Marcus Buckingham reveals strategies for identifying the work that fills you up.
- The secret to finding your “love” at work
- How you can be “irreplicable” at work
- Why you should see your job as a scavenger hunt, instead of a ladder
Marcus Buckingham is a global researcher and New York Times bestselling author focused on unlocking strengths, increasing performance, and pioneering the future of how people work. He is the author of two of the bestselling business books of all time, has two of Harvard Business Review’s most circulated, industry-changing cover articles, and his strengths assessments have been taken by over 10 million people worldwide. He currently runs all ADP Research Institute’s studies on People and Performance.
- Book: Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life
- Instagram: @marcusbuckingham
- Website: LoveAndWork.org
- Book: The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself by Daniel Boorstin
Marcus, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you for having me, Pete.
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom and talk about your book Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life. But, first, could we hear what do you love most at work?
Actually, it’s love and work. I just put a plus in there because I thought it looked cool but I like love and work, I like war and peace, so I like the juxtaposition of those kinds of things. Look, I’m a psychometrician by training, which means I love trying to figure out ways to measure things about humans that you can’t count but that they’re really important anyway.
So, things like talent, strengths, engagement, resilience, that’s what I love to do is get to the heart of some of these really important psychological constructs and figure out, in a world where there’s so much opinion and so many, I think that, can we find a way, nonetheless, to cut through that, and say, “What do we know for sure about people’s strengths, or about engagement, or resilience?” That’s kind of what…it sounds a bit geeky but that’s what I love.
No, no, it’s beautiful and I understand and it’s exciting. And I’d love to hear, is there a particularly exciting, fascinating discovery that you’ve made recently when doing some of the research and pulled things together for the book Love + Work?
Well, what’s always fascinated me, when you look at the world through the lens of people who love it, if you look at the world of work through the lens of people who love it, you discover there’s way more variation than you would ever think. So, you look at some jobs and you think to yourself, “Well, those jobs, no one must want those jobs.” We would be able to do them for a short period of time and we want to get out of them as quickly as we could.
Take a role like hotel housekeeping. We kind of think, “Well, that’s not a good job,” and we, therefore, have to put rules and regulations in place to get people to do the job properly, and then we wonder why people find no love in the job. But I had a chance to interview the eight best housekeepers at Walt Disney World, and they didn’t know each other, but they’re all amazing housekeepers.
And you look at their job through their eyes, and the sheer amounts of variety and creativity and innovation that goes into their job from their perspective. One of them lies on the bed and turns on the ceiling fan, that’s the last thing she does before she leaves the room because that’s the first thing a guest does after a long day out at the theme park, and she just loves seeing…She’ll sit in the tub and sit on the toilet because that’s the way the guest would see the room.
Another one loves the fact that she can make a show for the kids. And so, every time they come back in, she’ll have arranged the fluffy toys in a little scene and Minnie’s arm on a remote control, Mickey’s arm on an empty French-fries container, and the kids can sit all day long, Mickey and Minnie just hang out in bed snacking and watching TV. And you suddenly see this world open up because you’re looking at a particular job in this case through the lens of people who love it, and it’s like, “Oh.”
Now, yeah, there are rules and regulations that say, “Don’t touch any more of the guests’ possessions than you need to, to clean the room and don’t lie on the bed.” So, weirdly, we’ve created rules that almost make it harder for the people who love their job, to love their job. But that’s one of the biggest takeaways from all the research that went into Love + Work is you look at the world of work through those people who love what they do and the detail that you get isn’t anything like you would expect.
Boy, that’s really inspiring. And I remember when I was really loving work, and I was doing strategy consulting, and I was super excited, like that was sort of the dream I had from all through college, and I was, like, I got into Bain and I was so thrilled and pumped. And then somewhere, we were having a conversation with my fellow first years, and the conversation came up to whether or not we did good, like we contributed to good.
And so, for me, I thought that the answer was obvious, I was like, “But of course we do good otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And if you just think about it, we get an insane amount of responsibility for a 22-year-old, we’re working on projects that the clients pay half a million, a million dollars a month for a small team for. It’s expected that we’re going to generate a return on that that’s like 10X of what they invest in us. Their share prices are going to go up which will impact those who are saving for their college, for retirement, for nonprofits, for philanthropic grant-making foundations, that the wealth we’re creating is hugely leveraged at this point in time.”
And so, they were sort of like dumbfounded, like, “Huh? We just thought it’d be a good pathway to get to business school and you have cool careers.” But you’re right, people can have vastly different perspectives of their jobs, and that, in turn, fuels their emotions, engagement, motivation, and…well, I’m sure you know a whole lot more about what that fuels than I.
