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557: How to Outthink Fear with Dr. Mark McLaughlin

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Mark McLaughlin says: "Fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know... the less fear or stress or anxiety one has."

Neurosurgeon and author Mark McLaughlin shares the science of fear and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How fear affects our decision-making
  2. How to manage your fears effectively
  3. The two techniques to help you outthink your fears

About Mark:

Mark McLaughlin is a practicing board-certified neurosurgeon, a  national media commentator, author of the book Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Outthink Fear, and acclaimed keynote speaker.

He is the founder of Princeton Brain and Spine Care where he practices surgery focusing on trigeminal neuralgia and cervical spine surgery. McLaughlin is also a thought leader in performance enhancement and physician hospital relations.

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Mark McLaughlin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mark, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Mark McLaughlin
My pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your stuff. And, first, let’s hear, so you currently work as a neurosurgeon, but before that, you wrestled so well, you made the Hall of Fame. Tell us the story here.

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I’m from northern New Jersey and I took up wrestling as a young boy, had some very influential coaches along the way who helped me, gave me the tools to succeed. Wrestling kind of let me wet my whistle in terms of concentration and intensity, and as I got older and wanted to move onto medicine, I went on to become a doctor. And I picked neurosurgery because it’s the closest thing to wrestling that I could get after wrestling.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so intriguing. Please explain, what’s the crossover or similarities?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s intense, it’s grueling, it’s extremely personal, there are high risks, and it just gave me the same pump and the same exhilaration that wrestling did, so I thought I got to go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then in the midst of operating in that, literally, operating in that capacity, you made some discoveries about how to deal with fear. Can you tell us the story of how that came about?

Mark McLaughlin
About 10 years ago, I got invited up to West Point to give some talks to the cadets, and so, I began to compile stories about patients and stressful events during surgeries or during my decision-making processes in taking care of these patients. And so, as I began to compile the stories, I’d start sharing with them things that I used to keep myself out of trouble and to save lives.

And so, those would be different techniques that I had in neurosurgery but I realized that they were real-life skills that you could use in the military or you could use in your personal life or your business life. So, I began sharing some of those things with the cadets, like the rules of neurosurgery, for one. So, rules of neurosurgery are things like never cut what you can’t see, always leave a drain, never worry about a patient alone, measure millimeters in miles. These are things that are drilled into your head during your residency, but you can apply them to anything in life.

Like, never cut what you can’t see is one of those things in neurosurgery that you never want to close your scissors unless you know exactly what’s between those two blades. But, similarly, that’s an allegory for life, isn’t it? You never want to make an important decision or make a move unless you know exactly what’s up in front of you. So, that’s how it all started.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, you say they keep you out of trouble in terms of these are just kind of best practices during the course of conducting a brain surgery. And then I want to know, kind of what the West Pointers wanted to know, what are you saying to yourself during the course of doing these surgeries?

Mark McLaughlin
So, those rules are ingrained in you, so you’re following steps through a surgery, but usually what I try and do is get into a mindset. So, before I start a surgery, I have a very specific routine, I call it my 5Ps. I take a pause, I think about that exact patient I’m operating on, I’ll say to myself, “This is a 42-year old accountant. He’s been suffering from severe sciatica for five weeks. He’s in excruciating pain. This is the most important day of his life. Let’s get him fixed up.”

Then I move onto my plan and that’ll be my exact step-by-step passage through the surgery mentally. Then I’ll put out a positive thought and that’s, “This is why you’re here today. This is what you trained your whole life for. You’re in the right spot. You’re ready to go.” And then, lastly, what I’ll do is I’ll say a prayer. And a prayer for me, one might say it doesn’t affect the outcome of a surgery, but it always affects me. It always calms me and it always helps me perform better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, that’s the process and so you’re working with that and that is getting the job done for you. So, then let’s zoom into the typical professional who’s listening here, they’ve got a different job. It might be less high-stakes in terms of its immediate consequences in the moment. If you screw up, most of our jobs, if I butcher this podcast, no one’s going to die. We’ll have 20,000 people mad that we destroyed that hour or 45 minutes of their life, that’s less than a full lifetime though if you multiply it out. But, anyway, regardless, the stakes are probably, for most of us, lower hour to hour. But what is at stake with regard to us when we are dealing with fear, when the mind is on fear, what to do?

Mark McLaughlin
That’s important. Everything is important in work and in life and in your relationships, and they are life and death in some respect, they’re your life, and so they’re important. And I would just say that fear is a universal experience that we all have. I mean, we’ve all experienced fear every since we started looking under our bed before we went to bed at night, right? And it’s something that we have to manage in our lives. Some people do it better than others, but we could all improve on it.

So, it’s important to understand that fear, it’s just an alarm bell going off in your mind. So, what I see it as, it’s almost Pavlovian. We’re moving along, things are going great, nothing unexpected happens, we’re calm, we’re homeostatic, or we’re even feeling confident or assured or secure. And then something unexpected comes to us and that’s the first inkling that we might have something different or something interfering with our goal in life. And so, that unexpected event can do some type of anticipated anxiety or stress. Or let’s say it’s something real, something dangerous jumps into your way, like an intruder in your house, then it’s real fear. That’s real terror.

But fear is not the solution to the situation, it’s only the alarm bell. Figuring out what to do about the alarm bell is what you need to focus on. And that’s what I talk about in my book, is, “How do we look at fear and unpack it into its structural components and literally map it out in our minds so that we can outthink, so that we can know what the problem is, and attack the problem?” And, immediately when we start doing that, our fear level goes down. It dials itself down a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that sounds cool and appealing. And so, can you maybe let us in on perhaps the why behind that a bit? Is it okay to be afraid and to experience the fear or is it counterproductive or harmful at some level?

Mark McLaughlin
No, having fear is a good thing. You never want to be free of fear. Imagine the stupid things we would do if we didn’t have fear. It’s absolutely essential, and for survival in our earlier stages of development in life on earth, I mean, we wouldn’t have survived without it. But the thing about it, as far as the brain goes, and neurophysiology and neuroanatomy is, is that it’s almost like there’s an operating system that’s been built on an operating system, that’s been built on an operating system, and all the earlier operating systems are still running in your brain.

So, the fight or flight response is still very real in your mind and in your brain and in your neuroanatomy, the circuitry. You have to be careful about that. That’s great when someone is stalking you in a dangerous confrontation. But it’s not helpful when somebody says something that might be insulting to you in a business meeting. So, you need to know where your neocortex is working and how your executive function can override that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are not overriding that and we just sort of allow our earlier lizard operating systems to run wild and do what they want to do, what could be the consequences?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, you’re going to blurt out something that you probably would regret or you’re going to act in a way that’s not becoming of a leader, and you’re not going to have the most optimal outcome. And that’s the goal. The goal is to perform at your very best, so you have to recognize this. So, for instance, like if I’m at a business meeting with my partners, and one of my partners says something that I get very irritated about, and I can see that he’s anxious and irritated, what I try and do, one of the things I try and do is just identify.

I’ll say, “Listen, I know you’re raising your voice, and I am too, and that means that this is important and we care about this and that’s a good thing. But that’s not going to help us solve the problem that we need to solve. So, let’s talk about what the specifics are. Let’s break this down and line up possible solutions. Let’s start thinking about it.” So, identifying that is very helpful in this process.

