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469: How to Keep Robots from Stealing Your Job with Alexandra Levit

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Alexandra Levit says: "Put yourself in a position to be the most effective person in a certain job... [that way] even if some of the jobs disappear, you're still going to be at the top."

Futurist Alexandra Levit explains what the “robot takeover” will really look like and how you can stay relevant despite it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The problem with how organizations automate
  2. Honest predictions about the future of the human workforce
  3. The essentials skills that make you future-proof

About Alexandra:

Alexandra Levit has conducted proprietary research on the future of work, technology adoption, the millennial generation, gender differences and bias, and the skills gap. She also served as a member of Business Roundtable’s Springboard Project, which advised the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Defense on current employment issues.

Levit also consults and writes on leadership development, human resources, technology adoption, entrepreneurship, innovation, career and workplace trends on behalf of Fortune 500 companies.

She is a frequent national media spokesperson and is regularly featured in outlets including USA Today,National Public RadioCNNABC NewsCNBCForbesthe Associated Press, and Glamour. Levit was named an American Management Association Top Leader for two years in a row and has also beenMoney Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year and the author of one of Forbes’ best websites for women.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Alexandra Levit Interview Transcript

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

Alexandra Levit
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we usually start with a fun little warmup question. So, I’d love to hear from you, are the robots going to kill and enslave us all?

Alexandra Levit
Are the robots going to kill and enslave us? The answer to that would be no, at least not in the foreseeable future. There’s something called the technological singularity which refers to a point in time in which technology will become so advanced that we really don’t know how it’s going to transform our society. Our society will not look like it does today. So, all bets are off when it comes to that point.

But I think we can pretty safely say for the next 15-20 years that we can anticipate what robots are going to do and, really, they’re going to be good partners. They aren’t going to replace humans, they’re not going to enslave humans, they are going to work alongside us, and, hopefully, in most occupations, allow us to do things that are more strategic and more meaningful, and focus on the work that matters to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you.

Alexandra Levit
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that comforting. Way back when I was in college, we were talking about this and there were a couple of my classmates who were totally convinced it was going to happen, and he even used the evidence point, “Have you seen the movie Terminator?” I was like, “Well, I have but that’s a movie and I don’t think that’s a good evidence point.” So, 15-20 years we’re safe. That feels good.

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, I think your friends are not wrong to be concerned, and we can certainly talk about the reasons to be concerned and the reasons not to be concerned, but I think in the long run it is something we’re going to have to think about because these are very powerful machines, they’re getting more powerful all the time.

And so, while the growth I don’t think is as exaggerated as some people might think in terms of machine learning and machine’s ability to really replicate and simulate human emotions and consciousness, it’s not as fast as some people might think, but there’s really no reason to think it wouldn’t happen eventually. So, I’m going to agree with your friends but try to temper the hysteria a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate that. Okay, well, with that established and a little bit of a breath of relief.

Alexandra Levit
A little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about what’s up with automation these days. There’s a lot of buzz and I’d love it if you could just sort of set us straight on, okay, what are some of the most striking data and stories that point to where automation is replacing workers and where it’s really not?

Alexandra Levit
Well, this is a great question, and I think the primary message I want to get across when it comes to automation is that you can’t just take huge swaths of your employee population and fire them so that you can automate everything. What I see organizations doing tends to be either too much or too little. So, too little means they bury their head in the sand and they really should be automating certain functions, and they’re not doing that because they’re behind the curve, which that’s not an unfamiliar situation for organizations, particularly when it comes to technology.

And other organizations aren’t being strategic enough about it. They’re just saying, “Well, just because I can automate something, well, that means that I should.” And, in fact, what we need to take is a far more measured approach. We need to look at specific tasks, and what the objective is, and then determine, “Okay, well, is this something where it’s a routine task, it’s something that needs to be replicated, it’s something that doesn’t require ethics or judgment?” It’s something that we have machines that can perform for us, freeing up our human workers to do different types of tasks that do require a little bit more abstract thinking, or creativity, or ethical concerns, or judgment, those types of things.

And what we need to do is look at it on a case-by-case basis. And we’ve seen kind of what happens when organizations don’t do that, when they just blindly automate things, and then there might be human workers there but they’re taught to just kind of stand blindly by while the machine tells them what to do, and the machine is not considering the nuances.

There have been several instances of this. The most famous one actually happened here in Chicago, where you and I are both are. It involved the United Airlines a couple years ago, where algorithm told them, “We need to get these flight attendants from one place to another. That’s the best scenario for business, that’s where we’ll make the greatest profit.” And because the algorithm said so, and the system was automated, the human employees just kind of stood there and were like, “Oh, okay.” And nobody really considered, “If we pull passengers off this plane in order to get these flight attendants on, what’s going to be the impact on our brand? What’s going to be the impact on our reputation, on our customer service?”

And the machine is not thinking about that because the machine is programmed that it only cares about profits. It doesn’t care about all these nuances. And so, we call the act of the human being watching over the machine, we call this the human in the loop. So, whenever you automate something, you have to have to have a human being who’s standing by saying, “You know, I get that the data is saying this, I get that this is what we’re automating, but we really need to take a step back and have some difference of opinion here.”

And that is really, really important to consider when you are staffing projects or staffing departments, yes, you might be able to, in fact, automate something and have an algorithm perform the task, but you still need the humans in the loop for oversight. It’s very, very important. And so, United is a great example of that, but I think most people, at least in the U.S., are familiar with that, unfortunately for United. That was very bad for them. And I think we’re going to see, Pete, more of that kind of thing happening because automation is not being planned carefully enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s intriguing in terms of some guidelines there, “Hey, the more that things require ethics, creativity, and judgment, the more we need a human presence, and the more it’s sort of like rote routine kind of repeat, repeat, repeat, that’s sort of the less we do.” So, could you kind of orient us to, I guess, there’s a lot of buzz with regard to some saying that automation is going to replace all these things, all these jobs are not going to exist. Like, what’s sort of the real fact-based in terms of some of the data and the stories pointing to, “Yes, right now, we are seeing these specific jobs disappearing at quick rates and these ones might be next”?

Alexandra Levit
Oh, I’m glad you asked that because there really is an important reality check here. And there’s been a lot of handwringing over the lost of jobs to machines. And when we look at it, it is something that we need to consider. But the numbers don’t really support that it’s happening in absolute crazy rates in all occupations.

So, for example, and a lot of consulting firms have done research on this, but I like the McKinsey research on it that says that about 60% of all occupations will be affected by automation in some shape or form. So, that means, chances are, two out of three, you will have automation touch your job. But, nevertheless, that’s not 100%. That’s still only 60%.

And then the other part of that is, of those 60% of jobs that are impacted, only about 30% of the tasks in that job will be automated, so that means that even if you’re within that 60%, you still have a whole bunch of things that you are going to be doing. So, you might have one task or two tasks that can be automated, but everything else you’re still going to be doing. And, therefore, your job isn’t going to disappear.

So, I think that’s a very, very important message that most jobs are not going to disappear entirely unless they are of the really rote routine factory-related jobs where you literally would stand there and put a widget on a conveyor belt. If you have that type of job, then you may have a problem. If you’re in the tech sector and you only know one program, for example, and that’s what you do, maybe you’re a database builder or something, and that’s all you do is build databases, and you don’t evolve your skillset, then you might have a problem.

So, it’s not just manufacturing and factory jobs, there are some knowledge-related jobs that could be impacted too. And that’s why, really, I encourage people strongly to take responsibility for upskilling and reskilling. Look at where your industry and where your job function are going and see the writing on the wall. And if you see that new software programs are starting to pick up steam, that things are getting automated, then you’re going to need to develop other skillsets, in particular, tech people who have not had to develop soft skills, like great communication, and ethics, and judgment, these soft skills that we’ve been talking about. Now is the time because those jobs are going to be in jeopardy.

The other thing though, Pete, is, yes, there are going to be certain jobs that will go away, as we talked about. It’s not as extreme as people say but it will happen. But what is also really, really important to remember is that there are going to be just as many jobs, if not more, created by technology. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, whenever you have a machine inserted into a process, we talked about the human in the loop, well, it’s not just one human. It’s somebody to design it, to build it, to figure out how to deploy it, to oversee it, to fix it when it’s broken. And, by the way, that last one, no one ever thinks about that. No one thinks about –

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, reboot it. Oh, reboot it.”

Alexandra Levit
I mean, we just had that. I know. The more we rely on technology the more things are going to break and people are going to have to be able to fix it. So, these things are, really, a ton of jobs are going to be created. The other thing that’s really critical is that there are job categories that do not currently exist that will be created by technology. And, as an example, I always used to say, when I graduated from college, social media manager wasn’t a thing because social media wasn’t a thing. And now every department has its own social media person. Some entire firms are based on social media. So, that’s a good example that everyone is aware of.

And then, also, something that the importance cannot be overstated, somebody needs to explain what technology is doing to the rest of the human world, especially decision makers and leaders. So, those explainers, you need someone behind the technology who can actually, forgive me for using the word again, but to explain in very plain English what the technology is doing, how it came about the decision that it suggested, how did it work, kind of peering into the black box, if you will.

So, these are the types of jobs that will be created as a result of technology. And I think at the end of the day, we’re going to see really no net loss in human jobs. And we had the same concerns when the industrial revolution happened and when cars got on the road. Every time society changes, we worry about this, and it doesn’t happen because new jobs are created. So, overall, I think it’s a wonderful time for human employment. It’s probably the best time ever because we can really use our brains and do what we’re good at instead of doing things that are so boring and easy to repeatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Boy, I like so much of what you said there not just because it’s happy news, but just because it’s kind of inspiring in the sense of, “Okay, there’s not much to fear with regard to this task being automated.” I think a whole another category of stuff is just that I think just about every human has a to-do list that’s longer than what they can do. And I’ve seen this now, so we’ve got sort of more staff now on this podcast. We got about three and a half people which is amazing.

Alexandra Levit
Awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanks, listeners.

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, good for you.

Pete Mockaitis
And then plus me, and then plus contractors on top of that, so it’s growing. And, lo and behold, at first, I was kind of worried, I was like, “Oh, man, is that too many people? There are some exceptional talent, I didn’t want to like let go and sort not snap up and to have that work.” It’s like, “Oh, sure. There’s just all this stuff you haven’t been doing now we’re going to do. Let’s fix all these things that are suboptimal. Let’s go chase after these opportunities we haven’t chased after.”

So, I think that’s huge in and of itself in that the stuff that’s not getting done, that, “Oh, we’d kind of like to if we could get to it,” now we can get to it as well as opposed to a zero-sum game. Is it a job taken? There’s jobs to be done, if the machine is doing it, the human is not doing it, and the human is out of work, it’s like, “Well, no, there are more jobs to be done than there are humans to do them.” So, we got that going for us too.

Alexandra Levit
I think you’re right. And maybe if that was the case, maybe companies would be more strategic. Because, I have to tell you, when I go, and I’m a futurist, so I talk about future work and what organizations need to do to prepare, and when I go in, sometimes it’s so funny, people are like, “Well, you’re going to talk about flex work. Flex work isn’t futuristic.” It’s like, “Yeah, but are you doing it? And are you doing it well? I get that it doesn’t sound futuristic, but this is where organizations actually are,” and that’s that they’re behind. And so, my hope with what you’re saying is that maybe we won’t be so behind if we don’t have so much administrative work to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, totally. It’s like, “Hey, go figure out the flex work thing. We got a few hours to earn this week. Where does that happen?”

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, first, do that and then do these other things. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I don’t know, if this is neither here nor there, but there have been surprises. When I really try to rock automation, sometimes I’m sort of disappointed by the results in terms of, “Okay, there’s all these, for instance, platforms and AI, whether it’s IBM, or Google, or others kind of doing their darndest to transcribe a human speech to text, and maybe your accuracy is not bad, 98% or something, but that still means that in one minute of speaking we’re going to have to correct three plus errors, and often I find it’s way more than that. It’s maybe five to 10 times that.

And then, in practice, when I sort of tried a hybrid approach, it’s sort of like my human transcribers who are aided by technology say, “Yeah, it’s a little bit faster but I’m kind of making a lot of concessions in terms of I wouldn’t type it that way, but I guess it’s fine, with regard to capitals or commas or whatever. And it’s a whole lot less fun and rewarding to correct a bunch of things a machine did than to do it myself.”

And so, I don’t know, I guess I am not as bullish in terms of, “Automation is going to replace everything!” It’s like, “Well, they can’t even get the transcript right right now, and maybe they’ll be better in five years,” but I don’t know, that’s me just complaining.

Alexandra Levit
Well, no, Pete, I think that’s a great example of what we’re talking about earlier, and that’s that this isn’t going to happen as fast as people think. If we’re still dealing with transcription, especially transcription has been around for 25 years, in automated transcription. I remember when I first came out of college using a tool for that.

So, it’s just not going to happen as fast and things are not going to be as smooth. So, just like you’re experiencing, but on a wider scale. And, again, as we rely on more and more on technology for our everyday life, and we don’t know how to do things without technology, I think we’re going to be pretty hard up because then we’re helpless. And that is something that I actually get concerned about.

There’s a couple things that keep me up at night, and that’s one of them, that, all of sudden, we’re just not going to know to do anything because we’re reliant on technology for everything. So, I hope that doesn’t happen but I am concerned for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk then about the things that humans do well. You’ve highlighted six in particular uniquely human skills. And just thinking about it from the perspective of the listener, if we’re professionals, and we want to make sure that our knowledge-working careers are long and rewarding and fruitful and growing, and we note that technology evolution is sure, a real thing that’s happening, what are the skills we can nail to just be kind of bulletproof with regard to all this?

Alexandra Levit
Well, there are a few, and, of course, I talk about some of the softer ones, like having judgment, having intuition, having interpersonal sensitivity in problem solving, having empathy. I talk about those in Humanity Works but I’d like to highlight one in particular here because I think it relates to a lot of what we’ve been talking about, and that’s applied technology skills.

So, what that means is, I’m a part of a non-profit organization called the Career Advisory Board. It was established by DeVry way back in 2010. And what we’ve been looking at is, “Where are the really biggest skills gaps between what hiring managers are looking for and what people are bringing to the table?” And, not surprisingly, we identified this category of applied technology skills which are skills that help you use people, processes, data, and devices to make better business calls, better decisions.

And it means that not necessarily do you need to know how to program yourself, for example, but you need to know that software is out there and available to help you do your job better. So, you need to know what technology is feasible, and you need to know how to employ that technology, and how to make sure that it’s managed seamlessly, and how to do change management in your organization when you’re trying to roll out a new technology. So, these are applied technology skills, and every single person who works in the business world for the foreseeable future, needs to have these.

And why this so important is, traditionally, the people who focus on technology were in the IT group. Nobody else had to worry about it. And that is changing rapidly. Now, we have line of business, managers and all kinds of people involved in what technology should be rolled out, what application should be developed, what software should be deployed. And that is really an area where I think most people are going be caught completely off guard, that they are not marketable unless they have a really good handle on the technology that’s being used in their function, in their industry, and what’s really cutting edge, what are the top organizations doing.

And no one has really thought about this, if you’re not in IT. And that is, I think, going to be a steep learning curve. Unfortunately, for organizations, applied tech absolutely can be taught but it needs to be re-taught over and over again because, if you think about it, Pete, it’s going to change the technology over like one or two years.

Pete Mockaitis
It really has, yeah.

Alexandra Levit
So, it’s not an easy thing to do but it has to be done internally and people have to take responsibility for doing it on their own as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that I’m just really coming to terms with that notion right there in terms of I think even just with this podcast, about a little over three years old now, it’s sort of like the stuff that was available when I started is completely different than what is available now.

Alexandra Levit
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And then even like application by application, it’s sort of like, “Oh, I heard that wasn’t any good.” And then their teams are iterating away on the thing. And then a year later, it’s like, “No, actually, that tool is perfectly usable now so you should certainly check it out again.” It’s a different landscape every year or two.

And so then, what are some of your pro tips in terms of, okay, the professional who wants to be ahead of the curve and be sharp with that, how does one acquire that knowledge in terms of just kind of regular daily, weekly practices to stay on top of stuff?

Alexandra Levit
Well, I think reading is kind of an unsexy but smart thing to do. Read not just IT publications, although you might think that that’s the place to go, but actually just reading like a Fast Company is really cool because they talk about technology a lot and they talk about different functions that are adopting different types of AI and different types of technology.

I think taking a crash course in data analytics can’t hurt anyone. I did this myself. I was talking so much about data analytics, which is one of the applied technology skills that we found that organizations are really clamoring for, and I realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about. So, I went and I took a free course from IBM on what is data analytics, what are some of the top software programs you use to do it, what does it tell you, etc. And I now know a little bit more. I could get more in deep in it, and may still, if it’s going to be relevant to what I continue to talk about and do.

But I think that the advantage today is that there’s really no excuse for not acquiring a skill because there are so many options. You don’t have to wait for your company to teach you. Organizations are kind of getting with the program in that they’re collating a bunch of online resources for their people, they’re partnering with websites like Degree.com to give their people certifications for different skill areas.

I see this movement is definitely happening here. But you don’t have to rely on your company being smart with this. You can be listening to this podcast today and say, “Oh, actually, I don’t even know what data analytics even is. It’s a buzzword, that’s all I know.” And you could go and find the IBM course yourself, and I think it was like an hour.

And I’ve got all the background that I need for now and just being to talk intelligently with your team about how that might be employed or if it’s already being employed. How is the data being collected? Is it integrated properly? Is it valid? These are all the important things. What programs are you using to look at it? And what decisions can you make as a result of looking at it? So, I think it’s easy to do, or at least easier than it ever was before.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, applied technology skills, data analytics is one. And what are the other big ones?

Alexandra Levit
Well, I think being able to program applications, application development. And the good news there is that, again, you used to have to program apps, you would have to know a lot of code, and you would have to be trained in that. And, now, just like you used to have to know HTML in order to build a website, and now you don’t. You also can get a software program that can help you build apps.

And what we see happening now in a lot of organizations is they realize that an app will help their customers, will help their workers, and so you’ll have one function working with IT to build that app out and it will come from the line of business as opposed to coming from IT, and that is a huge change. So, app dev, data analytics, an understanding of infrastructure, digital infrastructure, digital transformation, so what it means to move everything from a manual process to a digital process, and what’s involved in that.

Change management, I mentioned this briefly earlier, is not an applied technology skill, but it’s what I call an adjacent skill area, where if you’ve got applied technology skills and you’re working with technology, you’re going to need to do change management effectively because research from everywhere, essentially, has shown that between 60% and 90% of change initiatives involving technology fail because users don’t want to adopt it, it’s too difficult, it doesn’t integrate, it breaks, etc. So, you really have to be strategic about it. You can’t just roll it out and expect that everyone is going to say, “Yay, it’s new technology.” So, that’s an adjacent skill area that, if you have applied tech, you’re going to need to develop as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a nice line up. Well, a quick follow up there. So, where do I go if I want to develop applications without knowing any code? That sounds appealing.

