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497: How to Prevent Burnout by Shifting Your Focus with Aaron Schmookler

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Aaron Schmookler discusses how a service-oriented mindset keeps you from burning out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A powerful phrase for de-escalating conflict
  2. How to stop feeling so self-conscious
  3. How to make work more fulfilling

About Aaron:

For over 20 years, Aaron has been striving to help people find their own intrinsic motivation, their capacity to collaborate, and the fulfillment that comes from harnessing the creative impulse in us all to serve others.

In 2014 Aaron and business partner, Adam Utley, co-founded The Yes Works and developed the Adeptability Model of collaboration and leadership training and the Adeptable Culture Audit. Aaron and The Yes Works serve clients across the country and across industries including Microsoft, MOD Pizza, DiscoverOrg, Burkhart Dental Supply, SOG Knives, 9th Gear, and Textainer to make work good for people and people good for work.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Aaron Schmookler Thomas Interview Transcript

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

Aaron Schmookler
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’ve been listening to your show for years, learning a lot from it, admiring you from afar, we’re birds of feather, you and I.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I appreciate that and, well, thank you. I’d love to get started by hearing a little bit about your background. It seems like one of your formative experiences and key credential is that you worked in the Elephant House of the National Zoo. What’s the story?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, if I’m really going to tell the story, it goes back to that my mother actually was dating the curator of mammals at the National Zoo. I had to, in order to graduate from high school, find some way to do community service. A number of my friends had done envelope-licking and envelope-stuffing and things like that. That sounded like an unbelievable drag to me. And he said, “Well, I can’t get you a gig but I can introduce you to the head of the Elephant House.”

Pete Mockaitis
Power broker.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. I met the assistant curator of mammals he told me that they don’t permit people my age, at 16 at the time, to work in the Elephant House because it’s too dangerous. And after an hour’s conversation, he changed his mind and permitted me to work in the Elephant House. I shoveled, I did the calculation at one point, I don’t remember what it was, but it was many thousands of pounds of poop.

And I got to ride the elephants and it was a fantastic, remarkable, fun experience, and I learned a lot about leadership actually there because of how consistent you have to be as an elephant keeper, which I was not. But as an elephant keeper, as an elephant trainer, you’ve got to be incredibly consistent or the elephant will kill you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that can really be a formative experience and one that probably certainly beats the licking of envelopes for your volunteer requirement.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, I don’t make a good envelope licker.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s dangerous. I guess the sponge is a better approach. Better.

Aaron Schmookler
Indeed, yeah. No paper cuts on the tongue for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so nowadays you’ve moved onto different career path outside of elephants, but your company utilizes the work of improv, “Yes and,” something you call adeptability. Kind of what’s the story here and how does improv stuff help us be awesome at our jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, the story, again, I’ll go to my family. My wife told me she was pregnant, I looked around the work culture and the place that I was working at the time, and thought, “Man, is this a drag.” People clock-watching, it wasn’t particularly cool to be glad to be there, although I was. I loved my work. And I just thought, “I can’t stand the idea that my daughter is going to inherit the prevailing work culture in this country.”

And so, I reached out to a friend of mine who’s the best improvisor I know, Adam Utley, and I said, “I want to change work culture. I want to use improv to do it. I need you to help me. I can’t do this on my own.” And so, we started actually doing what we called improv for business which we knew other people were doing.

And as we got into further along in our business, we realized that the other people out there doing improv for business were doing something different from what we were doing. And so, we had to come up with a different name for it and we thought about the folks who had hired us, what they were looking for. They wanted their teams to adapt, they wanted their teams to be excellent communicators, to be excellent collaborators. They wanted really people to be adept at teaming.

And so, we took adaptability and adept, and we smashed them together. And so, we called our training program Adeptability.

Pete Mockaitis
Clever. All right. And so then, tell us, what does it mean to be adeptable and how can we be more of that?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, when we defined this for a team, an adeptable team is, and I supposed it would stand for individuals as well, somebody who is adeptable. A team that is adeptable is exceptionally good at doing what they do regardless of the circumstances. And what we know about what it takes to do that is that you really need to take in input, you need to take in the input of your fellow collaborators, you need to give input, when I think about, what’s the name of the book, Good to Great, and he talks about how important it is to have an open system, a collaborative system is an open system, so you need to be an exceptional collaborator.

And also, to collaborate with reality. I think one of the things that prevents companies from being adeptable teams, and people from being adeptable, in my own life where I am not adeptable, where I get myself into trouble is where I am not allowing myself to see reality. And so, where teams, where companies resist reality that’s where they run into trouble, and you can ask Kodak about that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reality, like, “Hey, the marketplace is changing. Customers don’t want this thing anymore.” What are some other realities we might ignore and why do we do that?

Aaron Schmookler
One of my clients is a CEO who had an important director in his company who was an incredibly strong performer, who had connections in the community that really mattered to their company, and who engaged in a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, who did a lot of things that offended people that really created an environment of fear and manipulation on her team. And rather than look that reality square in the face, this CEO spent a lot of time kind of making excuses for her. So, that’s one example.

Another example might be, you know, I could think of my own efforts to prospect, to find clients, and I might write an email that I really like. And so I will send it out to lots of folks that I’ve met, lots of clients from the past, and I’ll just keep sending this email out even though it’s not getting me any results because I like it, I’m closed to the fact that it may not giving me the results that an email where I’m paying more attention to my audience might get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, how do you open yourself up to receive and adapt to that reality well?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, it takes discipline and, to me, it really takes systematizing collaboration, and that’s what improvisors are great at doing. There are principles behind improv. A lot of people think that improvisors get on stage together and they wing it, and they just kind of make it up as they go along. The fact is that they don’t make it up as they go along.

What they do is they listen really hard both to their scene partners, in the case of theater improvisation, and they listen also really hard to the tiny little tickles in their brain that erupt as a result of what they’ve heard from their partners. So, they allow themselves to be inspired, they allow themselves to surprise themselves, and they allow themselves to not be attached to where they think this thing might go.

And, speaking for myself, I find it very difficult to let go of that attachment. I find it very difficult to let go of the plan. Some of the habits that I formed are to also listen both to my improvising partner, whether that’s on stage, or whether that is a CEO whom I’m coaching, and allow my plan to kind of sit beside me while instead I react, I respond to the moment. And I forget, was it Churchill who said that planning is imperative, and plans are nothing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is ringing a bell. That’s like the process of planning means that you’re thinking through a lot of great stuff but the actual output of it is very, very well not at all be what you end up doing but you’re enriched by having thought about it.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. It goes right along with the quote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Otherwise you end up like, I guess, Michael Scott who always had a plan in his improv to have a gun in every scene is what I’m thinking about from The Office, and it didn’t work so well, and his improvisors didn’t like working with him and excluded him from the fun they were having.

Aaron Schmookler
I don’t know the particular context that you’re talking about and I imagine that what happens when you bring a gun into every scene is that people simply get shot and you railroad the scene, you determine what’s happening, and nobody else really has any input.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Yeah, they’re all just on the floor pretending to be dead.

Aaron Schmookler
Isn’t that fun?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, that’s talking about improv, we were going to talk about burnout. But I suppose there really is a healthy bridge, an overlap here associated with, I understand one of your foundational principles here is that when you’re focused on yourself and you plan how it should go as oppose to the other, you naturally get more exhausted. Can you unpack some of these ideas here?

Aaron Schmookler
So, there’s this concept emotional labor that’s getting a lot of attraction in some of the research these days. Basically, there are a number of forms of emotional labor. We have a big tech client out here in the Pacific Northwest, for example, where we surveyed the leaders, and most of them answered the question, “Do you feel like you can be yourself at work on a scale from one to ten?” They were down in the three to four range thinking that’s not very much yourself.

So, if you’re not being yourself, that’s emotional labor. Or I think about folks in customer service, we work with folks in customer service who feel like they have to smile and act chipper, and they’re putting on this disguise, they’re putting on these adjectives that fit their picture of how they’re supposed to be with their clients.

And I’m not suggesting that they’re not correct, and it’s exhausting to, for example, if you’re already tired because it’s the end of the day, it’s exhausting to decide for yourself, “I’ve got to be chipper. I’ve got to be energetic. I’ve got to be cheerful.” And, in fact, my degree is in theater, I’m a theater director, and what actors know is that you don’t go on stage and be angry. You don’t go on stage and be or pretend to be cold. You don’t go on stage and pretend to be happy. You go on stage and try to affect the people on stage with you.

And when you invest stakes in accomplishing affecting the other person, then the way that you must be bubbles up naturally. And so the implication for folks at work is that if you go in to work to serve people, if you’re in a call center and you get on the phone and you’re dealing with an angry customer, and you think, “I’ve got to be cheerful,” that will feel very, very difficult and it will wear you down. To have somebody yelling at you, and in the face of what feels like belittling behavior from them, you are just all smiles. It will feel incongruous and incongruent, and it will be exhausting.

If, however, you think of it as your responsibility, your duty, your mission to serve them, then that cheer will both be easier, less exhausting, and it will also be much more fitting, much more relevant to the situation. So, instead of responding to anger with cheerfulness, which might actually get you more anger, you respond to anger with service that may also sound light, that may also sound cheerful, and it also be organic. We’re incredibly sophisticated tools. We’re incredibly sophisticated measuring tools, we humans, and we pick up on very subtle things.

And I’ll give you an example from my week. I hired somebody to send out, to craft and send out some marketing messages. The name of my company is The Yes Works. He was supposed to send me this message, I was going to review it, approve it, and then he would start sending it out. And instead he just started sending it out, and instead of saying, “Hi, I’m Aaron, a co-founder of The Yes Works,” it said, “Hi, I’m Aaron, co-founder of Yes, It Works,” and I was not happy.

And I called him and he certainly acknowledged it as a mistake, and the more I kind of tried to get him to respond in the most relevant way that I could imagine, he was becoming more and more defensive. And in response to his becoming more and more defensive, I noticed I got my dander up. And I was just about to kind of raise my voice when I took a page out of my own training book, and said, “How can I serve him?”

And in that moment, I also kind of recognized how difficult it would be for me as a business owner to get this call from one of my clients, how ashamed I would likely feel, how tempted I would be to try to save face in whatever way that I could. And in that moment of service, I calmed down, not in effort, it was an effortless calm down, just all of that chemistry drained out of my body, and I said, “You know, I can imagine how difficult this is and how much your mind must be spinning. So, I tell you what I think we should do. I think we should get off the phone, I’ll give you 24 hours to just consider how you would like to respond because I think I’ve been putting you on the spot and requiring that you respond to me right away.”

