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701: How to Get People to Say Yes through the Power of Persuasion with Vanessa Bohns

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Vanessa Bohns says: "People's default is actually to say yes, not no."

Vanessa Bohns talks about how all of us have hidden influence and how we can use it effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we end up underestimating the willingness to say yes 
  2. How to get more comfortable with asking
  3. How to say no without feeling guilty or awkward 

About Vanessa

Vanessa Bohns is a social psychologist, an award-winning researcher and teacher, and a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. She holds a PhD in psychology from Columbia University and an AB in psychology from Brown University. 

Professor Bohns has been a Visiting Scholar at the NYU Stern School of Business and has taught at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and Harvard Business Review, and her research has been published in top academic journals in psychology, management, and law, and featured by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, and NPR’s Hidden Brain. 

Her first book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, will be published in September 2021. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two daughters. 

Resources Mentioned

Vanessa Bohns Interview Transcript

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

Vanessa Bohns
Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’m curious, so you’re a social psychologist, and that’s one of my favorite types of guests. And I’m curious, how did growing up on a farm influence that world? Because I think of farms, I think of not so many people and more so animals. Did that provide any insights or background for you to enter into social psychology?

Vanessa Bohns
Unbelievably, it actually did. So, I grew up on a bird farm, and we had all sorts of birds – pheasants and quail and peacocks and geese and chickens – and I would spend my time kind of sitting with my notebook, very Jane Goodall style, and just watching the birds and recording them, and kind of watching their birdy behavior.

And so, yes, they weren’t humans that I was observing but I was taking the sort of the meticulous approach of studying behavior that is kind of funny, now that I look back at these documents that I had of just all these bird behaviors that I would categorize.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a bird behavior most of us don’t know about but maybe would find interesting?

Vanessa Bohns
Well, I will say, if you didn’t grow up on a farm, and I feel like anyone who did or grew up with chickens and roosters will understand this, roosters can be very protective. And so, I spent a lot of my high school years with my friends and I running from the door to the car before the rooster saw us and started coming up, started pecking at our ankles. So, yeah, running away from roosters, and their territorial behavior is definitely a bird behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good to know. Thank you. Well, that comes in handy maybe in the future. And so, let’s talk about your book here You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters. I’m curious, could you kick us off by sharing maybe one of the most surprising discoveries you’ve made about influence across your career studying it?

Vanessa Bohns
I think this whole book is really a catalogue of all the things that I found surprising in my own research and in other people’s research, and there are actually pieces of research that are the things that people have been surprised at when they try to influence other people. So, for example, my research is on asking people for things, and what I find is that when people go out and they ask people for things, they think they’re more likely to be rejected than they actually are.

And so, what we do is we have participants in our studies make guesses about how many people they’re going to have to ask to get someone to do a particular task. And then they go out and they ask people, and we compare what they predicted to what actually happens. And what we find again and again is that people think it’s going to be a lot harder to get people to do things than it actually is.

And the thing that’s been most surprising in that work is how far you can kind of push the effect. So, for example, we started small, so when people went out and asked people to do things, they would ask people to fill out a survey. Then we had them ask to borrow people’s cellphones. Then we had them ask for charitable donations.

And then we started designing studies that we were sure could never work, like we had them go out and ask people to vandalize library books, by walking into a library, and saying, “Hey, I’m playing a prank on my friend. With your own handwriting, will you just write the word pickle and pen on this library book?” And even in those extreme cases, where you’re asking people to do things they actually find pretty uncomfortable, they are more willing to agree to do those things than we expect.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy, there’s so much here. Well, can you give us some numbers here in terms of writing pickle on a library book, for example? Just how many people, what percent of people would do that just for my own edification? I might need to draw on this knowledge someday. What proportion of people will write pickle on a library book if I ask them to?

Vanessa Bohns
Okay. So, our participants, before they went out and made this request, they thought they’d have to ask about 11 people before three people would agree to vandalize a library book. In fact, they only had to ask fewer than five people to get three people to agree. So, basically, more than half of the people they approached agreed to do this thing even though they actually didn’t really want to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, this is fascinating. And so then, I’d like to frame up some additional numbers if you could. I remember I experienced some of this firsthand once when someone randomly reached out to me on LinkedIn and wanted to talk about a career in consulting, and I thought, “Well, I got some time. Let’s go. Why not?” and so I chatted with him.

And then, to my surprise, he had this very detailed notebook about all the people he contacted and how many people responded and all these things, he said, “Can you tell me?” because we had like no connection. It might’ve been in a LinkedIn Group which isn’t the strongest of bonds in most groups. And he went ahead and pulled the data or tabulated data for me from his notebook, and like the number was 28% of the time, total strangers were willing to give him career advice when he asked, and I was blown away by how high that was, and you may not be because you’ve seen it again and again that we do have more influence than you think.

I’d like to get your take on those figures and how they compare with other kinds of compliance rates you’ve bumped into for different kinds of requests?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, I’m impressed. That’s not a bad number for a form like LinkedIn where it’s all text-based because one of the things we looked at is the difference between asking people face-to-face and asking people through like email or through some sort of messaging app, and we usually find that people are much less likely to agree over text requests. So, that’s really not a bad number, the 28%. It might’ve been because there was already this connection through LinkedIn, it’s not just sort of a random email.

But when we looked face-to-face, so we have people ask other people to do favors, like the donation to charity, or a survey, or, for example, walk them to a place they can’t find at a location that’s a few blocks away. And in those cases, we see compliance rates of about 50% on average. So, really, every other person that our participants asked is agreeing, and it’s twice as many as they expect to be agreeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, can you unpack that then? So, that is quite an interesting finding, we do have more influence than we think. When we ask, we’ll get yeses more than we think we will. So, then what are the implications of that? Like, in terms of career, should we just ask a whole lot more or how shall we think about this?

Vanessa Bohns
Yes, so it’s interesting. There’s a lot of implications but you kind of, first, have to step back and think, “Okay, what’s going on here?” to be able to decide, “Should I just use this sort of superpower to ask people and get what I want all the time?” And so, what we find is, I’ll start sort of the context that when we bring participants into the lab to do this, they hate it, they don’t want to go out and ask people for things because we all hate asking. And so, they have this sort of just intense fear about it.

They go out and they do it, and they find it much easier than they expect. And then they come back into the lab and they’re like bound back in and they’re so happy. And their takeaway is, “People are just so nice, they’re so much nicer than I thought.” And I’ll say there is research that shows that, that we underestimate other people’s sort of pro-social inclinations and how helpful they’ll be.

But what we don’t really tell our participants at that point in time is that what we find is that the reason people agree more than we expect is that it’s really hard for someone to say no. It’s not necessarily that people are super excited to agree, although they quickly sort of reframe the situation to feel good about themselves. It’s that when someone is standing in front of you, asking for something, it’s really awkward and uncomfortable and you have to come up with the words and excuse to say no, and it’s often just easier to go ahead and agree.

And so, once you sort of know that that’s what’s going on, you can think about sort of how do you use this, again, sort of latent superpower that when you ask for things, people are more likely to do them for you than you think. Do you really want to use it all the time if people are complying, in part because they feel uncomfortable saying no? Or, do you want to sort of think about when it would be most useful and then use it best in that way?

And so, I’m happy to talk about some ways in which it makes asking easier and then some other ways in which it might make us want to double-check and kind of reconsider what we’re really asking for.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, yes, I’d love to hear all your perspectives in terms of how to think about the ask in terms of, “When should we ask? And how should we ask optimally?” Lay it on us.

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, sure. So, when we sort of think about the ask, many of us, again, it’s a pretty anxiety-provoking thing to have to ask someone for something, and we often think that we’re sort of in an uphill battle, that the other person is sort of inclined to say no, and we’re fighting that tendency. But, in fact, as I said, it’s actually hard for people to say no. People’s defaults, research show, like when we mindlessly just comply with a request, people’s default is actually to say yes not no. The easier thing to do is just to go along with what we’re being asked.

And because of that, when we ask for things, we often don’t have to put the kind of sort of extraordinary effort we put into making those requests. So, for example, people will write out this long-winded email, laying out all these rationales for why they’re asking someone for a favor, and apologize a thousand times, and have their friends re-read it a thousand times, and then get back a quick response, it’s like, “Sure.” Or, come up with the exact way to ask in person, and someone is like, “Okay.” And we don’t really have to put all that sort of exorbitant effort into these things because people are actually inclined to say yes.

Another sort of piece of this is that, because we think that people are less likely to agree than they actually are, we kind of negotiate ourselves down before we ask for something. We think that, “Okay. Well, if I ask for something just a little bit smaller, maybe they’ll be more likely to agree and I won’t be rejected.” But we actually find in our studies that the size of the request doesn’t make as big of a difference as we think.

And so, asking for something bigger or smaller, it’s still hard to say no, it still makes someone feel guilty saying no, it’s still hard to find the words. And so, instead of sort of negotiating ourselves down before we ask for something, we should really assume, “There’s a good chance I’m going to get what I actually need or want, so I should ask for that before I start asking for less before I even do the first ask.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I’m curious, with all these things, is there a different kind of like mode our brains go into in terms of like, well, tell me if this is accurate, are we talking about favor mode as distinct from sales mode? I think in some ways we feel readily comfortable if someone is asking us for money for a product or service, I think we feel great about saying no. I don’t know, it seems like there’s less remorse or guilt or discomfort associated with saying, “No, I don’t want that,” then that’s that. What’s your take here?

Vanessa Bohns
I think, in some cases, when people ask us for a favor, sure, there’s this extra element that, “I feel like a jerk if I say no because it’s going to reflect on sort of whether I’m a good person or not.” So, there is this like added layer of this inclination to say yes. So, it’s not just because it’s hard to say no, it’s also, “Because I want to look and feel like a good person, and I want to help this other person out who’s in a bind.”

But, at the same time, even with like a sales pitch, for example, imagine – this happens to us all the time – you get a knock on the door when you’re home, and someone’s like asking you to sign a petition or sign up for something, and you open that door and they’re making that request, and it’s not that easy to say no. Like, you’re trying to find the words, it’s such an awkward interaction, you feel really awkward and guilty, and you might get to that no eventually but it’s a lot harder than we tend to think in the abstract.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, it’s funny, and this happened a couple of times with, I think, there’s electricity deregulation. I don’t know, these guys really came out again and again. And, I don’t know, that might be legitimate, it may not be, but like, “Hey, can you show me your electricity bill because, well, actually there’s the transmission fee but there’s also this fee, and we can get this fee down to…” And I was like, “I never have even read my electricity bill. I just give them the money they say they need from me. I don’t know who you are and this kind of sounds like a scam,” so I’m thinking these things.

But, you’re right, I won’t say that. I won’t say, “I think you’re lying to me, and I want you to go immediately,” even though that’s what I’m feeling and thinking inside. And maybe they’re not. I don’t know the details of their company. But, so, you’re right, I am not delivering the full candid blunt truth of my thoughts and feelings on the matter to this person who I don’t even know.

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah. And if you have the chance to avoid that awkward interaction or not have to say no, research also shows that people really jump on that.

Pete Mockaitis
We try to hide, yeah.

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, exactly. Right. So, there’s research actually showing that if you give someone a head’s up before they show up at your door that people are less likely to open the door because they don’t want to even have the interaction where they have to say no.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. So, this is just kind of mind-bending. All right. So, keep talking here. So, we don’t need to plan a whole lot with regard to perfectly structuring the request in order to get compliance because sort of the wind is at our backs, and we can sort of feel a dose of confidence, just given these psychological facts on the ground. So, then is there anything you do recommend that we do in order to make our requests optimally?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah. As you said, I think that’s a great way to say it. The wind really is on our backs. The stars are kind of aligned for the yes, so I think you want to reframe things that way, but there are still things that you kind of do wrong to disrupt that sort of state of affairs. So, one of them is not asking directly. So, it’s interesting, when we ask people what they think is going to be the most effective way to ask, we often find that people think that hinting or sort of beating around the bush, like, “I can really use help with this thing,” is the better way to ask. I think they think it’s the more polite way.

But what we find is that, of course, not surprisingly, people are much less likely to agree if you’re not actually asking them a question, if you’re just kind of hinting and hoping that they’ll volunteer. And so, actually making that request direct, and saying, “Will you do this thing?” makes it harder for them to say no, and also clear in what you want. And so, that’s one thing, is to be direct when you’re making a request even if you don’t have this huge speech that you’re delivering, but just make it clear, like, “Will you do this thing?”

And the other one goes back to asking in person. So, again, I think we think that crafting the perfect email so we can put all our arguments out there and say it exactly right so someone can’t say no, it’s actually pretty easy to say no to an email no matter how perfectly crafted it is.

Pete Mockaitis
You can ignore it. Just don’t look at it anymore.

Vanessa Bohns
Exactly. It’s a lot harder to ignore or say no to someone who’s standing in front of you, and I think that we often forget that. We forget that our presence matters more than the specific words we’re saying half the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, so that’s super. And then tell us then about the implications of people saying yes even though their heart isn’t into it. How does that mean we should play the asking game optimally in a professional environment?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, this is a really important sort of aspect of understanding that mechanism, that reason that people say yes, and that it’s not always enthusiastic, sometimes it’s because it’s so hard to say no. And that really means that instead of focusing so much on exactly how to get people to say yes, we should kind of assume that there’s a good chance they’re going to say yes, and make sure we’re asking for things that are okay and appropriate and things that we don’t want someone to feel obligated to agree to.

So, for example, we started with these favor requests and we had people make requests, and then we moved onto things like the vandalism study, and that was to kind of show it’s not just about asking for favors. It’s also asking for anything, including things that people don’t really want to do or make them uncomfortable. We sort of extended that research to making romantic advances at work.

And so, we’ve also shown that when people ask someone out on a date, for example, at work, who isn’t interested in them, we tend to underestimate how hard it is for that person to say no to us, and we underestimate how uncomfortable of a situation that creates for that person that they then have to sort of cope with.

So, we think, for example, when we ask people who had been rejected by someone at work, they thought it was pretty easy for them to reject them, and that they didn’t really do anything different afterwards. But when we asked people who rejected someone they weren’t interested in at work, they said that it was really uncomfortable to say no, and then they started avoiding that person, they did things differently, they avoided that person’s contacts, and they kind of did adjust their behavior in all these potentially meaningful ways.

And so, sort of knowing that asking for things directly does put people sort of on the spot, and sometimes it’s okay if we’re asking for something good that makes them really feel good, but you also want to kind of think twice about the things you’re asking for because if you’re asking, for example, a subordinate to do something that could be a little bit sketchy or inappropriate, or even a colleague for those things, it’s actually a lot harder for them to come out and say, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t feel comfortable with that,” than we tend to think.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Excellent. Well, I’m also intrigued as you talked about these studies where you say, “Okay, guys, you’re going to go ask people to vandalize library books,” and they go, “Oh, no, I don’t want to.” So, I guess you’ve seen this cycle many, many, many times, of folks feeling the nerves, the apprehension, associated with just doing the asking. So, tell us, what are some of the patterns or best practices associated with if we’ve got the case of the nerves and some reluctance to do some asking, how do we get over it?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, and you’re right, I’ve seen this so many times. The last time I calculated, our participants had asked 15,000 people different requests, so we see it all the time. And I’d say, first of all, that just asking more makes you more comfortable with asking, and it does sort of help you to see that people don’t get as upset as we think they will, people don’t judge us as harshly as we think they will, and they’re even more likely to say yes than we think they will be.

And so, getting that practice, particularly when we’re asking for things, again, that are beneficial to everybody, like favor requests and things that bring people closer together, can really help you get more comfortable with asking. So, in the book, I talk about this thing called rejection therapy that was started by Jason Comely and then Jia Jiang got into it and sort of made it a bigger thing. But it’s basically, the idea is that you’re supposed to try to get rejected every day. And Jason Comely came up with all these kinds of random things that you go out and you ask people.

So, for example, ask somebody to race you down the street, just a random stranger; go up to random strangers and ask them to give you a compliment; ask a police officer if you can sit in their car, just all sorts of random requests. And the thinking is that these requests are supposed to be chances to get rejected so that you aren’t so worried about rejection.

