Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the smartest solutions to our most misunderstood problems. I’m Jason Feifer. Have you ever done something and it did not go as you hoped and then you just felt empty and you started obsessing over it, like going through every detail over and over, imagining all the ways you could have done better? Well, I recently had a kind of embarrassing experience like this and it made me feel a little crazy and then it sent me down a rabbit hole to understand what was happening to me. And I want to tell you about it because what I found was pretty helpful. And maybe the next time you are obsessing over what could have been, it can be helpful to you too.

So some context. As you may know, I released a book in September, it’s called Build for Tomorrow, just like this podcast, and as part of promoting the book, I asked every big podcaster I know if they would have me on their show, because you know, podcasts are one of the best ways to promote books. And for the most part, everyone said yes, which was awesome. And then the tapings all went pretty well, which was also awesome, except for two of them, those did not go so well. And when that happened, I just could not stop obsessing over it. The worst experience happened after I went on Gary Vaynerchuk’s podcast. So maybe Gary’s name, he’s a big celebrity in the entrepreneurship space, he has a super devoted fan base, and I’ve known Gary for years, I’ve interviewed him many times. So here’s how he opened up the podcast. It was a very natural way to do it. He explained that I’m usually the one interviewing him, but now it’s a roll reversal and he’s interviewing me. And then he said…

Audio Clip (Gary on Gary Vaynerchuk Podcast): “Welcome my friend Jason to the show. Jace, how are you?”

Audio Clip (Jason on Gary Vaynerchuk Podcast): “Hey man, great to see you. This is really fun to be on the other side of this. I don’t even know how it’s going to go.”

Jason Feifer: I don’t even know how it’s going to go? What are the words coming out of my mouth? What am I talking about? And the rest of the show just felt like that. I wanted to say something smart and instead what came out of my mouth was just like a B minus. My stories fell flat, my points felt disjointed, I was not as sharp as I wanted to be. I could feel it in the moment as it was happening. And to be clear, Gary did nothing wrong. He was welcoming and engaging. I just could not find my footing. I don’t know what it was. Was I tired that day? Did I have too many things on my mind?

And now maybe you think, “Jason, you are being hard on yourself. This sounds totally fine,” and that is true rationally speaking, but we are not dealing with rational thought here, we are dealing with something else. We are dealing with me, a guy who is feeling a lot of pressure to maximize every opportunity and who holds himself to a very high standard. So when the interview with Gary ended, well… We had taped it remotely, which meant that I was then just sitting alone in my bedroom and thinking, “Oh God, I blew that. I blew a huge chance to sell books and win over some of Gary’s audience.” And then my brain just went… I don’t know. I guess it just said, “Maybe it was fine,” this is what my brain is telling me, “maybe it was fine.” So I tried to tell myself. I started to say out loud, “It was fine. It was fine, it was fine.” I started to pace in my room talking to myself, repeating it, “It was fine. It was fine.” I did this for minutes. “It was fine. It was fine.”

But I was also thinking, “No, it was not fine. You could have told that story different. You could have made that point when he asked you that thing. I don’t know. Or maybe it was fine. It was fine.” And then I realized, “Ah, crap, I have to run across town for this important meeting where I have to be really on, and I am in no state to do that right now cause I’m obsessing over this thing. So I need to get this out of my head.” So I walked to the subway and I was repeating it, “It was fine. It was fine.” Then I’m on the subway, “It was fine. It was fine and it was fine. No, it wasn’t fine.” I’m literally, I was saying this out loud, “I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that. Maybe it was fine. I don’t know.”

And then I thought, “Okay, this needs to stop. It needs to stop right now. This is crazy. What else can I do here?” So I wondered, “Well, what is happening to me right now?” I’ve blown things before and I’ve felt bad about them, but this feels like it’s at a new level. I’m not usually talking out loud to myself. So is this a thing that happens to people? Is there a term for what’s happening to me? Is there scientific literature on it? Because that would make me feel less crazy, I guess. So I started googling around and soon I found it. I found the term. The term for what my brain was doing, and it is called counterfactual thinking.

