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Career Management

401: Finding, Creating, and Maintaining a Great Work Culture with Brian Fielkow

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CEO Brian Fielkow walks through creating and maintaining a good work culture then reveals how prospective employees can find out if they fit a new workplace’s culture.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why customers pay for culture
  2. Brian’s definition of a healthy work culture
  3. How to discover if you are a cultural fit at the interview stage

About Brian

Brian Fielkow, J.D., is the CEO of Jetco Delivery, a multimillion-dollar Houston-based trucking and logistics company with 200+ employees that was named a “Top Workplace” by the Houston Chronicle, highlighted on the 2015 Inc. 5000 list, and given the Gold Safety Award by the DOW Chemical Company. Brian is also the author of “Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture.”

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brian Fielkow Interview Transcript

Brian Fielkow
She’s well known in Hawaii and she’s starting to make a good name on the mainland. But the song, Island Inside Me, I wrote for my wife for our anniversary.

I just have these lyrics going around in my head, but I’m not a songwriter, I can’t sing, I’m not a musician. I connected with Anuhea. We put this song together sort of as an anniversary gift. It took off. It was a pretty cool experience. I don’t think I’ll have that experience again, but to have that song. Every once in a while I’ll hear it on Sirius-type stations. It’s kind of neat.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, could you sing perhaps the refrain or the chorus or a segment for us?

Brian Fielkow
Oh, you don’t want me to sing anything, but I know she’s got it posted. I know it’s available. It’s again, Island Inside Me, but if I sang it, I think we’d lose all of our listeners right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, fair enough. We’ll play it safe this time.

Brian Fielkow
Play it safe, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
You have a deep expertise when it comes to culture matters. You have some real hands-on experience instead of only doing research and writing books. Maybe could you orient us a little bit to where you’ve come from and why culture has become an issue that really matters to you so much?

Brian Fielkow
Yeah, I have kind of an interesting career. It’s not one that you could have ever planned coming out of school. I began my career practicing corporate law in Milwaukee. Maybe six or seven years in, I went to go work for my favorite client. They were in the recycling business. It was a wonderful opportunity.

We built that business while I was there for a good six – seven years. We sold it to Waste Management. I worked at Waste for a couple years. Then I bought my current company about 13 – 14 years ago, Trucking and Logistics. I’ve seen large Fortune 500 companies, I’ve seen entrepreneurial companies, everything in between.

It was interesting when I got into recycling coming out of the law business, I noticed that what we were selling were bales of cardboard. A bale of cardboard is a bale of cardboard, but we were commanding a premium. It took me a while to figure out why would anybody pay us more for what’s in the truest sense of the word a commodity.

It didn’t take me long to realize that other people would promise an order of a thousand tons and they’d ship 700. There was so much gamesmanship in the business, but we did what we said. People were paying us a premium for peace of mind. They weren’t really buying our cardboard; they were buying our peace of mind. That was a lesson I got very early on post law.

It kind of woke me up to the fact that every one of our businesses with rare exception to some degree is commoditized. I got really interested in de-commoditizing what we do, not having it to compete as much on price. Yes, the price is important, but if we can get to a situation where a customer appreciates our value proposition more than just the core product or service you’re offering, you can command a higher price.

Over the years I learned that what people are really paying for is your culture, kind of how you do things, what makes you different, that secret ingredient that nobody else can steal.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Your culture is what they’re paying for. It’s how you do things differently, your secret sauce. Is that how you define culture in those ways or do you have a particular definition that you run with?

Brian Fielkow
Yeah, let me give you how I define it. There are books and books on culture and the theory behind it. I’m not a fan of the theory because we’re practitioners and we need to know now. I’m going to keep it real simple and say that in simplest terms, you’ve got the beginning of a healthy culture when you’ve got the right people and the right processes working in harmony.

In a healthy culture, you’ve got the convergence of people and process, that’s what yields consistent and hopefully excellent results for the customer. You could have the right people and no process and every day is a new day. You could have the right process and the wrong people and forget about that. I’ve learned over the years that it’s getting the right people, the right process working in harmony.

It’s also rooting your company in a well-defined set of values. We have so many arrows coming at us in the business world, so many different priorities that sometimes we forget that there’s this adhesive that binds us together.

I can’t tell any business what their values should be, but once you’ve established your values, you’ve got to live by them. You don’t compromise your values. That’s something that your team needs to understand, your customers understand. It’s the adhesive that binds your company together through good times and bad, where priorities, on the other hand, they change by the day. We have customer issues. We’ve got service issues.

But those priorities never, ever compromise our core values, who we are and what’s important to us and what’s important to our team. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got to walk the walk. You’ve got to live and breathe your values. Whether you’re in the C-suite, whether it’s your first day on the job, you’ve got to agree that these are the rules that we’re going to play by.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting you said you cannot tell another company what their values should be. I guess I’m imagining there are some that would generally be a recipe for good things and some that would be a recipe for bad things and a whole lot that it’s sort of – it’s a matter of finding the right fit in terms of the people and the processes and the industry and kind of what is your focus as a business.

Could you give us an example of some values that are unique because I think a lot of organizations will say, hey, integrity of course is a big value. I think sometimes they live it and walk the talk and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t really seem so distinctive when you hear that integrity is a value.

But it seems like in your practice, integrity is defined as doing what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it really was a differentiator there. Could you give us some examples of different values and how they come to life?

Brian Fielkow
Sure. Let’s talk about integrity for a minute because you’re right. That can sound over used. What company in the world doesn’t say integrity is a core value?

But now look around and if you watch football as much as I do, you’ve seen the Wells Fargo ads, established in 1860-something, reestablished in 2018. Why? Because they had integrity issues that really hurt their reputation, opening up fictitious accounts. It was a pretty big deal. Wells Fargo had to do work to repair its brand because of integrity.

It’s something you take for granted, but then you realize that if you let it slip and don’t focus on it, it could slip intentionally or unintentionally. Something even as simple and common place as integrity, if you as the leader aren’t living it and are kind of looking the other way, one lie will breed a thousand lies.

If I’ve got a problem with a customer, I’m not going to make something up. I’m going to tell the customer what happened and how we’re going to fix it. Even though the customer may be upset, hopefully over time, the customer will respect me more because people can smell a lie a mile away.

If my team sees me behaving in that manner, they’re going to follow my lead. On the other hand, if my team sees me acting with integrity, they’re going to follow my lead. Especially as we’re starting to work with younger and younger employees, people just don’t want to work in a company where the values are adrift. Integrity.

Another great example is respect. Again, people use respect too loosely, in my opinion. When I say respect, what I’m talking about is treating people like human beings first and employees second. That’s the ultimate respect. The ultimate form of disrespect is anonymity, “Hey, you’re number 100. Go do your job. Punch in, punch out,” not knowing a thing about that employee personally.

As my company is growing, I can’t know a thing about all my employees but my managers better. There needs to be something in the culture that makes sure that my managers know their employees like I know my direct reports so that everyone is accounted for and that the ultimate form of respect, like I said, is making sure that people’s overall human needs are met and that nobody, no matter if it’s their first day on the job, feels like all they’re doing is punching a clock and if they didn’t show up, it wouldn’t matter. That’s just a horrible situation to be in.

Respect is a value. Those are some of the things that we do that promote respect regardless of what it is you do because you’re an important member of the team regardless.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, okay. I would love to dig in a little bit in terms of thinking about values when it comes to finding fit with regard to career planning. How do you think about that game—I’d say both in terms of zeroing in on what values matter to you and then assessing whether a company really has it? Because I think a number of cultural pieces in terms of how things are done in a given organization really can vary and vary fine and suit different people differently.

For example, I think that some folks would say, “Oh yeah, we’re all about collaboration and so we’ve got an open office floor plan and we’ve got bays with ten employees in each of them, so they’re always kind of seeing and interacting with folks. We’re always on Slack and doing that.” Then some folks would say, “That would drive me insane. I need my quiet time to really focus and go deep in creating stuff.”

That would be sort of a natural mismatch when it comes to sort of how you prefer to do your thing and how the organization is doing their thing. How do you think about navigating this whole fit and research game?

Brian Fielkow
Such a great question because whenever I see forced fun, I run away. I go in the opposite direction. For me, having a slide in the middle of the office and having all those amenities, that’s all well and good, but that’s not culture. People mistake that kind of stuff for culture. Culture is not campfire fun and games stuff. This is a hardcore business proposition.

If kind of the slide in the office fits your culture and it’s in the context of an overall healthy culture, it’s fine. But if you’re using those bells and whistles to get employees in and then once they come in, they realize you’re in a toxic environment, that doesn’t work.

To me, there’s some subjectivity to it. There’s definitely a component of individual taste. Maybe I prefer a company that’s more formal. Or maybe I prefer a company that’s more casual. Maybe having a social life with my coworkers is important. Maybe I don’t want it at all. Maybe the company is extremely hierarchical, has a well-defined org chart. Maybe the company is more loosely defined.

All that’s okay and none of that is indicative of whether the company has a healthy culture or a poor culture. It’s how the company chooses to operate. It’s its own personality. That’s where you’ve got to find the fit. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer there.

But when you want to talk about how do I find the right culture, regardless of whether it’s hierarchical or loose, whether we’re wearing suits or whether we’re wearing shorts, that’s the key is to dig beyond the surface, dig beyond the slide. It’s not one-size fits all.

I think the best advice I could give somebody is when you’re doing an interview, you definitely – you’re going to speak with the hiring manager. You might speak with human resources. But the real people you want to talk to are prospective peers, prospective coworkers.

We do that with pretty much all of our job interviews. Again, it doesn’t matter the level that we’re hiring for. We want to be sure that peers can talk unscripted and what it’s really like to work here. We want to make full disclosure. We want to make full disclosure about our company. We’re proud of it, but we know that just like any other company, we’re not a fit for everybody.  We’d rather know that before we make a hiring decision or before you would agree to join our company.

There’s nothing like a peer-to-peer interview where you can ask questions. “What’s it really like to work here?” The company’s recruiting brochure says X, Y, Z, but six months later is that really what’s happening? Do they have a good-looking recruiting brochure or are they really delivering the goods?

The absolutely best advice I can give is do your homework on the company. Understand what the company is all about. Understand its culture. But peer-to-peer man, that’s really where you’re going to learn what it’s like to work there.

By the way, if that peer-to-peer interview goes well, now you’re new coworkers, they know you before you start. They’ve got a vested interest in integration. They’ve got a vested interest in bringing you in and helping you succeed.

If they say to the hiring manager, “Wow, thumbs up. Let’s bring this person in,” that opens the door and creates a pathway for success in a way that just a traditional interview and “By the way everybody, here’s your new coworker who you’ve never met,” that doesn’t work quite as well.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious if that organization – if you’re interviewing an organization and they don’t have the wisdom to … process, do you have any pro tips in terms of how you’d go about proactively having those conversations and some of the key things you’d want to say when you’re in the midst of them to learn what you really need to learn?

Let’s say that I’m interviewing at an organization. They did not give me the benefit of engaging in these conversations peer-to-peer, so it’s a little bit more on me to be proactive in terms of finding these people, having these conversations. How shall I find them and engage them and what should we say when we’re talking?

Brian Fielkow
Well, a lot of companies may not offer the ability to interview a peer. First thing is you just ask. Say, “Hey, could I interview somebody in the department that I’m – can I meet with somebody in the department that I’m interviewing to work in?” A lot of times the companies may say yes, but if they say “No, that’s not our practice. We don’t do that,” okay, let’s respect that.

But I would still ask the hiring manager questions like “What are your company’s values? Give me a feeling for when those values were challenged. How did the company respond?” Just like they’re going to ask you those questions. They’re going to ask you, “Tell me a particularly difficult problem or difficult situation. How did you address it?” You better be prepared to answer that. Well, I think it’s a fair question for employers too is, “Tell me your story.”

If you look at an interview as a two-way street, not just the hiring manager interviewing you, look at it as a conversation. You’ll be able to develop the feel just almost organically in a conversation. If it’s that tight and that rigid and you don’t have that opportunity, the company is telling you something about its personality.

I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying that’s probably not a place I’d want to work. That’s not kind of how we bring employees in. I want an open door, full disclosure. But if companies don’t do that, with social media you can still network and find people who work there and talk to them informally or former employees, talk to them. But you can also have that same conversation with your hiring manager.

I love it when people come in, they’ve done their homework on the company and they challenge me with questions. That tells me that I’m dealing with somebody exceptional, who understands that the interview is a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that point on social media. LinkedIn is so cool with all the filters that you can dig in and search for folks that way.

Brian Fielkow
People used to call LinkedIn the boring version of Facebook or Instagram, but LinkedIn is the encyclopedia for how to network. I use it all the time. It’s such a valuable tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I really love that question you asked in terms of “Tell me about a time a value was challenged,” because I think a lot of times you’re probably going to get total blank stare response, like “Uh, these are just the words we repeat. I can’t think of any real experiences to share with you right now.” That tells you something right there.

But now you’ve got me curious, Brian can you tell me about a time in your company that you had a core value that got challenged and how did you live it out?

Brian Fielkow
Sure. In 2015 – ’16, we’re in trucking and logistics in Houston. That was a rough time. The energy markets collapsed and business was really challenged. We had to make some very difficult decisions.

In doing so, it wasn’t like memos from the C-suite; we brought our employees into the process. When we had to make the company smaller and downsize, we met with our employees. We treated them with respect. We made sure that everybody knew what we were doing, why we were doing.

What it did is it created sort of a foxhole mentality that we’re not working around our employees. We’ve not sugar coating like, “Oh, everything’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” We brought them in and we fought the war together because we were so transparent and open with them. You’ve got to be prepared to share good news and bad news.

In doing that, for example, safety in our company is a core value. We don’t compromise it. Well, no matter how rough business got, no maintenance got deferred. Every single vehicle was maintained regardless of the company’s financial performance.

I’ve seen other organizations where “Oh, business is bad. Let’s figure out where to cut. Well, we can cut maintenance.” No, if safety is a core value, you don’t cut, you don’t defer maintenance. You keep running your business.

I can use that time when this company was really challenged and really stressed by a rough economy. People in other businesses were losing their jobs left and right in Houston during that time and we just took a very contrarian approach that we’re taking our employees with us. Even though we couldn’t take everybody with us, and we did have to let people go. It was done, like I said, with dignity, with respect and then with complete transparency to the rest of the team.

That’s created kind of I think an unparalleled level of camaraderie as the company has rebounded, recovered, and grown so well in the past couple years.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, could you share some other perspectives when it comes to zeroing in on determining if a culture is a fit for you?

Do you have some extra perspectives and tips when it comes to determining if an opportunity has a good cultural fit for you?

Brian Fielkow
Yeah, I think that you’ve got to be careful not to conform yourself to become somebody that you’re not. Don’t mold yourself to a culture that doesn’t fit. You’ve got to understand what fits.

In our situation, in a healthy culture, you’ve got to have employees who are technically excellent and who are in line with the company’s values. You get yourself in a lot of trouble when you look the other way.

I’ve got a technically excellent employee that’s walking all over everybody else, just a horrible team player. Well, I have to either coach that employee back in to working within our values or they can’t be part of the team no matter how technically good they are.

A lot of times we look the other way when it comes to technically good people even if they’re destroying the morale of the company. As an employer, you’ve got to stand up to that and be sure that you’ve got people who are value aligned and who know what they’re doing.

Well, similarly, for the employees, you can’t really fake it. I’m assuming you got the job because technically you met the criteria, but in a healthy culture, I hope that you’re yourself, that you don’t force anything. In a healthy culture you’ll be challenged.

Hopefully that culture will make you a better employee and a better person and hopefully you’ll do the same. You’ll make the company a better company and you’ll improve your coworkers. But if it doesn’t fit, you’ve got to know it.

I’ve seen too many times where people jump at the money. They jump at the money. “Oh, somebody wants me, I’m going to accept the job,” without asking these questions of “Am I going to be happy?” You may make money and you’ll be miserable. Life is too short.

That’s why interviewing for culture and being aware of culture is just so critically important because we’ve all had maybe in our careers, the Sunday night blues, kind of that horrible feeling that Monday is coming and I’ve got to a place that I really don’t want to go. I’ve had that in my career.

Because I’ve had that in my career and I understand it so well, part of my job is to make sure that we don’t have the Sunday night blues, that people are excited to come to work because they’re treated right, because it’s a place that they know they fit in. But if you don’t fit in the place and it’s not right for you, you’ve got to know when to get off the bus too.

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

Brian Fielkow
I like to always say that at the foundation of the culture is what I call the three T’s: treatment, transparency, and trust. If you’ve got that and if you work at a company – look I’m in the trucking business. I’ve got a lot of people who told me, “Well, geez, I never thought in my life I would get into the trucking business. How did you as a corporate lawyer decide to do it?”

First of all, I love the industry, but it’s an industry that a lot of people might not necessarily just automatically gravitate to. But it almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as you love the job, you love the people. I think treatment, transparency and trust, whether you’re in a medical office, trucking business, law office, doesn’t matter.

Treatment, like I said before, you’re a human being first, an employee second. The ultimate form of poor treatment is anonymity.

Transparency, is just making sure your team is engaged. The best way to engage your team is to explain the why. If you give me a memo and you say, “Brian, just do it,” my personality is going to be to rebel. I’m not going to do it because you told me to do it. But if you say, “Brian, look here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s the why. It’s not a democracy. I’m not asking for your vote. But here’s the why,” I’ll be a lot more inclined to participate. I’ll be a lot more inclined to support. Just make sure you take time to explain the why.

As an employee, if you don’t know why, ask why. If somebody says, “Well, never mind. It’s none of your business, never mind,” that’s a little tip, isn’t it? But the key to an engaged workforce is for everybody to know their mission, know the company’s mission, know their role. Why?

Then finally trust. If there’s no trust, let’s forget about all this. In a company where trust is lacking, where people say one thing and do another, you’re operating on quicksand. You’re never going to have employee satisfaction where there’s a lack of trust among coworkers, lack of trust where leadership doesn’t trust the employees, employees don’t trust leadership.

Treatment, transparency, and trust are the three critical elements that I would look for in any business. I don’t care what the business does, as a sign of a healthy culture.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Brian Fielkow
The problem with my favorite quote is it’s too long, but I’m going to just read a little bit of it. It’s Teddy Roosevelt’s quote that we’re all here in the game and there’s people on the sidelines. They’re always going to be throwing stones at you.

It says, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I love that quote. I just love it because you’ve got people throwing stones at you your whole life. Just forget about those people and go out there and be your best.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brian Fielkow
I’d like to if possible move to a couple books that I’d like to kind of recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Brian Fielkow
My favorite book, if you took all my books away, would be The Advantage by Pat Lencioni. I think that’s the one book that everybody needs to read in college, coming out of college. I go back to that book all the time. It really lays out the basis for healthy organization and your role in the healthy organization. Really, I like anything that Lencioni writes, but The Advantage is my favorite.

Another book that just came out last year that I’m really into is called The Motivation Myth. Because I’m not terribly into – as you probably can guess by now – I’m not into a lot of the motivational, feel-good speakers and those kinds of books.

What The Motivation Myth does is it takes the concept and turns it on its head and says it’s not like you have to have the motivation then you do the job, then you’re successful. The motivation comes from the journey itself.

The book argues that it’s those small steps. It’s the victories. It’s getting knocked down, getting back up. The motivation comes from those incremental successes. The more you have, the harder you work, the more motivation you have. Motivation isn’t like a prerequisite. Instead, motivation is one of the things that comes from doing something you love.

