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737: How to Make Decisions Smarter and Faster with Ralph Keeney

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Ralph Keeney reveals his simple process for making wiser decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three steps to making better decisions
  2. How to gain extreme clarity on your best options
  3. How to quickly move past indecision

About Ralph

Ralph L. Keeney has made significant contributions to the fields of decision analysis and value-focused thinking. He is a consultant, an award winning author, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

He lives in San Francisco where he consults on business, organizational, and government decisions in the United States and overseas.

Resources Mentioned

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Ralph Keeney Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ralph, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Ralph Keeney
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to chat with you, and you consulted on many decisions. Can you share with us one of the most, I don’t know, unique, or funny, or zany, or, in some ways, standout decisions that you consulted on? What’s the story?

Ralph Keeney
Well, in a sense, some of the biggest and maybe zany ones are usually for governments or large agencies.

Pete Mockaitis
Those zany governments.

Ralph Keeney
Did a lot of work on evaluating sites in the United States for a nuclear waste storage site, and that was quite a while ago. And once, I’m looking at long-term energy policy for Germany where we involved many, many stakeholders in Germany. And that included talking to leaders in both the Catholic and Protestant churches, and in many of the organizations that were big companies in Germany as representatives of them, and then to just normal citizens about what they wanted from the entire energy policy for all of Germany.

Pete Mockaitis
And were there any breakthrough moments that really were pivotal?

Ralph Keeney
I think there were some important ones because we had a lot of people evaluate some of the alternatives intuitively. And then we helped them systematically break their evaluation into parts and put them together. So, we had two kind of evaluations from many of the participants and we pointed out the distinctions between kind of their intuitive in the head judgment of the whole thing, what was the best thing to do, versus the more carefully thought out.

And then we said, “So, now that you know both of your responses, choose what you think is appropriate.” And most of them ended up about two-thirds of the way from their intuition to their more systematically thought-out judgments. And I think that spirit holds for a lot of personal decisions. We use intuition all the time, and we should. But if we think about it a little more carefully on decisions worthy of thought, we often come up with something different. And I think it’s often closer to when they put the parts together and decide what to do to follow their well-thought-out judgments and decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. And I’d love it if you could maybe share, is there a particularly surprising or fascinating consistent discovery you’ve encountered about decision-making that has come from your many years of working through them?

Ralph Keeney
Well, I can share a simple thing that came through some of that and it’s very basic. The only purposeful way you can influence anything in your life, at work, or your personal life, is through the decisions that you make. Now, a lot of people, when I say that, they say, “Well, I don’t think that’s true. If I decide to eat much more responsibly, that’s going to improve my life,” or, “If I exercise routinely, I’ll get in a little better shape, that will certainly improve my life.”

And I say, “All those are correct but none of that will happen unless you make the decisions to think about it, choose to do what is done, and then follow through on doing what you need to do to complete it.” So, it is the decisions, and that’s basically the thing that enables you to have some control over your life and offers you that control.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup, absolutely. That adds up to me. Well, cool. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your process. And I’d love it if maybe we could start with a story in terms of someone who was struggling with a difficult decision and then they put a few of your particular suggestions or process or skills to the test, and came out with a cool outcome. Could you share such a story?

Ralph Keeney
I can but I’ll just start with one comment. How did we learn to make decisions? And the point is none of us learned how to make decisions. We just picked it up. We started very, very young. You’re hungry, so how do you communicate that? You holler. It’s maybe not such a conscious decision, and obviously the words are not known, but those were many of our actions when were very young. And decision-making is a skill but most of us have never learned it as a skill. In fact, we’ve never learned how to make decisions. It’s all picked up and it comes with some useful techniques that we all use. And it also comes with a large number of cognitive biases and shortcomings that we take that degrade the quality of our decisions.

So, to get to your point, let me give a rather simple decision but important that all of us probably have faced. It could be you have an opportunity to have a dinner with somebody very important in your company that might even help your job, or with somebody in another company where you might be interested in a job, and you’ve never met them,.

You’re excited. You think about, “What do I hope the dinner is?” And it’s, well, convenient restaurant to the hotel the guest is in, quality food and local cuisine, and you go to the hotel and ask the concierge, “Do you have a restaurant like this nearby?” Well, of course, they do, two blocks away, so you make a reservation. The important person comes, you’re excited, you meet them at the restaurant, you go in, the food is tremendous, but the evening is a disaster. It was way too noisy, you couldn’t have a good discussion, you didn’t learn much about them, and they hardly know who you are.

Now, that particular case could’ve been changed dramatically with a little bit of clear-thinking about the decision and, particularly, this example can illustrate the three fundamental components of every decision that are worthy of thought. And you might’ve not just chosen that restaurant, you might’ve asked for three or four restaurants nearby and just gone and looked at them the day before, or two days before, and you would’ve noticed that was way too noisy and you wouldn’t have chosen it, but maybe you still have though you didn’t do that, so you got the one alternative.

Before that then, you should think, “What are the objectives that I would have for the dinner?” Well, you certainly wanted to meet the person, that was stated. And so, maybe you should’ve recognized, “I want a good conversation and I need it to be quiet enough to do that.” Had you done that, you never would’ve chosen that restaurant.

And the third thing is it was perhaps the wrong decision problem. It wasn’t to find a place to eat. It really was to find a place where we can have a quality discussion that serves food. So, knowing the major objectives to get to know the person would’ve led you to a different alternative too. So, any of those three things – clarifying the decision you should address, better identifying what you hope to achieve, i.e., your objectives, or coming up with a few more alternatives to compare – would’ve led to a much better decision. Any one of those things.

And each of those is a piece of information relevant to your decision. It improves your insight about it and your ability to make a better choice. And I refer to that using the word that the behavioral economists use – a nudge. Each piece of information nudges you to make a better decision. In their work, and Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for his work on that in 2017 for his book with Cass Sunstein, Nudge. But their nudges are when someone else nudges you in your decision. And these types of nudges that I just referred to are when you nudge yourself by giving a useful piece of information to make a better choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, that’s cool. So, we got three fundamentals there – clarifying, then identify the objectives, and having a few more options. The previewing or sampling the venues in advance, does that fit under of the three or is that under a fourth?

Ralph Keeney
Well, I think that’s kind of looking for alternatives. I think that’s one of the three.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, part of the alternative-seeking process. Okay. Cool. Certainly. Well, yeah, that’s great in terms of what you didn’t anticipate. And I think about this, I think, my decisions a lot when it comes to just like purchasing stuff in, like, Amazon.com, “What am I ordering? And why am I choosing this thing over that thing?”

And I think of returns, I find returns kind of painful actually. It’s like, one, it’s just a little bit of a pain, but, literally, in terms of just spending the time. And, two, it just feels like, “This is an acknowledgement that I did not make the optimal decision I had hoped. This thing I got did not work out the way I was hoping for it to.” But it’s fine. It’s somewhat easy to return. You iterate and you try again.

But, yeah, I think that’s dead-on in terms of that previewing or sampling can tell you a whole lot in all kinds of things because sometimes you have no alternative but to try it on for size and do a little bit of a demo or a trial or a sample or an iteration to get you where you want to go a few steps away instead of in one giant leap.

Ralph Keeney
Right. That’s true. And the other thing is once you get your decision clear with those three steps, of course, you don’t know how well the various alternatives measure up in terms of each of your objectives. That’s the second part of decision-making. Often, some clear thought about it can help you a great deal, and that’s the case with buying products online.

You can’t actually see a lot of the detail, you don’t know how they might look from various positions, and the nice thing you want to look good, where it is in your kitchen or in your office, etc., and you want it to function in certain ways that might be mentioned but it doesn’t do what you want. And you can’t get that information unless you see it, so that you buy it knowing you can return it is fine.

Now, if you’ve signed up for a vacation that’s expensive and you can’t know everything that’s going to happen there, especially if it’s a group vacation, some kind of tour or something, you’re committed and there’s going to be, as with all important decisions, uncertainties about how well the chosen alternative will measure up, or any of the other alternatives that you didn’t choose. And we make those decisions with the uncertainties there, doing the best we can. And you can have, of course, a good decision but the outcome isn’t so great.

It happens all the time in the market, but in everything in life. If there’s three different products you could invest in, and you carefully think about it and get all the information available then, no one knows for sure how well each of those products will do in the next couple of years, and yet you make a decision on, dead-on, which one will do better. And if you’ve made the decision with the best information available, and it doesn’t turn out to be the best one after the fact, you made the right decision, it’s just that it wasn’t the one that turned out to be the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. We had Annie Duke on the show and we discussed that phenomenon as well, is you may have made an optimal decision, even though the outcome is not what you desired.

Ralph Keeney
Yeah, there are just different things, and it happens to everybody all the time in life. And if it didn’t, you wouldn’t do a single thing because, with anything, there’s the chance that it doesn’t work out great. And I should say, as well as not doing anything has a lot of negative consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Doing nothing is a decision in and of itself even though we don’t maybe think of it as such. Well, maybe now, could you maybe walk us through a demonstration of your decision-making process, step-by-step, with an example?

Ralph Keeney
Sure. Now, I should say one doesn’t have to do all these steps. That’s important. Because if you get one nudge, sometimes, like for that restaurant decision, you figure out, “I need a quiet place where I can have a great conversation,” and then you walk in two or three other restaurants, and one just really clearly meets that, that’s going to be the best place. You’re done. You don’t need to figure out more alternatives or even too many more objectives. The price, you maybe care about a little bit, but it’s just swamped compared to the importance of having a great discussion.

So, you don’t have to do all of the steps. But the first step, you want to make sure you’re addressing the decision that you want to address. In this aft, there’s a lot of shortcomings just in this one. And the reason is decisions come, like your car might be in an accident and you didn’t cause it but it’s damaged badly, and it’s an old car. Now, a lot of people will say, “Oh, now I got to get the car fixed,” and the first thing they would think of is, “Where can I get it fixed?” and they maybe have a routine place or an alternative if they take it there, and they’re done.

But in that situation, maybe they should’ve thought, “You know, that’s an old car and it’s going to cost almost as much as it’s worth just to fix it. Maybe I should get a different car, a better used car, or a new car, or maybe I should even go without a car for a while,” depending where you live, “and rent a car only when I need it.” So, it could change the decision that you should address by thinking more clearly and not rushing to kind of get it over with because it is a problem.

And then the second thing is you want to think, “What are the objectives that I have for that?” And it’s surprising perhaps, but most people often don’t identify a large number of their important objectives. An important example, it’s certainly relevant to all the people with jobs, is a study I did some years ago with a couple colleagues with the entire MBA class in their first year at a university in the east, and there were roughly 300 students in the first-year class.

And in between their first and second years, they have an internship at a company. About 30% to 40% actually get their job out of their MBA in those companies but they want to check out new areas in the country, new types of businesses, all kinds of things. And so, when I went to give the seminar on some of the topics we’re talking about here, I said, “I’ll be very happy to do it, but I want to have some questionnaires that they fill out.” And they were asked to fill them out, and they’ve done this homework assignments so people really thought about them somewhat.

And one of them was, “What are the objectives you had for your internship?” And the students wrote their objectives down, and it’s like, to learn a lot about a new field, see another part of the country, learn special things about how businesses work, meet some people in this field, all kinds of things. The average number of objectives, or values could be the word, things that they would care about in selecting it, turned out to be about 6.5.

Independently then, my colleagues that I’m working with, we thought about the objectives from knowing a lot of MBAs and things, and we created what we thought was a pretty full list because we put everybody’s objectives in that they had. We had 32 objectives once we cleaned them up.

So, later on in the survey of the students, showed them those 32 objectives, and said, “Check any of these that matter to you,” and they checked, on average, 20 objectives. So, they got six on their own, which were six of the 32, and they added 14 more. And you might think that the importance of the six they got were much more important than the 14 that they then identified on our list. So, we had a later question that showed them everything that they either got on their own or came from the list in a different order.

And so, we said, “Rate the importance of these on a scale from 1 to 9.” And the average importance of the ones they got on their own and the ones they missed and later picked up was almost identical, 6.21 compared to 6.28. That result happens all the time. It’s very hard to come up with all your objectives. If somebody asks somebody, “Write down your objectives,” they’ll be done writing in two minutes for a decision that they have.

And on decisions that are important, like that one certainly is, it’s worthwhile thinking about it a little bit over time and coming up with a better set because just recognizing one or two more objectives could eliminate an alternative that you might’ve chosen because it’s just not going to be good on something that you hadn’t thought of but is important, or it might suggest an alternative that you hadn’t thought of that would be great on that, and then, of course, it’s going to help you choose the best of the ones that are competitors.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is intriguing. So, we have smart MBA students and thinking about a decision that matters a lot to them, career-related – MBA students tend to be into that – and we can list, on average, 6.5, unprompted from our own, generating it from our own thoughts, versus when selecting from a list, we would select 20. So, it’s like a third. It’s like we only get, can generate about a third of what matters from our own heads. That’s kind of startling.

And so then, I’m thinking, “Boy, what’s the antidote to this? Is it just like we need to have directories of checklists for all sorts of various and sundry decisions we might need to make?” It’s like, “When you’re considering your career, think about this. When you’re considering a product, think about that,” because, in some ways, it’s hard to anticipate every objective or value in advance but, apparently, we need some help and some prompts to get a full list.

Ralph Keeney
You’re absolutely right. And there are a lot of those prompts and you certainly want to use them.

Pete Mockaitis
Where can I go to get them?

Ralph Keeney
Well, there are two places that I know. One is I wrote a book on a lot of details on these three things called Give Yourself a Nudge: Helping Smart People Make Smarter Personal and Business Decisions. And things in there, I mean, one chapter is on how to really do a better job getting all the objectives you want. And I should say I missed some of my objectives on decisions too even though I do this, but I do a better job than I would if I was not aware of what can stimulate ideas that will help a lot.

And things that can really help you include, think of what emotions and feelings that you have relevant to this decision. And then from those emotions, kind of pursue, “Well, why do I care about that?” Because a way to stimulate the thinking is not necessarily, I don’t use the term objective then. It sounds technical. I say, “What do you care about concerning this decision? And anything you care about matters. Write it down.”

And then there’s no definition that’s kind of narrow to care about so they don’t think, “Oh, I’m not sure if this thing is something I care about or not.” They know. Whereas, objective, they might say, “I’m not sure that’s really an objective.” You don’t want to worry about technicalities then. So, any feelings matter. And then you think of any alternatives, just a few, and think of a terrible alternative. And then, “Why is it terrible?” There’s got to be something you care about. Think of what would be a perfect alternative, hypothetically, if it just existed. People can describe, “Why is it perfect? What makes it so great?” Those are going to suggest things too.

And then you can think of what might be goals or constraints, either one. Ask, “Well, what constraints do you have here?” And somebody might say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to pay more than a thousand dollars for that.” Well, that suggests that one of their concerns is the cost of the product, which is true for many things if you’re purchasing. You don’t want to use the constraints to say, “No alternatives over a thousand dollars,” because if you got one that’s fantastic for $1,010, and the $970 one, which met that constraint, was really much inferior, likely you would pay the $40 more. So, it indicates what’s important but you don’t want to use them inappropriately.

And then you think of disappointment and regret, “What could really disappoint me here?” Well, why would that disappoint you? What’s the mechanism? And how does it get back to, again, characteristics of the product or whatever it is that you’re going to purchase?” So, all these things can stimulate your mind to think a bit more clearly about what’s there. You want to do your own thinking first.

And then, for certain decisions, like important work decisions, or if you were thinking of moving divisions in an organization or something, once you thought about what was important to you, makes a lot of sense to talk to some of your colleagues there about what they think might be important to you, and, separately, about what would be important to them if they were making this decision, because each of those comments kind of stimulates them to think a little differently and anything they come up might help you think of something that’s important to you that you had missed.

So, it’s a lot of things you could do, and people would develop their own techniques. And then, for certain decisions, if you have an important medical decision, you know the basis of what you want, “Well, I want to get well. I’d like to minimize time where I’m incapacitated in some sense,” and the cost might be important there. But there might be some aspects, or consequences in the future about aspects of your health or your functionality of your body that you wouldn’t have any idea to even think mattered.

So, you might need to talk on some problems that are more complex from a particular field to experts in that field, but you’re going to have to ask them what the objectives are. Just to show you how important, and one simple example is a medical one. On many important medical decisions, like if somebody has a cancer case or anything like that, I think, partly because of the responsibility and role of decisions, they would say the objectives is to increase the chance that you live or perhaps that you live longer. But what they don’t include is what affects many people, the quality of their life when they’re living longer.

If somebody were 70 years old, and it looked like you could go through all this treatment but it was so horrendous and you had to follow things, but you’d live an average of 12 years, or you could not go through the treatment and have a much better time and your average expected lifetime was 10 years, a lot of people, and I’ve asked this question, would prefer 10 years of a quality life, from a basis of 70, to 12 years of a really degraded life. That’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Ralph, so much good stuff to chew on here. And I very much like your approach better than having an endless compendium of checklist that I need to reference, but rather generating your own ones emotionally, “What do I care about? Why? What would be a terrible alternative? Why is that a terrible alternative? What will be the perfect alternative? Why is that a perfect alternative? What are the goals?”

This reminds me of some of like the best coaching questions, really drive at these sorts of things, like, “What do you really want? And what else? Or, what does wild success look like? Or, imagine we’re looking back at the end of this, and it was a smashing victory or a smashing defeat, what happened and why?” That begins to surface it. And then I love it, once you get a nice list to start from, you can check in with somebody else and they can build up and develop it. And I like that question a lot, “What would be important to you if you were thinking through this?” and that very well could be something completely different.

I guess I’m thinking a lot of times with career decisions, I think there’s some research, maybe you know better than I, Ralph, there is some research that suggest that we could sometimes be shortsighted in terms of thinking about this one opportunity as opposed to what pathway does it lead us down into the next job, or the next, next job, or the next, next, job, over five, ten years in progression and pathways. But that’s something someone else, who’s been in the game, may very well flag for you, and so that’s cool.

