Quick tip: to win races you need to finish races

Valencia, May 2002.

I am sitting on the grid at the first round of the Telefónica World Series (current Formula Renault 3.5). Ricardo Zonta is sitting on pole position, I am alongside on the first row, with Franck Montagny behind me. The race is going to be a tense battle.

Then my engineer comes over on the radio and says — “Rafa, just focus on staying out of trouble. Do that, and everything will be fine.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

His advice came from experience and the statistical evidence of modern racing. If you watched any Formula 3000 races (the current GP2, junior category to F1), you would notice that a good number of drivers would spin off or crash at every race. This allowed drivers that had qualified in the middle of the pack the day before to find themselves fighting for a top 5 position towards the end of the race.

You may be the fastest driver the world has ever seen. But if you don’t make it to the finish line when race day comes, that speed won’t matter much at all.

”Making mistakes is good, you learn from them”, they say

It feels great to hear this; I will give you that. When you know that mistakes are inevitable, discovering a silver lining helps.

But taking this further and believing that we should feel good about making mistakes is absurd. Reality is a different story. On average, those who succeed in life make fewer mistakes than others; they are wrong less of the time. They make more good decisions than bad decisions on a daily basis. It is a constant.

The key is to be able to learn from mistakes, using that knowledge to fail less and to fail better in the future. Aiming to make that same mistake just once, if possible.

Back to car racing, spinning off the track once in a while is a good sign. It shows that you are testing the limits. You are squeezing those extra 5 meters under braking, or getting on the throttle that tad earlier on your way out of the corner. But if you don’t learn anything from those mistakes and you continue to crash, you won’t finish races. And to win races, you need to complete them.

Negative emotions are more taxing for your brain than positive emotions

A quick disclaimer to start with: not all negative feelings are bad for us.

Some negative emotions are necessary and useful in certain situations. Think of a fight or flight response to a physical threat. Sometimes they can help catalyse change, like anger when fighting against injustice. Negative emotions exist for evolutionary needs.

Negative feelings also arise when we live through the consequences of our mistakes. And unfortunately, our brain tends to place much higher weight on failures than on successes of similar intensity.

In 2001, Professor Roy Baumeister described this in an article called “Bad Is Stronger Than Good”. In the article, he says — “Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” This is why, for instance, “you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50”, as Baumeister’s paper states.

We tend to overplay backdrops and to undervalue victories. Negative emotions and positive emotions are processed differently. We ruminate negative emotions more, and they take longer to be processed by the brain.

Focus on failing fast and small

“I believe that the key to success lies in knowing how to both strive for a lot and fail well. By failing well, I mean being able to experience painful failures that provide big learnings without failing badly enough to get knocked out of the game .”— Ray Dalio

One of the key rules of financial trading (buying and selling of shares, bonds, currencies and the like) is to cut losing positions fast and when losses are still small while adding more and more capital to winning positions, letting those money makers run their course.

If you are an entrepreneur, you know well how important is to find out if a product is working or not as quickly as possible. When you are still burning cash decisions, have to be validated fast. Once a product works, you heavily invest in the winning horse. Either the model works, or you need to pivot, but running out of cash by remaining stale is not an option.

We need to be able to identify situations that are not working in the shortest time possible. Yet, we all know how difficult this is. Why?

The problem of falling in love with our ideas

The principle of consistency is to blame

We tend to follow up on previous actions with more actions that ensure consistency with that previous behaviour.

This is why you will still hear yourself defending an idea long after you already sense that it may be wrong. Because you feel the need to be consistent with the “persona” that defends that position, you are trapped by your own character.

Becoming aware of our own biases can help overcome this

I have been practising for some time with this 3-step process that helps me go back to neutral, to spot myself when I am trapped by the consistent persona syndrome.

  1. Notice yourself. Become aware of the objective facts surrounding the situation and the way you are behaving in the context. Look at yourself from a different point of view. Adopt the opposite stance and argue against your own idea. Accept the new elements or the opinions of others as valuable arguments, instead of discarding them outright.
  2. Label your behaviour and the situation. Is the event consistent with other situations in the past? Any common elements? What was your decision and the result back then? Categorize or label yourself of the behaviour so that you can gain mental distance between you and the consistent persona.
  3. Refocus, verbalise your commitment to stay objective. Come to analyse the situation from scratch. Write down all you know about it, incorporating any new information you may have. Replace your “persona” with your most objective self to change course if necessary.

It is important to understand our psychological biases. To hedge ourselves. To adopt principles and rules that objectivise our decision making so that we make less costly mistakes over time. To focus on failing fast and failing small. Because there is no winning if you don’t cross that finish line.