The book also argues that quit trying to be like some of the celebrity CEOs. They did what worked for them. You’ve got to figure out what works for you. Spend less time emulating and spend more time figuring out what your own formula is. I just love that as opposed to just, “Hey, do what I say. Follow my advice and you’ll be successful.” I just don’t buy that. I buy, you figure out your own formula and that’s the key to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brian Fielkow
Trying to maintain a semblance of work/life balance. I’m not by any stretch nine to five, but I listen to my body rhythm. I listen to how I work. I’m up at crazy hours of the morning because that’s when I work the best, but unless something is really important, you’re not going to find me here – later in the day, you’re not going to find me here necessarily on a Friday afternoon.

What I’ve learned over the years is that we’ve all kind of grew up in this eight to five world or seven to five or whatever it is, but hopefully as technology evolves and as employers become more and more progressive – this isn’t true for every job obviously. If you’re a doctor or a nurse, you’ve got to be with your patients. But for a lot of jobs, the more you can listen to your body clock and know when you’re productive and kind of know when you’ve got that momentum, the more effective you’ll be.

I could do something in a half hour that would take me five hours if I picked the wrong time and the rhythm isn’t there. Listening to your body, kind of knowing how you work. Some people, as you know, are night owls. Some people, again, like me, are up before the sun. But being able to know that and capture it, I think, is the secret to optimum production and success.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your employees and folks who are reading your stuff?

Brian Fielkow
When I’m talking to audiences, I do a lot of keynoting, there’s a couple things. First of all, take your frontlines with you. I use that all the time and it resonates. I don’t like doing keynotes and just kind of closing and leaving. I like to do keynotes and then saying, “All right, what are the takeaways? We’re not here to talk about theory. What are the things that you’ll implement the minute you get back to the office?”

A lot of my keynotes, a lot of my presentation revolves around frontline engagement because I think that as a country, we’ve broken our contract with our frontlines. The more we engage our frontlines, the better. Take your frontlines with you. Bring them in.

In my company our drivers are – we have an elected driver committee that’s part of how we run the company. We’ve got our drivers in management and operational decisions. Take your frontlines with you is very – people use that a lot.

The three T’s. If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, I’ve heard other speakers use the three T’s, but I think I may have invented that one.

Then there’s 20/60/20, which people quote a lot. This is a story when I was at Waste Management. I got to Waste Management at a time when there was a CEO, a brilliant CEO, Maury Myers, was brought in to turn the company around.

He brought his management team into the room. It was a large room. He had a large team. And was kind of rumored to say this, something like this, “20% of you know where we’re going and you’re with me. You know that we’ve got to make changes. I appreciate that. 60% of you, you’re scared. The ship is changing drastically its course. I’m going to work 24/7 to win you over.

The remaining 20% of you have made up your mind. You don’t like me and you don’t like the direction that we’re going. Here’s the commitment I’m going to make to you. This will be the smoothest transition you’ve ever had out of a company, but make no mistake, you’re out.”

20/60/20 means don’t find yourself in that bottom 20. Figure out how to continue to rise in your company. You’ve either got to align with the company’s direction and values or leave. From an employer’s standpoint, you’re not there to bat a thousand, simply not. Part of your job is to weed out the people who are kind of a drain on your culture, a drain on your performance.

I’ll tell you people in my company will use 20/60/20 a lot. We all know what they mean. The three T’s, 20/60/20, take your frontlines with you really are essential things that I talk about not just when I keynote, but when I run my own company.

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

Brian Fielkow
I would point them at my website, which is BrianFielkow, so B-R-I-A-N-F-I-E-L-K-O-W. com. They can also email me, just Brian—B-R-I-A-N @BrianFielkow.com. I’m easy to get in touch with and glad to kind of continue this conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Brian, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in making your culture all the more vibrant and excellent and business growth and all that you’re up to.

Brian Fielkow
Thank you so much for the time. I really enjoyed this conversation.

395: How to Learn Faster with Andrew Geant of WyzAnt

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WyzAnt CEO and Founder Drew Geant discusses the best and worst ways to learn, particularly when engaging a tutor one-on-one.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The most in-demand hard and soft skills
  2. When you should consider engaging in one-on-one lessons
  3. How to give and receive good feedback

About Andrew

Andrew Geant is co-founder and CEO of WyzAnt, which brings the proven impact of personalized learning to all learners via the largest tutoring marketplace and community. WyzAnt has one of 75,000 tutors available within 10 miles of 97% of the US population offering their services in-person and online. Drew co-founded WyzAnt in 2005 with his Princeton classmate, Mike Weishuhn. Today, WyzAnt has 80 employees in offices in Chicago and San Francisco.  With now over 2 million tutors and students that have used the platform, the company was bootstrapped with just $10,000 and has been cash flow positive since inception.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Andrew Geant Interview Transcript

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

Drew Geant
Yeah, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m happy to have you too. Could you first orient us a little bit? Your company, Wyzant – thank you for telling me at last how it’s pronounced. My curiosity is satisfied. What does it do?

Drew Geant
Yeah. Wyzant is an online tutoring marketplace. We have about 75,000 tutors across hundreds of different subject areas. We help match up those tutors with learners who meet with the tutors one-on-one. It used to be in person. Now it’s all happening online or the vast majority of it through our online platform. You can picture a video chat, virtual whiteboard, a bunch of other tools that create this really rich online learning experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. I’ve been dying to – this is sort of fun – to get your take on this because back in the day, previous podcast guest, Muhammed Mekki, brilliant guy. We were both into education and had sort of the entrepreneurial streak. We got to talking one day and ended up creating this little offering and company we called Tutor Trail.

Drew Geant
Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
The principle was it was also online tutoring, specifically for math. The angle we were going for is it would be super affordable, like 20 dollar an hour sessions. The way that was working financially was we had folks in maybe India, Pakistan, Philippines, who are paid less than sort of the US minimum wage and be okay with it.

Drew Geant
Sure, geographic arbitrage. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
If you will, yeah.

Drew Geant
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
It was cool. We got it working in terms of okay, we’ve got some platform, we’ve got some people, who’ve got skills and are reliable and can execute some good experiences. We had a few students try it out and they were having some good times. But the challenge that we ran into is that we had zero revenue and customers.

Drew Geant
Well, revenue and customers are important. Right, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It was so perplexing to us. We thought okay, people are paying for tutoring. Okay, check. This is a great price and people like saving money. Why the heck isn’t this thing seem to be gaining any traction taking off? I figured if anyone would have a great speculative answer it would be you. Where did we go wrong?

Drew Geant
Oh man, the name of the game is – well, you have to have a great product, which sounds like you guys had a good product, and all that good stuff. It’s a big marketing challenge for sure. Unfortunately if you build it, they will not come. You need to figure out how to get it out to the market. What were you guys doing for marketing?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we had a friend who was a superintendent, so we said, “Hey,” we started chatting there. We were – I went to a conference about No Child Left Behind.

Drew Geant
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
We said how can we get the government dollars.

Drew Geant
Yeah, totally. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
With the program there. Turns out there’s a lot of hoops. You’ve got to be kind of established before you can get those dollars. Yeah, we were sort of telling our friends and family and putting the word out, a little bit of Facebook ads. It wasn’t a huge push. We didn’t have funding. We parted with I believe fewer than $3,000 total, which is a great way to fail in a startup if you’re going to.

Drew Geant
Right, right. Yeah man, it’s a tough space. There’s been people – it’s super fragmented as you probably know. There’s plenty of individuals who hang a shingle and that’s great. You can start your own business and do your own marketing. There’s plenty of – there’s brick and mortars. There’s plenty of the online tutors in India and Pakistan. That model exists as well. It’s just crowded and you have to figure out how to differentiate yourself.

For us, we’ve always spent a lot of time on online marketing. I’ve gotten pretty sophisticated there. That’s been a big angle for us. But back in the day, when you’re talking about super early stage, it was pounding the pavement, it was signs on telephone poles, it was – we would literally stand outside a school and directly solicit the parents. We would do anything required to get those first few customers.

Then once we got the marketplace with a certain amount of activity and volume, it began to have some amount of organic growth. But getting it started is the toughest part for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
We talk about a crowded market place, well, most of our listeners are not founders looking to create a business at least right away.

Drew Geant
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
But I think there’s a great lesson there associated with how did you think of what made you unique, distinctive, and the place to go if you wanted tutoring as opposed to those other options?

Drew Geant
There were a few problems we were trying to solve from the outset.

One was price, which we talked about, and really from the tutors’ perspective in particular. If you’re a tutor and you want to go work for a tutoring company back in 2005 when we started, they would probably bill you out at $50 and pay you $15 to $20. That felt a little bit off. We said there’s got to be a better way to – there’s got to be a way to invert that using the internet. That was one problem we set out to solve.

Another one was we had this belief from the very beginning that it was the match between the student and the tutor that really mattered, so what we did was we created these really robust tutor profiles and search capabilities, such that you could really find the perfect fit. That I think continues to prove to be the right sort of way to create the most value is getting that – dialing in that fit.

Today it’s done algorithmically and there’s a lot of data behind it. Those are some of the differentiating factors for us.

[6:00]

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Perfect fit sounds huge. I remember we had a previous guest, Steve Ritter, was saying that there’s some really compelling research that if you’re working with some sort of professional for an intervention, be it a coach or a mentor or a trainer or you name it, counselor, it’s like the fit and rapport between learner or client and provider accounts for just like a substantial proportion of whether or not this thing is going to be successful and deliver what they aspire to deliver.

Drew Geant
Yeah, absolutely. If you’re thinking in the professional context often it may skew a little bit more toward mentoring, although I’m sure we’ll talk about the actual tutoring that happens among adults as well, but it’s all about that. You have to have trust. There has to be accountability. You have to be able to have really sharp communication, be able to give honest feedback, all those things that with a stranger, somebody that you don’t quite connect with, become a lot harder.

It’s crazy how these relationships get built and how strong they become. You see tutors will reach out to their students years later. Their relationship will still be an important part and birthday cards and the whole thing. It becomes very personal.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well so that’s a bit of the story for how Wyzant came to be. I’m enjoying saying it correctly with confidence.

Now what I found rather surprising was that – so your publicist informed me, which is kind of how we got connected here, that adult learners, not high school, college students studying for the GRE or the ACT/SAT, but rather adult learners like me and listeners, are in fact now your largest segment of users of the platform. Is this true and how did it come to be?

Drew Geant
Yeah, it is true. It really happened in the last few years. To be honest, it was something that occurred naturally in the marketplace. We were surprised, to be honest, especially with sort of the higher education learner that we didn’t think would necessarily have the disposable income to invest in tutoring.

Then once we saw the growth in the adult learner, the career learner, that made a lot of sense to us once we stopped and looked at the broader trends of rescaling and upscaling that are going on with the knowledge economy and jobs getting more technical.

We got very excited about that and leaned into it and now that’s really where we want to take the business. We still support a lot of K-12 academic tutoring, but it turns out that we can have sort of an outsized impact for adult learners who are learning very specialized things because that’s what we do. Like I said before, it is really the match between the tutor and the student.

It’s very hard to find a tutor for some super specific technical skill or career-specific discipline. That’s where we’re I think the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Well now you’ve got my wheels turning because I’m thinking about specialized skills. It seems like almost no one is familiar with how to use Google App Maker. Listeners if you know, talk to me. We’d like to make something.

That’s pretty cool. That’s what you’re seeing is it fair to say that it’s less about, “Hey, let me help you with your communication skills or your creativity,” and more about, “Okay, you want Perl, you PHP, you want C++, or a programming language,” more that sort of thing?

Drew Geant
Yeah. There are some soft skills. Presentation skills are a big one. Public speaking is a big one. But the vast majority are technical. I’ll sort of take through what we’re seeing in terms of the subjects.

The first is the computer programming languages like you just said. Also, a lot related to analytics, whether that’s basic Microsoft Excel or visualization tools like Tableau or machine learning and much more advanced analytics topics. We see a lot of software, so people want to learn how to use Salesforce, they want to learn how to use Adobe Creative Suite or AutoCAD.

Having somebody sit down with you, or in this case virtually, but walk though that, share your screen and help you with your project or just generally familiarize with the toolset and how to navigate the software is a perfect use case for 101 sort of tutoring.

We see language. ESL is a big one. People learning Spanish, Chinese for professional purposes. Let’s see, those are some of the biggies. Oh, the other one is professional licensing exams. Almost every career-

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, like CPA.

Drew Geant
Right. Finance you have CPA, you have CFA, you have your series 7, 63, 24. That’s just finance. Teachers have to pass the … and the Praxis and nurses have to pass the NCLEX. Even if you want to be an online marketer, people want to become Adwords certified and Salesforce web developer certified. It just goes on and on. Again, perfect use case, have an expert help walk you through it. It can really shortcut your learning curve in a big way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. You said 75,000 tutors. It sounds like the odds are good that you’ll probably find someone who’s covering what you need covered. That’s pretty interesting.

Then financially – I guess well first tell me, what is sort of the situations that users find themselves in terms of like “Oh shoot, I need some help. I’ve got to go somewhere?” Is there a particular kind of a catalyst or prompt or inciting incident that gets you – get these folks saying “Oh boy, I need to hop on board and get some help?”

Drew Geant
Yeah, it’s a really good question because there is. We’ve positioned ourselves and we’re quite happy to be sort of the support layer. People do come to us and say, “All right, I want to learn JavaScript from scratch,” and they start with a tutor, which is great too, but in most cases there’s some sort of struggle, some sort of – there are a lot of great self-directed learning tools out there from YouTube to Google to on and on.

We think that’s a great place to start, but some percentage of those people are going to get stuck. They’re going to reach an impasse. That’s the point in time mostly where we see they turn to us to get them back on track, to get the boost they need, and help get them unstuck.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Maybe even backing it up before they even embarked upon trying to learn these things. Are they going after just for the love of learning, like, “This is cool and fun and interesting,” or is like, “Uh oh, I’ve got a new role that’s freaking me out and I’m not ready for it?”

Drew Geant
Yeah, that’s actually a surprisingly common use case. We do customer research a lot and you see people get in over their head. They, “Yeah, I know how to do SQL and analytics,” and so they get hired for a job and they’re expected to know those things. Then they say, “Oh crap, I have this project. I don’t know how to do it. I’m not really comfortable going to ask my coworkers or boss because I said I know how to do this thing, so I’m going to go find someone out there that can help me,” which is great.

Sometimes it’s a bit more proactive, where somebody has their sights set on a new career or advancing within their current career and they know what they need to learn and maybe they’ve been trying to do it on their own and they need, like I said, a little extra support.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right, let’s say that if I were to meet up with a tutor to help me with some learning here, maybe it’s the Google App Maker that I’m after.

Drew Geant
That one seems to be on your mind right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it is just because I was looking at Upwork.com for some folks who could do it for me and I was like, there’s two people. Really? I’m accustomed to seeing hundreds and hundreds for anything I might want.

Drew Geant
You seem like the sort of guy, you want someone to teach you to fish though, right? You want to be able to get in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes and no. It’s fun. I really do love learning. It’s enjoyable and it kind of is a thrill. I feel sort of empowered and equipped in a cool way. But in practice it’s sort of like well, I’ve got to a lot of highly leveraged demands for my time that I’d probably – I would see more business results if someone else were doing this for me and I was elsewhere. But I would have fun doing it. Similarly with Photoshop. I’m not great at it, but it’s really fun.

Drew Geant
That’s fun. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, oh, I could play around with this for three hours and make it look okay or I could have a professional do it for 30 minutes and look excellent and I could do something else. Anyway, that is an ongoing internal challenge with me.

But let’s say I did want to learn the skill, what have you discovered are some best practices associated with folks. They’re engaging in the learner/tutor relationship and they’re after maximum improvement. What are some of the key things they need to make sure to do or not do?

Drew Geant
Certainly I would say on the front end invest in finding the right expert. Out whole product is designed around giving you the opportunity to interact and ask questions with a variety of tutors before making your decision, before making any sort of commitment or payment.

That’s really important because you’ve got to find someone not that just has the right skillset, but like we said before, that matches your learning style. We know everyone learns differently and every tutor teaches differently.

Beyond that, you do have to make a commitment. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s not 30 minutes of tutoring and you’re going to have a concept mastered. On average we see people using between 8 and 12 hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Drew Geant
Yeah. It’s a lot, but you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars necessarily to get a lot of value out of a tutoring relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool because I recall from my Tutor Trail research back in the day that in order to show statistically significant gains above what they just expect for normal growth and coursework as you age, like, “Hey, now you’re halfway through fifth grade, so you should be smarter just from your classes,” like the minimum effective dosage, it was substantial, like it was well over 20 hours in terms of programs that could prove and show the results.

But in the context of a super specific professional skill, you’re saying you can get some real gains in 8 to 12 hours.

Drew Geant
Yeah. The skill is specific but also the intervention, if you will, or the actual dialogue is 100% personalized and customized for you. Here’s the exact thing in the app builder where I’m hung up, so you go right to it, whereas if you’re watching a video or taking a course or a class, there’s so much wasted time until you get to that part you need. A tutor comes in and you put your finger right on the issue where you’re struggling and you go from there. It’s very efficient in that sense.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. You said pick the right person and match your learning style. How do you think about the segmentation of learning styles?

Drew Geant
Yeah. We don’t profess to be the learning experts. Our whole approach is let’s get the experts and let’s help make them available and accessible to the learners. That being said, we know that a lot of students respond better to visual learning. When you look at our online platform, it’s designed with that in mind, where you can bring in diagrams, you can use the virtual whiteboard as a drawing tool, all that sort of thing.

There’s a lot that happens between the tutoring sessions. There’s this homework aspect of it. That’s a big aspect of it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yes. I’ve seen that as I’ve done coaching that those who pursue their homework diligently in between sessions tend to – surprise, I learned this lesson from piano back in the day – they advance the quickest when they really make the time for the homework in between.

Drew Geant
Right, it’s sort of this back and forth, that ping pong game, where you have to wrestle with something on your own, then you go get the – the tutor comes in and sort of helps you tune it up and figure out where you’re doing well and not so well, then you go back and wrestle with it some more. You go back and forth is what we see happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. Those are some of the best practices. What are some of the worst practices?

Drew Geant
The worst practices. Well, certainly – there’s a whole market around this, but we try to avoid it, which is “I have a test tomorrow” or “This is last minute.” Our tutors hate it because they know they’re not setting the student up – they’re not setting themselves up for success. “I have two hours and I need to learn all this material.”

You’ll actually see this when the tutors and students are interacting with one another. Tutors will say, “Hey, what are your goals? What’s your timeline?” They want to make sure that the student has realistic expectations. Give yourself plenty of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay, certainly. Plenty of time, that makes good sense. Anything else?

Drew Geant
Worse practices. To the use case before when you take a job and you act like you know stuff and you don’t and then you have to scramble to backfill your knowledge, I would suggest that that would not be a best practice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. At the very least, start before they give you the offer. Or you get the offer before your first day of work, that interim window would be good before you’re found out. Okay, cool. Well, tell me, anything else you want to talk about learning, tutoring, one-on-one growth development, how it’s done well before we sort of shift into your favorite things?

Drew Geant
Yeah. As I’m thinking about the learner or the listeners who are all on their sort of learning journeys, we talk a lot about that among our employees, we have about 75 people, in terms of the culture we’re trying to create. In fact our number one core value at Wyzant is always be learning. We’ve dug into that a lot. For us it kind of breaks down into a few component pieces.

One is giving and receiving feedback is critical. It has to be direct, timely, and actionable. Another thing we talk a lot about and Karen Martin, who was on the show the other day, mentioned this – sort of the inverse of what we talked about.

