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961: How to Get Better at Anything Faster with Scott H. Young

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Scott H. Young shows how to get better at getting better.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The promise and pitfalls of copying the pros
  2. The See-Do-Feedback model of learning 
  3. How to build the perfect environment for learning 

About Scott

Scott H. Young is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Ultralearning, a podcast host, computer programmer, and an avid reader. Since 2006, he has published weekly essays to help people learn and think better. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Pocket, and Business Insider, on the BBC, and at TEDx among other outlets. He doesn’t promise to have all the answers, just a place to start. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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Scott H. Young Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Scott, welcome back.

Scott Young

Oh, thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I am excited to hear wisdom from your book, Get Better at Anything. Tell us, any particularly surprising or fascinating discoveries you made as you’re putting this together? You’ve been in the learning game for a while. So, tell us what’s new and fresh and interesting for you in terms of learning about learning?

Scott Young

Well, I mean, it’s funny because I wrote a book and I talked to you about it probably about five years ago, Ultralearning. And after I wrote that book, I’m like, “Well, I’m not going to need to write another book about learning.” And as I started digging deeper and deeper, and more and more into the research, I was like, you know, there’s a whole new book here, there’s a whole new set of ideas. And so, basically, this entire book was me including things where I was like, “Oh, that’s neat, I didn’t know that,” or, “Oh, that’s surprising,” or, “That’s useful and no one had ever explained that to me before.”

So, I think when you write these books, you’re also writing for yourself, in a way. You’re writing kind of like, “What did I wish I knew before I read hundreds of books and hundreds and hundreds of papers and this kind of stuff?” Like, what would have been nice for someone to be like, “Oh, here’s a summary of what you need to know.” And so, I mean, that was the starting point for writing this.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, with that, let us know something particularly surprising, useful, and never before explained to you.

Scott Young

Well, so I think one idea, and this is one that I opened the book with and I think is very important, is the idea that how we learn from other people is an extremely important component, not just in our own individual ability to improve, but the ability for entire groups of people, communities, even fields to improve.

So, the story that kind of captured my interest and got me started writing this book was actually about Tetris. Now, Tetris is a game that came out a little over three decades ago and when it came out it was a sensation. People are obsessed with it. They’re playing it hundreds of hours a week. They’re hallucinating falling blocks. But if you look at the people’s scores by the best people who are playing the game, the people who were playing back then are nowhere near as good as like 12- and 13- year-old kids are today.

And the reason why is because back in the day, if you were learning how to play Tetris and you were trying to figure it out yourself, maybe your brother’s older friend knew a technique and you could learn and copy from them but, otherwise, all the players were essentially disconnected. And now we live in the internet age, and you can see live stream videos of exactly how people are doing it, detailed explanations of the strategies, how you move your fingers, everything like this. And the result has been sort of an explosion in performance.

And I was really sort of drawn to this story, not only because Tetris is kind of a funny out of the box example, but also because of how clearly relevant that is for how we learn things in the workplace, and how we learn things in our professional lives. It’s so much of the knowledge that is needed to perform well is locked inside the heads of a few experts. And if you don’t have access to it, if you don’t have the ability to learn from other people, that can really delay and stall your own progress.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Scott, yes, I love that part of the book about Tetris, because I have in fact watched the Tetris Classic World Championships a few times and am really fascinated by how, yes, the young folks today in Tetris are heads and shoulders above previous champions in terms of their skill. And your point about how, with YouTube and streaming and such, we can really see what are the best folks in the world doing. And as a result, they are advancing much more quickly.

And by contrast, I would say at the very highest level of, say, chess, that has not been as much of a phenomenon, from what I can gather with Magnus Carlsen arguably being better than Bobby Fisher and others of the world champions historically. But, in a way, chess was well documented for centuries in terms of, “Here are the best games of the best players and they’ve been around for quite a long time.” Whereas Tetris and other domains of knowledge, it’s more of a recent phenomenon that, “Oh, hey, we can all see what the best players are doing in great detail all the time.”

Scott Young

Yeah, I think for chess, part of the thing is that it really lends itself to being documented through text. And I think that’s why you have such a rich history of, like, famous games were played 200 years ago and this kind of stuff. I think the technology needed to document elite-level chess play has existed for a really long time. So, of course, there is performance improvements. And I do think that the arrival of like really good computer chess has changed the game too, because there’s just things.

So that’s, like, not a technological innovation that I’m talking about here, but it is an area that I think explains why some of the better players maybe are better than a generation or two ago is that you can have Stockfish search through the space of possible moves and do research on opening positions and stuff in a way that you had to use the human brain to do until very recently.

So, I do think that there are some innovations there, but obviously a major difference between Tetris and chess is chess is like a discreet game where you move each piece, and you can just write it down and that’s all you need to know about the game. You can do it by correspondence via letters. Whereas Tetris, because it is this human software interaction, you need to know tons of details that are not just about, like, this is where this block went, but the exact timing of certain button presses and these kinds of things.

And that, I think, the ability to witness that, the ability to document those aspects of play, they just weren’t around in the early ‘90s. It was very hard. So, you had people like Thor Aackerlund, who figured out a really good way to press the buttons, but he was the only one who knew it, and so everyone else was doing something else, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well said. And it’s funny, I have heard murmurs that amongst, say, unrated players at chess tournaments, they say, “Oh, watch out, the unrated players showing up at chess tournaments are now phenomenal because they’ve been using Stockfish to analyze their games and say, ‘Oh no, see that game you just played? These are actually the very best moves you could have played.’” And so, they’re learning faster.

So, by the time they actually show up on a measured event, it’s like, watch out, unrated players of today are just obliterating unrated players of yesteryear. So that’s, in a way, intriguing, maybe not the very highest championship levels, but at the, in many ways, advances in technology are improving the ability of folks to learn because they could readily see what is optimal.

Scott Young

Yeah, and I think it’s easier to sort of document these phenomena in areas like chess and Tetris where performance is quite objective, it’s measurable, and we have details on, like, what the best people are doing. But I think for that reason, it’s very important to think about these in the kind of softer, squishier context that we usually live in, like, writing a book, for instance.

I was just reflecting on the fact that when I got into writing my first book, that, essentially, if you don’t have a bunch of friends who’ve already published books, the world of traditional book publishing is just completely opaque. It’s just something that very few people understand, people don’t understand how it works, and there’s lots of people that’ll waste years of their life going down a path in writing a book or trying to pursue that as a career, that it’s just a total dead end without realizing it.

