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Each week, I grill thought-leaders and results-getters to discover specific, actionable insights that boost work performance.

954: Rewriting Your Source Code: How to Identify and Cure the 12 Patterns Holding You Back with Dr. Sam Rader

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Dr. Sam Rader discusses a fresh approach to identify and cure the unconscious patterns that keep us from living fully.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising origins of many work dysfunctions
  2. The 12 coping styles and their antidotes
  3. How to build your patience for annoying co-workers 

About Sam

Dr. Sam Rader is a former psychologist who took what she learned about childhood development, personality, and growth and turned it into a new quantum healing  modality called Source Code.

She is the author of SOURCE CODE, a forthcoming book about the 12 Coping Styles we adopt in childhood, which helped us then and hurt us now, and how we can heal. Dr. Sam believes that our early childhood experience writes a source code within us, which determines the rest of the way that our story unfolds. She helps people rewrite their code for a healthier, more beautiful life. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Sam Rader Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Dr. Sam, welcome.

Dr. Sam Rader

Hi, Pete. I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I’m happy to be here as well. Mawi sang your praises so strongly, I was like, “Well, I’ve got to hear what all this is about.” So, let’s jump right in and tell us, what is Source Code in your parlance and lingo?

Dr. Sam Rader

Sure. So, Source Code is a new technique and theory that I’ve developed over the last 13 years. I was a psychologist for 18 years, and during that time, I started seeing all these patterns in all of my clients across everyone, no matter their walk of life, where they’re from, who they are. They all seem to have the same 12 problems. And once I saw these patterns, I started working with those instead of any other old ways of diagnosing things. I just saw them as these patterns.

And over time, I found that the ways to heal them are quicker when we bypass the mind and just work with the patterns themselves as sort of symbolic energies, and I can speak more about that later. But as we’ve done this, I’ve developed this new way of healing. It’s an alternative to coaching and therapy, and I call it Source Code. And Source Code is based on the premise that in our first five years of life, our early experience writes a code deep within us. And that coding kind of becomes the algorithm that runs our matrix of reality for as long as we live.

So, we keep reliving the same patterns and problems that we had from our family system when we were little, keep attracting and reenacting it, and we’re not even aware of it. It’s kind of like living in an invisible prison. And what I do is I help people jailbreak. We kind of liberate ourselves from these life-long unconscious patterns so that we can finally feel truly free and feel more connected to our essence of love and joy and peace.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, boy, intriguing stuff. Okay. So, more love, joy, peace. Sounds great. I mean, I think we could all sign up for that, but I got to be true to the ethos of the show, “But, Sam, how’s that going to make me more awesome at my job?”

Dr. Sam Rader

I know, it’s so good. It’s such a good one. Well, so, Source Code is based on the premise that we live in a fractal universe, and let me explain what I mean by that. Fractals are, probably, your audience has seen 3D renderings of them online. They look kind of trippy and psychedelic and beautiful, but it’s really a mathematical equation representing how there’s a pattern that repeats at scale.

So, when you look at a fractal image, it’s got a certain amount of squigglies and doodly dots, and if you were to zoom all the way in microscopically, it’s that same exact pattern. Zoom all the way out, same pattern, all the way to the left, all the way to the right. It’s the same exact pattern that keeps repeating. So, when we’re encoded in our first five years of life with these patterns, these what I call our coping styles or the glitches in our matrix, they keep repeating at scale in every area of our lives, including our work life.

So, if we’re always a pushover because we had a parent that was highly dominating, we are going to attract best friends who dominate us. We’re going to attract lovers who dominate us. We’re also going to attract bosses at work who dominate us, and we’re going to keep doing that pushover people-pleaser thing and feel like we can never say no and never hold a boundary. This is just one of the 12 potential glitches that I’m outlining now, and it deeply affects our work life. It deeply affects our finances, how we show up at work, the circumstances we attract at work, what we’re capable of, and the money we’re able to make is all determined by our coping styles.

Pete Mockaitis

Intriguing. So, that, in essence, it sounds like I could have one or maybe multiple. Or, what’s your take?

Dr. Sam Rader

We all have several of the coping styles because none of our parents were able to get it right so many times because they were working with their own coping styles. So, I personally had all 12, which is what allowed me to be the conduit for the work. Most people have like a dominant, maybe five or eight of them. But, yeah, we all have a combination of them.

And another cool thing about the fractal is like that whole thing, “as within and so without,” that, let’s say, you’re a business owner. If you have a certain holding pattern in your energetic system that repeats in your life, your business is going to be an exact reflection of that same holding pattern inside of you. So, when I do coding work with CEOs and business leaders, when we code out all the glitches inside of them, lo and behold, all their clients start acting differently, their employees start acting differently, the money starts flowing, the whole organization feels completely different because the organization is just an extension of them.

So, whatever we’re embodying, whatever patterns we have, those patterns are going to show up exactly reflected in our work and in our businesses.

Pete Mockaitis

Could you give us a cool example of someone who identified one of these patterns, took some actions, and then saw some cool transformation unfold in their career life?

Dr. Sam Rader

Absolutely, yeah. I was recently working with this CEO and founder of a consumer product company, and what we discovered was that his core wound was what I call the “withstanding subtype of the frustrated coping style.” So, let me break that down for you.

When we’re little, around 10 months of age to 4 years old, we’re developing our will. We’re developing our sense of what we can and can’t control with our will. If we are overly frustrated, during that time and our will doesn’t get to matter, we won’t be heard, things are really hard around us, we become frustrated. We develop the frustrated coping style and it haunts us through life. But there’s four subtypes to frustrated, and the one this man was working with is called withstanding.

Withstanding is when we grew up in a family that was kind of extremely harsh, things were really hard. Maybe we were abused literally or emotionally. It was like high neglect or high abuse, just like really painful stuff, right? And so what we do on the inside to cope with that is that we become withstanding, resilient, durable, unbreakable, unbeatable, “I’m going to be so firm that none of that pummeling from the outside is going to break me or destroy me,” right?

And so, for this client, as we started processing it for him, he said he identified with the Man of Steel, like Superman, right, who can withstand anything. But the thing is, when you’re in the Man of Steel embodiment, because you’ve had to withstand so much abuse from the outside, that Man of Steel embodiment is paired together with a villain on the outside. There’s no superhero without a villain. He’d just be Clark Kent, otherwise, right?

So, what would happen in this man’s business is he’d be going along, thinking he was doing the right thing, and then, all of a sudden, the other businesses he was doing deals with, they would do these sinister, villainous, damaging things to him, and he would have to be that resilient, durable, withstanding Man of Steel because that’s the fractal pattern he was living inside of. So, he kept attracting and reenacting these circumstances where he’d be beat down, and disappointed, and the rug pulled out, and pummeled, and he’d have to just keep withstanding it.

So, once we were able to do the work and soften all that need to withstand, and realize that there can be an entirely new reality beyond the harsh, beyond the hard, where things actually get to be easy, which is the antidote to withstanding. Each coping style has a corresponding antidote. When things get to be easy, all of a sudden, the business starts taking off in a more effortless way and business partners and associates are coming in with kindness, fairness, gentleness, collaboration, playfulness, warmth, instead of that pummeling from the outside that was so familiar.

So, we were able to switch the story he was living in, and recode his matrix so that now he’s living in a world that’s easy and in flow instead of hard and challenging and “Aargh!”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Thank you. I dig that story. And it was funny, as you were talking, I was thinking a little bit about David Goggins’ book, Can’t Hurt Me, in terms of that’s very much the story. We had some abuse and then he became the hardest mother-fer alive, is kind of his tagline, and I don’t know the particulars as to his business partners or what has gone down there. But, yeah, I can sort of see how, indeed, certain experiences could form us to cope, have a coping style in a certain way.

I guess what I’m wrestling with a little bit is, talk to me about this word “attracting” in terms of what is the pathway or mechanism by which that unfolds in reality?

Dr. Sam Rader

Yeah, so if someone is showing up in meetings and in life as the Man of Steel, or whatever that guy’s book was, “I’m a badass mother-fer,” right? If you’re showing up into meetings and in that embodiment, “Come on, bring it on,” what is that going to elicit from the outside? A fight. A struggle. It’s just natural. It’s just instinct. You’re showing up ready for a fight, “Come on, try to break me,” and then that’ll happen.

And if you show up soft and present, and in a different kind of power, a power that’s not like, “Try me!” but a power that’s like, “Let’s try this. Let’s work together. This is my power.” It’s an invitation for the other to be collaborative, to be gentle, to be harmonious and synergistic in how our powers can work together. So, you can just think about, “Man, how I show up in my body and my energy really does impact what happens next in my story.”

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. So, let’s hear the rundown, perhaps, just the couple-minute version of what are the 12 coping styles, just like the listing, and then the alternative, just so we could hear the definition and perhaps see ourselves, or start to a little bit, like, “Oh yeah, that does feel kind of familiar to my experience”?

Dr. Sam Rader

The first coping style I call “disconnected,” and the disconnected coping style is when we essentially learned that we wouldn’t be understood by our caregivers, and so we figured that maybe we don’t belong in this world. So, we feel separate in some indefinable way than the rest of society. We feel like an outcast, we feel like an alien or a weirdo, we feel like we don’t belong in this time and space and place and planet.

And so, we found ways to disconnect, and we really struggle with feeling misunderstood a lot, feeling like an outsider, feeling like there’s no point in even trying to explain ourselves because no one could fully understand. And that causes a lot of ruptures, and it’s really not easy to maintain connection because connection feels really confusing and bad, and disconnecting is the only thing that feels safe.

So, if we’re disconnected the antidote is to become connected. And to do that we learn how to feel our feelings, share our feelings, repair the ruptures, take the risk to let people know what’s going on for us, let them know what we need so that we can actually get in that loop of connection and communication where things get to be a fit.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Dr. Sam Rader

The next coping style I call frictive and it’s when there’s a lot of intensity and energy in the body. We feel like we can never stop going, and moving, and doing, and thinking, and it’s because, subconsciously, we’re quite afraid of disappearing. This comes from not having enough physical containment as a little one. And so, the physical containment being squeezed and held from all sides, especially as newborns, is what allows us to feel like we have a body and have a self and we’re not disappearing.

And so, without that kind of physical containment, we feel like we’re always at risk of coming apart and fragmenting, and so we have to create a friction that keeps us tethered to this world so that we don’t essentially fall off the edge of the earth and die. So, that friction means we never get to rest or pause because, in the silence and stillness, it feels like there’s a void that could swallow us up. It’s a very existential wound.

So, what it looks like as adults is you’re just kind of anxious, and manic, and talking fast, and doing a lot, and really can’t slow the self down and rest. And if you’re frictive, you think about at work, you know, it’s like work always has to be some drama. There’s always a rush. There’s always a drama. There’s always a challenge and the friction and this, because it’s the friction that makes us feel alive and feel connected to something. So, the antidote to frictive is to be spacious where things can be really easy and gentle and quiet and kind of effortless and things don’t have to be so high drama anymore.

The third coping style I call omnipotent. And this is when, well, the word, let’s break down the word. Omni, all; potent, powerful. So, when we’re omnipotent, we actually feel so out of control because everything affects us so deeply, we’re hypersensitive, everything in our environment impacts us so deeply, we need everything just so, or else we feel very, very reactive and very frightened and get very angry very fast. And so, we feel we need to try to have complete control over everything and everyone around us. That’s omnipotent, all-powerful.

And that’s actually secretly because we don’t know how to self-soothe. We don’t know that, instead of controlling everything out there, we could actually just take care of ourselves in here and start to feel safe. So, instead we become very bossy and demanding. And at work, we might find that our employees are scared of us, they perceive us as bullies or dominating, and, really, we’re just trying to prevent the chaos. Like, as omnipotence, it feels like, “If I don’t have everything just so, it will devolve into total chaos.”

And so, the antidote to omnipotence is to feel safe. And we do this by kind of creating a psychic skin that we didn’t get to develop as little ones, where we know that something outside isn’t actually us. We don’t have to control it and we don’t have to change it. We can actually just relax and calm ourselves down inside, and know that that thing out there that’s out of place isn’t going to kill us and isn’t us, and that we’re okay even when it doesn’t feel okay.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Dr. Sam Rader

The next coping style I call deprived. This is a big one for people in their careers, but deprived is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when we don’t feel connected to the good stuff. So, it really feels like, “Other people can get the good stuff, but not me. I’m the unlucky one. I’m the one that experiences a lot of limits and lack, and I don’t ever get to be fully resourced. I’m always grabbing and grasping and wanting and longing for the good stuff, but it always stays just out of reach.”

And the antidote to deprived is to become resourced. So, when we’re deprived, it’s often really hard to get ahead financially, because no matter how much money we get, it doesn’t seem to stick around. For some weird reason, we always hover around that zero balance because we’re so used to feeling empty inside. But when we come out of deprived, and we become resourced, we learn how to drink in the infinite well of goodness that’s inside and outside because this universe is so abundant and benevolent.

And when we start to experience ourselves as living in that buoyant state of fulfillment from all that resource that we’re resourcing on, lo and behold, the world starts to reflect that by giving us more income, when we feel more valuable and good inside instead of feeling broken, bad, or empty inside. When we feel good inside and feel full inside, the outside starts to reflect that by us making a lot more money, having a lot more opportunities, and being fulfilled in life.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Dr. Sam Rader

So, the next coping style I call symbiotic, and this was the one I was kind of bringing up at the top of the hour where we become pushovers and people-pleasers. We’re really afraid of conflict. We’re afraid of ever saying no, firming up, taking shape, disagreeing, having our own point of view, being separate.

So, we tend to attract a lot of people who are dominating and we become kind of their sidekick, and their yes-person, and we kind of give up ourselves to have them, and we pretend like we have all the same preferences but actually we’re betraying ourselves to do that and to be in that twinship with them. And then after a time, it gets really annoying, and so we bail, and we cut and run, and we’re like, “I got to get rid of you to have me.”

And then the pattern just continues because we find the next dominating person, and we do the same exact thing over and over and over. It’s absolutely exhausting, and you can imagine what happens at work. It’s just, we get totally emptied out, totally used feeling, and then we have to quit and leave and go to the next place and do it all over again.

And we often don’t feel totally respected because we don’t respect ourselves. We often don’t find a lot of value monetarily because we always are in that kind of assistant mentality and embodiment where we can’t really get ahead because we don’t know how to firm up and take aim and be kind of potent because we just have to stay limp and malleable in order to stay in those fused connections with people.

So, the antidote to coming out of symbiotic is to become truly solid. And when we’re solid, we know that we have all the resources and all the capability inside to be able to feed ourselves, and trust ourselves, and have our own compass, and have our own agency. And when we can do that, then we can be more honest with people. We can say no, we can set boundaries, we can become in healthy relationships that are a two-way street, where there’s room for two people negotiating and collaborating rather than losing ourselves in the connection with others.

The next coping style I call premature, and this is when we had to sort of grow up too fast as little ones and take care of other people in the families when we were still kind of babies on our own, kind of toddler times. And so, what we do when we’re premature is we’re over-givers, we’re overachievers, over-doers. So, we’re the ones always planning, contributing, giving, volunteering, nurturing, cooking, caring.

We’re the ones always providing, and so all of our energy goes out to feeding others, and we go hungry. Our needs are always last on the list, and eventually it leads to a lot of burn out, so we can feel very, very drained. Even though it feels really good giving to others, because it generally does feel good giving, if we just keep depleting ourselves and we never nourish ourselves, we never take in any of the goodness that we’re giving to others, it’s an equation that doesn’t really work and it leads to burnout.

So, the antidote to coming out of premature is to become nourished, where we learn that it’s actually okay for us to need and feed. When we’re premature, we worry that our needs are too much and they make us needy, and so we wouldn’t want to ask anyone for help or be a burden. But when we come out of premature, we know that it feels just as good to other people to feed us as it does for us to feed them, and then it becomes a loop of nourishment, and it’s sustainable and very fulfilling.

And this definitely plays out at work if you’re the one picking up the slack for everybody, staying overtime, doing everything for everybody, and you’re starting to feel really drained and depleted, you may have the premature coping style, and it’s time for you to be nourished.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Dr. Sam Rader

Okay, the next coping style I call idealizing. And this is a wound about identity, really. But it’s when we’re really hyper-focused on our outsides, meaning anything we could measure or write down on a paper about ourselves, like our looks, our achievements, our status, our level of intelligence, our level of success, and we are constantly caught up in this rat race of comparing ourselves to people who are above us or people who are below us.

And what we never get to do is just stand eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart with people and get to be human, which is the antidote to idealizing. So, when we’re human, we’re more in touch with our sentience, the fact that we’re living beings with thoughts and needs and feelings and values and our essence energy inside of us, which is so much more who we really are than any of those outside things you could measure, which always do, by the way, go up and down, “Maybe today I got the best score on the quiz, and maybe tomorrow I don’t.”

And that ping-ponging up and down between “I’m the best, I’m the worst, I’m the best, I’m the worst” is so painful. When you’re more connected to your humanity and your insides, there’s no ping-ponging because you can’t compare essences. And there could be a lot of freedom in that in the workplace if you’re no longer the one always trying to beat everybody, beat your opponents, get the gold star, be the best, and it really starts to become about your own humanity and your needs, it could really change the game for how work starts to work for you.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Dr. Sam Rader

All right. The next coping style I call frustrated. And I started to speak to this a little bit when I was giving the story of the CEO who had the withstanding subtype of frustrated. But frustrated is a will injury, where, as we’re developing our sense of will, of what we can and can’t control as little ones, we need to feel that we can control some things, that we’re not always crushed and thwarted and blocked by our parents, but we’re allowed to have a say, we’re allowed to make choices, we’re allowed to have a will.

And if for whatever reason our will is blocked, we become frustrated, and there’s nowhere for our power or our anger to go, and so it gets turned inwards, and it actually turns into self-sabotage. This is major for the workplace. If we’re always feeling like “Life is hard, I’m stuck, I can’t,” can’t is such a key word for frustrated, “Things are hard,” “I can’t,” all of that, that is a frustrated experience. And the truth is, that’s how it was when we were little, we couldn’t. Like, the thing outside, the parents were so much bigger than us. Of course, we couldn’t, right?

But we’ve been carrying that baggage with us and calling it true now as adults, which is what was happening with this man who felt he had to be the Man of Steel, and life is hard, and all these challenges. And it’s like once we melted that and we brought him into a state of ease, he was able to get in flow, which is the antidote to frustrated. Coming out of frustrated means owning our no and saying no to things we don’t want to do, and saying yes to things we do want to do.

And so, I say, we’ve got to say no to get in flow. So, if you find yourself at work feeling frustrated, like things are not going the way you want them to go, things aren’t fair, things are unjust, things are such a struggle, think of the places that you haven’t yet said, “You know what? No, I have a boundary here and I don’t want to do X, Y, and Z.” Once you hold that no with your universe, boom, things get in flow and you start to get what you do want, instead of always getting what you don’t want, which is the frustrated coping style.