Alexandra Levit
Well, I can say it because I don’t work with this organization anymore, but I learned so much about app dev when I was working with QuickBase as a spokesperson for them. And that’s an example of a software program that allows you to build apps without knowing code.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, nifty. And so, I guess there’s things like, well, hey, one of our sponsors, iDashboards, is handy with regard to looking at all of the stuff without having to know code to make it all display beautifully for you there.

Alexandra Levit
And to prop them up even more. Dashboards are critical for getting all your data in one place and being able to analyze the whole of it instead of looking at it in silos. So, having a dashboard for whatever function you’re running it from, I tend to focus mainly on HR systems, but having that view of everything and having it be easy to read, and, again, you can translate it for other decision-makers and produce reports and statistics. Very, very powerful. So, if you don’t have one of those tools, and, Pete, they don’t pay me to say this, but, seriously, as a futurist, you need to have that view of your technology and your data in one place.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, there’s a bundle of applied technology skills that are great to know to be sort of bulletproof with the future of stuff. And, now, let’s talk about some of those uniquely human skills. You’ve got leadership, team, creativity, innovation, judgment, intuition. I think that in a way it’s almost easy to brush these aside, like “Yes, of course, these are important and we all need to have them.” But what have you found are some of the sort of best practices for a professional to adopt to keep one or more of these skills sharper and sharper week after week?

Alexandra Levit
This is a great question and it’s something everybody needs to be focusing on. And I would’ve said 25 years ago that you need to be focusing on these things. And I think the most successful people in business have always focused on these skills. The difference is now it’s essential because you can’t skate by on being able to do a task anymore. You have to have those unique human elements that will set you apart from a machine.

And my favorite example, I actually talk about it in Humanity Works, this is absolutely my favorite example was what happened in Japan when they tried to roboticize their nursing. They did exactly what you’re talking about, Pete. They said, “Really, what do we really need human nurses for? Like, this is what our nurses need to do.” This is seriously what happened. Japan had a labor shortage in nursing, they didn’t know how to get more humans, so they’re like, “We’ll build a robot. It’ll be cool.”

So, they built a robot, they called it ROBEAR, was six feet tall, and essentially what ROBEAR ended up being able to do was serve food, move people in and out of bed, and do some of these rote physical tasks that nurses do. But Japan had to learn the hard way, “Oh, my God, like our human nurses do things like they come into a room, and they look into a patient’s eyes, and within a second or two they’re able to ascertain the level of pain that they’re in. They can walk into a difficult clinical situation and be able to, in their mind, assemble a group of experts from the hospital that they need to come in and solve the problem. They can sit down with a patient relative, who just got a difficult diagnosis, and sit with them and care for them and show empathy toward them.”

And these are all things that were kind of, as you’re saying, overlooked and became critical when, all of a sudden, they had this robot that couldn’t do any of that. So, most jobs, and this is what I said, this is not just a nursing thing, most jobs have these components. There are very few jobs where you don’t need to have any interpersonal skills and, in fact, some jobs are gaining the need for certain interpersonal skills.

My favorite example that I came across recently is in the supply chain, where in the supply chain it used to be a lot more, I don’t know, it was global in nature, it was less personal the way that it was rolled out in many organizations. And, now, what we’re seeing in the supply chain is it’s actually becoming more local and more regional and more relationship-based.

So, you might’ve been a logistics coordinator in the past and not really had to interact with other people too much. Now, you do. And so, that’s an example of an occupation where if you don’t have those interpersonal skills now, maybe you didn’t need them in the past, but you’re going to need them as we move forward. The world, in a way, is going to become smaller, not larger, as people crave that human touch.

And every time I’ve seen technology rolled out, it’s always got this high-tech, high-touch component. Everyone talks about that. It’s like, “It’s got to be high-tech, but we’ve also got to have high-touch because our employees, for example, don’t just want to go through onboarding where they’re in a portal, they take courses, their little avatar tells them where they need to be and who they need to meet.”

They want their manager to show them care and concern also. They want their peers to come by and say, “Let’s go to lunch.” This is never going to go away. And so, you have to include that stuff whenever you are implementing a new technology. And so, therefore, the people who are in jobs are going to need to have those skills.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’ve got to have them, and no matter what. I’m with you there. And so, how do we keep them sharp?

Alexandra Levit
Yes, so how we keep them sharp, my favorite course in the entire world, I took it way back in 2000 but I’d still recommend it highly, is the Dale Carnegie course. I learned so much about how to be an effective human. It was unbelievable.

I learned how to be diplomatic, how to compromise, how to get people who you have no authority over to collaborate with you, how to change somebody’s attitude, how to combat anger and frustration in people, how to manage my own. It just goes on and on and on. And if your organization has a program like Dale Carnegie, or has Dale Carnegie, please take advantage of it.

I got to take that course for free and I can say that it shaped my entire career after that. It probably is the single most important thing I ever did for my own development. And those kind of courses are everywhere. If you want some additional suggestions, I can either, and people can email me, or you can even just do a web search for interpersonal skills. All of the massive open online course providers, like Coursera and edX and Udemy, they have courses on interpersonal skills that you can take, and empathy.

And, again, like all the other skills we’re talking about, these are relatively easy to get your hands on for either low or no cost. So, the first thing I recommend to people is see what your company offers because you might as well get it paid for. And if it doesn’t offer something, then create your own curriculum, it’s something that I tell people about all skills that they need to develop. It’s like, “Figure what’s going to keep you marketable and then make a plan to get those skills.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I think it’s kind of fun. I sort of enjoyed the charting your own course and choosing your own adventure in terms of, “Okay, Amazon, let’s see. What do you got in terms of books on this subject?” And then often you see there’s a couple standouts, like, “Holy smokes, this one has 2,000 reviews and is apparently the book about the subject. I guess I’ll read that one.” As well as, “Oh, and this one just looks like a lot of fun. Oh, and I can listen to this one by using audio.”

Alexandra Levit
Yup, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think it’s kind of fun to, as you said, to think about creating or designing your own curriculum. And I don’t know where I read this, but I think it’s true. It’s like if you read the top five books in a field that you will know more about that field than like 90% plus of the people working in that field and just look like a genius.

And I’ve had someone on the show, and they mentioned, “Boy, whenever I had to pick up a new challenge, that’s what I did, and people were like, ‘Wow, this guy know so much about this area.’ It’s like, ‘No, I’m new. I just read the books before I started.’”

Alexandra Levit
That doesn’t surprise me at all, Pete. It really doesn’t. And they say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert about something. I don’t know about that. Maybe to become like a world-class, like the top person to do something.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, like a violinist, yeah.

Alexandra Levit
I think you’re right. And I’ve done that too. I didn’t start off being an expert in all the things I talk about either. And with my first book, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, literally, all I did was research a book about good traits to develop to become an effective professional, and I used Dale Carnegie and some of the other things.

And the second I published that book in 2004, there was no other book like it at the time, all of a sudden, I was considered an expert. And I’m like, you know, I’m really not an expert. I’m just a 27-year old kid who had a hard time and did some research and put together a book. But it’s amazing, like when you have a book or you read a book, it really is going to give you a surprising platform to talk about.

And I think you’re absolutely right. And the good news is there’s a lot of great stuff out there. And I still like the classics, Dale Carnegie, and of course Stephen Covey, who I had the fortune to be mentored by a few years ago before his death.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding. You had one-on-one time with Stephen Covey?

Alexandra Levit
I did. I did. It was so awesome. He’s so great and he really gave me a lot of great advice and great exposure, etc. But his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that was written decades and decades ago, and it still applies. And that’s the thing about these human skills, right? They are the human skills that don’t change, and the things that we struggle with don’t change either. So, we have to be mindful of both.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so powerful because I think of Stephen Covey, one of the words that leaps to mind is timeless. And we’ve interviewed a few FranklinCovey executives on the program and they’re all great so it lives on.

Alexandra Levit
It does.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think it gave me kind of a chuckle out of we’re talking about sort of the future and technology and automation, and what’s the answer? Read some books. And so that’s good. But maybe you can zoom into is there any kind of key memory moment sentence that Stephen Covey shared with you that really left an imprint in particular?

Alexandra Levit
He talked to me about, and I know this is in the book too, he talked to me about time management. And, at the time, when I met him, I was struggling a lot with I basically had three things I wanted to do in my life. I was working as a VP in PR, I wanted to get my business off the ground, and I wanted to have a baby. And I didn’t know how to do all of those things. And so, we talked about how I could prioritize the things that were the most important.

And so, thanks to his leadership and mentorship, I was able to decide I’m going to let the PR job go even though this was kind of risky because that was my primary source of income. I knew I had enough income from the business, and I knew I wanted to stay home with my son a little bit to see how I liked being a mom, and I knew I won’t be able to do everything.

And so, he really solidified in me the sense of balance and the sense of you’ve got to prioritize the things that are important to you, and you have to do it young. I’m so glad that I met him when I did, and I’m so glad that when I was 27, 28, I was putting the pieces in place to make a life possible where, to this day, my kids are 8 and a half and 11 and a half, I still have a lot of time with them and a lot of flexibility to do what I need to get done because of the way that I’ve structured my career. And so, I really have Stephen to thank for that in large part.

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

Alexandra Levit
I don’t think so.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then let’s go. How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alexandra Levit
Henry David Thoreau for sure, “March confidently in the direction of your dreams and you’ll meet with unexpected success.” Just always go after what it is you want especially in this world where the opportunities are there now. We aren’t stuck in certain occupations. There’s more movement even within an organization than it ever used to be. So, if there’s a skill you want to develop, if there’s something you want to learn, if there’s a type of work you want to do, go figure out a way to do it even if you don’t get paid for it. Our lives are going to be about the pursuit of meaning. And so, that’s why I like that quote from Mr. Thoreau.

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

Alexandra Levit
Well, I like psychological experiments. I was a psych major in college, and so I like some of those famous experiments where they’ve shown the bystander effect, I find fascinating, where if there’s an emergency, if you don’t put somebody in charge of solving the problem, everyone will just kind of stand there. And I see that happening in corporations every day as we speak, so that was an interesting one from social psychology.

We’re talking about human skills. I like the study with the rhesus monkeys where a rhesus monkey was given a cloth mother to love, and that monkey did better than a monkey that didn’t have any love at all. So, even having a fake monkey to love was something because all beings need love and affection. And I think we can’t automate everything because then we won’t have that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Alexandra Levit
My favorite book right now is actually Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and I know that that’s politically charged so maybe I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s about the pursuit of individualism, and I just find it fascinating.

And one thing that I’ve been trying to do lately, especially in the last three years since the election, is understand the other side, and understand where people are coming from, and what values and what ideals are at work to lead people to think a certain way. And so, I do feel that that book is one that I read recently and I’m glad that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

Alexandra Levit
A favorite tool. QuickBooks. For accounting it has been a godsend, a lifesaver. And unlike some of the technology that you and I talked about, Pete, for a small business, it’s so easy to use. It makes it so I don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on my accounting every year and taxes, and it’s so easy. It’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Alexandra Levit
My favorite habit lately is meditation. I meditate every night before bed for 30 minutes. I find that it really helps me sleep much better. It helps me be clear-headed in the morning. And, overall, I think it’s a nice thing to do. It kind of stops the situation where your mind is racing, you’re trying to sleep and you can’t calm down. It’s been great and I hope I keep it forever.

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

Alexandra Levit
The biggest nugget that I’ve been sharing for 15 years, so, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College is the book that was published 15 years ago, it was my first book, and it’s the book that is going to be re-published in fourth edition in September, and the thing that people always talk about is that it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s who knows what you do, and do they value it.

And this perception is reality thing is something that really hit me hard when I was a young professional because I thought just churning out work like there was no tomorrow would be enough. I didn’t really care about what people thought about me. I just wanted to do a good job. But part of doing a good job is caring what people think about you and making sure that they have the right impression of you.

And that is something that people come back over and over and over again. It is so gratifying when people who are like 40 come to me and say, “I read your book when I was 25, and it changed the course of my career.” And, usually, they’ll mention something, really, it’s what I call the professional persona or the mature confident face that you project to the work world and the impression you try to get people of you. So, that’s probably the most common.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we have to have a couple sentences on the professional persona. This is so valuable. What’s the story there?

Alexandra Levit
The professional persona is the mature confident and together face that you present to the work world. And there’s a lot of talk recently, Pete, about bringing yourself to work and being your whole self. And I think that you can be the best version of yourself at work, and it’s not necessarily the version that you would share when you’re out for drinks with your friends on Friday night, or when you’re goofing off with your family around the Thanksgiving table.

It’s the more professional version of yourself, and I think you always have to be buttoned up, a little bit concerned about what comes out of your mouth, and what you’re displaying online, that shows who you are, and you just want your organization to be proud to have you as an employee and not have anything detract from that impression.

Pete Mockaitis
And this is a lightbulb for people in terms of like…? Tell me about that.

Alexandra Levit
I think, yes, especially for young people who they’ve been brought up to believe that they are unique and special, and that their perspective should be valued, and that they should be able to be themselves at work. And, again, I think, to some degree, that’s true. But the reality is that business operates in a certain way, it still does, and you have to be mindful of the culture of your organization, and people don’t think about that. It doesn’t even occur to them. They go in, they’re themselves, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And for me it didn’t, which is how I learned about all this.

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

Alexandra Levit
People should be awesome at their jobs by looking ahead to future work trends, what is going to be necessary in your field, in your industry, and how you are going to get skills so that you are gainfully employed in the next three years, six years, nine years, even the next two decades, and how can you plan ahead. What kind of life do you want? And how can you get there? And you’re going to put yourself in a position to be the most effective person in a certain job. So, even if some of the jobs disappear, you’re still going to be at the top because you’ve got the best skillset.

Pete Mockaitis
Alexandra, this has been lots of fun. I wish you and the book Humanity Works tons of luck and keep up the good work.

Alexandra Levit
Thank you so much. It was great to be here, Pete. And I’ll see you next time.

456: Finding Enrichment Through Side Hustles with Nick Loper

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Nick Loper says: "Think of your side hustle as an experiment... you take something away from every experience."

Nick Loper discusses the many benefits to having a side hustle—and how to start yours.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How side hustles can empower you as a professional
  2. How to turn your ideas into low-risk side hustles
  3. When to turn a side hustle into your main hustle

About Nick 

Nick is an author, entrepreneur, and a lifelong student in the game of business. His latest role is as Chief Side Hustler at SideHustleNation.com.

He’s been making his living online since before it was cool. Along the way he’s picked up a thing or two about small business, marketing, and outsourcing—and is happy to share the experience with those working hard to make their side hustle dreams a reality.

As the host of the top-rated Side Hustle Show podcast, Nick explores a different business idea each week and helps listeners discover the path to income streams.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Nick Loper Interview Transcript

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

Nick Loper
Well, thank you for having me. I’m wondering if I’m qualified because I don’t know if I’ve ever been awesome at a job that I’ve ever had. But I appreciate the invite, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think you’re awesome as a podcaster and a reviewer, and so I think you’re very qualified. And, speaking of qualifying, I love the weird segue, I understand you had some success in an early job of swimming, and you went all in with the shaving and everything. Tell us all about this.

Nick Loper
That’s true. I don’t know if this was really necessary for the district and state level at the high school swimming. This is not Olympic trials or anything. But I was a decent freestyle swimmer back in the day, and what was really fun and interesting about this was being able to continually shave, maybe pun intended, time as fast as you thought you could go, “Hey, this is a dead sprint,” and then the next week being able to beat that, and the next week being able to beat that. It was really, really kind of eye-opening. And the coach was like, “You’ve been dogging it the whole season, man. What’s going on?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool and rewarding. And I think that it’s really exciting when there is some sort of a, for me at least, there’s like a number that’s associated with performance. And you do some things and you feel different, but then there’s also a number reinforcing it, whether it’s a revenue figure, or what the scale tells you, or something, that just lights me up too.

Nick Loper
Yes, it’s a very quantifiable sport, and that was one of my dad’s points very early on when I started swimming, he’s like, “Look, you’re only really ever racing against yourself. You can’t control what the guy in the next lane over is going to do, so just try and beat your best time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a good lesson. That’s a good lesson. And, another weird segue, you share a lot of good lessons on your Side Hustle Show podcast, and that’s a topic of interest for our listeners. So, I want you to orient us from the beginning, first, can you define for us, precisely, what is meant by the term side hustle? And maybe do you know where the term came from because I see it all the time now?

Nick Loper
Well, for me, a side hustle is anything that you’re doing to earn money outside of traditional employment, outside of your day job. And, in previous generations, maybe this was called moonlighting or a second job, but to me there’s a more entrepreneurial connotation than just delivering pizzas or bartending as a second job.

There’s this upside potential where it’s like, “Okay, maybe this could be more time-leveraged or maybe this could be a business that grows beyond just time for money,” and that is really exciting and empowering to me. The side hustle term itself, I found some etymology that dated it to like the 1950s but it’s really been over the last 5 or 10 years where it’s kind of become part of the national parlance, I suppose, and that has increased in popularity.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And I guess I find that interesting because I think the word hustling in some communities can refer to illegal activity but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Nick Loper
Yeah, it’s very much, at least in my case, comes from an old baseball coach of mine who’s like, “Look, you’re going to have bad days at the plate, you’re going to have bad days in the field, but hustle never slumps.” Like it’s the one thing you can control your own effort. And so that’s kind of where the term really comes from, for me, not like hustling, like I have to scam anybody, but like, “Look, I’m going to control the effort that I can control in the time that I have.”

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. And you’ve had a wide variety of side hustlers on your show, and they’ve got some really fun stories. So, I’d love it if you could share with us maybe just a few of the more noteworthy examples of side hustles you’ve encountered from your guests.

Nick Loper
Yeah, there are so many. A lot of them kind of in the online business space, “I built a blog and I sell advertising,” right, whatever. But some of them were just like plain old brick and mortar, like you hang up the call, and you’re like, “Well, crap, I could do that.”

For example, one guy I met, he called this America’s simplest business, and he’s been in business since the early ‘80s, just picking up trash from parking lots, and he built this to like a $600,000 a year operation by the time we talked last year. And he outsourced the trash pickup by that point, but he called it getting paid to take a walk. And he says, “It’s the perfect side hustle because you got to do it early morning or late at night when the cars are in the parking lot.”

And he called up a property management company, and says, “Hey, who handles your liter pickup?” The landscapers don’t want to do it, and he had all these reasons, but it was a cool little business. So, that one comes to mind.

One of my favorite guests is Rob “The Flea Market Flipper” Stephenson out of Orlando, Florida, just a crazy take on the buy low, sell high business model, the same business model as Walmart, same business model as every retail store in the history of business. But, in his case, looking for really weird and random items that most people aren’t going to give a second look, a lot of cases big bulky items that the seller doesn’t have room to store, or they’re kind of afraid of how much it’s going to cost to ship, he’s got relationships with uShip.com was the site that he recommended for over land inexpensive cross-country shipping.