Audio Effect: Counterfactual thinking.

Jason Feifer: Turns out it’s also very common. And now that I knew what it was, I could call people who study it to ask what the hell is going on with me? Which is what I did.

John Petrocelli: Yeah, so counterfactual thinking is usually defined as simply mentally simulating alternatives to reality and playing them out and considering the outcomes.

Jason Feifer: In other words, it is what if thinking, “What if this happened? What if I did that differently?” Comparing reality to an imaginary world. Oh, that voice you heard was John.

John Petrocelli: John Petrocelli and I’m a social psychologist and professor at Wake Forest University.

Jason Feifer: And he specializes in, among other things, counterfactual thinking.

John Petrocelli: My research has shown that people are very, very good at generating these thoughts quite automatically. So don’t feel bad if you had the thoughts automatically and you couldn’t get rid of them.

Jason Feifer: But here’s the interesting thing, which is going to sound obvious at first, but is also pretty profound.

John Petrocelli: We also know that especially when you are looking or you’re hoping for a desirable outcome, it’s very easy to undo just about anything and then to mentally assume that it would have changed the outcome in a positive direction.

Jason Feifer: Right. We assume that if something had been different in the situation in which we are now regretting, it would’ve been different in a better way. That if only I’d said this or that thing on the podcast, that it would’ve been better, I would’ve sold more books, that if only you turned left instead of right, you would’ve gotten to that important meeting on time, that if only you’d stayed with that girlfriend or boyfriend, your life would be better and happier. If only, if only. We think we know what went wrong and therefore we are sure about how it could have gone right. But that is wrong because we don’t know that at all.

John Petrocelli: It’s very seductive and automatic and can happen even at an implicit level we’re not even aware of it in shaping our judgements and our decisions in a way that we haven’t really fully explicitly thought out. We may not have said, we may not have said even in our self talk to ourselves, we may not have written it down, but it can still have quite the effect on learning and memory and decision making in the future.

Jason Feifer: So what is that effect and how can we shape it ourselves to gain some control back from the counterfactual thoughts to counter the counterfactuals? That is what I went in search of, and I have to say, the more I learned, the better I felt and I hope you can feel the same. It’s all coming up after the break.

All right, we’re back. So here’s what we’re going to do. First, we are going to understand more about counterfactual thinking, how it happens, why it happens and what we’re missing when we’re stuck obsessing over what could have been. And then we’ll talk about what we can actually do about it to try to unstuck that obsession.

Amy Summerville: Before we explain how it happens, let’s explain what it is.

Jason Feifer: That’s a good plan. Okay, this is Amy.

Amy Summerville: I’m Amy Summerville. I’m a social psychology PhD who does research on decision-making and emotion with a special interest in how we think about what might have been and the emotion of regret.

Jason Feifer: So, here’s where to start according to Amy. There are actually two kinds of counterfactual thinking and we experience them at different times.

Amy Summerville: So you can think about how things could have been better, and we call that upward counterfactual thinking, you’re sort of looking up and imagining how things could have been better.

Jason Feifer: That of course, is what I was doing.

Amy Summerville: And then there’s also something called downward counterfactual thinking where you think about how things could have been worse.

Jason Feifer: When I first heard that, I thought, “Why would anyone obsess over how things could have been worse?” I mean, if you’re feeling bad, it’s already bad. And yet there are many reasons. For example, survivors of tragedy will keep thinking about how close they were to injury or death, but it can also happen more casually.

Amy Summerville: There’s some really interesting work by Laura Cray and by Shira Gabriel that has actually found that that downward counterfactual thinking has some really interesting value to us, that it actually makes us feel that things are more meant to be. So if I have you think about how you might never have met your best friend, that relationship actually feels more meaningful to you.