And, Ralph, is there a magic number? Like, let’s say if a decision really counts big time, I imagine we’re going to be getting some diminishing returns in terms of if we talk to, I don’t know, two people, five people, 20 people, to get their input. Is there a sweet spot or point of diminishing returns you recommend when it comes to advisors or counselors?

Ralph Keeney
Well, sure, but it might depend on what the decision was. There are two things related to that one. You don’t want to make perfect decisions, whatever that would be. It would take you way, way too long. Or, I should even say always try to make the best decision. If that just means, “I do my best given the time available and appropriate for the decision,” that’s fine. But if it means, “I’m going to search till I find the best alternative,” it’s usually nutty. It takes way, way too much of your time, and it’s the same issue I just mentioned.

You degrade the quality of your life because all you’re doing is procrastinating and worrying about this decision and trying to do better. Whereas, if you would’ve just made the decision earlier with what you knew, it might’ve been a pretty good decision, and then you have time to enjoy your life. It’s worthwhile breaking life, with this point, into two things. The time you spend making decisions and the time you spend enjoying life as a result of your decisions.

And enjoying life could be doing work on problems in your company too because that’s interesting and it’s stimulating, etc., but, per se, that’s just getting useful information. The decision per se, you don’t want to spend everything making decisions. You want to spend, the overall thing is to have a productive and enjoyable life that contributes to you, your family, friends, and country, and whatever your objectives are. And that should guide all the uses of your time.

Now, there’s one other really key thing a lot of people don’t think of or that have a lot of control, and you think, “Where do decisions come from?” Well, a lot of them come from problems. And the easiest place to put it is personally, “If I get sick, I have a decision problem. I have to do something about it. If my car is an accident, I got a decision problem. I need to do something. If I’m not doing very well at work, I got a decision problem. I need to deal with it.” And all these are basically a consequence of other’s decisions or circumstances, like you got sick or a car wreck or somebody assigns you something. And often they’re problems.

And when those happen, the quality of your life drops a little. No one wants to be sick or have your car wrecked or not doing well at work. And so, you try to make the decisions to improve them to get back to where you were before these problems occurred, but you typically don’t give above where you were. The only way to get a better life is through what I call decision opportunities, not decision problems. And these are the decisions you create for yourself rather than the decisions that are, in a sense, dumped upon you by others or happenstance.

And if you’re at work, you can think of, “How could I contribute more to the organization?” And you want to think of yourself because there are two objectives in any decision in the company, I think, or an organization, “How can I contribute more to the organization? And how can I contribute to my life?” And you, that’s your decision, you think of, “What could I do that would do both of these?”

And I’ve certainly been in a situation that works when I went to a consulting firm in San Francisco. I said to the boss, there are 700 people there, and I said, “I think my responsibilities are to contribute professionally and financially to the firm. And subject to that, there’s no other constraints on me. Is that a correct representation?” And my prospective boss, executive vice president in the organization kind of sat up straight and thought about it, he’s never heard that before, and he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s about right.”

Pete Mockaitis
And, in a way, the law, please.

Ralph Keeney
And I could do that because I could bring in work where I work on decisions so they’d make money, and I think I could do that work well, and publish it and contribute to the reputation and knowledge of the skills of the company. And I knew it and they knew it, and then I could do anything I wanted. Not stupid stuff. It’s not like I had hours where I couldn’t take a time off any time I wanted it, because I made sure that I was definitely contributing more than I was taking, which was the pay.

And so, these decision opportunities at work, you can go. And in this firm, sometimes I’d go. There are all kinds of tasks that need to be done in any firm, and some of them your boss might do or others, and you think, “Gee, I might like to learn how to do that.” You can propose to do a task that your boss maybe spends four hours on a week to do and it’s a little boring for him or her. So, you say, “I’m willing to do that,” and learn how to do it and do it well. They might be very happy and you can often get out of something that’s four or even six hours a week that’s less important to the firm and a lot more boring by making this proposal. It’s better for you and better for the firm.

And that’s what you want to do to figure out decision opportunities or something to be pursued that really help your life at work or personally.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Well, now, I’d love to shift gears and hear a few of your favorite things. Could you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ralph Keeney
I think what really inspires me is people who think about what they really want and put in very good efforts to achieve those things. And some of the simplest cases is when what people want are kind of straightforward.

So, people who basically think about what they want, put in the effort, do their best, and achieve a lot of what they want inspire me a great deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Ralph Keeney
Well, the ones that really influence me, a few books on decision-making by people really starting in the field. And I guess one was a while ago by Howard Raiffa called Decision Analysis but was really starting the movement away from intuitive thinking into prescriptive thinking. There was a lot of work done descriptively. And then descriptively, I think one of the best books is the one I mentioned called Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.

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

Ralph Keeney
An easy way to find out more about me is, and there’s things on there not about me, is just my homepage, so to speak, it’s RalphKeeney.com, no point in between Ralph and Keeney. It describes a lot of things. It has an awful lot of references there. And there’s one other thing that soon will be coming out by Oji Life Lab. OJI is Oji Life Labs, and it’s separate words that you can find at searching. It’s a product in beta testing that has an awful lot of the fundamental ideas to help people make better decisions at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Ralph Keeney
And it’s done in a unique way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, Ralph, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you all the best in all your decisions.

Ralph Keeney
Well, thank you. I’ll work on it and I hope that you and some of your listeners got some useful points here, and also make some great decisions, or better decisions as a result of it. We can all do better, and I’m certainly one of those. So, thank you very much, Pete.

736: The Surprising Problem-Solving Insights from Art with Amy Herman

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Amy Herman reveals the surprising framework agencies like the FBI, NATO, and Interpol have used to solve their most intricate problems.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What to do when you don’t know what to do 
  2. Three simple steps for smarter problem solving
  3. The top two do’s and don’ts of problem solving 

About Amy

Amy Herman is the founder and president of The Art of Perception, Inc., a New York–based organization that conducts professional development courses for leaders around the world, from Secret Service agents to prison wardens. Herman was the head of education at the Frick Collection for over ten years.

An art historian and an attorney, Herman holds a BA in international affairs from Lafayette College, a JD from the National Law Center at George Washington University, and an MA in art history from Hunter College. A world-renowned speaker, Herman has been featured on the CBS Evening News, the BBC, and in countless print publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Daily NewsSmithsonian Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Resources Mentioned

Amy Herman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Herman
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get your perspectives on art and problem-solving and more. Could we start with maybe hearing what’s been one of the most influential pieces of art in your life? Like, what is a piece that has stuck with you and made an impact, and tell us that story?

Amy Herman
Well, that changes almost every day because every time I see a work of art that takes my breath away, I think, “Oh, that’s it. That’s lifechanging.” And luckily for me, that happens quite often. But the work of art that really got me thinking so much about this book and about the work that I do is a painting from 1819 by Gericault, and it’s called “The Raft of the Medusa.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes.

Amy Herman
And the reason I talk about this work so much, it’s a really horrific painting. It shows the worst of humanity but just the tiniest bit of hope. And it’s a huge painting, it’s 23 feet by 16 feet.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Amy Herman
It takes the whole wall at the Louvre. And it shows the absolute worst that can result from incompetence and from power, and yet there is this slightest bit of hope in retelling the story of how the painting came to be and how this people survived, really, has been inspirational, and I’ve been able to apply it in so many different situations. So, I’ve been thinking a lot and I open my new book with “The Raft of the Medusa” and I close with it as well, so I think a lot about that work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ll certainly link to an image of that for the visual side of things in a podcast interview. And the sliver of hope, so there’s the story, in reading your introduction, I gazed upon it, I confess, well, in a much smaller amount of real estate on my screen.

Amy Herman
Uh-huh, than the Louvre offers.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe only for about 20 seconds, which I imagine you would say is not nearly enough to take in the depths, but I was just like, “Oh, man, that’s a real cluster.”

Amy Herman
That’s exactly what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, was there hope depicted in that image that I overlooked?

Amy Herman
Believe it or not, and you’re not alone in overlooking the hope because very, very faintly on the horizon line, if you really, really squint your eyes, the rescue ship can be seen.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, okay.

Amy Herman
Yes, the rescue ship is there. And what I love is the painting also does away with discrimination, and there is black man at the top of the pyramid who’s flagging down the rescue ship, and that was a real scandal back in the 19th century to have a black man was the one who rescued everybody because he was the one who’s able to flag down the ship. But the ship is not apparent.

Don’t feel bad for not seeing it. It’s so small and it’s on the horizon, and it reminds us all that sometimes hope is just out of our grasp and we have to look a little bit harder and really try to find it. And it really is within our grasp, and that’s what I hope that readers of the book will be able to understand, and be able to apply in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that. Hope may be just beyond my immediately obvious perception, just as it was in that image, and I’ll chew on that. Thank you. Well, let’s talk about problem-solving here. You spent a lot of time thinking about this, training people in this, learning and researching on this. Can you share maybe one of the most strikingly maybe surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about problem-solving over the course of your career?

Amy Herman
I have. And I’d love to share one of the things because it’s almost counterintuitive but I’m going to start by telling you about a process in Japan when ceramicists and potters, when they make bowls and vases and cups, it’s inevitable that some of those vases and cups are going to come out broken or asymmetrical or imperfect. And instead of throwing that flawed pottery away, what these Japanese ceramicists do is they fill the cracks in with gold and silver and platinum lacquer. And the process is called kintsugi, and it means to repair with gold, to fill in the cracks with gold.

And what happens to each of those objects is they become more precious and more valuable than had they been perfect in the first place. And what I take away from the process of kintsugi is none of the people that I work with are potters or ceramicists, but I ask them the question, “How are you practicing kintsugi? How are you fixing what’s broken with resources that you already have?”

And the beautiful thing about kintsugi is it honors the struggle; it brings the mistakes to the fore. So, rather than walking away from our mistakes, and saying, “I’m going to do better next time and I’m going to make it perfect,” we’re not striving for perfection. I want to bring our mistakes to the fore. So, not only can we honor the struggle that we went through to solve a problem, but others can see our mistakes and see how we got there, because I hate to break it to you, nobody is perfect and there is no perfect solution.

So, the idea of kintsugi, it’s such a beautiful concept and it allows us to make our mistakes and to honor those mistakes in trying to fix them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you
So, kintsugi really is a beautiful visual representation of that very process, that notion of we have some mistakes and we’re going to fill them in and make it all the more useful in terms of maybe sharing the mistakes and lessons learned with others so that that wisdom can proliferate. That’s really cool. Can you share a cool example of this in practice?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. In the field of medicine, doctors sometimes, this takes place in hospitals all across the country, and sometimes it’s done weekly, sometimes it’s done every two weeks or every month. Doctors go behind closed doors and they have something called M&M. And M&M stands for morbidity and mortality, kind of a downer of a title.

But what they do is they go around the table and they talk about what went wrong, who misread the MRI, who got the wrong prescription, who died, and what went wrong. And by sharing all their mistakes, not only does it alleviate the guilt of the individual person and recognize that we all make mistakes but, also, we can learn from each other’s mistakes because we’re human and things will go wrong.

And so, just the idea of M&M, the doctors are willing to go behind the door and talk about what went wrong, I wish we had M&M in every profession. The way kintsugi enables us to visualize what went wrong and actually honor that struggle, medicine says, “Okay, we’re not perfect. Things go wrong. Lives are lost. We gave the wrong medicines. Let’s all learn from it collectively and keep moving.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a powerful example because that says that’s about as high stakes as it gets, “Lives were lost because of a mistake I made,” and that happens in law enforcement and military and many of your clients and medicine, certainly. And I was just thinking, one my very first thoughts was this litigious age, it’s like behind closed doors is right.

Amy Herman
I can give you one more example that’s not so high stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, maybe first with that practice, which indeed I agree with you, there are many other fields where that could be applied excellently. I’m curious, how do folks get past some of the hang-ups associated with like the vulnerability, and trying to cover your rear end, and liability? We’ve had Amy Edmondson on, talking about psychological safety, and other guests. And that’s often hard to get to, but as you described it, it sounds like this is just par for the course in most hospital environments.

Amy Herman
It’s a recognition of the fact that we are all human. One of the things that I talk about across the professional spectrum is that when you are missing a critical piece of information, and it can happen whether you are a postal worker, a prison warden, a beekeeper, a doctor, or a Navy Seal, you’re missing a piece of information, and in the intelligence world, they call it an intel gap.

And I tell all the people that I work with that no matter how big the intel gap is, you have one more source of information that you can rely on. You can default to your humanity. And if you default, because before we’re doctors and patients and lawyers and clients and police officers and suspects, we are all human.

And if you don’t know what to do next because of an intel gap, ask yourself, and say, “You know what, if I was this guy’s father or uncle or friend, what would I do?” and default to your humanity, and you have this whole rich source of information that you can really rely on, and very rarely will it let you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really beautiful because in those instances, humanity, that really strikes…it can automatically stir up sort of virtuous stuff, like humility, like compassion, like, “Hey, man, we don’t quite know what’s going on here. But you know what, if it were my kid, I’d want to test X, Y, and Z. So, what do you say?” and we keep it moving.

Amy Herman
That’s exactly right. And what’s so interesting, sometimes it comes down to the smallest of human interactions. I had a group, they were a group of Army officers on the ground in a foreign country, and it was a hostile country, but they were at the local village and they were looking for help in the local village, and none of the women would talk to the Army officers.

They weren’t forceful, and they defaulted to their humanity. And, finally, one of them asked in the other language, “Why are you not speaking with us?” And you know what it was? It was because the Army officers were wearing reflective sunglasses, and women in this village can’t make eye contact with men. And if they didn’t know if they were making eye contact or not, they wouldn’t talk to them. So, it all came down to sunglasses.

But I find what’s universal is sometimes we have to ask hard questions, “Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I fix this?” to find the solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. It is a hard question in that there is, again, some vulnerability in terms of, “Well, you know, you smell, you’ve been very rude to us, you were involved in an accident that harmed a family member of mine a couple weeks ago.” It is a hard question, like, “Why aren’t you talking to us?” and, yeah, that can surface some surprisingly simple solutions. Okay, sure, taking off sunglasses can do.

Awesome. Well, so we’ve already gone deep into kintsugi. Can you tell us then, your book Fixed.: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving, what’s sort of the main idea or thesis here?

Amy Herman
The main idea of the book is to take the artists’ creative process, how artists create works of art, and use that as a template to solve problems from minor annoyances to intractable dilemmas. Let’s face it, everything is broken right now. Everything. When I started writing this book, we weren’t even under the crunch of pandemic. I had no idea what we were going to be facing. And in so many cases, solutions from the past, yesterday’s solutions are not going to solve tomorrow’s problems.

And so, I wanted to create this template that everybody could use regardless of their profession, regardless of their educational level. How can we make problems more approachable? And what’s a template everybody can solve? And I use the artists’ process to create a work of art because I’m a lawyer and an art historian, and I like to think I have a logical mind but I also wanted to tap into the creative process.

So, I broke the book down into three sections, three really easy sections – prep, draft, and exhibit. How do we prep the problem? How do we draft our solutions? And how do we bring them into the world? And each of those sections is broken down into subsections, but it all goes back to prep, draft, and exhibit. And I wanted the process to be simple. We all have enough on our plates. I don’t need to give people fancy acronyms and things to remember, “Oh, Amy said in her book we have to do A, B, C, and D.” Nobody has time for that.

How can we break problems into digestible pieces? And how can we not be afraid to engage in conversation the way artists, for millennia, have been creating works of art? This is not the time to fool with that success. Let’s leverage it. Let’s use that approach to try to solve our own problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, that’s fun. And a lot of your clients are, I don’t know what the word is, hardcore.

Amy Herman
That’s a good way to put it, they’re hardcore.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know, secret service, NATO, FBI, Interpol. In terms of not having time, I imagine their patience for “out there” or frilly or soft tools might be limited. I’m purely speculating. You can confirm or deny.

Amy Herman
You’re speculating correctly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, given that, I’m curious, could you maybe walk us through an example of what’s called hardcore clients applying some of this prep, draft, exhibit problem-solving process used from the artistic approach to solve something?

Amy Herman
Absolutely, and I’ll tell you about one of my favorite clients. One of my favorite clients is the NBA, National Basketball Association, and they brought me to Las Vegas, and I was going to lead a session in my program for about 250 heads of security for the NBA. Picture these guys. They’re the ones on the court, they’ve got an earpiece in their ear, they’re dressed in a suit, they’re watching the players, the GM, the audience, they’re making sure everybody is safe, there’s no violence, and that game is going to go forward. Can you picture the scene?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Amy Herman
So, the woman who introduces me gets up on the stage and she reads from a piece of paper, and says, “Amy Herman is here from New York, and she’s going to teach us how to look at works of art so you can do your job more effectively.” Every head went down to their phone. That was like the trigger to go start scrolling on your phone.

So, I get up on the stage and I say, “You know what, we’re going to have an instant replay. You’re going to be looking at art for the next two hours, I’m in charge, and you’re going to leave here thinking about your job differently than you came in.” And I broke them into pairs and I said, “One of you, close your eyes, one of you, keep your eyes open,” and I put a work of art up, and they had 45 seconds to describe it to their partner so that they could get the best visual image of what it was they were looking at.

They had to look at a work of art, they had to decide, they had to prep, “What am I going to say?” then they had to run it through their mind, and then they had to exhibit, they had to tell their partner the best possible version of something they had never seen before, and for the next two hours, flew, because I brought them new data. I brought them works of art. Nobody trained the NBA to look at works of art to think about how they do their job.

But to think about the creative process, every single basketball game, no two games are ever the same, no two teams are the same, no two securities concerns are the same, no two cities, and the game always changes from painting to painting to painting. And how do you assess that work of art you’re looking at? How do you re-draft it in your head? And how do you articulate it on that little microphone in your ear because the safety and the success of that game is in your hands?