But he had some crazy stories about a prosthetic leg for 30 or 40 bucks at the flea market and turning it around for a grand the next day on eBay. Like, “How do you know what the stuff…?” and he’s like just walking around looking at what the comps have gone for on eBay, like a Husqvarna concrete polisher, just whatever random stuff he could find.

And I asked him, “Like, are you afraid of the deals drying up?” because he’s quit his job, he’s doing this full time, six-figure business, “Like, what happens if you don’t find the next concrete polisher or the next…?” what was the other one? It was like an exercise bike, like for physical therapy offices, “Like, what happens if you don’t find that deal?” And he’s like, “Look, my limit is not the deals. My limit is like the time and the inventory storage.” I think he ended up getting a warehouse to deal with some of the inventory storage or a storage unit or something.

So, that one is super fun, kind of in the product space. One in the online world that was really eye-opening to me was a drop shipping example. So, drop shipping is e-commerce but you don’t touch the inventory. You set up relationships with suppliers or distributors, and they ship the product to the customer on your behalf.

And this guy that I talked to was selling these giant commercial bounce houses. And he’d gone through a very specific product research process where he’s like, “I need the product to be over $500. I needed to get X amount of searches in Google every month. I need it to be not something that’s readily available at Walmart, even Amazon.” And so, he’s selling these like multi-thousand-dollar giant plain old bounce houses, and he said he sold over $300,000 worth of them in his first year, driving traffic primarily through AdWords and how like pay per click advertising but now investing more into SEO. And so, I was like, “That’s crazy. Like, never had to touch the inventory himself.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. And I didn’t even know that there were concrete polishers and I’m wondering if my concrete is a little lackluster if I can polish it after the fact, or is it more so at an earlier stage of concrete production?

Nick Loper
Yeah, I’m not in that industry. I couldn’t tell you.

Pete Mockaitis
You made me feel mad about my concrete. It doesn’t shine the way it probably used to. This home was built many years ago. Well, so that is wild. And so, I want to get your take then, whew, so I guess, of course, of all the benefits to be gleaned from side hustling, I mean, one is, hey; money, two is, I guess, stories or exercise or fun. But I guess I’m thinking for folks who do not aspire for their side hustle to go full time, does it enrich the experience of the worker at work having a side hustle going?

Nick Loper
I think it definitely made me a better employee because, in my corporate world, in my corporate life, I was like at the bottom rung of this Fortune 50 company where if I didn’t show up, it would make zero meaningful impact to this business.

Pete Mockaitis
That doesn’t feel good.

Nick Loper
You hit your numbers, you don’t hit your numbers, like it’s not a blip on the radar, versus when I come home, nights and weekends working on my side business, which was a footwear comparison shopping website at the time that would make affiliate commissions from Zappos and Amazon and these other online shoe stores. If I spent the weekend hustling and making a ton of new ads and updating the inventory, I could see the benefits of doing that to my bottom line for the rest of that week, the rest of that month, versus at my day job, where it’s like I was going to get paid the same whether or not I worked really hard or didn’t. It was a kind of weird relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like the movie Office Space.

Nick Loper
Yeah, but being the CEO on the side kind of helped me see the bigger picture at work too and, especially, because in my job I was interfacing with car dealers as a manufacturers or reps for Ford. And so, some of these dealers had been in business for generations, some of them had their charter signed by Henry Ford. And to come in in his early 20s and tell these guys how to do their business, it was a weird kind of place to be in but I kind of speak in their language a little bit because I have this business experience on the side.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is handy. So, you got some global perspective in terms of how the business is operating maybe a bit more strategically. You’re able to inform better connections with some of the folks here that you’re reaching out to. And how about some of the others, like your guests, have they shared some either skills they’ve acquired that were serving them at their day jobs as well?

Nick Loper
So, probably the thing that draws most people to side hustling is the extra income component. And when you’re starting out, I kind of frame it as a side hustle snowball kind of a reversed Dave Ramsey type of deal where it’s like I’ve itemized out my expenses, smallest to largest, and then I try in like a line item, erase them with non-job income streams, maybe that’s dividend investing, maybe that’s a little bit of freelancing over here, like, “What can I erase?” especially if I have an annoying expense, like, “Oh, my gosh, my car insurance just bothers me that I have to pay this. I want to cross it off and make that free.” I think it’s kind of a fun way to build it up.

But, like you mentioned, building skills, working on something that’s meaningful, that’s challenging, that’s impactful, that’s creative, all of that stuff really plays into what is a benefit of doing a side hustle. On top of that, really empowering to earn your first income outside of your day job, and to say like, “Oh, I’m worth more than what it says on my business card. Like, I have value in a marketplace outside of my own paycheck.”

I know for my wife that was really empowering and kind of a big confidence boost for her. But let me flip it around. Like what drew you to starting the podcast on the side? Like what benefits have you seen, if any, for work?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, in a way, I was sort of already self-employed doing my thing, and I thought the podcast would be cool in terms of generating leads for training services and whatnot. And so, it’s a little bit of that, but it’s really kind of going in new directions. I think that’s what’s been fun, is the surprises in terms of I do not even know what I was really getting into, but then it sort of sparks all kinds of cool things like I’m talking to fascinating people like yourself. And then I’m learning all sorts of things from those people as we’re chatting in terms of real skills as they’re sharing what they know.

And then sort of developing some expertise because I’ve been kind of clueless sort of when it comes to marketing, I think, and now I’m getting a bit more sophisticated in terms of I can more readily I think call out, it’s like, “No, that’s absolutely not worth it at all. I’m going to pass on that.”

Nick Loper
Well, you’ve clearly done something right. Like, I’m curious, what do you think attributes to the growth of the show?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, I think that, well, I was going to ask you about idea validation as well for side hustles, but I think I started a number of businesses that didn’t really produce revenue, if you will.

Nick Loper
Sure. Sure. I think we’ve all been there.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve had some folks say, “Oh, you shut down because you weren’t profitable.” I was like, “No, no, it’s not that the profit was zero. In fact, that was negative. It’s that revenue was zero.” And so, even partnering with brilliant people, you know, all the right credentials in terms of like fancy consultants, fancy business school degrees, just brilliant intellects, and we had an idea, and I think a couple in particular.

One was called Launch Point, and that was to prep folks, post-high school pre-college, in that little interim summer, it’s like, “Hey, let’s get you a bunch of skills you need to excel in college and not drop out.” And it was interesting that folks weren’t really biting on that a whole lot. Later, I learned that even some prominent marketers have tried that concept and not had as much luck.

Another one was low-cost online math tutoring using workers who are smart, are in the developing world, and can have a great living wage at a smaller price point. I thought, “This could be really cool.” But then it’s even like those who were low income already had sort of free tutoring services, and those who are high income wanted the very finest and they have no qualms paying 50, 60 bucks an hour for a tutor for their folks.

So, I think the difference here was, for the success of this show, was that I just refused, I just got fed up, it’s like, “I am not going to build something people don’t want even if I’m super excited about it and think they should want it, I’m just not going to do it.” So, I went a little bit, I wouldn’t say overboard, but I spent some real time in terms of I used three different quick survey tools to assess, “To what extent do people have an interest in listening to a podcast about skill-sharpening insights? And to what extent is that kind of similar to some shows but also unique?”

And when I saw that those numbers looked really compelling, I said, “Okay, folks genuinely want this. It’s not just something I think would be fun,” but I do, I think it’s fun. And so, I was raring to go. I think that made the difference. It’s like folks are fundamentally interested in this concept, and I see it even with my Overcast advertising, if you’ve ever done that, is that my taps and my clicks and my subscription rate, amongst other podcasts that are advertising on the platform, are like way higher than what they project.

So, it’s like, “Okay, this is a resonant concept anywhere you slice it.” Oh, you got me going, Nick.

Well, since we’re flipping tables back and forth, I want to get your take. When it comes to a side hustle, I think it’s very easy for folks to get super excited about something they’re into, fill in the blanks, artisanal candles or something, and then they maybe want to go big and say, “This has got to be huge.” How do you recommend mitigating risks and validating ideas before you lose all your money?

Nick Loper
Sure. Well, that’s the beauty of side hustles, almost by definition it’s got to be low risk because it’s on the side from your day job. Ninety-nine percent of people I talk to is all bootstrapped self-funded businesses, not taking in outside investment capital or anything like that. So, it’s like, “What can you get off the ground? How can you prove with the model quickly, inexpensively, and see what’s going to work?”

The biggest risk, especially for people who are still working in jobs, especially a job that they love, is like, “What if my boss finds out? Like, what is my employer going to think about this?” Like, that’s one of the bigger issues that tends to come up although with the data, I think, it’s like half of all millennials have some sort of side hustle, 44 million Americans overall have some sort of side hustle. It’s becoming more and more commonplace where it’s like, “Okay, look, your employer doesn’t own 24 hours of your time, energy, and attention.” It’s like, “Hey, look, they’re paying you for these eight hours, and after that, whether you run a marathon or run a business, like what business is it of theirs?”

But on the idea validation side, the quickest thing that I found is like to actually ask somebody to buy. And we’ve seen this in the physical product world that’s like, “Okay, I’m going to make a small bet on inventory upfront rather than like I’m going to buy a warehouse, or I’m going to buy a container shipment from China. Like, okay, how can I validate this on the cheap, on the kind of audience-building side, the blogging, podcasting, YouTube side of the world?” It’s kind of like, “What content is already out there that people are paying attention to? Can you tell if these people have been at it for a while? Does it look like they’re making money or does it look like this is just a hobby for them and kind of get a gauge based on some statistics?”

Similarweb.com might help you kind of gauge some traffic. Tubebuddy.com like for YouTube can kind of give you a gauge, although YouTube is pretty public about like, “This person has seven million views,” because they want to pump that person up too for social proof. And then, on the service side, it really is just like, “Here’s what I can do for you. Here’s the price. Would you buy it?”

A friend of mine hosts these urban hiking tours in San Francisco, and she saw walking tours, and Segway tours, and bike tours, and bus tours, and she’s like, “Well, shoot, I’ll throw my hat in the ring. How about a hiking tour?” She loved going hiking in all these different trails within the city limits, and found a handful of people who were like, “Yeah, that sounds awesome.” Those people seeded her profile on TripAdvisor and some other sites with the initial reviews, and she started to get some traffic organically after that. But she had paying customers from day one.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, absolutely. I think the key, as you say, “Would you buy it?” It’s not like you’re speaking in a theoretical context, it’s like, “No, here and now, are you going to part with your cash for what I got?” because there can be a world of difference between survey hypotheticals and, here we are, trying to exchange.

Nick Loper
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then, that’s great and I think that may take a bit of courage for some who maybe are reluctant to engage in some of the sales conversations. Have you encountered that and do you have any pro tips for folks who are taking those first steps into selling?

Nick Loper
It is an awkward thing or can be an awkward thing to stick your neck out in a way and ask for money and have confidence in the value that you’re going to provide but it gets easier over time. And you kind of recognize that nobody is awesome at it right out of the gate, and it gets more comfortable, like I‘ve sold some advertising on certain sites, and it’s nice to be able to say like, “Here’s the rates. Here’s the PayPal link, go. If you want this, I’ll plug it in for you right away. Otherwise, hey, no hard feelings.” So, it can be as simple as that.

Like, I used to sell house painting, and the close was always like, “What do you think?” It’s like the lamest close ever instead of like, “Okay, I’m going to leave, my trucks parked out front. I’m going to leave in 10 minutes. It’s this price.” It’s kind of a low, a casual way to have a conversation, like, “Look, we’ve been talking for an hour, I’ve walked all around your house, this is what you told me you wanted, here’s the price. What do you think?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yep, all right. There you have it. And it’s just so simple, and I like that. I’m really putting myself in that moment and think about a painter, and “What do you think?” is it also feels a lot less cheesy than, I don’t know, you might encounter any number of pieces of advice associated with, “So, when can I schedule you for your dream painting or something?”

Nick Loper
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s cheesy and that is pretty presumptuous, I didn’t say that.”

Nick Loper
Yeah, “When can I get you on my calendar? When is it good for you? Like, I got the first week of June open.”

Pete Mockaitis
“What do you think?” All right, just that simple. That’s cool. I want to talk a little bit about the time element. So, you mentioned that you’ve got a number of hours outside of the eight-ish that you’re doing work at your day job, and you’ve got some expertise when it comes to leveraging your time with virtual assistants. Can you tell us a little bit about this and how that might be an effective way to get more hustling on the side with a limited number of hours?

Nick Loper
This is one way to kind of add some leverage to your day in that you don’t have to be the one doing all the work. I think, in the early days, it probably makes sense for you to be doing it provided it’s something that you know how or can reasonably learn how to do. My first hire was like a web development team, so I was like, “If I learn how to do it myself, the site probably still wouldn’t exist.” So, there are certain cases where it’s like, “Oh, I just got to hire an outside expert.”

But there’s other cases where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve been doing this myself, I have a process in place, but it’s not rocket science. I don’t need to be doing it myself. I could bring on some help to do that.” And this is really where I’ve had the most success in hiring outside help is plugging people into a specific role or task where it’s getting hours of work off of my plate in exchange for just a little bit of upfront training, and say, “Here’s the process. Can you follow this recipe?” And you’re providing feedback and training, coaching, of course, but ultimately saying, “This is your responsibility now.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve taken a look at a lot of services that provide this. Have you found some that you are pretty reliably high quality and you dig?

Nick Loper
I have a dedicated service for podcast editing, that’s called Podcast Fast Track. I’ve got a kind of a website maintenance service, I consider it kind of like a website insurance at this point where if something breaks or if I want to change something, they’re kind of on call 24 hours a day, and just send them a note, “Hey, can you move this thing?” Because I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of trying to tweak things myself and hitting refresh and being like, “Oh, no, I got the white screen of death in WordPress. This is bad news.” That’s called Zen WP is a service I use over there. They’ve been really good.

But it’s really kind of itemizing out where your time is going and saying, “Okay, could somebody else do this as well or better than me? Or is my time better spent elsewhere?” And it’s kind of how I’ve gone about the delegation phase, and still learning. So, I just got off a call this afternoon about like, “Do you really need to hire like the executive assistant right-hand person type of role? And here’s why. Here’s how to do it.” So, that’s probably next on my plate.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Cool. And so then, I’m thinking, if folks are, they’re eager, they’re hungry, and they say, “You know what, side hustle sound really cool. I’ve got a number of ideas,” what do you recommend might be some of the very first steps and if you don’t have a whole lot of extra time or money but you want to get a taste? What are some of the starting tidbits you’d recommend?

Nick Loper
Starting points. If you’re in the idea searching phase, I encourage you to hit up SideHustleNation.com/ideas. That’s my constantly updated laundry list of part-time ways to make extra money that you can start today. No opt-in required over there. If you’re the person that has a handful of ideas and you’re trying to debate, “Well, which should I take action on? Which would be most worthwhile to pursue?” you can create kind of a weighted decision matrix with a handful of questions that might be pertinent, like, “How excited am I about this? What’s it going to cost to start up? What’s the profit potential long term? Is this scalable or could I eventually remove myself from the day-to-day operation?”

You can come up with 8 or 10 different questions, kind of along those lines projecting out 12 months or 24 months, and kind of assign a number score to each of those and see what the little matrix spits out. And you might find, “Well, that’s not what I really want to work on.” It’s like, “Well, go with your gut in that case.” So, if they’ve gone through that exercise a handful of different times and your gut will tell you if the numbers lie.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’ve done that exact thing and, boy, I remember exactly the context when I was in college and I had to figure out, “Okay, I got summer options, there’s some travel, there’s some trips.” And then I thought about, “Okay, what are my criteria? What am I going to score them at?” And then as I really just thought and just forced myself to think through them just made me realized, “I don’t think they’ll be that much fun. I don’t want to do that.” I was like, “How did this even get to be a finalist in the first place?” And so, yeah, I love that. It’s like you do the numbers but you’re by no means a slave to them. It’s just the process itself can be rather informative.

Nick Loper
And the last thing you need is a second job that you hate, so I think that’s a really important piece especially if you’re in the position of like, “Hey, it works okay, it works good, it’s paying the bills. I’m not struggling to make rent next month,” like, okay, then don’t start a side hustle doing something that compromises your enjoyment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m with you. And let’s say you’re a little bit farther down the track, you’re like, “Holy smokes, it looks like people are really into this side hustle. Maybe it should be my full hustle.” Are there any sort of telltale signs or indicators that it might be a nice time to jump?

Nick Loper
Telltale signs. Probably a couple. The first is their track record of revenue. So, a lot of people are out to replace their day job salary which is awesome but kind of hard to do on a part-time basis. If you think about it, like, “Man, you’ve built something that’s legitimately time-leveraged if you manage to do that.” Probably the more important metric is to cover your expenses, like, “Does this cover my monthly fixed costs?” If so, fantastic, especially given an extra 40, 50 hours a week to dedicate to it.

Like, look at the upside, right? Like, if I’ve been able to get it here part time, think about what I’d be able to do when I go full time. The second thing is like if you can’t stop thinking about it, if you only had more time, like if you’re super energized and energetic about it, and it’s like, “Okay, now is the time to make the leap.” Some friends of ours gave the example of like they’re quitting their job to pursue some business in like electronic motorcycles or something. And they’re like, “Well, what happens if it doesn’t work out?” “I’ll go get another job. That’s okay.” And so, it’s kind of the think of the downside, think of the downside risks. Usually not as life-threatening or as damaging as we probably make it out to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear that. It’s like, “Worst case scenario, I’d burn through my savings and I had one, or two, or three years of fun with these motorcycles and we can resume.” So, that’s good. And maybe this is a nitty-gritty question, but I know some, when considering making a leap, health insurance in particular as a sticking point. Any pro tips on that front?

Nick Loper
A lot of my friends in the personal finance space use a health-sharing service. It usually has a Christian component to it, like you got to swear on the Bible to uphold Christian values. Liberty HealthShare is one that is probably less Bible thumping than Medi-Share which is the other popular one. But those two have significantly lower costs than going on the national healthcare exchanges. The risk is it’s not insurance, and they won’t tell you that it’s insurance, and that’s how they get around the federal mandate loopholes, but the cost savings are attractive enough to have a lot of people are putting their trust and faith in those.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And I guess so it’s not insurance but, I mean, at the end of the day, they pay your hospital bills, right?

Nick Loper
Yes, so they pay your claims. The question is just how long. I’m curious, like, how big is your risk pool? Somebody gets terminal cancer. Like, what are you going to cover? It’s a weird thing where it’s a little bit scary to me. I still have health coverage through my wife who works full time, so we look at it as a team sport. But if she was ever to leave that job, we would probably just go with one of the off-the-shelf plans and just chuck that up as a crazy expensive monthly expense.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. But I guess, now I’m thinking, you got my wheels turning, just like when you said, “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?” I guess maybe it’s like you got to buy real insurance over the long term.

