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705: Helping Others Change in Four Steps with Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson

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Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson break down their simple four-step process for encouraging others to change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The critical question that opens others to change
  2. The best thing to do when a person doesn’t want to change
  3. The perils of giving positive feedback

About Peter & Howie

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners. He coaches, writes, teaches, and speaks, mostly about leadership and about life. His sweet spot is as a strategic thought partner to successful people who care about being exceptional leaders and stellar human beings. Peter is recognized as the #1 executive coach in the world by Leading Global Coaches, the bestselling author of five books, and host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. His works frequently appear in Harvard Business ReviewBusinessWeekFast CompanyPsychology TodayForbesCNN, and NPR.

Howie Jacobson, PhD, is an executive coach to clients ranging from startup founders to established and rising Fortune 100 leaders. He is director of coaching at Bregman Partners and head coach at the Healthy Minds Initiative, as well as host of the Plant Yourself Podcast. He’s written a bunch of books, and his mission includes helping kind and generous people grow their capability and scale their influence.

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Peter Bregman & Howie Jacobson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Peter and Howie, welcome to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Peter Bregman
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Howie Jacobson
Ditto. Ditto.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to learn that it is, in fact, possible to change other people. Tell us, how did you reach this discovery?

Peter Bregman
It’s a truism, right? You hear it all the time, “You can’t change other people.” And, actually, one of the things that occurred to me is that every time someone says to you, “Hey, you can’t change other people. You can only change yourself,” they’re actually trying to change you. They’re almost always saying that because they’re trying to change something that you’re doing.

And both Howie and I, we change people for a living. That’s what we do when we’re coaching people. We’re helping them to make changes that they, otherwise, find difficult to make in their lives, and we’re making a difference. And so, Howie and I were just in a number of conversations, and thought to ourselves, “You know, let’s actually talk about this more widely, and let’s give people the tools to do it in a way that actually works.” Because it’s not that people don’t try to change each other, it’s just that they do it so poorly, and that there’s actual ways of doing it that work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then so what is sort of the big idea or core thesis associated with the book You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees– Even Family– Up Their Game? I guess one is that, first, it’s possible, but, fundamentally, how does it happen? Or, what are the missing ingredients that folks are overlooking?

Howie Jacobson
Yeah, so one of the key points is that when we approach people to change them, we often are upset, we’re judgmental, we’re critical, we know better than they do, and that approach actually creates tremendous resistance. And so, I’d say the key point of the book is instead of approaching people as a critic, approach them as an ally.

So, that’s actually the first step of the four-step process. When we approach someone as an ally, as we want the best for them, instead of coming across as we know better, their defenses don’t come up, and very often the changes that we’re hoping they make are changes that they would like to make themselves. So, what we’re doing, first and foremost, is not creating or fomenting or exaggerating their resistance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, could you give us some examples of how we can make that shift? Like, I guess the end destination is the same. We still want to get to the same place. But it’s sort of the stance, the posture, the vibe that we have with the other person. Can you sort of share some contrasts, like, “Hey, saying something like this is critic territory versus saying it like that is ally territory”?

Peter Bregman
Yeah, I think that the first step is even before that, in a way, which is to say, “How are you thinking about this? How are you approaching it?” Because, like Howie just said, almost always we’re annoyed. Like, the point at which we want to start changing people or helping people change is from a place of frustration and annoyance.

And so, the first step almost is, “How are you talking to yourself? How are you showing up in this dynamic and in this situation?” And if you’re saying, “That person is so annoying, and it’s so frustrating.” And in that frustration, finding the care behind it, underneath it, meaning that anytime you’re frustrated or angry about something, it’s because you care about something. There’s something you care about.

And, in some ways, that first step is to speak to yourself in a way that says, “I care about this person,” or, “I care about the outcome that we’re both trying to achieve, and I care enough to want to put some energy and effort into kind of helping it move in a certain direction, or helping them move in a certain direction.” And that’s really a first step.

Howie Jacobson
Yeah. So, you spoke also about the idea of, like, we’re trying to get to the same place. Maybe not, though. Because when we’re focused on, “Okay, I want my spouse to eat better,” and we’re going to do things that are going to try to lead them there, as opposed to what we really want to do is to ignite in them the qualities that allow them to change themselves for the better.

So, one of those, for example, is ownership. So, the more we’re pushing for it, the less space they have to say, “Yeah, this is something I want for myself.” We want them to have independent capability so that they have to develop it over time and be able to do what it is they have to do in various situations of increasing challenge.

So, if we’re really focused on enabling them with these and a couple of other qualities, then we’re going to go about it very differently. So, instead of saying, “Here’s what you should do,” and just go out and giving advice, we’re going to be very curious, like, “Hey, tell me about the situation. Tell me about the challenges you’re facing with eating healthy. Tell me what bothers you about your body right now that relates to food.”

Very often when we get people talking, they solve their own problems. And when we create the space for them to not feel judged, they can open up and become very creative.

Peter Bregman
And, Pete, I’ll just throw out one other thing, which is initiating that conversation is really important. And instead of just offering advice or criticism, or using the example that Howie gave, instead of just sort of saying, “Hey, I noticed you took that third cookie. Is that really the best decision given that you’re trying to lose weight?” to actually ask permission to engage in the conversation, to say, “Hey, that’s the third comment you’ve made about how you can’t stop eating. And I just noticed it, and I’m wondering, do you want to think this through together?” And they might say, “No, I’m not interested in thinking it through together,” in which case, you don’t have the opening to engage in the conversation and support them and help them change.

But, oftentimes, if you’re raising it in a way that’s uncritical, and then you’re able to say, “Hey, this thing that you’re struggling with, do you want to think it through together? I have some thoughts. But do you want to think it through together?” Their likelihood of saying, “Well, yeah, I’m happy to talk with you about it” increases their ownership in having the conversation and being part of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. And then, let’s see, so we’re shifting from the critic to ally. And then, can you walk us through? You got four key steps, that’s the first one. Can you give us the overview and sort of dig into each of them a bit?

Howie Jacobson
Sure. So, the second step is once they’ve said, “Yeah, I’d love some help thinking this through,” is that’s the point in which we all just want to give them advice, like, “They have said yes. Great. Now, let me tell you all the things I know.” And instead of that, our approach is to immediately ask about an energizing outcome, an outcome that they want, because we’re still going to get into all the nitty-gritty and all the good, bad, and the ugly of the situation, but we want to frame it in terms of, “What do you want?”

Because when people are in problem mode, when they’re struggling, their brains, our brains, when we’re struggling tend to be very defensive. So, we’re looking at threat, we’re trying to avoid threat, as opposed to when we are looking for good things, looking for food, looking for opportunities, looking for mates, this is like evolutionary, biology, psychology 101, when we’re in opportunity mode, we see much more broadly, and we can act on opportunities, that when we’re in defensive mode, we don’t even see.

So, by immediately getting them to shift their thinking towards, “What do I really want here?” not “What am I trying to get away from?” we can open up a huge internal reservoir of creativity and optimism. So, that’s step two.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Peter Bregman
Yeah, and I can jump in with step three. So, step three is the opportunity. So, in some ways, we’re starting the conversation by getting permission and really focusing on being their ally, then we’re identifying what is the outcome that they want. And then the third is, in this problem, there’s an opportunity. I don’t know what it is yet, they might not know what it is yet, but there’s an opportunity. And how do we find out what’s good about the problem that can guide us to finding an opportunity that doesn’t just solve the problem but makes us better off than we were before the problem?

So, if the problem brings us to a negative, and solving the problem brings us to zero, we’re going for positive, we’re saying, “How do you find an opportunity?” And I’ll give you an example of that, which is it’s actually an example I was thinking about today.

But I eat too much sugar, and so the problem is I eat too much sugar, I want to start eating less sugar. And one way of handling it, the issue is to just sort of say, “Okay, how do I stop eating sugar? Like, if I stopped eating sugar, then that would solve my problem.” But if you really ask questions, and when Howie uses this process with me, and Howie asks me a bunch of questions, one of the questions is, “What’s good about the sugar habit? Like, you have a sugar habit. What’s it doing for you? How is it helping you?” And I realized how it’s helping me is I’m way overtired, like, I’m working way too hard. I’m doing too much, and sugar keeps me going.

And so, maybe the problem I’m trying to solve isn’t, “How do I stop myself from eating sugar?” but the sugar problem is identifying an opportunity that I could use more rest in my life, like there’s a larger problem and a larger opportunity that the sugar habit is pointing to. And once I understand that, I can begin to solve for the opportunity of getting rest in my life. And by doing that, not only do I solve my sugar problem, but I solve a whole bunch of other problems that go along with my sugar problem.

So, that’s just one example of what is the opportunity that’s hidden in the problem. And then the fourth step is a plan, and it’s getting very, very specific, “What am I going to do? By when? How am I going to do it? How will I measure my success? How will I know that I have succeeded or haven’t succeeded? And how do I learn from the experiment that I’m going to be doing on sort of addressing this or finding this opportunity to achieve the outcome?”

So, if you think of the four steps, you’ve got being an ally and really being supportive and getting permission, identifying an outcome, finding the opportunity to achieve that outcome, and then identifying a path forward and ways of holding myself accountable in order to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, could you give us a couple examples of folks successfully changing other people, and then kind of walk through these four steps?

Peter Bregman
Sure. So, I’ll give you an example that we talked about in the book, and it’s an actual example. It’s a guy named Brian Gaffney who is CEO of Allianz Global Distributors, and he walked into an organization that was losing $30 million a year. And it had a leadership team in there, and he came in and he basically used this process, he used the process, in order to, with the same team he was working with beforehand, he came in and he turned the company around to a gain of $140 million. And there were all sorts of problems on the team. There were people who were like really salespeople who were smart but kind of sloppy and turning off other people, there were like all sorts of different people had different problems or challenges on the team.

And the first thing that he did was he would go in and, basically, identified where there was a larger opportunity, basically saying, “Look, we’re losing $30 million. That is not our intention. We cannot sustain ourselves as a business if we continue to lose $30 million,” and talking to the team, in general, to be able to say, “Are you willing to think with me about ways that you can change that will help turn around this company, and, also, to learn how to have these conversations with the people who report to you? Like, are you willing to do that?”

“Because if you’re not willing to do that, we’re going to continue to lose $30 million, and that’s not going to help any of our bonuses. So, there’s certainly motivation to do it. That said, I still need to know that you’re willing to do it because I could tell you plenty of examples where people are losing $30 million and the company goes bankrupt because they don’t make changes in the team.”

So, to a T, everybody said, “Yeah,” but that doesn’t mean that they know what to do and how to change. So, now, Brian is in this role where he has to help all of the leaders in the organization make certain changes. So, step one is he’s got their permission. Step two is identifying the outcome, and, organizationally, there’s a big outcome. The outcome is to become profitable, that’s organizationally. But individually, the outcome is going to be different for each person because each person is struggling in a different kind of way. So, it’s having a very specific conversation with each person, and saying, “What is the outcome that you’re going for?”

And I think one of Brian’s great successes is he didn’t leave it at a mild outcome. He kept raising the bar and encouraging people to raise the bar so, for example, in the example I gave beforehand, which is someone who was sort of smart but, literally, sloppy, they showed up in a sloppy way, they presented poorly. That person says, “Okay, I want to not be sloppy.” “Well, that’s solving the problem. But what’s going on, like what’s the real outcome you want? The real outcome you want is to have an incredibly impactful presence when you’re in a room with a number of people so that you move the room. That’s the goal. Yes, not being sloppy is part of it but that’s not the goal. The goal is to have the kind of presence that moves the room.”

Great. So, now, let’s look at where are the opportunities to help you grow that capability, and it has to do with feedback from other people, it has to do with engaging people in a different kind of way, and then they can work through and work through, “How do we explore and identify the sloppiness in dress, and sloppiness in style, and sloppiness in approach becomes this trigger that says, ‘Okay, so what do I have to do to have the kind of impact that moves a room?’”

And, yes, the person ends up cleaning up how they present but they also begin to think about their audience, they begin to think about, “Who are these people I’m presenting to? And what is it that they need? Not just what do they need to see in me, but what are they longing for?” Like, the whole mentality of this person started changing to go from living in their own kind of world of brilliance to thinking about their audience. And their opportunity was to think through, “How do I serve the need of the clients that I’m trying to serve?”

And then it was being very, very accountable about saying, “What are the challenges that we’re facing? And what are the opportunities that we have and specific milestones and benchmarks for making the kinds of sales that we want to make?” But it’s all based in the outcome of having an impact on your clients in a certain kind of way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. Well, so digging into each of these in some depth, I’m curious, when it comes to getting the permission, in your experience, how often do people say yes? And what do you do if they say no?

Howie Jacobson
Well, one of the things you have to do is you don’t ask a question you’re not willing to hear any answer to. So, if you’re not willing to hear, “No, I don’t want to work with you,” then don’t ask the question because then you’re just trying to force an outcome in which we saw that any kind of forcing on our part makes it less likely. So, we’re really talking about best odds rather than some sort of Svengali Mesmer technique that’s going to be manipulative and gets them exactly where we want them to go.

So, the first is be willing to have people say, “No, I don’t want to engage.” Saying the best way to increase the odds is for someone to feel like you have their best interest at heart. And so, one of the things as coaches, we learn, is that our first thought about what someone needs is almost, always invariably wrong. Like, someone will talk to me, and I’ll go, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before. I know exactly what’s going on here. I’ve solved this a hundred times. I’m just going to keep my mouth shut so I’ll be a good coach but I really know the answer, and I’m going to get them there.”

And three minutes later, I’m like, “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t open my mouth because I had no idea, neither did they, but the space of exploration opened it up.” So, to be willing to say, like, “I want the best for you. I want you to have ownership of your life. I want you to have independent capability to chase the things, the outcomes that you want and achieve them. I want you to have the emotional courage to make tough decisions and stick by them when the going gets rough. And I want you to be able to do all that well into the future when we don’t know what the future might hold.”

So, if I’m trying to get someone to eat a certain way, or to start exercising, or to stop interrupting in a meeting, it’s my agenda. But one of the things the book really believes in is we basically trust other human beings to know what’s best for them, and then if we open up the space for them to take ownership over their lives and to achieve the outcomes they want, that that’s probably good for everyone.

Peter Bregman
A hundred percent, and I’m thinking about something as you’re saying this. And, Pete, your question is a great question because there is some magic in asking permission not just for the person who gets to say yes or no, but for you. Because if I’m frustrated with your behavior, and it’s just sitting in my mind and I’m annoyed and I’m frustrated, and I don’t ask permission and I just start giving you advice, and you get pissed off and you don’t accept my advice or you tell me to mind my own business, I leave both more pissed off, you leave pissed off, we’ve hurt our relationship.

But if I ask you, “Hey, look, I’ve noticed this thing, and are you open to thinking about it with me? Or, do you want some of my help?” If you say no, for me, it separates me from an obligation to impact you. Like, you’ve said, “I don’t want your help.” Now, I know, I understand the dynamic now. Now, I might be frustrated by that but I’m probably not going to keep trying to change you.

Now, there are sometimes when you have positional power. If you’re a boss, and you say, “Hey, if you want my help in thinking through how to be more effective in a meeting,” and the person says no, but they still do poorly in a meeting, ultimately, there’s going to be consequences. That’s just the reality of a corporate organizational life, which is, “If I have positional power over you, and you’re my employee and you’re not performing, there’s going to be consequences to that non-performance.”

But if I offered help and you say no, you are now really accountable for your behavior, and I am now really not accountable for your behavior, and it creates a lot of clarity of who’s responsible for what, which keeps things very, very clean. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Howie Jacobson
Yeah, and another thing is when somebody says no, and you accept that with grace, you might be confounding them a little bit. Like, if you’ve been trying to change them for years, and they say, “No, I’m not interested,” and you give up, you say, “Okay, cool.” They’re like, “Huh, did they just do that? That’s different.” And you could play the long game, and, at some point, they might start trusting that you’re not trying to force them to change. So, the very act of saying no can open the path for a later yes.

Peter Bregman
I’ll give you a very precise example, which is what happens with my daughter. Like, I would give my daughter all sorts of advice, and I was sort of giving the cookie example, and I’ve talked a lot about sugar, so now you know what my habits are. But she had eaten a whole bunch of cookies, and she was complaining about it, and I said, “Do you want my help?” And she said, “No, no, I’m good,” and I said, “Okay,” and I didn’t mention it again.

And then she comes back, and she goes, “Hey, but I would like to talk to you about it now.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, that’s great. I’m happy to talk to you about it now.” But it was her choice, like it wasn’t dad forcing something on her. It was her saying, “Hey, maybe dad can help here.” And that’s really powerful. Now, I’m responding to her requests as opposed to being a naggy dad.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. So, then we talked about the permission piece of things. And then I’d love it when we talk about, could you just layer on the examples associated with the energizing outcome? Because I hear you in terms of, “Hey, stop being sloppy” is not nearly as energizing as “Have a commanding presence in a room,” like, “Ooh, yeah, I like that.” So, could you give us a few more examples rapid fire so we can go, “Oh, okay, I see the difference between a not-so energizing versus a quite so energizing outcome”?

Howie Jacobson
Yeah. So, a friend of mine had lost like almost 200 pounds, and he started running marathons, and he contacted me because he was starting to gain weight back, not significant but five or ten pounds, and his whole thing was like, “I don’t want to be fat again. I’m not going back there and I’m scared because I’m starting to let things into my diet a little bit.” And we had a conversation, and the reason he wants to keep the weight off is he wants to be a better runner.

And so, his energizing outcome was, “I’m an athlete.” He’d never been an athlete, he never played sports in school, but now in his late 40s, he started seeing himself as an athlete, and so that was an energizing outcome. And to be an athlete, he was going to eat and move and live his life in such a way that he wasn’t going to be gaining that weight back, but it wasn’t about his relationship with the scale, trying to go two pounds up, two pounds down, which was, for anyone, can be a very annoying demanding relationship with very little benefit. But becoming an athlete, and seeing his identity as someone, something he never thought he could be, that really excited him and it made it much easier for him to do all those same actions.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Let’s hear another.

Peter Bregman
I’ll give you one that is a little bit of a complicated process but is really, really powerful, which is a guy that I was coaching, who was very, very frustrated with the way his boss’ boss was acting. His boss’ boss was getting aggressive and promised things that he felt like, “It wasn’t really something that we’d be able to deliver,” and it was like a difficult situation.

And so, he came in, and the problem was, “I’ve got this boss’ boss who’s getting in my way, and I would really like him to just go away. Like, how do I get out from under this?” And as we thought about, “What is the outcome that you really want?” and this will drive into the next step, too, which is opportunity, but, “What is the outcome you really want?”

It’s got nothing to do with the boss, “The outcome I want is to be a powerful actor in my own world and to be able to make the changes and the moves, organizationally, that I think are going to be most effective for the organization, and do it with integrity. Like, that’s the outcome I want. Like, I want power. I don’t want to be hamstrung by this manager,” the manager’s manager, in a sense, “And I don’t want to feel like my integrity is in question but I really want the freedom to deliver for my customers the way I want to deliver for my customers.”