And at the end of the session, I said to them, “You know, the NBA brought a copy of my book for each of you. Before you go to your cocktail party, I’ll be at the back signing your books.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be all alone back there.” Every single one of them stopped to sign a book and there were hugs all around because so many of them were NYPD officers from back home.

And it made me realize, it doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re on the basketball court, or you are in hostile territory, or you are the night nurse, you’re going to face problems that are unforeseen, and I want to be able to help you solve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing because, at first, you might say, “I don’t see the connection at all between looking at art and security,” but then this is, “Oh, yes. Sure enough, very often in that job, you could look at something and you had to describe that something well to collaborators or you might have a bit of a stickier situation if you did not describe it as well in terms of misunderstandings and over or under reactions and all that sort of thing.”

Amy Herman
I can bring in a quote that applies to everybody, and it’s a quote from the 19th century from Henry James, but it’s a quote that I give to every single one of my sessions, and I say, “Try to be that person on whom nothing is lost.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Amy Herman
“Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.” So, when you look at a work of art, I want you to tell me not only what you see but what are you missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Say more about that. Tell you not only what I see but what’s missing. Like, what I am missing from the art?

Amy Herman
Not only what you’re missing, what you expected to be there, assumptions you had that aren’t there. This is a concept that I stole from emergency medicine. It’s called the pertinent negative. It means articulating what’s not there in addition to what is there to actually give a more accurate picture of what you’re looking at.

So, here’s the example. If a patient comes in to the emergency room, and, let’s say, the attending physician thinks the patient has pneumonia. Pneumonia has three symptoms. Symptom one is present, symptom two is present, but if symptom three is absent, it’s the pertinent negative you need to say that it’s not there because then you know it’s not pneumonia.

So, when you arrive at a crime scene, and you hear on the radio all the details, well, you expected there to be blood. Well, there’s not blood everywhere. You need to say, “There isn’t blood everywhere. It’s not just that I see disarray and I see shell casings. There is no blood.” Because when you say what you see, you’re only giving half the picture.

So, art gives us this perfect vehicle, “Well, I notice all these blues and yellows, and trees in the picture, but I noticed there were no humans in the picture. There was no sunshine in the picture.” We’re actually getting to the other side of the issue to tell people not only what we see but what we don’t see. The pertinent negative is a really powerful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. I guess I’m thinking about all sorts of conversations in terms of we had a guest who talked about not just being provided an explanation, but are you being provided evidence. And there’s quite a difference.

Amy Herman
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, often, we make do with an explanation, like, “Oh, okay, I guess that makes some sense, so I can move along,” versus if you really got your antenna up and you’re thinking critically and alertly, you can say, “Okay, so that might be a plausible story but do we have the evidence that that is, in fact, what did occur? That’d be great to see.” Or, in a conversation, in terms of maybe what I didn’t hear was an apology, what I didn’t hear was a commitment to do something differently.

And so, that’s a cool tool, the pertinent negative from ER folk. If I could, well, say, have you borrowed some nifty things from law enforcement in terms of a ready-to-go tool like that you could share?

Amy Herman
I have. Actually, I have two tools that I wanted to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Amy Herman
One of them, just to build on the pertinent negative, is in warfare, in modern warfare.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the video game.

Amy Herman
Nope, not the video game.

Pete Mockaitis
Modern Warfare, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah, I didn’t even know there was such a thing, so I’m learning from you.

Pete Mockaitis
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Amy Herman
No, my son would know that. In World War II, the Royal Air Force sent their planes out, their fighter planes out, and they suffered heavily at the hands of German anti-aircraft fire. And when the planes came back, the Royal Air Force didn’t have enough armor to reinforce the whole plane before they sent them out again to fight.

So, the decision was made by the Royal Air Force, “Let’s just fix the planes where they were damaged,” but it was a mathematician, a single mathematician who was dissenting, and said, “You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He said, “You need to look at these planes to see where they weren’t damaged, and that’s where you need to reinforce them because the planes that were damaged in those areas didn’t come back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Zing, yeah.

Amy Herman
See how the pertinent negative works. So, you get on the other side of the issue. And just today, I was talking with one of my colleagues in the NYPD and we were talking about different applications of the program, and he said, “You know, one of the things that you taught us is that when we get to the crime scene, we hear about the crime scene, we hear it on the radio, we get there, we know what we’re expecting.”

“Not only do we have to overcome confirmation bias, thinking, ‘Been there, done that. I know what I’m going to find,’ but you’ve instilled in us that we need to go back, retrace our steps, and walk into the crime scene again to notice what we didn’t see the first time. What’s on the staircase? What’s on the landing? What’s in the garbage can?” He said, “How many times have I found a weapon that’s been thrown outside the crime scene, and is never within the confines of where we’re looking.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, the retracing the steps, I’m thinking how does that work mentally? So, okay, I go to the crime scene once, I take a good look around, and then I just pretend that I didn’t do that or what are we thinking?

Amy Herman
I think the whole thing in reverse, and I enter again because your eyes, you’re already planning on what you’re going to see. And what confirmation bias is, is you have an idea in your head of what you’re going to see and your brain will seek out those things to confirm what’s already in your brain. But when you make it a practice to say, “Okay, I’m here. I’m going to step out and walk again, and try to notice what I didn’t see before.”

So, one of the assignments that I give to my classes, if I see them over a course of two days, their assignment is, when they leave, to come back and tell me something that they noticed that night on the way home that they wouldn’t have seen before. And it forces you to look outside of your comfort zone because we’re all trying to get from point A to point B, and we forget that there are points C through Z out there.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s funny. When I think about that challenge, “Notice something you haven’t noticed before,” I guess I’m thinking in a professional career context, like a document. You want a spreadsheet or a report or a bunch of words to be free of errors and really compelling, persuasive, well-researched and all that good stuff.

And so, it’s tricky when you’re reviewing your own writing in terms of being like kind of catching the stuff. But then when you put that challenge in there, in terms of notice what you haven’t noticed before, in a way it’s sort of puts your brain in a funky little loop, it’s like, “Well, how am I supposed to do that? I didn’t notice it before. How am I going to notice it?”

But then it’s just like look specifically for that which you haven’t looked before, I guess my mind is thinking, well, the first thing you might notice might be somewhat inconsequential, like, “I’m using this font, is actually mismatched in some places. Okay, quick fix, doesn’t matter a lot, but a little more consistency, professionalism.”

And then you might notice any number of things like, “I’m using the word indeed a lot. That might be kind of annoying,” or if you say, “Hey, if I’m not going to notice something that I haven’t noticed before, maybe I need to get a fresh lens on this, maybe get some AI tools to look at my writing, and tell me some things. Like, hotdog.” I’m actually kind of impressed with what those can do right now.

Amy Herman
And think about how effective this can be in problem-solving. You do the same thing over and over again, you say, “Well, how are we going to get out of this rut?” And you say to yourself, “All right, I’m going to look for something that I haven’t seen before that’s intrinsic to this problem. What happens before the problem occurs? What happens immediately after?” And if you make it a practice to look for things that you didn’t see before, you’d be amazed what drops into your lap.

And you know what, this all calls upon another concept that I learned from one of my colleagues at the FBI, and I use it every single day. It’s a Latin phrase, “Festina lente.” Festina lente. It means to make haste slowly. We all have deadlines, we all need to get to the finish line, but if you don’t make that haste purposefully and slowly and look around, you’re going to have to start all over again.

And it brings me back to one of my favorite books, it’s called The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, it’s a book from 2013. And it’s about the eight-oared boat from the University of Washington that won the gold at the 1936 Olympics. They beat Hitler’s boat. It was, really, quite the upset. It’s a great book. It’s about our strengths and weaknesses, and that we’re all part of a team. The boat is just as good as its weakest rower.

But the reason I bring in festina lente is what could be a better example of having to row. Of course, you want to row quickly, you want to win the race, but if you’re not in sync with all the other rowers and you’re not communicating with them, you’re going to lose. And so, it means taking the time to communicate about how quickly you’re going so that you can make haste slowly.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Lovely. Okay. Well, so we talked about the prep, draft, exhibit. Could you maybe walk us through, in terms of step by step, how do I apply this process when I’m trying to solve a problem?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. There are some steps within each of those, and the table of contents is broken down. I’m going to give you one section from each of them that I think is most important, and it’s going to sound blatantly obvious. But under prep, you need to define the problem, you need to say it out loud. Because if you assume that everybody knows what the problem is, you’re all gathered, how many times have you been at a meeting and everybody says, “Okay, we’re here to discuss X.” How come we never say what X is?

We need to go around the table, and ask, “What is everybody’s perception of the problem?” to make sure we’re all starting on the same page. That’s part of the prep. And part of the draft, I think, the two most important parts of draft are breaking the problem into bite-size pieces. When little kids, toddlers, are learning to eat, you cut their food up into small pieces. Well, at some point, they have to learn to eat themselves. We need to break it into bite-size pieces so that we can digest the problem, and then we need to set deadlines.

There’s this negative association with the deadline. It’s not such a bad thing. It forces us to be creative. It forces us to find a solution. And, finally, under exhibit, the two most important things are to manage contradictions. We’re going to find contradictions all the time, “It can’t be fixed. Can’t do it. This doesn’t match.” Manage those contradictions. Articulate them.

And the second one is what I started this discussion with was kintsugi, repairing your mistakes with gold because there are going to be mistakes the whole way but I think it’s so important to incorporate those mistakes into your solution because you’re going to have to solve problems over and over and over again, and recognizing the mistakes and honoring those struggles is a great way to start to get to the solution.

So, within prep, draft, and exhibit, there are bite-size pieces that you can take. And I really believe, working across the professional spectrum, almost any problem can be solved this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s grab one, let’s grab a problem and sort of move step by step here.

Amy Herman
Sure. So, let’s think about… I worked with a group of nurses in the hospital after there was a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Do you remember?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah. And so, I had a session with the shock and trauma nurses. And one of the reasons I love working with them, there’s no mincing of words. They are negotiating on the frontlines, they are processing the trauma that’s coming through the doors, they’re dealing with family members, they’re dealing with medical personnel, and there is no time. You can’t mince words. Every word matters.

And one of them said to me, she raised her hand, and she said, “You know the night of that shooting, we ran out of gurneys, Amy. We ran out of gurneys and we had to put the patients over our shoulders to bring them into the emergency room.” And she said, “I lost it as a human being.” She said, “We were out of resources and I couldn’t articulate anymore.” And I said, “Well, what did you do then?” She said, “I had to pull it together because I can’t be an effective nurse until I can communicate not just with my colleagues but with colleagues, patients, and families.”

And so, without that communication, we just have to learn to pull it together, and, of course, not everybody is in a shock-and-trauma setting. As you said before, so many of the people I work with are in life and death situations. Most of us don’t work in those situations. But it’s still so important to regroup, and to say, “Okay, what’s the immediate problem here?” She lost it as a human being, she couldn’t communicate, and if you can’t communicate and you’re in the shock and trauma ward, you need to fix that problem immediately.

But, yet, another shock and trauma nurse who doesn’t have the same reaction is going to be dealing with families, and they’re going to see people in panic mode, so they’re going to have different perceptions of the problem and how they’re going to solve a problem, so articulating, “You do A, I’m going to do B, and you do C.” Sometimes there are time constraints, sometimes there aren’t, but we have many, many different facets to deal with. And, again, this book is not about art. It’s using art as a template that different people can use in a whole host of scenarios to prep, draft, and exhibit to solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And could you share with us maybe one more top do and top don’t when it comes to problem-solving and how art can help us?

Amy Herman
Sure. So, the first top do is to recognize that you need to say what you see before you say what you think. People confuse them all the time. So, when we’re looking at a work of art, people will say, “Well, I don’t like that. And I hate modern art.” That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what do you see? And so, to think about the firm line of delineation between saying what you see and saying what you think. What you think is very, very important but you need to lay the groundwork first.

And I would say the top don’t, don’t speak without thinking. Do the prep and draft in your head before you send an email, before you press send, before you pick up the phone, or so many of my clients are on the radio. Think before you speak. And I will say this, communication is a two-way street. It’s not just what you have to say, it’s how it’s being heard. To whom are you speaking? And who is listening to you? And the prep and the draft and the exhibit are all tailored and according to whom you are working with and to whom are you communicating.

Think before you speak. The top don’t is don’t speak without thinking. And the top do is say what you see before you say what you think.

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

Amy Herman
I‘m going to repeat the quote that I said before about Henry James, at the risk of saying it twice, because it is so fundamental to me, to my work, and the way I try to live my life from walking to the corner to go get a quart of milk, to helping someone in distress. It’s what Henry James said, “Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.”

And just in parenthesis, that also enhances your own engagement in the world. Nothing is lost. I know you can engage with people and the places and appreciate so much more where you are by trying to be that person on whom nothing is lost.

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

Amy Herman
Yeah, a bit of research that was just mind boggling to me was a study done in 2009 in Jerusalem, and it was a study of radiologists. And what they did is they showed a group of radiologists MRIs and X-rays and scans, but for a controlled group, they also showed a photograph of the patient. So, it wasn’t just the X-ray of the lungs or the ribs or the hips, there was also an actual photograph of the person.

And for those radiologists who had the photograph of the person, they found 80% more findings. Their reports were more in depth, and they also found ancillary findings. And when they asked the physicians, “What could account for this 80% difference?” they said, “You know, it took no extra time to have a picture of the patient next to a picture of the lung, and it gave us a broader picture of the whole person.”

And I think about that study because sometimes we just see a cross-section of a person, we have an email, we have an X-ray, we have an MRI, and by thinking of that person, by thinking of that X-ray as in a whole person, it’s going to broaden your own view of them and help them solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite book?

Amy Herman
My favorite book, again, to repeat what I talked about before, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown from 2013. It’s about individuals and teamwork, and just cheering on the underdog. I’m a huge champion of the underdog.

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

Amy Herman
When I’m completely overwhelmed and my brain is foggy, I sit back and, because of the pandemic, I go to a museum online, and I look at works of art, some that I know and some that I don’t, and I just take a deep breath, and it allows my eyes to relax, and it allows my brain to simmer down and remind me to see things with refreshed eyes whenever possible.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients; they quote it back to you often?

Amy Herman
Think about what you’re not seeing, that pertinent negative. More often than not, when I ask, “What’s the key takeaway from the art of perception?” people say, “To think about what I’m not seeing and to know that it’s right in front of me, and to really gear our vision and our looking and our sense of critical inquiry, to think about not just what we see but what we don’t see.”

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

Amy Herman
I would point them to my website, ArtfulPerception.com, and my books are at ArtfulBooks.com, and I’m on social media @AmyHermanAOP.

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

Amy Herman
Every day that you go to work or you sit down at your desk, prepare to have your eyes opened when you don’t even realize that they’re closed. Every day, I want you to end the day having your eyes opened in a way that you didn’t even know they were closed. And it can be the smallest thing that you notice, just so when we talked about what you didn’t see before, but know that your eyes are closed and make the effort to open them. And use art to do that when you can.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and fun in all your problem-solving.

Amy Herman
Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

735: Cultivating the Mindset of Motivated and Successful People with Jim Cathcart

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Legendary speaker Jim Cathcart shares powerful wisdom for overcoming the self-limiting beliefs that keep us from thriving in work and life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The simple secret to motivating yourself and others
  2. A powerful phrase to motivate you to be your best
  3. The four steps to breaking bad habits

About Jim

Jim Cathcart, CSP, CPAE is a person who has achieved every major milestone in professional speaking: President of the National Speakers Association, Speakers Hall of Fame, 22 published books, 3,300 highly paid speeches worldwide, speeches in China, South America, Europe, and in every one of the 50 US states. He received the Golden Gavel Award from Toastmasters International which was also presented to Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar,, Earl Nightingale and Walter Cronkite. He received The Cavett Award from the National Speakers Association, and more.

Jim is also a guitarist and singer/songwriter who performs often in clubs, at conventions and special events. A fitness enthusiast who has logged over 10,000 miles of running mountain trails after age 60, and a lifetime member of the American Motorcyclist Association. A newscaster once said, “Jim Cathcart is what ‘Fonzie’ from Happy Days would have been if he had gone to business school.” To that end, in September of 2021 Jim received an honorary business degree from High Point University in North Carolina.

Resources Mentioned

Jim Cathcart Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jim, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jim Cathcart
Hey, it’s a great place to be. Thank you for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so fun to be chatting with you. I was reading you when I was a teenager, and here we are talking. That’s wild.

Jim Cathcart
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’d love to get your take, having lived through, boy, with some of the greats, a great yourself, when it comes in the speaking biz as well as hobnobbing with other just sort of legends, rock stars, Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. I grew up in the human potential movement. If you look at the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, that was known as the human potential movement because it was the first time that society in the US got really interested in self-development and success, motivation, and that whole general field. And the primary players were Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, and then Earl Nightingale and on and on.

And then Denis Waitley and I came along about the same time, and then Zig Ziglar was just before us, and along with us, for that matter, and Og Mandino and W. Clement Stone. And then Tony Robbins came later and Brian Tracy and Les Brown, so it’s been a heck of a ride. And I know all those folks. I mean, I didn’t know Napoleon Hill, but all the rest that I’d mentioned, I’ve known them all and worked with most of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us, any funny anecdotes or stories or surprise tidbits that you think listeners might get a kick out of if they’re familiar with some of these legends?

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. In 1976, in November of ’76, I was at the Oral Roberts University big arena, and it’s called the Mabee Center. And there were 11,700 attendees at the positive thinking rally, and the speakers were Paul Harvey, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, Earl Nightingale, Art Linkletter, Zig Ziglar, Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association. And the emcee was Don Hutson out of Memphis. And Don and I had met through a training organization and he invited me backstage to meet my hero Earl Nightingale.