But Jia Jiang, who kind of documented his experience with rejection therapy on his blog, showed that actually when he asked a lot of these things, a lot of people were agreeing. And so, he partly was getting over rejection, he partly was learning that rejection is less likely than you think. And he really kind of saw this as a major intervention and really an exposure therapy of getting over this kind of fear of asking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Okay, that sounds like that’ll do it. And then, I’m guessing it might be prudent to start small and get more challenging as you go down the path. Any starter asks that are great for people if they’re really feeling skittish?

Vanessa Bohns
Sure, I mean, simple things. Right now, I don’t know how people feel about asking someone for like a piece of gum or something little like that, directions, just anything where you kind of have to interrupt someone and actually make that ask. And so, for example, just to give you another sort of sense of how hard people find that, and another set of studies I talk about in the book, which gets away from the asking piece, we also have people go up to strangers and give them compliments.

And so, in some ways, it’s a similar setup. They come into the lab, they go out onto campus, and they go up to people and say, “Excuse me, I really like your shirt,” and we tell them what to compliment the person on. But there’s this same sort of hesitation to go up to a stranger, interrupt whatever they’re doing, make them interact with you, and our participants actually think that complimenting someone, literally making them feel good with a compliment, is going to annoy them.

And so, there is a lot of sorts of tension that we feel and anxiety we feel about just going up to strangers and initiating a conversation or a request or even a compliment. And so, I’d say you could even start, if you’re not just asking for things, you could ask for, as I said, directions, something small, a piece of gum. You could even start by going up and giving random strangers compliments and sort of exercise that muscle of just interacting with people more.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent.

Vanessa Bohns
Especially, as we come out of the pandemic and we forget what it’s like to interact with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess I’m also curious, if you’ve gained a deep understanding of our tendency to not want to say no, saying no is a completely different skill but it sounds like you know a lot about it so I’ve got to ask. How can we say no better given that you have an understanding of these psychological forces within us?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah, absolutely. So, I get asked this a lot because so much of my research is about how hard it is to say no and how hard it is for other people to say no to us, but, of course, we also experience that. And so, I basically give the opposite instructions for people who want to say no as I give to people who want to ask and get a yes.

So, for one, it’s really hard to say no in person. And so, if someone is asking you for something in person, you can ask them to follow up over email or some sort of way that makes it easier for you to say no. So, for example, if someone is like, “Oh, I’d really like you to be part of this committee that no one wants to be part of,” you can say, “Okay, I’ll think about it. Can you just follow up with me over email and I’ll get back to you?”

And what that does is it buys you the space so that you have time to think of what to say. A lot of it is in the moment, “What am I even going to say? Do I have a good excuse? It might not be a particularly strong excuse, and I’d like to come up with a better one?” But, also, it’s just really hard in that moment to say no to someone’s face. And so, you buy yourself that space if you kind of create that distance through the email so you can think of what to say, you have time to formulate your words and whatever excuse you want to use, and you don’t have to say no to somebody’s face.

Another sort of recommendation I often give is to blame somebody else. So, often, we hate rejecting people and saying no because we feel like it looks bad on us and that we’re somehow conveying something about our relationship to that other person. And the more that you can sort of put the pressure off of you and the relationship with that person asking, the better. So, if you say, “I can’t do that because I have this other obligation, the sort of external attribution, because somebody else wouldn’t be happy if I was doing that. Someone else asked me to do something else,” anything that sort of points your reason for saying no away from that immediate relationship.

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

Vanessa Bohns
I would say the one thing, I kind of focus on experience as a way to learn about asking. But one thing I do talk about in the book is that we also need to sort of reflect on those experiences. So, just asking a bunch of people is not the end-all-be-all. We also have to sort of think about what those people are really truly feeling and get their perspective, and sort of get out of our own heads and be able to recognize the impact we’re having on them and on the situation.

And so, as much as I love these sorts of experiential sort of challenges that we give people, it also takes a little bit more than that to sort of integrate the knowledge and really sort of learn to recognize your influence.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to that world of empathy and recognizing what someone else is feeling and how that maps to our own influence, do you have any particular pro tips on, I don’t know if it’s like categorizing or gathering intel on what are the hot buttons for somebody? How do you think about knowing your persuasive target all the more such that you are asking well while not going overboard with the thousands of revisions like we talked about before?

Vanessa Bohns
Yeah. So, Nick Epley and his colleagues have looked at the difference between taking perspective and getting perspective. So, one thing that people try to do when they’re trying to figure out, like, “What can I really do that will resonate with this other person? How can I influence someone? What impact am I having on them?” we try to take their perspective. And what that really means is we try to figure out what’s going on in their head, but we do it by searching our own heads, we’re like, “What would that person think?” and we base it on stereotypes of that person or what we’ve seen that person do in the past.

And what I talk about is that, actually, instructing people to try to take someone else’s perspective isn’t actually a way to make people more accurate at understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling, and, instead, you need to what they called get perspective. And it’s actually pretty simple to get someone’s perspective, and that is actually asking them, so actually talking to them and saying, “What do you care about? What do you want?” And often we forget how easy it is to just actually come out and ask someone, and how open someone is likely to be, and how the things they’re likely to tell us, that then we can sort of play off.

So, for example, one thing we talk about in my negotiation class is you can ask people, “What do you really care about here? What are your values?” And then when you actually make an ask during the negotiation, you mirror those values, “You told me that this is what you cared about, so this is a way to meet those values,” for example.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Perfect. Well, now, can you tell me a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Vanessa Bohns
Sure. Actually, this fits really well with what we were just talking about. So, my colleague recently reminded of a famous quote by Kurt Lewin who was a big psychologist back in his day, “Experience alone does not create knowledge.” And so, it really gets at what we were just talking about, that we kind of hold up experiences as this pinnacle, that once you experience something, you’ve learned something profound, and now you understand it in this way that people who only imagine it couldn’t possibly understand.

But, in fact, lots of times when we have an experience, we have our own very specific experience that might not match other people’s. We still need to understand what other people are experiencing. We still need to try to reflect on that experience and how it might be different from somebody else, and gather information about other people’s experiences.

For example, there’s research showing that people who got divorced assume that other people who are getting divorced are having the same experience that they did, but that’s not always true. Other people have a totally different experience with the same sort of life event. And so, it’s basically this idea that experience is great but you have to integrate your experiences with knowledge and with an understanding of the rest of the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study?

Vanessa Bohns
Sure. actually, this is not a study but it’s a re-interpretation of a bunch of famous studies. So, I have this favorite paper, it’s been my favorite paper for almost 20 years, by Sabini, Siepmann, and Stein, called “The really fundamental attribution error.” And what it does is it revisits these classic social psychology studies, like the Milgram study, where an experimenter is asking someone to shock another person; the bystander intervention studies, where people don’t want to get up and tell the experimenter that smoke is rising in the room because everyone else in the room is sitting calmly.

And so, these have been classically taught in any intro psych class or social psychology class that someone has taken. They’re usually taught as displaying the power of the situation, that we basically underestimate how powerful situations are and how whatever we want to do as individuals, it’s kind of washed away by the power of the situation. We underestimate that.

But this paper reinterprets all that as the power of embarrassment, that, in fact, people sat there, shocking this other person because they felt too uncomfortable and embarrassed to challenge the experimenter who was standing right there; and people sat there, letting a room fill up with a smoke and didn’t say anything because everyone else was sitting there looking calm, and they didn’t want to look like fools by standing up and making a big deal out of it. And so, I just have always been fascinated by this idea that embarrassment can play this huge role in so many of our behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Vanessa Bohns
I only read it this past year but it’s quickly become my favorite book, it’s Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It’s ostensibly a book about writing but it’s really more of a book about life, but also writing. And it’s just so funny and just emotionally resonant, and, actually, a really great book about writing as well.

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

Vanessa Bohns
I’d say just a pen and a notebook. I am constantly on a walk and coming up with an idea, or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep, I come up with an idea, and just having a notebook nearby to jot things down is the best thing, the best tool, I think, for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Vanessa Bohns
Going on long thinking walks. I try to go for a walk every night. After the kids go to bed, I try to walk around for like an hour and just think, and it’s very calming, and I come up with a lot of ideas that way as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to resonate and get quoted back to you often?

Vanessa Bohns
It’s this piece about asking in person that I think usually resonates with people the most, because I think that a lot of people struggle with how to ask, the best way to ask, “Should I write an email?” And a lot of us gravitate towards that because it’s kind of easier to be rejected over email, if you’re going to be rejected. But people find it really helpful when I talk about the fact that asking in person makes such a big difference.

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

Vanessa Bohns
So, I have my website which is VanessaBohns.com, and I’m also at @profbohns at Twitter.

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

Vanessa Bohns
I think you hear this phrase “Start from a place of yes all the time,” and I kind of like the idea of a play on that, which assumes that other people are starting from a place of yes. So, instead of assuming that other people are immediately going to say no or reject the things that you ask for or arguments you make, assume they actually are going to be pretty receptive, and then sort of reframe whatever you’re going to pitch or ask for accordingly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Vanessa, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all your influencing ways.

Vanessa Bohns
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

700: How to Make Your Anxiety Work For You with Wendy Suzuki

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Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki talks about how you can leverage your anxiety to solve problems and boost your well-being.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The six superpowers of anxiety 
  2. How to trick your brain into relaxing
  3. How a 30-second meditation can make all the difference 

 

About Wendy

Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University and a celebrated international authority on neuroplasticity. She was recently named one of the ten women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Shape, and Health. 

Her TED talk has received more than 31 million views on Facebook and was the 2nd most viewed TED talk of 2018. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Wendy Suzuki Interview Transcript

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

Wendy Suzuki
So happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. Now, you are a professor of neuroscience, but you also spent some time observing baboons in Botswana.

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us the story here. How did that come to be? And any insights or hilarity from that experience?

Wendy Suzuki
Well, it was just awe from that experience. Well, I call it my Jane Goodall experience. It was my very first sabbatical of studying behavior, and decided to apply it to baboon behavior, and got associated with an amazing lab out of University of Pennsylvania, Cheney and Seyfarth, who had a baboon cognition research station in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.

And so, I went there for about two or three weeks. I worked with their postdocs and I was the most highly educated research assistant ever. My job was to collect poop, so I was a baboon poop collector. And I proudly did my job and it’s actually much more difficult than you might imagine because you have to be able to tell the difference between the different baboons so that you collect the correct poop, and that was challenging.

Did you know that baboons in the wild are identified by their ear markings. Their ears get beat up in fights and things, and so what you get is not like a little picture of the face of every baboon with their name, “Here’s Elvis, here’s Loki,” but you get the name Elvis and you get a little drawing of his right and left ear.

So, you are walking around kind of trying to look at the ears of all of these baboons, which that was actually really funny to watch me do, but it was so fascinating. It was like a little soap opera out there. You would not believe the intrigue and the sex and the dastardly deeds that get done in these baboon colonies.

Pete Mockaitis
Intrigue and sex and dastardly deeds. We’re off to a great start, Wendy.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s baboons. We’ve got dastardly deeds. Let’s hear a little bit about anxiety. That can cause us to do some dastardly things or feel not so great. You have come to some insights associated with anxiety. Can you share what’s one of your most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made along these lines?

Wendy Suzuki
So, the whole book Good Anxiety is really about how if you are able to embrace all aspects of your anxiety, both those negative, uncomfortable feelings, but also all the information your particular form of anxiety teaches you about yourself, then your anxiety transforms into something that could bring you to a more fulfilling life, a more creative life, and, ultimately, a less stressful life. So, that is the take-home message of Good Anxiety that is the culmination of all the research and the science and just the observations that I’ve done around the area of anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re saying the benefit of anxiety is the teaching that it gives us primarily. Is that right or are there more things there too?

Wendy Suzuki
There’s lots of things. So, one of the superpowers that one gets with anxiety, in fact, we talked about six different superpowers that come from good anxiety, they include resilience, compassion, flow, mindset, focus, and creativity. Now, I’m not saying that somebody that’s in the throes of what I call bad anxiety, when anxiety starts to block you, and you can’t go out and you can’t speak fluidly because you have lots of anxiety. That is not when you start to get these superpowers.

What the book takes you through is, first, exercises and activities to help you flip that bad anxiety into good manageable anxiety. And it’s when anxiety is in this manageable state is when you can take advantage of all of these positive aspects of anxiety, including all those superpowers that I talked about. And that is what the book describes, how these powers of resilience come from the fact that if you are experiencing lots of little bouts of anxiety, every single little bout is contributing to your little piggybank of resilience.

Now, if these bouts are very debilitating, that’s hard to appreciate. But, in fact, scientific experiments have shown that if people go through large numbers of more controllable bouts of stress or anxiety, they develop what’s called stress resilience. They are more resilient than other controls that get either uncontrollable stress or no experience of stress, either controlled or uncontrolled. So, there are definitely positive aspects that come to it. You have to know how to leverage all of the information and superpowers that do come with anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to have those superpowers, so can you walk us through an example here? So, you’re feeling anxious about something, and then what do you do to make it work for you?

Wendy Suzuki
So, most people, the most common question that I get is, “I get bouts of anxiety. I don’t know how to make it go away, make it feel better.” And so, I always start with the two most direct ways that you can counteract anxiety. You don’t need to practice, you don’t need to do anything, and here they are.

First one is deep breathing. So, you don’t practice it, just deep breathing. Because what you’re doing with deep breathing is you’re activating one of our amazing nervous systems that we all have in our body called the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s also called the rest and digest nervous system. This is a nervous system that kicks in when you have a little more time on the weekends. You can digest. You’re not doing ten things that your boss just asked you to do. And that causes a whole bunch of physiological responses – slowing of the heart rate; deeper, fuller breathing; blood flow into your digestive system and away from your muscles.

Whereas, the stress system, or parasympathetic nervous system, the stress nervous system, does the opposite. I live in New York so taxi cabs come too close to you, clips you, almost clips you on the street, and you jump back. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to analyze it. Your stress system and danger-alerting system has you jump back. Your heart rate goes up, your blood flow is going to your muscles because you have to get away from the danger.

And so, I want less of that stress activation systems in my normal life, and I want more of that rest and digest system. So, it’s hard for me to slow my heart rate consciously, but the best way into that system is deep breathing. By deep breathing, you start to activate other elements of that rest and digest relaxation system. So, that’s a wonderful way to do it. Again, you want to catch it before it gets into really deep anxiety. So, as you start to feel anxiety coming on, get those deep breaths going. That’s number one.

Number two is another very effective way to quell bad anxiety is simply moving your body. Go for a walk outside, do some jumping jacks, whatever is most natural for you to do. Why? Because even moving your body a little bit can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline. I like to say that every time you move your body, you give your brain a bubble bath of positive neurochemicals, including dopamine and serotonin that are going to activate your feelings of reward and happiness.

So, those are two immediate things that you can do because, as I said, you can’t get to the superpowers when you’re in a state of bad anxiety. So, you’ve quelled your anxiety. You haven’t gotten rid of it. You have lots of things. We all have our own personal anxiety stories. And so, now, you’ve quelled your bad anxiety and it’s a little bit more manageable. It still comes with those negative feelings, but it’s not as debilitating as it was before.

Now, you’re able to start to tap into some of those superpowers. And one of the superpowers that I love to talk about is the superpower of compassion, that is I think it’s very easy to understand. So, let me give an example from my own life. When I was in middle school, high school, I was a very, very shy young person, scared to talk, scared to raise my hand in class. I knew the answers but too scared to actually interact and say the answers out loud. And that caused a lot of my early anxiety in my life.

So, I’ve developed ways not to be shy in that way. But what I realized is that deep understanding of that feeling of fear has given me the superpower of compassion. And I’m able to use that particular superpower in my own teaching because I happen to become a teacher. And so, I use it altruistically by making sure that all the students in my class have many different ways to talk to me, interact with me, tell me what they know, because that is very satisfying to a student. I know from my own student days.

But I’m very, very aware of all those students out there. They know the answer but they have an anxiety of speaking out in class. And I do this also not just in the student kind of classroom situation but in a meeting situation. Sometimes there are people that easily speak out and others have a harder time. So, if I’m directing the meeting, I always make sure that everybody gets a say. And if somebody hasn’t said anything, I made sure, without putting them on the spot, that they had their say taken.