Okay, great. So, now, it’s not about the manager’s manager anymore. Now, that problem still exists and we’re not going to ignore it, but, “The outcome is how I want to show up in the business, how I want to show up as a leader, how I want to show up as a contributor in the business.” And that’s an outcome that’s exciting, like, “Well, I’m going to have some power in how I show up. I’m excited about that.”

So, I can give you other outcomes, but do you want me to jump into the opportunity here, like where the opportunity falls in? Because, to me, I found this to be a fascinating one. It turns out that the same characteristics of that boss’ boss who was aggressive, and out there, and shooting from the hip, and willing to make promises, that there were things about those behaviors that were potentially very, very damaging, and there are ways in which this person that I was coaching was so far removed from those kinds of behaviors that he wasn’t able to have an impact.

Meaning, he wasn’t making commitments until he was a million percent sure that these were the right commitments to make, that he was afraid of being too aggressive, that these attributes that he saw as so negative in his manager’s manager were attributes that he was missing in his own life, and was making it harder for him to show up.

So, now, it turns out that this problem that he was trying to solve turns out to be a key element to how he’s going to achieve his outcome, which is, “I don’t have to get rid of my manager’s manager or avoid him or try to work around him. I actually have something to learn from him. And it doesn’t mean that I’m going to lose my integrity, and it doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with everything he says, but there’s something about his behavior that I find alienating that can really help me to be successful. And because I find it alienating, I’m staying as far away from him as I can, and it’s limiting my own growth.”

“And so, I actually am now going to get into a little bit of a development relationship with him, which now is exciting because this behavior that was so infuriating to me beforehand, and so frustrating and alienating beforehand, I’m realizing, wow, I have an opportunity to learn something from this. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to take on his personality but I’ve got something I can learn here, and that’s kind of exciting when I think about how it might help me to achieve the outcome I want to achieve, which is to have more impact on the business.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And the last step, create the plan, you’ve used the phrase create a level-10 plan. What does that mean? And what makes a plan level 10 versus something lesser?

Howie Jacobson
Yeah. So, level 10 is our way of saying, “I want the person who is going to commit to the plan to say, when I ask, ‘How confident are you that you will try this plan?’ they’ll say, ‘Ten.’” Because, very often, what happens is we can get people to think of wonderful things to do, and, “Oh, that would be great. And, yes, I’m so excited,” and we never ask them, like, “How confident are you?”

So, to go into it, like think about the next time you’re going to have say no to a cookie, Pete, or the next time the guy you were just talking about has to have a development conversation with the manager’s manager, “How confident are you that you’re going to actually do it?” And we then take people to think about what’s that moment, and really like, “Yeah, no, I probably wouldn’t,” or, “That’s a step too hard,” so then we can say, “Okay. Well, let’s think about the rungs of the ladder. Can we do something easier?” Because momentum and motivation come from confidence, and confidence comes from experience.

So, one of the things we’re helping people do, one of the four attributes we’re looking for is this emotional courage. And so, we want people to challenge themselves but we don’t want them to have something that they really don’t think they’re going to do because the best predictor of whether you’re going to do something, aside from whether you want to do it, is whether you think you can. So, that’s why we say level 10, where we want to make sure that we’re offering people a path forward that they are willing to try because they think they can succeed.

Pete Mockaitis
And, zooming out a bit from this, I mean, sort of across the four steps, what are the top things that we shouldn’t do? Any key phrases not to say? I’m already kind of gathering that it’s like, “You always do this. What’s wrong with you? Get your act together.” All those things are probably incompatible with your ethos and model here. But any other choice words or phrases to embrace or avoid?

Peter Bregman
Sure. I think anytime you’re going to give someone advice that’s not requested, and it took me a long time to learn this because people pay me a lot of money to give them advice. Like, I’ve built a really good business on giving people advice. So, when I try to give advice to people, like in my family who are not asking me for advice, I find it’s not appreciated the same way I would expect it and want it to be appreciated. So, anytime, like to really hold off on criticizing people or giving them advice or even suggestions, unless they’re asking for it, is really helpful to do, and that means sort of managing and controlling your own emotions around kind of what you’re seeing and what you want to have happen.

Another thing is, and this sort of seems obvious and yet it’s very hard to hold back, sort of snide passive-aggressive comments, like, those are not very helpful. Or, even little comments, like, “Oh, huh, so you’re eating another cookie?” Like, not helpful. Commenting on your behavior is probably not going to have the impact that you wanted to have. If you comment on someone’s behavior, like giving them a narrative, “Oh, I see you went for seconds,” or, “I noticed, oh, you’re talking again in the meeting. Another comment from John.” Those things lead to shame, and shame is an inhibitor of change.

So, if I feel shame about something, it’s counterintuitive. If I feel shame about something, I’m probably going to deny that I’m doing it and I’m going to end up keep doing it because we will do almost anything not to feel shame. And so much of the way we try to change people, often elicits shame. And so, any kind of comment that is offered without permission, I would say don’t share.

Howie Jacobson
And there’s a flipside to that, which is we think so we’re not going to say negative derogatory things, that we want to say positive upbeat complimentary things, and that can be dangerous. If someone comes up, we’re working on the plan part, and we’re helping them identify options for what they could do, and they say one and it’s the one we’re thinking of, we could say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s terrific.” We’ve just shut them down, they’re not going to think of other ones because now they’re afraid, “Well, if I say another one, then he might not like it as much.”

So, we want to make sure it’s not our agenda that’s driving it, and we want to appreciate their willingness, their courage, their willingness to be in the process with us, but we want to not evaluate. And the flipside of a negative evaluation is a positive evaluation which still puts us in charge.

Peter Bregman
And to your question, Pete, about let’s keep it really simple, what do you say or you don’t say. That’s where the four steps come in. It’s like it’s actually very simple. Ask permission,  , like, “Hey, do you want to talk about this? Or, can we talk about this?” If they say no, it’s a non-starter. If they say, “Yeah, I’d love to,” then the only thing you’re saying is, “What’s the outcome you want here? What are you going for? What are you looking for? What, ideally, would you want as an outcome?”

And then you’re just engaging in a conversation about how they might be able to get there. We make things more complicated than it needs to be in many ways, and it’s very simple. Ask permission. Identify where you’re headed, what the outcome is. And then brainstorm ways of getting there and opportunities that your problem might be offering you.

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

Peter Bregman
I think the only thing I would want to mention is that this is…I think changing other people gets a bad rap. As soon as you say, “You can change other people,” you’re seen as possibly as manipulative or like you’re controlling, and I honestly feel like changing other people, helping them make the kinds of changes that they struggle with and are unable to make on their own, is the most gracious, kind, caring, loving thing that we can do.

And the reason Howie and I wrote this book is because to give people the skill, the capability to skillfully help others make changes that they struggle with in their life. The world is a better place if we’re able to do that with each other. So, I just wanted to kind of share that.

Howie Jacobson
Yeah. And we talk a lot about the litmus test of whether you were successful is whether the person thanks you afterwards, like they’re really grateful for the conversation. It’s the opposite of half nelson-ing them into compliance.

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

Peter Bregman
One of my favorite quotes of all time is Frederick Buechner, the theologian, who wrote, “Your vocation in life,” or the work that you should do, your calling, “is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” Like, find that intersection of your greatest joy meeting the world’s greatest need, and spend your time there. I love that quote.

Howie Jacobson
One that’s come to recently is very much related to the book is a Joseph Campbell quote, he says, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” So, all the places that I say, I wake up and I say, “Ah, I wish this wasn’t happening,” to look at it again and say, “What can I make of this? How is this an opportunity for me to become a better person?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Peter Bregman
I’m going to be a little disappointing here but almost all of…I mean, I read a ton of books for my podcast, but my favorite books, or I make a habit of reading what my children are reading, and my children are really into like YA fantasy fiction, and the Crooked Kingdom is the last thing that I read. My kids often will tell me, “There’s a lot of leadership in these books. You should have the authors of these YA fiction fantasy books on your podcast.” And I’m like, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that someday.”

But I love reading what my kids are reading.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Howie Jacobson
And, for me, the book that’s had the biggest impact on me over the past couple of years is Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, and the subtitle is “How Indigenous Wisdom Can Save the World.” And it’s an indigenous Australian philosopher and craftsman talking about Western civilization from his perspective and how it’s unsustainable and the lessons we need to learn. And it’s a very beautifully insidious book. It got inside my head, and I’m now seeing all of our problems from this other perspective. So, I found it very helpful.

Peter Bregman
Howie, you are so much more profound and sophisticated than I am.

Howie Jacobson
I wish I had known what you were going to say. I didn’t have to go that high to beat it.

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

Peter Bregman
Honestly, like I got to tell you, the tool is my phone but I use it in a very, very different way than 90% of the people, which is I actually use it to make phone calls. Like, I love, I just pick up the phone and I call my clients and we’re in this brief conversation, even if it’s a 10-minute conversation, and I just…I really love the phone for the use that I grew up, knowing what it’s for and having real conversations.

Howie Jacobson
My tool right now is my adjustable height desk.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Howie Jacobson
I do different things at different heights, I found. Like, I write at one height, I podcast to the second height, I do admit in the third height.

Pete Mockaitis
Those are fun for sure. Well, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Peter Bregman
My final call to action would be to, and do it now as you’re listening to this podcast, think of one person in your life who could really benefit from your support, like one person, and start to try to use this stuff. Take that first step and ask permission if you can have the conversation with them because you will be awesome in your job if you help the people around you be awesome at their jobs. And so often, we think we’re struggling to be awesome at our jobs despite the people around us. And I think we would be far more awesome in our jobs if we can help all of them be more successful, we’ll be more successful as a result.

Howie Jacobson
Yeah, I want to leave that right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, Howie, Peter, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of success and positive vibes as you’re changing other people.

Howie Jacobson
Thank you.

Peter Bregman
Thank you, Pete. Such a pleasure being on with you.

704: How to Achieve Lasting Success by Thinking Long-Term with Dorie Clark

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Dorie Clark says: "The things you said yes to earlier in your career, if you're going to be successful, you need to stop."

Dorie Clark reveals the critical skills that help us think long-term and set ourselves up for future success.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three barriers to long-term strategic thinking
  2. The top two skills that make you indispensable
  3. What to do when you’re stuck in a rut

 

About Dorie

Dorie Clark helps individuals and companies get their best ideas heard in a crowded, noisy world. She has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50, and was honored as the #1 Communication Coach in the world at the Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards. She is a keynote speaker and teaches for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, which was named one of Forbes’ Top 5 Business Books of the Year, as well as Reinventing You and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of the Year by Inc. magazine.

A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, Clark has been described by the New York Times as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.” She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and consults and speaks for clients such as Google, Yale University, and the World Bank. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a producer of a multiple Grammy-winning jazz album, and a Broadway investor.

 

Resources Mentioned

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Dorie Clark Interview Transcript

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

Dorie Clark
Hey, Pete, it’s so good to be back with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom once again. And one exciting thing that you’ve mentioned I think the world needs to hear is that you have written a musical.

Dorie Clark
Yes, I have.

Pete Mockaitis
What is the story here?

Dorie Clark
Well, this is a process that started about five years ago. I actually write about this in my new book The Long Game. I’m a big fan of long-term goals, ten-year plans. And so, in 2016, I decided that my ten-year goal was going to be that I would write a show that would make it onto Broadway. And so, I have been assiduously pursuing this. I was literally starting from zero because I had no training or experience in writing Broadway or musical theater-type shows.

And so, since then, as I was mentioning earlier, I was…well, first, I applied and was rejected, and then I applied and was finally accepted into a training program, a kind of a prestigious training program that BMI, the music publishing company, runs. And so, I’ve been through that, I’m part of their advanced workshop now, have learned to write musical theater, and, in fact, have written one, which I am now shopping around to produce into regional theaters.

So, it’s just working the network and getting it out there. But I have written a sexy, lesbian, spy musical called Absolute Zero. So, you heard it here first. God willing, 2026 Broadway season.

Pete Mockaitis
I just have so many follow-up questions in terms of how that’s going to unfold but I’ll just wait to see it in theaters.

Dorie Clark
You’re going to love it. It’s going to create a whole new genre.

Pete Mockaitis
I appreciate in and of itself when things cannot be easily defined. Original genres, appreciated. All right. Cool. Well, now something that you have a bit more experience writing is nonfiction books that help people be awesome at their jobs, and it sounds like you got another hit on your hands with The Long Game. Tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Dorie Clark
Thank you, my man. Yes, this is my fourth so I have been flexing my muscles for a while with business and career books. So, the new book is called The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, and, basically, it’s about how to apply the principles of strategic thinking to your life and your career so that you can get better results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that sounds super helpful. And tell us, long-term thinking, is that something that professionals have a shortage of these days? Or, how would you assess the health of the long-term thinking game these days?

Dorie Clark
The broad state of affairs is not great, partly, of course, that’s human nature. Everybody likes a little bit of instant gratification if you get down to it, but, also, things have become harder for a couple of reasons. One is just in our society, in general, even pre-COVID, I think most of us recognize that there are a lot of forces conspiring to encourage short-term thinking.

We have at the corporate level, you have the push for quarterly earnings and how that trickles down to everybody about trying to get results sometimes with really negative consequences and corners being cut in the Volkswagen or the Wells Fargo type of situation. And in our personal lives, we’re 10, 20 years into our social media era, and a factor that has always impacted people, which is looking around and comparing yourself to other people, we always had that but now we’re comparing ourselves literally to the whole world. And that can be a little demoralizing sometimes, so there’s a push towards short-term thinking.

And then you take that and you put COVID on top of it where all of our plans got blown up suddenly. All we can do is react and be short-term because we don’t know what’s coming down the pike. So, it’s a lot of pressure in that direction. And so, it is my hope that this book, in some ways, can actually help us overcome that and put a stake in the ground because when we have been in reactive mode for so long, of course, it’s a good skill. You want to be agile, you want to pivot, you know how to, you want to know how to be able to respond to change, but, also, that can’t be the only thing you do.

We need to start making plans again. We need to be reclaiming our lives and coming up with the visions of where we want to go so that we are driving the train, not just responding to external stimuli. And, for me, that’s what playing the long game really is about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, playing the long game seems like the prudent, wise thing to do when I’m thinking about reading some Aesop’s Fables type things to my children. And so, we’ve got those stories about the ant and the   grasshopper and storing things for the winter, and the tortoise and the hare, and kind of sticking with it over the long haul.

So, I think that I’m guessing the milieu is that, “Oh, yeah. Hey, long-term thinking is probably a good and virtuous thing I should be doing.” But could you lay it on us in terms of some of the benefits for people’s careers, like, “No, seriously, if you do this, you can expect these fabulous results to come to you, and if you don’t, here’s what you’re risking”?

Dorie Clark
Absolutely. Well, let me give you one example. I could ask sometimes, like, “Who is an example of someone who’s a good long-term thinker?” And one person who, honestly, stands out, of course, he has his own challenges in terms of his, essentially, world domination. But leaving that aside, Jeff Bezos is actually a really remarkable example of a long-term thinker.

And I think back in 2011, he did an interview with Wired magazine that I think was very telling. They asked him, “Okay, what is the secret to your success? What is the secret to Amazon’s success?” And, of course, this was 10 years ago, this was before Amazon became…it was successful but it was before it became the behemoth that it is today. And what he said was, “What makes Amazon special is that our competitors are only willing to plan on a three-year horizon. We are willing to plan on a seven-year horizon, and invest in a seven-year horizon. Because of that, we are able to take on bigger, more monumental, more potentially game-changing projects than they are. And that is the difference.”

And so, we go a decade out, and we see, oh, my goodness, Amazon Web Services. We see Amazon Prime. These were bets that they laid years ago, and they took time to pay off but now it’s created a massive competitive moat between Amazon and other players. And it’s the same thing for our own lives and our own careers. If you are willing to invest now and you keep at it assiduously while everybody else is just saying, “Ahh, that doesn’t make any sense. Oh, what a waste of time,” by the time they actually figure out the value of what you’ve done, they really can’t even catch up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that a lot and I think, and, Dorie, I don’t know, I read so much of the stuff you’ve written, and this might be from you, that with that Amazon example, I think Bezos is also said to have commented that he really tries to focus on things that he does not expect to change in terms of, he said, “Well, ten years from now, will people want to pay less? Yes, I think that will not change. People still like low prices. And, like, ten years from now, will people still want things faster or will that change in terms of, ‘You know what, I’d rather have it in five days’? Like, no.”

And so, with that sort of confidence, they said, “All right. Well, we’re pretty sure that people will want the prices low and will want it fast ten years from now, thusly, we can invest big on doing what it takes to make that happen.” So, yeah, that’s really resonant. So, maybe can you bring it into like careers then? If we’re playing the long game with our careers, what are some things that we can bank on as employers and the marketplace will really want from us years from now?

Dorie Clark
Absolutely. So, one of the sections that I have in The Long Game is actually talking about, again, to take a corporate example, but bring it down to the granular of how we apply it in our own lives, most of your listeners are probably familiar with Google and their famous 20%-time policy. And this is the idea that Google pioneered and, well, to be fair, 3M, the Post-It company actually came up with it originally as 15% time. Google adopted it, they even expanded it, made it 20% time, but it really came to public prominence with Google.

And their concept is that employees should be able to spend up to a fifth of their time working on, essentially, speculative projects outside the scope of their regular job, but it should be things that they find interesting, obviously, but things that they believe would help the company. And that is how some of Google’s biggest innovations, like Google News and Gmail, got created.

Now, the caveat, the asterisk on all of this, interestingly enough, even most Google employees don’t do this. About 10% of Google employees actually do 20% time, which is this very low statistic. You might say, “Oh, well, that’s ridiculous. Why should we even take seriously this thing if the company that’s preaching it doesn’t do it?” But actually, I think it’s an important point for us to plumb. We know that it is not easy to carve out 20% time. You have to really be forceful in creating a fence around it. It is always easier to just lean into doing your existing job, “Oh, I’ve got meetings. Oh, I’ve got emails to answer.” And so, you allocate that time accordingly. I get it.

But if you are fencing off time for, essentially, your own professional development, for learning things, trying things, where you are developing new skills and exploring new areas, this becomes your insurance policy for the future. COVID showed us that we have no freaking idea what is going to happen. We just don’t know.

And so, we can make educated guesses and we can plan for the future, but, really, the best thing that all of us can be doing is turning ourselves into Swiss Army knives where we are not overly optimized for one task because that task could change, the company could change, it might not need it anymore. What we need to do, and 20% time is a really good vehicle to do it, is to allocate part of our time to proactive professional development so we’re learning new things and have new skills that we can fall back on if we need to. And it’ll also open up new opportunities as well. So, I think that’s one clear takeaway that can be very useful for people in the present moment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, I like the notion of becoming a Swiss Army knife, and proactive professional development, and being kind of a bullet proof, invincible, depending on the winds of change and sway and stuff. And so, I guess I’m thinking what are some of the top skills, or I’m actually visualizing literally a Swiss Army knife, the bottle opener, the screwdriver, the tweezers, the scissors?

Dorie Clark
Everybody’s going to love you if you can open bottles. I say go for that one.

