Follow the recipe (but double the garlic)
How to get really good results from really easy work that no one else is willing to do
I always admire people who get amazing results by following simple instructions, because so few people seem able to do it.
I collect these stories. One of my favorites come from former Olympian, strength coach, and Columbia College professor Dan John
“Years ago, when I first met Pavel Tsatsouline, he challenged me to do a “40-day workout.” I followed his simple instructions to a T.
“For the next 40 workouts, pick five lifts. Do them every workout. Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling. Go as light as you need to go, and don’t go over 10 reps for any of the movements in a workout. It’s going to seem easy. When the weights feel light, simply add more weight.”
I did exactly as he said. On the 22nd workout, alone in my garage gym, I broke my lifetime best incline bench press record—300 for a single. Without a spotter, in a frozen garage, I benched 315 for a double. All the other lifts went through the roof, and I’m as amazed now as I was then. It’s too easy. In fact, it’s so easy, I’ve had to break it down into literally dozens of pages of articles to make it as simple as possible! And, the more I try to simplify it, honestly, the more lost some people become thinking about the program.
I’m not entirely convinced I’m a genius, but somebody has to prove to me why I followed those simple instructions so easily and vast hordes of trainers can’t seem to follow the concept without the obvious answer that I have an unrivaled intelligence. Or, perhaps, I just can follow simple rules.”
Another story comes from Karen Pryor, the OG dolphin trainer, who used behavioral psychology to change how people everywhere train animals.
Here’s the beginning of that story, from her (excellent, obscure) book Lads Before the Wind.
“The first crucial step in Ron's manual was to establish a signal that means "food is coming." It's important to be able to communicate to the animal exactly what it is that you like about what he is doing. If he jumps in the air and you then throw him a fish every time, he will soon learn to jump on purpose.
The first, however, inevitably reaches the porpoise's mouth after the jump is finished. The animal thus has no way of telling what you like about the jump: was it the height, the splashing reentry, the part of the tank he was in, or what? He may think they all count, and get hung up in undesirable fixed patterns. He may never come up with exactly what you want. He may reach it very shakily, by trial and error.”
Pryor landed in the role of head trainer at Sea Life Park, a research aquarium in Hawaii, at a time when very little was known about dolphins or how to train them.
What did she do? She found a manual written by Ron Turner, a behavioral psychology student and B.F. Skinner disciple, and used it as her instruction manual. Her book is filled with examples of confusing behavior in the dolphins, and every time it happens she goes back to the manual to understand which element of training, shaping, reinforcement created the behavior.
When she got stuck, sometimes she would call Ron Turner himself.
“Ron watched with a jaundiced eye as I opened the gate, Wela [the dolphin] went in, I blew the whistle and tossed a fish, and Wela on this instant whirled around and went back out again. "What are you actually reinforcing?" Ron said. "You're reinforcing turning around and going back out."
So I was. A split-second error in timing was strengthening the undesirable behavior. Even if Wela didn't bother to eat her fish, she had been reinforced by the whistle, followed by the tangible reward not of fish but of freedom.”
I love these stories because they are both common and uncommon.
A smattering of others:
A friend of mine just finished the 30-week Codecademy class on data science, then landed his first job in a new career, as a data analyst
The former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI started his career when his supervisor said “go volunteer at a suicide hotline.” Which he did. The supervisor said “I must have told a thousand people to do that, and you’re one of two people who did.”
The writer of my new favorite substack reads 10-20 books a month and writes 1000 words per day. She’s still in the early stages of a writing career, but the effort shows in her work, and she’s in the final stages of her first book.
Simple, direct instructions work, so you don’t have to look that hard for people to be successful by following them.
And yet...it feels like simple instructions shouldn’t work. It feels like our situations are unique. And nothing works right away. So a lot of people give up following their simple instructions, switch to a different playbook, switch back, and hop in circles generally not going anywhere.
If you want to get really, really good, first you need to find the simple instructions. That’s the hard part.
I recently wrapped up a big qualitative user research project. The output of this work was an 11,000 word report and a couple of key insights that are going to totally change how I think about growing the business.
Here are the steps I went through:
Schedule > 10 interviews with a particular segment of customer (I wound up with 14)
Interview the customers using a particular methodology — asking “what” instead of “why,” building a timeline of their experience. Asking everyone the same questions but leaving room to follow up.
Get the interviews transcribed
Go through all the transcriptions and pull out quotes of interest. Label them as belonging to 1 of 4 categories.
Go back through every quote (there were 407, now pulled into a spreadsheet) and add a subcategory to each one
Cluster the subcategories, and the customer segments reveal themselves
This is decently rigorous — certainly more than what happens at most growth-stage tech companies.
But it’s also not new. I didn’t invent any part of it.
I started from a playbook (jobs-to-be-done “switch” methodology), which itself draws on literal decades of academic work on how to code, categorize, and analyze interview transcripts.
To make sure I was doing it right, I spoke to three separate experts on qualitative research. They offered corrections for my interview process and for how I planned to code the transcripts.
In the beginning, I was a little skeptical about the last step. The results will just “reveal themselves?” Ok Miss Cleo. But they totally did, even without the whatever cluster whatever analysis that a real academic would do next.
The hardest part about following instructions is finding good instructions. No, scratch that — the hardest part about following instructions is believing that there are instructions.
Yes, there is someone who has already solved your problem
85% of everything is basically figured out. If you look for a manual that is based on the underlying principles of the thing you’re trying to do— you’ll get pretty good results.
Whenever I have to tackle a new area of business, analytics, marketing etc. at work (which is pretty often), the first thing I do is go find the people who study the underlying principles of that thing.
When I woke up one day with pain shooting down my leg, I went looking for the top researchers on back pain. Eventually, that led me to:
Robin McKenzie of the McKenzie method (the most evidence-supported back intervention there is. Looking for a McKenzie-certified physical therapist is your best bet if you have back pain)
Stuart McGill (the guy who knows more about the function of the spine than anyone alive, from decades running a lab devoted to studying spine biomechanics)
I’d made zero progress for 6 months before finding these people. After finding them, my symptoms improved by 75% in just three weeks.
I think people often approach their problems like a sandbox — here is the problem, here is what I have to work with, let’s get to work.
But what you have to work with includes the entire sum of human knowledge. Even if there’s no recipe that’s quite what you’re looking for, it’s a whole lot easier to start from 85% of the way there.
Starting from scratch sounds hard and I don’t want to do it. Every recipe includes a step “add [ingredient] to taste.” Once the recipe has mostly wrapped things up, you can still double the garlic.