Being Cognizant: How to Become Better

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A series about the ways I work towards being cognizant through decisions that make me more mentally engaged with various facets of my day-to-day life.

Cognizance (noun): Awareness, realization, notice, knowledge, perception.

The title is a little bit off-putting (or perhaps inspiring depending on who you are), but hear me out.

Inspired by the Freakonomics podcast and their recent series of episodes for “Self-Improvement Month” (ongoing), I wanted to share some of the resources that Stephen Dubner and his team at Freakonomics shared with their audience, as well as a concept I learned about in Psychology and my work last summer.

All of these resources bring together concepts and tools for improving your skill at just about anything, increasing your grit/stick-to-itiveness, and reshaping the way you think about your own abilities.

The Power of Yet” (Carol Dweck)

I first learned about Carol Dweck in a childhood and adolescence psychology course, and then again in my work last summer. Her work has changed the way I think about what I can and want to do.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University

Study: Gave 10-year olds problems that were slightly too hard for them to solve. Some of them reacted in surprisingly positive ways, saying things like, “I love a challenge!” Others felt it was catastrophic and that they had been put up for judgement and failed. Those students performed downward social comparisons next time they faced a difficult task and did not succeed (downward social comparison: comparing oneself to someone perceived as inferior in order to prop up one’s own sense of self).

2 mindsets discussed by Dweck:

Fixed mindset: The belief that one’s abilities are “fixed” and cannot be changed.

Growth mindset: The belief that one’s abilities can be developed through effort/work.

Study: Growth mindset students engaged with challenges and their brains showed great activity when an error takes place; they acknowledged and reflected on the error. Fixed mindset students showed almost no activity, they “ran from the error.”

Praise wisely. Do not praise intelligence or ability, but intead praise the process (i.e., focus, perseverance, effort, etc.). Create hardiness and resilience.

Rephrase your own thoughts. You should work to shift your own thinking as well as that of those around you. Don’t say essentializing things such as, “I am good at X” or “I am bad at Y.” Instead, say things like, “I am getting better at X” or “I am not good at Y yet.” Praise your own efforts and focus on developing your skills rather than resigning yourself to being good or bad. If you think you are simply “good at math” you will feel like you have failed if you suddenly struggle with it; however, if you “work hard at math” and see results, then you give yourself the opportunity to look ahead with hope when you do struggle.

Study: Some students were told that, every time a student pushed comfort zone, the brain’s neurons can form new, stronger connections. Over time, these children can get smarter. Students who were not taught this continued to show declining grades during difficult school transition. Those who were told showed a sharp rebound in their grades.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University


The effect is especially strong in struggling students, the ones who have been told by the world their whole lives that they are inferior to others (Dweck’s examples: inner-city students, Indigenous students on reservations). In her work, she has

How to be More Productive

A brief overview of a Freaknomics Radio episode that took on a big question.

Isn’t that what so many of us want? It seems that way from the perspective of a student at a university with high standards of admission that lures students who are often aiming to achieve many things that often demand more attention than it seems one can give.

This episode of Freakonomics introduced best-selling author, Charles Duhigg, and discussed his book “The Power of Habit”. Duhigg says that developing habit involves decisions you stop making, because they become automatic. He differentiates this from productivity, which he describes as taking control of choices, and being in charge of what you do with your time, managing focus, and controlling your brain.

Charles Duhigg’s website.

Productivity means different things depending on the context and the person seeking it. It is not merely getting more produced in a given time, but is about helping people achieve their goals with less waste/anxiety/stress, and offering them more opportunity to enjoy what they want to enjoy. For some, this could mean spending more time with children, or getting home for dinner by finishing work early, or completing a major project.

Duhigg also discusses the technological revolution, and how people assume it has allowed us to increase our productivity. He believes this is erroneous, and that we cannot just accept the advances of technology as means to be productive; rather, it is about learning new ways to think about possibilities, about our capacities for work. Being able to do something more quickly or easily does not necessarily lead to increased productivity.

We learn 8 key tools/skills to be more productive:

  1. Motivation: Choices that make us feel in control.
    1. Locus of control: Internal or external (exist along a continuum of these) – to what do you attribute your successes and failures? Internal, or external factors? Your own effort, or is it just the way the universe made you? Teachers can influence this locus of control in students through practices such as those discussed by Dweck (see video above). You can also help influence someone’s locus of control by complimenting people only on the unexpected, rather than what is already known about their talents or abilities.
  2. Focus: We train ourselves how to pay attention to the right things and what to ignore.
  3. Goal setting: Everyone needs a stretch goal (big ambition) with a specific plan on how to get started.
  4. Decision making: Probabilistic thinking – multiple, often contradictory futures
  5. Innovation: The most creative environments, says Duhigg, allow people to take clichés and mix them together in new ways (“innovation brokers”).
  6. Absorbing data: The best way to learn can be to make information harder to absorb, a concept sometimes referred to as “disfluency” in psychology. Information sticks in our brains more effectively if we have to work harder to get it there in the first place.
  7. Managing others: The best managers put the responsibility for solving a problem with those who are closest to it, allowing their unique knowledge to be tapped into.
  8. Teams: How a team interacts is more important than who is on a team. The ways to make a better team:
    1. Get people to talk about their lives a little bit – don’t always and exclusively get right down to business. Spending time in meetings getting to know each other leads to long-term productivity (by sacrificing a bit of short-term efficiency in meetings).

We are introduced to Laszlo Bock, the Senior VP of People Operations at Google. He describes his job as the “care and feeding of [their] Googlers.” He discusses two projects that took place at Google:

Project Oxygen: Do managers matter? If they do, how do we make them more effective? How to make them as helpful/essential as oxygen.