So, I went backstage and shook Earl’s hand and had the appropriate goosebumps and loss of breath and everything that would go with being star struck. And then, Don and I walked out, and we were standing behind the big stage, looking out at the sea of bodies up in the stands, and Don said, “Jim,” he called me JC. He said, “JC, we’ve got this.”

I said this, “What do you mean we’ve got this?” He said, “All these speakers on this program, they’re 20 or 30 years older than us. We’re next,” and he was right. And he went on to become president of the National Speakers Association. So did I. We were both inducted into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, Sales and Marketing Hall of Fame. I’ve written 22 books, he’s written a big handful of New York Times bestsellers himself, and I was just collaborating with him yesterday on a new business deal.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool.

Jim Cathcart
And all the others are gone now. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, our respects to them. And thank you and congratulations for your success and contributions to the field. We’ve got a whole boatload of things we could talk about. My producers found you specifically to talk about motivation and The Power Minute: Your Motivation Handbook for Activating Your Dreams & Transforming Your Life. So, that sounds awesome. Tell us, what’s the big idea behind this book?

Jim Cathcart
Well, first up, motivation needs to be understood as motive and action. Motive, action. Motivation. It’s easy to remember. So, if you think, “I’m not motivated to do something,” well, if you haven’t acted on your motive, then you’re right, you’re not motivated to do it. You might have a motive, but until you take action, it’s just a dream, a wish, or an impulse, or a preference.

So, how do you motivate somebody? Well, you do not bring motives to them. You find motives in them. So, if I put a gun to your head and asked you to give me all your money, if you don’t want to continue to live, you probably won’t give me your money, you’ll just say, “Take your best shot,” right? So, you got to have the motive for me to be able to stimulate it and get the results I want.

So, if I put a gun to somebody’s head and they don’t care if they live or die, then that’s not going to work. I got to find another way to appeal to them. If I offer somebody a vacation in Acapulco and they’re not interested in international travel, it may have been a great reward for somebody but not for them so they’re not motivated. So, if I can learn to read people day-to-day and listen more acutely to what people say and what they express interest in, I can identify their motives because people will teach you how to motivate if you’ll just listen. And so, then I know how to appeal to you.

So, it might be it’s like in couple’s therapy, they talk about love languages. Some people feel really loved when you’re listening intently just to them. Some people don’t think that much of that one. They feel really loved when you give them a thoughtful little gift. Some people feel really loved when you mention them to other people and brag about them, and there are a lot of other ways.

 

Same thing is true for motivation. Some people are motivated by things, some people are motivated by experiences, some are motivated by interactions and relationships, and so forth. So, there are lots of ways to motivate someone. That’s why I wrote The Power Minute, which is your self-motivation handbook. And The Power Minute is 336 one-minute ideas for how to motivate yourself or others.

Now, how do I know they’re one minute? Because I originally wrote them as one-minute radio clips, and so they have to be timed exactly to that and the script was that tight. And so, I put them all together, and I said, “This would make a pretty good book but it needs some more work.” So, I worked on it and had 365, and out of 365, about 30 of them were pretty lame and obvious, so I eliminated those and kept 336, and that became the book. And I was writing the book as if I was teaching my grandchildren how to look at life and live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. So, share with us, I like how you could cut 29 and don’t allow yourself to put out inferior content just to hit a sweet 365 number, which should be tempting for many of us. So, tell us, because I’m thinking now about the 80/20 Principle and how 20% of them could have 80% of the juice, and maybe 4% of them, even 64% of the juice, fractal style. So, can I put you on the spot to give me your top, we’ll say, five.

Jim Cathcart
Let me give you one that summarizes the whole book and most of my philosophy in life, “Become a magnet, not merely an arrow.” In other words, cultivate in yourself the qualities of the person who would live the life you want to live, get the rewards you want to get, have the experiences and the relationships you want to have. Be the kind of person the people you admire would love to hang with, and those people will be more attracted to you. Be a magnet for what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s the magnet. And what’s an arrow by contrast?

Jim Cathcart
Well, an arrow goes outward from you toward a target. So, that’s when you work diligently to achieve a goal. That’s fine. You find the goal, you identify the steps, you do the discipline day-to-day until you get there – that’s an arrow. But a magnet develops the qualities that make them the sort of person that others want to do business with, that others want to hang around with, that others would seek out the advice of.

When I joined the National Speakers Association in my 30s in 1976, I was right at 30 years old. That makes me 75 today, by the way, save people the math because some of them are doing it in their heads. So, 30 years old, I joined the National Speaker Association. That’s, at that time, only a few hundred members but they were my heroes, the big names, the big-deal people in the world of human development, and I had none of the credentials that I have today, and I didn’t have much career experience either.

So, I decided to be the most generous, the most grateful, the most helpful, the most flexible, the most willing supporter and encourager that they could find. I went to the convention, offered to move chairs, put out signs, greet people, take tickets, do whatever was necessary, drive someone to the airport, if necessary, although I didn’t have a car at the time, that kind of thing. And I was included into the conversations with the big guns as if I was an equal.

And when they would ask about me, I’d give them a very brief answer, and then I asked about them because I didn’t want them learning about me. I wanted me to learn about them so I could become, someday, one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. That’s cool. And so then, that magnet principle is fantastic when it comes to people in terms of, “Yeah, this Jim guy, I like him. I like the way he works it. I like the way he’s helpful. I like being around him. I like the way I feel in his presence, so fantastic.” I guess I’m also wondering…

Jim Cathcart
Oh, I got a quote for you.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll take it.

Jim Cathcart
This is from the first president of the National Speakers Association, Bill Gove. He, in a speech, one time, said, “The greatest compliment I’ve ever heard in my life is this, ‘I like me better when I’m with you.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is nice.

Jim Cathcart
Ain’t that a great example?

Pete Mockaitis
I had a friend who once told me, “Pete, you make people love themselves,” which was among my all-time faves, and that memory there. So, yeah, that’s cool. And so then, that magnet principle is fantastic for people-y goals in terms of you want…I’m thinking about sort of like a career in leadership and folks want you in the room, and to be present, and to trust you with some responsibilities and things. I’m curious about goals that are less people-y. Let’s talk about maybe fitness or sort of powering through a bunch of stuff you don’t feel like powering through. What are some of your favorite principles there?

Jim Cathcart
I can definitely address those. Well, in 1975, I weighed 200 pounds on a 5’9” frame that should be 150. Fifty-two excess pounds at the time, and I had never been fit, never been an athlete, and I wanted to be, and I had set some big goals for my life and my career, and I’ve looked at my life totally, wholistically – mental, physical, family, social, spiritual, career, financial, emotional – and I knew that I had to grow in each of those areas, and that’s eight areas, and many of those areas needed work, and one of those was fitness and health.

And so, I’d quit smoking a couple of years before and I’d gained a little weight, and I decided it’s time to make a change so I’m going to lose weight. Well, I knew I could diet successfully. I’d done that half a dozen times but I always gained it back in the next year or two. So, I decided I’m going to become a slender person. And people that knew me said, “What’s the difference?” I said, “Slender people never have to go on diets.” They said, “Well, yeah, some people are lucky.” “No, no, no, no, no. Slender is not luck. Slender may have something to do with your metabolism but you can also live a slender life by choice.”

So, I re-thought the way I lived my day-to-day life, the kind of food that I kept in the refrigerator, the kind of drinks that I used for refreshment, the places I went and the way I participated. For example, I had never considered water to be a real drink. I thought it was the default if nothing else was available. And I’d never had coffee or tea without sugar in it. And in coffee’s instance, I had cream as well as sugar, so it was basically a mocha milkshake.

And I decided I’m going to learn to like black coffee and I’m going to stop drinking sugared soda, Cokes and things, and instead of substituting it with diet soda, I’m going to learn to enjoy water. And I did, and that was 1976. By the way, I lost 52 pounds over about a three-month period, became fit – and I’ll tell you about that part of it in a second – and have been slender ever since. So, my waist is 30 inches, and I’m 75 years old, and it’s been pretty close to 30 inches for the last 40 plus years.

And I enjoy water. In fact, sometimes when we go out to dinner, I’ll just have water with the meal – no ice, thank you – and I’m perfectly content with that. And when I drink coffee, it’s always black coffee, but, at first, I didn’t like just water and I didn’t like black coffee. So, I re-trained my own taste buds and my own preferences, and I went on, at first, what I called a FABS diet. I made it up.

No fats, meaning animal fats, no alcohol, no bread, meaning white flour, and no second helpings. F-A-B-S. Second helpings are exactly twice as fattening as first helpings. I’ve noticed that. And I was always saying to my wife, “You’re not going to waste that, are you?” If she didn’t finish something on her plate, I would W-A-I-S-T waist it by putting it in my body.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Zing.

Jim Cathcart
See, all food goes to waste. It either goes into the trash or it goes around your middle.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jim Cathcart
So, you have to choose which one do you prefer, and people say, “Well, it’s just wrong. It’s sinful to throw away food that’s still good.” Well, then put it in the fridge and eat it later or wait till it molds and then throw it away, but don’t store it around your middle. It takes too long to get rid of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. So, with that example then, we’re still applying that magnet principle except it’s not so much the people that are drawn to us but the results, and it still comes from the work of reshaping your core, like identity perspective, you are a slender person, and by being that, “How does a slender person think and operate and behave?” and there you go.

Jim Cathcart
Exactly. And that was the big thing because your mindset leads to your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits are your reputation, because a reputation is simply observed habit patterns. And your reputation determines which relationship doors open to you and which ones close. And the relationships you’re able to form determine the size of a future you’re capable of because nobody does it alone.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s right. And if there are any skeptics in the audience, like, “Oh, that’s the motivation-y stuff,” I’ve been quite impressed with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura talking about self-efficacy, which is that these linkages are, in fact, pretty robustly evidenced in research that it’s not rah-rah.

Jim Cathcart
Oh, yeah, there is a lot of proof. The way a person thinks determines the actions they will choose. If they think they are unworthy and unlikable, then they will build up defenses and look for ways to game a system. If they think they are worthy and able to be valuable to other people, they will look for opportunities, and they will reach out.

If they feel they cannot recover from a failure, then they will do everything to mask themselves and their performance so that no one notices their failures. If they feel they can bounce back from a failure, the failure is not a scar or a permanent stain, it’s simply action that didn’t pay off the way you wanted. If they feel they can bounce back, then they will stay in the game and keep trying other things. They’ll be open to new ideas. So, mindset leads to actions, and actions repeated become patterns, which are habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, then, let’s go right to the core there. So, if you do have a belief or a mindset that isn’t leading you down the actions/habits pathway onto results that you’re looking for, like if you think…

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, leading you downhill instead of uphill because you got the same chain uphill and downhill. It’s what I call a causation chain. And so, it’s mindset, actions, habits, reputation, relationships, future. And if you go down the stairs instead of up the stairs, then it’s mindset, limited actions or wrong actions, bad habits, bad reputation, no relationships, small future or dim and dismal future.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, let’s say, if we do find ourselves, like we notice in ourselves a belief or a mindset that is pointing us in a downhill direction, and maybe we think, “I’m just fat,” or, “I am a loser,” or, “I’m too shy. I’ll never be able to run the big thing.” So, whatever limiting or unpleasant or downward-pointing mindset, belief, we have – and sometimes I think they are very conscious and front of mind for us, and other times are kind of buried, a little bit under the surface…

 

Jim Cathcart
And, also, we’ve been listening to people tell us things about ourselves, and many people just say, “Okay, that’s a fact because so and so said so.” That’s not true. That’s their opinion, their point of view based on the limited experience they’ve had with you. Like, if your parents tell you you’re a loser, that you’re never going to be a competitor, or that you’re not good at math, or you’re whatever, name your category. If you’ve been labeled or blamed as not being worthy in that category, and you accept that, then that’s your life. Sucks to be you. Sorry.

But if you say, “Well, man, that hurts and I don’t like that. How do I get past that?” The way to get past that is a different mindset, a different point of view, a different way of thinking about yourself, your world, your relationships, your potential, and other people, about life in general. I recognized, growing up in a working-class household where dad was a telephone repairman and mom was a homemaker, and we had my invalid grandfather in the front bedroom, who spent seven years in a hospital bed, never spoke or moved from the bed because of a stroke.

We had a loving household. But I wasn’t encouraged to think big. No one said, “Boy, Jim, you’ve really got potential. Man, if you apply yourself, you could do anything you want.” Nobody said that to me.

So, one day, I heard Earl Nightingale on the radio, Earl was a dean of personal motivation in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and he said, “If you will spend one hour extra each day studying your chosen field, in five years or less, you’ll be a national expert in that field. And in seven years, with an hour of focused attention extra on that each day, probably one of the world’s leading authorities in that field.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s 1,250 hours if you figure the minimal approach to five years, 1,250 hours on one subject beyond the job, yeah, even I could do that.”

And then I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living because I was working as a government clerk for the housing authority, and then it hit me a few weeks later, “I want to do what he’s doing but I don’t know what that means.” And so, I started studying human development, applied behavioral science, psychology, things like that, fanatically. I’m talking 12, 15, 20, 30 hours a week listening to recordings, reading books, going to the few seminars that existed back then, just getting around anybody that knew what they were talking about in those fields, and my world transformed.

And I bought a whole series of recordings from Earl Nightingale and listened to them fanatically every day to reprogram my own mind over time to seeing the world in a much more positive and intelligent way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And I completely buy that incidentally in terms of the hours because I think some people would say, “Oh, Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hours, whatever,” and that’s a bit of a different phenomenon, like violin practice versus knowledge in a domain because I’ve heard it said that if you read the top five books in your field, you’re beyond, like 90 plus percent of folks.

Jim Cathcart
You’re in the top 3% already, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s just five books, which might be like 15 of your hours, clock it under a month. So, I totally buy that. So, hey, good on you, How to be Awesome at Your Job listeners. You’re going places. Well, that’s one pathway to answer the question. If you find yourself with a mindset that’s not doing the trick for you, one path is to just dig, dig, dig deep into learning about a thing.

And so, are there other pathways you’d recommend in terms of, let’s say, “I think I’m just shy and I’ll never really be able to have a commanding presence in a room because that’s just not my gifting. I’m kind of behind the scenes, operational person, and that’s fine. We need all sorts.” What do we do with that?

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, let’s drill down. Let’s drill down to the underlying assumption. I found that there are two primary mindsets in the world that tend to easily separate the vast majority of subjects into this school and that school of thought. And the underlying mindset is there is a loving Creator, whether you call it a universal intelligence, or God, or Mother Nature, or whatever it is. There is a loving Creator in our lives. We’re meant to be. That’s one mindset or worldview.

The other one is, “No, there’s not. And once you’re dead, it’s over.” Okay. So, let’s take one of those assumptions and start organizing all the input that comes into a person’s life based on that underlying assumption. The assumption is, “There’s not one. This is it. And when it’s over, it’s over.” Okay. “It’s everyone for themselves. Get what you can while you can. And anything you can get away with, cool. Just do it because…” The other side says, “No, you should be nice to people because that’s what works best.” “Okay, if it works best. If it doesn’t work best, to heck with them. This is your only shot. Go for it.” so, that’s one mindset.

The other mindset is there is a reason for humans to be alive. We are so profoundly different from all other lifeforms that this must be somehow meant to be. And if that’s the case, then we’re not the sheep of an angry god that wants us to submit, because how shallow would that be for something as powerful as a god to just want servants and just wants submission? You follow that through to the thoughtful end of it, and it just doesn’t make sense.

So, if there is a source of creation, a source of life, and that source of life meant for us to exist, then what is sin? Sin would be not living well, fully, in the ways that you’re designed to live. In other words, there are thousands, if not millions, of contributions you could make to the world to make it a better place, a happier place, a more loving place, a safer place, etc. And if you don’t do those things you are capable of doing, or learning how to do, then you deny your creation, you say, “No, I was a mistake. I’m a factory second. Just let me get out of the way. I’ll die soon. Don’t worry about it.”

Or, you can say, “If I’m meant to exist, and I can do a great deal of good, it would be a sin, not in a Biblical sense, but in a cosmic or philosophical sense, for me not to do the good I could do. If somebody needs to be pulled out of quicksand and I’m walking by and I’ve got a rope, and I don’t do it, I can take partial blame for their death because I didn’t do the good I was capable of doing at a time when I could’ve done it.”

So, I think there is a reason for people to exist. I think that the essence of life is living fully, that that’s our job, our assignment, and that that means physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally, etc., and that we should live the most abundant life we’re capable of. They’ll, “Yeah, but I’m not good at math.” Yet. See, that’s the word that all these people leave out.

Sudoku, just play around with friends or go to Mathnasium where my grandson teaches, and learn to be better at math, “Yeah, but I just don’t like people.” No, you don’t like you and you’re afraid of getting around other people because you don’t think they’ll like you either. Well, true. Or, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve got the bandwidth to do smart things.” Do you know how to avoid pain? “Yeah.” Do you know how to eliminate danger, like if a kid is running into traffic, you stop them or you stop the traffic? “Yeah.” It looks to me like you’re a useful being. Go forth and multiply.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s fascinating and deep and profound in terms of like zeroing in on a singular belief and you brought it to a Creator. And I guess, I don’t know, we could debate whether this is one belief.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, the danger here is when you say the word Creator, people say, “Oh, God, church, Bible, strict, rules, judgment, shame.” And you think, “What? Where the heck did that come from? I never brought up any of that stuff,” but they go, [makes noise] right down into that deep dark hole, and that’s not what it’s about at all. Not at all.

There is a life source. Everybody would pretty much have to agree that there’s a source that causes life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess when you bring about the life source, I guess I’m thinking the notion of responsibility is what hits me in that it’s like either you feel, you believe you are responsible to become all you can be, to contribute all you can, or you think it’s more of a hedonistic do-whatever eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die kind of a vibe.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. Well, one of those goes outward and the other one comes inward. See, the outward is the service and the doing, and the other one is the receiving, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess I’m thinking it’s conceivably possible that you might not have a unique view…you can have a different view of the Creator but also feel the responsibility. But, regardless, I hear what you’re saying in terms of we’ve got…that is a foundational mindset pathway differentiator right there. And so, if we are on the…

Jim Cathcart
And it has a profound domino effect once that shift is made.