Pete Mockaitis

Alrighty.

Dr. Sam Rader

And the next coping style is kind of a pair to frustrated. It’s another will injury, but it’s the opposite, which is when our will is actually overindulged. Instead of overly frustrated, it can also be overly indulged. I call this the indulged coping style. This happens when we’re either neglected so no one’s there to block our will, or we’re overindulged by our parents, but basically, whatever we want, we get. And these are kids who kind of would fail the Stanford marshmallow experiment of the “If you don’t eat one now, you can have two later,” right?

We never developed that capacity in our frontal lobes to have any self-restraint. We just want what we want when we want it, and we want to get it, and we want to get it now, and we want to get it at any cost, and we’re not aware at all of how we impact others. And so, that entitlement, that indulgence, that impatience, that “Me, me, me,” it’s really, really rough. And if you find yourself at work, feeling like other people don’t trust you, or they’re kind of shunning you, or they’re kind of like, “This one’s not a team player,” you might be struggling with the indulged coping style. In some ways, it’s one of the most shameful coping styles to have. I had it.

This is how I’ve discovered all 12 is because I have found them in myself. It’s a hard one to reckon with, but if we find the courage to reckon with it, it is a revelation because, really, when we’re indulged, we were just lacking a village. We were lacking a sense of belonging because when you know you belong to a tribe, then you know how you impact others, because you all impact one another. And so, we’ve been living in solitary confinement as empty, lonely consumers, so, of course, we just want to fill that hole. It makes so much sense.

But coming out of indulged is to enter the antidote of interbeing. Interbeing is a term coined by the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and it means that within every being is every other being that, in this computer that we’re talking through, the silicon parts were mined by miners, and it was part of the dirt and the earth where trees were growing, and all of those things are inside of this computer that we’re looking at each other through. Like, everything that is, is interwoven, inextricably interwoven with everything else. We’re all interconnected.

And so, coming out of indulged is realizing, “Hey, it’s not just me here. I’m part of a larger whole.” And when we do that, we work so much better with our teams, and we actually end up getting what we want, truly want, in a more holistic way than when we’re just grabbing in the moment in that impulsive, entitled way.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And number 10.

Dr. Sam Rader

So, the next one I call the squashed coping style. This one could really be at work, too. So, this is one, as we were developing our sense of power and beauty and magnetism as little ones, somebody was jealous, and so they actually squashed us. They didn’t want us to have that beauty and that power and that shine, and so we now inadvertently squash ourselves.

We keep ourselves small. We dim our light. We hide our shine. We play small. We’re always being the nice one or the invisible one or the one who doesn’t want to step on toes or threaten anyone. And it’s kind of like the archetypes of Cinderella or Harry Potter, and when we’re squashed, we’re usually not aware at all that we have this special sauce, that we’re a Cinderella or a Harry Potter. We don’t realize that we’re actually so beautiful and so powerful and so radiant and so potent that it makes other people envious. We’re not aware of that, but we do keep ourselves small unconsciously.

And so, coming out of squashed is to finally be erect, is to stand up into our full height, and be as radiant and potent and beautiful and powerful as we really are so that we start to become a true leader and an inspiration rather than this fear that we’d be a threat.

So, when we own that we are the radiant, beautiful bell of the ball, things really start to work for us in a new way and other people start to respond to us in a new way, and we’re no longer bullied and we’re no longer shunned, and we actually become a real leader and inspiration. So, this could be huge for people at work. If you’re like, “Why does everyone else seem to get ahead and I always have to play the nice guy?” you may be squashed and your story is not over. You can play in the big leagues. You can go to the ball. It’s time to go to the ball.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Dr. Sam Rader

The next coping style I call provocative. If we’re provocative, unfortunately, our parents play out a love triangle with us, where one of them was our object of desire and they kind of overindulged that and played into that with us of like, “Yes, you are my special one and I wish mommy would go away,” or whatever the vibe is, and then the other parent was jealous.

And there is a way to come out of provocative and become clear. That’s the antidote to provocative. So, when we are clear, we understand where the boundaries are “Okay, this person’s my business associate, this person is my secretary, and this person is my lover, and those things are very different, and I’m going to act very differently with those different people because I’m clear.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Dr. Sam Rader

And the final one I call constricted. So, this is when during that time of proto-puberty when we’ve got all this exciting mojo coming through our little bodies, and we are no longer these chubby toddlers, but we want to run and jump and play and, “Tag, you’re it” and “Come, chase me” and be competitive and excitable during this time, how our parents respond to this animal-alive part of us determines how we feel about this part of us.

Whether our parents are overly controlling of that, they say, “Don’t do that. Put your head down. We don’t do this. This is bad. Aggression is bad,” whatever that is, or, if we had parents who were overly amorous, and we saw that that animal part of them got them in trouble in either case, if they were overly controlling, us or if they were out of control, in either case we learned that the animal instinctive wild part of ourselves is bad, and that controlling that part of ourselves is good, and now we’re constricted and we’ve got to hold everything in.

We can’t spill out. We can’t make a mess. We can’t be too wild. We can’t be aggressive. We can’t be expressive. We can’t be tender. We’ve got to keep it all held in, because if we don’t keep it all held in, maybe someone would judge us as weird, or bad, or wrong. And in all of those cases, we would feel humiliated, possibly shunned, and none of that feels okay to us. So, we’ve got a tight lid on ourselves. We have to be hyper-controlled. So, in the same way, an omnipotent person tries to control everything and everyone outside, a constricted person tries to control everything inside, like, “I should never fart,” “I should never scream,” “I should never do anything weird. It’s all got to be held in.”

And the antidote to constricted is to become free. And when we’re free, we get to trust our animal nature, and trust that everything we do and everything that we are is innocent, and that no judge out there has the right to decide what’s innocent or guilty, that we can have an inner authority, and we know that we’re innocent, and we know that our instincts are actually holy and beautiful, and will lead us exactly where we want to go. We don’t have to control them.

It’s actually the repression of them that causes them to act out. But when we know that all these animal parts of us are so good, there’s nothing to restrict or constrict around, then they only do good.

So, when we’re coming out of constricted, we become free. We’re able to express and desire and follow our instincts, and be more animal and alive and vibrant. And when we would stop resisting the flow of life, we can finally feel all the pleasures of being alive. And how this shows up in work is that things start to be a lot more creative, and flowy, and less literally constricted. Like, all the ways that it was like, “Uh-oh, we can’t do this, and we can’t do that, and we can’t do this.” It’s like, “Wait, the sky is the limit. The world is our oyster. Let’s do anything that we feel like doing. I’m free.” And it’s like, “Oh, my God, the workplace becomes so different and the results become so different at work once we’re free.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, beautiful. Well, I really appreciate you going into the full rundown of the dozen here. And what I like about this lineup is these are patterns I think that we can recognize, like in ourselves or others, like, “Oh, yeah, I know someone who’s kind of like that. I know someone who’s kind of like that,” and it’s sort of handy to have some language and some categories to operate with.

I’m curious, beyond just sort of listening and reflecting, how do we know which ones are active in us? And then what do we do once we know that?

Dr. Sam Rader

Yeah. So, you can go to my website, DrSamRader.com, and take the free quiz, it takes like two minutes, and that’ll give you your “top coping style,” your most prevalent one. And once you do that, there’s like a really sweet little $11 mini course you can take to start unraveling and dissolving and resolving it. And then you can also take, once you get inside that mini course, you can take a full-length test. They can give you all of your coping styles and to what degree you have them, and you can start working on all of those as well.

But it’s funny, you also mentioned the thing about people at work, because once you start to understand the coping styles – and, by the way there’s also a free pocket guide on my website that describes all of them so you can kind of have that handy – you start feeling less annoyed with other people when you understand that it’s just a coping style and where it comes from.

So, for example, if there’s someone at work who’s frictive, who’s always like, “Hey, hey, hey, can I have your attention? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and they’re really like needy and intense, and you’re like, “Oh, that person won’t leave me alone,” you can be like, “Oh, they’re frictive. They didn’t have enough physical containment as little ones. Maybe I can just give them a squeeze and a hug, and, wow, they’re much calmer now. Wow, they’re bugging me a lot less.”

So, once you start to understand the motivation of other people’s behavior, it also causes really great team building, you’re much easier to manage others, and be managed by others when you understand what makes them tick, and how you can support them in being a little less in their coping styles and a little more in the antidotes.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Dr. Sam Rader

One of my favorite studies was of a troop of orangutans in Africa, who, all the alpha males contracted a disease from eating from a garbage pile that was infected, and they all died. And so, traditionally, when new adolescent males join a troop, they’re sort of hazed by the alpha males and the females are not allowed to groom them. But once all the alpha males died out, when the new adolescents would come from other tribes, because that’s what happens to adolescents, leave their troop to go to a new troop so there’s no inbreeding, they would be welcomed by the new matriarchy who would groom them and touch them and welcome them. And they created a completely peaceful, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical troop that survived for nine generations forward that just had a completely different culture.

And why I love that study so much is that even though things can seem so effed up right now on the planet, all it takes is one shift in how we treat one another to create an entirely new culture here on Earth, and that’s my wish for humanity.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Dr. Sam Rader

I love the Hafiz, the Sufi poet, and this book translated by Daniel Ladinsky called The Gift. It’s Sufi poetry.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Dr. Sam Rader
“There are no bad people, only hurt people hurt people. And we all need more love, not less.”

Pete Mockaitis

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

Dr. Sam Rader

Come to my website, www.DrSamRader.com, or you can follow me on Instagram @drsamrader. I would love to hear from you. Feel free to DM me. I’d love to chat about what you loved about this interview or not. Or, I’d love to just meet all of you.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Dr. Sam Rader

Yeah. See if you can spot any patterns, the things that are bugging you about your vocational life. See if you can spot a pattern in that that is familiar, that it’s not just now, it’s not just in this job, but it’s been haunting you and with you for as long as you can remember. And then see if you can trace that pattern back to actually your early experience as a little one, how that’s actually in a reenactment of a drama from home.

And when you do that, sometimes just that awareness and seeing that it is a pattern, it’s not just this one thing that’s happening today at work, but it’s actually the pattern, that once you recognize that pattern and just hold it for what it is, sometimes that alone can start to dissolve and resolve it on its own.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Lovely. Well, Sam, this has been fun. I wish you much luck in transformations with you and your clients.

Dr. Sam Rader

Thank you for tolerating my woo, and it’s been a pleasure.

953: How to Transform Tension into Progress amid Tough Conversations with Todd Davis

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Todd Davis shows how to fix strained relationships and shift conversations from difficult to productive.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to reduce the discomfort in difficult conversations
  2. The three steps to turn tension into progress
  3. How to recover from worst-case scenarios 

About Todd

Todd Davis is a senior consultant and thought leader at FranklinCovey, and has over 35 years of experience in human resources, talent development and executive recruiting. Todd has been with FranklinCovey for 28+ years and until recently, spent 18 of those years as Chief People Officer and Executive Vice President where he was responsible for the global talent development in over 40 offices reaching 160 countries. Additionally, he authored and co-authored best-selling books including Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work and Everyone Deserves A Great Manager. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

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Todd Davis Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Todd, welcome back.

Todd Davis

Thank you, Pete. Great to see you again.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m excited to talk about difficult conversations, and I’d love it, for starters, if you could maybe paint a picture for us about the landscape or the state of play, the world of difficult conversations and their avoidance. What’s the status of that today? I have a feeling that’s happening a lot. Can you tell us just how much a lot and what’s the impact or cost of that?

Todd Davis

Yeah, I think great question. I think difficult conversations have always been a part of work and life, but I think, to your point, now more than ever before, with just the unrest, certainly in the U.S. but around the world, our emotions, our reactivity is at an all-time high. And so, I think just the crucial nature of how we handle difficult conversations is more important than ever before now, because people, at least in my experience, have more of a shorter fuse, so to speak. And so, we got to approach these very carefully and methodically in my experience.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Todd, how about we just don’t? Difficult conversations, by definition, are difficult. I think they may be unpleasant. Why not just skip them?

Todd Davis

You know what, I like your idea there, and I have done that, and in the short term, that’s very helpful. In the long term, it’s not. I wrote very quickly, several years ago, I had a situation at work with one of my team members, and just that, Pete, I thought, “Ah, this is going to just go poorly, and they’re going to feel upset, and I’m going to damage our relationship,” and I let this behavior go on and on and on until not only was this person looking bad, but I was starting to look bad because other people could see that I wasn’t taking charge here and trying to course-correct something.

And when I finally did talk to this person, they were upset and it was uncomfortable, like I thought it would be, but the thing that they were most upset about was how long I had waited to bring it up with them, and rightfully so. They said, “Gosh, if you realized this eight months ago, why would you let me look foolish for eight months?” I think those were this person’s exact words.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Todd, now we’ve got to know, what was the behavior?

Todd Davis

Well, I want to be loyal to the absent. It was a team member. It was a personal habit this person had of being on their phone too much. And while they were getting most of their work done, there were other team members…and this was before the pandemic, we were all in the office seeing each other, and it was a less than mature behavior that this person was modeling, and it was really making them and our department look bad.

And they didn’t have a lot of extra time like others did to pitch in and help others with their work. So, that’s about as detailed as I’d like to go with respect to this person, but it was awkward at best. And when you’re talking to somebody about a personal behavior they have, naturally we can get very defensive with that. So that was the situation.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I hear that. And what’s so funny, that notion of, “But why did you let me look foolish for so long?” really sticks. I can recall a time I was in the office, and I was completely unaware that, I don’t know what happened. I put a sweater on and my hair got really weird, and I had multiple meetings. I’m thinking maybe nine different people I interacted with over the course of several hours, until I went to the bathroom, and I looked, and it’s like, “My hair looks so ridiculous.” It’s like, “How long has this been going on? And how has nobody said anything to me?”

It’s not just like a hair out of place. It’s like, “Are you going for a mohawk look this morning in the consulting office, Pete?” But it’s so funny, I love that reframe, that, “Yes, it might seem uncomfortable, but you may also have something to lose by avoiding it, and the person is actually less pleased with you for having kept silent.”

Todd Davis

Pete, it is so true. We think about the reason we do avoid or put off having these difficult conversations is because we’re worried about, in general, most of the time, we’re worried about offending the other person. And so, we think we’re being considerate, we think, “Gosh, it’s consideration that is getting in the way because I don’t want to offend or hurt in any way.” And yet, to your point, and your example of your hair, the ultimate opposite of consideration is not sharing something with them.

Now, again, easy if we’re talking about hair looking out of place or somebody who’s obviously doing some behavior on work hours that aren’t beneficial. Harder when we see things a different way. A leader sees something, a different way of doing something than their colleague is doing or whatever, and it’s not as cut and dried as these examples. But, still, if the leader will begin the conversation, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here in the conversation, but if the leader will begin by making sure the person knows, “Hey, I just want to help. Please know my only intent is to help you be as wildly successful as you are, and I know you can be in your role.”

And if we can continue to make sure that the receiver of the conversation knows that’s our intent, it doesn’t make the awkwardness or the uncomfortableness go away, but it certainly helps us get to a point where we can start to really discuss and collaborate.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, we’ve teed up a little bit of the why associated with folks can get upset, even more upset with you if you don’t tell them what’s up and they need to be told. What is ultimately the outcome, the consequence of professionals and teams consistently having the difficult conversations versus consistently avoiding them? What roads will this take us down?

Todd Davis

Well, I love that question because I have been on teams before and I have led teams before, and we have created a culture of feedback where it is the norm. And again, I don’t want to pretend that, “Oh, so I just love it when people tell me things that I’m doing wrong that I need to change.” I’m not saying you get to that point, but if feedback can become the norm for both all the team members and for the leader, the outcome is a high-performing team.

I mean, if we have this level of trust where I say, “Gosh, when Pete shares something with me and it’s different than I was seeing it, I know that he just wants us both to win. He wants this whole thing to get better.” And if we can create that spirit of trust on the team where we know that nobody’s out to get us, we’re not feeling defensive or wondering what some ulterior motive is, the outcome is that we have probably the highest performing team in the organization, and others look to us to say, “Gosh, how are they doing that?”

And it’s through creating this culture of feedback where difficult conversations, yes, they’re still difficult, but we assume good intent. We are open to what the other person has to say, and we learn from it, and we all grow together.

Pete Mockaitis

I like that so much. And what comes to mind right now, it’s so random, is Mr. Beast, the top YouTuber, and whenever he tells his origin story, he goes back to, like, four or five other YouTubers, and they just “roasted” each other’s videos day after day after day after day, continuously telling them all the ways their videos are poor and could be made better. And, go figure, you compound that and he is the best in the world at that. And so, in your team, you saw they could become the highest performing.

And yet, I’ve seen the data suggest that a good majority of folks are not comfortable with having such conversations. I think Harvard Business Review had a Harris Poll showing that 69% of managers are just uncomfortable communicating with employees, which is quite a statement. Like, that’s sort of your job is communicating with employees, your whole job you’re uncomfortable with. That didn’t even put uncomfortable, difficult conversations in the mix but just straight up communication. So, you’ve identified through your research the number one driver of this discomfort. Lay it on us, Todd.

Todd Davis

Well, it’s tension. There’s something at stake. I mean, you think about it, Pete, think about your last difficult conversation, whether it was with someone in your personal life or someone in your professional life. When you really think about it, there’s something at stake for both parties. If I’ve got a performance issue on my team, well, what’s at stake for me as the leader? Well, that we’re not getting the results we could be getting if they could improve their performance. What’s also at stake for me is the nature of the relationship moving forward. I want to make sure that I get this information across, but that I also do it in a way that is respectful so that we don’t have this awkwardness going forward.

What’s at stake for the person that’s going to be receiving this conversation, hopefully receiving this conversation, is their dignity, their respect. It’s embarrassing. We can use other words for it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how senior we are in our roles or how long we’ve been in the workforce, it’s embarrassing to get feedback. It’s awkward. And I think if people, I know, if these people that were cited in the Harvard Business Review, if they were thinking about, “Wait a minute, let me put myself in the place of this other person, that will help me structure this conversation, and, first and foremost, I got to remember that this is awkward and embarrassing. So, what can I do to reduce that defensiveness?”

And so, I coach with, and we coach in our work sessions, with an actual step-by-step, first of all, construct a purpose and an intent statement, “What is your purpose?” You want to declare that to the person? “Well, I want you to know, Pete, I need to share with you something that I believe will help you be better in the role that you’re in right now. Maybe it’s something that’s not even on your radar, but it’s going to be a little bit awkward. And please know that my only intent in sharing this with you is to help you be wildly successful in your role.”

