This Podcast Will Help You Flourish At Work

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

616: How to Handle Work in a World Where Everything’s Urgent with Brandon Smith

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Brandon Smith says: "Don't let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can't be equal priority."

Brandon Smith shares how to cut through non-stop urgency and work on what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How urgency is just like hot sauce
  2. What your boss really means when they say everything’s urgent
  3. How to expertly say no to extra work

 

About Brandon

Brandon went from not being able to order a pizza due to a debilitating stutter to becoming a master communicator. 

He went on to teach communication in two leading business schools and has won 12 teaching awards for his work in the classroom. 

Through his work with businesses, Brandon has helped countless employees go from being on the verge of getting fired to becoming some of the company’s top performers. 

Brandon learnt the secret of urgency, what he calls ‘Hot Sauce’ and how different people react differently to it. Today he is the author of The Hot Sauce Principle. 

Used in the right amount, hot sauce can be the very thing that turns a bland or stressful workplace into a place of flavorful productivity. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Brandon Smith Interview Transcript

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

Brandon Smith
Pete, really excited to be on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I was just telling you off the recording that your subtitle is so good. Your book is called The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

Brandon Smith
Everything is urgent all of the time, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re speaking to my experience and the exhaustion associated with that. But I want to sort of go back in time a little bit. So, you were not always a master communicator. There was a time, I’m told, that you had quite the stutter and were nervous about ordering pizza. What’s the story of the transformation here?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, let me tell you a little bit of the story. I don’t know if I can answer the transformation part as well but I can at least tell you part of the story. So, I was the youngest of three boys, I had two older brothers, both were adopted, and my oldest brother was always in and out of trouble, so creating a lot of drama and dysfunction in my house, throwing up.

Well, when I was 10, he took his own life. And during that time, it was a really kind of transformative period for myself and my family. It was a hard time. And I ended up, I don’t know why, but I ended up coming down with a stutter about six months after he died, and I couldn’t shake it, and that was going into middle school, which I do not recommend.

So, every day, before middle school, I would have to go and see my speech therapist early in the morning and we’d work on the letters that always tripped me up, which were the Bs and the Ps and the Ts, so then I would work on those and then go on to the school day. And so, yeah, during my entire middle school career, if you were to call it that, things that involved those letters were really tricky for me. I would find any way to avoid that.

But when you’re ordering a pepperoni pizza, there’s just no escaping. You can’t say, “Can you put those little things on there? What are they called again?” so, then, ordering the pepperoni pizza, that would never really end. I would just get caught in that stutter. And I just decided that people were just kind of messy and dysfunctional, because growing up with my brother, and then the way kids with stutters were treated in school, I thought, “Man, people are messed so I’m just going to keep distance from them.”

And that was kind of my high school years. Really kind of made myself kind of a wallflower, an introvert, and then went off to college, didn’t really know what I wanted to major in, ended up majoring in communications, ironically enough. And then, at some point along the way, my stutter kind of shook free, I suppose. However, I can tell you, when I get really, really tired, or really, really stressed out and tired, it comes back a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, what a story, and I’m sorry to hear about that difficult moment but it’s reassuring to hear that you, ultimately, triumphed and, here we are, benefitting from your wisdom.

Brandon Smith
I’m working on it, Pete. I wouldn’t say triumphed. So, I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you sound great, and you’ve got something important to say, and I’m excited to hear about it. So, first, The Hot Sauce Principle, why don’t you just define that? What’s the big idea there? And where does this term come from?

Brandon Smith
Yeah, you know, the big idea, what I was finding, so I wear lots of hats in the world. One of my hats is I’m an executive coach. Another hat, I teach at universities and business schools. And I was just finding that a lot of the people I was interacting with in the workplace, didn’t matter what kind of job they had, didn’t matter whether they were nonprofit, for profit, big, small, work in the United States, work internationally, two things were true. Time was everyone’s precious resource. Not money, it was time. And everything was urgent all the time.

And that urgency was like hot sauce. One day it just kind of hit me. It’s like just being hot sauce just poured on everything. And while I love that concept of hot sauce for urgency for lots of reasons, one, I like it because a little bit of hot sauce is actually kind of a good thing. I like hot sauce. It adds focus, it adds flavor, makes things a priority. But you put that stuff on everything, if you’re like me, you’re just going to be drenched in sweat, curled up in a ball, and not really able to function. And some people can tolerate a lot of this stuff, and some people can’t tolerate much at all.

So, it’s a nice, simple way of thinking about how we deal with urgency, and that sometimes it’s a good thing. But too much of anything, particularly urgency, is like hot sauce. It just overwhelms us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you mentioned some people can handle a little, and some people can handle a lot. That reminds me of there is this like local comedian who was making a joke about how some people who are really into their hot sauce will sort of demean others, it’s just like, “Oh, you probably can’t handle this.” It’s like, “You’re belittling me for having a tongue that works properly.” Like, where else has this happened with regard to, “Oh, man, you probably don’t need glasses, but I need huge glasses”?

So, we’re going to dig into that, I’m sure, in terms of just how much you can handle and how much is optimal. And so then, tell us then, what would you say is sort of the most surprising or fascinating discovery that came about when you were putting together this research associated with urgency and what we do about it?

Brandon Smith
I think there’s probably a couple things that really are big highlights that are important for us to think about. First, urgency is a good thing. So, if we kind of flip into another part of the workplace world, all the experts in change management, one of the more famous ones is a guy by the name of John Kotter who teaches at Harvard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had him on the show.

Brandon Smith
Oh, you had him on the show?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Brandon Smith
Okay. Well, then you know John well. Well, John is famous for change management. And when you look at a lot of the concepts he brings, in his frameworks, he says, “You know what, if you want to turn out a change, the first place you got to start is urgency. There has to be a high-enough sense of urgency.” So, urgency is really important when we’re trying to change.

My kids always joke with me because every year, about a month out, six weeks out to a month out from my annual physical, I will start really doubling down on exercise and health. And they’re like, “Oh, here comes dad’s physical again.” But it’s that urgency. I want to show up really good for the physical. It creates urgency. It gets us to change.

So, I think one big takeaway is that urgency is a really good thing. It’s a healthy thing. We need it. As one client told me many years ago, she said, “I know I need to light a fire in my people, but sometimes I need to light a fire under them too.” So, we don’t want to cut out hot sauce, but the problem is when we, as leaders, just think everything is urgent and we make our emotions, our anxiety, other people’s problems. It’s kind of like kick the dog syndrome.

There’s a whole new set of research studying emotions in the workplace, they’re called emotional contagion. And one of the big takeaways in that research is that anxiety is one of the more contagious forms of emotions. It’s super contagious. So, we want to make sure that we’re not making other people feel that pain. That’s a really, really bad thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Brandon, you know, that rings true in my experience in terms of anxiety. I just pick up on it. It’s just like, “Aargh.”

Brandon Smith
And you think of the year we’re in, it’s really easy for a leader to be really anxious about a lot of things. Anxious about uncertainty, about where the business is going, anxious about their family or the health, so are all our employees. They’re all anxious too. So, sometimes we actually need to be the calm in the storm. We’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to show calm today, or peaceful today, so I don’t freak everybody else out and they can focus and do their job.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m with you. So, urgency, it’s not bad, we need some of it, especially in order to make a change. If you don’t got it, it’s probably not going to happen. And so, at the same time though, hey, we’re in a global worldwide disease pandemic at the moment with COVID-19, as we speak. Hopefully, people will be listening to this, years from now, and say, “Oh, I remember that. That was a difficult time. I’m so glad it’s such a distant memory now.” But, in addition to that, you say that professionals these days are in an urgency epidemic. What do you mean by that? And what are the consequences of it?

Brandon Smith
So, the urgency epidemic is when other people put their urgency on us, on you. They make their problems your problem. Notorious for this would be like large publicly-traded companies. So, shareholders and everyone else putting so much pressure on them, so what most C-level leaders do in this company, I hate to say, is they just tell all their direct reports, “All this stuff is urgent. We have to change it all right now. All of it now.”

And I was actually sitting in a meeting a few years ago with a senior leader who said this to the room, and one of his direct reports raised their hand and said, “Well, I totally get that, boss. I totally understand that but help us to prioritize. So, what’s the priority? What’s the order here?” And he looked at him and he said, “All of them are urgent right now equally.” And you can feel the room just deflate.

So, the real epidemic is everything being urgent all the time and having that pressure being pushed down on us. So, it’s kind of like rather than running a marathon where you say, “Okay, I’m going to be done at 26.2 miles,” it’s like run until you drop. Because we can sprint, we can do urgency for a little while, but the school of thought is it needs to be more like interval training. Like, you sprint, you get a little rest, you sprint, you get a little rest. Not just run until you drop.

And so, that’s what the real urgency epidemic costs us. It costs us exhaustion, burnout, and performance, and lots of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, this is very much ringing true. Oh, there’s so much I want to dig into there. First, okay, maybe this is a quick one, with intervals, there’s all sorts of different interval timers. I’ve got so many apps on my phone and different recommendations for four minutes on, one minute off. Do you have a sense for what is “optimal interval”? If we really want to make some stuff happen, and we also want to not burn out, what’s kind of the range of, hey, sprinting versus chilling ratio?

Brandon Smith
Oh, man, yeah. Pete, this is tough. I hate to give that, like, classic business school answer, “It depends,” but it really totally does depend. So, for example, let’s say we were a software company, and we did a product release. Well, the natural time to do interval for rest would be right after the launch of a new product. So, if you’re in that kind of a world where you have a beginning, middle, and end of something, then you want to take the break at the end.

There was a company out in Silicon Valley a couple of years ago that tested this idea. And they would launch a new product every quarter, and at the end of every quarter, they’d shut down their business for a full week so everybody could rest, so nobody worked that week. So, at the end of the year, they were actually only working 11 months out of the 12 months because of one week off every quarter. That first year they did it, they had a higher productivity and higher performance and higher revenue than the year before.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. So, working fewer total days.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, fewer total days. If you look at another example of that, you might say like in the quick-service restaurant world, Chick-fil-A is number one in revenue per store, and they are only open six days a week, and they don’t have the late-night hours, like McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Taco Bell or any of the other players might have. So, that’s an example of interval training. They found a way to make that work in their rhythm. They did one day off a week.

So, I think it really depends upon the business but the notion is really important. So, I think almost a better way to think about it is if you’re a leader or a manager, how can you give your folks a break between sprints so they get a moment to catch their breaths? And what are some creative ways you can do it that kind of work for your world?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, can you give us one or two or three creative ways right off the top of your head?

Brandon Smith
So, one would naturally be trying to find an extra day off a week, or working from home. So, there are many uncomfortable things and not pleasant things that came from 2020, but there are some positives. One positive is a lot of employers realized people can work from home. And then, as a huge not only morale boost and perk, but it impacts motivation if used in the right doses in a positive way.

So, allowing people the opportunity to work from home is probably going to be more like our new normal. My guess is, if we look out in the crystal ball, we’re going to see people coming into the office one, two, maybe three days a week, and then working from home the other days of the week. So, that’s an example of interval training, giving people a little more space to get things done.

Another example would be thinking about times and opportunities where you can close and turn off the whole business. So, what makes this tricky is if you’re going to give someone a break, you got to make sure people aren’t pinging them during the break. Like, I could tell you, “Pete, take this day off.” But if customers are still calling you and they didn’t get the memo, it’s not really a day off. So, boundary is really important.

Part of my background is I’m a trained clinical therapist, and any therapist, one of their passion areas is boundaries, and to really do this thing well, interval training and intervals, and protecting ourselves from urgency, we’ve got to know how to set boundaries, know how to communicate that and say no when necessary.

So, I’ll give you one more, a quick one. This is a personal tip that you could use. Everyone listening to this can use this. I started doing it this year. Really easy. I stopped emailing people on the weekends. Period. Now, it didn’t mean I didn’t do work. So, Microsoft Outlook is the tool I use. They have a function, like a lot of emailing software tools, where you can schedule emails.

So, what I did was I would still do my work but I would schedule all my emails to go out on Monday morning when people were actually supposed to be at work or working. And what I found. when I did that, was I wasn’t getting any emails on the weekend. Because, before when I would send an email, there would always be that super hardworking ambitious person at the other end that would kick the email back with a response. And then I would respond, and then they would respond, and now we’re playing an email tennis match on Saturday afternoon.

Well, I’m not playing email tennis matches anymore, and so it allowed me to really get ahead of the week and not feel that kind of pace and urgency. So, that’s a simple kind of interval training that we can all put into our lives. And if you’re a manager, I would encourage you to tell your team that you’re doing that so they don’t send you emails on the weekend either.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay, cool. Well, so already so many great takeaways there in terms of we’ve got to have some rest, and you could think about creative ways to do that. Shut down the whole business, or the whole team, or have particular days off, and so there’s a rhythmic groove that you’re in, and establishing a boundary, showing it to others so that they follow up. So much good stuff here.

I guess I also want to get your take on it is really frustrating when someone says, “All of these are urgent. Right now. And equally so.” Now, in my opinion, I want to get your take on this, one, I think when someone communicates that, it’s really just laziness and that they haven’t actually done the work to determine what is, in fact, the most urgent and/or important yet. That’s my hot take. What are your thoughts? Does that jive with what you believe as well? Or, how do you see what’s behind that message?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. Well, I agree with you completely. I would say when we live in a world where times are our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, it will default us to become firefighters. We’re not leaders. It doesn’t matter people’s title. Most people right now, “most leaders” are firefighters. And so, when you’re a fighter, you’re in a reactive posture.

So, what you’re saying is rather than being a proactive posture and really prioritize and sit down and plan, you’re just reacting to the stuff that’s burning that day, and then you’re putting that on other people. So, I agree completely. It’s trying to get them to shift that behavior, which is one of the many antidotes you can do when you’re getting someone trying to push that on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then, lay it on us, if you think everything is urgent, and whether it means you haven’t done the thinking through to determine what’s truly more urgent, how do you recommend we go about thinking through that, and then arriving at some optimal decisions regarding the urgency of things?

Brandon Smith
So, to help with this, for everyone listening who has a boss, I no longer want you think of your boss as your boss. From now on, I want you to think of your boss as your number one customer or client because they really are. I mean, they are. They can decide to renew your contract or end your contract. So, when we do that, it, all of a sudden, turns on a whole bunch of other tools and competencies that we have around client management because, really, what we’re talking about is client management.

We want to sit down and say, “Miss or Mr. Client,” or boss, “I totally understand that you want to get all these things done. Unfortunately, we have limited resources. So, we have a couple options. One option is I would love to talk to you about the order in which we need to take these on and the importance of each so I can try to meet your needs with what we have. The other option is we can get more resources, so maybe we can find more people to get this done, or hire, or get better software, or wherever else we can invest. So, which path would you like to go down?” Essentially, it’s client management, and you’re forcing them to either trade off or offer more resources.

That’s also a boundary conversation. If you don’t do that, and you just say, “Yes, I’m going to get this done,” then what you’re sacrificing is yourself and your team because you’ll end up needing to work till 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning in order to get it all done if there isn’t enough resources, there isn’t enough time. So, you have to have the courage to also be willing to stand up for yourself and for your team to not sacrifice yourself in the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds me, is it called the project management trio, in terms of like the scope and the resources and the timing, and there’s sort of like a triangle there? And it’s like one of them has got to shift. And I think scope can also maybe include quality. We could do a lot of stuff poorly or we can do a few things really well given how much time and how many people we have available to do those things, and to just get very real about that.

And so, I guess I’m curious, there’s all sorts of data suggesting that we human beings do a poor job of estimating how long things take. How do you recommend we get a clear handle on, yeah, this is really what is a manageable amount for us to bite off right now versus not too much?

Brandon Smith
Oh, this is a tricky one. Now, the simple answer is time and wisdom helps to cure a lot of those ills. We just learn over time that, “Oh, yeah, I estimated I was going to take 10 hours. It turns out it took 40. That was not a good decision.” Like, I have not stained my deck myself in many years. Last time I did it, it took me 40 hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Brandon Smith
I enjoyed doing it but it took me 40 hours. The next year, I hired a crew. It was like 300 bucks and they did it in like four hours. I will never stain my deck again. So, I think part of it is we learn over time. But the other part of this, too, is it’s really important that, as best we can, we try and under-promise and overdeliver when it comes to things like this. Because when we don’t make a gunline that we promised, we lose credibility. And when we lose credibility, it’s in the book, it’s part of a trust formula that I offer, we need to have trust in order to effectively push back on our manager. If she or he doesn’t fully trust us, or we don’t have that credibility, it’s going to be hard for us to push back. They’re not going to listen to us.

So, part of the way, one of the many ways we gain credibility is by kind of meeting and exceeding expectations on a regular basis. And so, it’s all about kind of managing those expectations. So, for example, I could tell my wife I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock. If I come home at 7:30, she’s going to be mad. If I tell her I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock, and I come home at 5:30, she’s going to be happy. So, it’s just kind of managing that. So, trying to think how we can do that is going to be key.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that really rings true with regard to with the trust. If you try to push back, and there’s low trust, the boss may very well say, “Nah, it’s not that much. You can handle it.” As opposed to, “Oh, no, I really do believe that you’re giving me your honest, genuine assessment of how long things take as opposed to like you’re sandbagging me because you’re lazy,” or something. So, that’s huge. And then under-promise and overdeliver, that’s excellent.

Let’s zoom into kind of the emotional difficulty associated with putting forward a smaller commitment maybe than you think they want, or saying no, or establishing or enforcing a boundary. All these things can be a little bit uncomfortable in terms of that. And I just sort of, this is my personal trick, I remember when I was an employee, and someone asked me, “Hey, when do you think you can have that done?” I just sort of reoriented that question in my brain not to mean, “When do I really think I can have it done?” to, “What is the latest data I can tell you just before you’re going to become irritated with me?”

Brandon Smith
That’s fair.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s kind of how I tried to play it. And sometimes they push back, and I’d be like, “Yeah, I think I could definitely have that by next Tuesday,” and I meant it. I definitely could because I could probably have it three days before that. And then they’d say, “Hmm, yeah, about Friday?” Then I would just sort of say something like, “Yeah, that’s more challenging but I still think that’s doable.” And then, in that way, it’s like, hey, I was never lying, I was never deceptive, I just said, “I could definitely have it done by then,” because I had a great deal of confidence that I had some bugger to schedule. And frequently they just took it, like, “All right. It sounds cool. We’ll do it then.” So, that was my little trick.

Brandon Smith
No, that’s great. It’s managing their expectations. That’s beautiful. That’s perfect.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s one for me. Let’s hear, Brandon, what are some of your faves?

Brandon Smith
In terms of managing some of those expectations?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, managing expectations, saying no when forcing a boundary, when inside, want to people-please and accommodate.

Brandon Smith
So, let’s go back to like saying no. Saying no is difficult because it’s a vulnerable position we put ourselves in. We don’t like vulnerability because what are they going to do to us when we say no? Are they going to reject us? Are they going to get angry with us? What are they going to do? So, we just say, “Well, the path to least resistance is I say yes and just kind of keep on piling and piling and piling.”

Now, that story ends up always ending the same. We have so much on our plate that we end up missing expectations and starting to disappoint others because you can’t just keep piling and piling and piling. So, there are a couple ways that we can say no that will make it a little less emotional for us and easier. So, one very helpful tip is when you’re saying no, that conversation should be 20% no, 80% alternate solutions to solve their problem.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Brandon Smith
Where we go wrong is we spend all the time, like, you asked me to do something, Pete, and I’d say like, “No, Pete, I can’t. Here’s all the reasons why,” and I go through all my list of reasons. You’re not listening to my list of reasons anymore. You don’t really care. You didn’t like the fact I said no. And what I’ve inadvertently done is I’ve set up a negotiation. So, what you’re going to say to yourself is, “Well, if I can counter his argument, then he has to do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. It’s like, “Oh, well, if you could do this, we’d do that. Give it someone else.” And it’s like, “I didn’t mean to invite you into a micro assessment of the rest of my obligations and, yet, here we are.”

