The Art of Clear Thinking
FIGHTER PILOTS must make thousands of decisions, often with incomplete information during each flight. U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and Chief of Training Systems Hasard Lee helped develop a program to boost pilots’ critical thinking skills and mental toughness to skew the odds in their favor when making these critical decisions. He passes the lessons learned on to us in The Art of Clear Thinking.
Understanding how our decisions are made and how they can be improved going forward is essential with high-stakes decisions, but it is also important in our business and personal lives.
The right approach to decision-making can save us a lot of regret down the road. He organizes his experience and training into a concept they call the ACE Helix. It has three parts: Access, Choose, and Execute. It is designed to bring out the best options while remaining flexible in ever-changing circumstances.
1. Assess the Problem
Lee spends a lot of time explaining this step as the foundation for the success of the other two steps. “Developing a proper understanding of the problem is the first step to solving it. Our instinct is often to bypass this critical step and begin acting.” If we aren’t solving the right problem, we can make the right decision.
It is important to keep the big picture in mind and not focus on just one piece of information. This is the ability to “make sense of a chaotic environment while simplifying and structuring information. This requires judgment, and judgment requires non-linear thinking.
Often, our actions don’t result in a single outcome. Instead, they can lead to outsized outcomes that go beyond our imagination. They are non-linear outcomes. “For a multitude of reasons, people consistently fail to account for them, which often leads to a skewed assessment of the problem they’re facing and results in a poor decision.”
These non-linear relationships are governed by power laws that can lead to exponentially greater or encompassing outcomes than we anticipated, which Lee explains in the book. “We become accustomed to how our actions are affecting a system, and then suddenly, the outcome is much different from what we were expecting.
It helps if we have a broad understanding of the probable consequences of our decisions. We can adapt more quickly and accurately to changing circumstances. We can move our thinking beyond a narrow set of conditions.
Lee talks about the approach they have during fighter training that all too often goes against the approach we have and certainly have experienced throughout our life. He says, “Our job wasn’t to weed them out but to coach them throughout each training event so that they could leave as the best possible pilots.” We tend to eliminate to try to cultivate the best and brightest. He adds, “We found that almost everything is coachable and correctable if identified early enough. Even supposedly intangible attributes, such as attitude, work ethic, and flying instinct, can be significantly improved if coached properly.”
2. Choose the Correct Course of Action
To find the best solution, simplify.
They use a technique called fast-forecasting. It is designed to build a mental model of the problem focusing on the few variables, due to strong power laws, that drive the system. This allows you to quickly approximate a ballpark solution. “We’re starting with the big-picture concept and slowly adding in detail until we have a good enough resolution to make a decision.”
The key to fast-forecasting is to not get overwhelmed by the details—logic and reason are what drive the technique. Precision is often the enemy of conceptual thinking. What we’re trying to do is bring to bear the mental framework that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes to estimate the expected value of a decision. If we instead make the problem overly complex, we lose the ability to quickly manipulate the relevant information through the lens of our concepts, principles, heuristics, and facts.
Lee writes, “Creativity is one of the few resources that can provide an exponential advantage to those who are able to harness it.”
Encourage creative decision-making with an effects-based approach. Start with the desired outcomes and work backward. “Breaking down the requirement into effects needed gives us at least an opportunity to explore alternative solutions.” Our desire to quickly find an answer or solution can lead us to jump to a solution that we are familiar with that might have worked in the past but is not really relevant to the current circumstance.
Good execution requires the management of stress and, emotional control – and resilience in the face of failure. “While stress exposure can slightly increase performance for simple, well-rehearsed tasks, it severely reduces performance for tasks that require complex or flexible thinking.” Mental toughness is a skill that can be learned and improved.
In fighter training, they incorporate a number of concepts into their training. Preparation is key. Mental toughness needs to be practiced until it is a subconscious reflex. They also include focus-based training. “The key to maximizing our mental resources is to focus only on what we have control over, which is the next decision to make.”
Part of the training involves systematically building confidence. Confidence is not something you have, or you don’t. “Confidence is a skill that can be improved, primarily through our internal dialogue—how we talk to ourselves.” Perfectionism and focusing on our mistakes creates self-doubt, which is detrimental to high-stakes decision-making. Trainees are taught to reframe and replace negative self-talk with a successful counterexample from their past.
In stressful and uncertain moments, it is important to keep your priorities your priorities. Focus on and prioritize what is important. “If there isn’t a clear vision, our minds will default toward urgent tasks.” At some point, you have to be decisive. You’ll never make the perfect decision. You can remove all uncertainty from your decision-making. When making decisions, “we’re just trying to remove the choices that are clearly not optimal.”
Lee says that “when there are multiple seemingly equal choices,” he has found that “going with the riskiest viable option usually provides the greater return in value. Most people hate uncertainty, particularly when it’s combined with risk. As humans, we are biologically programmed to overestimate risk. If you’re able to overcome that mental hurdle, it becomes easy to differentiate yourself and greatly increase your odds of success.”
The Art of Clear Thinking is full of great stories to illuminate the concepts and makes this business book read like a gripping novel. He shares a lot of information, so you will need to go back and reflect on how it can best be applied to your tough decisions.
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