“And I also, while I don’t ever know how anybody else feels, I know when I’ve been on the receiving end of feedback, it stings a little bit. So, I’m very mindful of that. But again, I want to reiterate my intent is to help you and the team be wildly successful. So, are you okay if I move forward and share with you what I need to share?”

Now, I don’t pretend that that removes all of the awkwardness. But, boy, is it a logical and a helpful way for me to say, “Okay, I can have this conversation. I now know how to begin the conversation and get into it.” So, that’s what we coach in the work sessions. You start from this place of courage and consideration.

Courage, recognizing “What do I need out of the conversation?” Consideration, “What do I need to make sure the other person needs?” And while we completely, or we immediately jump to, “Well, they need to know what they’re doing wrong,” but before that, they need to feel respected. They need to feel whole. They need to feel valued.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. So, fundamentally, we got some steps there as to handling things. And then what makes it tricky is there’s tension, there’s stakes in terms of for you, for them, for the organization, the team, and then that that fear of eliciting a negative emotion you’ve identified in your course materials as like the number one driver, kind of that visceral emotional level of folks avoiding stuff.

So, I’d love to hear, maybe before we even get into the how of the conversation, can you tell us how do we feel okay enough to pursue it, find the courage?

Todd Davis

Well, you talked up front about this mindset that’s so easy to get into of “Gosh, I’m just not going to have it. Maybe it’ll go away. Maybe it’ll get better on its own.” While, again, that can feel better for the short term, it’s not what we call an effective mindset. Anybody who’s worked with Franklin Covey knows that we always, always, always start with a person’s mindset. So, a very common mindset is, “Hey, this conversation is going to hurt, so no matter what, I just got to get through it. I just got to minimize the pain.” And that’s natural. I’ve had that mindset before.

But a more effective mindset, if we can start there, and we can realize as leaders or whoever is initiating the conversation, sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s the employee who needs to initiate the conversation with their leader. Regardless of who’s initiating it, if they can get their mind around the fact that, “Wait a minute, I can reduce the pain and I can actually make progress when I’m focused on balancing both my needs and theirs.”

So, we get in the right mindset and that’s all around this balancing of courage and consideration, then we can begin the conversation with what I already shared, is first of all, stating what the purpose is, making sure that the person understands your intent, and then diving into the topic.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Courage and consideration, that’s fantastic. And I think sometimes we might find ourselves deficient on one or both of those. It’s like, “I’m feeling scared and timid, so I’m lacking courage,” or, “I’m mad. I am mad at this person for screwing this up repeatedly,” or whatever the context, like, you are mad about the thing. So, you may feel a little short on consideration of their feelings and perspective and context in the moment. Can you help us, how do we give ourselves a bit of a jolt or a boost on these dimensions if we’re feeling short?

Todd Davis

Well, if we’re talking about a leader right now that’s going to be initiating the conversation and who’s mad because of the person’s performance, I would suggest, and again, says easy, does hard, but I suggest we step back and say, “What is my role as a leader? My role as a leader is to get results with and through others. My role as a leader is to develop others. So, yeah, it may feel good for me to just go tell this person off and vent and tell them how angry I am. But am I really then developing and helping them get better results in the future?”

We define effectiveness as getting results in a way that allows us to get even better results over and over again in the future. So, I might get the results of making this person feel bad and apologizing and knowing how upset I am with their behavior, and that’ll make me feel good in the short term, but again what have I done for the long term? So, we want to approach these conversations, unless we’ve got the wrong person. Clearly, there are some times when you’ve absolutely got the wrong person in the role. And then, of course, that’s a different conversation as you’re going to help them get to a place where they can contribute in a better way.

But 90% of the time, we’ve got the right person or someone who can become the right person, but we’ve got to slow down, we’ve got to have that balance of courage and consideration, address what needs to be addressed, but in a way that they can hear it, in a respectful way. I think all of us, I know, all of us know what our tendency is. I don’t know you well enough to know what yours is, but I know what mine is. Mine is to err more on the side of consideration than courage so I’ve got to be mindful of that when I go into the conversations, “Okay, Todd, you have a tendency to sometimes sugarcoat or talk around an issue, hoping the message will get through so you don’t offend the person.”

And what I’ve learned through that is that sometimes it works, but more often than not, the message doesn’t get through. So, I remind myself of that before I go into the conversation, to say, “Todd, don’t lose that consideration, but you got to be a little more direct with respect for that person.” There are many people who are the opposite.

Pete, you seem like a pretty mean guy, so I bet you go in and say, “I’m just going to tell them like it is,” and it’s good to be direct, but also, “Can I tell it to them? Can I initiate the conversation in a way that they can lower their defense and feel hurt? So, maybe I need to increase my consideration.” So, the self-awareness of one when you’re beginning a conversation like that, this is so important.

Pete Mockaitis

Alrighty. How about you give us a demonstration? We’ve got some steps.

All right, Todd, let’s hear the situation. Give us a demonstration of these steps. Let’s say the situation is we are peers, you are leading a project, and you sort of need my cooperation to do stuff, and yet I am not giving you much of it, in terms of, I kind of show up to some of your meetings, I do most of what I say I’ll do most of the time, but sometimes it’s kind of late, and you would like for me to kick it into gear and be a dream collaborator, but you’re not my boss, you are a peer. How do you work it?

Todd Davis

Okay. Thanks for that softball. So, I would, first of all, determine the right time to talk with you, and so we’ll kind of fast forward here, we don’t have all day, but I would probably take you to lunch, see if we can go to lunch together, if you show up. And so, we go to lunch, and I would begin with some nice icebreakers, so then I would just say, “Hey, Pete, I wonder if it would be okay. I have some concerns about how the project is going, and I know we’re all equals in this, we’re all collaborating, but as the project leader I have some concerns I want to share with you. We go back a-long ways. We’ve worked together on different things for a long time. I have a lot of respect for you and your talents, but I also have some concerns about how the project is going that I really need your help with. Would you be okay if I share those with you?”

Pete Mockaitis

“All right, sure. Lay them on me.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, I appreciate that. So, we’ve got this deadline looming in two months, and several of the people on the team look to you. You have a lot of influence with them. And it’s been my experience, and again, I may be wrong. I don’t think I am. But it’s been my experience that you’re not fully bought in on this project, and it’s showing up in ways that are really damaging to the team, and I don’t think that’s your intention. But, for instance, the other day when you didn’t even come to the meeting for the XYZ step of the project, it kind of showed your, at least in my opinion, showed your disinterest. I hope this is okay that I’m sharing this with you.”

“I care about you. I care about our relationship. I’ve worried about this for a while, and I haven’t quite known how to bring it up because I don’t want to damage our relationship. We’ve been good friends, and I’d like it to stay that way, but I also need to feel comfortable sharing these things with you. So, I’m wondering, I’d like to understand what your level of interest is on this project first. And if I’m misinterpreting your behaviors, I want to be certainly fair and respectful that way. But could you tell me a little bit about your passion or lack thereof for this project?”

Now, that would be how I’d begin the conversation, Pete. It would be a long conversation, but I would want to say those kinds of things so that Pete knows I’m not trying to pull rank on him because I don’t have rank, but, really, my interests are in having the project succeed in time and our relationship.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Understood. Thank you. And so, I’ll just sort of step into the role and be like, “Well, yeah, Todd, I mean, sure. We’re going to be friends, and I guess you’re in a spot here. Yeah, that’s not fun to hear. I do like to crush it in everything I do. But, yeah, it’s true. Like, I don’t, I mean, I care about you. I don’t care much about your project. No offense. I don’t think it’s going to make much of an impact to the organization long term.”

“And, again, I could be wrong. I mean, I don’t know. That’s really not my area of expertise, and it’s also not really in my quarterly or annual goals, this stuff. So, it’s accurate. Like, I’m not that passionate about what you’re cooking up. I’m trying to be like enough of a team player to not just be totally rude but, push comes to shove, it’s like the things that I’m getting evaluated on, and my bonus is contingent on, really do have my heart and priority. And I’m kind of done working to midnight as a lifestyle, which, I mean, I could. It’s fair. I could stay up later and do your stuff, and I choose not to. That is accurate. So, yes, it’s kind of a tough spot.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, first of all, thank you. Thank you for being open and honest with me. I appreciate the transparency. While, of course, I wanted to hear, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to just jump in and I love this kind of stuff,’ I would rather deal with honesty like you just shared. So, I want to be clear, what I heard you say is that, on projects you love and that you’re fully engaged in, you love the recognition and just crushing it and knocking it out of the park, and you’ll stay up till all hours of the night doing that.”

“But on projects that you’re not fully bought into, like this one, and that you don’t, and it’s okay, we all have our right to our opinions, that you don’t believe is going to make a difference, you’re kind of pitching in to help when you can, but you’re really not that excited about it, and want to spend your time more focused on those things that are going to matter to your next promotion, your grade, and things that you believe are really going to make a difference. Have I understood correctly?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Yeah, for the most part. I would say that I don’t care to stay up late anymore for work in general at this phase of my life with three young kids, unlike my earlier days, even if I am into a project. But, yeah, more or less, that’s the situation.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, again, I appreciate your honesty with that. Is there anything? Because while we have different views of the impact this project will have, the deadline is the deadline. I’ve committed that we will have this done by that deadline. Is there anything that I could do differently to inspire or motivate you to bring yourself, not work until midnight, but during the hours of operation and working on this project? Is there anything I could do differently that would be more motivating for you to dedicate more time to this? And if there’s not, I respect that, and we can look at some additional resources, but if there is, I’m open to looking at things differently if there’s something I could do to inspire you to be more excited about this.”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, thank you. Well, I mean, motivation, I don’t know, I could tell you that I get most jazzed about sort of the creative aspects of things and the actionable aspects of things. And I am less into hearing meeting status updates, some person did that, some person did that. So, I think maybe, I don’t know, it might be hard to get much more motivation from me.”

“But I think you could probably get more of what you need from me if you could just like have a super tight scope in terms of, ‘Pete, this is exactly what is critical for you and you alone.’ That is kind of motivating. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m the guy who can handle this, other people cannot,’ so I’ll do it. As opposed to, ‘Okay, you kind of need input from everybody on a thing to seem like it was inclusive. And I guess those don’t, I find as compelling. Like, the survey seems sort of long and not targeted. So, yeah, I guess that’s what I’m thinking there.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. This is super helpful as well, Pete, because at the end of the day, what I need is your creativity and your expertise, and I realize, as I’m listening to you, I do tend to be a consensus leader. I want everybody to feel like they have input. And what I hear you saying is that that’s fine, but you don’t feel you need to be in those meetings or those updates. That’s taking time away from some of the other projects you’re on, and from some of the specific creative things you could do on this team.”

“So, what I’d like to do is think about how I might restructure this a little bit, use you in those targeted areas, maybe have Jamie come in and she can, in working with you, she would have enough of a sense of where you are on the specific things I give you that she can attend to the status updates meetings because it is important that we meet weekly and know where we’re going. But what you’re saying is that’s not the most exciting use of your time and the best use of your time. So, I’m going to use Jamie for that, allow you to be, and I’ll be very direct and clear on setting expectations of what we’ve got to have you do each time so that we’re moving the project along.”

“But that your time, maybe once a month, I’d ask you to come in and give us an overall update, but not on a weekly basis like we’ve been doing. Would you be open to us trying that for the next couple of weeks and seeing how that works for you and for me, and then we’ll be both very honest about how it’s going?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, sure, yeah, that does work. And, thank you, I appreciate you, you know, considering my preferences, and I think that will work. We’ll see how it goes. We’ll give it a shot.” Okay, Todd, that’s really cool.

And so, what I’m observing here is that you brought a good amount of humility in terms of you’re just trying to figure out how to make this work for everybody, and you’re not like, “Listen, Pete,” even if you were my direct manager or the CEO, it sounds like you probably wouldn’t be like, “Listen, I’m going to lay down the law. You gotta step up and, like, ABC, that’s what’s up.” Mic drop. But rather, it’s very collaborative and humble. It’s like, “Hey, I’m trying to make this work for everybody. I’m observing this. How might we find something?” And so, I like that a lot.

Todd Davis

You’re exactly right. And because, and you made it, and it is difficult, you made the point a couple times, we are peers. I have no formal authority over you. If I had, if I did, if you reported to me, if I were the one responsible for your next promotion, your next increase, while I would hope the humility and the empathy would be there, the conversation would say, “You know what, Pete, I appreciate this isn’t exciting for you, but I’ve made the determination that we’ve got to have these weekly updates, and I’m okay with maybe using Jamie to come in and give those a couple times, but at the end of the day, I’m really concerned about your reputation.”

“You are genius on your creative side, but if you’re inflexible on how you work with people, that’s not going to work for you. So, please know, I’m not sharing this with you to be critical. I’m sharing this with you because I would hate to see someone with your talent and your genius get passed over for really cool projects because you’re somewhat inflexible. And sometimes we have to work on things that we’re not as excited about but that gives us the ticket to then be chosen for other things that we are excited about.”

“So, I hope that you know my intent is to, again, reiterate, I just want you to be the number one pick for everybody on these projects. But if you’re going to be inflexible on this, that’s going to hinder your growth and progress in the company.” That would be the conversation I would have if I had the formal authority. But with your peers, it’s got to be like I did before, in my experience.

Pete Mockaitis

No, that is handy. And it does, I feel the difference, and it seems appropriate in terms of, it’s like you’re not saying it, but it’s clear, it’s like, “I am the person who judges your goodness as an employee.”

So that is, because in a way, I think it’s possible for folks to forget that. Like, if you’re too considerate and sugar-coated all the time, we can sort of forget that fundamental truth about the reality of your career progression. Now, it’d be pretty ugly to, like, stomp, like, “You know who I am, and I own you,” and, like, whatever.

Todd Davis

Never do that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

But when you speak in the way you speak, it just sort of brings to mind, “Oh, yeah, the context we’re in is that…” Like, it was a little judgy, like when you said I was inflexible, but at the same time, you are the one who judges. And by judging in front of me, I am reminded that you are the one who judges.

Todd Davis

Well, it’s a good point. And, again, I would never use, hopefully would never use that language, and even maybe saying inflexible, I would soften that a little bit because that makes people feel defensive. But I would say, “You know, it might appear to some that you’re inflexible. I know you. I know how talented you are, but I also want you to know that, in addition to being creative, flexibility is a number one strength that really successful people have.”

And when I have someone and some people think this is generational. I don’t, I haven’t experienced that. People of all generations might say, “Well, that’s your opinion.” And I will say, “You’re exactly right. And part of my role as a leader is to form an opinion. And so, I gather as much information as I can, and I want to hear your input as well, but at the end of the day, I have to make a judgment call. So, you’re right it is my opinion and that’s what I’m paid to do.” And that helps. And, again, always in a respectful way but I’m pretty successful. You can be pretty successful at getting the message across in a good way if you use that kind of language.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, this also reminds me. One time I was an intern, and I was receiving some feedback and the context was actually unclear to me, and I said, “Wait a minute, am I supposed to be dazzling you? I thought the manager was making the decision.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, but I am the primary input to the manager’s decision, and I would like to be dazzled.” It’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Okay, I kind of thought of us as just like pals, like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” I was an intern, I was just learning what’s up in career stuff, but that was very useful to kind of recontextualize our relationship.

Todd Davis

You bring up really good point because going back to, for your listeners, recognizing, “Do I heavily weigh more on the consideration side? Or, am I more on the courage side?” Recognize that because, if you’re like me and you tend to weigh more on the consideration side, you can fall into that trap and you can say, “Gosh, I had this conversation, but she or he left thinking we’re just pals and we’re here to work together and I get to have as much say as they do.” And so, you got to be careful of that.

When we were doing that, I really appreciate the roleplay you set up. That was really helpful, and there are three tools that I used in there that we teach in the “Navigating Difficult Conversations” course that I just want to call out. They were pretty subtle, but I’ve used them for so long that they come quite natural to me, and they can come quite natural to others if you use them, and that is to pause, observe, and ask.

And what I coach people on, and what I remember myself is, “Pause. Don’t panic when we’re talking,” because you can see some new leader or maybe some seasoned leader, when you say, “Well, no, I just don’t like doing that,” and they go, “Oh, my gosh, what do I say now?” Just pause, don’t panic. Observe, don’t judge. Even if I’ve worked with Pete for a long time, I go, “Oh, yeah, this is the routine he goes into.”

Well, everybody’s different in different seasons of their life, so observe, don’t judge, and then ask, don’t assume. And I tried to really emphasize that, and ask you, “So, what I hear you saying is this, and what I hear you saying is that.” And you were great because you said, “Well, mostly it’s just this.” And so, if I had assumed that I might have missed a couple of things that you shared with me when I was asking those questions. So, pause, observe, and ask.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now, I’d love it, Todd, let’s say things go as horribly wrong as we fear, I’d love your take on what then. So, let’s say instead, I say, “Todd, that’s ridiculous. I’m working my keister off on your project and all these other projects, by the way, which are on my evaluation, critical path for reviews and such, and yours is not, incidentally. And I think it’s pretty flippin’ rich for you to make these heinous accusations when I feel like I am going above and beyond for this team again and again. And what about Mark? That guy is a real slacker. I think you should probably be taking him to lunch.”

Todd Davis

Yeah, and we’re peers, right?

Pete Mockaitis

Yep.

Todd Davis

This is still we’re peers. Yeah, that would be fun. I would make sure that you get the tab. But I would, yeah, in that situation, I would say, “Gosh, Pete, clearly, I have hit a sensitive chord here, and I apologize for that. That wasn’t my intent. My only intent was to see if we could make this work because I need your talent on this team. What you’ve shared with me here is that probably is not going to happen. I’m going to get what I’m getting, and nothing else.”

“And if that’s the case, I respect that. I don’t have, nor would I take the authority to say you have to do this, but I don’t have that. So, unfortunately, I’m going to have to get somebody else to fill that role and free you up to do what you want to do. And I’m going to have to go back to Joe, my boss, and let him know I’ve got to delay the timing on this.”

“Because if you’re unwilling, which I heard you loud and clear, and while I disagree, I respect that, I’m going to have to get somebody else to fill this role. They won’t be as good as Pete because I’ve worked with you before and your genius, but I got to have this level of dedication. So, thanks for being open with me and honest with me so I know what my next steps are.” That’s how I would end the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. And I like that because it’s respectful and not just screaming right back at me. And then I might very well say, “Todd, I’m sorry. I’ve got way too many things cooking right now, and you didn’t deserve that. So, yeah, I mean, if you could find someone else, that would really be a relief, if that’s workable.”

Todd Davis

And, Pete, if I could interrupt, that might be a way. And again, we’re talking hypothetic here, but if Pete truly is this genius, creative genius, that might be a way for him, for me to work with his…and I’m not trying to be manipulative, but for me to recognize his ego, and say, “Oh, they’re going to get somebody else here and I know I can do a better job in this.”