And it was no effort for me to pretend to be calm in order to get that response from him. It was simply I decided to serve him instead of requiring that he serve me exactly as I wanted to be served, and it changed the whole relationship right there in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just because we have to have completion for a story, what happens within the 24 hours with the response?

Aaron Schmookler
He came back in a much more relevant fashion, and stopped defending, and stopped kind of trying to retry questions that we had already answered earlier, and it is an ongoing thing because it’s actually very recent. So, I gave him to the end of today to give me a response, and we haven’t quite got there yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s powerful there with regard to that mindset shift with regard to, “How can I serve this person?” And then, in doing so, I guess it’s just natural that you’re focused less on yourself, and how you’re angry, and you’ve been wronged, and this is ridiculous, and you’re spending this good money, and this is a rookie mistake, and aren’t they supposed to be good at their jobs, into you’re in their shoes. I can see how that would just sort of change your whole emotional being in a hurry.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah. And one of the objections that we get when we talk to clients about adopting this mind of service, just as you said, “I’m the one paying. Why am I going to serve him?” Well, because it’s less exhausting for me, because it’s more effective. We actually started to make progress when I started to serve him. And I’m not talking about being walked on. I didn’t say, “You know what, it’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I thought, “How would I want a client to treat me?” And part of how I want a client to treat me is to hold me accountable, and part of how I would want a client to treat me is to give me the opportunity to come to wisdom, right?

So, serving people is not soft, it’s not laying down. It’s calling people up to their highest selves, sometimes. Sometimes it’s bringing somebody a glass of water.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so this is great in terms of you’re less exhausted and you’re getting better results. So, I guess my impression here is that this seems like a great principle, which is wise and proper and we should do. However, in the heat of busyness, lots of obligations, lots of distractions, and things pulling for our attention, and our own sort of emotional triggers, it’s probably hard to do with great consistency. So, do you have any pro tips on how we can keep coming back to this again and again when forces try to pull us away?

Aaron Schmookler
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. I am really good at this in my professional relationships. I’m a lot less good at it in my personal relationships, and so I practice there as well. Asking for feedback, taking timeouts, adapting tools. One of my favorite tools, and I know we’re going to get to this again later, is, “Tell me more about that.”

When I find myself getting my dander up, I go, “Okay, I’m going to choose to say, ‘Tell me more about that.’” And what I get often is an opportunity to, as they say, listen to understand where I can feel that kind of hijack coming, that neurochemical hijack coming, I say, “Tell me more about that,” and then I get more information. So, that’s another thing.

Vocabulary and, “Tell me more about that” is a piece of vocabulary is an incredibly powerful mind-shifter, or mind-crafter. So, we can craft our minds by disciplining ourselves to certain kinds of vocabulary.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And what’s so great about that is you can, well, that piece of phraseology there, “Tell me more about that,” is very flexible and that can go anywhere and it gives you a pause because even if someone said the most offensive, outrageous things to you, like, “Aaron, you are a moron and your entire company sucks and is this a big rip-off. I think it’s a big rip-off fraud scam and I need all of my money returned instantly.”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know. I tried to conceive of the most outrageous things someone could say to you. And when you’re about ready to yell, you could say to them, “Well, tell me more about that.” Even just say so you can take some breaths.

Aaron Schmookler
And it’s incredibly disarming. And you really are right on the money. We were working in a call center just last month, and some of the call center reps were telling us some of the horrendous things that people say to them when they call.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, example please. Dirt. Give me the juicy details. You can skip the profanities if possible.

Aaron Schmookler
Okay, yeah. So, yes, skipping the profanity, “You are a bleepity bleep. Your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep and I can’t believe that you have the audacity to steal my money,” right? That’s one of the things that this person said. And I’m toning down my voice, also as I understand it, that was pretty well hollered. The person had to take their headset off in order not to get their ears damaged. And this is exactly the tool that we recommended to her, “Tell me about that.”

And the way in which, I mean, that’s a tremendous act of service. To say to somebody who is in that frame of mind, “Tell me about that,” is such a tremendous act of service. You can hear the fear and the expectation that they will not be received, the expectation that they are out there on a limb all alone, you can hear it in the vocabulary, you can hear it in the tone of voice, you know that’s what’s happening from afar. When you’re the receiver of that, it just feels like an attack.

But to serve them in such a way as to say, not, “Hey, screw you,” or, “I’m going to hang up,” or, “You can’t talk to me like that,” to say instead, “Tell me about that,” is so disarming because it is such an act of service in a moment when they’re expecting a battle.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s great for feedback too just within a workplace. If someone says, “Hey, Aaron, I think that this podcast interview, you’re really scattered, you’re all over the place. Have you done any prep whatsoever? Your sound quality is dismal. Did you read any of the documents I shared about a proper mic?” Whatever. So, even if I give you feedback that might be true, it’s not, you’re doing great. It might be true even if it’s not overtly hostile, I think “Tell me about that” works there too just because, like, “I cannot believe the way I bend over backwards and this is the lack of appreciation I’m getting, to tell me that I’m not meeting expectations after this guy gave me zero guidance whatsoever,” whatever.

You can sort of go start spinning with regard to why you’re mad about the feedback you’re hearing, then “Tell me about that,” one, might get you some actionable wisdom and, two, lets you calm down and, three, I think would really just, as a manager, I’d appreciate it, like, “Well, thank you. Here’s a person who is actually interested in my feedback as opposed to putting up all the excuses and defenses.”

Aaron Schmookler
And we both get to learn that way, right? If you as my manager come to me and lambast my work, and I say, “Tell me more about that,” I mean, you’re likely to come out of that lambasting posture because, again, it’s unexpected. We expect resistance. It’s Aikido, right? Aikido is a martial arts wherein you absorb the energy of your combatant and redirect it.

And so, the service is a fantastic form of interpersonal emotional Aikido. And so when I say, “Tell me more about that,” to an angry manager, well, I might get an initial kind of fiery burst, but then it’s all spent, and even more likely, the fiery burst won’t even happen because the wind has just suddenly been removed from those sails, and now it appears as though we’re on the same side of the table, looking at the same jigsaw puzzle.

And because that really lowers defenses, and it diminishes offenses, we could both become a lot more objective about how these puzzle pieces fit together. You, as my manager, may discover something that you didn’t know, I, as the managed, may discover something that I didn’t know, and we both get to walk away with a lot fewer bruises and scrapes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really great stuff. So, then when you talk about service, I guess you’re thinking about service in the moment in terms of a conversation. But we could also pull back and think about service more broadly in terms of your overarching personal purpose or your purpose as an employee. How do you think about some of that introspection and clarity that can infuse the service into everything in good vibes?

Aaron Schmookler
Boy, what a question. Thank you for asking because you’ve got me thinking now and I’m looking at the ceiling. So, the first of our fundamentals of Adeptability, the whole umbrella, the whole purpose of the day, we call it trust as an action. And you get trust as an action through “I got your back” culture. And we talk about trust as a feeling.

Trust is, in fact, also an action and there’s often kind of the stalemate that happens in workplaces where, “Pete, I’m not going to give you any task, I’m also not going to be vulnerable with you until you prove to me that you are worthy of my trust.” Now, what do you have though to prove your worthiness of my trust? It’s kind of like the catch 22 where I won’t give you a job until you have experience, and you can’t get experience without getting the job.

And I will never feel trust for you, I will never trust in you until I invest my trust, until I give you my trust, until I take trust as an action, and then I will experience from you what you do with it. So, you can either earn more trust or you can spurn, you can burn that trust. Either way the trust I really have to have is trust in myself, or trust in the system, or trust in the rest of the team to be able to weather whatever you, Pete, do with the trust.

And so this is maybe a roundabout way of getting to my answer for you, which is that I, anyway, find a lot of meaning in figuring out how to have ever more trust in myself. And part of how I have ever more trust in myself is by serving others. I think you brought this up a little bit earlier on the self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is such an apt description of itself. That term is so apt, “I’m conscious of where I have anxiety. I am conscious of myself. I’m really paying attention to myself.”

When we stand up in front of a crowd and feel nervous, feel frightened of public speaking, it is because we are self-conscious. We are conscious of ourselves, “Will I do it right? Will they like me? Will I stumble over my words? Will I remember what I wanted to say?” There is all of this focus on the self. And what happens when somebody stands up in front of a crowd and instead thinks, “I’m here to serve you,” and they speak and they pay attention to the response that they get from the crowd, they pay attention to how attentive the crowd is, they pay attention to where the crowd may need them to pause, these things just flow and the anxiety melts away because we are other conscious.

So, what’s the cure for self-consciousness? The cure for self-consciousness is consciousness of the other. And service is the best portal for gaining that consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, when it comes to consciousness of the other, I think that the questions that you ask yourself are powerful in terms of focusing your energies and your attentions onto something. Like, the brain just naturally wants to seek answers to questions posed, or like you told a story earlier, the brain seeks completion to a story that we wade into the middle of. Are there some internal questions that you recommend folks take on that have a natural way of pointing our consciousness to others?

Aaron Schmookler
The “What do you need in this moment?” is a really good one, which is different from, “What do you want?” because people will tell us what they want all day. It may not be what they need. It may not be what would really affect them. You can think about negotiations in medical malpractice situations where they’re saying, “We need $5 million,” and the negotiation goes back and forth, “Two-hundred thousand,” “No, 5 million,” “Okay, 300,000,” “No, 5 million.” And sometimes when you get the patient, the wronged patient away from their attorney, all they really need is an apology.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
So, “What is it that you need?” is a great question. And if I may respond to your question in other ways, other than answering it, there are system of adeptablity, the “Got your back” culture that we’re talking about, we build on four principles. One, “Yay for failing,” that not, “Hey, isn’t it great that we failed.” In fact, we say failing rather than failure because failing is a fragile present progressive word. The only thing you need to do to break that verb is to pick yourself up and start working again. If you’re working then you’re not failing because you’re actually back in the trying stage.

So, it’s actually fantastic to have ambitions that you can’t easily accomplish, that’s how we grow. And also, being in an environment where “Yay for failing” is practiced. That’s a service in and of itself. To say “Yay for failing” to somebody else who’s maybe just fallen down is a service. To say, “Yay for failing” publicly is also a service because you create an environment where other people feel free to fail, and then get up.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that we should just wallow in it, but we should get up and keep working. So, we move from “Yay for failing” into “Be obvious,” which is about really being direct, really being clear, saying what has so far been unsaid, nothing goes without saying, and most importantly what’s obvious to you is not necessarily what’s obvious to me. There is no such thing as common sense.

