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Using AREA To Be A More Interesting Person: An Interview With MIT’s Vincent Quan

How can I be a more interesting and well-rounded person? That was the question that Vincent Quan, a Policy Manager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which researches solutions to alleviate poverty, asked himself and used the AREA Method to solve. Click play below to listen to Vincent’s episode of the Problem Solved Podcast.


Vincent was worried that, even with his compelling and meaningful day job, he was just doing something that so many of us do: spending too much time on work. It was limiting him as a person, he said.

While many of us may not necessarily think of using a system for complex decisions in this way -to be more engaging- Vincent didn’t want to waste his most precious resources: his time. And that made using AREA worthwhile to him.

“I chose to use the AREA Method because there were so many potential opportunities outside of work,” says Vincent. “It’s limitless. I wanted to use a more rational and rigorous system that would help me narrow my decisions and using a systematic approach helped me with that.”

Also since his day job was about analysis “AREA’s formal system…could leverage some of my existing tools and AREA uses interviewing and I wanted to include my partner, family and friends so it had important pieces and it walked me through how include them and use other research and fact-gathering skills.”

So what did Vincent’s AREA decision-making journey look like and what did he decide to do? Here’s a snippet of his story:

Vincent began by using AREA’s idea to flip his decision from classic open-ended problem solving –How can I be more interesting and well-rounded? – to invert the problem and ask instead: How will I know that my decision to become more interesting and well-rounded has succeeded? This enabled Vincent to frame his problem on focusing on a Vision of Success and helped him to derive his Critical Concepts, the one, two or three things that he’d want to investigate to solve for that vision.

Here are Vincent’s Critical Concepts:

  • I wanted time out of work where I could have a positive impact on society. I wanted something that was bigger than me.
  • I wanted to focus on something that I was good at, such as the fact that I had experience teaching and feedback that I’m an effective teacher. Maybe I could use that outside of work?
  • I wanted to find an opportunity that allowed me to get in touch with my passions and use my skills that my current job didn’t allow. Since my job focuses on rigorous research I wanted to work with people one-on-one and maybe I could use a passion that I have, such as being interested in criminal justice reform that my current job didn’t allow me a lot to tap into that much.”

Armed with these Critical Concepts, Vincent was already able to whittle down his options. Since he’d articulated that it was important for him to have a positive impact on society he realized that developing a hobby or joining a sports team could be crossed off his list. It left Vincent with the idea of volunteering. To him that was more valuable and aligned with his vision of success.

He identified volunteer options as his Absolute targets. One target was the Petey Greene Program which tutors in education programs in prisons. “I began right from the organization itself to experience how it represented itself online and its opportunities.”

Since AREA guides you to familiarize yourself with the target’s numerical data so that you can build your internal compass about the topic you are making a decision about and assess the least influenced information, Vincent found “It was a very useful direction to begin with. The time obligation was very important to me. I can’t volunteer in the middle of day so I needed to check whether the program was available on weekends or after work. I also looked at their reporting about their impact and learned how many volunteers they have, and that showed me how active the program is and how many prisoners receive assistance.”

Equipped with the charity’s view of itself, AREA’s R-Relative research phase guided Vincent to put Petey Greene’s program into its broader ecosystem and understand how it’s viewed by outsiders. He googled news articles about it and other prison education options and “compared the relative strengths and weaknesses of the volunteer program,” he said.

In AREA E-Exploration moving beyond document-based sources, Vincent conducted interviews and spoke with “co-workers who know about criminal justice space and gathered insights.” He also contacted the charity’s staff, learned more about the mission, impact and professionalism of the organization “as well as former prisoners or volunteers and that was a moving part of discussion.”

Next in Exploitation Vincent used some creative exercises to assess some of his evidence against his assumptions to counter-act mental shortcuts and biases. He did a scenario analysis. “In the best case, I considered having motivated students and an accommodating prison staff,” he says. Then he imagined a worst-case scenario: “Lots of traffic to get to the prison or unmotivated students. I still landed on the decision that even with worst case I’d feel fulfilled.”

In the final A=Analysis phase Vincent conducted a Pre-Mortem, imagining that his decision failed which enabled him to better capitalize on his plan’s strengths and, importantly, to work with-and through ambiguity to safeguard against the failures he identified.

So how’s it all worked out? “It’s been eight months and it’s been so wonderful so far,” says Vincent. “In terms of my metrics for success and my Critical Concepts, I nailed them!

  • I wanted to know that I am contributing to society and I’ve seen measurable growth among my students so I feel I am contributing that way.
  • I wanted to use my skill set outside of work and I am doing that and it is more creative than a standard classroom.
  • I wanted to do something fulfilling.”

Using AREA, he says, “made my decision-making more systematic and it made me think through important criteria such as time commitment and to weigh one opportunity against others.”

Will he use AREA again? “Definitely,” he says. “Time is our most valuable resource and I want to approach big decisions with more rigor and systematically than before and AREA will be very helpful for that moving forward.”

How can AREA help you and your business make big decisions better? Sign up for coaching, workshops or have Cheryl come to speak to your organization by emailing Cheryl can customize an in-person workshop for your company. Follow Cheryl on Twitter: @cheryleinhorn or visit Pick up a copy of Cheryl’s award winning book Problem Solved or a copy of her soon-to-be-released book Investing In Financial Research, A Decision-Making System for Better Results, about financial and investment decisions.

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