Brandon Smith
And that’s what happens. We end up inadvertently turning it into a negotiation. And so, what you want to do is quickly and very succinctly say, “No, I don’t have the capacity to do this, but I want to help you solve this problem. So, I’ve come up with some other alternate solutions to maybe get this problem solved. Let’s work through some of these to find another solution that will get this completed.”

So, you can suggest colleagues perhaps, you can suggest external resources, you can suggest moving things around. So, there are other options that you can lay out at the table. But, in a perfect world, all the other options should not involve you, so you’re kind of going into problem-solving.

Now, the other thing you can also do in terms of saying no is giving people a little more transparency into all the trains running on your tracks. So, often when people load up, even your own boss, your own manager, they probably have forgotten and are unaware of all the stuff you’re doing. So, giving them that window can be helpful.

I had a student of mine years ago, and she did an internship in New York in investment banking. And during that internship, she had multiple managing directors in that office, and they were notorious for coming up to her and giving her big projects. So, one day, one of them came up and gave her a project after his colleague had given her a project the day before. And she looked at him, she said, “I’m happy to do this for you. But in order for me to do this for you, I need to go to your colleague, the other managing director, and I need to tell them I can’t do their project that they gave me yesterday because I’m doing yours instead. Are you comfortable if I have that discussion?” And they looked at her, and they said, “Never mind.”

So, sometimes, showing people what you have going on, and letting them know who you’re going to have to tell no to in order to tell them yes can also re-shift the focus because, now, we’re going into politics and, all of a sudden, this person could put them self in a political limb that they didn’t realize because now you’re going to tell their boss no so you can do their project, or whoever that person may be.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I like that so much because it’s honest, it’s real, it’s genuine. And then, sometimes, the person you’re communicating would be like, “Oh, not a problem. Happy to do that.” And then you learn something from that, it’s like, “Oh, huh, funny. Because from the outside looking in, it had seemed like those two projects were of equal importance but, apparently, one of them is way higher, and I didn’t even know that.” And by having had that conversation and learned that, you’re gaining some of that wisdom, that kind of say, “Oh, okay, this is what’s really important here and what is most valued in this team or organization.”

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, if we go back to one of our bigger meta-principles today, it was about forcing prioritization. Don’t let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can’t be equal priority. That’s when we get overwhelmed and burned out. In a very kind of geeky way, we need to be lining stuff up in a process kind of way, and say, “Okay, where do I start with first? What’s first priority, and second, and third?”

And, by the way, the leaders and the companies that have really done the best job of keeping everybody focused and aligned during this whole time in 2020 have had anywhere between three and no more than five priorities. They’ve been operating off of a very set list of three to five. They haven’t made everything urgent all the time. They said, “No, these are our big things we’re going to focus on. Everybody, line up around these,” and it calms people’s anxiety, it gets people focused, it’s like just that right amount of hot sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, yes, that three to five is great. The forced prioritization is powerful. One way is to just say, “Hey, I could do that, but in order to do that, I’m going to have to drop this.” And so, you share sort of the constraints. What are some of your other favorite ways of forcing a prioritization?

Brandon Smith
So, when you’re thinking about going to your boss, it helps when you bring a menu. So, rather than say, “What do you want me to do?” we want to be a little more on the author seat and we want to bring them a menu, and say, “I’ve got three different options for you today. Which one of these would you like to go down? Which path?” So, that’s another way that we can force prioritization is by offering options. You’ll learn a lot from people based on what they choose off that menu.

So, a common example is, like, I always feel bad for the creative types in the world because they routinely get customers that say, “You know, I don’t know what I want but I’ll know when I see it.” It’s kind of like forces you to do just do all this guessing. But then if you bring them three options, say, “Well, which one of these do you like better?” People always react to a menu. So, spending that little extra effort in creating a menu will also teach you a lot. You’ll learn a lot about what the incentives and motives are, and it’ll help you kind of know what path you want to go down.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. When I’m a manager, I like that as well in terms of that’s sort of something I ask people to do, is, “Okay. Hey, each day, send me a quick email on what you did today and what you plan to do tomorrow.” And then that really helps me because, one, I could say, “Oh, huh, no need to do that. Let’s do this instead.” So, I get the heads up so I can redirect as necessary.

And it helps me get a sense of, well, what are their preferences, their strengths, their desires, what would they naturally kind of flow to, as well as their judgment in terms of, it’s like, “Oh, you seem to be under the impression that that is really very important/urgent to me, and it’s not.” So, we can have that conversation, and say, “Hey, actually, we’re totally all set on that front for a couple months, so we can go over here.” They’re like, “Oh, okay, great. Didn’t know. Thank you.” So, I like that, the menu. Very good.

Brandon Smith
So, that made me think of something, another tip. So, we’re spending our time with tips as kind of the employee kind of dealing with the manager. But there are tips about being a more effective manager in this stuff. So, I’ll tell you my favorite example that came from a client. So, I was talking about this idea of urgency and hot sauce. He had a small technology company, about 50 employees, an anxious guy as it is, and so he was just bringing that anxiety into work every day. I mean, everybody was just so wound tight because he was so wound tight.

So, I shared this idea of hot sauce and urgency, and gave him one of my little bottles. I buy these little Tabasco bottles in bulk and hand it out to people. And so, he went out to the grocery store and he bought three bottles of hot sauce, stuck them on his desk. Bang! Bang! Bang! And every time he had an initiative or project that was urgent, when he assigned that project, he would hand that owner of the project a bottle of hot sauce to hold onto until the project was done.

And why that was such a great, really great tip and technique that he did is because he only had three bottles to give out. So, once all the bottles were given out, that’s it. He can’t make anything else urgent until someone gives a bottle back. So, thinking of forcing mechanisms like that that you can do is also another way for you to manage the flow of hot sauce on your teams.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Well, Brandon, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Brandon Smith
The only other thing that I would say is also important when we think about hot sauce is just, as managers and leaders, just being intentional, what really is important and making sure we’re communicating that. One of the interesting little missteps I find with senior leaders when we talk about things like executive presence, one of the more common missteps that people don’t realize they’re doing is they talk out loud a lot or they think out loud a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, to their teams.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, to their teams. And they’re just thinking out loud, but their teams are interpreting that as an urgent priority, and they go off and start doing work. And they bring them back a PowerPoint deck the next day or recommendations or something else, and the manager looks at them and says, “I was just kind of just talking. I didn’t really want you to do anything.” So, just being really intentional about what you’re asking folks to do is an important takeaway too for managers so you can keep everybody focused and aligned and just that right amount of urgency.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brandon Smith
One of the ones I actually mentioned a couple times this week, they attribute it to Mark Twain but I don’t think anyone really knows who said it, but it goes like this, “I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have enough time.” I love that quote. Because it emphasizes how hard it is to get to finish thinking, how hard it is to have that very concise, like, “This is what I want.” And when time is our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, we tend to kind of dump our thinking on people. So, that’s my favorite quote for at least this week.

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

Brandon Smith
Probably the one that is jumping out for me right now is about three or four years ago, a group of researchers studied this question, “What’s the worst kind of boss to work for?” And I thought they would’ve come back with the angry, yelling, and screaming boss, that wasn’t number one. Micromanager wasn’t number one. Ghosting boss wasn’t number one. The worst kind of boss to work for? The highly-inconsistent boss or like the unmedicated bipolar boss, because you never knew what you were going to get on a given day.

So, I thought that was really fascinating because it really speaks to the importance of consistency because anxiety at work comes from a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a contagious emotion. So, we can prevent a lot of that if we’re consistent and predictable. So, that’s one of my favorite pieces of research that’s come out in the last few years.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

Brandon Smith
One recently that I’ve continued to go back to is Daring Greatly from Brené Brown. So, she’s got a whole bunch of books kind of all in the same genre and theme, but I like the study and depth around vulnerability. It’s so important to us building relationships, and even us being more effective as leaders. So, I continue to find myself going back to that one.

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

Brandon Smith
If I think of a simple one that everyone can do, scheduling your emails. Simple tool. Simple-simple, so powerful, saves you so much time, saves you so much anxiety.

Now, I would say, in more recent years, the ability to learn how to hand things off to others who are better at it than you is a kind of tool. And I found it’s gotten me happier, gave me more leverage, and really allowed me to do the stuff that only I can do. So, I’m a big believer in finding ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Brandon Smith
Exercise. I’ve always enjoyed exercise and working out, but I’ve been really doubling down on that the last month, so I’ve been finding it’s been yielding a lot of results maybe that’s because I just had my annual physical.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, right.

Brandon Smith
We’re coming full circle, but that’s one that I think is really, really important.

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

Brandon Smith
Simple nugget, going to be something I’m going to be writing about in the future is distinction between being an author and editor, and we’ve touched on it a little bit today. But in every dynamic between a manager and a direct report, there’s always someone who sits in the author seat and someone who sits in the editor seat. And knowing what seat to sit in is key.

So, as the manager or leader, you want to spend the majority of your time in the editor seat, which makes a lot of sense when you think about your great all-time direct reports. They would come to you and say, “Hey, Pete, there’s a problem. Here’s what I think we should do about it. I’d love to get your thoughts.” They’re offering a solution for you to edit.

But where we get stuck sometimes, or tricked sometimes, is we’ll have a direct report say, “What do you want me to do?” And what they’re doing is they’re baiting you into authoring so they can sit back and edit. They can say, “Well, it’s not my fault it didn’t work out. He told me to do it that way.” So, making sure that we’re sitting in that editor seat as a leader is really important. It’ll save us time, and it’ll make our teams better because it promotes ownership, initiative, and critical thinking with them.

And then with our boss, we want to make sure we’re sitting in the author seat. Bring them ideas, bring them a point of view, and recommendations that they can react to, which again goes back to some of our comments earlier around how to more effectively manage our boss.

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

Brandon Smith
It’s very simple. You can Google “The Workplace Therapist.” That’s my handle and I’m the only one. So, you can go to TheWorkplaceTherapist.com. That’s where my blog is, podcasts, where you can get a copy of my book. Of course, it’s also available on Amazon and other places where you might purchase a book. And, again, the title of the book is The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

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

Brandon Smith
I think, particularly right now in 2020, I would say there’s two. First, make sure you’re setting healthy boundaries because while people have been working at home and from home, we’re seeing a lot of boundary creep. So, making sure you’re setting healthy boundaries and communicating that. That’s really, really important.

The second thing that I would add, too, is making sure you’re finding ways to remind your boss and other leaders of the value that you’re providing. We’re not always visible, we’re not in front of them every day, and no one likes to self-promote but, at the same time, we’re going to need to make sure that our boss does recognize the value that we’re bringing so we don’t get passed over for that promotion or we don’t get looked over for new opportunities. So, those would be two tips to particularly apply today.

Pete Mockaitis
Brandon, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the things that have hot sauce on them.

Brandon Smith
Thank you. Really enjoyed coming on the show. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the great questions. I really enjoyed it.

615: How to Build Laser Focus in an Age of Endless Distractions with Curt Steinhorst

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Curt Steinhorst says: "Distraction at its core is confusion about what matters."

Curt Steinhorst reveals why we often struggle to take control of our attention—and what we can do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Surprising statistics that illustrate our level of distraction 
  2. The essential keys to accessing flow state
  3. How to improve your focus in three steps 

About Curt

Curt Steinhorst is the author of the bestselling book Can I Have Your Attention?, an expert on focus and distraction, and a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. 

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges in keeping the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. Through Focuswise, the company Curt founded to help teams solve the problem of chronic distraction, Curt and his team apply the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s world. 

He coaches founders and CEOs of multi-billion-dollar brands on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers. His worldwide speeches and training have helped thousands gain the wisdom and practical habits to better manage their focus and put it on the things that really matter in life and work. Clients include Southwest Airlines, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, NIKE, and SAP, just to name a few. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Hydrant. Hydrate all the more effectively, efficiently, and deliciously! Listeners save 25% at drinkhydrant.com/awesome. 

     

Curt Steinhorst Interview Transcript

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’m excited to be here, Pete. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and much of it is captured in your book Can I Have Your Attention? But, I understand, when it comes to you reading books, you love fantasy novels. What’s the story here?

Curt Steinhorst
I’m a nerd, really. No. So, I have always enjoyed this weird genre that is fantasy novels, and then Game of Thrones came out and revealed to the rest of the world that it’s not all Bilbo Baggins. Honestly, I have this part of my world where I work really hard, and then focus on the research, and what’s happening in trends in the markets, and workplace trends. And then I have this other side where I want to turn off my brain, and I want to just think about a world that’s not here. And so, fantasy novels are really awesome for that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then, tell me, what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel per se? And what do you think is, like, the core stuff of it that makes it so engaging for folks, such that some of them are like 12-plus books deep in a series, and folks read them all cover to cover, front to getting to the end? What is it that glues people like yourself?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think it’s the same thing, I think, that makes anyone love any great story. And, officially, fantasy novels take place more in the medieval times where there’s swords and then there’s some form of magic, which sounds super nerdy. My wife thinks that I’m crazy to love it. But what makes them powerful is really great characters that have complex challenges.

And it turns out, when you release some of the great creatives in the world to not have to be constrained by the same parameters that are our world is constrained by, what you find is that people are really, really great at imagining things that are fascinating, and interesting, and make you think you enjoy the story just like you would any great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is cool. And I think that I am thinking about sort of the hero’s journey stuff, it really seems like that is just…like, fantasy just plays into that dead-on it seems, but from my limited experience.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s funny. If you’re looking for something that’s fun and that is a healthy escape, they’re really just incredible stories. So, I didn’t know I was going to promote fantasy novels, but there are some great ones out there. The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, these are just some of the best novels out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a few people know that the very first guest on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, Mawi Asgedom, he’s famous for a lot of sort of social and emotional skills development and communication things, but he also wrote a fantasy novel for The Fifth Harmony, The Third Harmony? oh, don’t tell him.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m going to have to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, anyway, we’re talking about how fantasy novels have done an amazing job of capturing people’s attention for long stretches, but I understand that the world of focus and attention, here and now, Curt, isn’t so rosy. We are besieged by distraction. Can you paint a picture for just how bad it is right now?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, there’s two levels of bad news on this front. And one is what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade, which is this assault on our attention in, literally, endless ways. So, on average, you have 4,000 to 7,000 advertisements put in front of your face every single day, and $375 billion will be spent to get your attention. And, of course, there’s no safe place because the technology, it allows us to go anywhere and be reached.

And so, we get a lot of stuff for free, which is exciting, at Facebook and Yelp! and Google. And then we fail to realize that they’re actually charging us, and they’re charging us and our attention. And so, the challenge is that it doesn’t stay with us just when we’re at home or at any place. It really comes into work, and we end up in a situation where the volume of messages coming at us, the number of meetings that we’re expected to attend, the people outside of work who can reach us, put us in a place where we’re going back and checking our phones 150 times a day.

We, on average, stay on the same screen for 40 seconds at a time when at work. And if you have Slack or you have Microsoft Teams on a second screen, that number goes down to 35 seconds. So, needless to say, we’re really, really good at flipping based on all that’s coming at us. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that will keep us from being able to do what we need to do to be able to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, I love you dropped those numbers. It shows you’re a man who’s done your research, and that’s why we hunted you down. So, I’m excited to dig into all the more goodness here. So, that’s striking, 4,000 to 7,000 advertising messages every day, 150 times a day phone picks up, and 40 seconds average time. Yeah, that paints a picture in terms of attention and focus being scattered all over the place. And it’s tough.

I remember, so right now, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is pretty hot, and I enjoyed it. I think there are some good truths to be gleaned from it. So, the term that really struck me is that we refer to our phone as a digital pacifier that we pick up whenever we’re the slightest bit uncomfortable, like, “I’m a little bored.” And that kind of spooked me a bit, like, “Ugh, I guess I kind of do do that. And I’d like to…” Do-do, pacifiers. I’ve got toddlers.

So, what’s the consequence of this? It’s a lot. A lot of phone pickups, a lot of advertising messages, a very short window in which we’re kind of looking at our screen, but is that fine, Curt? Is that, “Hey, man, life in 2020”?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And The Social Dilemma did do a really great job of exposing some of the challenges, specifically, the adversarial technology, meaning technology that has different interests than we have, can have on us individually, and even deeper on society. I think the core challenge that we face, and there’s all sorts of quantifiable ways at work that we can show, the financial implications, the engagement implications, the tendency that people have to do less work and feel more overwhelmed.

But I think the core challenge, and what I really appreciated about The Social Dilemma is it spotlighted that we are losing control of what actually shapes and defines every single thing about our future, which is what gets our attention, what keeps our attention, how do we take control of our attention. And so, I think that’s the core consequence because you lose control of your own attention, and you lose control of everything.

Pete Mockaitis
You lose control of your attention; you lose control of everything. Yeah, I buy that, because instead of getting the results and outcomes that you really want and care about are important too, which would come from dedicated devotion of your attention to those pursuits, you sort of get whatever the algorithms have determined you should care about, and you get hooked into.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. The analogy that I would use is that we are in an ocean which has become a perfect storm. The pandemic, of course, just added an entirely new dimension, and we’re not going to be able to get out of that. And I think, so often, what we see when people immediately hear, “Oh, you think about focus and attention and distraction. Oh, I feel bad. I’m on my device when I shouldn’t be.” And it’s like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology, being distracted isn’t being on your phone.

In fact, I was walking through an airport, and someone had heard me speak, and they walked up. I was texting my wife while walking to the gate, and they said, “Hey, aren’t you the distraction expert? Caught you. You’re distracted.” I was like, “You nailed it. I am distracted by you. You are distracting me.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, I was crafting a beautiful note to my bride.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, exactly. So, distraction at its core is confusion about what matters. And we’re living in a world where we’re increasingly confused because there are so many things screaming “This matters.” And so, we end up like a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean with no control rather than having the toolset to navigate within the world we live in to still assert control and, therefore, have the ability to get to a particular place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us, how do we pull that off? You zero in on four key elements that affect focus. Is that where we should start? Or how do you want to tee us up?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think the number one place to start is just by actually realizing that time is not your most valuable resource. Your most valuable resource is your attention. And so, I know that seems like, “Okay, we’ve already talked about that.” But how often do people really think about, “What’s getting our attention?” Like, when you woke up this morning, not, “What did you do?” Maybe you went on a jog. But it’s, “What did you think about?” Or maybe I’m optimistic, maybe you thought about your attention was, “I need to do a job,” but you didn’t do it.

So, it’s the thing that fascinates me at its core is like, “How do those decisions get made?” because I think where most people naturally go when they hear, “I’m distracted,” or they feel like they’re inefficient, they need to be more productive, which are downstream effects of being able to manage our own attention, being able to focus, is they go towards things, lifehacking tricks, that, for me at least, when I started this journey into the research over a decade ago, they worked great for me tomorrow but, at the time, they didn’t work at all. And it’s like, I just kept having perfect advice that I couldn’t execute on.

And so, the reasoning for that is because we actually don’t understand what human attention is for, and what we’re able to do and not do. And so, I would start by saying, like, “I’m going to value my attention and know that everything comes from that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, okay, so that point about those hacks, they work great for you tomorrow, by that do you mean you don’t yet have the fundamental core in place such that those can amplify your effectiveness, and it’s sort of like the cart-before-the-horse type situation?

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. We will seek quick tips which, by the way, are super helpful. They’re really important. I’m going to give several that I think are important. But we do it without really understanding, like, “What is it that’s driving underneath this? What is it that keeps me from actually doing those things?” So, there’s no strings, there’s no endless amounts of things that we can do. Bundle your email. Don’t check your email all the time. But people still do it. And I think the thing that I would say is, “Okay, so let’s change the equation to really understand, like, how I make decisions about my attention.”