And these are all questions also in a way, “What is the obvious thing to me? What may not be obvious to you? How do I create clarity? What are the things that have gone unsaid so far? What’s the elephant in the room?” And from there we say you really have to take in the information. This is what we were talking about earlier. You have to take in the information in order to have a relevant response.

Kodak refused to take in the information that digital was the way of photography’s future largely because they were attached to their film business. They made so much money on film and film processing that they couldn’t even imagine a reality in which film and film processing were going to be removed from the economy.

And then, lastly, “Yes and” which is something that you brought up, which is an incredibly advanced skill. And while it’s the most commonly known improv principle, it’s also the hardest because it’s hard to say yes to bad ideas, it’s hard to say yes to somebody who says on the phone, “You’re a bleepy bleep and your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep bleep. How dare you steal my money.” Saying, “Tell me more about that” is actually a “Yes and.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Without you having to explicitly say, “I agree, sir.”

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“We are fraudulent, aren’t we?”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Tell me more about that.” You’re saying, “I’m curious,” and we can build on that and without you feeling like you have betrayed something by giving something up.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s right. And, yes, also might take the form of, “I can understand how you would see it that way. And let me share how I see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, thank you. So, all right.

Aaron Schmookler
Sorry if that was too long a monologue. I noticed I was holding forth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’re covering a lot of really great stuff here. And so then, I’m intrigued, when it comes to, it sounds like with regard to burnout that when you practice these things, you’re just naturally less exhausted because you’re not forcing it, you’re not faking it, serving is energizing just because it feels good to help people and make them feel good. So, any other tips when it comes to keeping the energy flowing? You got an interesting turn of a phrase about treating the workday like a workout. What does that mean here?

Aaron Schmookler
A lot of people come into work, and I have been this guy, and they go through the motions. And there’s actually, I think, nothing more burnout-inducing than just going through the motions, phoning it in, following procedure and protocol on autopilot. That we are beings, we humans, who aspire to growth. We are fed by growth. We are fed by accomplishment. And there’s nothing fulfilling about going in and just going through the motions.

There may be a few people out there who would love to be paid, I hear about folks whose jobs essentially don’t really exist. They go in, they’re paid, and there’s nothing that they are required to accomplish. And most people in that circumstance feel like they’re withering on the vine. And one of the great ways, I think, to feel as though you are working, growing, contributing every day is to come in and serve.

You cannot serve while going through the motions. You cannot serve while on autopilot. If you really are trying to serve the people in front of you, we people are incredibly dynamic, incredibly changeable, changing things, and so by serving we create the constant change of what it is that we need to accomplish and the ways in which we may need to accomplish it.

And if you really are committed to serving, when I am really committed to serving, I also run up against my own bull, the places where my ego really gets in my own way, the places where I have blind spots. And in my most intimate relationships are the places where I am most tempted to serve myself, where I’m most tempted, for example, to have arguments where I can watch myself saying, “I never did that,” or, “That’s not where I’m coming from,” even though I know that the truth is exactly what my wife, for example, is telling me it is, and my ego won’t let me tell the truth.

And so, that’s a place where if I am able to turn myself instead to service, that I get to grow, I get to feel accomplished, and, therefore, I get to feel alive. And, really, what is burnout but not feeling alive?

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

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, man, we’re just scratching the surface, and that’s worth mentioning all by itself. We’re just scratching the surface. And the other thing is that we will serve best when we are generous with ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we go out and be selfless. I’m suggesting that we go out and serve. And sometimes that means that we need to turn off our cellphone, and go to the spa, go get a massage, go on a fly-fishing trip, as somebody I was talking to this morning is about to do in Alaska, to recharge.

And that serving of the self is sometimes required, is regularly required, frankly, in order to be able to serve others. And when we find the places where our conditioning, where our ego, where our habits interfere with our ability to be decent, to serve, to even be proud of ourselves rather than ashamed, well, I suggest that we’d be kind to ourselves.

I remember telling my mentor just a couple of weeks ago about a place that I was just like, “Man, I just don’t know why I keep doing this.” And she said, “Why do you judge it?” And it was so freeing to have her say that to me. And that gift that she gave me also made me more capable of addressing this gap in my own habit.

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

Aaron Schmookler
John Kennedy is reputed to have been walking through NASA and saw a janitor carrying his broom, and said something to the effect of, “What is it that you do here?” And this janitor turned to him and said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

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

Aaron Schmookler
Adam Grant in his one of his books cites some research about leaders, that leaders are more likely to receive input, receive ideas about how to solve a problem from their team if they have, first, tried to solve a problem themselves. And it doesn’t even have to be the same problem. But simply the fact of putting yourself into a problem-solving posture before hearing somebody else’s ideas makes us more receptive and less critical in that kind of nagging sense than we would be just hearing their suggestions cold.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And a favorite book?

Aaron Schmookler
I’m going to have to give you two, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. The subtitle of that is “How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” And I’ll put in another quick quote here from Liz Wiseman, “At the apex of the intelligence hierarchy is the genius-maker not the genius.” And also, I love the The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I have a headset made by Plantronics that allows me to hear and be heard on my phone better than anything while I am hands-free, even walking into a 10-mile per hour headwind. I love this thing. In fact, the couple of days when I could not find it, I went to Best Buy and bought another one just so I could use it that day, and then return it if and when I found the one that I had misplaced.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to hear the model number.

Aaron Schmookler
Let’s see. I think it’s 5200. It’s not there on the device but it’s got a little arm that comes out from your ear so that the microphone is near your mouth, and it’s wonderful. Nothing else that I’ve ever tried comes close.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Schmookler
“Tell me more about that,” hands down. We’ve already talked about it but saying that, particularly when I am inclined to dismiss the other person as irrelevant in some way, to say instead, “Tell me more about that,” hands down my favorite habit.

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

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the second fundamentals course in our series of three, the “Umbrella for that day.” It’s never about the thing, it’s always about the relationship, and the implications of that being whether you like it or not, people will come away from this interaction affected by you, and your future relationship with them will be affected by it as well. And that is much more lasting than whatever the transaction might have been about.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I am the only Aaron Schmookler on LinkedIn so you can find me there. And you can also find me at TheYesWorks.com. And you can hear my voice more, along with my guest, on the podcast Mighty Good Work.

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

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the next time you find yourself in that amygdala hijack where you feel the chemistry rising, where you are either getting fight-y or flighty, see if you can just remind yourself with one word “serve” and see what that does for you, and see if you can find a way to serve the other person even while your amygdala is tempting you to fight or to flee.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, this has been a treat. Thanks so much for sharing your time today and for listening for years. Keep up the great work.

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, Pete, I think you are a really excellent curator and contributor to this world of how to do work well, how to do great work, and how to be great doing it, so I’m glad you’re out there.

493: How to Amplify Your Impact through Great Presence with Anese Cavanaugh

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Anese Cavanaugh shares how to create more meaningful impact by being more present and intentional at work.

 

You’ll Learn:

  1. The cost of contagious negative energy at work
  2. The 4 Ps to lead you away from burnout
  3. The Leadership Trifecta of impact, self-care, and, people-care

About Anese

Anese Cavanaugh is devoted to helping people show up and bring their best selves to the table in order to create significant positive impact in their lives. She is the creator of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®), an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations around the world, and author of Contagious Culture. Her next book, Contagious You: Unlock Your Power to Influence, Lead, and Create the Impact You Want (McGraw-Hill) will be available November 2019.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Anese Cavanaugh Interview Transcript

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, first, I want to hear, you mentioned that you have an addiction for rescuing dogs. What’s the story here?

Anese Cavanaugh
I do. I have an addiction. I have got it under control and I haven’t rescued one in about five years now and it used to start with goldfish. I would take my daughter in to get a goldfish, and they would be showcasing dogs from the Humane Society or from the local shelter, and before we knew it, instead of walking out with a goldfish, we would walk out with one or two dogs. I just had this amazing inability to say no to bringing home a homeless dog. So, I’ve rescued five of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, is that the Sara McLachlan song with the commercial and the sad-looking dog? That’s what I’m imagining right now.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, probably. The last one, you know, it’s funny I’m down to one because they’ve either passed on or my sister adopted one of them because she fell in love with him. But I’m down to my last puppy, or my last dog, he’s about 12 years old now, and he’s a little dog, and I’m not really a little dog person, but he gave me that look, that sad look, and I’ve probably heard the Sara McLachlan song in the back. I’m sure they probably channeled it in really unconsciously so you can adopt them even easier. But, yeah, he came home with me. His name is Link and he’s laying under the table right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Link makes me think of the Nintendo game. Or is that from another source?

Anese Cavanaugh
No, that’s exactly it. Nice catch.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yes, The Legend of Zelda, correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Doo-doo-doo-doo, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, my kids named him. My kids said, “Mom, he was rescued by the princess and became a very good person so he should be named Link.” And I was like, “Okay, you had me at hello with that one.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. If you’re the princess in the story, that’s nice.

Anese Cavanaugh
Right. I get to be the queen. I get to be the princess or the queen. I can’t really remember. It was quite a while ago but, yeah, he’s been great.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of your wisdom here. And so, you’ve got a column called “Showing Up” on Inc.com and we’re going to use this phrase, I think, a lot so it might be handy if we find what do you mean by “show up”?

When you say show up, I’m imagining, “Hey, I’ve got an appointment at 2:30,” and then the person appears at 2:30 so they have shown up. And so, it sounds like you’re using a different usage.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, I think that’s definitely important. I would add to that if I showed up on time for my 2:30 meeting, that’s great. And am I showing up, present? Am I showing up well-fueled? Or exhausted? Like, what is the energy I’m actually bringing to that?

Are we showing up in a way that creates more energy and is positively contagious? Or are we showing up in a way that is, going through the motions?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what does it mean to not show up?
The contrast, the distinction.

Anese Cavanaugh
I love this question. I don’t think anybody has ever asked it to me this way. Okay, so if I’ve not shown up it means I’m not taking care of myself. It means I haven’t done my preparation for whatever meeting I’m walking into. It means that when I want to say something and I’m sitting in that meeting, and I have an idea, or I really want to chime in about something, and I don’t because I’m scared, that means I’m not showing up.

I think, for me, in the work that I do with people, when I look at showing up, the biggest place I see people don’t show up is in their own self-care and nourishment so that they can show up fully resourced.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it sounds like showing up then is sort of like your preparedness and contribution. It’s like what you have to offer presently within you. And so, you might have plenty or you might have sort of a poverty.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think it’s also showing up in that moment. If I’m in conversation with you, Pete, if you and I are standing there, we’re in a meeting, or in this conversation right now, there’s the showing up that I did before which is to review, to think about some of the questions, or to think about this conversation. I’m well-fueled, I’ve eaten well, I took care of myself beforehand, I had a moment to do kind of a presence reboot and just get here and present to this conversation.