Nick Loper
Yeah, which is a significant number to add to your line item budget. And for our family, the last I looked it’s probably 1200 bucks a month minimum for pretty crappy coverage.

Pete Mockaitis
Such is the American challenge.

Nick Loper
I know. Your Canadian listeners are like, “What are they talking about?”

Pete Mockaitis
“What’s that about?” We love our Canadian listeners. Thank you. Well, tell me, any other things you want to make sure to mention before we hear a few of your favorite things?

Nick Loper
The biggest thing for me is to think of your side hustle as an experiment, kind of put on your scientist hat and say, “Okay, my hypothesis is this. It’s going to work. But if it doesn’t, that’s not the end of my experiment. Like, I’m going to go pivot back to something else, taking what I learned from that, and move onto the next thing.” So, in that way, like what I’ve really found is that failure is inevitable in a lot of cases, like you’re probably not going to hit a homerun in your first bat. But, on the other hand, it’s also impossible because you take something away from every experience.

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

Nick Loper
The one that I probably point to is Thomas Edison’s “We don’t know a millionth of 1% about anything.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I find that comforting actually. And how about a favorite book?

Nick Loper
Favorite book for me is The Go-Giver by Bob Burg.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, we had him on the show.

Nick Loper
Oh, nice. Yeah, so you know all about it. It’s about providing value first, being helpful first, and that really kind of solidified a mindset shift for me. I was like, “You know, I got into the business for the noble purpose of like, ‘How do I make extra money?’” And I was like, “Well, money follows value. Like, how can you be of service to others?” And so that was an important read for me.

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

Nick Loper
How about TextExpander. Actually, I got some of these. TextExpander is awesome for like these keyboard shortcuts and snippets, and LastPass is something that I probably couldn’t live without.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Nick Loper
Go-to habit is the practice of naming your top three priorities for tomorrow the night before so when you wake up you know exactly what to work on and in what order so you don’t have this 45-minute ramp-up period of like, “Well, what should I do today? Let’s see what’s going on on Facebook.” It’s like, “No, yesterday Nick said this was what’s important. Let’s go.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to resonate with folks, they quote it back to you a lot?

Nick Loper
The Side Hustle Show soundbite I probably refer to most is from Ryan Finley way back in episode 72 when he said, “The best opportunities aren’t visible until you’re already in motion.” And when he said that, and this was probably 2014, I was like, “Yeah, that sounds kind of hippy.” But, over the years, I’ve really recognized that to be so, so true. Once you get started, it’s so much easier to stay started. And the conversations that you have and the ideas that come up as you’re working, as you’re doing it, like never would’ve come to you had you just still been sitting on the sidelines.

So, the best opportunities aren’t visible until you’re already in motion. So, that’s my biggest challenge, like getting people off the sidelines and into the game, because once you do it, it’s like you can see the matrix, all the lights go on.

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

Nick Loper
SideHustleNation.com is the home base. I mentioned SideHustleNation.com/ideas as a good place to start, and just nick@sidehustlenation.com as email.

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

Nick Loper
Yeah, maybe you could consider this as the challenge, is to think of the skills and interests and areas of expertise that you already have, and see how that might apply to a side hustle. So, for example, on my resume in the past, I was a ski instructor. So, I could say, “Well, what if I did private ski lessons?” I was working as a cashier at a restaurant, I was handling money, like, maybe I could do bookkeeping for certain businesses. Not every job or not everything on your resume is going to naturally translate to a freelance service, but I think you can get the creative juices flowing with, “Okay, what inventory of my existing skills has demand in the market?” And that’s probably a good place to start for looking at a potential side hustle.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Nick, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you tons of luck as you’re side hustling and equipping others to do the same. So, keep it up.

Nick Loper
Thanks for having me.

453: Why Generalists Succeed and How to Learn Like One with David Epstein

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David Epstein says: "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer."

David Epstein explains why and how generalists tend to achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on short-term improvement can undermine long-term development
  2. Pro-tips for breaking through your learning plateaus
  3. The benefits of becoming a jack-of-all-trade

About David

David Epstein is the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His writing has been honored widely.

David has his master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

David Epstein Interview Transcript

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

David Epstein
Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the stuff but, first, I want to hear about your work as an ecology researcher in the Arctic.

David Epstein
So, I studied geology and astronomy in college and, afterward, I worked in a plant physiology lab and that led me living in the Artic in the far north of Alaska, a place called Toolik Lake, where I was basically studying the radiation that plants give off in an effort to sort of help try to understand how the carbon cycle might change as that area warms and the permafrost melts a little because most of the ground is frozen there, so when there’s melt, a lot of nutrients are liberated and they can cause like major changes to the plant life which can cause changes to the carbon cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, how long were you there and what was life like up there?

David Epstein
Yeah, I was basically there for, well, you couldn’t be there a lot of the year because you couldn’t get supplies, so you can only really be there for like half the year basically. I loved it actually. So, it’s technically a desert and I love deserts because even though it’s lush on the ground and the air is cool enough year-round that there’s not much atmosphere and demand for water so you don’t get much rain even though there’s a lot of fog and slush on the ground.

And so, all the plant life is really low to the ground, and so in the middle of summer, when it’s basically light all day and you’re sort of seeing this, the sun go down and just come right back up and all the plant life is low, you can see really far and make for some great hiking. I thought it was beautiful. Some people felt it was desolate who were up there but I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious if that isolation can serve as just amazing, creative, energizing time, or like, “I am going insane.”

David Epstein
Yeah, I’m more on the creative, energizing side, and I think like when I asked, after my first book, people would often ask, “How did you write it?” and I really don’t know how to answer that question because I’m not really sure. Every project is kind of different. And I asked my wife once, I asked her, “How did I write it?” and she said, “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” And so, I’m pretty good at spending time on my own for projects and being quiet out in the expanse of nature. It’s definitely more creative and invigorating for me than a feeling of isolation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And you’ve recently channeled your creative energies into another opus, a grand tome, I’m excited to talk to you about. So, maybe why don’t we start with some of the most fun tidbits in terms of what would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made while you’re putting together your book Range?

David Epstein
For me, it was this idea that there are things that you can do that cause really rapid short-term improvement that can systematically undermine your long-term development. So, to that point about surprising, I’ll mention the single study that was probably it’s certainly one of the most surprising in the book to me was this one that was done at the U.S. Airforce Academy where they had a setup that you would never be able to recreate in a lab because basically they would get in a freshman class of, whatever, a thousand students, or several hundreds of students, and those students all had to take a sequence of three math courses: Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and then a third course.

And they were randomized to Calculus 1 to a professor, and then re-randomized for the second course, and then re-randomized for the third course, and they all take the same tests. So, these researchers recognized that this was an excellent natural setup for studying the impact of teacher quality, or teaching. And so, the finding of this study was that the professors who were the best at promoting contemporaneous achievement, that is whose students overperformed on the Calculus 1 test the most compared to the baseline characteristics they came in with, those students, then, systematically underperformed in all the follow-up courses.

So, the professors whose students did the best in Calculus 1, they rated those professors the highest, then went on to underperform in future classes. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best results on the Calculus 1 test was to teach a more narrow curriculum that involved a lot more what’s called using procedures knowledge where you learn how to execute certain procedures and algorithms and you don’t learn more of what’s called making connections knowledge where the curriculum is broadened and you’re forced to kind of connect types of concepts and learn how to match strategies to types of problems as opposed to just execute procedures.

And so, when they’ve moved on into these other courses, those students who had the more narrow curriculum were systematically undermined. And that’s sort of one of the themes that runs through Range are the things you can do that seem the best in the short term sometimes undermine long-term development, and I thought that was just an amazing display of that and an amazing study.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. It’s sort of like the items that were being covered on the final test is sort of like, “Yeah, he drilled on real good over and over and over again and thoroughly,” but sort of at the expense of getting some broader conceptual understanding of how the math number, calculus, stuff is working I guess more globally.

David Epstein
Right. And that’s what they, then, would need, that’s what then would help them kind of scaffold later knowledge, so they didn’t do as well in those other classes. First of all, that was just deeply counterintuitive finding to me, but also, so I remember, for example, the professor, out of a hundred, whose students I think did fifth best on the Calculus 1 exam, and he got the sixth best student ratings overall, was dead last in what the research called deep learning, that is how his students then did in the follow-on courses.

And so, that’s really kind of worrisome. The fact that a lot of these strategies, and that chapter four of Range is about these learning strategies, and a lot of those strategies cause the learner to be more frustrated, to not do as well in the short term, and to rate the person teaching them worst. So, that’s kind of worrisome because these professor ratings may not be a good indication of what someone is learning. Their own assessment of their own learning in the short term may not be a good indication either. So, that’s, I think, something that’s important to be aware of.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d be intrigued then to correlate that, if you were to sort of draw some parallels into the professional working world, in terms of how might we be shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to master a certain narrow domain of work.

David Epstein
Yes, so let me give another example that came out of the research that I think relates to this. So, in this one study, people who were playing the role of, basically, simulations of naval officers, essentially, and they were being trained to respond to types of threats based on cues. And one group would practice threats where they would see a certain type of threat again and again and again and again, and they would improve and learn how to respond to it. And then they would see the next type of threat again and again and again, and so on.

The other group would get all these different types of situations all mixed up, and that’s called interleaving, and that kind of training is often more frustrating, it slows down initial progress, the learner will say that they didn’t learn as much, and all those things. And then both groups were brought back later and tested on situations they hadn’t seen before. And in that scenario, the interleave group performs much better than the other group because, again, they’re being trained to sort of match strategies to problems as opposed to just how to execute procedures.

And I think that goes for anything we’re trying to learn. I think our inclination is usually to pick up a new skill and do it over and over and over, when, really, we want to vary the challenge a lot early on so that you’re building these broader conceptual skills. And not only do you want to vary the challenge, but I think when we think about, at least in my life, the sort of formal professional development that I’ve been exposed to as opposed to kind of the informal professional development that I do on my own, is always coming away where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the topic, you’re going to learn this topic, and then you move on from it forever.”

And, in fact, the best way, we should actually use what’s called the spacing effect where you learn a topic and then you come back to it later, and that sort of helps you solidify it. So, one of the famous studies here is two groups of Spanish vocabulary learners who one group was given eight hours of intensive study on one day, and the other group was given four hours on one day, and then four hours again a month later. So, they all had the same total study.
Eight years later, when they were brought back, the group that had the space practice remembered 250% more with no practice in the interim. And so, I think we should apply that to anything we want to learn instead of just doing a topic and moving on from it. You don’t have to do it as intensively but you should wait until actually you’ve kind of forgotten it and then come back to it and do it again. And that’s how you like move it into your long-term memory basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. And it seems like this is drawing some connections for me with regard to, we had the Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on and we were talking about their top competency that maps to all sorts of career successes, what they’re calling learning agility which is sort of the notion of sort of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

David Epstein
That’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that would make great sense because as you sort of rise in the ranks and you encounter more and more ambiguous and puzzle-some and, “I have no idea what’s going on” types of issues, the more that you struggle those things the more you’re raring to say, “All right. Well, let’s see how we go about figuring this out.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that gets at sort of a link between the two things we’re both talking about in this classic research finding that can be summarized as breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means taking your skills and knowledge and attempting to apply it into a totally new situation that you haven’t seen before. And breadth of training breeding breadth of transfer basically means the broader your early training was, the diversity of the situations you’re forced to face, the more likely that when you’re in a totally new situation, you’ll be able to will that knowledge and transfer that knowledge to that new situation.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, now, would you say that’s sort of the main idea or thesis behind Range or how would you articulate it?

David Epstein
No, I think that’s just part of this, the theme of Range that is, I mean, the overall theme is sort of that society may overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists. But the theme beneath that, to me, is again that these things that are the most efficient ways to get the quickest improvement, whether that’s telling someone to specialize right away, or practicing in this repetitive specialized way, is often not the way to get the best long-term improvement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, there’s just so much, so many implications to that in terms of if you think about sort of what you’re measuring and if you think about training or learning or development things. It’s sort of like you often don’t have the luxury of checking in sort of months or years later to see how we did. And so, there’s all kinds of systematic forces that would point us to doing just the opposite of that.

David Epstein
Yeah, totally. This project, in some ways, started in the sports world for me and only the introduction of Range is in the sports world but one of the things that got me interested there is that there’s this incredible drive to early specialization in youth sports. And then I went and looked at what the research says about optimal development, and it says that athletes who want to become elite, typically, have what’s called the sampling period where they play a variety of sports to gain these broader physical skills, scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests, they learn about their abilities, and they delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

And I was looking at that, and then you see what was actually going on, and sort of saying, “Gosh, all these forces are pushing the opposite direction of that in the United States.” In Norway, which is like is, for me, probably the best sports country in the world per capita right now. There’s an HBO real sports on that’s showing they have embraced this stuff and changed their sports development pipelines.

But when I was living in New York until recently, there was a U7 travel soccer team that met near me, and I don’t think that anybody thinks that six-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people to travel, right? It’s just that there’s these other forces at work, like those kids are customers for whoever’s running that league. And so, all these other forces militate against what we know about optimal development.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then what do you think is to be done in terms of if you’re a professional in a workplace and you want to develop well and over the long haul such that you have a fruitful career and rise and achieve all of your career dreams? What are some of the key things you recommend folks do?

David Epstein
Yeah, so let’s say you want to be an executive, which I think a lot of people would like to be at some point. LinkedIn recently did some research at looking at what were the best predictors of who would become an executive, and they have these incredible sample silos so they did this in a half a million members. And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual had worked across in an industry.

And so, I think our intuition is to say, “Pick a job function and stick with it and drill into it and carve your niche and get specialized.” But, in fact, these people who sort of probably developed a more holistic view of their industry and how to integrate different types of skills are the ones who go on to become executives. And so, they are getting that breadth of training. And so, when it comes to having to do these more complex problems, they’re probably better equipped.

So, LinkedIn’s chief economist’s main advice was, “If you want to be an executive, work across more job functions.” And I think that’s good advice but I think you can do things short of that in a lot of ways. Like, learn what your colleagues do, learn more functions at your own work, because our natural inclination is to settle into our competencies. And as we settle into a rut and we get competent enough, I was talking to the economist Russ Roberts, he said it’s a hammock because it’s comfortable that’s why we don’t get out of it. And I was thinking, I want to make a weird analogy here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

David Epstein
When I was getting into my last book, I didn’t write about this, but I was reading some scientific literature on speed typing, okay? How fast is speed typing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been looking into speed typing. Continue.

David Epstein
Really?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had a recent guest talk about how that’s one of the top skills you can use to sort of accelerate your performance in all kinds of things because a lot of typing that’s going on. And I’m a fan of the website Keybr I think it is, which sort of helps you get fast at typing fast. So, anyhow, my interest is piqued. Please continue.

David Epstein
Okay. So, yeah, so the idea is we all, like at first when you’re learning typing you make a lot of improvement and you get to whatever you get to, 60, 70, 80 words a minute, whatever you get to. And then you plateau and we pretty much all stay there at very good but not great. And it turns out there’s all these strategies that you can use to get like twice as fast, and they’re not even that complicated. Things as simple as you’d use a metronome, you take it up a little bit, and keep up with it even if you make mistakes, whatever.

There’s a bunch of strategies to get like twice as fast. But what it suggested to me is that our natural inclination that just experience will get us to a certain point but then we stop naturally improving just with experience. We sort of settle into that level of performance. And I think that’s kind of true of everything.

And so, we’re in danger as we get more experience and get more comfortable of not developing new skills anymore. We have to try new things. And I think that’s good both because it can get you off a plateau. When I was on a plateau stuff at writing this book, I decided to take an online fiction-writing course and it worked beautifully to help with the problem I was stuck with.

And so, I think it works because it can help get you off a plateau, but also one of the other main ideas in Range is this idea of match quality, which is the degree of fit between an individual, their abilities, their interests, and the work that they do. And good match quality turns out to be very important for your motivation, your performance, and the only way to improve your match quality, it turns out, is to try some things and then reflect on those experiences and keep sort of pinballing, doing that, and with an eye toward improving that match quality.

So, like the Army, for example, has created a system called talent-based branching where they were kind of hemorrhaging their highest potential officers since basically the start of the knowledge economy where those young officers could learn skills that they could laterally transfer into other types of work. And, at first, they just threw money at those officers to try to keep them, and that didn’t work at all. The people who were going to stay took the money, and the people who were going to go left anyway. That has a half a million dollars.

And then they started this thing called talent-based branching where instead of saying, “Here’s your career track. Go upper out,” they say, “We’re pairing you with this coach-type figure and here’s a bunch of career tracks, and just start dabbling in them, and your coach will help you reflect on how did this fit with your talents and your interests. And we’ll do that so we can get you better match quality.” And that’s actually turned out to work better for retention because when people have high match quality, they want to stay. There’s a saying that I quote a research in the book, saying, “When you get fit it will look like grit because if you get a good fit, people will work harder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad you brought up grit because that’s something I want to talk about. You say that there could be a problem with too much grit. What’s that about?

David Epstein
So, I think for listeners who maybe have probably heard the concept of grit, I’m guessing. But the psychological construct came out of this survey where it started as a 12-question survey where half the questions were points for resilience basically and the other half for consistency of interest. And so, you lose points if you sometimes abandon a project for another one or I think you change interest, and things like that.

And the most famous study, what was actually done on cadets going into West Point, so future Army officers. They were trying to get through what’s called east barracks, that’s the U.S. military Academy’s six-week orientation where it’s physically and emotionally rigorous. And grit, that survey turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through these than more traditional measures that the Army used. And although most people make it through, which is great, but in the study. I feel like Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, I’d give them a ton of credit because some of the critique I write about in the book comes like directly out of their own papers and it’s kind of like lost in translation, I think, where those people in that study were highly pre-selected for a number of qualities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Got to get that Senate recommendation, Congressional letter. That ain’t easy.

David Epstein
That is what statisticians call restriction of rank problem. So, if you’ve truncated a lot of variables by selecting a small group out of humanity, so it makes the other variables exacerbated. But they were also pre-selected for this very short-term six-week goal, right? And life isn’t a six-week goal. So, when we looked at the longer timeline, again, like half of these people basically leave the Army almost the day that they’re allowed.

And so, high-ranking Army officials said, “We should defund West Point because ‘it’s an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.’” And that’s not the case, right? And those people didn’t just lose their grit. It’s that they learned some things about themselves, which tends to happen in that time period, the fastest time a personality change in your life is 18 to your late 20s, but it continues changing faster than people think over your life, and they decided they wanted to go do something else.

That’s why throwing money at them didn’t work where talent-based branching did because it’s giving them some control over their career path and their match quality, and trying things and then changing direction is basically essential to improving your match quality. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just hoping for luck in your match quality. And I think if we thought of our careers the way we thought of dating, right, we would never tell people to settle down so quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Just stick with that gal. She’s great.”

David Epstein
For some people that might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
“You have four dates. Don’t quit.”