And so, a couple huge mistakes. Number one, people don’t understand that their attention is always going to be driven by social influence, meaning other people, what they pay attention to. Like, I could be perfectly focused but if the person sitting next to me has different ambitions then I’m never going to get my work done. So, like, we have to say, “Okay, how do I change the equation in such that it doesn’t cost me more attention than I have when I’m trying to find ways to create more space so I can focus on what matters?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge. And, like, you really have to be in a pretty hardcore sense of isolation for those effects to not matter much. I think I’m just lying to myself, when it’s like, “No, no, no, this is my objective, and I’ve determined it, and this is the schedule. And, thus, this is what shall be.” But, in practice, no, my dear wife or advertiser or somebody needs something now, and here we are.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And maybe if I were to say it’s really simply, often the great suggestions and strategies that we try to incorporate, they cost us the very thing we have the least of. So, like, “I’m going to implement a new project management system. I’m going to change the way I do my morning every morning. I’m going to do a gratitude journal. I’m going to do all of these things.” But the reason that we can’t is because we’re tired, and it’s because we have a lot on our plates, and it’s because that takes work. So, it’s like, maybe let’s think about how we do this in a way that we can actually get it done with our attention in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s get right into the core then, and it might take a while but I think it’s well worth it. So, you’re pointing to something bigger than the tips, and the tricks, and the hacks, and the strategies, and the tactics, to kind of fundamentally how do we go about determining what gets our attention? And I guess, for many of us, the answer is probably like, “I don’t know/It’s not that clearly defined.” So, lay it on us, like, how do we do that? Like, what are the main maybe archetypes, or modes, or flavors by which this happens?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And this is where it gets really fun, and there’s a lot of different frameworks that we can use but I’ll use a really simple one. You have two systems of attention in your brain, and one system of attention is more based out of your right hemisphere, and we would call it bottom-up, or right hemisphere attention. It’s complex. This isn’t the same as right brain, left brain pseudo-science. Then there’s another system of attention that is more top-down is what it’s called, and it’s more based in the left hemisphere.

And so, the right hemisphere is the baseline system of attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Right now, there’s literally endless things that are screaming for your attention. Like, you could be paying attention to this podcast, you could be paying attention to the football game that’s on, whatever, you have endless options.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hot in here.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s hot. Exactly. And we flip. We’re constantly flipping. But most of it, it hits the right hemisphere first, and what you’re looking for is two things, “Is that thing going to kill me?” So, I am, primarily, like anytime, something is perceived as acutely threatening. Meaning, “Whatever that is could hurt me, I will focus on it,” and that’s when it flips into the other hemisphere, and we give nothing else our attention. Everything else disappears.

And so, the first thing is pain, fear, anxiety. Now, why it’s really important to realize this, is because this is exactly what makes technology so complicated because technology brings things that are far away and makes it feel right here. And so, all of a sudden, we can spend our whole day saying we want to get more work done, we want to get focused. Well, what inputs are coming your way that make everything feel extremely threatening?

There was a fascinating research that was done after the Boston Marathon bombing, and they looked at the stress and trauma levels of people that were at the scene of the crime, of this tragedy. Then they compared it to people who consumed media about it. And the acute stress levels were higher in those that were watching it than those that were there.

And so, that tells us, like when technology brings something to us, we perceive it wrongly, so our attention is always going to go towards stress. And the other thing, and I’ll pause after this one when it comes to our right hemisphere, is then we’re also wired to seek out new fun things, things that our past have said, “That is interesting. Every time I go there, it feels good,” or, “I have no idea what that is.” It’s new, it’s interesting, that’s why I’m always like, “What else could be on Twitter? What else could be here?” because you’re wired to explore. Your brain is made to go in search of things that are interesting.

So, that’s the foundation for what drives our attention, “Is it interesting? Is it threatening?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Interesting. Threatening. Nice summary. So, when you say bottom-up, you mean in terms of just like there’s a stimulus, and, “Brrp,” as opposed to, “Here’s my masterplan, and I am enacting it.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. Yeah, it starts in the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, that’s handy there in terms of threats, pain, fear, anxiety, and the novelty. And, well, I guess that’s why the news can really suck you in because it’s always new. By the definition, it’s the news. This is something that has happened recently that you probably are not aware of because it’s all across the world. And, by the way, it could be threatening you in terms of if the election outcome you find to be threatening, one way or the other, or COVID, or any number of natural disasters, or economic crisis. Yeah, that’s a real potent double whammy there. The news hits you both.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And we’re seeing like a 79% increase in the amount of time people are spending checking news through digital channels. And so, like, why is this so important? Because we pay attention to what matters the most at any moment, and we say, “How do I get more work done? How I get more focused?” Maybe not a lifehack, it’s more of saying, “Okay. Well, you’re not going to focus on something that has to do with work if you don’t know that it matters a ton, and you don’t block out, you don’t spend less time on the threats that are far away that can be perceived really closely.” So, that’s kind of a step one, easy way to think about practical implications of attention science.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, that makes sense in terms of fundamentally, principally, that’s what’s up in terms of, like, biochemistry, evolution, the human condition, yeah, here we are, we’ve got some predispositions to go that way.

Curt Steinhorst
I can give you a few more layers because, clearly, we’re not monkeys, we’re not cows. I mean, cows, they eat the grass because it tastes good, they have an associated reward, and they run away from wolves. Like, that’s what they do. We’re not just that. So, that’s where the other system comes in. The other system of attention, it allows us to say, “I’m going to ignore that, that interesting thing, right now that doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on something unilaterally.” This is the type of work people really want when they say, “I want to get focused.”

And some would say the ultimate state of that type of focus is what’s called flow. Now, what happens there is that when we have our attention prioritized by the left hemisphere, the things that are unfamiliar, literally, you don’t see it anymore, you don’t hear it anymore. It all disappears. Like, you can zoom in for periods of time, and it can be extended.

And there’s ways we can increase and decrease our capacity but, ultimately, we do those things when it’s challenging, it demands something from us, when the barriers to other fun things that give us a reward are not available, meaning, “I need to work on a research project for a bank that I’m working with right now, but I also would love to see what my Fantasy Football team is doing. Like, I’ll do the easier thing,” and when we see that we can make real progress towards it. Like, I feel some level of mastery.

If it’s just a list of tasks, then it’s not satiating. Like, we can’t make our attention go to things that are boring and uninteresting. They have to be challenging and interesting, new and interesting, threatening and interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, run that by us again. So, we got the mastery, we’ve got barriers to easier fun things. And what else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so it has to be challenging, meaning it has to demand enough of our brain that we won’t drift off. Like, boredom is the number one reason people leave jobs, like it doesn’t take enough, “Any machine can do this.” So, challenging, “This is hard.” It has to involve something that we see ourselves becoming an expert. Mastery, like, “By working on how to ride a bike, I’m going to be, like I can do that.” “By becoming a financial advisor by learning the markets, I’m going to be the expert in the markets.” Whatever it is. We have to see that connection. And then we have to have things that are fun, not available to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is. All right. So, given that, let’s say we want to, at the very core, primal, fundamental level, focus in on something. What should we do?

Curt Steinhorst
So, start with space, decide where you’re going to do it, that’s really important. The largest neural connection between short-term and long-term memory is space, meaning, I walk into a place, and it says, my brain is cued to say, “This is what I’m supposed to do here.” So, we want to let our space work for us. Like, if I asked everyone, “Where were you when you heard about what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?” Everyone remembers where they were.

And so, I would say if I want to zero in on something, I got to pick a place that the noise isn’t too loud. It doesn’t mean…coffee shops can be really great for this, by the way, for a different reason, but, “I’m going to pick this place as where I’m going to work and the other stuff isn’t available.” Like, we call it going into a vault, “That I’m going to…my phone isn’t going to be as available, my people are going to know I’m not available, this is where I do that.” So, space is the first thing I would always tackle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, I like that metaphor going into a vault, which really…I’m thinking about Fortnite’s The Vault. It’s a huge iron enclosure with a big old dial, like, “Boom! We’re going in there,” and it’s secure, like you can put lots of gold bars in this vault.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good and clear in terms of others know, like, “Hey, I’m not to be disturbed right now.” Ideally, your phone is off or distant, you’re left in another location, and there could be any number of distractions not available to you. Like, the fridge is not there. Well, lay it on us, like what are best practices for vaulting?

Curt Steinhorst
And it depends on the type of work truly. Like, number one practice is clear barriers to entry in and out. Like, that’s the simple way to think of it. I use noise-cancelling headphones because it’s the random unexpected that you’re like, “Oh, that would be interesting.” Your line of sight is the next thing I would do. Turn off the background noise or put on classical music, and then make sure that what I see in front of me isn’t stuff that would make me want to do it instead.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a PlayStation.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, like a PlayStation.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t have that thing.

Curt Steinhorst
Like, a TV. That’s right. Or, you’re in an open office, we’ll come back there eventually, and you work in the same space with someone you know. Like, we’re social, like, “I’d rather talk to them than do this.” So, we just remove, change our line of sight. Those are kind of the big areas that I would be thinking about. And then, from there, I think it really comes down to if you’re wanting to do more creative work than having the ability to see outside is really valuable. Like, the more distant the horizon is, it actually shows that it allows you to think more creatively. If you’re wanting to knock out an Excel spreadsheet, then it’s actually tighter rooms where the blinders are on are more helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ve got HGTV scenes running through my head right now in terms of they’re just running spaces for purposes, and it’s not just really stuff for designers to charge more. It has a huge impact in how well you’re able to accomplish whatever you care to accomplish in that space, whether that’s make food, or sleep, or crank out work.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And I would say, okay, if you’re having to work from home, we need to move…once we hit a certain threshold, we get bored, we have to go somewhere else. So, it’s like just match the space to the task. If it’s cranking out a bunch of emails, or responding to quick messages, or just whatever work you’re doing that’s quick and easy, that you can bundle together, that doesn’t require tons of focus, do it wherever. But that work, that by being interrupted, you lose significantly in time and quality, and you know what that is that demands your full attention, just pick a place where that’s all you do. Like, that is the place where the hard work gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot. Okay. So, we talked about a vault. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so space first. And then the next piece I would say is like creating the clarity and removing the stuff that clutters your mind that you also feel like you have to get done. So, for instance, the number one predictor of how often you self-interrupt is how many people interrupted you the previous hour. Think of how often you’re interrupted because anytime you’re interrupted, someone is saying, “You should be paying attention to something else. There’s something else that you’re missing.”

And so, it’s really hard to say, “I’m going to focus on this,“ when your list of things that are on your mind that you know you have to get to is really long. And so, we start a couple really, really easy ways to solve this and make it easier on your brain is, number one, starting with, this is in every meeting, is, “What’s competing for your attention?” I’ll start by just doing a dump, a brain dump, anything that’s like, “Oh, I get to this. Oh, I got to do this. I got to do this.” And that’s why it’s really good at the beginning of the day kind of plan out your day by saying, “These are the things I have to get done. These are the things I could get done.” So, I start just by offloading everything.

And then the next really important piece, if you want to do focused work that’s in the vault, is you have to match the time to the task. So, you matched the space to the task, now you match the time. You schedule out, you say, “This is going to take me 45 minutes, and all the stuff that I have to do that I know is important, I’ve scheduled it. Like, I’ve given the time that is necessary for it so then I’m not burdened by, ‘What else I haven’t gotten to?’ I’m aware that there’s time allotted for it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge in terms of you can just rest easy knowing that that has a place and it’s going to get handled, as opposed to, “Might this not get done and calamity ensue? I hope not.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And the other problem is I’ve had this, clearly, a client will say, “Well, if I look at my calendar, like there’s still all this stuff I can’t get done so I end up putting 15-minute increments for things to even out.” Okay, great. Well, then you know on the frontend, and you got to either dump it or delegate it. You got to trash it so that, at least at the end of the day, you have permission to be successful.

If your day is scheduled at such a level that it’s going to come apart at the seams at some point, that’s the fastest route to get to less of it. Like, when you’re overwhelmed, what do we do? Like, what do you when you’re already feeling guilty, and like, “Aargh, this is the worst”? We watch funny cat videos, like that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s weird, huh?

Curt Steinhorst
We escape it completely because we want to alleviate that feeling of disappointment, shame, regret.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Curt Steinhorst
So, when it comes to changing that equation, you move from just a to-do list to a prioritized to-do list, and you then move from a prioritized to-do list to a calendared-timestamped approach. Let your calendar be your home screen, and let that guide what you work on, and that changes. I would say, most people have not implemented that. In my work, and if you just did that, you get probably 80% improvement, like you get a long way.

Now, there’s one problem that I have to mention on this, and it’s one of the reasons that people often struggle with this, is that it turns out people are really unreliable when it’s not what they want to do. And so, it’s like, okay, let’s put some breathers in here, and say, “I’m not a robot. At 4:00 p.m., if I put that huge project that I’ve been delaying, odds are I’m probably not going to want to do it right then.”

And so, I would just say, make sure you put the stuff that you hate the most at the times when you’re most mentally strong, which usually is more in the morning for most people. And, secondly, if you’re someone who really struggles with this, just put some gaps where you have like three different things, and let yourself choose which one you want to work on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good because I think that some resistance to this idea is like, “Oh, but then I feel boxed in.” Well, it’s sort of like, “Well, in some ways that’s sort of the point. You need a box in order to accomplish the thing that really matters that isn’t getting accomplished.” But, in other ways, hey, if it is flexible, like one task is not truly way more important than another, then, okay, game on. We can have some flexibility there.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, you’re wired to explore. You’re creative. You do the unexpected. This is what makes us actually better than machines. Machines are always going to be more efficient than us. So, I just think rather than really being frustrated with yourself, you just say, “How do we put that natural curiosity, and interest in the unexpected, how do we put it to good use rather make it end up being debilitating so that we end up nowhere?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is beautiful. So, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the time. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Then we got the people. Yeah, the people. In the work I do, this is perhaps the most underutilized piece of the equation, that when we look at it, organizations, if you work in a company, they want you to be productive. But then we put in systems, and we create culture, and we have teams that all but ensure it will never happen. And so, it’s like there’s 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week right now from before when COVID started.

Pete Mockaitis
Before COVID, okay.

Curt Steinhorst
From March until now, we’re seeing a 55% increase. I created this really fun program with Nike called The Focus Fit Challenge. It a four-week thinking of focus as a skill to develop. And we were looking at this team, and it turns out like seven hours of meetings makes it really unlikely that you’re going to be able to do anything else really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Curt Steinhorst
And so, yeah, I would say the next thing is to say, “Who steals my attention? Or, who needs my attention? And how do I have a conversation that says…?” because no one benefits from your partial attention. But the reason we all want each other’s attention is because attention is given to what matters, it says we matter. And it also helps other people help us know what matters.

And so, I would just say look at the people who are most likely to want to interrupt you, to want to take it from you, to deserve your attention, and set up some ground rules that says, “During this time, I’m not going to be available at all. During this time, I’m going to be only available to you, and let’s figure out what that needs to look like,” so that now you have advocates for people that previously would’ve been frustrated because it was only going to take a second. It’s like, sure, if we warp the space-time continuum, it’ll only take a second, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s great. And then that can feel really good. And I guess that sort of gets to all of this, is that it’s kind about getting really real early instead of late in terms of like you’re not overscheduling, then the day comes apart at the seams, we feel like a loser, failure, because you ruined it. And not with people telling them, “You get this much time, or you don’t get this much time,” and then either disappointing them or you not following through. It’s like you’re making the calls in advance in terms of, “This is going to happen, this is what’s not going to happen, and I am comfortable and responsible with regard to the consequences of it,” as opposed to, “Well, I hope I can make maybe get lucky and get it all done. Let’s see what happens.”

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, that’s right. When we look and we see how people are feeling about work, there’s been an over 31% increase in burnout during this period, even though at the beginning we’ve got a lot of things cleared from our plates. There’s been this 48% increase in team chats, and it makes sense. It really does. Like, “If we can’t see you, then we want to hear from you more often.” But what’s happening is we’re creating a culture where responsiveness is everyone’s highest responsibility, and then we see and we wonder why this engagement occurs, frustration occurs, people feel like there’s less work-life balance, they can’t unplug. Home relationships suffer. At work, relationships are not being built because we’re dislocated.

And so, all I would just say is it’s about being proactive in this but it’s about really giving yourself permission to succeed. Like, this is the challenges when we react and don’t set clear agreed-upon expectations. What we end up doing is we allow the unspoken expectations of others to drive us, and then we actually teach them what they should expect. And so now, we’re emailing immediately back, and now they’re frustrated if we don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Curt Steinhorst
So, if you reliably don’t respond to emails for a day, like the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, then guess what? No one expects it. Now, I understand some are like, “Tell my boss this.” Right. Let’s start with all the other relationships you have a little more power over, setting some healthier boundaries, and then we can have a conversation with your boss about saying, “I want to do this really well. Can we set some rules around how I know when I’m allowed to do the uninterrupted work?” You know what I mean? So, let’s start with the people that we care about, and just say, “Let’s figure this out together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Or, even just yourself in terms of, ‘No, 7:15 to 7:45, I’m not looking at any devices. I’m taking a shower, I’m journaling, whatever.” And then, yeah, start not at the hardest possible boundary to enforce but the easiest.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons we’re like, “I’m not going to do it from 7:15 to 7:45.” Look, if the alternative, if you’re going to stop looking at your phone while you sit on the couch and watch TV, or the rule becomes about constraint, rather than saying, like, “What’s this replacing?” So, make sure that if you’re going to set ground rules, make it because there’s something better. You know what I mean?

It’s like, “From 7:15 to 7:45, we’re going to have a fun high-low day to talk about that,” or, “I’m going to take my kids on a wagon ride.” Like, have something proactive, and then before you get into it, mind a gap. Like, give yourself a gap that says, “I’ve just looked at everything in the world, nothing needs my attention now. And now I’m going to actually give myself permission to just be here.” It’s like close up before so you know nothing matters, and then do something fun, do something that does matter with that time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect. Well, Curt, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of diagnosing what’s going on here and why we find ourselves in this spot, and what are some things we can do. Lay it on us, you’ve shared this wisdom with many people. I’m sure some have adopted it to tremendous effect, and many others have done nothing. Why? What’s sort of like the holdup, the roadblock, the mistake, the thing that you could help us overpower so that we’re in the group that transforms?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that would drive our inability to see real progress here. One is that we actually don’t know why we’re doing it. And the point of efficiency and boundaries around these things always has to be founded in something worth focusing on. And so, people aren’t going to just be more efficient and productive if the end is just more efficiency and productivity, and climbing a ladder without a picture of where they’re headed. And so, I would say the biggest thing is like know what you’re devoting this extra uninterrupted energy to, and know that it’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Curt, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, I would just say focus is possible but make the goal not to be an efficient machine. Make the goal instead to eliminate all the stuff that waste your time, distracts you, so that you can actually have a chance to really thrive in this moment. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and so I’m all too familiar with distraction. And what doesn’t help us is an unrealistic expectation towards efficiency without a realization that we’re all capable of focus when we know what matters.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, my favorite quote is “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are,” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Well, I already mentioned the Boston Marathon research. I‘ve been using that. I think that’s really, really interesting and fascinating. The interesting study out of Michigan State talks about how walking through nature actually restores your attention. It’s called Attention Restoration Theory. And I’m really fascinated by how subtle amounts of background noise actually increase our ability to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I can’t let that go. If I wanted to get me some of that, what do you recommend I do for my subtle amounts of background noise?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, the coffee shop, subtle background noise there. I would say the key is if you can get outdoors and into actual nature, that’s the number one thing you want to do. If you can’t, having the feeling of movement is good. You just don’t want it to be people that you know. So, you want to go places where the noise has a small amount of noise. It creates what’s called the inhibitory spillover. It forces the system in your brain to inhibit, block out everything, so you just kind of want a dull lull in a subtle stimulation through movement that’s in the background. So, coffee shops are actually probably the perfect place to be able to get that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Curt Steinhorst
There’s a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks, that I think is the most entertaining and beautiful narrative on the fullness of human sociology and psychology right now. So, if you want to understand like all that’s out there in a really fun way, that’s the book I’d recommend.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’ve gotten really where I love the tool Notion. And the reason I love Notion is it’s a system that you can build on but it allows for me to have full visibility on all the tasks I need to do, but even deeper. It allows me to have content that gets linked and referenced across so it’s not me having 12 versions of Google Docs. I use databases and things like that to be able to consolidate research and consulting work and strategies into a single place.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Curt Steinhorst
I have a monthly note that is my idea, interesting ideas and thoughts. And so, I actually used to use Evernote, now I switched to Notion. And anything I’m thinking about, like, “Oh, gosh, that podcast. I really want to watch that podcast, or someone recommended an article, or a quote I came across, or I should use one kind of sunscreen versus another,” like anything. Rather than trying to file it, I throw it all in a single note, and then once a month I do a full review. Even when I read articles, I’ll keep the whole article if it’s for my space but if it’s not, I’ll just pull out the quotes and link it so that, at the very least, if it’s something I found interesting, I will review it twice. And then I’ll file it wherever it belongs later, but I feel no pressure. I just dump it in a single spot.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I think, I guess, the thing I see on Twitter more than anything is the very basic, that your attention is the most limited, valuable, precious, and misunderstood resource. And there’s no greater gift that you can give to someone than your undivided attention.