Pete Mockaitis
So, if we are on the responsible stewardship contribution pathway, and then we have more of a minor mindset difference, like, “Oh, I’m just shy and I’m not going to be able to do whatever,” it’s like you gave us one master key, which is throwing a yet in there. It’s like, “At the moment, that is the case. However, that is not fixed and we have the opportunity,” Carol Dweck’s growth mindset action, “to grow and flourish.”

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, things are learnable.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s one master key. Any other perspectives there? You find yourself with a troubling mindset and you want to shift gears and directions, what can we do?

Jim Cathcart
If you feel that life is unfair, that, somehow, you’re a factory reject, you were the bad product coming off the assembly line and there’s not much hope for you, then your life is going to be defensive. Your life is going to be sad, of course, and scary but you’re going to take that assumption and reinforce it daily with actions that kind of build on that belief. So, how do you interrupt that belief? It’s not just the other. How do you interrupt that belief? Because any pattern that’s not working needs to be interrupted. And if you don’t interrupt the pattern, you get more of it.

So, if I’ve got a pattern of eating too many sweets, let me look at that pattern. Where do I keep the sweets? “It’s all around the house.” Why? “Because I like to eat them.” Okay, do you like the result of eating them? “No.” Okay, could you restrict them to one place in the house and eat fewer? “Yeah, if I didn’t have them on the coffee table and the kitchen counter and the other places, I probably wouldn’t impulse-eat as often. So, yeah, if I put them on the cabinet, always had to go in there and never put them out on the table, then I would probably eat fewer sweets.” Okay, what if you didn’t even put them in the house? What if they were in the garage, in a cabinet?

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Jim Cathcart
“Well, that’s just silly.” No, it’s not. This is simply a self-management technique. I came up with a little formula I call MADE, and I say it’s your mindset and your lifestyle must be made. And it’s going to be made by someone else or by you, so why not take charge of it? So, M mental picture. What do you focus your attention on? How do you envision your future? How do you talk about your future and so forth?

A, affirmation. That’s the words you use, the actions you take, that reinforce one mental picture or another. So, if I say, “I’m not very coordinated physically. I don’t learn new skills quickly.” Okay, I get that. Every time you say that, you strengthen that belief. Every single time you say it, you strengthen the belief in it. And every time you strengthen that belief, you increase the likelihood of undesirable actions.

So, mental picture, affirmation. The D in MADE is daily successes, and that means doing little tiny things every single day that leads in the direction you want instead of the direction you want to avoid. And the E stands for environmental influences. So, it could be something as simple as having a motivational slogan on your wall, or a photo of your dearest child or grandchild in front of you on your desk, or a reminder, or a saying, or something – environmental influences. Also, the people you hang with are environmental influences. The places you go are environmental influences.

So, I thought I was naturally inclined to be a fat guy. I spoke that way and I acted that way. So, I had to change my mental picture, and say, “I commit here today to become a slender person,” and then I had to notice my language and interrupt the pattern of talking myself down, and say, “I’m becoming slender.” Someone said, “Jim, you’re fat,” “Yeah, but I’m becoming slender.” And so, I adjusted my language and I talked in terms of what I wanted and intended, not what I feared or hated.

And then daily successes, I found that I couldn’t get myself, at first, to exercise on a regular basis, so I made an absurd commitment that turned the trick. I committed, and I don’t mean I decided to do this on a superficial level. I committed to putting on my running shoes and walking to the curb every day, 365 days a year, no matter what the weather, no matter what the agenda. And you’d think, “Well, that’s just stupid. It’s so trivial.” No, that was the first olive out of the bottle. That was the first lick on the ketchup bottle that got it to start flowing.

By walking to the curb with running shoes on, every day I had to make a second decision, “Do I go for a walk or a run, or do I go back in the house and eat ice cream?” And some days, I went back in the house and I ate ice cream, but most days I said, “Well, I’m going to the corner. Well, I can go to the next mailbox. I could make it to that tree before I stop.” And before long, I was running five miles a day easily, and the weight just dripped off of me because I was still on the FABS diet regimen, and I was learning to like water and black coffee. And I dropped 52 pounds, I got in great physical shape, and people started talking about me as an athlete.

I remember the first time a guy said, “He’s skinny like Jim,” and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I am thin. I’m skinny. Wow! Thank you.” And that was 40 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool.

Jim Cathcart
Forty plus, as a matter of fact.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Kudos. Kudos.

Jim Cathcart
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jim, this has been a lot of fun. I want to make sure we get to hear some of your favorite things. Can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Cathcart
A favorite passage from the Bible – I’m Christian – is John 10:10, but you don’t have to take this in a Biblical sense. You can take it in a philosophical sense. John 10:10 is where Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’ve come that they would have life, and have it more abundantly.” Well, I embrace that as my life purpose. I want my life to help others live more abundantly, live more fully, more meaningfully, more satisfying, because they got ideas that I was sharing. So, that’s my purpose.

The greatest quote I can recall right off the top of my head is from Zig Ziglar. Zig said, “You can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” And ain’t that the truth, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And could you also share with us a favorite book?

Jim Cathcart
I’ve got two and they’re very similar in nature. One is The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, which stood for Augustine, and that was his nickname, Og Mandino. And Og was a friend of mine, he sold tens of millions of books. And The Greatest Salesman in the World is not just for salespeople, it’s for anybody, but it’s an inspiring book set in ancient times with people, nomads wandering across the desert and all that sort of thing. And it’s about a young camel boy that ended up becoming fabulously successful. So, The Greatest Salesman in the World.

And then another one that’s similar in nature but much more contemporary, and that’s by Giovanni Livera, and the book is called Live A Thousand Years. And it’s like a Disney movie when you read the book but it’s all about goal-setting and self-awareness and healthy relationships and living a meaningful life. And it’s just so well-written. So there’s two.

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

Jim Cathcart
Well, I’ll point them to my name, Jim Cathcart. If you do a Google search on that, you’ll end up with like 300,000 links. And I’m Jim Cathcart on YouTube, on Instagram, on Facebook, on LinkedIn – Cathcart Institute on LinkedIn also – Vimeo. Man, I’m out there. The only thing you won’t find me on is Twitter. I canceled that account. I got frustrated with Twitter. But Cathcart.com is my website, and I’m pretty much omnipresent.

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

Jim Cathcart
Well, I would just challenge them to take some of the ideas we’ve been talking about and start applying them in writing, keeping a record, dating your written record, right now, for the next 30 days or the next however long you can get yourself to do it. Just start applying some of these ideas and notice the payoffs that you get. And if you need my help, come join me.

In February, I’m going to Nashville. I’m going a program called Going Pro. In June, I’m going to Machu Picchu, Peru and doing a program on knowing yourself and understanding all the things that make you who you are based on my book The Acorn Principle. So, come with me and let’s see how much more successful you could be.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Jim, this has been fun. Thanks so much for taking the time and keep on rocking.

Jim Cathcart
It’s a joy for me. Thank you. And go to GuitarMusicLive.com and listen to and watch some of my videos where I’m playing and singing. I’ve got 19 songs on there, and I don’t know how many videos, but it’s all free. Just go there and enjoy yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Thank you.

734: How to Train Your Mind to Focus and Handle Distractions Better with Dr. Amishi Jha

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Dr. Amishi Jha shares the results of her research to provide a simple solution to improve your focus.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest myth about our attention spans 
  2. The four reasons your attention is getting hijacked
  3. The three systems of attention—and how to train them 

About Amishi

Dr. Amishi Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis and postdoctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, and The Pentagon. She has received coverage in The New York Times, NPR, TIME, Forbes and more. You can find Dr. Jha at http://amishi.com/lab. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Amishi Jha Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amishi, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amishi Jha
It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat with you about focus and attention. That comes up a lot from listeners. And at first, I was hoping you could settle this for me once and for all. Goldfish attention spans, human attention spans, shrinking, being worse than that of a goldfish? Is this a myth? How is this measured? How do we even know if the status of the American attention spans this day and age?

Amishi Jha
Great question. And the answer is, no, we do not have the attention span of a goldfish. We are stable in our attention. It has not shrunk.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Amishi Jha
In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with our attention, and that’s the sort of paradox at this moment, is that, oftentimes, we feel like our attention is in crisis, but, frankly, our attention systems are working perfectly. And to answer your question about how we know, it’s because we, as cognitive neuroscientists who study attention, have been using the same type of basic attention tasks for decades, about four or five decades now, and we haven’t seen a blip or a change since the advent of the internet and the advent of smartphones and their prevalence. Nothing has really changed. We’re still pretty much the same brain we’ve been for quite some time.

Pete Mockaitis
And what is the attention task that you use?

Amishi Jha
There’s a whole bunch of them but one example would be where we, for example, would have people come into the lab, and their task is to sit in front of a computer screen, and they see a series of digits on the screen, kind of appearing one, let’s say one every second or so, and press a button every time you see a digit, except if that digit is three. And when you see a three, withhold their response. But the threes only appear about 5% of the time. So, that’s one example.

And what happens is people are terrible at this task, and they’ve always been terrible at this task, because it seems pretty simple to just look at a digit on the screen and press a button. But we are very much prone to what’s called mind wandering or internal distract-ability. And that rate of internal distract-ability is pretty stable. It’s a high number. About 50% of our waking moments, we can get hijacked away from the task at hand. But that number has not gone up since, like I said, cellphones, internet, etc.

And then there’s other ways we can do it, too, looking at things called working memory, where we’re just looking at sort of the cache or RAM, if you will, of your mind, your internal capacity to have a scratch space. That also has not changed over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m just a nudge enough of a dork, so if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to know all of these because I went down this rabbit hole of research associated with the Stroop word color test, and even found a game on the iPhone called Stroop, which lets you put red, green, red, because – for listeners not in the know, it might show the word red written in a green font, color, and you have to select the font, color from options which may also be mixed. So, it’s tricky for your brain to attend to the thing and subdue or ignore the other thing you might naturally do. And so, that’s just kind of fun.

I don’t know if I’m actually doing something good for my brain by playing this repeatedly and trying to beat my score. Well, you tell me, is that a helpful activity?

Amishi Jha
I love that you’re interested in the Stroop test, and, yes, just to like refresh people in terms of what this task is because it’s a classic task of attention. And what we’re doing is unnaturally making your brain go to war with itself. So, the task itself is, yes, you’ll see a series of words on a screen, and your job is to press a button indicating the color of the font and do that as fast as possible.

Most of the time, when the font color is presented and it’s some all X’s or all O’s, we have no problem with this. We just press the button to indicate the color. But when we make it go to war with itself, we’re actually causing your brain to have to inhibit a very, very natural and automatic process, which is reading.

So, now we’re going to present those words, like you said, in the letters of a color word, so the word yellow would be in orange font, or something like that, so there’s a conflict there. Your job is to detect the font color, but the word yellow is so prominent that you want to say yellow in that and you’d be wrong. So, it absolutely is engaging, a very specific kind of attention process, executive control, but if you keep doing it over and over again, probably you’ll get better at the task and not much else. Not much else.

Pete Mockaitis
I was hoping to correlate to something.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, that’s the thing about the brain. It’s a smart organ and it will get very specific in its ability to maximize learning, but it’s also very context-specific. So, now if I give you some other tasks where I put your brain at war with itself, you may not benefit because you’re well-practiced at color word inhibition but you may not be very practiced at some other form of inhibition.

And, actually, it’s so funny that you mentioned that because it’s much related to the kind of things that we were doing in my lab. Brain-training games are so prominent and they’re available all over. Like you said, you downloaded an app to do this, but it ends up that there’s not a lot of generalizability. There’s not a lot of evidence that, after doing this game a hundred times, or let’s even say every day of the course of a year, you might see that your score on the game is getting better and better and better, but now if I transferred to some other tasks, it’s going to be back to where it was as if you’d never seen this kind of task before.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, for the research dorks, we got the Stroop word color is one thing, and you described the digit. What’s the name of that test?

Amishi Jha
That’s called the Sustained Attention Response Test, SART, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Sustained Attention Response Test. And there was a third one?

Amishi Jha
Oh, there’s many, many. We could spend our whole time just talking about tasks, but I’ll just give you another one that’s pretty straightforward. And that is something called the operations span task, and this is a classic way that we index what’s called working memory, this ability to maintain and manipulate information over very short intervals. Like I said, the cache or RAM, if you think of a computer analogy for the brain.

So, we don’t need to remember this information forever. We just need to remember it long enough for us to be able to use it. So, in the operations span task, what happens is we present a series of letters that you see, and your job is to remember those letters, but intervening between the presentation of the letters will be a simple math problem. So, it would be like ADZ, and then you’d have to do simple math, and some other set of letters, then simple math again. And at some point, you’ll see a bigger screen that has a whole bunch of letters on it, and you have to click all the ones that were part of those that you were asked to remember.

And people can do this reasonably well but it gives us a very solid notion of what the capacity of working memory is, which is, essentially, the ability to maintain, like I said, the information with this interfering stuff, the simple math, which is requiring work of your brain and potentially causing problems with you being able to remember it so you got to work a little extra hard to remember the information. And on those working memory tasks, like this O-span task, like I said, 50 years, not really any change in terms of how people perform on it. So, we’re not really shrinking in our capacity to pay attention and remember information in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is so fun to hear, well, one, I guess, it gives you more hope for our species and our future. And, two, it’s almost a trope nowadays, like, “Oh, with digital distractions, our minds are being hijacked and so…” You’re saying, “Well, no, according to the measures we’ve had for decades, it looks like our attention spans are actually doing okay.” Is something different? Has something changed? It feels like it has in our experience.

Amishi Jha
Well, both of the things that you said are true. Our attention is more prone to being hijacked and our attention spans are unchanged. So, why is our attention more prone to being hijacked? Because the opportunities for distraction are greater in our day-to-day lives. And the way in which we are prone to distraction is because social media companies, technology developers, are gaming the way the brain is organized.

There’s a reason why when you go on a particular website, let’s say a social media website, your name is prominent, the content is pretty much tied to what is of interest to you, it’s catered to you. There’s also a reason why things that are fear-inducing, threatening, novel, interesting, grab your attention. In fact, your attention is the commodity, is the product that the social media company is selling to make money for its own company.

So, yes, it absolutely is the case that you are going to be sucked in because not of your own failings, but because a team of engineers, not just an engineer or two, but like literally hundreds of people have built very sophisticated algorithms that not only know how your attention work but know precisely how to tune the enticements to your attention so that you will spend as much time as possible on the app.

And so, if you notice the qualities of that information – self-related, threatening, fear-inducing, novel – this is what the brain is tuned for through our evolutionary programming, through our evolutionary development. Of course, it’s the case that you’ll drop everything and pay attention to something novel, interesting, or threatening, or related to you, because that advantaged your survival over the millennia that humans have existed.

So, that’s what’s being sort of gamed and capitalized upon. And that’s why the way we’re going to have to battle the hijacking of our attention is going to require something different. We can’t simply just break up with our phones. We’re going to have to do something in a different manner to be able to manage the kind of pull we’re going to get on our attention. Very different from saying that there’s something wrong with our attention. There’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. So, in a lab-controlled setting, where the smartphone is away is like, “Hey, our mental capabilities are pretty similar to how they’ve been but in the real life, we’ve got distraction machines surrounding us like never before.” Is that kind of how we got both things true at the same time?

Amishi Jha
Yes, both things are true at the same time, but I do think it’s a point of empowering ourselves to know there’s nothing fundamentally broken here.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, amen.

Amishi Jha
In fact, it’s the fact that it’s so healthy and so predictable that allows these algorithms to be built around maximizing that. And so, part of that responsibility, I, frankly, think is on a lot of app developers and social media companies and technology companies to be aware of the costs on that and to build in features that might help us monitor better our own engagement with the technology. It doesn’t advantage their bottom line but advantages our ability to function healthfully. So, that’s one answer.

I think the other part of the answer is really what I wanted to share in my book, which is that we can train our own mind, not through brain-training games, but through other methodologies that might help us advantage ourselves better because we are training ourselves to be more aware moment by moment of where our attention is, to make better choices that favor what we want to accomplish and what we want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask that next. So, this next book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, tells us, what’s the big idea here and what’s the magic of 12 minutes?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, the big idea is, essentially, what we started talking about, that we live in a world now where it feels like a crisis of attention, even if the objective data tells us our brains are actually fine and healthy. And that crisis of attention feeling, by the way, if we locked ourselves in a room, had no technology, and we’re really intending to focus, we would discover that our attention is not going to be unwavering. And it’s not a modern feature.

If we look back hundreds of years to medieval monks, they actually did that. They became monastics, they isolated themselves from their families, and then they complained that while they were supposed to be praying, they were worried about lunch or a conversation they had. So, this is also something really to appreciate about the nature of the mind. It is built for distract-ability so even though our capacity for attention has not changed, we are distractable. It’s just the way it is. And there’s, again, an evolutionary reason for that.

But it ends up that under certain circumstances, very high-stress, high-demand circumstances, unlike the kinds of the professional lives of a lot of the people that we study in my laboratory, that number, that percentage of time that we’re intrinsically distractable goes up, and then we can really suffer a lot of problems, so that our attention is not in the task at hand, we lapse, we make errors, and those can be consequential, life or death in the case of service members or emergency service professionals, medical professionals, surgeons, for example, or even judges and lawyers. If you miss information, it has consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with regard to the training, well, okay, yes, stress. So, with the stress perspective, I guess I was thinking in some ways stress can really galvanize your attention, like, “Okay, it’s do or die. This is the moment. Got to get her done. The clock is ticking.”

