The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done

Joseph Schumpter

Ever notice that some people get more things done than others?

For years, the most popular explanation came from Steve Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey argued that personal character, purpose and self-discipline were the primary characteristics of successful people. The book has been wildly successful, selling more than 20M copies. My only criticism is that Covey believed combining lots of highly effective people would result in a highly effective business. I think team effectiveness relies more on the mix of talent and styles, than on individual mindsets.

While he doesn’t say it explicitly, I don’t think Michael Dearing is a Covey supporter. Dearing, a Stanford professor who All Things Digital describes as the Hottest Angel Investor You’ve Never Heard Of, believes successful people distort their own reality. In a presentation called The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done, Dearing claims successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have the following traits:

  • Personal Exceptionalism
    They believe they are special and at the top of their peer group.  Their work is snowflake-special. Their experiences are well outside the bounds of normal.
  • Dichotomous Thinking
    They see the world populated by black and white extremes, with very few grey nuances in the middle.
  • Correct Overgeneralization
    They make universal judgments from limited observations and yet are correct a disproportionate amount of the time.
  • Blank-Canvas Thinking
    They have a strong desire to invent new rules, especially when the existing ones are generally accepted. They do not paint-by-numbers.
  • Schumpeterianism
    They believe that disruptive innovation is natural and necessary. They assume creative destruction is their reason for being.

Dearing’s traits encourage perfectionism, indifference to facts, and mindless ambition. Having lived in Silicon Valley for 20 years, I see countless entrepreneurs who exhibit these traits. In addition, many of the successful tycoons who rule the Valley follow this thinking. Some believe you need a reality distortion field to get ahead.

Which school of thought do you subscribe to: Covey or Dearing?

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10 Responses to The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done

  1. Satya Krishnaswamy (@satyakri) April 14, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    I tend to heavily tilt towards Dearing – but I think it goes beyond one person in a team who displays perfectionism, indifference to facts, and mindless ambition. Especially in the early days of a startup (before it has traction in terms of usage, and more importantly revenue), it requires 2-3 folks who all share a distorted sense of reality to make things happen.

    No group of ‘rational’, sane-minded people would otherwise ever embark on the roller coaster journey of entrepreneurship 🙂

  2. Christopher Powell April 15, 2014 at 4:18 am #

    Great post Jonathan. I agree with your “mix of talent and styles” point of view. Diversity in all forms can be instrumental for team success. Over-simplified, this boils down to: a “Dearing” CEO needs a “Covey” COO; or every “Covey” CEO succeeds best with a “Dearing” CTO, etc. Key, and perhaps all too rare, is the trust and mutual respect between the leaders or team members who bring these different styles to their work.

  3. Mcylkowski April 15, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Good read Jonathan. Are you being descriptive or prescriptive? I admire the success of those with “reality distortion” but alas, I prefer my empathetic ways and mindfulness of reality. Covey’s my path.

  4. Todd Marquardt April 16, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    I’ve been trying to fit my “Dearing” personality into a “Covey” mold.

  5. Jon Reed April 16, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    All depends on how you define success. In a narrow definition of building a massive startup to scale, i can see how those reality distortion attributes can be successful. I was a part of some smaller startups in the 90s where some of us had those characteristics I think. There was also a hard landing when some of the distortions came home to roost. Also see: Better Place (electric cars). Reality distortion and financial management are a very bad mix.

    I would say two things, one personal and one not. First, I don’t believe there is an inherent contradiction between a clear sense of today’s reality and an optimism about the future. That’s exactly the kind of dichotomy I personally reject. Some of the startups that inspire me the most are intended to solve vexing real world problems. Facing stark reality and creating something beautiful to change it, then manifesting it – that’s the kind of success I like to hear about and aspire to.

    Where I see a grain of truth: I have some pretty cynical/bitter acquaintances who are struggling. And I’ve seen relentlessly optimistic people enjoy greater success as a whole.

    But on a personal level I’m not really interested in reality distortion kind of success. But then I think of success more in terms of striving for decency, integrity, fierce loyalty, taking stands that matter, accepting truths about ourselves and others…but I think we all have our own personal mix of what success means.

    Provocative post 🙂

  6. Gordon Jones April 29, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    Definatly dearing!

    it takes all kinds to make the world go round.

  7. Rob May 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    I can see how Covey’s approach will related to the general masses, mainly because self-purpose and discipline is achievable through personal choice and effort. Dearing’s thesis is quite interesting and probably very accurate to the successful people in Silicon Valley. I will say that, Dearing’s perspective seems to be like the “new wave” of leadership where people bascially create their own world and control the rules in it. It works for some but I’d be interested in finding out how many it works for in general.

  8. Mary Voss July 20, 2017 at 8:45 am #

    Great leaders are a mix of Dearing and Covey. I think of myself as having a Dearing foundation with the common sense of kicking in a Covey layer or trait, as appropriate so that the team can move forward in a synchronized fashion.

  9. Rick Bullotta July 22, 2017 at 7:45 am #

    As a proud ENTP, I would suggest Dearing is the better fit. There’s a difference between being a good leader and “getting sh*t done”. In that context, the Dearing rules fit way better, particularly during the early phases of an entrepreneurial venture. As a company matures, a different type of behavior is required. For me, that’s when it’s time to leave. 😉


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