And that level of compassion comes from my particular anxiety story. And you can kind of apply compassion from your own deep understanding of whatever anxiety you have. Money anxiety, aging anxiety, grade anxiety. What can you do to kind of help others because you understand so deeply what that anxiety is?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s lovely. So, when it comes to the deep breathing and the moving your body in order to get you to a more useful place, I’m curious, is there…do you suggest a particular amount of breaths, or a pace, or a cadence, or an amount of exercise? Is there a sweet spot where you start to get diminishing returns?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I like to start off with just the quick and dirty activity. Just breathe more deeply. Know that is helpful. Walk outside is the easiest thing to do. However, if you have time and you want to kind of really dig deeper here and find your own sweet spot, here is what I recommend. There are literally thousands of kinds of breath meditation, and you can learn about them simply by using YouTube, and going to three breath meditation. Find one that you like. There are so many. You can judge them by how many views, how many millions of views that they have, and practice that in a non-anxiety provoking situation just to find out which kind that you like.

There’s a kind that you do in yoga class that you might be familiar with. Alternate nostril breathing, there’s counting breathing where you count four breaths, four counts in, hold if for four counts, and then slowly breathe out for four counts. That’s another very common easy one. But some might be more relaxing or less relaxing to you. So, that is the easiest kind of free way to do that.

Similarly, for exercise, we know from experimental studies, and one of my expertise is the effects of physical activity on the brain. We know that walking alone can decrease anxiety levels, decrease depression levels, and improve positive affect, simply walking outside for a minimum of 10 minutes. So, do that.

Some people might like doing something like the 7-Minute Workout from the New York Times. That’s another good way. Again, you can explore, see what you like to do, see what’s more natural. Some people might want to stay indoors to do their physical activity. The other one that I like to recommend is dance. Dancing is a wonderful form of physical activity. Turn your favorite toe-tapping music on from whatever period, and just dance for the three minutes of the song. That is guaranteed to improve your mood as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. Thank you. That’s a nice lineup and quick and fun, and makes an impact. So, you mentioned a number of superpowers. I’m most intrigued by flow. How can I use anxiety to get more flow?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, that’s a great one. So, flow, as it was originally defined, is kind of depressingly unattainable. You have to have 10,000 hours of practice. You have to be so high-level performance. I think of Yo-Yo Ma because I love the cello. And so, Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites can achieve flow, but I will never be able to do flow because I can’t do anything that beautiful with my hands. So, it’s depressing and also anxiety is a really big flow supper. So, not only is it really hard to get flow but anxiety kind of digs a hole deeper that makes it harder to get.

And so, I’ve come up with something that I use all the time, which is the concept of microflow. So, microflow is not dependent on how many hours you practice or how high a level. Microflow is dependent on how much you enjoy the process. So, for example, I experience microflow after every yoga class in Shavasana because I’m really good at laying still on my back. And I categorize that as a moment of microflow, and it’s really important. This superpower is one that’s both a tool to help people out of bad anxiety, but it becomes a superpower as you practice it more and more. And it’s really a practice and a strategy of noticing all the things that you do enjoy in a given day no matter how fleeting they are.

So, Shavasana always seems so short, but I categorize that as a moment of microflow. My green smoothie that I make in the morning that took me months to finalize the recipe that I love. That is a daily moment of microflow for me. Of course, everybody can cultivate this. But people with anxiety, it’s even more important that they do this so that they can feel this flow and really appreciate the positive lovely moments in their life, and put that in the piggy bank.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s about the savoring, the appreciating, the pausing. So, I guess I’m wondering, in terms of like the recipe there, I guess first you noticed, “Hey, I like this,” and then I guess it’s not just sort of multitasking in your brain and rushing and trying to get it done and go to the next thing. Any other particular mental practices that you’re doing there in order to arrive in that place?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, it’s really, I think, it’s an art of savoring good moments in your life because, I can tell you, from my own personal experience, when I was experiencing much higher levels of anxiety, that we all do at certain points in our lives. Any good moment like that, my first thought would be, “It’s going to be over. It’s soon going to be over and I’m going to go back into anxiety.” And so, I was anti-savoring the moment.

And the thing that really, really helped me was a practice that will be very familiar to many people and it’s in the focus superpower, which is the practice of meditation. So, the practice of meditation is really an exercise for your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex is what is giving you that unending what-if list, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” For me, that always happens right before I’m trying to fall asleep. How do I quell that? Well, you practice, you get yourself in a quiet state, and, very important, you start very, very short, with a very short meditation, 30 seconds.

Have you ever done a 30-second meditation? That could be just a breath meditation, going back to our how you quiet a bad anxiety in the first place. But I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to meditate for too long, and thinking that they have to have all thoughts go out of their mind, that their mind has to be a blank slate. That never happens. You can quiet your mind. You can focus. That’s why focusing on the breath, on loving kindness and compassion meditation focusing on that feeling of loving kindness and compassion, which one can’t get. The trick of the trade that I learned from some expert meditators is think about puppies and babies, things that make you go, “Aww,” will make you want to have immediate love for them.

And it’s a lovely meditation to do. It focuses your attention, it focuses your emotional state on cuteness and love and protection of this lovely creature, but it also trains your prefrontal cortex to go in this calm state. And that is very, very powerful for building focus, which often flies out the window with anxiety. And so, by practicing that, that is one of the ways that you can create a superpower of focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Any other pro tips on the focus?

Wendy Suzuki
So, throughout the book I interview a number of people, just real people, different ages, different backgrounds, to tell their story, their anxiety story, and how these approaches helped them. This person actually gave us a wonderful kind of tool for the focus superpower. And that is an immediate turning your what-if list, that often kind of derails your focus, into a to-do list. So, this happened to be an entrepreneur that had terrible anxiety about raising money and couldn’t kind of get over a no answer and second-guess himself for all the things that he could’ve done differently to get that money back or get that investment.

And the tip that he got from a colleague of his, that he shared with us, is that all of those second-guessing that you do, all that creates your what-if list, you turn that into an action list. So, use that as, “This is great. That what-if, that’s going on the list. I’m going to change that. I’m going to do it differently for next time.” So, you turn it into an action item. And it’s kind of turning the negative activation of anxiety that creates this what-if list that puts you into deeper anxiety, and turns it into an immediate action list.

And he was able to implement this and kind of changed his view on his anxiety kind of in one conversation. And he was a very driven person but it is powerful to think, “What if I just turned all those what-ifs into my exploration list?” And that is part of the superpower of these things that come up in anxiety, these thoughts that come up in anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, Wendy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, one of my favorite superpowers, I think we’ve covered most all of them, is a superpower that comes from good anxiety is creativity. So, creativity is a natural byproduct of anxiety because anxiety often pushes us to find workarounds, “I can’t do that. I can’t go in that direction because that’s difficult but I’m going to do it a different way.”

And, also, the difficulties that come with anxiety, anxiety caused by difficult family members, very difficult upbringings, we know from history, often lead to some of the most creative kind of outlets for that – writing, song. You don’t have to be a number one on the hits list but they are inspiration for lots of creative outlets.

And so, instead of, again, just focusing on the negative feelings, can you get inspiration from all of these people that have used their negative anxiety-ridden experiences to create something beautiful and new? And, in fact, many of them say that their creativity came from their pain and their anxiety, so it’s inspiring to think about anxiety that way, that your anxiety story can become a creativity story.

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

Wendy Suzuki
The first quote that comes to mind that always inspires me is from Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see.” And that is an underlined quote that I used to write this book. I don’t just write about good anxiety and the superpowers. I lived all these superpowers, I use them in my life, and they change my life in profound ways, which is part of the story of Good Anxiety.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, so my favorite bit of research was a preliminary study that I did in a classroom at NYU in August of 2020. It was the first semester where everybody was going to be remote, and I was invited to speak to a freshmen cohort. I was going to share my research on the effects of exercise on the brain, and I had 30 minutes.

And I decided to truncate the lecture so it was only going to be 10 minutes long, and I decided to do an experiment on them. So, I sent them all off to do, a clinical anxiety survey, this was after I told them about the positive effects of exercise, including that wonderful neurochemical bubble bath that happens when you move your body.

So, after they did the anxiety survey, we all came back, this was all on Zoom, and I happen to be a certified exercise instructor. So, we all did 10 minutes of a workout that I teach called intenSati that pairs physical movements from kickbox and dance and martial arts and yoga with positive spoken affirmation. So, as you punch, front punches, you say things like, “I am strong now.” And every move has different affirmations.

And so, there was 10 minutes of it. It was surprising. They did not know they were going to do this. And then, at the end of that, I had them all go back and retake that anxiety survey. And the next day, I sent everybody that was in that, there were 30 freshmen in that session, I sent them the results.

What I found was before the exercise, those 30 students, on average, were just shy of clinically anxious, very high levels of anxiety. Again, this was right before their first remote session of their freshmen year at NYU, so not so surprising there was high levels of anxiety. But my favorite part is that just 10 minutes of working out over Zoom with me decreased their anxiety scores by 15 points on average, which brought them all to the normal anxiety levels.

So, that is just a quick experiment on the power of moving your body on affecting anxiety.

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

Wendy Suzuki
I’ve been obsessed with memoirs, and I’ve been reading memoirs of comedians because I admired their writing and I’ve always wanted to be a funny person so I’m curious about how comedians tell their life story. So, one of my favorite books that I’ve read recently is called A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost from Saturday Night Live.

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

Wendy Suzuki
I feel like my superpower tool of being awesome at my job is staying connected with a whole bunch of creative friends who are really, really inspiring in lots of different ways. So, I find myself time and time again inspired, thinking about how to bring elements of performance, or, I don’t know, musical theater into my teaching and into my talk world. So, my superpower is my creative cohort of friends.

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

Wendy Suzuki
My morning tea meditation. So, every morning, I wake up and I do about 45 minutes of meditation over the brewing and drinking of tea. It’s a particular form of meditation that I learned from a monk, a tea monk, and I set up my day beautifully with that tool.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, the quote that I get most often is, “I love your image of a bubble bath for the brain every time you move your body.” It’s an image that’s novel and it sticks with people, and that’s the one that gets quoted back to me the most often.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, best way to learn more about me and get in touch is my website www.WendySuzuki.com. Everything is there from classes, to books, to lectures, to TED Talks. So, you’ll find everything there.

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

Wendy Suzuki
My call to action is to and I’ve done this myself, great to focus on your major strengths. But what if you could use your anxiety to be even better at your job? It’s hard to think about that. It’s a Jiu Jitsu move that I try to show everybody how to do, but that is my best tip for a new way to improve yourself using your own anxiety story.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Wendy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and good anxiety in the days to come.

Wendy Suzuki
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

699: Redefining Success for More Fulfilling Days with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg says: "There is hardly, if any, correlation between more money and more fulfillment, more happiness, more health."

Brad Stulberg discusses the fundamental mindset shift that helps us feel more fulfilled every day.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The deeply-rooted belief that explains why we’re often dissatisfied 
  2. The simple secret to feeling more fulfilled every day
  3. The hidden costs of efficiency 

About Brad

Brad Stulberg is an internationally known expert on human performance, well-being, and sustainable success. He is coauthor of the bestselling Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. His work has appeared in the New York TimesWall Street JournalLos Angeles TimesWiredForbes, and more, and he is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine. In his coaching practice, Brad works with executives and entrepreneurs on their performance and well-being, and he regularly speaks to large organizations on these topics as well.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

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

Brad Stulberg
Hey, Pete, it’s great to be talking with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m looking forward to digging into your latest, your book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.” I just get a kick out of that subtitle Feeds—Not Crushes. That’s fun. So, yeah, I want to get there. But, first, it’s funny, I am prepping for a camping trip actually and you are a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, which I have looked at several times.

And it seems like you guys always get cool gear sent to you to check out, to test, to review. I’d like to hear if there’s been any just straight up, silly, ridiculous, noteworthily, hilarious devices that have been sent your way in the years you’ve been doing this.

Brad Stulberg
Oh, my gosh, the list is infinite, particularly around so-called wellness products. Most of my writing for Outside is around health and wellbeing, and the amounts of products with such broad claims, all containing CBD, is just outrageous. You’ve got CBD for your sore knees, CBD for your anxiety, CBD for your dog’s sore knees, CBD for your dog’s anxiety, CBD for your child. So, I think we’re in like peak CBD wave.

Now, whether or not CBD does any of those things, I can’t say. I’m quite skeptical. But, perhaps, more helpful for your camping pursuits, the one device that I find so helpful that so many people often overlook is just a really good light that you can strap onto your head, so like a headlamp for reading at night without keeping everyone else up, for navigating the camp ground when it is late or pitch black, and for just getting around. You don’t have to find a flashlight, it’s just there on your head. So, that is my recommendation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I sprang for a fancy one, I think it was a Black Diamond, and, yes, it has served me well. I have fond memories of everyone having their little headlamps on playing cards at night on the campsite, and it’s a fun little picture. Cool.

Well, so let’s talk about groundedness what’s the big idea behind this latest book?

Brad Stulberg
Right. So, the big idea is this. If you look at charts showing the performance of the stock market or the national GDP in America but also in most Western countries, you see a trajectory that looks very good. It is a pretty consistent rise. But then if you look at charts of depression, anxiety, loneliness, burnout, you see the exact opposite. You see a pretty steep and consistent decrease.

So, the book asks, “How do we reconcile these two things?” The measures that we have show that people are doing really well in terms of GDP and stock market, but these other measures show that we’re not. And I call this problem, or at the least the problem is a function of something that I call heroic individualism, which is this notion that the only arbiter of success is external measurement and it’s a constant race for the next thing, to constantly one up yourself, one up others, and it’s like this never-ending game that is very much fueled by consumer marketing to be better, have more, do better, succeed, and it’s leaving people feeling pretty miserable.

And the solution that I proposed is this framework of groundedness which is based on modern science, ancient wisdom, and concrete practices from individuals who have done well but, more importantly, felt low along the way and had fulfilling lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds lovely. I’d like that. And so then, it’s intriguing, you’re right. So, one would think that in a world in which folks, individuals, are wealthier, we ought to be happier and better off. And I guess there’s been a host of research on that which seems to suggest that there’s really kind of a cutoff point. Like, once your needs are pretty well met and you’re not like worried about, I don’t know, housing or food, or you can buy the basics that you need to be fine and not be freaked out, it seems like right around that point, you don’t get much benefit from being wealthier. Does that tie into some of this as well?

Brad Stulberg
It does, yeah. There are some research that shows just that, that once your basic needs are met, I’ll throw healthcare in there as well, but shelter, food, healthcare, that, generally speaking, more money is not tied to more health or more happiness. I think if you’re a double-minimum wage worker that’s working those jobs so that you can meet those basic needs then, yeah, more money would help. But for the average knowledge worker or business professional, there is hardly, if any, correlation between more money and more fulfillment, more happiness, more health.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, with that established, then we’re going to talk about groundedness a lot. Could you give us a definition for what is groundedness? What is the opposite of groundedness? What does that kind of look like?

Brad Stulberg
Sure. So, the opposite of groundedness is to be pushed and pulled by the frenetic energy and fast-paced-ness of the culture of your life. So, it constantly feels like you’re falling behind, you’re all over the place, you’re treading water, you’re seeking some kind of contentment, you’re not sure where to find it, so you don’t feel firmly rooted where you are.

And, as a result, even if you’re striving and even if you’re successful by conventional standards, you probably don’t feel very good. Lots of people find themselves in this position. Unfortunately, this was true before COVID, certainly true during COVID, and I think a lot of people are now evaluating, “Hey, as we emerge from this pandemic, how can I craft a life that perhaps feels more wholesome and more fulfilling?”

So, the opposite of that being pushed and pulled around is being grounded. And being grounded is about being firmly rooted where you are. It is not a lack of ambition or a lack of striving, but it is doing so from a place of having a very solid foundation in place. And what tends to happen to pushers, high-achieving people, successful professionals, is that once they start to have some success, they often focus on the overstory of the metaphorical tree, so the bright and shiny objects, the next thing, and they neglect the foundation, the core, the trunk, the root system that holds it to the ground, and that whenever rough weather comes, the whole tree is at risk of toppling.

So, this book says, “Hey, here’s how you build that solid foundation that will support you and hold you through highs and lows, and an outcome of that is not only setting yourself up for success but also finding some more fulfillment in life and some contentment and not constantly needing to be chasing the next thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds excellent. Can you share with us an example of that in practice, like someone who made the shift, they got extra-grounded and good things came from it?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah. So, there’s five principles that are really key, I think, to talk about that help take this from something that sounds really good to something that is concrete and achievable for so many people. And I’m going to pair each of these principles against the current ethos.