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

Curt Steinhorst
The website is probably the first place, FocusWise.com. And then, if they want to add an email, my email is CS@FocusWise.com. And then social platforms are complicated but if that’s your cup of tea, LinkedIn is definitely the place that I’m most engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And any final challenges or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Curt Steinhorst
You make some simple changes. Don’t do it by putting more work on your plate. Do it by making your space help you out. And do it by just looking at your time, and saying, “I’m going to divide my time. I’m not going to divide my attention.”

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all the things you’re attending to.

Curt Steinhorst
Hey, this has been my joy. I’m really grateful for the time.

614: Making Smarter Decisions When You Can’t Know Everything with Annie Duke

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Annie Duke says: "All decision-making is forecasting of the future."

Poker champion Annie Duke shares tools to improve your decision-making process and your ability to predict the future.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why your decisions still matter, even when you don’t call the shots
  2. The shift in language that leads to more open conversations
  3. How a pros and cons list tricks us into making worse decisions

About Annie

Annie Duke is an author, corporate speaker, and consultant in the decision-making space. Annie’s latest book, How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, is available on October 15, 2020 from Portfolio, a Penguin Random House imprint. Her previous book, Thinking in Bets, is a national bestseller. As a former professional poker player, Annie won more than $4 million in tournament poker before retiring from the game in 2012. Prior to becoming a professional player, Annie was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Annie is the co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education, a non-profit whose mission is to improve lives by empowering students through decision skills education. She is also a member of the National Board of After-School All-Stars and the Board of Directors of the Franklin Institute. In 2020, she joined the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Pitney Bowes. Simplify your shipping while saving money. Get a free 30-day trial and 10-lb shipping scale at pb.com/AWESOME.
  • Rise.com. Build your team’s learning library–the fast and fun way–with Rise.com/awesome 

Annie Duke Interview Transcript

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

Annie Duke
I’m excited to be back. It’s been a while.

Pete Mockaitis
It has. Well, yeah, just looking at that, it’s been over two years. Wow, time is flying, because I still remember many of the things you said kind of closely, like, “Want to make a bet?”

Annie Duke
Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it seemed closer. So, yeah, I’m excited to dig into some wisdom you’ve formulated in your latest book How to Decide. But, first, I think we need to hear, we know about you being a poker champion, but I just recently learned that you’re also a Rock Paper Scissors Champion and I want to hear the whole story.

Annie Duke
Oh, my gosh. There’s, like, literally so little story to this. It sounds much more amazing and glamorous than it actually is. At the World Series of Poker one year, some friends of mine, like, they organized a Rock Paper Scissors World Championship which was designed like March Madness. And I quickly went over and asked my friend for some rock paper scissors advice, which he gave me, and I ended up winning.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good advice. So, what’s the trick?

Annie Duke
Well, first of all, a lot of luck. Well, the trick that he told me and, listen, I’m not certifying this advice, it happened to have worked for me, is that you should be thinking about how you can tie with the person. So, it’s a little bit like anything else that you’re playing that’s like that. You want to try to get into the other person’s head and think about what they might be throwing. So, if they’re throwing scissors, you should be trying to throw scissors back.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so…

Annie Duke
And I think the reason for that is that if they were thinking about you being able to predict them, which is where people’s heads go, so if I’m thinking about throwing scissors, I’m worried about you throwing rock. So, if I changed my mind, I’m going to go to paper, but scissors beat paper. So, I think that’s what it is. It’s sort of you’re going those levels deep, that “The person is thinking I’m throwing scissors but what if they know?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
“And if they know, then I want to figure out something that’s going to beat that.” And so, when you’re shifting off of your original intention, you’ll lose to the tie.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, there are so many layers here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve looked a little bit in the world of championship rock paper scissors play, and I understand some people will just pre-memorize a script, like, “I’m going to go rock and then scissors,” and then just roll with it regardless of what you’re doing.

Annie Duke
Yeah. So, I’ve used that strategy before. So, basically, what you’re saying there is, “I don’t want to be predictable,” so you would do this if you thought that your opponent was actually quite good. In other words, so you felt like you couldn’t predict your opponent then you would want to go to, essentially, a random number generator. So, that’s basically what they’re doing. They just write down a script in advance, and they’re just saying, “If I’m not reacting to what they’re doing or reacting, whatever, then you can’t predict me.” So, the way that I did that, there was one…I don’t know if it was in that tournament, it might have been another one. I took out a dollar bill.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there’s multiple Rock Paper Scissors tournaments under your belt.

Annie Duke
Two. So, what I did, I think I came against somebody who I thought was actually quite good at rock paper scissors, and so I took out a bill. I just had like a stack of bills, like dollar bills, and basically that would give me a serial number, it’s like 10 numbers or something. That would give me 10 throws. So, I had like, if it was zero, one or two, I would throw rock. If it was three, four, five, I would throw scissors. And if it was six, seven, eight, I would throw paper. And then I ignored nine and moved one. So, it was that kind of thing, so that ends up accomplishing the exact same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, you’re champion in the one. And how did the other one go?

Annie Duke
I think I got to like the semifinals maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s what I find so intriguing. It suggests that if it’s repeatable that you’re doing well, then it seems like there’s more than pure chance at work here.

Annie Duke
Well, I think it’s probably just, you know, I played a lot of poker so I sort of crawl into people’s heads a lot. And so, I think that I’m probably maybe better than the average Joe of figuring out what your patterns are, what you’re likely to be doing. And if you can do that, obviously, you can defend against it. But then you also have to have this kind of second-order knowledge of, “What if I’m against somebody who might be better than me at that?” then you can go to a random strategy.

And I think what happened was, I think I lost in the semifinals or the finals, but it was starting in the semifinals, or the round before that, that I used the random strategy. And I know I won one or two rounds with the random strategy where I felt like I’d come across somebody who was really good. And then, by the way, it really frustrates your opponent because they want to be able to apply their skill. And so, if they’re really good, then you take out a dollar bill, they realized that you’ve completely unarmed them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s intriguing. And I read that they made a robot that can win rock paper scissors every time but it’s cheating. It’s like it catches what you’re going to do like a split second.

Annie Duke
Well, that’s not really winning now, is it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it could cheat at rock paper scissors perfectly.

Annie Duke
Great. Yeah, a cheating robot. You know what we really need to add to this dystopia right now? Cheating robots.

Pete Mockaitis
Cheating robots.

Annie Duke
We could just add cheating robots into the mix.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, more headlines. More headlines to trigger anxiety. Okay. Cool. Well, that was fun. Let’s talk about decision-making when there’s more than…

Annie Duke
Well, we just did.

Pete Mockaitis
We did, how to win rock paper scissors under different circumstances. Well, so I love dorking out about decision-making tools. And I’d love it if, hey, there are some listeners who are not yet as enthused as you and I, can you make the case for the benefits professionals can enjoy with enhanced decision-making skills? And maybe, specifically, or particularly, for those who think that, “You know, I don’t have a lot of decision-making authority at my role. I kind of got to do what I’m told,” what are the benefits to be had by being excellent at decision-making?

Annie Duke
Let me give you just sort of the broader point, which is there’s only two things that determine how your life turns out, and it’s left in the quality of your decision-making. That’s it. So, there’s a whole bunch of luck that happens in your life, like, “What year are you born in?” It matters that I was not born in 1600 for the outcome of my life. And, obviously, from my perspective or from your perspective, coronavirus is a matter of luck. I assume you did not create the virus and distribute it.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Annie Duke
But maybe that’s a bad assumption.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I guess there’s decisions you make associated with how much you’re going to go out, what measure you’re taking.

Annie Duke
Right. Exactly. So, that’s a good example, the two things that matter. There’s a whole bunch of luck that has to do with coronavirus, like the wrong human, to steal that line from Contagion. Then there are decisions that you can make given that that luck has occurred, and that’s the only thing that you have control over. And the better that your decisions are, the better your life is going to turn out.

So, I mean, that’s literally the simplest argument, which is it’s the one thing that you have control over that will actually have an actual real impact on the way that your life is going to turn out. Now, I understand that someone may, in a business setting, not be the ultimate decider, but the better your decisions, the more likely that you’re going to accomplish your goals within that environment. And there’s a few ways that you can think about it.

One is, of course, that you’re responsible for your own decisions. And one would hope that the better your decisions are, the more it maps onto your ability to actually move up the ladder or accomplish the goals that you’re trying to get to professionally. And you want to become more educated, and you want to implement a better process just literally for yourself. That’s number one.

Number two, there are certain things, there are certain behaviors that you can engage in that actually will start to get implemented in the people around you. In other words, you do have some influence even if you’re not the ultimate decider. You have some influence over the people around you that you can start to sort of get some of these really good decision-making skills and tools into a group setting.

And the last thing is, honestly, like, let’s say that I’m in a crappy situation with a bad boss, and they don’t really listen to anybody, and I don’t like the situation I’m in, that’s actually, in some ways, a more important time to be a good decision-maker because you need to be able to navigate those situations well. You need to decide when you want to stay or when you want to go, “Do I want to quit? Do I not want to quit? What can I do about this to make my situation better and actually to be able to thrive in an environment that’s an unhappy environment?”

Because, in a variety of ways, we can all end up in environments that are really unhappy where there are external forces that are making it very hard for us to thrive. And, while that is true and we want to be able to work to be able to change the situation that we’re in as much as we can, sometimes we have very little control over that, so you want to sort of grab onto like, “What are the things that I do actually have control over and improve those?” because those little changes will compound over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. And so then, it sounds about as important as it could get in terms of what we can control that will impact everything in life, in career and happiness, decision-making enhances. So, could you maybe inspire us? Could you share a story of someone who, they thought their decision-making was fine, but then they adopted some of your tools and approaches and, boy, they saw some awesome results with their enhanced decision-making?

Annie Duke
If I were to think about this from prior to getting into a business setting, from a poker setting, the fact is that in order for me to improve my poker playing, what I have to do is to be able to think about, “What kind of were my predictions of the world?” and then try to figure out, “How did the actual outcomes that I got mapped onto my predictions of the world, what were the other ways that I might’ve thought about the hand?” And then I need to be able to talk to people in a way that’s going to expose to me the ways in which they may have differences of opinion with me, because the differences of opinion are where things get really interesting, right? Like, if you and I believe the earth is round, that’s pretty interesting, like, “Okay, the earth is round.” You’ll find that out.

Pete Mockaitis
“I also agree.” Conversation over.

Annie Duke
Yeah. But if I found that you think it’s flat, and I think it’s round, that’s like a humongous opportunity. And your listeners may be saying, like, “Well, how is that an opportunity for the person who believes that the earth is round?” which is a very common response for that. Isn’t that only an opportunity for the person who thinks the earth is flat? And I have a couple of answers to that.

Number one is things aren’t usually as clear as “We know that the earth is round, not flat.” We’re usually talking about things that are much more subjective, like which candidate to hire. And you believe we should hire candidate B, and I think I should hire candidate A, and we don’t know what the truth is, right? Not in the same way of round and flat, and so we need to have that discussion in order to get to the discovery that the earth is round. That’s the first piece.

But the second piece is that even when we hold opinions that are generally maybe are even true, it’s actually helpful for me to actually have to defend those against somebody that believes that the earth is flat. I don’t know about you but my arguments for why the earth is round would be super weak, like, things like, “Scientists say so, and I saw the pictures,” which are not particularly good arguments.

So, by having to actually be able to explain it to you, I’m actually going to know my own position better. So, what I was trying to do as a poker player was actually find out where there are areas of disagreement. So, when I actually work with teams, most of what I’m trying to do is that, and that’s how we’re improving decisions because what we’re doing is we have processes that are in place by which we can talk about, which allow for you to surface the dispersion of opinion as opposed to linger over the agreement.

Now, I’m sure you’ve been in lots of meetings where basically what happens is somebody says something and then everybody goes around the room and says, “I just want to double-click on what Pete said because I have my own reasons for believing the thing that he said, and I also would like to reiterate the same reasons that he said those things.” And you sort of go around the room, and then I guess everybody feels pretty good about themselves. But what you’ve really done is said, “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” which is not particularly good for informing a group. It’s not good for informing a decision. It’s not going to actually improve decision-making at all.

So, what I’m trying to do with groups is get them to surface the areas where they disagree, where there’s actual dispersion of opinion, and then spend most of their time on that, really exploring that. By the way, not with the goal that they end up agreeing because when you’re talking about subjective things, like candidate A or candidate B, you actually shouldn’t expect agreement. And if you do get to agreement, probably somebody is actually not agreeing, they’re giving in, which is a really different thing. But we want those different viewpoints to collide, and then that really improves the decision-making.

Now, it turns out that when you really do a good job of surfacing the dispersion in the first place, you also create this amazing record of why you think what you do, why you want the decision that you want, what you think is going to be true of the world in the future. And this, then, has a huge impact on your decision-making because, after the world starts to unfold, as it does, like after the future starts to happen and become the present, you’ll have like an evidentiary record that you can go back and look at. And this now allows us to actually create really nice closed feedback loops where we actually know what we’re supposed to be looking for in order to become better calibrated in our decisions.

So, what I can tell you is that the groups that I work with, when we actually get these kinds of processes implemented, the quality of the conversation shoots through the roof, meetings are shorter, but more informative, which I think everybody would really like. And then the way that they’re actually thinking about dispersion, like, “What does it mean for somebody to disagree with you?” moves out of sort of the defensive world into the open-minded world because it really reinforces these ideas that the goal of a meeting is to inform not to agree. And then it actually helps them to much more quickly to recalibrate if their calibration is off because you can close these feedback loops really quickly, and actually more accurately.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that point you brought up about defensiveness there, and even the phrase dispersion of opinion, you know, feels emotionally a lot more comfortable than disagreement or conflicts.

Annie Duke
Well, that’s why I’m using that term actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Masterful. Good work.

Annie Duke
Yeah. So, it’s in my book, and I really recommend that people start to use this term, dispersion or divergence. Both of those words, I think, are really good. Where do we diverge? And where do we converge? Because I think disagreement has such a negative connotation. It sounds so combative. And when I feel like you disagree with me, it gets translated for us sort of just cognitively into like you’re attacking my identity as opposed to just like, “Oh, we have a disagreement about these things.” It feels like an attack on my identity.

And, generally, what happens is that when I view it through the lens of disagreement, I’m going to tend to shift into convince mode as opposed to convey mode. In other words, I’m going to want to bring you over to my side of the argument in order to certify my beliefs and certify my identity, and so the way that I’m speaking to you is going to be meant to convince. It’s going to create a lot of interrupting, me saying, “Well, have you thought about this? So, you weren’t thinking about this data, or I think you’re wrong about this,” and so on and so forth. As opposed to like a real honest exploration of me trying to understand why you believe what you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, it’s funny, this reminds me of a time when it was way back, I think maybe in high school, in which I was arguing with somebody, and we had some friends and we just decided that they were going to be the jury, and we would make our case and advocate for our perspective. And it was kind of funny, it was kind of a joke, but it got a bit heated actually. And then when the jury left, it was just the two of us, and we just sort of chatted out with a completely different intention of, “Well, let’s sort of really see what kind of went on there and what we should do about it.” And it was just sort of like night and day in terms of “Are we trying to convince to win the argument as opposed to kind of collaboratively jointly discover what’s as accurate as possible?”

Annie Duke
Right. Yeah, exactly. And I think that the other thing that we need to realize when we’re dealing with things that are in the subjective world, so we’re not talking about “2+2=4” or, “The earth is round.” For most of the decisions we’re making in our lives and in a business setting, by the way, we’re talking about things where we’re trying to discover what is subjectively true, but what is subjectively true is not known so we’re having to go through the discovery process in order to get there.

And so, the idea that you somehow know the truth and you need to convince other people of your side is really, really unproductive, and it’s going to create that kind of thing. It actually makes more sense that the two of you convey why you believe what you do, and then you can walk away not agreeing. And that’s okay because you don’t need to.

If you think about, for example, if you and I are in a hiring committee, and I really care about whether I think the person is going to be a generous team member, like cooperative, generous, someone who doesn’t take credit for themselves but likes to share credit and things like that, and you care, all you care about is what their sales production is, right? Literally, you’re just a numbers person, right? That’s okay.

I don’t need to convince you of what my values are and you don’t need to convince me of what your values are because, by allowing those two perspectives to just sort of live and breathe, and for me to express why I believe what I do and why I think that’s important, and you can express what you believe and why you think that’s important, we’re probably going to hire a better candidate, because what’s going to happen is that’s now going to get expressed in our hiring rubric and who we actually end up bringing in.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. Well, so we’ve already covered some great tools and perspectives associated with in-group settings, how we can view it as a dispersion of opinion or divergence as oppose to a disagreement, and how we’re not trying to convince but to convey, and we’re all enriched as a result of having engaged in that.

I’d love to zoom into if it’s sort of an individual and it’s sort of I’ve got one person making decisions for himself or herself, and doing the research, and there’s not so much a collaborative exercise going on, what are some of the best tools in this context to make better individual decisions?

Annie Duke
Well, first of all, not a pros and cons list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Annie Duke
Which I think most people might find kind of surprising, I know that. So, the thing about a really good decision tool, like if we were to think about what’s a great tool, decision tool or otherwise, like, if we think about a screwdriver, right, it should be accomplishing the purpose that it’s meant to accomplish. So, like if I want to get a screw to actually go in the wall in a way that’s going to be safe and actually accomplish the job…

Pete Mockaitis
Ergonomic. Convenient.

Annie Duke
Yes. Which is why I want to be able to use a screwdriver as opposed to a hammer or a jack hammer. So I want the right tool for the right purpose. But here’s also the really important thing about a tool is that I need to be able to repeat the use in a way that’s going to create really high fidelity. And then I also need to be able to hand it to somebody else and then explain it to them so that they could actually use that tool in the exact same way.

So, when we sort of understand that we see where decision tools really go awry. So, like, “Your gut is not a decision tool.” “Well, why?” “Because I can’t actually look at it and explain it to you, right?” That’s where we’ll go. “Well, my gut told me so,” and you’re like, “Okay, but that doesn’t really…I can’t use your gut.” Right? But you know what I mean. It’s like, “Okay, but I can’t actually examine to see whether you screwed that in well, and then you can’t explain to me exactly how you got that screw in the wall, or what you were doing. And I can’t actually repeat that process because it’s a black box.”

So, a pros and cons list, in some sense, certainly is a tool in the sense that we know its purpose is to get you to decide about whether you want to proceed with an option. And I could actually sort of teach you it in a structural sense. So, that’s all okay. So, we’re getting part of the way there. It’s certainly better than gut. But here’s what that tool lacks that will actually reveal what the kinds of tools are that we actually want to be using.