David Epstein
I thought I was going to marry my high school girlfriend and at the time that seemed like a good idea. And then I had more experience in the world, in retrospect that wouldn’t have been a good idea. And I felt the same way in my approach to jobs. Some jobs I thought I was going to stick with, I thought I was going to be a scientist. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea for me, but I didn’t know that until I tried that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then when it comes to sampling, I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite kind of tactical tips with regard to, “How can I get a lot of sampling going?” So, you talked about, “Hey, talk to work colleagues who are in a completely different functional area. Maybe check out an online course.” What are some other means of sampling?

David Epstein
Yeah, I kind of take this approach from someone’s work I love that resonated with me because I had career change, or changed directions several times, from a London business school professor named Herminia Ibarra. And she has this quote I love, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” Basically, what she means is this psychological research shows that we’re not like so great at intuiting our own talents and interests before we have a chance to try stuff, we actually have to try the things, and then learn about ourselves. Act and then think, instead of think and then act, as she says.

And so, for me, I kind of started a book of experiments where just like when I was a science grad student, I’ll say, “Here are my skills now. Here’s some things I want to learn. Here are things, some weaknesses. Here’s my hypothesis about how I might be able to work on this.” And then I’ll go try something and see if that works.

So, again, I mentioned this online fiction-writing class I took, right? So, I got stuck in structuring my book, and I needed to do something different. And so, I go take this class, and among the things I was made to do was write with only dialogue, and write with no dialogue at all. And after doing the no dialogue at all, I went back to my manuscript and stripped a ton of quotes and replaced them with my description because I realized I was unconsciously coming from usually doing shorter-form types of things. I was leaning on quotes to convey information in a way that is not really good writing. And that’s not even the improvement I was looking for. But just getting out of my normal mode of doing things gave me this huge advantage.

And so, I try to do that regularly. Like, people might be familiar with this research “The Strength of Weak Ties” like your new job usually comes not from the people core in your network because they’re kind of doing this, you know those options already, and a lot of them are doing things similar to you. It comes from these people that you are several degrees away from but you can get connected to.

And that’s what Herminia Ibarra’s work shows, that when people find better career fits, it always comes from some key whole view, like they take some class, or they go to some event, or they meet someone at a dinner party and sort of ignites an interest, and then they start testing it little by little, getting in a little more and a little more until sometimes they make a full transition.

And so, I’m constantly doing those experiments with my book of experiments. So, I think everybody should constantly be doing this, “What do I want to work on? Here’s my hypothesis for how I could do that. I’m going to go try that thing.” Then reflect on it and put it in your notebook and keep going forward. And I think even keeping that, what I call that book of experiments, prompts me to constantly be doing that in a proactive way, whereas there was a period when I was at Sports Illustrated, for example, where I very much settled into something I felt come to that and just did over and over for a while, and took a while till I realized, “Gosh, I’m actually not adding to my skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I really like that just sort of the fun exercise you mentioned with the writing, with regard to all dialogue and no dialogue, and then how that filters in forever. And that reminds me, boy, back in my AP, I guess, English composition or rhetoric course in high school, our dear teacher Judy Feddermier, that was sort of like each week that was the challenge. It was a different kind of a challenge associated with the writing, like, “Okay, this time you are not to allow to use any to be verbs. No is, no are, no was, no were.” I’m like, “This is crazy.” And I just used one, “This is crazy.”

And so, but sure enough, I was like, “Yeah, this writing is a little awkward,” but it’s what you sort of kind of back to being able to use some. You realize, “Oh, boy, having fewer of them sure sounds better in terms of more active and exciting and lively than a bunch of is’s and are’s.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think it sort of just gets you out of that. Because the interesting thing is and sort of almost like troubling thing to me when I did that with the no dialogue, and went and changed my manuscript, was that until then I didn’t realize that I had been kind of unconsciously doing something I’d gotten used to. And it took doing something different for me to think about that which is annoying. I wish I were just like perceptive enough to realize that without having to get kind of knocked out of my normal mode but, really, I wasn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m wondering then, in the whole universe of essential skills you might choose to start experimenting and dabbling in to add to your repertoire, is there a means by which you think about prioritizing them? Or is there just sort of, “Hey, there’s a glimmer of interest here. Let’s see what happens”?

David Epstein
Yeah, that’s a good question. Usually, I kind of always have some project or other that’s either in some stage of development, and my projects tend to be quite different. And so, there’s usually something related to my project that’s either like an area of knowledge maybe that where the project is kind of driving those in some way, where it’s I know I need to, that this book is going to be the biggest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had, therefore like I need to improve my skills. So, usually it comes out of something that I’m otherwise doing, and realizing what’s the new part of that challenge.

So, I will say, when I’ve taken on these bigger projects, like my first book was the hardest structurally to organize all the information writing challenge I ever had, and this book was much harder than that one. And so, I think the one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is taking on these projects that are kind of in the optimal push zone where they’re not so over my head that I simply can’t do it, but they are definitely stretching me to the point where I have to think about learning new things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m also wondering about sort of things that you hate. So, one approach is there’s a glimmer of interest or sort of what skill is necessary to develop there. And I’m wondering about because when you’re talking about in terms of sort of this inefficiency or doing a wide breadth of things such that it’s more frustrating and less fun sort of the in the early stages, but then you have some cool capabilities later on as a result of doing it.

I guess I’m wondering to what extent would a chasing after skills that I’m just currently very bad at, I’m thinking about sort of home improvement and being handy type skills right now, so kind of the opposite of intellectual, “Hey, we’re having rich conversations and thinking about the themes and summarizing them well, and marketing and reaching audiences,” like all that stuff is like very different than, “Okay, I got to drill and I’m trying to make this thing go there and not make a huge mess.” Is there a particular value in doing stuff you hate?

David Epstein
I don’t think you should necessarily do it over and over if you hate it unless it’s really essential to something you’re doing. So, when I first started doing some lab work en route to what I thought I was being a scientist, my expectation was that I would love it and this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And what I found out was that was not necessarily the case, and that was an important thing to learn.

And, conversely, I’m a fairly new homeowner, and the last thing I would’ve thought I would ever be interested in was plumbing, for goodness’ sake. And, it turns out, it’s kind of interesting actually. Like, we had some stuff we had to fix and I started to find this sort of interesting. So, I don’t think you should do anything with plumbing if you hate it, but I do think you might find things that you a priori would think you wouldn’t really like, then when you actually try them might be more interesting than you thought. And, vice versa, things that you expected to love that maybe not so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, it sounds like it’s worth at least an hour or two to see what happens.

David Epstein
One of the things I write about in Range is a so-called end of history illusion. This is psychology of finding that we all realize that we, based on our experiences and everything, we have changed a lot in the past, but then think we will change very little in the future. And we do this at every time point in life, if we say we change a lot in the past, and then proceed to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. So, it leads to all these kinds of funny findings.

So, one just sort of humorous one is, because people underestimate how much their taste will change, if you ask people how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band, their today favorite band to 10 years from now, the average answer is $129. And if you ask how much they would pay to see today their favorite band from 10 years ago, the average answer is $80, because we underestimate how much our taste will change.

And the thing is personality actually changes over the entire course of your life, and one of the predictable changes is as you become older, your openness to experience, which is one of the big five personality traits, declines. But doing new stuff that you’re not used to can actually stop that. So, there are these studies where older people are in that decline phase, and this is a trait that we know is very much correlated with creativity. And these old people were trained on things like certain types of puzzles, okay? And even if they didn’t get better at the puzzles, they became more open to experience. And so, I think there’s also these personality reasons that are associated with creativity to do stuff that is just outside of anything else you’re doing if you want to stem that decline of openness to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is it might be hard to even dream up or conceive like what is that thing because it’s so not in your current world. Do you have any tips on how to kind of spark that prompt or stimulus in the first place?

David Epstein
For me, and this has been a long-running thing is I go to libraries and bookstores because those are places where I find interests that I didn’t know I had. And that’s why I value those places so much because, nothing against Amazon, but, yet, the algorithm works in a way that it sends me things I’m interested in and that I think I’m interested in, and it doesn’t send me the things that I don’t know I’m interested in basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

David Epstein
And so, when I do this more natural browsing which, by the way, I consider the willingness to go to libraries now like a competitive advantage for me because I think people don’t do it anymore. But those are the places where I find these things that I did not know I was interested in, and that’s why I really value them. That’s why I make sure I go to those places instead of just only ordering my reading material, and I’m a big reader on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of libraries and, boy, now, you’ve got me kind of excited just to see what would happen if you just went kind of blind into a stack, grabbed a book, and say, “I’m going to read six pages and see what happens.”

David Epstein
When I go into like a local bookstore or something like that, I don’t go, like if I really need a book right away and I know what it is, I will order on Amazon, and if I really need it quick, I’ll have it on my Kindle. But when I’m going into like bookstores, I’m not going for a particular thing. I’m going to look around and I always end up with something that I didn’t really expect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, can you tell me, if folks are inspired, they’re thinking, “Yes, David’s Range that’s what’s up, I’m all about it. I want to get some more skills, be more interdisciplinary,” are there any kind of watch-outs or warnings or mistakes that are associated with this endeavor?

David Epstein
Well, I think people are probably pretty aware of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none sort of syndrome. Like, you don’t want to get cast as someone who doesn’t know anything. And I think it’s actually pretty culturally telling that the end of that phrase, that adage, jack of all trades master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one, but we’ve totally dropped that part and I don’t think we even know it. And I think that’s because there’s sort of this bias against breadth. And so, I do think there’s that danger of signaling to other people that you don’t really know anything about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds dangerous.

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that’s actually one reason why. So, I was just at…maybe a lot of people have heard of Motley Fool. You know Motley Fool? I was just at an event of theirs, and there was a survey on a video screen and the audience could vote with their phones. And the survey was, “What do you think is the average age of a founder of a breakout startup on the day of founding, not when it becomes a breakout?” The choices were 25, 35, 45, 55, and the overwhelming favorite was 25.

And the answer is actually based on research from MIT and the Census Bureau is 45 and a half. But we sort of think of this, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, when he was 22 and famous, he said, “Young people are just smarter.” Like we think of Tiger Woods, even though that’s not the normal typical model, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s these very dramatic stories of youthful precocity that we think of as the norm, but actually the people who become these really successful entrepreneurs usually bounce around a fair bit first.

And I think what a lot of them end up doing, I describe people like this in Range, is they get this mix of skills that maybe other people sort of look down upon, but it leaves them with this intersection of skills that creates new ground where they’re not in direct competition with someone. They’re trying to do something new, and they have to create their own ground, and they often become entrepreneurs, sometimes because they have to. And that can be really good but it can also be really challenging because you can kind of end up, and I think especially so, in this year of LinkedIn, which I think is a great tool, but also allows HR people to make a much more narrowly-defined job and still have a ton of candidates.

And so, in Range I talk about the work of Abbie Griffin who studies so-called serial innovators who make these repeated major contributions to their companies. And her advice to HR people is basically, “Don’t define your job too narrowly because you’re going to accidentally screen these people out because their traits are like they’ve often worked across domains, they have a wide range of interests, they read more widely than other colleagues, they have a need to talk to more people in other disciplines, they like to use analogies from other disciplines, they often have hobbies that seem like they might be distracting,” but that those are the traits of those people, and her concern is that HR people will see them as scattered and not as focused on any particular area.

So, I think the real concern is of the signal that might be sent to people who are in a position of making personnel decisions.

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

David Epstein
I think specialization made a ton of sense when we were in more of an industrial economy, when people were facing similar challenges repeatedly and that was when those Army officers did not move outside of the Army with nearly as much frequency because other companies, specialists were facing the same challenge, and they were ahead, and you can’t catch up. But in the knowledge economy, some of the patent research I looked at in Range shows that it’s basically just since like the late ‘80s forward where the contributions of more generalists inventors.

So, in this research, the generalists are defined as people, their work is spread across a larger number of technology classes, as class is a patent office, whereas the specialists drill more into a small number or a single technology class. And both of these types of people make contributions, but the contributions of those people who are broader have been increasing with the knowledge economy.

And so, I don’t think this has always been true that generalists have these special, or broader people have these special contributions to make, but I think it’s sort of a function of the fact that with our communication technology, information is rapidly and thoroughly disseminated. And there are many more opportunities, for combining knowledge in new ways as opposed to just creating some totally new piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Epstein
I love that quote from Herminia Ibarra, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” That’s one that’s like really stuck in my head because I don’t totally know what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking about things. And so, that’s really affected the approach that I’m going to take.

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

David Epstein
Right now, I would say that my favorite book, gosh, I read a lot so this changes from time to time, but right now, I would say my favorite book is probably War and Peace, the Anthony Briggs translation, so I read multiple translations when I got really into it. And I didn’t realize, I was just reading it because like I was going through this website that aggregates all great book list, and I was trying to just like go down some of the greatest books.

And it is a novel, in the form of a novel, it’s actually Tolstoy’s refutation of the great man theory of history, and he uses Napoleon as the main character, and argues, and he does like some journalistic reporting on those events, and argues that, well, Napoleon was really an effect not a cause of these larger forces basically.

And so, he had these historical essays. And the story, his writing is amazing. But I also found that argument really interesting, and that led me to read this essay about a philosopher Isaiah Berlin based on War and Peace where Isaiah Berlin used these two types of characters he analyzes in War and Peace the foxes and the hedgehogs. The hedgehogs know one big thing, and the foxes know many little things.

And those hedgehog and fox constructs were then borrowed by Philip Tetlock, the psychologist, to do the work that’s featured in my chapter 10 of people who develop the best judgment about the world and about political and economic trends, who know many little things instead of one big thing. And so, it was really cool, you know, that research I was already interested in, to see in War and Peace sort of where those ideas of the fox and the hedgehog via Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy as it where it came from. So, not only did I enjoy the book for its own right, but it really made me think about some modern research in an interesting way.

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

David Epstein
Oh, my goodness. I would die if I didn’t have Searchlight on. That’s why I have to be a Mac user because I basically, the organization system I use is writing lots of words in various things that I think I would search if I wanted to find it. And so, I’d probably use Searchlight 500 times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Epstein
Running, if you count that. I’m a very avid runner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And is there a key nugget that you share often that tends to get sort of quoted back to you frequently?

David Epstein
In my first book, The Sports Gene there’s like I did some data analysis of body types, and this one part that mentions that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who’s at least 7 feet tall, then there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. And, yeah, people mention that to me a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think it’s funny that a very specific numerical tidbit is what people are sticking with.

David Epstein
Yeah, I tell you, I’m really bad at predicting at things for my own books that people are going to latch onto versus the things that I latch onto the most. It’s kind of an interesting experience.

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

David Epstein
DavidEpstein.com is my website, and I’m davidepstein on Twitter.

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

David Epstein
Yeah, I think if I can really talk to someone it would be managers, and say, “Do your own form of talent-based branching where you allow people to explore some of their other interest and talents, and help them reflect on those experiences.” I was on the podcast for The Ringer, Bill Simmons. He runs probably the most popular sports podcast in the world, and he used to be ESPN’s most popular writer, then he did something on HBO and that kind of failed. And now he started his own company, and it’s one of the happiest workplaces I have ever been in.

And one of the interesting things was people who were hired to edit like online articles, some of them have become like seriously famous in the sports world podcast personalities with huge followings, and that’s because once they’re in that company, he’ll say like, “Okay, come try on a podcast for a little bit and see how it goes.” And it seems like people have an opportunity to basically try their hand at whatever the company has to offer. And a couple of the people who came in, in these more kind of quotidian jobs have become like famous, and it was a happy workplace. So, I think he’s really onto something with sort of letting people try their hand at things in a way that like doesn’t really damage anything too much if it doesn’t go well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, David, thanks for this. I wish you tons of luck with Range and all your adventures.

David Epstein
Thank you very much.

451: Deploying Your Mental Energy Brilliantly with Dr. Art Markman

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Art Markman says: "You have to generate a certain amount of dissatisfaction in order to do something different."

Professor Art Markman shares insights from cognitive science research for us to be smarter every day at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to making a great first impression
  2. The pros and cons of high energy
  3. The role of dissatisfaction in motivating yourself

About Art

Art Markman is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He got his ScB from Brown University and his PhD from the University of Illinois.  Before coming to the University of Texas, Art taught at Northwestern University and Columbia University.

Art’s research explores thinking. Art is also the executive editor of the journal of Cognitive Science and is a former executive officer of the Cognitive Science Society. Art has always been interested in bringing insights from Cognitive Science to a broader audience. To that end, he writes blogs for many sites including Psychology Today and Fast Company. He consults for companies interested in using Cognitive Science in their businesses.  Art is also on the scientific advisory boards for the Dr. Phil Show and the Dr. Oz Show.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Art Markman Interview Transcript

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

Art Markman
Oh, it’s great to be talking to you today. Thanks so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’d have a ton of fun. And I think, first things first. I got to say I-L-L.

Art Markman
I-N-I.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. It’s great to have a fellow alum in the house. And I also understand that you play sax for a blues band. What’s the story here?

Art Markman
Yes, so, in my mid-30s I decided to take up the saxophone.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Art Markman
And I’d played the piano as a kid, and realized I’d never played another instrument, because when I was 5th grade, and they demonstrated band instruments, I asked my mom if I could play the French horn, and she said, “No, we have a piano. You play the piano.” And I realized in my mid-30s it was no longer her fault. So, I took up the sax and then started playing in bands after I’d been practicing for about 10 years. And it’s great fun. It gets me out of the house in a healthy way.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are the names of the bands? I love band names.

Art Markman
So, right now, I actually transitioned to playing with a ska band, and we’re called Phineas Gage who was a 19th century railroad worker who had a spike blown through his head and lived.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. I don’t know why I know that.

Art Markman
Well, it’s just one of those random facts that once you hear it once, it tends to stick with you.

Pete Mockaitis
But didn’t he have some sort of a condition as a result of it that was studied by a lot of folks?

Art Markman
Yes. So, one of the things, so Antonio Damasio makes a lot out of this because if Phineas Gage seemed to have trouble actually connecting the emotional experience of his life with the cognitive experience. And so, it was easy to take advantage of him because that little spidey sense that goes off in most of us when we’re dealing with somebody who’s a little shady didn’t seem to affect him.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, cognitive science is your cup of tea, and you, indeed, like to talk about applying it, too, in your latest book, Career Advancement. Could you maybe orient us a little bit to what exactly does the term cognitive science mean, and what are some kind of key concepts that make a world of difference in career advancement?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, cognitive science, it goes beyond mere psychology to say that if we’re going to understand something as complex as a mind, we need to understand the science of behavior, that’s where psychology comes in, but also how brains work, so neuroscience. It’s useful to have some computation to think through how we might build an intelligent machine, and so robotics and computer science come in, as well as culture so you get some anthropology, and linguistics to understand how language functions.

And so, when you take that much broader-based perspective, you get all of these different insights into the way the mind works. And I’m sort of a native-born cognitive scientist. My undergraduate major was actually cognitive science. And one of the things that that does is it allows you to get more perspective on why you think the way you do.