And so, in some ways, I thought that would make us less distractable. You say it can make us more distractable? Can you elaborate?

Amishi Jha
Both again are true. I’m not going to say, “You are completely correct, Pete.” And what I said is also correct. So, it ends up stress is a variable that can range from actually being very helpful to harmful. And we can even think of it as having a shape. So, if you think of it, imagine in your mind, a graph, and I’m drawing on the graph, the X and the Y axes, and then the shape of the graph itself as an inverted U.

So, on the X-axis, we have stress. Low stress, low performance. So, the Y-axis is performance, the X-axis is stress. Low stress, low performance. As the stress goes up, you start climbing up the U, kind of like the top of a mountain, and your performance will reach a sweet spot so that the right amount of stress is going to optimize your performance.

But, now, if you push past that sweet spot and stress keeps going up, you’re on the downward slope where you’re actually going to start degrading and depleting your performance relative to having less stress available to you. So, we can parse the way we think about stress as eustress, meaning the letters E and U, meaning beneficial stress, or distress.

And what ends up happening with a lot of the groups that we work with, like I said – service members, first responders, even students for that matter – what might be the optimal amount of stress, that eustress peak point, if you maintain that level of demand over a long period of time, you will start slipping into distress, and most of us will not be aware that that is happening.

So, it’s like, if you think about a student, “Oh, I’m really good if I have to cram for a final three nights before I have to take the final.” Now, if you’ve got seven finals, I guarantee you that cramming approach night after night after night is not going to lead to beneficial results. So, it’s just important to know that the features of stress that I’m talking about that are problematic are really dipping into distress. There’s not a match between what you feel like you can accomplish well and your capacity to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, really? So, we don’t even know.

Amishi Jha
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if we don’t know, how can we know? I mean, is there an alternative gauge by which we have a sense?

Amishi Jha
Well, we do know. It may not be a performance that we necessarily are…we’re not aware going into it, like, “Oh, this, my performance is going to suffer here.” We don’t have that view typically but we know what it feels like to be distressed. We know it feels too much.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like after the fact, we know.

Amishi Jha
No, even as you’re in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
Even as you’re in it, you’re feeling, “Oh, my gosh, this is too much.” And so, what we can know from our objective data, if you take people over a protracted period of high demand – the academic semester, for an athlete, it could be competition season, or even pre-season training; for a service member, it could be pre-deployment training, or deployment itself. These are periods of time where you know it’s going to be demanding, and the demands are not going to let up for some multiple weeks.

If we test people’s attention with the same kind of tasks we were talking about earlier, O-span and SART and Stroop, and then we come back four to six to eight weeks later and then give them the same battery of tasks, if that period intervening between those two time points was very demanding, we will see a significant decline in performance. And, usually, we see people reporting that their mood is worse and their self-reported distress is greater.

So, that’s something to keep in mind. It’s that it’s not just that you feel icky and maybe burnt out from the psychological standpoint, but your actual effectiveness is going to be impacted. And what I was interested in doing, again, from this attention research point of view, is, look, there are populations, professions, for whom they will always have to operate their best when circumstances are likely to drive down attentional functioning. And we know what the features are of circumstances that are likely to drive own attentional functioning. Threatening circumstances, stressful, like we talked about; stress perceived stress that we experience and negative circumstances.

So, if you think about going into a warzone or going into a fire, if it was a firefighter, or having to deal with critical-care situations as a nurse or a physician, those are characterizing contexts where attention is going to be compromised. But we want these people to perform at their best because things could be a lot worse if they don’t. So, I wanted to figure out a way to train people so that they could be almost mentally armored against stress, and that proved to be a really tricky thing to track down mainly because of what you were saying earlier. There are so many solutions offered right now, like play brain-training games, or use this device to zap your brain with a small amount of electrical current.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a Muse EEG in my hands.”

Amishi Jha
Exactly. And I’m not going to say anything about Muse in particular, or any particular technology, but I’ll tell you, that in our hands, in my laboratory, when people were experiencing high-demand circumstances, not a lot was helpful to protecting attention from declining.

Pete Mockaitis
Not a lot. Okay.

Amishi Jha
Not a lot. In fact, I would say probably nothing, it reliably showed, protective effects except for one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you got my attention. What is it? What do we do?

Amishi Jha
It was a little bit of a surprise to me because I would say I was very skeptical of this solution just for a variety of reasons which we can talk about. But the one thing that tended to reliably, and now after about 15 years of research in my own lab and many other labs has been shown over and over again, was mindfulness meditation training.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
So, when people engage in mindfulness meditation training, for as little as 12 to 15 minutes a day, during these high-stress intervals, we see that those tasks don’t decline, people don’t decline their performance on those tasks. They actually stay stable over time. And sometimes, if they do enough practice, even if the circumstances are likely to deplete the average person, they can actually improve. So, not only stabilize but potentially optimize attention when everything about the circumstances suggest they would be compromised to attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, so many follow-ups here. Okay, so 12 to…you say as little as 12 to 15 minutes. I’m curious, in some ways, I hear that’s sort of like the minimum effective dose. Is there like a noticeable point of diminishing returns? Like, if 12 to 15 minutes is good, is 120 to 150 minutes ten times as good? Or, how does it break down?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I think that this is where we’re just at the beginning of the science. And my interest in the research program that I’m engaged in was really to ask that first-level question. These are time-pressured people, we’re trying to get them in the busiest most stressful periods of their lives, what do they absolutely need to try to do to benefit themselves? And it’s not one-shot 12 minutes or 15 minutes. It’s over the course of multiple weeks daily.

So, it’s like from the physical training point of view, would walking around the block in a leisurely pace be enough to actually improve my cardiovascular health? Or, do I need to run or jog or walk briskly at some level for a certain amount of time? And the answer tends to be around maybe 20 to 30 minutes a day of brisk walking or jogging can be more beneficial than a leisurely walk.

So, I want to know that. I want to know what the kind of minimum dose was. And the way we were able to find this out was not by prescribing people various amounts of training to do and then seeing kind of like maybe a pharmacologic study where you give people different-sized pills, and say, “Okay, this pill is the one that works.”

Humans, especially complex human behavior, does work that way. So, what we ended up doing is we went to the literature, and said, “Okay, what is typically done?” Because mindfulness training, even though I was one of the first labs to bring it into context like the military, or at least sports, mindfulness training had been around not only for millennia from the wisdom traditions, but even for several decades prior to our work beginning in the military, in the medical setting.

And it was through a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, which is developed by a wonderful colleague of mine, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offered in medical clinics over 750 or more now around the world, usually offered for people that are suffering from intractable physical conditions that nobody else can help them. So, chronic pain, for example. People come into the clinic, they take a course for about eight weeks, they practice 45 minutes a day, and there are benefits. There are benefits to their body, to their mind, to their relationships, and now even brain imaging studies suggest that those are benefits.

But for the kind of groups that I was working with, 45 minutes a day was a nonstarter. Nobody was going to do that. So, in our initial studies, when, for example, working with pre-deployment Marines, we asked them to do 30 minutes a day, during pre-deployment, like I said. Nobody did 30 minutes a day. I mean, maybe, on occasion, one or two people did it but, on average, people were doing…well, actually, before I even talk about on average, there was just a huge range. Some people did what we said, very rarely but they did it. Other people did zero. And then we had all the combinations in between.

So, we decided to take a data-emergent approach, because just telling them what to do didn’t mean that they would do it. And, instead, we said, “Okay, what is the amount of time that the people that tend to benefit, what is the amount of time that they’re doing?” And it ended up that it was about 12 minutes or more that they were doing. And those that did less than 12 minutes really weren’t benefitting. In fact, they looked no different than the people that didn’t get the training at all.

So, then in the subsequent studies, we said, “Okay, if 12 minutes is some kind of sweet spot, let’s only tell them to do it for 12 minutes. Let’s prescribe them, let’s record guided practices that are 12 minutes long, and, first of all, let’s see if they do it more often.” And they did. “And now let’s see what the benefits are.” And what we found was that it was not just doing the 12-minute practices, which I like said, people were much more willing to do than 30-minute practices, but was doing them about five days a week where we started seeing benefits.

So, this is how study after study where we’re just trying to triangulate around the formula for a minimum effective dose. Now, you’re asking the great question, which is, “What about the other end? I want to optimize. I want to be superhuman. I want to be Olympian-level attention. What do I do then?” Well, you got three years to go on a mindfulness retreat and practice mindfulness practices 12 to 14 hours a day. You could do that.

So, there are people that are in that range. There are people, for example, monastics who devote their lives to intensive retreat practices, and those are very compelling types of data, and that’s a whole field of research. Unfortunately, because the nature of the groups that I work with, they don’t have the option of doing that, and it’s, frankly, just not my interest to look at that. But there is a world of beyond the minimum effective dose where we’re learning, just as you would expect, like an Olympic-level athlete is going to be much more capable than somebody who just starts a couch to 5K. Same thing is true for mindfulness training and the kind of brain changes you see.

In terms of specifically quantifying it, we’re not quite there yet but I think this gives you a sense that there is a minimum effective dose, but the more you do, the more you benefit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. And so, we’ll get into some of the particulars of mindfulness meditation training in terms of how that’s done. I guess I’d love to hear, when you talk about the benefits, like what does that mean in terms of quantitative-ness? So, we talked about attention decrements, it’s like it’s worse. Attention can be worse when you don’t do it. Could you maybe just contextualize or share some numbers? It’s like am I going to be able to focus like a smidgen better, like 3% better if I do my 12 to 15 minutes a day, five days a week? Or, kind of what’s the, roughly speaking, size of the price for the average professional?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, and we’re talking between something like that, between 5 and 10% better.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s the numerator/denominator we’re measuring with better?

Amishi Jha
Well, let’s just take one very specific task, the sustained attention response test. Like I said, you’re going to press a button every time you see a digit. When you see a three, you withhold. People typically press to the three 50% of the time even though they’re not supposed to, and this is usually because they are mentally time-traveling away. They’re hijacked away. They kind of go on autopilot and they just press, press, press. The three appears, they press, and then they might have a, “Oh, shoot,” they realized they’ve made a mistake. Too late, you already pressed. So, that is the baseline.

Under high stress, that number goes up. People press to the three even more often. And with mindfulness training, we see that they can benefit with about 10% improvement from their baseline. And so, what does that mean? You might say, “Well, that’s, okay, great. So, I don’t press the three, why do I care? Like, why does that matter?” Well, what we think it represents is really this ability to be more present-centered because you’re noting what’s happening moment by moment, you’re not defaulting to autopilot.

It also translates into really a correspondence with actual activities. So, for example, in the context of soldiers, if you’re doing a shoot no-shoot drill so that you know that you are to shoot to the bad guys and withhold from the innocent civilians. And if you’re making that level of mistakes, a 10% improvement is giant. That actually means life or death benefits for people. And those are the numbers that really matter and are actionable for people to not make grave errors that could cause them for their entire lives. So, I’ll just tell you that we’re just at the beginning of now trying to translate laboratory-based metrics into what we call operationally relevant metrics. How does it translate into real life?

But we’re starting to be able to ask those questions to see in the kinds of tasks that people do. So, for example, medical errors. What is the actionable benefit from mindfulness training on the rate of medical errors? And, again, this is now data that’s just starting to be gathered so I can’t give you precise numbers. We’re really on the edge of this knowledge right now but we’re asking the right questions to say, “Okay, attention may be protected and benefitted. How does it matter? And how does it show up in people’s lives?”

But even before we go to the objective, what we noticed people saying is that they’re more there, they’re not wandering away. The quality of their own relationships is improved, their leadership capacity is improved, their ability to do their jobs and feel engaged in their jobs is improved. So, that’s just painting the picture of where we are at the science in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interesting. I can’t help but run some numbers in terms of an eight-hour workday, 5% to 10% more attentive minutes. That’s very rough and crude but I mean that is significant to the tune of 24 to 48 extra minutes, which is a lot more than 12 to 15 in terms of a profitable endeavor for us.

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And those are just estimates right now. I think that is probably a lot even more than that if you think about the nature of what kinds of processes improve. So, it’s not just being able to pay attention, which is just so important, but mood improves, work enjoyment and engagement improve, presenteeism is going down. There’s a whole literature on mindfulness in the workplace that is now revealing the benefits for organizations to offer this in the workplace context.

And not just as sort of a salve for like, “Oh, you feel burnt out. Here, just go take some mindfulness,” which is sort of the backlash against offering it. But people going to it on their own, and now finding that just like having a gym in your office building can help you, having courses available through their workplace may motivate them to actually be more likely to give it a try. There’s an ease about being able to incorporate it.

And then, of course, moving forward, it may actually impact work culture so that it’s very normal to begin a meeting with, as my colleagues at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute say, “A moment to arrive.” It’s like every meeting, people are probably wandering away more than 50% of their time. But what if we make it part of the culture that we’re actually here? What if we can cut meeting time down because you don’t have to repeat yourselves, or there’s not conflicting and ambiguous information being thrown around because more people are really there? They’re not on their phone and they’re not off in their own mental time travel.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And they’re not saying semi-relevant things. They’re saying fully relevant things, which kind of prevents all of the side tangents that never needed to occur because that’s not quite relevant to what we’re trying to achieve in this meeting.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s part of most workplaces to take the attentional state of every member of the team seriously and to make it an explicit priority for everybody to show up. But if that could happen, and there are ways to train everybody’s minds to do that for themselves, and then do it collectively, that could be really, really powerful.

So, actually, some of the work we’re doing right now with the military, the kind of edge of our work in active projects is looking at team-based mindfulness. What happens when an entire squad that works together? And this is by the way known in the context of medical teams. When there’s mindfulness practice by the individuals, and even a nod toward what we might call collective mindfulness, team cohesion can improve, the sense of belonging can improve, conflict between team members can go down. And this can all relate to their productivity as well as their fulfillment in the work that they do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. So, mindfulness meditation training, that’s come up a few times on the show. What does that really mean we’re doing in practice?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is one of those interesting things about a term like mindfulness being so common these days. Like, people have heard it probably at some point, and, like you said, you’ve even had it come up on your show. So, let me just take you through why it ended up, I think, being such a powerful solution for our work that was really focused on attention. And if you don’t mind, I’d love to say a little bit about what attention is because we’ve also kind of been using that word in a blanket way.

And I like to break it down as sort of this giant concept of attention, which is really, broadly speaking, the ability to prioritize some information over other information. And we evolved this ability to solve a big problem that the brain had, which is that there’s just way more out there in the world, and even generated within our mind, than we can fully process at any moment.

So, this notion and process of prioritization allows us to have more fine tuned and granular information accessible to us while everything else sort of fades into the background. So, something is prominent and other things are not. And when we think about the topic of attention, the way it’s been studied, we’re learning that there’s probably three main ways that we pay attention. In fact, three main brain systems that support these different ways of paying attention.

So, the first way is really just probably the way we’ve been using it kind of without even talking about it explicitly – focus, the notion that there’s content. And just like right now, I’m looking at your face, I’m not looking at the curtains behind you or whatever, the door behind you, whatever I see, I’m able to focus in on the granular detail, seeing the expression on your face, etc. Everything else kind of fades into the background.

So, the metaphor for this that I like to use is like a flashlight. If I were in a darkened room, wherever I direct that flashlight, I’m going to get crisp clear privileged information relative to everything that’s darkened around it. Attention really does the same thing, in this kind of flashlight metaphor, something called the orienting system of attention.

And, by the way, this is that same system that we talked about that ends up being a problem with social media and the pull on our attention, because, just like a flashlight, we can direct orienting willfully, we can decide where we want to point our attention. We can move it around. We can direct it toward the external environment or the internal environment. Like if I said, “Pete, what is the sensation right now of the bottom to your feet?” Probably before I said that, you had no idea, you weren’t thinking about it, but now you can check in and give me an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m on a standing mat. It’s got a cushiony vibe to it.

Amishi Jha
There you go, see. Squishy and pleasant probably. But that same flashlight can get yanked. And the kinds of things that yank have those features of salience, self-related, threatening, novel, like all these kinds of things that are programmed into us. But that’s still just one system of attention, this kind of flashlight or orienting system.

Another way we can pay attention is not privileging content, but privileging time. So, what’s happening right now? That’s something that we call the alerting system. And if you want to think about when we use this, it’s like driving down the road or walking down the road, you see a flashing yellow traffic light or something near a construction sign, something that’s blinking and alarming.

You’re at the ready. You’re broad, receptive, alert, but you don’t want to be focused in on anything because you have no idea what could be coming. It could be weird equipment joining into the road, or children, or traffic patterns are weird. Something is odd and pay attention to what’s happening right now.

So, we can privilege content, like with the flashlight, or privilege time with the alerting system. And then the third way in which we can privilege information with attention is something called executive control, which we’ve definitely already talked about as it relates to sort of working memory. We’re privileging information processing based on our goals.

So, what is my goal right now? And is my action and what I’m paying attention to and doing, meaning the way I’m directing the other two systems, is it aligned to ensure that the actions and the goals are going to be aligned the whole way? Or, am I off-goal, or am I not even sure what the goal is? Like, these are ways in which we pay attention that can be so powerful but quite different.

Going back to your question regarding mindfulness, one of the reasons I think it ended up being super useful is that mindfulness training, which is essentially, I would describe as paying attention to our present moment experience without elaboration or reactivity, without having a story about it. Attention is central to mindfulness. And when you think about mindfulness practices, they actually engage and exercise all three of these systems of attention over and over again in a generalizable manner.

So, just to give you quickly, like one practice might be mindfulness of paying attention to breath-related sensations. If we talk through that, you’d see every one of these systems is actually engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, that’s an overview of the three things that we’re talking about here. And so, when we do a mindfulness meditation training, you mentioned paying attention to the present what’s up right now, presently without sort of elaborating or creating stories. So, that’s kind of… could incorporate a whole bundle of different activities. So, what are some of your faves?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is where, again, we borrow from the existing literature. We didn’t invent all these things, and the existing traditions, frankly. But one very, very common one is mindfulness of the breath where the intention, and I actually don’t call it mindfulness of breath in the way that I teach it because I know the vulnerabilities when we say that. I call it the find your flashlight practice.