Pete Mockaitis
And then the hook, the little hook. I always found that tricky. Apparently, it’s for when you’re carrying boxes wrapped in twine. Okay, now you know if you were curious. You can also pull out stakes with fishing wire. Anyway, Swiss Army knife has a lot of tools. What do you think are some of the top tool skills that professionals should work to be developing that are timeless? Because, on the one hand, I’m thinking, “Well, hey, a lot of sort of artificial intelligence stuff, for example, is hot.” And then a coding language like Python or something is something that you say, “Oh, maybe that’d be good to know, but then, again, maybe that’ll be irrelevant in six years.” So, help us, Dorie, how do we think through what are the skills are really worth investing and building?

Dorie Clark
That’s right, Pete. Absolutely. I’m going to answer it in a couple different ways. So, the first one, props to you, my man, is a really simple starting point that people can do is actually LinkedIn Learning courses. And I’m an instructor, you’re an instructor, and, in fact, both of us are fortunate enough that some of our courses were among the top 20 most popular of the year. So, actually just diving in and immersing yourself in that is a really good simple way.

These courses are not long. This is something you can do on your lunch break but that’s a good regular way that you can begin to just take time that often might’ve been deployed for other purposes, maybe just messing around, maybe answering emails. Actually, really investing in learning. So, that’s one low-hanging fruit.

But, also, I think it is true, of course, we can all kind of envision that, “Oh, I should learn about 3D printing or something like that. What are the things of the future?” If you are interested in those things, then, Godspeed, go do it. That’s great. I also want to argue that there is merit in learning about things that might seem completely irrelevant. And my example, in fact, I consider musical theater to be my 20%-time activity. And it might sound frivolous in some ways, like, “Well, what does that have to do with being a business author?”

And on the surface, hmm, I don’t really know but what I do know is I am not only learning skills about how to do a particular thing, lyric writing, book writing, whatever. Those are really powerful and you can argue that there are some overlays in terms of story arcs and narrative and how it applies to my book, but, also, from a networking perspective, I am meeting massively different types of people. There’s a lot of interesting development of who I’m connecting with and what I know, and it’s giving me access to a whole new canon of knowledge.

And so, I can tell you that it’s been…there are examples where I’m meeting people in the business world and I’m able to connect with them better because I have additional knowledge that I can bring to bear about theater if that is, in fact, one of their interests. So, even something that seems really like, “Oh, why would you do that?” There actually can be a lot of surprise hidden value in it. It’s sort of the equivalent of the well-worn example of Steve Jobs studying calligraphy. Like, “Well, what did that matter?” Well, it turns out, it can create a design orientation that actually can be very influential but we couldn’t have predicted it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is cool. Okay. Well, so then in terms of the 20% time, it’s like it’s a combo then of, “What do you find really fascinating? Go for it,” and then, “What do you think you just can’t see any connection whatsoever? Don’t let that stop you.” And then LinkedIn Learning is one quick and easy and fun resource to get in there.

And so, I’m curious then, are there any – and I’m sure this will vary as the years unfold or maybe it won’t at all, and that’s the point – what will be some like the top skills you think, boy, every professional can really benefit from sharpening these skills?

Dorie Clark
Yeah, absolutely. Again, with the purview so that, honestly, if you want to keep yourself motivated, the most important thing is that it should be interesting to you. But I would say, in my own experience, things that are super valuable, one, probably the biggest that I’ve put at the top of the list, is public speaking. And part of the reason that I do this is there are some very interesting research that was done a few years ago by The Center for Talent Innovation, which is a think-tank in New York. And they were studying the concept of executive presence, which is, essentially, this idea, this very poorly-defined idea of somebody looking like a leader, or seeming like a leader. Like, what does that mean?

And so, they wanted to break that down because a lot of people talk about, “Oh, he’s got executive presence but he doesn’t.” And so, okay, what are they talking about? And one of the key components that it turned out people were implicitly referring to is people’s public speaking ability. And it kind of makes sense because if we think about, for instance, how our country, how countries, in general, elect leaders, what are the trials that we put them through? Well, it’s usually debates, it’s townhall meetings, it’s rallies, it’s all about your public speaking, so a very low-hanging fruit where someone can get a dramatic ROI from investing time and effort is actually becoming a better public speaker. So, I would put that at the top of the list.

I’m also, you know, I’m partially communications in general, given that I started my career as a marketing strategy consultant, but I would say that effective copywriting, persuasive sales writing is one of the most important skills, whether you’re literally selling something or whether you are a regular professional trying to sell your boss on an idea, or trying to get a client to take a concept and let you run with it. Sales copy, which is different than regular writing, persuasive sales copy is an incredibly valuable skill to have. So, I would probably put those two at the top of the list.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. And so then, beyond just simply learning, training, skills development, what are some other ways that you recommend we can shift our thinking away from the short term and to the long term? Are there any sorts of key questions, or prompts, or exercises you recommend folks go through to get more in the long-term zone?

Dorie Clark
Yeah, I love that question. So, when we think about, “How do we kind of reorient ourselves?” One of the most important starting points is actually just, at a very basic level, creating the white space necessary to be able to have those conversations, whether it’s literally a conversation with a colleague or just an internal reckoning with yourself. It is not that it takes a huge amount of time to do strategic thinking. It does not. But it takes some time.

And one of the problems that I see with a lot of the clients that I worked with and colleagues around me is that they literally have no time for this because they are so packed to the gills with their scheduling. They’re constantly racing around. They don’t have a moment to breathe. And, therefore, they really don’t have a moment to ask very fundamental questions about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, if it’s the right thing to be doing. Nobody wants to be the person that is optimizing perfectly for the wrong goal, for the wrong outcome.

So, I think that one of the very best things we can do to begin to give ourselves the space to ask these questions is to actually just create a little room on our calendar. Obviously, it’s easier said than done, but I think we need to start becoming a lot more ruthless in terms of what we accept. Something that doesn’t get talked about, this is a skill you need to develop, although no one will tell you this, the things you said yes to earlier in your career, if you’re going to be successful, you need to stop. You need to regularly re-evaluate and create tighter and tighter criteria for what actually gets on your schedule. And this is an essential part of being a strategic and long-term thinker.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, I find that actually pretty inspiring, Dorie, and I don’t know if that’s the reaction you get very often, “Tighter and tighter criteria. Ooh, boy.” But I think it’s true in that I‘m thinking about just, hey, this podcast, 700 episodes in, that’s exactly what’s happened in terms of criteria get tighter and tighter and tighter with regard to what guest gets in, which parts of the interview stay versus get edited out. And then, likewise, just as a function, I think the percentage of incoming pitches that are thumbs up gets smaller and smaller as well.

Dorie Clark
Yeah, when you were first starting, you probably would’ve interviewed my cat. That’s what it’s like when you start.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m thinking about how I might make a case for that in terms of, “Well, cute animal photos have been shown to reduce stress.”

Dorie Clark
It could go viral.

Pete Mockaitis
“Cats have been known to go viral.” So, then can you make that all the more real and specific for us in terms of maybe in your own schedule or others that you’ve coached or worked with and how you’ve seen, “Hey, this used to be okay, and now it’s not. And here are some particular filters or rules or criteria I’m using now that determine what gets the yes”?

Dorie Clark
Yeah, absolutely. And I actually go into a lot of detail about this in The Long Game because I think your question points to something important, which is specifics actually really matter here because you can say all you want, “Oh, you should just say no more often,” and that’s great but people are like, “Okay, you jerk, like how do I do it?” So, you need to really understand the mechanics and the scripts and how do you draw these criteria.

Just to give you an example. When I first started my business, I’ve been working for myself for 15 years, I kind of didn’t know anybody. Like, when you’re starting any career, or you’re starting at a job, you don’t know anybody and so, therefore, you don’t even know who’s worth your time. And at that moment, it’s actually good to say yes to everybody because it’s not like you have so many other important things to do, and it’s not like there are so many people fighting to spend time with you. if you have an opportunity for a networking engagement, you should probably do it, right?

So, early on, the filter should be very wide. But, over time, people do begin to seek you out more, and so you’ve got to narrow it. So, some examples. Early on, I was so happy that anyone would like talk to me. I would immediately offer to go to them, “Oh, where do you want to meet? When do you want to meet?” And so, I would accept these things where I’d be taking like a 45-minute train ride into the city to go see somebody at some inconvenient place. I’d be coming back. I would literally have spent half a day in a networking meeting with someone.

Now, a half a day is extraordinarily valuable. I think about how much revenue or all the things I could be doing but, back in the day, I would say yes to that. So, over time, I slowly tightened it and say, “Okay. Well, maybe I’d meet with them but I’m not going to just offer to go to them. I would either make them come to me and meet near me, or I would only do it if I was already going to be in their neighborhood.” Also, I used to meet with people, “Hey, let’s have a networking meeting,” for like pretty much no reason. It could be, “Oh, somebody suggested we might like each other,” something like that.

Now, I actually need a pretty compelling reason, like, “Well, what do you want to talk about? Like, what’s the goal? Why is it that we should connect?” because, oftentimes, what I would discover, that I didn’t know, is that people actually had an agenda. They just wouldn’t state it. It was often to sell something to you. And so, it’s important to kind of understand what’s behind all of that. So, that’s a piece of it.

You can also, if you want, if you want to do the meeting, you’re not sure if you can say no, another strategy that I use is find a way that you can downgrade it but still say yes. So, you might say, “Oh, Dorie, can we have coffee? Can we have lunch?” and if I want to be careful, I don’t want to offend you or something, or I feel like I should say yes, I might say, “Oh, thank you, Pete. I’d love to do it. That would be great. My schedule is super crazy. I can’t do lunch but how about a call? Can we do a call next week?” And so, that way, instead of lunch, which might be two hours, two and a half hours, like getting there and then a lunch, the call is a tight 30 and then you can log off. So, you have, essentially, found a way to still say yes but save yourself 90 minutes, and all of that adds up over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Dorie, I like this so much. It’s funny, just recently, I think I was getting a new insurance quote, and they proposed…because sometimes this is very easy to do, they said, “Oh, hey, when’s a good timing and we can hop on a call for me to walk you through a point-by-point all the elements of this plan?” I was like, “Wow, I never want to do that,” and maybe that might be prudent depending on the nature of the insurance product and what’s at stake and if there’s a lot of points of differentiation between that insurance product and the competition. Maybe that might be well worth your time. But for me, it wasn’t. It was sort of small potatoes insurance and I thought, “Wow, do people really say yes to this?

And so, I was able to say, “Oh, would it be possible for, instead, for you to email me the policy and share with me the key points and the price?”

Dorie Clark
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think I know what they’re doing. I think from like a sales process, I’m sure the studies have shown, you get a higher conversion rate if you have like a relationship and some engagement and some conversation, but I probably just wanted to kind of say yes, thank you, get some insurance, and move onto something else.

So, sometimes it’s easy but for me it’s kind of rare. And it’s funny, as you share those things, I’ve had those thoughts. Let’s just get real about sort of emotions here. And sometimes I will also have thoughts to be like, “Pete, who the heck do you think you are? Oh, now you’re big time, huh? Oh, you’re so important now that you can’t be bothered to have lunch.” So, I’ve got some internal dialogues in terms of just like, “Well, no, I can have a spreadsheet I can show you that time it better placed somewhere else from a business development perspective. Like, that’s a fact.”

But sometimes it’s more fuzzy, like, “Well, I don’t even know what’s going to make a bigger impact. Hard to say.” But then there’s also a little bit of the, “Oh, so now I’m too good.” And it’s like I don’t want to become, I don’t know what the anti-hero I’m looking for here, the villain I’m trying to paint here, not Scrooge McDuck swimming in money, or like Scrooge…help me out here. Like, I still want to be a generous person who is not corrupted by success as I grow but I guess that’s part of the long game as our time will become increasingly more valuable. We will need to say no more often. How do we deal with that?

Dorie Clark
Right. Well, I think you’re pointing to something important, which is that there’s a lot of layers to this. It’s not just a strictly rational ROI calculator, essentially. But I think there’s a few ways to think about this. And, also, of course, it depends who’s asking. I think sometimes, again, when we are less experienced, we often, at least me, I would essentially fall prey to people, just anyone who’d be like, “Hey, want to have coffee?” and I would just assume like the correct answer is yes, “Okay, yes.”

And then, meanwhile, you come and it’s some kind of a sales pitch or something where it’s almost like you’ve been kind of tricked or strong-armed into it, or if it’s not a sales pitch, maybe it’s they want something, “Oh, hey, Dorie, I hear you write for so and so. Can you introduce me to blah, blah, blah?” And it’s like, “Oh, now I get it. Like, oh, you want a thing that’s why you want to connect.” And so, those are things I do not feel bad screening out. I don’t want some user who is taking advantage, and so I think, partly, it’s about learning how to be more mindful if you feel like that vibe is coming off of someone.

I think, also, the truth is I don’t feel bad about saying no to people that are coming at you, or coming at me, in ways that are a little inappropriate. I think that, for me, when I was 22, when we’re all 22, we would have the college career counselors, they’d be like, “Oh, you should reach out to people and pick their brain.” And many people, again, when you’re 22, fine, but many people just kept with that, and that’s still their approach, and it should not be the approach of a seasoned professional.

If you are dealing with someone, you want to be showing empathy for their situation. And if you know that that person is, and you got to think about it, but if you actually, when you rationally think about it, realize, “This person is probably getting 10, 20, 50 emails per week with people asking for something,” you have to be mindful of what your ask is and contextualize it properly. And so, if you’re just sort of blithely saying, “Oh, can I have, for no reason at all, an undifferentiated amount of your time?” that’s actually not really being a sophisticated consumer. And so, I think that we need to…we all need to be more thoughtful in terms of how we approach people.

I actually did an analysis of the emails that I received a while back, and I discovered that, in the course of a week, I got somewhere between 10 and 11 requests per day for something. Now, sometimes it was a coffee or a meal, sometimes it was a, “Hey, will you share this on social media?” Sometimes it was a, “Will you blurb my book?” or, “Will you do this?” And many of them were from great friends, and I would be glad to do it. That’s totally fine.

But we all have to recognize for ourselves and when we’re dealing with others, if someone is getting 70 requests in a week, it is just foolish for that person to say yes to all of them. You have to triage and protect it so that I can say yes to you, Pete, and not some random person who is sort of barging in with inappropriate request.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Was it Jim Carrey where he says yes? Is it Yes Man? With all the chaos that ensues with the yes to everything. Yes, that’s helpful and thought-provoking both in terms of as the requester and the potential grantor of requests, like how to do that well. Well, thanks, Dorie. We went really deep there.

Dorie Clark
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s zoom out for a bit. Any other critical ideas from The Long Game that you think folks looking to be awesome at their jobs should know about?

Dorie Clark
Yeah. Well, I’ll just add one piece to where we were going before, which is, ultimately, if you want to actually be true to your vision, if you actually want to accomplish whatever your long-term goal is, it is not just about the people around you and saying no. We often fail to think about the opportunity costs when some requests or something is coming at us, some opportunity. We often think, “Should I do this thing or not?” And that’s not really the right question. It is actually, what we should be asking, is, “Should I be doing this thing or any other thing in the world that would take approximately that amount of time?”

And so, we have to contextualize it because if there’s a goal that you truly care about, that needs to be a north star in your mind so that you are carving out time so you can really do that and fulfilling your agenda rather than everyone else’s agenda for you. So, just connecting with that point, one area that I talk about that’s related in The Long Game is a concept that I call being willing to say no to good things.

Of course, we understand that we should say no to the bad things. It might be hard or that you worry that you might be hurting people’s feelings or something like that, but, ultimately, we get it. But where we really develop the kind of ninja-level skill, and this is very hard for all of us, is that if we want to leave room to pursue what actually is great, what is a great opportunity or a really important thing for us, if something is nearly good, we also need to be willing to say no to that. And the discipline to do that is really what can set us apart and make us extraordinary.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Boy, Dorie, we’re two peas in a pod here when you talk about saying no and sort of the alternative is like everything else that you could be doing. And I remember the first time I learned about the concept of opportunity costs in an economics high school course, it freaked me out. I’m just like, “Holy crap, so you’re saying in choosing to do one thing I’m saying no to everything else on the planet every time. Whoa!”

It kind of shook me up actually for a few weeks. It’s like a random day in economics class, a day in high school. But it’s the reality of the matter with regard to where you can funnel your time, and that’s really powerful when you’re thinking about those long-term objectives that you’re shooting for and how to get there.

I guess I want to hear your take in terms of the…well, if it’s diet or exercise or smoking or video games, anyway there’s a whole host of ways we humans have a knack for going after that instant gratification at the expense of long-term stuff. So, do you have any tips or perspectives or reframes that could help people when they’re in the heat of battle and they have a temptation to do something that maybe feel good or short term when they’d be better to do something more long-term oriented?

Dorie Clark
Oh, as someone who ate a large ice cream sundae last night, I can totally speak to this. But to be fair, I planned. I planned that sundae. I saved up for that sundae but, nonetheless. I think there’s a couple of things that we can keep in mind. And one of them, in The Long Game I tell the story of a woman named Kim Cantergiani who was a busy mom, a busy wife, had a great job as she was a C-suite executive at a nonprofit. And the thing that always fell through the cracks was her health, and she had gained weight that she wanted to lose, and she just had not been able to do it.

And, ultimately, for her, what proved successful is she created a pound-a-thon campaign where she publicly pledged to all her friends, and she got them signed up, that for every pound she lost, that they would donate X amount of money to the local Battered Women Shelter. And so, at that point, it became about something bigger than herself. She was going to be letting down other people if she did not lose weight.

And so, she told me, she said, “After that, I really couldn’t be seen walking around with chips and a Diet Pepper after that.” So, I think sometimes it’s about external accountability and tapping into the bigger picture of a cause outside yourself. And the third point that I’ll make is that oftentimes it’s really about committing to a date certain for something, because humans, we love to kind of blur the lines or make exceptions or, “Oh, I could do this a little later.”

But I tell a story of a woman named Sam Horn who was a very successful speaker, author, just running herself ragged in the pre-COVID world, traveling everywhere, giving these talks. And she decided that what she really wanted to do, it’d been a longstanding goal, is she wanted to move near the water, and actually not just one place. Not like get a lake house, but she wanted to spend an entire year as kind of a digital nomad, living by the water in beautiful places, like Florida and Hawaii. And she ended up doing it but she said the only reason was that she just forced herself to commit. She circled October 1st on her calendar and she made herself happen. And she said, “If I didn’t have a date, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, Dorie, tell me, any final thoughts about the long game before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Dorie Clark
Thank you. I appreciate it, Pete. I will just mention, for anybody that wants to dive in further to strategic thinking and creating a long-term vision, that I have a free resource, which is a Long Game Strategic Thinking Self-Assessment, and folks can get it for free at DorieClark.com/thelonggame.

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

Dorie Clark
One of my favorite quotes is actually one from Theodore Roosevelt, and I love it because, fundamentally, to me, long-term planning is important but it’s acting toward those long-term goals. It’s about the action. And his quote is, “In any moment of uncertainty, the best thing to do is the right thing. The next best thing to do is the wrong thing. And the worst thing to do is nothing.” And so, I think we learn by taking action, and, to me, that quote exemplifies it.