I like to point out that almost everybody I know has a mind and almost nobody knows how that mind works. And, yet, if you learn about the way your mind works, it can help you to do the things that you do more effectively. For example, one of the things that I talk about in the new book is it has to do with the way that you present yourself in a resume, that you might think, “Well, I should jam every conceivable positive thing into my resume that I can find,” under the assumption that people are adding together the total amount of goodness about you. But it turns out that when people actually look at a resume, they are averaging.

And so, if you put on something that’s good but not great, you could actually lower your average a little bit. And so, if you’ve got that honorable mention for a prize, yeah, you might want to think twice about whether you want to include that because it might actually bring down people’s overall evaluation of you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And I think, in particular, when you’re trying to customize a resume to tell a story in terms of that’s really going to resonate for the recipient, as opposed to like, “This guy is all over the place,” versus, “Oh, this guy is a real pro and exactly the things I want him or her to be a pro at.”

Art Markman
Exactly right. So, you really want to understand the mind, not only your own mind, but the minds of the people who are going to be evaluating you so that you can be as effective as possible at impressing them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s handy, yes. So, we’re going to talk about a lot of stuff. But I’d love to kick it off by hearing what’s perhaps the most fascinating and surprising discovery you’ve made when it comes to deploying some of these cognitive science insights for career advancement?

Art Markman
So, I would say that one of the more surprising elements of this has to do, for me, with understanding values and value systems. That one of the things that you find, particularly when you start to talk to people who’ve been in the workplace for a little while, is they get dissatisfied with their careers because they realize that the things that they thought they wanted when they were 20 are not actually the things that they wanted.

And it becomes useful to begin to think about, “Well, what kinds of things do I value? Am I the sort of person who actually cares about prestige? Or do I really care about helping others and being part of my community? And am I on a track to be able to do that?” Because you may not be able to reach all of your goals and achieve all of the things that meet your values in your first job, but, at some point, you’ve got to feel like you’re making progress towards it.

And I think that a lot of people don’t take that into account until too late, and then you experience that mid-life crisis, or you think, “I’ve just wasted all of my time.” When, in fact, you can begin to do that much earlier in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. Could you share what are some key values that folks think they want and realize that they don’t kind of often?

Art Markman
Well, so, I have a number of stories in the book because I was happy enough to be able to enlist the help of people on social media. So, as I was writing the book and had all these concepts, I would just ask people questions and they would tell me their stories. And I’ll tell you two that were kind of fun.

One is a guy named Brian. He finished college and, really, took a job that was going to pay well and give him some prestige, and he actually realized that was not what he wanted at all. He left his job, went to do the Peace Corps for a while, and came back, and really focused on jobs that were going to help others. That was actually something that he ended up being passionate about.

But there are other kinds of values. There’s another story in the book about a guy who went into a session to talk about State Department jobs, and walked out of a test that they took, and other folks were laughing at this one question about, “Who would enjoy being in a warzone?” And he realized, actually, he wanted that. He responded positively to that question. He realized that adventure was a very important value for him, and he ended up fashioning a career that put him in a lot of dangerous places, but it was utterly exhilarating to him.

So, some of us want enjoyment and adventure, and some people want stability and they want to know where their next paycheck is coming from. Some people want to be helpful, and some people really want to look out for themselves. And all of those things across the population are values that people hold. We get some of those from the culture around us, but, particularly in the United States, we’re given a lot of opportunity to really decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And so, you lay out Shalom Schwartz who crafted a set of values with 10 universal values there from power, and achievement, and hedonism, and stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, security. That was fast.

Art Markman
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
No need to dig into every one of them. But it’s intriguing, you say that there’s a couple of ways you can go about clarifying your own values and what’s most potent for you. And what are those?

Art Markman
Well, the very first thing you want to do is actually to be aware of them, to be aware that there are these values, and to begin to ask, to what degree do these resonate with you. And there are scales that you can take. I’m actually going to be putting one up online for people who read the book if they want to actually test themselves against these values.

But one of the things I think is important is periodically, throughout your career, not every week by any means, but maybe on that yearly basis, to ask yourself, “Well, how am I doing? Do I feel like I am doing the kinds of things in my work life often enough that I am making progress towards those kinds of goals? Or do I feel like my values are not being reflected at all in the work that I’m doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really resonating for me as I’m thinking about my first job that resembled a professional job. There was an internship at Eaton Corporation, which I’ve not heard of but is a Fortune 500 company, it’s a diversified industrial manufacturer. And I remember, as I wrapped up that internship, I thought, “You know what? This was pretty cool in terms of I learned some things, my brain got tickled and challenged a little bit, there were some great people I enjoyed sort of seeing regularly, and I got home at a decent hour. And, yeah, option was there to return.”

But I remember walking away, thinking, “You know, I think that this company could provide me a satisfying stable kind of a career,” but I really wanted a thrilling one. And so, I went with strategy consulting after graduation. And then after some years of that, I thought, “You know what? I want more autonomy. And I want maybe in-between 40 hours and 65 hours, somewhere in that zone would probably be better at that phase.”

And so, it definitely connects that both of those opportunities were great, and it’s just about seeing what’s the best fit for you and life, and what’s going on.

Art Markman
And it can change over time as well. Later in the book, I talk a little bit about another guy who, early on, was focused on developing that career and having that very stable career, but also one that had a certain amount of achievement in it. Then, in the middle of his career, his wife got sick, and he needed to really back off and put his value on his family and on taking care of his wife and his kids.

And then, later in his career, after he went back to work, after she got healthy again, and had some success, and engaged those values again, and then decided he wanted to really help others, and actually left the practice of law and ended up running a non-profit for a while. And so, you get these shifts over time sometimes as a result of life circumstances, and sometimes just as a result of changes in perspective as you see more things in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, we’ve already kind of gotten into some of the meat of it, but maybe to zoom out for a moment, what would you say is kind of the main thesis or big idea behind this book you got here, “Bring Your Brain to Work”?

Art Markman
Yeah, so the idea is that if you think about your career, which is bigger than any individual job, it’s that collection of things that you truly contribute as a result of the work that you do, and has this cycle of looking for a job and getting it, then succeeding at it while you’ve got it, and then considering whether to move on or move up. That that cycle can be really informed, no matter where you are in your career, can be informed by understanding more about your mind and the minds of other people.

And that this is stuff that we don’t really ever learn in class. And most people, when they hit mid-career, realize that very little of what allowed them to succeed at work was something that they learned in a class in school. And so, part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to bring more of the research around cognitive science to help people to learn some of those things that are critical for career success that they probably didn’t get in a class.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, excellent. Well, thank you. We appreciate that effort in the world. And so, let’s dig into some of the stuff then. We talked a bit about zeroing in on what you value and figuring out how a job might align to that. But you’ve also got some pro tips in terms of acquiring the job using cognitive science insights. Like in the midst of an interview, how do you figure out kind of where the interviewer’s head is at, and what they might love?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, one of the things that fascinate me about interviews is a lot of people walk into that interview focused almost exclusively on, “I have to impress the interviewer. I need this job, and I want them to think great thoughts about me at the end.” And, of course, that’s not irrelevant. You want to go into the interview well-prepared so that you’re able to really talk authoritatively about yourself and about the way that you would fit with the company, which means you need to know something about the company.

But what a lot of people don’t do effectively is to realize how much they can learn about the organization that they’re interviewing with as a result of that interview process. So, if you get totally stumped on a question, you might think to yourself, “Well, that’s it. I’ve screwed this up completely.” But, actually, it gives you this opportunity to engage in a conversation with the interviewer and to get a real sense of, “Is this a company that actually wants to support me, that wants me to learn, that wants me to help, to think the way that they think?”

And to the extent that the interviewer actually digs in and works with you to walk your way through an interview question, they may be telling you something about their willingness to help to mentor you and to train you, and for you to understand that this is a company that doesn’t necessarily think you need to be fully formed on day one in order to succeed. On the other hand, if the company just brushes you off for not knowing the answer to a question, then, well, their communicating something completely different, right?

And so, you should be paying attention to that from the beginning to really understand, “What am I learning about this organization?” through the interview process, frankly, through the negotiation process as well, where they’re communicating a lot about what they value in the way that they treat you when you are trying to negotiate salary and benefits and things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, that’s a great point there, is to, first of all, to broaden my question a bit. It’s not just about impress, impress, impress. It’s a two-way street. You’re picking up intelligence on their side, like, “Is this a good fit? Do you like the way they work it?” But then back to the wowing side of things, when you are putting half of the attention on that side of the equation, what are some things that do some of the wowing or help you sense what they’re really feeling?

Art Markman
Yeah, so one of the fascinating things about the interview is, more than anything else, companies are trying to figure out whether they want to work with you, because they’ve already brought you in, which means they’ve looked at your materials, they feel like you have potential qualifications for the job. And so, now, they’re trying to envision how you fit in.

And so, part of what you want to do is to really engage. So, yes, you need to be prepared but, at some point, you need to really have a conversation. Give those interviewers a chance to have a sense of what it would be like to have you as a colleague. But to do it by putting that best foot forward, every once in a while, you think to yourself, “Well, do I really have to put on an act for them? Do I have to be really my best self?” And the answer is yes. You don’t want necessarily need to show every single quirk in the interview. Right, exactly. Those things that people will find charming eventually. Maybe get them to learn to love you first.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve got plenty of quirks, Art, that’s why I’m laughing over here.

Art Markman
And so do I, right? And it’s fine. I think quirks are part of what makes us interesting in the long run. But in the short term, you want to put that best foot forward. And I think, really, believe in what’s called the halo effect. So, the better the first impression that someone gets of you, the more charitably that they interpret every other thing that you do, because every behavior that you exhibit in the world is ambiguous, right?

Are you brash and arrogant? Or are you confident and assertive, right? Well, those could manifest themselves with almost identical behaviors. But if I like you already, I’m going to think of you as confident. And if I don’t like you from the beginning, I’m going to think that you are kind of an arrogant jerk. And so, you really want to come out initially with creating the best possible impressions socially that you can in order to get people to feel like you’d be somebody that they really want to work with.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, in terms of some of the details for how that’s done, I imagine there are some basic fundamentals, like smile, make eye contact, engage, listen, shower.

Art Markman
Shower is good, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Put on some clothes that aren’t stained and wrinkled. But are there any sort of like cognitive science secrets that are some huge do’s or don’ts when it comes to making a great impression?

Art Markman
Yeah, one of them is it’s not just smile. It’s, bring the amount of energy and enthusiasm that you want that person to feel later. So, one of the things we know about conversation is that people tune to each other, even down to the level of the pitch of your voice.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Art Markman
Yeah, absolutely. Really, yes, they do. And if people are laughing, right, or smiling, then if one person is doing it, the other person is doing it. They will even mimic facial expressions, and if one person crosses their arms, eventually the other one is going to do it.

And so, if you’re trying to generate energy and enthusiasm, because that will ultimately be interpreted by the interviewer as enjoyment. The fact is that the higher your degree of energy, the more invested you are motivationally in something.

And so, if you come in really flat, then you’re going to get a flat evaluation later because the interviewer is going to mimic your flatness, and you’re going to end up just it’s going to be a mediocre evaluation at the end. But if you come in with energy and enthusiasm, you will create energy. And that energy actually now feeds back into the evaluation that you get.

So, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so, you need to bring the energy that you want the interviewer to have, particularly because many times you’re working with somebody who may be a recruiter, or a hiring manager, who might be doing 15 interviews. And so, if you don’t bring it, well, they don’t need it, right? They’re doing a ton of these all day. So, you’ve got to make sure that you create the atmosphere that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, Art, I think that I am one of those people, I don’t know how if I’m in the majority or the minority here, that could overdo it with regard to the energy, like, “Whoa, that’s a little too much. Like, are you, I don’t know, a clown, or a motivational speaker?” Like, how do we think about when is it too much?

Art Markman
Well, honestly, I don’t think that the energy level can be too much. But I do think that you have to be careful when you’re energetic to still stay on topic. So, one of the things that a high level of energy can do is to allow you to overcome your filter, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, certainly.

Art Markman
One of the things that we know motivationally is that we have in our motivational system what you can think of as a go system that drives you to do things, and then a stop system that gets you to inhibit things that your go system says you should do that on sober reflection might not be such a good idea. And the more that you overload that go system, which is something you can do when you give yourself a tremendous amount of energy, the more you can override the breaks which can potentially cause you to say something that you probably shouldn’t have said in an interview.

And so, the danger with too much energy is not so much the impact that it’s likely to have on the interviewer, so much as the likelihood that it’s going to cause you to do or say something that probably was not a great idea.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good thought there, certainly. So, I imagine, so long as you’re keeping like your volume and gestures like within a normal reasonable human dimension, and you’re not just disclosing crazy things. I heard a story of a person who interviewed someone who said, “Hey, how are you doing?” He said, “Not well.” And then he went on to share quite the story of how his girlfriend threw him out of their apartment, and his clothes were thrown out of the window, and he was trying to figure out a place to, I don’t know, get a suit cleaned or something in the middle of the night. And he was like, “Okay, this is uncomfortable now.”

Art Markman
Right. I think the correct answer there would’ve been, “Fine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Exactly. Okay. So, that’s handy. So, great energy but not so much that you      are doing unwise things and short-circuiting the stop system there. Well, now, let’s say you got the job, and you want to apply some of these cognitive science insights to, let’s say, communicate, collaborate, interact with your colleagues and clients better. What are some of your favorite do’s and don’ts there?

Art Markman
Yeah, so one of the things to watch out for in the modern environment is that we do so much discussion with our colleagues that is mediated by text, whether it’s email, or instant messages, or Slack, or any one of these ways of communicating just through the words alone being sent through the ether.

And the problem is, human communication is really optimized because of our evolutionary history for a small number of people interacting face to face in real time. And the further away that we get from that ideal, the harder it is for us to communicate effectively with our colleagues. And that means that if you’re going to do most of your communication with your colleagues via text, you need to go out of your way to create a certain amount of facetime with them in order to establish a relationship so that they can read the tone of what you say more effectively.

Because if I need your help with something, and I poked my head into your office, or over your cubicle wall, or whatever it is, and I say, “Listen, man, would it be all right, could you possibly make some copies for me right now? I’m running late, I’d really appreciate it.” You can make a request of someone that imposes on their time and still demonstrates to them through the words that you use and your tone of voice and the look on your face that you understand what a big imposition it is, and that you deeply appreciate what they’re doing.

When you say the same thing over text, it comes across as cold and as demanding. And so, unless they can hear your voice in their head, then you’re actually going to end up sabotaging some number of your relationships just because of the overuse of this kind of text. So, we have to find ways to create that kind of facetime.

And, as it turns out, that is often more efficient because things that can take you 10 minutes going back and forth by email or instant message, can actually often be resolved in about four seconds of real conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love what you had to say there with regard to give them lots of experiences of the facetime, and then they can imagine in their own mind’s eye and ear what your facial expressions are looking like and what your voice is sounding like. This reminds me when I was consulting. We had this client and we kept getting these emails back. We asked about, “Hey, we want some data like this.” And then the client sent back some things. And we’re like, “Oh, actually, hey, thank you. But we’d really kind of want it like this.”

And then she sent something back and had some red-letters in it, like, “Oh, man, she’s angry.” And then we thought, “Why don’t we just pay her a visit?” And it was like, “Hey, what’s going on? We really appreciate you taking the time to help us, think through it, share these things. We’re trying to accomplish this and it’d be really awesome if it’s possible to do that.” She’s like, “Oh, yes, absolutely. Certainly, I can get that to you this afternoon.” Just like the sweetest thing.

Art Markman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And like, “Oh, thank you.” And then it’s like it just sort of reinterpreted every email that we were like sweating over. It’s like, “Oh, I guess maybe red is just a clear means of delineating and separating that text from the original email text in black or blue, as opposed to, “I’m furious at you.” And it was quite the lesson. Yeah, eyes opened.

Art Markman
Yeah, and we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing that. We think, somehow, it’s easier to be doing everything mediated by text. So, I really think that making sure that you create that relationship, I think, is just critical for success.

Pete Mockaitis
And we had Dr. Nick Morgan, a famed communications consultant, on the show earlier. He said one great phrase used often in like a phone call or sort of less rich exchange is, “How do you feel about what I’ve just said?” You know, just to get real explicit, like it may not have been conveyed so let’s figure it out. It seemed pretty brilliant to me.

Art Markman
Oh, yeah. And if I could add to that, one of the places where it’s really brilliant in the modern environment is when you’re dealing with people who have a different cultural background than you do. So, we live in a world in which we may not just be working with people in another state, but they might be halfway around the world. And there are big cultural differences in what people will generally say to each other and what kinds of things they give voice to.

And sometimes you just need to be really explicit with people, including, “I need to know exactly what you think of this,” and to summarize your interpretation of a conversation just to make sure that you actually really are on the same page. Where, if you were talking to somebody you’d known for years or grew up in exactly the same culture, you might share more of the biases and the way you think about things that would allow you to communicate effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is so good. Even just the words, phrases, idioms. I was working with someone in the Philippines, and she says, “Hey, can we meet up at this time?” I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure thing.” And she emailed back, “Thanks for giving me the time of day.” I was like, “Oh, dang, I know. I know I’ve been absent. I’ve got a new baby. I’m really sorry. I mean to be more there, and available, and guiding, and developing, and coaching.” I’m really stewing it. She’s like, “Oh, no, I just meant thank you for that time.” “Yeah, oh, okay.”

Art Markman
Oh, yeah, “I do not think this means what you think it means,” yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Art Markman
Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, handy communication tips. And how about for just productivity, getting the job done, motivation, distraction avoidance, what are your cognitive science insights there?

Art Markman
Well, so one of the things that I think is really important is to recognize that the best way to motivate yourself is to create a gap between where you are right now and where you’d like to be in the future, that that gap is what creates energy. And I think it’s really important for people to recognize that there are days when they feel somewhat unmotivated. And part of that lack of motivation is that they’re just not dissatisfied enough with the way things are right now. And that you can actually, by focusing on how the world could be better, you can actually create that kind of energy and get yourself to stick with something.

But another piece to this that’s really important is you got to learn about what the Yearkes-Dodson curve. And I love the fact that these two guys, Yearkes and Dodson, wrote a paper in 1905 that is still relevant today. And the idea behind the Yearkes-Dodson curve is that the more energy you give to a particular goal, the better your performance up to a point. And you hit a sweet spot where you have the right level of energy, or what psychologists call arousal. And that when you’re in that sweet spot, you work really effectively.

But if you get hyper aroused, or you get more and more arousal, say, the deadline is creeping ever closer, then you may find yourself slipping over the edge of this Yearkes-Dodson curve, where now additional energy actually lowers your performance because you have so much energy you can’t think straight, you’re pacing, you’re panicking.