In fact Karen Martin, who you had on the show a we days ago talked about this. She said people who act like they know everything and know all the answers or think they do is actually a form of arrogance.

The way we talk about it is sort of the opposite, which we say in order to learn you have to have some amount of humility. You have to be able to say, “I don’t know that. I don’t know how to do this. This is a bit out of my comfort zone.” That’s step one, which is a huge component.

We also talk a lot about learning from your mistakes and failures. We relate this back to our users, our tutors and our students as well. Some of the most high-impact time between a tutor and a learner is when the learner comes back with, let’s say in an academic sense, a bad test. What do you do? You got through every one you got wrong in detail and you learn from that.

We really preach that about a project that misses a deadline or an investment that doesn’t have the expected results. That’s okay. It’s going to happen. In fact, it’s going to happen more often than not, but the key thing is to go back through that and diagnose it and learn from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, the feedback is a recurring theme on the show. I’d love to get your take in terms of how do you – you’ve given some perspectives for what makes feedback great in terms of it’s direct, it’s actionable and such. I’m wondering if feedback is not normative in a certain culture and it’s often not, how do you recommend folks make the request for it and keep it coming?

Drew Geant
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to give really direct feedback sometimes. It’s hard to receive it sometimes. It really revolves around trust, so getting to know your coworkers, understanding sort of that – and giving them the benefit of the doubt that we’re all here because we have the same agenda, which is we’re trying to accomplish the company goals, we’re trying to advance. The way we do that is by helping each other.

Really framing it as we talk about it in terms of if you’re a team and you’re looking out for your teammate. This is a way to have your teammates back is by making sure that they – you’re sort of a second set of eyes and ears for one another.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good.

Drew Geant
I think that helps people sort of frame it as not this tough conversation or I’m criticizing somebody. It’s like, “No, I’m actually looking out for them.”

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to receiving it, how do you do it well?

Drew Geant
Again, I think it starts with you have to believe that it’s coming from a good place. The opposite of that obviously would be being defensive or whatever it may be. I think asking questions, like trying to really understand it, even if it doesn’t sound right at first, instead of going into defensive mode, “Help me understand that a little bit more. You said this once thing. Can you try saying it a different way?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. I think examples make all the difference. It’s a real shame if the only feedback that exists is what is on the annual review and it’s more perfunctory in terms of “Oh, I’m going to click these boxes and all done.” Not ideal. Word. Cool, anything else you want to share or shall we hear about some of your favorite things?

Drew Geant
Let’s go into favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Away we go. Can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Drew Geant
Oh man. We have in large letters on our office wall a quote from Benjamin Franklin that resonates a lot with me, which is “Investment in knowledge pays the highest return.” Obviously we like to think that is true because that’s what our customers are investing in.

I think from my experience as a tutor, and I would imagine this is true from your experience as a coach, the one-on-one teacher and learner dynamic is just so powerful, especially when you get it right between the fit. I believe very strongly that that is the highest return.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is a fine quote by an authority. I’m sure I will place that somewhere in my future. Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Drew Geant
In the academic tutoring context, there’s a study from the 1980s called Bloom’s Two-Sigma study. Have you ever heard of this?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard of Bloom. Is this the taxonomy person … Bloom?

Drew Geant
He’s done a variety of things. This particular study was comparing different types of learning. One of them was one-on-one. If you ask any academic researcher, they’ll all say this is sort of – it’s now accepted as a truth, that one-on-one tutoring is the most effective way to learn. In this case he proved two standard deviations above sort of the norm of other types of learning.

Now if you take that as a truth, you say, “Okay, if we know one-one-one tutoring is the best way to learn, fine. But how do we scale it?” Because it’s inherently expensive. There’s a person on the other side of this. You see a lot of different approaches in terms of using AI and they talk about tutor robots in the sky.

Our approach has been how do we make it more accessible, more affordable with real people? But it all comes back to that belief. I think that again is commonly universally accepted among academic folk that one-on-one tutoring is the best way to learn.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Drew Geant
Favorite book. I thought you were going to ask me a business book, so I thought of a business book.

Pete Mockaitis
It can be business. It can be … book. Favorite business, favorite fiction. We can do it all.

Drew Geant
Well, a book we’ve been using a lot lately as we’re working through strategy is a book called Playing to Win. It gives you really nice actionable strategy framework, so I’d definitely recommend people check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
Now is that – I think I’m getting that mixed up with the Jack Welch book. Is that-?

Drew Geant
It’s not Jack Welch.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Drew Geant
Yeah, it’s-

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe … Winning is Jack Welch.

Drew Geant
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a little different.

Drew Geant
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. What are some of the provocative takeaways from that?

Drew Geant
Well it’s very simple. The first piece that is have a winning aspiration. That’s where you start. What does it mean to win? You sit back and you ask, “Well, of course we want to grow the business, but how are you going to know when you got there?” What is the outcome? They do a really good job of probing and make you realize, “Man, I don’t even know what we’re playing for.”

Then the second part is well, what’s your playing field? You get to define your own playing field, which is a cool concept. It’s like where are you going to complete, where are you strong, where are you not strong. It sort of goes through these five steps from there.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?

Drew Geant
A favorite tool. I’m a huge Google Suite user.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Maybe Google App Maker would enhance ….

Drew Geant
Right, right, right. Lots of docs and whatnot. The fact that all that stuff is obviously in the cloud and you can use your phone as – good and bad. You can access your work from anywhere. That’s a whole other conversation that I suppose is sort of where remote work is headed. Have you had people on the show talking about that?

Pete Mockaitis
A little bit. I’d say I don’t know if we have a consensus opinion on the future. Well, now you’ve got me intrigued. You got the answer, Drew? You’re going to lay it on us?

Drew Geant
No, I just think it goes back to what we’ve been talking about, about feedback and about learning. I think the technology is there to support it for sure now in terms of the tools, which is how we got on this topic, but you have to double down on things like feedback and communication. It becomes that much harder.

We’ve had some mixed experiences. We had an office in San Francisco that didn’t work out. But now we have a fairly flexible remote work policy that is working out. It’s not easy, but I think it’s doable in terms of accessing the best talent, which at the end of the day, your company is really just a sum of the talent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ll find the best talent in Chicago, right here.

Drew Geant
Yeah, even in Chicago, you live in Naperville, coming into the office every day, it’s a grind.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, that is far away. We did not buy a home in Naperville largely for that reason. Even though Naperville has got a lot going for it. ….

Drew Geant
Yeah. I didn’t mean to hit on Naperville.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely downtown.

Drew Geant
Yeah, it’s wonderful.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a whole city and yet also a suburb.

Drew Geant
Yeah, if you’re commuting into Chicago, you spend a lot of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s see that was the tool. Can we talk about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Drew Geant
Favorite habit. I would say exercise. I’m not exactly-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks like you’ve got some guns. When you’re live in the studio.

Drew Geant
I’m not exactly a picture of fitness necessarily, but I think what that does for your mind is – just clearing your mind is a huge part of being able to get the most out of your day.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular workout focus or time of day that you zero in on?

Drew Geant
Yeah, I have a very modest home gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh cool.

Drew Geant
I try to do that in the morning before work.

Pete Mockaitis
That is one of my dreams for this home is turning our basement-

Drew Geant
I see a treadmill right here.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve got a treadmill right here. I really do use it just about every day, especially when it’s snowy and nasty out in the winter. But, yeah, I hope to turn the laundry room into also a little home gym with a bench.

Drew Geant
Yeah, you don’t need much.

Pete Mockaitis
I think a squat rack is really what makes the difference between a true gym and a non-true gym. Even though I hate squats, but if I had my own rack I would do them more.

Drew Geant
I think as a general rule the more you hate it, it’s probably the better the exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh probably. It just takes it out of me and hurts the next day so much. That’s habit. How about is there a key nugget you tend to share with your team or others that really seems to connect, resonate, they quote it back to you often?

Drew Geant
A key nugget. One that we have some fun with that is sort of like I think we mean it when we say it, but we realize it’s not necessarily the most diplomatic was we often say, “Let’s not confuse effort with results.”

Sometimes you can deceive yourself into thinking all the activity is productive, but it kind of goes back to the winning aspiration, what are you actually trying to achieve, what are your goals, and is the activity actually moving you forward? It’s kind of like work smarter, not harder as well. Two things that we talk about.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great distinction not to confuse effort with results. I remember my buddy Ronny when he was doing some intense football training. He even wrote in huge letters “Effort equals results.” That might be true in the sense of if you push yourself harder in a physical training endeavor, so long as you recover wisely, then maybe effort equals results. But in sort of knowledge work, effort may or may not equal results and it may equal a smidge of results or 20 times that more per hour.

Drew Geant
Sure, absolutely. We bring it back to business too, our just conviction in tutoring and the impact and power of that form of learning is – you can be spending hours and hours and hours watching a video on YouTube. That’s not working smarter. Whereas we think for many cases, hire an expert, you’re going to get the results a lot faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. If folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Drew Geant
Wyzant.com, download the app. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn as well. It would be always fun to connect with folks.

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

Drew Geant
Just always be learning and recognize it’s hard. Learning is a hard thing, but it’s rewarding. Sometimes I think people shy away from it because it’s hard. It’s like, “Oh well, I must not be good at this thing,” but just know that that’s part of it. That’s what I think makes it worthwhile.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. Well, Drew, this has been a ton of fun. Thank you and good luck. Hope you equip all the more adult learners in the years to come and keep on rocking.

Drew Geant
All right. Thanks.

392: Getting Your Dream Job by Illustrating Your Value with Austin Belcak

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Austin Belcak explains how deep research, cold emailing, and solving one of your dream company’s problems upfront accelerates job hunting–while building your skills.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two common themes to successful job searches
  2. How to do cold outreach that gets responses
  3. Two ways to effectively illustrate your value

About Austin

Austin is the founder of Cultivated Culture where he teaches people how to land jobs they love without connections, without traditional experience, and without applying online.

Austin’s created a community of over 30,000 job seekers who have leveraged his strategies to land jobs at places like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and more.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Austin Belcak Interview Transcript

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

Austin Belcak
Pete, I am so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I think we’re going to have a lot of fun. You talk a lot about the career hunt and how it’s done better, but you’ve got a pretty dramatic story yourself of coming from a pretty miserable place it sounds like in your career to a much better one. Could you tell us the tale?

Austin Belcak
Yeah, absolutely. Just to give some people context around where we’re at now before we rewind. I work full time at Microsoft. I work in sales there on the advertising side of our business in New York City.

But on the side of that full time job, I run a site called CultivatedCulture.com, where I basically teach people to leverage some unconventional strategies to land jobs they love without traditional experience, without prior connections, and without applying online.

I started that about three years ago and since then we’ve grown the community to – there’s about 12,000 people in it now. About 30,000 people have come through the doors total. Many of them have gone on to land jobs at places like Google and Microsoft and Facebook, Apple, Amazon and many, many other industries as well. That’s basically where I am now, but to your point, it has not always been that way.

If we rewind the clock back to high school for me, which is now more years ago than I’d like to admit, I was dead set on being a doctor. I had taken all these classes in high school and biology really resonated with me and chemistry did as well. I thought this would be cool and doctors make a lot of money. They’re well regarded in society. Mom and dad would be happy.

I set my sights on that and I kind of tailored my whole strategy around getting into a college with a good premed track. I sort of made that happen. I ended up at Wake Forest University, which given the grades that I had and their programs, that was a good fit for me.

But I had gone to boarding school for high school and boarding school was awesome. It was a great experience, but it was a bit sheltered in the fact that while we had some freedoms on campus, there wasn’t that same level of exposure that you may get at a regular day high school where you have to drive there and you can go to people’s houses on the weekends and things like that.

I got to Wake Forest and the social scene was I guess we could say much more robust than it was in boarding school.

Pete Mockaitis
You talk about a robust social scene makes me imagine you doing keg stands. I don’t know if that’s what you mean by that, but-

Austin Belcak
That’s exactly what I mean by that, Pete. That’s exactly what happened. The first night literally we moved into the dorms and the first night I remember walking out with my new roommate and a couple of guys we met that day.

This car pulls up in front of us and they’re like, “Hey, you want to go to a party?” Alarm bells going off in your head and your mom’s like, “Austin, don’t talk to strangers. Don’t get into weird cars.” We’re like, “No, that’s fine.” Then we look behind him and there’s just this whole line of cars.

The next guy pulls up and says, “You want to go to a party?” We’re like, “Is this a thing?” They’re like, “Oh yeah, this is what happens.” Basically these cars pull up, you hop in one and they take you to a party. That was kind of the beginning of the end of my medical career as far as being a doctor goes.

Pete Mockaitis
Because you were just partying so much, you weren’t focusing on the grades or what happened exactly at this party?

Austin Belcak
Pretty much. All these freedoms that you never had at home are suddenly available.

That was way more interesting to me than class was, so I immediately failed chemistry my first semester. Then I went ahead and failed French the next semester. I rounded out my freshman year with a 1.99 GPA, which is not great. I don’t know too many med schools these days that are accepting kids with that sort of GPA. My dreams were kind of shattered.

I wasn’t too upset about it, but I kind of had this choice, I could continue to explore and try and find a new passion or I could continue enjoying this new social scene that was exciting and fun. I decided to do that. Basically, that carried me through. I kept my biology major.

That carried me through to junior year when my roommate’s dad, who is an orthopedic surgeon, he kind of plopped an internship in my lap with a medical device sales company. They were a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson.

I worked there during the summer. They gave me a job offer at the end of the summer. They said, “It’s yours if you want it.” I thought that was awesome because that meant that I could totally slack off senior year and I had my job and I was good to go.

That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t apply anywhere else. I didn’t interview anywhere else. Then I graduated from college and I kind of got slapped in the face.

I hadn’t taken into account anything like cost of living, racked up about 10,000 bucks for the credit card debt in the first three months out of college literally just trying to make ends meet.

Then my boss was just terrible.
Then finally the job itself, I was getting up some days at 2:30 – 3 in the morning to drive two and a half hours to get to the hospital by 6 AM. That really was not super fun.

One day my boss told me in a very condescending fashion, “Maybe you should think about another career.” I actually said, “That’s pretty good advice at this point.”

I assumed that going to a four-year undergraduate college and getting degree would at least get me my foot in the door somewhere. It would give me a chance. Why else did I pay all this money for this degree? I set my sights on technology.

I set my sights on one of these leading tech companies and I applied to them. I got rejected pretty quickly.

I figured I needed to go get some advice. I stopped by my career counselor’s office at Wake Forest. I talked to my parents. I talked to my friends, who had landed jobs. I kind of tried to consolidate all of their advice. The common theme was that I should basically find jobs online, Tweet my resume for them, personalize my resume and my cover letter, apply for them and then kind of cross my fingers and hope that somebody got back to me.

If nobody got back to me, then the next step was to basically rinse and repeat until somebody did. I was told pretty frequently that it was a numbers game, so the more stuff I threw up against the wall, the better chance I had of something sticking and landing that job offer. I continued down that path.

I took a step back and I started applying to companies in the mid-tier startup range and didn’t hear anything from them. I started with early stage startups and didn’t hear anything from them. Then I was applying to companies that just had the word tech somewhere on their site. I still didn’t hear anything from them.

At this point I was really frustrated because I was doing everything I was supposed to do. I just had gotten this quarter of a million dollar education that’s supposed to get me a job. That’s the whole point of it. Here I was with nothing. I was incredibly, incredibly angry, but I didn’t know what else to do.

About that same time I was reaching out to some alumni at Wake and somebody I had a conversation with basically gave me a light bulb moment. They told me that I was taking advice from the wrong people. I thought that was crazy because throughout our lives when we grow up, the people that we look to for advice are our parents and our friends and our teachers and the people that we look up to.

I was like, “I don’t understand. What exactly do you mean?” He said you should only be taking advice from the people who already have what you want.” That really resonated with me because while my parents were successful in their own right and my friends had been successful out of college in their own right, none of them had come out with a terrible GPA and a biology degree and a job in medicine with three months of professional experience, and now I had aspirations to work at Microsoft or Google.

I realized that I needed to go out and find people who had done that and had done it successfully and quickly and who were around my age.

I immediately drove home and I wrote down criteria for my job search or my dream job, rather. Those were – there were four criteria. The first was to be working at a leading company like a Google or a Microsoft or Facebook; to be making over $100,000 a year; to be working in a major city like New York, San Francisco, and LA; and finally, to be doing that all before the age of 26 because I didn’t want to wait until I was 40 for all this to come to fruition.

I took my list of my criteria and I went out on LinkedIn and I found people who matched that criteria as best as I possibly could. I tried to find these young folks who are working at those amazing companies. I looked at their salaries on Glassdoor to make sure that they were in the range. Then I just started reaching out cold. I probably reached out to about 50 or 60 people. Roughly 10 to 15 got back to me. I started having-

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a decent ratio.

Austin Belcak
Yeah. I was very, very surprised, especially for the first pass. I think it was more beginners’ luck than anything because when I started my full outreach for the job search later on, the ratio was not so good and I had to do a little bit of learning to improve that. But for whatever reason it seemed to work out.

I had conversations with these people. I tried to learn as much as I could about their stories and the strategies that they used and how they approached this job search. There were a couple of common themes.

The first was that all of them had gotten in via a referral of some kind, which is really interesting to me. The second was that they all found creative ways to illustrate their value. They stepped outside of the box, the traditional box, of a resume and a cover letter and some interview answers to illustrate their value. That was also really interesting to me.

I took what I learned and I did a bunch of research. I basically made it my mission to turn the hiring process into a game and try to figure out how I could create some shortcuts. A lot of my time was spent learning how to build relationships with people I’d never met before, finding ways to understand the challenges they were facing, the challenges their companies were facing, new initiatives and projects that they were releasing, basically any way that I could add value.

Then I would go back and I would research those problems and I would come up with creative ways to highlight what I brought to the table and the tangible value that I offered if they took a chance on me. I basically spun those up over the next couple of years to land offers at Microsoft and Google and Twitter and a whole bunch of other places. The rest is history, so here I am.

But after I started working at Microsoft, I had a bunch of people from Wake Forest reach out to me and they were like, “Aren’t you the kid who graduated with like a 2.5 GPA? How the heck are you working at Microsoft?” When the 20th person asked me that I thought I’m having the same conversation with all these people, maybe I could find a way to write this down in a scalable fashion.

I started up my site. I came up with my name pretty off the cuff. I really just wanted to get this blog post out there. I wrote it all up. I did some promotion. It got an incredibly positive response from friends and family but also from strangers on the internet. That’s really how this whole thing started. Now we’ve been going strong from about three years.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to dig into the particulars on these tactics, so the creative ways of demonstrating your value and acquiring these referrals. How did you do it and how have you seen other people do it successfully?

Austin Belcak
Definitely. The overarching theme here is find people who can have the biggest impact on the hiring decision for the role that you want, number one. Number two is to build a relationship with them regardless of whether you’ve met them or not.

I was talking to somebody earlier on the phone today and she was like, “You mean reach out to total strangers?” I was like, “Yeah, we’ve got to reach out to total strangers.” It’s overcoming that barrier as well. Then finally, those creative ways to illustrate your values.

If we start with the first piece there, when we talk about locating or identifying people who can have the biggest impact on the hiring decision, it really comes down to somebody who would be your manager if you got hired or would be your colleague sitting at the desk next to you.

I think a lot of people feel like reaching out to recruiters is something that is really important and needs to be done, but I personally don’t recommend it. Recruiters – it’s no knock against recruiters because what they do is really important, but they are inundated with emails and it is so hard to stand out.

