Who am I?

I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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  • The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    by Eric Ries
  • The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    by Daniel Coyle
  • Alexander Hamilton
    Alexander Hamilton
    by Ron Chernow

Paul Tevis

Entries in books (38)


9 Things, Part 8

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #8: Don’t Tempt Fate

Remember how I said that willpower is like a muscle and that you can make it stronger? It’s also like a muscle in another way: It can get tired from overuse. If you know this, you can plan around that limitation and not making achieving your goal harder than it needs to be.

Willpower helps you resist temptation; planning helps you avoid it altogether. Many of us think we have more willpower than we do. As result, we have an unfortunate tendency to assume we’ll be able to handle trouble when it arises, and so put ourselves in situations where it does and we have to. Studies have shown that people who have stopped smoking and who plan to avoid situations where they will be tempted to smoke are less likely to smoke again than people who don’t — and that those people who don’t try to avoid temptation express greater confidence in their willpower than people who do.

If willpower is like a muscle, then something else to avoid is lifting too much at once. Don’t start two high-willpower things simultaneously, like trying to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time. Research shows that taking on two projects like this makes it more likely you will fail at both.

My experiments in limiting work to capacity aren’t just about available time. In the process of determining my limits, I’ve several times run up against cases where I had the time available to do something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the time on it. This is why I try to change only one thing (or sometimes two things) about my routine at a time. Following my existing habits is pretty low-willpower. Developing new ones (or getting back into ones that have been disrupted), though, requires a lot of focus. This ties into the notion of building up willpower (which we talked about in Thing #7) and taking advantage of one of my most trusted techniques: incremental change. Because, as has been pointed out to me repeatedly, slow progress is still progress


9 Things, Part 7

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #7: Build Your Willpower Muscle

A host of research experiments have demonstrated that self-control is more like a physical strength than we previously realized. Willpower is something that we can use up — after which point we have to let it recover. It’s also a capability we can improve — with regular workouts. And because achieving so many of our goals requires us to resist temptation, developing the willpower muscle is a key to success.

There is growing body of research regarding things you can do to replenish your willpower when it wanes, but one of the easiest things you can do to increase it is to pick a behavior that requires you to suppress a simple urge and do it every day. (Some examples from the research are giving up a favorite sweet, refraining from cursing, using your off-hand to open doors or brushing your teeth, and not starting sentences with the word “I.”) The simple act of making your bed every morning will improve your capacity for self-control. You can then take that improvement and use it to resist whatever temptation is holding you back from achieving your next goal.

Milo of Croton was a wrestler who won six victories at the ancient Olympic games. According to legend, one element of his training regimen involved lifting a newborn calf over his head. As the calf grew older, he continued to do this every day, such that after four years, he was able to carry a full-grown bull. I have a ton of little routines I go through every day: Scrubbing my to-do list, tracking what I eat, keeping the house clean, writing in this blog, and half a dozen more. Each of these requires an act of will; together they’re a big bull. That’s why I started with a calf, with only two or three of these to begin with until built up my strength through repetition. Then I moved on to a bigger (metaphorical) bovine.


9 Things, Part 6

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #6: Have Grit

At first, this sounds like a strange thing to tell someone they need to do. “Go out and develop some grit, ok?” That doesn’t seem possible. It’s either something you have or don’t, right? Not exactly. Like being a realistic optimist (from Thing #4), it’s a mindset, and like willpower (which we’ll talk about in Thing #7) it’s possible to develop.

When the book talks about grit, it means persistence and the commitment to long-term goals. The ability to keep going in the face of setbacks is what gets you to the finish line. As it turns out, research indicates that a key difference between people who have this tenacity and those who don’t is how they see their abilities. Carol Dweck has spend decades studying this phenomena and divided people into two groups. The first is the entity theorists, who have what she calls a fixed mindset. Entity theorists hold that abilities like intelligence are like height: You have fixed amount of it, and you can’t increase it. The other group is the incremental theorists, who have a growth mindset. Incremental theorists believe that abilities are like muscle strength: They can be improved through the right kinds of effort. People who fall into the former category explain setbacks as a lack of ability. They tend to say things like “I’m just not good at this.” The latter tend to blame on more controllable factors — like not working hard enough, using the wrong strategy, poor planning, or the infelicities of the situation. Entity theorists lack the grit to improve; incremental theorists respond to difficulty by trying harder.

As it turns out, research has shown that the incremental theories are right. Ability is not like height, and it can always be improved. The difficulty comes in convincing yourself of this. To develop grit, you have to be willing to examine your beliefs and when necessary, challenge them.

Five years ago today, I started a new job. I left my old one because there were certain things that I wanted to do — particularly in project management — that I wasn’t going to get a chance to unless I made a change. I wanted to be project manager because I thought I could be a great one, while I could never be a great software engineer. For a few years I continued to believe that last part, but I realize now that I was wrong. The reason I wasn’t going to become a great software engineer was not that I couldn’t, but that I wasn’t doing the right things to improve. The last year has been one of tremendous technical growth because I’ve focusing on the right things. I’m a much better engineer now than I was five years ago. One of the challenges facing me in the next year or two is figuring out whether I want to focus even more strongly on that path or pursue other growth opportunities instead, but I know that it’s my decisions about what I do that really determine my potential.


9 Things, Part 5

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #5: Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good

For me, the research behind this tip is the most interesting in the book. I’m only going to give you a taste, but the gist of it is: Nothing kills performance like anxiety. If your goals force you to be perfect, you get anxious. The resulting mistakes lead to more anxiety, and a vicious circle results.

The solution is to focus on learning and improvement. When you see mistakes not as failures but as opportunities for learning, you stay motivated despite setbacks. And counter-intuitively, research shows that when we give ourselves permission to make mistakes, we make fewer of them. The trick is to measure your progress not by some absolute standard by but comparing yourself to your own past performance. This keeps the focus on getting better, rather than being good.

In the summer of 2010, I ran a weekly series of 5K races, held every Wednesday evening. My only goal each week was to beat my previous week’s time. Out of the ten times I attempted this, I succeeded eight. I felt pretty good about that. Then I took a step back to look at my times in an absolute sense, and I noticed that I hadn’t just gotten a little bit faster. I’d taken almost four minutes off. I’d started out running a mile in about nine minutes, but in less than three months, I was able to do it in under eight. I’ve seen these results echoes in other arenas as well. When I was working on the novel, I eventually realized one of my sub-goals was to write more than number of words I’d averages up to that point. Each day I would push the envelope just a little but. Pushing myself to write just a little bit more helped me write a lot better. All it took was a focus on improvement.


9 Things, Part 4

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #4: Be a Realistic Optimist

Here’s the skinny: Research indicates that believing you will succeed at your goal does help you achieve it, but only if you believe you will have to work to get there. Believing you will achieve success easily actually makes it less likely you will. Why? If you think success will just happen, you don’t focus on the steps you need take (which Thing #1 reminds us is important). If you think the path to success will involve obstacles, you plan to deal with them, which means that when you do encounter them (as you always will, even if you think you won’t), you’re better equipped to overcome them. Optimism gives you emotional resilience in the face of setbacks, but it has to be combined with a realistic assessment of the situation in order to carry you to success.

This is one tip where I can’t offer a specific example of how I’ve done this, because it’s a mindset — albeit a mindset I do share — rather than a technique. But it does allow me to share a fantastic quote on the subject I found yesterday from Carol Dweck.

“Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”