One Thing

After completing a project—large or small—try asking yourself (and your team) these questions: What is one thing you learned from this experience? What is one thing that went right, one thing that went wrong, and why?

One Thing


These “one thing” questions are remarkable tools for providing discipline to both our work and personal lives. In a fascinating New York Times article, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis notes that each team he led did a debrief after each mission, learning from what went right and what went wrong. He added that, with each promotion, officers were given a reading list that progressively expanded their knowledge about military strategy, history, and/or leadership. The effect of this was to build on the one thing every officer constantly needs to renew: his or her knowledge base.

The “one thing” lesson applies in many fields. Take, for example, a legal team that works on a mergers and acquisitions deal. What was one thing that really cemented the deal, and one thing that went wrong—or could have? Building the knowledge base of both junior and senior attorneys results in better deal-making.

In medicine, the “one thing” that leads to a successful treatment for each patient is almost always obvious, while the one thing that leads to a failure may not be. If we share our knowledge, many lessons can be learned. That’s because so many people are involved in the care of a single patient, and so many other people around the world suffer from the same affliction. But if we don’t ask these questions—and share this information in teaching rounds, a peer group, or even with our care team of doctors, nurses, aides, and physical therapists—we isolate each team in a silo. The knowledge we have gained is not shared or, worse, not even learned by the primary doctor. Every patient is an opportunity for exponentially expanding knowledge.

The “one thing” in sports is pretty easy to see. But sometimes the athlete doesn’t get it. Tunnel vision gets in the way. He or she may see a problem, but only one solution. They often throw the same ball, serve the same way, and run in a predictable pattern—when a fake would creatively win the game.  

The fans see it. The coaches may see it. And because the post-game breakdown sessions at the pro level are dramatically different from those at an amateur level, the player might see it, too. If a player can walk away with one great idea, one revelation, one improvement learned from each game, they will develop a pattern of steady improvement that lasts a lifetime. Knowing the one thing that went right or what went wrong often makes or breaks a career.

Remarkably, the “one thing” philosophy applies to our relationships as well. What went right in that evening together? What went wrong? A lifetime of adding the “one thing” question to a marriage, or even between siblings, is an investment that pays compounding interest in family harmony. But how often do we ask this question? Or do we only ask when it is too late?

One thing. Every day. Every dynamic. This is what a world of success and happiness is built upon.

Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.