Pete Mockaitis
So, certainly, there’s some interpersonal consequences there that you might really damage the relationship if you scream or tell them exactly what you think in that moment. And then, I guess I’m curious, even internally, what does the research have to say about how we go about thinking, processing, problem-solving, creativity, decision-making, when we’ve got the fear OS at work?

Mark McLaughlin
There’s a lot of cross-chatter among the higher functions of the brain and the lower functions, and it’s really interesting how we can map out the neurophysiology and thought patterns of fear and see what it looks like on functional MRI scan. And there’s some good studies that show that meditative mindfulness practices can decrease some of that chatter, some of that crosstalk that we have that creates anxiety and stress in our minds. So, it really is an important practice to perform and I’m a big believer in meditation for part of controlling and managing fear.

Pete Mockaitis
And is crosstalk a bad thing? Is that like concerning when you’re seeing that on the FMRIs?

Mark McLaughlin
Yes, I mean, generally it is because it means you don’t have like a focused pathway. So, the brain, when we do things, it creates connections, neural networks. So, you have a neural network for riding bike, that’s why you can jump on a bike 20 years after you’ve jumped on a bike the last time and you can still ride a bike. That neural network is that pattern of firing is all set. But if you have patterns of firing that are disrupted or they’re not clean and clear, you’re going to not think properly, you’re not going to react the way you’d like to react in a situation when you need your best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s get into the particulars of how this is done. So, you say you can deconstruct and look at the patterns and structures of fear and go after them and effectively outthink it. So, how does this work in process and practice?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I talk about a technique of using lateral thinking. So, lateral thinking is a concept where we try to dislocate the normal thought patterns that we have when we solve problems. So, normally, people think linearly and logically about how to solve a problem. A good example of lateral thinking is the King Solomon story. When the two mothers come to King Solomon and say, “Will you please…this is my child,” “This is my child,” and he says, “Okay, we’ll solve the problem. We’ll cut the baby in half, and you’ll each get half of the baby,” because he sort of knew that the real mother would say, “No, no, no, she can have the baby.” That’s how he knew who the real mother was.

It’s like thinking differently about things. So, I’ll give you an example in medicine. So, in medicine, you may have somebody that comes in and they’ve got a pretty straightforward problem, let’s say. Let’s say they have a headache and a stiff neck and a fever, and their roommate had meningitis two days ago, and you immediately jump to the conclusion, “Ah, they’ve got meningitis.” Okay, that’s one, that’s a logical step-wise progression. But a lateral thought process would be, “What are three other things that could be causing this that I haven’t thought of?” And that’s really important to do in medicine, and I think in business too.

So, we usually jump to the first solution but the first solution isn’t always necessarily the right solution or the best solution. So, if you can sort of train your mind to think of other solutions, and even if they don’t seem the best one right away, just get them on paper, talk about it with other people. You can sometimes come up with better solutions than you initially thought of. So, lateral thinking is another technique that I talk about, and it’s very important in medicine, but I think it can also help in business.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that helps you in getting more ideas. Does it also help with the fear?

Mark McLaughlin
I think so because, again, fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know, in general, the less fear or stress or anxiety one has. So, in my opinion, that would be another way of just using your brain to sort of dial down the fear measure in your brain, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then what are your pro tips in terms of staying calm in high-pressure situations? Maybe you’ve got some fear associated with entering them or maybe just the stakes are high, whether or not you’ve got butterflies in your stomach?

Mark McLaughlin
Right. The most important thing is really to be yourself. I always try and say, “Be yourself. Don’t be anybody, try to be anybody else.” I use a technique called narrating the room. So, when I’m flummoxed with something, I’ll start with, “Okay, I need to think this through, everybody.” And I’ll speak aloud, “All right. I was expecting to see this, but I don’t see this right now, so let’s take a step back. I’d made an incision over the frontal area, I’ve got down through the skull,” and I just, literally, will talk myself through exactly where I was and where I went.

And, it’s funny, because I had a chance to interview Sanjay Gupta for this book, and when I was telling him about this, he said, “Oh, yeah, I do that all the time. That’s I narrate the room. I narrate the room.” And so, that’s his process of talking things through. Even, again, acknowledging, “Okay, a little stressful here right now, everybody. I understand we’re missing…”

Let’s say, during a surgery we oftentimes have to count for the sponges. The sponges have to be exactly correct at every moment during the surgery, and sometimes the sponge count is off, and so that needs to be checked very carefully. And people are getting worked up about it, I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to find it. I just looked through the wound, I don’t see it there. Let’s look through all the collection, the papers that we have, the collection bags. We’ll get through it. It’s standard process.” So, just talking about it, I think, is a very important part of it and being one’s self. Those two techniques are helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s been interesting writing a book. It took me about four years to do this, and, gosh, it was such a huge effort, but I’m thrilled that it’s done. I feel like I’ve got a frame around a body of knowledge and I feel like being a neurosurgeon has helped me think about fear and stress in a different way. I have a lens on the world that other people don’t have, but I think the techniques to solve it are really transferable to anyone. In fact, I talk to my young wrestlers about it sometimes. I told them about sometimes when I feel overwhelmed and I feel like I’m in over my head, and I just step back and I say, “No, I’m not. Go to your basics. Just talk about it. Talk about your exact basics.” For wrestlers, that’s like risk control and control the tie-ups and things.

So, I say, “Whenever you feel like you’re out of your league, you’re wrestling somebody too good, go back to your basics. Risk control, control the tie-ups, focus on what you do, get back to your referee’s position.” And I think everybody feels it, and the better we cope with it, the better we’re going to perform.

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Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mark McLaughlin
My favorite quote of all time is Julie Andrews’ “Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it’s an order which sets me free to fly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Mark McLaughlin
I talk about this in the book, the story of the invisible gorilla. When everybody’s focused on the task of counting basketballs and passing, and how they literally missed a gorilla 50% of the time that walks across the screen. I just think that’s such an interesting concept to understand that we all have blind spots. Everybody has blind spots. And when you know you have a blind spot, you’re less likely to miss something.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?
Mark McLaughlin
I love the “Traveler’s Gift.” That’s a book by Andy Andrews. It’s a story of a person that goes through time and meets a number of famous individuals: King Solomon, Abe Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, Anne Frank. And it’s just literally like getting a summation of their philosophy in a very short time. And it’s a book that I gave my father, and we shared a lot of discussions over that book, so I really love that.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Mark McLaughlin
I use an app called Ten Percent Happier which is a great meditation app. Dan Harris wrote a book called “10% Happier,” a guide to meditation for fidgety skeptics. And the only app I’ve ever purchased on my phone is Ten Percent Happier. It’s a beautiful compilation of guided meditations, and it works to help you sleep, to help you think more positively, and have more gratitude. I’m thrilled with it. I’ve been using it for over a year, and I highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit? Sounds that might be it, or maybe you’ve got another one.

Mark McLaughlin
My morning habit is very important to me. I do three things. And that’s I meditate, I file. I have an old-fashioned David Allen filing system with 31 files for the days of the month, and then 12 files for the months, and the one extra fie which I call my someday maybe. So, I file, I look at my file for that day. And then, lastly, I’m a Franklin Planner guy. I use a paper book because I can’t see the month and the week as well as I can on my phone so I work on my Franklin Planner, and I plan my day out. I call it my triple threat. My triple threat is if I do those three things, five to six times a week, I’m going to really do a lot of good work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re sharing your wisdom here?