And so, I think this is the sort of phenomenon of how can you get access to, “Well, this is what the best practices are. This is how you perform this skill. This is sort of the template,” so that it doesn’t necessarily make you the best Tetris chess player author in the world, but it gets you so much faster up to that frontier. And I think that is just a huge factor in whether or not you’re able to get better, whether you have to reinvent the wheel or whether you’re getting the blueprint given to you.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that notion there, “Are we getting the blueprint from the best performers in the world? Or are we wasting years of our life pursuing dead ends to really polarize and extremify the ends of it.” And I remember when I was in the early days of podcasting, I went to the Podcast Movement Conference, which is awesome. And folks were like, “How do I grow my podcast? How do I grow my podcast?” And I too wonder that.

And then it became very clear, the answer, according to all the best podcasters in the world, to grow a podcast is to be a guest on other podcasts. Like, that’s the thing you do. Like, it’s not about Facebook ads or tweeting really clever things. It’s be a guest on a lot of other large podcasts and be amazing, so people say, “Wow, I should check that person out.”

And I remember it was kind of an eye-opener for me. It’s like, “Huh, all these top people just keep saying the same thing. Whereas I thought out here, a variety of answers.” And then I shared that with a couple other people, they said, “Yeah, that is the thing I keep hearing.” And it makes sense in hindsight, and I’ve seen success with it myself, but if you’re just sort of taking your best guess or Googling something, you are very likely to end up with dozens of paths when, apparently, one is the very best.

Scott Young

It’s funny, I just want to like to keep pulling on this game analogy that we’ve been using, which maybe I’m stretching it too far. But the basic idea in a lot of games that are played competitively is that there’s this idea of a meta. And the meta is not really like the game itself, but sort of the higher-level understanding of what’s the best practice.

So, in chess that would be like, “What are the openings that are popular? What are the responses that are popular?” So, if you’re a good chess player, you’re going to know, “Oh, that kind of thing was something people did 40 years ago, but most people do this now.” And pretty much any game you can think of has this kind of meta layer.

But the truth is that the same is true in your career, the same is true in your professional life, that there is a kind of meta, there is a sort of, like, what you were saying is that the meta, at least at that point in time of how do you grow a big podcast was, well, you got to be a guest on other people’s podcasts. And I have been doing this sort of, you know, I started out blogging, I have a newsletter, I’ve been doing this for like almost two decades.

And the amounts of changes to the meta as like, “This is the way you build an audience. This is what you do to build a business, this kind of thing.” They’ve turned over, like, five or six times and you always spot people who are very good at picking up this meta. Now, maybe they’re not like the smartest person in the world.

Maybe they don’t even have like, you know, it’s not like this person just has really high raw intellect or this person is the best possible writer, the best possible content creator, but they have a really good understanding of the meta. They have a really good understanding of what is the best practice, what’s working right now, and they’re able to just leapfrog other people in their field because they have that understanding.

And so, that’s something that I’ve really taken to heart in thinking of a lot of skills, because often we take this kind of academic model where we think about like, “Well, the main thing for succeeding in school or for learning is your raw brain power,” but it may be the case that it’s more your ability to connect with other people and to sort of figure out what this sort of best practices is for a field that maybe the smartest people in the room, if they don’t have those connections, maybe they don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s super. And so, you’ve laid out three key factors, the See-Do-Feedback. Can you unpack a little bit of this broadly?

Scott Young

Yeah, so the See is kind of what we’ve already been talking about, “How do you learn from other people?” And the book kind of documents both sort of how enabling this is, like a lot of the cognitive science showing why this matters so much, as well as some of the obstacles, like, “What makes it difficult sometimes to learn from other people?”

Do is obviously practice matters to get good at anything. You don’t just get good at something by watching someone. You don’t get good at podcasting by reading how to make a great podcast online or just listening to podcasts. You have to do it a lot, and same with all skills. But importantly, the kind of practice matters.

And so, there’s a lot of research showing what practice does and what it doesn’t do. And the thing is, is that, a lot of times you can spend years, maybe even decades, working on a skill, continuing to do the same things, and you don’t get that much better at it. You don’t actually improve that much. So, I think a firmer understanding of what practice is actually doing, what it helps with, and what it doesn’t help with is very important if you want to make progress and not waste a lot of effort.

And then, finally, Feedback is important because it’s not enough. We don’t just get things perfectly the first time. We need corrective information from the environment, from coaches, from our own performance, our own interactions with the environment that we care about. And so, there’s a lot of information about how you can finetune feedback to accelerate your growth.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, so let’s hit this mystery. What does practice do for us? What does it not do for us?

Scott Young

So, the basic idea, and I mean, there’s a lot of things to unpack here, but when we practice something over and over again, one of the things that’s going on is that we are making the skill more automatic. To use an example, let’s say we’re typing on a computer. And if you start typing and you decide you don’t get a proper instruction, you’re doing the hunting and pecking, you’re using the two fingers, you’re looking at the keyboard.

If you keep doing that, it will become more automatic, more effortless, a little bit faster. So, you will be on some kind of practice curve where you’ll be getting slowly, slowly better over time. There’s lots of studies showing exactly the shape of that curve, and you do continue to get better, but it gets slower and slower and slower over time. So, in the beginning you show this sort of steep part of the learning curve and then it flattens out and flattens out and flattens out.

So, if you’ve been doing it for 10 years, you may not even notice getting much better at it, even if you keep doing it, but, and this is really important, the hunting and pecking strategy never just spontaneously evolves into touch typing without deliberate effort. So, what the practice is doing is it’s kind of ingraining a habit. It’s ingraining a way of doing things deeper and deeper.

Now, in reality, we often, when we’re doing things, we don’t do things perfectly consistently all the time, so there is a chance to improve, to try new methods and work things out. But it shows how, what we were talking about with the learning the best practices, that if you don’t kind of get in the right ballpark, someone doesn’t teach you, “Okay, this is the home row, put your fingers on here. This is how you move to hit the keys,” then all the practice in the world may not transform you into using the right proper technique.

And so, I think that a lot of what we’re doing when we’re practicing is this sort of dialogue between like, “Am I using the right method? Am I using the best practices? And am I getting enough repetitions? Am I getting enough, like, realistic feedback in order to actually ingrain this skill and make it automatic for me?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And what’s intriguing is that some activities, feedback is really built in. And I think if we’re playing a game, for example, it’s like, “Oh, hey, I won. Oh, hey, I got more lines than I got before. That’s great.” Or, I’m thinking about, one of my favorite podcasts is Darknet Diaries, and so we talk about hackers. And so, it seems like they kind of get obsessed with the thing, like, “Huh, I wonder if there’s an exploit here? Let me try it. No, it didn’t work. Let me try again. Let me try.”

And so, in some activities, there’s automatic feedback built right in, and in others, I think about podcasts, they’re not. Like, you could go hundreds of episodes and not hear much, or that would tell you to, “Ooh, do what you did last time. That’s amazing,” or, “Stop doing what you did. That wasn’t working so well.” So, how do you think about means by which we get that feedback integrated well?