Even if you do get the opportunity to stand out and they reply to you, their influence ends when they refer you in for an interview. They’re not going to be able to advocate for you through the hiring process. They’re not going to be in the room where the hiring decision is made.

But if you get in touch with somebody who would be sitting at the desk next to you on your team or would be your manager, they can also refer you in, but then they can also kind of be your champion internally and coach you through the interview process. They can advocate for you in the room where the actual hiring decision is being made. That is so critical.

But on top of that, they’re not getting bombarded with emails from potential candidates. It’s also a lot easier to get in touch with them using the right outreach strategies. That’s the first step is kind of getting yourself in the mindset of who to reach out to, why, and then we have to go out and find them.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell me in terms of the who, I guess how do you know that the person from the outside looking in, that the person you’re reaching out to would in fact be your manager or your colleague in the desk next to you?

I suppose in some ways if they have pretty specific titles, you can be like, “Oh yes, that’s dead on,” but other times the title might be something – I thinking of Microsoft, thousands of people might have the same title in terms of what they’re doing. How do you get clear on these would be the nine people that would be the influencers on what I’m really after?

Austin Belcak
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think you kind of hit the nail on the head, Pete. You’re never going to be able to – that’s not true. Never say never. You may get a tip on who the hiring manager is and that’s great. But in the majority of cases, you’re not going to be able to pinpoint the exact hiring manager. The best thing that you can do is take an educated guess. That’s exactly what you mentioned.

Let’s say I want a job at Microsoft in New York as an account manager. I can go look up all the account managers that currently work at Microsoft in New York. That’s probably going to be my best target base. I do know that if I reach out to all of them that I will hit somebody who will be on the team I’m being hired for because I reach out to literally everybody. That’s one way to cover it.

I also recommend reaching out to as many people as you can. A lot of people ask me, “Is it weird if I reach out to multiple people at the same company? What if they start talking about me? What if my name gets out there? Is that going to hurt my chances?” At the end of the day, no. That’s not what I’ve seen.

My background is in sales and I’m in sales now. There’s a nice little anecdote that sales people like to throw around where a lot of the deals get done or big steps or breakthroughs happen on the seventh touch point. It’s really about that familiarity. You kind of have to get – the more that you get in front of somebody rather, the more familiar you become and the more likely they are to then take that action.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m thinking in a way I imagine if they do talk about you. Then it’s conceivably possible that they’d say, “Oh my gosh, why is this guy wasting our time? I already gave him the answers, so he’s talking to three other people who give him the same answers,” but I think it might be more likely that the response is, “Whoa, we almost never see candidates who are so committed as to go to this length to get in. That’s interesting. We should take a closer look at this guy.”

Austin Belcak
100%. That is – the majority of the times that I’ve gone through this and when I’ve coached people and gotten feedback, and even talked to the hiring managers themselves, that is the exact feedback we’ve gotten. People are typically – they typically see that as a sign of persistence and a sign of enthusiasm and motivation and a differentiator from all these other candidates who are just relying on the baseline or the minimum required to kind of get their foot in the door.

But on top of that, some of the other tactics we’re going to talk about in a second here are going to make it so that even if there was a doubt, even if they are kind of around the water cooler and they’re like, “Who’s this Pete person? His name’s come up. I don’t know. He’s kind of weird. He’s reaching out to all of us.”

Pete Mockaitis
Definitely weird.

Austin Belcak
The next step is going to wipe that off the table, which is once you’re able to – this is kind of two-fold. When we think about creating something valuable that illustrates our value and it is compelling to the person, there’s two ways to get it. We can either get it from the contacts themselves or we can get it through our own research.

One of the most important things you can do is put in as much time researching this company as you possibly can. If you do that ahead of time, if you do that before you reach out to people, you’re going to be that much more prepared when you are reaching out. You’re going to have better outreach, but also a lot of times somebody will – people will be surprised.

If you’ve never done cold outreach before, you never know when somebody is going to hit you back up and say, “Hey, I have time in two hours. Can we talk then?” Then the fear and the stress set in if you’re not prepared and you scramble to think of questions and you don’t know what to talk to them about.

But if you spent this time researching the company and you understand the challenges they’re facing, how they’re addressing them, the wins that they’ve had, what’s their current status on X, Y, and Z projects or X, Y, and Z brands, then you come to the table with that much more ammunition to start and drive the conversation. Doing some of this research ahead of time is really, really powerful, but it also allows you to come up with some value-add angles ahead of time.

Then you can either – basically the conversations that you have, you can flush those out. You can kind of validate them. You can tease them out with questions or posing different ideas or statements that relate to the thing you’ve come up with and you can gauge the response.

If the person on the other side says, “That’s actually something that we’re working on,” then great you kind of have something to work off of. But if they’re like, “Oh yeah, we tried that. It was terrible. Totally failed,” then you know that you kind of need to pivot. Getting that research in ahead of time is really, really critical.

When we’re talking about public companies, they tend to be a little bit easier to research than private companies. But just two of my favorite ways to kind of understand where things are going at a high level for those companies are one to listen to their earnings calls.

Every publicly traded company out there, every quarter they have an earnings call and they’ll share it publicly. If you just type in the company name and investor relations on Google, that page should pop up and they should have the most recent webcast.

Basically what they do is – the calls are typically about anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour long. If you’re pressed for time you can kind of find the MP3, and download it and then speed it up in iTunes, 2x, and save yourself some minutes.

But basically what they talk about is – it’s their presentation to the shareholders as to why the company is in the current state that it is and what they’re doing to make it better. If there’s a challenge, they’re going to address it. If there’s a win, they’re going to call it out. Then they’re going to talk about the future, “What are we doing to capitalize on the momentum of the win? How are we thinking about addressing or fixing the challenge that we saw, which caused numbers to drop?”

That’s a great way to get a high level overview of what happened recently and what the company is driving towards in the future. Then I like to go to a site called SeekingAlpha.com, which is basically-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Austin Belcak
Yeah, it’s a financial blog, where all these analysts kind of come together and they write pieces on different companies. You can go in and you can punch in the stock ticker for a company. There’s two columns. There’s a news column, which is basically your objective stuff like the “Dow dropped 460 points today,” “This stock was impacted X amount,” very objective.

But on the other side there’s analysis, which is where those analysts come in and they basically give their opinion. It’s really helpful because you can pretty much find five different angles on the same topic.

Somebody will tell you why Facebook’s handling of private data is going to be the demise of their company. Then the next article is how some guy is talking about Facebook’s handing of private data is going to help them learn and help all of us learn and it’s going to cause their stock to skyrocket in the future.

Regardless of which position you agree with, you get a sense of all the different angles that you could potentially approach this subject from. That is going to give you a lot of ammunition to have these conversations, but also come up with unique ways to add value.

I was just talking to one of the people that I coach. He was looking for a job at Apple. He couldn’t think of a way to add value. We went on the site and the third article down was Here’s Six Things Apple Isn’t Doing Right Now That Could be Making Them Millions of Dollars. They literally listed out six things and they had specific arguments for their ideas. We grabbed a couple of them and we threw them in the deck and put his spin on them and leveraged that as our value-add project.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting when you say throw them in the deck and value add project, can we talk about when in the course of this relationship building do you trot that out? My hunch is it might be a little different. You say, “Hey, I’d love to chat with you about X, Y, Z.” They go, “Oh yeah, sure. I’ve got 15 minutes to chat in two hours.” You say, “Great.” Then you’re on the phone. It’s like, “Please open up to slide three.” How do you kind of time and sequence that?

Austin Belcak
Yeah, most definitely. It actually – the best answer that I can give is that it depends on the situation. If you’re reaching out and you can’t even get anybody on the phone and you can’t even get any replies, then you may need to trot it out at that point to add enough value to get a response, to trigger a response from somebody.

But let’s say that you are getting replies, things are working well, you’re getting people to set up meetings with you, typically what I like to do is have a few meetings first. I like to as soon as I start outreach, I want to have a general idea of the type of value that I could potentially add. My hope is that the conversation that I have with this person is going to one validate my idea in some fashion. Maybe give me some pieces of the greater picture or puzzle that I can then bake into the project itself.

Then I like to have a couple of these questions, so I get all these different perspectives or a couple of these conversations. Then once I’ve had a few of those, I’m sort of in this place where I’ve talked to the first round of people and I’m teed up for the second round of people. Then I like to approach it by following up. I like to use the value validation project as a means to follow up and drive the relationship with the people I’ve had conversations with.

Let’s say Pete, I reach out to you and we had a conversation, I’m going to go back and finish my project and then I’m going to send you an email. I’m going to say, “Pete, thank you so much for taking 30 minutes to chat with me last week. I really enjoyed our conversation, especially the piece around this challenge that you’re having about getting more new customers.

I’ve actually done some thinking about it and I’ve put together a few ideas around how I think you guys could leverage your existing audience to drive more customers through referrals. I’ve attached that here. Would love to get your thoughts. Email is fine, but if you time for another call, great.” Then I’ll email that off to them.

Basically what that does is one it allows me to follow up the first time. It provides value that showcases my skills, my experience, what I bring to the table, but it also opens up the door for a second follow up because if that person doesn’t reply, I can email them again and say, “Hey, did you get what I sent?”

But if they do reply then the conversation is going. Now maybe they give me feedback over email and now we’re going back and forth. They’re getting more invested in me with each email and with each suggestion or better yet we get on the phone and we build more of that personal rapport. We’re talking instead of typing. Maybe it’s even face-to-face in person. But we’re kind of building that relationship and I’m adding value that directly relates to that person’s team, that person’s company, a role that’s open.

That’s typically when I like to trot it out, usually about five business days or so after we had the call. Then when it comes time to interview, I usually like to bring it with me into the interview. Then we’ll have the interview as planned.

Then at the very end when the interviewer is like, “All right, thanks so much for stopping by. Is there anything else?”  I’ll usually say, “Yeah, there’s one more thing. I talked to a few people at the company here on your team and they told me that your biggest challenge is X,” or “You have this new initiative coming up called Y and I put together some thoughts around that.”

Then I’ll slide it across the table to them and I’ll just say, “No need to look at it right now. I know you’re really busy. I appreciate the time, but if you do have a minute to look at it over the next day or two, please do. Definitely let me know if you have feedback. Thanks so much.”

Again that opens the door for you to follow up with your interviewer and a lot of people struggle with that. Following up is key to making sure that you’re staying top of mind and that they are driving the interviewing process and the hiring process on their end. Those are kind of the two times that I like to bring it out and leverage it most. I think that’s a good segue into what exactly does that project look like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. This reminds me, I think Ramit Sethi calls this the briefcase technique in terms of there’s a very kind of a dramatic moment. It’s like, “What? Nobody else has ever extracted a document and handed it to me. What’s going on here? Oh,” ….

Austin Belcak
And they all use that voice too. It’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know if they’re saying this out loud, but they’re thinking it to themselves hopefully because it’s just a huge differentiator. I guess a real key is that you in those conversations you’ve done a good job of zeroing in on, yes, this is their biggest challenge and yes, these are some ideas that might be workable.

You’re also kind of getting some useful feedback in terms of “Oh no, they really hate podcast advertising,” I don’t know. But nobody hates podcast advertising. It’s so effective and been proven many times.

Austin Belcak
Speaking of.

Pete Mockaitis
For example if they’re trying to acquire new customers and you’ve got these ideas and you’re having conversations and they say, “Oh no, they are totally against this,” because, I don’t know, it’s not measurable, it’s very visual, whatever their excuse is. Okay, now you know, so you’ve something that is sort of new and distinctive and feels innovative, like you’re smart, but also not just sort of way crazy out there or disgusting to them for whatever reasons or bias they have against them.

You’ve sort of fine-tuned something that’s pretty excellent by the time you’re in the interview. That’s cool and it’s exciting. I imagine just about nobody does this because it’s too much effort and they don’t want to risk it when there’s no guarantee, but on the flip side if you think about the time you spend blasting applications to hundreds or thousands of opportunities, it’s probably more time effective than the alternative.

Austin Belcak
Most definitely. I’m actually going back a few minutes here. I’m really glad you brought up Ramit because that’s actually where this idea kind of came from. I watched that briefcase technique video.

One of the ways that I built the experience to be able to even be considered for some of these roles at Microsoft and Google was starting up my own freelance consulting firm for digital marketing. The briefcase technique was something that I used to land clients. When I started applying for some of these jobs, I thought why not do something similar for these companies. That’s exactly what it was born out of.

But I’m also really glad that you brought up the point of it taking a lot of effort. Two objections that I typically get are that it takes a lot of effort and what if a company just takes my work and runs with it. I totally understand where people are coming from with both of those. But first for the ‘it takes a lot of work’ piece, it definitely does. But to your point, how much work are you spending applying online every day and is that making you happy? Also is it bettering you?

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. You’re learning a ton as you do this. Maybe it’s not applicable for Microsoft, but hey, Adobe is doing similar stuff.

Austin Belcak
Absolutely. It even goes beyond that. There aren’t too many transferable skills from applying online, but if you train your brain to get into this mode of consuming information with a lens of identifying problems and coming up with solutions quickly, that’s a pretty valuable skill to have anywhere in your career, whether you’re job searching, whether you’re trying to increase revenue or drive against goals that your boss gave you or come up with ideas to make a case for a promotion or a raise or starting your own company or business in pitching people.

No matter what you’re doing business-wise having a mindset of knowing where to find the right information, knowing how to tease out problems, that’s really, really valuable. This is kind of the first step there.

It definitely does take work, but you’re going to be that much better for it as a professional and as a person. That’s something I’ve seen direct benefits from even starting the business here and within my career at Microsoft.

Then the second objection is always what if the company steals my work and runs with it. I get what people are saying. There’s something that I’ve heard from a lot of people who advocate for the traditional job search and traditional business practices, which is basically if you’re good at something you should never do it for free.

I think that that’s changed in our world today because it’s so competitive. Whether you’re starting a business or searching for a job, there’s so much competition out there. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, a lot of people are still abiding by that methodology of not giving anything away for free and they’re the ones who are going to lose out.

If you really think about it, sure, you’re putting in a lot of time, but how much is a new job worth? When I got my job at Microsoft, I got a $60,000 raise. That’s by no means the norm, but the job before that I got a $20,000 raise, so let’s call that closer to even.

I think I spent probably maybe 20 hours coming with a value validation project for them and doing some research and putting it all together and then presenting it. If I think about it from that lens, I basically got paid 1,000 bucks an hour to come up with that project. I’ll take that hourly rate any day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Austin Belcak
That’s awesome. When people are worried about putting in the work and also companies stealing their work, I think you need to think of it more as the long-term strategy, a long-term investment. if a company is going to steal your ideas and just run with it, that’s a great litmus test for whether or not that’s a company you want to work for.

Pete Mockaitis
And if they steal your idea and you learn about that in the future, that goes on your resume.

Austin Belcak
Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
….

Austin Belcak
You have the proof. You can show when they executed it and when you came up with it and sent it to them.

Pete Mockaitis
That goes on your resume. They did almost all the work.

Austin Belcak
Yeah, I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
You did 20 hours’ worth. They did 3,000 hours’ worth.

Austin Belcak
Yeah, yeah. That’s awesome. That’s basically, it’s a short-sighted business strategy. All the great companies that I know, they want to invest in people who are going to bring great ideas to the table every day and they’re going to constantly be innovating and thinking of new ways to solve problems and be willing to roll up their sleeves.

On top of that, if I have an idea and I give you the framework, you’re probably not going to execute it the same way that I had in mind, whether or not it’s better or worse is up in the air. But if I’m a company I want to – I don’t want to just take this one idea.

I want to invest in the person who is willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard enough without even being employed at my company to come up with an idea like this because I know that once I bring them into the fold and give them all the inside information and the resources and all of that, they’re going to 10x those ideas and they’re going to be so, so impactful to the business.

If a company does steal your ideas, to me that’s a company that I don’t want to work for. Imagine what happens when they’re paying you and now that your manager is stealing all of your ideas the same way that they did when you applied for the job. That’s just a situation that you don’t want to be in. The great companies out there recognize that the person who is coming up with the ideas is far more valuable than the specific idea itself.

Then finally on that topic, how badly do you want the job? If you’re worried about a company stealing your project, just think about what you’re doing now. Is it working? Because if it’s not, if you’re applying online, if you’re trying to network and you’re doing this stuff and it’s just not working, you need to try something else.

If you’re so worried about a company stealing your project, but what you’re doing right now isn’t working, something has to give one way or the other. I’d much rather put in some time bettering myself, like honing my analytical thinking, my problem solving skills to come up with this idea that even if the company takes it and runs with it, like you said Pete, you can take the credit for it, you can put it on your resume, but you can also take that knowledge and the skills that you learned from going through that process and you can move on to the next company.

That’s how I typically handle both of those objections with people. But I’m happy to also give examples of specific projects that people have put together if you think that would be helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, let’s hear examples of the projects and sort of the deliverable. It sounds like you’re working with PowerPoint slides and kind of what makes it great? Is there kind of a rough range of slides and what is the stuff that really makes you seem brilliant as opposed to like, “Yeah, okay. You Googled something. I’m not impressed.”

Austin Belcak
Absolutely. Right off the bat, I’d say that this is all about getting creative and focusing in on two things. One, what is valuable to the company, so what do they care about. Then also, what medium will help you best get that value across.

I mentioned PowerPoint decks because that’s what was easiest for me and that’s what was natural for me. But I know there are a lot of people out there who are into video or maybe they’re developers and they know how to code things and build things.

There’s so many different mediums that you can get the value across with that anything that you can do to stand out is great and anything you feel comfortable with is also great. A lot of people aren’t writers out there, but maybe they’re videographers. A video is great. But if you are more of a writer than a videographer, a blog post is great. Again, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Just to give a few examples. There are a couple that I really like. The first one is from a student named Cam. She was at Northeastern and she wanted a job at Airbnb. She had applied online and didn’t hear anything. She reached out to a bunch of the people who worked there. She also didn’t hear anything from her outreach.

We got to talking and I was like, “What do you want to do? Do you want to try and come up with something else? Do you want to move on?” She said, “I haven’t done everything I could possibly do to get my foot in the door here.”

She went out and she actually combed through social media to find pain points that real Airbnb customers had about the business. She screenshotted the pain points that people had. She consolidated them and she kind of analyzed them to find two that really stood out.

Those two were the lack of a keyword filter. Basically if I wanted to rent an apartment in Chicago for the night that had a hot tub and I could look right down into Wrigley, I don’t think that’s possible, but regardless, if I wanted that, I wouldn’t be able to search for that specifically. I would basically have to search for listings in Wrigleyville and then click on each individual one and see if it had a hot tub and a view.

That’s not a great user experience because it requires a lot of effort on the user’s end. Naturally people were upset about that. The second piece was getting in touch with their customer service. Apparently, Airbnb’s customer service is like notoriously bad. Cam came up with ideas for both of those.

For the first, she went out and she found people and she asked them to go through this task of finding listings with specific criteria and asked them for their feedback and how they would improve it. She took all of their feedback and the recommendations and she mocked it up into an actual flow of what it would like within Airbnb’s app. That was one solution.

Then the second was she went out and did a bunch of research on the benefits of live chat, so basically having a little widget on your site that would allow people to interact with the site immediately and get the help they need immediately without a huge cost or overhead to Airbnb itself.

Basically she went out and she found all these benefits that showed that having live chat increased customer retention and increased satisfaction, increased revenue, all these metrics that any company wants to continue to improve.

