Book review of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Imagine you are asked to watch a short video (above or here) in which six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts.

Can you do that? Probably…

But what if at some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla?

Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is “yes, of course I would.” How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed?

The fact is that when this experiment was done at Harvard University several years ago, half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.

I actually did the gorilla experiment myself a few years ago. A friend showed me the video and told me to count the passes. Of course, he did not tell me about the gorilla. I actually ended up seeing the Gorilla. I was surprised to see people after me try it and miss it. I remembered the experiment and if somebody asked – “Hey, did you see the one with the gorilla”, I would say yes. I did not think to heavily on the ramifications of this experiment.

That is until I read The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Where I also found out that the reason I saw it is probably due to the fact that I been playing and watching basketball for years. People with that kind of experience are much more likely to see the gorilla).

In the book, the authors, take not only the gorilla experiment which is academically termed “inattentional blindness” or “illusion of attention” but 5 other “everyday illusions” (The illusion of memory, The illusion of confidence, Illusion of knowledge, illusion of cause and The illusion of potential) and skillfully explain them in both scientific and everyday examples. It is another very scary but equally fascinating journey into the fallibility of the human mind and human nature’s inability to admit that fallibility.

While the entire book was insightful, the first chapter, describing the first Gorilla Experiment (and its replications) as well as some of its real world implications was the chapter if found o be most compelling and novel. The recurring lesson for me was that our most basic beliefs and instincts can widely deceive us. As the authors put it:

We think we should see anything in front of us, but in fact we are aware of only a small portion of our visual world at any moment. The idea that we can look but not see is flatly incompatible with how we understand our own minds, and this mistaken understanding can lead to incautious or overconfident decisions.

As someone interested in human relationship and how professional conversations (like a feedback session) I find this to be especially important. Observing people give feedback for years I always wondered – How can they miss the clear signs the person in front of them is giving? Why do they continue to say what they planed when it is obvious the person is not responding?

While this has to do with listening skills and assumptions, one thing I realized while reading the book is that it has do with expectations. Or more academically phrased:

Your moment-to-moment expectations, more than the visual distinctiveness of the object, determine what you see—and what you miss

If people can miss a gorilla, standing right in front of their eyes because there are not expecting it, why shouldn’t they miss more subtle auditory and behavioral cues? The issue is coming to such a conversation with expectations that define what you will see and hear.

When you connect that to the Illusion of knowledge – the fact that people mistake knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens, and then mistake feelings of familiarity for genuine knowledge – you understand that the assumptions and pre-held conceptions people enter a conversation with can actually make then blind (or deaf) to the person sitting in front of them.

This does not change what I thought about situations of feedback and how to handle them it just reinforces the prescriptions and the habits for good communication. It does, however, help me understand a little bit more about the process that goes inside people’s brains and the reasons to some of their behaviors.

I recommend you read the book as I do believe that many of the illusions described in it (although not all of them) can be at least dealt with to a certain extent by being more aware of the shaky foundations of some of our beliefs. While reading the book is not enough (there should be a process of turning the information into knowledge and then into wisdom, I think it is a great starting point.

Elad

Inside and outside view

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Following the last two posts about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert (here and here) I wanted to highlight a few more interesting quotes from the book. One of the basic challenges that people encounter in any relationship, and especially when approaching a difficult conversation or feedback, is that they assume things about what the other person is thinking or feeling. As the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most explain, people confuse intentions with actions. We can see the action a person did (or hear what he said). We can only assume his or her intentions. In the book, Gilbert gives us a glimpse to why that happens:

We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs. We all trust that behind those eyes and inside those skulls, our friends and neighbors are having subjective experiences very much like our own, but that trust is an article of faith and not the palpable, self-evident truth that our own subjective experiences constitute.

In other words, we have an inside view of our own emotions and thoughts, but an outside view of other people’s emotions and thoughts. Or as Gilbert puts it:

There is a difference between making love and reading about it, and it is the same difference that distinguishes our knowledge of our own mental lives from our knowledge of everyone else’s.

The problem, as the book skillfully explains, is that whenever our mind encounters ambiguity it tends to fill in the details without telling us about it. We assume things about the other person. Automatically. Without being aware that we are doing it.

This is something we need to remember. We are on the outside. To get a glance on the inside, we need to engage the other person. To listen with him or her. To ask questions. Because when it comes to the human mind, the only way to get a tiny window into the inside view is if the other person communicates it to us. And this process requires trust.

So, how do you make sure you get a glance of a person’s inside view and not only the outside view?