Scott Young

I think I would even add to that point, because even when you are getting feedback in that kind of environment, it’s not always helpful. I had a conversation with someone about standup comedy and they were talking about, “Well, you’re getting all this feedback from the audience.” Like, why do some comics, they’ve been around for, like, 10 years and they’re just not getting funnier?

And it’s because, well, whether someone doesn’t laugh or laughs at your joke, that can kind of tell you, “Okay, say it this way and not this way.” But again, it’s not going to give you the full space of possibility. If you’re just not funny, if none of the things you’re saying are funny, it’s not going to give you, like, “Well, this is the joke you should have said,” right? You’re just going to be like, “Well, I guess they don’t like me.”

And so, I think that’s true of a lot of creative professions. Like, you write the book and it doesn’t sell, I mean, that is feedback, but, like, what does it tell you? Like, it could tell you, there’s like a million things that could be wrong, right? You don’t actually know. And so, I think for these kinds of complicated domains, this is one reason why we want to try to enhance the feedback that we get.

So, one of the chapters in the book, I talk about how in a more narrow context, this is the context of making judgments. This is not a complicated skill, like writing a book or producing a podcast, but something where you are just making a judgment, like, “Do I hire this person or not hire them? Are they going to turn out or they’re not going to turn out?” Or, if I’m a parole officer, “Will this person commit another crime? Or are they going to behave themselves when they’re out on bail?” and these kinds of things, these kinds of decisions.

And they find that people who have extensive experience have lots and lots of confidence, which is consistent with their idea that their decisions become more and more automatic. They don’t hum and haw over them. They get more and more confident, but they don’t actually get that accurate. And you can make like fairly simple models using spreadsheets that reliably outperform them.

So, in these cases, I think some of the ways that you can augment your feedback is, well, if it’s a kind of creative profession, it’s something where you are, there is some sort of practice, it’s good to have a coach. It’s good to have someone who can look at what you’re doing and offer advice. I would much rather have a good editor read my book and offer feedback than, like, a hundred random readers. I would much rather have a good business coach tell me what I should be doing with my company rather than just 15 product complaints.

I also think that having a brain trust or having a group of people where you can do work, share it with each other, and then offer feedback, advice together can often be very helpful, not because any one of those people knows more than you do, but because they’re better able to integrate information. So, if there was some glaring flaw with what you did and you missed it, it would be much less likely that a group of, like, five or six people would miss it. And so, that’s another way that you can enhance that kind of feedback for those sorts of pursuits.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, I’d love to dig into a couple of particular examples for putting these principles into action for learning different things. But, first, could we have maybe your four-minute-ish version of a rundown of your 12 maxims of mastery?

Scott Young

So, the 12 maxims is “problem-solving is search.” I cover the basic theory of like how people solve problems. And this is this idea that we solve problems by searching for a solution in a space, like going from a start to the end point in a maze. And we do that using methods and knowledge that we’ve built up from experience.

The second chapter is “creativity begins with copying.” This is the idea that creative progress is not opposed to copying. It’s not like originality and copying are the antitheses of each other, but that creativity builds from acquiring past knowledge, from mastering methods from the past. “Success is the best teacher” is the idea that the way we build motivation and interest in a subject is by building up successes and having the right foundation of skills so we know the building blocks of how it works.

“Experience makes knowledge invisible” is the next one, and this one is about how, as you gain more experience in a subject, your own explicit understanding of how it works often recedes into the background. And so, this means that when we’re learning from other people, often we have that kind of tension of, like, “How do we learn from this person when, for them, it’s just obvious?” And so, we have to try to use techniques to surface what is obvious to them, but is not obvious to us. That’s the See chapters.

Do, “I have difficulty” has a sweet spot. This is about finetuning the right level of difficulty and finding a practice loop where you go between seeing examples, doing your own practice, and getting feedback. “The mind is not a muscle.” This is based on a lot of research showing what exactly improves with practice and sort of contrary to the assumption that a lot of people have that, if you just do practice, it’s going to make your mental muscles broadly stronger. That’s probably the wrong way to think about how the mind works. A better way to think of the mind is that it’s like a collection of tools built out of knowledge. And so, you need a lot of different gadgets, a lot of different tools to get the job done.

The next one is “variability over repetition.” This is an idea about variable practice, about how practicing with variations in terms of what you’re doing. So, mixing up what you’re practicing, practicing different concepts, putting things side by side, tends to make our learning more robust and our skills more proficient. And then I have “quality comes from quantity,” which is covering Dean Simonton’s work on creativity, showing that as creators reach the sort of frontier of their field, they tend to have about an equal ratio of hits to misses for their creative work, which shows that if you want to have more hits, then you need to make more work.

And so, this has, I think, profound implications for once we get to sort of the edge of doing our field where we’re regularly producing work, finding ways that we can kind of consistently focus on creative output can make a bigger difference than trying other kinds of strategies. I talk about “experience doesn’t reliably lead to expertise,” which is what we talked about before about this idea that with judgments, lots of experts of different stripes show kind of poor predictive ability, and it’s because they don’t get reliable feedback.

“Improvement is not a straight line” is about unlearning and about fixing bad habits and the sort of necessary work of correcting mistakes that inevitably arise in our early performance. And then I have “practice must meet reality,” which is about the idea of engaging in the situation that you’re working in, so not just practicing in the classroom, but getting out in the real world and doing it.

And then, finally, “fear fades with exposure,” where I cover a lot of the research on the neuroscience of anxiety and how exposure to situations that give us anxiety that we’re afraid of, that have not strong danger, we’re not very likely to get supremely hurt, actually cause the fear response to subside. And this is a very important factor if we want to tackle skills that maybe are a little daunting for us.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, thank you for that rundown, Scott. So, I’d love to get your view when it comes to finding these super experts. It seems that having lots of years of experience isn’t necessarily the top credential or qualifier to say, “Oh, this is the expert, the master I should be seeing, learning from.” How do you recommend we determine who are the true exemplars, the providers of best practices that we ought to emulate?

Scott Young

Well, so I tend to view it a little differently. So, my thinking is not so much that we want to find that one perfect paragon of virtue that we want to follow, but that we want to look at the community that’s at the frontier. So, if I were looking at embarking on a new field, I want to switch into academia and start publishing. I’m not going to just like find, well, who’s the superstar academic and what they’re doing? Rather, I’m going to find people who are sort of broadly successful in this field, and I’m going to want to meet and interview with a lot of them and see what they’re doing.

Because I think the communal understanding of how a field works, this kind of meta, is often surpassing any individual person. And so, I think that’s one of the real lessons of the examples, like Tetris and these other environments, that the sort of the group can be smarter than the individual. And so, if I wanted to become, you know, I use the example of Octavia Butler, science fiction writing, and how attending workshops was really, really pivotal for her becoming successful professionally, it wasn’t so much that, “Oh, there’s just one person who knows what it is.”