Yeah, sure. Biology loves variation and by the time we get to be 19 years old, we have a hundred trillion synaptic connections in our brain, and no one has the particular network or pattern that you do, or that I do, and the people that we grew up next to, our brother, our sister, people in the same house, same socio-economic upbringing, same race maybe, same gender maybe, we’re totally different from them in terms of what we love, and what we get a kick out of, and what we pay attention, and what we ignore, and what frustrates us.
We have more synaptic connections in our brain than there are stars in 5,000 Milky Ways. And from that uniqueness comes really differently specific things that we love and that we loathe, and that we lean into and that bore us. And, seemingly, nobody really…you get 10 years of geometry but you don’t get 10 years on trying to figure out how to demystify that beautifully unique massive filigreed network of loves and loathes in your brain. No one really helps us with that.
In fact, you could say school and work actually deliberately try to alienate you from yourself. You’re not really told how to figure out what that unique network is and turn it into work, and turn it into contribution, is how I define work. It’s not just your job; it’s any work where you add value to somebody else. But, yeah, you’ve got so much uniqueness, and your challenge in life, really, isn’t that you don’t have enough time. It’s that you don’t draw enough energy or nourishment from your life.
And so, part of the reason why I wrote the book is to go, “Wait a minute, the reason we’ve got so many kids on Adderall and so much Xanax prescribed to tone down the Adderall and so many frustrated and anxious and burnt-out workers is because we haven’t really understood, “How do you help people move through their life and draw nourishment and strength and love from what they’re doing?” We haven’t had anyone do that.
We’ve just created standardized tests at school, or list of competencies at work, and then 360 surveys to measure you on the competencies, and kind of successes based on how closely you match the model. It’s not related to how intelligently you’ve cultivated and expressed what you love. No one helps you with that. And so, really, the point of the book was to go, “Come on, we are all incredibly varied, and we need to own that variance, understand it, and then contribute it.”
What you said that really struck me is we draw nourishment. And what else? What else from work? That’s a heck of a sentence.
Well, we draw nourishment, we draw energy, we draw love, we draw joy from work. We can. The metaphor is you’re supposed to have work-life balance but then if you think about it, that’s a really bizarre aspiration to lay on anyone not just because if you ever managed to find that moment of balance for your life and your work and your family and your finances and your grandma and whatever we’re balanced. But if ever did manage to find that place, Pete, you’d want to say to everyone around you, “Don’t move. Nobody moves.”
“It’s perfect right now.”
“I’ve got it.” But you look out at nature, nothing healthy in nature is balanced. And let’s just say that really clearly – nothing healthy in nature is balanced. Everything healthy in nature is moving. And you have to move through the environment that you’re in and draw enough nourishment from it to keep moving. Well, that’s a good metaphor for our lives.
We are moving through our time and our jobs, our time and the other domains of our life, and our challenge, really, is “How do you move through your job, your family life, your community, maybe your political activism, your faith, whatever, your hobbies? How do you move through life and draw enough joy and nourishment and love from that movement in order to keep growing, keep contributing?”
That’s not easy. No one said that it was easy but no one tells us about any of that at all. And that’s a crying shame for many of us.
All right. Well, Marcus, lay it out for us, what are the key principles that we need to follow in order to be drawing nourishment, energy, joy, and love from our work and other things that we engage in?
Well, the first thing is to realize that you have a wyrd inside you. That’s the very first thing. Not that you are weird, but that you have a wyrd, which is a noun. W-Y-R-D. It’s actually a Norse idea that you’ve got inside you at birth, independent of what happened to you as you grow up, or independent of your parents, or whatever, you’ve got this unique diamond, this unique spirit, and for them it was they called it your wyrd, and you have to get in touch with your wyrd if you’re going to live a productive and happy life.
Today, we don’t need the spirituality necessarily, we just know from the clash of the chromosomes that you do have, from the get-go, an incredibly filigreed network of synaptic connections. We know that. So, the first thing for all of us to understand is the most important aspects of you, what you lean into, what repels you, what uplifts you, what drains you, and the specifics of that, the fact that you are drawn to, I don’t know, reading the back of a milk carton, or somebody else is drawn to make little dolls out of corn husks, and somebody else is drawn to make shapes under a kitchen table with tire. We’re all drawn to really different things.
