Failures of Intensity

Most advice about success, especially communicated through blog articles on the internet, is about what to do.

If you want to lose weight, experts tell you what you should eat, what you shouldn’t, which exercises to do or when to do them. If you want to build a business, different experts tell you which steps to follow and which pitfalls to ignore. All of this advice is about strategies and tactics—qualitative differences in the things you should or shouldn’t do in order to succeed.

There’s much less advice out there on how much you should do, although, in my experience, this is often more important than what you should do.

Consider trying to learn a foreign language. Every advice article online will suggest software, exercises or resources you should use. All of it what to do.

Much less advice is devoted to how much. How many hours do you need to devote to learn the language? Is twenty minutes per day enough? Do you need years using the language full-time? This kind of information is much harder to obtain with the same level of exactness.

A Lack of Information About Intensity

The relative focus on what, as opposed to how much or how often, in advice has a number of causes.

First, whats are often scale invariant. The person who wants to lose a few pounds, but for whom it isn’t a big priority, can still benefit from the same what information as the elite athlete trying to shed pounds who can marshal large resources towards solving the problem. How much and how often advice necessarily assumes a particular level of involvement.

Second, how much and how often can be quite difficult to articulate. As a result, I find this advice best comes from when you get a person to recount what they actually did, rather than what they suggest you to do. Hearing, in their own words, how much effort they put in, for how long and how consistently paints a qualitative feeling that can sometimes be hard to explicitly express in words.

Third, knowing what to do is optimistic. Knowing how much is often depressing. If many people knew how much effort, for how long, was actually required, they may no longer be as interested in the advice-giver’s response. By ignoring such information, speakers avoid excluding the necessarily high percentage of people who are interested in solving their problems, but not enough to do the actual amount of work required to fix it.

The Bias of What

This bias towards what to do, rather than how much, tends to skew many people’s behavior. When they fail at a diet, instead of asking whether they were putting in the correct amount of focus, over the correct length of time, people look for a different set of tactics.

However, often the what doesn’t matter very much. I believe different language learning strategies, for example, are somewhat more effective—real conversations trump textbook exercises. But, this difference is dwarfed by the importance of volume and intensity.

Three months of not speaking English, amounting to 8+ hours of communication every day, was enough to get to a level of comfort in Spanish that Vat and I could be functionally competent in most social events. For Chinese, the same volume was enough to have basic competency, but it probably would have taken a year of similar intensity to reach the same level as Spanish.

The main reason, I believe, our method succeeded was that it was simple enough and forced a level of intensity that isn’t normal for new language learners.

Economies and Diseconomies of Effort

Exercise and diet are often areas with opposite implications, however. While you can, through intensity, make considerable gains, there seems to be diseconomies to effort (unlike language learning, where switching to 100% usage is a bit easier than high but inconsistent usage). This means that instead of intensity, the critical variable is duration. If you maintain an exercise and eating pattern for 5-10 years instead of 5-10 weeks, you’ll be much more likely to experience success, regardless of the method used.

Recognizing whether an area experiences exponential or logarithmic growth can be important in adjusting your attitude. Is the primary mistake to not do the activity intensely enough to see benefits? Or is the primary mistake to not do the activity for a long enough period of time?

Understanding how results accrue with different levels of intensity and patience can often be far more helpful than knowing which techniques to use.

Optimizing at the Wrong Time

Business is another area where the predominance of what advice can be misleading.

I’ve heard from people who have email lists of only a few hundred asking about doing split tests to optimize their conversion rates for products. This is ridiculous. I don’t run split tests and I have nearly sixty thousand subscribers. Running split tests misses the biggest lever these people can pull to improve their business—simply getting more leads.

Bloggers can suffer from this mistake as well. I’ve met people who have only posted three articles needing advice on how to improve their writing. While I understand the sentiment, most writing improvements will come naturally just from writing the first 50-100 articles. What to write only matters once you’re in the correct ballpark for how much to write.