But when you’re in an environment where you’re with a bunch of other people finally who are all doing the same kind of thing, you can learn from each other and you can stitch together an understanding of that field that maybe any individual person doesn’t have all the pieces, all the answers.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good. And I think that’s kind of exciting or fun for your own learning process as well. It’s, like, if you interview five people, it’s like, “Well, holy smokes, they have their own eccentricities, idiosyncrasies, unique little things, like rare talents that I could ever hope to emulate maybe here or there. But these five people are all kind of saying three of the same things. Like, here’s a theme, a pattern that’s popping up again and again and again. Okay. Do we know it?”

Scott Young

Well, kind of a weird analogy, but the thing that I think about is that they did these studies with overlaying transparencies of people’s faces. And if you overlay a bunch of people’s faces, the net result is a more attractive face than any individual person’s face. This is just averaging out all the features. And I kind of think the same way about understanding a field, is that any individual person is going to know some of the things that are important, but they’re also going to have weird pet theories and idiosyncrasies that just don’t matter at all.

And so, if you just interview that one person, you’re going to be like, “Oh, well, the key to being a successful writer is to, like, work in a basement and, like, not have any light, or the light is bad.” Or, I’m trying to remember which author it was, but she like would lock herself in a hotel room naked or something like that. It’s just like, “Okay, that’s how I’m going to write.”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s the top takeaway from this interview.

Scott Young

Yeah. Now, those little details are going to average out over time as you talk to more people. And especially if you’re in this sort of group environment, and what’s going to emerge is like the things you talked about where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, the strategy for building your podcast is going on other people’s podcasts.” And it’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s the thing that I need to be focusing on.” So, I think we’re talking about this in this kind of, like, professional context, this meta of the profession, but, I mean, this is true even of particular skills, particular subjects.

If you’re learning a language, for instance, and you just talk to one speaker, maybe they have little like quirks in the way they talk that are not very generalized. But if you talk to a dozen people, that kind of broader overlapping imitation, you’re going to average out at, like, “This is how people from this area talk.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so let’s put it to practice, let’s say a couple of learning scenarios. Let’s say I want to learn how to generate more great leads for a service business. I’ve got a sales person who’s rocking and rolling, who when we talk to people, boy, the close rate is phenomenal, but we want more people to be booking those meetings with him, and I want to learn, “How do I make leads rain forth? What is the better approach?”

Scott Young

Yeah, the first place for starting with that would be, like, find kind of people who have similar service businesses and what are they doing to get leads because, again, there’s going to be some kind of, among the business community, among the industry, there’s going to be some kind of meta understanding of, like, “What are people doing to generate leads? What are the strategies that are working? What things don’t work?” And chances are there are some things that you’re doing right and some things that you’re missing out on, that other people are doing this and you’re not doing it. And so, getting to that frontier is the sort of first step.

And so, if you’ve already spent a lot of time in a field, you know lots of people, again, maybe that gap is, like, there’s only 10% of the things you’re not doing. But if you’re new to an industry, or if you are shifting into field, or the field’s rapidly changing because of technology or new opportunities, maybe there’s lots of things that you’re missing out on. So, that’s the see part and that’s very important.

The next part is doing the practice. So, you have to make those calls, you have to make those efforts, you have to learn from those attempts that you’re doing to generate leads. So, I think often being able to document what you’re doing and making sure that you’re making enough efforts in that regard. And then getting feedback, obviously, seeing what works, what doesn’t work, and being able to measure that precisely often makes a big difference.

Especially in business domains, that’s one of the big things is that people have gut feelings about what works and what doesn’t work. And then you show them the numbers and then you’re like, “Oh, okay. I actually have a bit of a different picture now because I have data on it and not just feelings.”

Pete Mockaitis

And that’s great. What I find interesting is maybe in all fields, I think overconfidence is a general human bias, which is just fascinating me lately. But let’s just say you may very well talk to some experts in marketing who will tell you, with great confidence, conviction, certainty that, “Oh, this ad is garbage. This is the way to go. Forget that platform. This is the thing.” And what really is the ultimate arbiter of truth in this domain is the results generated as opposed to the guesses of the results that will be generated.

Scott Young

Well, I think when you are in, like a direct marketing kind of business or any place where you’re fairly close to the feedback, like your efforts, the things you’re doing fairly directly lead to some kind of material consequence, I think that kind of keeping that tight practice loop with the feedback is so important. And I think pretty much anyone who’s quite successful in that business is very data driven. They’re very much driven based on like, run a lot of tests, see what works, run a lot of tests, see what works.

I think where you get into trouble is when there’s a much longer lead time between your taking action X and you’re getting some results, and maybe there’s all these complex intervening factors and so you can’t do that. Like, we were talking about publishing a book for instance, you don’t get to iterate as fast, maybe publishing a book. And so, that’s when you’re sort of maybe relying a little bit more on what is best practice, what are some of these things as opposed to just getting that direct feedback and learning directly from your mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, let’s say we got a professional and they are noticing this frustrating trend. They’ll say something in a meeting and there’s not much of a response. And then someone else will say almost the same darn thing, Scott, and folks are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s move on this.” Like, what’s going on here? And they would like to be the person who, when they say things, it is listened to, it has weight, gravitas, it is acted upon instead of brushed aside or ignored. How might we learn such a thing, Scott?

Scott Young

Well, I think it also depends on what the skill is that you’re trying to learn because why are you being dismissed? Why are you being overlooked in the meeting? I know that some of that can just break down to, like, raw communication skills. Like, if you’re whispering, “Maybe we should do this, this kind of thing.” Or, if you’re saying it confidently, those things can make a difference.

But I would say, from my personal experience, being in meetings and doing some of these things, some of the things that are even more important is not only the stature of the person who’s giving the thing, if someone is widely seen as being like the expert on X and they give advice. Like, if I go to a doctor and they tell me, “Oh, you need to be doing this, taking this medicine,” versus my buddy, Steve, or something like that, who read some websites, I’m going to listen to the doctor and not Steve.

And so, sometimes the thing that you’re trying to improve is not even a skill at all. It’s just trying to, like, “How do I position myself so that I can be seen as credible when I’m offering advice here? What is my track record, what’s this? Or what’s the sort of evidence I’m bringing up? What’s the kind of like things that I’m using to argue my favor?”

So, if maybe I don’t have that, “I’m the Wizard of X, and I have all this great track record so everyone listens to me on this,” do you have the data? Like, if you’re trying to make a proposal for it and you’re like, “You know what, we’ve shown that it’s going to improve efficiency by this amount, and this is how we know this,” it’s like, “Oh, this person did their homework.” That can make a big difference too.

So, I think anytime you’re encountering difficulties, anytime you’re encountering kind of roadblocks, it’s very important that you have the right mental model for what the problem actually is because if you think the problem is you’re not being confident enough, but everyone else thinks the problem is, “Well, you’ve only been at this firm for one year, and I don’t trust what you have to say,” then it’s a different kind of problem, right?