Mark McLaughlin
One of the moms and friends of mine in our wrestling club, she has a great quote which I love too, and that is, “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.” I’ve always loved that. “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly,” and I think that’s truly how you get better. That’s how I’ve worked on myself and over the years, and that’s what works.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mark McLaughlin
My website MarkMcLaughlinMD.com has a number of videos, talks about the book, and I have a blog that talks about a number of these topics.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mark McLaughlin
I would say just be present, be yourself, and keep getting a little bit better every day. Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mark, this has been fun. Thanks, and good luck in your adventures.

Mark McLaughlin
Thank you. It was a pleasure, Peter.

556: What Drives Your Career Growth with Korn Ferry’s Gary Burnison

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Gary Burnison shares what professionals need to start doing differently to advance in their careers.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three mindsets to accelerate your career growth
  2. The overlooked elements that determine career fit
  3. Why most meetings are meaningless

About Gary:

Gary Burnison is the CEO and member of the board of directors for Korn Ferry, a global organization consulting firm. He is also an author, having written several books on career management. His latest book, Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide For Your Career, is an insider’s look on everything professionals need to take control and get ahead in their careers.

He is also a regular contributor to ForbesCNBCBloombergFOX Business, and other major international news outlets. Mr. Burnison earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California and holds an honorary doctor of laws degree from Pepperdine University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gary Burnison Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gary, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gary Burnison
Hey, great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom once again. It’s funny, I believe it was Episode 273 you were with us, which is almost half of the podcast lifetime ago.

Gary Burnison
Not that you’re counting, huh?

Pete Mockaitis
Roughly in the bubble. So, we’re going to talk about how to advance in careers. And I thought it might be fun if you could maybe open us up with a powerful story of someone who was kind of stuck where their career was going and then used some of these tools to get unstuck and see some great results.

Gary Burnison
You know, interviewing is kind of a trip between, it’s this in-between going to Disneyland and a dentist, and we psyche ourselves up, right? And it kind of goes back to the sixth grade, “Are they going to like us? Are they going to like me? What are they going to think of me?” It’s a very natural human emotion.

I was in a Starbucks in New York City a while back, and there was a young gentleman, he had a triple Red Eye that he had ordered, and he had a portfolio in front of him, and I figured this guy is getting ready for an interview, and I see the resume, and his leg is tapping uncontrollably up and down. And I just go up to him and I say, “Hey, so what are you doing? You got an interview, huh?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. I really need this job. My wife relocated here and I’ve just got to get this thing.” And I said, “Listen, you got to chill out because you’re not going to make it past security. The way you’re going right now is not good.”

And I said, “Look, you got to treat this like a conversation. You’re not auditioning for Annie. This is not a rehearsed deal.” And he ended up, come to find out, he got the job. And he got the job because he was authentic, he made a connection, and he gave the interviewer a taste of who he was as a person, not just what he did.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that that’s dead on, and I remember being on both sides of the career fair table, and whenever I heard someone just say, “Hello, I’m looking to combine my interests in accounting and finance in a challenging role that is like…” No human talks that way. I mean, it’s not that that’s a deal-breaker but it’s sort of like, “Oh, you’re not making a great first impression right now, and we’ll keep talking and we’ll see where we go, but I’m not enthusiastic about the rest of this conversation from the first 20 seconds.”

Gary Burnison
Well, no, because people, they make up things, they say things that they think you want to hear. Resumes, God, if I see another resume where, number one, you shouldn’t have an objective, I think that’s really bad on a resume, but a lot of people do. And how many times have you seen, “I want to be part of a collaborative team in an entrepreneurial environment where I can make a real big impact”? Oh, really? Like, you and a billion other people in the world. It’s not authentic.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, we’ve got some great tips right off the bat. Chill out, keep it authentic, and it’s not an audition, it’s a conversation. So, then tell us, you’ve got a recent book called Advance. What’s the main thesis here?

Gary Burnison
It’s really to take control, to take control of your career like you would do with your health, and, really, kind of three basic ideas. Number one is it starts with you but it’s not about you, and if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. So, the reality is you have to, first, be introspective about what your strengths are, where your blind spots are, what your purpose is, what makes you happy, because if you’re happy, you’re probably motivated, and if you’re motivated, you’re going to outperform.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you said that last time. I’ve quoted you on a slide, Gary. That’s one of my faves.

Gary Burnison
It’s true. I mean, and people, “Oh, is this really possible?” Yeah, it is possible. Look, we all need to make a living, so there’s no denying that, and sometimes you just need a job, I get it. But, ultimately, you want to get something where you’re learning, because if you’re growing and learning, you’re probably going to be pretty motivated and pretty happy. And so, that kind of introspection, most people, they just ignore that stuff completely.

And then, secondly, you’re not a sculptor in a studio by yourself. And so, it starts with you but it’s not about you. And so, there’s a whole range of advice in this book around, “What do you do with a bad boss? How do you make presentations? How do you work with others? How do you work virtually? What do you do if you’re managing for the first time?”

So, as you progress in your career, you start out as a follower, and I would suggest there’s kind of six phases to a career ultimately up to a leader. But, at some point, you have to make that transition where you’re not an individual contributor, and it’s really, really hard. And, in that transition, you’ve got to work with others. So, despite all the technological advances of the past century, it still comes down to people, and not just online interaction, but actually old school, offline interaction.

And then, finally, look, if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. We’ve proven that the number one predictor of executive success is learning agility. We’ve done 50 million assessments of executives all over the world, and Korn Ferry would stake its reputation that it’s the number one predictor of success. The distance between number one and number two is not constant. And the reality is, what does a great athlete do or what does a coach do after a game? Well, many times, they review the tape, they look at the video and they go practice. It’s the same for your career. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, you don’t have to convince me. I’m right on, I’m right with you there in terms of learning. And, often, it’s a bit of do-it-yourself proposition in many environments sort of, I guess, there you go, advance, take control, much like what you do with your health.

Gary Burnison
Well, again, the do-it-yourself proposition. So, here’s the other thing why it’s critical to really target what your next career move is that the reality is, what Korn Ferry would say is that we believe in 70/20/10 when it comes to development. So, when you say do-it-yourself, so, listen, only 10%, after college, of what you learn is in classroom. Ninety percent of it is either who you’re learning it from or what your assignment is.

And so, a critical piece that people don’t think about when they’re going to go take another job, they focus on the bling. And I can understand why. They focus on the title, focus on the money, “I just to make some more money.” Well, that’s great. But they completely ignore that it’s a marathon, and, “Are you going to learn and who are you going to learn from?” Like, that is…Look, I can’t say you’re always going to have a choice, but it’s something that you have to really need to consider for the marathon.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m hearing you. And so, that’s a key consideration and it’s something that’s often overlooked. And I want to get some more of these gems from you here in terms of when it comes to employees who are stalling out, they’re getting stuck in ruts, they’re facing some challenges and not conquering them very often, what do you think are some of like the big things that professionals, they got to nail and they’re not nailing it so well right now?

Gary Burnison
I think there’s a left-brain aspect and there’s a right-brain aspect. So, the left brain is all around specialized skills, okay? So, that’s very, very hard to answer or it depends on what function you’re in. Is it technology? Is it finance? Are you in a services business, manufacturing? That world is clearly, that’s changed, and that’s going to vary depending on the person. I would just generally say that learning determines a worker’s earnings for life. So, those left-brain skills have to continually be worked on.