Jason Feifer: But okay, we’re going to set all that aside now because we’re not actually here to talk about downward counterfactuals. Today we’re here to talk about upward counterfactuals, where…

Amy Summerville: Negative events prompt us to think about what could have been different. We want to reinvent, “How could I have avoided this bad thing?”

Jason Feifer: But this doesn’t happen all the time, of course. Not every bad thing leads to obsessive counterfactual thinking. So why sometimes? What is more likely to cause it? Amy says that science has identified a bunch of causes and we’re going to talk about three of them briefly here. The first is proximity.

Amy Summerville: Is there something where something was physically or numerically or temporally close?

Jason Feifer: For example, people who miss a flight by five minutes are more likely to obsess over it than someone who missed a flight by an hour because it was so close. They feel like had they just made one different decision along the way, they could have made that flight. The second common trigger is routine.

Amy Summerville: If we do something that’s out of routine or abnormal, that really sticks out to us.

Jason Feifer: So let’s say you always prepare for a meeting and then one day you don’t prepare and the meeting was awful. So now you’ll start to think, “Ugh, if only I’d prepared, if only I hadn’t deviated from the routine.” And the third trigger is if you are a person who feels like they’re in control.

Amy Summerville: There does seem to be a link between feeling a sense of kind of personal agency and control and feeling like you are in charge of your own destiny that does relate to counterfactual thinking that you’re more likely to have these thoughts about, “Oh, I could have done something different,” if you have sort of that world view.

Jason Feifer: And for what it’s worth, sample size of one here, but when I think back to what triggered my own counterfactual thinking, I can relate to all of that. And here’s another thing, counterfactual thinking does not by its very nature, have to be bad or disruptive. It can just be a thought. So what was I doing when I could not get over it? Well, that’s an added layer on top. It’s what psychologists call rumination.

Amy Summerville: People can ruminate over all kinds of things, not just counterfactuals. And the word literally comes from how cows digest their food, which is that they vomit it back up and chew it over again and again and they keep… So it’s a super gross metaphor, but I think actually really captures that sense of something that’s just sort of this involuntary intrusive, it just keeps coming back up whether you want it to or not.

Jason Feifer: So now let’s get to the question that feels really personal, why do we do this? I had raised that question earlier in the episode, but now it’s time to go deeper into it, because when I spoke with Amy, I had a theory. I have this assumption, which could be an incorrect one, but the assumption is that if there is something common that happens in our brain, then there was some kind of evolutionary purpose to it, even if it doesn’t get expressed in maybe the way in which it was supposed to be and so my best guess here with counterfactual thinking, or rumination I suppose, is that the reason that we do this is because we’re programmed to learn.

And so we go through experiences and then we’re trying to take the lessons from those experiences. But the problem is that if those experiences don’t match up against our expectations, then we’re in a kind of loop where we realize that we maybe have learned a hard lesson, but it feels very bad. And so what we end up doing is kind of going back and trying to wheel the past into some kind of different experience. Am I right there? What do we know about why this is a thing that happens?

Amy Summerville: Yeah, so you’re exactly right. So those of us who have what we call sort of a functional view of counterfactuals believe exactly that, that counterfactuals are what help us learn from our mistakes. And my colleague Rachel Smallman has done a lot of really interesting work showing that there’s actually a link between counterfactuals and forming intentions for the future. So if you were walking around with your coffee this morning and you spilled it on yourself and you say, “Ah, I should have put a lid on my coffee,” or “I should have used a travel mug instead of an open mug,” then you’re more likely tomorrow morning to say, “Oh, let me put that lid on at the hotel,” or “let me grab my travel mug out of the cabinet instead of my open mug at home,” and therefore avoid it in the future.

Jason Feifer: But there’s another camp of thinkers and they say, “No, counterfactuals are not a byproduct of the way that we learn, they are instead a byproduct of how we make sense of the world,” which is what drives a lot of our biases and misunderstandings.