And so, what everyone needs to learn is, “Where is my sweet spot?” because that’s what helps us to figure out, “Will I get stuff done ahead of time? Do I need to have a small thermonuclear device detonated beneath my chair before I can get anything done?” And figure out where that sweet spot is and learn to live there with your project so that you find the right level of engagement and arousal to allow you to work consistently without getting so over-aroused that you find yourself unable to make progress on important things.

Pete Mockaitis
And you know that’s interesting as you talk about the curve, and I’m imagining, “Okay, X and Y axis here, and we got more and more energy, that’s good.” And then I guess you have two much energy, it’s bad in the sense you’re panicking and, I don’t know. I guess, we had Tony Schwartz on the show earlier. We talked about energy stuff, and it almost sounds like more energy there is equating to anxiety and panic, but I guess you just call that negative, high energy but a negative type of energy. Can you have too much what he might call high positive energy in terms of, “I’m really, really, really excited about this?” Can you be too much of that?

Art Markman
Yup, you absolutely can, because even with too much positive energy, you end up pacing, right? That energy creates actual energy for you that needs to dissipate. And if you’re sitting there trying to work at your desk, and you have much bubbling positive energy that you need to pace around, you’re not being particularly productive in that moment.

And so, you find sometimes people so excited about something that they need to get up, walk around, get it out of themselves so that they can calm down and actually get work done, even when that energy is really positive.

I know, over the course of my career, I’ve had times where I felt like I had just figured something out, and in that moment when I figured it out, I couldn’t write it. I had to like quickly say it into a recorder or something, and then walk around for a while, like calm down, and then I was in a place where I could actually write about it. So, yeah, it’s overall energy level, even if it’s positive.

So, panic, obviously, it can be negative energy, but just being hyper-aroused in general creates terrible performance. And you can even see this in athletes, right? When they’re so jazzed up about something that they actually can’t coordinate their motions.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then, with the Yearkes-Dodson curve then, is that kind of like different activities or tasks that have different curves where some things are better-suited to lower energy states and others high energy states?

Art Markman
You know, it seems to be that everyone has got a sweet spot, and that sweet spot seems to be pretty similar across tasks but different people will differ in their resting levels of arousal. So, some people are naturally very high arousal people, and so they are the ones who’d start a project six weeks before it’s due. And then there are the people who are very low arousal, who really need to have a cattle prod taken to them before they start getting anything done.

And what’s really tough is when you have a high-arousal person working with a low-arousal person, because a high-arousal person gets a whole bunch of stuff done ahead of time, and then they hand it off to the other person who does nothing with it till the last moment, sends that back to the other person 10 minutes before it needs to be submitted. And that person is a pool of jello on the floor at that point because they’re just so over-aroused by the deadline. So, you have to find ways for people to work effectively together when they have different resting levels of arousal.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have any pro tips in terms of you would like to amp up or amp down your arousal in a given moment for a task at hand? How might you do that?

Art Markman
So, to amp it up, one of the things that’s useful is to create things like false deadlines for yourself, and to do things that really say, “There’s a reason why this has to get done right now,” or, really amp up your sense of how important this is to get right.

When you’re trying, though, to calm yourself down, it really is doing the kinds of things that help you to dissipate energy, which could be going out for a walk, or it could be deep breathing exercises, right, because those are the kinds of things that will actually calm you down. And, really, what you’re doing is trying to create some sense of distance between yourself and the goal that you’re engaged with so that it feels mentally further away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I want to talk about that next is that point you made about creating a gap between where you are and where you want to be. How is that done in practice? I imagine it boils down to, you know, how you set a goal, and maybe some of this is visualization stuff, it really is worthwhile. How do you think about creating that gap and that energy?

Art Markman
Yeah, so there’s a lot of really nice work in psychology, some of it done by Gabriele Oettingen that talks about, essentially, the role of creating fantasies, and not in the kind of parlance that we often think about, “Oh, I’m fantasizing about this.” But, really, in the sense of creating that vision of the future, of, “Here’s what I could accomplish.” Or, frankly, sometimes, “Here’s what will go wrong if nobody does anything.”

And to really elaborate on that mentally, to think about how much better or worse the world could be, and then to explicitly contrast that with the present. So, you develop this vision of the future, and then you compare it to where you are right now. And it is that act of creating that contrast that actually generates that sense of the gap and that energy that comes along with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Could you maybe walk us through an example there?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, for example, think about supposed you’ve kind of stagnated in your job, but you can’t really motivate yourself to go look for another one, right? Now, so what could you do? Well, one of the things you could do is to begin to think about, “Well, let me imagine a little bit more about what my ideal job would be. What are some of the tasks that I would be doing in my day-to-day life that I’m not currently able to do?” and to really envision that clearly, and then contrast that with the job I have right now, and to really begin to compare that, say, “Whoa, here are all the ways in which my current job is not ideal.”

And what that does is it generates dissatisfaction. And that dissatisfaction is motivating. So, it turns out that when you’re utterly satisfied in life, what you tend to do is fall asleep. And so, you have to generate a certain amount of dissatisfaction in order to be motivated to do something different.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you overdo it in terms of like you’re suddenly zapped of gratitude and bitter and anxious about how crappy everything is right now?

Art Markman
Well, you can overdo it but mostly the way that you overdo it is by creating gaps that are not bridgeable. So, I’m a big believer in what I call the bridgeable gap which means not only do you need a sense of the gap between present and future. You need to believe that there is a plan, a set of actions that you’re capable of performing that will get you from here to there.

And as long as you feel like you’re on a path that will help you to narrow the gap, then focusing on that gap is not a bad thing because you have agency. You believe that you are the author of your future. But when you believe that there’s no path from the present to the future, well, then, creating that gap creates that sense of bitterness and resentment because now you feel like, “Well, I’m stuck here. I have no control over the circumstance.”

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

Art Markman
You know what? Let’s take it where you want to go. Oh, I will say one thing, which is one of my favorite things that I got to do in the book, because I play the saxophone, I added a bunch of sections in the book that I called “The Jazz Brain,” which is basically focused on that ability you have to improvise. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that in order to improvise effectively, you need to know a lot.

I think a lot of times people feel like, “No, no, there’s the curse of knowledge. If I know too much I’m going to be constrained.” But the people I know in any field, whether it’s music or anything else, the people who are best able to adapt to a circumstance on the fly are actually the ones who know a ton of stuff, but are willing to apply lots of different knowledge to a situation.

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

Art Markman
I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, and that’s the place where he strung up lightbulbs. His lab was actually not in Edison or what became Edison. But Edison once said that, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” And while we could probably quibble about the percentages a little bit, I think there’s something important about this idea that a lot of our success is about the work we do.

Yeah, some people are more talented in something than somebody else is, but most of the difference in performance between people comes down to doing the right kind of work. And the reason that I’ve spent so much time in my life over the last 15 years, really trying to bring more cognitive science to other people is because I believe that the more you understand about minds, the more you can put in the right kind of work that can help you to be successful into things you want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite study or piece of research?

Art Markman
Let’s see, one of my favorite pieces of research that I talk about a lot comes from a buddy of mine named Frank Keil at Yale. He and one of his students, Leonid Rozebilt, did this set of studies on what’s called the illusion of explanatory depth, which is this idea that you believe you understand the world better than you actually understand the world. And so, they did this by having people describe various household devices that they thought they completely understood, and only to have people discover that there were significant gaps in their understanding about the way the world works.

And it turns out that this kind of knowledge about the way the way the world works, what psychologists a causal knowledge, is the stuff that allows you to do new things in new ways. And so, when you lack that knowledge, then all you can do is execute procedures in your work. You can’t really try a new thing. And if you’re unaware of what you don’t know, then it means you can’t work to improve the quality of your knowledge. So, I really find that study to have a profound impact on the way people should treat their knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Art Markman
Gosh, I love books, and there’s so many. But, lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit about small towns of different kinds. I’m just fascinated by it. I grew up, I’m an urban kid, born and raised, and I’m living in Austin, Texas right now. It’s a beautiful city. But, lately, I’ve been reading books like Our Towns, and Hillbilly Elegy, and things like that, just trying to wrap my head around what it’s like to grow up in a place very different than the one that I grew up in.

And I think that’s important, right? I think so much of the way we understand the world is by filtering it through our own experience, that it’s really important to find people who’ve characterized the world that’s different from the one that you grew up in, and whether it’s different within the country you grew up, or outside of it, as a way of helping you to recognize that not everything that you do is a human universal.

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

Art Markman
Gosh, I love word processors. And it’s a funny thing, right? I think we don’t appreciate some of the simple tools that are in front of us. But if my 7th grade teacher knew that I wrote for a living, I think she’d be in hysterics because of how much I hated writing as a kid.

But just having that ability to put stuff down, and then edit it easily, is such an important thing. I think very few people value the editing process enough. And having just a tool, whatever your word processor is, to have that in front of you to be able to edit is such an amazing thing. Because most of us look at good writing, and we think, “Wow, I could never write like that.” And what we really mean is, “I could never write like that the first time that something comes out.”

And what we don’t realize is nobody writes well when something just pops out of them. What you’re seeing is the result of getting something out, crafting it, polishing it, re-arranging it, deleting, starting over, and then you only get to see the final product. So, yeah, to me, it’s just what we’re able to do with a simple word processor is just, to me, absolutely amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Art Markman
Favorite habit in the workplace. It would have to be that when I come into work, I triage my email. I answer the three emails that absolutely have to be answered, and then I shut my email off for a half hour and do something else that matters. Because I do believe that people take a tremendous amount of pride in their work, but I don’t think anyone looks back over the last year, and says, “The most important thing I did was to send these 18,471 emails.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and students?

Art Markman
Obviously, I think a lot of things are a matter of personal taste. But I think this recognition that we have a go system that drives us to act, and then a fallible stop system that prevents us from doing things effectively, because we are not good at stopping something that that go system has engaged. And that when you want to be productive, your job in life is to reprogram that go system towards habits whose accumulated impact will create the contribution you want.

To me, understanding that and living your life knowing that the best way to be effective is to reprogram that go system, is something that I think when people internalize, that changes the way that they go about their work.

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

Art Markman
So, you can find me pretty easily on social media. I love to have people finding the stuff that I write. I try to give away as much as I can. So, I write for Psychology Today, for Fast Company, for Harvard Business Review. I certainly would love for people to pick up my books. But you can find out all of the stuff that I’m writing on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have an author page on Facebook. I have a website smartthinkingbook.com that has information about all of my books, and I also post a few blog entries and things up there. So, all of those are places where people can find me.

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

Art Markman
Yeah, I think that the most important thing that you can do is to recognize that it is always about what you’re going to learn next, that no one is completely ready for the job that they have. And as I said to my oldest son when he was first going out on the job market, I said, “If you’re completely prepared for the job you applied for, you aimed too low.”

And so, we should think about our work lives as a constant opportunity for growth and challenge. And that when you do that, when you look for the next thing that you can learn, then it continues to open up new worlds and new possibilities. Because, as I say at the very end of the book, bumper sticker wisdom tells us that no one on their deathbed says that they wish that they’d spent another day at the office.

But, honestly, the people I know who look back on their careers with fondness are the ones who feel like they’ve really accomplished something over the course of their years, and they are justifiably proud of the work that they did.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for that. That’s nice. Nice thought. Nice final words. Art, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you and the book “Bring Your Brain to Work” lots of luck and keep on doing the good stuff.

Art Markman
Well, thanks, Pete. It’s a pleasure talking with you today.

449: Leaning Out with Marissa Orr

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Marissa Orr says: "What makes more sense: rewiring women and their personalities and what they want... OR rewiring a system to better meet the needs of a more diverse workforce?"

Marissa Orr shares fresh, actionable wisdom on the workplace gender gap and reframes how alleged weaknesses can actually be strengths.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The problem with the ‘lean in’ mentality
  2. How power and money trigger value judgments when it comes to gender differences
  3. Why strengths depend on context

About Marissa

Marissa Orr began her Google career over 15 years ago as a founding member of Google’s Sales Operations & Strategy team, after which she worked as Vertical Marketing Manager at Facebook. She has conducted talks and workshops for thousands of people at diverse organizations across the globe. Originally from Miami, she now lives in New Jersey, with her three children.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Marissa Orr Interview Transcript

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

Marissa Orr
Thanks, it’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your perspectives. I think it will be provocative in a fun thought-provoking kind of a way. But maybe before we go there, let’s hear about your love for reality TV.

Marissa Orr
It’s a great way to start out in terms of setting my credibility, but that’s okay. It’s my escape. I actually have – I don’t watch it as much as I used to. Years ago I lived on Bravo – a steady diet of Bravo TV, Real Housewives of New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, LA, wherever. I’ve always been a big fan of The Bachelor and things like that.

In the past few years, my time has been crunched and I haven’t gotten to watch nearly as much as I would like to, but I’m still a fan. I’m not going to lie. I’m not ashamed.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, my brother loves The Real Housewives as well. You articulate from your world view and preferences and values and such, what is it that you dig about the show? No judgment. I genuinely want to understand you.

Marissa Orr
Yeah, yeah. No offense taken. Like I said, no shame here about it. I think if I’m really kind of digging into why these shows appeal to me so much – and I don’t mean to turn it into something highbrow because it’s certainly not – but I have always just been fascinated by the drama of humanity. These women on the show are such caricatures of people that we all know in some way that I just find it fascinating in terms of even just like observing people and how they act.

For example, on The Bachelor, I also love to guess based on what I’m reading from The Bachelor and the contestants or whatever, their body language, what they’re saying, it’s fun for me to guess who’s going to make it on to the next round it sharpened my ability to sort of read people’s behavior. When you’re right, it feels great and when you’re wrong, you learn something. That’s really The Bachelor.

But Real Housewives is just an escape. It’s drama. It’s kind of like why do people like to watch sports. They’re not participating in the sport. It gives them a little kick to root for a team. I think it’s a similar thing. It gives me a little kick. It’s fun. I find these people crazy and hilarious. I work so much. I make so many decisions every day. It’s fun to just watch other people and kind of laugh at them or with them.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that. Sometimes at the end of the day it’s like, “I want to do the opposite of thinking.”

Marissa Orr
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
What is that?

Marissa Orr
Yes. There’s nothing wrong with it I think as long as it’s in moderation I suppose.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to hear about your book, Lean Out. What’s the big idea here?

Marissa Orr
Lean Out is really, quite obviously, a counterargument to lean in, but really a counterargument to most of modern-day feminism because we have been throwing the same solutions at the gender gap and at women at work for 20 years and virtually nothing has changed in terms of the numbers.

The first part of Lean Out really explains everything that modern feminism and conventional wisdom, frankly, has gotten wrong about women at work. One of those things, a broad theme, is that equality doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. We don’t have to like the same things, want the same things, get the same things. After all, diversity is about diverse set of interests, talents, strengths, perspectives and experience.

That’s one of the big themes. There’s a lot more underneath that, but I don’t know if you want me to go further or-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Well, we’re going to talk about all kinds of things.

Marissa Orr
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d say one of the themes in your book is you say that there is a systemic dysfunction in our workplaces. Can you kind of paint the picture there? What is it that is broken?

Marissa Orr
Well, let me set that answer up first with a little bit more detail around the difference in the premise lean in and lean out. The general premise of lean in really pins the blame on women for the gender gap.

The prescriptions for success hinge on women acting more like men, so being more ambitious and assertive, whereas lean out really pins the blame on our institutions, which have not changed since the Industrial Age, at a time when there were no women – virtually no women in the workforce. Since then, our entire economy has transformed and the composition of our workforce, but these structures, these competitive hierarchies have remained exactly the same.

One of the things that I ask in the book is what makes more sense, rewiring women and their personalities and what they want or rewiring a system to better meet the needs of a more diverse workforce?

Part of my problem with lean in and that whole school of thought is that it dismisses women’s wants and needs as a product of culture. I think instead of dismissing them as needs, we should embrace them because men and women a lot of times want different things at work. We should embrace those differences instead of sort of dismissing what women’s concerns are and attributing it to a product of cultural oppression.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right, there’s so much good stuff to dig into here. First, I just want to get really clear on terms here. When you say ‘the gender gap’ what are we talking about here?

Marissa Orr
I refer to the gender gap to explain the fact that there’s four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs for example are women or a highly disproportionate amount of the C-suite and executives in corporate America are men. It’s a great question because at the beginning of the book, I really define the scope, which is corporate America, which has very different dynamics than small businesses or-

Pete Mockaitis
Education.

Marissa Orr
Education or even things like being a doctor or lawyer. One way to look at that is through the lens of academia, which you mentioned. Women dominate academia. They have for many, many years. A big question is why doesn’t that dominance last after graduation.

The conventional wisdom, again, points to culturally reinforced behavior of women bodes well in school, but not in the corporate world, whereas, my argument is that that’s not the explanation. What’s really happening is in school, performance is graded objectively. You get 94 out of 100 questions right, it doesn’t matter what your personality is, it doesn’t matter how long you study, you still got a 94.

In the corporate world, especially in today’s knowledge economy, it’s really hard to tell who’s doing a good job. We don’t have grades, so we grade instead of on competence, we grade on visibility, who is talking about their work the loudest and the most and all these really visible behaviors that correlate more highly with men.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting how the grades go. When it’s subject to a human interpretation like, “Oh, I like that behavior,” “I don’t like that behavior,” then that can work against women in your worldview.

I guess, now I’m intrigued I guess when it comes to sales. That’s one of the grand sort of fair zones of performance. It’s like, “How many sales did you make?” We’ve got a number, so we can compare that there. Do women fair better in sales? I don’t actually know that answer.

Marissa Orr
I don’t actually know that either, but I think – it’s a good question – but I think there’s so many kinds of sales and so many industries. I think the context is really important, but it’s a really interesting question. I haven’t looked at it through the lens of just sales.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so I’m with you. That is intriguing. I remember when I was at my cousin, graduated from high school a couple of years ago. I was beholding all of the valedictorians – and I was a male valedictorian in high school – but they were outnumbered like four to one. It was like 80% of the valedictorians were women. It was like interesting.

Marissa Orr
It is interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Then the numbers in terms of colleges, in terms of getting into college and then not flunking out of college are also more so in favor to women. I guess I’m really intrigued. We talk about the systemic dysfunction. You had a great video in which you shared some statistics associated with how many men versus women want to be the CEO. Can you share that piece for us?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. One of the statistics that I cite in the book is the fact that only 18% of women aspire to sort of executive or C-level roles versus 35% of men. I think what you’re talking about – is it when I said that means that the majority of the population doesn’t want to be CEO.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Marissa Orr
Why don’t we look at what’s wrong with the job instead of all the people who don’t want it?

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. I think that’s a compelling point there. So what is wrong with the jobs and the systems and the hierarchies and the competitiveness? You say it’s old. It’s from the Industrial Revolution. What about that is suboptimal here now today?

Marissa Orr
There’s just so many things to talk about with respect to this, so if I go off on a tangent on any of them, just rein me back in.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure thing.