The right-brain skills get ignored all the time, and those right-brain skills are really important to your happiness. And so, they seem like little things but they’re not so little things. And it could be this little thing called coworkers. The reality is that you’re going to spend way more time at work and with your coworkers than you are maybe with your own family. So, are they getting right or are they getting wrong, the kind of right-brain things around who their boss is? Are they learning? Their coworkers?

That culture piece is, I think, today, overlooked. And it’s critical. It’s critical to just think about your day. Like, what is going to piss you off during the day, right? If you have a job, I guarantee you don’t wake up upset, right? You’re probably pretty happy going to work. And then what happens? Somebody says something, may have been an innocent comment, you get an email, didn’t have the right context, you get a text, text can’t make you laugh or cry, and you just get turned off. And, by the time you’re driving home, you’re so frustrated. And so, those things around culture, people don’t consider.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Absolutely. And I’d love your pro take there on what are some of the best ways on the outside looking in to get a gauge in evaluation on some of those matters?

Gary Burnison
It’s the little things. It’s, “How are people dressed? How do people interact? What’s it like at 7:00 at night there? What’s it like at 7:00 in the morning?” It’s funny, you want a new job, and so you start. I would hope you’re actually targeting, proactively targeting the companies and not being reactive, but many times people are reactive, which I think is a real problem. But you look at these job titles and these responsibilities and it’s all these words, and it’s really hard to tell, “Okay, but what’s my actual job? Like, what am I going to do Monday morning?” because you have all these lofty words, and these responsibilities, and it’s hard to separate what you’re really going to be doing.

And so, I think a great way is to, really, like when you go to buy a house. If you buy a condo or a house, I love to drive by at 11:00 o’clock at night and look at the neighbors. Or my oldest daughter was just moving apartments, and I said, “Stefy, make sure you go there a few nights a week at 11:00 o’clock before you sign that lease because you want to see it when nobody thinks you’re looking, right?” The problem with an interview is like it’s a performance, it’s a stage. People are actually looking. But you want to figure out what the place is like, what the people are like, when nobody is looking. That’s what you’re trying to get to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice clear distinction right there in terms of, “Is it on display, on show, or is it the real deal?” and the 11:00 p.m. analogy. Oh, it’s sparking all kinds of things. So, then what are some of the best ways that we can get that view in terms of we’re looking and they don’t know we’re looking? How do we do that? Do we talk to former employees? Tell me more.

Gary Burnison
Yeah, you do. You’ve got to be kind of a private detective. There’s no other way to do it. So, you have to work your network, you’ve got to do the six degrees of separation. You want to find people that knows somebody, that knows somebody that works there. That’s the way you want to do it. And it really does work. I know it seems daunting but that six degrees of separation really does work. I found it to work in my own life.

And so, yeah, you want to work that network, you want to find out from people who have left. Sometimes they may be jaded. I don’t place a lot of stock in Glassdoor. I know a lot of people do. But, generally, in those kinds of reviews, you’re hearing from unhappy people that have left the organization. It could be a reference point, it’s something to triangulate, but I wouldn’t stake my whole career and reputation on it. If you can drive around, if you can get access into the office or the building, that could be something you can do. But, yeah, look, you’ve got to be a private detective.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so then let’s say you’re in the job, away you go, and we’re up and we’re running. You’ve got a number of particular prescriptions when you’re in the midst of things. I want to get your take on the boss relationship and meetings. So, first, what’s the main thing we got to keep in mind in terms of managing a boss relationship effectively over the months and years?

Gary Burnison
Number one, it’s not them, it’s you. So, you’re never going to be able to change the boss but he or she can change you, right? They can actually fire you. So, you can try all you want but if you keep saying it’s them and it’s not you, it’s not going to get any better. So, there’s all sorts of different bosses, we’ve all had them. We’ve had those that are heroes and inspirational. And we’ve had those that are just micromanagers and autocrats.

And so, I think the first thing is you have to look in the mirror, and I know that’s really hard because you’re going to say, “It’s not me, it’s them.” But look in the mirror first, and just recognize that you’re probably not going to be able to change that person. So, then you have to take accountability for performance. And the way to do that then is the days of once-a-year reviews, those are gone. Today, people are career nomads.

So, what you need to do is take the initiative and set goals, you really do, because you can’t politic your way to the top. At the end of the day, it’s performance. Performance does matter. Not that there’s no politics because there’s obviously politics, but performance trumps politics. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to take ownership for their own goals and make sure you are continually talking with your boss about what has to get done, “What do I need to do to contribute? What are the tangible goals towards that contribution? How do we measure success? And how can I help the team win?”

Because, at the end of the day, the reality is the boss doesn’t think about you as much as you think about yourself, right? So, you may think a lot about your salary but the boss isn’t going to be thinking about your salary. It’s not that he or she doesn’t care, it’s just that’s not where their mind is going to go. We have almost 10,000 employees. I think a CEO has to care about their employees, their customers, and their shareholders. But am I thinking every second about somebody’s salary? I’m not. It’s not practical. So, start with it’s you and take ownership for performance, and get in a regular dialogue with your boss around performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s so dead on and a good reminder. It’s true. I manage and pay people, and I think about the compensation pretty rarely, maybe it’s like, “Huh, they’re doing a great job and it’s approaching the end of the year, I want to make sure they don’t leave me.” So, that’s about the extent. It’s that question, it’s like, “Hey, yeah, they’re doing great. I want to make sure they don’t leave. Here we go.”  There you have it. So, that’s a nice reality check for you.

And, yes, I totally am with you that you gotta have those regular ongoing maybe reconnections associated with what’s most important right now, what are we trying to achieve, how are we measuring it, how do we win, and not, I guess, taking anything for granted. Maybe, I guess, the alternative to that might be doing whatever lands in your inbox, just doing that as opposed to these critical goals that we’ve agreed to.

Gary Burnison
Well, you can’t teach hustle. And I will take hustle over pedigree any day. And so, what you’re alluding to is people that have hustle. And so, I would have a bias that I would much rather hire somebody who did not have the pedigree, didn’t have the family name, didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but is hungry. You just can’t teach hunger. And I love that. And I think what you’re saying is get it done. Like, just do it. Take initiative. Yeah, absolutely, that’s actually better than the whole performance goal thing. That’s absolutely the way to do it. But then you’ve got to make sure that you are getting recognized for that and that you’re not just doing somebody else’s work.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I also want to get your take on you’ve got a chapter called “Let’s Have A Meeting – Why They’re All Meaningless.” So, a bold stance. Tell us about this.

Gary Burnison
Oh, it’s a joke. You know, so many times today, the strategic response to any question is, “Let’s have a meeting. Let’s get together and talk about it.” It seems like it’s the response to every problem. And I think, look, there’s a number of problems with meetings. Number one is that people, they’re on stage, and so they’re performances many, many times, and they’re not real, they’re not authentic. And it’s amazing how the dynamic changes when you have two people versus four people versus six people versus ten people, and also how the dynamic changes whether there’s a boss there or not.

And so, ultimately, you defer to the most senior person in that meeting. And are you really going to say what’s on your mind? Are you really going to say the truth? And so, I just find them to be a little bit make-believe. We all remember in college we had these group projects, and some of my kids are college today, everybody dreads those, right, those kind of peer-to-peer group projects, “And who’s going to take initiative? And who’s going to speak out? Who’s going to hide behind somebody else’s work?” I just think that people today, it’s not a stage. And, for me, there’s different kinds of meetings. Is it an information meeting? Is it decision-taking? Is it discovery? Is it brainstorming? Like, what is the purpose? What are you trying to get out of this thing?