Those things are really unique to you and super important to understand. So, first of all, everyone should know they’re not a blank slate, they weren’t created by how they grew up or by the traumas that they experienced. Those things might occlude you, occlude you from seeing you, but you have within you this biology, we can see it, an incredibly powerful combination of networks and synapses that lead you in certain directions and away from others. That’s the first thing.
The second thing, of course, is the world is telling you about it all the time. Rather than looking at the world as the enemies, something to withstand, if everybody could just wake up and look at the world as though it was trying to put on a show for you, as though every day it was trying to show you thousands of different situations and moments and contexts and people and activities, it’s trying to show you a lot of different things, and your response is to go, “Which of these are things that I love?” almost like your world is a fabric of many different threads.
Some lift you up a little, some down, they’re black, they’re white, they’re gray, they’re yellow, but some of them are red threads, and they’re threads that lift you up, that energize you, that you find love within. And the first way to spot these red threads, and we are all a genius when it comes to spotting our red threads, the first thing is “What do you find yourself, instinctively, paying attention to?” Your patterns of attention, what do you find that you instinctively are drawn to? You attend to what you value and we tend to think that everyone just pays attention to the same stuff that we do, but they don’t.
So, right from an early age, going back to thinking about “What did you find yourself paying attention to? Maybe, what did you find yourself paying attention to, that others missed and the detail of that?” Normally, as you know, Pete, when you think about patterns, we’re told the verb that goes with patterns is break. You’re supposed to break your patterns as though your patterns are pathological, they’re bad, they’re the source of your trauma or your pain.
Actually, your patterns of attention are the source of all contribution and meaning and joy for you. So, that’s the very…there are other signs which we can get into, if you want, but that’s the very first thing to start with. Your patterns of attention are utterly unique to you and they are totally worth paying attention to.
So, when we do that paying attention, I guess in some ways, I’d love it, Marcus, if we could get really practical, tactical here because I’m thinking I could sort of psychoanalyze for quite a while, like, “Why did I click this headline but none of the other headlines?” And so, I imagine there are some value into some self-reflection. But how do we do that prudently so that it’s not kind of just blindly unaware, just like sauntering through life and not cluing into the patterns, and not like sort of overkill navel-gazing?
So, it’s Love + Work. The point of love is, like any energy source, it’s got to flow. Love actually turns into a super caustic abrasive force that will destroy you if you don’t let it out. Love needs and demands expression. So, the reason we stop paying attention to what you’re paying attention to is because you need to express it and turn it into a contribution. That’s what work is in the Love + Work. It’s like an infinite loop where the detail of what you love leads to you making it something of value out of it.
That’s what contribution is, something of value to someone else. It could be learning, it could be a product that you make, it could be a poem that you write, but it’s something of value that you’re creating. So, your attention leads to love, and then it leads to work, and then the detail of what you made informs what you love, which then informs what you make, which then informs what you love. If you look at the most successful people, they’ve got this beautiful infinite loop where love is for work, and work is for love, and love is for work, and work is for love.
And so, if it’s just about navel-gazing, if it’s just about self-involvement or narcissism, then you stop the flow. The point of paying attention to what you pay attention to is so that you can then turn it into contribution. For me, very early on, I found myself paying attention to why. When we’re watching people do the high jump, when I was at school, I was nine or ten, you start watching people watch others do the high jump, and you find that the moment somebody tries to jump over the bar, everyone watching sticks their leg out, and then they deny that they’re doing it. They raise high on their tippy toes and they deny that they’re doing it.
And I was fascinated by the fact that all these people, because then you turn around, you’re, “Why did you do that when he jumped over the bar?” And the person goes, “I didn’t do that.” So, it’s like, instinctively but unknowingly, everyone is kind of weirdly willing the other person over the bar. And for me, I went around, no one else in my school seemed to pay attention to that, no one was even interested in that, and I didn’t know it would lead into a career as a researcher. I didn’t know that at nine, that’s for certain.
But I was so aware of being aware of something other people weren’t that I even remembered it 50 years on, you’re like, “Ooh.” And yet, 20 years later, some Italian scientist discovers the existence of mirror neurons, which is where we try to mimic the experiences and the emotions of others, which is why we do the leg kicking. I didn’t know any of that. But you’re starting off by going, “Is the stuff that you’re paying attention to useful in any way?”
And, for me, weirdly, it led me to learn differently. I didn’t like fiction. I liked nonfiction, particularly nonfiction about why the world works the way it does, why is white light made up of all the other colors, why can you sink a ship and when can you do that, why does every society ritualize death. Have you ever studied a ritual? Why? Like, I’m that guy.