“What is the energy I’m bringing to this conversation?” Because you and I could have this conversation and I could be incredibly not present, I could be totally checked out, I could be thinking about what I’m going to do right after we talk. I could be stressing out about something that happened right before we got on the call. Am I actually here, present, intentional and really being with you in this conversation?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess what’s interesting here is that the word showing up seems to have a couple different dimensions there in terms of physically being present, like you have appeared at the scheduled time, as well as having more to contribute because you’re energized, you’re prepared, you’re present as opposed to, I guess, maybe the opposite, as I think about it, would be sort of like you’re checked out, like you’re not really all the way there.

And it’s sort of like when I was in grade school, I was so annoyed when many people would say, “Earth to Peter! Hello? Is anybody there?” It was like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s annoying.” But it’s kind of like in anything you do that is the opposite of warranting that response kind of fall into the category of showing up it sounds like.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, and I love it how we’re pulling this apart.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with that present and established, you also talk about being a contagious you or establishing a contagious culture. What do you mean by contagious and what makes something contagious?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, great. So, contagious, if you look it up in the dictionary, there are two different definitions if you go textbook in the dictionary. One is contagious being that you’re spreading disease or something from person to person. The other is actually spreading the contagion of emotions and attitudes from person to person. So, I look at it kind of as both because I look at if we are bringing negative vibes, negative intentions, negative energy into a conversation, it’s very, very easy to match, like, what I call the lowest vibration in the room. It’s very easy to match each other’s emotions.

And so, there’s a way that in any interaction we’re in, we are contagious. Anybody who listens to this has had the experience of walking into a room, maybe it’s a meeting and they’re feeling really, really good and they’re excited to be there, and they walk in and they sit down, and within about a minute or two, they start to notice that the energy of the room is dipping. And if they look around, a lot of times it’s that one guy in the corner, I always call them George or Georgette, it’s that one person in the corner who their energy is really low, their sitting there, their arms are crossed, maybe they’re complaining, or whatever it might be.

And, typically speaking, it’s easier to match the lowest vibration in the room, it’s easier to catch it. So, this whole idea of contagious is that we walk around emoting and putting energy out into the world, and whatever we’re putting out there, it is very easy for us to either have other people catch it or for us to catch other people’s stuff. So, that’s why we’re contagious.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I remember we had Michelle Gielan on the show some time ago talking about broadcasting happiness and how there’s all sorts of science associated with how that unfolds. Could you maybe share with us some of the surprising or fascinating discoveries you’ve made in the research here?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, okay, great. So, with Contagious Culture, that was that first book that I wrote which was about basically how everybody thinks that culture is happening around us, it’s everybody else’s, the executives create the culture, everybody else creates a culture. But what I found in that book was that, actually, every single one of us is creating the culture by how we’re showing up, just what we’ve been talking about here.

When I moved into Contagious You, I took it even deeper and I really wanted to explore the science, so I actually had a neuroscientist work with me on Chapter 8 which is called “The Science of Showing Up,” and we dug into, like, “What’s actually happening?” So, for example, we see there was a study done in Princeton where when we see another person, we decide within a tenth of a second if we like them, if we think they’re trustworthy, if they’re competent, how aggressive they are, like all these different things that we’re sorting for within a tenth of a second just based upon what’s happening in our brain and our intuition. So, that was one thing I thought was interesting.

The other piece was actually happening with mere neurons when we’re seeing people and how we’re responding to what they’re projecting, how we decide to take that on or not take that on. So, there’s a lot that I went into in that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I’m curious then in terms of the practical beneficial application of some of this. Could you maybe give us a story or a case study of how someone sort of grab onto these principles and had a cool transformation?

Anese Cavanaugh
I think the first one that comes to mind was a person I worked with who was super, super smart, very, very good at his job, incredibly talented, but he was having a hard time with trust and credibility with the team. He was just having a hard time motivating his team.
But, basically, he was confused because he wanted to move in his career but he couldn’t. He was doing everything “right” but what it really boiled down to was his presence and how he was showing up with the team. So, things that we found were: he had a pretty strong lack of what I call personal impeccability, which is our relationship with ourselves, which means how we are in terms of time integrity.

So, for example, with this guy, what I noticed is he would show up late for every single meeting we had. So, here’s this really, really brilliant guy, super nice, doing a good job, works for a real cool company, every single conversation that we have he shows about two to four minutes late. So, that’s one leak in impeccability. And when I look at leadership credibility, that even though that two to four minutes might not seem like a big deal, it is creating an impact for the people that we’re in a relationship with.

The other thing that was happening for him is that he was using language that wasn’t very, very strong language. So, he would use words like try, and hope, and have to, and he was really, really big on using busy, the word busy, and he would always talk about, “I’m so busy.” He’d get on a call and he’d go, “Oh, gosh, I’m so busy.” And he’d walk to his team, and, “Oh, gosh, I’m so busy and I’m late because I’m so busy and all this stuff.”

And so, that, even though these are like little, little things, in the bigger picture, no matter how great his skills were or his abilities, the way that he was showing up, the language that he was using, and then his lack of internal integrity with himself, that was getting communicated in a way that people weren’t trusting him. So, this is the problem with his team.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you say internal integrity with himself. What do you mean there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, internal integrity, so, for example, if I say that I want to be a really good leader and I want to build trust with my team, and then I’m late to every meeting, and I make excuses for it, there’s a way that my integrity is out of alignment. If I say that I want to take really good care of myself and I want to show up strong and solid and present, but then I go home and I don’t take care of my body, and I eat bad food, and I don’t spend any time setting my intentions, or really thinking about what I want to create that day, there is a way that I‘m not, “what I say is important to me” and how I’m actually showing up with myself is not in alignment, so there’s a breach in internal integrity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gotcha. Well, so then, I’m intrigued. We talk about these intentions and the energy that you’ve got there. You have the phrase “intentional energetic presence” as something that we should strive to convey. What is this?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, great. So, intentional energetic presence is exactly what it sounds like. It’s being intentional about the energetic presence I bring to everything I do. So, whether I am having a conversation with you, whether I am talking to a room of a thousand people, whether I’m meeting with my team, my boss, whether I’m talking to my teenager, whether I’m doing the dishes, there is always, there is an energetic presence that I bring to everything I do. And that energetic presence is either going to be something that is life-giving and inspiring and what I think of as expansive, feels good to be around, or it’s going to be contracting and heavier and not inspiring. I think of it as like soul-sucking.

And so, we have a choice, and every room that we walk into, every conversation, there is an energetic presence we bring. So, setting an intention and being even conscious of the fact that our presence has impact, and how we show up in every moment matters, that in itself I find is about 70% of the battle, it’s just knowing it. The other 30% is what you actually do with it. So, that’s intentional energetic presence.

And then if you break those three words down, you’ve got your intention, which is what you want to have happen. So, I’m basically claiming, “This is what I want to have happen in this conversation or project or whatever.” There is energy which is the energy and stamina I have to actually make that thing happen. And then there’s my presence which is, “How am I showing up and how present am I with the people when we’re actually making this happen?” You put those things together and you’re more likely to get your intended result.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, within these three areas then, are there some ways that people often fall short? And how do you recommend we rectify that?

Anese Cavanaugh
Great. Yes, so the place that we most often fall short is we get so busy we forget that this is even at play. I think that the number one killer of presence, and also trust and credibility, right now is the lack of presence that we have with each other because we move so quickly and we forget that we are bringing energetic presence to everything that we do.

So, I think that just being aware of it and taking a moment before any conversation, just go, “Okay, my presence has impact. How do I want to show up right now?” That in itself has me come to a moment of presence and it has me get out of my “busy-ness” so I can actually see what’s here.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. And so, do you have any particular tactics or approaches you recommend that we do in order to make that happen more often? One is just to have that moment of thought in advance. What else?

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, there’s an entire methodology around it. So, with intentional energetic presence I created what I call the IEP Method. So, the methodology is three parts, and the first part is being able to reboot your presence in the moment, which is what we just talked about. The second part is building a strong energetic field and foundation, which has everything to do with the food that you’re putting in your body. I mean, the hotdog and the Craft beer that you had last night could be having an impact on your ability to show up really well this morning at your 9:00 o’clock meeting.

So, being really conscious about how food impacts you, conscious about how your environment impacts you, conscious about how the people that you hang out with impact you, like this is part of building our strong field, and I have some tactics I can give you for that. And the third component of the IEP Method is the ability to create intentional impacts. There actually is a five-step framework that if you plug yourself into this, if you get clear about the impact that you want to have, and you plug yourself into your five-step framework, your next meeting or your next conversation could be very, very different. So, do you want the framework? Would that help as a tactic?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’d love to hear, in terms of the bringing the strong energy, for starters, what are some of the biggest drivers or sort of high-impact levers we can move with regard to the food, the environment, the people so that we’ve got more energy there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Mm-hmm, okay. All right. So, this is the thing I always invite people to do. I invite you to look at, first of all, getting still and looking at, “How does your physical body feel?“ So, I always invite people to do what I call an energy check where I go, “All right. Zero to ten, zero being you’re absolutely exhausted, ten being you feel amazing physically. Give yourself a rating,” and then they’ll give a rating. If anybody listening to this does that, the next question is, “What is the littlest thing your body needs right now in order to bring its physical energy up?”

And if we stop and get still and listen to ourselves, our body will tell us. And this is usually where we’re going to hear, “You know what, we need to get more sleep,” which is huge. It’s going to be, “You know what, I really need some good protein and some spinach, or I need you to feed me better. I need more hydration.” Our bodies will talk to us but we have to have that awareness first.

So, I never tell people, “Don’t eat sugar,” or, “Don’t eat gluten,” or, “Here’s how you’re going to do it.” I’m not a nutritionist. What I do invite them to do is to really look at, “How are you eating? How are you sleeping? How are you exercising? And are you meditating, by the way? And does the way that you eat and take care of yourself does it set you up so your physical energy feels as strong and robust as possible?”

And the number one thing I hear from people, Pete, is people go, “Gosh, I wasn’t even aware that I was at a two because I’ve been running around cyclically to have my attention on it. I wasn’t really aware that I was this exhausted or what I needed until I started asking myself these questions. And then once I started asking myself these questions and being in partnership with my body, that changes my relationship, and now I start to feel better. And then I realized that there’s even more I could be doing.” So, again, it goes back to that awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about the environment side of things?