And the other thing I’m a big, big believer in is whatever time you give somebody, they’re going to take up that time. And so, when it comes to a meeting, I’ve got the 45-minute rule. Anything after that, unless you’re brainstorming, unless you’re doing blue-sky thinking, it’s not productive at all.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s a fun coincidence that our appointment is exactly 45 minutes today.

Gary Burnison
Look, I believe in collective genius, and I think that people are smarter together than apart. I’m a huge, huge believer. So, the meeting can be absolutely incredible if the right stage is set. And so, what I mean by that is people are free to speak their mind. What I’ve found, being a CEO now for a long time, is that generally people don’t have freedom of speech unless they have economic security. And so, to create that environment where people can speak the truth and people can speak their feelings, and that constructive conflict can be turned into collective genius, I love constructive conflict. But you have to have the right orchestrator so that it turns itself into collective genius.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, well, that’s really thought-provoking, the notion that you’re not really speaking your mind unless you have the economic freedom. I guess that’s true in the sense of, well, I guess they talk about the, “F you, money.” It’s like if you’ve got that in the bank, then it’s sort of like, “I’m just going to tell you what I think. Worst-case scenario, you fire me and that’s no big deal.” So, I can hear that that resonates. So, then if you are kind of working with managing folks who they’re not quite paycheck-to-paycheck maybe but they sure do need the job, how can we facilitate that psychological safety knowing that they do still want to hold onto that job?

Gary Burnison
Well, as a boss, you can’t have retribution. If your actions don’t mirror your words, then it’s never going to happen. So, as the boss, you have to ensure that there really is a safe zone, and that that is absolutely reinforced every single day. We had a funny story recently, I mean, it’s kind of sad-funny, however you want to look at it. But we were interviewing an executive, and the company was looking for a new leader and they wanted this person. They really thought they wanted somebody who was collaborative.

And so, we were interviewing this executive, and so the interviewer asked, “So, give me an example of how you collaborate.” And he said, “Well, look, it’s easy. We have a meeting and we go around the table, and we either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the idea.” And the interviewer said, “So, how do you exactly do that?” And he said, “Well, it’s simple. I, first, give my view on, ‘Okay, this is a bad idea or a good idea,’ so I say thumbs down.” And the interviewer said, “So, you go first. So, how does that really work?” And the executive says, “Well, we have complete alignment.” Go figure, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Everybody agrees with you.

Gary Burnison
“Everybody agrees with me.” Needless to say, this person did not get the job. So, as the boss, you have to make it real and you have to set the tone. And, as the coworker, what you can’t do is take things so personally that you start spreading all sorts of news at the water cooler. You just can’t do that. That turns into a very cancerous environment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Next bit, you mentioned the top 20 must haves for career development in your book, and that’s a lot. So, can you give us the top, top two?

Gary Burnison
Number one is humility and the second is self-awareness. And I say those two because those are the starters. Without those, the other hundred things will never happen, because, again, your performance is not just absolute, it’s relative. So, this distance between one and two is not constant. You have to improve yourself. Well, if you don’t have humility, then you’re never going to be self-aware, so you have to have enough humility to be able to look in the mirror and say, “What do I need to improve on?” like any great athlete does. Those are absolutely, you have to have those two, because without those two, it’ll be the exception rather than the rule in terms of making more money, getting those promotions, advancing, and all that.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. Gary, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Gary Burnison
I think that I’ve just been shocked, whether you’re in the boardroom or you’re starting out of college, you’re starting out in your career, that you don’t treat your career like your health. And what I mean by that is if I told somebody, “Listen, you’re going to have a heart attack in nine months,” I guarantee you, this afternoon you would change things. You would start juicing it, you’d start eating oats, you’d start walking, you’d start running. You would do all sorts of things. You’d go to different kinds of doctors. Like, you would hop all over that.

Well, when it comes to your career, I think people are just complacent and they’re clueless, and they have this view that they’re going to be plucked out of the seat, that somebody is going to come to them with this great opportunity. That is not going to happen. And, today, we’re in a world of career nomads where, I believe, people coming out of college, Korn Ferry would suggest you’re going to work for 25 or 30 different employers.

And so, people are staying for two, two and a half, three years, and they’re moving on. They’re parlaying. They’re taking skills and they’re parlaying. They’re parlaying for more responsibility, they’re parlaying for more money, they’re parlaying to learn more. And so, I think you’ve got to treat your career like you would your health. And I really do believe, I would look at it and say, “Hey, I think I’m going to get fired in nine months. I think the company is going to get acquired. What would I do differently today?”

And what you would do differently is not just sitting with your computer pretending you were Hemingway with your resume and trying to find the right verb. That is the wrong thing to do. What you would do is you would think about where you want to go, and you would start to network, and you would target those places where you think you can really make a difference. That’s what you would actually do. And it’s bothered me that this just-in-time networking, like, something bad happens, your company gets acquired, your boss leaves, all of this stuff happens and people aren’t prepared. And so, you’ve got to treat your career like your health, and be proactive, and don’t just wait for the heart attack to update your resume. Actually, do something before.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gary Burnison
What’s always on my mind is, “You’ve got to believe to achieve.” And I think that I’ve just found that, and I don’t know if that’s something that I came up with or I read, but that’s on my mind all the time. And there’s another one that’s on my mind all the time, and that’s, “Fail fast and learn faster.” And so, most people are scared of failure, but the reality is that’s how we learn. Whether we like it or not, we learn through failure. And you have to try things. You have to take risks in life if you want to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say “You’ve got to believe to achieve,” can you unpack what that means in practice for a career?

Gary Burnison
You have to believe in yourself. You have to have that inner confidence. And so, if you’re the CEO, like myself, I think the most important thing is purpose. In other words, most CEOs, they think about the what, and the how, and the where, but they don’t think about the why. And the why is the most important thing, I think, in business. The why is, “Why are you in business?” And so, I call that purpose. For me, as a CEO, what I have to believe is I have to believe in purpose. I have to believe in our purpose.

Because if I can authentically represent that to 10,000 people, people will get behind that.

For an individual, I would say that you have to believe in yourself. Without that, it is going to be very, very hard to advance. And that’s why it’s so important that when you think about the next job and a career, who’s your mentor going to be? Because, yes, you can believe in yourself, and I tell you, it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself if others believe in you. Both have to happen.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Gary Burnison
Well, it’s a book that I think is 20 years old, but Who Moved My Cheese? It has a strange title. It’s actually a very motivational book, it’s a very simple book. And the concept, which is so appropriate for today, is around change. And so, this view of trying to make tomorrow different than today, of having this insatiable curiosity for learning and for change, and not accepting the status quo, and not falling into the den of complacency is what that book’s all about. And I think that is more important today than ever.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Gary Burnison
I spend probably an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half at night with nobody, around reading. And so, all the apps that I would have are all around news. And I found that it’s kind of a reflective time, and it’s a time to kind of be in the world, and to understand what’s happening around you, and to make your world bigger. And so, I do that religiously every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you a lot?