Elad

Thoughts about perceptions, imagination and communication inspired by Stumbling on happiness

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A few days ago I wrote about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and how revealing it is with regards to the fallibility of the human mind. One side effect of Gilbert’s delving into happiness is a long discussion about how we perceive others and the “filling in” processes that we automatically do whenever we imagine a situation. In other words, people perceptions are not equal reality. Or as Gilberts puts it:

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.

The problem is that people actions are based on these imperfect perceptions of reality and not on reality itself. Or in other words:

Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

This, as Gilbert explains, is a result of the fact that we are usually unaware that our brain is actively changing our perceptions, replacing missing pieces with assumptions and deductions. In other words, when we encounter a situation, there is a lot we don’t know about it. And instead of realizing that, our brains just make up for what we don’t know. This is a mistake, as Gilbert skillfully explains:

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.

As Gilbert stresses in his book, awareness in not a good enough cure for this mistake, as people make it even when they are aware that they are going to make it. Although I guess it is a good starting point. When awareness can’t do, we have to move to habits and processes that alow us to overcome our mind’s fallibility. As I also wrote a few days ago, one possible solution to this issue might be found in active listening, where you listen WITH the other person. This means you ignore your own thoughts and concentrate fully on understanding the point of view of the person you are communicating with in order to reduce the possibility of your brain needing to fill in blanks.

Elad

The atmosphere of #feedback

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I got to teach a few classes about feedback and have always been fascinated with the subject and its personal as well as organizational consequences. I rarely encounter anything that truly makes me rethink my understanding of the concept. A few posts in the last few days have made do just that.

First, Bret L. Simmons, one of the best writers on organizational issues I have been following lately discussed the importance of trust in the feedback interchange because of the interpersonal risk involved:

I always seek feedback from the person that invited me to speak, but other than that, if Gary, Kathy, or another trusted friend did not attend my talk, I don’t ask anyone else what they thought about my presentation. It’s risky to tell people the truth about their performance; therefore, I won’t ask anyone that does not know me well enough to trust me to take that risk.

Next, Auren Hoffman from Summation blog wrote about how people are too afraid of rejection.

I would guess that people who take rejection well make much better employees.  They can take the appropriate level of risk and still feel good about themselves.  When interviewing, test this trait.

Finally, Peter Bregman writes about the pointlessness of arguing:

And that’s when it hit me: arguing was a waste of my time.

Not just in that situation with that police officer. I’m talking about arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time. It’s a guaranteed losing move.

Think about it. You and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what she’s saying but what you’re really doing is thinking about the weakness in her argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if she’s debunked a previous point, you’re thinking of new counter-arguments. Or, maybe, you’ve made it personal: it’s not just her argument that’s the problem. It’s her. And everyone who agrees with her.

When I teach feedback workshops I always talk about the importance of creating a shared purpose and atmosphere of trust in the beginning of the interaction (and sometimes, when things go astray, in the middle). After I read these posts and thought about it I realized I was not sure I have ever really stressed the importance of this point enough. Because I am not sure I really understood it to this level.

All of these wonderful thinkers point out to this exact issue. How hard it is to actually be in a state of learning and acceptance to other people. How important it is to create an atmosphere of trust between two people before you actually try to engage in the shared learning that is feedback.

And I ask you this – how are you going to make sure next time you are giving feedback that the two of you are actually in a place that will enable you to productively engage in mutual understanding and growth?

Elad

BUT…

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Last week I was thinking a lot about feedback as I was preparing to give a class about it as part of my reserve duty in the Israeli Air-force. One of the issues with feedback and communication in general is that because people’s perceptions are selective and interpretive (meaning: we only hear what we want to hear), words create reality. As I wrote just a few days back, the way you say something is just as important, if not more, than the content.

As I was dealing with feedback sessions aimed at creating a positive conversation that will enable the person to see things from different perspective so he can achieve self-growth to match his skills with the right challenges (the core definitions of flow), the issue of what words to choose in such a conversation became very important. One word in particular became very important: “But”.

You know this one very well. Everybody knows they need to start the feedback with something positive and get to the improvement part (I personally stopped believing in this conventional wisdom a while back). The word “But” is somewhere in the middle. And this is what some smarter people wrote about it:

“But” is a very dangerous word.

It puts people on the defensive.

It makes them think there’s a catch.

It negates everything you said before.

It reduces the positivity of your argument.

Thenametag guy, author of the preceding quote, goes on to describe 21 alternatives enabling the speaker to avoid the word “But”. Just an example:

6. “That’s a good idea. Have you ever thought about…?”

