Thoughts on Better by Atul Gawande

Recently I have begun to engage with a broad range of New Yorker writers to further stimulate my pursuit of knowledge (of self and of the world). Atul Gawande has been one of those writers who has really pushed me in my thinking and reflection.

As I think about what it means to be “Better”, I am struck by the constant pursuit that is built into the word. Becoming better in our personal interactions with people, with our professional ability, and even in our thought life is something that can never simply cease to change. We are either getting better or we are getting worse, we do not stay the same. Our choice as to which one of those pursuits we follow is entirely up to us. Existential philosophers have told us that we should chase after the purposeful life. Gawande sees that life as one that is improving in order that we may improve the world around us.

Following that through a little more, the essence of betterment is that of daily choices. Gawande refers to it as pursuing diligence. Diligence is certainly at the heart of the matter, but I think there is something more to that. Diligence to become better requires a greater sense of purpose within the world. A purpose that acknowledges our every choice has an impact, whether that is seen or unseen. Choices and the thumbprint of those choices are what shape a world.

In assessing the choices we make, understanding that we can always think about choices from the perspective of a “good, better, best” mentality impacts how we spend our time. Something as misunderstood as your personal thought life. It always has an impact on your greater life purpose. Daily, what you think about is what you become. What you read about is what you think about and become. There has never been a more important time in history to be more purposeful with how to spend time. Internet and immediate accessibility to unlimited information has created minds that are incapable of focusing without medication, minds that discount the value of reading books over watching a movie, minds that dismiss having a phone conversation at the benefit of sending a text message.

Perhaps the thought of being average makes you shudder. But this kind of contemplation is most definitely necessary. How or why could you be average? What is it that you do on a daily basis that sets you apart from others in a better way? Because ultimately it doesn’t help to be different than people if you are doing something in a worse way. Especially in a performance oriented business like investing. Institutions hop in and out of funds chasing performance. They want to be better, but they don’t want to actually improve. Improvement in bettering oneself means reflecting on your own process and reordering that process so that your results in the future can exceed your previous results. It is a process-orientation that allows this to happen, not hindsight bias in specific outcomes. The outcome follows the process. The process is the thing that is naturally misunderstood.

In thinking about process and improving oneself to become the best you can be, Gawande posits five methods for improving, what he calls “positive-deviant” behavior. Behavior that allows you learn and become a better version of who you are called to be.

1) Ask unscripted questions.  We do not become better versions of ourselves if we are unwilling to learn. That is without question (see what I did there). A willingness to learn and more importantly a desire to learn fuels the fire for future growth. The willingness to engage with someone who you wouldn’t normally talk to. The willingness to go off script with someone who you talk to every day in order to learn a little something new will go a long way in developing a human connection with them.

2) Don’t Complain. Everyday we are faced with a plethora of reasons for negativity and complaints. There is a time and place, but there rarely good accomplished through these things. It is very easy to pick out the person in a group who is the most unhappy/dissatisfied and it is usually the perpetual complainer. Complaining does not push one to be better or to go a step further and change things for the better. It creates a self-fulfilling cycle of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Focus on things you appreciate and look for ways to improve things.

3) Count Something. Be aware of what is going on around you. Knowledge is the way you transform the things around you. Knowledge comes from observation and the collection of data. In the investment business, data is the essential component to getting better. One who learns more through observation and testing is going to be the one who improves himself and others.

4) Write Something. I have recently, through the recommendation and pushing of a good friend, started to journal frequently. Whether these are simple thoughts throughout the day, calls to action for my thought life and behavior or trying to think through business models, I have written them. I have not become a good writer by any means. But it forces me to think through my logic and evaluate my choices differently. This blog, although for the most part poorly utilized, has also been a medium to think through things. We cannot become better if we are unwilling to think deeply through things. Our thought life, as previously discussed, guides our actions.

5) ChangeFinally, we are called upon to change. Gawande tells us to look for the opportunity to change. It is all too easy to attempt to remain the same. People, naturally, distrust something they are not used to. But in order to become better, we must change. As Blackberry saw, their refusal to become early adopters in the mobile phone industry eroded what was previously dominance. Change is the lifeblood of getting better. Someone who is unwilling to change is eventually going to fail. Creating a better world is brought through change. But don’t forget, it must be change for the better.

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