When Perseverance Is Triggering: A Review of “Swipe: The Science Behind Why We Don’t Finish What We Start”
Tracy Maylett and Tim Vandehey
It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.Albert Einstein
Of course, there is no denying Einstein was smart, but we can see he was also humble and persevering. Maylett and Vandehey’s book, Swipe, takes a deep look at what causes us to ‘check out’ or disengage from a task when the going gets tough, even though we were once motivated to do it at all costs. The book identifies the predictable patterns that people go through when they decide the task at hand is not worth the trouble anymore and offers a ‘how-to’ guide to persist using knowledge from psychology, neurology, and organizational observations. The word used by the authors to identify giving up or disengagement, is ‘swipe’. In their own words, “Swiping is the mental act of reflexively dismissing an uncomfortable or disturbing present in the hope that something better and easier is just around the corner.” They write about how we swipe in our off-line life as well as online and propose that by becoming aware of the psychological mechanisms that lead us to swipe, we can learn to stop giving up on our dream projects and relationships that have the potential to bring us joy and contentment in the long-term.
Author Tracy Maylett is an industrial-organizational psychologist, CEO of DecisionWise, and a consultant and coach working with organizations around the world to improve the employee experience. Tim Vandehey is a journalist and New York Times best-selling ghostwriter of more than sixty-five nonfiction books. They write, “We all curate our own regrets in life by sprinting in the other direction rather than staying, letting things develop, and, when necessary, fighting the good fight.” This hints at a very personal motivation and by their own admission, having ‘lived the topic’ in their personal lives as well as through their research.
There are ten chapters in the book. Each chapter discusses a particular aspect of why we disengage or “swipe” and most of the chapters go on to offer applicable tips on how not to swipe.
In chapter one, swiping is identified as a universal phenomenon affecting not only millennials and Gen z’s but also boomers; not only individuals but also large corporations. The chapter clarifies the distinction between the words swiping, procrastination and the Zeigarnik effect and highlights the fact that there exists a wide gap between what we aspire to do, and what we actually accomplish. Chapter two starts with an important distinction between productive failure (where we fail as per the plan, but learn the lessons and move forward), and genuine failure – where people fall into the trap of unethical behavior to gain victory over a task, and therefore, never grow. It also includes an insightful and creative ‘taxonomy’ of swipes that lists and describes eight different types. From getting intimidated by the task ahead to becoming panic-stricken, these eight swipes cover almost all the reasons we could think of why a person might give up a task or relationship halfway through.
The next couple of chapters describe disengagement at work and the relationship between mental health and swiping. William A Kahn’s widely cited paper on disengagement at work illustrates the importance of the psychological conditions - meaningfulness, safety, and availability, in the study of workplace disengagement. The authors of Swipe, elaborate to inform on the evidence-based benefits of engagement and write about self-sabotaging effects of disengagement at work that not many people care to think about. Not only does disengagement sabotage the company, but it also sabotages the individual.
We discover in chapter six how technology is changing us to such an extent that our devices are regarded in the same way we think about our homes. Chapter seven continues to explain the phenomenon using system one and system two thinking that was popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. This chapter is loaded with psychological theory, but so well written that it is quite an easy and enjoyable reading experience.
Chapter 8 deals with distraction in depth. It goes on to explain how and why we select what we pay attention to and why we sometimes miss the most obvious. Quite rightly the authors posit that what we pay attention to, becomes the life we experience. The final two chapters conclude by offering excellent information and helpful tips for mastering your attention and detailed lessons on how to resist the swipe by persisting at your task.
Duckworth et al., (2009) found that if we are to achieve our goals, talent is not enough, we also need sustained and focused application of talent over time. The book, Swipe: The Science Behind Why We Don’t Finish What We Start, gives us much-needed timely lessons on how to stay motivated and focused to complete our chosen tasks and how to become masters of something much bigger than becoming the masters of swiping.
Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT–S). Journal of personality assessment, 91(2), 166-174.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), 692-724.