7. “That’s a good idea. Here’s what you need to be careful of:”

Paul Hebert similarly claims that when you use the word “But” in the middle of the sentence:

…the focus shifted from the positive to the negative.  The word “but” has that effect – demoting what comes before it and promoting what comes after.

As I was starting to catch-up on my reading after almost a week with no internet I found myself wanting to comment on some posts people wrote. And I automatically caught myself writing something like this:

You make a very interesting point. BUT, I disagree because…

I stopped and stared at the screen. I hit backspace and rewrote:

You make a very interesting point. I want to add my own perspective…

See the difference?

Very hard to do. My instincts cry out whenever I make myself do such a thing. The effects are, however, powerful.

Language matters.  How are you stopping your “But”s from coming out?

Elad

 

BUT…

Photo by lionheartphotography

Last week I was thinking a lot about feedback as I was preparing to give a class about it as part of my reserve duty in the Israeli Air-force. One of the issues with feedback and communication in general is that because people’s perceptions are selective and interpretive (meaning: we only hear what we want to hear), words create reality. As I wrote just a few days back, the way you say something is just as important, if not more, than the content.

As I was dealing with feedback sessions aimed at creating a positive conversation that will enable the person to see things from different perspective so he can achieve self-growth to match his skills with the right challenges (the core definitions of flow), the issue of what words to choose in such a conversation became very important. One word in particular became very important: “But”.

You know this one very well. Everybody knows they need to start the feedback with something positive and get to the improvement part (I personally stopped believing in this conventional wisdom a while back). The word “But” is somewhere in the middle. And this is what some smarter people wrote about it:

“But” is a very dangerous word.

It puts people on the defensive.

It makes them think there’s a catch.

It negates everything you said before.

It reduces the positivity of your argument.

Thenametag guy, author of the preceding quote, goes on to describe 21 alternatives enabling the speaker to avoid the word “But”. Just an example:

6. “That’s a good idea. Have you ever thought about…?”

7. “That’s a good idea. Here’s what you need to be careful of:”

Paul Hebert similarly claims that when you use the word “But” in the middle of the sentence:

…the focus shifted from the positive to the negative.  The word “but” has that effect – demoting what comes before it and promoting what comes after.

As I was starting to catch-up on my reading after almost a week with no internet I found myself wanting to comment on some posts people wrote. And I automatically caught myself writing something like this:

You make a very interesting point. BUT, I disagree because…

I stopped and stared at the screen. I hit backspace and rewrote:

You make a very interesting point. I want to add my own perspective…

See the difference.

Very hard to do. My instincts cry out whenever I make myself do such a thing. The effects are, however, powerful.

Language matters.  How are you stopping your “But”s from coming out?

Elad

Paul Hebert, Thenametag guy, and, but, communication, language, feedback, flow

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Getting #feedback is hard

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I remember when I was in the Israeli Air Force an officer responsible for teaching one of the cadet courses and I had the following conversation:

Officer: Hey, you guys teach how to give feedback, right?

Me: Yes, do you want us to give a class to the cadets?

Officer: Yes, but I want you to teach them how to receive feedback.

Me: What do you mean?

Officer: We try to provide feedback all the time, but they keep arguing and talking back. I want you to teach them how to listen so my constructive feedback will be more effective.

I am reminded of this conversation every once in a while whenever I have trouble dealing with feedback myself. I ask myself from time to time should we teach people how to receive feedback?

While I would be inclined to agree that some people are very difficult when exposed to feedback – even constructive well intended one – my answer would generally be no. One of the first points I teach when I talk about feedback is very intuitive and usually is revealed by the students instead of lectured to them. Getting feedback is hard. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them psychological and emotional. But I don’t really need to tell you that, as you probably felt it before. Everybody who ever got some feedback – and all of us have – felt it.

When I analyze it in hindsight I think the request of the officer suffered from a misunderstanding of one of the most basic principles of communication. In most cases, when there is miscommunication, it is the fault of the transmitter and not of the receiver. That is why I always try to refrain from saying “You don’t understand” and instead say: “I did not explain myself well”. Saying – “they just don’t listen” – takes the responsibility of your hands and puts it on the listener. The question is not if somebody else isn’t listening. The question is: are you talking in a way that will allow them to listen to you?

That is what I said to that officer. Teaching people how to receive feedback will probably not do any good, if you do not take the responsibility for giving true and effective feedback yourself. We should focus on how you give feedback and especially on ways of finding out why your cadets are unresponsive for you attempts to give them constructive feedback.

He did not like my answer. He did not come back.  I can guess why.  Getting feedback is really hard.

Do you take responsibility for giving constructive feedback or do you think that people are just not listening to you?