So, the first principle is to accept where you are to get where you want to go. And the current culture very much encourages magical thinking, delusional thinking, things don’t go your way, you’re not happy with your circumstance. And instead of face it, well, what do you do? You buy something, you numb it with a substance, maybe you go on social media and you post and you tweet, but you’re never really fully confronting what’s in front of you. And whether things are going well or going not, you have to be where you are, accept what’s happening, and confront what’s in front of you because, otherwise, you’re never working on the thing that needs to be worked on.

The second big principle is cultivating presence so that you can own your energy and attention instead of have it be all over the place. So, what is the current ethos all about? It’s about distraction, busyness, overscheduling, being everything to everyone everywhere all the time. Groundedness asks to say, “Hey, my presence, my attention, my time is actually my life. That’s all that I have so I need to take ownership of it. I need to be more intentional about how I use it.”

The third principle is this notion of being patient to get where you’re going faster. Again, let’s compare this to heroic individualism and the current ethos, which says that you should move fast and break things, you should strive for hacks, for silver bullets, for overnight breakthroughs. What I argue in the book and what the research shows is that all of that tends not to work, and, if anything, it sets you back. If you move fast and break things, what tends to happen is you end up broken. So, groundedness calls for patience, for giving things time and space to unfold, and for really committing to staying on a path and not getting off and on it and off and on it as the next bad comes out.

The fourth principle is vulnerability to build genuine strength and confidence. Particularly with men but with women as well, the current ethos is very much about invincibility. I think there’s a bestselling book by a guy whose last name is, ironically, Asprey, and the book is called Bulletproof, and there’s this whole notion about becoming bulletproof. But humans aren’t robots. We’re not machines that are hardwired. We’re actually quite soft. And the more vulnerable that we can be with ourselves and with others, the stronger and more confident we become because we’re no longer hiding anything. When you’re not hiding something, then you can really own your strength.

And then the fifth, and perhaps the most important, principle is to build deep community. So, the temptation is to prioritize optimization, the hustle culture, road efficiency, more, more, more, and what often gets cannibalized is the time spent forging a true sense of belonging and community, yet we know what makes us happy, what helps ground us when we soar, and what also provides a safety net when things aren’t going well is a sense of belonging to something that’s beyond ourselves, to a community, to strong relationships.

So, those are the five principles that yield the sense of endurance, unwavering strength, ability to be where you are, find fulfillment and still strive for success.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, there’s a lot to dig into in each of these. What are some practices associated with accepting where you are while also not being sort of resigned, like, “Well, that’s who I am. That’s the way it is”? Like, what is that practice of accepting where you are in an excellent way look, sound, and feel like?

Brad Stulberg
I love that you asked that question. So, thank you for asking that, Pete, because so many people hear about acceptance, and they immediately think passive resignation, and the truth couldn’t be farther from that. The best way to move forward and to excel, to pursue excellence, to get better, is to start from a place of fully accepting where you are. And the reason for this is twofold.

The first, as I mentioned earlier, is if you don’t accurately appraise your situation, whatever steps you take to improve are not going to be the best steps because you’re not working on reality. The second is you actually want to be pretty confident and content to get better. If you feel the need to get better, the compulsion to get better, “If I don’t get better, everything is going to go to crap,” for most people, that leads to tightness, constriction, fear. If you feel okay where you are, you don’t even have to like it but you just have to be okay with what’s happening, then you can drop your shoulders, you can perform from a place of openness, from a place of love, and most people perform better from a place of openness than from a place of tightness and constriction.

Something else that I think is really important to talk about here is this notion of acceptance and commitment therapy, which is a huge part of the book. And acceptance and commitment ask you to do two things. The first, accept where you are, be clearheaded about it. The second is to know your core values, the things that define you, that make you who you are, and really commit to practicing them day in and day out. And by merging an acceptance of the current situation with the ability to practice your core values, that’s how you get where you want to go.

The final story that I’ll tell, it’s an old ancient Eastern parable about the second arrow, and this is so applicable to so many people today. So, the first arrow, you often can’t control. This can be an illness, it can be being laid off at work, it can be a global pandemic. The second arrow, your judgments about that situation, your denial of that situation, your fear of that situation, your resistance of that situation. The second arrow often hurts worse than the first arrow.

So, what acceptance asks you to do is not be all rosy and deny that there aren’t plenty of first arrows, but instead of wasting the time and energy judging it and resisting it and deluding yourself about it, to say, “Hey, this is what’s happening right now. Here’s what I need to do to improve the situation.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that’s the acceptance piece. And when it comes to cultivating presence, yeah, I think that just about all of us are feeling it in terms of in ourselves and in others, folks don’t seem as present. There’s a boatload of distractions, and we can wax poetically about the doubling of information and omnipresent devices and social media, yadda, yadda. But what are the best ways to get more present?

Brad Stulberg
All right. So, here we go. There’s a study that I wrote in the book by some researchers from Harvard, and they, very ironically, had people download an app on their phones that allowed the researchers to ping them throughout the day. And what the researchers found is that, excuse me, they pinged them and asked them what they were doing and their level of concentration and their level of happiness.

And what the researchers found is it wasn’t so much the activity that someone was doing that made them happy or not, it was their level of presence. So, if someone was fixing their car or mowing their lawn, but reported being quite present while they were doing it, versus someone that might’ve been having sex but not present, the person that was mowing the lawn actually reports being happier in that moment.

So, we often think that we need to be doing the right activity to be fulfilled to be happy, but often we actually just need to be present for what’s in front of us. So, then the question, of course, becomes, “Well, how do you cultivate presence?” And I like to use an analogy of brown rice and M&Ms. So, if you’re ever faced with a bowl of brown rice and a bowl of M&Ms and you’re quite hungry, if you’re anything like me, and like just about everyone I’ve ever asked this question to, you’re going to go for the M&Ms, especially if they’re peanut M&Ms. And the M&Ms are always going to taste really good on that first bite, much better than the brown rice.

Ten minutes later, if you’ve just been eating M&Ms, it might still be pretty good, you might be happy with your decision. But if you choose M&Ms for hours, days, weeks, months, eventually you’re going to start feel gross and sick. And M&Ms are like all the things that encroach upon our attention when we’re doing stuff that matters.

So, the stuff that matters is the brown rice. Working on a big report, writing a book, creating a song, trying to do deep focus brainstorming with colleagues, that stuff is brown rice. M&Ms, social media, refreshing emails, CNN.com, the list goes on and on. All those things feel better in the moment because we’re getting some dopamine hits, some thrill, some excitement but, over time, you get on this huge bender of distraction.

So, much like with real M&Ms, with distraction M&Ms, the best thing that you can do is try to keep them out of the house. So, you design your environment to avoid distractions. And then, also, have this mindset shift that realizes that, “Hey, the deep focus, fully present work that I’m doing might not feel as good at first as engaging in distractions, but I know if I just stick with it, I’ll feel much better.”

And then what happens is you get enough positive feedback and enough reinforcement that, eventually, you start to prefer brown rice to the M&Ms, you prefer presence to distraction because you know how much better it makes you feel.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that sounds sensible in terms of, yup, that checks out in terms of those being the consequences of going there, and so keep them out of the house is great. So, just think about shaping your environment such that the enticing distractions aren’t as available. I guess what I’m finding in my own distracted life is a lot of the distractions, they come from within. It’s like I’m really curious. I got a lot of curiosity. It’s good for a podcaster.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’ve got some curiosity and so I’m doing something, it’s like, “Well, what about this?” And so, the personal practice, when it’s really firing hard, like I find my favorite notebook for this purpose and I write down, “I am doing this.” And then for all the distractions that pop up, it’s like, “Okay, I’m very curious about that. I’m just going to write it down. It’s there so I’m not going to forget about it.”

And then it’s almost like it kind of feels like a workout in terms of, “Well, hey,” actually I got this from you and I think about it all the time, “stress plus rest equals growth,” in terms of like, “I’m focusing. I’m focusing. I am getting kind of tired in focusing and I’m getting all the more tempted but I’m going to hold out for my 30, 60, 90 minutes, whatever,” it’s like, “Ah.” So, it’s like the end of a workout, I get to have a beverage, get in the shower, or whatever.

So, anyway, that’s one thing I figured out but you got the book. Tell me, when distraction comes from within, how do you recommend we cultivate all the more presence?

Brad Stulberg
So, writing it down was the first thing I was going to say, and you beat me to it, so you’re already on track, Pete. The only thing I’ll add to what you said is when you write that thing down, you’re actually offloading it from your brain, so not only do you give yourself permission to stop thinking about it but you also don’t have to worry about forgetting it, because we want to remember our really interesting insights and curious ideas. Someone like who’s a creative, it’s core to your work, to your identity.

What you also just described is almost like a working meditation. So, mindfulness meditation is the practice that always comes up with training presence. And why is that? Because meditation is doing exactly what you just said. Instead of the paying attention to whatever you’re working on, you’re paying attention to your breath, you have thoughts and feelings that arise from within, they distract you, you notice them, non-judgmentally you say, “Oh, interesting distraction. Back to my breath.” In your case, “Oh, interesting thought. I’m going to write it down. Back to what’s in front of me.” Practice that over and over again, and it should get much easier to pay attention.

Something else that helps a here is to schedule blocks of deep focus work. So, oftentimes, what I find people will do is they’ll say, “Oh, this sounds great. I’m going to have an entirely deep-focus present day.” And unless you are a motorcycle mechanic in a room with no digital devices at all, it is extremely hard for people in the 21st century to be distraction-free. What ends up happening is you cave in. You check your email, you check your social media, blah, blah, blah. And negative; you fail.

So, rather than try to avoid distractions all day, what I like to do, and what I tell my clients to do, what I write about in the book, is just to schedule times for deep work, for full present work, and then whatever happens, the rest of the day happens. If you schedule two 90-minute blocks to be present and direct your energy to something that really matters to you, only three hours, you would be amazed at how much you get gone and how good you feel.

I have some entrepreneur coaching clients who are in companies, a stage, where there’s a ton of operational work to do, constant fire drills; keeping the doors open and closed is really hard work. And a common issue that they’ll come to me is they feel empty at the end of the day. They feel like they didn’t really accomplish anything. And for these really busy operators, even just one hour of deep-focus work where they can take something that is at point A, exert energy and presence and get it to point B, leaves them feeling so much more satiated at the end of the day.

So, that’s why I think scheduling, it can be really important. I want to get in the weeds because I know that your audience tend to be business professionals that really enjoy the concrete. In addition to scheduling deep-focus work and fully present work, you want to know what you’re doing ahead of time. Because if you don’t, and that free hour or 90 minutes pops up on your calendar, you have a greater likelihood of filling it with email or with scrolling.

Whereas, if you know ahead of time that, “Hey, today, during my deep-focus work, I’m going to read Brad’s book,” or, “I’m going to work on the PowerPoint deck for this client,” or, “I need to draft this memo,” or, “I really need to write these three important emails.” Well, then you’ll actually do that thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. And it’s funny, I used to resist that in terms of it’s like, “Oh, no, something really important might come up.” But I find that when I schedule the thing, and then I say, “Okay, that’s the thing,” then I actually know I can trust myself. It’s like, “Well, no, Pete, that was the most important thing when you scheduled it. And now there is a thing that has greater impact. It’s not just urgent. It straight out has greater impact that’s true.”

And so then, I can, in good conscience, say, “Well, this deep-work time was scheduled for important thing A, but in the last four days, important thing B is now clearly way more important than important thing A, and so I’m going to do that instead.” And I can do that as opposed to, it’s like, “Well, no, I feel like catching up on the news instead.” It’s a different substitution and I know it.

Brad Stulberg
But you’re pausing and you’re deliberately making that decision, and I would argue that that’s the value of the pause. And the pushback is always to my coaching clients, “Is it really more important or impactful or is it just something that you happen to be more excited about now?” Because, I’m not saying this is happening with you, but what can happen in really high-achieving professionals is that the long projects where you don’t see immediate results that take a lot of time tend to not get worked on for that very reason.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true, yes. And so, I think it’s so great to have some clear metrics. And for business, I think about expected profit created per hour invested, or wealth generated if we’re going broader in terms of thinking, “I really do need to get a financial planner.”

Brad Stulberg
And then what I would also say, back to measuring what actually matters, is some level of fulfillment. And if you spend an hour doing X or an hour doing Y, there’s also a question of, “Hey, when you get home and you’re with your partner or you’re with your kids, what’s going to make you feel like you’re satiated, like you had a good day at work?” And something that I talk about a lot in the book is so many people that are frenetic and all over the place, and don’t own their energy and attention, they come home from work and they’re super short with their kids or their spouse, and they don’t know why.

And it’s because they feel guilty that they weren’t productive during the day, and they were pushed and pulled, and they had no time, and, “Now, I’m at home and now I can’t even own my time because my partner needs it and that my kid needs it.” Whereas, if you just set aside an hour to do something important that fills up your cup, the rest of the day you can release from that need. And, ideally, you go from an hour to an hour and a half, to two, to three, to four. And some people can do five hours of deep work in a day. They have the capacity to do it, and they have a job that lets them.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so let’s talk about fulfillment in terms of values, clarity, what do you really want. What’s your top perspectives in terms of arriving at that clarity, of determining the answers to that, and what one’s values truly are?

Brad Stulberg
So, fulfillment is an inside game, that’s the first thing. There’s a concept in the book that I write about called the arrival fallacy, which basically says that so many individuals will say, “I’ll just be content, I’ll just be fulfilled, I’ll just be happy when I get X, Y, Z; that promotion, that car, that beautiful partner, my book sells this many copies, my podcast is number one and its category, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s a fallacy because we never really arrive. The goalpost is always 10 yards down the field, “Oh, your podcast is number one in personal growth or in learning. Well, why isn’t it number one overall?” “Your book sold a thousand copies. Why not two?” “You got promoted to be VP. Well, now, I want to be the CEO.” You never really arrive so you cannot find fulfillment from chasing something outside of yourself.

Brad Stulberg
And it’s a very human thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so true. When those numbers, they resonate. And that’s sort of my joke whenever I catch a download milestone, it’s like, “Ooh, I’m at 15 million downloads but, you know what, I’ll truly be happy when I’m at 16 million downloads.” It’s an absurdity and I just sort of check myself with that little joke every time we hit the next million.

Brad Stulberg
And I catch myself doing the same thing. Like, none of this is bad. This is human nature. I write books for myself as much as anyone, so that’s why the practice of groundedness is in the title. This stuff is an ongoing practice. So, yes, very human to catch yourself saying, “If then, then I’ll be content. Then I’ll be able to just sit down in the easy chair and be happy,” but that doesn’t happen. Research shows it, all the ancient wisdom traditions point toward it, and stories of people like me and you say the same.

So, rather than try to achieve fulfillment externally, if you can shift the focus internally, then you’ll have a much better chance of doing it. And this is where core values become so important and why they’re such a big part of the book. So, I think about core values as the qualities that you most want to embody, that make you who you are, and if you’re not sure of what those are, you look at people that you really respect, and you say, “What do I respect about this person?” And it’s rarely, “Oh, they sold three million books.” It might be that they are a hard worker, or they’re kind, or they’re compassionate, or they’re present. Those are core values.

So, I think it’s good to come up with between three and five. You don’t want to have a laundry list because then you end up not really doing any. You don’t want to just have one because that’s not very specific. Then for each value, again, things like creativity, family, reputation, grit, determination, persistence, love, kindness, you want to individualize it and define it. So, what does something as broad as love mean to you? What does reputation mean to you? What does grit mean to you?

Then here’s where the rubber really hits the road. For each of those things, in addition to a definition, you want to come up with three daily practices, or weekly practices, monthly practices, where your day-to-day concrete actions align with those core values. In that way, regardless of what’s happening externally, if you can show up and live, in alignment with your core values, then you can feel really good about yourself, not just because “succeeded at the game,” but because, again, these are the things that make you who you are, that you want to embody. When you’re living in alignment with these things, you tend to feel good.

