This weekend I was in the mood for a good documentary. Between Maria Callas and Van Gogh, I chose John McEnroe: The Pursuit of Perfection.
It was an odd choice, but I’ve always been intrigued by the mentality of tennis.
In 1988, John Mcenroe was one of the world’s best tennis players. According to Wikipedia, he’s often considered among the greatest in the history of the sport.
He was number one in the world for both singles and doubles, finishing his career with 77 singles and 78 doubles titles; which remains the highest men’s combined total of the Open Era.
He won seven Grand Slam single titles, including four US Open titles and three Wimbledon titles. And his singles match record of 82–3 in 1984 remains the best single season win rate.
But that’s not what the documentary is about. It’s about the psychological condition behind such an interesting tennis player. Because John McEnroe didn’t play tennis like anyone ever before. He played with a wild fierceness, yet at the same time, unparalleled precision. He made moves his opponent couldn’t guess. He didn’t just hit the ball back, he placed the ball where he wanted it to go. (watch it here)
When the filmmakers are dissecting what makes McEnroe a legend in the sport, they summarize it in one succinct comment.
“It’s the right decision at the right moment. That’s why he’s so good.”
That right decision at the right moment. It’s so simple.
So why am I not following that principal?
Why do I always decide to go out on the one night of the week that’s before a big meeting. Why do I constantly say the one thing I told myself not to bring up? Why do I tell myself I need to save this month and end up going on a shopping spree?
There is a psychological condition that determines why people, like myself, sabotage themselves. Why some people can’t resist temptation and hold out for something better. Why some people make the hard, right decisions while the rest of us constantly give into our impulses.
It can be attributed to a psychological concept known as discount rate – the way you perceive the future. If you discount the future as ‘unimportant’ then you have a high discount rate. If you take your future seriously, you have a low discount rate.
Katherine J. Thompson and fellow researchers published the Stanford University paper, ‘How To Measure Discount Rates’. In it they state, “throughout life, people are continually making choices about what to do or have immediately, and what to put off until later. Whenever someone chooses an immediate benefit at the expense of a larger delayed benefit, that person is said to exhibit temporal discounting. Similarly, if someone chooses to avoid an immediate loss in favor of a larger, later loss (for example, postponing a credit-card payment), this represents discounting as well. Laboratory measures of discounting can predict many important real-world behaviors, including credit card debt, smoking, exercise, body-mass index, and infidelity.”
According to Thompson, people with high long-term discount rates find the present more compelling than the future. They tend to find less satisfaction in life and engage in more unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking and smoking. People with lower discount rates make better decisions, have less debt and generally lead happier lives.
There are two common side effects of high discount rate. Procrastination and Impulsivity. The key to making better decisions lies in eradicating both.
The cornerstone of greatness is in the waiting, the ruminating, the giving of a second thought.
In Frank Partnoy’s book, Wait; The Art and Science of Delay, he describes the time management processes that go into success:
“Professional tennis players, for instance, have roughly half a second to return a serve – a period of time that “precludes deliberation.” In that time span, they evaluate a great deal of information; they recognize the ball’s trajectory and spin, determine where it will land, and assess the server’s position. Faster physical response times enable professional tennis players, baseball and cricket batters, and other athletes who play “superfast sports” to wait until the last millisecond to react, allowing them to process more data.”
Unlike professional tennis players, we have minutes, hours, even days to make decisions. Yet look at the way we usually make our decisions – in haste. Email is a great example of this. The second we get an email, we feel hurried to respond. We rush through a response and usually don’t take the time to think through what we really want to say.
According to Partnoy, time management experts use every available second before they act. In most cases, the longer you wait, the better the outcome, even if you pause only for a split second.
Beyond the ability to wait, right decisions are born from the ability to act. The right decision is born in the middle ground between analyzing and doing.
Phil Rosenzweig, author of Left Brain, Right Stuff, believes “self-confident, hard-working people work on directing the outcomes of the controllable events in their lives, including their careers. Once you decide what to do, taking action – rather than doing nothing – is usually the best course.”
Procrastination is a byproduct of high discount rate because you clearly don’t care enough about the future to take the time to work on something now for it. You wait until the last minute, scramble to get it done and are usually unhappy with the result.
But you need to get out of that habit. You need to practice reminding yourself that today is as important as tomorrow and getting things done on time only enhances your chances of a better future.
Of course, the point of this lesson isn’t to make you stress about the future. It’s to help you find empathy with your future self and not discredit her so much. It’s to learn to look to the future in such a way that you’re excited about it. It’s making decisions that support that girl you want to be in ten years.
If there’s anything to gain from this newsletter, it’s just that you take one more minute (or second) of deliberation before making a decision. To make you stop and think just a bit longer before sending that email or going out tonight.
Every moment is an opportunity. It’s a chance to move up, create stress, develop, hurt, or change something. What you do with each moment you’re given, depends on what you value (your future, your reputation).
Because whether you’re ready to admit it or not, you have control over your future. By thinking through every moment you’re in, by learning how to evaluate, command and choose the right choice today, you’re controlling the outcome of tomorrow.