Elad

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Active acceptance and anonymous #feedback

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A few weeks ago I attended a 3-day seminar dealing with positive psychology. Even though I was familiar with most of the research and concepts presented there, I learned a few new ideas that have interesting implications. One of these is the idea of active acceptance which means that instead of fighting our feelings and trying to hide them (what we usually do automatically) we need to accept them as they are and think about their implications and reasons.

This, together with other research I have been reading lately, prompted me to think about feedback generally and about anonymous feedback specifically. Many companies pride themselves on having 360 degrees anonymous feedback. “Everybody in our company receives feedback from everybody else without anybody needing to fear the consequences” they report proudly. And while I love the idea of 360, the idea of anonymous just seems ridiculous to me. Susan Scott expresses this best in her book Fierce Leadership. In a chapter titled: “From 360-degree anonymous feedback to ‘365’ face-to-face feedback” she writes, after surveying the definition of the word anonymous, this:

In what universe would anonymous feedback, anonymous anything, be considered a best practice? No one I know wishes to be unremarkable, impersonal, faceless, or unknown – and it would be difficult to argue that anonymity enriches relationships or strengths connection with others. The fact is that feedback rarely creates real or lasting impetus for change, which is crazy because the whole idea is to encourage professional growth.

I asked myself why people employ this form of feedback. And my answer is simple. Because of the same reasons people avoid speaking up even when they know their boss is saying something completely wrong, or when somebody is mistreating them in a meeting or when somebody else in the company does something weird or our of the ordinary. All of these situations are uncomfortable. They make us feel bad about ourselves. They trigger our emotional fear and the need to conform. So, we back away – from conflict, from connection, from feedback and hide behind repression mechanisms or anonymity.

This is however not the answer but the problem itself. The only way to actually change things is by accepting them and dealing with them straight on. By putting things on the table, recognizing that we feel a certain way and that it does not mean that we are bad people, just people. So many habits and norms in corporate life are about avoidance, conformity and appearance. But we need, in real life as well as in the corporate life, is more active acceptance and active discussions about feelings, thoughts and behaviors. And this discussion should in no way be anonymous.

Elad

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You are not listening to me

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It happened last week. I got into an argument with someone close to me. Very close. Well, that happens frequently enough, but this argument was one of those arguments that quickly became explosive and went to high volume shouting. It has been more than a week since, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

When I think about it, it still bugs me. I know I was right (what good does that for me now?). I know I was agitated and tired (I was in pain because I had two of my wisdom teeth removed a few days before). I know I was under a lot of stress (the subject of the argument was a document of legal importance). And all of that does not really matter. Because I feel it was a personal failure on my part.

A big part of this blog deals with interpersonal communication. I constantly write about how to manage difficult conversation and conflict. How to ask question and how to give feedback. I know everything (well, a lot) about the methods that should help a person communicate calmly and almost “emotion free”. And still, I failed.

And that got me thinking, if I failed, what chance do people who are not as versed as I am to successfully engage in difficult conversations? After being very pessimistic about this issue for a few days, I finally decided that even the best professionals can fail from time to time. The question is, whether we learn from our mistakes. In addition, none of the methods I write about are bullet proof. We are not robots. For good and for bad, sometimes, our emotions will have the better of us. So, I decided to focus on one issue that I relearned while shouting.

More than anything, when I go over the conversation in my head, I remember saying: “you are not listening to me”. And getting the anticipated response: “you are not listening to me!”. When I give feedback workshops I always advise people to mirror the other side’s behaviors and your own emotions and thoughts! The trouble starts when people try to mirror the other side emotions and thoughts. The problem is that we only have assumptions. Something I read today in an article called: “Too Hot to Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict” by Amy C. Edmondson  and Diana McLain Smith in the California Management Review:

The discipline of mapping requires paying strict attention to what people are doing, not why they’re doing it—that is, to the behaviors or actions of the people around the table, not their intentions or motives.

Building on this idea, you can understand why the sentence “you are not listening to me” can be  so easily misused. It seems like a behavioral description but it is actually an intention, motive or cognitive description. It suggests that the person in front of you does not understand you or is disrespectful, when it might be that he is actually just trying to get his message across. And what happens when you attempt to tell someone what he is thinking or feeling – he is insulted and reacts, usually passionately, by making similar accusation towards you… and from there… usually all hell breaks loose (as I now know too well).

So, what did I learn?

  1. We all fail sometimes! The question is whether we learn from it or not.
  2. Emotions are hard to control, but by being a little more aware of the words we use, we can try and “cool down” any argument.
  3. “You are not listening to me” is a very dangerous phrase that I, and everybody involved in an argument might want to try and refrain from using.