So, an example of this is someone might have the core value love. Okay. Well, this is super esoteric. And let’s say that they define love as “Caring deeply and paying close attention to people and pursuits that matter to me.” Okay, that’s getting a little bit better. Now let’s get to daily practice. “Well, one of those people and pursuits is my relationship with my partner. And this might mean that every night during dinner, I’m going to turn my phone off and put it in another room so I’ll have a better chance of being present for her.” Boom! That’s a practice. It might mean that, “Hey, I’m a creative person, and when I write music, I want to bring all of my loving energy to that. So, I’m going to schedule three-by-one hour blocks a week of distraction-free time to write music.” Now you’re practicing love.

Let’s say the core value is grit. The daily practice might be, “Every time I’m really tempted to stop something and quit what I’m doing, I’m going to say, ‘What’s the cost of just giving it 10 more days to play out and see if it can’t work out?’” That’s the practice that embodies grit. So, you go from these very noble, high-level, lofty, ambitious qualities, down to the minutiae of day-to-day, and that is ultimately how you become more grounded and how you achieve fulfillment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And I like that extra level of the practices, and you’re right.

Brad Stulberg
I’ve heard people call it an internal dashboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like it.

Brad Stulberg
So, it’s like, okay, if your end goal is profit, well, in a business sense, where you have all these steps to execute on to get there. So, here, if your end goal is groundedness or fulfillment, well, here are the three to five things that ladder up to it, and then here are the process measures that are going to get you there.

Pete Mockaitis
And what I like so much is that you can, I don’t know, for better or for worse, I don’t know. Brad, maybe you’ll coach me. I really like feeling like a winner and I really hate feeling like a loser. And so, there’s some little bit of growth mindset, fixed mindset, precariousness there associated with doing things that I’m not good at. I seem to have a heck of a time navigating the medical landscape in the United States, it’s like, “What? My appointment was cancelled. Why? I didn’t do that thing. Well, what?” Whatever. So, that makes me feel like a loser.

And so, what’s cool about this notion of the internal dashboard and fulfillment being an inside game is that you can be a winner no matter what the external results are, “I got dozens of medical appointments cancelled.” It’s like, “But you know what, I still nailed those daily practices associated with the values of who I want to be. So, I’m probably not going to feel all that down about it. It’s like, yeah, that’s annoying and that’s a bummer, and I guess I’m going to have to do it again. But, hey, I’m being who I want to be, and that’s pretty awesome.”

Brad Stulberg
Yes. It’s the ultimate F-U to all the voices in your head that are like, “Oh, you didn’t do good enough. You’re not enough. This isn’t…” And it gets back to what we’re saying. The more you practice those values, that actually, the paradox is the better chance you’ll have of conventional success because you’ll be doing it for the right reasons from a place of strength and confidence.

It also gets back to that practice around presence and scheduling time for very focused presence. Because if you just say, “I’m going to be present all the time,” well, you’re going to be a loser because you’re a human being in the 21st century where distractions are everywhere. Whereas, if you say, “Actually, just for three 90-minute blocks a week I’m going to be present,” well, that’s a game that you can win at. And winning feeling is good. So, you win then maybe you say, “Four by 90-minutes,” and you keep the ball rolling.

So, so much of this is shifting from the more traditional self-help, hustle culture, crush it, be bulletproof, be great always, never be content, to more of a research-backed look, that actually says, “Hey, contentment and achievement go hand-in-hand. The more that you can live on your values, even if they have nothing to do with career success, the more successful you’ll be in your career.” The less you need to buy something outside of yourself to feel good or to numb what’s happening, the better you’ll feel and the more effective you’ll be in addressing whatever it is that’s happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Thank you. Well, Brad, tell me, any other huge things you want to make sure we don’t skip before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, I think that we didn’t talk as much, really at all, about community, and I think that that’s a really important practice as well. And I’ll just say that what happens to just about everyone, myself included, is that we can get into a really good groove with whatever it is that we’re working on. And when we’re in those grooves, we want to be efficient. And it’s so easy, easier than ever in today’s day and age, to go from meeting up with friends in person to a Zoom, to go from Zoom to a call, to go from a call to a text, to reschedule it because I can just send you a new calendar link. And we tend to do all this stuff because it makes us “more efficient” with what we’re doing.

And, sure, day to day, like schlepping in the car to go meet up with your friends in person, or joining an actual physical book club, or going to the gym instead of working out at home, that takes time and it will make you less efficient. But when you look back over the course of a year, or a decade, or a lifetime, those relationships and those communities that you’ve built and belong to, that’s the stuff that gives your life meaning, and that will help you find fulfillment. And when you’re experiencing a bout of anxiety or depression, no amount of efficient work is going to help you get out of it but your community will.

Or, if you crush it and you go from 15 million downloads to 40 million downloads, guess who’s going to be there to be like, “Hey, Pete, don’t get drunk off your own success”? Your community. So, it’s this thing that is so foundational to being grounded that’s so often gets overlooked when we’re doing well because it takes time and energy and effort, but it always pays back.

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

Brad Stulberg
“You don’t have to feel good to get going. You need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good.” And so often, people think that you need to be really motivated or inspired to get started, but then good luck getting started because most people don’t wake up super motivated and inspired every single day of their life. But if you can just get going on the stuff that matters to you and the stuff that’s in alignment with your values, often motivation and inspiration follows.

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

Brad Stulberg
So, I think from this book certainly, and maybe just now in my life, I find the convergence of ancient wisdom tradition thinking and modern science to be just absolutely fascinating. So, for instance, for this book, talking about deep presence and flow, being absorbed in something, losing your sense of self, ego-lessness, everything that the modern scientists describe about these great flow states that we chase, the Buddha described as nirvana, the Tao Te Ching described as the way, and the ancient Greeks described as arete.

So, you could put like a scientific description of a flow state next to what the Buddha called nirvana and they’re the same thing. And I think that, particularly with more of these Eastern wisdom traditions, we’re seeing so much modern science just empirically proving what these thinkers have been pointing to for thousands of years.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg
I forgot what I said the last time I was on your show, so I don’t want to repeat myself. I will say Middlemarch, which is a novel by George Eliot. It’s a big book. It’s like a door stopper, probably about a thousand pages. But if you’ve got a month or two of your life where you really have a good time to read and you just want to get completely lost in a story about a community and characters and people’s struggles, I highly recommend it.

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

Brad Stulberg
It’s going to sound crazy but a barbell.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Brad Stulberg
So, I’m a writer and a coach. I use my brain to do my work, but my physical practice is just so integral to my being able to sit still, focus, think creatively, solve problems, so, yeah, for me it’s probably a barbell. I’m not really any good at lifting weights, but I firmly believe that movement is a part of my job even though I’m not a pro athlete.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Brad Stulberg
Reading. I just freaking love reading. I can never read enough. It’s a big part of my life. It fuels my own writing. And my wife is constantly probably telling me to stop chattering about whatever book I’m reading but I can’t help myself.

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 a lot?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, I think, particularly in most of my coaching clients, it’s just this identification or language of heroic individualism, “So, I need to be productive. I need to be efficient. I need to keep striving. If I just get this thing then I’ll finally be fulfilled,” and realizing that that’s not your fault, that doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you weak. That is just the water that we swim in in the 21st century here in America and the Western world.

And realizing that that game is ultimately not going to lead to fulfillment, so kind of flipping it on its head and saying, “Hey, what are these principles that will lead to fulfillment? What are my values? How can I live them? How can I accept where I am? How can I be present? How can I be patient?” and so on. So, it’s catching yourself playing the game. And I catch myself playing the game at least weekly. We all do. Realize when you’re playing it and then try to go back to living in alignment with your values to being more grounded.

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

Brad Stulberg
Well, first thing I’d say is please consider the book if you find this interesting. The book goes super deep into all of this. And my website is www.BradStulberg.com, just like my name. And the only social media that I’m really active on is Twitter where my handle is @BStulberg.

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

Brad Stulberg
I do. I think that it would be pretty simple, and it is to be honest with yourself right now if you’re listening, and saying, “Hey, how much am I playing the game of heroic individualism?” And if it feels like hardly at all, great. But if it feels like more than you’d like, try to identify some of your values that are the inside game, define what practices work in alignment with them, and then start building your life around those values. It can be very gradual. This is not about quitting your job. It’s about still being awesome at your job but also making sure that you’re doing it in a way where you’re living in alignment with your values that will, hopefully, leave you not only a high-performer but also fulfilled.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brad, this has been a treat. Thank you. And good luck in all of your groundedness.

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, thank you, Pete. I hope you stay grounded as well.

698: How to Grow Your Career Faster through Reading with Jeff Brown (Host of the Read to Lead Podcast)

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Jeff Brown says: "If you want to achieve success in business and life, then intentional and consistent reading is a must."

Jeff Brown breaks down how to make the most of the one habit that puts you ahead in your career: reading.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to strategically pick out your next read 
  2. How to double (or triple) your reading speed in minutes
  3. Two simple tricks to maximize comprehension

About Jeff

Jeff is an award-winning radio producer and personality, and former nationally-syndicated morning show host. Following a 26-year career in radio, Jeff went boss-free in 2013 and soon after launched the Read to Lead Podcast. It has gone on to become a four-time Best Business Podcast nominee and has featured Jeff’s interviews with today’s best business and non-fiction authors, including actor and author Alan Alda, Stephen M. R. Covey, Seth Godin, John Maxwell, Liz Wiseman, Dr. Henry Cloud, Gary Vaynerchuk, Simon Sinek, Brian Tracy, Nancy Duarte, and over 300 more.

Jeff has personally coached hundreds of successful podcasters around the globe – many of them award nominees and winners themselves – and has consulted on podcasts for the US government, two of the largest churches in the US, and numerous multi-million dollar companies.

Jeff and his work have been featured in Inc., Entrepreneur, and Hubspot, the blogs of Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, Jeff Goins, and Social Media Explorer, as well as publications like the Nashville Business Journal, the Tennessean, and hundreds of other blogs and podcasts.

 

Resources Mentioned

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Jeff Brown Interview Transcript

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

Jeff Brown
I am so excited to be here. I have been listening to this podcast for quite some time. I’ve known of it for a while. I’ve even promoted it on my own show a time or two in the last year or two.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. We appreciate that and I’m a fan of you and what you put out there, and I’m excited to hear about how to Read to Lead in a big way. But first, I think, though, we have to hear a little bit about the tale behind you winning a Billy Joel singing sound alike contest.

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I was, as embarrassing as this is to admit, I was in car sales at the time. I spent about 18 months of my adult life selling new and used cars to people. And I remember on my way to work one day, I was listening to the radio station that I wanted to one day work for, I spent 26 years in radio, and they were doing a contest with Billy Joel and Elton John were coming to town. It was that tour of them together. And they were having this sing-alike contest, and I had been singing Billy Joel songs to the top of my lungs in my bedrooms for as long as I can remember, practicing for this very moment.

And so, I called the radio station, I happened to get through, thankfully, and I did “You May Be Right,” I did part of the first verse in the chorus, and they sang along and loved it. And, lo and behold, if I wasn’t chosen as the person who most sounded that day in particular, but just that one day, like Billy Joel. There was also Elton John sound-alike winner, and we got tickets to the show and even joined the radio station that next day and helped give away more tickets. And I dressed like Billy and she dressed like Elton, and we just had a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. Well, I have to ask, can we have a little demo?

Jeff Brown
Really? Oh, my gosh. I wasn’t ready for that. Let me see.

“Friday night I crashed your party,
Saturday, I said I’m sorry.”

Now, that’s not me really trying to sound like Billy Joel but that’s just Jeff singing, so there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was a treat. Thank you.

Jeff Brown
I’m sure you loved it. You weren’t really expecting me to do or you just want to do it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I said I’m going to go for it, and if he declines, I’ll edit it out.

Jeff Brown
Oh, that’s the best I could do on such short notice.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was a treat and we appreciate it. Well, now we’re going to talk about Read to Lead. So, you’ve got a podcast called Read to Lead, and now a book here. And it’s a catchy title and, more than that though, you say that we need to read as if our career depended on it. What do you mean by this?

Jeff Brown
Yeah. Well, I have found this to be the case in my own personal life and every successful person that I talk to, understands the value of practicing this habit. So, for me, up until 2003, I was in my early 30s at that time, and I had never made reading a practice. Reading wasn’t something that I did in my spare time, certainly, but I had a book and an author introduced to me. It was sort of like the stars and planets aligning, when the student is ready, the master appears kind of moment. And that author was Seth Godin, the book was Purple Cow.

And I did not, as embarrassing as this is for me to admit, I just did not know that these kinds of books existed, that if you’ve got a problem, somebody has already solved it, and they’ve probably written about it in a book. And so, that to me was eye-opening. I devoured that book. I went onto Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Pat Lencioni, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, and on and on and on.

And when I started doing that, I was doing something that 95% of my colleagues were not doing. And so, just by doing that I was already ahead of the pack. But then, as I began to experiment and implement what I was learning, something happened, something interesting happened.

I tried some things that didn’t work, I tried some things that did. The things I tried that didn’t work were quickly forgotten. The things I tried that did work got me noticed, and I began being asked and being given opportunities to do things within the company I was working for at the time. That all came about as a result of reading and then putting into practice what I was learning. That’s the only explanation I can give for why I had opportunities come my way that no one else did.

I don’t attribute it to me being the smartest person in the room because I certainly was not, but I wanted to surround myself with people much smarter than me, and one of the best ways you can do that is with a book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. And that’s kind of my own journey is growing up I just went to the library a lot, and I realized, “Hey, books make you better. Read a book about photography, take better pictures. Read a book about chess, beat my dad at chess.” And it’s just really exciting to see that there’s a book on anything I want to get better at and it’s all right there, and maybe even free such as at a library.

Very cool. So, you and I have had that experience. I’m curious if there’s any studies or research or data that say, “Hey, it’s not just Pete and Jeff. This is a pretty reliable effect that we can bank on. When people do reading, it improves their professional results.”

Jeff Brown
Yeah, there’s probably more studies that I could possibly reference, and we talk about many of them in the book, for sure. But there are studies that show that reading certain kinds of books outweigh reading other kinds of books. For example, reading physical books have been shown to be easier to remember, easier to comprehend, easier to retain than, say, an e-book.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Jeff Brown
Yeah. In fact, and this was a study, I think in 2014, it says our brains were not designed for reading but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. And they found that readers, and I’m going from memory here so some paraphrasing, but in this particular study, they found that readers of a short mystery on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback form.

And so, for that reason and many others, when people ask me, “Jeff, how do you look at reading? Do you prefer physical, e-books, audiobooks?” I think it depends on your situation in life. There may be a time, you may be at a place right now where all you can do is listen to audiobooks. I say all you can do, that’s not a bad thing.

When I was commuting to a job and I had a little free time, or so I thought, audiobooks were a great way to leverage that commute and those served a purpose for that period of time. Right now, when given a choice, I’d much rather have the physical book in my hand. I like the tactile nature of physical books. I like writing in the book, that sort of thing. So, I think it’s going to depend on your situation and also maybe the kind of book you’re reading.

I think if you’re looking to learn a new skill, a physical book is probably, more often than not, your best option for retaining and comprehension. If I’m going to tackle an autobiography, let’s say, that tends to be, for me, more for entertainment purposes, then I’m more likely to listen to that book being read. So, I think, depending on where you’re at in life, and the kind of book you’re reading, will help you determine which of those formats, I guess, work best for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is some interesting research right there in terms of format. And I guess I’m also curious if we got research associated with results. So, we hear that leaders are readers and that’s catchy. Is that, in fact, empirically validated from some numbers?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, it’s hard to say. I don’t have those numbers in front of me right now but I think it’s safe to say that leaders are definitely readers. But, at the same time, readers aren’t necessarily leaders. That’s a quote from one of our past presidents. I don’t recall at the moment which one. But I don’t think you can be a leader, I don’t think you can be a person that impacts, necessarily, unless you’re recognizing the fact that you always have room to improve, that you need to understand and comprehend the value of being a lifelong learner.