What she did was she put together a deck, where she basically teed up the – she had screenshots from all these people on social media complaining about the thing. Then she went through and talked about the methodology of how she got the results. Then she showcased the solution.

That was about an eight-slide deck. It wasn’t anything crazy. It wasn’t professionally designed or anything. Anybody listening to this could have put it together. But then she sent it out to the same contact that she had reached out to before and she got a reply the next day. She was in their office for an interview the next week. That’s a great, great example.

Pete Mockaitis
But did she get the job Austin? We’ve got to get closure.

Austin Belcak
She did. She did. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Hooray.

Austin Belcak
Yes, yes, yes. Of course, of course. I mean how could you not hire somebody who was doing that? Then that’s the whole point.

She went out and she found this tangible problem. She wasn’t like, “Hey, I think that your customers are having this issue.” She said, “Your customers are having this issue. Here’s how you fix it. I’m the person who has these kinds of ideas and will help you execute on that.”

Of course, they’re not – who’s going to hire somebody who’s just coming up with a resume and a cover letter, black and white ink, all of that, over somebody who went out and did marketplace research, customer research, and came up with actual tangible value for the company? That’s the type of thing that we’re talking about.

Just to give one more example that’s a very different end of the spectrum. There’s a guy named Tristan who he wanted job at Foursquare. This is about six – seven years ago when Foursquare was really booming. They were releasing an ad product. They had all these advertisers currently on the platform. They were looking to grow.

Tristan saw that they had an opening on their sales team and he really wanted it. Instead of just applying online, he went out and he basically mapped – he made a map of all the companies that were currently advertising on Foursquare. Then he went out and created a list of companies that were sort of lookalike, who matched the same criteria. Then he went and started reaching out to them. He generated about ten leads.

He got in touch with people, had conversations, positioned himself as a supporter of Foursquare. Then he sent an email to the CEO of Foursquare. He said, “Hey, you guys have an opening on your sales team. I’m really, really interested in it. I didn’t apply online. I didn’t do anything else, but I have ten people at companies who are ready to advertise with you today. I’m happy to give you their names and I’m happy to put you in touch with them. When can we meet?”

The CEO replied to him. They onboarded those ten companies. Tristan got hired not just as a regular salesperson, but actually as the director of sales.

Austin Belcak
Yeah. That’s another great example of thinking outside the box. He could have easily said – somebody who’s able to convince ten people to try a product for a company they don’t even work for has a good track record in sales ahead of time.

He could have easily said on his resume, “Over attainer, averaging 150% quota at my company,” but then he’d sound like exactly every other salesperson applying for the job. But by actually going out there and sourcing leads, which is exactly what they’re hiring this person to do and then bringing them to the CEO, again, same story as Cam from Airbnb. Why would they hire anybody else because they know that this person can do exactly what they’re asking for?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that because when we talk about value, which can be a nebulous word at times, it’s so precise in terms of okay, these are real companies, who are quite likely to give us real money real soon. That’s great.

Then that also gets you thinking in terms of the value you’re creating doesn’t just have to be thoughts, ideas, input from users or customers, but it could be real precise in terms of generating revenue like, “These are leads we might buy from you right now,” or slashing cost in terms of providing actual vendors.

It’s like, “I’ve spoken with three people who have experience in automating manufacturing packaging lines and can totally handle doing box-dried macaroni,” I’m just inventing a totally new example, “and are happy to chat.”

If you’ve already validated that “Yes, sure enough they’re looking to slash manufacturing cost and there’s a lot of waste showing up in packaging. It’s very manual to figure out where the problems are coming from and how to address them,” then that could really resonate. Then it’s like, “Wow, we’ve never heard of these companies before and we should,” or, “Yeah, we’ve talked to one of them but haven’t heard of the other two. You’re bringing in new stuff that we hadn’t even considered.”

You can only be perceived positively unless you did a really shoddy job in terms of “This isn’t a real problem that we’re worried abbot. This thing that you’re proposing is completely farfetched and unworkable.” Assuming that you’ve got a reasonable quality, it’s huge in terms of showing what you can do.

Austin Belcak
Yup, absolutely. That’s basically the overarching strategy there. The best way that people can get started is to just start reaching out to people who are in a position to help them get hired. I know that that can be somewhat of a daunting task for people who have never reached out cold before. I have plenty of resources on my site to help people with that. I have templates of scripts and all that.

But the best thing that I can recommend is just start with one person per day. You can even do one person a weekday, so just five emails a week. Just find somebody on LinkedIn. You can look up their professional email using a tool like Hunter.io or VoilaNorbert, V-O-I-L-ANorbert.

You get their email, you just shoot them a note and you say, “Hey, I’m really impressed with your experience and I’d love to learn more about how you were able to achieve and accomplish all the things that you have in your career. Can we talk more about it?” Definitely probably go into a little more detail and personalization than that, but something along those lines.

Just start sending one email a day and I promise you, you will get responses. When you start getting responses and you start having these conversations, everything else is going to kind of fall into place. That’s the best next step that I can recommend. Yeah, Pete, I really, really appreciate the opportunity and you having me on here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, this was fun, definitely. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Austin Belcak
Yes. It’s not necessarily job search related, but it could be. But for me something that’s resonated and I’ve been trying to focus on is that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think that is a Teddy Roosevelt quote.

I don’t know if you’ve run into this building your business, but it’s very easy to go on LinkedIn or somebody else’s blog and be like, “Man, they have so many more visitors than I do,” or “so many more likes and they’re doing so much better. That’s something that I really struggle with personally. I have that quote written up on our chalkboard in our kitchen here. I’m trying my best to kind of abide by it every day and just focus on me.

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

Austin Belcak
Oh, I can relate this one to the job search. Interviews are very fascinating environments for me because I am a big psychology fan. One of the things that I always recommend to people – I have two. I don’t know if we have time.

But the first one I’d recommend is basically in a series of events, people are most likely to remember the first thing, the first event and the last event.

When we think about that in the context of interviews, interviews all sort of follow the same progression. There’s the intro and the small talk kind of before you sit down at the table. Then you dive into the questions. There’s some soft balls. Then maybe you get into behavioral, maybe technical, case study questions. Then towards the end of the interview, the interviewer asks you if you have any questions for them.

[51:00]

For the majority of interviewers out there, a lot of the answers are to the middle section are going to be the same. “Tell me about a time you failed. Tell me about your greatest weakness. Tell me about a time you succeeded,” all that stuff. The answers are all going to be sort of in the same ball park. But if we think about that principle where people remember the first and last event in the series, those happen to be the two events in the interview that we actually have the most control over.

You can drive the small talk at the beginning of an interview. If you do some research on your interviewer, you looked them up on Google, you looked them up on LinkedIn, maybe you find their Facebook profile, they have Twitter feed, and you try and find some piece of information that you can bring up at the beginning of the conversation that sort of sparks more personal talks so the formal barrier comes down.

That’s a great way to start the interview and that’s something that they’re going to be likely to remember.

Then at the very end if you can ask great questions. I also have an article on my site about – I just have a set of five questions. I know a lot of the articles I read give you like a million questions out there and tell you they’re all great, but I did a bunch of research using a lot of those questions and these are the five that I found to be the most effective.

But if you ask a great question that kind of incite a conversation and are a little bit on the unique side versus what everybody else might be asking, that’s also going to be very, very memorable. Doing both of these things will typically open up or give you some ammunition for a follow up.

Maybe that personal conversation – maybe this person tells you, “Hey, I’m getting married. I’m going on my honeymoon,” or “We had this vacation planned,” or “Hey, I just started brewing my own craft beer,” or “meditating,” or whatever. All of that is great ammunition for you to then go and follow up.

Ask them “What beers have you brewed? Where can I find a recipe?” “I love that book that you mentioned. Who’s the author again?” Then you can say – you can send them a follow up and say, “I read the book. My favorite point was X, Y, and Z. I totally understand why you said X about it.” It really opens the door to continue the conversation and continue building the relationship.

But that is a long-winded answer to your question, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one. Certainly. How about a favorite book?

Austin Belcak
That’s a good one. I think my favorite book is probably recently probably The Power of Habit. That’s one that my wife and I both love. I think habits are so critical to success in any capacity. They really drive – once you read that book you realize just how much habits drive most of your life. If you can build the right ones, you’re definitely going to set yourself up for success.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Austin Belcak
My favorite tool would probably have to be one of the ones I mentioned before, which would be Hunter.io or VoilaNorbert.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s really amazing ….

Austin Belcak
Yeah, they were a total game changer to me. But since I already mentioned them, for people wondering what they are, they basically allow you to look up anyone’s professional email address.

[54:00]

A related tool that should go hand-in-hand and I recommend to all my job seekers is it’s called Yesware, Y-E-S-W-A-R-E. It’s essentially an email tracker. This is a little bit creepy to be transparent, but it will allow you to basically see the activity on all the emails you sent.

You can when people open your email, how many times, how often, where, when, and if they engage with it. If there’s a link in it, it will tell you if they clicked on the link. It will tell you what device they opened it on. It’s pretty wild.

But the reason it’s so helpful is because when you’re reaching out cold to a lot of these people, you need to understand that a random email from a total stranger is probably low on their priority list no matter how badly they want to help you. Just because you don’t get a response, doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t want to help you or isn’t interested.

I gauge interest using email tracker. If somebody opens my email multiple times, then to me that is indicative that they’re thinking about it, they’re interested in it, they’re just very, very busy. I’m going to follow up five business days later. If they only open it once or they don’t open at all, then that means it’s time to move on to the next person.

Pairing using Hunter to find people’s emails and then using email tracker to gauge the engagement on their end, those are two of the most powerful tools you can use for finding strangers and reaching out to them and starting to build a relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Austin Belcak
I think my favorite habit, which I haven’t done enough of recently is getting up early and working out. It doesn’t have to be – one of the things that – I’m pretty much an all or nothing type of person. I’m either completely bought into something and probably investing too much time and energy into it or I’m not doing it at all.

Something that I realized recently was that even just going and running on the treadmill for ten minutes makes a huge difference in my ability to focus and manage my emotions for the rest of the day.

Then also getting up early. A lot of people ask me how I run my business while having a full time job and getting up at 5:00 in the morning, 5:30 in the morning, working out and then coming back, I still have two hours before work to write some blog posts or do some outreach or whatever it is that I need to do. I think both of those combined are probably the thing that’s had the biggest impact on my life recently.

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

Austin Belcak
Definitely. I always leave with anybody is welcome to reach out and email me. I can’t be the person to tell you to cold email strangers and then not be the guy replies. My email is Austin@CultivatedCulture.com.

[57:00]

Then if people want to take the next step kind of and dive into some deeper material, if people listening go to CultivatedCulture.com/Awesome, there are two resources there. First, I keep a lot of data on the strategies that I recommend to people. I don’t recommend anything that I haven’t tested out myself or with the audience. I consolidated the five most effective strategies that I found from coaching thousands of people for the last few years. Those are available there.

Then I also have a course that I call Resume Revamp. It’s my approach to writing an effective resume. Hundreds and hundreds of people have used it to transform their resume and land jobs at the places we mentioned before, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etcetera. Again, that’s CultivatedCulture.com/Awesome. Yes, please feel free to reach out to me if you guys have any questions at all.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Austin, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for doing what you’re doing and keep it up.

Austin Belcak
Thank you, Pete, likewise. I’m a huge fan of the podcast. For everybody listening, if you haven’t already, please go and leave a review for Pete because those are a big deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh thanks.

Austin Belcak
No problem.

386: How to Earn More, Spend Less, and Build Wealth with Mindy Jensen

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Podcaster and real estate investor Mindy Jensen shares strategies for building wealth.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The number one tip for earning more at your job
  2. The power of tracking your spending
  3. Tips for optimizing big expenses

About Mindy

Mindy Jensen is the Community Manager for BiggerPockets.com, and the co-host of BiggerPockets Money, a podcast for anyone who has money or wants to have more.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mindy Jensen Interview Transcript

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

Mindy Jensen
Pete, thank you for asking me to be on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast. I’m super excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well me too. It was so fun to meet you at Podcast Movement. I’ve been a Bigger Pockets fan for a while. It was a bit of a celebrity sighting, like, “ooh!”

Mindy Jensen
Well, I am glad we could get together.

Pete Mockaitis
Me too, me too. I have huge thanks and appreciation for what you’ve done in my world of accumulating money and wealth in terms of did my first house hack, is a term I learned from you guys, which refers to buying a multi-unit property and renting out some units and living in one of them. It’s awesome to have tenants pay your mortgage for you. It’s a treat.

Mindy Jensen
You know what, who wants to pay their own mortgage when somebody else can pay it for you? If anybody wants to pay my mortgage, feel free.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an open invitation. Well, I want to go back into time a little bit and hear a fun story about you took a distance bike ride from Seattle to DC. What’s the story here?

Mindy Jensen
I used to work at a gym and I was flipping through some magazine and on the back cover was this advertisement that had a picture of the United States and it had a drawing from Seattle to DC. It said some people would do this on an airplane. Then I started reading and I’m like, “Well, yeah, how else would you get from Seattle to DC?” I’m looking and I’m like “This is a bike ride? That sounds awesome.”

I did a little more research. It was a fundraiser for the American Lung Association. And I just thought, “I’m young, I’m not married, I don’t have any kids. This would be a super fun thing for me to do.” I called them up and they said, “Oh, that ride started yesterday, but we have another one next year.” I’m like, “Okay, good because I’m not in any sort of shape to actually be doing a cross country bike ride.”

I mean I didn’t spend a lot of time getting in shape before the next year. I just hopped on my bike and did it. Not the recommended route. But it was an amazing experience to be – I didn’t really have anything to do all day long except get to the next camp. I met a ton of really great people. I raised a lot of money for the American Lung Association. It was a really great experience. I’m super glad I did it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. That’s great. Was there a big old group of you all? How many were making the trek?

Mindy Jensen
I think there were 140 of us that year.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. So there was like support vans and camping and that?

Mindy Jensen
Yes. There were support vans. There was breakfast provided and dinner provided. Then everything else was – like, souvenirs and drinks and everything else was on your own.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool, very cool. Well, kudos for that achievement and discipline and advance planning and some of those topics and themes come up on Bigger Pockets. Could you orient listeners who are not familiar with Bigger Pockets? What’s it all about?

Mindy Jensen
Bigger Pockets is a website where basically you can learn how to invest in real estate. There’s a right way and there’s a thousand wrong ways to do it. If you do it the right way, you can most likely make money, definitely not break any laws.

You really don’t know what you don’t know. Something might sound really easy and then you start diving into it, you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. I didn’t think of that.” Our site exists to help you think of that and think of that. We have a blog and a forum and now two podcasts, the real estate investing podcast and the money podcast because not everybody is in a financial position to just start investing right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true. When you say financial position, I’m reminded—my wife and I, we watched all the videos on buying your first property. I believe it was Scott Trench was the man on camera. He kept saying strong financial position with hand gestures. My wife and I, we kept alluding to that. “Do we have a strong financial position?” It’s wise advice as opposed to no money down stuff, which can up your level of risk.

Mindy Jensen
It can. Although, we do have a book called How to Invest with Low and No Money Down. No money down means none of your own money down, not no money down. Nobody’s going to give you a house without anything in it, except – actually there’s two.

If you can qualify for a USDA loan, which is more for a rural area or a VA loan if you are a veteran. Those are the only two loan programs that I know of that come with 0% down. But for the most part, you should have money to put into the property or at least have a cushion in case something goes wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. We ended up going with a Freddie Mac Home Possible program in a neighborhood that I guess they thought they wanted to encourage people to invest and move into from the last census track, but I’m sure when they update the census track it will probably no longer qualify. It was good timing.

Mindy Jensen
Yeah, that’s really good timing. They do lag – the government is the government. It is a huge slow-moving beast, so a lot of times what they think is rural, is no longer rural. I have a friend who got a USDA loan in one of the hottest areas in Northern Colorado, which is still considered technically rural, but they’ve got subdivision after subdivision popping up all over the place.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, we’re starting to get into the tactical and that’s fine because I wanted to hear just one to orient folks. I think one cool, innovative thing that you do, which I had never even heard of is you purchase a home, you live in it for a while, while you’re renovating and then you resell it. What’s the story? How does it work?

Mindy Jensen
This is called a live in flip. I have done this eight times. I buy a house that is cosmetically ugly, but structurally sound so that I’m not moving into something that’s going to crumble around me. You’re not looking at something like a meth house or something with mold or something with significant issues.

I buy it. I move into it. It is my primary residence, so I get a lower mortgage rate because owner occupants have the lowest mortgage rates – owner occupants with the best credit have the lowest mortgage rates.

I fix it up for two years. Two is the magic number because if I sell it after two years, I pay no capital gains taxes on the increase – the difference in the value between what I bought it at and what I sold it for minus repairs. I pay no capital gains up to $500,000 because I’m married and up to $250,000 if I were single.

The house that I’m in now, I bought it for $176,000. I put roughly $100,000 into it. Currently I could put it on the market and sell it in a hot second for $500 or $525. There’s a significant amount of capital gains that I have realized in this home and I will pay no taxes on it when I sell it.

Pete Mockaitis
That is brilliant. That’s the kind of stuff that you pick up over at Bigger Pockets. I think that’s so cool. I just wanted to get that out there, so we can learn a little bit about you and sort of how you do your thing. But maybe let’s kind of get a broader perspective in terms of when we talk about financial freedom, how do you think about that and define it and what does that mean in real lived terms?

Mindy Jensen
I consider myself financially free, which to me means I don’t need to work in order to pay my bills, in order to feed my children, in order to put food on the table and have a roof over my head. I have enough money that I have saved up and invested so that I would never have to work again. That means that I can choose to work in a passion project, in a thing that doesn’t make me much money because the money is now out of the equation and now I can just do what I love.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. What are you doing then?

Mindy Jensen
Well, I work at Bigger Pockets. I talk about real estate all day long. You alluded earlier, we’re kind of getting into the weeds, please reign me in because I can literally talk about this all day. And I do, that’s my job. I really love doing that. While I am well compensated, I could work there for free, just don’t tell my boss.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really cool. You hear that sort of enthusiasm for real estate on the podcast in terms of folks that they just eat, sleep, breathe and live it and love it.

Mindy Jensen
Yeah. I think that real estate is a really great investment. There’s a quote – I can’t remember who said it, “Buy land, they’re not making any more of it.” Real estate is – it’s not a totally finite amount or what am I trying to say here? Real estate isn’t a finite – there isn’t a finite amount of real estate in the world, but it’s still almost always rising in price.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right and we have population growing. That’s another reason I’m a fan of farmland as investments go because we continue to eat year after year and there are more people doing it.

Mindy Jensen
That is absolutely true. Farmland is not something I really know all that much about.

Pete Mockaitis
Anyway, so we talked about the two-year strategy, the house hacking. I’d love to get your take both on the earning more and the saving more sides of things. You’ve learned a ton from your work and your research and your enthusiasm and reading and talking to people. What have you discovered to be some of the most effective approaches, we’ll start with earning more, that you think would be applicable for professionals working in a job right now?

Mindy Jensen
You want to make yourself invaluable. You want to be the go-to person for fill in the blank. Whatever it is, you want your boss to think, “Oh, I’ve got a project. I’m going to give it to Pete because I know Pete’s going to do it. He’s not going to give me excuses. He’s not going to be late.”

There’s kind of a shortage of people who do a good job. There’s a lot of people who do an average job, who do a mediocre job. There’s no shortage of people who do a bad job. But the people who are really, really awesome at their jobs, that’s not all that common. If you can stand out, you can be so much more valuable.