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. I think that’s, in many ways, perhaps a step zero. It’s, like, before we go off on a quest to learn a thing, let’s make sure that the thing we’re learning will lead us to the result that we’re after.

Scott Young

Yeah, like the way that I opened the book is talking about problem solving, and like the big thing about solving a problem is that you have to be working in the right problem representation. There’s the famous nine dots puzzle, which is like a grid of nine dots. And the question is, like, “Can you draw four lines without lifting up your pencil to do it?”

Now, I know if you haven’t done it before, you can Google it and see what it is and take a look at it. But the reason that people fail the problem is not because the solution is, like, impossible or it’s really hard. It’s because you and your head eliminate the possibility that would allow you to solve it. So, it seems impossible until someone shows to you, like, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.”

And so, a lot of the problems that we face in our work and our lives, we fail because we set up the problem the wrong way, we use the wrong language, we use the wrong mental model to describe the problem, and then we get into an impasse. So, like, as I was saying, you always have to sort of interrogate those assumptions you have. If the assumption you have is that, “Well, people aren’t listening to me at the office because of X,” it could be true, it could be the right answer, but if that assumption is wrong and then you spend a lot of time working on it, you might not see results.

And so, with any kind of business problem, any kind of professional problem you have, that’s the first thing is to just be like, “What are the assumptions that I already have? What are the ways I have of representing the problem that maybe exclude the real solution?”

Pete Mockaitis

Scott, what are your pro tips for when we’re learning a thing and we’re feeling frustrated, irritated, annoyed that it doesn’t seem to be going well? It’s like, “I keep producing junk, failing, messing up, and it’s an unpleasant sensation.” How do you think about that process?

Scott Young

So, I like to think about every emotion that we experience has been something that has been evolved in our brain to send us some kind of message. And so, frustration, this experience that you have when you’re learning things and it’s not working, is really we’re kind of banging our head against the wall. We’re trying something and it’s not working.

And when we’re trying something that’s not working, we’re kind of resorting to this process of, like, assuming we’re continuing to work on it, this kind of like trial and error, figuring things out. And depending on the problem, depending on how many possible combinations of things we could do are, this can lead to just us getting stuck. And this feeling of frustration is like, “Okay, you could waste a lot of time here before you get it, maybe you should give up, maybe you should try something else.”

And so, my feeling of whenever I encounter something which is really frustrating, the first thing I ask myself is, “Do I have the prerequisites? Like, do I have the background knowledge that I should have in order to get to this?” So, if I’m struggling with sort of a programming problem, I would look at like, “Well, do I actually have the fundamental skills to solve this problem? And can I sort of go back a step and learn those and then go back and tackle it?” That kind of stepping back and figuring out what’s missing, I think, is a very important prerequisite for a lot of skills.

The second thing is “How do I finetune the difficulty?” So, if we’re doing practice, if we’re doing efforts where we’re trying to learn from our mistakes and work on things, there are so many little levers, so many little knobs that we can make it a bit easier. And if we’re feeling, “This is extremely frustrating, we’re not making much progress,” dialing those knobs back, kind of hitting that difficulty sweet spot is going to be more productive.

So, again, if we’re like really struggling with writing a novel, maybe we should write a short story. If we’re struggling with writing a short story, maybe we should write like the outline, or maybe we should just write the introduction. And these kinds of little tweaks that you can make can all be ways to change the difficulty of your practice so you’re not feeling like you’re overwhelmed and frustrated.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Scott Young

So, I like this quote, even though when I was doing the research for it, it’s like possibly apocryphal. So, if we can just take that in mind, and this is possibly apocryphal quote, but it’s from Ernest Hemingway, where he said, “We are all apprentices at a craft which no one will ever master.” And I like that idea. I like that idea of, that we are sort of always working and striving towards getting better at something, but never quite reaching it, never quite feeling like we’ve just got it under our grasp.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite study, experiment, or bit of research?

Scott Young

I think one of my favorite that I covered in the book was John Sweller working on some research showing that people could solve problems without learning how they solve the problem. And that one I talk about in the chapter on the copy leading to creativity and just how there is a benefit of seeing examples, seeing how other people do it. And in some circumstances, it’s more beneficial than trying to solve the problem yourself.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite book?

Scott Young

The one that I think stood out to me most, that I enjoyed most, while I was doing the research for this book was Stanley Rachman’s Fear and Courage, where he talks a lot about the research on fear and anxiety and things that I think are very important for our own psychological well-being but are often not well understood.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Scott Young

Honestly, I really like just using Word documents and writing things out. I think writing is an extremely powerful tool that is underused. We try to keep too much in our heads.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite habit?

Scott Young

I think writing daily is very important. I think if you’re in any kind of creative pursuit, doing some amount daily is helpful for continuing to keep that axe sharp.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Scott Young

I think maybe the main thing that people take from my work is the idea that anyone can learn anything if they go about it the right way. And I think that’s something that is sort of a central ide a in my work and something that people talk about.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Scott Young

Yeah, so they can check out my website at ScottHYoung.com, and they can get the book, “Get Better at Anything,” wherever they want to get their books, Amazon, Audible, any of those places.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

Yeah, so I think I would ask people to figure out what’s something that you’re really interested in getting better at, and try to find one thing that you could do to make it better, whether that’s seeing from other people, seeing something that they’re doing that you could try to incorporate into your practice, or some way you could tweak how you’re performing it to get a little bit better.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, Scott, this is fun. I wish you many fun learning adventures.

Scott Young

Oh, yeah, thank you for having me back.

959: Daniel Goleman on How to Master Your Attention, Stop Negativity, and Work Optimally

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Famed emotional intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman shares tools for more productive and fulfilling work days.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five-minute technique for mastering your attention
  2. The technique Special Forces use to stay cool and calm 
  3. How to quiet the negative voice inside your head 

About Daniel

Psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman has transformed the way the world educates children, relates to family and friends, leads, and conducts business. A frequent speaker on campuses and to businesses of all kinds and sizes, he has worked with organizations around the globe, examining the way social and emotional competencies impact the bottom-line.  

Ranked one of the 10 most influential business thinkers by the Wall Street Journal, Goleman’s articles in the Harvard Business Review are among the most frequently requested reprints. He has won many awards, including the HBR McKinsey Award for best article of the year. Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences awarded him its Centennial Medallion. Apart from his writing on emotional intelligence, Goleman has written books on topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, eco-literacy and the ecological crisis.  

His latest book, Optimal, shows why emotional intelligence can help each of us have rewarding and productive days. Daniel Goleman’s online Emotional Intelligence Program found at danielgolemanemotionalintelligence.com, offers anyone a deep understanding of the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skill.  