Can you read and not grow? Can you read and choose not to do anything with that information? Yes. I don’t believe that knowledge is power, as the saying goes. I think only knowledge put into action is power. So, there are a lot of people who just read and don’t do anything with the information. That’s not really helping you or anybody else. But if you’re one of those folks who understands the value of being a lifelong learner and actually executing and implementing on what you read, then you’re going to go much, much further.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you mentioned that 95% of folks are not doing the reading. What do you suppose that’s about in terms of are there some key stumbling blocks that show up frequently or folks are unaware that it’s transformational or they just think it’s lame? What’s the holdup?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I was having a conversation, and I’m not namedropping here, I promise, but I was having a conversation with Seth Godin about the book. I’d reached out to him and asked if he would consider an endorsement for the book, and he gracefully agreed to do that, but not without giving some feedback because that’s what’s one thing that’s so great about Seth is he’s going to give you his opinions and feedback.

And a couple of things he said to me were, “People don’t want to learn.” These were a couple of things that Seth was noting that we hadn’t really addressed yet at this point in the book-writing process. Learning requires admitting that you don’t know something, which we’re taught to avoid. And it is so easier to not learn and simply get back to work. And the other thing he said to me was, “People don’t want to change their minds.” If a book is going to help you get somewhere you can’t get to on your own, that means you’re going to have to change your mind about something. And, again, that’s something that we resist, something that we’re taught to avoid either on purpose or not.

And so, I have learned, and the sort of the way we responded to that feedback, if you want to succeed in anything, you have to grow in your ability to identify excuses or limiting beliefs in your life, you have to own them, you have to take a step outside your comfort zone. You’re not very likely to experience success of any kind, I don’t believe, if you’re not willing to do this.

And so, people who are successful tend to not make excuses and tend to do whatever it takes to go through or over or around or under whatever obstacle they face. And so, here’s the funny thing about stepping outside your comfort zone. Maybe for you that’s reading a book, or reading about something you don’t know a lot about, or reading about something that challenges you. The more often you do it, the easier it gets.

I used to be terrified at public speaking but I recognized at some point that in order to accomplish the goals I’d set out for myself, that’s a skill I was going to need to cultivate. And so, I began reading books about it, and then putting myself in positions to do that more regularly, more often at small situations at first, and worked my way up naturally. The funny thing is the more I did that, the easier it became, through practice and repetition, and the more enjoyable it got. So, I went from dreading doing that to loving doing that.

John Maxwell, who I mentioned earlier, kind of puts it this way. When it comes to not liking to read, or not thinking there’s any value in reading, or deciding you don’t need to read, I think it’s kind of like saying, “I don’t need to think.” When it comes to doing anything we don’t want to do, and something that we understand could make us better, but we’re maybe lazy, for lack of a better word, you’ve got a choice to make.

And this is what Maxwell talks about, and that’s you can choose the pain of self-discipline which comes from doing the hard thing, sacrifice, growth, or you can choose the pain of regret, which comes from taking the easy road and missing opportunities. So, there’s pain either way. There’s pain in the sacrifice and growth now or not sacrificing and growing now, and suffering with the pain of regret later. Which pain do you want? So, I want the pain of growth and sacrifice because that one does not include the pain of regret at a later time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well said. And those resistance pieces associated with not wanting to admit ignorance or change of minds, I’m thinking now about a recent book, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and he shares a story in which he’s chatting with the famed researcher Daniel Kahneman, and he said, “Danny,” I believe Adam called him. Was that like Martin Scorsese, you call him Marty when you’re…? It’s like, “Okay, they’re buds. They’re chums. Danny.”

He said that he enjoyed being wrong because that’s the only way he really knew that he had learned something. He likened it more to a surprised feeling and a pleasant sensation as oppose to a, “Oh, I’m dumb” sensation. And I thought that was very enlightening.

Jeff Brown
That’s very interesting. It kind of reminds me of the first half of my radio career versus the second half of my radio career. And the second half of my radio career, by the way, was spent at the same company. The first half was all over the place. And I was in a lot of small markets and a lot of small radio stations because, at those small markets and small radio stations, I was the big Kahuna, I was the talented guy, I was the honored king, for lack of a better word. I knew my way around more than most and was naturally talented, and liked to stay in places like that because I liked how that felt. But what that meant was I was comfortable; I was in places where I was “the smartest guy in the room.”

Now, in the second half of my career, I lucked into a position where the tables were turned. Suddenly, I was challenged every day, suddenly I was put outside of comfort zone every day, suddenly I was surrounded by people much further down the path than I was, and people that I could learn from, and that stretched me and caused me to grow, and I learned the value of hanging around in rooms where you’re not necessarily the smartest person. That’s where you can do those things like grow and stretch and be all you could be, as they say.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so I want to dig into the particulars associated with how to read more, better. But, first, I guess I want to hear what’s the process by which you discover and select your next book?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I think you’ll never go wrong if you begin with topics with people, with subjects, with places, with things that personally interest you. This has been the case for me for the better part of two decades. When I was working a regular job, that was things about my industry and about my particular place in the industry, and skills I wanted to hone.

And when I focused on reading books about those things, I was never bored. More recently, that’s been books centered around mindset, and I continue to read books about public speaking because those are the things I want to get better at, being a better public speaker. More recently, that’s been getting booked and paid to speak because that’s something I want to do more regularly, more successfully.

I’ve read many books on mindset and really understanding the value as Carol Dweck has talked about in abundance mindset versus a scarcity mindset. And I used to be the kind of person that couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I could someday earn a living on my own, even a better living than I could earn working for someone else. But I had to have that taken away from me enough times, and radios are notorious for that, for me to have a wakeup one day, and go, “Now, hold on a second. How secure is this really when it’s being taken away from me so regularly?”

And so, I read books that helped me come out of that mindset of “I will always do X when I could do Y only if I took the time to read about how to do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really great. And I guess I’m also thinking sometimes my starting point is like, “Hmm, there’s something I need or want to know, to learn, to understand, to develop, to be better at.” And then I sort of go for it and say, “Well, what’s the book on that?” I search Amazon or whatever. I’m curious, if you’ve got a topic, like let’s just say public speaking, there is a boatload of great books, and I’m thinking Give Your Speech, Change the World which leaps to mind for me from Nick Morgan, a guest on the show. But how do I go about picking from the hundreds of books which one is really worth delving into? And maybe several, but not just one, but how do you make that call?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I think the first thing you need to do is really narrow your focus. So, even something as specific and narrow-sounding as public speaking can be broken down into so many subtopics. So, I think the key is starting with, “Well, what are those subtopics?” and this can be as simple as going to Amazon and searching through their hierarchy of book categories. And they get really granular the more you dive into it.

But, early on for me, even though I don’t know I would start the process the same way now as far as this particular subtopic, but, for me, early on, I read books on presentation design. I lacked confidence standing in front of a room full of people, and I knew that if I had great-looking slides – again, I wouldn’t do this the same way now – that would take the focus off me and put it on the slides. Plus, knowing that I had great-looking slides gave me more confidence.

So, I started off reading Garr Reynolds’ PresentationZen and Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology so I started with that subtopic. And then later, that led to presentation delivery. I read a book on, later after that, the fear of public speaking and how to deal with the anxiety of it all. And after I read a few books on that, I looked at presentation structure. I’m currently reading a book on how to inject humor into your presentations, called Do You Talk Funny?

And so, that presentation reading journey for me has spanned 15-20 years, and I’ve got dozens of books over my shoulder that tackle all of those different subtopics. I just picked a subtopic that grabbed my curiosity and interest and started with books just on that subtopic. And when I felt like I had mastered that, or really gotten to grasp with that, then I went onto the next public speaking subtopic.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Okay. And then how do you think about, broadly speaking, how one goes about developing the reading habit more? So, folks read not at all or very little, and they think, “Yeah, Jeff is right. I want to do more of that.” How do you recommend folks find that groove?

Jeff Brown
Well, one of the books I read in the last couple of years is Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. There’s also Atomic Habits by James Clear, a very popular book. And I found BJ’s book to be life-altering. And this applies to just about any habit you want to create, and certainly reading is among those.

And so, I would first encourage you to find an anchor habit. Like, what’s something that goes well with reading that you already do every day? And, for me, that might be something, and maybe for you, like drinking coffee. That’s something I do every day. I prepare a cup or two of coffee without having to give it any thought. It’s just ingrained. It’s a habit that I have. Reading and coffee go together quite well.

And so, the recipe, the habit recipe, as Fogg would call it, might be, “When I sit down with my morning cup of coffee, I will…” and this is where you can’t be embarrassed to make it super tiny. That might be, “Open the book and read the first page,” or it might be, “I will open the book and read the first paragraph or the first sentence,” or, “When I sit down with my morning cup of coffee, I will open the book, and that’s it. And then I will celebrate. I will do a Tiger Woods fist pump, or a victory sign, or look in the mirror and just go, ‘Yes.’”

And what I’m doing is I’m programming my brain to think, “Oh, this is something that is good for us so let’s repeat it.” And so, the next morning, you come back and you do that thing again, and it might just be opening the book. Now, over time, you’ll get to a point where you’re like, “Oh, I’m here anyway, so why don’t I just read a little bit.”

Fogg talks about this in the context of having a struggle with flossing. He brushed his teeth like clockwork every day but he couldn’t build that habit of flossing until he decided that, “When I brush my teeth, that’s the habit recipe, I will floss one tooth, and then I will celebrate that.” And over time, again, it became, “Well, I’m here anyway, why don’t I floss two teeth?” So, start there and then beyond that, in other words, break it down, make it as simple as you possibly can, and celebrate however simple that might be, even though it might feel silly, you’re reprogramming your brain.

From there, I would begin scheduling your time to read. One of the first things I say to people who tell me they struggle with finding time to read is I ask them, “Are they scheduling?” And when I say schedule it, I mean just like any other appointment or meeting you might have. Like, this interview we’re doing right now, we scheduled this. It’s protected. Barring some tragedy, we’re going to come together and we’re going to do this.

And I think if you want to read consistently and with intention, you have to give it that level of importance. You have to schedule it. And then when someone asks for time that conflicts with your reading, you have a choice. You can acquiesce and give in to that if that meeting is deemed important enough, or you can look at your schedule and you can tell that person, “You know what, I’ve got an appointment during that time. Can we do it some other time?” And appointment with yourself is no less an appointment in my books. So, protect it to that level.

And that might just be 30 minutes a day, maybe even just 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening, or all at one time if that’s better for you. You need, in that 15 minutes, if you just read five pages, we’re talking, what’s that, three minutes a page. Even I can do that math, so ten pages a day. That’s, over the course of a month of Monday through Fridays is a 200-page book.

Most business books are about 200-250 pages. So, suddenly, you’re scheduling that, you’re reading at that pace, at that relatively slow pace, there’s nothing to sneeze at because that’s a book a month. If you’re not reading much at all, now 12 books a year is a big deal. So, again, start tiny, start small, that might be opening the book, and that’s it, or that might be reading ten pages a day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you mentioned speed so I wanted to hear that you’ve got an intriguing bit in your table of contents, and it says, “How I can double or triple my reading speed in minutes.” Jeff, how is it done?

Jeff Brown
Well, there are several techniques, and I’ll admit right out of the gate that my co-author Jesse Wisnewski is the true master when it comes to speedreading but I will say this connected to that since you asked the question. And that is a technique that we talk about called skimming which is directly sort of a cousin of speedreading. And this is something, as a person who reads for my podcast, I host a podcast called Read to Lead, so I’m reading a book a week and interviewing the author on that book.

I had somebody asked me earlier today, who’s like, “Surely, you’ve had times where you’ve read a book, you’ve scheduled an interview, you’ve read a book, and you realized, ‘This is not a book you think is all that great,’ but now you got to do the interview.” And I told them, “No, that doesn’t happen.” “Like, what do you mean that doesn’t happen?” “It’s because, before saying yes to someone and doing an interview, if I had any reservations or I just don’t know them, I don’t know their work, I want to be sure 100%, I will request the book and I will skim it.”

And here’s how that works. I’ll read the table of contents, I’ll think about, “What, in this table of contents, truly interests me?” because in nonfiction, oftentimes, we don’t have to start with chapter one. We might be able to start with chapter five. It’s about that thing we want to know more about or that really draws our interest.

Beyond that, I’ll go to that chapter or chapters and I’ll read just the headings and the subheadings from beginning of the chapter to the end of the chapter. And now I’m starting to get a real sense of, “Okay, what are we getting into here? What are the points they’re trying to make?” And then I’ll go back to the beginning of the chapter, and this might take about 15 minutes, back to the beginning of the chapter, and I read the first sentence and the last sentence of each paragraph, and that’s it.

And you can get about 80% of the meat, the main ideas and key insights from a nonfiction book when you do that. And, again, a single chapter could be done in as little as five minutes to as much as 10 or 15 minutes, and, boom, you’ve got the gist of it. And so, that often works great for me. When I’ve not said yes yet to an author but I want to, and I think I may want to, so I’ll just do that skimming in a few chapters. And if I like what I read, if I like what I’m consuming at that point, then I’ll go ahead and say, “Yes, I’d like to have you on.” Then I’ll go back to the book and actually read it more thoroughly, taking notes, etc., that sort of thing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And so then, 80% for just a few minutes. That’s a huge return. Think about the Pareto, 80/20 rule there. Very cool. And so, any other pro tips when it comes to boosting our comprehension? Because I guess that preview will be great just in terms of another rep for your memory. But any other pro tips in terms of getting more stuck into your brain so really you retain it?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, a couple. One, I’ve been experimenting with for now a couple of years, and it’s done wonders for my retention and my comprehension. And most times, when I talk about this, people are like, “I’ve never thought of that before.”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Jeff Brown
But once they wrap their head around it, they’re like, “That’s a really good idea.” Most people think it’s a good idea. But with Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits, a couple of years ago, this is the first book I tried this with, I had the audiobook but I ordered the physical book.

And I sat down with the physical book, opened the audiobook and put it on one and a half, or 1.75 speed. As Brendon read it, I followed along and it was almost like speedreading cheating because we can comprehend far faster than we can typically read aloud or read the subvocalization that we do in our mind, which is read every word aloud in our heads, which we’re kind of taught to do as kids and we carry into adulthood, which slows down our reading.

And so, speeding up Brendon forced me to follow along at that pace. And the combination of seeing it with my eyes and hearing it with my ears, being able to comprehend at that speed, I got through the book much faster. But that simultaneous audio and reading, or seeing in front of me, just did wonders for my comprehension and retention. So, I don’t do that with every book but I do that with a lot more books than I used to.

One other thing I’ll say, sort of connected to just the whole concept of retaining and increasing comprehension and that sort of thing, is teach the material. I think it works best with physical, e-books versus, say, an audiobook, but teach the material. Look for opportunities to take what you’ve learned, this forces you to synthesize it down into its simplest form, and put it in your own words. If you’re going to teach it to someone else, you need to do that.

And so, whether that’s one-on-one, whether that’s at a meeting at work, whether that’s at a lunch-and-learn, or maybe your local chamber of commerce, put yourself in positions to teach others what you’ve been learning about. Many of the books I was reading early in my career, just because I was doing that thing that most people weren’t doing, reading, got me invitations to teach what I was learning. And so, again, just the act of doing that helped my retention and my comprehension tenfold, I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And so then, on the flipside, what are some things that we should not do? Are there any sort of bad reading habits that we should get rid of?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I would think, or I would say rather, be very careful with your environment, be particular with your environment. When you read, you’re not going to want to have distractions, your phone. I prefer my phone either not in the room or at least turned over so that the screen is not facing up. I will, sometimes, utilize my phone by connecting it to my noise-cancelling headphones and playing an app like Focus@Will or Idagio, which is a classical music app that allows you to select classical music based upon mood, which is awesome.

But I think it’s important to be in a quiet place, have a reading chair, if at all possible. In other words, a place where you regularly read, and drown out those distractions. One of the worst things for comprehension and retention is distraction, whether that’s a mobile device, whether that’s the door of the room you’re in being opened, or what have you. So, try some of those things, whether that’s closing the door, whether that’s a regular spot, whether that’s noise-cancelling headphones and an app, to counter those things.

But distractions, whether it’s our mobile device, whether it’s an iPad, that’s why I don’t like to read on the Kindle app on a tablet because of the potential for notifications, and the same with my phone. You’re not going to have that with an e-book. But I’ve got other books on that device quietly whispering to me to come read them. And so, again, that’s why I prefer a physical book because it’s just that book. It’s the only thing in my hands right now. I’ve got that and I’ve got something to write with, and that’s all I need. And when I do that, retention and comprehension are easier to come by.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And so, I know that this is probably an impossible question, and one you’ve been asked many times but, nonetheless, I’m going to do it. Share with us, as you think about our audience and what they’re into, and how to be awesome at your job with some universal skills, what do you think are some of the top books that you think really nail it on these fronts?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, a couple that come to mind, and they’re inextricably linked, they’re connected for all time, and the first one is Multipliers, I mentioned this one I think earlier, How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, actually, a book written with Greg McKeown who would go on to write Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. That book just turned my world upside down as to what I say yes to, what I say no to. And I think, in your job, if you’re anything like most people, you probably say yes to far more things than you wish you did.