Then when you are invaluable to your boss, you go in and you ask for a raise. This is something that so many people struggle with. They don’t want to ask for a raise. What’s the worst that can happen? Is your boss going to fire you because you asked for a raise? He’s not the right person to work – he or she – sorry, I don’t want to be sexist – isn’t the right person to work for anyway.

If you go in and you have solid data to back up why you deserve this raise and what you’ve done in the past year, in the past six months, how your job has changed or whatever, the worst that can happen is they say no or they no not right now. If they say not right now, ask them when. But I think so many people leave so much money on the table simply because they don’t ask for a raise.

Pete Mockaitis
I like a lot of what you’re saying here and to dig into some more. But that point about it’s kind of rare that people are awesome at their jobs, I second that. In doing the research for, “Hm, would anyone listen to this podcast?” I collected three different survey tools, which is pretty cool, and I got a sense that between 4 and 18% of people in the US were highly interested in listening to a podcast that would help them be awesome at their jobs.

It’s funny because sometimes I have guests who say, “Who wouldn’t want to be awesome at their jobs?” It’s like, well, it’s kind of the majority. We are a minority, so thank you listeners. It’s great to have you and be in a cool kids club.

And I was chatting with my buddy, Carl. Carl, he was working for actually it was a mortgage company. Carl was getting promoted quickly. I was like, “Carl, what’s your trick. What are you doing?” He just said, “I’m doing my job. I’m supposed to follow up on these leads so that’s sort of what I do all day. Then other people they do that for maybe half of the day.”

The other half they’re kind of – well they’re sort of chilling out in whatever way with chitchatting with people or Facebook or their phones or sort of whatever distractions enter their world. Yeah, awesomeness is rare and valuable and can get you paid.

I want to hear a little bit about the data point. What are some of your favorite resources or kind of pieces of information and numbers you would point to when you’re armed to have that ‘please give me a raise’ conversation well?

Mindy Jensen
This isn’t a conversation you can plan for in five minutes. If you are going to ask for a raise, you need to plan that out because you want to start keeping track of what you’re doing every day. I’ve got a couple stories. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds.

But I had a friend whose boss came up to her one day and said, “I don’t think you’re doing what you say you’re doing.” She went home that day and called me up and she got all mad. She’s like, “I can’t believe she would ask me this.” A couple of month later she got fired because her boss kind of gave her a head up, “Look, I think you’re not doing what you say you’re doing,” and she never proved her boss wrong.

At almost the exact same time, my husband’s boss said the same thing to him, but my husband’s boss said this because my husband was working – living in Colorado, the boss was in Chicago. He was working from home. My husband started keeping track of absolutely everything he did every single day. He turned it in every week to his boss. His boss didn’t ask him to do this. He just did this on his own.

After 18 months – he worked for the government, so it’s kind of a long, drawn out process – but after 18 months, the boss came to him and he said, “You don’t need to send me these anymore. I totally believe you’re doing what you say you’re doing.”

Your boss gives you money in exchange for the job. You should be keeping track daily or weekly what you’re doing. Your boss doesn’t want to see a list of 365 days’ worth of stuff you did, but you can kind of keep track every day. “Oh, today I did this. Today I did that. I worked on this project,” so when it comes time to ask your boss for a raise, you can show them your log.

They’re not going to read it. They’re just going to like, “Holy cow, I can’t believe you did this.” Then show them some bullet points. “I got that big contract that you were looking for,” “I increased my sales by this,” “I did that,” or whatever it is. Having proof that you did it goes a long way to getting the raise.

Your boss is going to see how dedicated you are to the job just by showing him all the things that you have – all the things you’ve been doing. Another place to start looking is Glassdoor. It’s a good place to get a comparison of what people in your area are making for doing the same job that you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Mindy Jensen
If you’re making $50,000 and everybody else in your area is making 55, you can ask for 60. I would always overshoot. Ask for 60 and say, “Look, everybody is making this, but here’s all the things that I’ve been doing and here’s why I deserve it.” Just going in and asking for a raise is not necessarily going to get you anything.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. That practice associated with keeping track of what you’re doing I think would be so helpful on numerous dimensions. So many guests have said sort of their top habit for being awesome at their job is just having a simple list of okay, these are the one, two, three, limited number of things I’m going to do today, so they have that focus before emails or distractions sort of suck them into other agendas.

That practice one, gets you focused day by day and two, let’s you capture those bullets of achievement, whether that goes into a resume when it’s time to update it or for the annual review. You just have that ready to go and repurpose any which way to serve your needs.

Mindy Jensen
Yeah. I have one more quote that I’m going to butcher. It’s from George Carlin. Obviously he’s a comedian. He says, “Think of how stupid the average person is and realize that half of them are stupider than that.” Take out stupid and replace it with lazy. Think of how lazy the average worker is and realize that half of them are lazier than that. A very small amount of work will yield so many results just because you’re so much better than your peers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, nice perspectives on the earning side. Any other favorite approaches you’d like to mention?

Mindy Jensen
No. There’s side hustles. If there’s no way to make more money at your current job, a side hustle is a great way to bring in extra income without committing to a totally second job. There’s – that, the sky’s the limit. What are your passions? What are you excited about? What do you want to do? Some side hustles pay more than others. Some are not so exciting. It depends.

I really think that at your main job, you’re most likely leaving a lot of money on the table simply by not asking for a raise, a specific dollar amount. “I’m making 50. I want to make 60, so I’m going to ask for 65. They win by giving me 61 and then I win because I only wanted 60,” or however that works.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh perfect. Let’s talk about the savings side of the equation. What are some of your favorite approaches there?

Mindy Jensen
My absolute favorite approach to saving money is to know where your money is going. You can’t know where to cut back, if you don’t know where it’s going right now. I used to say that your step number one is to check your spending, but really your number one step to having money should be to write down what your life goals are. What are your goals with money? What do you want to do with what you have?

After you’ve written that out, thought about what you really, really want, then start tracking your spending. You will be probably surprised at how you’re spending that you haven’t been tracking doesn’t really align with your goals. It might a little bit, but there’s always room for improvement.

One of the easiest ways to track spending is my friends over at WafflesOnWednesdays.com wrote up this amazing article. It is called How to Make Your Own Mobile Expense Tracking App in 30 Minutes. It’s free. They give you step-by-step instructions on basically how to take a Google form and create it to – customize it to your spending needs and put it on your phone. Every time you spend a dime, you track it in the spender – in the tracking app.

And what you will discover is “I do this too many times a month. I want to cut that back,” or “Wow, I didn’t know that about my spending. I’m glad I had this look at what’s going on.”

The first time I tracked my spending, I discovered that I went to the grocery store literally every single day. I was just picking up one thing. I was just picking up one other thing. When you go to the grocery store, you don’t just buy one thing. You buy one thing plus two others. But if you do that every day, that adds up to so much money spent. I was just going in, “Oh, I could use this or I could use that.”

It was between my house and the gym. I would go to the gym every morning, so I would just stop by on the way home. Once I started tracking my spending, I realized that’s not really what I want to be doing is throwing all of my money at the grocery store. I cut that back and my spending was cut – I’m not sure exactly how much I cut out of my spending, but it was significant and it was noticeable the next month.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d also love to get your take – so that mobile tracking app, that’s very clever. I’ve made something like that once to track my energy levels to sort of see, “Hm, are there some patterns associated with when I should do creative work versus focused detailed work.” That’s been very helpful. And so zippy, just push a button on the phone and boom, there’s a Google form and five seconds later you’ve got the data collected.

But for the lazy listener, who will say, “Mindy, can’t I just see what I’ve got on Mint.com. Won’t that sort of transaction log be sufficient for me when I use my credit cards?”

Mindy Jensen
You can if you like. When we first started tracking our spending, we had a spiral notebook with a pen and it was right by the door as I walked in, so I would see it and remember to mark down my spending. Whatever you can do to track your spending, whatever tactic works for you is the best option.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. We mentioned Mint.com. What about, any other sort of software or solutions that are helpful for folks. We’ve got the Google form approach on your phone, we’ve got the notebook, we’ve got Mint.com. I’ve heard of YNAB, You Need a Budget. Do you know people who love that? Are there any other solutions you’d point to?

Mindy Jensen
I know people who love YNAB. I believe it has a bit of a learning curve, but I know they’ve got really great tech support that can help you through that. I haven’t personally used it, so I don’t – I can’t say that it’s great or it’s terrible or whatever. I’ve never used it.

What worked for me the most was that notebook on the counter because it was in my face as I walked in the door. Whenever I walked in, I walked in through one door, so having it there – whatever you can use to remind yourself.

Now that I have this on the phone, it’s kind of fun to have it on the phone and I don’t even leave the grocery store or the parking lot, wherever I’m at, before I track my spending just so I don’t forget it. Having it on my phone makes it really easy to – it’s in my head all the time and it’s a game. Now it’s a game, “Oh, how little can I spend?”

Pete Mockaitis
I’m also intrigued by you’re keeping this practice alive and well, though you mentioned earlier, you’ve done eight houses worth of these living in flips and you are currently at financial freedom. It kind of reminds me of Warren Buffet, who continues to live modestly and thoughtfully about his expenses even though he’s got massive wealth.

Can you give me a view into that mindset of you’ve got more than enough money and you continue these practices? Some might say that’s unnecessary, what’s your take?

Mindy Jensen
When I was doing a little bit of research for your podcast, I heard you ask people about their favorite quote. My favorite quote for decades has been from Coco Chanel. She said, “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.” She’s really sassy.

But I don’t care what other people think of me. If you don’t like my car, I don’t care. If you don’t like my clothes, I don’t care. I don’t have the latest phone. I have the phone that I have figured out. I don’t want a new phone because I don’t want to have to figure it out. I’m not the biggest techie person on the planet.

I have a house that looks nice, but it’s also – it looks nice because I’m getting ready to sell it to somebody who cares what their house looks like. I don’t care that you think I live in a dump when I move from here to the next place, which will be a dump when I move in, because it doesn’t affect me  what you or what other people think of me.

I think that’s a really big part of financial freedom. I’m not trying to keep up with the Jones’s. I don’t even know who the Jones’s are. It’s just a mindset. It’s a confidence thing. I would rather spend time with my children than have the latest phone. I’ve got a really good bicycle that I’ve had for something like 17 years. It still gets me where I need to go, so why do I need a new one just because they came out with a new version of it. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. I think a large part of that is you’re really clear on what you want, what you value and the priority and thusly, the other stuff falls away.

Mindy Jensen
It kind of does. I buy what I want to buy and it’s because I want – I buy for quality when I’m buying something where quality means something to me. Like coffee, that’s a big one in the financial freedom world. “Oh, don’t go to Starbucks.” I don’t go to Starbucks. I don’t particularly love the taste of their coffee, but I buy good coffee and I make it at home. It’s good and I don’t care that I don’t have a green cup in my hand or I don’t have the red holiday cup or whatever they’re doing now.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talked about buying for quality, that reminds me of the book, The Millionaire Next Door, which is so great and full of research.

They mentioned that the average price of shoes for millionaires, like what do they spend on their dress shoes, I will not remember the number and it probably needs to be adjusted for inflation, but it was something like 200 bucks. It was not like 600-dollar crazy luxury brand, but it was also not the cheapos. It was a shoe that they hoped to resole it and wear for a decade or two or three.


Mindy Jensen
I will say that if you’re a man, you can get away with that. Lady’s styles go in and out. But again, if you don’t care – I’m trying to think what – I don’t even know if I have any dress shoes right now because I don’t dress up and go anywhere. That’s not something that I enjoy. I don’t go to the opera, the cinema – not the cinema, the theatre.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the theatre.

Mindy Jensen
Yeah. I don’t do any of that. I don’t – that’s not something I enjoy. I really loathe the opera. I’m not a fan. I’ll just leave it at that. I’m sure it’s beautiful and whatever. It’s just not something that I want to go to. But I do go to the symphony, the local symphony, which is held in the high school auditorium. You could – as long as you have on clothes, that’s all they need you to be wearing. That’s more my speed.

Pete Mockaitis
The dress code is clothes.

Mindy Jensen
Yeah, having a good quality item that – you spend on what is important to you. You save money on things that don’t matter, so you can spend on what’s important to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Let’s hear about some other approaches for the saving. Once you’ve got a clear picture on where your money’s going and some of the mismatches, you make some adjustments. What have you found to be some common recurring opportunities for lots of people overspend on this and there’s an easy way to stop doing that?

Mindy Jensen
A lot of people overspend on their phone plan, on their insurance, on recurring charges that they don’t really think about.


Okay, one thing that I have heard – one recommendation that I have heard from a lot of different people is to go through your credit card statements every single month and make sure that the recurring charges are the least amount that you can spend for the level of service or quality that you want.

Let’s say you have a phone plan from your big name phone company and it’s $100 a month and it includes unlimited texting and unlimited data. I don’t even know what’s available because I don’t use any data on my phone. But I use Ting, T-I-N-G.com. They run over the Sprint network. There’s a couple of different ones. Republic Wireless is another one. I think Cricket Wireless is also a low cost, but don’t quote me on that.

Where my plan, my basic plan is $15 a month. That includes unlimited Wi-Fi, phone calls, and a few other things, and like a gig of data or something that I never go over because I hardly ever use it. But they have different levels of plans and you only pay for what you’re using.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. You can just sort of take your existing phone once your contract is up and say, “Hey, Ting me up.”

Mindy Jensen
It depends. You would have to talk to Ting to make sure that your phone is compatible. I think that not all phones are compatible. This is something that I don’t do a lot of. I got on Ting and then I never look at it again. I have the same phone for a long time because I don’t want to learn a new phone. I just want to have Google maps and the ability to text and make a phone call.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Mindy Jensen
Then everything else is bonus.

Your insurance, your car insurance, your home insurance. One thing that I have noticed is that your premiums go up every year. If you shop around to other companies, you might get a teaser rate or you might get a lower rate simply because your insurance company is kind of banking on you to be lazy and not-

Pete Mockaitis
Like the cable companies do. Yeah.

Mindy Jensen
Kind of like the cable companies do, yeah. Do you need everything that’s in that list of insurance? When I first starting driving, I had full coverage. Now I have pretty basic coverage because I’m a good driver and I don’t hit people. I’m covered if somebody else hits me. I have enough money to cover the old car that I have, which I probably wouldn’t get anything for anyways.

I don’t have coverage if I hit somebody. I don’t coverage for my own vehicle. But I also haven’t been in an accident that was my fault since like 1992 or something like that.

Another thing to do is raise your deductible. My deductible when I was a kid was like $100 because I couldn’t scrape together anything more than that. Now I think it’s $2,000 because I can come together with $2,000 and have everything else covered.

Just review your recurring charges, ask for discounts everywhere you can. Again, what’s the worst that they’re going to do? They’re going to say no. Then you threaten to cancel the account or you cancel it and go someplace else that gives you a better price.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice. I also like one takeaway I picked up from Bigger Pockets is to focus in on the big areas of spending and to not stress so much, like the latte, “Oh I love the latte. I don’t want to give up the latte.” Well, the latte matters less than what you’re spending on your home, your domicile, your living arrangement, your transportation or car, and your food, your groceries, what you’re consuming, whether it’s out or in. Do you have any pro tips on optimizing those big ones?

Mindy Jensen
I do have pro tips on optimizing those big ones. Let’s start with your car. Do you need your car? Do you need it all the time? Do you have an alternative way to get to wherever it is you’re going in the car? Most people use their car to get to work. How close do you live to work?  Could you walk? Could you bike? Could you get a ride with somebody?

We have a guy at bigger pockets named Craig who used to rent out his car on Turo and made a lot of money doing it. He would take his bike to work. He would get a ride with somebody if he needed to. He just rented his car out all the time. That’s a way to get rid of your expense when you don’t really need the item.


Housing, you can – Airbnb, you can rent out the unused portions of your home. You can have a roommate. How much space do you have that’s just vacant and not being used ever? You house hack.

There’s a lot of ways to cut down your expenses, eliminate them, even make money on your previous liability, now it’s an asset, simply by tweaking something. If you don’t want to move, you could just rent out a room in your house. Maybe you’re not having your entire mortgage paid, but any portion of your mortgage that you don’t have to pay is a win.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. How about on the food side of things?

Mindy Jensen
On the food side of things, I would absolutely recommend to plan your meals. Look at inexpensive food ingredients. Sweet potatoes are inexpensive and potatoes are inexpensive. Look for ways to build your meals around inexpensive staples with a pinch of something else.

If you are a meat eater, maybe you have a small amount of meat with your very vegetable heavy meal. I am a meat eater, so we do have a lot of meat. But I do have a daughter who saw this movie called Free Birds, which is a cartoon. That was the first time she equated turkey that you eat with turkey the bird and has never eaten a piece of meat since, so I have learned to do a lot of vegetarian meal planning.

Beans are cheap. Canned beans are cheap, but dried beans are even cheaper. You can buy in bulk. Plan your meals around these protein sources that aren’t meat, which is fairly expensive.

Pete Mockaitis
I love if you have dried beans, if you throw them in an Instapot, you can get them raring to go and eat pretty quickly without the whole soaking process, so there’s another one.

Mindy Jensen
That’s what I’ve heard. I don’t have an Instapot, so I can’t speak to that. But there’s – go to – excuse me – go to Pinterest.com and look up 50 billion recipes for insert ingredient here. “What I can do with canned beans?” or “What can I do with dried beans?” “Oh, here’s 47 recipes for you.” Chile is a super hearty meal that you can make and – you just throw in a bunch of stuff in that pot.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s wild just how far you can take this. The Wall Street Journal recently had an article about the FIRE movement, Financial Independence Retire Early. They profiled someone whose monthly grocery bill was $75 and that’s what does it for eating for one for a month, $75.

Mindy Jensen
That is not my budget. Good for her for being able to do it. She had tips like buy produce that isn’t optimal. I think there was this quote that was kind of bandied about in the FIRE community, “Oh, she eats brown bananas.” So what? That’s when they’re the best. The Chiquita banana song, “When they’re flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you.” I don’t know, sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Any musical number is welcome. We’ll take them all.

Mindy Jensen
Great. My grocery store has a dented aisle. It doesn’t matter if there’s a dent. It doesn’t matter that something – the can is – the box is crushed on the corner unless it’s taco shells. Those are always just disintegrated. Don’t buy those in the dented aisle. But everything else – like I have a box of cereal it’s got a dent in it, so instead of $4.99, it’s $0.99. I’ll take that every day.

Pete Mockaitis
This is handy in terms of earning more and saving more. What do you see are sort of the most common mistakes or difficult decisions that folks are really wrestling with when they’re trying to get their financial house in order?

Mindy Jensen
Personal finance is personal. It means it’s what happens to your finances. If you want to go to Starbucks every morning, then go. Put that into your budget and cut back on other things.

What I see people doing is reading – there’s a guy who’s been blogging since the beginning of time called Early Retirement Extreme. He lives on beans and rice and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’s okay with that. I’m not okay with that. I don’t live on beans and rice and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I see people thinking that it’s got to be this extreme thing when it doesn’t really have to be this extreme thing.

One of the things that we hear a lot on our podcast is “What did you do when you first discovered financial independence?” “Oh, I cut out everything.” Then month two, they add things back in. It is a good exercise to cut out everything to see what you really, really, really want, what means more to you than you thought it did and then add that back in.

