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The Habit That Gets In the Way of Success – And How Olympians Avoid It

There are more than 11,000 athletes competing at the Olympics in Rio. Only a handful get the recognition of Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, only a few dozen take home a medal, and the majority have almost no real shot at standing on the Olympic podium. All of these athletes are constantly assessed in comparison to others who are, by the metrics of their profession, better than them at what they do—and yet they are all able to stay motivated, committed to a life of sacrifice. How do they do it?

“One of the biggest predictors of success in athletics, and life in general, is confidence—the expectation that you will succeed,” says Jonathan Fader, a sport psychologist who works with elite athletes including members of the New York Mets, and is the author of Life as Sport.

Your level of confidence reflects the sum of the thoughts you have about yourself, and successful people don’t let jealousy or competitiveness affect that. Fader puts it this way: for the best athletes, the first thought when seeing someone better then them in their field is, “how can I learn from that?” For those who struggle, it’s “I...

A Blueprint for Improving Government Performance

This is the second column in a two-part series on Civil Service reform. You can read the first part here.

Throughout the 1990s, a convergence of trends led by tremendous advances in technology, triggered a revolution in the way work is organized and managed in the private sector. A key factor was the realization that the traditional, top-down approach to management was making companies less competitive. Corporate executives learned that when employees are trusted and empowered to make job-related decisions, companies and their employees both perform at higher levels. 

Federal agencies arguable contend with problems that are more complex—and the consequences of failure potentially more tragic—than those of business. The National Performance Review initiated by President Bill Clinton recognized that government must evolve; but for reasons never documented, the impetus to reform the Civil Service system lost momentum and was forgotten. Despite subsequent attempts at reform, such as the Pentagon’s ill-fated National Security Personnel System, the economic recession and political deadlock have precluded change.

Government leaders should decide if improved performance is even a priority. The investments in management systems have failed to solve federal performance problems, while the performance gains in business show clearly that government...

Considering a Big Change? Go for It, Says Evidence From 20,000 Coin Flips

Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who co-authored the bookFreakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything, says he’s long been fascinated by the social pressure against quitting, whether that means quitting a project, a job, or a marriage. “Behavioral biases tend to push the idea of not quitting, because you get the pain up front but the benefits down the road,” Levitt says.

So he was excited, he says, to do a “very different kind” of research project, one that infiltrates people’s everyday lives and examines what is most important to them. Most academic research is based on a government’s or a company’s data, or is carried out in a controlled lab environment. More recently, field experiments have started exploring decision-making in real life, though they tend to focus on low-stakes choices, such as whether or not to buy a certain product or donate money to a certain charity. But Levitt wanted to know about life’s bigger dilemmas, like debating whether or not to have a child, which is something people don’t generally ponder in a controlled setting.

To set up such an experiment, the results of which were recently published in a...

Research Backs Up the Instinct That Walking Improves Creativity

For centuries, great thinkers have instinctively stepped out the door and begun walking, or at the very least pacing, when they needed to boost creativity. Charles Dickens routinely walked for 30 miles a day, while the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

But in recent years, as lives have become increasingly sedentary, the idea has been put to the test. The precise physiology is unknown, but professors and therapists are turning what was once an unquestioned instinct into a certainty: Walking influences our thinking, and somehow improves creativity.

Last year, researchers at Stanford found that people perform better on creative divergent thinking tests during and immediately after walking. The effect was similar regardless of whether participants took a stroll inside or stayed inside, walking on a treadmill and staring at a wall. The act of walking itself, rather than the sights encountered on a saunter, was key to improving creativity, they found.

Dan Schwartz, who conducted the study and is Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education, says in an interview that there are “very complicated” physiological changes associated with walking. It’s not exactly clear why walking is helpful to so many thinkers...

Is an Employee’s Bad Attitude Getting in Your Way?

Do you need a communication breakthrough with employees who have challenging attitudes? With just a little practice, you'll be able to recognize the emotion underneath other people's demeanor, words, and actions. And once you identify the emotion, rather than reacting to what they say or do, you can extend a communication bridge. These bridges can help shift a colleague’s emotional state so they may regain their balance and focus on productive work.

To figure out which of the three emotions are in play, ask yourself this simple question:

Where is their attention focused?

The Sad Employee

Is your employee putting himself down? Is she overly concerned with her shortcomings? These are hypersensitive, self-doubting employees. They are focused on themselves.

People who are feeling sadness will most likely think or speak poorly of themselves. Maybe they are passive or clingy. They need to feel good about themselves and valued in their work. In your interactions with them, let them know you have confidence in them and their abilities. Tell them when they’re doing good work. Verbally appreciate their strengths and contributions.

The Angry Employee

Does your employee have an unproductive focus on other people and situations? Is...

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