There might be a way for us to continue the conversation after this to say, “Well, wait a minute. I don’t want you to have to change your deadline. I don’t want you to have to go to Joe and change the project deadline.” It might be a way to continue the conversation. It may not be. It may be just what you’re saying, “Thanks. Yeah, get somebody else. My heart is not in this.” But it might be a way to continue the conversation after a blow-up. I can think of several situations where that positively has happened.

Pete Mockaitis

And I find that encouraging, Todd. You’ve lived through several blow-ups, and it sounds like you’re suggesting that’s not terminal. When the absolute worst-case scenario happens, it’s actually not a horrific scorched earth, nightmare escape. Is that accurate?

Todd Davis

That is accurate. I’m thinking of one right now. We had a director, I won’t say what department, and this person went through, I’m not kidding you, six executive assistants, because they were so difficult to work with. Six. And in my chief people officer role, I was overall of the recruiting and that, and finally the recruiters came to me, and said, “We can’t find anybody that’s going to please so and so. It’s just not going to work.”

And so, I went and talked to this person, and I was respectful, and I said, “I know you’re frustrated with the talent that our team, the recruiting team has been finding, but I need to be really honest with you about what I’ve observed.” And granted, it’s my opinion, I did not have authority over this person, but I was the chief people officer, and I said, “What I’ve observed, and I don’t know how to say this in a way that’s not going to be offensive, my intent is not to be offensive, you are very difficult to work with, and every one of these people who have left have said that in the reviews, and they’ve talked about the micromanagement and the demeaning nature. And I know you and I know that’s not your intent, but I’m telling you six people now have felt that, and I don’t see this ever getting any better unless we can address that.”

And this person blew up, like I knew anybody would, who felt personally attacked. And I just listened and, two days later, I went back after them, and I said, “Hey, wanted to check in with you, see how you’re doing. I wanted to reiterate my only intent in sharing with you what I did was to see if we could get to a place where we could get you some help, and I didn’t see that ever happening unless we could address what I’ve observed is the elephant in the room. And would you be at a point now where we could maybe talk to this?”

And we did, and we started talking through it, and this person actually asked me for some of the micromanaging behavior, because they couldn’t see it. And so, anyway, long story, but we got to a good point.

Pete Mockaitis

That is great to hear because even when it’s the absolute worst-case scenario, it is salvageable, and good things come from it, and maybe even better things. Like, your relationship with this collaborator, this peer, is probably even stronger now for having lived through that, because no one else found the courage to say what needed to be said to him.

Todd Davis

Well, the people that quit after one week did, but they didn’t count.

Pete Mockaitis

But no other peers in the organization had observed?

Todd Davis

That’s correct.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Fantastic stuff, Todd. Can you share anything else you want to make sure to put out there before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Todd Davis

I think, as we’ve been talking, Pete, if I could only use one word, and this would be ridiculous, but in coaching people, it would be empathy. If we can, in any situation, not just in difficult conversations, but in any situation, if we could do a better job as a world, and I don’t want to wax too philosophical here, but if we could do as much as we could to put ourselves in the place of others, not agreeing or disagreeing with them. I don’t mean that. Empathy is not that.

But seeing things from their point of view, we could have these conversations that are more productive. If we could, you know. Dr. Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits and a man I had the esteemed privilege of working directly with for many years before his passing, he would often say, “The deepest need of the human heart is to feel understood.” And when I first heard that, I didn’t disagree, but I thought, “Really, is that…?”

And then just, in my years of experience, that has proven itself over and over again. So, if we can just slow down a little bit and take the time to understand, even that person who has so many crazy ideas, you’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, how do they think this?” If we could slow down and understand them, try to understand them, we can have a more productive conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Todd Davis

I love this one, “Leadership is communicating to people their worth and their potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” I love that quote. I try to live by that quote.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Todd Davis

It’s Seth Godin’s Linchpin. He has many best-selling books, and for those of you who don’t know Seth Godin, he’s a world-renowned marketer and just brilliant all around. Great man. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with him personally. And he’s written several books, but he wrote a book called Linchpin talking about, “Are you the linchpin in your organization?”

It’s not about ego. It’s not about hoarding all the information so they can never get rid of me. It’s about, “Are you the connector? Are you the one that makes things happen? Are you the one that knows how to pull the right people together?” and just the value in that. So, I’ve done a lot of, I wouldn’t say study, but work on that and coaching on that, helping people to become the linchpins of their organization.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

Gosh, a favorite tool. I’m standing there right now. Long before the pandemic, our offices, back when we were in offices, went to, or you had the option of getting a standup desk. And I think I had convinced myself that, at a standup desk, I would be losing weight, which isn’t true, but my back feels better, my posture is better.

And so, I’ve had a stand-up desk for four years now. I had one in the office. I bought one at home during the pandemic, and I just continued to use it. And I think and feel so much better when I’m standing.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite habit?

Todd Davis

Favorite habit. Well, I was going to say runner, I’ve been a jogger, and about 20 years ago I started running marathons. I haven’t won any of them so I’m not bragging, but I have run 17 marathons. And I’m realizing I’ve been lucky that my knees, like many people, they haven’t suffered from that, but I want to be mindful of that. So, I started about four months ago, I read this article on fast walks on inclines, and so I have a treadmill and I have it at a steep incline. And every morning, I get up and I walked three miles at a pretty fast pace.

And it started to get old, so I started to watch a series that I had heard about for many years. People are going to laugh because I’m way behind the times, but this series called “Suits,” and that’s my motivation to get up in the morning and watch another 45 minutes of “Suits” every morning. In fact, it was a great episode this morning. So, it’s a recent habit I’ve been into for the last four months, and it’s a great way to start my day.

Pete Mockaitis

You’ll have to find a new series when you’ve exhausted the episodes.

Todd Davis

You’re exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

Yes, actually. You had mentioned one of the books I was fortunate enough to write, Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work. I was driving somewhere and I was following a motorhome that was towing a boat, that was towing some ATVs, and there was a big bumper sticker on the back of this big train, and it said, “The man,” or, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

And I looked at that and laughed, I thought, “Gosh, I’d want every one of those things. Those look like fun.” And I thought to myself, “You know what? I think he or she who dies with the most effective relationships wins.” At the end of the day, for me, and I think for all of us, it’s all about our relationships and about how we interact with one another, and having those meaningful relationships. So, the person who dies with the most effective relationships wins, in my book.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

FranklinCovey.com. www.franklincovey.com.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

Don’t settle. Don’t wait. Time is short. We’re reminded every day, I think, of how fast things can change, here in the U.S., the bridge that just collapsed, and how things can just change in an instant. So, do it today. Start today. Whatever your passion has you going after, don’t waste time. Do it today.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Todd, this has been much fun. I wish you much luck at all of your difficult conversations.

Todd Davis

Thank you too, Pete.

952: How Wonder Eliminates Stress and Improves Wellbeing with Monica Parker

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Monica Parker discusses the surprising benefits of wonder—and shares easy ways to experience more of it in your life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How wonder helps us at work 
  2. Easy ways to experience more wonder 
  3. How society discourages wonder—and how to overcome that 

About Monica

A world-renowned speaker, writer, and authority on the future of work, Monica Parker has spent decades helping people discover how to lead and live wonderfully. The founder of global human analytics and change consultancy HATCH, whose clients include blue-chip companies such as LinkedIn, Google, Prudential, and LEGO, Parker challenges corporate systems to advocate for more meaningful work lives. In addition to her extensive advocacy work, she has been an opera singer, a museum exhibition designer, and a homicide investigator defending death-row inmates. A lover of the arts, literature, and Mexican food, Parker and her family split their time between Atlanta, London, and Nice. Her wonderbringers include travel, fellowship with friends, and Trey Anastasio’s guitar.

Resources Mentioned

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Monica Parker Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Monica, welcome.

Monica Parker

Hi, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m excited to hear your take on wonder and how it can help us be more awesome at our jobs. But for starters, could you tell us what do you mean by wonder?

Monica Parker

Yeah, sure. So, wonder as a word is something of a shape-shifter. So, you have wonder as a noun and wonder as a verb. Of course, wonder as a noun would be perhaps a wonder. It might be something that’s a catalyst for awe. And then you have wonder as a verb, to wonder, which would be perhaps how we might describe curiosity.

And so, my definition of wonder seeks to link those two concepts. And so, the way that I describe it, it starts with openness to experience, then moves into curiosity, then into absorption and awe. And it’s actually a cycle that, as we experience it, the more we experience it, the more likely we are to experience it in the future. And so, that’s my definition of wonder.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, that sounds pleasant. But can you tell us how that helps us be more awesome at our jobs?

Monica Parker

So, it starts by making us more awesome as humans. It makes us more creative, more desirous of studying the world around us. It makes us more humble, less materialistic, more generous, better community and team members. People who are higher in the composite elements of wonder are more likely to perform better in work and school, and build healthier relationships.

And recent evidence shows that wonder makes us less stressed and feel like we have more time. It’s basically what would be described as a pro-social experience. So, it simply makes us want to be better, more tolerant humans. And that’s just the psychological benefits. Physiologically, it also decreases pro-inflammatory cytokines and lowers our blood pressure. And the research shows a direct biological pathway between wonder and better health.

Pete Mockaitis

Fantastic. So, tell us, that all sounds swell, I’m wondering, is this teachable? Are some people naturally have the wonder groove going and others don’t? Or how do you think about someone who is not as wonder-y becoming more wonder-y?

Monica Parker

Sure. So, it certainly, because it has to do with our brain, there’s going to be natural elements of it that we have a higher propensity towards. So, pretty much the way our personality works is that about half of it is based on our genetics and the other half is based on our experiences up to about age 25. So, there’s no question that some people are going to be naturally may have higher openness, may be more prone towards curiosity, but it’s absolutely something that we can train ourselves to see as a mindset, and we can engage in activities that help us become more wonder-prone.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I would love to hear a tale perhaps of someone who was less wonder-prone and went through some work and had way more wonder going on as a result.

Monica Parker

Sure. I can tell you some of the things that I find most exciting about this research is how it helps people who are, I think it’s fair to say that we’re dealing with a mental health crisis in America, as well as many other places. Forty million Americans right now are being treated for anxiety. Globally, 280 million people have depression. And so, one of the most exciting pieces of research that I’ve seen was working with people who had PTSD and who had trauma backgrounds.

After taking a whitewater rafting trip, which would certainly be wonder-inducing, they found that those people had a significantly reduced PTSD symptoms and, in fact, benefited for as much as two weeks after that experience. And so, what we know is that when people experience wonder, they become more better able to deal with what life throws at them.

And some of the research shows that that can be as simple as looking at some beautiful trees that give you a sense of wonder. Another piece of research shows that just three minutes looking at a particularly awe-inspiring grove of trees made people exhibit more helpful behaviors for the week following.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that’s fantastic. I’d love it if you could share with us some of these other quick yet super effective interventions. Three minutes of tree-looking for lasting benefit sounds right up my alley. What else can we do, Monica?

Monica Parker

Yeah, so the first is what I described, slow thought. Really, we are in such a rush all the time that we stop seeing what is around us. So, the more that we can engage in slow thought activities, and particular activities that help slow down our brain. So, we all have sort of that chattering monkey mind. So, these are things like meditation, chalk this up for again, another reason why we should all be meditating, things like narrative journaling, even a gratitude practice or prayer.

Any of those things that helps quiet down the brain and helps us engage in more slow thought, which, mind you, God rest his soul, Daniel Kahneman who just passed away, also talked about the power of slowing down and certainly how that can be effective in our work lives as well. Another way is to really open ourselves to novelty and new ideas. We get stuck in such the same rut of doing the same thing over and over again that we miss the wonder in the familiar.

So, the more that we can shake our noggins up a little bit and introduce new thinking and new places, new spaces help, and even just taking a wonder walk. And you might ask, “What’s a wonder walk?” Well, a wonder walk is you decide it is. It’s really a brilliant example of the power of priming. You tell yourself that you’re going to find things that will give you a sense of wonder on that walk.

And research found that two groups of walkers went walking for 20 minutes. One that was primed that they would find things to feel a sense of wonder about, the other group was not. And the group that went on a wonder walk had stress reduction benefits for the following week.

Pete Mockaitis

Fantastic. Now just how potent is stress reduction benefit are we talking here, Monica?

Monica Parker

Because it’s something that is so subjective, it’s hard to sort of give a specific definition of that. But what we do know is that it’s significant enough that it lowers people’s pro-inflammatory cytokines. And pro-inflammatory cytokines are those markers of disease that generally happen. If we’re actually sick, our body will release them as a mechanism to make us well, but frequently they will be released when we’re under stress.

And so, the stress reduction is significant enough, not just for the individual to sense that sense of stress reduction, but for the physiological changes to occur as well, where the pro-inflammatory cytokines actually reduce as well. And those are markers of conditions like heart disease, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s. And so, it’s pretty significant.

Pete Mockaitis

Fascinating. Well, while we’re talking medically, do you have a sense on the optimal dosage of this nature goodness or wonder experiences?

Monica Parker

To be fair, the more the better. The key, I think, is setting a mindset. And with practice, we can do that such that we start to see wonder in the quotidian. We really shouldn’t have to look for it. We should simply be able to find it. And that might be in a perfect autumn leaf. It might be this time of year, in the flowers as they’re starting to bloom. 

And so, really, it’s how much you’re willing to be open to it and find it in your life. But the more the better, there’s no question. But I would say like most things, a good practice would be if you can focus on doing one of the mind-setting activities for about 20 minutes in a day, then you will start to build the skills that will allow you to see wonder throughout your day-to-day life.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s just what I was thinking. When you said the word open, that really resonated for me because sometimes I am having wonder-y days and it’s a lot of fun, it’s expansive, it’s relaxing, it’s cool. And other times, everything is irritating and it’s kind of the opposite. And instead of being amazed at a leaf, I might be annoyed that the leaf is stuck to my shoe and crunching it all along the way. Do you have any sort of SOS or emergency stop-drop-roll kinds of things to shift us closer to the wonder mode?

Monica Parker

I’ll tell you, it’s probably one of the stop-drop-rolls that you’ve heard from a lot of other people because it’s what works. The first thing is to just take a big breath. We know that breathing helps quiet the amygdala. We know that it helps with our vagus nerve health, with vagal tone, which is one of the things that helps us stay calm. And so, really just taking a break to take a deep breath is probably the first SOS element. And I find that having a little mantra helps to just say there is wonder there, and then, hopefully, your eyes will be open to what you can find in your sphere that will give you that little bit of a wonder nugget.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And, Monica, you’ve got a lovely tidbit, five elements of wonder. They all start with the letter W. Could you walk us through these?

Monica Parker

Yeah. And so, these were a little bit what I started to describe at the beginning. So, I call them watch, wander, whittle, wow, and whoa. So, watch is the word for openness. Openness to experience is the personality trait that’s associated with the best, outcomes as a human, be it physical or mental.

And so, moving from openness to experience, we then, when we’re very open, what happens then, we become curious about something, and we become deeply curious. This is the watch element. And when I talk about curiosity, there’s really two types of curiosity. I’m focused more on the deep curiosity. You have surface curiosity, which would be sort of like Google searching to settle a bet, or maybe smelling the milk to see if it’s gone off. That’s not the kind of curiosity we’re looking for. We’re looking for the curiosity for the joy of the exploration. And this type of curiosity really starts to engage our brain in a different way.

We move from being deeply curious about something to becoming absorbed. That’s natural. We might find absorption in a flow state, but we might also find it from just being hyper focused. And this is where we call whittle. So, this is where we’re paring back attention. We’re really keenly focused on where we are hyper present. And then we move from whittle, if we’re lucky, into the fourth and fifth stages, which are the wow and whoa, and these are two stages of awe.

And the reason that awe has two stages is when we study the dynamic of awe as an emotion, it really does have sort of these two elements to it. The first is where we experience something that feels so vast. And that can be physically vast, like the Grand Canyon, or emotionally vast, like seeing your child take their steps for the first time. Our brain is shocked by that. And that’s sort of this wow moment. But then afterwards, our brain actually has to accommodate to understand what it is that it’s just experienced. And this is the whoa, where it’s sort of like mind blown. And those two elements together define the emotion of awe.

And after that, now our brain is in a hyperplastic state where we can embed all sorts of good stuff. And that brings us back to openness. So, now after that experience of the whoa, we are more open and, thus, more likely to be deeply curious, and then more likely to become absorbed and so on and so on. And so, I really do see it as this upwardly beneficial cycle that we can experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that is lovely, indeed. Well, could you make it all the more real for us by sharing several stories of individuals who experienced some of the stressed, overwhelmed, overloaded, “Aargh” kind of a vibe to regularly incorporating more wonder and the results they saw from doing so?

Monica Parker

Sure. So, one of my favorite stories, and this may not be something that everyone can directly, I guess, connect with, but it’s about a gentleman named Steven Callahan. And Steven Callahan was a famed solo sailor, and he actually went on a solo race and ended up becoming a castaway. He spent 76 days adrift on the Atlantic Ocean and actually wrote an incredible book about that. And I had the opportunity to speak to Steve.

And what he said was that he was certain that it was his sense of wonder that gave him the alacrity to be able to survive being out adrift at sea, because he said that there were moments where he had such a sense of crisis and panic where all hope felt lost, but he was so overwhelmed by the beauty and the power, even the horror, in a sense, of the sea and of nature, and what that could do to him. That that moment of feeling like a small part in a bigger system, and being, in a way, almost helpless actually gave him the strength and the ability to see more clearly in order to take every single day and engage in the activities that would get him to be eventually saved, which he was 76 days later.

And, in fact, strangely, many people report that. I interviewed a gentleman who worked with people who were at the end of having had experiences like this, or having been in plane crashes, or even having been kidnapped and held. The day that I interviewed him, he had just been speaking to someone who had been held in a hole in the Baltics, and then was saved. And what he found is that people who are able to have a greater sense of wonder and then convert that to a sense of purpose survive these intense cataclysmic experiences.

And he said that if there was one thing that he would advise people to do, it would be to, first, find a purpose and, second, find their sense of wonder, because he said that those are the keys to being able to survive any kind of crisis, big or small.

Pete Mockaitis

And it’s interesting when you said, “We had someone who’s a castaway, stranded.” And you said, “And many people share this,” like, “Wow, a lot of castaways.” But I hear what you’re saying in terms of crisis situations, kidnappings, etc. And even in a day-to-day professional environment where there’s less life-or-death stakes.

Monica Parker

But our brain thinks it’s life or death.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, and all those elements associated with how creatively, resourcefully you can operate really do. It makes all the difference in terms of whether you’re feeling like, “Oh, wow, cool ideas are coming to me, creative ways to use these resources,” versus, “Aargh, we’re screwed and there’s nothing I can do. Aargh.”