But another way to do it is just cut out one thing at a time. Do you watch a lot of TV? We actually don’t watch a lot of TV, so we don’t have a TV plan. We just have Netflix. If you watch a lot of sports and it’s a big part of your life, then cut out something else that doesn’t mean so much to you. But don’t try to live my life because my life isn’t your life. You need to live your life. It all goes back to writing down your goals. What do you enjoy? What do you want out of this life?

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

Mindy Jensen
No, you’re pretty thorough, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh shucks. Thank you. All right, well, we heard your favorite quote, so how about a favorite book?

Mindy Jensen

My favorite book is called The Richest Man in Babylon. It was written in 1920 by George S. Clason. As you read it – it’s written in like King James Bible language, Shakespeare language. It’s – I love Shakespeare and I love that language, so it was fun for me to read. You don’t get a lot of books like that anymore, but it can be a little bit difficult to digest just based on the language.

But he talks about don’t spend every dime that you make. Don’t invest with people who really don’t know what they’re talking about. Pay yourself first. What’s really telling about this book is it was written almost 100 years ago and it’s all still true. There isn’t any bit of this advice that isn’t still valid.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s a good one. I remember I listened to an audio version of the book. I don’t know why, I’ll just remember it forever, the way the narrator did, it’s like, “The Richest Man in Babylon. Pay thyself first.” It was a good memory. Thank you.

Mindy Jensen

That is hilarious. Yeah, he probably sounds just like that. That’s a great-

Pete Mockaitis

It was very regal. It was like Patrick Stewart doing a Shakespeare thing.

Mindy Jensen

But it’s a really great book.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite tool?

Mindy Jensen

A favorite tool. I’m going to go back to that Waffles on Wednesday spending tracker, just because I don’t have a lot of tools that I use and I use that one all the time.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite habit?

Mindy Jensen

Favorite habit. Write down what you did that day. It’s really easy for Monday to turn into Friday and you get to the next Monday and you’re like, “Oh, what did I work on last week. I don’t remember.”

But get in the habit of writing down what you have accomplished, what you have worked on, even some failures, what you tried and didn’t work so that you can learn from that too so that you can represent yourself when you go to make a request for a raise, so you can represent yourself when you change jobs.

Do you remember what you did four jobs ago? I don’t. Four jobs ago was a really long time ago. But I don’t remember what I did four jobs ago, at least not day to day. “Oh, I entered products into the system.” That’s not exciting. What else did you do?

Pete Mockaitis

Very good. How about is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get retweeted?

Mindy Jensen

Save on the things that don’t matter so you can spend on the things that do.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Mindy Jensen

I am all over BiggerPockets.com. You can find me on Twitter at MindyAtBP, M-I-N-D-Y-A-T-B-P, for Bigger Pockets. My email is Mindy@BiggerPockets.com. I am slow to respond. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m inundated, but if somebody has a question about anything I love talking about everything I just talked to you about.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh cool. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mindy Jensen

I would just challenge everybody to start tracking what they’re doing with their life, what they’re doing in their job, what they’re doing with their spending. Just start keeping track of stuff. It doesn’t have to be some detailed minute-by-minute account of what you did at your job that day or penny-by-penny accounting of your spending, just a general overall picture will give you a lot of insight into how you are living.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Mindy, this has been so much fun. Thank you for the good work you do at Bigger Pockets and sharing the good word. I wish you lots of luck in all you’re up to, the next house sale and purchase and all the rest.

Mindy Jensen

Pete, thank you for having me. I had a really, really fun time.

378: How to Tackle Uncertainty–and Enjoy It with Josh Kaufman

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Josh Kaufman shares his research regarding tackling uncertainty, the value of persistence in new skill acquisition, and best practices for self-directed learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The PICS formula for assessing your goals
  2. The five parts of every business mental model
  3. How and Why to pre-commit to learning a new skill

About Josh

Josh’s research focuses on business, skill acquisition, productivity, creativity, applied psychology, and practical wisdom. His unique, multidisciplinary approach to business mastery and rapid skill acquisition has helped millions of readers around the world learn essential concepts and skills on their own terms.

Josh’s research has been featured by The New York Times, The BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Time, BusinessWeek, Wired, Fast Company, Financial Times, Lifehacker, CNN, and many others.

Josh has been a featured speaker at Stanford University, World Domination Summit, Pioneer Google, and many others. JoshKaufman.net was named one of the “Top 100 Websites for Entrepreneurs” and his TEDx talk was viewed over 12 million times.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Josh Kaufman Interview Transcript

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

Josh Kaufman
Pete, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into this discussion. One fun thing I learned about you as I was stalking you in preparation for this discussion is it still active that you have a monthly Dungeons and Dragons group going? What’s the story here?

Josh Kaufman
That is absolutely accurate. Actually, we just had I think it’s our one-year group anniversary this past Saturday.

Pete Mockaitis
Congratulations.

Josh Kaufman
It’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, what’s the – Dungeons and Dragons, it’s so funny. It has all sorts of connotations, but I want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, what is it for you that drew you in and keeps you coming back?

Josh Kaufman
Oh, it is the most fun game that has ever been invented. It’s this really wonderful combination. When I try to explain it to people who have never played, it’s like imagine a game where literally anything is possible and people can do crazy things that you have not prepared for and don’t expect and there’s some way of figuring out if a character who tries to do something crazy in a story, if they can actually do that thing.

I love it in two ways. It’s this wonderful combination of group storytelling and improv. The storyteller kind of knows where it’s going to go, but doesn’t know for sure. The players have agency and latitude to do whatever they want.

Then the players can explore a world where they can and try and pull off things that are just really fun to think about and come up with creative solutions that the person w ho’s telling the story just never anticipated. It’s this wonderful combination of story and surprise and creativity. It’s the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Not to get too deep into the weeds, but I’m intrigued. How do you make the call on whether something that someone invents out of their head – I guess I just saw matches like “You are locked behind a dungeon door.” It’s like, “I’m going to pull out some – a bazooka and blast it away.”

I guess how do we determine whether or not they in fact can or cannot pull out a bazooka and blast it away? That’s always kind of been my sticking point looking out from afar, having not experienced it first-hand.

Josh Kaufman
Sure. There’s actually very active conversations in RPG circles about how you deal with this. I think the term is verisimilitude, so how much do you want to try to emulate real life in this fantastical story that you’re all telling together.

Every system has different ways of doing it. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, all of the player characters are playing an individual who has certain goals and desires and also, very important, a list of equipment that they have on them at their disposal, so pulling out a bazooka from nowhere is totally not kosher as far as the rules of the game.

Pete Mockaitis
It would be on the equipment list in advance is what you’re telling me.

Josh Kaufman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Josh Kaufman
Imagine somebody like Conan the Barbarian fighting a dragon at the top of a mountain. The dragon is hurt and tries to flee and Conan flings himself off of a cliff and tries to grab the dragon in midair. Most games don’t really have a good system for figuring out what happens next.

The whole point of a rule system in a role-playing game is essentially giving you the tools to figure out just that. What is the situation? How difficult is it? What is this player? What are they good at and what are they not good at?

There’s a way to essentially reduce it to statistics of you don’t know for sure, you’re going to roll some dice to figure out what happens next, but how great are the chances that Conan will be able to leap far enough to get to the dragon and then hold on if they’re able to make contact. Things like that. It’s really fun.

Pete Mockaitis
I see, so you’re kind of jointly deciding that as a group.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, and the really interesting parts are when the players figure out a solution to a challenge that you didn’t anticipate. At risk of going too deep, my players were fighting ice demons that exploded when they died this past Saturday.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve all been there, Josh.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, as you do. It was really interesting to see the group brainstorm and come up with solutions of how to isolate and then put these monsters in a position where they could be defeated without doing damage to the party.

There were five or six different solutions. Every player came up with their own take on it. But it was just really interesting to see with all of the different personalities and the different sets of skills at the table, everybody came up with their own little solution to figure out this thorny problem.

I was telling the story and I had no idea what they were going to do. The fun of it for me was putting a whole bunch of people in a situation and seeing how they tackled it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s nifty. You’ve compiled some wisdom when it comes to fighting fantastical and mythological beasts in your book, How to Fight a Hydra, but there’s more to it than just a fun fantasy fiction romp. Can you unpack what’s this book all about?

Josh Kaufman
Sure, so How to Fight a Hydra is compiling a lot of research into a universal problem that all of us have that’s we may have a big ambitious goal or pursuit, something that we want for ourselves and we’re not quite sure if we’re going to be able to pull it off. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of risk. There might be fear of the unknown or uncertainty that we have the skills that we’re going to need in order to get what we want.

A huge tradition both in ancient and modern philosophy about how to deal with topics like uncertainty and risk, but also a lot of new cognitive psychology or behavioral psychology. How do you get yourself to do something that you know in advance is going to be challenging or is going to be difficult?

I started researching this and started doing it the way that I did my previous two books, which were research based non-fiction. The funny thing about writing about uncertainty and risk and fear is that if you treat it that way, you start writing a book that nobody wants to read because those topics are inherently uncomfortable to think about too long.

That’s where the idea of instead of explaining how to do this, approaching it from the perspective of a story. Let’s take a person who is deciding to pursue something genuinely difficult, something that they don’t know if they’re going to be able to do and let’s follow them as they go through the process of accomplishing this very big goal and experiencing all of the normal challenges along the way.

Then watch them skillfully apply these things that we know from research works in these sorts of situations. It’s fiction. It’s a story, but it’s a story with an underlying logic and purpose that is very firmly rooted in this universal challenge that we all face.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. We won’t spoil the story elements, but within it, there are some components associated with sort of physical training and getting tougher as well as acquiring or crafting a sword in order to pull it off. Could you – at the risk of us entering into the boring territory for the book that nobody wanted to read – what are some of the fundamental steps and scientific insights associated with flourishing when you’re tackling a big project like this?

Josh Kaufman
There are a bunch of insights around – let’s group it around expectations going into something – a new big project, something you’ve never done before, something that is at the limit of your capability. And there are a few common patterns or denominators in how you approach that, and how you approach it makes an enormous difference.

Let’s say you want to enter a new career. You want to start a new business, pursue a creative project. Whatever it happens to be, there’s this undercurrent of, like, “I don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t know if I invest my time and energy in this way I’m going to get the results that I want. I may have a vague idea of what I’m trying to do, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.”

Those are all very common things that I hear from lots of different people and experience myself. One of the things that’s very useful to know from the beginning is that that is completely normal. It doesn’t mean that you are not up to the task. It doesn’t mean that this is a bad idea or there’s something wrong with you. It’s just a fundamental feature of the world.

These big things that we want to achieve, there’s an inherent element of uncertainty, complexity, variability, ambiguity and risk. Those things are never going to go away. If you understand that from the beginning, you can shift your mindset more from “How do I get this uncertainty to go away? How can I make it stop?” to more of a you are pursuing an adventure. You’re exploring something interesting. You are challenging yourself in important ways.

One of the things that makes an adventure interesting, or exploration valuable, is you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That’s part of the fun. That’s part of the challenge. Just thinking about these things that we want to do more along the lines of adventures or exploration is a very useful way to think about the process of pursuing something in general.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really cool in terms of just reframing it as an adventure because we pay good money to experience adventure, whether you’re going to REI and buying some outdoor backpacking-type stuff and going out on a trail or a mountain or a campsite or whether it’s more indoorsy, a room escape adventure, you know?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
Paying money for that kind of experience or just a trip to the movies or a novel or whatever. Yet, elsewhere in life, we want that uncertainty gone. We would like to just sort of know how it’s going to unfold. That’s a pretty clever move in terms of by reframing the uncertainty into adventure, now it’s no longer terrifying and doubt-producing, but rather it’s fun and interesting.

Josh Kaufman
That’s absolutely the case.

Pete Mockaitis
Nifty. I imagine some ways that may be easier said than done, but let’s say you’re in the heat of it. Someone’s looking to change their career wildly from we’ll just say one field of accounting to another field of pinball machine design.

Josh Kaufman
Fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve always loved pinball and this is kind of a crazy switch, but they think they’ve got some special skills and abilities and things to contribute there.

Let’s think about it. One person may very well be freaking out in this situation, like, “Oh my gosh, where would I even start? Why would anyone want to hire me? Should I quit my job? Should I not? That’s pretty crazy. How am I going to support my family, pay the mortgage?” Here we are in the midst of uncertainty and big dream and fear. Where do we go?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the first bit is exploring more fully what the new thing looks like. I’m guessing that our fictional example may have some experience doing this but may not have completed an entire project start to finish.

One useful thing about thinking about all of these transitions as adventures is there’s a certain amount of exploration that’s always going to happen, particularly at the beginning. There’s actually – I did a full essay about this on my website, JoshKaufman.net, about exploration versus exploitation.

There’s a lot of research about it in computer science, but it’s one of those generalizable things that’s useful in a lot of circumstances. When you’re doing something new, it is in your best interest to spend the vast majority of your time exploring all of your different options.

Maybe in this case, the individual is still working their day job, so there’s some risk mitigation going on there, but then most of the time and energy devoted toward this new activity is spent exploring.

What types of pinball things sound good? What are some of the different industries or businesses that you could work with? What do they tend to specialize in? What do they need? Are you going to build your own pinball machines or are you going to outsource it to a contract manufacturer? Are you selling it yourself or are you selling it through somebody else? There are all sorts of unanswered questions around this topic.

Spending a lot of time and energy in the exploration phase makes a lot of sense. You’re gathering information. You’re trying new things. You are testing to see what are the parts of the business or the venture or project that you really like and what are some of the things that you would rather avoid.

All of that exploration is extremely useful later when it comes to the second phase, which is called exploitation. Exploitation is when you’re spending most of your time doing the things that you know are rewarding.

Imagine you move to a new town and you don’t know which restaurants are good. You spend maybe the first couple years that you live there, you never eat at the same place twice. You explore lots of different options to see what you like and what you don’t like.

But the longer you live there, the more you know what’s going to hit the spot at any particular moment, so you spend more and more time doing the things that you know work and doing less and less of the time with things you don’t.

So for our aspiring pinball designer, after that period of exploration, they’re going to have a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t. Then the more and more things that work, the easier it’s going to be to make a transition from accounting to pinball.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing example there when it comes to the food. It’s so dead on because I found myself, particularly when I’m at a restaurant that I’ve been to several times, it’s like I’m torn. It’s like, okay, there’s one thing I know that will be delicious and wonderful, so I’m naturally drawn to that and yet, I’m also intrigued by the new and seeing what could be there.

I’ve had it go both ways. I try something new and it’s like, “Wow, that was even better than the thing I loved. I’m so glad I did that,” versus “Oh, this is kind of lame. I could have just stuck with the thing I knew was good and then been feeling more delighted post meal.”

I like that you’ve provided a particular rule of thumb here, which is in the early phases, you’re going to get a better bang for your buck by doing more of the exploration versus once you know the lay of the land, you’ll have a better return by doing the exploitation.

Josh Kaufman
Absolutely. And the additional wrinkle to this, so this is often in the research literature called the bandit problem because the classical mathematical formulation is you’re playing slot machines, which I do not recommend by the way, but for the sake of understanding, it’s a good example.

Imagine you go into a casino and you can play any slot machine you want. You don’t even have to spend money. It’s just the time that it takes to pull the lever and see the result. If you’re given this opportunity and you want to maximize your return from this experience, what do you do? Well, that’s where the exploration and the exploitation phase comes it.

You spend quite a bit of time testing different machines gathering data. Then after a while you start shifting to the machines that you know provide a much better pay off.

The interesting thing is you would think at a certain point that exploitation is the way to go. You just do the thing you know works over and over and over again. When you look at the studies and you look at the math, that’s actually not the case. There’s always a certain amount of your energy and attention that is going to be devoted to exploration because you don’t have perfect information about what is going to be the most rewarding thing you possibly could do.

The more time you spend, the more confident you can be that you’re on the right track, but it’s always beneficial to you to reserve at least some percentage of your capacity for trying new things and seeing if they work out.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. I guess it’s just my personality or strengths or whatever, it’s just like I find that exploration of the new is so much more exciting and interesting.

Josh Kaufman
I’m right there with you.

Pete Mockaitis
And sometimes to my detriment. It’s like, “No, no, Pete, just continue doing the thing that’s really working for you instead of gallivanting off to some crazy thing,” but the gallivanting is fun. I guess when you talk about the context of slot machines, which is gaming is for the purpose of fun, then that may be all the more true.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think a lot of it comes down to – in the personal context, why are you doing this thing in the first place? There may very well be situations or decisions that you might make from a career standpoint that might get you a lower financial return than other options, but if you have a payoff in another dimension, so maybe it’s personal interest and engagement maybe it’s exploring an area that you really love and you’re willing to make tradeoffs in order to work in that area.

There are all sorts of things to optimize for that aren’t necessarily financial return. I think the more broadly you think about what’s the reward for this thing that I’m trying to do and how can I get more of the things that I care about, the easier it is to make those sorts of tradeoffs.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Okay, when it comes to the hydra fighting, any other kind of key takeaways that you think are particularly on point for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think the understanding that it’s going to be difficult and that’s okay, is a really great mental framework to begin and that most of these sorts of challenges are met by both improving your skills, so getting better at doing the things that are critical to achieve the results that you want, and persistence and specifically persistence in the face of frustration and difficulty.

And so it’s very easy, particularly early on – this is actually a theme in my second book, The First 20 Hours. When you’re doing something new or something you’re not familiar with or something you’re not very good at yet, that early experience of trying to make progress and not getting the results you want is extremely frustrating.

Understanding that persistence is the thing that allows you to push through those early barriers and solve the challenges and get what you want, the more you can understand that that is the path to victory. It’s not being naturally skilled. It’s not having some sort of magic problem-solving device. It is consistent effort, attention and energy over a long period of time.

That is setting you up for success in a way that a lot of messages in broader culture, just don’t really help you with.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us a couple, quotables or articulations of the counter message that’s suboptimal?

Josh Kaufman
Well, I think the best way to frame it—that I’ve seen in various forms is don’t compare your inside versus somebody else’s outside. social media does not do us many favors here because you tend to see the highlight reel of other people’s lives. You see the promotions. You see the vacations. You see the raises. You see the major status-oriented achievements. You don’t necessarily see, the struggle or the fear or the anxiety or the work that goes into a lot of  the achievements that other people have.

Understanding that everyone deals with the same challenges of not knowing what’s going to happen next, not knowing if an investment is going to pay off not knowing if something is a really great idea that’s going to change their life or career or a terrible idea that is going to blow up their life or career. It’s a universal problem.

Giving yourself a bit of grace and being comfortable saying “I may not be where I want to be yet, but I am on a path and I am working towards getting there,” that goes a very long way.

Pete Mockaitis
Not to kill dreams prematurely, but I guess the counter side of persistence is knowing when is it appropriate to shut down a plan that is not going to cut the mustard. Any pro tips on that side of things?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the biggest advice I can give in that regard is be very, very clear about what you want upfront. The way that I like to think about this most people’s goals or dreams if they’ve articulated them to themselves are very broad and very general. Broad and general to the point where it doesn’t really give your brain anything to work with in figuring out how to get there.

The acronym or approach that works really well for me is PICS, P-I-C-S. That’s positive, immediate, concrete, and specific. Those are the qualities that should apply. When you write down what you want, try to make it as concrete, specific, vivid and something that you can look into the world and figure out, “have I achieved this thing or not. Am I there?”

“I want to climb a mountain,” is very not specific. “I want to climb Mt. Everest by next year,” is much more specific. You can do something with that.