So, the first thing that it lacks is that it’s a list, literally a list, which means that it’s flat. So, what do I mean by flat? It’s flat in two ways. One is that when we think about something that’s on the pro side or something on the con side, we don’t have a sense of the magnitude. So, it could be like I could get a hangnail and I could die. So, those are both there, because all I sort of have is this list.

And so, that’s one of the first problems is that sort of the magnitude of how positive the things on the pro side are, in terms of achieving your goals, is not actually anywhere explicit in the list, and the magnitude of how negative the cons are, it’s also not existing in the list. So, that gives us hint number one, is that we want to have an idea of this magnitude if we’re going to have a really good decision tool.

The second piece is that we also don’t have a sense of the probability of those things occurring.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
So, if we have a con, that’s like, “Well, I could lose $10,000,” you would want to know, “But how likely is that to occur?” Right? So, you could have a pro, which is like, “I could win a million dollars.” You could do this with the lottery, right? But the con could be, “I’m going to lose a dollar or two dollars,” and the pro is, “I could win the jackpot, so maybe that looks pretty good.” But what we need to understand is, “What’s the probability of winning the jackpot?” which is de minimis, versus “What’s the probability of me losing the two dollars?” which is basically every time.

And if we don’t have that information, it’s also incredibly hard to compare. So, when we see that, what happens is it becomes very hard to understand whether an option is good or not, and then we get into the problem of how on earth would you compare options. Like, if I had one option that had 10 cons and 2 pros, would that be worse than an option that had 5 cons and 4 pros? Well, I don’t know because I don’t know what the magnitude of those pros are and cons, and I don’t know the probability of those things occurring is, so it’s hard for me to compare.

And then we have this added issue, which is that it’s basically, literally, a tool for expressing your bias, like your cognitive bias, because you can imagine that you can take something that could sort of be one pro or one con, and you could divide it up into its little bits in order to create ten ways to express that. So, the con could be like, “Well, I might end up like really unhappy,” so that would be one, but it could also be like…

Pete Mockaitis
“I could be anxious. I could be stressed. I could be disappointed.”

Annie Duke
Exactly. Right. And now, all of a sudden, it’s ten things, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
So, what ends up happening is that as we’re sort of exploring those pros and cons, generally, as we’re entering into a decision, we’re already sort of somewhere in our head kind of know what our opinion is and know what we would like to be true, and then we do the pro and con list, and all it’s doing is kind of like expressing whatever that opinion already is, but it’s certifying it as objective when it’s not actually objectively. And that’s actually a super bad combination.

And you can see how this is a problem, like particularly if we’re trying to compare options because we’re going to do it just by list. And so, the option we don’t want to do, we can just create a lot of cons for. The option that we do want to do, we want to create a lot of pros for. So, that’s sort of through the negative frame of like, “Here’s a tool that everybody really understands,” that turns out to be sort of the equivalent of taking a jack hammer to get a screw in the wall. Okay, so we don’t want to do that. We’re going to ruin the wall.

So, that tells us, “Okay, so what does a good decision process going to do?” Well, it’s going to solve this problem of sort of dimensionality. So, for any option we’re considering, we want to think about what the likely outcomes of that option are. But then we want to think about how much is that option going to advance us toward our goal or way. So, that gets that idea of the payoff, what’s the magnitude of how good or bad we consider that option is for us. But then we want to take a stab at what the likelihood of those things occurring is.

And what that allows us to do is understand, for example, like in the startup world, you may have a really high likelihood of failure but the payoff is so large that if that payoff is likely enough, you would still do it despite the fact that mostly it’s going to be bad outcomes. But that’s okay because we’ve added this likelihood piece in, and we’ve added sort of like what does the payoff look, and we can start to bring that into our decision-making. And you can see that that now gives us a real way to compare our two options, because now we have a pretty clear sense of what’s the upside potential and the downside potential, and, “Does the upside outweigh the downside given whatever I’m willing to risk?” And then I can now compare those two things.

So, like a simple example would be, like let’s say that I have two candidates that I’m thinking about hiring, A and B, and I really, really care about retention, like my recruitment costs are out of control and I’ve got all these employee turnover, so this is something that I happen to be focusing on. And so, what I can do is I can say, “I want to think about kind of these three buckets that the person that I’m hiring is going to be with the company between zero to six months, six months to 18 months, beyond 18 months. Let’s say that we set those three things up.

And then, basically, what I can do is just have anybody on the hiring committee, for any candidate that we see, to say, “What do you think the probability of those three buckets is?” because that’s what I really care about, right? And now I actually have an apples-to-apples comparison. So, I’ve thought about, “What are my values? What are the payoffs that I’m trying to get? I want this person to stay here a long time. And I’m looking for the person who is going to stay here the longest. That’s what I care about.” And now I have a way to actually compare options.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so we covered some of the shortcomings of the pro-con list, we got it captured very clearly the magnitude of things, and the probability of those things occurring. And so then, I’m imagining kind of just a spreadsheet by this point in terms of I’ve got a few things, I’ve got some magnitude, I’ve got some probabilities. And I guess it gets a little tricky if it’s not just money in terms of like, “How do I put a number on my stress?” How do you do that?

Annie Duke
Well, so I think that it’s really interesting. When we get into things that we feel are more subjective, we think that we actually don’t know anything and so, therefore, we shouldn’t try, “What’s the probability I’m going to be stressed?” Or it doesn’t even have to be something that’s like so clearly subjective like stress, but like what’s the probability a candidate is going to be with a company, is going to leave within six months? Well, we don’t know. We’ve never hired that candidate before.

So, in the sense of, “Can I be exact?” or if I’m releasing a software feature and I want to know, like, “Oh, of the people who use my product, how many of them are going to start adopting this, like, the daily users of this new feature within the first month?” Obviously, these aren’t things that are like 2+2=4, and they’re not things like if I flipped a coin, it’s going to land heads 50% of the time where like I know for sure what the answer is because we have enough information.

What people end up doing in that case is very often just saying, “Well, I’m not going to try because I can’t come up with ‘the right answer.’”

And the problem with that is that then we just sort of get we get mired in the limitations of our own sort of lack of knowledge instead of thinking about, “Well, I want to be an educated guesser, and my goal as a decision-maker is actually to get more educated because I have all these uncertainty in trying to forecast the future?” which is really what we’re doing when we’re saying, “What are the possibilities or the probabilities and things like that?”

There’s all this uncertainty in my ability to forecast the future, but the more educated I am, while I may never get perfect, I’m going to get closer to the range of what is objectively true if I were omniscient, and that’s actually going to improve my decision-making. So, I can do an example of this with you. My computer is sitting on a stack of books. Now, obviously, you can’t see the books because it’s what my computer is sitting on. I’m on the computer looking at each other, so you don’t know how high the books are and you don’t know what type and you don’t know what number, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Annie Duke
Okay. So, how much does the stack of books weigh?

Pete Mockaitis
About five pounds.

Annie Duke
Okay. And what do you think the lowest amount of the stack of books weighs is? Do you think it’s possible this stack of books that it’s sitting on could weigh a pound?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’d be improbable that a stack, implying multiple books, weighs less than one pound.

Annie Duke
Okay. Could it weigh 200 pounds?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Annie Duke
Okay. So, I think this is really good, right? So, what we discovered is that you could’ve said, “I don’t know.” But what I just did was I said, “Well, but you know things about books.” And so, while you may not get the exact answer, you’re going to get an answer that eliminates a huge number of possibilities. In other words, it’s going to get you somewhere closer to what’s actually true of the stack of books that my computer is sitting on. And that’s a really important exercise and it’s a really important exercise for three reasons that I hinted at.

Reason number one is that the more accurately you’re thinking about the future, in other words, “Can you get in a target range?” Like, if you think about it like an archer. And, in fact, in the book I talk about like the archer’s mindset, right? Yes, you’d like to hit the bullseye but you get points for hitting the target. And the closer that you can get to hitting that bullseye the better off you are, but you’re still getting points. It’s like you still get points for showing your work, right?

So, even if you hit the outer edge of the target, you still get points because all the stuff that isn’t on the target, like you know that these books don’t weigh 200 pounds, is going to help you to actually have better decision quality because you’re eliminating all these different possibilities that the answer could be that’s going to clarify your decision and get you better at sort of calculating, really, in the end what’s the expected value of the decision. Like, how much upside potential compared to downside potential do I really think there is? So, that’s number one is that you’re going to be creating a more accurate view of the future even if it’s not perfect, and that’s good.

The second thing is that, which I had hinted at before, is that we have this problem as decision-makers, which is, generally, the stuff that we know is like so tiny it could fit on the head of a pin compared to the stuff we don’t know, which is like the size of the universe. Obviously, if you have the ideal decision tool, which I think would be a crystal ball, you would be set because that universe stuff that you didn’t know would be revealed to you in this psychic instrument that you have that caused an omniscience and an ability to foresee the future, but we don’t have a crystal ball. So, what we’re really trying to do is, “How can we create a set of tools that will allow us to cobble together something that is crystal ball-like?” And part of that is dealing with this problem that there’s this whole universe of stuff that I don’t know.

And by forcing yourself to guess, I made you think about that. I made you think, “What do I know about books?” so you’re exploring that world of things that you do know in order to try to make yourself get the educated into the guess, and then you may, in other cases, start thinking, “Well, what is the universe of stuff that I don’t know? And maybe that would actually help me with my guess.” So, like if we went back to something as simple as a hiring example. One of the things that we might do is say, “Well, maybe I could go find out how many candidates, like when companies hire into this particular position, what the average retention in the industry is.” That’s called a base rate. And that would be incredibly helpful for me to go find out as I’m trying to estimate what I think any candidate that I might see is.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the candidates I see are going to be right there on the base rate, but it’s going to give me a place to anchor to about kind of what’s true of the world in general that’s really going to help me. The other thing that I might do is to go ask for somebody else’s perspective where we know that two people can be looking at the exact same data and come to very different conclusions about it, right? So, I could ask one person, “What do you think these books weigh?” and then I could ask somebody else, “What do you think these books weigh?” And maybe you said five pounds, maybe they say 20 pounds. Great. Now, we go back to that earth is round and flat thing, and now I get Pete who’s the five-pound person and Susan who’s the 20-pound person to have a discussion about why they have that dispersion of opinion that’s probably going to get me closer to what the most educated answer would be, closer to what’s objectively true of the world. And that actually like incredibly important.

So, whether you’re forecasting, like, “What’s my stress level going to be?” or, “How long is someone going to be with the company?” or, “How many users are going to adopt this on a daily basis within the first month?” all of these things, which we’re lacking information about, not allowing yourself, “Well, how could I ever know that?” and not accepting that as an answer, is actually really crucial to a good decision process.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I think that’s a great perspective in terms of you don’t know it exactly but knowing it’s more than one pound and less than 20 pounds is way, way more narrow than it could be anything.

Annie Duke
Oh, my gosh. Right. And I think I make the point in the book that this is part of the reason why we want to communicate with precision.

So, I think I make the point that if I say 2+2 is a small number, I’m technically correct but it’s going to be harder for you to tell me things that might help correct my inaccuracy is because the target area is kind of broad that I’ve given you, and it’s going to be hard for me to get better at math. Now, I’m going to get somewhat better because if I say 2+2 is a very large number, you’re going to be able to correct that. So, it’s not that I can’t improve, but it’s going to slow down my improvement that I’m not willing to give an exact answer, like 4, right? And there’s ways, obviously, if I’m not being precise that I can game it because I can say 2+2 is somewhere between minus infinity and positive infinity and, okay, I’m technically right. But what is that value of the information there in terms of actually improving my decision-making because, if you think about it, this is the reason why a crystal ball would be such an amazing decision tool is because all decision-making is forecasting of the future.

When I make a choice, when I pick an option, what I’m saying is that, “I think that given whatever goals I have and what my values are and my resources are that this option is going to be the most likely to create the type of future that I would like to unfold, and so I am being like a soothsayer in that sense. I’m making a prediction about the future.” And what we’re trying to do is make those predictions higher quality.

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

Annie Duke
Yeah, I think I’d like to just say, like, just one really important decision tool, when we’re thinking about, “How are we actually getting a better view of the future? How do we actually become better fortune tellers?” Those are what we’re trying to do. And I just want to give a real pitch for a decision tool that I think is somewhat counterintuitive, at least in popular culture, which is the power of negative thinking as opposed to the power of positive thinking.

So, the power of positive thinking is like so incredibly powerful in the literature from Napoleon Hill.

We know about The Power of Positive Thinking, and it’s very popular which is you imagine a destination that you’d like to get to, and then you imagine success along the way. And I think that that’s a really bad decision tool, and I’m not saying that people should not imagine positive goals. Of course, you should. But the whole key to unlocking decision-making is to imagine the obstacles, the ways in which you might fail along the way. Why? Because that is the only way you can avoid them.

So, the way that I kind of think about it is the difference between a paper map and Waze. A paper map, you look at the destination you want to get to and then its clear roads. And I think about that as the power of positive thinking, right? Like, “Here are the clear roads, and now I’m just going to go along my merry way along those roads.” But what does Waze do? Waze says, “Here’s the destination you want to get to. And, by the way, there’s a road closure over here, and there’s like an accident on this one, and there’s heavy traffic over here, and so I’m going to reroute you so that you can actually successfully get to your destination.”

And I think the problem with the positive thinking literature is that sometimes it’s explicitly stated when you get into some sort of cookier versions of it, like The Secret, but it’s certainly implied in all of it that if you imagine failure, that it’ll actually create failure. But what an app like Waze tells us is that if you imagine failure, it actually creates success because that is the only way that you can get out ahead of it. And the more that you can identify the obstacles that might lie in your path, the better off you’re going to be because you’re going to have a clear view of the future, and you’re going to have a clear view of the kinds of things that you might want to avoid, the kind of things that might get in your way.

So, one of the best decision tools that you can use is called a premortem. And it was originally developed by Gary Kline. I have an adapted version of it in the book. And, essentially, what it asks you to do is to imagine a goal or a decision that you’re making which has an implied goal that it will work out, and imagine that it’s however long it would take for you to know whether you’ve reached a goal. So, let’s say that you have a goal to increase sales by 10% in the next year. And so, you imagine it, a year and a date from now, and you failed to reach that goal, and you ask yourself, “Okay, why did that happen? Why did I fail?” And you divide it into two categories: matters of your own decision-making, “What are the decisions that I made that may have led to this failure?” and then matters of luck.

And, as I recommend with everything, you try to figure out how likely those things are, and then you can actually figure out what to do about it. You may say, “Maybe I should change my goal,” or you may keep your goal, and you say, “Well, here are a bunch of decisions that I might make that really would cause me to fail, so let me try to figure out how not to make those so that I don’t actually engage in these kinds of behaviors.” If I want to lose weight, I have to figure out a way, because I know a point of failure is people bringing in cupcakes for their birthday. I need to figure out a way to not eat the cupcakes when that happens. I need to see that that’s on the horizon, and actually try to figure out how to avoid it.

And then with matters of luck, you can think about, “Are there ways, are there decisions that I can make that can reduce the probability of these bad things happening?” I can’t control the luck but I might be able to reduce the probability of those things occurring. And even if I can’t, maybe I can have a plan for it so that I’m not just running around like a chicken with my head cut off and so I can figure out what those are. And maybe I can find a hedge which is just like buying stocks and bonds at the same time. And if you don’t actually think about, “How can I instantiate this idea of sort plan positive, think negative?” into your decision process, you’re going to be constantly surprised by the world. You’re going to be using a paper map when everybody else is using really solid GPS. And we know that people who use paper maps have a disadvantage in terms of getting to destinations on time than people who use Waze, so don’t be the person still using a paper map as it applies to your own decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now, could you share a quote, something you find inspiring?

Annie Duke
My favorite quote from Feynman just has to do with him saying, “If you can’t explain it to a child, you don’t actually know it yourself.” And this is a paraphrase of the quote obviously. But the reason why I like that so much is that it kind of really has to do with this idea of what makes for a really good tool, is I have to be able to explain it to you, and I have to explain it in simple terms.

And what I really love about that sort of second piece of not just, “Do I need to be able to hand you the screwdriver so that you can use it, but if I can’t explain it to you, I don’t really understand how to use a screwdriver.” And if I can’t do that, I butt up against the limits of what I know in a way that when we talk about that universal stuff we don’t know that we really want to be exploring, it makes me go look in that universe, and then I think it expands my knowledge, and everybody is better off for it because I explained to you how to use a screwdriver, and then I understand screwdrivers much better for having had to go through that process. And that’s why I love that Feynman quote so much.

Pete Mockaitis
And you might think I already know to screw nails on, or screw a screw, but sure enough you say, “You may have better experiences in terms of stripping them less often, giving them straight the first time, not having to redo stuff.”

Annie Duke
Right. When people are having success doing something, and they don’t start thinking about “What are the limits of my knowledge? And what are the limitations of the way that I’m thinking about this and my perspectives on the world?” what happens is that they get disrupted from without, and you’d rather be disrupted from within. So, you can look at IBM in the 1980s versus a Microsoft or Apple, and this is a big danger when you’re doing things pretty well, and your models of the world are pretty good.

But just as we talked about with things that are subjective, your model can be pretty good and it can be working, but that doesn’t mean that you have the objective truth. Like, you want to be exploring different ways that people could be looking at the problem, and always seeking new knowledge, and always sort of testing your ideas to see if there isn’t a better way, and also, sort of back to the idea of negative thinking and that causes you to have to sort of explore the limits of your own knowledge and your own ideas in a way that’s actually going to help you to improve them and disrupt your own ideas instead of allowing someone else to come in and disrupt you, which is something that we’re all trying to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Annie Duke
I’m just going to answer it by recent, right? So, I’m going to give you two favorite books right now, and then two that you should be looking out on the horizon. My two favorite books right now are Maria Konnikova, which is The Biggest Bluff which is amazing. It’s like a marriage of memoir and exploration of the influence of luck in your life. So, Maria decided she wanted to explore luck because she had just sort of stuff happened to her. Like, her husband lost his job, she got sick, I think one of her grandparents died, sort of like all at once, and she’s like, “Whoa,” and she wanted to explore it. So, she said she’s going to learn how to play poker from being a total novice.

She ended up really doing well. She won a huge poker tournament, and, it’s this really wonderful book. It’s really beautifully written and it’s a great exploration of just sort of the influence of luck in your life.

The other book that I’m really recommending right now is The Psychology of Money, which is by Morgan Housel, he’s so good with just kind of like taking really complex concepts and making them very understandable through really, really fun narrative. And he’s really just talking about, like, “What are the different ways that we think about money?” Like, what is money? It’s sort of an object that we can sort of explore and understand, like, “What is its purpose in our life? And how do we think about it? And what should we do about it and do with it?” It’s just a really fun book. I really think that everybody should be reading that book.

In terms of books on the horizon to have, to be on the lookout for. Katie Milkman, who’s a professor at Wharton, and has a book coming out in the spring called How to Change, which is incredible on just if you want to create better habits in your life, just understanding, “When does habit change occur? Why? What are the ways that you can sort of make that happen for yourself?” It’s a really wonderful book. It’s really fun.

And then Noise is going to be coming out soon from Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, Oliver Sibony, and I’m really excited about that. It’s like a contrast to Thinking, Fast and Slow which is more about cognitive bias, and this is just more about sort of noisiness in the system, and it’s a really good book. So, those are two for the horizon. And even winnowing it down, I gave you four, so I’m…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Annie Duke
I would like people to practice, when soliciting opinions or feedback from somebody else, to try to not offer their own opinion first and see what happens. So, there’s this really big problem, like when we’re talking in the meeting sense about we all think that the goal of a meeting is to agree. That’s true one-on-one as well. It feels really to agree with people that you’re talking to, that’s why we end up in echo chambers.