And, really, it’s because that flashlight is such a handy way to think about how we can willfully direct our attention, but what we have to get insight into is oftentimes we don’t know where our attention is because we have no clue. So, I’m just going to give you a very kind of quick view of this. So, it is essentially the same thing as other people might describe as mindfulness of the breath or focused attention. There are so many different terms for it.

But essentially, what you do is sit in a comfortable quiet spot, dedicate a period of time where you’re going to do this practice, and the first step is, essentially, to notice that you’re breathing. And, obviously, we’ve been breathing this entire time but we haven’t probably been paying attention to our breath, but we’re checking in to the fact that we’re breathing, and then we’re going to notice what is most vivid in the breath-scape of our present moment experience.

And that’s actually why, I think, the breath is so handy. You can’t save up your breath. I guess you could hold your breath but you can’t really save it up. It’s happening. It’s transpiring in the moment. And, literally, it is about a respiratory rhythm. So, we notice what is most vivid tied to the breath, and that’s where we devote, we say, “For this period of time, my task, my goal, executive control says my goal is pay attention to breath-related sensation. Take that flashlight, point it toward the prominent breath-related sensation, and hold it there.” That’s the agenda for this. Let’s say you start out by doing just one minute of this practice.

Then the second part of the instruction, the first part is just focus. Focus on breath-related sensation, engage that flashlight. The second part of the instruction is notice if your mind wanders away. So, it’s like you’re checking in and monitoring, “Where is this flashlight? Is it at the breath-related sensation?” All of a sudden, you’re like thinking of the next vacation you’re going to take, or some worry you had, or a troubling conversation, or maybe there’s an itch on your face, or whatever it is, “Ah, look at that. Flashlight is not at the breath-related sensation.”

In that moment, the third part of the instruction, redirect attention back to breath-related sensations. So, it’s literally like my military colleagues, I love the way they put it, “It’s like you’re giving me a mental pushup.” Focus. Notice. Redirect. Or, in other words, engage the flashlight, engage alerting and monitoring, and then executive control, to know what the goal is and make sure I’m getting back on track.

So, that’s why I think that it can be so handy to understand how attention works because then we understand why we’re doing it. It’s not sort of some nebulous concept. It’s actually a workout for our mind in this particular way.

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

Amishi Jha
I think the main thing is just I love the topics that you cover on your pod, and I love how like actionable you want to make it for people. So, one of the things I would just encourage people to kind of be left with is this notion to really pay attention to their attention, and to realize that the mind, just like the body, needs some kind of daily exercise to keep it psychologically fit and performing well.

And what we’ve happened upon my own research is learning that this very simple practice, not always easy, but simple practice done for not that long every day, about 12 minutes a day, can actually powerfully benefit the way that we operate and the way that we feel. So, give it a try.

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

Amishi Jha
Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh, then I’m going to be probably picking one of my own because we’ve done so many really cool ones. Favorite study recently is one where we were able to benefit the attention and mood of military spouses by training other military spouses to offer mindfulness training to their peers. So, that was really exciting because now it shows us a path forward to have this all proliferate.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amishi Jha
I would say I’m going to pick something completely uncharacteristic. It’s a book of poems by Rumi.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. What’s it called?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh. The Essential Rumi. I think it’s called The Essential Rumi. Yeah.

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

Amishi Jha
It’s a double-edged sword but I’d say actually my phone to use my timer to practice every day.

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

Amishi Jha
Yes, and maybe that would go to a quote, but it’s not. It’s really kind of more of a concept, “Thoughts are not facts.”

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

Amishi Jha
If they remember my name, they can find me Amishi.com.

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

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I would say invest in yourself and invest in your attention, and do that by starting slow and starting small, and really practice paying attention in this way using the tools of mindfulness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amishi, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in your peak mind activities.

Amishi Jha
Thank you so much.

733: How to Keep Growing Over Your Whole Career with Whitney Johnson

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Whitney Johnson shares key science behind learning and growth so you can continue growing your skills smartly over the long haul.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 3 phases of growth–and how to master them 
  2. How to get your brain to learn faster
  3. The tremendous power of ridiculously small goals 

About Whitney

Whitney Johnson is CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors, an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private company in America and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. She is an award-winning author, a regular keynote speaker, and a frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning.  

A frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, Johnson is author of several top-selling books including Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team. Her latest book is Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. She is also the host of the popular Disrupt Yourself podcast, with guests including Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Susan Cain, and General Stanley McChrystal. 

 

Resources Mentioned

Whitney Johnson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Whitney, thanks for joining us again on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Whitney Johnson
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your latest book here Smart Growth. Can you tell us, you’ve been researching growth for a while, what’s an interesting maybe surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about that in the maybe years now since we spoke last?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, that’s an interesting question. The counterintuitive discovery that I’ve made, here’s what I would say. I think that this book is important right now because of what’s happening in the world, and so let me talk about that briefly, and then I can talk to about the discovery I’ve made. So, as we both know, we are coming out of the pandemic, we hope, and psychologists have said that when you come through a period of severe stress, which, of course, has been a very stressful period, there is this opportunity for people to undergo transformation, to do what’s called post-traumatic growth.

And so, I think we’re in this period right now where people are ready to grow, they want to grow, they aren’t always sure exactly how to grow. And so, this book that I’ve written, Smart Growth, is really addressing that question of, “Here’s a template, here’s a simple visual model for you to think about what growth looks like.”

Now, to your specific question, yes, I’ve been thinking about growth for a while. I’ve talked about the S Curve, and we can talk more about this in detail, but the S Curve of learning in my other two books, but it was always in the background, kind of this supporting actor. And what I discovered is that as I taught people about this S Curve of learning, it was very sticky. They said, “Oh, this makes sense. This helps me explain what’s happening in my career, what’s happening in my life.”

And so, I wanted to do a very deep dive in this book on what this framework is and how you can use it, how you can apply it, both as an individual for personal growth, to demystify the process, to help you decode talent development if you’re a manager, and then, from an organizational perspective, just think about this notion of if you can grow your people, then you can grow your company. So, that’s what we do in this book, is a deep, deep dive on what growth looks like using the S Curve of learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, tell us then, sort of what is the core thesis here or how you would go about defining smart growth?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, the core thesis is that growth is our default setting, as I just mentioned a moment ago, is that people very much want to grow. And then the question is, “Well, what does growth look like?” What I have studied and researched is that the S Curve, and this is something that was popularized by Everett Rogers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that he used to figure out how quickly social change might happen, and then we use it at our disruptive innovation fund to help us figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopted.

I realized I have this aha that this S Curve that we were using to look at social change, to look at how groups change, could also help us understand how people change. So, every time you start something new, you are at the base of an S, and if everybody who’s listening wants to take their finger and draw a picture from the left to right with your finger, of just left to right, a line, a straight line, that’s the base of the S.

And whenever you start something new, the S Curve math tells you that it’s going to feel like a slog. It’s going to feel like it’s going very, very slowly, and so you can get discouraged, overwhelmed, impatient, frustrated, all sorts of emotions that you will have. But what’s helpful about that is you now know, “Oh, this is very normal. I’m supposed to feel this way. I’m supposed to feel like I’m not making any progress.” It’s not that growth isn’t happening. It’s just that it’s not yet obvious or apparent, and so it feels slow.

And so, that’s the first thing that you want to think about from this model perspective. Then take your finger, and I want you to draw from the left to right but I want you to do this swooping line like a wave, and this is the steep slick back of that S Curve. And what happens here, and we call this the sweet spot, this is that place where you’ve now put in the effort and the growth is starting to become apparent. And what took a lot of time to seem like anything was happening, now, in a little time, a lot happens. This is where it’s hard but not too hard. It’s definitely easy but it’s not too easy. And so, this is the sweet spot where you’re exhilarated, all your neurons are firing, growth feels fast and it is actually fast.

And then what’s going to happen for you, and I want you to draw again, because now you’re at the top of the curve, and I want you to draw a straight line, again from left to right. This is that top. This is that mastery portion of the curve. And what’s happened here is that you have gotten very good at what you’re doing, you’re very capable, you’re very competent, but because you’re no longer learning, you’re no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, you can get bored. And so, growth now is, in fact, slow.

So, you’ve got slow at the launch point, you’ve got fast in the sweet spot, you’ve got slow in mastery; so slow-fast-slow is how you grow. And now you’ve got this mental model, the simple visual model for you to think about your career, for you to think about any role or project that you’re on, and, frankly, for you to think about your life. And so, I wanted to give people this simple template to think about growth because when you know where you are in your growth, then you know what’s next.

Pete Mockaitis
And I appreciate the finger movement since we’re in an auditory medium here, and I drew it. And so, just to remove any potential confusion, so this is sort of like a graph with the X-axis being time and the Y-axis being like skill or capability or how good you are at a thing.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, I love that, how good you are at a thing. Well-said.

Pete Mockaitis
And we might define that in any number of ways, like from pumping iron to making slides, to building models, to recruiting people, to sales, or any number of skills or things one might master.

Whitney Johnson
Exactly. Exactly correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when we say S, again, not to get into the weeds here, I think of my S as kind of has a curve, but I guess that doesn’t quite happen. It might look more like a slanted Z. Is that okay to say?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, you could also think of it as almost like a rollercoaster ride. So, you’ve got the base of that rollercoaster and then you’ve got the steep part, but in this case, you’re going up the rollercoaster, not down, and then you’ve got the flat part before you go onto another rollercoaster.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so then, I think that sounds right from my own experience. Could you share with us a couple cool experiments or bits of research or measurement that reveals this like pretty compellingly and quantitatively?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, absolutely. So, when we do our research, we’re always looking at both the qualitative and the quantitative, but from a more quantitative research-based, one of the things that I did is looked at both biology and this idea of carrying capacity, but then also looked at the neuroscience around this. And so, basically, what’s happening is that your brain is running a predictive model. So, every time you start something new, pumping iron, like you said, learning how to build slides, or give a presentation, your brain is at the launch point of that S Curve.

And what’s happening is it’s running this model, it’s making lots and lots of predictions, many of which are inaccurate. And because those predictions are inaccurate, your dopamine is going to drop, which is why when you start something new, it’s hard to start because your dopamine is dropping, and we like that chemical messenger of delight. We like to get that and we’re not getting that, that’s why it’s hard to start at the launch point.

But then what happens is you continue to run that model and you continue to make predictions, and your predictions will get increasingly accurate. And as your predictions get more accurate, what’s happening is that you’re getting more dopamine, you’re having these upside emotional surprises, lots and lots of dopamine, which feels good, “This is fun. This is exhilarating. Oh, I love being on this S Curve,” going up the rollercoaster, if you will.

And then at a mastery, what’s going on in your brain is you’ve figured it out, the model is complete. It’s like playing middle C on the piano, or major C core for those of you who are musicians, you’re like, “Got it.” And so, what’s happening now is that your brain is saying, “Well, I get a little bit of dopamine but not very much. I’m a little bit bored. I need more dopamine,” for these thrill-seeking species. And so, that’s when you need to jump to the bottom of a new curve or find a way to push yourself back down into the sweet spot so you can continue to get that dopamine.

So, that’s one of the things I really looked at, is I had looked at the work of Rogers, all the diffusion theory that really backs this up, but I wanted to look at, “What’s going with the neuroscience? What’s going on with biology?” And then, of course, I’ve got all the anecdotal qualitative stories but the neuroscience very much backs up this idea of what growth looks like and what’s happening in our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, is there, for quantitative neuroscience, I don’t even know what the units are, but like synapse connections, or FMRI activation of, I don’t even know what units we’re talking about.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, one of the things that’s happening is that, first of all, when you start something new, you don’t necessarily have a neural pathway for it. So, you’ve got what you’re doing today, so whatever it is you’re doing today, you’re basically at the top of an S Curve, and it’s sort of like this super highway of habits, like you’ve got this very thick neural pathway and it’s just super comfortable. It’s like going down the road that you always go down every day.

And when you get to the launch point of a new curve, whatever it is you’re trying to do is basically like a cow path, there isn’t anything there, and so there isn’t a neural pathway, so you’re going to do something but it’s certainly not a habit, it’s not who you are, it’s sort of out here separate from you. But as you start to do that more and more, and you get the dopamine, it’s forming those neural connections and creating those neural pathways so that it starts to become automatic and habitual.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then in practice, let’s say, let’s look at these phases. We’re at the beginning, or launch point as you call it, and we are frustrated, I guess I’d love to get your thoughts on what we should do. We’ve had a couple researchers talking about motivation on the show, and there are some research suggesting that adherents to stuff is most linked to that stuff being enjoyable as oppose to it being important, which is kind of intuitive, even like, hey, we do stuff we like doing and we don’t do stuff that we don’t like doing as much, even though the unenjoyable thing that might be pretty darn important.

So, if we’ve decided, “Yeah, this is an important thing I want to learn, I want to master, I want to get good at, but I am frustrated and overwhelmed and discouraged and not having fun,” well, one thing, as we know, that that’s normal, that’s nice. What else should we do when we’re in those unpleasant moments?

Whitney Johnson
So, are you talking about BJ Fogg’s research?

Pete Mockaitis
So, we had Katy Milkman and Ayelet Fishbach, their research.

Whitney Johnson
Okay. Yes. So, I love that idea of celebration and being able to. So, the research of BJ Fogg, I think, is really interesting. And building on the two recent guests you’ve had, including Katy, who, I love her work, is this idea of whenever emotions create habits. And so, if you can enjoy something then you’re more likely to make it habitual.

So, one of the things you can do is, when you’re at the launch point, whenever you actually do the thing that you set out to do, you can celebrate, “Good job. You did it.” When you’re in the sweet spot, you’re doing the thing that you set out to do, you’re pumping iron, you’re lifting weights, you can say, “Good job. I’m doing what I said I was going to do.” And then in mastery, you can say, “I did it. Good job.” And so, you can use celebration at all different parts or points along that curve in order to cement or make that habit that you’re trying to adopt concrete, or whatever it is you’re trying to learn that is new.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, celebration. Any pro tips on celebrating well?

Whitney Johnson
Huh, that’s a great question. I think, yeah, my pro tip is to write it in your journal, so write it down. Like I did this today. So, something that we do every week in our family is at the end of…well, actually, we do it every week but then I try to do it every day, is we go through the sweet, the sour, the spiritual, and the surprise for the week. And I think one of the things that happens is that our brains tend to focus on the things that did not work because that’s what makes us feel safer from an evolutionary perspective.

So, the pro tip is a very simple tip, which is focus on what worked, what went right. If you remembered to take out the trash because you have a goal to take out the trash every day, then say, “Hey, I did this thing that I said I was going to do today.” Acknowledge it, anchor it, be aware of it, because then you’re more likely to do it in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, there is celebration. Any other? Does that work for all three of those phases? Anything else you’d recommend, particularly for the early not-so-fun part?

Whitney Johnson
Yes, absolutely. So, I would say in the early not-so-fun part two things. Number one is sometimes we can get very impatient because it is so uncomfortable, we can just like, “I just want to get through this. I just want to figure this out. I just want to close this open loop. This is so uncomfortable.” And it’s really important that we’re patient in that stage because sometimes we make hasty decisions.

We start to do something new, like we take a job that really wasn’t the right job for us, or we take on a project that really wasn’t the right project for us, because we just wanted a job, any job will do, as opposed to spending that time to do the work, to figure out, and be uncomfortable with not having a job for a little while. And so, I would say, in that launch point, is recognize the importance of patience.

The other thing that I would say is, this goes to James Clear’s work of the idea of Atomic Habits, is when you’re at the launch point, if you think about what’s going on in your brain, you’re running these predictive models, as I said, and a lot of your predictions are going to be incorrect. But if you can make predictions that you know will be accurate, then you’re going to be able to speed yourself along that launch point faster. And the way you do that is you set small, ridiculously small goals.

And when I say ridiculously small, I mean I had set a goal, for example, that I wanted to start playing the piano again. I didn’t set a goal to play for 30 minutes a day, I didn’t set a goal to play for 15 minutes a day. I set a goal to make sure I sat down at the piano for at least 10 seconds a day for 30 days. And guess what? I did it, because 10 seconds is so ridiculously small you can’t not do it, and then you build in those neural pathways, and you start that cow path slowly, then quickly, can become a neural super highway.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that ridiculously small bit, and I think it took me a while to rightfully believe, it’s like, “Oh, well, 10 seconds sitting at the piano doesn’t mean anything.” But I guess, as I just think about, it’s like, “Hey, you know what, one is infinitely more than none.” And you could say, “Well, hey, you know what, that might be nothing. But you know what, it is more than what I did before, and it’s more than I’ve done for months even though I’ve been wanting and telling myself I should do this,” and that gets you going.

And I think BJ Fogg, again, we had him on the show, and he said some great things associated about, like celebrating an infant to toddler’s first steps, it’s like, “Oh, you barely moved anywhere and you fell down after less than two feet. That’s lame. You didn’t cover much ground.” But nobody says that about a kid learning how to walk. We celebrate, like, “Yay! Those are your first steps. It’s a big deal. It’s special.” And that really resonates in terms of so it is when we’re starting something new.

Give us some more examples of ridiculously small and worth celebrating in a variety of domains. I’m sure you’ve got boatloads of stories so maybe let’s hear a couple of those, from the launch point and the ridiculously small, through the sweet spot to mastery of folks learning, growing, tackling something new, that made an impact in their career.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, one of them that I think is really relevant right now is health, taking care of yourself. And I was actually just on a call this morning with one of my coaching clients who is in this place where she is realizing, “Okay, I work very hard, I work lots and lots of hours. My steps on my Apple Watch are probably a thousand a day. I need more steps on my watch.” And she said, “But I don’t really want to. Like, I know that I should, but I don’t really want to. I don’t feel motivated to do it.”