Amy Summerville: We want the world to seem controllable and to have the world seem like it makes causal sense was really kind of psychologically threatening to think that just bad things happen randomly. And so sometimes counterfactuals can be used just as a way of telling a story that makes the world seem more kind of sensible.

Jason Feifer: For example, Amy says that you can see this in victim blaming. So let’s say someone forgets to lock their front door one night and then their home gets broken into. Other people might think, “Well, if they locked their front door, the home wouldn’t have been burglarized, so it was their fault.” Which maybe, maybe not. But what’s really happening here is that those other people are trying to make sense of this story in a world in which they do not want to be the person that bad things happen to. So they want to transform this from a story about random chance where a bad person just decided to do a bad thing to a random person into a story about what could have been done to avoid it, because that feels safer. Random chance is scary. And this is actually one of the great dangers of counterfactuals because even if counterfactuals are a means of us learning from experience, it’s also very hard to know what lesson we’re supposed to learn from any one situation.

Amy Summerville: You can focus on the wrong specific behavior because it’s unknowable. Which of these specific behaviors would’ve changed things?

Jason Feifer: Maybe locking the front door would have deterred the burglar, or maybe not because if the door was locked, they would’ve just broken through a window. We don’t know. We often can’t know. Amy used a simpler example to illustrate this, you heard it a second ago. She was saying, you carrying a cup of coffee and you spill it on yourself. So what are you going to learn from it? You’re probably going to think, “Well, if I did… if I only didn’t do this one thing, I wouldn’t have spilled the coffee.” But, all right, what one thing? To not drink coffee? To not walk with coffee? To not have a lid on your coffee? To not fill the cup up as much as you did? As it turns out, Amy says, unless a bad outcome is very clear, like touching a hot stove and getting burned, then people aren’t actually very good at identifying the thing that led to a bad outcome.

Amy Summerville: We know that there are biases in the way that people tend to come up with these things. So we talked about this idea of what’s your routine and people tend to focus on the things that are out of routine, people also tend to focus on things that kind of happened early or late in a string of events. So I grew up in Indiana, so basketball was basically a state religion. And you see this all the time, there’s the guy who misses the shot right at the buzzer and they were down by one and if he’d made it then they would’ve won and if he’d just made that shot. But of course every single missed shot has exactly the same impact on the score. If the guy who in the middle of the third quarter had made that shot too, that also would’ve changed the outcome of the game by exactly the same amount.

Jason Feifer: They could have been up 10 instead of down one at the end of that game if a couple other people had made shots.

Amy Summerville: Exactly, yeah.

Jason Feifer: So if you can’t quite identify the thing that would’ve made the difference, then you’re going to do one of two things. Either number one, you’re going to learn nothing from this thing that you’re obsessing over or number two, you will potentially draw the wrong lesson. And perhaps this is why…

John Petrocelli: People do not learn from experience nearly as quickly as we would hope and think they would.

Jason Feifer: That is John Petrocelli from Wake Forest again. For example, he says… Okay, so he describes the study in which people are asked to make a decision based on coin flips and what they don’t realize is that the coin is weighted so that it ends up landing twice as much on heads as it does on tails.

John Petrocelli: Most people think that people would learn that quite readily because heads is coming up twice for every one tails on average, but it takes quite a while for people to learn that maybe upwards of 60 flips, if they’re even paying attention.

Jason Feifer: Why? Again, too many factors. You’re not paying close attention,, you think it’s random chance you’re focusing on other things happening in the study. And this is a simple scenario, a coin flip has a very limited number of factors. Now make that more complex. Why you blew it on a date or why you blew that meeting or why I blew those podcasts.

John Petrocelli: Maybe you’ve done 40 podcasts and all other 39 or 38 of them have gone well, it’s very difficult and say, “All right, well I’m going to learn from this one decision.” It’s very seductive to think, “Oh, I’m going to learn from it,” but chances are, if you’re in the same exact context, you’re going to make the same decision.