And so, from a very early age, I was lucky enough that I paid attention to some stuff and then noticed that I was the only one paying attention to that stuff. And then it became a channel to which I could learn, and then through which I could contribute. All of us can do that. All of that that I just described for me could sound super boring to you but, for me, that’s a real experience.
So, for any one of us in our work right now, you start off by paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, and you know that no one else is, and that’s the place where you begin to start carving your job to fit yourself, which is what the most successful people do.
And so, when we pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, are there any key practices, or questions, or reflections that help surface some of these patterns all the more clearly to us consciously?
Yeah, there are three clues you can watch out for. Actually, before that, just FYI. The most successful people don’t do what they love. I run a research institute. We have no data at all that the most successful people do what they love, that they do all that they love. In fact, the data show, instead, that the most successful people find love in what they do. And the threshold seems to be 20%. Like, 20% red threads.
The Mayo Clinic research on doctors and nurses who don’t struggle with burnout shows that they don’t do 60%, 70% red threads. You stay above 20% and 40 looks like 20, 60 looks like 20. Above 20% red threads is like that’s a really interesting psychological threshold. You go below that, 19, 18, 17, 16, and there’s almost a perfect linear one percentage point increase in burnout risk. It’s like below 20% and you start to get psychologically damaged.
So, what we’re all striving for is not a red quilt at work. We don’t need a red quilt. We need 20% red threads every day. Two most powerful questions to predict performance and engagement at work are, “Was I excited to work every day last week? Did I ever challenge my strengths every day in the work last week?” So, there’s something about the frequency of it, the everydayness of it that’s super important.
And the three best clues to spot these red threads would be, first, “What do you instinctively volunteer for? What do you instinctively find your psychological or physical hand going up for even when other people around you are like, ‘You suck at that.’?” If your hand just keeps going up, that’s nontrivial. That’s interesting. Positive anticipation.
Second is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychologist, called flow. So, when time seems to speed up when you’re doing something, when you vanish inside of it and you’re not doing the task but you are the task, the steps fall away and you just…almost you’re doing it unconsciously. So, that moment when you look up, you think it’s been five minutes, but you look up, it’s been an hour – that.
The third clue is when you’re doing something and when you’re done with it, you’re not drained. It’s like it conveys mastery, and that feeling of mastery when you’re done with it, you feel uplifted, you feel authentic, you feel as though something about the thing you just did was, not to be too spiritual, but of your essence, and you fill up. You don’t feel drained. You fill up. It’s not like, “Thank goodness that’s over,” which many of us feel about many things.
It’s more like, “What I was just doing was a manifestation of me.” So, there’s other clues, but three really obvious clues to what these red threads are for you. And, of course, within the book, we’ve got a whole red thread questionnaire which dives into the detail of that because God lies in the detail in terms of you. A red thread isn’t like, “I like helping people.” No, it’s, “Which people? What are you doing with the people? Why are you helping them? When are you helping them? How are you…?”
Let’s get to detail for you because love is super detailed. You start figuring out what those red threads are for you, it’s then the most beautiful raw material to start thinking about “How do you weave your job to fit your loves better?” And there’s all sorts of things you can start doing in order to make that happen.
Well, yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s go there right next in terms of, okay, so we’ve identified some red threads. These are things that I love, that I naturally pay attention to, I’m uplifted by, I enter flow, I instinctively volunteer for it, and I think, “Okay, that’s cool. But, uh-oh, Marcus, I’m not getting 20% of that in my job. It’s more like 5%.” What do we do?
Yeah. Well, first of all, when you ask people that question, and you say, “Do you have the freedom to modify your job to fit yourself better?” Seventy-three percent of people in the US agree or strongly agree that they do.
That suggests that there’s 73% of us that aren’t utterly in the wrong neighborhood. Seventy-three percent of us at least think, anyway, that we’ve got room to maneuver. Now, that doesn’t mean that 27% of us are in the wrong spot, but 73% of us feel like we’ve got that room to maneuver.
So, the first thing is the data, we know that 73% of people agree or strongly agree that they have the freedom to modify their job to fit themselves better. So, that suggests there’s an awful lot of us have or think that we have that chance. Interestingly, only 18% of us say that we have a chance to play to our strengths every day, so there’s a big attitude behavior consistency problem, as we call it in social psychology, but there’s an awful lot of us have that freedom.
