Seeking motivation?

Looking for mild entertainment at the end of my summer, I picked up Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. Little did I know, I wouldn’t be able to put it down.

This book motivates not by brute force and empty words, but by research and real life examples. As an engineer at RPI, Duhigg earns a gold star from me. Smarter Faster Better highlights topics such as focus and goal setting. Duhigg applies ordinary ideas to fields such as aviation and engineering.

Focus. This chapter describes Air France Flight 447 and its reason for crashing into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. A description of the events that took place in the cockpit gives reason for the tragic incident. Four hours into the flight, a warning alarm sounded. The plane had been in autopilot for hours and each professional in the cockpit had their guard down, completely depending on the autopilot. The sudden alarm surprised the pilot and he reacted by pulling back on the command stick, causing the nose of the plane to point up. In this case, every pilot is trained to prepare for an aerodynamic stall and level the plane. However, because of something called “cognitive tunneling,” the pilot lost the ability to focus on the task at hand and carry out what he knew to do. The warning alarm forced the pilot to point his attention at the first thing he saw and practice “reactive thinking.” The lesson learned here is to make mental models. The way to prevent falling into cognitive tunneling is to imagine the event internally and know what to expect rather than experiencing it in the moment.

Goal setting. This chapter hones in on the chief executive officer of General Electric seeking inspiration for preventing falling profits. A partial solution, responsible for more than tripling the company’s profits, was integrating SMART goals. This stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timeline. I won’t go into specifics of this system, but even after many efforts, Jack Welch (the CEO at the time) sought a different answer—in Japan. The chapter continues to describe an effective goal-setting method responsible for the development of bullet trains in Japan. With efforts to rebuild Japan after the World War II, the head of the railway system called for a faster train to improve commuting between Tokyo and Osaka. By faster, he meant 120 mph. Engineers were baffled by this impossible request and could only make a prototype for 65 mph. However, the head of the railway system was not satisfied and kept pushing for 120 mph. The next prototype could travel 75 mph, and in 1964, the first bullet train traveled 120 mph. Welch returned to GE in the United States and requested that defects in engines be reduced by 70 percent—impossible. After continuous pushing, the company decreased defects by 75 percent. By setting ambitious goals and pairing them with SMART goals to break them down, even the impossible is attainable.

There is far more covered in Smarter Faster Better that deserves mentioning, but I will leave that up to you to explore. The structure of this book allows the reader to read one chapter at a time in no particular order, which enables even overbooked college students to find the time. Duhigg’s writing style is clear and easy to read—unlike the plethora of overly complicated math and science books we read in our everyday.