And I think it’s important to understand, and I don’t know that Greg talks about this specifically, but what I’ve learned since then in applying what I’ve learned from Greg in Essentialism is that we tend to default to yes when people ask of our time. And if we say no, we feel like we have to defend that no to that other person when no is a complete sentence. And we should, instead, not default to yes but default to no. And if we’re going to say yes, we need to learn how to defend that yes to ourselves. And I think when we do that, we’ll have a much better handle on our time.

Now, as far as Liz’s book is concerned, Multipliers, that book, for me, epitomized what being a true leader is all about. Multiplier-type leaders are leaders who understand how to leverage the collective brain power in the room. I spent a lot of my years in early radio career in command-and-control type leaderships environments. And early on in my leadership career, that’s what I emulated because that’s what I knew.

And so, I was intimidated by a staff member who might know something, more about something than I did, or who might one day want my job. A multiplier-type leader relishes surrounding themselves with people smarter than they are, and they’re not intimidated by that. And I have found that when I’ve worked for multiplier-type leaders, that everybody wins.

When you can equip your team, to shine, and to flourish, and to grow, and to succeed, regardless whether or not you had anything directly to do with that, just creating that environment means you’re going to succeed as the leader. And, again, just leveraging the collective brain power of the room, equipping people to be the best that they can be, and just getting out of the way, just letting them do what they do, and trusting them by default.

One of my former leaders used to say, “You know, I trust you. I hired you to do the job. I’m going to trust you until you give me a reason not to.” And Stephen and Mark Covey talks about this in the Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. I think, as leaders, we need to trust our people. If they’ve given us a reason not to, that’s different. But until they do, trust them.

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

Jeff Brown
I would just say whether you’re someone who is already convinced that reading is a habit you need, and maybe you are already cultivating, or whether you’re someone who’s not yet convinced, if that’s the case, there is something in the book Read to Lead: The Simple Habit That Expands Your Influence and Boosts Your Career for you. And I encourage you to check it out. If you want to download the introduction, the first chapter for free, you can do that at ReadToLeadBook.com.

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

Jeff Brown
Yes, and it would be “We don’t take action because we believe. We believe because we take action.” And then I would punctuate that with “Do first, believe second.” This is something that Seth Godin said to me the first time I had him on my podcast. By well-meaning coaches and parents and teachers, we’re often given the advice “If you just believe in yourself enough, you’ll be able to do anything.” Mind you, that’s not necessarily bad advice, but I think the better advice is don’t worry about that. Let the belief in confidence catch up later. Just do and eventually it will.

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

Jeff Brown
I think my favorite study, and it lit a fire in me, honestly, and I don’t know if I can quote the actual name of the study. But my favorite study was when I read, not long before I started my podcast Read to Lead in 2013, it was a study about how few books people read. Most books read are one book a year, if that. I think the stat was 27% of people didn’t read at all. And I was just like, “I can’t believe that there are that many people in the US,” this was a US study, “that don’t see the value in this.” But then I had to admit, “Well, that used to be me. I used to hate reading. What can I do to change that?” And that was the impetus for starting the podcast.

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

Jeff Brown
I love my new reMarkable paper tablet I got a couple of months ago. So, this does just one or two things very, very well. You can read PDFs on it, you can read epubBooks on it, but it’s mostly a writing tool. And I’ve taken all my notebooks and I’ve gotten rid of all the paper, and all my notes from reading and my daily planning, my planner, is all on my reMarkable 2 tablet, and I absolutely love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, that people quote it back to you often?

Jeff Brown
It’s just my mantra, my belief, and that is I believe that intentional and consistent reading is key to success in business and in life. Put more bluntly, if you want to achieve true success in business and in life, then intentional and consistent reading is a must in my book.

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

Jeff Brown
Primarily, LeadToReadBook.com. Secondarily, ReadToLeadPodcast.com.

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

Jeff Brown
Yeah, and I hinted at this earlier. Just start. There’s something that you want to do that scares you. Do something, at least one thing, every day that scares you. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt that first said that. Bronnie Ware in The Five Regrets of the Dying talks about the number one regret of people, being they lived a life that everybody else wanted them to live instead of living a life true to themselves.

And I think that’s the case for a lot of us. We get to the end of our lives with regret not for things we did we wished we hadn’t done, but for things we never tried that we wished we did attempt at. Don’t wait another day. It would’ve been better to start 10 years ago, sure, but you still have the second-best time available to you, and that’s right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jeff, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of fun and enjoyment and enrichment in all your reading.

Jeff Brown
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it, being here. It was a lot of fun.

697: How to Make Your Point and Communicate Like a Leader with Joel Schwartzberg

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Joel Schwartzberg walks through how to sharpen your communication to maximize your impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to know if you even have a point 
  2. The simple phrases that make you more memorable
  3. Word substitutions that increase presence 

About Joel

Currently the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for a major U.S. nonprofit, Joel Schwartzberg teaches communication and presentation skills to clients including American Express, State Farm Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Comedy Central, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Joel’s books include The Language of Leadership and Get to the Point! and his articles appear in Harvard Business ReviewFast Company, and Toastmaster Magazine. A frequent conference presenter and workshop leader, Joel is also a former national champion public speaker. He can be reached at www.joelschwartzberg.net. 

Resources Mentioned

Joel Schwartzberg Interview Transcript

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

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. It’s my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear what you have to say, as well as to hear the tale about your Wheel of Fortune appearance. How did this come about?

Joel Schwartzberg
Well, when you live in Los Angeles and you don’t have a job, you don’t go to unemployment, as most people do, more often you go on to a game show. Why not? This was back in the day, we’re talking about the ‘90s. So, I was out of work at the time, living in Los Angeles, and I just took a chance. Even though I was local, I auditioned, they picked me. And a year and a half later, I was on the show. And, Pete, it was one of the most doomed experiences of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Doomed?

Joel Schwartzberg
Doomed.

Pete Mockaitis
How so?

Joel Schwartzberg
I did not fare well. I think they do a week’s worth of shows in one day, at least they did, and I was clearly the big loser of the day so much so that they gave me some extra consolation prizes. So, all I took from it was not the $20,000 annuity. I didn’t even know what an annuity was at the time. I just took my memories from it, really. And those served me well, but it was not my finest hour in terms of being a successful contestant.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there is an episode of you but you didn’t do well on it, is that what I’m hearing?

Joel Schwartzberg
That’s basically the bottom line. Right, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. But I want to know then, so we’re talking about The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire, I’m curious if some of your skills, you think that won you the spot on the audition. What do you think sold them on you?

Joel Schwartzberg
One of the things I have to say, I’m not often asked that question, but one of the things that helped me is, I think, was eye contact. I maintained eye contact with the other competitors as we did sort of rehearsal rounds, I definitely gave eye contact to the people who were in the decision-making role, and I just sort of flooded them with my engagement through my eyes. Now, as we went through, these are things they’re looking for, “Am I going to be mousy or am I going to be confident and assertive? Am I going to ask for vowels in a strong voice or in sort of a small voice?” These are things they’re looking for.

So, as you ask that question, it’s interesting, a lot of the things I talk to my clients and students about are things I employed there that I think, yes, I think they did make a difference in them, ultimately, picking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Decisively buy those vowels, that’s a good takeaway right there. So, let’s sort of zoom out. In your years of working and research looking into how leaders communicate well, what would you say is one of your most surprising or counterintuitive discoveries?

Joel Schwartzberg
My biggest discovery, and this is sort of the bread and butter of what I train, is the concept of making a point. Now, obviously, leaders need to make points but, really, everybody needs to make points not only in our professional life but also in your personal life. We make points to our mother’s-in-law and our children, and to our neighbors.

And what I discovered, after a few years of training public speakers, was that, while they were doing everything right in terms of their gestures, they’re planting their feet, their volume, their articulation, when I asked them, “What point are you trying to make?” they would reply with something that wasn’t a point, which forced me to build a definition of what a point is, as well as a simple test that people can use to find out if they’re making a point or not.

And to be very clear about this, what they thought was their point was actually a theme, or a topic, a notion, a category, a catchphrase. For example, podcasting is not a point. If you asked me what my point is, and I said podcasting, I’m not telling you the value of podcasting, who I’m trying to reach through podcasting, the future of podcasting, how podcasting impacts culture. None of that. So, I’m giving you a theme but I’m not really making my point.

And once I sort of came to that realization, I turned around my training and I wrote this book called Get to the Point! which really helps people understand, A, what a point is and what it is not; B, how to sharpen that point; and, finally, how to champion that point. And that is an imperative for leaders, but it is certainly a benefit for anybody who needs to make a point, which is all of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s just a huge learning right there. Let’s dig into it. So, some things that are not a point would be a theme, a category. So, then what is the definition and the test for whether a point is a point or not a point?

Joel Schwartzberg
A strong point is a proposition. I’m sort of putting myself on the line to put something out there and suggest or recommend something to you. And within that, I’m also explicitly conveying the value of it. Now, this gives us sort of an ambiguous idea of what a point is, so let’s take the podcasting example. A topic is podcasting, a theme is communication, a catchphrase is “the power of podcasting,” but a point is, “I believe that podcasting is the most effective way to reach our millennial audience.”

Now, how do we get from one of those to the others? That’s a test that I have in my book that’s very simple. It’s called the “I believe that” test. And I know it’s simple because my daughters, when they were in middle school, they used it. And it goes like this. You take what you believe is your point, and you put the words “I believe that” in front of it. Now, it’s a mild tweaking, if any. What you want to have is a complete sentence, not a fragment, not a run-on, something that will impress your fourth-grade language arts teacher – a complete sentence.

So, if we put that podcasting example into play, “I believe that podcasting…” not a sentence, even “I believe the importance of podcasting…” not a complete sentence. It forces you to say, “I believe that podcasting will enable us to X,” “I believe that podcasting will change the world in these ways.” And that’s where we talk about having a point and sharpening it.

So, I’ve ran this test many, many times for people in nonprofits, for people selling a product, for people in PR, for people running for office, for people interviewing for jobs, and it works the same for each person. You want to make the point so you basically want to make a belief statement that says, “If this happens, then this other thing will result,” “If you hire me, then your environment and your work product will be improved in this way.”

And then, when you use that test, when you have that complete sentence, you’re on your way to making a point. But if you fail that test, you need to go back and reimagine your point so that it can pass that test.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, can you give us some more examples of things that are not a point? I guess what I’m thinking here is I’m thinking about a lot of slide decks. So, back in consulting, we had our headlines at the top of the slide and that was kind of the idea, it’s like, “That headline, it’s about two lines maybe, up to a dozen-ish words, and it should say sort of the point of the slide.” And that was really instilled into us.

And so, it shouldn’t just say, “Revenue over time,” or, “Customer breakdown,” because that is a label of what is on the slide. And so, fair enough, that is what that is but it doesn’t sort of tell you, “What are you trying to tell me about the revenue over time or the customer breakdown?” So, what are some other ways that you see this not working so well in business and professional contexts, like common non-points that come up again and again that need to be improved?

Joel Schwartzberg
There are a lot of settings for it. One of the ones where you’ll see it most obviously is in conferences, “Hey, Pete, what are you talking about today? I’d like to come to your session.” “Oh, I’m talking about podcasting,” or, “I’m talking about income inequality,” or, “I’m talking about Coca-Cola.” Well, you’re not telling me what point you’re going to make. And if you do tell it to me in a form of a point, “I’m going to talk about the ways we can tackle income inequality so that everybody has the same opportunity in America.” You see how that’s more compelling and resonant?

You mentioned another place, and I’m glad you mentioned because even just PowerPoint, and you can get a million recommendations, but the one I never see, which is key to me, is what you said. In the title of a PowerPoint slide, what we’re often seeing is categories: what’s next, background, history, statistics. And then in the example you said, “Yeah, PowerPoint slides can say ‘Our feedback survey’ or it can say, ‘Results of our feedback survey,’ or it can say, ‘Feedback: Our community prefers Coca-Cola.’” Why not put the exact point into the topic or the title page of that PowerPoint?

Another place is in email. People are using subject lines that often read “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Tuesday” when they’re actually trying to convey a very important point or a very important recommendation for a tactic that the team should take, but it’s submerged under a subject line that is not expressing that point.

So, really, in all settings, whether you’re writing, you’re speaking, you’re creating a video, you’re texting, you’re posting, these all benefit from points. And what I often say in my training is, “Tomorrow morning, when your manager says, ‘All right, let’s go around the room and if you have recommendations or if you have feedback, what happened over the weekend, please share it,’ and people will hem and haw, ‘Well, I think this happened and I don’t know if that should’ve happened,’ why not set yourself up for success by saying, you can say, ‘I believe that if we had done this, we would’ve had more impact on our customers,’ or, ‘I believe that what happened over the weekend was a great example of what happens when we take this approach to our audience.’”

Now, I want to make something clear, Pete. I’m not saying you always need to use the words “I believe that.” It’s merely a test to make sure you’re making a point. However, if you do say “I believe that” you’re putting your reputation behind it so there is value to saying those three words.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that’s a big idea right there in the book Get to the Point! Let’s talk about your latest, The Language of Leadership. What’s the big idea here?

Joel Schwartzberg
So, the big idea behind The Language of Leadership, it’s really taking the ideas of Get to the Point! and it’s asking, “How can leaders use points to do the two most important things they need to do with their teams? Engage their teams and inspire their teams.” Now, that may seem obvious. Obviously, leaders want to engage and inspire, but those are the only two words I picked. I would’ve preferred one word, but for the purposes of broadness, I wanted those two words.

So, what words didn’t I pick? I didn’t say that leaders want to inform, entertain, impress, graduate. There are a lot of words that some leaders may think they want to do for their audience. But, to me, the two most important are engaging and inspiring, especially inspiring. And one of the biggest places where they don’t do that, because we want to talk about examples where people are just missing the mark, is leaders who think that information on its own inspires.

And we often see this in presentations or in PowerPoints, if I tell you the history, “All right, this is what we did in the past, this is what we’re doing now, this is how many, this is how many people, this is how much we’re going to spend on it. Thank you very much.” There is no point there. They merely thought by merely sharing the information, it would sell itself. And what you’re really doing is putting the burden on the audience to receive a point that was not conveyed when, really, that burden is on you to inspire and make the point. I call these book reports. You’re sharing something but you’re not selling something.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then merely information, like, “This is what happened before and what happens now and what happens in the future…”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Details. Data. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a point would be like, “We have made tremendous strides and we’re so excited about what we’re going in the future.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Or, let’s say data, we’re always sharing data and slides. I wrote an article about this for Harvard Business Review. The data, just like a story, storytelling is a big deal also, they share one attribute, and that is they don’t sell themselves. They only sell, and you’re only selling them when you say these words. And, in fact, these words are more important than the data and more important than the story. It’s the point at which you say, “This story demonstrates why we should,” “This story is an example of how we can,” “This data proves that we ought to take these steps.” And people leave that out.

And I have one really good example, if you don’t mind my sharing it. I had a client who created all sorts of collateral material. She created hats and calendars and brochures, and I said, “All right, give me your best pitch. Make your point to me.” And she said, “All right. You see these brochures? Well, they are a special material where they won’t crumple. And I’ll give you your logo in three colors all around it. And you see this hat? This hat, if an elephant stepped on this hat and it won’t crush. And this pen, this pen is made of a special nanotechnology. It’ll only pierce your shirt. It won’t pierce your skin. And I tell you what, I’ll give you three colors on the logo of your pen.”

And she went on and on describing her inventory, and she finished. And I said, “Do you think you made your point?” And she said, “I did. I described each and every piece of my inventory and why each of those pieces were great.” And I said, “That’s okay, but you know what I never heard from you? I never heard you say that if I buy your product, I will be more successful.” And that’s what she was selling, that was her big point but she never said it explicitly. What she was doing was sharing details, giving her inventory.