Anese Cavanaugh
Ooh, all right. So, environment, I always like to have people look at their home and their pantry first. So, if you tell me that you want to feel really fantastic, and then you invite me over for dinner tonight, and I come over and there’s nothing but Ho Hos and donuts and processed food in your pantry, there’s a way that your environment is not supporting you.

So, I always invite people to look at their home base first and what is feeling good to them. Their closets are a big one. I can’t tell you how many people like leave sessions or conversations and go home and clean up their closets because every single thing in our environment is either causing contraction and it’s taking energy to even be in it, or it’s creating expansion where it feels really good.

So, common things, pantry, your kitchen, your closet, your car, what you’re wearing. When it gets to the office, it’s your calendar, it’s your office space. It’s when you look at your calendar, is it full of million different colors and back to back to back and your meetings are 9:00 to 10:00, 10:00 to 11:00, 11:00 to 12:00? Well, if that’s true then most likely that is an environmental component of something that you’re surrounding yourself with that is not energizing and it’s not setting yourself up to be the best leader possible.

So, instead you want to start looking at, “Okay, what are some things I could do?” So, for example, with the calendar, I always suggest to people, “Well, take those hour-long meetings, make them into 45 or 50s because you’re not going to miss those five or 10 minutes, or these 10 or 15 minutes. Make them into shorter so you have 10 minutes in between to reboot, take care of yourself, set your intentions for your next meeting, and then go in fully resourced. So, little things like that.

I remember I was working with a group once, and one of the people in the session was a deputy in the jail, the local jail, and he said, “Gosh, Anese, my environment, I have no control over my environment.” And I know people travel and all these different things. So, he said, “I have no control over my environment.” I said, “Well, what’s the littlest thing that you can do to make your environment feel more life-giving and energizing?” And the guy ended up taking flowers in to put on his desk in his cubicle in the jail, and he said that made a difference for him. So, it’s looking at anything in your environment that does not make you feel expansive and good, and doing the littlest thing you can to make it feel a little bit better is also the trick there.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued. Well, yes, let’s hear some more. We got flowers. What else?

Anese Cavanaugh
So, when I travel, I don’t have a lot of control over my environment so it becomes my job to make sure that I do everything I can to set myself up for success. So, proactively I will look at the hotel and try and make sure that it’s got a place to work out, that it looks like it’s clean, etc. I’ll have my room be far away from the elevator because I’m super sensitive to noise. Little things like that.

Well, when I get there, like let’s say I go in, and I can’t control the carpet or the aesthetics, so the littlest thing I might do is I might run to the grocery store and grab flowers for the room, or I will most often, if I’m traveling for more than two or three days, I will go and I will get groceries or have them delivered so that I actually have food on site to support me versus being tied to fast food, or the restaurant food, or something I’m going to be able to control as much. So, little things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take, when you got these 10- to 15-minute breaks in between things, what are your top things that you or clients find valuable to do to be amazing for the next session?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, I love to use those 10 to 15 minutes to, one, I use the first part to close out any thoughts, or write any notes, or send any quick emails that are directly related to the meeting I just had before me, because what happens is I want to free up my mental energy as much as possible because, so now, I’ve just had, let’s just say I’ve just had this great meeting, you and I have a meeting, we’re 45 minutes in, it’s time to take a break. I know myself long enough that if I go away from that and I leave things open, it’s going to be harder for me to get back into it.

So, I’ll spend a couple of minutes during that break to go ahead and close any loose ends. Then people, myself, will often go use the bathroom, do a quick presence reboot, stretch, do something that will support them in getting ready for the next meeting, and then set their actual intentions or look at what I call, we have a thing called the IEP Sheet, which basically has the entire methodology on it, and they’ll fill that out before their next meeting, or they’ll fill it up with a review, excuse me, before their next meeting so that they’re connected to what they’re walking into in the next hour.

And so, close out the last meeting, use the bathroom, take care of yourself, and set your intentions for the next. And if you don’t have time to do all that, just reboot.

Pete Mockaitis
And rebooting consists of what?

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, great. Rebooting is just to take a deep breath, notice where you’re at, you’re just getting still in this moment, just go, “Okay. Well, I’m here. I’m out of the meeting. I’m present right here, getting into my body.” So, take a deep breath, notice where you’re at, you notice what you need, what do you need right now to show up for your next meeting, you do whatever you need to do to take care of it, and then you just step into the next level of presence that you want to be in.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, can you give us some examples of articulating those intentions?

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, sure. All right. So, let me give you the five steps because I think that will put this all together really well. The five steps are the five steps to intentional impact. So, the first step is I want to set my intention for what outcomes I want to create in this meeting, so what outcomes I want to create.

So, let’s just say, for example, you and I today, Pete. So, outcomes for today, I want to have a very honest and organic conversation, so that’s an outcome. I want people to understand intentional energetic presence, and that their presence has impact. That’s an outcome. Maybe you and I are working on a business deal, so an outcome might be that we have an agreement for our next steps by the end of this meeting. So, two to three tangible things that are going to happen as a result of that meeting. So, those are your outcomes.

The second thing you want to set intentions around is emotional impact. So, how do you want the people in your meeting to feel? So, for me, my intention, and it can vary from meeting to meeting, but they’re usually like, well, I want people to feel safe. I want them to feel connected. I want them to feel curious. I want them to feel inspired. Maybe I’m doing a sales meeting, and I really want people to feel super, super hungry by the end of the meeting to go out there and perform and really push this month’s numbers more. So, I want to set my intentions for what is the emotion I want to create.

In that intention is also, “How do I want to feel?” And so, I find there’s great value in setting an intention. And an example of an intention for me would be I always want to feel really well-used. Like, at the end of a conversation, at the end of a meeting, I want to feel like I gave it a hundred percent, and I really showed up. So, that’s an intention for how I want to feel in that meeting.

The third step of that is then, “How are you going to show up in order to do that?” Well, we have to show up present, in command. this could be like what you’re going to wear to the meeting. Are you tracking with me so far?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, good. So, this could be: curious. Like, if I’m going to give a feedback conversation or maybe I’m getting feedback, maybe the way I want to open. So, I want to set an intention for how I want to show up. I want trustworthy. I’m listening. I want to show up as prepared. Just claiming this before I go into the meeting sets me up to start creating that outcome.

And then after that you’ve got two more steps which are really simple, which is, “If I’m going to show up that way, what do I have to believe? What do I have to believe about this person? What do I have to believe about the product we’re talking about? What do I have to believe about the customer? What do I have to believe about myself?” Sometimes when people are going in, for example, for a job interview and they do their five steps, they’ve set their outcomes, they’ve set their emotional impact, they’ve set “How do I need to show up?” they get to beliefs, and they go, “Oh, gosh, what do I have to believe?”

Well, a very useful belief going into a job interview or networking or a sales call is, “I believe I am the right person for this job. I believe that I will do a phenomenal job here.” If I’m giving someone feedback, “I believe that this person is a human being who deserves to have really honest feedback.” So, it’s just really getting clear about, “What am I going to have to believe in order to show up congruently, in a way that helps me create the emotional impact I want and in a way that helps me create these outcomes?”

And then the fifth step is just what do you do, which is actually at the end of it, it’s the simplest part. It’s like, “What am I actually going to have to do during that, before, during, and after that meeting?” So, for you and I: before, prepare, review what you sent me; during, be with you, answer your questions as honestly and thoughtfully as I possibly can; and after, any follow-up that we need to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. And so, if the energy is kind of low over time after time after time, and you’ve got some burnout going on, what do you recommend we do there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Great. So, is your energy low and you’re burnt out or is your energy low just in the moment?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about more of the chronic situation because I think we’ve talked about some of the moments.

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay. So, in chronic, what I find is there’s seven Ps to burnout, and I won’t go through all the Ps but there’s four that if you can address these four and start paying attention to these and reboot with these four, this can help us move out of burnout. Because here’s what I find with burnout. I don’t know about you but I know people who work 60, 70 hours a week, they do a ton, people don’t know how they get it all done, and they’re moving a million miles a minute, yet they feel great, they have a ton of energy, and they’re not complaining about being burned out. They actually feel fantastic. Then I know people who work 40 or less hours a week, go to yoga every day, maybe they work 9:00 to 5:00 but they’re totally burned out. Have you seen that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, most often people talk about burnout as being something related to like you’re working too much, or you’re burning the candle at both ends, etc. And, yes, absolutely, these things definitely come into play. But what I found after doing this work for the last 20 years is that, in my mind, burnout comes from the disconnection from one of the four Ps.

And the Ps are presence and pausing. So, building these in proactively will help us avoid burnout. But if you’re finding yourself in a place of burnout, that is an invitation to stop, get present to what’s really going on, to take a big pause in your life, or in your day, or in your week, or wherever you might be, and to just get still to see what’s actually going on. So, I believe that we have to build in these pauses proactively, but a lot of times we don’t that. And so, when we catch it, the moment we start to feel burnout, that’s our opportunity to start building that in more consciously. And I could talk about that if you want.

The second part is the connection to purpose. A huge thing that I see for people, why they burnout is they forget about why they’re doing the work that they began doing in the first place. They forget about why they’re doing it, what’s important to them about it, they forget about who it’s impacting, the people that they’re actually impacting. They just lose touch because they get so busy and overwhelmed with everything that’s going on.

So, if you can reconnect to purpose and what is truly, truly important to you about the work that you’re doing, then that, I find, will often help people reboot out of burnout. And sometimes I find we can outgrow our purpose. Our purpose has to grow with us. So, sometimes somebody might’ve been totally on purpose, and they’re doing great in their role, and then all of a sudden they’re feeling burnout, and when they really dig in deep, they pause, they get present, and they look into their purpose, they realized, “Oh, well, you know, actually, I want to be doing something bigger. I want to shift my focus and my career.” So, that’s purpose.

There’s people which is staying connected to the people that you serve and remembering that you have your people that support you too, so it’s asking for help. And the fourth P is staying connected to pleasure, play, and also giving yourself full permission for pain. So, those are your Ps.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear about the permission for pain. What’s this?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay. So, for permission for pain, so I find it’s really easy for we human beings to move through stuff really, really quickly. And something happens, and I see this all the time, something happens to make us really angry, or they get their feelings hurt, or something really hard that just happens, they’ve had a loss, something huge. And what I notice is it’s very easy for people to go, “Ugh, you know what, I don’t have time to deal with that right now,” or, “You know what, I’m a leader, I can’t be angry about this and I got to have it all buttoned up,” or whatever. And so, they don’t allow themselves full permission for pain. They don’t allow themselves to actually have the experience and then to get the support around it.