And so, we had this conversation about, “All right. Let’s talk about ridiculously small goals. It might be that you literally look at your tennis shoes every day, like something that small. But I want you to come up with a goal that you can do every day no matter what for 30 days so that you can start to build that pathway.”

Now, why is that relevant to your career? Well, we all know that if we are exercising and our bodies are working, then we’re able to get rid of the cortisol and the stress that comes with work. And if we’re able to feel a greater sense of wellbeing, then we’re going to be able to think more clearly. And if we can think more clearly, then we’re going to be more productive. And if we’re more productive, we are much more likely to get that promotion and progress along the S Curve of our current role and of our career. So, that’s something very, very simple that I would say really illustrates that idea for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun, “Look at your shoes for 10 seconds.” I like that. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can touch the shoes for five seconds, or you can arrange those laces so they’re closer to getting your feet into them. That’s cool in the fitness zone. How about some more in the career zone?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, in the career zone, I would say one simple thing could be is that, for example, maybe you need to give presentations. And if you want to be successful, not even maybe, if you want to be successful in your career, you will need to be able to give presentations and do that well. And so, one of the things that you can do is you can say, “All right. Well, I get kind of uncomfortable when I need to give presentations so I find myself avoiding those.”

And so, a very simple thing that you can do is you can say, “I’m going to practice sitting at my chair, standing up, as if I own the room. In my brain, I’m going to think there is three feet in front of me, three feet to the side, three feet to the back, and I own the room and I’m going to stand there for five seconds, and I’m going to do that every day for 30 days,” and that will start to change how you feel about yourself and your ability to have that presence that you need in order to give a presentation.

Another simple thing that you can do, and this is going to sound very Stewart Smalley and from Saturday Night Live, is you can say, “I am successful in my role, in my job. I am successful,” every day for 30 days, and that will allow your brain, your identity, to start to shift. And as your identity starts to shift, because your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie, if you tell yourself every day for 30 days, “I am successful in this role. I have completed everything that I needed to complete in this role,” or that presentation that you’re giving tomorrow, you’re acting as if it were two days ago, “I nailed that presentation,” and you say that every day for 30 days, “I nailed that presentation,” your brain will start to believe that it’s true and it will make it true.

Something you can say, takes you, what, two seconds, every day for 30 days, that is going to allow you to start to be successful in your career. You’ve got a presentation that you’ve got to do that you’ve been procrastinating, and it’s six weeks out. Well, for the first week, you don’t have to work on it at all, but what I want you to do is I want you to open up your PowerPoint and look at the main slide on it every day for the first seven days, just look at the main slide for the presentation. That’s all you need to do. So, you’re priming your brain to start to make progress.

So, small, ridiculously small goals that you can do every single day, and you have no excuse whatsoever. Anyway, those are a number of suggestions for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And it’s fun to do something ridiculously small and to celebrate it in terms of, “Hey, I looked at that slide for 10 seconds and I checked that off the box or the list, I win.” And it sort of feels good to have wins that are that quick and yet really are meaningful. I’d love to get your take on some of the affirmation-type stuff that you shared there, experientially and anecdotally. I’ve seen those are helpful. Can you share with us some of the coolest research you’re aware of when it comes to that kind of affirmation stuff?

Whitney Johnson
I would be delighted to. So, this is research I actually cite in “Smart Growth,” our next book, and it is research from psychologist Gregory Walton out of Stanford. And he describes these as psychologically precise interventions, and it’s, basically, using your words to change how you think or feel. And what found is that if you say something like, “I am a voter,” there is an 11-percentage point increase in voter turnout versus saying, ‘I vote,” which is so powerful.

So, for example, there is this one wonderful story that we tell in the book, a fellow by name of Marcus Whitney who, he had dropped out of college and had now two young children, he was living in an efficiency motel, he’s working as a waiter for 12 hours a day, and, basically, just scraping by, and he’s like, “I got to change. This is not working.” And so, he, fortunately, when he was about 10 years old, his uncle had given him a computer, he’d learned a little bit of programming, he said, “I’m going to figure out how to program again.”

And so, he would work for 11 hours or 12 hours, and he would spend four or five hours programming. He wants to get a job, he applies for hundreds of jobs, doesn’t get them, finally gets them. But what he says that I think is so important, he says, “It wasn’t just about hard work.” He said, “I had to believe that I was a programmer because there wasn’t a lot of evidence around me that this was, in fact, possible.” So, he did not say to himself, “I am becoming a programmer.” He said, “I am a programmer.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the word you said, so identity, that’s huge and I’m totally going to look at that study. That’s so good. Thank you.

Whitney Johnson
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
The word evidence is resonating because, I don’t know, it might’ve been like Tony Robbins, when I was a teenager, he was my idol when I was a teenager. What a weird fellow I was. And he talked about we have beliefs, when you sort of list out reasons or evidence for them, that could be powerful and cement them. And I’ve actually done this exercise in different shapes and flavors over the years as I find, “Ooh, here’s a little zone of self-consciousness or lack of confidence. Let’s take a look at some beliefs here. And then what is my evidence?”

And then, sure enough, as I sort of assemble it with examples in terms of it’s like, “Oh, I accomplished this. I did that. And I got praised for this. Even if it was three years ago, I got a compliment about this thing from someone for that.” And then, all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Okay, I’m not just deluding myself, like saying nonsense things, like, ‘I can fly.’” I’m thinking about Key & Peele sketch, “You can literally fly.” You can’t. But so you’ve collected that evidence, and as it grows, that gets pretty cool and exciting.

As I’m thinking about the programmer example, I don’t know if you did this, but right there is like, “Well, hey, I programmed this thing. Nobody asked for it, nobody paid for it. but, by golly, it works and it does what it’s supposed to go, ergo, I am a programmer.” And then that evidence just sort of mounts over time, it’s like, “I’ve programmed a dozen things.”

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. And you know what, as you’re saying that, I think it also makes a case for, I think, another important hack for us as we’re trying to move along that S Curve, is that when we’re starting something new, we tend to make this list of, “I’ve got to get these 50,000 things done on any given day,” and we start to get frustrated that we’re not getting those 50,000 things done to move along the S Curve. But if we’re willing to write down, “What have I…?” Make as I do it.

So, for example, I don’t write down that I’m going to do a podcast episode, I write down, once we’re finished, like, “We did this. We had this conversation. I prepared for it. It went well.” And so then, your brain starts to feel this sense of efficacy. So, again, this evidence of “I can make a list of what I’m going to get done today,” and I think this applies for anybody in their career, “I have this list of what I want to get done and/or I also did these things that I wasn’t expecting to do. I’m still going to check those off because those are evidence,” that, in fact, you are being effective in your work.

And oftentimes, as you’re moving along an S Curve, it’s not just about subject matter expertise. If you want to be successful in a role, it’s all those things that you do along the curve that seem like they’re interruptions – someone wants to talk about this, someone wants to collaborate on this, someone need your advice about that – all those things are what make you a leader and what make you successful in the role that you didn’t plan for.

But if you write them down, “Oh, I did this and then this and then this,” then you can put together the subject matter, that quantitative piece, if you will, the qualitative piece of that leadership, you put those together and you look at your list for the day, and you realize, “Oh, I actually really am making progress along this S Curve in this particular role.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Beautiful. Well, we talked a lot about the first part, just because it’s hard and difficult. Can you give us your top do’s and don’ts for making the most of the sweet spot and the mastery stages along the journey?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, the sweet spot is that part where things are hard but not too hard anymore, and they’re definitely easy but not too easy. And you’ve got, again, all this exhilaration and so, now that you’ve started, so it was hard, but now you’ve got this momentum, and, in fact, it’s almost impossible to stop. You’ve reached that tipping point and things are moving along really well.

What’s happening for you when you’re in the sweet spot is that you’re feeling this sense of competence, so self-determination theory. You’re feeling this sense of autonomy, like, “I’ve got this. I’ve got control over my destiny.” And you’re also feeling related to the people around you and to what it is you’re trying to get done.

What I would advise people, when you’re in the sweet spot, for as an individual, is the importance of being focused. So, on the job, as you get very capable and get very competent, people are like, “Oh, I’ll have Pete do this, I’ll have Pete do that, I’ll have Pete do this other thing, etc.” And so, it’s important to learn to say no so that you can focus and still build that momentum along the curve.

And I would say, for a manager who’s looking at this, is when you have people on the sweet spot who are very effective, it’s easy to say, “They’re doing great. I’ll leave them be,” and we don’t take the time to say, “Thank you. I acknowledge you. I see you. Thank you for the work that you’re doing.” So, those are some things that I would think about in that sweet spot is the importance of focusing so that you don’t get derailed, you can continue up that curve, as well as making sure you focus on the people who are being effective in that role.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about mastery?

Whitney Johnson
So, in mastery, what’s happening, again, in your brain, is your brain has figured out that predictive model and no longer getting a lot of dopamine. And so, there are two things that you want to do when you’re in mastery. Number one is you want to celebrate – we’ve got a theme going here, celebration – of saying, “I did it. I completed this,” and acknowledge the fact that you did it, and be at the top of that mountain, and observe all that you’ve been able to achieve, and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. It’s the end of the year and so I think this is a good time to do that.

The thing, though, about that place is it’s also this place of poignance because, on the one hand, mountain climbers know that you get to the top of a mountain but any altitude above 26,000 feet is known as the death zone so you’re so high up, your brain and body start to die, and it’s also true for an individual. When you get to the top of that S-curve, if you stay there too long, your brain and body will literally start to die. So, there’s this moment of celebration that you’re here but also realizing that you can’t stay here too long.

And so, the advice for people, when they are in mastery, is that you hit the top of that mountain, you have to keep climbing. And keep climbing may mean you jump to an entirely new S Curve, it may mean you find a new assignment or challenge that pushes you back down in the sweet spot, but that plateau can become a precipice if you aren’t willing to continue to find ways to grow and develop.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so now I’m thinking about that a lot folks feel that in their career. It’s like, whatever you’re doing – sales, project management, product development – in some ways there are endless intricacies and nuances to these domains that you could work on and become ever greater forever. But other ways, there’s a point of diminishing returns, like, “Well, yeah, I pretty much nailed all the basics and now it’s really just like super finer points.”

So, it’s tricky to navigate in a career because, in some ways, when you’ve mastered something, you can become very well compensated for that thing. It’s like, “Oh, you’re really excellent at this, so please do more of that and we’ll pay you plenty because we need someone who’s great at that, and the value created economically is big as a result.” And that can put you in a top spot, it’s like, “Well, yeah, I know but this isn’t really fun for me.”

So, yeah, you sort of mentioned that our choices are to find something else to conquer. Or, what are some other options here?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. Well, how about if I give you a couple of real-life examples that will help illustrate this?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Whitney Johnson
So, one is a company called Chatbooks. You may have heard of them. They turn Instagram photos into picture books. And it’s a company where people like to work, it’s got a really strong culture, they work very hard to build that culture, but because people like to work there, a lot of them were approaching mastery on the curve and sort of saying, “What’s next?”

And so, what we did is we went into the company, we administered our S Curve Insight tool that allows you to see where you are in the curve, but what that does is not only show you where you are in the curve but it now opens up a conversation. It gives you that vocabulary, that framework to talk about growth and opportunities. So, three conversations took place as a consequence, and I think this gives people some script and some idea of what that can look like.

So, one conversation was the chief marketing officer now said, “Okay, I have this language.” She was able to talk to the CEO and say, “It’s not that I don’t love working at Chatbooks, it’s not that I don’t love working with you, it’s just that in terms of what I set out to accomplish here as chief marketing officer, I’m at the top of my curve.” And so, they were able to, because they have that framework, because they have that vocabulary, it wasn’t personal, and she made the decision, they collectively made the decision that she would go to a new curve as a chief marketing officer at another organization. So, that’s one potential outcome.

Another potential outcome was the president of the organization, his roles and responsibilities were bumping up against the CEO’s roles and responsibilities, kind of crowding him out on that curve, and so he felt like he was in mastery. This allowed them to have that conversation of, “Hey, if you could kind of move on, CEO, to other roles and responsibilities, that will clear the pathway for me so I feel like I’ve got more headroom on this current curve. I don’t want to change curves. I like being on this curve but I need more headroom. So, can we rescope roles and responsibilities?”

And then the third potential outcome is the chief technical officer, where he was at the top of the curve, likes it, wants to stay there, “But let’s give you some new projects that will effectively put you on the launch point of that curve so that, by putting together the portfolio of projects that you’re on, it pushes you back down into the sweet spot.” So, those are three different things that can happen as you figure out you’re in mastery, and you’re trying to figure out paths forward.

I’ll give you one other example because I think this will be very useful to your listeners. A few years ago, we interviewed Patrick Pichette, who was formerly the CFO of Google. And so, when he was interviewed, he’d already been in an operations role, he’d been the CFO at Bell Canada, and so was like, “I don’t really want to do this. When it comes to doing this, I’m at the top of my curve.”

So, what he agreed with Eric Schmidt, who was the CEO at the time, was, “All right, we’re going to take this job, you’re going to be the CFO, and you’ll do this for about 18 months, but, at any moment, when you feel like you’re at the top of your curve and you start to feel like you’re bored, you come talk to me and I’ll put something more on your plate.”

And so, that’s how he went from being just a CFO to managing real estate, to managing people, to managing Google Fiber, etc., is knowing, having that conversation, that vocabulary, to say, “I’m at the top of my curve. I need something new because I want to work here and I want to work for you but I need to stay challenged.”

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

Whitney Johnson
No, I think that’s good.

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

Whitney Johnson
It’s a quote from Brandon Sanderson, who’s a fantasy author, who I love, and he said, “We each live thousands of lives; for each day, we become someone slightly different.” And I love that idea of how every single day, we become a new person. We live many, many lives. We’re on many different S Curves. So, I think that’s a very powerful idea that every day we can become someone slightly different.

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

Whitney Johnson
So, I shared with you already the favorite study, the Gregory Walton, psychologically precise interventions. But there’s another one that I think is really powerful, and I find myself recommending it a lot. Her name is Emma McAdam. We recently had her on the podcast. She’s a psychologist. And she did a YouTube video that talks about anxiety, and really does a great job of explaining how we can get into these anxiety loops, and how when we think, “Oh, I’ve got to do this thing, and I’m really scared about it and nervous about it,” we think, “Okay, I just got to not do it because then I know I’ll feel better.”

She talks about how that’s like basically a bear, and every time we avoid the bear, the bear is going to get bigger. So, the thing that we feel like we can’t do, we must do. And I think that’s a very powerful research. I’ve recommended it. Well, I’ve certainly ingested it but recommended it to family members, to clients, and it really is something that is resonating for people very powerfully because there’s a lot of anxiety. I think there always was but I think there’s even more as a consequence of the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Whitney Johnson
So, obviously The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen because that has inspired all my work. Another book that’s really influenced me recently is Suneel Gupta’s Backable. So, we had them on the podcast, and maybe you have as well. It really influenced me, and I think from the standpoint of your listeners, is he talks about when you have an idea, you have to have conviction around your idea in order for you to be able to…like you have to believe it.

And I think that that is true for anybody who’s on a job, wants to be better on their job, whether it’s an idea, whether it’s a promotion, you have to believe in it. And I think that was really powerful for me to read, and I think it’s very useful for anybody who’s listening and wants to make progress. Like, you have to believe in you first if you want anybody else to believe in it – you and your ideas.

And then the fiction one is I just read a book called Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan. If you’re a Narnia fan, it’s basically fan-fiction for CS Lewis and it was just a delightful book.

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

Whitney Johnson
Oh, I’ve lots of favorite tools. Well, one is Zoom. I really love Zoom. I love Rent the Runway because I do a lot of stuff on camera, and it’s nice, and you can’t wear something that you’ve worn a million times, so I like Rent the Runway. Let’s see, I like WHOOP, which I’ve got on my armband right now. I love our S Curve Insight tool. Obviously, I’m going to talk about my own book. I love Enneagram, I love Google Docs, and I love drinking water.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a good listing. I’ve been intrigued by WHOOP. I’ve got the Fitbit Charge 5, which works pretty well. But whenever I keep Googling stuff, it lands me on WHOOP’s website, and it just seems like they really mean business over at WHOOP.

Whitney Johnson
They do. It’s good. I’ve had it for about, I don’t know, three or four months now and I really like it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Whitney Johnson
A favorite habit. So, I would say favorite is hard. Getting up early, I think that’s super important and very valuable in terms of being productive. Taking breaks is a habit that I most love, and having a standing desk, standing up. Taking breaks. Standing up.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate; folks quote back to you often?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, I would say companies don’t disrupt, people do. The fundamental unit of growth is the individual. It’s not failure that limits disruption; it’s shame. And then the fourth, and this is the most recent, is it’s not really The Great Resignation, but rather The Great Aspiration.

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

Whitney Johnson
I would point them to two places. Number one is listen to the Disrupt Yourself podcast. And I was thinking about episodes that would be useful to your listeners – James Clear, habit formation, which we talked about; they could listen to BJ Fogg but they could listen to yours as well; Jennifer Moss on burnout; and Scott Miller on mentorship; and then Leena Nair on disrupting inside of an organization. And then people, of course, can go to my website SmartGrowthBook.com.

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

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. I would say get out your finger, or get out a piece of paper and a pen, and draw that S Curve of learning, plot out where you are right now, plot out where people on your team are, and then just know if you’re at the launch point, you need to encourage yourself or encourage people around you; if you’re on the sweet spot, stay focused; and if you’re in the mastery, remember that it’s not, if you’re feeling the sense of crankiness or ennui, it’s not the job, it’s not even the people you work for. It’s just that your brain needs a new challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Whitney, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in all of your growth adventures.

Whitney Johnson
Thank you very much, Pete.