How Doing "Workouts" For Your Brain Can Make You More Successful

Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

Award-winning scientist Emily Balcetis has made it her mission to understand how and why people are successful. Turns out, successful people literally see the world differently. Now, Balcetis — an associate professor of psychology at New York University — has written a book on how we can all train ourselves to use this "perception gap" to our advantage.

"When my son was in his first year of life, I decided I wanted to carve some 'me-time' out of motherhood," Balcetis said. "I decided to learn to play drums. It probably comes as no surprise, but that goal I set for myself was a challenge, and the strategies I was using to make a routine out of my drum practice weren't cutting it."

In this excerpt from Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World, out Feb. 25, Balcetis talks about how her unsuccessful attempt to learn the drums led to another realization.

I came to this realization at about the same time I met up with a longtime friend. Giorgio Piccoli is an accomplished entrepreneur and a master of habit. At twenty-seven years old, he created Americanflat, a curated gallery of museum-quality art collected from more than two hundred artists it represents all over the world, marketed to "art lovers, not investors" just starting to cover their walls. It established global on-demand printing capabilities in all countries in which it operates. Within seven years, Americanflat did $20 million in sales, in all continents but Antarctica, and proceeds of every sale are returned directly to the artists to support their craft.

At one point in our conversation, Piccoli pulled out his phone and on it I saw something unusual. It was his list of lists. Every day, for almost five years now, he had been making a list of ten things. Anything. He makes lists of ten ways to improve the experience of flying for people in wheelchairs, ten things people don't like about picture frames, ten ways to grow basil. On one list he shared with me, I saw ten proposed business partnerships that resembled a game of celebrity hookup. What if Google and Amazon had a baby? What if Rosetta Stone and Lonely Planet got together? Could Instagram and GoPro revolutionize live streaming?

Piccoli was scrolling through his notes when he offered a quick example of how he finds inspiration. "We're at Rosemary's Restaurant, Emily, and you wanted a cocktail with rosemary but didn't see one. If I was doing my list thing now, I'd write down ten menu items with rosemary they could add." I asked him if these lists ever turned lucrative. Did they become the basis for some next business venture? "Sometimes, yeah," he said, "but more often than not, no." Despite the lack of fiscal outgrowth from his habit, Piccoli says, they are a workout for his brain. He practices creative problem solving and delving into new mental territory with each attempt. As he explained, I interrupted: "You've done this every day? That's more than like eighteen hundred lists! That's more than eighteen thousand things," I said, astounded both that he'd stuck with it for so long and that I'd done that kind of math in my head after a glass of wine on a very empty stomach. "If most of the items on those lists aren't going to be the next big thing, do you have to write them down?" "Oh yeah," he said incredulously. "You have to write them down."

That the written form is obligatory seemed so evident to him, but so dispensable to me at the moment. I have never been one to make to-do lists. The few times I tried, crossing things off when I completed them didn't rev me up. I put make to-do list on my to-do list, and crossed that off too. Didn't do it for me either. My nonplussed reaction aside, plenty of other people feel empowered when they chronicle their responsibilities in this way. Maybe I was missing something of value in this organizational exercise.

Indeed I was.

Anecdotally, Piccoli's daily lists reminded me of the only thing I ever tried to do daily in my life (except for showering, brushing my teeth, and flossing): practicing my saxophone. Back in grade school, I had made it a routine to practice nearly every day. How did I make that happen?

Rather than dig through my own memory vault, I called up my high school assistant band director. It had been twenty years — I knew because the reunion planning committee's announcements were becoming a reminder of just how long it had been, and just how old I'd gotten. Would Bob Patterson even remember me?

He did. And the conversation was a great skip down memory lane. We talked about state marching band competitions and the perennial rival we could never quite topple, and reminisced about how bad the bus smelled on long road trips. After a while, I asked him how he got kids into a routine of practicing every day, or as close to that as possible. He reminded me of the time sheets we, the sprouting virtuosos, had filled out and turned in each week at our music lessons. We wrote down on a quarter sheet of paper how many minutes we practiced each day. I thought those weekly journals were for me, as a student, to prove to him, the teacher, I had done the homework. Not so, he told me. It was really for the parents.

The power of materializing, here, came from keeping that now old-fashioned handwritten time sheet. With this weekly review, parents verified and signed off on their children's practice sessions before those reports were turned in to teachers. This visual aid told parents if and when they'd carved out time in their family's schedule for their children's practice, and how often or how infrequently that goal of daily practice had been met. By writing it down, parents could visually take stock of how each week went and whether the goal was met, making them accountable not only to the band's director, but to their children and themselves.

The technique that school music teachers use to motivate budding instrumentalists shares commonalities with other practices like journals, diaries, logs, lists, report cards, and the like. They make what we're doing concrete and apparent, and create a visual manifestation of our otherwise haphazard pursuits. Notating our personal data makes us responsible to ourselves and our aspirations. By materializing our progress, we become our own accountant.