And what happens is if we continue to avoid actually engaging with our pain and getting support around it and healing it, then it tends to mount up and then it comes out in really odd ways, or at worst it comes out in something odd and even more severe at best. It just means we don’t have full access to ourselves. So, if I don’t allow myself pain, I also don’t have full access to my pleasure. So, it’s allowing full permission to be wherever I’m at and to take care of myself and get the support I need so I can manage it responsibly.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we had a Dr. Shawn Jones on the show talking about how this could be difficult for physicians in particular. It’s like, “Somebody died. Well, that is painful and difficult, but there’s no time. It’s onto the next surgery.” And so, that could really take a toll, and that’s what his research is suggesting, that is one of the big drivers associated with physician burnout is that if there’s a whole lot of time demands and urgency and rushing, and not a whole lot of opportunity to process some of the pain going on.

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, absolutely. I do a lot of work with healthcare and I will say that is one of that. That, actually, working in that industry and with physicians in particular really helped me hone in the Ps for this particular book because that was one of the things I saw was the cruising over of pain. And also just generally, culturally speaking, I see this in any organization I go into, this cruising over of pain because people are so busy or they feel like they don’t have the permission or they don’t have the time or space or whatever it might be to actually really dig in and get support. And by support, I mean things like working with their EAP, their employee assistance program, or working with a therapist, or whatever it might be to really honor their own mental health and wellbeing as well. So, the pain thing is important.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
No, I think one thing that is worth thinking about is just this whole idea around the leadership trifecta. There’s a trifecta, and I find that all of us tend to fall into this in some way, shape, or form. And what I find is when we have awareness around it, then we can start to shift it. And what I found years ago is that there are three different kinds of leaders that would come to me for support in this work around presence, leadership, creating a healthier culture, etc.

And the first leader was the person who had, let’s see, a tremendous amount of impact, really great at what they did, great at their skills, maybe they have a ton of degrees, they’re making a ton of money for the company, and they’re great! Except for, they were exhausted, they’re burned out, their relationships are falling apart, their health is falling apart. And so, that leader has got the impact part of the trifecta down but they did not have the self-care component. And so, what that means is that you’ve got an unsustainable model because now you’ve got a ton of impact but you’re burned out so that doesn’t work.

Then I found that there was a second kind of leader that would come less frequently. These are actually very, very rare. But this is the one who’s got phenomenal self-care, works 9:00 to 5:00, everybody likes him, they eat really well, They’re super. Their self-care is on point. However, they were completely ineffective at actually getting anything done or creating impact and holding the line around solid leadership skills to help them be impactful. So, in that case they’ve got the self-care piece but they don’t have impact.

But then I found there was a third person, that great impact, great self-care. However, they left dead bodies everywhere they went. So, they were having the impact they want to have, they were taking care of themselves, but they were doing it at the expense of the people that work with them and followed them. And in that case, that person is missing the people component of the trifecta. So, people being the ability to meet people where they’re at, the ability to make people feel seen and cared for and heard, the ability to coach and champion others.
And so, I just want to offer that part, that component is that there’s these three pieces that I think it’s really important for us to tend to in order to be as positively contagious and contributory contagious as possible which is impact, self-care, and the people piece. And I find, Pete, that most of us have two of them down pretty well, and there’s always one that’s an Achilles’ heel. And so, it’s not about having all three of them perfect, it’s just about being aware of it and then giving that third one a little bit extra TLC so that we can really show up and do our best in the world.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, yes. So, my favorite quote of all time came to me from a mentor years ago, and his name is Chris Wallace, and he said, “People will tell you you’re great, and people will tell you you are terrible and that you suck, and believe none of them.”

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

Anese Cavanaugh
I’m really digging the one about the first impression right now just because it’s so fresh in my mind from edits for this book right now. But I’m really digging the one about the one-tenth of a second and what happens, how quickly we make decisions about people. I like that one right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Anese Cavanaugh
Let’s see. My favorite book, I will say, Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. I’m liking that one right now.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Todoist. Yeah, Todoist.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Anese Cavanaugh
My morning ritual.

Pete Mockaitis
And what does that consist of?

Anese Cavanaugh
My morning ritual, my alarm clock goes off at 5:30, I spend nine minutes, I use my snooze but I don’t go back to sleep. I spend nine minutes just waking up and getting present and thinking about how I feel about the day, and also how I feel about anything I might’ve gone to sleep wondering about. I find that I do my best thinking when I’m asleep sometimes. So, I spend my nine minutes, they’re mine. I don’t look at my phone. Nothing gets into my space. It’s just my space.

And then I get up, and I grab my coffee, and I set my intentions. I do my IEP Sheet, and then I’ll either meditate or workout or journal or something, I mix it up, but those. It’s basically that first 30 minutes of my day, no matter what, is mine. And I find that it helps me really, really set the tone and claim my space. So, it’s my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I appreciate that you use the snooze button in a way that is excellent for you as most people use the snooze in a way that is shameful and they wish they could break it. So, kudos.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, so talk about studies, have you seen the research on that, on what happens when we snooze?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Anese Cavanaugh
When we snooze, we put ourselves into what they call sleep inertia. So, every time, and I’m probably going to mess this up so I apologize in advance. I got this, I learned about this from Mel Robbins’ book The 5 Second Rule, and she talks about the snooze button. And so, as I recall the exact data is something to the effect of, we go through 90 to 110 minutes sleep cycles, and when the snooze button goes off, our brain wakes up, or when the alarm goes off our brain wakes up.

If we hit snooze, it sends us back in, and we go back to sleep. We go back into a 90- to 110-minute cycle. So, the brain goes, “Cool. I’m going to get some sleep now. It sounds fantastic.” Well, no, because now the alarm goes off again nine minutes later, and it sends us into sleep inertia. And the sleep inertia is where we get brain fog, it’s harder to wake up, we’re fuzzy, it can take up to four hours to shake it off, we’re fuzzy, our decision-making isn’t as good.

So, one of the things that she talks about, and I’ve heard this in other places as well, it’s like if you’re going to eliminate one thing from your day, if you have to eliminate one thing, get rid of the snooze button because the damage that it’s doing to your brain and your decision-making is actually quite significant. So, yeah, I don’t snooze.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And, tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, or people quote back to you often?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, “Your presence is your impact.” It’s, “Presence is our impact.” That’s the one that always surprises me that people tend to when they start to really pay attention and let this work, and they start to let this work enter them or to start to embody it. The presence is our impact, and that we get to set the tone. Those are two of the core things that come up over and over and over again.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
So, they go to IEP.io. If they go there, they can sign in and they will get, we’ve got resource kits and presence kits, and virtual toolkits, and we’ve got the IEP Sheet that I mentioned earlier, so they can go ahead and download that. That’ll give them a nice head start, a kickstart on some of this content. And then I’m out there on social media, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook @anesecavanaugh.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, I would say give yourself 10 minutes starting immediately. As soon as you hear this, give yourself 10 minutes in the morning, and if the morning is not your jam, 10 minutes during the day. At some point, 10 minutes, to just get still, get into your body, to breathe, and to start to set intentions about what you want to create, whether it’s a conversation with your kid, whether it’s like anything. Just start getting intentional about what you want to create. Because if we can get in front of our days, or in front of our meetings, or whatever, I always hold that an ounce of proactiveness is worth 20 pounds of cleaning stuff up later. So, that would be one.

The other one would be to not complain for a week and see what happens. Just turn every single complaint into a request, and see how that shifts the energy of your wellbeing, but also how it shifts how people respond to you. So, those are two thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anese, well, thanks so much for this and good luck to you and all the ways that you’re contagious.

Anese Cavanaugh
Thanks, Pete.

490: Uncovering Your Why and Bringing it to Work with Justin Jones-Fosu

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Justin Jones-Fosu explains how to lead a more enriching work life by aligning your now with your why.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get into your “achieve more” zone
  2. 12 questions for uncovering your why
  3. How to turn any job into meaningful work

About Justin

Justin is on a mission to help professionals and workplaces to Work like they mean it!  He is a meaningful work speaker and social entrepreneur who speaks 60-70 times per year to companies, organizations and associations in the US and internationally.  His latest book Your WHY Matters NOW: How Some Achieve More and Others Don’t challenges the reader to merge their purpose and productivity to get more out of work and life.

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you Sponsors!

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Justin Jones-Fosu Interview Transcript

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
It’s great to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Justin, my mental picture of you comes from maybe the day after I met you in which you were dancing around in a blue boxing robe. Can you explain this situation to our listeners?

Justin Jones-Fosu
What happens with Pete and Justin stays with Pete and Justin except on this podcast. But, no, so when I first started speaking, one of the things for me, I was doing a presentation about fighting for your life. And so, a great way to illustrate that was with I had a boxing robe that was created for me, a genuine one, from like the boxing people themselves, and had like TBA, which stood for Think, Believe, Act, and had the boxing gloves.

And so, like that was my little thing where I’d come in to the Rocky music, and it was a really cool experience. So, that’s probably what happened. I ended up speaking at that organization and somebody stole it, I have no idea where it went, but I never replaced it. So, that’s my boxing robe story.

Pete Mockaitis
That was not cool. And you know what, that’s going to be on eBay somewhere, you’re going to bump into like, “What the heck, guys?”

Justin Jones-Fosu
Right. If I ever get famous, like that’s what’s going to happen, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so lately you’ve been doing a lot of work and research and speaking associated with the idea of meaningful work and how that comes about. And you have an interesting perspective when it comes to your why and your now. Can you sort of unpack this idea for us?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, probably about, I don’t know how long now, about eight years ago I started digging into kind of your why and purpose, and I’ve been studying purpose for a while, something that was very meaningful for me. And as I’ve started travelling around, I was doing some speaking, and I started hearing these rumblings of kind of the why and purpose and I started meeting people who knew their why but weren’t doing anything about it.

And so, I was like, “All right.” I initially went into… because all my focus back in the day was all about action in terms of, “How do you actualize leadership?” I do action-based leadership. And it shifted because I started asking the questions of people who knew their why but weren’t doing anything about it. And then I realized there was a whole another group of people. And there’s a whole group of people, there were what I call now people. And the now people, these were kind of people who were doing a lot of good stuff just in the wrong places, and they were connected to their whys.

And so, that for me became the kind of the contribution to the conversation is that I want to help people to achieve more, right? And so, people achieve when they know their why because they’re able to kind of move forward. People are also able to achieve when they’re engaged in now and they’re super productive but maybe in the wrong places. But the true sweet spot of what I call the achieve more zone is where people connect their why and their now. And those things, together, when they’re operating in congruency, that allows people to achieve more.