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

Dorie Clark
So, I have to pick a sentimental favorite. I actually talk a lot about this in The Long Game as well, is the famous marshmallow study by Walter Mischel, talking about, “Do you take one marshmallow now or two if you wait 15 minutes?” If we can figure out how to crack that code, that’s the ultimate in long-term thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Dorie Clark
One of the things that was most inspiring to me as I was starting my business and my business career was the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

Pete Mockaitis
Had him on the show. So amazing.

Dorie Clark
He is. It’s so beautifully written. It is so engaging. And I think it just taught me so much about life, so I really respect the work that he’s done.

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

Dorie Clark
Yes, a favorite tool that I use, actually all the time, is Google Translate. I feel like these days, I’m working with so many people internationally, and where I can, at least learn a few phrases or say something as kind of a tip of the hat for them and their culture, I try to do that. So, I enjoy using that tool for connecting with people across borders.

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

Dorie Clark
Well, one of the things that I feel like seems to be resonating for people a lot, perhaps especially coming out of COVID, is a concept that I talk about in The Long Game called thinking in waves. And the basic idea is that, oftentimes, when we feel stuck, we feel like we’re in a rut, the problem is that we are, essentially, trying to just keep doing more of the same thing, and it’s the same thing that we’re good at, or the same thing that we’ve gotten results at. And, unfortunately, one of the things about being a successful human and a successful professional is that we actually have to do different things and we have to shift into a different wave.

And so, one of the most important things, I believe, is that we need to recognize, “Okay, which wave are we in? And where are we in the cycle? And how can we shift?” So, as just one example, for a lot of people, many of whom, frankly, have been kind of hard on themselves about this, they may have had a lot of extra home responsibilities or family responsibilities during COVID, and it’s not like you had a lot of choice in that. That’s sort of what the situation called for. We can’t beat ourselves up about it. But the important thing is to recognize that if we are playing the long game legitimately, then we need to lengthen the time that we’re looking at, and realize that it’s not necessarily about having perfect work-life balance, let’s say, during a set period of time.

During the past 18 months, you probably didn’t have very good work-life balance, but what you can do is actually make a choice to over-index in other areas. And once you are able to re-allocate some of that energy toward work, or toward non-family relationships, like friends, and deepening connections, and things like that, or if you’ve been going crazy with work, working way too hard, that’s fine in the short term. Sometimes you need to do that in order to be successful, but the problem comes when you do that always.

And so, it’s just understanding what wave are you in and how can you transition successfully so that over a long-enough period of time, you are getting the balance that you need.

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

Dorie Clark
One of the final challenges that I will suggest to people is in The Long Game I talk about a concept that I call optimize for interesting. And we all know that in our culture, oftentimes, things are a little bit polarized. It’s either, according to conversations, it’s either that we’re optimizing for our passion or we’re just making money, “Okay, let’s get some money.” I feel like those are fine options. They all have their limitations.

But because not all of us necessarily even know what our passion is, or it might change over time, or maybe your passion isn’t something that you can or that you want to monetize, what I like to suggest that we have as one potential orientation is the idea of optimizing for interesting. Because even if you don’t know what your passion is, for sure, you know what you find interesting. There’s hobbies, there’s things, you know what, some people really like birds. Guess what? If you like birds, you know it. If you’re not into birds, you also know that.

Some people are into wine, some people are into golf, some people are into football, some people are into theater. Optimize and try to direct your discretionary time and learning and knowledge and effort toward things that you find interesting. And you really can’t go wrong because you will enjoy the process, you will get more data, and you will learn things about yourself. And if it stops being interesting, no problem. Just pivot to something else.

Pete Mockaitis
Dorie, thank you. It’s always a treat. I wish you much success in the long game.

Dorie Clark
Pete, thank you. Always a pleasure to be here with you.

703: How to Find the Work that Sparks You and Makes You Come Alive with Jonathan Fields (Host of Good Life Project Podcast)

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Jonathan Fields says: "I think we always have to be guided by our own inner wisdom, by our own intelligence."

Jonathan Fields discusses how to spark meaning, fulfillment, and joy in your work by aligning with your Sparketype.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A (free!) assessment that identifies what makes you come alive 
  2. The ten impulses that describe how we work
  3. The fundamental questions that create career fit 

About Jonathan

Jonathan Fields hosts one of the top-ranked podcasts in the world, Good Life Project®, where he shares powerful stories, conversations, and resources, on a mission to help listeners live more meaningful and inspired lives. Fields is also the founder and CEO of Spark Endeavors, a research initiative focused on helping individuals and organizations reclaim work as a source of purpose, energy, meaning, and possibility. His new book, SPARKED: Discover Your Unique Imprint for Work That Makes You Come Alive delivers an important message in a time when many people are emerging from the pandemic and seeking out new work that will both challenge and fulfill them. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you Sponsors!

Jonathan Fields Interview Transcript

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

Jonathan Fields
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom here. And, first, let’s talk, boy, with the Good Life Project, you’ve been at it for a good long time. So, kudos. My hat is off to you. Can you tell me about one or two of the most fascinatingly useful discoveries you’ve made along the way as you’ve hosted the podcast?

Jonathan Fields
There’s one that I’ve been really thinking on for a while now but it’s not from a recent conversation. It’s from a conversation that is probably six or seven years old. So, we’ve been producing since 2012. And I had the opportunity to sit down with a guy named Milton Glaser. Milton died two years ago at the age of 91 on his birthday.

He kind of had a magical life. He was one of the most iconic designers in history. A lot of people outside of the design world wouldn’t know his name but everybody actually knows at least some of his work. For example, the most ripped off logo in the history of iconography iHeartNY, that was Milton. He sketched it out on a napkin in the back of a taxi in the ‘70s as a way to try and give something back to the city that he loved, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy, and rally people to a place of hope and aspiration.

And I sat down in a conversation with him, and as we were talking, he shared with me that he knew what he was there to do since the age he was six, which was to make things, and I kind of lit up because I thought to myself, “Me, too.” I’ve known from the earliest days I’m obsessed with the process of creation. I just see things that don’t exist, that need to exist all around me. But then he dropped this other bit of wisdom further into the conversation, and this is what I’ve been circling back to lately.

And he said to me, “The impulse to make and the impulse to create beauty are related but not the same.” And what I’ve realized later in life is that I’m not just driven by the impulse to make and to create. There’s something around the impulse to create beauty, which is deeply compelling to me as well. So, when I make something, I don’t want to just create something that’s cool or interesting or different or valuable. Something inside me says, “I want it to be beautiful.”

And, granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s an impulse in me towards beauty, towards the creative process that births in some way, shape, or form where it moves people emotionally, there’s an elegance to it. I don’t often hit my metric for that aspiration but I’d realized that it actually matters to me on a level that’s super important that I started to center it more in my work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I like that definition of beauty then. So, it need not necessarily be a visual aesthetic beauty but say it again in terms of what it does. Beauty is beauty when it does what again?

Jonathan Fields
To me, beauty is something that, in some way, shape, or form, it bypasses your cognitive processes, your filters, and lands in a deeply emotional way and moves you. It evokes something in you. Now, granted, a lot of things can evoke something emotionally, but it evokes a sense of awe in you, and it evokes a sense of wonder, it evokes a sense of appreciation in elegance. It just makes you feel good, like things are as they should be. Not everything in life, but for that moment, when you interact with whatever this thing is, you have that feeling. And, to me, to be on the receiving end of that feeling is so powerful. It’s why I’ve been a fan of art for my entire life. But, also, I’ve realized that I want to be on the creation end of that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, that’s how to do a powerful conversation. That’s really resonated for quite some time. That’s awesome. I want to hear about your book Sparked: Discover Your Unique Imprint for Work that Makes You Come Alive. That sounds fantastic. How does one go about doing just that?

Jonathan Fields
Yeah. Well, there are probably a lot of contributors. For probably my entire adult life, I’ve been fascinated with the question of, “How do we find a work that gives us this feeling like we’re doing the thing we’re here to do?” Like, we’re filled with meaning, a sense of purpose. We’re excited and engaged to wake up in the morning and do this thing. We feel like our fullest potential is being leveraged and we got a bigger sense of purpose.

And I started to dig into the question of whether there are some set of identifiable, mappable impulses for work or for effort that would give us this feeling. Could we tease them out from all the tens of thousands of jobs, roles, titles, and distill them down to a simple set of things? And then help people figure out what those are.

Because if we could, then that would give a pretty important nugget of insight to somebody and help them understand what to say yes or no to, whether that’s a project, a role, a position on a team, a job, an industry, an organization, and spend a lot more time in that state – I call it spark or coming alive – rather than fumbling and wondering why they never had the feeling that they want to feel.

So, I spend a lot of time doing the research to map out these 10 different impulses or imprints. I call them sparketypes. And they are the source that then around them we build entire archetypes. So, there’s an impulse for work, and then around each of these impulses, there are certain tendencies, preferences, and behaviors that are pretty common across a lot of different people. And then we built a tool to help us validate the research or invalidate it, equally validate it, and then for people to use and interact with so they could discover theirs. And those are the sparketypes and the spark assessment.

And that is now been completed by over 500,000 people generating over 25 million datapoints that have been just astonishingly insightful and helpful in helping people understand what to say yes and no to. And that became the sort of source fuel for the book that has now become Sparked.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I would like to hear a bit of a rundown of the 10 different sparketypes and then sort of like the core impulse and preference and behavior that illuminates or exemplifies that sparketype. I suppose, maybe before we get into that, let’s hear about the research and the validation just because if someone is about to give me, you name it, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Big Five, StrengthsFinder, any assessment. It’s sort of like, if they say, “Hey, there’s four key preferences or there are seven key types,” it’s like, “Says who based on what and why?” Like, my skeptic gets fired up.

So, for those in the audience, before they take your word for it that these are, in fact, a pretty good way to slice up the universe of different flavors of unique imprints that makes you come alive, can you satisfy the skeptic and say, “What research and how do I know you didn’t just make this up as opposed to it has genuine validity as to what is in the hearts of humanity?”

Jonathan Fields
Yeah, I love that question. So, a couple of things. One, don’t take my word for it. Please don’t take my word for it. Use your own experience to validate whether it is the sparketypes, whether it’s any number of other tools or assessments that are out there right now. I agree with you. I think we always have to be guided by our own inner wisdom, by our own intelligence. Like, use the tool, see what it tells you, see if it lands as valid or not. What we know is not that 500,000 people have done this and thousands more doing it every day, is we’ve done our follow-on study that showed us that 93% of the people who complete this tell us that it’s anywhere from very true to extremely accurate. But we’ve also gone beyond that.

In that same study, we wanted to know. So, first threshold is accuracy, “Do people feel this is accurate?” And the only way to actually know whether something like this is accurate, there’s no objective measure. If I ask you…there’s no objective measure of meaningfulness for every person on the planet. It’s completely individual and subjective. So, I’ve got to ask you, “When you do this particular thing, does it give you the sense that it’s meaningful to you, that it matters?”

And so, we will ask those questions, we’re like, “Do you have a sense of purpose when you’re doing it? Are you able to easily lose yourself in a state of absorption where time seems to pass in the blink of an eye and you vanish into the experience?” And when we ask these questions, what we actually find is really strong statistical correlation.

So, for people who are literally wrapped in the data, the R value, or the correlation coefficients between doing the work of your sparketype and saying that you feel a sense of meaningfulness, that you are easily able to access flow, that you’re excited and energized by your work, that you’re able to access the fullest amount of your potential and perform at your highest level, and that you have a sense of purpose in life. There are really strong correlations that we see in the data.

But, again, I can give you numbers, I can give you R values, I can give you correlations. Why would you listen to me? We’ve got a tool that is out there and available in the form of assessment. You can take it. One of the reasons that we actually have it publicly available for anyone to take for free is because I want you to actually interact with the tool yourself and see how valid it feels for you. So, the skeptic in me, because I have that same skeptic, I look at everything that comes out there, and I’m like, “Well, how do I know that matters to me?”

So, I also wanted to make sure that whatever we created was brought to market in a way where anyone could interact with a fundamental tool, and get the basic wisdom from it, and decide from their own whether it actually was valid for them or not without having to actually invest anything beyond a little bit of their time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And just to triple confirm, because I think we have had some guests who have had some really cool tools, but as a listener, if it’s sort of like, “I don’t know if I’m going to spend 20, 30, 40 bucks on that, and this conversation is boring to me if I’m not,” so it doesn’t go perfectly well even though I think the tool is really cool. So, that’s awesome. So, for the record, this is not a temporary book promotion. This is free for the world forever. Hooray! Is that what’s up here?

Jonathan Fields
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Jonathan Fields
So, this is not a sort of marketing quiz that was put together for a marketing campaign. This has been…took about a year to develop it through beta. We rolled it out publicly at the end of 2018. We’ve since continued to develop it and refine the algorithm. We rolled out a 2.0 version of the assessment that added one particular metric to it, I believe it was earlier this year. In the entire time, it has been freely available to anybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. All right. Well, so then the benefits sound pretty handy in terms of meaningfulness, flow, energy, so that’s a nice lineup of goodies that happen when we’re doing work that is in alignment with the sparketype. Any other key benefits that you’d highlight front and center for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jonathan Fields
Yeah, there’s something that I didn’t see coming, which is so we tend to hear two things when people interact with the body of work. One is that there’s something inside of them that feels validated. So, very rarely do we hear someone say, “Oh, this was so surprising to me. I never knew or realized that.” What we hear people say is, “There’s something in me that I’ve known that this impulse is in there. I have always felt this way about when I do this particular type of thing. It gives me this feeling. But, for a variety of reasons, maybe I didn’t think I could earn a living doing it, maybe I didn’t think I could figure out how to build a career, or maybe I was socially told that it’s not an appropriate pursuit for me. I’ve stepped away from it, or I’ve stifled it.”

And what this does is it sort of reflects back to someone, “Oh, this is real, and this matters.” So, that’s one thing. But there’s a second thing that we’ve really started to see, which is that people start to realize that they’re feeling seen on a level that they hadn’t before, that they feel like the language when we describe what these types are and how they tend to interact with people around them in the world, they feel understood, they feel seen, and they now have language to then turn around and tell other people, “This is me. Like, now you can see and understand me on a deeper level.” And that other person may be a partner in life, it may be a family member, or it may be a leader on a team or a teammate in the context of work. But it helps them understand themselves, feel seen by themselves, to themselves, and also give them language to help others see them more clearly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Well, so lay it on us here. We got 10 different sparketypes and we have like a key impulse or call, and then some preferences and behaviors that go with it. Could you maybe give us the 20- to 60-second rundown on each of the ten? I’m a maven, if you wanted to start there, or maybe there’s a sequence that makes good sense that you’d like to run through.

Jonathan Fields
So, the maven is actually a great starting place. The maven is the most process-fulfilled of all of these impulses, all of these sparketypes. The fundamental impulse for the maven is learning. It’s all about knowledge acquisition. This can show up in a really narrow and deep way. So, you may find a topic there where you just, for some reason, you probably don’t even understand why. Maybe it’s 15th century history and something particular about it and there’s something about it that just fascinates you, and you have to know absolutely everything about it, and you would literally devote all of your energy. You’ll spend money, if you need to, to gain access to people or classes or resources, to know everything you can about this one topic.

It also shows up broadly on almost more of a trait level where you open your eyes in the morning, and all you want to do is learn anything you can about everything and everyone. A friend of mine basically never takes a cab ride without knowing the entire life story of the person who is driving them. He’s just absolutely fascinated by people, anybody, all walks of life, and what their stories are. So, the fundamental impulse there is knowledge acquisition.

You may actually gain knowledge that is incredibly valuable to other people, but that’s not actually why you do it. You do it simply because of the feeling that it gives you. So, that’s the maven. The maven also can get lost in a bit of a learning dark hole. So, you can become so obsessed with learning something. And if it is a big and vast complex deep body of knowledge, then you can essentially just stop all of your relationships, stop exercising, stop eating well, and just completely devote yourself to the pursuit of knowledge. So, there’s a bit of a risk there to become obsessive about the quest for learning.

Next up, we have what I call the maker. So, the maker’s fundamental impulse is creation. That also happens to be my impulse. I wake up in the morning and it’s all about the process of creation. I look around and I’m like, “What can I make today?” That has been my impulse from the earliest days in my life.

When I was a kid, I used to create pretty much anything that you could imagine creatable. I would cobble together old bike parts to create Frankenbikes. I would draw album covers on jean jackets. I would renovate houses. As an adult, that’s more of into building companies, creating books, brands, experiences, media, anything you can imagine. It’s the process of creation that completely lights me up. Because the maker is also very process-fulfilled, similar to the maven, there’s a risk of really losing yourself in the black hole of creation and ignoring all the other amazing things in your life by doing that.

So, next up, we have what I call the scientist. The fundamental impulse for the scientist is to figure things out. It’s all about problem-solving, figuring out pieces of a puzzle and burning questions. You wake up in the morning, you say, “What can I figure out?” This impulse tends to really be highly valued in industry. There’s literally a job called scientist or researcher where you can spend your entire life researching big, broad, complex, deep questions.
One of the interesting quirks about the scientist is that you could devote, say, five years and figure out the answer to something. Maybe you figure out something in the context of medicine or cancer that has a profound impact on millions of people’s lives. You really like that. You appreciate it. You enjoy it. But the interesting thing about the scientist is it’s not actually the reason you do it. The reason you do it is because of the feeling that it gives you. It’s because the quest for an answer makes you feel alive. So, when you finally find that answer, as happy as you may be that you’ve discovered something incredibly valuable to others, it’s not unusual for you to wake up the next day with a sense of melancholy because, now, you’re not waking up with a burning question anymore, and it becomes your job to go and find the next one.

So, behind that, we have the impulse that I would call the performer. Now, when you hear performer, a lot of people immediately think performing arts, “Well, it’s a singer, it’s a dancer, it’s the theater.” And, in fact, oftentimes that impulse does get channeled into those things because it’s kind of the logical place for it to go. But what we see in adulthood is this impulse which is always to enliven, energize, and activate an experience or interaction or moment. This impulse has incredible value in nearly every domain. You could exercise that in a meeting, in a boardroom, in a sales interaction, behind a bar, as a parent with children, in local community organizing. It has really, really broad and amazing applicability.

Behind the performer, we have what I call the essentialist. Now, the impulse for the essentialist is to create order out of chaos. You see complex things, you see mess, you see all sorts of chaotic things around you, and all you want to do is create clarity and utility from it. What we’ve discovered about this is that this tends to show up really early in life also. The producer for our podcast, for Good Life Project, is actually an essentialist. And when she was a little kid, she used to line up her stuffed animals in height and order, or height and color in her bedroom. So, this tends to show up really early in life, and be praised because parents like when kids are orderly.

Later in life, what you start to see is it is an indispensable trait because so many people who are not the essentialist not only are not interested in doing that work, they outright loath doing that work. So, when they find somebody who is an essentialist, they will happily hand that work off to them, and that essentialist very often, in an organization, becomes really quickly overloaded once they become discovered because everybody wants to give them that work, and they’re good at it and they like it but, at some point, you have to create boundaries in the work.