A good example of this is, also, imagine a book. In the book, there are two things, there’s a table of contents and there are blurbs. The blurbs sell the book. The table of contents just shares the inventory. So, what leaders want to do, what anyone giving a presentation or a speech wants to do, is they want to be the blurbist. They want to sell the idea, not just share it as like a table of contents.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s excellent. And it’s interesting, in the collateral materials example, like, “This pin is great because of that, and this hat is great for that,” I suppose if what the information you wanted was, “Why should I pick you instead of the other penmaker or hatmaker?” then that might be helpful. It’s like, “Oh, okay, the hat is more durable than others, or less likely to pierce flesh with a pen.” But if your question is more like, “Should I buy this at all?” then that doesn’t do the trick, versus if you could say, “We had a client who got these hats, and there are millions of impressions now on Instagram where people are being photographed in these hats which has driven their brand awareness a whole lot.” You’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s cool. I guess people are into hats and photographing themselves.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Exactly. What did the hats enable you to do? What did the service or product, not just what it is, but what it enables you to do? And you talk about, “Sell me this pen,” that’s really the basis of that exercise. The value of the pen is not that it’s blue or has a great cap or has a good design, and we’re using it as an example, but it empowers you to express yourself in ways that have impact. And, at the end of the day, what you often want to ask is, “If my audience can only take away one thing, what would that be? What do I want them to leave with?” And if you can answer that question, then you know what you need to do as the speechmaker or as the conveyer or the communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so that’s a great perspective right there in terms of not falling for the trap that information alone inspires, really thinking what’s the one key point you want them to be left with and going for it. Can you share with us a couple other key communication best practices and worst practices that really make an impact when we’re trying to engage and inspire?

Joel Schwartzberg
Sure. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is they think more is better. We know from writing, the writers amongst us, in your audience, we know less is more. But what we need to understand is that, also, more is less. When we add details or words or descriptions to our point or to even a sentence, we are doing a disservice to ourselves because here’s what happens. When you or I, he, she or someone, that has a lot of adjectives, a lot of points, all those points compete with each other for your attention. And then that competition, they’re diluting the impact of each other.

And we can just say an example. Let’s say I was the CEO of our company, and I said, “This new approach is going to make us more successful and experienced and powerful, effective, efficient, memorable, and brilliant.” Now, not many people are going to remember all of those words and, even if they could, they wouldn’t know which one was more important.

If an executive says, “This approach will make us more effective. Let me show you how,” because there’s only one idea, it really sinks into our brains. Now, I’m not saying that every presentation can only have one idea, although it’d be a beautiful thing, but if you have multiple ideas, you want to separate them and delineate them, “First thing, I’m going to talk about this idea. Then we’re going to move on and talk about this idea. And, finally, we’re going to look at how this affects the world around us.” So, I’ve delineated these instead of attaching them all together.

Remember, all we need to do, as speakers and communicators, is say the words that we’re familiar with. What does an audience need to do? A lot. They need to hear it. They need to process it. “Is this relevant? Should I write this down? Should I tweak this? Do I need to remember this? Should I share this with my direct reports?” So much needs to happen in their brains, as we say something, that by the time they processed it, we’re another six points down the road. So, we need to make it simple. We need to understand that more is less. We need to speak more slowly. We need to introduce pauses so that people have that critical digestion time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, those are some things that are common mistakes. And what do you see as some of the best-in-class examples or things to do to really do a fine job of engaging and inspiring?

Joel Schwartzberg
Our job, the most important part of a communication is the point because that’s where you’re doing the hard sell for your product or your service that creates this solution that you’ve matched in advance to whoever you’re speaking to, whether it’s potential clients or partners or customers. So, there are ways to reinforce that point in the middle of your presentation. And this is what I counsel leaders to do, and these I call attention magnets.

So, attention magnets include, “I recommend,” “I propose,” “Here’s the thing,” “Look, if there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this,” or, “My point is this.” And one of my public speaking idols is Michelle Obama. Now, when she spoke at the Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, she said these three things, and they seemed repetitive if I just pull them out and say them to you now, but these are direct quotes.

One, she said, “And let me, once again, tell you this.” Later, she said, “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can.” And then before she finished, she said, “If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this.” Now, these are attention magnets and anyone can do them, not just Michelle Obama, so I encourage people to use those.

What they are are shortcuts to your point. But in front of any audience, if I said, “Oh, we talked about a lot today, but here’s the thing,” you could tell by just that example that that sort of drills attention to the point, you’ve captured it for a moment, and you want to fill that spot with your point, not with some detritus, some detail, something irrelevant. And to do that, you need to know your point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, as you say those words, I could just sort of imagine an audience of people looking at phones and then looking up, and sort of like, “Oh, I feel kind of guilty that I’ve been semi-ignoring you.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. That’s why I call them attention magnets, not even getters, but magnets.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Okay. And I’m also curious if there are any particular words and phrases that you really love or really hate in terms of being extra effective. So, we’ve had some attention magnet phrases, which are great. Any other key bits that should be on the do’s or don’ts list for our own vocabularies?

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Well, the first thing I would say is authenticity is critical. Even if you have speechwriters working for you, as many leaders do, you should never say anything, nothing should come out of your mouth that is something you wouldn’t ordinarily say because audiences can pick up on that. It’s artificial. So, always scrutinize whatever you’re saying or reading to make sure it matches who you are and how you normally talk.

In terms of specific words, and, Pete, I really like to give nuts and bolts sort of tactics, not just broad encouragements, so there are things where leaders know that people are saying one word and it actually falls just short of what they intend. I’m talking about when people say allow when they really mean enable. What does it mean when we say allow? Well, we sort of stood aside and we let something happen. We didn’t play a part in it, an active part in it, but maybe we did. Maybe we made it happen. Maybe through our lobbying, that law came about. So, then we enabled it, but we often say we allowed this to happen.

Another is avoid versus prevent. If you actively prevented something, don’t go smaller and say, “We just avoided it.” Another is when we address things, “We addressed this problem.” What does that mean? We looked at it, we read it, we talked about it. But did we act on it? So, if you did act on it, if you overcame a problem, that’s act versus address. And there are a few of these, I call them strategic word swaps. This is another article I wrote for Harvard Business Review, where you can scrutinize a speech, especially ahead of time, or as you’re practicing, to talk about things, like, “We want to overcome goals versus face them,” “We want to accomplish a goal versus meet it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those are handy word swaps. And then that’s interesting in that those words are all okay, and you took them to great. I’m curious if there are any words that are just kind of terrible For example, one word I frequently coach people to not say in a presentation is “obviously” because it kind of suggests, like, “Hey, if you didn’t know this, you’re an idiot,” and it can sort of be off putting and feel maybe patronizing or arrogant to say obviously, even though sometimes people use it innocently as a vocal pause, or even if they’re a little bit bashful, like, “I’m about to say something that you probably already know, and I don’t want you to think that I think this is a super insightful thing so I’m going to soften it by saying obviously.” I recommend just not doing that.

So, I’m curious, are there any other words, like obviously, that you recommend kind of striking out?

Joel Schwartzberg
Yeah, one of the words I really don’t like is “additionally” or “clearly,” not even because of the impression that people make out of them, which may be haughty, but they’re generally unnecessary. Remember when I said that more is less, and less is more? We often don’t need words like “additionally” or “clearly,” or “it need not be said that.” Often, “that is” a two-word phrase that can be removed. Remember, people are listening to it for the first time so we want to make that language as simple as possible.

I find a lot of people using synonyms all the time, “We want to make this television advertisement more powerful and resonant,” or “reach more people and to be truly resonant.” Well, those are virtual synonyms, but your audience, they’re deciding between two things. So, really scrutinize, when you give multiple things, for those synonyms so you can get closer and closer to the one thing.

And you probably know, Pete, and many of your audience know, in advertising, they often try to take out as many adjectives as they can, and adverbs, because, let’s remember that, adjectives only give the briefest kind of description to something, and it’s always going to be a generic one. What does it mean that something is great, awesome, interesting? I call these badjectives because they’re easy enough, we love them, “This product is great,” but to an audience, what does it mean? Lots of things are great. “I had a great tuna fish this afternoon.”

So, to solve that problem, ask yourself, “Well, why is it great?” “Well, this product is great because it allows us to make sure food doesn’t go bad in the refrigerator?” Aha, so now you have this product as great because it keeps things fresh in the refrigerator. Now, you don’t even need the great word, the badjective, why not just say that this product keeps your food fresh in the refrigerator. So, what we’ve done is we’ve spotted the badjective, we’ve asked why to get to the real outcome, and then we’ve removed the badjective. It’s almost mathematical in the approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. That reminds me of resumes in terms of if you have a lot of adjectives about yourself, it’s sort of like, “Well, okay, says who? And I guess you think you’re great but that’s…” versus if you have actual sort of results, accomplishments, responsibilities, then they’re just facts, and facts don’t tend to need a lot of adjectives. And I guess if you do use an adjective, kind of like I’m thinking about sort of like movies that have…or blurbs, again like the books. When movies say, “Hey, we’re great,” they like to grab it from such and such reviewer from the New York Times that said, “A masterpiece!”

Joel Schwartzberg
“Go see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Then that packs a little bit more weight, so maybe on the resume it might be like, “Received stellar remarks on reviews including…” whatever. That can make more sense

Joel Schwartzberg
And I’ll tell you something really interesting or sort of ironic that struck me when I was looking at a particular word. The word is hope, and leaders use the word hope a lot, and they should. It’s their job to have vision and point to a future. But here’s the funny thing. Hope works best in leadership as a noun and not as a verb. If we say, “I hope this will happen,” “I hope that this product will succeed,” you’re sort of taking yourself out of the role of making sure it succeeds. You’re sort of gambling on the future when you use hope as a verb.

But when you use it as a noun, you’re creating a vision and a future and a goal for your audience, “Our hope is that we will reach this level of success,” “We have hope that this product will sell,” or, “…that will reach this audience,” or that, “We have hope now that we’ll save the planet,” as opposed to, “I hope we can save the planet.” There’s a subtle difference even though it’s the same word. So, as we scrutinize these words, the language of leadership, as I like to say, there are often many ways to look at it but only one way to use it successfully to, like I say, engage and inspire.

Pete Mockaitis
And we’ve sort of been talking, and this is I’ve been visualizing or even talking about sort of like an in-person face-to-face context. Do you have any thoughts for when it comes to email, Slack, text messaging, how to think about communication that engages and inspires there?

Joel Schwartzberg
Absolutely, but each one of those is sort of different. I like to focus on email and I like to focus on Zoom or video meetings. In terms of email, a lot of it boils down to the subject line, “Am I making myself clear? And in making myself clear, am I engaging the people I’m trying to reach? In the body of an email, am I writing a novella or am I making it easier for my audience, my reader, to engage with me and understand the points I’m trying to make? Am I using bullets? Am I bolding things or using colors?”

One thing I say about email is it’s a hard and fast rule and it shocks people at first, and that is no No paragraph more than three sentences. I often use paragraphs of one sentence. What it does, it allows you to break up your ideas for your own conveyance but it also really helps the audience understand the breakdown of the points you’re trying to make, and that builds engagement.

There are also a lot of things we already discussed about hope and vision and authenticity that sort of create that inspiration. Now, on Zoom, there are a lot of other practices that really help what I like to say elevate your presence on Zoom, and much of it is visual. I see a lot of Zoom calls where leaders are way back, or their head is cut off, or they have a messy room behind them that distracts. So, when I train my clients and my leaders is to show your head and your shoulders, to understand that eye contact means looking into the camera not into the Brady Bunch grid as I like to call it, and to really check your environment, because anything in your environment that doesn’t support your point steals from your point.

And so, these are ways we can not only elevate our leadership but avoid some of the things that may hurt and injure and sabotage our leadership because they’re working against us.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
Know that the one thing I’d like people to take away, and I’m going to use one of those attention magnets, is that it all boils down to having a point. If you don’t have a point, you are literally pointless and you should be nervous, and you should be expecting yourself to ramble because you need to know the one idea you need to get across to make that point, to champion it, so that you can really have an impact on your audience.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I’m not sure who said it. It could’ve been a high school chum, but something that I keep coming back to is “It’s not about you being best, it’s about being the best you.” And, to me, what it means is we are all super qualified, uniquely qualified, in each communication setting to make that point. Even Michelle Obama or a famous CEO cannot do the job we do if we’ve prepared and practiced and have experienced to make a point to an audience.

And that quote about being the best you, connects a lot to a mistake people make when they give speeches, when I say, “What is your goal in this speech?” They’ll say, “My goal is not to screw up. My goal is not to embarrass myself.” Well, that really isn’t your goal. Your goal is really to move a point from A to B, not to be thought of as brilliant, or as the next Michelle Obama, or the next head of industry unless you want more public speaking gigs.

You’re more like a bicycle delivery person moving a package, which is your point from here to there. And guess what, you’re the one person in the world most qualified to do it. And that’s what it means to be the best you.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite research is probably the research that was done on mindsets, and the difference between having a closed mindset and an open mindset. And the closed mindset means you’re not open to learning, and an open mindset means that you’re open to experiencing new things and learn from them. And I forget the name of the study. I think it’s fixed mindset and I forget the name of the other.

Pete Mockaitis
Growth mindset.

Joel Schwartzberg
Growth mindset. You’re exactly right. That sort of blew my world because it goes back to your childhood, the way you were raised. Sometimes kids are very, very smart but what they learn is, “I’m going to stay in my lane because I’m good at this and I’ll never be good at that, so I’m never going to try something new.” And often, those kids, overall, will not do as well as the kids who were not told they were geniuses but told to learn as much as they can.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite book is Les Miserables probably because I read it in high school. I’m more of an article reader than I am a book reader because of my time. So, the places I like to go to get sort of my research is Harvard Business Review. It’s a place where I see a lot of data-driven stories, sometimes I go to Fast Company. But there’s a lot out there.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
Probably my to-do list. I can’t rely on my memory, and most people cannot either, so I’m constantly making to-do lists. And by that, I mean a physical to-do list, the yellow sticky notes, but every computer also has a digital to-do list. And the nice thing about that to-do list is it doesn’t go away until you close it. So, even if you put multiple screens, that to-do list, that digital sticky note will always be there. So, I rely on actual sticky notes as well as the digital sticky notes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Joel Schwartzberg
I really like editing. I’m not sure if you can call that a habit. I’m really a grammarian at heart, and nothing sort of interest me more than using Grammarly, which is another tool I really enjoy, to look at a document and to discover the ways it can be improved by making it tighter, by making it more focused, and by making it more grammatically correct. I know that’s not a habit like cooking or fishing, but I live, eat, and drink, as my wife likes to say, the world of expression and the world of making points. So, everything I find myself doing and interesting are in that universe or in that sort of frequency of thinking.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
The idea of less is more, and simpler is better. One thing that CEOs I worked with go back to me is this idea of get in, get out. When you need to make a point, it’s easy for leaders to start to elaborate on it, talk about case studies, talk about things they’d read, talk about meetings they have had, because that’s where their mind goes. So, I often have to remind them, “Get in, get out. Make your point and get out so the audience has time to receive that and process it.”

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I would point them to www.JoelSchwartzberg.net. A lot of what I talk about is I like to call it open code. I like to share it. I don’t like to keep it to myself. So, that’s one place where I put all the articles I’ve written, the books I’ve written. I share ideas there, podcasts I’ve been on. So, if you want to get a deeper dive into all of these ideas about how to engage and inspire, how to make and champion a point, there are a lot of resources there that I prove, because I wrote most of them, that people can utilize right away.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I would tell people to think about what they’re going to say before they say it. The worst thing, the biggest mistake you can make is to wing it because you think you know it backwards and forwards, because you’ve studied it, you researched it, it’s your job. A lot of lawyers, nothing against lawyers, but a lot of lawyers I worked with often think they’re so knowledgeable about these areas that they are automatically good communicators, and that is not the case.

Communication is using another part of your brain. So, my one takeaway is really, before your next meeting, or your next communication, take a moment to think, “What is my point? Did I make it clearly? Will it have impact? And if there’s one thing I want my recipient to do, to think, or to take action on as a result of what I say, what is it? And what can I do to make that possible?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you, Joel. This has been a pleasure and I wish you many fun encounters of engagement and inspiration.

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. This has been fun.