Gary Burnison
Make people feel better after than before. And so, I will get that, people will say that jokingly, they’ll say it seriously to me. I think you should set that as a goal. Any human being, but particularly in the workplace, and particularly if you’re a manager, and for sure if you’re a boss, that with every interaction of an employee, “Do they feel better after than before?”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gary Burnison
Well, I’d take a look at the new book. It’s just simply called Advance, and you could get it on Amazon. And we actually have a new business Korn Ferry Advance that is all around trying to change people’s lives, trying to help them in their careers. We’ve got interviewing tools, we’ve got resume tools. It’s really the whole thing trying to change people’s lives and their professional careers for the better.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gary Burnison
Boy, you want to wake up without the alarm clock. And if you’re not waking up without the alarm clock, you need to make a change. But that change needs to be well thought out.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gary, this has been a treat once again. I wish you and Korn Ferry all the luck and success in your adventures.

Gary Burnison
Great hearing your voice again. And thank you very much for your time.

554: How Doing Less Results in Achieving More with Celeste Headlee

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Award-winning journalist and speaker Celeste Headlee shares how doing nothing can help you accomplish everything.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why idleness isn’t laziness
  2. What’s causing you burnout
  3. The productivity benefits of shorter work hours

About Celeste:

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker and author of Heard Mentality and We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter. In her 20-year career in public radio, she has been the Executive Producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as co-host of the national morning news show, The Takeaway, from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Celeste’s TEDx Talk 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 19 million total views to date.

Items Mentioned in the Show

Thank you, sponsors!

Celeste Headlee Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Celeste, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Celeste Headlee
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat again. And, first, I was very curious, as you filled out the form, you mentioned that your dog has a best friend whom your dog texts. Please explain.

Celeste Headlee
Well, I mean, obviously, I text on behalf of my dog.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Celeste Headlee
But they have a very close relationship, and my dog has a very expressive face, so I read the facial expressions and then I text it. My neighbor across the street has a dog named Choco, a lab mix, and they took her away for three months. They went on a road trip, and so Sam has missed Choco horribly, so the dogs would text back and forth to each other for the three months while Choco was away. Their reunion was lovely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is lovely. Well, that explains a lot. I mean, I was very intrigued, like, “How is this working in terms of texting? And is the best friend another dog or is it a…?” Now, that’s all good and clear. I’m curious how they got to be so tight to begin with. What forges a bond between the dogs?

Celeste Headlee
I really don’t know. My dog is pretty particular about which dogs she likes and which she just tolerates. The vast majority of canine kind belongs in the second category, she’s fine with them but she just tolerates them. But something about Choco, the very first day they met, she just fell in love. That was her puppy, and they have been bonded. They’ve been a bonded pair ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so talking about pair bonding, the last time we discussed, we had a great conversation and listening and such, and that was a fun one. So, listeners, that is over at Episode 221 if you’d like to resurface that one. But now you’re onto some new territory, or maybe, I imagine, there’s some interrelationships there. You’re talking about doing nothing, well, your book title I love, “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.” Captivating and I think resonant for many. So, boy, there’s lots to say here, but maybe I’ll just put you on the spot. What’s maybe the most fascinating and surprising thing you discovered when you were researching and putting this book together?

Celeste Headlee
I think that number one is how long this has been going on, right? Because this sort of modern hustle culture that is making so many of us unhappy, I think we tend to associate it with technology and social media and some very recent developments. But when I started researching it, it dates back to 19th century Scotland.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s where hustling began?

Celeste Headlee
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
The Scottish hustlers.

Celeste Headlee
The Scottish engineer. Funnily enough, one of the things I talk about is how we’re always trying to have the best, the ultimate, which is, in moderation, that’s a wonderful impulse, but that Scottish engineer, he wasn’t inventing the steam engine, he had a steam engine, he thought it was terrible so he was just trying to improve it. And that’s how the Industrial Revolution began. So, that was the biggest surprise for me that this has been going on for well over 250 years.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re saying that the start of hustle culture coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution in that I guess there’s an optimizing mindset. Or are you also saying that individual workers are like, “Oh, wow, okay. I do more, I get more”?

Celeste Headlee
Okay. So, human beings did things and lived a certain way for most of our 300,000 years on the planet. I’m talking about homo sapiens. And when the Industrial Revolution came along, it literally changed everything, and that’s another surprising thing for me, because when you’re in history class, AP US History or whatever, and you’re learning about the Industrial Revolution, I don’t think you really understand how much changed, and how not only our work changed but like almost every aspect of our lives and our personal relationships. But the biggest thing is that time became money.

Time did not equal money before the Industrial Revolution. In other words, your task, that what you made was what was worth something. It didn’t matter how long it took you.
another thing that shifted during the Industrial Revolution is, before that time, first of all, we didn’t work very much. Medieval serfs worked less than half a year. And it was because of this idea that, number one, most people were at some level entrepreneurs. Even serfs had a certain amount of land that they farm for themselves. They got done putting their two hours in for their lord, or whatever, and then they went home, and they took care of their stuff. You had all these women who had knitting businesses and quilting businesses, and they made textiles and all these other things. The Industrial Revolution just decimated the female business owner population.

[06:38]

But, also, it sort of disempowered a lot of workers. So, whereas, you would’ve had all these different workers with their own set of tools, when they moved into a factory, they no longer owned the tools, they no longer owned the product left. It became this very centralized industrial culture, and people, for the first time in like the early 20th century, more people lived in cities than they did in rural areas. Just like literally everything changed. And it happened so rapidly that people weren’t quite ready for how dramatic that change was.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s kind of where it began. So, it wasn’t the internet, it wasn’t the iPhone, it wasn’t Instagram. It was the Industrial Revolution. So, that’s handy to orient kind of what’s going on there. And so then, if your advice is…the title is “Do Nothing.” Is that what you suggest is the answer to our overwork, overdoing, underliving world? What do you mean by that and how is that an optimal answer kind of relative to our alternatives?

Celeste Headlee
Well, the point being that idleness is not laziness. In other words, a fisherman is busy while he’s idle. Same with most security guards, right? They’re working while they’re idle. Whereas, if you’re bike-riding, you’re actually quite active when you’re at leisure. Our ideas of these concepts of leisure, laziness, and idleness are really kind of screwed up, and partly because we have this sort of work addiction so we don’t really understand that idleness is required by the human body and the human mind.

The human mind just doesn’t persist. That’s not how it works. It pulses. It needs regular breaks, it needs rests, and in order to do its absolute best work, it needs short bursts of focused attention. And at this point, very few workers really get focused time when there’s no distractions. You walk through an office and you’ll see everybody with like 50 tabs open on their browser, and their email open, and their smartphone there, and their Fitbit, and their Slack going.

People don’t work without distraction, and yet that is the most fertile ground for the brain in terms of creative problem-solving and productivity. So, number one, we’re not as productive as we think we are. That’s a delusion. And, number two, you need downtime. That’s how you keep your brain working at its best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I think I buy that in terms of that’s what would make for some great outcomes during the course of doing your work. And so then, when we talk about doing nothing, what does that look, sound, feel like in practice?

Celeste Headlee
First of all, I’d say try out boredom. Try to feel bored again. And in order to do that, you need to put away your smartphone. I am not the person that’s going to tell you to get rid of your technology. I think technology is fine. But I do think you have to put limits on how much you use it. So, every once in a while, put your smartphone away, go take a walk without your phone. Sit down on the couch and just sit there for a little while and see what comes to mind.