And if anyone is like me, I’ve gone through my phases of what I call purpose and productivity seesaw, where I get into my zone of purpose, “Oh, I’ve got to be purposeful. I have to do things that mean something to me,” and I become a little less productive because it’s all about purposeful and meaning. And then I jump to the other side, “I need to be productive and I need to get things done now.” And then I start losing purpose and the things that were meaningful.

I was like, “What if we didn’t have to go through that seesaw? What if we could actually bridge the two together to achieve more?” And that’s where the why and the now came together.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you maybe tell us some stories, some examples, paint a picture of an articulation of a why, and sort of, “We got the why without the now.” And then, “We got the now without the why.” Sort of what does that look and feel like in practice?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, many times I hear of so many, even my audiences, the people that engage in terms of like why. So, some people with the why and without the now can be two different ways, so I created a whole quadrant around it but I’ll talk about one of the, say, the wanderers, right? And so, in my WHY matters quadrant, one of the things, if you have a little why little now, the wanderers are the kind of people that they don’t know their why, they’re not practicing, they’re not passionate about it, they’re not giving it their all. If I had to give them a TV show, I’ll call them The Walking Dead.

But the next group of people, the thinkers, these are the kind of people that they know their why. These are the kind of people that they read the books on purpose, they read the books on why. And I’ll give you a great example, I was that person who was super purpose-oriented, I was reading books on it, even wrote a book that dealt with purpose and values. But as I was dealing with that, I wasn’t productive, like I wasn’t getting a lot of things done, I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I could. I felt super content but I wasn’t progressing forward.

And so, that was a time in my life where I was like super focused on purpose and I thought about my career, and I was super reflective. And so, those are the type of people that they get in to reflection mode, and the quadrant is the thinkers, right? So, these are people that they’re just thinking, they’re thinking, they’re thinking, but for whatever reason, whether the fear of success, fear of failure, or they’re simply just following the herd of society that they just get stuck just thinking about their why but it doesn’t translate to create action, to accomplishing more, to being productive, to doing productive behaviors, or what I call being on 10, which we can talk about later. And so, that’s the why people.

Then the other group of people, which I’ve also been as well, are those who have a high now but a low why. And in my quadrant, those are misplaced. And the misplaced are the kind of people that, like I mentioned, they’re doing a lot of great stuff just in the wrong places. And so, for me, I had those moments where I would read books, like Getting Things Done, and Eat That Frog, and a whole bunch of productivity books, and I was just being super productive but I wasn’t checking it according to my why. I wasn’t making sure that I was doing things on purpose.

So, I’ll give you a great example. So, I used to be a radio show host, right? And part of the radio show host, just three years, Listen up with Justin Jones-Fosu, we had a real great time, an FM radio station, MPR affiliate. And as I was doing the radio show for three years, I found myself in a misplaced quadrant because I was doing it and people were like, “This is awesome. You’re killing it, Justin. You’re reaching thousands of people in the Baltimore area and surrounding,” but it wasn’t connected to my why. I was doing it because it was a good thing to do and it felt like the right thing to do, like the right progression and be productive. I have a radio show host where thousands of people listen to you every week but it wasn’t according to my why.

And when I really sat down and thought through, “Why was I doing what I was doing? What was the purpose behind it? What was the intent?” I realized that the radio show wasn’t the right conduit for me, that I was actually productive but zapping me of aspects of purpose and meaning for me. And so, I decided to give up the radio show after three years, and everybody was like, “Why? Why would you do that?” But it’s because I wanted to have greater why alignment, and so I ended up pursuing and diving into things in terms of speaking and writing that were much more in line with my why but I was also able to get more time and be super productive to what really mattered to me.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, and what do you call it, I guess in your ideal quadrant where you got it both going on?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yes, the pursuer quadrant. And it’s those who understand clarity, connection, and consistency which are the components of the why and having a strong why. And those people who are engaged and on 10 behaviors which when people are maximizing kind of the effort, their intensity, how hard they go. And so, if I had to summarize why, the definition of why, it’s simply purpose, what motivates you, what drives you, the intent behind what you do. And the now is passion. When we talk about passion, we’re talking about not what you do but how you do it, the effort, the intensity with what you give and it’s a concept that I call being on 10.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s interesting here because I can see where you’re going. So, we got the thinkers who are doing a fine job of doing that internal reflection and zooming in on, “Well, what am I all about? What’s behind this? What are my values? What really lights me up? What doesn’t light me up?” And so, they’re having some good time where they’re articulating some of that stuff but in the process, they’re not making stuff happen so they aren’t generating a bunch of to-do’s slayed behind them in their wake.

And so, at the same time though, you can go in the other direction, in which you’re not doing any of that reflection, you’re rocking and rolling in terms of just dominating hundreds of emails and all these things.

Justin Jones-Fosu
Zero box.

Pete Mockaitis
But what is it really doing for you in terms of connecting? So, I hear what you’re saying that it can only be possible to have one and not the other. So, let’s talk a bit about arriving at a good articulation of your why. And we talked about this a couple of times in the show. So, you mentioned clarity, connection and consistency. How do we get at that clarity? And maybe, for starters, you can articulate for us your why and maybe some whys of other folks that you’ve interacted with that just inspired the crap out of you.

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yes. So, my why is to inspire people, to achieve actionable results by challenging the boundaries of what they believe are possible. And it took me a long time to really begin to articulate and get to that why because, for me, I looked back at my life, and so I did kind of a reflection in terms of, “What has been the core messaging throughout my life? What’s been part of that journey of my life?”

And my story is one where I had a lot of obstacles, extensive homelessness, we were poor initially in terms of financially but rich in spirit, had hand-me-downs at Salvation Army. I mean, all the stuff and had to really kind of overcome the boundaries that were there, single mom with two rambunctious boys. I mean, a lot of things, grew up in the hood initially. So, a lot of things that were boundaries for me and I realized that my own life was one of challenging the boundaries of what I believed were possible.

But that also translates into kind of what I do, what I call my intentional hobby, where my intentional hobby is I like trekking and climbing mountains and I like challenging the boundaries. I remember one story where me and my buddy, Marlon Barton, we do a thing called the birthday challenge. And so, we went skiing for the first time and failed. I’ve never been skiing before. A great place to go skiing for the first time. And I remember we were climbing, snowshoeing on this mountain, and literally sometimes all we could do is take 20 steps and stop for like three minutes because we were at a high altitude but we continued to climb.

And so, for me, that became my why. And so, that’s just symbolic of the nature, for me, is I’m always challenging the boundaries of what I believe are possible for being, coming from single home, from being poor financially, to being a black male in society, a lot of different things. And so, just challenging those boundaries has become a component of my journey with others.

And so, it’s not something that I have to think about doing, I just do it, right? And sometimes I have to control myself in doing it because I can come off so hard, like, “Hey, are you challenging your boundaries?” And people are like, “Justin, I just said hi, right?” And so, for me, that became, and as I reflected, that became crystal clear for my why. So, to start off, that’s my why and that’s kind of how I came about it. And it took me really about a month to really kind of think through and process and reflect, and I asked myself several different questions in order to get there, to get to that why.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And it’s very helpful. And could you share some other folks you know and their whys articulated?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Absolutely. So, other people I’ve met, I met this young lady actually about a month ago, and she talked about, you know, we went through, because she was struggling with how does she identified her why. And we started kind of going through life and questions, and I have this thing called the 12 uncovering questions that help people to kind of think through their why and develop their why statement, and we started going through some of these questions. And we came to her why, dealt with both helping fixing things but also centered around technology.

And so, she started thinking through like, “What does this look like for me in my everyday life?” And so, we started talking about like, “How do you interact with your friends?” “I always have to fix it. I always have to be a fixer.” And so, part of her why statement became, in terms of fixing things, but it also looked at how does technology help people in their lives to fix things. And so she does like A/V and IT stuff and so she’s always thinking through of connecting people to technology in ways that can help them fix some of the aspects and challenges in their lives. And so, that’s her why statement.

Other people have developed why statements because, again, this is not what you do but kind of the overall umbrella of how you do something or kind of the lens in what you look through things. So, I met another gentleman, and one of the things around his why just dealt with helping people to develop a greater sense of grit because he had to work his butt off and ended up going to the military.

And one really amazing person that I encountered, Summer Owens, and she has a great story in terms of she was a teen mom and ended up going to The University of Memphis, and her story of all that she encountered. And, actually, the way she became a teen mom that was with a sexual assault, and her why is built on what’s called so-what in terms of her resilience. And so, she became Miss University of Memphis and is now even like the national president of The University of Memphis Alumni, and just really doing a great job. And her why centers around so-what in resilience. So, “So, what you went through that? How are you going to continue to go up?”

So, she helps people to become so-what in their lives. And so, like those are people’s whys, and everybody gets to their whys differently. But, for me, in the book, some people had struggled with their why. I created these 12 questions just to help people to start thinking and processing how they approach their why.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and I would definitely want to hit those in just a moment. But, first, you mentioned that it’s not even about what you’re doing in a moment, but bringing that lens and that perspective to whatever you’re doing. So, can you share how once you have that why, how you bring it to a job that might not have anything to do with technology or whatever the case may be, but it infuses it with something magical?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, one of the things that I found as I was really kind of discovering why is like some people, I feel, have stated their whys as what they do, right? And so, “My why is to help people to being a trainer.” And I’m saying, “Well, no, not necessarily. Your why could be helping people but it may not be as a trainer because that should be the thing that you do in all aspects of your life. And if you’re helping people, you’re engaging with your friends, you’re helping them to solve their problems and bring solutions.”

And so, for me, part of my why just permeated through not just what I did but like all the aspects of what I do should be my why. And so, with my family, I’m challenging the boundaries of what they believe are possible and so we’re doing things that we’ve never done. So, at work, you may have nothing to do, like this person who loves fixing things and love that kind of infusion with technology, she was able to find a job which is great in terms of ways that integrate with what she did, but she still would be helping to fix things as part of her why in her job.

And so, it could’ve been aspects of problems and bringing solutions to those problems. So, whatever those things are, it’s very important that we don’t finetune because we may change what we do but why we do it is something that really is consistent. And so, I’m very fortunate, I love speaking, and so people bring me in and speak all the good stuff. But even with my friends, I’m challenging the boundaries of what they believe are possible.

So, like when everybody has a birthday whether on LinkedIn and even some Facebook, I sometimes send what I call the birthday challenge. This is what I do every year, which is one thing that you’ve never done that you’ve always wanted to do or that you haven’t done in a long time, and that’s to challenge you to stay in what I call the learning-based mindset.