So, your opinions are contagious. So, if I want to know what you think about like Perry Mason, which is on HBO, if I really want to know what you think, I should just say, “What do you think about Perry Mason?” But what we do is we say, “Oh, I watch Perry Mason. I thought it was really cool and interesting, and I think it was really fun to see his journey from detective to lawyer, and I like it that he was a flawed character as opposed to the Raymond Burr version. What do you think?” And that’s obviously something simple about a TV show that probably isn’t very impactful. But think about that in terms of when you’re really trying to get somebody’s help, is I’m not actually going to get your true perspective.

When we talked about surfacing the dispersion of opinion, how am I going to surface the dispersion of opinion if I offer you mine first? So, I really challenge people to start trying to implement that into their own life, and I think they’ll find that it really changes the communication, and how much you sort of get to what people really believe that can really spur these interesting conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well, Annie, I wish you lots of luck with your book How to Decide and all your decision adventures.

Annie Duke
Well, thank you very much. I’m so happy that we got to talk again.

613: Boosting your Influence with the Principles of PRE-Suasion with Brian Ahearn

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Brian Ahearn says: "Where we are mentally can make a huge difference in that willingness to say yes."

Influence expert Brian Ahearn discusses how to get more yeses using Dr. Cialdini’s principles of PRE-suasion.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How one question dramatically improves your chances of yes 
  2. The two ways to capture people’s attention
  3. Why we’re more persuasive when we talk less

About Brian

Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE. A dynamic international keynote speaker, he specializes in applying the science of influence in everyday situations. 

Brian is one of only 20 individuals in the world who currently holds the Cialdini Method Certified Trainer designation. This specialization was earned directly from Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. – the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence. 

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, is an Amazon best-seller and his LinkedIn courses have been viewed by more than 75,000 people.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Brian Ahearn Interview Transcript

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

Brian Ahearn
I’m excited to be back with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And so, I want to hear, so we’re going to talk about some pre-suasive principles from Bob Cialdini’s book, and it’s a funny story. I actually read that book when I was on my honeymoon with my wife in Hawaii, so that shows you how into this stuff I am. That’s a good beach read for me in social psychologist work. But you use some pre-suasive principles when you proposed marriage yourself. What’s the story here?

Brian Ahearn
Yes. So, in my first job, first day on the job, with traveler’s insurance, I’m in the HR training room, and I see Jane, and I think, “Wow, she’s beautiful!” And she said that she looked at me and thought, “What an egghead.” So, I stumbled out of the gate badly but I recovered quickly. And within a few weeks I was no longer going out with this longtime girlfriend, and Jane and I started dating, and we fell in love, and it was awesome. Until the old girlfriend called in the fall, and it really threw me for a loop, Pete, and all of a sudden, I didn’t know who I wanted to be with, and I couldn’t make up my mind for six months.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, my gosh. What were you doing during that period of time?

Brian Ahearn
I was back and forth, back and forth.

Pete Mockaitis
Do they know about each other? How do you work that?

Brian Ahearn
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow. Okay.

Brian Ahearn
Funny. They both felt bad for me because I sincerely…

Pete Mockaitis
Sweet gals.

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. Well, I sincerely cared about both of them and I hated the thought of hurting either one. Anyway, I was in the state of indecision, and Jane and I still worked together, and this was in late April. I saw her in the breakroom one day and I asked how she’s doing, and she said she was doing fine, and that’s when she announced that she would never go out with me again, and nobody could blame her given my indecision. But I had really kind of settled things in my heart by that time, and I was actually thinking I want to marry her, crazy as that sounds. So, I knew I was going to need to do something big if I was going to make this happen. And getting to the pre-suasion, here’s what I did.

Her birthday was in mid-May, and so I sent her a couple dozen roses at work, and then I showed up at her apartment later, she agreed to go to dinner. I showed up at her apartment with another dozen roses and a bottle of wine. Now she’s thinking, “This is a pretty nice birthday.” We get ready to go to dinner. We go downstairs from her apartment, and I had rented a Rolls Royce and chauffeur to drive us to downtown Columbus. And then we went to a restaurant that was, at the time, the tallest building in Columbus. We rode this glass elevator up over 30 stories. It was really romantic and had dinner overlooking the skyline, and took the glass elevator back down. And then in the back of the Rolls, on the way home, I popped the question, and she said yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. So, you weren’t even officially dating at the moment but it was a good birthday. You’re clearly romantic.

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. And she was pretty insistent only weeks before that she would never go out with me again. And what I know is this, Pete, if I would’ve just, in that breakroom that day, said, “Hey, Jane, I’m sorry. I love you and I want to marry you,” she would’ve been, like, “Go jump in the lake.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You know what, Brian, I’ve heard it before.”

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. And I think even if I had done it, probably any other way than I did, she still would’ve had reservations but, I don’t know, I pre-suaded her. I kind of made it fairytale-like, and it certainly made the yes come a lot easier. There was no hesitation when I finally popped the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is beautiful. And maybe, just to clarify, it made it easier to see this when it’s written. When you’re saying the word pre-suasion, as opposed to persuasion, so we’ve inverted the R and the E, implying that there’s some persuasion and something that’s happening before a request. And, in this instance, before you popped the question you were setting the stage with, “Oh, okay, this guy is pretty clearly committed, made up his mind, going big in investing in me.” So, that sets a tone there.

So, maybe, could you zoom out a bit, and give us kind of the full picture in terms of what’s the main idea behind pre-suasion?

Brian Ahearn
So, most people are focused on persuasion, that is, “What do we say or do in the moment? How do we communicate to make it easier for somebody to say yes?” But pre-suasion, and you used the term setting the stage, I like to use that term too, pre-suasion is, “How do we arrange that moments before so that somebody might be in the right frame of mind to make it even easier that when we go and we make that ask?”

I think a really good example that people could relate to is if I had three buckets of water in front me, a red bucket on my right with scalding hot water, a blue bucket on my left with icy cold, and in the middle was just room temperature.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it purple?

Brian Ahearn
We’ll call it purple.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I’m so like a little kid.

Brian Ahearn
If I plunged my hand into that hot bucket and then put it into the lukewarm water, all of a sudden it would feel cold. I mean, people get that. It’s like getting out of a hot tub and getting into the pool. But if I took my other hand and put it into the icy cold, and then put it into the lukewarm, it feels hot. Now, if I do that at the same time, into the hot, into the cold, and then put them both into that middle bucket, one hand feels cold and one feels hot. But the reality is they’re experiencing the exact same temperature water. I’ve changed, though, how I experience that by what I did beforehand. And that’s a picture of pre-suasion, “What can I do beforehand to change how somebody will positively experience what I’m about to do next?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a nice visual and kinesthetic, I guess, at the same time, that sort of puts that into perspective. And so then, can you share with us some studies, some experiments, some research that reveals just how powerful this effect can be?

Brian Ahearn
Sure. Where we are mentally in the moments before we make a decision or are going to say yes or no to something, where we are mentally can make a huge difference in that willingness to say yes. And I think one study that really encapsulates this, a marketing firm was interacting with people at a grocery store as they would come in. So, imagine, Pete, you walk in, and somebody like me says, “Hi, I work for a marketing firm. We represent ABC Company. They’ve come out with a new type of pop or soda,” depending on where you live, “They’ve come out with a new type of pop, and we’re asking customers if you will give us your email address, we’ll send you an email with coupons for free samples. Would you be willing to share your email?” And in that scenario, 33% of people said, “Sure.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, basically, cold, “Hey, you want some free pop/soda?” One-third said, “Yeah, I’ll give my email.”

Brian Ahearn
So, that’s kind of the control group. And then with another group though, 76% said yes to the exact same question. The difference was when you came in, that person would ask you a question first, and they would say, “Excuse me. Do you consider yourself to be adventurous, the kind of person who likes to try new things?” Well, as you can imagine, virtually everybody can think of a time where they have been adventurous, and we can all think of a time where we’ve tried new things. So, almost everybody said yes to that.

And then when they said, “Well, I work for a marketing firm, represent ABC Company, new type of pop. If you’re willing to give us your email address, we’ll send you a new email with free samples.” That change of mindset, getting you to think about the fact that you are adventurous and like to try new things, then, all of a sudden, it became much easier to say yes to the very same question.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I love that example. And I don’t remember if it was in Influence, or Pre-suasion where they also had the instance of asking, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” and then survey responses went way up. And I actually used that once – hey, listeners – I used that once in an email asking for our survey, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” was the subject line. And, hey, many of you are. Thank you, listeners, for filling that out. That’s super helpful. It really does set the stage when you want to live up to…well, I guess there’s a few factors at work. You want to live up to that identity. Lay it on us, what’s going on there internally?

Brian Ahearn
Well, if you go all the way back to Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the tips that he had was give someone a fine reputation to live up to. Now, he didn’t know about the term pre-suasion, he wasn’t doing research and studies, but he understood that when you give that person a reputation to live up to, most people will want to do that.

And so, for your listeners thinking, “Well, how would I potentially use this?” Let’s say you need to go to a store, and you’re going to return something, and it’s past the 30-day mark. So, technically, they have every right to say, “You’re beyond 30 days, no.”

Pete Mockaitis
This is ringing true.

Brian Ahearn
But I think if you go up and you say to that person, you see their little nametag, and you say, “Alice, you guys have been really helpful in the past, and I hope you can help me now,” and then you begin to talk about what it is that you want to get accomplished. By giving her that helpful label because people at that store had been helpful in the past, she is more likely to try to live up to that just like your readers were.

So, when you give somebody that reputation to live up to, they usually will try to find a way to do that. And if she’s thinking of herself as helpful, she’s probably going to be a little more creative or a little more open to flexing the rules for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that a lot. And this brings up, I guess, ethical questions, but our whole first interview, Brian, was about ethical persuasion influence. So, check that out, anybody, if you’re concerned about this stuff. And I think you put it very well in terms of, hey, it’s honest. It’s good for them. It’s good for you. And some of those principles really play out well here.

And that notion of giving someone a reputation to live up to, I’m thinking about my buddy Mohammed, who’s also on the show. And I remember he’s just a really super kind guy, just naturally being him. We started a business together and someone helped us out with some advice and some input, and he emailed her and said, “Thanks for being so generous with your time.” And I wrote him a whole email about how I loved that phrase because, one, we really do appreciate it. And, two, they really were being generous with their time. And so, that’s a message that ought to be conveyed, and, at the same time, in so conveying that, it does give them a fine reputation to live up to in terms of, “You know what, I am just kind of someone who is generous with their time.”

So, should we have a follow-up question, I think I don’t have the studies on this, but I imagine the science is in our favor that our odds of getting some follow-up questions answered, and some even more bits of advice and assistance have been elevated by thanking in that way.

Brian Ahearn
Oh, absolutely. I think any time you give somebody praise for something like that, they feel good. That plays into the principle we call liking when we’re talking about persuasion, and the more they like you, the more likely they are down the road to say yes if you ask them to do something.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s excellent. And then what I found intriguing was sometimes it’s not even verbal, right? I remember there were some studies associated with if a resume is on a heavy, weighty clipboard that some people can infer, like, “Oh, this is something with some gravitas, such to be taken more seriously,” or if we’re drinking some warm beverage. What’s sort of the stuff that’s there, like non-verbal at work?

Brian Ahearn
So, the beverage is a good example. If you invited somebody to your office, you would be better off offering them something like a cup of coffee because that coffee would be warm, and people who are feeling warm tend to have warmer feelings toward other people. Now, I’m not going to say that you want to give them a hot cup of coffee if you live in Arizona. It’s 115 degrees outside. They’ll still appreciate the kind act of a cold drink. But holding something warm tends to warm people and make them feel more warmth towards other people.

As you said, sometimes if you want somebody to really give a lot of thought to something, having it on heavier stock paper or putting it on a clipboard where it feels heavier, that heaviness psychologically gives people the sense that, “This is a heavier, more weighty issue, or something that really looks to be read.”

I bet a lot of people could relate to this. I see, as we record this, Pete, that you got a lot of books in the background there. We all feel a little different about a really skinny, like very light book versus a book that’s got substance. You just tend to think that book that has a lot more substance probably has a lot more detailed good information. That may not be the case, but I think, psychologically, many of us, when we pick up that heavy hardback book versus the very light, smaller paperback, we feel differently about those books.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s true. And, again, this isn’t a panacea, the most perfectly, elegantly, luxurious paper on the planet won’t make a resume of poor content, I’m sure, capture a hiring manager to say, “This guy, we got to hire them.” But it very well could be like, “Oh, I should take a look at this.”

How much of a difference do these pre-suasive elements make? I’m imagining that it can’t make up for poor content or not fundamentally having the goods. But what sort of an edge does it enable?

Brian Ahearn
Oh, I think if we go back to the example I shared earlier about the grocery store, they went from 33% to 76% just by asking a pre-suasive question beforehand. There’s another study that’s detailed in Cialdini’s book Pre-suasion, and it had to do with people’s willingness to buy French or German wine. When they would go into the wine store, they were either playing French music or German music. When they played French music, they sold more than three times more French wine as compared to the German. But when they played the German music, they sold 275% more German wine than they did the French.

And when people were asked as they exited the store, most didn’t even remember hearing the music. Those that did insisted it had nothing to do with their purchase decision, but it’s undeniable the difference between that, that once that music is playing, it’s impacting people’s thinking, and it impacted their behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. And that kind of drives towards, I guess, the distinction I was getting there. It’s like, if folks are not interested in drinking wine, that doesn’t matter. If they are not locked-in on, “By golly, it’s going to be Bota Box RedVolution,” one of my favorites, and if they’re not sort of already dead-set on a particular item, but they’re like, “Yeah, you know, what would be a good wine tonight?” “I don’t know. Let’s take a look,” and then, boom, they’re put right through that chute.

Brian Ahearn
But I think when somebody who walks into a wine store has an intention of buying wine, so then the question becomes, “What might you do to push certain brands, maybe have a newer brand, and it’s French, and you want people to be a little more enticed to try that?” If something as simple as music can get people into a frame of mind where French wine becomes an easier default choice, then that’s a really good thing. But, you’re right, if somebody doesn’t drink wine, it’s not going to impact them. But, again, they probably wouldn’t wander into the wine store to begin with.

Pete Mockaitis
They said they saw there was a Jimador in the back.

Brian Ahearn
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, that just sort of sparks all kinds of interesting possibilities. Like, I don’t know, if you are a maker of German wine, maybe you want to be equipping your distributors with music systems on the condition that they played German music. I don’t know how practical that is, but it does show that there may very well be small investments that make a huge impact.

And I’m also thinking about, I’ve heard, as I go to this event Podcast Movement, full of podcasters and people in the podcast ecosystem, I’ve heard that sometimes there can be wildly compelling results from advertisements. Like, let’s say it’s a product about reducing risks, like insurance or something, in the context of a show that’s really scary, like about a murder, or a true crime thing that they can say, “Uh-oh, that could happen to me.” Like that kind of influences is huge. Can you speak more to that in terms of advertising/marketing realms?

Brian Ahearn
Well, if you are going to pay to be on some type of show, you probably want to consider, “What is that show? And what is going to be the mindset that most people are going to be in as they watch that show?” If people are watching something that really is scary, risk is scary. And so, by advertising something about risks, or maybe it’s insurance at that time, people might be more apt to pay attention to that because they’re in that fearful state.

If we had no fear at all, we wouldn’t probably buy any insurance. I mean, it’s not that you’re selling fear, but we know that bad things can happen and we want to mitigate that if possible. But we’re not thinking about bad things happening when we’re in certain mindsets, but we certainly are when we’re in a fearful mindset. So, strategically thinking about, “What is the show? What would be the mindset that people are going to be in?” is going to make a difference as to where you want to advertise.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And I want to maybe zoom out a little bit to the principle level. Within the book, we’ve got two commanders of attention: attractors and magnetizers. Can you sort of help us understand that distinction and give us some examples of each?

Brian Ahearn
Well, an attractor is going to be something that, as it says, it attracts you, and a magnetizer is going to be something that keeps your attention specifically on something. And when we talk about, as we teach about pre-suasion, one of the things that we talk about is, “Can we extend the time that we’re pre-suading?” The longer that somebody, for example, remains in the mindset that you want, the more opportunity you have if you are trying to persuade them.

So, an example of a magnetizer, keeping something there, if you we go back to the music, that would be a good example of a magnetizer because it’s continually playing while you’re there. It wasn’t as simple as the question that might’ve changed your thinking in the moment. But then, as you go through the store, that might not be impacting you any longer, but the music is continuing to do that. So, that would be, I think, a difference. Magnetizer is going to keep you there. The attractor is going to be something that might grab your attention immediately.

When they talk about something like, “Sex sells.” Sex is something that, quite often, will grab your attention right away. And that’s important because we have limited capacity for our attention. And so, if you can grab that attention, even momentarily, you’ve got a better chance of trying to influence somebody to do the thing that you need them to do. And in the context of what we’re talking about, it’s a purchase.

Pete Mockaitis
And then I suppose you got to have some congruence with the offer or, otherwise, you’re going to kind of lose out on some trust and such, like, “What? What does sex have to do with this?”

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. And I think there are times where celebrities are advertising things, and it’s not even close to being in their wheelhouse. And so, while it may attract your attention in a moment, but you’re not necessarily making a connection with what that product is that he or she is trying to sell, I think that things fall short there.

For example, if Tiger Woods is advertising things that revolve more around golf, that is certainly going to be more congruent for somebody to say, “Well, you know what, if he plays that kind of ball, if he uses those kinds of irons, then maybe I could play a little better if I use the same products.” But when he’s selling something that’s totally out of the realm of that, yes, he’s attracting the attention because we all know who Tiger Woods is, but, beyond that, I don’t know that I’m compelled to drive a Buick because he drives a Buick.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense in terms of there’s maybe not so much of a logical, rational connection. It’s maybe more just sort of brand good feels, like, “You know, I like Tiger Woods,” or sort of whatever he stands for in your own mind, and that could be good or bad, whatever he stands for, that sort of gets a bit imparted onto the brand and the feels associated with it, which is probably one of the reasons why when folks get themselves into hot water, brands cut bait real quick with them.

Brian Ahearn
Yes. Yes, they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’m also intrigued by just talking about how long you can sort of have that attention going. And there’s a bit of an approach associated with having some mystery and keeping that tension and mystery going for a bit of time. Can you walk us through that?

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. Human beings, we don’t like it when there’s not kind of some finality to things, when there’s not a bow on the package, so that we can kind of wrap it up and say, “Okay, we’re done with that.” You probably have had somebody who began to tell you a story, and then they got interrupted, maybe it was their phone or something, like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I got to go to this meeting.” You’re left hanging, and you’re like, “Wait a minute. I want to know what’s the end of this.”

And that is something that we can use to our advantage by sharing something that’s interesting and compelling, and then holding back a little bit. And then once that person is like, “Wait a minute. What’s the end of the story?” you have them even more focused on you and what you’re sharing than if you might’ve just gone all the way through and given them the answer.

It’s not unlike this, too, Pete. I’ve taught communications for a long time, and I know that people hate silence in conversation. So, sometimes just saying what you need to say and then being quiet, all of a sudden, they try to fill that space, and they’re the ones now who are engaged with you. Where people make a mistake a lot, is they just think they need to keep talking and basically throw everything except the kitchen sink at somebody, and that’s the exact opposite. Create a little mystery in your communication. Share a little bit and then just be quiet and see how people start responding.

Also, when you ask questions, people feel compelled to answer questions. So, those are a couple of just small things that everybody can do in their day-to-day communication.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of how we might go about sort of leaving something out to provide some mystery for a little bit of time?

Brian Ahearn
Well, I write a blog, I could certainly write a blogpost and then leave it open-ended, and say, “Next week, we’re going to take a look at what actually happened.” I mean, that would be a perfect case of I share some detail and then I leave it hanging because you don’t want to write a book when you’re writing a blogpost. You want to keep them relatively short. So, maybe you put something out there with a, “And we’ll conclude on this next week.”