Every once in a while, I say, “Oh, my God, I have a porch,” or I remember my porch. Maybe I’ll go sit on it for a little while, and I just force myself to sit. And if you do that, frankly, you can’t do it for a really long period of time. Your brain just doesn’t like to be bored, and so things will come to you. You’ll start thinking about stuff. You’ll maybe remember that kit you bought to make your own, I don’t know, apple hard cider or whatever, “Oh, yeah, maybe I want to do that. Maybe I want to do work on playing the guitar,” or whatever it may be. But things will come to you, and you’ll remember things, and there’ll be new thoughts.

All the time that you’re idle or bored, your brain is still working. It’s working almost exactly as hard as it does when you’re trying to make it do productive work, right? So, when it’s idle though and not focused and directed, what it’s doing is like sifting through memory, sifting through information that you’ve taken in, thinking of things that you haven’t thought in quite some time, and it’s making new connections. It’s making surprising connections.

And so, you’re going to have, perhaps, thoughts you’ve never had before. That won’t happen if you’re always directing your mind to do something and produce something. You need to let it sort of sit back and kind of browse through the shelves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. So, you’re saying it’s key that we have some time for this idle stuff as opposed to being go, go, go, go, go sort of constantly, and that’s counterproductive to our ends. Could you share some of the most striking, I guess, studies or data points or numbers that reinforce this for the workaholics who need a little bit more encouragement?

Celeste Headlee
Well, we have a lot of different case studies that prove this point, and one of the ones that I revisit a couple times in the book is Sahlgrenska Hospital. And one of the reasons I think it’s so striking is because we think of the medical profession as just requiring punishing hours. They have cots in their break rooms for a reason. And so, Sahlgrenska Hospital was having a huge productivity problem. Their staff was working incredibly hard, and yet the wait to get a surgery done was months long, and they were just completely overwhelmed, and they decided to experiment with cutting hours.

So, in this one orthopedic unit, they cut everybody’s hours down so they never worked longer than six hours at a time. Six hours at a time. I mean, think about that in a hospital. And they had all these funds set aside prepared to hire on a bunch more people to cover the gaps. But what they found was they didn’t have to hire anybody. In fact, productivity went up, the wait for surgery went down to just a few weeks. You could get in within two or three weeks. And they actually found they were not only getting more done in less time but the morale went straight through the roof. Why? Because they were actually getting rest.

Surprisingly enough, when the brain is rested and the body is rested, you make way fewer errors. And errors is wasted time, right?

Pete Mockaitis
I see, yeah.

Celeste Headlee
You’ve done work that has to be corrected.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess that’s kind of a spooky thing if all the surgeons were making errors previously.

Celeste Headlee
I’m not trying to give you nightmares.

Pete Mockaitis
The United States error situation. Well, I buy that in terms of you make the errors which require fixing. Or even if it’s not an explicit, “Ooh, you did A when you should’ve done B,” I think about it sometimes like you just didn’t have the idea that would’ve been five times as fast as what you did instead. It’s like, “Oh, I could’ve done that.”

Celeste Headlee
Think about it this way, the way that we’re working right now where we’re either in burnout or on the edge of burnout. What’s happening neurologically is that you’re so stressed and overwhelmed that you’re in fight or flight. That means the part of your brain that is ruling your brain in making decisions is your amygdala. Now, your amygdala is the oldest evolutionary part of your brain. It is your monkey brain. And that is the one that you want if you’re being chased by a tiger. You want absolute pure instinct to take over. Like, you need that one to take the wheel when you’re in crisis, and then hand the wheel back because that is the toddler in the room.

Then you want the rest of your brain, especially your prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead, that’s what you want generally making your decisions. That’s the part that thinks twice. That’s the part that considers. It’s mature. It’s your executive thinking capacity. But when you’re in burnout, it’s your amygdala all the time. You’re in fight or flight all the time, which, number one, means you’re stressed. Your cortisol levels are quite high. Your heart rate is usually elevated. And, again, you are making decisions based on fear. You’re not making decisions that are carefully considered. You’re making decisions instinctually, gut instinct, which means you’re making bad decisions.

You’re not just making bad decisions about what to do at any moment at a time, you’re making bad decisions about your priorities, you’re making bad decisions about what to eat, how much sleep you need. All the things that you need to do, you’re making bad decisions. And so, of course, it’s wasting your time, of course it’s not leading you to the kind of creativity and innovation most of us want. If we could just relax a little bit and create an environment in which your body and brain can do their best work, you will not lose productivity. In fact, you might find, just like the hospital did, your productivity will go up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, recently, we had Michael Hyatt on the show who told a similar story about free to focus and his executives, and they grew revenue, and they worked less, like 11 hours a week less. So, I mean, that’s a message that I love hearing because I would like to work less and achieve more, so it sounds very appealing. Do you have a sense for what is the sweet spot either on a weekly work-hour basis or a daily kind of on/off rest cycle basis? Like, what’s your hunch for productivity maximization? What’s the ballpark range of how much is too much versus not enough versus just about right?

Celeste Headlee
So, we do have a lot of these records. Some of the most productive people in history worked maybe four or five hours a day. They ran a study at the University of Illinois in which they followed…

Pete Mockaitis
I.L.L. That’s right.

Celeste Headlee
That’s right. Is it your alma mater?

Pete Mockaitis
It sure is.

Celeste Headlee
They followed, and this is a while ago, I want to say it was the 1970s. It could’ve been the ‘50s. In any case, they followed a whole bunch of scientists around for quite a length of time, and they found the least productive among them were the ones who worked more than 50 hours a week. The most productive were those who worked between 12 and 20 hours a week. Charles Darwin worked four hours a day. Charles Dickens worked four hours a day. Prionka Ray worked four hours a day. We happen to know, just based on anecdotal evidence, that the average person has maybe four hours of focused work in them on any given day.

Now, that said, obviously that’s an average. I had to figure it out for myself. And, anybody, I explain how to do that in the book, but you’re going to have to find out for yourself what is the amount of time that you can work before it starts becoming counterproductive. But if you think that it’s eight hours or, God forbid, 10 or 12, that’s wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s intriguing. I guess with the examples that you gave us, I think that makes a ton of sense in terms of like scientists. Like, those who need a breakthrough, or a great idea, or an innovation, then that totally adds up, “Hey, you need more idle time so your brain can do all those things you were describing that can lead you there.” And then, as opposed to when you’re in an Industrial Revolution type mode, it’s sort of like you don’t need to get a great idea, but you do need to, I don’t know, tighten a bolt or kind of whatever, stick this thing in that thing. Although, those jobs are fewer and fewer, and not ones that mostly is less some tasks.

Celeste Headlee
Fewer and fewer but also, remember this, Henry Ford didn’t shorten his work hours for his workers to eight hours because he wanted to be generous. He shortened those work hours because he found that if they started working more than that, they started making errors and screwing things up to the point where productivity went down. We have known, even going back to the 19th century, we have records of businesses that when they shortened work hours, actually saw productivity go up, and that’s partly because of accuracy, it’s partly because the brain and body just worked better and they’re more fluid, and they’re just better fit to get things done when they’re well-rested and they’ve had breaks. So, it’s not just the knowledge worker. It’s pretty much any worker, you need rest.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And so, with those four hours, are there some themes or patterns in that they are more so in the morning, recently after sleep, or are they kind of like all over the place based on people’s unique cycles and ways of working?