Monica Parker

Absolutely. And that’s where we start to get into one of the benefits of engaging in the slow thought. We know that one of the challenges that we’re confronted with in work environments is something that’s known as action bias. So, when we are, as professionals, usually, we are confronted with a situation where we really don’t have control, I think we saw a lot of this during COVID, we want to feel like we can exert control.

And one of the challenges is that society actually benefits that. Research shows that we will rate our leaders more positively if they made decisive decisions, even if those decisions later were found to be poor. And so, we have this real desire to act when sometimes we should just pause. And this is a little bit of wonder mixed with a little bit of Daniel Kahneman, which is to say that when we have the opportunity to slow down, we should.

And that is one of the things that Steven Callahan found being adrift. It’s one of the things that I heard from so many different scientists that I spoke to, that slowing down and allowing our brain to engage with what we’re really experiencing rather than catastrophizing or feeling the need to act, simply to act, really helps us make better decisions. And we see that in action bias, day in, day out in work environments. And we see that in more severe environments like being adrift at sea or, yes, being kidnapped by a terrorist organization.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Monica, tell us, any other top wonder do’s or don’ts to share before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Monica Parker

Yeah, so one of my other wonder do’s is to make sure that we’re getting enough sleep. Add that onto one of the challenges. When we’re sleep deprived, our attentional control really goes out the window and we become more ruminative. It becomes really much, much harder for us to become present. And also daydreaming. You mentioned earlier that some days you feel like you’re really on the wonder train. And some of that, daydreaming has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

There was a piece of research that came out, and they said, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” But actually, there is one type of daydreaming that’s really good for that, and that’s called positive constructive daydreaming. This is when we cast our minds forward and create in these play future scenarios. And that’s really, really good for us. So, I would encourage good night’s sleep, and then when you want to, allow yourself to have a good daydream.

Pete Mockaitis

Now, let’s see, I’ve read that paper, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” Let’s see, that’s Killingsworth and Gilbert.

Monica Parker

Correct.

Pete Mockaitis

And what was interesting, as I dug into the data, what I found was it seems like, yeah, being present to what’s going on around you is a winning happiness strategy. So, go mindfulness, go presence, that’s great. However, if you were daydreaming in positive territory, the happiness results are pretty comparable to simply being present. But the problem is our wandering minds tend to go into unpleasant territory, and that’s just no fun.

Monica Parker

Correct. There are two other types of daydreaming, one which is just poor attentional control. That’s something that really plagues people who are non-neurotypical. So, those of us who have ADHD certainly struggle with that. And then the other is that this catastrophic daydreaming, where we’re imagining something that’s really terrible that’s going to happen, or something stupid we did in the past.

But we daydream almost 50% of our day. It’s something like 43% of our day we’re daydreaming, so there must be some benefit or our brains wouldn’t do it. And so, it’s really about finding a way to harness that and create it into, you know, make it one of your slow-thought activities as opposed to something that just becomes distracting and ruminative.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Monica Parker

It is by Albert Einstein, and he says, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment a bit of research?

Monica Parker

I think one of my favorites that I haven’t mentioned really reflects on the power of mixed emotions. So, they took a group of widows and widowers, and they found that those who remembered their deceased loved one, the both positive and negative elements of their partner, were better able to manage their grief. And so, that really is just a, I guess, support to say that mixed emotions, like curiosity, like wonder, like awe, where there’s a little bit of positive and a little bit of negative mixed, are really, really good for our brains and we should try to do more of it.

Pete Mockaitis

Ooh, that’s powerful. And I’m reminded of a conversation. We had Susan Cain on the show talking about her book, Bittersweet. And, yeah, that hits hard.

Monica Parker

Existential longing, that’s another one, that’s another mixed emotion. Very positive for us, and it helps us to have better emo-diversity or emotional granularity. And the greater emotional granularity we have, the healthier we are. But really having those mixed emotions, fight it out in our noggin, is good for tolerance. It’s the anti-polarization. There are so many benefits.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Monica Parker

I love Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s a great dose of wonder, a little bit of historical fiction, and, yeah, I just think it’s a fabulous book that everybody should read.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Monica Parker

Yeah, for me, one of my favorite tools, believe it or not, as terrible as they are, I still choose to see some of the positive of social networks. I’m global, my network is global, and I really do curate Instagram such that I find it to be an incredibly helpful tool for me.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite habit?

Monica Parker

Sleep. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Always sleep.

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?

Monica Parker

I have a line in the book that says, “Wonder shared is wonder multiplied.” And I love that because it reminds us that wonder is not just a solitary experience, that it’s something that we can share with others and help it grow. We can share it in the moment or we can express it to others after we’ve experienced it. But every time that we share it with others, either in the moment or after the fact, multiplies the benefit and bestows that benefit on those that you shared it with.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Monica Parker

They can find me at Monica-Parker.com. And I have a weekly newsletter called Wonder Bringers that they can sign up for where I share other wonder nuggets.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Monica Parker

Yeah, my challenge is to follow wonder. And the best way to do that is to slow down. So, I guess I’ll put those two things together and say slow down and follow wonder.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Monica, thank you. This is fun. And I wish you many moments of wonder.

Monica Parker

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

951: The Three Sentences that Improve (almost) Every Conversation with Chris Fenning

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Chris Fenning shares how to master the first minute of conversation for clearer, more concise, and more persuasive communication.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to capture your audience’s attention in 15 seconds
  2. Why meetings feel like a waste—and how to fix that 
  3. The one question that’s ruining your reputation 

About Chris

Chris Fenning makes it easier for us to communicate at work. He helps experts talk to non-experts, teams talk to executives, and much more. Chris’s practical methods are used in organizations like Google and NATO, and have appeared in the Harvard Business Review. He is also the author of multiple award-winning books on communication and training that have been translated into 16 languages. Find out how Chris can help you at www.chrisfenning.com 

Resources Mentioned

Chris Fenning Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Chris, welcome.

Chris Fenning

Hi, Pete. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.

Pete Mockaitis

I’m excited as well. We’re talking about conversations today. Your book is called, The First Minute, which I love. It could really be like an action movie with a title like that, Chris. Tell us, what’s so important about the first minute of a conversation? Or is it just a catchy title?

Chris Fenning

Well, I’ve been told it’s a catchy title. The reason for the title is the whole book is literally about the first minute. So, it is quite an important thing. And you asked what it is, well, and why is it important? It’s important because, if in a work situation, if you’re at work and you’re communicating with other people, if you get the first minute wrong, you will pay for it through the rest of the conversation, your reputation can take a hit, and people may not want to communicate with you again in the future. But if you get it right, you can get people’s attention, keep their focus, and get their message across all in 20 to 60 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis

Chris, I love a very clear value proposition. There we have it. Okay. Cool. So, could you tell us a cool story about a professional who saw a transformation in terms of their first minutes were a little bit rough, but then they worked your magic, Chris, and on the other side, they saw some cool things? Do you have some tales like this?

Chris Fenning

Yes. There’s one person who really comes to mind, and she was a junior project manager at a time when I was a director in a large PMO. We were running big, big programs for a large American health insurance company, and this junior project manager had incredible potential but she was new in her role. And part of her role involved presenting to a senior leader, and this leader was a tough nut. They had very high standards, they expected everything to be in detail, to the point and complete, which is kind of a contradiction to do all of those things.

So, this junior PM did her best, and to prepare she did what many of us do which is include all the detail, help educate this person so they could really understand the message that was coming next. And, of course, that’s a crash-and-burn situation, because the more detail you put up front, the longer it takes to get to your point, the further you are from the value of your message.

And so, in working with her, we employed some of the things from The First Minute and also a technique that say only give three updates and then ask a question. And what happened is she went from delivering all of the detail up front, “Oh, let me tell you about this. This is what has happened and this is why it’s important. So that, blah…” and then she would get to her ask. She ended up coming in, and saying, “Hi, today I want to give you updates on three things. They are A, B, and C. What I want from you is a decision, some advice, and I literally don’t know what to do with the third one, so really looking for some help there. Let me start with topic number one.”

And she framed the conversation beautifully so that instead of feeling attacked and under pressure by that senior leader, the leader said, “Oh, great. Actually, I want to talk about number two. Can we go to that first?” And they had a conversation instead of this long, drawn-out introduction that led to the leader being frustrated because it wasn’t what they wanted to know.

So the impact for the junior project manager wasn’t just more effective communication in those meetings, which is an important thing. The biggest takeaway for her was her confidence went through the roof. She went from being scared going into these meetings, spending hours and hours preparing, and feeling that she would never be good enough going in – and these were her words – to after using these methods a couple of times, and seeing the impact, she felt confident.

Her preparation was cut more than in half, and she enjoyed giving the status updates, and ended up having a good relationship with that senior leader. So, it enabled her to shine in her role. And she went on to be a senior PM and do great things.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, Chris, I love that so much because what you’ve just demonstrated there doesn’t sound too hard to do, “What is your first minute?” I think it sounds like, “Oh, high stakes first minute. It’s a make or break. I could lose it. I could screw everything up. I need to dazzle them with a startling statistic, or a hilarious tale, or something in order to grip them in our TikTok-addled world of whatever.” But what you did is you just basically just set up a nice little preview, like, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do and kind of what I want.” And it’s like, “Oh, I can do that.”

Chris Fenning

Yeah, you’re exactly right. None of this is complicated but it does take deliberate effort to apply it over time. None of it is rocket science. I can say that, my background is rocket science. This isn’t it. This is definitely simpler than rocket science, but we need to remember to do it. And you gave a really good word there. You said it’s a preview of the conversation, and that’s exactly what it is. The method that I just described in the book is called framing, and it’s the first 15 seconds, maybe 20 seconds. And if you frame your message, you’re setting up your audience to pay attention and know what you’re going to tell them, and understand why it’s important to them.

And that preview addresses three questions that we will have if somebody starts badly. And the questions are, “What are you talking about? Why are you telling me this? And what is your point?” And you can avoid those three questions if you deliver a very simple preview, a simple framing in that first 15 to 20 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis

I love that because what you’re describing there is exactly what’s in their head in terms of like, “Wait, what are we doing here exactly?” And I’ve heard, and I think it’s so well said, that great copywriting, like, if you’re writing words to be persuasive like in a sales situation, is joining the conversation that is already in your prospect’s head. Like, they’re having this conversation with themselves, and you’re just joining right there where they are, meeting them in that zone, that spot, and it’s like, “Oh, perfect. This fits right here.” As opposed to, “Ugh, I’m annoyed, I’m irritated, or I want to change the channel. Get this away from me.”

Chris Fenning

Yes. Yes. One of the differences with that, so in that sales environment, you want to meet your audience with the problem that they’re having, with the goal they’re trying to achieve. When we’re at work, we’re in the other sort of advertising space of pattern interrupt. What we’re doing is interrupting someone else’s day, interrupting their thoughts so that they focus on what we want to talk about. And that’s always a tough sell anyway because people have got their own stuff to do.

And so, we have to go about it in a way that, very quickly, shows the other person the value to them or the importance to them, which is why the second thing in the framing is intent. The first part is context, “What is this topic? What are you talking about?” The second part is intent, which is, “What do I want you to do with the information?” And the third is key message, like, the point of what you’re trying to say.

And the reason that intent is so important up front is, until we know what to do with a piece of information, our brains literally don’t know how to process it. And because we’ve interrupted someone, whether we’ve bumped into them in a corridor, or even in a planned meeting, they’re thinking about something else, we say “Right. Now, Pete, I want to talk about this topic.” If I don’t tell you exactly why you need to pay attention, your brain is not going to be able to understand what’s coming next, and it’s because of something called working memory or sometimes called short term memory.

Now this isn’t, “Where did I put my keys? And what are the names of my kids?” This is the, where our brain receives information, it has to work out which part of the brain to fire up to do something with it. Because if I tell you a funny story, one area of your brain will engage. But if I asked you a question, a different area of your brain will start fire up and pay attention. And until your brain, at a subconscious level, knows which part to engage, it just gets stuck in a loop saying, “Well, what do I do with this? What do I do with this? What do I do with this?”

And if we don’t give our audience a clear instruction, “Hey, I need your help. Heads up, you need to know this. I’m about to give you an instruction,” so that’s very clear intent. If we don’t say that, your audience is just going to be wondering, “Why are you telling me this?” right up until the moment that we do.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good. And, Chris, I appreciate that new context in terms of bumping into them in a hallway or corridor because I was thinking, “Here we are at this meeting. It’s like, this is on the calendar. It has a title. We kind of know update about this project. We have some sort of sense for what it’s about,” but there’s still questions hovering around.” In the context you’ve set out, there’s even more of a wide-open field for, “Wait, what are we…? What’s going on right now? What are we even talking about?” So, that’s good.

Chris Fenning

And we start conversations in our own heads before we actually start the conversation with the other person. If I saw you across the office, “Oh, I need to talk to Pete about this. We’ve got this team meeting next week. I’m missing this critical piece of information. Oh, Pete, great, I’ve got you. So, blah…” and then I launch into the detail because I’ve already started that conversation in my head 10 feet away.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s true. Yeah, that’s really good to remember. I think, often, we’ll just sort of say something like, “Hey, can you send me the link?” “Can you give me the info? Do you have the newest data?” It’s like, “Wait, link, what link? What info? What data? Like, I really do need much more.”

Chris Fenning

“Can I talk to you about next week?” “Sure, I’ve got 39 meetings. Like, which one?”

Pete Mockaitis

Totally. All right. Well, let’s go into some detail. We got the context, the intent, the key message. You even gave me some seconds there. So, how about you give me a rundown of what do you mean by context? How many seconds is that? What’s a great example of context setting versus a poor example of context setting? And then do likewise for intent and key message. No pressure.

Chris Fenning

Absolutely. So, in terms of seconds, we’ll go with sentences instead, one sentence for each of those three things. One sentence for context, one for intent, and one for key message. If you want to get really tight, you can do it as bullet points because sentences can really run on. So, thinking in bullet points can help.

So, we start with context, and that’s, “What is the topic or the theme of the thing I’m going to talk to you about?” Now a good example would be, “Hi, Pete, can I talk to you about next Thursday’s team meeting?” I’m very specific on time and the event. If I said, “Hey, can I talk to you about next Thursday?” I’m thinking about the team meeting, you might be thinking about the meal we’ve got planned in the evening. And I’ll say, “Well, I’m struggling to get the location locked down.” Well, now you’re thinking about the place we’re eating and I’m thinking about the place that we’re meeting.

Rhyme aside, that is a very common type of misunderstanding because we’re not specific on time and event. So, clear context, “I want to talk to you about next Thursday’s team meeting.” You now know everything else I’m going to say relates to that and you’re not guessing with one sentence. Then it’s intent, and we’ve covered that a little bit, it’s saying what you want the other person to do, “Hey, Pete, I want to talk to you about next Thursday’s team meeting. I need some advice.” And you now know I’m going to ask for your help. Or, “Heads up, something’s changed.” You’re now preparing to adapt to whatever that change is.

So, you’ve got a very clear indication of what should come next and what to brace yourself for, and it’s not always bad things. I could say, “Hey, Pete, I want to talk to you about next Thursday’s team meeting. Funny story…” You now know I’m going to engage in a, hopefully, funny story at that point. And that gives you the option to say, “Oh, well, actually, I don’t have time for a funny story now. Can this wait till later?” So that sort of gives you an out, because it’s very clear what I want to talk to you about.

And the third part is that key message, which is the headline, the most important thing you want to put across. And one of the best ways to understand the value and importance of a headline is, imagine you were reading an article, a newspaper, a blog article. If you start on paragraph seven, how long does it take you to work out what that article is really about? Do you get it straight away? Or are you still sort of working it out as you as you go through and adjusting your ideas as you go through the rest of the article?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I’m still figuring it out.

Chris Fenning

And as we go through, we sort of adjust what it may be about as new information comes along. But if you start with the headline and the first paragraph, assuming it’s a well-written headline and first paragraph, in most articles, newspapers, and so on, the headline and the first paragraph tell you what that article is going to be about. And that makes it easy for you to understand all the detail that comes afterwards. And that’s why you have a headline, and your key message is the most important thing you want to put across.

In the military, it’s often “Bottom Line Up Front” or BLUF is an acronym that’s quite commonly used. Put the most important thing at the front and then you can explain it, justify, expand it afterwards. But don’t put all that info first because you’ll lose the audience and they won’t know what’s important. So, you start with context, “This is the topic I want to talk to you about.” One bullet point, one sentence, then the intent, “Here’s what I intend you to do with it. Here’s why I’m talking to you about it, why you should pay attention,” another one sentence or one bullet point, and then the key message.

And we’ll be nice, you can have two sentences for that if you really want to expand it out. But very, very short, and it’s not about compressing the entire conversation into those 15 seconds. It’s about previewing, it’s about framing, which is the name of the technique, so that you can then go on and have that conversation, and your audience is not thinking those three killer questions, “What is this about? Why are you talking to me? And what is your point?”

Pete Mockaitis

Well, so we talked about the first minute, but, Chris, it seems that we’ve accomplished this within 15 seconds. Do you have pro tips on the other 45 seconds? Or what do you think about there?

Chris Fenning

Yes, otherwise, I mean, the first 15 seconds just wasn’t as catchy as the book. So, in the first minute, there are some other things that we should do, and I want to put in a caveat at this point. Like, all great models and methods and everything that we learn, there’s always a caveat, there’s always an exception. And what I want to make it clear is, for anyone listening to this and thinking, “Okay, so when I start a conversation, the very first thing I say is context, intent, and key message.” I’d say, “Hold on. First, please be a human.”

So, when you interact with people, have that human connection, have that relationship-building, like, “Oh, hey, Pete, I heard there was a storm in your area last week, and there were some fences damaged. Is your garden okay? Do you have anything, any issues there?” Have that type of conversation. And then at the moment you say, “Oh, by the way, I want to talk to you about…” when you switch to the work, that’s when these methods begin. Otherwise, it’s very robotic and we can come across as a very formulaic way of communicating. So, be a person first, but when you start talking about the work, that’s when these methods begin.

Pete Mockaitis

And I was going to say, with regard to the human versus work perspective, it’s funny because there’s, like, a whole spectrum there in terms of you might have something you need to share with a friend or your spouse, and this could actually be quite helpful in terms of getting things framed up, so they say, “Oh, okay, I understand,” to make for an effective conversation. But on the flipside, they might say, “Dude, why are you talking to me like that? We’re just pals here. There’s no need for this.” What’s your thoughts on that?

Chris Fenning

Yes. My thought on that at the moment, as I’m picturing my wife, who recently said, “If you context, intent, key message me one more time…” so, definitely, definitely some limitations on it. However, it comes down to situation, to topic, to your particular style, your friend’s style, and so on. If you’re in a friendly, friend-based situation, you’re chatting to your pal, but you’ve got an urgent situation that you want to talk about, then this can help you cut straight to the point.