You see this sometimes in other advertising, too, where they’ll put something out, and say, “Go to this website to find out the conclusion of the story,” or something like that. But if it’s compelling enough, and that’s the thing though, it’s got to be somewhat compelling, because if somebody puts out something that’s of no interest to you at all, just like if you don’t drink wine, you’re not going to be in the wine store. If it’s not of interest to you, but if you know your audience and what sort of interest to them, and you leave them hanging a little bit, like, “Come back next week because I’m going to share the answer with you,” that’s going to get more people, I think, coming back the following week and clicking on what you want them to click on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that’s so good. Well, again, Podcast Movement is coming up. They did exactly this, and I was totally riveted in terms of they said, “You know, hey, with the pandemic, we shifted to a virtual format, and we went through many, many, many options for platforms and providers in order to figure out one that’s just going to be amazing. It’s not just going to be a bunch of Zoom.” And so, I was like, “Oh, what is it?” And they’re like, “We’ll tell you next week.” And I put it on my calendar, it’s like, “Go to the Podcast Movement blog, and figure out what platform they’re using.” It’s Swapcard. I haven’t used it but, apparently, it’s great. I trust those guys to pick a good one. And it did, it did for me because there was some mystery, and I had to wait, and I went ahead and went there to get the word.

Brian Ahearn
Well, the news does this too. How many times have we seen something, “There could be radon in your house. News at 11:00”?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Brian Ahearn
Now you’re like, “I got to tune in at 11:00 o’clock to find out radon levels in homes in my area,” something like that, so it happens. But what we want people to do, as we teach about this, is to be more thoughtful about their communication, “How can I start taking this in without being a television advertiser or the news? How can I start using these simple and easy-to-implement ideas to have more people paying attention and, ultimately, doing the things that we need to do?” In a corporate environment, that’s a big deal.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe to wrap it up, before we hear some of your favorite things, could you share what is post-suasion, and why is it necessary, and how do we do it?

Brian Ahearn
Post-suasion, like when I think about sales, and I usually work with salespeople, when you’ve made the sale, you would like to get referrals, and so I teach insurance agents this a lot. What I would never ever do with you, Pete, if I was an insurance agent, I would never ever say, “Hey, Pete, now that you’re moving your insurance to my agency, you must be happy. Who else do you know who would like to make the switch?” because mentally you’re not there. You’re just wondering, “If I’ve made the right choice,” you’re making the switch. It’s probably somewhat expensive if you’re insuring your home and auto, and all these other things. You are not thinking about, “How can I help Brian Ahearn?”

So, what I’ve always instructed agents to do is I would say to you, I’d say, “Pete, you’ve just made a big decision here, severing ties with your current agent, and moving your business here. I know that you’ve probably had people ask you for referrals at the end of the sale, and I’m not going to do that. But what I would like to ask you is this. If nine months from now you’re happy that you made the switch, that we have lived to everything that we said we would do, and you’re happy, would you be open to talking about referrals?” And most people are willing to put off into the future what they don’t want to do right now. You’re probably thinking, “Well, yeah. If I’m happy, why wouldn’t I be at least open to that?” I’ve not even fully asked for a commitment. I just said, “Would you be open to it?” And you’re going to probably come back and say, “Sure. That’s reasonable.”

Now, it’s on me in nine months to follow up with you, and I would do that. I’d call up, “Hey, Pete, how are you doing?” And we’d talk a little bit, and I’d say, “Do you remember when we wrote your insurance, and I asked if you were happy, would you be open to talking about referrals? It sounds like you’re happy. Would you be okay setting a time next week to talk about those referrals?” Now, I’m kind of into the pre-suasion again because I don’t want to just ask you right during that conversation because, again, you weren’t thinking about me and referrals. I just called you up. But once we set that time, you start thinking about, “Who can I refer to Brian?” And I’ll do little things to ensure that. I will send you a quick email with a meeting reminder and a thank you. In the day of, I will shoot you a text and say, “Pete, are we still good to talk about referrals this afternoon?” But the whole time now you’re starting to think about that.

So, the post-suasion started right after the sale, and now I’m pre-suading again, getting you into the mindset so that when I call and ask about referrals, you’re ready to give me good-quality referrals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s intriguing how it’s bit by bit, you’re doing it at the right times, and, you know, it’s funny, maybe I’m just selfish, but I have a hard time imagining how I would ever make the time to provide some with insurance referrals, unless like you really hooked me up in terms of like, “Straight up, my house burned down, and you swooped into action and saved the day. Wow.” Or, you keep giving me other cool tips associated with saving money, reducing risks. Like if it’s a home, maybe it’s just sort of like, “Hey, do you know about HomeAdvisor? Now you can find out how much renovation should cost before you do it.” Like, “No, I didn’t. Thank you, Brian’s Insurance. That’s really cool of you.” So, I guess I also need a little bit of wow to do that personally.

Brian Ahearn
Well, that’s why I said that, “If we live up to what we said we’d do.” So, that was part of the buying process. You switched because maybe you were saving money, but maybe there were other things that I was saying we will do, and you’re thinking, “My current agent doesn’t do any of that.” So, that’s implied by me that that’s part of the sale. And in nine months, when we talk about it, you’re like, “Hey, the insurance advisor, and all the things you said you would do, which helped me make the switch, you’ve done, and I’m happy.” And that’s where I’ve got that opportunity then because you’ve said, “I’d be open to talking about referrals.” So, you’re right, there’s got to be part of that package of why you made the decision to move.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, this will be a whole another podcast as how to differentiate yourself in a crowded market, it’s like, “What would that be?” Maybe for home insurance once a year, you send a person over and spend half an hour looking at some stuff, and say, “Hey, man, you want to get some tuck point right there or you’re going to see some water damage within a couple of years.” It’s like, “Oh. Well, thanks for letting me know.” That would really be distinctive and make me really want to, I guess, the reciprocity, say, “Wow, that was so cool of you. I want to be cool to you right back, so, yeah, let’s see those referrals.”

Brian Ahearn
Yeah. And that’s, you’re right though, how do you stand out? Insurance is a somewhat generic product. The real differentiator becomes who that insurance agent is, and it’s all about what you value in a relationship with an insurance agent. Sometimes agents will say, “Well, because we’re local,” and I’ll challenge them, and I’ll say, “You know what, some people don’t care if you’re local because they can see you online anywhere in the world, so you need to understand if that’s part of the buying process for you.”

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

Brian Ahearn
I would just encourage people to pick up a copy of Cialdini’s book, one, it’s a fascinating read. I think they will be amazed at how things that they might not even consider can impact them at the conscious, but quite often, at the subconscious level, and really cause substantial change in behavior. It’s good because you want to understand what might be impacting you so you can make the most informed decisions possible. But if a large part of your success is getting people to say yes and do things, then really starting to think about, “How can I set the stage so that when I go and make my ask, it’s easier?” that will be extremely beneficial for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brian Ahearn
I think one of my favorite quotes, and I’m not going to get it word-for-word right, but one of the most impacting books I’ve ever read was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And towards the end he said, “In the end, they can take away all of our human freedoms except for the last freedom, which is where we will place our thoughts.” He really said that the man or the woman who knew that nobody could make them think what they didn’t want to think was actually the freest person. And he said, “We were freer than some of the guards who maintained our captivity because we understood that.” And I think I read that such a long time ago, but I always go back to that, that the freedom of thought, nobody can take that away from me.

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

Brian Ahearn
I would say probably research around highlighting loss, loss aversion with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, because when I share any of that, and the research that I’m thinking specifically is University of California when they did energy audits and went back to people and gave them ideas to make their homes more energy-efficient. They either said, “If you do this, you will save $180 next year if you’re like the typical homeowner. Or if you don’t do this, you will lose $180 next year because you’re going to overpay.” It’s the same $180. But how it’s talked about makes a world of difference.

And in that particular case study, 150% more people who were told they would lose tended to implement the energy-saving ideas. That goes back to their work on loss aversion, that humans are anywhere from two to two and a half times more likely to say yes to the very same thing when they think they’ll lose as opposed to where they may gain. And there are so many opportunities for people to move something from a gain view into a loss frame. And not being a negative or a threatening or anything like that, but just by conversationally talking about what somebody might lose, and so there’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity for people to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Brian Ahearn
Well, other than Influence: Science and Practice, my book, Influence PEOPLE. No, actually, I’ll give you two books because they really radically impacted how I make my presentations. One was Carmine Gallo’s The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and the other was Presentation Zen. Between the two of those books and changing how I format and the visuals that I use with audiences, and then thinking about Steve Jobs and how he interacted with people, it completely changed my stage presence, and it gets a tremendous feedback. So, those are two books that have had a big impact on me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Brian, maybe we have to have a third of this. We had Carmine on the show. But could you give us sort of one tidbit in terms of, “Before, I always did this. And now, I never do this,” or vice versa?

Brian Ahearn
Well, before, I did a lot of words and I would just do some bullet points as I go through things. And what I do now is almost entirely visual. I will usually have a keyword. Like, if I’m going to talk about a principle, you might see the word authority, and then I talk about it. And then maybe I click and it says research at the bottom or application. It was a little scary at first because you can’t look over your shoulder and hit a bullet point, but then there’s a freedom with it because nobody says, “Hey, you didn’t talk about the third bullet point.”

And what I started to sense was I could go in any direction I wanted with an audience. And when people would say, “Can I have your PowerPoint?” I’m like, “Why? It’s 24 pictures. You need me to interpret that for you.” So, that was a big change. The more comfortable I got with it, the more fun I would have when I was with audiences.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I’ve been down that road as well because I used to make slides, well, sometimes I do, based on the audience, like, as a strategy consultant, I mean, that was kind of the idea. And Nancy Duarte would call it a slide dock, it’s like, “This is not just a supplement while keynoting. It is going to be distributed amongst decision-makers and follow-up meetings as a piece of research tool to get work done.” So, that’s very different than, “I want to draw you into a good energy space, and augment my message when I’m keynoting on stage,” versus, “I need to persuade you that this is going to make you 16 million incremental dollars next year.”

Brian Ahearn
Yeah, you always have to think about who your audience is and what you want that takeaway to be. When I reference what I do, I’m thinking really of keynote presentations. And I’ve got Duarte’s book right down below, near my feet here, slide:ology, and I would say that’s a great book too. I just happened to read “Presentation Zen” many years ago before her book came out, and so that’s what started to impact me.

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

Brian Ahearn
A favorite tool right now is an app called Voice Dream.

Pete Mockaitis
I have that one.

Brian Ahearn
Do you use it?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve used it a couple times when I needed something read to me, and I couldn’t find a way to do it. Voice Dream was the way to do it. How do you use it?

Brian Ahearn
So, I use it for a lot of stuff. I have a personal mission statement, I download to it, and it takes about three minutes, but usually when I’m doing my coffee in the morning, I press it, and I hear the words of the mission statement, so every day I’m hearing that. I’m in the middle of writing my second book, and so I download it, and then I start listening to it to see, to find out how it sounds because my eyes can deceive me, I know what I want to see. But once I hear it, I’m like, “Oh, it should be the not they,” and you catch the little things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fascinating.

Brian Ahearn
I’ll bring a blogpost in, and I’ll quickly write the blogpost, clean it up. But then I’ll listen to it, I’ll go back and refine it. So, what I would say, Pete, is try and use it for some things you’re not right now, and I think you’re going to start going, “Wow, this is so beneficial,” that you’ll start pulling more things into it. You’ll just realize how important it is to hear what it is that you’re writing before you actually publish.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. And you’re hearing it a bit differently than if you read it yourself out loud, and you’re saving the time of making a recording. So, that’s clever to surface errors and better ways to rephrase things in a different way. I like it. Thank you.

Brian Ahearn
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Brian Ahearn
My favorite remains working out. I’m up every day at 5:00 a.m., and by 5:30, I’m downstairs. I’ve got a really nice gym in my basement. I usually run in the morning, do three to five miles. A lot of times I’m on the treadmill because I like watching things on Netflix, and then I’ll spend time stretching. And then I’ll go back down in the afternoon and spend 30 to 45 minutes lifting weights. This became the routine during COVID because you couldn’t go anywhere. But then I started to realize I really like the routine, I like the aerobic activity to start the day, I like going down and working my muscles after I’ve been sitting for a while, and just the break from thinking to be able to do that. And then it’s usually dinnertime, and my wife and I are interacting after that, so that’s a daily seven-day a week routine.

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

Brian Ahearn
I think around the principle of liking. As I have really come to emphasize, it’s not about me getting you, Pete, to like me. It’s about me coming to like you. And that seems like it’s been revolutionary for a lot of people. They all know that if somebody likes them it’s easier for the people to say yes, but they’ve never really thought about, “Maybe if I spend more time coming to like other people, that would be the difference-maker.” Smart people, over the course of history, have known this. Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man very much. I need to get to know him better.” And I think if we all took that tact, that we would probably have much, much better relationships.

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

Brian Ahearn
I’d say my website, InfluecePeople.biz. From there, if you want to buy my book, you can buy the book. I’ve been blogging for a dozen years now. I’ve been on almost 80 podcasts. All of that stuff is there. It’s all free. The book is not free. You do have to buy that, but the podcasts, and I’ve got some videos, I’ve got the blog, all of that stuff. So, there’s a tremendous amount of information that’s out there. And the other thing I would say if you want to connect with me on LinkedIn, I’m always open to connecting with people.

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

Brian Ahearn
I would say really start giving some thought to persuasion and pre-suasion. That’s one of those things that we do throughout the course of our lifetime, and so we can almost take it for granted. But if we really pause and start thinking strategically about these principles of human behavior and how can we bring them into our communication, whether it’s oral or written, you will have more people saying yes to you. You’ll enjoy a lot more success at the office as a result of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Brian, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you’re being pre-suasive.

Brian Ahearn
Thank you. I appreciate it, Pete.

612: How to Find the Perfect Career Fit–An Analytical Approach–with Lindsay Gordon

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Lindsay Gordon says: "You can make absolutely any decision for absolutely any reason as long as you know why it works for you."

Lindsay Gordon reveals how to build and select excellent options for your career.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get “unstuck” at work 
  2. How to define success on your terms 
  3. Why it’s okay to have a “boring” job

About Lindsay

Lindsay Gordon is a career coach for analytically minded people who want to stop doing what they think is “right” in their career and start doing what’s right for them. She helps people get clarity about what’s right for them in a job and why, confident about their skills and abilities, and able to communicate that to interviewers, managers, and colleagues through her program, A Life of Options. 

She used to work as a recycled water engineer in Melbourne, Australia before landing at Google, working as technical support for the Google Apps team. After which, she moved into career development at Google before starting her own business. She earned her Bioengineering degree from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She loves applying her engineering brain to helping people find careers that fit, baking complicated pastries and barbershop singing. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Lindsay Gordon Transcript

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

Lindsay Gordon
Thank you for having me. I’m super happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to have you here as well. And I understand that you also do some barbershop singing with your vocal skills here.

Lindsay Gordon
I absolutely do. It is one of my hobbies. I sing baritone in the quartet which is basically all of the leftover notes in the chord, so you never want to hear a baritone singing alone because it’s a really unpleasant situation, but I promise that in the quartet it sounds much better than me singing by myself.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, what are some barbershop hits? I don’t know the genre that well. But amongst a barbershop aficionados, what are like the classics?

Lindsay Gordon
Oh, that is a question that I am not going to be great at answering. One of the funny things about the barbershop quartet that I sing in, or the barbershop group that I sing in, is that we actually sing parodies.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting.

Lindsay Gordon
So, we take those old songs, we write new lyrics, and then we dress up in costumes that go with the lyrics. So, we’re a little bit of a wildcard in the barbershop world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now when I think of parodies, I think of Weird Al.

Lindsay Gordon
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us a sample in terms of something you parodied and that clever lyric that’s going in there instead?

Lindsay Gordon
Yes. So, we took the song “Babyface” which maybe you know, and we turned it into outer space, so it was a whole song about an alien who had a one-night stand, and it’s discovering that they are pregnant throughout the course of the song.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I love it when songs are just like totally unique in terms of it’s not like, “Oh, I’m falling in love,” or, “My heart is broken.” It’s like, “Okay, we’ve heard that before.” But I’ve never heard that before. When I was in college, I sang, well, sang might be a strong word, I performed an original rap number about how I wanted to be a management consultant.

Lindsay Gordon
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think it was the only one, so that was actually a decent segue for what we’re doing here. Usually, they’re forced.

Lindsay Gordon
Somehow it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Usually, they’re pretty forced and awkward, Lindsay, but that works. We’re talking about career coaching, career decision-making, strategery, that good stuff. So, you have an interesting moniker. You call yourself a career coach for analytically-minded people. I have a feeling I’m one of them. How do we know if we’re analytically-minded person? What sets us apart?

Lindsay Gordon
Yes. So, it is all in the way that you like to process information and make decisions. So, the reason I say that I’m a career coach for analytically-minded people is because I have an engineering background, which is quite unusual for a career coach. So, when I think about the work that I do, I’m taking my engineering brain, applying it to this question of, “How do we even know what we’re looking for in a job that’s going to be a good fit for us? How do we make that decision that we’re going to feel really good about? And how do we do that in the most practical and structured way?”

So, if you love a good framework, if you love structured exercises to go through, if you like to process information in a very logical format, that’s the type of analytical-minded person that really connects with the work that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. That’s just so clear in terms of some people say, “Yes, that’s so me,” and other people say, “Nuh-uh,” but then you know and then you can move, go on your merry way pretty quickly and know if you want to dig in deep. And so, your program is called A Life of Options. Options sound good. Tell us, what’s the ethos behind that name and vibe?

Lindsay Gordon
Everything that I do is about you having choice, feeling good about your choices, feeling like you have choices at any point in your career, and knowing that at any moment, you can proactively cultivate something that is going to be a good fit for you in your career. I think a lot of times people spend time being stuck, feeling like they’re unhappy, they don’t know what to do, it’s too late to make a change, they’ve spent too many years going down one direction. Whatever it is, I want you to feel like you always have options.

One of the things I always tell my clients is I want them to see themselves as an opportunity-creating machine by the time they get out of my program. So, if they are somewhere where they’re not happy, they have all the tools to be able to have conversations to know what they’re looking for and to cultivate those things so they feel like they always have options.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s hit this one right up front then, talk about always having options and being an option-generating machine. I think that, hey, economies go in cycles, and so as we record this in the latter half of 2020, COVID is a hot topic, and an inescapable one, so that has economic ramifications, good for some, bad for many. Why don’t you lay that on us, first of all, in terms of in this particular economy, and in recession-type economies, just how picky can we afford to be? How demanding can we be? How many options can we realistically think about generating before we’re kind of, I don’t know, in a fantasy land?

So, I think that’s kind of a tension between something too small, it’s like, “No, you’re really not stuck. There are many other opportunities,” and some people think unrealistically, like, “Hey, it’d be great to earn 300K by doing almost nothing at what you love,” like almost nobody does that, so maybe you’ll find something else. So, help us navigate that.

Lindsay Gordon
Yeah. And I am a very practical realistic person so I think that’s a great thing to point out of I am not just about, “Quit and do your passion. And you can do everything. There’s a dream job out there.” Right, there is some reality to it. I have been quite amazed actually at how many people are getting new jobs that I am working with. So, that is one datapoint that I have of, “Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of people struggling, a lot of industries that are not hiring, that have hiring freezes,” and, as you say, it’s interesting to look at what are the fields and places that are actually thriving despite the situation. So, I think that’s one thing to consider where you’re looking.