Twenty-seven percent of us are probably thinking, “I’m utterly in the wrong job,” but 73% think we have the chance to maneuver. So, the first thing that one should do is be intentional. When you wake up in the morning, what red threads are you going to weave today? Where will you find them? There are some clues to spot but where will you find them? Approach every day with intentionality about where you will find those red threads for you, first.
Second, Once you know what those red threads are, any way that you can cultivate those red threads with any particular competency or skill or expertise? You might have had a red thread around communicating with people, and then you had to figure out how to make a podcast, and then you had to figure out some technical expertise to turn this thing that probably began as a yearning or an appetite or something and actually turn it into performance, turn it into a contribution. So, is there any way that you can take that red thread and combine it with some sort of competency that enables you to turn it into contribution?
Third, is there any way, one day next week, all red threads, one day, just one day, where there’s a day that you pick where you’re like, “You know what, I’m going to load up on this day. Can I find a way to do that that ensures that there’s some particular day here where I’m just it is really a love-filled day for me?” Can you then figure out a way for your team to name it? Can you keep volunteering, whatever that is, so that your team starts going, “You know what, Pete is the guy who…” because these days, obviously, anyone’s headcount is replaceable. Anyone is replaceable. But, of course, you want to be…and no one is replicable.
You want to be, if there’s a word, irreplicable, where your love is so defined, what people turn to you for is so defined that they go, “I can’t really imagine this company without that person. I can’t imagine a world without that person. I can’t really imagine a team without that person.” So, can you name what it is you’re bringing to that team? If the team itself had a voice, what would it call you? If the team itself had a voice, how would it name what you do?
I, in the end, ask people to do two things. Just take a blank pad around with you, draw a line the middle of it, put “Loved it” at the top of one column, “Loathed it” at the top of the other. Take it around with you for a week, try to spot those three signs of love. Any time you find yourself doing any part of any those, scribble it down in the “Loved it” column. The inverse, you procrastinate, time slows down, blah, blah, blah, put it in the “Loathed it” column.
You’ll end that week with a really vivid sense from your own actual work of where the love comes from. So, start off with that if you can. And then for you, the challenge on the team will be to ensure that you can find the language to say to your team, “Turn to me for this. I love it when people rely on me for this. I love it when this…” not the braggadocio, “I’m the best at…” but, “I’m at my best when…”
This is, for me, one of those things I think, Pete, where we’re teaming, the verb teaming is one of those skills that we all have to cultivate in this new hybrid model of the way that we work. And part of teaming is being able to share, articulately, vividly, with detail what people can rely on you for, where you’re at your best, what you love the most because people can’t read your mind.
So, the more vivid you can be about that, the more likely it is that the team will start coalescing around the particular value that you bring. Until such point has happened with you, where somebody begins to define the entire role, maybe it’s not 100% red threads but those red threads become foundation for the very thing that people will want to pay you to do.
That whole journey I’ve just described, you don’t need anyone else for it. All you need to do is use the raw material of your regular week of your own life to be able to figure out how you scavenge your job into that which you love. And that’s eminently doable. For 73% of us, anyway, it’s eminently doable.
All right. Well, Marcus, I’d love it if you could share with us a couple stories of folks who did just that. They were paying attention to what they’re paying attention to, they identified some red threads, combined it with the competence and contribution, communicated that with their teams, and said, “Hey, I’m at my best when I do this. I really love it when you ask me to do that,” so we could see how it all comes together for folks.
Well, here’s three, and they’re different roles. One person who comes to mind is a person who was in HR. Her first 10 years of career were in HR, and would go to conference with the company that she was with, and would see how the company’s branding was falling down, wasn’t clear enough, wasn’t coherent enough, and kept writing emails, not critical emails but emails that called attention to the branding of the company, and all these darn conferences simply wasn’t vivid enough, wasn’t clear enough.
Customers didn’t really know what that company stood for. Kept writing them. Kept drawing people’s attention to it to the point it was annoying. But that’s a red thread, she couldn’t stop paying attention to it. Couldn’t shut it off. And so, in the end, they had a marketing turn to this person, and said, “Well, what would you do with it if we ran with it? What would you do differently? Let’s turn that into a PowerPoint presentation and come present to me what you would do differently because I can’t shut you up.”
To cut a long story short, that presentation goes really well, that person turns 15-20% of HR into branding at conferences, learns all about how that actually gets executed and activated, signage, logos, colors, brand palettes, etc. So, now, as a head of marketing for a very large human capital management company, head of marketing. Didn’t start off that way. Started off in HR. But because of whatever reason, couldn’t shut off the brand cacophony at these conferences, turns into a very, very different job.