On the flipside, if your style with them has always been more casual, well, then be more casual. You can adapt the style, but just know that when you start talking about the important thing that you want to communicate, the longer it takes you to deliver those three pieces, the more confused they will be and the more likely they are to make assumptions about the reason for their conversation or what the topic might be, and so on. So, the quicker you frame that up, the less assumptions there are, and the less risk there is for the rest of the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. All right.

Chris Fenning

So, the rest of the first minute includes one major piece and two small steps that can make the difference between you being polite or not. And the major piece is a summary. Now, this is useful if you’re about to explain something that’s big, or if you’re giving a status update, for example.

So, when we talk at work, we don’t have time to put in all the details. We have to summarize a much bigger piece of work, or a much bigger topic, or something that is more complex than we can fit into a conversation. And a way to do that is to deliver a summary in the next 30 to 45 seconds that make up the second part of the first minute, and that summary uses a method called goal problem solution. So, the overall structure of the first minute is frame it in that first 15 seconds, and then you can summarize your big message, and then you can have the rest of your conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

So, goal problem solution, are we hearing some of that in that 45 seconds then?

Chris Fenning

Yes, you are. Yes, and it’s a really, really good way to summarize or set up almost any topic at work. Let’s give an example. If I was giving you a status update, you’d say, “Hey, Chris, you promised you’d deliver this edited podcast episode in the next week. Where are we with that?” And I could say, “Well, my goal is to get it to you on Friday. The problem is my laptop died yesterday, but what I’m doing about it is I’ve borrowed a laptop for a friend and I’m making up some hours over the weekend. Would you like to know any more about any of those pieces?” So, I’ve summarized an entire situation. I didn’t say, “Oh, the dog knocked over my water, and the house nearly burnt down because there was an electrical fire.” I didn’t go into all that detail.

Pete Mockaitis

Sorry to hear that, Chris.

Chris Fenning

It was a tough day for the dog.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Chris Fenning

And that’s what we add in. We tend to add all of that detail, we tend to add things that are chronological, things that happen in the order in which events occurred, and that’s a very natural way of telling stories and communicating, but it’s not a very effective way of doing it. And so, using goal problem solution gives you, as a listener, some critical information.

First is the goal, and that’s, “This is the thing that we’re trying to achieve.” In this case, in the example, trying to deliver an edited podcast episode, “Hey, I want to deliver this.” Now you understand what the whole topic is. It’s sort of an expansion on the topic. “Well, the problem was my laptop died. I haven’t been able to do it.”

And then I move on to a solution, which is forward-focused, and I’m looking at what I’m doing about it. I’m telling you the solution to the problem so we can achieve the goal, and the goal is what you care about. So, by doing all of that, I’ve condensed everything into a short summary, and then I finished it with a question, “Is there anything about that you’d like to know more about?”

And that gives you the opportunity to go, “Yeah, what happened with the water and the dog?” And you can expand on the problem, you can clarify what the goal was, or you can probe what the solution is going to be. You get to make those choices and it’s gone from being a very long monologue into a short status update followed by a dialogue where we both get to talk.

Pete Mockaitis

And I’m curious, with regard to problem, I mean, sometimes there just aren’t any problems. You know, the goal was, “I would get you this podcast by Friday, or whenever, and so my team’s working on it. And we should have no problem getting that done.”

Chris Fenning

There you go, that’s your problem.

Pete Mockaitis

I mean, so if there’s no problem, we just skip it, and that’s that?

Chris Fenning

That’s that. When it comes to status updates, if everything’s on track, just say everything’s on track. And that is one of the hardest things to do. I imagine a lot of people listening to this are thinking, “Well, my status update meetings are, we’re all in a room, and we go around the table, and everybody lists the stuff they did in the last week, and that’s the status update.” And that’s so painful and not efficient and, generally, doesn’t give value to everyone else in the room.

There are lots of reasons why we do it. There’s an innate human need to demonstrate value or a belief that we have to show we’re doing work otherwise people might not see we’ve got value in our roles. But in those situations, imagine if the updates – because nothing was going wrong – if your update was just, “We’re trying to achieve this goal and everything’s on track. Is there anything you like to ask me about?” If that was the update, how short would those meetings be?

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, that would be delightful. I think you’re really nailing something here with regard to meetings and the time they take, is folks want, I don’t know, sometimes we want someone, somewhere to say, “Good job,” and to know that, “I’m doing real things even if I’m working remotely,” or, “This is ambiguous knowledge work with lots of collaborators. I promise I’m actually doing my job.”

Chris Fenning

Yes.

Pete Mockaitis

Like, to be seen and heard and acknowledged, and that’s our humanity, and it results in long meetings. So, there’s our trade-off.

Chris Fenning

It is. It does. Now there’s a way that we, as the person speaking, can help find a middle ground, and it’s what I’ve been doing through this is always ending with a question, “Now here’s my update. Is there something you’d like to go into more detail about?” Or if I gave an update and everything was okay, so, I’m working on this super important project, but everything is on time, on budget, no risks, no issues, that utopia that very rarely exists.

But let’s assume that everything’s going well, and I said, “Yeah, we’re on this project. Here’s our next milestone. Everything’s on track. But can I take a minute to tell you just a couple of the great things my team has done, or a couple of the great things that we’ve done that has helped us stay on track?” And then the rest of the room can either say, “No, we don’t have time,” or, “No, we’re not interested,” or, “Yeah, sure you’ve got a couple of minutes to do that,” and you’re asking for permission rather than just taking time out of that group environment.

Pete Mockaitis

I like that a lot because you are asking permission, and, too, if I’m hearing that, I think that you’re a swell person who wants to give credit to your team and it’s not about you, “Can I tell you how amazing I am?”

Chris Fenning

That’s a tough one.

Pete Mockaitis

So, that’s really cool. And I’m feeling, like, the tug, like, the right answer is, “Of course, I should say yes, but I could also set parameters. Like, how about 40 seconds?” And then away we go. Or, “Chris, I think we all know that your team is full of rock stars, but tell them we appreciate them, and let’s move on.” And so, there we go.

Chris Fenning

Yes, exactly that. You’re giving everyone else in the room permission to say no, which comes back to, I mentioned there were two little things we can do to be polite in the first minute. And one is a time check and the other is a validation checkpoint. Now the actual semantics on those are less important than what they are. The first is, at some point in your first minute, preferably near the beginning, ask if the other person has the amount of time that you need. And here’s an example of how to do it badly, “Hey, Pete, do you have a minute?”

Pete Mockaitis

One minute?

Chris Fenning

And the reason that’s bad, yes, is most of us can’t organize our own thoughts in a minute, let alone have a conversation about whatever it is we want to talk about. So, if you ask for a minute, you better darn well need just a minute, because otherwise you’re setting yourself up to miss your own deadline. And I laughed while I said it, but this is a tiny but important reputation hit.

Because if I asked for a minute and then take five or ten, I’ve either badly misjudged it, I can’t time manage, I lied, I didn’t care, there’s all sorts of very, very small impressions that I give through that one statement. And if I keep doing that, over time, I’m becoming…I’m demonstrating that I’m less reliable. So, don’t ask for a minute. Ask for the actual amount of time or more than you think you’re going to need.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. Well, Chris, lay it on us, I’d love example, example, example, in very different professional contexts, maybe even some personal contexts, just to mix it up. We’ve got some nifty tools: the context, the intent, the key message, and a goal problem solution. Lay it on us, here we are at work, we got to say some things, say it for us in the format.

Chris Fenning

All right. So, we’ll go with somebody who works in a call center talking to their team leader because they want some time off. So, a great way to do it would be to go up, and say, “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about vacation. I’m looking for permission because I want to take next Thursday off work.” That’s the context intent and key message.

And then I could say, “Look, I’m trying to keep a good work-life balance, and I need to use my vacation by the end of the year, or I’m going to lose it. The problem is we are stacked as a team. I know that the call center volumes are high and it’s tough to take time off. So, what I’ve done is I’ve asked someone else in the team if they can cover my shift so that I can get this time off. Is that okay if I have the time off for next week?”

So, there was a lot going on in there and it would involve, in that case, finding someone else to cover a shift and so on, but in that situation, you can deliver a lot of information but in a very short period of time. And then the manager would have questions, “Well, when and who is going to cover you? And do they have the right qualifications? And what do you mean there’s a problem with using your vacation time?” There are all sorts of ways a conversation could go, but it’s been set up very clearly in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. How about another?

Chris Fenning

All right. It’s a different situation. You’ve got a merger and acquisition, small company being purchased by a large company, and there’s a problem, in this case. One of the managers in the small company is nervous about their, perhaps, nervous about their job. It’s a very different situation and quite emotive. And they could say to their new line manager, “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about the reduction of roles. I’ve got some questions. I’m actually a little bit concerned about what my position will be in the new company.” That’s the framing with the context, intent, and key message.

Then on the goal problem solution, “I know that our goal is to bring these companies together, and there’s going to be some downsizing. The problem is I’m really uncertain about what’s coming and it’s affecting how I think about what we’re doing next, and I’m struggling to deal with all of the integration activities we have. What I’d like to do is take some time with you to understand what that future hierarchy is going to be, and understand what my role in it might be.”

Now that’s a hard one to do. There’s a lot of emotion in there, and there are lots of different ways to approach it, but it very clearly lays out the conversation, and hopefully takes that emotion out at the beginning of the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s beautiful, and it comes across way better than, “So, are you going to fire me or what?” It’s, like, that may be the burning question that you have, but you are covering that and other bases, so you give even more good context and information if they, in good faith, engage you fully and candidly in that dialogue so it’s good.

And I think that it may be a good meta-lesson there is if you have, I don’t know, fear, resistance, trepidation, associated with saying a thing, for whatever reason, like it’s vulnerable or it might seem unprofessional, that’s what you want to know, “Am I going to get fired? Is this going to reduce my power? Am I still going to get paid my full bonus?” Like, “Oh, I feel so selfish, like not a team player, like they have these, you know, but this really is on my mind.”

I think that, in some ways, Chris, just taking the time to think through it with these key steps or ingredients can go a long way in bringing a little bit of peace and courage so you feel like you can go there instead of just wondering and keeping silent.

Chris Fenning

Oh, yes. Yeah, absolutely. Having a structure to help you plan a difficult conversation is so valuable. So valuable. And let’s explore the…we’ll give a slightly different example on that “Fear for my job,” and then I’m going to give a very everyday example of the start of a conversation that people have got, “Oh, yeah, I can see that in my day-to-day.”

But in this example where I’m worried about my job, “Am I going to get my bonus? Am I going to get my severance pay? Will I have a job next month?” I have a very clear goal for me. My goal is to find out whether I have a job. The problem is my boss is not telling me, so my solution is, “Go and demand from my boss.” That’s my internal version of goal problem solution.

Now I need to take a breath and think about it from their perspective and the organization’s perspective. So how can I find, how can I get what I want, get what I need, but talk about it in a way that isn’t just, “Me, me, me. I need to know my stuff. And you’re all bad and you’re the reason I can’t have it”? So, my goal is to find out, but the goal of the organization is to have a smooth transition with these two companies coming together.

My problem is I have no idea what’s going on, the company’s problem is there’s uncertainty about what’s coming next, and so the solution happens to be the same, “Can we please have a conversation and get clarity on what the time frames will be for knowing or what the announcements will be, or help me understand the process?”

So, your personal goal and problem are probably not going to be the things that come out of your mouth when you’re in a workplace situation. You need to find a way to frame them from the perspective of the organization, from the other individual, so that you can find that common ground, and it takes the conflict out, because as soon as you can find a common goal, in this example we want the organizations to merge together well, that’s a common goal. You get the other person going, “Yes, we do. I understand. We’re on the same page.”

And then you can introduce a problem that hopefully the other person will be like, “Yes, I want to help solve that problem because we’re trying to achieve that goal that benefits us all.” So, that little bit of preparation using a structure can help you find that common ground with the other person.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And you said you had one everyday example?

Chris Fenning

Yes. So, a goal problem solution for an everyday example is, “I’m trying to set up next month’s town hall meeting or our next month’s team meeting. The problem is I’m struggling to get approval from some of the individuals that are being invited. Can you help me get there, get in touch with their team leader, and get their approval?”

So, it’s a common goal, “I’m trying to get people to come up to next month’s or next week’s team meeting. The problem is I’m just not getting the feedback or interaction. So, as a solution, can I enlist your help, Mr. or Mrs. Manager, to get that interaction from the other team and get the feedback that I need?”

So, it doesn’t have to be a big topic. It’s still about finding that common ground so that the manager knows, “This is what we’re trying to achieve. Yes, I agree that’s important. This is the problem standing between us and that goal. Yes, I understand that that’s important,” and then you’re talking about the solutions. So, it can be big, it can be small, so it works in a great range of circumstances.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now after the first minute, I’d love it, you’re big on being concise, any pro tips on keeping things succinct, concise, as you are speaking beyond the first minute?

Chris Fenning

Yes. Three points at a time and then a question. So, if you’ve made three separate points and haven’t paused for the other person to ask a question or interject or provide feedback, you’ve gone on for too much.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Chris Fenning

So, that’s one. The second is plan what you’re going to say. If you get the first minute right, you’ll get to your question, you’ll deliver the most important piece of information, you’ll have summarized things so that you actually don’t need a lot of what you might expect in the conversation. You’ve already stripped out the detail, you’ve already stripped out the backstory, and if the other person doesn’t need or want it, they might just say, “Yes, okay, here’s the answer to your question,” and you’re done. So, plan for a really solid first minute, and you’ll probably find that your conversations are all a lot shorter.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Fenning

The last piece is the validation checkpoint. If you’ve done a great first minute, and I framed it and I’ve asked if you’ve got time, “So, Pete, I want to talk to you about this thing. Do you have five minutes?” and you’ve said yes, and I’ve given a summary. Once I’ve given that summary, I just want to check, “Is this, like, are you the right person to help me with this? And can we do it now?”

Because having heard the summary, you might think, “Actually, this is a much bigger topic. I really want to give this attention. Can we schedule time later?” Or, you might say, “Actually, no, I’ve realized I don’t have the info you need,” or, “I’m not the right person,” and you can redirect me. So, validate that the person you’re talking to has the ability and the availability to talk to you at that moment.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chris Fenning

My favorite quote comes from my dad, actually, which is, “If you want to do something, don’t talk about doing it, go and do it.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Any favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Chris Fenning

Yes, there’s a piece of research that blows my mind every time I hear about it. There’s an experiment about our inability to read emotions from text, and it was called “Can we communicate as well as we think?” and it’s by Kruger, Epley, Parker and Zhi, and they published in the Journal of Psychology. And they did an experiment where they sent people text messages that was sarcastic, and tried to get people to understand whether they were sarcastic, and it was 50/50.

And then they did it with their spouses, and it was still 50/50 as to whether people got the sarcasm. We just can’t interpret emotion from text. And it’s a brilliant piece of research, and it comes up so many times in things that I read and teach as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Chris, thank you for that, and props for having a specific citation. Extra credit for you. Extra credit. And a favorite book?

Chris Fenning

At the moment, my favorite book is, Thinking 101 by Woo-kyung Ahn. And it’s blowing my mind about my own biases and the way that I interpret and think about things. It’s really challenging the way that I approach problems and think. It’s a very eye-opening book.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Fenning

Calendly. I couldn’t do this job efficiently without Calendly. It’s product placement, but playing calendar tennis with people, “Do you have time here? What about 10 o’clock there?” and juggling time zones. Calendly makes it so easy.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Chris Fenning

I don’t do it as often as I like, but my favorite habit is going to bed on time. It sets up the next day, the next few days. And if I don’t do it, I really pay the price.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear it quoted back to you often?

Chris Fenning

The thing that comes back most often, and this is the most highlighted phrase in the book from Kindle, so Kindle’s very nice, it shows you what people are highlighting, and 900 people have highlighted that framing should take no more than three sentences and be delivered in less than 15 seconds. Now for some reason, that is the piece that resonates with people, and I completely agree. Three sentences, 15 seconds. That’s all it takes to set up a great conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Fenning

My social hangout is LinkedIn. Come find me there. And my website is ChrisFenning.com.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Fenning

I do. If you want to be awesome at your job and stand out, take 30 seconds to prepare for an important conversation. In fact, take 30 seconds to prepare for any work conversation. It’ll help you get clear on your message, you’ll have shorter conversations, and you’ll get the results that you want.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Chris, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you many fabulous conversations.

Chris Fenning

Thank you, Pete.

950: Cal Newport: Slowing Down to Boost Productivity and Ease Stress

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

Cal Newport shows how to achieve more by doing less.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we’re measuring productivity all wrong
  2. The surprising math showing how doing less means achieving more
  3. The trick to eliminating tasks that don’t serve you

About Cal

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and a founding member of the Center for Digital Ethics. In addition to his academic work, Newport is a New York Times bestselling author who writes for a general audience about the intersection of technology, productivity, and culture. He is also a contributor to The New Yorker and hosts the popular Deep Questions podcast.

Resources Mentioned

Cal Newport Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Cal, welcome back.

Cal Newport
Well, thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure to chat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I have been loving your book Slow Productivity, and I would like it if you could kick us off with any particularly, strikingly, fascinatingly counterintuitive discoveries you made while putting this one together.

Cal Newport
The importance of doing fewer things is something that I think proved to be a pretty rich vein. So, I have this principle that’s in the book, it’s one of the three principles of Slow Productivity is do fewer things. And when most people encounter that for the first time, what they think I’m probably saying is like, “Look, it’s stressful to do a lot of things. You need to go easy on yourself. Stop trying to be so productive. Like, do fewer things and you’re just going to be happier.” But that it’s a sacrifice, right? You’re going to produce less, but you need to because it’s for your own sanity and psychological health.

As I really looked into this, though, one of the big surprises is, “Oh, wait a second. Doing too many things is like this endemic productivity poison. Like, it’s not just making people miserable, it’s an incredibly terrible strategy for trying to produce valuable stuff with your brain. And when you commit to doing fewer things, it doesn’t actually lead you to accomplish fewer things, and these are somehow separate.” And this was a pretty exciting discovery because I was ready for it to be like, “Look, we got to just reconfigure what we think reasonable amount of work is,” and this ended up to be one of these sorts of win-win situations.

Working on fewer things at a once not only makes your life much more sustainable, you’re going to produce more. Like, over the long term, you’re producing more. You’re finishing stuff faster. You’re producing better work. You’ll actually be better at your job in any sort of observable, measurable way if you’re doing fewer things right now.

Pete Mockaitis
So, doing fewer things in a zone of time, like a week or a month, results in more total things done over a longer arc of a year plus.