Elad

You are not listening to me

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On the difficulties of the questions-based approach

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This week I spent in the Israeli Air Force training some of its commanders on different aspects of communication and feedback. While there, I tried to implement some of the issues I regularly write about in this blog, trying to practice what I preach. What did I find? It is so hard!

One of the main exercises I participated in is a simulation of a feedback situation between a commander and a soldier. After I watch the feedback I am supposed to give my opinion of how the conversation went and use a pre-determined scale to score it. The soldiers are used to being asked a question or two about how they did and then hearing an account of their performance with recommendation for the future.

I, however, believe in the importance of resisting the temptation to provide answers, so I conducted my sessions using a lot of questions, trying to allow the person de-brief himself, see other points of view and gain insights as well as develop an ability of reflexivity. I knew it is going to be hard for me to resist saying what I think is right instead of taking the slow path of asking questions. What I did not expect is the resistance of the commanders to my method.  “Just tell us what the bottom line is”, they demanded. “All these questions and self-reflection is a waste of time, we did some things right and some things wrong – tell us what!”. For a minute there, I had to question what I believe in. For a minute there, I had to ask myself, am I doing the right thing, insisting not to give them the answers? And after I thought about it a little, it just hardened my resolve.

I do believe that people do not always know what is good for them. Not because their stupid, but because the human mind is built in a way that minimizes effort, be it physical or cognitive. Just this week the blogosphere is filled with the results of a study saying humans are happier when they’re busy, but inclined towards idleness (also see here). We know from an abundance of research into behavioral economics that people are really bad in predicting what will make them happy and how happy they will be. I do believe that there are things in life that for some people, need to be forced upon them, because they are not able to appreciate them until they actually experienced them. Yes, in the short-run, this method is annoying, frustrating and time-wasting. But when it comes to developing commanders, managers, leaders and every other kind of employee, we should not focus to much on the short-run. We need patience to build an ability of practical wisdom.

It is more important to built abilities, to make sure there is no dependency and to make sure there is always a challenge for the people around us, then making them happy in the short-run. I am not saying you should NEVER give answers. It is not like I sat there and said nothing the entire week. I am just saying you should sometimes deliberately avoid it and just focus on asking the right question and helping others ask the right questions themselves. Nametag Scott has a great post on this issue this week. Here is a short excerpt:

“Is it your place to fix this?”

That’s the question you have to ask yourself.

Especially when someone you love finds themselves on the precipice of disaster.

Sometimes you have to back off.

Yes, it requires great emotional restraint.

Yes, it requires significant self-control.

But if you don’t let people come to their own conclusions, make their own decisions and make their own mistakes, you fractionize their experiences and rob them of valuable learning opportunities.

So, I ask you once again: are you resisting the temptation to give answers?

Elad

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The little things – again!

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Bob Sutton quotes in his blog 10 of the best comments one of his most prominent commenters, Wally Bock , have written on his blog during the years. Many of them are worth a minute to read and an hour to think about, but I especially liked number 6:

When I studied top performing supervisors, we found that there were a few behaviors that they did differently from their less-effective peers. They showed up more and had more informal conversations with their team members, including conversations about changing behavior or performance. That enabled them to catch problems early, when they’re easier to solve. Thus, they had fewer cases where they needed to do documentation and formal conversations. Their team members had a good idea of how they were doing because they got frequent and usable feedback.

Notice that this quote does not talk about the job itself. It does not talk about being analytical or critical or any other “left side” abilities. What differentiate the top performing from all others are little things, like focus on relationships, feedback and help.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the little things that make the difference:

If you believe, like I do, that great managers work through relationships, helping and partnerships, then there is no better focus than conversations. And adopting an attitude according to which every conversation can change people’s lives is a sure proof way to make every little conversation count. This kind of focus helps guide you through all the things you can do and allows you to concentrate on a few actionable items.

And then, about the last ten percent:

The part of the work that is the hardest to do but makes all the difference. The change from standard to excellent. The change from ordinary to extraordinary

And earlier about consistent feedback:

Feedback should be given all the time. Not at a predetermined time once a quarter. But all along the year. This is where I disagree with Bratz. The question is not whether you had one meaningful conversation with your manager once a quarter. The question is how often during the quarter did you have meaningful conversations with your manager. Conversations that create value for you and are not done just to fill some kind of form or requirement from HR. If constructive feedback is given consistently, the answer will be all the time. And if it is done all the time, there is a high probability that we are dealing with a good boss.

A few interrelated things to think about. Are you focusing your attention on the things that will make you a top performer?

Elad

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