There’s another interesting part around the essentialist, which is if you’re really getting more nuance, it goes beyond creating order, clarity, and utility. Essentialists tend to see a certain amount of elegance and beauty in order and clarity, and so there’s almost an artistic aesthetic to the work that they do.

After the essentialist, we have what I would call the warrior. Now, the fundamental impulse for the warrior is to gather, organize, and lead. And many people would look at that, and say, “Well, leadership, sure. Well, that’s a skill.” And I would say, “Yes, there are skills for leadership the same way,” but there are skills for all of these different impulses that I’ve talked about that we can acquire. But leadership in particular tends to be treated exclusively just as a set of skills that you can acquire. What we’ve seen is that, in fact, there is an underlying impulse that some people have.

They wake up in the morning and all they want to do is bring people together and take them on an adventure, a journey, from point A to point B. This often shows up early in life as a kid on the playground, who’s like, “Hey, everybody, let’s go gather around. Let’s go on an adventure in the woods,” or the team captain in school. It shows up in literally every domain of life. The warrior is a really, really powerful impulse. It can also be lonely.

So, you tend to be somebody who leads the way and you’re not always the person where people want to step alongside of you and go with you. And sometimes, bringing people together, especially disparate groups of people with different intentions, different personalities, can be a really frenetic and chaotic social dynamic. So, part of what you do is have to learn how to be really good managing social dynamics with people.

So, next after the warrior, we have what I would call the sage, the fundamental impulse of the sage is to awaken an insight. It’s about illumination. So, you know something and all you want to do is tell other people what you know. You want to share it with them. And seeing the lights of insight go on in their minds is a thing that is kind of magical to you. So, the maven devours information purely for the sake of knowing. The sage may also devour information but for them, the impulse is not just to learn. It’s to turn around and have something really powerful and new and valuable to share with other people.

So, next behind that, we have the advisor. The advisor is all about guiding others, it can be an individual, a group, a team, an organization, through a process of growth. So, they tend to walk alongside someone, whereas a warrior very often is one of the people that they organize and lead, they’re among those. The advisor most often is somebody who is not within the group. They walk alongside that individual or group, and they create a container of safety and trust, and it’s a very relational impulse.

A big part of the reward for the advisor is the depth and quality and the sustained nature of the relationship that happens with other people as they guide them through a process of growth. It may not necessarily be, “I’m going to get you from point A to point B,” but it’s some sort of evolutionary process that person or group goes through.

And that leaves us with two remaining sparketypes. We have the advocate. So, the fundamental impulse of the advocate is to champion, it’s to shine the light on an idea, ideal, individual or community. And this isn’t so much giving voice to other people, because with individuals, as a general, I don’t believe that you give anybody else voice. You may give voice to nature, or to an ecosystem, or to animals.

But with other people, it’s generally, it’s championing them. It is you see something that, in some way, shape, or form, lands with you as unfair, inequitable, unjust, and the impulse is, “I need to, in some way, shape, or form, shine the light on what’s going on here. I need to advocate for, or on behalf of, or alongside of, or with, so that we can create some sort of change.”

The final impulse is what I call the nurturer. The nurturer is all about elevation. It’s all about lifting others up. It’s about giving care and taking care. The nurturer impulse, the person then, and one of the primary tendencies around that is, usually, has a very strong sense of empathy. So, that is the empath, that is the person who walks into a room and very likely feels other people’s emotions, feels their states, feels other people’s suffering, struggle, and pain, and they’re compelled to do something about it. They move to that person and they will do anything they can to lift them up.

One of the challenges of the nurturer is that they tend to feel so much of other people’s experiences and emotions that it can leave them pretty empty and gutted themselves. So, there’s a deep need for self-care if you’re one of those people. So, those are the ten different sparketypes and the ten, sort of on a very basic level, the fundamental impulses that drive them to actually take action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can we contrast the sage with the advisor? The sage shares the knowledge. They want folks to have the light of insight. And the advisor, make that a clearer distinction for me.

Jonathan Fields
Yup. The sage basically says, “I know something. I want you to know it. Once you know it, I’m out.” The advisor says, “I have ideas, frameworks, and experience. You want to move through some sort of process, and I’m going to walk alongside of you and be a sounding board, be a mentor, be a confidant, as you move through this process.” And so, it’s less about, “Hey, I’m going to tell you something really cool or valuable,” and then tap out. It’s more about, “I’m going to walk alongside of you. I’m going to be with you in a relational way, in a safe way, and help you navigate this particular moment or experience or process.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, to recap, we got the maven, all about knowledge acquisition; we got the maker, about creation; the scientist, about figuring things out; the performer, likes to sing, dance, or put it out there; the essentialist, finding order out of chaos; the warrior, gathering, organizing, leading folks; the sage, sharing knowledge; the advisor, mentoring alongside for the duration; the advocate, championing something; and the nurturer, providing care.

And so, there we go, there’s ten. We did it. Hooray! And so, the idea is when you’re doing work that fits into one of those that is yours, you are feeling that meaningfulness, that flow, that purpose, that energy, the good stuff. And when you’re working on something that is not it, you feel the opposite of that. Is that the short hand there?

Jonathan Fields
Yeah. Fundamentally, the more that you can align what you do with this basic impulse, the more you have those feelings, the more likely you are to access them, and the more intense those feelings can become, and the more sustained they can become. And the more what you do conflicts with those impulses, the less likely you are to feel them. You may still feel the glow of accomplishment. You may still revel in the sense of camaraderie with people who you just really enjoy being around.

So, this is not the only thing that gives us a feeling that we want to feel in the context of work but it’s really important. And I think a lot of us look at the external things, and we say, “Let’s look at culture, let’s look at team dynamics, let’s look at the motivational things, let’s look at the carrot and the stick, let’s look at leadership and growth opportunities.” All of those things matter but none of them does a whole lot if the fundamental nature of what you do when you show up and spend your seven to 12 hours a day working is misaligned with the impulse for work that makes you come alive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d love to get your perspective in terms of once you know this, what are some of the top things you recommend people do or not do in terms of they’re kind of like, “Okay, I took the quiz. It was cool. I got my sparketype. That sounds about right. Thank you, Jonathan. Now what?”

Jonathan Fields
Let’s start with what not to do because this tends to be a really big impulse for people. Once they discover this thing, they’ll immediately tend to look at the work that they’re doing and say, “Huh, like, am I doing, like is this impulse that is so central to me? Am I actually expressing this in the work that I’m currently doing?” And if they’re not, there’s very often this impulse to say, “Oh, wow, I need to just blow everything up. I need to walk away. I need to start over. I need to find something entirely different.” And what I’m going to invite you to do is not do that.

There may be people for whom that is an intelligent, that is a reasoned step, but, generally, that’s the last step that you want to take, not the first, especially once you’re a little bit further into life and you’ve got responsibilities, and there are a lot of things hanging on the fact that your job may be sustaining a family in a particular way. It’s not so easy to do that.

We tend to dramatically overestimate the giddiness and the joy, the elation, that we’ll feel when we blow things up and we have this freedom, and then we dive into something that we absolutely are drawn to, and we underestimate the time that it will take to actually get there, and the pain of the disruption that will be caused through that process. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for everyone but it means that, in my mind, it’s the last thing that you consider doing, not the first.

What I would consider doing as the first part of the exploration, to say, “Okay, let me look at the work that I’m doing right now,” and then do that same analysis, “How aligned is what I’m doing with this fundamental impulse forever?” If I’m a maker, “How much of my time, how much opportunity do I have to actually immerse myself in a process of creation?”

And then if you start to see, “Well, actually, there’s a whole bunch of this that is really well-aligned but there’s 30% of the work that’s completely misaligned,” or maybe there’s 50% where you just have no opportunity to express this. Then you start to ask the question, “How can I reimagine what I’m doing now? How can I do it in different ways? How can I look for ways to try different tasks, use different tools, dip into different processes, that may allow me to express this impulse without having to make these really big disruptive changes?”

And then start to run little experiments, “Well, what if I do a little more of this and a little less of this?” And what you’ll find over time, for most people, is that you have a lot more ability to do that. And as you start to do that, the way that you feel in your work starts to change. You start to show up differently and people actually start to respond to you differently because your state is essentially different and better and improved and more energized and more alive.

And a lot of people can actually get a lot closer to the feeling that they imagined by reimagining what they’re doing, even doing things that were not squarely within your job description but they’re available to you to actually start doing, simply because of the way that it makes you feel.

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

Jonathan Fields
Just, I think we’re in a moment right now where really big questioning has become normalized in a way that has not in generations. There’s a lot of judgment if you’re sort of working in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, “You know what, I want to think about what got me here and is it the thing that’s going to get me there? And maybe I’m going to do some really big reimagining.” That kind of questioning was sort of not welcomed socially in a lot of contexts.

What’s happening in the world right now has shaken people so much and on a scale that that kind of questioning has actually been normalized now. So, we have this rare window of opportunity to step into it, to really examine, and to not hide it, to be public, to have conversations and discourse and seek help, in a way that would’ve been a lot more difficult just a few years ago. And what I would invite people to do is to not waste this window.

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

Jonathan Fields
There’s a classic script or book or poem, really, called the Bhagavadgita, and it’s not written in English. It’s written in Sanskrit. But one of the translations, there’s a line in it that translates roughly to, “Far better to live your life imperfectly than to live another’s life perfectly.” And that has always landed really powerfully with me.

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

Jonathan Fields
I think I was fascinated for a long time with a bunch of the research around self-regulation and that positioned it as a depletable resource. And what I’ve been probably equally fascinated by recently is that the sort of emerging, the follow-on research around that shows that actually whether willpower or self-regulation is a depletable resource or not, is largely determined by whether you believe it is or not, and that the original research wasn’t entirely correct, which means that we have a lot more control over our self-control.

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

Jonathan Fields
One that comes to mind is an oldie but a goodie. It was originally published as a short story in Life magazine in 1951, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I’m a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing because of how much he can convey, how much he can leave you with so few words. His efficiency in language is astounding, and then the story of this old man, Santiago, it starts as what you would think on the surface is a battle between him and this great fish. But what he’s really doing is a deep meditation on how we interact with the things that we see as struggle and how we reframe them as partnership in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners and others, and say, “Wow, that was good,” and they say, “Jonathan, I love it when you said this”?

Jonathan Fields
Yeah, there’s something that I’ve been talking about recently, and I haven’t shared it with a lot but I’ll share it here with you. It’s what I call the principle of maximum sustainable generosity. It’s the way that I look at building businesses but it’s also the way I look at building relationships, just the way that I look at moving into life, which is basically asking the question, “How can I be as generous as humanly possible in the way that I move into the world, in the way that I offer things to others, in the way that I build relationships, and do it in a way that is sustainable over time, financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m going to chew on that. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jonathan Fields
I would point them either to the Good Life Project Podcast. And if you want to learn more about the sparketypes, at Sparketype.com, and the book Sparked is just available at booksellers everywhere.

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

Jonathan Fields
Yeah. My call to action really bridges off of what I shared earlier about this being a unique moment in time. A lot of people, I think, have not been entirely satisfied with the way that they work. It may be taking care of them financially, it may be giving them a certain amount of security, but life is short. I think we’ve been all reminded how tender it can be most recently. I got a huge wakeup call around that during 9/11 when I was in New York City, and that shifted the way that I look at the world, the way that I look at work.

I think we’re in a moment right now where there’s a similar disruption happening. And my invitation would be to not take this feeling, not take this questioning, and just bury it, just stifle it, and just kind of keep on keeping on, and keep your head down. Whether you make a bigger change or not, it doesn’t really matter. But take this window as an invitation to discover more about who you are, about what fills you up, about what empties you out, and then use that information to try and make better decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jonathan, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best as you keep on putting your imprint on cool stuff that makes you come alive.

Jonathan Fields
Thanks so much. Appreciate you having me.

702: Building the Courage to Speak Up and Stand Out at Work with Jim Detert

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Jim Detert says: "Advocacy isn't just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It's helping people see why I came to that conclusion."

Jim Detert discusses how to build your courage to stand out and influence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why acting courageously is easier than you think
  2. The four fears that keep us from acting courageously
  3. The most effective way to get others to listen to you

About Jim

Jim Detert (PhD, Harvard) is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Detert’s research focuses on employee voice and other forms of workplace courage, experiential leadership development, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research has won several academic best-paper awards, and his teaching and curriculum development have also won multiple awards at UVA and Cornell.

Resources Mentioned

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Jim Detert Interview Transcript

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

Jim Detert
It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting about courage at work. And I’d love to hear from you upfront, what was a time you really had to muster up some courage at work?

Jim Detert
Well, as a tenured professor, it’s actually kind of laughable perhaps to talk about courage at work. I have a real privilege of a type of job security most people don’t have. So, I would say, most of the times I’ve had to muster up courage at work in the spirit of challenging long-standing tradition. We’re pretty slow to change.

And so, when I was dean, for example, of our executive MBA program, I found myself repeatedly responding to statements that we can’t do something, with statements of, “By ‘I can’t do something’ do you mean it’s illegal or immoral, or simply that we haven’t done it in the past and prefer not to?” Those, frankly, are so numerous that I won’t bore listeners with all the specific examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is a nice helpful distinction to put front and center there. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s your personal experience. And how about your research, any particularly counterintuitive or surprising discoveries you’ve made about courage at work over your research career?

Jim Detert
Well, I think a few insights that have emerged that might seem counterintuitive, or at least they’re counter to the narrative. So, for example, I think we have a myth, in fact, I know we have a myth that courage is some kind of in-born trait or capacity that a few possess but most don’t. And having studied, literally, thousands of individual actors and acts of courage, I can tell you that there is no magic gene, there is no magic personality trait, background experience. People who step up and do the right thing at work, when they could and should, very tremendously in every dimension you and I can name. So, one sort of insight or sort of myth-busting for me has been it is not about a personal type. It is about a personal choice.

I think related to that is that people talk about courageous action as if these folks were sort of born ready or it was easy but, in fact, when you study folks, when they’re talking about John Lewis, for example, in the political realm or so many people I’ve studied in more regular kinds of workplaces, what you realize is that actually what looks like this natural confidence comes from hard work, years of practice, years of trying things, learning how to be more effective. So, that’s a second takeaway, is that this is like any skill. It’s developed through practice and commitment.

Maybe one insight or aha about the process itself is we think a lot about the moment when somebody speaks up or steps up. That’s the thing we remember and tend to pass on through narrative. But it turns out that what seems to make a difference in many cases for how those moments go is the preparation work and the things people do before those acts, and then, maybe most surprisingly, what they do after. So, skillful actors don’t just manage the moment well. They’re really good about after the fact, following up when things seem to have gone well, getting commitments, securing resources.

And when things didn’t go so well, they’re courageous enough to go have yet another difficult conversation, and say, “Hey, you look upset or angry or your body language suggests that you weren’t onboard. Can we talk about that?” And I think that follow-up is something we don’t think much at all about because we’re so focused on that big-bang moment itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing, yes. So, you’re right, in terms of as we just think about being courageous, like what comes to mind is exactly that, those moments of stepping up, saying something unpopular, or challenging the status quo in some way. And so, that’s a good thought in terms of there really is some private work going on either internally in their own brains or sort of afterwards one-on-one in the mix. Well, thanks for those. And maybe zooming out a bit, so your book Choosing Courage, what’s the central thesis here?

Jim Detert
The central thesis, I guess, going back to where we started, is really that courage is a personal choice and it’s a responsibility, and it helps to think not about courage as if it’s some sort of property. I often say, if you do an autopsy of somebody, you won’t find some stock of courage somewhere in the body. There is no such thing. So, it helps to think about courageous action.

And once you say it’s about whether you do something in those critical moments, you then can assume personal responsibility. And, in a sense, the thesis is that we don’t allow ourselves to say that any other virtue is just a responsibility of some, or that we should do some of the time. If you think about fairness or moderation or kindness, so many other principal or cardinal virtues, those aren’t just the responsibility of one of my ten coworkers, or myself, one of ten opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m not really an honest person, Jim. You know that. I leave that to the other guys. They’re often honest. That’s good enough for me.”

Jim Detert
The question, right, is, “Why have we allowed that?” We wouldn’t say that about any of these other traits, these virtues, so why do we allow that in the realm of courage? Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook too frequently. And part of it is because we’re afraid, and so the book talks a lot about how to address fears, and part of it is because we’re not very skilled, and so we see so many screw ups in ourself and others when people do try to behave courageously, that we conclude, “It’s just too dangerous.”

And so, the book is fundamentally about saying, “Hey, you got to choose your moments, but then you have to be willing to take on some risks and you have to be willing to do the work to increase your competency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, it’s interesting, we’re talking about virtue, and I’m thinking about Aristotle and how the pursuit of the good life is good in and of itself, and brings about happiness and such. But just to get mercenary for a second, is it in professionals’ best interest to choose courage? Will that help them be more awesome and advance their jobs? Or is it better to play it safe? How do you think about that?

Jim Detert
So, I think there’s basically two answers to that question. First of all, it depends on your goals. If your goals are basically to just get ahead, potentially as quickly as possible, then, frankly, you and I know there are lots of organizations where the definition of being awesome at your job is keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and just delivering. And in that regard, you could say choosing courage in the short run, not a great idea.

On the other hand, if you say, “I want to live of life where I felt I had agency, where I was authentic, I was true to myself, l lived my values,” then, hell, yeah, it’s the right choice to make. Another way to think about it is, “Over what time horizon?” So, if you’re talking about whether, “Choosing courage will necessarily put me in line first for the next promotion,” well, maybe, maybe not. But when you start to look at a longer-time horizon, like, “Will I be proud of the legacy I’m creating? Will others really remember me and want to stand with me? Will I have long-term regrets or not?” that’s when this choice is so critical.

If you look at the regret literature, for example, it’s pretty well-established that people, by a large margin, tend to regret inactions, things they think they should’ve done and didn’t than actions they took that didn’t go well. This is true even in people who suffer pretty big consequences – whistleblowers, for example. Almost none of them say they regret doing it.

So, what I would say to listeners is it depends. If you’re talking about how to be most popular or get ahead tomorrow, well, sticking your neck out is not always the best approach. If you’re talking about living what you or I or Aristotle or anybody else would call the good life, then I’d say, yeah, you got to choose courage sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d imagine, with sort of any measure of prudent risk-taking and say, “I’m going to take on this big project or responsibility or duty or opportunity where the outcome is uncertain,” I think that a level of that is essential for a career to advance, otherwise you don’t seem that special, it’s like, “Okay, you did your job within the realm of ordinary responsibilities. You didn’t deliver near really cool sort of noteworthy improvements, so.”

Jim Detert
Yeah. Okay, I would say if we’re really honest there, a few paths probably to eventually standing up. One, of course, is to be the absolutely best political player. Attach yourself to the most important people and play their game and you’ll get ahead to some degree. Now, for those of us who find that approach distasteful in a variety of ways, I think you’re right, you have to stand out eventually and with some consistency in other ways. And that’s where there’s such a difference between just being courageous and being competently courageous.