I also think options is broader than just getting a new job. So, I want you to feel like you have agency within your role, within your company, to be able to create things that may not look like a big change, because it might not be the right time to make a big change, and I acknowledge that, but to be able to say, “What agency do I have? Where do I have control over what I’m creating in my current role? Are there other opportunities for me to be even happier and thriving more in my current job? Are there options for me to look around the company? Are there options for me to create opportunities that have not yet existed within the company?” So, I think that’s important to talk about too when we talk about options, having the agency within your job to find ways to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right, so let’s dig in then. So, you work with a lot of people who feel kind of stuck in their job and their careers. Can you tell us, what are kind of the big drivers of that, like the top reasons folks are not feeling happy and satisfied with their current career situation?

Lindsay Gordon
Yeah. The biggest thing that I see is that people do not know what they want.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Lindsay Gordon
And what happens when you don’t know what you want is you start doing many things. You start defining your own success based on what success looks like to other people. You listen to the noise of what does society think we should want in a job, what does your family think you should want in a job. We start to look around and have the grass is greener situation. We start to get distracted by shiny objects. And then, all of that, creates tension because we do not know what we want.

Another piece of this is a common experience where people have fallen into jobs and they have not proactively chosen or put any intention into that. So, then you start to have this question of, “Is this even the right thing for me? I never really chose this. I kind of fell into marketing, and now I’m like 15 years in. How do I know if this is actually the right thing for me?” So, first, we’re missing clarity, and then we’re missing the way to answer that question of, “Is this the right fit for me?” and feel really good about that decision that you’re making.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, for folks who don’t know what you want, how do you start to know?

Lindsay Gordon
Yup. So, I do a couple of things. I think it’s really important to know what is important to you and how work fits into that. So, that can look like values, that can look like an exercise from “Designing Your Life” called the work manifesto, that can also look like strengths. I help people be incredibly clear about, “What comes easily to you? What do you enjoy doing? How is that engaged with your work?” I also look at things like, “What working conditions do you need?” It’s really important what environment we are in in order to thrive.

So, looking at, “What physical environment do I need? What type of people do I need to be around? What type of work do I need to be doing?” So, there are these different categories that I help people understand, “Oh, this is exactly what I need in this area,” and then you can start to compare it to, “Okay, how well is that being honored and prioritized in your job? And what adjustments do you need to make?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. And so then, in terms of assessing how well it’s being honored in your job, is there a particular framework you use to evaluate that? Or, are there sort of factors, drivers, criteria that we’re scoring, thinking analytically here? How do we do that?

Lindsay Gordon
So, I have created a spreadsheet that I like to call The Next Steps Tracker, and it basically allows you to look at every job you are considering, if you’re considering next moves, if you have often thought about going back and doing more school. Like, a lot of people who talk to me are like, “Should I go get an MBA? I’ve been considering that for five years, and I need to make a decision.”

So, in the columns, we can put the things that we’re considering, or our current job, and then we start to look at, “Okay, here are my top values. Here are my top strengths. Here are the working conditions I need in order to thrive.” And I basically have people go through and look at, “Okay, this top value. Is that being honored and prioritized? Yes. No. Unclear.”

And then we get this big framework of, “Okay, here are the things that might be out of alignment. They are two out of my top five strengths. One of these working conditions isn’t really fitting.” Great. So, then that gives us a place to start to look at adjusting, “How would I put more of these strengths in my role? What opportunities are there? How would I shift this particular environment to be able to be a better fit?” So, it really is just making a list of all the things that are important to you and applying it to your job to see where you want to make changes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, then. So, then within that, it sounds pretty darn custom as oppose to, you know, I’ve created something before, it’s like, “Hey, there’s 15 career happiness drivers. Let’s look at them and let’s score them.” But it sounds like you’re taking a more personal approach in terms of, “No, there’s maybe not 15. There’s maybe a billion. And we’ve selected the six that are kind of resonating the most for you personally.” Can you maybe give us an example of a story of someone who they’re kind of stuck, and then they zeroed in on what they want, and then how they evaluated the next steps along those lines, and then made a call, and it worked out smashingly?

Lindsay Gordon
Yeah. So, I think that the important part that you’ve highlighted is that it is based on individual definitions of success, and that’s really a big part of my work of there are all these definitions of, “What does success look like? What does growth look like? What does recognition look like?” But, actually, if you don’t know what the definition is for you yourself, then you are going to be comparing yourself to these external definitions, and not getting the type of fulfillment that you want.

So, one example, I had a client come to me, convinced that she needed to leave her company, convinced that she needed to leave the field that she was in that happened to be aerospace engineering, and pretty much just done, “All right. Ready to get out. Need to figure out what the next thing is.” So, I took her through the process of, “What are the values, what are the strengths, what are the environments that are important to you?” And what she found, a huge part of what was missing for her is her strengths of teaching and facilitating, and she was not getting any of that in the type of engineering work that she was doing. And so, that was new to her. Because what I find is a lot of people are surprised that they have strengths or just don’t know what they are.

And so, once she figured that out, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, teaching and facilitating is huge to me. That’s really what’s been missing.” So, then we started looking around, “Okay, what is internal to the company that could be a better fit for that now that you’ve identified this piece that’s missing?” And so, what she was able to find is a three-year rotation program that is all about teaching and facilitating for the engineers of the company, so less doing the actual engineering but now doing the teaching and facilitating of the others. And she would have never thought to look around at other positions within the company, she would’ve never thought to look at staying in the field that she had already spent 15 years in, but she was able to find this different implementation of her strengths, and absolutely loves and is thriving in that role.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. And so then, that gets you situated in terms of zeroing in on what you dig in and then identifying the opportunities and how that can align to it. And I think that there’s a good gem there associated with the knee jerk reaction of, “I got to get out of here.” It’s telling you something, but getting out of there may very well not be the optimal pathway. Could you speak to that?

Lindsay Gordon
Yes. So, most people come to me thinking they needed to quit their job, they’re unhappy in some way, they can’t figure it out, easiest thing to do is quit. What I realized about a year or two ago is that I am accidentally running an employee retention program. So many people come to me needing to quit, so many people do not end up not quitting their job. I don’t have current numbers, but when I crunched the numbers of about two years ago at that point, for the people who came to me who are currently in a job, more than 50% of them ended up staying in their job. So, that’s where I got this hypothesis that when we think we need to quit, it is actually that we are not clear about what we want, what might be out of alignment in this current role, and there are so many people. I can give you one other example.

A client came to me, “I need to quit. I’m done with this field. I need to figure out what my next thing is.” Two session into working with me, she just starts laughing, and she’s like, “So, this job is actually a great fit for me. It’s a great fit for my strength. It’s a great fit for what’s important to me. And, actually, what I want to do is make these two small changes and continue to grow in this particular area.” And now she is thriving. She is getting promotions. She loves the work. From the outside, absolutely nothing changed, not a single thing in her circumstances. Everything was the mindset about, “What is this job to me? How does it align with what I want?” And that made all of the difference in the work world.

So, really interesting that once you get people really clear about what they want and confident about those decisions, a lot of people end up deciding that they don’t actually need to quit their job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very nice. And you’ve got a particular take on boring jobs. Let’s hear it.

Lindsay Gordon
I love to tell people that it is okay to have a boring job if it works for you. And this is kind of a provocative idea…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m provoked.

Lindsay Gordon
…that gets some people really riled up, and I think that’s good. I think it goes to this point of we need to do what is right for us. And for some people, their passion and purpose and meaning and drive is going to come from work. Great. For others, that passion and purpose and meaning and drive is going to come from outside of work. And so, sometimes, a boring job can allow you to do things that are most important to you, about the contribution you want to make in this world outside of work.

So, let me give you one example of how a boring job has been very beneficial to one of my clients. So, she came to me in a self-described boring job, and she was underutilized, and there wasn’t a lot of challenge going on, and so we started looking at, “Okay, what might be interesting to you? What are your strengths? What are your interests?” And one thing that came out to her is that she might want to be a grief counselor. This is something she had not considered before but it really connected with her experience, and so she said, “Oh, interesting. I keep seeing these themes of the strengths that are aligned with that and the type of contribution that I want to make.”

So, what she used her boring job for was to test that out. So, I’m a very risk-averse person, I do not want anyone to just quit their jobs, burn it all down, go and do their passion because they think it’s the right thing without de-risking the process as much as possible with as much prototyping as we can do. So, for her, she started using her extra time and mental energy, which is usually what you get from a boring job, and she started volunteering with a crisis hotline and spent time doing that to test that out. And then she started testing out looking at different schooling options that she could take on.

So, she used her boring job to get more information about what was going to give her more purpose and passion in her next role, and use that in order to become a grief counselor. And she emailed me, I think, sometime last year, a couple of years after we had worked together, and she was like, “Lindsay, I am about to graduate, and I’m about to have my first client.” And the whole process had felt good to her because she had de-risked it, she had tested it out, she had stayed in that boring job that allowed her to still have financial stability while she moved to her next profession.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great point, that the boring jobs are to offer you that time and mental energy. Whereas, thrilling jobs tend to be intense, have some pressure, need you to be kind of…or pull you into thinking about them a lot because they’re interesting, and you might noodle on the unsolved mystery for while you’re commuting or maybe when you’d rather not be, when you’re at home with family, etc. So, that is a nice highlight there.

I’m thinking, boy, a couple examples come to mind. I remember Albert Einstein, when he was in the patent office, said it gave him a lot of time to think. That served him well, having that time to think. Or, a fictitious example is that Gerry or Garry or Larry Gergich from “Parks and Rec” just had this land government job but he likes being able to reliably return to his lovely family at a consistent time, and that really was what did it for him. And that’s a good example, specifically, of if we think about sort of societal or external expectations for what a good job is supposed to be, it’s like, “Oh, it’s got to be your passion, it’s got to be thrilling, and it needs to be so exciting and engaging.”

Lindsay Gordon
Everything to you. Have all your fulfillment, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And, yeah, I guess some people, it’s not applicable to all people, I think, and/or even at times of your life in terms of like, “Hey, this thrilling job was awesome until I had some babies, and then it’s like this thrilling job is taking me away from that, and I don’t care for it as much.” So, things can evolve over time as well.

Lindsay Gordon
Yeah, one of my earliest clients came to me. She was in a very high-paying lawyer job, and all of her friends and family were saying, “Oh, my gosh, you’re being underchallenged, like they’re not using you to your full extent. You’re bored. You really should make a change and go get a job that is more deserving of your talents.” And so, she came to me, and she was like, “Well, maybe I need to get a new job because this one, you know, everyone’s telling me that I need something new.” When we did the values exercise, she said, “Number one right now is financial stability and the ability to have time with my young son.” And that gave her ultimate confidence to say, “Actually, at this phase in life, for what I want in this moment, for what’s important to me, this job is perfect.”

And so, she was able to just let go of all of the external noise from friends, family, who always want the best for us but they don’t always know what that is, and she was able to say, “You know what, thank you, friends and family. Appreciate that. And I know why this job is actually the perfect fit for me at this phase in life.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really excellent, and it gets me thinking here. Yeah, I want to zero in on what you said with regard to the confidence because I think that’s sort of, emotionally speaking, a fundamental difference from the beginning to the end of this process. It’s like, “I have no idea. What am I doing? Is this the wrong thing? Aah,” to, “All right. This is what I’m going to do.” And, boy, there is just something so powerful about when you have that conviction that, “This is what it is.”

Because it’s sort of like all of the mental energy and time spent, like, “Oh, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. I don’t quite know. Oh, I don’t really feel like I could maybe take that risk or ask for help in this direction if I’m not really sure I’m going to utilize that advice or take advantage of what someone is helping me out with.” Like, all kinds of things fall away and power jet fuel is working for you when you’ve got that confidence. So, tell us, what are the fundamental ingredients in terms of what it takes to arrive at the place of totally confident versus, “Oh, that kind of seems like a good move”?

Lindsay Gordon
Yeah. One thing that I’d like to tell clients is that I promise them deeply unsexy results. There is nothing exciting about when they get through my program. There’s nothing flashy. They will most likely not have made a huge change in their job, but what happens is that deep, grounded, calming conviction of, “This is what I want. This is what is right for me.” And so, it’s so fun explaining it in that way because people are like, “What? Deeply unsexy results. Do I want that?” Like, yes, you absolutely want that.

So, when I think about what it takes to have confidence in your decisions, it comes back to clarity. One of the phrases that I like for clients to use a lot when they are in interviews, when they are having conversations about creating opportunities within their current role, is, “I know I thrive when X, Y, Z is happening, when I’m in this type of environment, when I’m doing this type of work. Can you tell me about how that might be connected to this role that you’re pitching to me, or to this company that I’m thinking about joining?” So, it’s all about, “I know when I thrive. This is very clear for me. And now all I’m doing is connecting that to the opportunity at hand.” So, that deep, deep clarity gives you the confidence to say, “I know that this thing is going to be the right thing for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely.

Lindsay Gordon
And I will give you a quick example of that. So, I had a client who was contacted by recruiters all the time, and the recruiter would be like, “Hey, hey, hey, want this shiny job at Facebook?” And then she would go into the, exactly what you were talking about, this energy-draining like, “Oh, my gosh, do I want the shiny thing? This company is so great. Everyone else thinks that I should work there,” and we’re just like giving all of our energy away, and just waffling and second-guessing and all of that. So, that had been her experience up until working with me.

And after she worked with me, she got a call from a recruiter, the recruiter said, “Hey, hey, hey, this shiny job, like do you want this thing?” And she said, “Thank you so much. That job is not a good fit for me for these three reasons. What I’m looking for, which will allow me to thrive, are these three things. If you find opportunities like that, I would love to hear about them.”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Lindsay Gordon
End of story. There’s no waffling, there’s no, I like to call, the whirlwind of chaos, of, “Ugh, do I want the thing?” So, as you said, it’s just like the jet fuel of power in the direction you know is going to be impactful for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, when you talk about recruiters calling all the time and, “Ooh, do I want that thing?” that sparks…let’s talk about money. Sometimes it’s almost hardwired into us, like, “Of course, the right move is the one that is the most lucrative.” And so, that can be a stumbling block, and I know that that’s not true. Many people have chosen new opportunities that have less money but they are so glad they did. And that happened to me, I was in strategy consulting, I went to do my own thing, and there were several years which is like, “Hmm, I sure will have a lot more money if I were still strategy consulting.”

Lindsay Gordon
Yes, indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
And now, fortunately, I think this has gone well and I’ve got both, so happy ending. But other people are fine at the happiness without that. So, how do we think about money, happiness, and if that’s really in you deep, what do you do with it?

Lindsay Gordon
Two things I think to consider. So, the first is values. When I do my values exercise, what I have people do is make a list of all the decisions that they’ve made in their life, and then start to look at the motivations behind those decisions. So, it’s kind of looking at the data of how you have lived your life so far to come up with your list of values. For some people, financial security is a huge part of those values. For other people, financial security does not come up as a big part of their values. So, that’s one thing, is to think about how big is that in your set of values. So, that’s one input.

Another framework I really like, which is from the book Designing Your Work Life by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, they think about it as three different sliders in your career. So, there are three ways to think about what it is that you do and how you get compensated for your work. So, one is obviously money, and that’s the one we think of most often. The next is impact, and the next is expression. And so, they think of it as sliders that you can move around at any point based on what your needs are at any phase of life based on what’s important to you at any phase in life.

So, let’s say when you are first starting out, you want to make sure that you are financially secure. This is the first time you’re needing to pay rent. You want to start to thinking about putting away for retirement. You need to pay off student loads, whatever it is. Maybe money is the highest one of those sliders.

Then a couple of years into your career, maybe you decide that impact is a place that you want to prioritize more in your career. So, you could think about dialing down the money dial a little bit and increasing the impact dial. Same with expression. So, I just liked the way that they think about the balance of those three things. And, again, thinking about you need in your life, what phase of life are you at, what’s important to you, and what is the balance that you want for those three sliders.

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

Lindsay Gordon
I think two things that are the easiest for somebody to do in order to think about making decisions that feel good to them with confidence where they can thrive. One is get clear about what your strengths are. If assessments are the way that you really enjoy doing that, StrengthsFinder has a fantastic one that I’ve been using for years. It’s 20 bucks. It will give you incredible vocabulary about what your top strengths are, how they interact, and how they might relate to your role. So, that’s something that people can do really easily to figure out how to thrive more in their job.

And then second is it’s really important to start to define some of the nebulous words that we use around career development. So, we talk a lot about growth, we talk a lot about recognition, we talk a lot about mentorship, and when we say those words, it can mean something totally different to every person that you talk to. So, for example, recognition is something that comes up all the time, “I don’t feel recognized in my job.” “Oh, okay. What’s happening?” They say, “Well, my manager is talking about me in our team meetings, and sharing her gratitude and appreciation there.” I’m like, “Okay, that sounds like recognition. But that doesn’t seem to be working for you.” And the client said, “Oh, yeah, recognition for me is getting paid more. That’s how I know what my value is.”

And so, when you are talking to your manager, and saying, “I don’t feel recognized,” and your manager is saying, “What are you talking about? I’m talking about you in team meetings. I’m putting you up for promotions, whatever it is.” I want you to have the definition that works for you so that you can have a much better conversation with people around you as to how to get the things that are important to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Lindsay Gordon
Yes. One of my favorite quotes is the one about, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. And the second-best time is now.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Lindsay Gordon
I think we spend so much time beating ourselves up about past decisions, convincing ourselves it’s too late, waffling and all this energy draining. I want to help people redirect that energy and focus on, “What has happened has happened. What are we taking action on now to make things better in our career?”

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

Lindsay Gordon
I just read about this recently in the book Range.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had David on the show.

Lindsay Gordon
Oh, that’s amazing. Gosh, I love that book. So, I loved his mention of match quality, which is the term that economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are. And they mentioned a study at Harvard called “The Dark Horse Project.” And, in a nutshell, basically, everybody who has found success in their role in the study has followed what they talked about as a really unusual path. And everyone was like, “Ugh, I don’t know that I would recommend this. But this is how I got to where I am.” So, it was incredible that, in the study, they all thought that they were the anomaly for having an unusual career path, and yet that was actually a dominant outcome of the study.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a study inside a book. But I want to ask about a favorite book too.

Lindsay Gordon
Favorite book, Essentialism.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Lindsay Gordon
Tagline: Disciplined Pursuit of Less. That book is filled with terrifying truth about how much we let everything else in the world dictate our energy, our time, and attention, and what we can do to actually achieve focus in our life and in our work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Lindsay Gordon
I would say The Five Minute Journal. It is a book that I discovered recently that has a couple of questions at the start of the day, a couple of questions at the end of the day, “What are you grateful for? What would be great? What do you want to create today? And what’s an affirmation?” And then a check-in in the evening, “What went really well today? And what could you have done better?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Lindsay Gordon
I have recently started waking up at the same time every day, and it is incredible at how even just that small change to eliminate decision fatigue has been awesome. So, getting up at the same time, and reading for 30 minutes as soon as I get up.

Pete Mockaitis
And that includes your Saturdays and Sundays?

Lindsay Gordon
That does not. That’s probably an area of opportunity. I’m not quite there yet. I’m not normally a morning person, so this is like a change for me. But, yes, I know that it would actually be better for me if I do it every single day, so I appreciate that challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with your people again and again?

Lindsay Gordon
You can make absolutely any decision for absolutely any reason as long as you know why it works for you.

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

Lindsay Gordon
Website is a great place to get in touch, ALifeofOptions.com. And I would also love to have you connect with me on LinkedIn. Every Tuesday I share awesome reflections from my work with clients and help you think about action that you can take in your career, so I’d love to connect with you there as well.

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

Lindsay Gordon
We talk a lot about having it figured out, “I should have it figured out by now,” “I’m behind,” “Everybody else seems to have it figured out.” I would love to challenge you to shift your goal from having it all figured out to a quote from “Designing Your Life,” which talks about playing the infinite game of becoming more and more yourself with each day.

So, instead of this endpoint of having it figured out, I want you to ask yourself each day, “How can I become more of myself today and bring what makes me unique into the world, into the work, and into my contributions?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lindsay, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck and all the best.

Lindsay Gordon
Thank you so much.