How to Get Information About Intensity and Duration

When you ask someone for advice, don’t just ask them what to do. Tell them to walk you through what they did to accomplish the same feat. Although a single example can sometimes be misleading in terms of intensity, if you repeat this exercise several times you should quickly get an idea of what the ballpark range you need to be in before you should start worrying about other things.

When you see someone in great shape—don’t just ask what their exercise routine is. Ask them how often they go, how consistently, and for how long to get those results. When you see fit people who have been exercising consistently and intensely for ten years, it suddenly evaporates the illusion that it all comes down to having the right workout.

When you see someone fluent in a language you want to speak—ask them how they learned it. How long have they been studying? How many classes did they take? How long and how many times did they spend in an immersive environment? Repeat this enough times and you can start to see the ballpark of how much effort would be required to replicate their fluency.

When you see someone with a great business, don’t just ask for advice. See what they actually did. How long did it take to build? How often did they work and for how long before it was stably successful? Was intensity the main factor or patience?

Most importantly, listen to the answers and don’t dismiss them. My advice is to never get started on a goal if you know, in advance, that you’re not willing to commit the typical effort required for success. Yes, you may be lucky or clever and have faster results. But unless you’re willing to put in at least the typical intensity or duration required, the most likely outcome is failure.

Getting Better at Figuring Things Out

Over the years, I’ve employed quite a few people. Sometimes it will be a contract for a one-time job. Other times it will be for regular staff.

In both cases, there’s a certain quality some people possess that I’ve found immensely valuable, but rarely shows up on a resume. If I had to describe it, I would say the quality is roughly “being able to figure things out.”

Some people are good at figuring things out. You can give them a goal, sometimes with ambiguous instructions or constraints, and they will find a way to do it. It may not always be the way you envisioned (especially if your instructions are bad) but these people rarely get stuck. They will find some way to figure it out.

Other people are terrible at figuring things out. You can give them extremely detailed instructions and somehow they still get derailed because of an incredibly minor obstacle. Assigning such people tasks with any ambiguity is always a disaster.

Employing people brings this quality into contrast, but it’s not just a skill to be exploited by employers. People who are good at figuring things out for their bosses are generally even better at figuring things out for themselves. They make good entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers and artists.

What Makes Someone Good at “Figuring Things Out”?

Intelligence is obviously an important part of figuring things out. Smarter people have an easier time working through the obstacles that may frustrate a particular goal.

However, my inclination is to say that figuring things out is a lot more than intelligence. It’s also a perspective on life. I’ve met plenty of smart people that can’t figure things out. I’ve also met people who aren’t intellectually dominating who, nonetheless, can figure their way out of problems I wouldn’t know where to start with.

People who are bad at figuring things out tend to have unrealistic expectations for the system they’re operating in to conform to rules or norms of fairness. When those rules are violated, they’ve learned that the best response isn’t to investigate, but to wait for instructions.

School is a system that discourages figuring things out. It presents itself as an artificially rule-based and bureaucratic system. Success and failure is based on pre-defined standards. Students are told what will be covered on the test in advance. Exploiting weaknesses in the rule-set is often seen as a form of “cheating” even if the exploit isn’t unethical (I can think of classes where professors would fail students for lack of attendance, even if their grades were good).

Schools also strive for much higher levels of fairness than in the real world. Most universities bar native speakers of a language from attending language classes. Only in an academic setting is this anything other than ridiculous—that you would be forbidden from studying something by virtue of already having mastered it outside of the school system.

Being good at figuring things out is a skill in opposition to scholastic skills. It’s the ability to work within environments where the constraints and standards of success are often ill-defined. It’s the ability to remain motivated despite the fact that there is no standards of fairness at all.

Prerequisite Levels of “Figuring Things Out” to Achievement

Many goals require a certain minimum level of being able to figure things out in order to possibly have any success with them. This may be unfortunate (especially if you’re bad at figuring things out) but it is very true.