Marissa Orr
But I did want to dovetail off that earlier point quickly because it is obviously relevant. Of it is not just the systems, it’s how we’re measuring female progress because obviously one of the measurements that we use is positions like CEOs and corporate executives.

Only 18% of women desire to be a corporate CEO. That means the majority of women don’t want to be one. If we push them to do it anyway and they get the corner office, but they sit there sad and alone, can we really call that success? I think that goes back to what I mean about embracing women’s stated desires.

If we did a study on how many men want to run their household and do the majority of chores and domestic tasks, I wouldn’t think it would be much more than 18% either, but we don’t sort of make nationwide campaigns to push up those numbers. We judge sort of what women do in a way – or what women want in a way that we never really do with men.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. You talk about the campaigns and I’ve sort of wondered we’ve got sort of the gender wage gap with I don’t know the number of cents now – 72-ish cents on the dollar – but sometimes I wonder about the gender child time gap, like men only spend 41 minutes on the hour with their children as compared to women. But I don’t see that campaign being made.

Marissa Orr
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
So I think you’re really onto something. Discrimination and bad behavior totally happened, but you’re saying, “Hey, let’s take a look at what people actually want as a way of evaluating things.”

Marissa Orr
Yeah. What a revolutionary idea, right? Actually measure female progress based on what women say that would make them happy or make them sort of improve their wellbeing, which is a whole other chapter, which is in the book called Well-being Versus Winning, measuring female progress on wellbeing instead of winning, how we’re winning against men or in the corporate world. But should I go back to your question about what I mean with-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please go. Please continue.

Marissa Orr
Okay. I was going to go back to the original question, which is I think how the systems are broken. One of the ways is what I mentioned about grading on visibility versus competence because in a knowledge economy – and anyone who works in a big corporation knows that it’s really hard to tell these days who’s doing a good job.

When your job is to create marketing campaigns and strategies and even service customers, most people don’t even agree on what success looks like, let alone know who’s achieving such success or making an impact. We talk about creativity and imagination, but those things are really hard to see and measure.

One of the ways that it’s broken is that we really use these subjective and emotional measures, which are riddled with biases, to determine who’s doing a good job and we default to these proxies.

But another way is the reward system. Once you get past a certain level of management and make a certain salary, the only reward really that’s there to motivate people to climb higher and higher up the corporate ladder is power, more power over more people. But-

Pete Mockaitis
Right because you’re saying money – you’ve already got more money than you need, so it doesn’t do much for you to go from two million to two and a quarter million.

Marissa Orr
Exactly. When you look at what’s driving those people to keep going, it’s power. Research is fairly conclusive that that kind of power – power has a lot of definitions, but I’m talking about professional authority, power that’s based on your position in a hierarchy. It’s not universally motivating. A lot of women are less sort of unsatisfied.

It seems so obvious. We learn in kindergarten, everybody likes different things, but at work there’s only that one thing, so naturally the winners are going to be the ones who like that one thing more than anybody else. If you-

Pete Mockaitis
Power lovers get the power.

Marissa Orr
Well, I mean, yeah. What kind of – one of the things I joke about, but have you ever seen a corporate CEO that is kind of more like a hippy than a Gordon Gekko? No. The profile of winners are always going to be the same if you’re only motivating a very narrow subset of your workforce.

One of the things I talk about is increasing the variety of incentives. There’s other ones too, but I’ll pause here if you want to go in a different direction or have a-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool, yeah. It’s a good point. Just while we’re there, what are some of the other incentives that should be on the menu?

Marissa Orr
Well, research also shows that women have less – their life goals are – fewer of them are focused on this kind of power. They have more life goals and they’re more varied. Some of that is balance. I would have traded 50,000 dollars’ worth of my salary for increased flexibility.

But those things in the corporate world are looked at as let’s say weakness. If you’re not in the office as much as somebody else, you’re not going to get the work assignments, the recognition and the respect if you’re only there part time. It’s not only just the incentives; it’s really how those incentives are viewed, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Marissa Orr
That’s one example. The truth is when I talk to women who’ve read the book, one of the things that really resonates with them is a part where I say that people say women lean out or don’t want to lean in once they have kids or childcare and all that stuff. That’s all very true, but I think there’s another reason.

[18:00]

I think when women start having kids and get into more of their middle to later 30s, with their time squeezed, they have dramatically lower tolerance for the office politics and BS frankly. So many women I know want to go to work and do a great job and they want work that’s meaningful, but there is just so much politics and bureaucracy and stuff that really doesn’t matter.

I think that’s another big reason that you don’t see women wanting to climb higher and higher. It’s just not – good, competent work is not rewarded, so what is left there for women at the office, but these power games that they have no interest in playing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly. That makes sense, especially if you have less time, your opportunity cost is increased and you see that junk, you’re like, “Why am I spending my life in this way?”

Marissa Orr
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I can do something else.” That makes sense.

Marissa Orr
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Then let’s share a bit about strengths that are more often associated with women and more often associated with men.  I want to get your take first of all just because some folks aren’t even on board with that notion that men and women are different. In fact, I found an American Psychological Association brief entitled Men and Women: No Big Difference. What’s your take on this one?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. That’s interesting. I have so many things to say on this point, but with respect to that study, I have to look at it and see what that headline really captures because sometimes there are nuances, but I think what it’s probably referring to is the fact that men and women largely are the same when it comes to personality traits. I think it’s something like 60% overlap, so yeah, that makes sense.

However, at the extremes – and 40% is not insignificant – there are differences. After all, testosterone is proven to run – we all know that that – men have more and women have more estrogen and that those hormones influence our behavior, so I don’t think that we can sidestep that sort of biological fact.

But the other thing is we all – I don’t know – I have two boys and a girl and everybody talks about freely, “Oh, boys are like this. Girls are like this.” There’s certain elements of their behavior and personality that are different. We joke about it. If you say to your mom friend or whatever, “Oh, my boys are so wild. Your girls play so nicely. Girls are – they’re not as rambunctious, whatever,” nobody accuses you of being sexist for saying that. It’s kind of something we all intuitively see with our own eyes.

But the second you put an element of power into the equation, people go crazy and take a lot of issue with that. For example, when the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus came out all those years ago, I don’t recall that being a controversial thing. It was focused on the therapeutic and communication aspect to it. We accept that in a way.

But when it comes to power and money, I think people really take issue because they believe that if we say men and women are different, that it’s implying one’s better than the other or one’s weak and one’s strong. If you say, “More women like red and more men like green,” there’s nothing offensive about that.

Pete Mockaitis
How dare you, Marissa.

Marissa Orr
Right. People would accept that without an argument if that’s what a study said. People wouldn’t bat an eye. But it’s when you put in things like, “Women don’t want professional authority as much as men,” people start to see that as – they start making value judgments on it. I think that’s really people’s issue is the value judgment.

When you report on things like this, if they perceive that one is better than the other, it makes people defensive. But when I say women don’t want professional authority as much, I don’t mean women don’t want power. Power is a much broader concept and that’s just one kind of power.

I think women wield incredible amount of power in this world. They just – it’s not the power through a male-world view. Men have a very different relationship to power. The power men and women wield are different in a lot of ways. The only reason that would be offensive is if someone’s making a value judgment on one being better than the other.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an interesting perspective there. Folks tend to get really riled up when it has to do with power, but if it’s about boys and girls and what they do on the play yard or color preferences, then it’s no big deal.

Marissa Orr
Or if you say, “Men like sports – watching sports more than women. Women-”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s outrageous.

Marissa Orr
Right. Nobody cares when you say it on things that they don’t believe is superior.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s intriguing. When you talk about sports, now if we’re talking about consumer activity, now these are just facts that every marketer knows. Well, yeah, this product is interesting for women or for men, which is why we’re pursing advertising in particular channels because those are also consumed disproportionately more so by women, more so by men. Fun fact, the vast majority of my audience is women.

Marissa Orr
Hi girls.

Pete Mockaitis
Isn’t that interesting?

Marissa Orr
Hi ladies.

Pete Mockaitis
But we also have about a quarter of gentlemen, so hello to you as well.

Marissa Orr
Hi men.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so with that being established, then what are some of the research findings about the strengths that show up at work that are more so tend to be represented more frequently in women and then more so represented among men?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Something is a strength only in context because let’s take the corporate world, which is mostly competitive. At Google and Facebook it was a zero-sum game. It was very intensely competitive. We think of these companies as sort of progressive, new wave organizations, but their structures are exactly like any other corporation. These are very intense zero-sum games.

If my teammate gets a promotion, it means I didn’t. Even performance scores are graded on distributions, where you can’t be equally amazing as your peer. You have to be a little more amazing or a little less amazing, so it’s all very intensely completive. In that context, some of the strengths – some of the common behaviors and traits of men show up as strengths.

Men are more motivated by competition. Research shows that in competitive scenarios they perform better. In the corporate world you see that as a strength.

But research also shows that women are more collaborative and they are not as satisfied or motivated by these zero-sum games. They prefer win-win scenarios, but in the corporate world there’s not many – you don’t come by much of that. In that context, even though collaboration is a strength in many respects, in the corporate world it becomes not a strength.

Research shows that women perform worse in competitive environments. Their performance suffers. They become less creative. Then the opposite happens when it’s collaborative. That’s what I mean by strengths depend on the context.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an outstanding example. Could you lay it on us? What are some other strength representations that we see more so with men versus women and vice versa?

Marissa Orr
There’s a thing I talk about in the book, a story, there’s a book called The Confidence Code. I really sort of try and unravel its premise, but one of the stories from the book that I talk about that they have is there’s a women giving a presentation in a room. She sort of starts to hesitate before she moves on to the next point. She tries to get a temperature of the room so she knows which way to go next in her presentation.

And a man – it was I think her manager – was a man talked to her afterward because he saw that hesitation as lack of confidence. He said, “These things hurt women. They show up as less confident.”

When I read that story, my first thought was she’s demonstrating empathy. More women have a talent for taking the temperature of a room, building consensus. That was my interpretation of what she did there. If the goal was to really build a consensus as a team moving forward, she was doing great. If the goal is to act like you know everything and that you have this infallible certainty and are decisive, then she failed at that.

“What do we want from people at work?” is the question. But that consensus building is another strength that, again, can be interpreted as weakness depending on your perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Give us some more of typical men’s strengths, typical women’s strengths.

Marissa Orr
Let’s see, another example. Again, context. There’s times when you need a really authoritative voice, where certain situations call for a display of dominance in a room to align people towards something. Research shows that men communicate with the intent to establish sort of authority. In situations that call for it, that comes out as a strength for many men.

I want to make one thing clear too, when I say men are like this and women are like this, I’m obviously not talking about all men and all women. A good portion – could be upwards of maybe 30% of men have some strength that’s female dominant. These aren’t black and white things. I just talk about them that way because if I created all those nuances are conversation would be ten hours long.

It also doesn’t mean that men should behave one way and women should behave another. The goal is to behave authentic to who you are. These are just more reports of – observations on patterns of behavior. That’s an important distinction. Maybe it’s obvious. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s handy. Sure. Thank you. What else have we got there?

Marissa Orr
Wow. Let’s see. Empathy, cooperative, consensus building, win-win for women, that’s a lot, no?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Marissa Orr
There’s more in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
… for men. Do men have …?

Marissa Orr
Oh, oh, I mention-

Pete Mockaitis
Competitive, authoritative, dominance.

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Assertiveness, things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, then given that how do we go about leveraging these strengths optimally, both to get great results as well as to look good doing it, to get our props and advance?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Well, there’s a few things. One is just how we frame this conversation. First we need to stop measuring women against what men have. We need to stop thinking about female progress in terms of winning and really kind of reorient to wellbeing because then we’re serving the largest issues for women for people who need it most. It’s really about how we measure it.

I think also people are diverse by their very nature. The reason that diversity is not reflected at the top of the corporate world is because it rewards a subset of that behavior. I think first, we need to recognize that our institutions, as they are today, are limited. They’re not built to fulfill lots of people’s needs.

For women, I think the first step is always to turn inward and really kind of untether yourself from how your company defines success and how your peers define success and really better understand how you as a person define it. What is most important to your wellbeing?

If a promotion is going to get you a rung higher, but you’re playing more politics, which you hate, and you’re working longer hours, which you don’t want, that is not your definition of success and it’s okay to set the terms for what you need and what you want.

A lot of this is really on an individual to learn more about what their own strengths are, how they can put those to work in a corporate setting while understanding that that setting might not be designed to capitalize on those strengths. A lot of is about figuring out how your institution/organization can meet your needs, how they can’t, and then how you, yourself, can fill the gaps.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, I dig it. Well, then when it comes to some of the stuff that’s broken, do you have any kind of short-term tactics like, “Okay, you’ve got a broken system?” What are some maybe self-defense tactics or things that you’ve got to do just to make sure you don’t get an unfair shake?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Well, I go into a whole chapter about this in the book. There’s so many things to say to all these great questions. But I think ultimately we have to own our own path and our own success. For people suffering – can you be more specific so I can give you kind of maybe a personal story of how I handled something of that nature?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Well, so for example, if there’s tons of subjectivity going on and you’ve got the right stuff. You’re bringing it and delivering good things, but it doesn’t seem to be kind of noticed/appreciated/rewarded, what do you do?

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Well, I think people need to get really clear with their management team or their direct manager about how their success is being measured. It’s a conversation we rarely have with our manager at the beginning of performance season. We talk more about – or at least in my experience at Google and Facebook – we really talked much more about what our goals were more so than what success looked like.

Pete Mockaitis
So your personal goals as an individual professional.

Marissa Orr
No, no, your work goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, the work goals.

Marissa Orr
For example, if you talk with your manager at the beginning of every quarter about what your goals are for the quarter. Let’s say you have five of them. Let’s say we build this new order entry system and we get 50% there by the end of the quarter. That’s your goal.

One important question to ask is how are you measuring if we get to 50%. What does 50% look like? What does 100% look like? What does a bad job on this specific goal look like? It’s a question we rarely ask, but at the end of the quarter, if you get a bad grade, if you haven’t asked how you’re being measured, you don’t really have anything to stand on.

But if your manager at the beginning of the quarter says, “Well, if we get X, Y, and Z in place, then we’ve reached 50%,” then at the end of the quarter you can show whether or not you’ve reached X, Y, and Z. That’s a much more objective way of communicating how well you did that quarter. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, understood. So you want to get crystal clear on okay, these numbers, what’s the numerator? What’s the denominator?

Marissa Orr
Or what the expectations are. What does success look like? Paint me a picture. What are the five things that need to be sort of very clearly accomplished for me to exceed expectations this quarter? I think the more specific and objective things that you can get from your manager, the easier it is to make a case for your performance.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. More tips like this please. Lay them on us.

Marissa Orr
Yeah. Well, it’s hard though because in most positions in corporate America, your manager has absolute power over you and your livelihood. Even when you get a bad grade and you don’t deserve it, there’s really no recourse. Sometimes all of this advice is meaningless because you are basically – your career is at the whim of this person with total power over you. It’s kind of like tyranny by another name.

I think until our corporations have better systems in place to – like checks and balances on some of that power so that if you did do those five things and you still got a bad grade, there’s something in the company that you can – a team – HR is really mostly there to serve the people in power. I would say HR, but they’re not set up with any real authority to help.

I think part of the onus is on the organizations to rebalance that power a little bit to the employees so that if you do a good job and you do get a bad grade, if you have these objective measures – I don’t want to say a court, a trial, but there needs to be some recourse. Showing these objective metrics helps that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.

Marissa Orr
I just want to be real about it because so much business advice that people give in theory is great, but when you’re in a power structure under somebody with total power over you, it kind of doesn’t matter.

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

Marissa Orr
Nope, I think we covered it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Marissa Orr
I hoard quotes. It’s a little like asking to pick favorite children, but one quote that I love because I think it has a lot to do with kind of the story of me and my work life and how I came to write this book, it’s a proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

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

Marissa Orr
One thing that’s in the book that I love is research showing that disagreeable people, so people that are not very likeable let’s say – and disagreeableness is one of the – or agreeableness one of the five big personality trait categories. So disagreeable people are more likely to get ahead in business than agreeable people, so people that are – agreeable people are more warm and likeable. It’s actually a detriment to getting ahead in the business world.

Being unlikeable, being disagreeable is a better predictor of who rises to the top. By the way, the authors of these studies always say it doesn’t mean they’re better in that job, it just means they’re more likely to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, I can just think of so many examples in which folks who were less agreeable are just all the more comfortable demanding the thing they want or the goal is, whereas I’m pretty agreeable.

Marissa Orr
I am too.

Pete Mockaitis
Where sometimes I’m just like, “Well, okay, I guess we can do that your way.”

Marissa Orr
Yeah, I’m actually-

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to “No, this is not optimal per the objectives. Fix it now.”

Marissa Orr
Totally. Absolutely. By the way, in every person – I’m like the highest on the continuum of agreeable that you could possibly be, which says a lot about why I never made it to the top in that world, but it is what it is. I’m happier now.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. How about a favorite book?

Marissa Orr
Again, it’s hard. One book – can I say two books?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Marissa Orr
One book that gave me sort of some of my best foundational understanding of behavior is a book from the ‘80s from a psychologist called Nathaniel Branden. The title is terrible, clearly needed some marketing help, but it’s called The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. It really opened my eyes and was a paradigm changing book for me. I understood myself and people in a totally new way, so I love that book.

Then when I was going through a hard time at Facebook, I read this other book that really got me into sort of another paradigm shift and it got me into meditation and changed my life in other ways. That is called The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Marissa Orr
You’re welcome.

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

Marissa Orr
Does meditation count?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Marissa Orr
I would say I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without meditation because it was a foundation for me to learn discipline and a host of other life skills that I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite nugget, something that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they say, “Yes, that is so right and wise. Thank you, Marissa.”

Marissa Orr
Nothing I ever say to my kids that’s for sure because that’s never their reaction.

I would say that if you really get the fact that at the end of the day all people want is to be heard, I think a lot of problems in this world would be solved because we’re always trying to – we speak to other people, we listen with the intent to sort of control them or control the situation and everything is about control. Things work in the exact opposite way.

When you try and control people, they rebel in ways big and small, but if you really try and understand people, things have a way of working themselves out. When people feel heard, they are empowered. They’re empowered to fix their own problems and whatever. I think that’s a very underestimated concept when it comes to communication.

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

Marissa Orr
They can find me on Twitter at MarissaBeth. It’s M-A-R-I-S-S-A Beth B-E-T-H Orr O-R-R, @MarissaBethOrr, on Medium, it’s just @MarissaOrr and LeanOutTheBook.com, but also it’s on Amazon for preorder, but LeanOutTheBook.com is the book’s site.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Marissa Orr
Turn inward. Know who you are and hold on to that regardless of what those around you are doing or saying. Just be you. How’s that for a clichéd ending?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it was fun. Well, Marissa, I wish you all the best. Keep on doing the good work and have fun with it.

Marissa Orr
Thanks so much. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.