Monday, July 27, 2015

Succeeding at Dodgeball and in Life

A Dodgeball on a court,


To understand how succeeding in life is much like winning at dodgeball, you first need to understand how your brain uses heuristics, or shortcuts, to make decisions.

Think of your brain as having two systems. In one of those systems, System 2, we analyze data rationally. System 2 serves us very well in making decisions that reduce risks when choices, possible results, and probabilities are known.

But, we live in a world of uncertainty, especially where potential results and probabilities are concerned. So, we have System 1 that uses shortcuts, or heuristics, to help us make decisions.


There are several fundamental reasons why we have a strong preference to use System 1 over System 2:
  1. System 2 requires a lot of energy and our brains are hard-wired to allocate less energy to thinking than action.
  2. Real life scenarios are typically full of uncertainty. Sometimes, we just don’t have the time to gather information, but back to reason number one: Our brains just don’t want to.

Gerd Gigerenzer gave an interesting talk (TEDxNorrkoping, Sweden, 2012) titled “Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart,” which provides some great examples of heuristic-level thinking and how it can help us. At 5:30, he provides the example of the Gaze Heuristic to show how mental shortcuts help us catch a fly ball, like in baseball.

I like the example. But, life is life is more like dodgeball than baseball in that:
  1. We must concern ourselves with more than one ball.
  2. We can’t catch every ball.
  3. Some balls, we want to dodge.


In dodgeball, we need to prioritize so we can make fast decisions. Here are just a few factors to consider as you attempt to thrive amongst your:
  1. Avoid what is most dangerous:
    1. Smaller balls can be thrown faster by just about anyone. They sting more when they hit you.
    2. Watch for the kid who has an OK arm and is waiting for that moment when you’re not looking! Especially if he has a small ball.
    3. Stay away from the kid whose arm is so good it doesn’t matter whether you see it coming.
    4. Larger balls are better for blocking than small ones.
    5. Avoid throwing larger balls, they’re easier for the opponent to catch.
  2. Seek the best opportunities:
    1. The bigger the ball coming at you, the easier it is to catch.
    2. Any kid who doesn’t see you is the best target.
    3. Aim low to avoid head shots and bloody noses!
    4. The payoff for catching someone out is higher if someone on your team is out.

The point is, there is a lot to process and you don’t have time to process everything in dodgeball or in life. Do you throw, catch, block, or dodge? Who is  throwing at you? Who do you pick for your next target?

To succeed, you create mental shortcuts that help you decide and act most efficiently. But, how yo prioritize is critical. Without cognitive bases skewed toward safety, following self-serving heuristics can lead you to knock someone upside the head really hard with the little ball. Sure, he’s out, but only because he’s bleeding out of his nose. And, you’re out too because you focused more on throwing hard than aiming low! It’s hard to get one of your friends to catch you back in when the reason you’re out is because you were a jerk.


Life is much the same. Decision-making is critical. And, much like in dodgeball, prioritizing is the key to making heuristics work to your advantage. So, it’s important to understand what the priorities of success are.

Success is getting what you want. Seeking success prioritizes results-driven thinking. In this mode, your thoughts, decisions, and actions have a higher probability of getting what you want. But, results-driven thinking tends to skew your cognitive biases so the end always justifies the means. So, when you use mental shortcuts to make quick decisions you increase the probability of getting the results you want, but you also increase the risk that you will not be satisfied with yourself. Dissatisfaction is not a part of success.

Values-driven success is getting what you want AND being the person you want to be. Being the person you want to be creates satisfaction in your own efforts; it drives inspiration, resourcefulness, and resilience.

Prioritizing your values in front of the results may seem like it reduces your chances of getting what you want, but not really. It actually works out the opposite way. You can’t get what you really want if you are not first the person you want to be. So, if you want to be happy and find success, you need to focus on getting what you want while being the person you want to be. It’s much easier to celebrate from a position of satisfaction than one of regret or desperation.


  1. Identify and define your Core Values.
  2. Be disciplined in your approach:
    • Consistently ask the question: How can I get what I want AND be the person I want to be?
    • Hold yourself accountable. Evaluate how your decisions and actions aligned with each of your Core Values. Focus on the actions you can't justify and the Core Values you should have applied.
  3. Continuously Improve.
Rewire your cognitive biases so they skew your heuristical reactions toward your values and you’ll always know what to do even in times of uncertainty. In life, just like in dodgeball, you will constantly be choosing which balls to catch, block, dodge, or throw, always watching for the kid with the fastest arm while searching for the best target of opportunity. In the end, it’s how you play the game that matters most. And, that, my friends depends on why you decide to play it that way...whether you’re thinking in System 1 or System 2.

Do you know what your Core Values are? Have you taken the time to define exactly what they mean? Do you have a story about how you've used your Core Values to make the hard right over the easier not-so-right decision? The other way? What did you learn from that experience?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Eakin is the author of Finding Success and the Success Engineer at BoomLife. LEARN MORE ABOUT TOM...