Pete Mockaitis
I like the acronym PICS just because that’s kind of what you’re getting at is we’re trying to paint a picture that’s super clear, that we know if we’ve hit it or have not hit it.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the more vividly you can imagine what your life looks like and what this thing you want to achieve looks like when it has been accomplished, the more useful it is going to be in terms of figuring out what to do next to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Then it’s easier to make that call. It’s like, “This is what I was going for and what I’m experiencing is in no way, close to that nor getting closer to it, over time,” so there you go as opposed to if it were fuzzy, it would be tougher to know that we’re not where we’re headed or where we wanted to be.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think a lot of people experience that particularly early on in their career, where they have this image before they enter the workforce or in a new role about what it’s going to look like and what it’s going to feel like and what their life is going to be. And a lot of times, the early experiences don’t match up very well with that. it helps to be able to really articulate what am I trying to get out of this, what is the benefit for me, what do I care about and what do I not care about so much? And then be able to figure out, okay, on a day-to-day basis, is this thing taking you closer in the direction of where you want to be or is it actually taking you farther away?

In my corporate career, I was actually in product development in marketing at Proctor & Gamble, which a huge consumer goods company. I was really excited. I loved creating new things. That part was really great. I decided to move on from the company when I was in a meeting to prepare for a meeting to prepare for a meeting to prepare for a meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you unpack that?

Josh Kaufman
Four levels of ….

Pete Mockaitis
The layers of the meetings. I’ve got to hear this.

Josh Kaufman
A lot of how product development works was we’re individual teams who are working on things and they would essentially pitch it to the vice president/president level in order to get funding.

I was having a meeting with my manager to prepare for a meeting with the brand manager of the product that this would be under to prepare for a meeting with the marketing director, and then to prepare for a the final pitch to the vice president and president to get funding.

And all of those meetings were important. And then I just looked at my life. I’m like, “I don’t want to exist in meetings for the rest of my career. There are other things I want to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
What’s intriguing is that the final, final meeting was still an internal one as opposed to say a venture capitalist or Wal-Mart, Amazon. Are they going to carry your product? It was still an internal one.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, absolutely. I actually had quite a few meetings with Wal-Mart and Target and Costco and all the big retailers and somehow those were more straightforward than the internal meetings about how to allocate funding. It’s kind of funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay, well, so that’s a little bit about the hydra story. I cannot help myself if I’m talking to Josh Kaufman, I’ve got to get some of your wisdom when it comes to self-directed learning. I first heard about you when you came up with the notion of the personal MBA which sounds great. What’s your take here in terms of should nobody pay for a traditional MBA and how do you view this world?

Josh Kaufman
I think that if you’re already working at a company you like, you know you want to move up in that company internally there’s a requirement to have an MBA, uh, to have the position that you desire and the company is willing to pay for it, then that’s probably a pretty good reason to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, some stringent criteria.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. Anything else aside from that it’s probably going to be more expensive, both in terms of financial time and opportunity cost than you expect and the value of the credential in and of itself is just not really great. In a financial sense, it’s almost always a negative ROI.

If the goal is to understand what businesses are, how they work, and either how to start a new business or make any existing business better, you can learn how to do that on your own. You don’t necessarily have to spend years and tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn business skills. Business skills are very learnable on your own.

The goal with The Personal MBA was to create the best possible introduction, that I could make to the world of business. So assuming you know absolutely nothing about how businesses work, how can you understand all of the parts, that go into making a business work in a way that allows you to do important stuff, whether that’s making a new product, new company or just doing better in your existing job?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. You did a nice job of unpacking the key sub skills that are associated with the MBA and then you’ve got an infamous – maybe just famous, I don’t know about infamous – reading list associated with when it comes to strategy and these marketing and all these things that are handy to know to comprise what an MBA knows and getting there.

I’d love to get your take then when it comes to doing this learning on your own as opposed to in a classroom or a group environment, what are some of your pro tips for pulling that off successfully outside those supports?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. I think the biggest thing is aside from the basics of setting aside time to read and research and think and apply, that’s going to be necessary in any case. There’s a particular type of thing that when you’re self-studying you should, look for.

A lot of traditional academic book learning is all about memorizing terms and techniques, so specific things that apply in specific situations. I think a much better way to approach learning for application in general is to look for things that are called mental models.

A mental model is basically a conceptual understanding about how a thing in the world works, what it looks like, how different parts of a system interact with each other. It’s essentially one level of abstraction higher.

It’s being able to see the same principles at work in, businesses in different industries, different markets, different products, products to services, understanding how things work at a deeper level and that gives you the ability to look at a situation you’re not familiar with and that you have no context about and have a place to start and have a place to figure out how you would go about getting more information or make decisions in this particular area.

And so, The Personal MBA is really designed around that idea. Let’s learn the most important mental models about business, about people because businesses are created by, run by, and run for the benefit of people, so let’s understand psychology and communication and how that works.

And then systems because most successful businesses are essentially comprised of systems, processes that can be repeated in order to produce a predictable result. The more you understand about systems in general, the more you’re going to be able to take that back to a functioning business or a new business and say these are the things that would probably make the biggest difference right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us an example of a mental model? It’s like, “Oh, because I understand this one thing, I can now take that with me and apply it to having a starting point for this other thing.”

Josh Kaufman
Sure. So one of my favorites, which is, early in the book for a reason is what I call the five parts of every business. And it’s uh, this very universal way of deconstructing a system or deconstructing a business into, universal parts that help you understand how it functions at a very fundamental level. The five parts are value creation, marketing, sales, value delivery, and finance.

Every business creates something of value to other people, could be it products, could be it service, could be a shared resource like a museum. There are all sorts of different ways businesses create value, but it always makes something that other people want or need. So it’s important to understand what that is and why people want or need it, how that value is created to the people who ultimately pay the business’s bills.

Marketing is all about attracting attention for this valuable thing that you’ve created. So how do you make sure that people know that you have something valuable to offer them?

And then from there, you can attract all the attention you want, but if nobody ever pulls out their check book or credit card and says, “Yes, please. I’ll take one,” you don’t have a business. You have something else. And so sales is the process of taking someone who is interested in what you have to offer and then encouraging them to become a paying customer of the business. It’s the part where, money flows into the business instead of running out.

It turns out, if you take people’s money and you don’t deliver what you promised, you’re not running a business; you’re running a scam.

Pete Mockaitis
You find yourself in prison.

Josh Kaufman
Exactly. So value delivery is the part where you have a paying customer. This is great. You have something valuable that you’ve promised to deliver them. Let’s deliver this thing in a way that makes the customer deliriously happy. This is everything from the construction of physical products, the, service, delivery, follow-up calls, and all of those things that turns a paying customer into a happy customer. That’s all in value delivery.

And then finance is essentially the analytical step. So, in, value creation, you’re usually spending money to make this thing. You’re investing. Same with marketing. You may be spending on advertising. You may be spending on any form of outreach to attract more attention to this thing you’ve made.

Sales is the wonderful part where money comes in. Then value delivery, when you are making your customer happy delivering what you’ve promised, you’re usually spending money there too.

And so finance is the process of analyzing all the money that you’re spending and all the money that you’re bringing in and answering two very fundamental questions. One, is more money coming in than is going out, because if not, you have a problem. And then, number two, is it enough. Is it what we’re bringing in from this system worth the time and energy that it’s taking to run the whole thing?

And no matter how large or small the business is, whether you’re one of the largest companies in the world or you are a company of one starting something new for the first time, if you’re bringing in money and it’s enough and it’s worthwhile to keep going, congratulations, you have a successful business. That’s all it takes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so then that mental model there is you just said, hey, we’ve got these five components, so even if I know, know jack diddly squat about, real estate investing and, buying homes and renovating them and renting them out, by applying this model of the five key areas, I can sort of quickly get an understanding in terms of saying, “Okay, what is it that customers, people who rent apartments want?” and then away you go.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, that’s exactly it. I was doing consulting and advising related to personal MBA for many years. It was really fun talking to people who worked in wildly different industries and markets, being able to come back to the same core process of okay, I may be speaking to someone who is implementing electronic health care records for midsized doctor’s offices with 10 to 20 doctors practicing.

That’s not an area that I had any direct expertise or experience in, but coming back to this framework, it was very easy to understand what was going on, what was important, where the opportunities were just based on a conversation around, “okay, these are the areas of this particular business that I need to know before we can dig in on here’s what’s going to be most beneficial and what you should focus on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Josh Kaufman
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well so then I’d love to go a little bit deeper when it comes to the how associated with, developing these skills. You’ve laid out kind of a four-step approach for learning a new skill within a mere 20 hours, not 10,000. How does this go?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. This is part of my research for I did for my second book, The First 20 Hours. The goal for that one was to understand how to go from knowing absolutely nothing about something you’re trying to do to being reasonably good in a very short period of time. Usually that early learning is slow and frustrating, so anything that we can do to make it a little bit faster and way less frustrating is going to beneficial for us long term.

That goes back to the PICS acronym we discussed earlier. Like, getting very clear, very specific about what you want to do, how you want to be able to perform, and what that looks like when you’re done.

And so from there you’re able to take that image of what you want and, do what’s called deconstructing it into smaller parts. usually the skills that we want to learn, aren’t single skills in isolation. They’re actually bundles of different skills.

So a good way to visualize this is imagine a complex game like golf. So playing golf actually involves lots of different things. I don’t play myself, so apologies if the terminology is wrong. But driving the ball off of a tee and putting it into the hole, on the green, are two very different things.

And so the more you can understand what those isolated sub skills look like and which ones are most important to get what you want, the easier it is to practice the things that are going to, to give you the best return for your invested time and energy. You practice those things first.

Learning just enough to go out and be able to correct yourself as you’re practicing gives you the biggest return.

Too much research can be a subtle form of procrastination. That’s actually something that I, struggled with quite a bit. I want to know everything about what I’m trying to do before I do it. Spending just a little bit of time and energy researching just enough to go out and try to do it and to be able to notice when you’re doing something wrong and then try, go back again and self-correct. That’s really important.

There are two other things that are particularly important, so removing barriers to practice, some of those barriers can by physical, mental or emotional. Make it as easy as possible for you to sit down and spend some dedicated time getting better at this thing that you want to do. Then pre-commit to learning the most important sub skills first for at least 20 hours.

The pre-commitment is a very powerful tool from a psychological standpoint that makes it much more likely you’re going to practice long enough to start seeing benefits. So the early hours, super frustrating, so you need to have some type of method, some way of getting past that early frustration.

And the best tool that I found is pre-committing to a relatively short period of time and I recommend 20 hours as a nice happy medium for most of the skills that we would learn either in a personal or professional context.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy with the pre-commitment upfront. “Hey, this is what it’s going to be and I’m ready for it. I’m strapped in and we’re kind of pushing past it,” as opposed to, “Hey, it turns out I’m not good at this and I hate it, so we’re done.” That’s nice there.

When it comes to the sub skills, could you – I imagine it varies quite a bit skill to skill – but could you give us a further example of, what’s the approximate breakdown in terms of when it comes to sub skills, I think I might make it a bit too granular in terms of “There are 83 sub skills.” What do you think is kind of the right level of detail when defining the sub skills that we’re going to tackle?

Let’s say I want to be handy. I’m a homeowner now. I want to be handy around the house. It’s like, okay, well, we can talk about screwing screws. We can talk about drilling holes. We can talk about drywall. We can talk about furniture assembly, etcetera.

I think that it might be possible to subdivide it into a huge number of things and maybe, well, hey, being handy is a very broad thing that warrants that. But could you give me a sense for what’s roughly the right size of the piece when we think about a sub skill that we’re going to get our arms around?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, so in an instance like that, I’m really glad you brought it up because you’re right, being handy is like a state of being that you develop over time. It’s hard to look at your day-to-day life and experience a moment where you think to yourself, “Wow, I have really accomplished being handy.”

Pete Mockaitis
I have arrived at handiness.

Josh Kaufman
Yes, like I’m here. But one thing that’s really useful in situations like these is to think in terms of discrete projects. So look around your house for all of things that you would want to change or improve.

So I think the drywall example is a really interesting one. Let’s say there’s a section of your house where for whatever reason the drywall needs to be replaced. Maybe it has dents in it. Maybe it wasn’t done well the first time, who knows. But there’s some section of wall where you want to do that.

That is breaking down this very meta ‘I want to be handy’ into ‘I want this particular section of my house to look good and having it look good requires drywall work.’ That gives you the context to figure out, “Okay, if I’m going to work on this piece of the house, here are all of the things that I’m going to need to learn how to do and here are some of the tools I need and here’s how I’m going to have to figure out how to get the drywall down.” You can start breaking it into smaller and smaller parts.

And then the practice of it might look like saying, “Okay, I’m going to try to replace this myself. And I’ve never done it before. I’m a little hesitant to do it, but it’s either going to be done or I’m going to put 20 hours into the doing of it.”

If you’re terrible and everything looks horrible and you need to hire somebody to fix all of your problems after the 20-hour-mark, great, but in the meantime you’re going to focus on solving this specific problem with the time you have allotted to it.

Pete Mockaitis
What I love about the 20 hours, to jump in there, is that it’s – on the one hand that seems like a crazy big amount of time if you think about someone who already knows what they’re doing. It’s like, this could be a one-, two-, three-hour job max for, uh, someone who’s uh, experienced with drywall. But you have laid it out that I’ve pre-committed to the 20 hours. The goal is to learn the thing such that I can deliver on this one project.

I think that does a huge service in terms of short-circuiting that frustration because if—if you find yourself in hour 16 like “This is insane. It’s taken me over five times as long as somebody who knows what they’re doing would take them,” you’d be like, “Ah yes, but I’m almost done and according to my 20-hour commitment, therefore I’m winning.”

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, totally. I really like um – there’s just something about making the commitment that short circuits all sorts of very detrimental things. The First 20 Hours, the first edition of the book was published in 2013.

And now like, five years later, having lived with this for a long time, every time I pick up a new skill, I have to think to myself, “Okay, I’m going to do this. If I’m terrible, I’m going to be terrible for 20 hours. If I don’t like it, if I’m having a miserable time, then I only am going to be miserable for 20 hours and then I can stop.”

But just making that mental shift of it’s okay if I’m not good at the beginning. It’s okay if it’s frustrating. I’m just going to push through that because I know that if I stick with it long enough at minimum I’m going to be a lot better than I was when I started.

Um so, there’s just a whole lot of excellent goodness in both letting it be hard, like not expecting it to not be because it very often is. It usually is. But then also helping to really shift into the mode of, um, not comparing your skills or abilities versus other people who have probably been doing it for a lot longer than you have.

Like, that’s a huge trap, both in skill acquisition, but also in business and creative endeavors in general. Like looking at somebody else and their level of development and expecting ourselves to have those skills and that level of development from hour zero.

This—this approach really helps you to hone in on, “Okay, where am I right now? Where do I want to be?” And then as you’re putting in the time, you can see yourself getting better and better and better.

It’s called the Power Law of Practice. It’s one of the most reliable, effects or studies in cognitive psychology. The first few hours that you practice something new, you will get dramatically better very, very quickly. It’s just a matter of sitting down to do the work in the first place and then persisting long enough to actually see that improvement happen.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that. I also really appreciate the notion of the comparisons and how, I guess, silly and futile and unproductive that is in the sense of I can imagine, it’s like well, you can think about something that you’re amazing at and then say, “Well, what if my contractor tried to start a podcast or deliver a keynote speech or write a book?” It’s like, things that I’m good at.

It’s like, “Well, he’d probably not so graceful and elegant, kind of the way I do right now as I’m hacking through this drywall and doing a comically poor job.”

Josh Kaufman
Absolutely. That’s exactly the way to think about it. Like, there are things that you have become amazing at because you have learned and practiced consistently over a very long period of time. That—that’s just how humans fundamentally improve at everything.

And so you can take that general insight is if you approach the early part of the process in a skillful way, so knowing it’s going to feel hard and it’s going to feel frustrating. And that’s okay. That’s expected. If you can get through that early part, then you can become better at anything that you put your mind to. It’s mostly a decision of what to work on and of all of the things that you could work on or improve at, what are the things that are going to give you most of the results that you want.

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

Josh Kaufman
This has been really great. I think the um, underlying theme of my work in general, and I have some new books that are in various stages of, of research right now, but I really try to focus on, on the, uh, straightforward, practical wisdom if that makes sense, just trying to understand important areas of life, figure out how to get really good results in that area, and describe it in a straightforward way.

If anyone decides to explore my work, I really hope that’s what they take away, whether it’s business or learning a new skill or tacking this big ambitious project you’ve always wanted to do, I hope you’ll take away some, um, very straightforward, very practical approaches and techniques that will help you get what you want.

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

Josh Kaufman
I love quotes. I collect them. It’s hard to pick a favorite. So there’s one attributed to Andy Rooney that I think about a lot, which is, “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all of the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”

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

Josh Kaufman
Well, all of my books are my collected research,so that’s kind of an ongoing uh, uh project. Part of how the personal MBA came to be, was reading a bunch of business books and—and pointing folks to the ones that I—I found most useful.

A book that I’m in the process of reading now, by Mo Bunnell called The Snowball System, which the best way I can describe it is like, sales and business development for normal people, who may approach the sales or business development process with a little bit of trepidation or not wanting to be a salesy person. Mo does a really, really great job of making sales and relationships very practical and very accessible. I’m about halfway through it and I’m really enjoying it so far.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. How about a favorite tool?

Josh Kaufman
Favorite tool. Well, we were talking about this a little earlier. I’m doing a lot of podcasts and audio book recording.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, you sound amazing.

Josh Kaufman
Thanks, yeah. So, so the microphone I’m talking into right now is the Mohave Audio MA-200. No joke I ordered I think it was 12 different microphones from various manufacturers. I spent—I spent like three solid days recording the same thing into each microphone and trying to compare how they sounded. This one is a really good one. If you do any sort of recording of any sort, I would highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Josh Kaufman
Favorite habit, so I am,  in the process of really firmly establishing a strength training routine. I have been exercising with kettle bells, which I love for all sorts of different reasons. They are inexpensive and compact. I used to live in New York City, so I could imagine myself having this in my former 340 square foot apartment. You can get a really excellent workout in about 25 minutes. In terms of return for your time and effort invested, it’s really high. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks? They keep retweeting it and quoting you back to you.

Josh Kaufman
I think that one of the recent ones, which was related to Hydra, is about the idea of exploration. By virtue of doing it, you’re kind of committing to wandering lost in the woods for a while if that makes sense. So many of us feel really bad when it’s not immediately obvious where we should go next or what we should do next.

Part of understanding that this is an adventure and that adventure requires exploration and exploration involves being lost for a while. That’s something that a lot of people have seemed to find very useful recently.

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

Josh Kaufman
Best place to go is my website, JoshKaufman.net. From there you can find links to the various websites for The Personal MBA, The First 20 Hours, and How to Fight a Hydra.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge for folks seeking to be awesome at their job?

Josh Kaufman
Sure. We’ll go back to our conversation about defining very clearly what you want, what that looks like, what your day-to-day life looks like when you get it, what you’re going to be able to do when you reach the level of skill or development that you’re looking for.

The more clearly you’re able to articulate to yourself what you want, what that looks like, and very importantly, what you’re not willing to do in order to get it – so are there lines you won’t cross, are there tradeoffs that you’re not willing to make? The more you are able to understand the full details, the full scope of what you’re trying to get, the easier it’s going to be for you to figure out how to get it and figure out what you should do next.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Josh, this has been a load of fun. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us and you’re lovely sound over on the microphone.

Josh Kaufman
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I wish you tons of luck with the hydra fighting and all you’re up to.

Josh Kaufman
Pete, this has been great. Thanks so much for inviting me.