A totally different example, a different end of the spectrum, those housekeepers I was telling you about, well, one of them, her loves were busy, busy, busy check-in, check-out days when the cart has to be…this is more detailed that you might want, but the cart has to be perfect. Everything about the cart that moves up and down those different floors has to work absolutely perfectly because everybody is getting in and out of those rooms with such a volume of people checking in and volume of people checking out. Everything has got to work unbelievably perfectly.
And for whatever reason, her geekiness, what she geeked out on was the precision and the authenticity of the materials on the cart, making the whole darn thing work so perfectly, initially, just for her floor. And the manager sort of figured out that she was getting, particularly, on busy days, she was getting it done with super quality whereas everyone else was struggling. They were behind, they couldn’t find the stuff that they needed for the rooms.
Anyway, she just kept showing what that red thread was for her, and then volunteered to help others when she was finished, get their carts sorted. And in the end, the manager went, “You know what, we can have you clean a few rooms, but what we really need you to do is you’re the person that’s responsible for the accuracy and the efficiency and the smooth-running of everybody’s cart.” And that might not sound engaging for many people. For that particular person, it was like, “That’s exactly what I want to be paid to do.”
Again, she’s not doing 100% of red threads but just kept sort of unconsciously paying attention to some particular aspect of her job, kept volunteering it, not asking to be praised for it necessarily, just kept volunteering it. And, lo and behold, the job came to be morphed so that it actually was a manifestation of her loves. A million of other examples if you look around, but those are two that come to mind.
Boy, I love it, and I do, I want to hear one more if I can from your millions.
Well, the other one that I was just talking about the other day, my publisher is HBR, Harvard Business Review, and we put together like a leader series with them where they said, “We want to have learning around the everything in the book because there’s really no curriculum around how do you find out what you love and figure out a way to turn it into a contribution. There’s no language, there’s no ritual, there’s no discipline around that, certainly in the world of work.” So, they put together a whole kind of ongoing learning series.
The person that’s leading it is a person who initially came up through publishing. She’s a book publisher, and yet couldn’t help herself. As the world of publishing changed, and bookstores vanished, and everything became “How do you nurture a community, and, author after author after author, struggled with creating a community?” and publishers struggled to build relationships with readers because the intermediaries used to be the bookstores but now the bookstores are gone. So, more and more publishers and authors kept turning to each other going, “How the heck do we build community?”
Well, this person just kept finding herself going, “I love doing web series. I will host any web series…” This is what she’s saying to the authors, “I’ll host any web series you want, any content you want. I’ll be the face of the publisher. I’ll keep doing that for you.” Now, it wasn’t in her job title, it wasn’t anything to do with her job description actually, but she kept doing it, authors loved it because she’s now building through the author and through the publisher a relationship with a growing cadre of readers so much so that every book that she did it for was massively more successful than the others that didn’t have it.
So, of course, the editor-in-chief turns to her more and more and goes, “Could you do this one? Could you do this one? Could you do this one? Could you do this one?” At some point, she goes, “I would love to but, unfortunately, I’ve still got these other responsibilities hanging up over here. If you can get someone to help me with these, then I can continue to do this stuff that elevates our authors and builds community.”
Well, now, lo and behold, that’s her entire job because that’s so valuable. It happens to fit perfectly with the whole dynamics of the publishing business right now. If it hadn’t been fit perfectly, would it have worked out exactly the same way? I don’t know. Bottom line is she found some red thread, pulled and sort of saw where it led, and turned it into an entirely different job than the one that she had even three years ago.
That’s so good. Well, Marcus, let’s say that listeners are fired up, like, “Yes, I want to identify these red threads. I want to do more of these red threads. I want to communicate and find the contribution therein,” do you have any sort of top do’s and don’ts for folks who are embarking on this path?
Well, in terms of career, yeah, first of all, the best place to start is where you’re at right now. You didn’t start wrong. You didn’t start right. For you, Pete, like joining Bain, was that good or bad? Who knows? For me, I left university and went to Lincoln, Nebraska. Why? I don’t really know. There was a sign of a red thread there somewhere. I’d done an internship with Gallup and I kind of liked one bit of it, and I was like, “Why not?” Goodness knows why you did what you did.
But for anyone who’s listening, you’ve got so much ahead of you. Start by thinking of your career as a scavenger hunt for love. It’s not a ladder. It’s not a lattice. You’re not climbing anywhere. You’re just scavenging. You’re looking for red threads right now where you are. First of all, do that. Second, don’t put too much of your faith in the why or the who. Put most of your faith in the what.