Project Aristotle: How to make groups of people happier and more effective.

The findings did not align with earlier academic research/wisdoms related to their areas of research in these projects. What they found:

What matters is HOW the team interacts. Most important attribute: Not who leads/is on it, but rather the idea of psychological safety, where everyone feels like they can speak up and be heard by the team. Team members are sensitive to non-verbal cues of their teammates.

5 norms for best teams:

  1. Psychological Safety
  2. Dependability: Notion that you can rely on others and they on you.
  3. Structure/Clarity: People should know what everyone’s job is.
  4. Meaningful work: Personally meaningful to everyone in the room.
  5. Impact: The work being done can make change happen.

Manager tips:

  • Regular one-on-ones improve team performance
  • Everyone on team feels included (let the quiet ones speak – call on them)

Ask yourself this about your day: Did you spend your time wisely? We usually can accurately respond to this question, but we do not take the time often enough to analyze whether or not we have been productive.

How many projects/ideas seem to be the optimal number? MIT study of one company: Some were not maximizing opportunities, but there were also some who were working on many projects and were stretched too thin, so they could not devote ideal time to projects. People somewhere in the middle. The kinds of projects people chose were critical to how productive they were. People who were most productive were seeking out new and different types of projects (4-5 at a time – working on something new takes a lot of time).

Writing to-do lists:

  • Wrong: Write easy tasks at the top and cross them off, giving you permission to go do other things (using to-do list for mood repair)
  • Right: Two types of goals that combine to make task completion possible!
    • Stretch goal – the big ambition
    • Something that makes that stretch goal tangible and into a plan (S.M.A.R.T. goals! – link to previous post)


How to Become Great at Just About Anything

A brief overview of what I believe to be a particularly exciting episode of Freakonomics Radio.

2 books to read:

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
Malcolm Gladwell

2 types of practice discussed by Anders Ericsson:

Purposeful practice: When you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to improve that particular aspect.

Deliberate practice: Requires a teacher that has experience helping individuals reaching higher levels of expertise (in that skill). Develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do/effective training techniques have been established. Avoids “vague, overall improvement” as a broad goal.

  • You need feedback to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you need to make.
  • Need clear criterion for what you want to do, otherwise your improvement will be difficult to measure or tackle.
  • Takes place outside one’s comfort zone. Must constantly try things outside of abilities – demands near maximal effort (not usually an enjoyable thing).
  • If you aren’t stretching yourself beyond what you can do, you probably aren’t engaging in this practice.

Once a person reaches a level of “acceptable performance and automaticity” – additional practice does not lead to improvement (discussing medical profession as an example)

10,000 hour rule (origin): Research showed that even most talented musicians in Germany had spent more time practising by themselves than less accomplished musicians. Average of elite group was about 10,000 hours by the time they reached 20.

Ericsson: Nothing magical about the number. The key seems to be deliberate practice, where you are working on improving your own performance.

Listen to the Danish Psychologist Susanne Bargmann! She shows how her deliberate practice led to a new career.

How to Get More Grit in Your Life

Finally, a brief overview of an episode that left me very reflective about how I tackle my own projects and approach my frustrations regarding skills and the future.

You can learn grittiness!… What is grittiness?

Grit, as defined by Angela Duckworth (PhD in Psychology), is: Passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.

Thus, a “gritty” individual has a “stick-to-it-iveness” when it comes to tackling goals that take time and effort to reach. Angela Duckworth has studied this trait extensively and developed measurements of grittiness (that she continues to refine). Below are a few major takeaways from her work (and book: Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success), though I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast for background stories and the low-down on grittiness in its entirety.

Dr. Duckworth’s book.

4 Traits of Gritty People (Dr. Duckworth)

  1. Interest. 
    Extremely well-developed interests – cultivate something that grabs your attention and then become familiar enough with it to continue being interested in it. What if you can’t find a passion? Well, don’t follow a passion – FOSTER a passion. Explore things early on and figure out what you could stick with. What if your passion shifts over time? It is human nature to get bored and seek the novel; however, if one cares not to be a dilettante (“cultivating an interest with no real commitment or knowledge), if you want to become expert, you must substitute nuance for novelty. Try to find another level/dimension of the thing you are already doing to make it more thrilling.
  2. Practice.
    Deliberate practice (see above!). Using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement.
  3. Purpose.
    Connecting your work or your hobby to people who are not you – beyond the self purpose. This could be the sense of helping others, or a connectedness to others, such as teammates.
  4. Hope.
    No matter where you are in your journey, there will be obstacles that challenge your devotion to sticking to your path. You must hope that you can do something to bounce back.


>> How to measure your grit: Angela Lee Duckworth’s 12-Item Grit Scale <<<

According to the research done on grittiness, the trait seems to be related to happiness, depression, anxiety, sadness – more grit = more happiness, less depression, anxiety and sadness. People tend to be better off in terms of achievements and emotional well-being.


You can listen to the final two episodes of Self Improvement Month on Freaknomics Radio here: How to Win Games and Beat People and How to be Tim Ferriss. I highly recommend listening to all five episodes, as well as listening to Carol Dweck’s talk and looking into her research.

I hope that these summaries have given you something to reflect on and that you can begin to shift your thinking and approach to ability development and task tackling.

One response

  1. Don’t follow your passion – foster it. – Moments & Motion

    […] last post was somewhat-obnoxiously but somewhat-accurately entitled “How to Become Better”, and […]


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