My book is titled Choosing Courage. It many respects, it should’ve been titled Choosing Competent Courage because, indeed, the route to success is not just speaking up or speaking out, pushing back against every possible thing you could in offensive language or with terrible emotional valence. It’s about doing those things in ways, to your point, to help you stand out positively. Because not just did you point out a problem, a path forward, a way to expand a market, a creative idea, but you did it in a way that those above you could hear, that they weren’t offended by. Because, at the end of the day, you can stand out in positive or negative ways. And what you’re referring to is how to stand out in positive ways, and that’s about skills when you behave courageously.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we’re talking a lot about courage and standing up, standing out, taking risks, speaking up. Could you make it all the more real for us in terms of some examples of common places where courageous acts make all the difference at work, or where people often shy away? Kind of what specific kinds of moments are we talking about here?

Jim Detert
So, there are a few sorts of prototypical types of acts that if you sample thousands of people, as I have, say, 75% or more will say, “Yeah, unfortunately, these behaviors are moderately courageous or more.” The most obvious type of behavior, set of behaviors, are what I call truth to power behaviors. So, these are challenging your boss, or skip-level bosses. It could be about policies or practices. It could be about interpersonal behaviors that are offensive or hurtful. It could be about actually illegal or unethical things. It can be about going to bat for your own subordinates to people above you. So, lots of truth to power behaviors.

Somewhat surprising, going back to that conversation, I was surprised to the degree to which when I just asked people, “Tell me about a behavior at work that would be courageous,” I expected that everybody would say truth to power type behaviors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frequency of people talking about how hard it was to have honest conversations with peers or even have honest conversations or give difficult feedback to subordinates. And the reason I think that was originally surprising to me is I was thinking primarily of risks in terms of economic or career consequences, “If it doesn’t go well, my promotion, my pay, my future here is at stake.”

It turns out, people have a few fundamental fears, and that’s only one of them. People are also highly afraid of social consequences. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve evolved in small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily tasks was survival. And if you got ostracized from your group, you were going to die, and you were going to die in short order. And so, it’s not illogical that even though that’s not our environment today, evolutionarily, we’re still programmed to be hugely afraid of being ostracized, to have social consequences.

We also hate psychological risks. We say, “Why don’t people step up and try a new task or take a new job or be more innovative?” The answer there is often they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to see self-doubt creep in. And so, there’s actually this huge range of behaviors that’s not just about challenging power. It’s about difficult interpersonal situations with peers, subordinates, external partners. It’s about being innovative.

I developed an index of the most common behaviors I heard about from thousands of people, and there’s 35 different behaviors. And many of them, you would probably say, “Gosh, for a professional or a manager, isn’t that just doing your job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it is, but these things have been surprisingly infrequently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love this. So, categories of fears: economic risk, “Might lose my job or money or promotion”; social risk, “Folks will not like me, shun me, ostracize me”; psychological risk, “I might feel stupid or embarrassed if I screw this up and look real dumb.” Are those kinds of the three categories or are there some more there?

Jim Detert
Well, the fourth one, which is real in many contexts I didn’t mention, is physical. If you go back 2,000 years of courage-writing, the vast history of courage-writing was about military contexts. And sure enough, there are still, in military, firefighting, police work, plenty of other settings that come to mind, they’re so physical risks. And even, frankly, I was surprised the degree to which folks who work in any sort of service occupation – bartenders, waiters, customer service – actually report cases of being physically assaulted, accosted, threatened with a weapon, so there’s physical risks also that some people face.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And these 35 behaviors, can you tell us what sort of tops the list in terms of like one, two, three?

Jim Detert
So, in terms of level of courageousness, not surprisingly, those physical risks. So, jumping into the middle of imminent physical risks or harm is number one. What’s surprising, though, is that there are several other behaviors that are statistically no different in terms of how courageous they’re seen as being. These are things like being willing to challenge bosses or skip-level bosses about unethical or illegal behaviors, quitting a job on principle. There are actually several, more available to all of us, kinds of jobs that are actually seen as just as courageous as these physical risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. So, that’s the lay of the land. Now, Jim, tell us, if we think we want or need or should do something, and we feel scared about doing it, walk us through it, how do we go about choosing competent courage?

Jim Detert
So, let’s talk just briefly about what you would do before you would take that specific action, then sort of the moment itself, and then what you would do after. So, before. Some people say, “Hey, I’m not ready to take this specific act,” and I say, “That’s fine but you can still work on it every day.” And they say, “What does that mean?”

Well, what it means is the reception you’re going to get to that challenge you issue is, in part, based on the content of the issue. Is that a highly sensitive threatening issue to the boss? But it’s also going to depend on the impression that boss has already formed of you. Does that boss think you’re benevolent? In other words, is the reason you’re speaking up because you actually care about him and others in the organization, or is it because you’re self-interested and just trying to get ahead?

And the boss is also going to ask himself or herself, implicitly, “Hey, if I listen to Jim or Pete, and give them resources or take action they’re suggesting, are they competent, can they do it? Can they make good use of these resources?” And so, every day, we are creating in others, perceptions of whether we’re warm and competent, and that’s really sort of setting the stage, showing people we are fair, we’re emotionally intelligent, on a regular basis sets the stage. So, those things you can be doing every day.

Another thing is the question of, “Is this really the right issue? And is it really the right battle and the right time?” So, if you work in an organization, any organization I’ve ever studied, you could pick something to speak up about every single day but most of them are not truly important to you and don’t make a huge difference. And so, having the skill to sort of suss out what are critical to your core values and to your objectives, and which are sort of tertiary issues, that’s really important.

A woman I work with, Tawana Burnett at Facebook, African-American female leader, really a spectacular leader, and she’s one of the first 20 black females at Facebook, and she said, “Look, if I was going to speak up every single time somebody said something that was inappropriate or insensitive based on race or gender, I’d be doing it every day, but I also would quickly become ineffective because people would stop listening to me.”

And so, she said, “Look, my core value, my core objective is that we have to get more black females into leadership roles, senior leadership roles, because only then will things really change.” So, her rule is, “When things offend me, I ask myself, ‘Is this about the hiring, evaluation, or promotion of black females?’ And if it is, I speak up because we’re not going to get where we need to go if I don’t. If it’s about other things, I may choose to let it go.” So, it’s really about sort of choosing wisely.

Then there’s the moment itself. That’s about what you say, where you say it, how you say it, with what emotional tone, and I’ll give just one specific sort of general piece of advice here. All of us, when asked or when thinking about, like, “I’m going to go for it on this issue,” our first instinct is going to be to say the matter, present the issue, try to give the persuasive remarks from the perspective that’s compelling to us. After all, it’s our brain in which we’re concocting the story, the argument, the pitch, and so our tendency is going to be to frame it in a way that works for us. Often, that’s exactly wrong because if you already control the behavior of the other person or the resources the other person controls, you don’t need to do this anyway.

And so, imagine, for example, that I work for you or with you, and you are really compelled by things that affect us economically, that hit the bottom line, and you really are sensitive to threats or risks to our wellbeing or performance. So, you care about the money and you care about threats. But I come in pitching this great new idea to you, and I’m talking about how it fits with our values and it’s so culturally aligned with who we are, and how it’s such an opportunity, and that opportunity framing and cultural framing doesn’t resonate for you at all because I failed to mention the economic reality or the potential threats if we don’t do this.

And so, people have to remember that it’s the target’s ability to hear and respond well to what you’re saying that makes all the difference. And my book talks about lots and lots of specific strategies for achieving that, but the high-level concept is you got to speak to the target. And then as we started with, I mentioned the importance of following up, whether things have gone well and you’re securing additional resources or timelines, or whether they haven’t gone so well and you’re trying to mend fences, that’s really important, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to the framing, I would like to hear some of the specific tidbits there. So, do you have some archetypes or categories of frames, so values, economic? Those sounded nice in terms of, yeah, those have very different flavors to them. Any others that come to mind?

Jim Detert
So, there are some other sort of broader frames. For example, I versus we, or sort of win-win versus win-loss. I think what we often fail to remember, we know this but we fail to remember it in the moment, is that when you’re telling somebody why they should do something differently, or you’re pitching your idea, part of what they’re hearing is, as the recipient is, “Oh, you’re saying I’m bad, or my idea or current practice is inferior,” or, “Oh, you want to do this,” or, “You look good and I look like a fool.” And so, framing that helps people understand, “I don’t want to replace or win at your expense. I want to take what you’ve done to the next level. I want to be the scout out front who then brings us all along together. I want to expand the pie for everyone.”

So, helping people be able to hear what you’re saying because they really think you’re on their side, and that you’re advancing excellence rather than beating something down in a win-loss, that’s a huge element of positive framing. And then, frankly, there are lots of just small things we inadvertently say. We can have sort of a beautiful set of data compiled and we can present evidence and solutions, and in just a couple small words, we can screw things up.

We often follow, for example, into the trap of naïve realism, which is simply this idea that there’s just one reality out there, and it just happens to be, “The one that I see. So, if you don’t see it my way, you’re dumb.” And when we unconsciously operate that way, we’ll say things like, “Well, since it’s so obvious that this is the case,” or, “Since this is so unambiguous,” “Since it’s so clear to everybody,” “Since it’s unquestionably the case.” Well, the effect of words like unambiguous, or so clear, or unquestionably, is essentially to say, “If you have any questions or doubts or see it any differently, you’re a dummy or you’re self-interested.”

So, learning to speak with less certainty, learning to avoid other certain phrases, I call them frequency words. My wife and I still joke, 25 years in, how often we would get distracted from the actual content of what one or the other of us were saying because the person who pointed something out would use the word never or always.

So, for example, if my wife wanted me to actually help with the dishes, she was actually quite correct if she would say, “You don’t help clean up as often as you could or should.” That was a correct statement. But if she would say to me, “You never help with the dishes,” the never would trigger me and I would get into a frequency argument with her, and say, “That’s not true,” and I would pull out my little notepad and say, “On Tuesday, July 30th, I actually put the pizza dishes in the…” And so, we would get derailed into an argument about never or always and away from the underlying issue itself around which she or I would be right.

Also, saying things, for example, like, “Don’t take it personal.” I would submit to listeners that we actually never use that phrase except in situations when we know at some level it’s personal. There’s no reason you would say that if that wasn’t the case. There’s the classic scene from You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks has got the big Fox Books store and he’s putting Meg Ryan’s little family independent bookstore out of business, and he says to her, “Why are you so mad at me? It’s not personal. It’s just business.” And, of course, she rightfully says, “What are you talking about? ‘It’s not personal?’ This is my family’s bookstore. This is nothing but personal.”

And so, I think avoiding phrases like, “It’s not personal.” And, listeners, if they want, can easily find a short piece on HBR.org that I wrote just a month or so ago on trap phrases and words to avoid in a conversation that speak to all of these kinds of examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it when we get specific about precise words to avoid. Any words that you love, key things that find their way into a lot of great communications?

Jim Detert
So, if you go back to the great sort of master Chris Argyris, he talked about the idea of cognitive ladders of inference and advocacy and inquiry. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard of this, the basic idea was that most of the time we communicate at what Chris called the top of the ladder, our conclusion. I say, “Hey, Pete, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow.” That’s a conclusion. And Pete says, “That’s crazy. We should stick with what we got.” That’s a conclusion.

What we fail to do is get below those cognitive ladders of inference, that is what’s going on in our head. So, if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow,” what I have done actually is I’m drawing on some data, like, “Hey, here’s data on what our competitors are doing. Here’s data internally on how our sales have decreased recently,” or, “Hey, here are some data on us losing some top talent because they’re bored.” And from that, I might reason, “We need to do something new and we need to do it in a way that catches the market’s attention, and, therefore, I reached that conclusion I said to you.”

And, similarly, you’re saying, “Hey, we should stick with it the way it is.” The thing is that you’re looking at other data. You may be looking and saying, “Nobody above me has said we have a problem yet. Most of the industry is still doing what we’re doing.” You might therefore reason, “I think things are fine. Jim is just antsy. They’re ballistic with what we’ve got.”

And so, the specific tool here is advocacy and inquiry. And advocacy isn’t just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It’s helping people see why I came to that conclusion. So, phrases like, “Can I share my data with you?” or, “Can I help you see my reasoning?” things that reveal your ladder, language that reveals your ladder. And then the most powerful thing are inquiry phrases, saying, “Hey, Pete, I heard you say that you think we should stay. Can you help me understand why? Can you help me see where you’re coming from? Can you share your reasoning with me?”

Skillful inquiry is perhaps the single best way to sort of build communication bridges I know and have ever read about. And all you got to do, we’re talking about the world of work, but all I got to do is look around the world we’re living in, the divisiveness politically, etc., and you realize we are all constantly screaming at each other from the top of our ladders, and we’re not good at all of helping people see where we’re coming from, or taking perspective by asking people where they’re coming from.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s so good. That’s good. And speaking of emotions, what are your top tips on managing the emotions, like, either you’re super scared or you’re super angry when you are prepping to speak up, choose courage?

Jim Detert
Yeah, so fear and anger, we sort of all intuitively know, they have the opposite action propensities. So, fear will tend to make you sort of flee or freeze. Fear is an avoidance emotion, whereas, anger is an approach emotion. Anger makes you want to go toward the source. So, the advice has to be quite different. With fear, you have to do things, frankly, often ahead of time. Over longer periods of time, it can be about being in good physical shape, it can be about mindfulness, yoga, anything that sort of helps you sort of change your sort of base physiological response.

People with high fear often find they have to also take specific steps like scripting out in advance things they’re going to say. They may have to practice more and have people sort of shoot back at them so they can practice sort of staying in the moment and not fleeing. Most people don’t physically run out of a room but you’ll see them just shut down and cave. And so, they have to really practice camping down the fear.

Anger, on the other hand, is, in some respects, useful because if you get angry enough about something, you’re actually likely to bring it up and say or do something about it. The problem with anger is you’re likely to be quite unskillful – offensive, for example. And here I’ll tell a story about myself. Most people, I think, in fact, almost everybody who knows me would say, “Jim has no problem choosing courage but at times Jim has had a problem with displaying competent courage.” And in most instances, that would be because I let anger at injustices or problems or whatever get in the way.

And so, part of dealing with anger is what you do in the moment. It turns out these old adages like, “Count to ten,” or, “Take three deep breaths,” these are actually quite useful because what they actually are doing is trying to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. It’s often a very useful tactic to try to teach yourself, to train yourself, to accept in emergencies not speak in that moment but schedule a follow-up, allow the moment to pass and then schedule after you’ve sort of gotten your emotions back together.

And then, frankly, part of it is knowing who you are and using strategies, sometimes even technologies to be your friend. So, in my case, this was a number of years ago, having made the classic mistake of firing off some emails when I was upset. I’d learned that you can actually set the Outlook timer to basically hold all emails you’ve sent in the outbox for any designated number of minutes or hours. And so, for quite some time, I set my Outlook outgoing mail to hold for 60 minutes because I knew that if I basically didn’t send emails for an hour, there was a very high likelihood I would calm down and revisit that email and have a chance to save it before I couldn’t.

So, learning strategies for both, lessening your anger, and then sort of navigating around it are really important.

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

Jim Detert
I think, again, the thing to really know is that if you accept the premise that we’ve talked about here today, which is that this is a choice everybody has to make and it’s about skills, then the really important thing to do is to set specific goals. And I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is the reason I think people often don’t engage in courage at work is they think of the very scariest thing that comes to mind first, and then they, rightfully so, conclude one of two things, “I’m not going to do that because it’s too difficult and it’ll go terribly,” or they’ll say, “I tried it, and because it was so incredibly difficult and I wasn’t ready, I totally screwed it up. And that only confirmed for me how stupid choosing courage is.”

I think this is akin to the idea that you decide, you’re not a runner but you decide you’re going to run a 10K. Well, the dumbest thing to do would be to go out and try to run 10K the first day. You’d be so sore with so many injuries, you’d probably never jog again. So, what I encourage people to do is build a personal courage ladder. Yeah, you can put that scariest thing on the top rung but put some sort of moderately difficult things in the middle rungs, and put some things that you’re a little afraid of but you could imagine doing on the lowest rungs, and then choose those to start with.

Because, as with any skill, the way you actually build competence over time is you start small, and you have a little success, and you feel better about yourself, it increases your motivation. So, what we haven’t really, I think, talked about enough is the importance of starting small. That’s how all skills are developed.

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

Jim Detert
Yeah, I love the quote of George Bernard Shaw. He says, “Reasonable people adapt to the world around themselves. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to themselves, and that’s why all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I think we give so much advice about sort of fitting in, getting along, and sometimes we forget that, actually, the great change agents, the people who we most admire were okay pushing boundaries and being a little bit unreasonable.

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

Jim Detert
So, although these are quite dated, I think, perhaps the most powerful research ever done was the Milgram experiments on deference to authority. Milgram was, essentially, showing that in any reasonable size town in America, he could find people who would be willing to pull the shock lever to pretty high voltage simply because they were instructed to do so by power. And I think the Milgram studies and Asch’s conformity studies, they have shown us, time and again, how powerful the forces towards sort of conformity and deference in hierarchies is. And that is such a potent set of research to remind ourselves why we have to sort of choose courage and change systems.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Jim Detert
So, I love some of the classic fiction books, like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, these books that you say, “Gosh, 50 years, or however ahead of time, these people, even though writing fiction, really foresaw a world that was going to come into being.” Also, recently, a much more recent favorite, I read a book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. He was sort of a Buddhist monk who, essentially, in this book is saying, “Stop trying to change everything in yourself and everybody else. The first step is just awareness,” and then has a lot of tips on how to just become more mindful and self-aware.

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

Jim Detert
Yeah, I tell you, I was thinking about this notion of tools, and I felt a little bit like a Luddite because I’m not so much of a tools guy. But I will tell you that what I love, actually, are intellectual frameworks. A simple one, very consistent with the conversation we’re having, is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor two-by-two framework where she describes being radically candid as that beautiful combination of telling the truth but also having people understand you care.

And I love her off-quadrant descriptions of ruinous empathy, people who don’t tell the truth because they’re so worried about looking like they care, or people who are obnoxiously aggressive, they tell the truth but nobody thinks they’re doing it for the right reason. And I find that notion of having to move either from ruinous empathy or from obnoxious aggression toward that quadrant of caring honesty just such a compelling reminder when I work with folks.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Detert
So, I am a big reader of other folks’ advice on writing. And while people vary across the board – they write in the morning, they write at night, they write with a suit on, they write naked – you name it, there’s huge variance. But one thing that all writers seem to agree on is you got to have butt in seat, that books do not get written, articles do not get written, if you aren’t at the desk, if you aren’t writing.

And so, for me, a really important habit is just butt in seat. I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to think I’m going to have great wisdom, I just do it. And, in fact, when I wrote Choosing Courage, I set a goal that I was going to write 15 minutes every day, just 15 minutes, I said, “If that’s all I got in me, fine. I’m going to write 15 minutes every single day until it was written.” And I did. And some days, because that was such an easy goal to achieve, I wrote for several hours, but there was no pressure to do just 15. And I think I wrote the first draft of Choosing Courage in 173 days of my 15-minute rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that resonates with folks; you’re known for?