I took Ramit Sethi’s online information business building course. Inside the course, some people disliked that the instructions weren’t specific enough—that Sethi focus was on high-level concepts to orient your actions rather than giving a detailed technical walkthroughs.

Of course, this is absurd. If you can’t figure out find and follow numerous free tutorials for setting up a blog or shopping cart, how can you possibly think you’ll run a real business? Running an online business has a minimum threshold of “figuring things out” of which setting up a WordPress blog is well below.

Similarly, I sometimes get emails from people wanting to replicate the MIT Challenge, but need to know the exact hours I worked or exact order of the courses I took. I’m sorry, but if you can’t figure that out, how are you going to perform on the material? What will you do when you find out that a key concept was only explained in a lecture, which isn’t available? Or when you have to take a project-based class that only has rough slideshows as its sole instructional material?

My point isn’t to discourage people from starting businesses or teaching themselves online, of course. I think doing these activities will probably boost your ability to figure things out. It’s rather that the expectations these people have for how detailed and exhaustive instructions should be before they can take action is ridiculously self-defeating.

How to Get Better at Figuring Things Out

Some people are naturally very creative and quick-witted, and will become master hackers, inventors or entrepreneurs. I don’t doubt that figuring things out has a component of natural, latent ability, of which some people are born with more and others less.

Richard Feynman, for instance, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, learned how to fix radios by tinkering with them as a young boy. Eventually he got good enough that he was fixing other people’s radios on his own. That’s a talent for problem solving that would eventually lead him to making breakthroughs in physics and helping design the atomic bomb.

But even if some people are naturally more intuitive at figuring things out, I think it is still a skill one can learn. If you want to get better at figuring things out, here’s how to do it:

1. Do More Projects that Require Figuring Things Out

Figuring things out is a skill, and like all skills, it improves with practice. Even more importantly, it improves best when the skill you’re trying to build is similar to the one you’re practicing. Figuring out how to do paintings will have less utility than figuring out how to do computer programming if your goal is to be good at figuring things out as a software developer.

Being good at figuring things out is, ultimately, not only a set of dispositions and psychological strategies for dealing with frustrations and mental obstacles, but also domain-specific tricks and habits. Many IT people lament when they see that others haven’t learned the domain-specific trick of turning on and off the device to fix transient problems.

2. Become Patient in the Face of Frustration

Figuring things out is often largely a matter of trial and error with patience. It took me five years to figure out how to make blogging a full-time income source, for instance. In that time I tried hundreds of different things until I eventually settled on a combination that worked.

Patience is a mental habit and discipline. The ability to face an ambiguous situation, with constraints which prevent progress, and not give up is one that takes experience to learn.

Although I’ve mentioned the degrading effect I feel the overly rule-based school system has on this ability, figuring things out is obviously related to learning better. Which is why it amazes me that, for many students, the idea that you should sit down and force yourself to truly understand an idea before moving on is novel advice.

3. Avoid Environments Which Punish Deviating from Exact Instructions

A corollary to this would obviously be—if you want employees to be good at figuring things out, don’t punish them for it. 

Some jobs and environments require exact instructions and deviations should be punished. I wouldn’t want my surgeon to just try things out until I’m healed. But most environments aren’t like this, or if they are, it is needlessly so.

Spending more time in environments which reward figuring things out is a way to get over the psychological objections to it. Those objections can come from a belief that if something is mildly difficult, you’re doing it wrong, and worse, that if the outcome is correct but instructions weren’t followed exactly, you’ll be punished.

How Do You Rate Yourself at Figuring Things Out?

You might look to certain areas of your life where you’ve unconsciously adopted the right attitudes and domain-specific tricks to be good at figuring things out, while in others you shy away from it. I’ve noticed, for instance, that I’m good at figuring things out for my business, but I’m much worse at figuring things out in order to save money shopping.

What would you rate yourself for this skill? What are areas you’d like to get better at figuring things out? What are areas where you feel held back by your environment because it punishes experimentation and innovation in solutions? Share your thoughts in the comments!