Jason Feifer: And then maybe even ruminate over the same counterfactuals. So this doesn’t sound very promising, does it? I mean, here we’re trapped in a kind of thinking that maybe helps us learn or maybe just helps us tell comforting fantasies about the world. Either way, we’re so bad at learning from experience that we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes we regret anyway. Or are we? There is actually some hope for us yet, I promise, and that is what’s coming up after the break.

All right, we’re back. And now it is time to talk solutions, although let’s set some expectations here. When I asked Amy if there was some kind of simple exercise that people could do to escape counterfactuals, she said…

Amy Summerville: I don’t know that there is.

Jason Feifer: Because when we become the human equivalent of the spinning pinwheel of death on a screen, you can’t just reboot the system. Instead, the starting point has to be understanding what is happening in your head and then using that awareness to your advantage. For example, to go back to one of the things that Amy said could trigger counterfactuals.

Amy Summerville: We know that people tend to feel the most ongoing regret about the parts of their life where they feel a sense of control and they feel like things are important. And so I think partially just recognizing that, that you’re feeling this big regret in the moment because this is something that is going to continue to matter to you. If it was not important, you would just get over it. And so I think accepting that that’s just the price of caring a little bit.

Jason Feifer: I really like that phrase, “the price of caring.” And it reminded me of something that my wife often tells me when I get into moments like this, which is basically, “Nobody is thinking about this as much as you are,” she tells me, not the podcast host, not the podcast listeners, nobody. So I told Amy what my wife tries to do is to get me to care a little less to say, “You know what? Fine, even if it was bad, what does it matter? Because people will forget it instantly. You didn’t do something terrible, you just didn’t perform as well as you thought you would. Nobody’s going to write about how terrible you were on Gary V’s podcast.” They’re just going to take it as it is. And so maybe just care a little less or put it in perspective about how it’s not so important.

Amy Summerville: Yeah. One of the things you were saying, that your wife might tell you of people are going to forget this in five minutes, I think is that idea of taking a longer kind of temporal time. So there’s a lot of work on this idea that there are real differences in how we think about things that are close to us physically in time or things that are far away. So this comes up, you may have heard of the delayed discounting effect. So this is something where if I tell you I’ll give you a dollar right now or I’ll give you five bucks a week from now, most people take the dollar right now, but if I say, “Hey, I’ll give you a dollar a year from now or I’ll give you $5 a year and a week from now,” most people take the five bucks because when you’re really thinking about right now like “Right now yeah, a buck would be great. I could go down the hall, I could get a soda out of the vending machine, that’d be really nice before I go on stage.”

There’s sort of this closeness to it versus when you think about a year from now, that difference of a week feels super abstract. You’re like “Of course I’d take $5. That’s totally the rational choice here.” And so I think that taking that kind of long view about your own regrets as well. There are some things where you make a decision now that five years from now you are still going to be thinking about that decision, our decisions have consequences. But there are also some things where five years from now you’re not even going to remember what it is that you’re so upset about right now. And so I think really trying to triage on that is really helpful. So kind of taking the long view of okay, five years from now, what is it that you think you should have learned from this moment? Five years from now is this even a thing you’re going to care about? I think is probably one of the best things you could try.

Jason Feifer: That’s awesome. I’ll tell you what ended up being the cure for me was the podcast coming out, because when it came out and people didn’t react negatively to it… I mean maybe they could have reacted more positively to it, I don’t know, now that’s a level of abstraction that I sort of can’t deal with, but when I got messages from strangers who said that they liked that episode, I could just feel that tension immediately disappear from my body.