Cal Newport
Yeah. So, here’s the math on that, and really, let’s think about doing fewer things at once, like concurrently, “What is my count of commitments that I’m actively working on?” That’s the number that I want to reduce. Here’s the math of why this leads to more accomplishment, is that in knowledge work in particular, when you agree to a commitment, especially if it’s a non-trivial sized thing, like a project, it brings with it administrative overhead, like, “I have to send and receive emails about this project. I have to attend meetings about this project.” So, everything you say yes to has administrative overhead that is necessary to support the work, but it’s not the actual work itself.

So, what happens is when you’ve said yes to too many things, the quantity of administrative overhead goes past a threshold where it’s really sustainable, and now what you have is a lot of your day is now dedicated to talking about projects, like the talking to the collaborators, having meetings, sending emails, and these are fragmenting your day as well. So, it’s not just like, “Let’s do our administrative overhead hour this morning and then get to work.” No, no, no. These emails and meetings are spread out throughout your day, which means you really never have any ability to give something a long period of uninterrupted time to really give it your full concentration.

So, now you have a fragmented schedule, a small fraction of which can actually be spent working with real concentration on the actual projects, the rate at which you’re finishing things goes down. And so, by having, let’s say, ten things on your plate at once, the rate at which you’re finishing things is very slow. Like, most of what you’re doing is being in meetings and sending email. If you instead had three things on your plate, you’re going to actually finish those three things real fast because you have huge swaths of your day to actually work on them. And what happens after finish one of these three things? You can bring another thing on.

And so, if you work through this scenario, “How long will it take me to finish ten things if I work on them all at once versus if I just do three of them at a time?” That second scenario, it’s going to take much less overall time to get through those ten things than the first, and it seems counterintuitive because we’re used to thinking of ourselves like a computer or a robot, “This thing takes this much time, that’s just it. Ten things take ten units of time, that’s just it.” But it’s not like that. The overhead matters. So, doing fewer things at once actually moves things through faster and at a higher level of quality.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And not only that, so there’s the administrative overhead situation fragmenting our time and our attention and our energy, and there’s also the psychological factor of, “Oh, hey, I’ve made some great progress today,” or, “Oh, hey, celebrate. That whole thing is done. Feel good.” And then there’s just the market responding.

Like, I remember when I was land-lording, because if I had a unit that was almost ready to go, it did not produce rent. It’s like, “Oh, no, it’s really close!” I could maybe have someone come tour and say, “Now just imagine this, this, and this will be different when you move in.” And that didn’t really work for them, in terms of like, “Yeah, no, I’m ready to go with another option, because that place already looks done and beautiful, and maybe I can imagine what it would look like done but it’s not done now, and it’s not visually appealing,” that’s why they stage homes, you know, all that stuff. So, there’s benefits on numerous dimensions psychologically, and then starting to reap the rewards of what you have sown.

Cal Newport
Well, it’s important to remember busyness doesn’t create revenue. So, just like you don’t get rent for the days you spent painting and working on a unit you owned. You have to do that stuff, but it generates no money. And if you spend more time painting and spend more time rearranging, it doesn’t generate more money. You have to actually rent it. The same thing is true in knowledge work. Emailing about a project doesn’t generate revenue, attending a meeting about the project doesn’t give you revenue. Finishing the project does, right?

And so, what we should care about is, “How quickly am I completing projects? How good are they?” because that’s what actually generates revenue. But in knowledge work, more so than in like renting buildings, it’s also obfuscated and complicated because, “Well, I was working on this but also this, and I have seven different things I kind of do, and other people are involved, and no one really knows what I did.”

In that obfuscation, we get a lot of the problems with modern knowledge work because it’s hard to just say, “You produced nine this year, and last year you produced six and you’re doing better.” Because it’s hard to say that, we tend to fall back on what I call pseudo productivity, which is, “Well, let me just focus on this high granularity activity that’s highly visible, emails, meetings.” I just see you doing stuff and so I assume you’re productive. Like, that’s the core of the knowledge work dilemma, is we’re focusing on visible activity in the moment as opposed to quality accomplishment over time. From that fatal mistake comes like almost everything negative about the current knowledge work experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Cal, this is beautifully articulated. Thank you. We love actionable wisdom here, but let’s go meta and slow down, and say I would love for you to take us through that whole journey of history, philosophy, perspective, principles on this very concept of pseudo-productivity, knowledge, work, and how we have found ourselves in this current state that is kind of jacked up.

Cal Newport
Yeah, I mean, it’s a fascinating story. It’s what the first part of my book delves completely into, is just understanding how we got where we are. Because this is, by the way, just as an aside, it’s a big part of my approach is because I’m also a professor and a founding member of the Center for Digital Ethics at Georgetown. I think a lot about culture, society, and technology and their interactions from the sort of removed of, “How do these systems work?” I think the systems matter.

And there’s a fascinating story when we look at what’s happening in knowledge work that spans from basically Adam Smith to Slack. Okay, so here’s what we get. Before knowledge work emerges as a major economic sector, which is really the mid-20th century, the term “knowledge work” is coined in 1959. Before that occurred, we had a pretty good handle on what we meant by productivity. It goes, “An economic concept that we could measure pretty accurately within specific organizations.” It goes all the way back to Adam Smith.

So, we first get good with measuring productivity in agriculture, and it’s a ratio, “How many bushels of wheat do I produce per acres of land I have under cultivation?” It’s a single number. And we also had in agriculture well-defined production systems, “Here is how I rotate my crops. If I change how I do this, and that number goes up, then I say, ‘Oh, this is a more productive way of doing it.’ And so, what we get here is sort of rapid innovation in cultivation of crops and planting systems because we have a number we can track.

Okay, we go to mills and factories. We could do the same thing, “Now I’m going to measure how many Model Ts are we producing per labor hour I’m paying for,” and that’s a number. And we have a very clearly defined production system, “And if I change something in that, we can see if that number improves.” This is what happened with automobile manufacturing. Henry Ford innovates the continuous motion assembly line with interchangeable parts and that number went up by a factor of 10. They’re like, “Oh, great, this is a much better way to build cars.”

And this sort of quantitative productivity journey was massively successful. The industrial sector, the wealth created by the industrial sector, grew at a staggering rate from the 1800s into the 1900s. Some economists would say, essentially, all of the capital in which the modern Western world was built came from the productivity miracle of being able to measure these ratios, adjust systems, see how those numbers got better.

Then we get knowledge work. None of this works anymore because we’re not producing Model Ts, and we’re not just producing wheat on acres of land. It’s a complicated position where I could be working on a lot of different things that shifts over time. It’s different than what the person right next to me is working on. How we do this work is highly personal. There is no production system we can tweak as an organization. Everyone manages their own work and time internally however they want to do it. So, we have no systems to tweak, no numbers to measure, and this was really a big issue because, “How are we going to manage knowledge workers without these numbers?”

What we introduced was pseudo productivity. A crude heuristic that says, “We can use visible activity as a proxy for useful effort.” So, I see you doing stuff that’s better than not. So, let’s all come to offices where we can have bosses. So, let’s make sure that you’re working all day. And if we really need to get ahead, let’s come in earlier and stay later. We can just increase the window of visible activity. So, we use this crude heuristic.

What happens where this goes awry is when we get to the front office digital IT revolution. So, we introduced computers and networks and then mobile computing and ubiquitous internet. And now suddenly, you can demonstrate visible activity, the thing that pseudo-productivity demands. You can demonstrate this at a very fine granularity, like sending individual email messages anytime, anyplace, and this is where pseudo-productivity begins to go off the rails.

Once I can be engaged in pseudo-productivity and measure pseudo productively anywhere at any time, and it has to be at this really fast, fine-grained granularity where it’s not just, “You saw me in my office during this hour,” but, “How many emails did you send to that hour? How quick were you to reply? How many things are you saying yes or no to?” It’s spun off the rails.

And we see this sharp discontinuity, if you study knowledge work, study how people talk about productivity in knowledge work, study how people talk about what’s good and bad about knowledge work, you get to the early 2000s, there’s a sharp discontinuity where suddenly we become unhappy. Just as email and laptops and then smartphones arrive, we suddenly begin to get much less happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And, Cal, what is the measure of that and what’s our approximate year when we start seeing that go, “Boom,” downhill?

Cal Newport
Well, you can see it in survey data, but where I like to look for this is actually in the tone of productivity books, because I’m a collector of business productivity. Look at the business productivity books from the ‘80s and ‘90s, like what are the big players here? It’s like Stephen Covey.

Pete Mockaitis
Getting Things Done, yeah.

Cal Newport
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, you know, Eat That Frog. These are very optimistic books. Like, Stephen Covey’s whole thing is, if you’re careful in identifying what’s important to you and what’s urgent and what’s not urgent, you can figure out what to do with your day with the goal of actualizing all of your deepest desires and dreams as like a human, “We’re going to self-actualize you.” What’s the first big business productivity book of the 2000s? David Allen, Getting Things Done.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that was 2000, okay.

Cal Newport
And if you look at that, the tone is drastically different.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re overwhelmed. We’re drowning. We need help.

Cal Newport
We’re drowning, yes. I profiled him for The New Yorker. I really went deep on David Allen. It is a nihilistic book. Getting Things Done is like, okay, forget Stephen Covey trying to self-actualize our deepest goals as a human being. What is the goal of Getting Things Done? Can we find a few moments of Zen-like peace amid the chaos of the day?

Pete Mockaitis
After your weekly review, you can, Cal, and then it’ll pass.

Cal Newport
He’s trying to reduce work to this agnostic widget polling, like at least we can find some peace. It’s a very nihilistic book. But what changed between 1994 and 2003? Email. So, we see it. It’s just a change. And then what are all the biggest business productivity books of 2010s? We got Essentialism, The ONE Thing, my own book, Deep Work. All of these are books that are about, “How do we push back against the overload? How do we resist this? How do we find the things that really matter?”

I mean, it’s a complete tone shift where overload, having too much to do, being stressed out, becomes the defining feature of knowledge work once we get to the early 2000s. You don’t pick that up at all in the ’90s, in the ’80s, in the ’70s, and in the ’60s. So, the technology had this huge discontinuity in our experience of this sector.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And so then, when it comes to the measurement has broken down, what is to be done there in terms of like there are, I think in your book you said, we’ve tried some really stupid things, like, “How many lines of code have you written?” or, “How many words have you produced?” And it’s like, “Well, I mean, were those lines of code brilliantly efficient? Were those words tremendously insightful?” or, “Are they kind of like bloated and lame and blah?” So, it’s like those might have a purpose of, “Kind of, if I can constrain them with a quality-paired metric as well.” It’s a real tricky beast, Cal. What is to be done here?

Cal Newport
Well, as long as you’re in the pseudo-productivity mindset, all the solutions are going to be like that. It’s going to be, if activity is what matters, my biggest concern, if I’m a manager, is you’re taking breaks from activities. So, I want to make sure, like, what was the big concern of managers about remote work? It’s like, “Well, what if there’s periods of the day in which the person is not doing things? That’s taking away the bottom line,” because we imagine knowledge workers like they’re on an assembly line, “Hey, if you stop putting the steering wheels on the Model T for an hour, we can’t produce Model Ts for an hour.”  It’s just this very direct.

So, what is the solution? We have to move away from this activity-based notion of productivity towards something that’s more outcome-based. And that allows for a much slower definition of productivity that has a lot more variation, a lot more idiosyncrasies, and is a lot more sustainable and meaningful for the people involved.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Can you give us some cool examples, or stories, or metrics, or numbers we might use when we talk about outcome-based? I’m thinking, in some fields it seems pretty straightforward, like sales. Like, okay, there’s revenue or gross profit generated from the sales that you’ve made. And that could look very different in terms of you were cultivating a relationship with a multimillion-dollar account for months or years, and you landed it, and we can measure that, and it’s way bigger than you hustling with your cold-calling, your cold-emailing to get dozens of smaller clients. So, there’s one outcome.

Cal Newport
And sales is an interesting example because I just met a salesman from a big tech company at a book event talking about Slow Productivity. And you know what he said? He said, “Look, in our company,” because sales is clear, unlike almost every other knowledge work, you have these metrics, like, “What did you bring in?” And so, it’s an interesting natural experiment. If we take a knowledge worker where there is a clear metric of success, do we see a drift away from pseudo productivity? And we do.

This is what the salesman told me. He said, “Yeah, in our company, the sales staff doesn’t have to go to meetings. Everyone else does. Everyone else. You got to go to meetings. If someone invites you, whatever, everyone in these more ambiguous jobs, yes. But the sales staff, all meetings are optional because they have this number and they want that number to be better. And the sales staff is like, ‘That number is worse if I’m going to meetings.’”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true, “What you do is so important, we’re not even going to put that at risk for anything.”

Cal Newport
Which shows how important were those meetings in the first place, right? Another place where we’ve seen innovation, like this actually is in software development, because software development, it’s knowledge work in the sense that it’s all your brain, but it’s pretty closely aligned with industrial manufacturing because you’re producing products. So, there’s much more of this notion of, like, “We’re shipping something. How long did it take to ship?” Like, it’s more measurable than other types of knowledge work.

We’ve seen tons of innovation, tons of innovation in software development that try to get away from just this completely generic activity base, because they learn, like, “I don’t care if you’re busy. What I care about is do we get these features added quickly? What’s our turnaround cycle on updates to the software?” Like, they have things to measure. So, what do you see in software development? You see a move towards these agile methodologies where, A, workload management is transparent and centralized. It’s not just, “I have a bunch of junk on my plate.” It’s, “No, no, it’s all on the wall, and this is what you’re working on, and it’s just this one thing.”

You see things like sprinting in software development, “We want you to do nothing but work on this feature until it’s done, and then we’ll talk to you again tomorrow,” because, again, whenever we begin to see adjacency, the actual measurable outcome, all of these tropes of pseudo-productivity that are really killing us in digital age knowledge work, they all begin to shatter and fall away. So, it’s like we have to take that mindset from sales and software development, and we need to move this into more types of jobs, we’d be clear about the workload management, work on fewer things at a time.

Just measuring performance at the scale of the year makes a big difference, “What did you produce this year?” Because when you’re talking at the scale of the year, you don’t talk about meetings or emails or small things you did. You talk about things you finished. So, just having like an annual perspective for thinking about productivity, that makes a difference. So, all of these types of things, we see it in software, we see it in sales, we need to move that to many more jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, the thought associated with, “What is the time horizon we’re looking at?” Because if it is a day, and I’m looking at, “How many emails did you send?” or, “How many hours were you logged on?” it’s like that tells me very little. If I look at a year, that could tell me a whole lot. And then, I guess, in a way, there’s some art and science right there in terms of evaluating, “What’s the ideal period by which we should be looking at and thinking about these things?” Do you have some perspectives there?

Cal Newport
Well, even allowing people to figure this out on their own can be really effective. Like, you say, “Okay, I want you just to make your pitch to me as your boss, like what you did that was valuable this last quarter or this last year.” Like, you can kind of figure out the timeframe when you write about it, just allowing the individual to report like, “Okay, here’s what I’ve been working on. I completed this and this, and we’re working on this big project, and we made this much progress on it. And I think this is all really important.”

Like, letting someone just describe why they’re valuable, because it’s not going to work if I ask you to describe why you’re valuable. You said, “Look, I just looked up my statistics. I’ve been sending 150 emails a day. I’ve been logging seven hours a day in Teams meetings. I’ve been in a lot of meetings.” Like, it sounds absurd when someone’s asking, “Quantify why you’re valuable.” You think about the big things. You think about it at a bigger time scale.

There are organizations that do this super explicitly. I profiled these in The New Yorker a few years ago, these organizations that had a very hardcore way of doing this, called ROWE, results only workplace environment, where it was all that matters is results, including when you show up to work, when you don’t, what days you don’t work. Everything is up to you, but they’re really, in these environments, they’re really hardcore about what are your results.

And because of this, it really banishes pseudo-productivity culture. If you’re like, “Hey, come to all my meetings,” you’re like, “No, because in the end, I’m going to be measured by these things I’m producing, and that’s going to hurt me. So, no, you’ve got to convince me to come to your meeting. And if it’s not going to be worth the time, I’m not going to do it, because all people care about is what I have produced.”

And they’re really interesting to study because, you see on the positive side, these hardcore results only environments, a lot of pseudo-productivity falls away. On the negative side, it is really difficult for a lot of people to leave the comfort blanket of all the obfuscation you could generate by just sending lots of emails and meetings because you can’t hide anymore. You produce or you don’t.

And there is, I think, a certain segment of knowledge workers, and it should be acknowledged, that do find some comfort or peace in being able to be much more obfuscated about their work, like, “It’s not really clear what I’m doing, but I answer my emails a lot, and I’m in a lot of meetings, and I sort of just, I’m around, and so it feels like I’m being productive.” When that goes away, it gets exciting for a lot of people, but it gets scary for some people as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve heard that in particular about the culture at Netflix, in terms of, like, it’s exciting and terrifying for this very reason. I think ROWE could also have some potential downsides with regard to collaboration and team camaraderie culture. It’s like, “I’m out to get my results. Period. So, get out of my way.”

Cal Newport
“Get out of my face.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s tricky to get all the pros without the cons. Well, the security blanket, you might feel secure in the moment, but I would venture to say, “If you’re not clearly creating value in excess of your salary and payroll costs, your security is quite slim come lay-off time.”

Cal Newport
I think that’s right. In the good times, where no one needs to be fired, it prevents you from being noticed in a negative light. Like, “Yeah, I’m not thinking about Pete. Like, I see him a lot. I’m sure that’s why I’m not thinking about them.” But you’re right. When times get tight, “All right, now we have to start reducing staff,” that’s suddenly when people shift their thoughts to not, “Are you doing something bad?” to, “What good are you bringing?” And, right, that’s when things get to be dangerous for you.

So, when times are good, you can just be really active and you’re not going to draw any attention. But when times are bad, ultimately people are going to wonder, “Hey, what do you do? What’s the value? Like, what would happen?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Like, what is it you do here?”

Cal Newport
I would say people, by the way, so my column for The New Yorker during the pandemic was named Office Space, in part because of exactly that reference that there was a lot of people in the pandemic, especially when they were forced to do all their work from home, and they could see like their partners and what their partners were doing for their jobs, and I think a lot of people in knowledge work had that same reaction of like, “What would you say I actually do here? Is it “I’m a professional Zoom meeting attender?” Like, is this really a good use of my graduate degree?” I think a lot of people had that crisis.

But, yeah, back to your point. If you’re producing stuff that’s valuable, not only does that give you security, it begins to give you leverage to slow down your definition of productivity. Because the more you can point towards, “I do this and I do this really well, but that’s also why I’m not just sending emails all day and a bunch of meetings. Hold me accountable for this. But in exchange for that accountability, you’ve got to give me more autonomy.” Like, that’s a fundamental exchange of trying to negotiate for a more sustainable, slower definition of productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And when it comes to this notion of doing fewer things, you mentioned the book The ONE Thing, which I love. And it’s so funny, when I read it, also with Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, it’s so calming to me, and I guess I like productivity books or non-fiction business-y books. But I think it’s also just like, “Oh, I don’t have to do everything. Okay, okay, that’s nice.” So, it’s just sort of reassuring.

