes us better performers because it allows us to be more productive with our time. The future of our economy is bright for those who can excel at deep work, when others are distracted and unable to complete difficult projects in a unified and coherent manner.

 

However, if we spend our time doing lots of shallow work like answering every unimportant email as soon as a notification pops up on our computer, or if we spend lots of time distracting ourselves on social media, we won’t build the capacity to engage with deep work. We will actually diminish our ability to do deep work and teach our brain that it doesn’t need to focus for long stretches of time. Our brains get a hit of dopamine with each new social media post and each notification. Our brains can literally become overly reliant on these dopamine hits, to the point where our brains can’t focus because they can’t operate for long stretches without more cheap dopamine hits.

 

It is important that we be honest with ourselves about how we spend our time and how distracted we allow ourselves to be. Putting the phones down and blocking time for deep work is important, otherwise we will unintentionally fill our lives with shallow work, and in the process diminish our focus ability.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.

 

Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,

 

“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”

 

Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.

 

Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.

 

Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.