Amy Summerville: It’s right. We started out by talking about upward and downward counterfactuals and it’s really all very relative. One of the great examples of this is there’s a lot of evidence showing that if you show people the faces of Olympic medalists and have them rate how happy or upset these medalists look on the medal stand, silver medalists are consistently the least happy people on the podium because they’re thinking about, “I could have won gold,” and actually bronze medalists tend to be substantially happier than silver medalists because they’re thinking, “I won a medal. I almost didn’t win a medal and I won an Olympic medal, that’s amazing.” And so I think that trying to take the view of remembering that as a silver medalist, you’re actually objectively better off than the bronze medalist is also I think a really helpful thing. So yes, maybe the podcast could have gone better, but like, wow, you were a guest on a podcast that you really admired and that was an amazing opportunity and focus on that thing that was good about the situation and really kind of keep that comparison point in perspective.

Jason Feifer: That’s amazing. I love that. But we can go one level deeper, because here’s the thing, counterfactuals can trap us in a bad way of thinking, but counterfactuals might also be our escape route. Here is John again.

John Petrocelli: Well, the trick is, and this is going to sound a little funny, but the trick is to consider additional alternatives, to consider other counterfactuals.

Jason Feifer: Here’s why. John reminded me of something that psychologists call the availability heuristic, which basically means that we are biased towards the stuff that’s easiest to remember. This came up a few months ago in an episode of this podcast that I titled All the Fun Facts You Have Wrong where we learned that misinformation spreads in part because lies often feel true and are just easy to remember. That is the availability heuristic.

John Petrocelli: So the easier it is to generate a thought or the easier it is to generate examples of an event or an examples of a argument you’re trying to make, the easier it is, the more likely we think it is to be true or the more likely we think it is to occur.

Jason Feifer: And if that’s the case, then every time we run through a counterfactual in our head, the idea becomes even more compelling and convincing to us. It feels truer through repetition. So instead of doing that, instead of convincing ourselves through repetition, we should instead add noise, add more things to consider, fight the counterfactuals with counterfactuals.

John Petrocelli: If you open your mind to that, it’s much easier to see, “Well, you know what? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad podcast because it could have been a hell of a lot worse.”

Jason Feifer: Which, I admit is true. I mean, a B minus performance is still better than a total embarrassment.

John Petrocelli: I don’t know who first said it, I think it’s been around probably for at least two centuries, the better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Would you have rather not done that podcast at all? I mean, that’s another alternative, right? At least you did it. At least you got it out there and once you expand those possibilities, it’s easier to kind of give yourself a break.

Jason Feifer: I didn’t know who said that either, but I got curious. So I looked it up. It’s often attributed to Shakespeare, but it’s actually from the English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson in an 1850 poem of his called “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The poem was about the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, A.H.H., a poet who died of a stroke at age 22. The original line was almost exactly as people say it today, “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But anyway, we digress. The point here is there are a lot of things that we can tell ourselves and just because we tell ourselves one thing doesn’t make it true.

That actually was the biggest takeaway for me in these conversations. Both Amy and John made this point to me, I referenced it earlier in the episode, we base counterfactuals on a belief that if we just did one thing different, everything would’ve been better. But we don’t actually know that, it may not be true. Everything we do is the product of a million random factors only, some of which are in our control. Amy compared it to an entrepreneur whose business fails and who then beats themselves up by thinking, “Ugh, if only I’d made this decision, if only I’d done that partnership, if only I’d hired this other person, then the business would’ve survived.” And maybe that’s true, but also maybe it’s not.

Amy Summerville: A lot of ventures failed not because people made bad choices, not because people were bad entrepreneurs, but things failed because there were these massive forces outside of anybody’s control and ability to predict.

Jason Feifer: Run the scenario 10,000 times and make slightly different decisions each time. And he still might end up with 10,000 failures. Not everything is a recipe for success. Sometimes it just wasn’t your day. I have to say, terrible as that all sounds, the inevitability of failure actually gives me a little comfort. It’s like… I don’t know. I feel like I have control over most things in my life and that’s why when something doesn’t break my way, I beat myself up over it. I figure, “I was in control. How did I mess it up?” But if we can’t control everything, then maybe it’s… maybe it’s not worth beating ourselves up over. I know I’m probably teetering into cliche territory here, if I’m not already there by a long shot, but it makes me think every all star basketball player missed a game winning shot, every meticulously prepared political candidate still bombs in a debate.

