8. The Power of One

Attempting a single small step repeatedly may succeed where grand plans fail.

Boiling the frog

[My research once involved the gradual heating of amphibians; the following is true metaphorically but not biologically:]

Q: How do you boil a frog?

A: You place the frog in water, and begin to heat the water. That’s the easy part. The hard part is how fast to heat the water. Heat the water too fast and the frog will perceive the heat, panic, and jump out. Heat the water too slow and the frog will never be boiled. The trick is to heat the water as rapidly as possible without arousing the frog’s anxiety.

System 1 responds instinctively and rapidly to the information before it.

System 2 orchestrates rational but slow thought, and accommodates non-obvious information. It is often subordinate to System 1.

System 1 copes with more information than System 2 can. It does so by jumping to conclusions. These jumps have predictable rules and trajectories.

These features can be exploited to develop academic faculty.

Our minds’ System 1 is not unlike the frog. It will overlook gradual, seemingly innocuous change but fixate on large increments, regard them as threats, and avoid them.   In terms of faculty development, a single small improvement can be acceptable whereas a long to-do list can be aversive. Consider, for example, feedback. If the feedback is accumulated over a year and then delivered in one bolus:

[From http://positivesharing.com/2008/01/performance-reviews-are-a-big-fat-waste-of-time/ :]

Welcome to your annual performance review.

In the next 90 minutes we will:

  • Review your performance over the last 12 months
  • Follow up on the goals from last year’s review
  • Set new goals for your professional development and career
  • Handle any problems you might have had in the last year
  • Fill out this 8-page form required by HR
  • Coach you to better performance
  • Get your totally open and honest feedback to my leadership

And of course, we will both pretend that the results of this little chat will not in any way influence the salary adjustments coming up in two months.

Now… any questions?

One unhappy frog!   Any prudent faculty developer or self-developer should recognize this fact and avoid it.


Use the power of one

Less is more. Use the power of one.   One is a stealthy number. It can often evade the surveillance of its namesake, System 1. For example:

“Mentorship plans” are often lengthy checklists of deliverables. Kerry Ann Rockquemore has a better idea [again]:

Ask yourself: what is ONE thing under my control that is holding me back right now? What is ONE thing I can do about it?   Who is ONE person who can help me with this?   Repeat daily.

The genius of this formula is that it bypasses both System 1 and unrealistic expectations about mentorship.   If the sum total of tasks is too large, System 1 is likely to balk at its difficulty and challenge to competence; i.e., better to avoid it than run the risk of failing at it before one’s peers. With too many options, System 1 may eschew choice rather than risk a poor choice that will squander an asset; i.e., decision paralysis. Moreover, asking a single individual mentor to orchestrate a grand plan on one’s behalf triggers System 1’s aversion to rejection and feedback. At any rate, these days no single individual can provide the mentorship to orchestrate a grand plan. There is no guru; Yoda is dead! But ONE thing? System 1 says: so what if the ONE thing is a poor choice or I fail at it? It’s only ONE thing.   And I can ask someone for just ONE thing without fear of looking stupid or incompetent; because it’s just ONE thing, maybe the helper can actually provide it.

Done iteratively, resolving just ONE issue sums to faculty development.

“Feedback” can become such an enumeration of flaws as to become ineffective. Craig Wortman has a better idea too:

Craig recommends first that each feedback encounter contain four components:[1]

Step 1: “What’s ONE thing you think you did well?”

Step 2: “Here’s ONE thing I think you did well:_________.”

Step 3: “What’s ONE thing you think you should do differently?”

Step 4: “Here’s ONE thing I think you should do differently:_________”.

If you look closely at this simple framework, you will see the underlying design:

Steps 1 and 2 build confidence.

Steps 3 and 4 build skill.

You can’t build my skill until you’ve built my confidence, and this is the power of the design.

Craig’s model eschews a laundry list of identity-challenging, System 1-empowering flaws in favor of ONE ‘thing you should do differently’.

Done iteratively, ONE thing you should do differently sums to faculty development.