But I’d love your perspective on, “How do we really select from a noisy world of thousands of options? What are those few things I’m going to do?” And the number you suggest is it, “It’s probably going to be more than one, but hopefully is less than five?” Is that the range you are shooting for?

Cal Newport
Yeah, for major projects. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, how do I pick and choose, like of hundreds of potentially good things, what really, really, really deserves my one to five?

Cal Newport
Well, there’s two environments here. So, one is you work for someone. So, if you’re in an organization, what really seems to matter is just add constraints, and then you will see pretty naturally like what makes the cut. So, for example, one of the things I recommend if you work within an organization, where you can’t just directly say no to a lot of things, what you do instead is saying, “I’m going to keep a two-tier list of what I’m working on. Tier one is actively working on. Tier two is queued up for me to work on next. And as I finish something in the active tier, I pull in the next thing from the waiting tier, and that becomes something I’m actively working on.”

So, you artificially constrain the number of things you’re actively working on. And the rule is why this works is you say, “Okay, administrative overhead can exist for the things I’m actively working on. If it’s in my queue, then I don’t do administrative overhead. So, if you give me something to do and I put it on my queue, and I make this public, and you can look at it, and it’s a shared document, you can watch it. I can tell you, ‘Watch this march up my queue until it gets to my active work tier.’ Once it’s there, email me about it. We can have meetings about it. You can ask me how it’s going. But until it’s there, the answer is ‘I’m not working on it yet.’ And where is it in my list? You can look at it yourself.”

So, now you’ve restricted the administrative overhead that’s being generated to only a small number of the things that you ultimately have committed to. Once you have those constraints, it leads to better selection because other people are now involved. So, a boss comes in and says, “This thing, I want you to do this thing.” You say, “Great. It’s on my queue, it’s back here.” They’re like, “No, no, I need this. This is way more urgent.”

Well, now you can involve the boss, and be like, “Great. Well, which of these three things that I’m working on now should I swap out?” And now they’re kind of involved. Like, “Actually, you know what? Stop working on that thing. I don’t think that’s as important as I thought it was when we first thought about it. Move this in here instead. And now that I’m looking at your queue, take out these four things as well. That’s not where the priority is.” So, once you have constraints, you begin to get wisdom.

So, another, this is an example from the book, but another place where this began to happen was a division within a large research lab where they had a lot of projects coming at them. And what they did is they centralized this, they said, “Okay, we’ll put every project we want to work on, on an index card and we’re going to put it on the wall under this certain column. These are all things we want to work on. And then here next to it are the ones we’re actively working on now, and we label it with who’s working on it. And so, when someone finishes something, we pull something else in here, we decide together what to do next.”

And they have this heuristic that arose over time, “If something’s been on that left side of the wall for a while, and we keep pulling other things in but we’ve been leaving that alone, that’s probably not that important. You know, let’s take it down.” Like, if you’re on the wall too long and it never moved over to, like, “Let’s work on it actively next,” that was their cue of, “This was exciting when we thought of it, but it’s not that important.” So, once you have constraints, wisdom about what’s important and what’s not, it begins to emerge because you’re thinking about this in a way that you don’t, when all you’re doing is just saying yes to things and trying to keep up with everything at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
So, if you have the constraints, it’s almost like a forcing mechanism such that it’s not so much like, “Oh, there’s a magical measurement, there’s a magical question, or a magical metric by which we use to measure that answers this question for us.” It sounds like you’re saying, “Yeah, that doesn’t really exist across all industries and types of work but, rather, put the constraints in and you’ll feel the tension, and you’ll see what just really, really has to get done soon and what can wait.”

Cal Newport
Yeah, just being forced to continually make the question of “What next?” forces a lot of wisdom. And I keep having to say, “Okay, what am I going to pull in next? What am I going to pull in next?” And making that decision again and again, what emerges from it is, like, a better understanding of, “Oh, this is the type of stuff that’s important to me. And this stuff I keep leaving over here, and moving other stuff ahead, oh, I guess that’s not really that important to me.” And it’s a lesson that comes out from people who use these two-tier pole systems.

It’s something I talk about often. You build up the muscle of understanding over time what matters and what doesn’t, because you keep making these decisions and keep getting feedback on what stays and what moves. And, then over time, you stop adding the stuff to your “to-work-on-next” list that you know, like that’s never going to be pulled off. And then you become much better at being like, “No, we don’t do that anymore,” because you’re like, “I’ve seen too many things like that type of project that we put on this list or we put on the wall and it sits there for two months that we finally take it down. I have now learned, I’ve gained wisdom, this is not the type of thing that we really need to be working on.”

So, you become much more self-aware of what you can actually do with your limited time and what’s worth doing with your limited time when you’re explicitly and consciously having to make these decisions again and again.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say “explicitly and consciously,” that reminds me of some of the interviews we’ve had about decision-making with Annie Duke and others who suggest having a decision journal. And I think the practice perhaps of writing out, “What is the rationale by which I’m using to place this in the top tier or not?” And then having that written enables you to kind of reflect on it and say, “Oh, yeah. Well, that was true at the time, but things have shifted,” or, “Yes, this is the pattern I see over and over and over again. Like, it’s really important to a really big client. Okay, that seems to be a prioritization principle that we keep going back to again and again.”

Cal Newport
I love that technique. By the way, yeah, I know Annie talks about it. My friend Dave Epstein from “Range” and “The Sports Gene,” he was on the show recently, and he was telling me about how he does this as well. And part of the reason why I think this technique, like a decision journal, is effective in knowledge work is that we don’t otherwise have clearly defined processes.

One of the defining features of knowledge work is that organizational strategies, processes, how I figure out what to work on or not, how I figure out how to manage my day, all of this is informal and personal, and most people just wing it, it’s like, “Oh, my God, I just got this urgent email, so let me do this. Oh, and there’s a deadline. I’m going to stay up and do this.” When you keep a decision journal, what you’re actually creating over time is process, you’re like, “Oh, this is how I deal with this. This is the right way to figure out what to work on next.” We forget the degree to which, in knowledge work, we just wing it all the time.

It’s not like we have, “Here’s how I build cars. How do I improve that?” It’s the equivalent in knowledge work, if the way we built cars was just put a bunch of tools and parts in a warehouse, threw a bunch of engineers in there like, “Guys, build me some cars. Let’s go.” Everyone was just running around like, “Hey, can I have the wrench?” That’s the way we do knowledge work. So, if in that world, you’re starting to actually think, “How do I figure out what to work on? What didn’t work? What did work?” you start to think about that clearly.

It’s like the one-eyed man in the world of blind people, you’re going to have this huge advantage, you’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m just really…why are people working so hard? Like, I’m really killing it over here, and I’m not even working,” because no one else is doing this. They’re just getting after it with Slack and email in their calendar, and just saying yes to everything, and trying to be busy. So, there’s a huge advantage once you start thinking process-centric within knowledge work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And to The ONE Thing, that is one of my favorite questions I think about often, “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?” And I think that is one handy question. I’ve learned it’s not applicable in all situations, in all domains. But I’m curious, have you discovered any other organizing principles or questions that tend to serve people pretty well, pretty often?

Cal Newport
Well, I mean, first as an aside, have you heard Jeff Bezos’ version of The ONE Thing idea?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, until you articulate it. Lay it on me.

Cal Newport
So, this is like the big idea within Amazon when to figure out “What are we going to work on? And what are we not going to work on?” Bezos has this thing, “Is this something that’s going to make our beer taste better? And if it’s not something that makes our beer taste better, we shouldn’t be in that business.” And the case study he’s referring to was when, I guess, German brewers, beer brewers used to generate their own electricity. And then at some point, they plugged into a grid instead of generating their own electricity. There’s a lot of annoyance and logistical overhead with running your own generators and dynamos.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds tricky.

Cal Newport
It’s tricky, right? And they said, “Oh, we should just plug into the grid.” Why? “Because making our own electricity doesn’t make our beer taste better so let’s not put any energy into that. We want all of the people we hire to have their energy into making our beer taste better.” And so, Bezos brought that over to Amazon, “We should be focusing on the things that makes us money, that our customers really care about. Anything else, if we can outsource it, we should, or just not do it at all.”

And so, I really love that way, like, “What makes our beer taste better?” But that brings me to, I think back to your question, one of the other big principles is obsess over quality. And what this is really doing is, basically, in knowledge work, in some sense, figuring out, “What’s your equivalent of brewing beer?” Like, figuring out, “Me, as an individual employee, what’s the thing I do that’s most valuable? And if there’s nothing really there that’s valuable, what’s something I can learn to do that’s going to be really valuable?”

And once you identify that, you can focus more of your energy in, “My goal is not to be really responsive. My goal is not to make sure that everyone gets everything they need from me as fast as possible. My goal is not to be in every meeting where you need me. No, my goal is to do this thing better. I want to do this better and better because this bottom line helps our organization.” And one of the keys behind this idea is focusing on something that’s really valuable to your company or your organization, is like the foundation on which all radical engagements with slow productivity will eventually be built because it gives you leverage.

It gives you control over your job. It makes your value clear. You’re playing the right game. It allows you to focus on what matters and not these sort of accessibility routines that everyone else is trying to do with their email and with their meetings. And when you really begin to care on making your beer taste better, all of the busyness becomes unnatural to you. So, you say, “I don’t want to be on email or in meetings. That’s getting in the way of getting better at these marketing strategies or at writing this code.”

And so, slowness becomes natural, and as you get better, you get more leverage to make your work slower. So, that idea of figure out like what your equivalent is of brewing beer, what’s the thing you do best and focus on that, that unlocks almost everything else.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, if I’m doing marketing, what’s giving me more impressions per dollar, or more purchases per, whatever, what’s boosting my conversion rate, etc. Or if you’re creating products, it’s like the beer tastes better, what will delight the customer all the more, and make them say, “This company rocks. I love their stuff. I would tell more people about their stuff. I’m going to buy more of their stuff.” Very cool.

All right. Well, so we’ve talked about, so we got three principles here. We’ve spent some good time on do fewer things, and we hit the obsess over quality. Can you unpack the third one for us a bit?

Cal Newport
That’s work at a natural pace. And the argument here, it’s a psychological argument, the way that we work in knowledge work, which is all out, all day long, year-round, is really unnatural. It’s unnatural in a sort of literal sense that human beings throughout our whole history as a species are used to having huge variations and intensity of what we’re doing. There’s really intense periods during the day and really quiet periods. Some months are much more intense than other months. In the winter, we’re kind of hunkering down. And in the fall, we’re doing the harvest, and it’s super busy. And we have all this variation, that’s what we’re wired for.

And then we got mills and factories. And in mills and factories, it made more money if people just worked as hard as they could as much as they could. And so, we switched for the first time in human history to just like work hard all day long, but it was very unnatural and very intolerable. We had to invent labor unions and regulatory frameworks just to try to make these jobs survivable, essentially.

When knowledge work emerged in the mid-20th century, we said, “Okay, how are we going to organize this labor?” And we said, “Well, let’s just do the factory thing.” Because that’s what was going on, that’s what was in the air. The core of the economy was industrial manufacturing. So, it’s like, “Great. We’ll just approach knowledge work like we do building Model Ts, eight-hour days, work as hard as you can.” Like, if you’re resting at all during the day, that’s bad. Pseudo-productivity activity matters, and it’s the same all year round.

So, we adopted this way of working. It was actually super unnatural and required all these safety mechanisms. We adopted the same thing without the safety mechanism, and it’s an exhausting way to work. It doesn’t, over time, produce more productive effort even if in the moment it seems more satisfyingly frenetic. So, work at a natural pace says, “You need more variation in your intensity on all sorts of time scales. It shouldn’t all just be all out.”

It also says, “You should take longer to work on your projects, that we make our timelines too small. Give yourself more time so that you have room for these up and down variations.” Like, this is the way all the great thinkers through time past work, up and down in intensity over time until eventually something good came out. That’s how we produce things with our brain, not the Model T model of just, “Clock in and turn that wrench as fast as you can until you clock out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then any sense for how do we tune in to knowing if we’re overall too much or overall too little? I know there’s going to be variability, busy seasons, lighter seasons, but any clues that we might focus in on to go, “Ooh, let’s crank it up,” or, “Let’s tone it down”?

Cal Newport
Well, that’s not the hard part. The hard part for people, actually, is just being comfortable with the idea that you shouldn’t always be cranked up. And then once you have that realization, there’s a lot more variation that just becomes natural. So, like a couple of things you can do. One, just start doubling your timelines for everything you agree to do. Instead of doing the typical trick of, “In theory, what’s the fastest possible time I could get this done?” and then falling in love with that timeline, “Oh, my God, that’d be great. If I could get this done before Christmas, this would be great,” and then we commit to this impossible timeline.

Double everything. So, give yourself much more breathing room. And, two, actually engineer seasonality. You don’t have to tell people about this if you work for someone else, but just schedule out your project so that the summer is going to be slower, but you’re really going to be getting after November. You can just start engineering variations in your workload. No one is tracking your workload so carefully.

There’s no graph somewhere in the central office, where they’re like, “I’m looking at Pete’s daily work project touches here, and they’re down in July versus whatever.” People, it’s all just chaos. They don’t know what’s going on. So, take longer and engineer seasonality explicitly into your project flow and your workflows. Just doing that is going to be like taking a deep breath.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Cal, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Cal Newport
Well, I mean, again, I think the key thing to keep in mind is don’t use the word productivity so confidently.

Pete Mockaitis
You live it.

Cal Newport
I mean, there’s a lot of talk where people are like, “I want to be more productive,” or, “Productivity is bad,” but people aren’t really defining their terms, and that’s a big problem. We all just assume we all know what productivity means, but we don’t. Like, when people say, “I want to be more productive,” what they really mean often is, like, “I want to produce more stuff over time.” When people are critiquing productivity, what they’re often doing is critiquing a sort of industrial notion of productivity, like, “The effort per day needs to be large.”

We’re not talking about the same things. Like, let’s define our terms. This is why I think it’s helpful to say pseudo-productivity is what we’re doing. Pseudo-productivity is different than quantitative productivity, which is what we used to do. Slow productivity is itself an alternative. Like, once we get clear about terms, a lot of the absurdity of what we’re doing just becomes self-evident. Like, a lot of this idea of, “I want to do this now instead of that. I’m going to do fewer things. I’m going to have more variation.”

When we realize that’s in contrast to pseudo-productivity, and that’s a part of slow productivity. Just having the terms clear, I think, really makes it better, much easier for us to make progress. So, that’s my final thing I would say is don’t be too confident that you know what people mean when they use the word productivity. I actually push on it, “What specifically are we talking about here?”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Cal Newport
Well, there’s an obvious answer to this question because I actually wrote a book with this quote in the title, so maybe I’m telegraphing I like this. Steve Martin, doing Charlie Rose interview about his memoir, “Born Standing Up.” And Steve Martin says, “People are always asking me, ‘How do you succeed in the entertainment industry?’” And he says, “The answer I give them is never what they want to hear. What they want to hear is, like, ‘Here’s how you find the right agent,’ or, ‘Here’s how you like get onto the writing staff.’”

And he says, “No, what I tell them is, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you. If you do that, all the other good things will follow.’” I wrote a book called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” 10 years ago, 12 years ago now that was just inspired by that quote because that’s how important it is to me, because I ultimately think, especially in creative work, that’s what it all comes down to, “Be so good they can’t ignore you. The other stuff will work itself out if that’s where you’re focused.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Cal Newport
Well, this always shifts, but there’s a new study someone just showed me, which I found very satisfying, because I don’t use social media, and I’ve often argued with people for various reasons why I should. And one of the reasons they give me is, like, “Well, this is how, like, you’re an academic, and this is how people know about you, and know about your work. You have to be yelling at people on Twitter about Trump. And if you’re not, you can’t be a successful academic.”

A new study just came out where they studied the citation count of academics correlated to Twitter engagement, and found Twitter engagement does not lead to more citations. It does not lead to more notice to academics’ work. What does matter? Doing really good important work. And so, I found that study very satisfying. You’re not going to be able to tweet your way into intellectual significance. You just have to do good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Cal Newport
A book I just read, which I really liked, was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. It’s a 1950’s-era book by a great Jewish theologian, talking about the Shabbat. But I found a lot of secular resonance in this book because he was looking at the theology of Shabbat, taking a day off of work, like as it said in Genesis, right in the Bible. And he has this really cool argument. I wrote an essay about it.

But he has this argument that’s like, “Look, you take a day off from work. This is not instrumental. This is not you have to take a day off work so that you’ll be able to do work better when you get back. It’s not instrumental. You take a day off of work so that you can appreciate all the other stuff in life that’s important.” In Genesis, it was like God looked at what he had done and said, “It is good.” It’s like gratitude and presence.

I just thought it was, from 70 years ago, looking at something that was written 3,000 years ago, is a really sort of timeless idea that it’s not just, not everything is just the work, and breaks from work is not just about making the work better. It’s about all the other stuff that’s important to you. And it’s a slim book, it’s beautifully written, it has these original woodcut illustrations which are fantastic. A really cool read. I recommend it.

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

Cal Newport
I recently have gone down the mechanical keyboard rabbit hole.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Cal Newport
Yeah, because I wore off on my MacBook, I wore all the keys off because I write a lot, and the plastic was cheap in this generation. I wore every key off. You can’t see any key. And so, I got a cover for it with the keys on it, and I wore all those off too. So, I finally bought a nice, a NuPhy, N-U-P-H-Y mechanical keyboard, and, oh, I love it. Just the click and the clack. It’s substantial. I love writing on it. Your fingers spring back up with the keys so that you can type faster. I don’t know, I’ve enjoyed it. I write all the time. I enjoy writing more on this than I did when I was on just the MacBook keyboard, so I love my NuPhy wireless mechanical keyboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you find it’s quoted back to you often?

Cal Newport
I think people, really, like more recently, one of the things that come back to a lot is this idea that activity doesn’t matter, busyness isn’t monetizable, your email inbox is not going to be remembered 10 years from now, but what you produce that you’re proud of, that’s everything, and just this idea of output over activity. That’s what keeps coming back to me. That’s what people seem to be quoting when they’re talking about this book or calling into my podcast, so I like that. Busyness is maybe satisfying in the moment, but is forgotten in the mist of history.

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

Cal Newport
Do fewer things. Like, trust this idea that if you cut down the number of things you’re working on right now, you will look back when this year is over and be much more impressed, and proud of what actually got accomplished.

Pete Mockaitis
Cal, this is fantastic stuff. I wish you much fun and slow productivity.

Cal Newport
Thanks, Pete. I’m going to go slowly get some things done.