Jim Detert
So, I think I have said and seen multiple people quote this notion that leadership is not a popularity contest. We grow up thinking, because we see leaders as folks who emerge in the playground or in student council elections, or whatever, we think leadership is a popularity contest but great leadership is much, much harder than that and actually involves a willingness to sort of stand alone and sometimes do unpopular things. So, leadership is not a popularity contest. And then, more recently, I think this notion that competent courage comes from practice not any innate quality or capacity is, I think, something that has resonated with people.

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

Jim Detert
So, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I do a lot of writing and posting on LinkedIn. And I also have a website, simply JimDetert.com where my different projects, writing, curriculum, etc., are all shared.

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

Jim Detert
Build that courage ladder for yourself and commit today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. Commit today to what you’re going to do. And the particular challenge, beyond just build the ladder and choose something, is lock yourself in. So, if you know you have a hard time following through on things you find sort of difficult or risky, put some stake in the ground. Tell your boss you’re going to do it. Make a pledge that you will give a sizable amount of money to a charity or political party you hate if you don’t take the action by a certain date. Somehow lock yourself in. That’s how people end up doing hard things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all your courageous choices.

Jim Detert
Thank you much. Same to you.

681: How to Achieve Greatness without Talent or Hard Work with Ron Friedman

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Ron Friedman says: "Measurement begets performance"

Ron Friedman provides a third path to greatness through reverse engineering.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to reverse-engineer greatness 
  2. How to train people to give you better feedback
  3. The 5 minute trick that will boost your performance by 20% 

About Ron

Ron Friedman, PhD, is an award-winning psychologist who has served on the faculty of the several prestigious colleges in the United States and has consulted for political leaders, nonprofits, and many of the world’s most recognized brands. Popular accounts of his research have appeared in major newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, as well as magazines such as Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today. 

Ron is the founder of ignite80, a learning and development company that translates research in neuroscience, human physiology and behavioral economics into practical strategies that help working professionals become healthier, happier and more productive. His first book, The Best Place to Work, was selected as an Inc. Magazine Best Business Book of the Year. 

Resources Mentioned

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Ron Friedman Interview Transcript

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

Ron Friedman
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom you’ve put forward in your latest book.

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

Ron Friedman
Great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom that you’ve packaged in your latest book Decoding Greatness, which, in fact, releases on the very day we’re recording this conversation. How is that going? Is it a crazy week for you?

Ron Friedman
You know, it’s an interesting experience. It is my second book. A friend of mine asked me, “What is it like to have this out in the world?” And I think the experience of going from zero to one is qualitatively different than going from one to two. It’s still exciting but you know what to expect now. And I think the first time is a little bit more nerve-wracking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. I remember when the release date for my book happened, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is the day. This is the day. This is the day.” But all that really changed was on Amazon, it switched from like pre-order to order.

Ron Friedman
That’s exactly right. And so much of the actual launch activity happens way before the launch and it’s actually very a little bit anticlimactic. It’s not like a movie premiere where you get to see people’s reactions. It’s like you don’t see the reaction for a very long time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Well, I have a feeling the reaction is going to be strong because I’m excited by what I’ve read thus far. So, the book is called Decoding Greatness. First of all, just to be on the same page, what do we mean by greatness?

Ron Friedman
Greatness is top performance in your field, whatever that may be. So, if you’re a writer, it could be someone like Malcolm Gladwell. If you’re an elected official, it could be someone like Donald Trump or, in some cases, Barack Obama. It really depends on what it is that you do and who it is that you want to understand a little bit better. And what this book is about is it gives you a process for identifying what makes a particular work unique so that you can learn from it in a little bit more analytically and then apply that to your work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds exciting. Could you maybe share with us a story that illustrates what it looks like in practice how someone goes about decoding greatness and the cool results that flow from doing that?

Ron Friedman
Absolutely. So, one of my favorite stories in this book is how Kurt Vonnegut, the famous writer, would reverse-engineer or deconstruct famous stories. And what he would do is he would take stories and map the protagonist’s fortunes on a graph. So, in other words, he would take a story and turn it into a picture.

And so, on the X-axis, at the bottom, you would have from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. On the Y-axis, on the vertical axis, you would see the protagonist’s fortune. So, how are things going for the main character? Are things going well? Are things going poorly? And by the end, he would have a picture.

And what he noticed, as he did this, is that the vast majority of stories that we fall in love with are basically the same story retold with different characters. So, a great illustration is Cinderella versus Annie. They’re basically the same story. So, at the beginning for both characters, things are going poorly. Annie is an orphan; Cinderella is being abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. They get rescued. There’s a ball, or in the case of Annie, she goes to the home of Daddy Warbucks. Then things go horribly wrong. The clock strikes midnight, Annie gets kidnapped by people pretending to be her parents. And then, finally, there’s a climax and things are resolved. They live happily ever after. Same story, different characters.

And we don’t notice it because it’s so well-told that we just find them both fascinating. Once you understand that you have a tool for this, for stepping back and getting the bigger picture on seeing why something at work is working, you can use it in all kinds of places. So, another great example of this is in the case of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

So, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a great story. The first time you read it, you can’t help but fall in love with the characters, and the settings, and the fascinating storyline. But then, after a little while, you take maybe on a summer picnic, you start thinking about it, and then you realize, “Wait a second. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a story about an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle, who’s whisked away in an adventure and has to fight an evil villain using magical powers.” There’s another story just like that, and it’s Star Wars. And it illustrates the power of just stepping back and seeing what’s really happening at the story level that you can apply to any work not just fiction.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, this can apply to fiction. You start with a great story in your book about Xerox and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. It’s actually so good just to tell it. It was riveting. Let’s hear it.

Ron Friedman
Oh, I appreciate you saying that. It’s a story of how it is that we got the personal computer. And back in the 1980s, computers looked nothing like the sleek intuitive devices that we all use today. If you wanted a computer to do anything, you’d have to reach out for a keyboard and input a rigid text-based language to input your instructions. And today, of course, we do none of that. We just have a mouse, we point and click, and everything is represented visually.

That innovation is called graphic user interface. It’s GUI for short, people in Silicon Valley refer to it as GUI. And Steve Jobs was about to go to market with the Macintosh which was going to be the first personal computer with a graphic user interface, and he’s beaten to the punch, and it turns out Bill Gates is about to launch Windows just before the Macintosh is about to reach market.

Now, these two were not competitors. Microsoft and Windows, I mean, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Apple, were not competitors at the time. In fact, Microsoft and Bill Gates were a vendor for Apple. They were writing software for the Macintosh. And so, Steve Jobs was furious. He felt like he had been stolen from. He felt like this was his innovation and Bill Gates stole it from him.

And so, there’s this showdown, that’s the opening of my book, in which Jobs accuses Gates of having stolen his technology, and Gates’ response was, “Well, actually, Steve, it wasn’t you I stole it from. It was Xerox.” And in both of their stories, it was the inconvenient fact that they had both seen what Xerox was working on, Xerox Alto, which was a computer with a graphic user interface that wasn’t directed at the consumer market but rather to large businesses, and Xerox didn’t see the potential of that technology for developing the personal computers because they never thought personal computers were going to catch on. And they thought that really typing was the domain of secretaries. It really wasn’t for the everyday individual, and so they were sitting on it.

And so, Steve Jobs, after seeing the Alto, reverse-engineered it by telling his team what they did so that they could work backwards to figure out how they can recreate something similar but evolve it in a different direction because it wasn’t simply the recreation of the Alto. In the case of Apple, they were looking to add artistic fonts and making computers user-friendly. And Bill Gates also saw the Alto, told his team about it, and they were working to create personal computers that were affordable to a mass audience.

And so, both of them took an underutilized idea, the Xerox Alto and its graphic user interface, and applied it in different directions. And that turns out to be the approach that many of us simply aren’t educated about. We don’t hear these stories about how ideas are built upon previously existing ideas. And so, what I wanted to do in this book is give people the tools for learning from the best in their field so that they can evolve those ideas in different directions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so cool. So, that seems like the value of this concept is self-evident or already illustrated with these examples. Like, if we see something that’s great, we can kind of figure out, “Hey, what made it great?” and then we too can make great things. So, that’s awesome whether you want to be awesome at your job, or singing, or maybe any number of skills or results you want to create out there in the world. So, then how do we go about doing that?

I guess Kurt Vonnegut, that’s kind of clever. I don’t know if he reverse-engineered the idea of how to go about reverse-engineering, but it’s like, “You know what, I’m just going to go ahead and graph this on an X-Y plane and see what goes down.” How do you recommend we begin the process of we noticed something that we like or want or want to replicate, and then what?

Ron Friedman
So, the first step in this process is to collect great examples. And when we think about collections, we tend to think about physical objects. So, some people I know collect stamps. My dad collected stamps. People collect wines. They collect shoes. But that definition of collections as physical objects turns out to be too narrow. There are collections that designers have of logos that they have found impactful. Writers collect words or headlines. Presenters collect presentation decks.

And when you have a collection, then you can look through it to identify, “What are the things that make it different from items that didn’t make my collection?” So, it’s like playing a game of spot the difference which is a game we all played as kids where you have two visuals side by side, and you compare them, you say, “Hey, what’s different about this one? What stands out for me?”

And through this process of using spot the difference with items in your collections against items that didn’t make your collection, you’re able to identify what it is that makes successful works unique. And that’s a process that can help you identify the ingredients that make something really effective. So, for example, you might come across a memo that’s particularly well-written, an email that really gets you to take action, a website that you want to opt-in for.

And developing a collection by either putting things in Google Docs, or adding bookmarks, or even using Pinterest, that gives you a resource you can turn to when it’s time for you to start creating something new that is far different than just staring at a blank page.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that so much and I guess I have not the most organized of collections but I have noticed things, like, “Ooh, why do I love that? Like, that’s grabbing me.” And I think it might just be a little bit of copywriting. Like, well, copywriters, you mentioned collecting headlines. They call them swipe files, it’s like, “I’m going to swipe this or modify this a little bit to be persuasive.”

And I saw something, this is for a property management company, and it said, like, “One hundred percent occupancy. One hundred percent market rents. You should expect nothing less.” I was like, “Whoa!” and it’s like, “Why is that amazing?” It’s like because it is exactly to the maximum what a property owner would want from a property manager, and boldly put, front and center, and that’s awesome.

Or, like Andreessen Horowitz, I love their slide decks. On SlideShare, I’ve gotten a few of those, I was like, “Why do I love this so much?” And it’s like, “Oh, because the slide headline makes one great point and then has compelling data that share that as opposed to just being like revenue over time.” What about the revenue over time? It’s like, “Oh, this sector has grown rapidly.” Then I say, “Oh, yeah, sure enough. Those companies in that industry, I see their growth over time,” and I can’t argue with those numbers. They convey that point.

And so, you get a collection and then you think about it. And what’s interesting is sometimes it leaps out at you with a quick question, like, “Oh, why do I like this?” And other times, it seems you got to dig a little deeper. And you suggested kind of comparing collections of greatness versus not-so greatness.

Ron Friedman
Yeah, looking at the difference between ordinary against the extraordinary, so what makes this unique. What I think is interesting about the fact that you’ve noticed that this works for you is that more people need to know that. And I think so many of us assume that we need to come up with great ideas on our own without having any kind of direction from the works of people who preceded us, but that’s not how creative ideas happen.

Creative ideas happen through the process of combining winning ideas from different fields or different sectors in new ways. And the last thing you want to do when you’re looking for creativity is to work in isolation because then, invariably, you will just keep considering coming back to the same ideas again and again and again. But when you have that swipe file or that collection you can turn to, that’s a source of inspiration.

And I can tell you that, personally, as a writer, I collect great words, I collect, in other words, words that got me to sit up and pay attention on the page. I’ll circle them in a book and then I’ll move them over to a Google Doc. I have openings of stories that I think really set the tone really well. I have transitions, I have conclusions, and all of these resources enable me to pay closer attention when something works, identify why it’s working, and then, in certain cases, learn from that to apply to other things that I’m building.

And as I talk to creative professionals, as I was writing Decoding Greatness, invariably, I would get the same response from people who are in fields like design or writing. They would say, “I’ve been doing this all my life, and I’ve never read anything about it. I just kind of stumbled on this approach myself.” And what I tried to do in writing this book is give people the tools to learn a little faster from the best in their field so that they can accelerate their success.

I think so many of us assume that learning is what happens when we were at school, and now we’re kind to have to fend for ourselves. And this is a systematic approach you can use at any field. And just to make this concrete, we talked about what happens after you’ve got that collection. So, in Decoding Greatness one of the things I do is I take you through how to reverse-engineer winning TED Talk. And so, I give the example of Sir Ken Robinson who’s got the most popular TED Talk of all time.

And what I did was, with his TED Talk, is I looked at the transcript, and then I reverse-outlined it. So, everyone has heard of outlining. Outlining is the process of identifying bullet points for what you intend to put into a work later on, into an essay, or into an email, or into a document of some kind. Reverse outline allows you to use that same process but by taking a finished piece, and it could be somebody else’s finished piece.

So, here, what I did was I took the transcript to this TED Talk and I reverse-outlined it to show you what’s happening in every section of the talk, so now you see I’ve reduced a 20-minute talk into bullet points. And now you can see, okay, here’s a progression. Then I identified what is happening in terms of the emotional valence of every section. So, what is the emotional journey that Sir Ken Robinson takes you on?

And there are a few other things that I do in the book, but what the takeaway here is, when you do this analysis, what you discover is all kinds of interesting things, like the fact that Sir Ken Robinson relays one fact over the course of this entire talk. So, if I was writing a TED Talk from scratch, I would assume I need to pound away at multiple persuasive facts in order to convince you of my point. He does none of that and he’s got the most popular TED Talk of all time.

What he is doing differently is he’s telling you a lot of stories, a lot of emotionally engaging and funny stories. And that’s the thing that makes his talk memorable and gets people sharing it. And that tells you something really impactful for when you’re creating either a TED Talk or a presentation of any kind, which is that people want the facts to be there, but that’s not the thing that’s going to make you engaging. If you want to be engaging, you’ve got to do a ton of storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And so, the reversed outline is one particular tool that we can use if it is a piece of speaking or writing, and trying to see, “Hey, what made that great?” Lay on some more with us. So, if that’s for a piece of writing, I guess I’m curious if someone…let’s talk about skills. Like, let’s say, I don’t think I’m particularly handy and I’d kind of like to be. How might I go about decoding the greatness of those handy people who can just create and fix anything with just the greatest of ease?

Ron Friedman
Yeah, that’s interesting. So, I’ll say a couple of things. One is, first, let me just take a step back and just explain kind of the big idea for the book. The big idea is that we’ve been taught that greatness comes from one of two places. So, the first story is that great story comes from talent. This is the idea that you’re born with certain inner strengths, and that the key to finding your greatness is identifying a field that allows your inner strengths to shine.

The second story is a story of practice. This is the Malcolm Gladwell story of 10,000 hours, practice, practice, practice. Eventually, you get good enough and then you become a master. The third story though is one that is unique to creative fields, so it’s not necessarily applicable to handymen but it is applicable to when you’re trying to create something new, whether it be writing a song, creating a dish, or writing a book. And that is reverse engineering. And that simply means looking at finished examples and then working backwards to figure out how they were created.

And, as we mentioned, this is a popular thing that happens in Silicon Valley. There’s a whole history of products that were reverse-engineered and evolved. And yet, what most people don’t realize is that reverse engineering is also how Malcolm Gladwell learned to write, and how Claude Monet learned to paint, and how Judd Apatow became the great comedic writer that he is, So, working backwards turns out to be far more popular than anyone ever imagined.

And now, in the case of somebody whose physical skill you want to understand, there’s a chapter in the book on how to interview experts, and gives you the questions that you need to ask in order to learn from someone whose expertise you wish to deconstruct. One of the interesting things that you want to cover when you look at the research on the way that experts communicate is that experts, surprisingly, turn out to be pretty terrible instructors, and there are a number of reasons for that.

The primary reason why experts have a hard time communicating is because of the curse of knowledge. And so, the curse of knowledge simply states that knowing something makes it impossible to imagine not knowing it. And so, if I know how to fix an overflowing toilet and you don’t, if I tried to explain that to you, I’m probably going to miss some steps because some things that are obvious to me may not be obvious to you as a novice. That’s one of the issues.

The other issue is that they have automated large chunks of information and procedures that they don’t even consciously think about as they’re doing it so they’re missing a lot of information. And, in fact, I point to a study in “Decoding Greatness” where over 70% of their thought process somehow goes missing as they’re trying to explain to you how they go about doing things.

And so, here, what you want to do is you want to interview experts in a way that illuminates some of the discoveries they made along their journey. And so, just to give you an example of a type of question you might ask is, as somebody was training to become a handyman, what are some of the things that they thought would be important when they first started out, that turned out to be not very important. That’s a type of question that forces the expert to think about their initial entry into the field against where they are today.

And those types of questions where you’re forcing the person to think about their actual experience against their anticipated experience, that’s where they acknowledge some of the things that they’ve learned that they can then share to you and make your job a little bit easier.

Pete Mockaitis
And as I’m thinking about this, it’s going to be very, very mundane but it’s sort of like, “It seems like I strip screws frequently. It’s like was there a time in which you used to strip screws frequently and what discoveries did you make that helped you stopped doing that?” Like, “Oh, yeah, certainly. Well, it’s all about the hardness of the screw versus the torque required to stick it in the thing, and so sometimes you got to pre-drill a hole but usually I just get really hard screws and then it’s not a problem anymore. This one is awesome.” It’s like, “Well, alright. Thank you. Now I know.”

Ron Friedman
Exactly. But if you had simply asked the question of, “How do I do X?” you would’ve gotten a) probably a lot of information that you have a hard time making sense of if they’re speaking in a different language than you because they have that expertise, and they would’ve missed that thing that you consider so valuable.

And so, the point here, and I start with that particular chapter with the story of Marlon Brando teaching an acting course late in life where he invited all of Hollywood’s elite, he hired a director. He was going to transform this into a paid class that he was going to then charge film schools to screen. And the acting class turned out to be a disaster.

And, in fact, by day three there was a walkout. Some of the things that he thought would be helpful to the students was requiring them to strip naked in front of each other to demonstrate courage. He thought it would be helpful if he brought homeless people off the street and then try to teach them how to act. And, as it turned out, it was a complete debacle. There was a walkout. The director quit. It was just a fiasco. And it just illustrates how experts have a hard time evaluating what it is that contributes to their own greatness.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we ask about discoveries they’ve made, things that they thought would have been important that weren’t so important, surprises that they’ve had that turns out that was actually super important. Any other thoughts on how to interview experts well?

Ron Friedman
So, we talked about the discovery questions that you can ask an expert about things that they thought wouldn’t be important, ended up being important, or vice versa. Other questions are process questions. So, here, what you’re trying to do is drill down on the particular steps an expert applies to bring their work to life or to make adjustments if they’re handymen. So, questions like, “What do you do first? And then what? What’s next? What’s after that?” kind of walking them through the particular process step by step by step because, again, invariably, they’re going to skip some steps. But if you take them through that process, that can help.