Resources Mentioned

Daniel Goleman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Dan, welcome.

Daniel Goleman

Thank you, Pete. Pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about some insights from your book, “Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day” but first I think, when people hear and see your name, they think, “Oh! Emotional intelligence!” So, you’ve been pursuing this stuff for, well, how long has it been?

Daniel Goleman

The first book was in ’95.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, there you go.

Daniel Goleman

When you were probably in nursery school, I would guess. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis

I was 12 years old.

Daniel Goleman

Twelve years old, there you go. So, I’ve been doing it a long time and it’s really interesting. The research has gotten better, that’s why I did this book. And when I did the first book, it was really kind of hypothetical, anecdotal. Now I wrote “Optimal” with Cary Cherniss, who was my fellow co-director of a consortium for research on emotional intelligence, and we’re just basically harvesting lots of research.

But in terms of how to be awesome at work, I think the most interesting research comes out of Harvard Business School. It’s what we start the book with. It’s a profile of a good day, and it comes from a study where they had hundreds of men and women keep a journal about what it was like today at work and what happened and how they felt. And from that there’s a kind of composite of a perfect day at work and it goes like this.

You’re very engrossed and engaged in what you’re doing. You’re totally focused. You’re not distracted. You like what you’re doing. You feel good. You’re in upstate, and you feel very connected with the people you’re working with. That turns out to be a high productivity state. And leadership is the art of getting work done well through other people. So, when you’re in that state, you’re helping your boss, and your boss knows it, but you’re also being at your best.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, yeah, that sounds like a fantastic place to be. So, tell us, how often do we tend to get there as professionals? Like what proportion of our days fall into this good-day zone?

Daniel Goleman

That’s a question that we don’t have an empirical answer for, but I would say it also varies a huge amount from person to person. And the lovely thing about this particular zone of high productivity is it’s different from the famous flow state. The flow state is that one time you were absolutely at your best, you know, you can’t believe how well you did. The problem with flow is that it just happens to you. You can’t make it happen. You can’t produce it.

The optimal state, on the contrary, is on the same spectrum, a little lower than flow I would say, but your attention is very important. And, in fact, attention is a way to get into that optimal state. Paying full attention to what you’re doing now or what’s most important to you right now as a doorway into the optimal state.

And the nice thing about attention is it’s a muscle. It’s a muscle of the mind. It’s like, you know, when you go to the gym and you lift weights, every rep makes that muscle that much stronger. It’s the same thing with the brain circuitry for attention. If you do an attention training or attention development exercise, you get better and better at it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Cool. Well, so I’d love to hear, could you tell us perhaps a story of someone who wasn’t having such a good proportion of these optimal days, and they were able to do some cool brain training in order to turn that around, and what happened for them?

Daniel Goleman

Well, the brain training I’ll share with your listeners, it’s very simple. Sometimes it’s called mindfulness of the breath. It’s just if you take any meditation method and you strip away the belief system from a cognitive science point of view, they’re all developing attention. They’re all helping you ignore distraction, which today is worse than ever for people. We all have these little phones with us that carry the things that interests us the most, which are our biggest distractions.

So, by bringing your attention to your breath, the in-breath and the out-breath, and then the next breath, the in-breath and the out-breath, doing that systematically as a training, the same way you go to a gym, for example. It turns out that the research shows that this makes people better and better at bringing their focus to what they need to do right now, and that is how that state blossoms, the optimal state.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that’s lovely. Could you share with us any particular studies or quantification of just how much better we get at that and how much of a dose I need to do of this sort of a practice in order to reach those benefits?

Daniel Goleman

Well, I did another book called “Altered Traits” which reviewed all of the hard science about all this, and it shows there’s basically a dose-response relationship that is the more you do it, the better you get, the better the benefits. I would recommend people who’ve never done this starting with just five minutes a day and then building up from there. The longer you do it the better it is, and that means that the stronger the circuitry for paying attention gets.

There was a study done at Harvard that shows people are distracted about 50% of the time, generally, in life. More so at work, it turns out. And so, if you want to be in a better state, if you want to be at your best at work, this is the kind of thing that will help you do that because it helps you ignore distractions.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And with regard to this dose-response curve, I’m wondering, is there a point of diminishing returns, like after you’re doing six hours, it’s not doing much more for you than when you’re doing five hours? Where would we put that?

Daniel Goleman

Well, frankly, very few people are going to do it five or six hours. You’d rather be like a monk or a nun or something to do it that much. But if you do it over years, if you do it maybe a half hour a day every day for a long time, you start to see, we’ve seen in our research, many more benefits from this.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And can you tell us about the particulars for how that’s done excellently? So, if we’re, for example, I’ve heard it said that it is ideal to have a posture that is alert yet relaxed, like you’re not lying down, and if you’re sitting, you’re not hunched over and you’re not standing at an attention, can you talk to us a little bit about the nuances or the particulars that make a practice optimal?

Daniel Goleman

Definitely. Well, first of all, before you get to your posture, let’s get to where you’re going to do this and when. You’ve got to find a time in your day when you can be someplace where no one’s going to disturb you. You don’t have to answer the phone, kids aren’t going to come in, or the dog is not going to jump on your lap, whatever it is, and you need a space you can control or can be controlled for you.

And then the basic instruction, as you said, is just to sit up straight. Not tense, relaxed, with your spine straight. You can do it in a chair easily, and then bring your attention to your breath, the in-breath and the out-breath, and then the next breath, the in-breath and the out-breath. Then your mind is going to wander at some point, and when you notice it wandered, you bring it back to the next breath. That’s the critical moment. That’s the strengthener because that’s a moment of mindfulness. It’s when you bring your mind back from distraction to the point of focus, where you get the payoff from this.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And if I can maybe vocalize a concern or response, “But, Dan, that sounds so boring!”

Daniel Goleman

People actually often say the opposite.

Pete Mockaitis

Pray tell.

Daniel Goleman

They say, “My mind is…I can’t control my mind.” Rather than nothing happening, too much is happening. And the answer is good for you. That means you’re finally paying attention to how your mind actually is.

That’s a normal beginning response. You start to see how active your mind actually is. Usually, we don’t notice it. We get carried away. We pay attention to this and to that and to this and that. We go wherever our mind does, but then you realize you don’t have to do that. You can start to control your mind. So, that’s a normal response. People rarely say they’re bored.

Here’s what you need to understand, Pete. The body is designed to have a fight or flight response, technically sympathetic nervous system arousal, to an emergency, to stress. The problem for so many of us at work is that it’s unremitting. It’s relentless. You’re stressed all the time. You never have a chance to do what the body needs, which is a recovery period. It’s called parasympathetic arousal, and it’s the downtime when the body rests and recovers. And if you never get that, you’re going to become emotionally exhausted that leads to burnout.