Like losing weight and gaining physical fitness, faculty development is a sustained endeavor or a long distance hike[2]. Sometimes the destination is so distant or the goal so unattainable that System 1 is daunted by the threat to competence, the risk to resources and alternative activities, and the dissatisfaction of the ‘present self’. For such circumstances, James Clear has a suggestion. He tells the story of an athletic performance director who realized that the accumulation of ONE percent improvements in training and areas overlooked by others could help his team win. And so it did. He calls this “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Clear concludes[3]:

You probably won’t find yourself in the Tour de France anytime soon, but the concept of aggregating marginal gains can be useful all the same.

Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. Aggregating these marginal gains makes a difference.

There is power in small wins and slow gains. …This is why mastering your habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome.

Where are the 1 percent improvements in your life?

Importantly, a single marginal improvement is unlikely to arouse the anxiety of System 1 if sufficiently marginal.   It is easy to take a single step, and the longest of journeys begins with a single step.

Done iteratively, ONE percent sums to faculty development.

BJ Fogg is a professor of “persuasive technology” at Stanford University. He has concluded that “tiny habits” accomplished in baby steps are the best way to change behavior. As this will be the subject of a not-yet-written post of its own, for now see Jennifer Chang’s account[4].

Fogg’s approach is clearly applicable to faculty development. Done iteratively, ONE baby step sums to faculty development.

“One day at a time” is the famous philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. I quote[5]:

The idea of giving up alcohol and drugs forever can be an overwhelming idea for alcoholics. They just have to avoid drinking or using drugs for the next 24 hours. They can just stop for one day and this will lead to months and eventually years of sobriety.

For faculty scholars, Kerry Ann Rockquemore [again] likewise emphasizes the importance of writing every day — one day at a time.

Done iteratively, ONE day at a time sums to faculty development.


 The next time you make a grand plan for faculty development of either others or yourself and don’t know how to begin or can’t begin, instead do ONE thing or take ONE step that takes you closer to the goal. Repeat as necessary.


[1] http://www.salesengine.com/sales-toolkit/performance-feedback-how-to-give-and-receive/

[2] Bickel, J. 2008. Career development as a long distance hike. J Gen Intern Med 24(1):118–21. http://www.janetbickel.com/docs/09hike.pdf

[3] http://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains

[4] http://www.success.com/article/tiny-habits

[5] http://alcoholrehab.com/addiction-recovery/one-day-at-a-time-in-recovery/

©Martin E. Feder 2015

2 thoughts on “8. The Power of One

  1. WWKD writes:

    You make reference to 12 step programs in two of the entries. You mention the first step is “admitting that I have a problem.” Step 1 is actually a little different as it is “admitting I, of myself, am powerless over addiction (your choice here – alcohol, narcotics, food, pornography, and others) and that my life has become unmanageable.” In the program, a lot of emphasis is placed on “powerlessness” as it can be a helpful tool to get past “denial.” I think this is where your comments relate well. Getting past the denial is critical in faculty development. I use something called the “distracting Ds” to illustrate the difficulty faculty have in this first step. The Ds are Denial (which is unconscious), Dismissal (so maybe I have a problem, but it’s no big thing), Defensiveness (I don’t have time – besides the way I do things has been working for me for a long time), Diminishment (of the person making a confrontation – Why are you making a big deal about this? It wasn’t a problem until YOU came around), and finally, Disengagement (F*** it. Nothing I can do about it, I’m too old and set in my ways.)

    The problem with admitting to a problem, is that people often see their failure to admit to a problem as an example of yet another personal failure. “Powerlessness” opens the possibility that addiction is more than an individual failure to admit to the problem – it’s much bigger and much more powerful. It creates a platform for “reinvention” – you may have heard 12 steppers speak of hitting “rock bottom” and having to start over and work “one day at a time.” A lot of the 12 step approach is about getting away from self-blame and recognizing addiction as a disease. Of course, some folks discount the approach. However, it has worked for millions of people.

    Some people say Step 1 is really about “honesty” – letting go of pride and seeking humility. Many of our faculty, especially some of those is the senior ranks, could benefit from seeking humility. Too often, we are all too aware of our own shortcomings and we “hide” inside of our successes – that’s the human vice (or sin) of pride.


Leave a Reply to WWKD Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s