Now, just to give you another tip here. What I talk about in the book is that you want to act like a focus group moderator. And so, focus group moderators are outstanding at getting people to disclose sensitive information within a short period of time. How they do that is by adopting a mindset of naïve curiosity. So, they’re not showing off about all that they know. What they are doing is they’re almost pretending like they know nothing and they’re letting the expert feel like they’re super smart.

So, there’s a saying that you may have heard, which is, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I love that saying because what it suggests is that if you’re not learning from those around you, you’re not growing as well as you could be. Here, focus group moderators are never the smartest person in the room. They’re the last person to buff up their ego. They’re here to just learn and soak up information as much as they can. And that’s the same attitude you want when learning from experts because you want to let them take all the spotlight and ask them just naively curious questions and listen to their responses very carefully.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s true. It’s funny, as you think about the focus group moderators, I imagine it’s true. Well, I know it is. Like, people really do want to tell you a lot about whatever, how they think about their sponges. But they know that no one cares and they have to rein it in. But then when you just give them that permission to unleash the floodgates, it’s like, I could talk to you about some clubs, Ron, and why I love them and why I chose them and why I spend so much time researching them, and what I was looking for. But I know, Ron, you and nobody else cares, so I just have to keep this treasure trove all bundled up to myself. But if someone were naively curiously probing in that dimension, boy, I’d enjoy telling them about it. So, I think that really resonates. So, thank you for that.

Ron Friedman
Yeah. And if you’re interested, I’ll just do the thing that you said that you should not do. I’ll tell you more about what focus group moderators do well, and that is that they prioritize questions but not by placing the most important question first. They ask the least invasive question first. And so, what that does is that it builds a sense of comfort so that you can build up to the question that’s a little bit more sensitive later on. And that’s another interesting way of getting an expert to open up.

So, for example, if you’ve ever taken a survey online, it doesn’t start off by asking you your income. What does it ask you? It asks you something much simpler, “Where do you live? Where were you born? How many kids do you have?” The last questions on the surveys are a lot more difficult, like, “What is your household income?” It’s because you’ve been sharing for 20 minutes now, 50 items. Now you’re much more likely to be open about your income.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And even if I don’t want to share my income, it’s like, “Oh, I’m almost done. I just want to knock this thing out. Fine. Here it is.” That’s good. Okay. So, we got the reverse outline, we’ve got the interviewing of experts. What are some of your other favorite approaches to going about decoding greatness?

Ron Friedman
Well, another interesting approach is to quantify features, and now that’s going to scare a lot of people. If you’re not into math, that might be a little intimidating, and I want to just comfort you a little bit by letting you know that this should not be intimidating.

And so, one of the techniques that I talk about in this book is looking at websites that are extraordinary and comparing them to websites that are a little bit less extraordinary or ordinary websites, and looking for spotting the differences. But there’s a technique you can use by quantifying particular features. And so, I did this in the book by showing you how to reverse-engineer Apple’s website and compare it to Apple’s chief competitor Samsung.

And when you do that, what you uncover is that Apple does some things very, very well. Number one is that they don’t mention price all that often, whereas Samsung has got price on every single item. There’s a lot less movement on Apple’s website, it’s a lot more calm, whereas Samsung is a lot busier, it’s got a lot of flashing buttons, etc.

One of the reasons Apple has such a muted design is because Apple is aiming for simplicity. That’s their mantra. And busyness causes anxiety, and anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. And so, when you quantify some of the features, like, “How many buttons are flashing? How many of the messages include price?” That’s an example of a way of data mining in a way that allows you to illuminate some of the key differences, and that’s a technique that you can apply to anything.

So, if you’re looking at someone’s writing, what you might look at is how many times they use an adjective versus verb. What language level are they incorporating in their writing? All of these approaches help you illuminate hidden patterns in some of the things that you find impactful. And once you have that, once you have that reverse outline, once you’ve outlined some of the quantitative differences, you can start to create templates.

So, we talked about that ad that you saw, Pete, that you mentioned that stood out for you. If you were to zoom out and look at what’s really happening on line one, what’s happening on line two, what’s happening on line three, you can detect a formula. And it’s by zooming out, doing reverse outlines, and that allows you to templatize some of the most important work you’re creating.

So, if you‘re someone who writes emails, or memos, or proposals, there is a template out there that is hidden in plain sight. All you need to do is find those great examples, figure out what’s happening at each paragraph, and turn that into a template by asking yourself a question. Like, for example, I talk about in the book of how I uncovered this when I was writing academic journal articles. And at the time when I first started doing this, I had no idea how to start. I was staring at a blank page, racking my brain, trying to write an academic journal article.

And then, one day, I decided to look at the writing of an academic whose work I admired, and I looked to see what he was doing in every paragraph. And I read article after article after article, and then, eventually, it dawned on me that he was using a formula. And that formula was, at the beginning of the article he would start off with some type of jarring fact, so a news story, that he would raise a question. Then he would give you a literature, showing you all the previous literature, and then he would present his thesis.

That formula is one that I could then take and apply to my writing. All I needed was to find a jarring fact, find a question to pivot to, do a research review, and then present my thesis. That’s an example of hidden patterns inside works we admire. And if we have the system for figuring out what’s happening in every particular paragraph, and then that allows us to not just figure out what’s working but also templatize it to make our work so much easier.

Pete Mockaitis
And as you described this, I’m curious to get your take on the role of feedback and iteration because I guess I’m thinking, it’s like, “Okay, I know the ingredients now. Jarring fact.” And so then, you find something you think, “Ooh, I found that pretty jarring,” but maybe your audience, and maybe the case of the academic paper review board, or the people in the conference room you’re going to be presenting to, don’t find that to be too jarring. So, how do you think about getting input to see, “Hey, how am I doing here?” and tweaking and fine tuning and proving and proving and proving?

Ron Friedman
It’s a great question. And, in fact, in Decoding Greatness the first half of the book is, “How do you reverse-engineer and evolve formulas?” It’s not just about copying. It’s also about evolving. The second half of the book is about shrinking the gap between your vision, in other words the formula you’ve reverse-engineered, and your current ability. So, just because you know what the formula is doesn’t mean you’re going to execute it well. It’s all of these science-based strategies for scale-building that will enable you to shrink the gap between your current skills and your ultimate vision.

And so, there’s a section in there on how to train the people around you to give you better feedback. Now, it turns out that feedback can be surprisingly harmful. In over 33% of cases, the feedback that we get actually makes our performance worse. We tend to think of the more feedback the better, that turns out not to be true. What you need to do is you need to have the ability to train the people around you to give you better feedback.

And so, one of the techniques that you can use to get better feedback, number one, is finding the right audience. So, a lot of cases, we go to our spouse or the people who sit next to us at the office. That’s not always the best audience to deliver the feedback. So, we have to think really critically about who we’re asking these questions.

But then, on top of that, what you want to do is be really specific about the type of feedback that you want. You might say, “Hey, is this fact jarring enough? Does this cause you to think twice about something that you thought before? Or, is this kind of so-so?” That specificity will give you the level of feedback that is actually useful.

A third thing to do is to ask for advice rather than feedback. There’s research out of Harvard Business School showing that when you ask people for advice, they tend to give you far more solutions than if you just ask for feedback. And the reason for that is when you ask someone for feedback, they tend to compare your current performance against your past performance.

And so, what they often will come back to you with it is, “It’s good,” meaning that your performance has improved. That’s not particularly insightful or helpful when you’re trying to improve. But when you ask them for advice, what they do is they compare your current iteration against your possible future iterations. And now they can see a lot of potential future avenues for you to take the work, so they’re more likely to give you suggestions when you ask for advice.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. Well, how else will we do the skill-building?

Ron Friedman
Well, another tip is to create your own personal scoreboard. So, in chapter four, I talk about the scoreboard principle. And in business, it’s quite clear that using metrics helps improve performance. You probably heard of the saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” In everyday life, we’re all flying blind. We have no metrics to tell us whether or not we’re succeeding. And the scoreboard principle is simple. What it tells us is that measurement begets performance. Anything you measure, you are likely to improve upon. And there is just a flood of reasons for this.

Evolutionarily, our chances of survival improve the more sensitive we were to numbers. And the reason for that is that having that kind of sensitivity around numbers told you which food source was larger than another. It also helps you detect if you’re in danger when you encountered another tribe. And so, we’re all built with this mechanism, and neurologists refer to this as a numbers instinct, that is actually across the animal kingdom.

And so, we’re all very sensitive to numbers which is why when we track our behaviors, we tend to be a lot more successful at executing them. And so, the key to improving your skill at just about anything is to identify, “What are the behaviors I’m trying to get good at?” and then monitoring them on a regular basis. And to the extent that you do that, your performance will improve.

And so, we know this from the research. There’s actually a study showing that people who track the amount of food they consume are far better at losing weight, even when they’re given the exact same diet as another group that wasn’t asked to track their food consumption. And the reason for that is when you’re monitoring your caloric intake, you get this emotional rush when it’s low, whereas, you feel a little bit ashamed when it’s high. And those emotional jolts actually motivate you to do a better job in the future.

And you can apply that same technique to how many uninterrupted minutes you have during the workday. That improves your focus. Just by tracking how much time you spend on focused work, that will likely improve your performance from the perspective of not being distracted.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good. And I’ve had that experience myself with regard to, hey, I’m not actually going to try to eat any differently but I just want to get a sense for, “How am I doing?” but sure enough, I do. I eat better when I’ve used the LoseIt app. I find it very easy to enter the goods, and so that’s cool. And, likewise, when it comes to like habit-tracking type things, even when I’m not trying, it’s like, “Hey, I’ve already got a lot on my plate. I’m not going to commit to some huge goal right now, but I just want to get a sense of how I’m doing on these things.” And so, I use like the Tally or The Done family of apps, I find very handy and easy to use there. And it’s like, sure enough, I end up doing way more of the thing just because I’m measuring it.

Ron Friedman
That’s exactly right because anytime you gamify an outcome you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to be more successful at it. I’ll tell you something else from my own personal life which is I got an Apple Watch which tracks your sleep, but also there’s the opportunity for tracking your water consumption. And the more items you track, the better you get at identifying leading indicators of the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.

So, for those unfamiliar, a leading indicator is a metric that projects whether or not you’re going to be successful at an outcome later on, so that’s a lagging indicator. So, just to make this concrete, let’s say I want to be productive at work, that’s my lagging indicator. My leading indicator could be things like how much sleep I got the night before or how much exercise I got the night before.

And so, the more things you track, the better you get at identifying leading indicators of lagging indicators, or, in other words, the outcome you’re trying to achieve. In my case, what I discovered was that water intake leads to better sleep, and better sleep leads to greater productivity. I wouldn’t have known that if I wasn’t tracking all those metrics.

And so, having an app on my Apple Watch that entices me to indicate how much water I’ve consumed, that has been useful for me because it’s elevated my water intake, plus it’s helped me identify a leading indicator of my performance at work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I’m a big believer in adequate hydration, and it didn’t even occur to me that it could lead to better sleep. I will be looking at that. Thank you. Any other thoughts on skill-building?

Ron Friedman
Let’s talk about practice, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ron Friedman
So, when most people think about practice, they think about practicing in the present but it turns out they are neglecting two other critical dimensions of practice. And so, I talk about this in Decoding Greatness as practicing in three dimensions. So, what does it mean to practice in three dimensions? Well, we know about practicing in the present, there’s also practicing in the past, and that is reflective practice in the research.

So, we’ve all heard of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the idea that has been popularized by Gladwell in the Outliers and Anders Ericsson in the book Peak. Deliberate practice is simply focusing on things that you don’t do particularly well, and then isolating them, doing them frequently, getting the feedback to improve your performance over time.

Reflective practice, or practicing in the past, is simply thinking about what you learned while doing an activity. And so, there’s research out of Harvard Business School showing that if you just take five minutes at the end of the day to write down what you learned today about work, your performance will improve by over 20%. Just that simple exercise of reflecting on your performance at work will improve your performance.

Now, in “Decoding Greatness,” I recommend a tool that anybody can use, which is getting a five-year diary. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, Pete. The five-year diary is a diary that you can get on Amazon or any bookstore, really, that has 365 pages, one page per day for every day of the year. And within each page, there are three lines in five slots. And the idea here is you just write three lines for your day. You do those for a year. And then, after a year, something fascinating happens, which is you get to see what it is you did on that day one year before.

And so, you’re constantly learning things about yourself, your memory is improving, your identifying patterns in your own behavior, new learnings, new insights. You’re reminded of past challenges that you’ve overcome. You’re building your confidence. Overblown fears that turned out to be nothing. It’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.

And it’s a process that automates reflective practice because it’s not intimidating. It’s just a few lines a day but it forces you to slow down, reflect on what you’ve learned, improving your performance, and also teaching you some lessons about the past. So, that’s practicing in the past.

Practicing in the future is imagery. So, there’s plenty of research, and we have all heard stories about athletes using imagery before a major athletic event. But it turns out there’s also research showing that if a surgeon uses imagery to think through a surgery, they’re likely to make fewer mistakes. Public speakers who visualize their performance on stage end up being more persuasive and less anxious. And there’s research showing that if a piano student is about to learn a new piece, visualizing themselves playing that piece leads them to learn that piece faster.

Now, we could all use visualization in our own lives. And just to be clear, it’s not visualizing success that helps. It’s visualizing the process. So, for example, if tomorrow morning I need to write a proposal, if I visualize myself walking into the office, gathering all the documents I need, and think through how I might structure my piece, that enables me to frontload critical decisions so that when I actually sit down to do it the next day, there’s less thinking involved and a lot more presence. I can actually focus more on doing my job.

And so, I talk all about how you can apply imagery to every aspect of your life, and that’s basically practicing in three dimensions in a nutshell.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And what I love about the visualization, I also find that when I do it, I’m less likely to have, I don’t know, resistance, procrastination, and I have just a little bit more motivation. It just seems like, “Well, no, this is what I’m doing now because I’ve already visualized it.” And I’m less likely to be like, “Oh, but I’m not really in the mood. Maybe I‘ll just do some more email first.” There’s better, more consistent self-disciplined execution when I take some time to visualize.

Ron Friedman
That’s a great observation. And also, just to put a bow on this, there’s also research that shows that athletes who use visualization are actually able to cut down on their physical practice by as much as 50% and not show any decrements in their performance because visualization is that powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds a lot easier.

Ron Friedman
It’s a lot easier. And it just goes to show, like this is a completely underutilized tool that all of us have at our disposal. I think we kind of dismiss it as, I don’t know, kind of like, “Oh, that’s for athletes,” or, “It feels unnatural,” or, “That won’t work for me.” But why not give it a shot? If all it takes is five minutes to visualize the day in advance, and then just kind of do an experiment, see if it helps you. I recommend doing it and it seems like it works for you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Ron, I should ask, is there any research or best practices in the mind’s eye, first person versus third person, are they equally good? Is one more powerful than the other?

Ron Friedman
Well, what ends up happening is that if you consistently use first person, that could get boring for you. And so, you want to toggle between them, and you’ll get a fuller experience. So, in other words, seeing yourself on stage, feeling the glare of the light, holding a cooker in your hand, start there. And after you’ve done that for a while, you can kind of visualize yourself speaking while sitting in the audience.

And a critical piece here is that we’ve been taught that we could just visualize ourselves succeeding, but I actually recommend, every once in a while, thinking about yourself faltering and then continuing and going through with concluding your speech, if we’re talking about a speech in particular. But you want to power through it. And what that does is it teaches you to expect things to potentially go wrong, but having the confidence that you can overcome those challenges anytime they come.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great.
Well, Ron, now can you tell me about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ron Friedman
Well, one of the things I talk about is this idea that we can learn from those around us in a way that’s more methodical that enables us to do our work a little bit more easily. And I think that part of the challenge for reverse-engineering this idea of taking apart other’s work is that there’s a real stigma about copying other’s work and plagiarism and not being fully original. And I think that’s really the wrong way of thinking about how we can best learn from the works of others.

And, in fact, there’s research showing that taking the time to copy someone else’s work makes you more creative not less, and the process of copying, it opens your mind up to new ideas that you hadn’t been considering in your own work. And there’s a great quote that I often think about, which is from Carl Sagan. And Carl Sagan said, “If you want to create an apple pie from scratch, you would need to recreate the universe.” what I love about that quote is that it illustrates that nothing comes from nothing. Everything is built on something else. And that when we think about creativity, we really should think about combining ideas rather than trying to be completely original.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Ron Friedman
I don’t know if it’s a favorite book, but it’s one of my favorite books. I just read it with my son, The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling. And she is so good at finding the perfect word and structuring her stories in a way that just keeps you interested and curious. And so, I highly recommend that book “The Ickabog for any age.

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

Ron Friedman
So, I am a Google Doc fanatic, and I have tons and tons and tons of Google Docs. And for a while, I didn’t even know how to organize them. And a friend of mine taught me this approach, which is to use the Google Sheets And then use that to hyperlink to other Google Docs. So, in other words, you can have a directory of all your Google Docs in there, the ones that you frequently use, that you could then easily access and use that as an organization point for your other Google Docs. So, that is a tool that I highly recommend to a lot of my coaching clients because it’s a way of easily accessing documents you frequently use while also having a central location so you’re never searching.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers, they highlight it a lot or quote it back to you frequently?

Ron Friedman
All right. Well, that’s a great question, Pete.

So, “We’re often told that growth requires courage, that the only way to improve is to somehow find the gumption to stomach more risks and embrace situations that make us uncomfortable. “…that’s not the only path to personal development. Tackling difficult challenges and putting everything on the line are simply not the same thing. Know when it comes to developing our skills and growing our abilities, the wise approach isn’t taking more risks. Far wiser to find intelligent opportunities that render risk-taking entirely less risky.”

And so, this is about how businesses grow. And how they do that is by taking tons and tons of risks that actually end up not being particularly risky at all. And just to give you an example of that is they often will use test audiences to determine whether or not an idea is working out.

And so, we can all do that in our own lives by testing our ideas with a smaller group before releasing it to the wider public. And so, I give the example of how Tim Ferriss came up with the title for “The 4-Hour Workweek.” And he had 10 titles that he was considering or something like that. It was a large number. And so, he just purchased Google Adwords for each title, and looked to see what generated the most clicks. He used $100, came up with this amazing title.

It wouldn’t have done it if he had just picked a title, a guess. Using that feedback enabled him to, and obviously wasting $100, to find out what was most effective, was a way of him minimizing the risk in risk-taking.

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

Ron Friedman
I would point them to, if you’re interested in learning more about the book, go check out DecodingGreatnessBook.com. it’s a great website to go to because you get a free course with your purchase of the book. If you’re interested in learning more about me, you can find me at RonFriedmanPhD.com.

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

Ron Friedman
Yeah, I think you should stop assuming that greatness comes from talent or from practice. You don’t have to be born with a particular path to greatness. You don’t necessarily need to put in 10 years of practice. What you do need is a system for learning from the best in the world, and that’s what “Decoding Greatness” offers.

Pete Mockaitis
Ron, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best as you decode more greatness.

Ron Friedman
I appreciate it, Pete.