The antidote is something I really urge people to do, which is to schedule something that’s recovery for you, that’s relaxing, you know, playing with a pet or a kid, or being with a loved one, or meditation, yoga, walk in nature, whatever does it for you, but schedule it every day because it seems like it’s irrelevant. Like you were saying, “Well, isn’t this going to sound boring to people?” No, this is important. This is your time to yourself to help yourself be ready for the next period of stress, which is so-called work.

Pete Mockaitis

And, Dan, tell me, if some say, “You know, the way I really like to unwind is by watching movies or playing video games or being on social media,” does that count, Dan? Or, what do you think about that?

Daniel Goleman

Well, I would say that those are other forms of distraction. Sorry, I don’t think they count as recovery. Recovery is a time when you don’t think about those things you otherwise ruminate about and worry about. So, it needs to be something where you break the flow, maybe it’s a video game for you, but if you get really, like, into the game and I’m very excited by the game, it’s not recovery. Sorry. It’s what we call eustress. It’s a form of stress. It might be enjoyable, but still, it’s not that total rest and relaxation and recovery. That’s what you need.

Pete Mockaitis

I think that’s well said, because I guess, whether it’s a movie or a game or whatever, some of them are intense, like, “I’m shooting down 99 other people,” and others are more chill, like, “Okay, we’re making some lines in Tetris. All right. Here we go, doo-doo-doo-doo, in the groove.”

Daniel Goleman

But if you were to be measuring the physiology, your physiology, while you do that, it’s just as bad when you’re stressed.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, here we go, we got one key principle, is that great days consist of doing stuff with uninterrupted focused attention on a thing, and one way we can get better at that is by doing a mindfulness practice and making sure that we have some restorative breaks built into our world. Tell us, what are some of the other master keys to being optimal?

Daniel Goleman

One of them goes back to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.” You know that prayer that’s used in AA?

Pete Mockaitis

That’s right, yeah.

Daniel Goleman

“Give me the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t.” And implicit in that is the ability to adjust to things we can’t. So, think about your boss at work, some people are lucky and they have a great boss and some people aren’t so lucky. I’ve gone around the world asking different business groups, “Tell me about a boss you hated and a boss you loved, and a quality that made that boss so awful or so good.”

And the bad boss is invariably kind of an emotional Neanderthal, and the good boss is, frankly, emotionally intelligent. It’s someone who’s available, who’s empathetic, who’s supportive, who gives you clear direction, things like that. So, if you have a bad boss, day in and day out, or bad working circumstance, the question is, “What can you do in that situation that you can’t change, you have to live with, to make it more manageable for you?” And what I would say is manage your internal state.

I once had a boss that I hated and I became kind of avid meditator in the morning, so that when I went to work, I’d be at my best. So I could stand him, basically, and do my best work. And I would say that managing your internal state is something you have control over. I don’t know if you, Pete, you’re familiar with the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

It’s a great book, and Frankl survived four years in Nazi concentration camps. And he said the way he did it was by managing his internal reaction to what was going on, and that’s what saved him. And I think it’s very profound because it implies any of us can have more control over our inner world. And it’s our inner world, bottom line, that makes the difference for how we feel at the end of the day.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that. So, let’s talk about some of the practices by which we can manage our inner world and our emotional states. So, you have a scenario for there’s a bad boss, someone you dread interacting with, seeing, experiencing, and one approach is doing some mindfulness meditation practice in preparation for that. What are some of the other super effective tools you suggest we can use for managing our own internal emotional states?

Daniel Goleman

So, the mindfulness, the breath, the attention training that I mentioned, the payoff from that is gradual. It’s not like you’re going to do that at work. You’re going to do it every day or a few days a week, and the benefits come slowly. I would say if you know you’re going into a stressful encounter, you’re going to be with that person you can’t stand, for example, whoever that is, there’s something that’s used by Special Forces that I recommend. It’s a controlled breathing method. It’s called box breath, and it has a very powerful effect on your physiology.

The box breath is sometimes called four by four by four. You breathe in deeply so your belly expands. You hold your breath for as long as it’s comfortable, and then you exhale for as long as it’s comfortable. And if you do that, six to nine times, it actually changes your physiology, your body state, from being tensed, fight or flight, sympathetic nervous arousal, to that recovery mode, to parasympathetic.

It lowers heart rate. It lowers blood pressure, and it does it on the spot. And you can you can do it at work, it’s not that obvious what you’re doing. And it’s used by Special Forces, for example, before they’re going to go into a big whatever that they know they’ve got to prepare for. And I say why not use it at work?

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. Now, Dan, I’m loving this. So, I’ve heard of box breathing, and I’ve done it, and you’ve got some nuances there that I just delight in there. So, now I had heard it suggested that you do, it’s a box, like your inhale time, your hold while inhaled, your exhale time, and your hold while exhaled are the same. So, it’s like you could draw a box with four completely equal sides. And so, I had heard like, “Oh, do for, like, four seconds.” And so, you’re saying, “Ah, instead of doing four seconds, do it as long as you comfortably can on each of the four steps of the way.”

Daniel Goleman

Yeah, and it might be six seconds for someone. Who knows? I don’t think counting the seconds is the point. I think tuning into what’s comfortable for you is more to the point, and if you can hold it longer than the count of four, do it. If you can hold your breath for longer than that, if you can exhale for longer than that. In other words, find what works for you in this.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And also, you said six to nine times. I love the specificity. And so, that has been shown in the research to get the job done, that that amount of breathing will have a noticeable difference, just six to nine of those loops?

Daniel Goleman

That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. So, like three-ish minutes and you’ve got a transformation. That’s what I’m talking about, Dan. Thank you. All right. Well, hey, lay it on us. What else we got? We got the mindfulness meditation. We’ve got the box breathing. What are some of your other faves for the emotional state management?

Daniel Goleman

If you’d like a third approach, one thing that some people find very useful is monitoring that voice inside our head that gets us out of bed in the morning, it has us propelled through our day, and then puts us to sleep at night. That’s self-talk, it’s called, technically. And monitoring self-talk, you may find, for example, that you’re being too critical of yourself, many people are. You may fixate on the things you did wrong and not encourage the things or celebrate the things that you do well. That is a way that we make things even more stressful for ourselves.

And so, there’s a wonderful book called “Learned Optimism” by a guy named Martin Seligman, a psychologist at Penn. And what he says is that you can talk back. You don’t have to believe your thoughts. And you can, if you find that you’re being overly critical, that you ruminate about the things you got wrong, he’d say, “You know, remember the things that you do right, the things that you do well.” In other words, look at your strengths, not just at your weaknesses.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, monitoring the self-talk, I hear you there in terms of our self-talk may be like, “Oh, you always screw this up. You’re such a loser. This is rubbish. Oh, this is not going to work out. It never works out. This is too stressful. Why do I… How did I commit to this? How did I get myself into this?” Okay, so we got that groove. Not so encouraging. So, when it comes to the monitoring, I mean, I can maybe notice, “Oh, I got some negative self-talk going on here.” When it comes to monitoring, what is the practice or protocol or approach?