If our definition of success is complete perfection, then we are only setting ourselves up for failure because nothing is perfect no matter how much we think we know about how to create perfection. So where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me thinking about this question that I heard somebody say a long time ago on a podcast, I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit them, but anyway, they were saying that, “Look, if we ask the question is this perfect about the things that we are doing or evaluating or wondering whether they’re worth our time or effort, well then we already have our answer because nothing is perfect.” So you ask the question, “Is this perfect,” and the answer is no, and if that’s the filter through which we’re going to push things, then we’re going to filter almost everything out.

But what if instead we asked a different question? What if instead we ask, is this new problem better than our old problem? Because when you ask that, well, you just leave open the reality of problems. Problems are part of the process, and therefore the problem doesn’t scare you off. It’s just… Well, it’s just the cost of admission. And also that means that you can then track progress through problems. I think back to this whole embarrassing thing with me and the Gary Vaynerchuk podcast and I think, “Well, the podcast came out and people listened to it and a bunch of people actually reached out to tell me that they really liked it,” and I still think I could have done a better job, but is this a better problem than another problem? The old problem, I guess, was that I wasn’t on Gary Vaynerchuk’s podcast and now I have been and I reached some people, and even though I didn’t do it perfectly… I guess that’s a better problem, isn’t it? That is how I’m going to try to look at things from now on and maybe you want to, too.

Counterfactual thinking, terrifying as it can feel, is also a good problem to have because it means we did something meaningful. It means we had something on the line. It means we tried hard and are committed to trying again, and maybe we’ll even learn something because as the old poet said, “it is better to have podcasted and delivered a mediocre performance than to never have podcasted at all.” And that’s our episode. Now, here is a question you did not expect, or maybe you did, but that would be really weird. Here’s the question, what do humans and cockroaches have in common when it comes to performing tasks? This came up in my research for this episode and I will tell you the answer in a minute.

But first, if you are going through a big change at work or in your life right now, then you need a copy of my new book. It is called Build for Tomorrow, just like this podcast. It combines lessons from this podcast with lessons from the smartest entrepreneurs of today and the history of innovation and provides a step by step action plan for how you can thrive in changing times and find opportunity in adversity. It is available in hardcover, audiobook and ebook. So just go wherever you find any of that or to jasonfeifer.com/book. And if you want even more advice and encouragement on how to adapt fast, then sign up for my newsletter. Find it by going to jasonfeifer.com/newsletter. You can also get in touch with me directly at my website, jasonfeifer.com or follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I am @HeyFeifer.

This episode was reported and written by me, Jason Feifer. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help. This show is supported in part by the Stand Together Trust. The Stand Together Trust believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that’s you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit standtogethertrust.org. All right.

Now as promised, let’s talk about cockroaches. As I spoke with John about counterfactual thinking, we got off on a tangent about performance because as you heard earlier, we tend to counterfactual things where we feel like we’re in control or have a routine. And that led John to tell me a few crazy things about what improves people’s performance in high stress situations, including…

John Petrocelli: If you have a well practiced skill or behavior and you have an audience, people tend to perform better. That’s an old sort of social facilitation theory. It was even demonstrated with cockroaches, that cockroaches ran faster mazes to the food when they were being watched by other cockroaches in another container that they could conceivably see.

Jason Feifer: So, the next time the pressure’s on and people are watching, just think to yourself, “I will do this like a cockroach.” I know it’s so inspirational. Hey, that’s the end of this episode. I hope I won’t suffer any counterfactual thinking after I publish it, but there is only one way to find out. So here it goes. Thanks for listening. I’m Jason Feifer, and let’s keep building for tomorrow.