Normally, we think of a career as like finding your calling, which really means finding your purpose. But the two least engaged, least resilient professions, of all that we studied, are healthcare providers, so doctors and nurses, and teachers, people who educate in schools, in case you didn’t know what a teacher was. But they couldn’t be two professions where the purpose of their work was more vivid and more honorable, helping the sick and helping the youth, and yet they’re the most disengaged.
What that tells us clearly is that although you may believe in lots of different whys and purposes in your career, in the end, what nourishes you, what doesn’t, doesn’t happen at the 30,000-foot level. It happens at the two-foot level, the three-foot level. What activities are you filling your week with? What activities are you doing today at 9:00 o’clock or at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon? What are you actually doing? Because in the end, that what you’re actually doing, the specifics of these red threads trump your purpose.
If you believe in your purpose, and for whatever reason, the day-to-day reality of what you’re doing is loveless, then you will be psychologically damaged as damaged as nurses and doctors are today independent of the pandemic. So, watch out that you don’t try to use the who to compensate for you being in the wrong job, or the why rather. If you believe in the why but you’re in the wrong role on the team, it doesn’t matter how much you believe in the why, or like the people you work with. In the end, it’s the activities themselves that will nourish you or not.
I guess I’ll just give one more. As I mentioned, the idea that what’s really valuable in work right now is specificity. So, one of the things to think about is think about your career as an hourglass where it’s wide at the bottom. You’re scavenging, you’re seeing what all of those different threads are out there and you’re pulling on these different threads and seeing where they lead, and you’re honoring where your loves are and you’re taking them seriously.
But the middle of the hourglass is, at some point, you need mastery. Today, we seem to value follower fame or dilettantism, anyone is an expert today. But, actually, deep down, we do know, as Hippocrates said, “Life is short. The art is long,” or the craft is long, so at some point, you’re going to want to take those red threads of yours and honor them with your undivided attention.
And as an Erikson professor, and as Erickson said ten years, Malcolm Gladwell popularized that as 10,000 hours, but the takeaway from that isn’t that you invest 10,000 hours, you can be great at anything. That was a misunderstanding of the research and the data. All the data really shows is if you’ve got a love, if you’ve got a couple of red threads, at some point in your career, you’re going to want to give at least 10,000 hours to the mastery of that.
And out of that, the top part of the hourglass is out of that comes leadership. We follow people who turn our anxiety into confidence. That’s the job of a leader. And the best way to turn anxiety into confidence is to have deep mastery in something that we can all see and is important to us. Get deep into something. It doesn’t become narrowing. You don’t get narrowed. Your depth becomes the integrating point for your learning but it also becomes your justification for being able to lead others.
They now know who you are. They know that you’ve asked 17 questions, opened 17 more doors, can see around the corner more vividly. Your depth, that middle of the hourglass where you get narrow and focused becomes the authority that you need to lead others. So, those would be some of my do’s and don’ts.
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
A favorite quote of mine or a favorite quote of somebody else’s?
Well, I was going to ask for a favorite quote that you’ve coined later, but I’ll take them both, right back-to-back if you’ve got them handy.
Mine that I hope people leave with is the power of human nature is that each human nature is unique. That’s its power. That’s not a bug to be fixed. That’s not a problem. Human uniqueness is the source of its power. Most forces of nature, their power comes from their uniformity – electricity, water, wind. The power of human nature is not that. The power of human nature is its uniqueness. And we need to build schools and teams and workplaces where we maximize that power. So, that’s a big one for me.
I think the quote that I always have in my head as I wander around, actually comes from Peter Drucker, and he was the eminent management theorist of the last century. But his quote was, “The best companies get their strengths together and make their weaknesses irrelevant.” A lot of my work has simply taken that on and applied it to the level of the individual. That’s what I learned from my mentor at Gallup, Don Clifton. But it began, really, with Peter Drucker going, “Everything is about differentiation – intelligent intentional differentiation.”
He looked at it at the level of the company, “Don’t try to be all things to all people no one believes in.” And, of course, what I’ve done is taken it through Don Clifton and all my strengths work there, and now here with what I’m doing at the ADP Research Institute, try to take it to the level of the individual and then back on up into the institutions, like school, college, work.
And this one will be hard for you, but could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Oh, gosh. Well, actually, it’s one that we’re just doing right now. My co-head at the research institute is an economist called Nela Richardson. She’s a black woman of a certain age, and she came to me the other day, and said, “Are we doing any better at D, E & I?” diversity, equity, and inclusion, “Are we doing better?”