Daniel Goleman

In cognitive therapy, which uses this approach, they often will tell someone, “Notice what you keep telling yourself.” Very often, the critiques are repetitive. It’s like the same thing in various forms over and over and over again. And prepare yourself, rehearse something you could say back to those thoughts. Like, “I screwed that thing up at work, and that proves to me because of my negative self-talk that I’m an idiot.”

But what could you say to yourself when you notice you’re doing that negativity thing? You could say, “Actually, you know, usually I don’t mess up. Usually, I do pretty well. And I remember this time and that time and that time that I actually did just fine.” And so, you purposely bring that to mind to counteract the negative thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, we’ve got some rehearsal in advance. Lay it on us in terms of, if I’ve got some self-talk that says, “Ugh, I’m so tired. I really just don’t feel like dealing with this. This is so overwhelming,” what are some good responses?

Daniel Goleman

So, it sounds to me, Pete, that you’re evoking a situation where it’s kind of relentless and you’re feeling burned out. Is that right?

Pete Mockaitis

It could be burnout. It could just be dread or reluctance or procrastination, in general. It’s like, “Oh, this is a task I don’t feel like dealing with, and here it is. Ugh.”

Daniel Goleman

Okay. So, maybe you remind yourself, “Why do I need to do this? Why is this important? This is part of my job,” maybe. “And what is my state right now?” you might ask yourself. “And what can I do to upgrade it so that I can be up to the task?” I think one thing you can do is pay more attention to what you’re doing right now. One of the things that you’re letting happen, I suppose, is that your attention is just wandering, “Oh, I don’t want to think about this. I don’t want to do this.” You’re just basically letting yourself be distracted. And so, you could intentionally up your focus right then, “You know, I don’t love this thing that I have to do, but I have to do it for this reason, and so I’m going to really do it. I’m going to pay full attention to what I need to do.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Dan, tell us, when it comes to having optimal days, we’ve covered a few things here. Where should we go next?

Daniel Goleman

Well, it turns out that emotional intelligence allows this more often. Emotional intelligence is four parts: self-awareness, managing your emotions, empathy, and relationship management. That’s the whole package, and some of us are better at some parts and less good at others. So, I’ve been talking about the first two parts, self-awareness and self-management; tuning into what you’re feeling and then managing those feelings. But there are other aspects of self-management. It’s not just about reducing the negative emotions, like, “I can’t stand this. I hate my boss,” whatever it may be. That’s part of it.

But another part is marshaling positive emotions, being optimistic, being positive about what’s happening, keeping your eye on goals that matter to you. Maybe you don’t like this particular part of your job, but you know that you want to advance at work. Maybe that’s a long-term goal. So, you remember that at that time, and you tell yourself, “This is part of the job I really don’t like, but I have to do a good job because I’m going up the ladder,” perhaps. That’s one way of doing it.

Then there’s empathy. Empathy is really interesting, Pete. There are three kinds of empathy. One is cognitive empathy, “I understand how you think about things. I see your perspective.” AI is very good at cognitive empathy. But then there’s emotional empathy, “I know how the person in front of me feels because I get a sense of it in my body.” There are actually, when you have eye contact in a real interaction, face-to-face, you establish a kind of invisible, instantaneous, unconscious bridge, brain-to-brain, and emotions pass very effectively on that bridge, so you tune in to what’s going on, and you pick it up. That’s emotional empathy.

The third kind of empathy is actually the one that we want in our boss. It’s called empathic concern, “I not only know how you think and feel, I care about you.” And these are each based in different parts of the brain. So, if you have a boss who has this third kind of empathy, you feel you can trust that person, you feel rapport with them. If you are a boss, if you have direct reports, and you’re that kind of person, then the people who work for you are more likely to give their best effort because they like you as a person.

They feel that you support them. You might even inspire them. You might articulate some meaning or purpose to what we’re doing that is even greater than the job itself. And that turns out to get the best efforts out of people. But at the very least, you can guide them, you can coach them, you can help them get better at what they’re doing. All of that makes people feel really good about their boss. So, that’s the third part. And then there’s putting that all together to have effective relationships.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I’m curious, Dan. Let’s say, folks, their hearts are in the right place. They would like to demonstrate this and provide this for the people they care about in their lives, their colleagues, their friends and family. Assuming that’s there, what are some ways folks fall short in terms of, like, maybe they’re unconscious, that there are things that they’re doing or not doing that are just sabotaging their ability to effectively be empathetic, empathic, in a way that that folks can receive and appreciate?

Daniel Goleman

Well, one of the common colds of this is having relationships that are purely transactional where you only talk about what needs to be done. You never talk about the person, “How are you doing? What’s your life like?” In fact, one thing that I advise, I’m often asked, “What can we do when we work only by Zoom? We never meet each other.”

You know in the old days, or maybe still in some workplaces, you have a nine-to-five situation where you’re with someone five days a week for all those hours and it’s just natural that you find out about them as a person. You get to know them. It’s the, “Let’s have lunch together,” or, “Let’s have a beer after work,” or just around the cooler, water cooler, whatever it is.

But casual conversation matters because it knits people together. And if you don’t have that, if you’re working by Zoom, I think it’s important, particularly if you’re a leader, say, of a team, to replace that with a one-on-one, with the individuals on that team, for example, where you talk about the person, not the job, “But what do you want from life, from your career?” for example, or, “How can I help you?” That starts a very different kind of connection.

Pete Mockaitis

Alrighty.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now could you tell us about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Daniel Goleman

The first person to benefit from compassion or caring about other people is the person who feels it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Daniel Goleman

Well, one thing I like talking about are the studies that established the social brain circuitry, which are relatively new in neuroscience, and one of them had to do with a neuron in a monkey’s brain that only fired when that monkey lifted its arm. This was a lab in Italy. One day, the neuron was firing, the brain cell was firing, and the monkey wasn’t moving, and they didn’t know why.

Then they realized it was a hot day in Italy. A lab assistant had gone out for a gelato. He’s standing in front of the monkey, and every time he raises his arm to take a lick of the gelato, the monkey’s brain cell for that same movement fired. That was the discovery of mirror neurons. And it turns out that the human brain is peppered with mirror neurons, and they tell us what the person in front of us is not just doing and intending, but what they’re feeling. Mirror neurons are a very important aspect of the social brain and of empathy.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite book?

Daniel Goleman

I’ll say “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Daniel Goleman

Listening.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Daniel Goleman

I’d point them to my website, DanielGoleman.info.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Daniel Goleman

Pay attention.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Dan, this is fun. I wish you many optimal days.

Daniel Goleman

Thank you. Likewise, Pete. Great.