Celeste Headlee
Interesting enough, again, we’re talking about averages here. So, the average person is actually better first thing in the morning if it requires any kind of real thought, and that’s especially true of people who are not morning people. So, the more tired and groggy you are, actually the more innovative you are first thing in the morning, oddly enough. Again, these are averages. You have to figure this stuff out for yourself, which means you can’t read some article on the web that says, “Oh, successful people wake up at 4:30 a.m. and immediately do hot yoga,” or whatever it may be. You need to figure out for yourself what works best for you. On average, mornings are good.

But there’s wide variance in the end. Maybe you have the kind of home situation where your mornings are noisy and chaotic. That used to be my life, in which case mornings were very difficult for me, and I would do some of my best work in the afternoon. That’s not true anymore, and now I’m back to doing my best work in the mornings.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, when you mentioned chaotic mornings, I don’t know if you can hear the toddlers screaming.

Celeste Headlee
I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, ahh, that’s good feedback about the microphone selection.

Celeste Headlee
I remember.

Pete Mockaitis
The door blocks a lot but not everything. Anyway, okay, so that’s handy there. And so then, I want to get your take, when it comes to sort of the rest, the rejuvenation, you mentioned, hey, just being bored and trying that on for size is good and cool and helpful. What are some of the other perspectives or best practices in terms of really making the most of your rest time?

Celeste Headlee
So, I think the first thing is that you need to stop multitasking because the human brain can’t multitask. You need to stop trying to multitask. You need to start learning, and it is a learning process, learning to do one thing at a time. That is the way the brain works best. And when I say one thing at a time, let me be totally clear. That having your email inbox open all the time is distracting to your brain. Your brain sees that as you try to multitask, because even if you’re not actively looking at the email inbox, your brain is preparing for a notification to come in, it is devoting energy to that.

The same is true as if your smartphone is visible. Your brain is then trying to multitask, preparing for an alert to come in. It does not make a distinction between a notification coming on your phone and somebody knocking at the door. Same thing for your brain, so you have to put it out of sight. And if you really want to make the best use of what you have, your big, meaty, homo sapiens brain, give it its best environment, meaning that let it do one thing at a time. You will be shocked when you do that, how much you can get done. Close out your extra tabs and focus. Say, “Right now, this is what I’m working on,” and work on that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Understood. Well, tell me, Celeste, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Celeste Headlee
The last thing I would mention is that you may not actually have a great handle on how you’re spending your time. Time perception is generally low. Time perception is the accuracy with which you know how your time is spent and it’s, in general, fairly low. So, the first thing I had to do was track my time. I had to like spend a couple weeks, every couple of hours I would go back and say, “Okay, here’s what I did for a couple hours.” And I realized I was spending time on stuff that I really didn’t want to spend that much time on it. So, when you feel overwhelmed and overworked, it may just be that you’re not fully aware of where your time is going.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Celeste Headlee
I think it really relates in terms of becoming very focused on any one thing, and it’s a quote from Nietzsche, which says, I want to make sure I get this correct, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So, I like that because sometimes we become so obsessed and focused on something, we sort of think the ends justify the means, and you can become a monster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Celeste Headlee
So, I’ll tell you about one of my favorites which is this one in which they were testing stress responses. And they got this group of young girls together and they’d made them do a very stressful thing. They made them solve math problems in front of an audience. And, not surprisingly, the cortisol levels of all these girls went through the roof. They were very stressed out. Cortisol is your stress hormone. And they divided them into four groups.

One of the groups had no contact from their mother after this was over. One of the groups, their mother was waiting for them backstage. Another of the groups got a phone call from their mother, and the last group got a text from their mom, right? So, not surprisingly, the group that had no contact whatsoever, their cortisol level stayed completely elevated, there was almost no change. They were very stressed out. The girls whose moms were waiting backstage, they saw massive drop in their stress, they started to relax. Both of those were unsurprising, right?

But here’s the thing. The girls who got a phone call from their moms, saw their cortisol levels, their stress dropped at almost the same amount as those who had their mother waiting backstage. The girls who got a text, no change. That text did nothing to their stress levels. So, when we’re saving time and we think that we’re checking off the box by sending the text to someone, as far as your brain and your emotions are concerned, it doesn’t do it. We don’t recognize that as authentic social contact.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s so…man, this is really hitting home because, just yesterday, it was my buddy Brent’s birthday, he listens to the show. Hey, Brent.

Celeste Headlee
Happy Birthday, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
And I thought, “Oh, I should give him a call. But I’m hearing a thing, hearing a thing, hearing a thing, I don’t know.” And so, I texted him and didn’t call him, and I’m like, “I really should’ve called him.”

Celeste Headlee
Yeah, you should’ve called him. Sorry, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Brent, know I was thinking about you, but it did nothing for your biochemistry when I sent you that text message, okay.

Celeste Headlee
Exactly. Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.

Celeste Headlee
Fascinating, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Humbled and corrected and learning. All right. How about a favorite book?

Celeste Headlee
A book I just finished reading not too long ago is called “The Paris Library,” and it’s a novel but it’s based on the true story of these librarians at the American library in Paris during the German occupation who hid away a lot of the books and made sure they were sending out books to all the soldiers. It’s just kind of like, I think the tagline is something like “Sometimes heroism comes from the quietest of places.” And it’s a war book in which there’s no violence, but there’s no lack of heroism because of that. I just really loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thanks. And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Celeste Headlee
My favorite tool is my little GPS collar for my dog because when we’re walking in the woods and she’s not coming when I call her, I know exactly where she is, and I don’t have to worry.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it is handy. Thank you.

Celeste Headlee
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit, something that helps you stay awesome at your job?

Celeste Headlee
I make sure that I meditate every day. And I know it’s kind of like the gym, if you don’t go to the gym, you kind of feel icky. It’s the same thing for me for meditation, is that if I don’t do it, I can tell the difference, so I make sure that I do it usually in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you often?

Celeste Headlee
So, one of the things I’m always talking about is how human beings are a hive mind, and I write about this in this new book, that we do our best work in groups, not alone. And there’s tons of evidence that even the uneducated or ill-prepared group will outperform the most educated and experienced expert. So, one of the ways I explain this is I say, “There’s only two species that can take down a bison.” Have you ever seen a bison actually in person?

Pete Mockaitis
I think from a distance, like I’m in a train, so not up close.

Celeste Headlee
Yeah. So, a bison is a freaking impressive animal, right? These are like 2200 pounds of solid muscle. They can run more than 40 miles an hour. With their horns, they can pick up a truck. Like, this is an amazing beast, and not stupid. There’s only two species that can really take them down. They are, of course, wolves and humans. And what do wolves and humans have in common? They’re pack animals.

And this is just sort of a way of explaining how human beings have been so successful. It’s because we have to take down this incredible beast so we sit there and we have these communication skills that allow us to find out who’s the best on horseback, who has the best aim with a spear, who thinks geometrically and can peel one of them off of the herd, who’s the best at butchering an animal, who’s the strongest and is going to be able to get this thing onto the sled to get it back to the village. That’s what we’re able to accomplish with our advanced communication skills. And no expert is going to help you with some of these tasks that have helped us survived.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Celeste, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Celeste Headlee
Go to CelesteHeadlee.com, it’s where I gather all the info in one convenient place.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Celeste Headlee
Yes. Find at least 20 minutes a day when you don’t have your smartphone with you. Twenty minutes. You can do it. You can survive. As of 2007, before 2007, there was no iPhone. Like, it’s been very recent that we were able to survive without them. So, find 15 or 20 minutes, and you walk away and leave your smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Celeste, thanks for this, and good luck in all your adventures.

Celeste Headlee
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.