And I said to her, “Well, we can tell you about the D and the E. I can tell you about diversity. We could actually count that. We can just count representation. I can tell you about the E. I can count equitable pay or promotion.” But I said, “I actually can’t tell you about the I. From the 1960 forward, you can write, like today, I actually can’t tell you if more people feel more included.” This was about a year and a half ago.
And shame on me, shame on us, that we’ve got no thermometer for measuring, reliably measuring people’s feeling of inclusion. Nothing. And so, for the last year and a half, we’ve been in the field trying to build a reliable thermometer to measure inclusiveness. And we’ve just come out of the field, it’s about 27,000 people, a thousand people in each country, stratified random sample of the workers in each country, trying to get at what is the right way, the most reliable way to measure inclusiveness so that we can see whether or not anything that we’re doing – programs, training, education – is it actually making people’s lives any better, at least according to them.
So, I’m not going to bore you with diving into exactly what we’re finding and where we’re finding it, but that research right now feels to me incredibly necessary because, let’s face it, what gets measured gets managed. If you can’t measure the I, you might move the D and the E, but if people aren’t feeling better about it, what a miss that is.
Thank you. And a favorite book?
I think my favorite book is The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin, which I got when I was 16. It’s about 700 pages long, and it’s just a book about men and women as discoverers, people who ask why, and why this and why that. And it confirmed for me, because I was reading Lord of the Rings, I was trying to read Lord of the Rings at the same time, and I was bored to tears, I was bored of the rings. But I couldn’t care about Gollum, I couldn’t care about Frodo, I just couldn’t get excited about it.
But why does Marie Curie ask the questions that she does in her laboratory? Why does Isaac Newton put a thin shard of glass in the window of his Cambridge students digs, and then see a rainbow of light on the wall? That’s what that book was all about. And I loved it, and I read it like it was like Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t Lord of the Rings, it was a book about people asking why.
And a favorite habit?
I love walking really fast. I live in a place with lots of hills, and I love that pounding-heart energy. I don’t really like working out inside. I’m lucky enough to live in the country so I’ve got hills all over the place and trees everywhere, and pounding up a hill and down a hill, and stepping over rocks. And I saw a bobcat the other day. Like a bobcat. I’m British. There are no bobcats in Britain, and I saw a bobcat. Sorry to be so excited about bobcats, but that was amazing. So, I love pounding up hills and down dales and doing that every day, getting my heart racing.
Well, Marcus, I was doing the math when you talked about nine years old and 50, I’m like you’re a very handsome youthful-looking man.
Well, I appreciate that.
What is the secret? Is it the exercise? Is there a moisturizer I need to start using? How do you do it?
Well, I’m 57, I’m not 59 but it’s genes, man. My dad’s dead but my mom is 83 and looks like she’s 70. I don’t know what it is. She’s got youthful genes, and somehow, she passed something onto me where I don’t really have a regimen, a health regimen other than walking a lot, which, as I said, I love. But other than that, I think I got it, like most things, you get it from your mom.
Alrighty. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I think two places. One is on the social media front, Instagram is my favorite for whatever reason, so Instagram. And then, together with Harvard, we built this learning series. So, if you want to see the learning around the book, for anything we talked about today, is really something you want to dive deeper into, go to LoveAndWork.org and you’ll see there’s like six hours of content all around the ideas and the practices of some of which we touched on in the podcast and then a whole lot more.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Take your love seriously because if you don’t, no one else will, and that’s the place to begin. The more filigreed and detailed and vivid you can be and understanding that which you love, the more likely you are to respect and be curious about loves of others. If you don’t start with yourself and really dive deep into the detail of you love it, when, what. Write three love notes. That’s what I would do. Write three love notes, which is simply a sentence that begins, “I love it when…” and then finish the darn sentence.
And you’ve got to have a verb in it, not, “I love it when people praise me.” No, “I love it when I do…” what, when, how, to who. Love lives in detail and most of us have forgotten the detail of that which we love, which is why the most common answer to the question, “What are your strengths?” in a job interview is, “I love working with people.” And it’s like, “Come on. What are you doing with the people? Which people?”
So, that’s the challenge I would give everyone of us. Can you honor yourself by describing vividly just three red threads? Write three love notes. Because if you don’t take yourself seriously in that way, don’t expect anyone else to. They can’t read your mind and they certainly can’t read your heart.
All right. Marcus, this has been a treat. I wish you much love and great work in your years to come.
Thank you, sir. Appreciate you having me.