And so, it’s one of the things I just naturally do. It has nothing to do with my job or my work, but it just permeates through all that I do. And so, some people that’s helping to fix things, for other people it’s developing greater sense of resilience, for some people it’s helping to connect people to deeper sense of family, or belonging in a family, or could be within the context of corporate America, or it could be at home, whatever those things are, it permeates that. Even if you changed job titles, why you do something, the meaning, the intent, the purpose behind it stays the same.

And so, that’s where I come to the why, not just what you do, really, it’s not what you do, but the umbrella, the lens in which you do almost all aspects of your life. Even at the gym, I’m challenging boundaries of what I believe are possible. Sometimes that’s not whys because I think I can do more than I can do but I’m still challenging those boundaries, and that’s why my birthday challenge this year is actually competing in a men’s physique competition. Don’t judge me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. These photos, bust.

Justin Jones-Fosu
I’d take my shirt off, like, “No.” My wife is going to kill me. But all aspects of my life are centered around challenging the boundaries of what I believe are possible and achieving actionable results in the process.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I had a buddy who participated in a men’s physique contest, I don’t know if he wants me to say his name or not, but it was impressive, like, wow, check that out.

Justin Jones-Fosu
I hope mine will be too.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny. I was at a wedding and he was missing the wedding because he had already signed up for this thing. And so, I kept kind of asking him for the updates, like, “Yeah, so how did it go?” And then I had the distinct privilege of being able to show the first photos of him in the men’s physique contest to his girlfriend, I mean, that was at the wedding. And I was like, “Oh, it’s so good when you have something. Well, so, hey, this actually kind of connects to my purpose, I guess.”

Justin Jones-Fosu
It’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve chewed on this in terms of this is my purpose just for like work or more broadly, and you gave me some good stuff to chew on, and I think it’s not just work, but I don’t know if it’s yet all-encompassing, some are work in progress but it’s to discover, develop, and disseminate knowledge that transforms the experience of being alive.

Justin Jones-Fosu
That’s powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And it really does genuinely light me up, like when I have conversations with you, like I’m discovering stuff, like, “Ooh, that’s really cool. You know, it’s like I’m developing it. Okay, we’re working this episode, we’re making it sharp, we’re polishing it, we’re cutting some parts, we’re trying to get some good teasers, and we’re distributing it, like, ‘Hey, many thousands of folks are checking out the episode and they say good things.’” And so, that’s a thrill and then it also shows up in other sort of trainings and speaking and coaching and whatnot that I’m doing as well as even just conversation with folks about a product. it’s like, “Oh, hey, I got this Bluetooth meat thermometer. It’s amazing, you know. It’s pouring my life with all the low-fat chicken breast so I’m ready for a physique contest, Justin.

Justin Jones-Fosu
See? We’ll be competing together it sounds like. And How to be Awesome at Your Physique will be your next podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have to be really extreme, but even in that moment, I was so delighted to be able to, I guess, disseminate the knowledge, “Hey, there’s a photo of your man on his bodybuilding contest thing.” You know, it was a thrill for me and it transformed her experience of being alive because she was like, “Oh, my gosh.”

Justin Jones-Fosu
See? And your why is permeating all aspects. There was no podcast for that, there was no speaking engagement for that. It was just you being you.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. I dig it. So, I feel like I’m getting pretty close of finetuning it and so very cool. Let’s hear about these uncovering questions. Do tell. What do they uncover and how do we do them?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, I’ll go through the 12, there’s some that mean more than others in how people interpret it and so some may seem redundant but they’re really trying to piece together, it’s almost like when you put your fingerprint, when you do the fingerprint scan, that it’s like, okay, you still put your fingerprint down but it gets at it a different way.

And so, these 12 questions are, the first is, “Why are you here?” And for some people they’re like, “Why am I here?” Like, existentially, “Whoa!” Second is, “What major life experiences have you faced both positive and negative?” Third is, “What interested you growing up?” Fourth, “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” Fifth, “What interests and intrigues you in life?” Sixth, “What do you wish was better in the world?”

Seven, “Have you ever had a moment when you felt like you came alive? What were you doing and why did that make you feel amazing?” Eight, “What impact do you have on others/society? What impact do you want to have on others/society?” Nine, “When have you felt inspired, hopeful, full of learning and growing?” Ten, “What excites you?” Eleven, “What do you believe about the world? What do you think the world should be like?” And twelve, “How are others better after time with you or by what you do?”

And so, asking these questions and, yeah, I’ve sometimes done workshops with these and we’ve kind of gone through aspects of the book and, man, to see people really diving in and engaging childhood, and engaging the journey of their lives, and asking questions, like, “What’s been a consistent theme over the course of my life, from childhood to adolescent to adulthood, that really helps me identifying, have a clearer why of like purpose and what I provide and bring to society, and really the impact and the legacy that I want to leave, an imprint on this world?” And people wrestle with that.

And so, this is one of the things I tell people often, especially my perfectionist people, like, “I need to write the perfect statement,” and I’m like, “It’s not about getting the perfect statement. It’s about taking that true genuine time to reflect. And then I also, like I did something, or I encourage people to do the same thing, I sent it to my three top family members and friends, and I was like, “Hey, this is what I’m really identifying with my why and my why statement. And, externally, do you think it reflects me?” And some people are like, “Justin, I’ve never even heard you say that phrase, right? Like, that came out of nowhere. So, I don’t think that’s true or remains to who you were.” I felt like I was just trying too had to come up with something that sounded really cool.

But, really, identifying like what meant something to me and people talked about challenging them, I’m always challenging. I talk about boundaries. I talk about how you challenge those boundaries and what’s possible. So, like these key themes and phrases came from my childhood and adolescence and adulthood and from me. And when people start asking themselves those questions and start reflecting, it’s not that they’ll get their immediate why statement there, but it’s them now being open to hearing and experience and not for themselves but also their closer friends and family members, what this really looks like and how they can live it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig what you’re saying here. And we also interviewed David Mead on the podcast who worked with Simon Sinek with Find Your Why and that book. And there are some nice overlaps, but he was all about, “Hey, have a partner and have them kind of carefully observe as you share sort of life stories with them, and they can kind of identify some themes from those.” And I thought, “Well that’s a good approach, yes.”

But what I love about your questions is we can get started right away in terms of right now, don’t have to find a partner, you don’t need training, facilitation, or have any interest in this, and so you can really get the wheels turning immediately which is cool. And, yeah, I kind of want to just be alone and think about this right now. Go away, Justin.

Justin Jones-Fosu
Right. I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone. And that’s what a lot of people like to do. I mean, I figure from a great perspective, just having time to reflect, and I love that method in terms of having a partner to observe. But just sometimes you having time to reflect and just to sit back and engage and to think is really emotional for some people.

Some people in my workshops and trainings have been like many tears because people go through some really painful experiences. One of the things I talk about, both positive and negative, and I went through experiences of abuse and abandonment and a lot of different things that I had to really kind of wrestle with. And so, there’s actually a part in the book where I tell people, like, “Hey, if you need a moment, put the book down and come back to it when you’re okay. And if it really gets serious for you, please seek help and get counseling to process some of these things,” because some people actually dredge up things that’s challenging for them, and they’ve put away in a nice box what’s been a part of their story.

And so, I think it’s helpful for people to take that time, like you just said, and like, “Justin, get away,” and just to reflect, and then maybe bring on a partner and/or have three to five friends or family members to look at and engage in your stories and what you shared.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we have even a rough nascent preliminary draft sense of the why before a perfect articulation or a decent articulation. So, with that in mind, how do we, sort of day-to-day, enjoy kind of more passion of your job based upon having this?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah, so there’s a couple of different ways to approach that, right? And so, when you know your why, I mean, it allows you to better engage. One of the things is there’s a lot of work going around meaning, right? So, I talk a lot about meaning as part of the one of the definitions of why that’s meaningful. And so, I challenge the notion of meaning and so I’m like really developing this movement around helping people to work meaningfully, not to have meaningful work but work meaningfully because, often, I found that we’ve created almost this meaningful workspace where it’s external focus on meaning, it’s like the external loci.

Stephen Covey talks about internal locus of control, and we got deeper into that. But, this internal loci, it’s not about finding meaning in your work, it’s about bringing meaning to your work. It’s not about doing work that you love, it’s about loving the work that you do because one is external, one is internal. And there’s actually some really cool research that shows there’s a group of hospital cleaners, and one of the things that they found was that there’s two different groups of hospital cleaners. There’s one group of hospital cleaners that came to the hospital, they cleaned the hospital, and they left the hospital. It makes sense because they were hospital cleaners, right?

But there’s another group of hospital cleaners that they engaged with the nurses to find out when is the best time to actually come into the room, they would talk with visitors and family members, say, “Hello, is there anything I could get for you?” They saw themselves as extensions of the mission of the hospital. Now, these groups were both doing the exact same work, but one brought meaning with them while other were potentially finding meaning in their work.

And so, I think when you talk about passion and engaging at work, it first starts with us showing up and choosing each and every day to bring our meaning with us. No matter what you identify as your why statement, even if you don’t have a why statement yet, it’s that we can show up and bring that meaning, and there’s ways to do that, right?

So, a lot of our research stems in job crafting, and there’s really three ways that you can have job crafting or crafted jobs that’s meaningful for you. It’s identifying task crafting, relational crafting, and mental crafting. And so, what task crafting is simply adding a component of your job that is meaningful for you. So, for some people, what they do is repetitive, it’s not sexy, they’re like, “Oh, I want to do something else.” But that task crafting is saying, “Well, I love helping people. So, could I potentially be one of the leads for volunteering? Could I start a volunteering? Could we do something as relates to a breast cancer awareness or do one of the walks?” Whatever that could be that they may start that or be a part of the lead. And so, that small aspect of task crafting shifts how they bring themselves to work.

The second, around relational crafting, is simply enjoying friends or the people that are there so the relationships access thing. In my presentation, I talk about Cool Hand Luke, , right? If you’ve ever seen that movie, it’s one of my favorite movies of Paul Newman, and one of the things he says, the statement, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” right? It came from that movie. And one of the things with the relational crafting is he created these games with the people he was with.

And so, they were doing like mundane things, they’re supposed to be in prison, but they had so much fun doing it with each other, right? And so, they created this relational component, and so developing strong sense of belonging and relationships, whether that’s going happy hour, whether that’s engaging and going out to lunch with one person a week, whatever that thing may be, that you come to work, and even if your work is not sexy, you don’t really find it really awesome, that you can still be awesome at your job by the relationships that you create.

But the third aspect is the mental crafting and it’s all about how do you see the work that you do. And so some of the things in my research, and I was looking at people who do repetitive jobs, and also one of the articles like “Meaningful Work in Meaningless Places” and so it talked about like even a janitor that saw themselves in an educational institution, and that janitor saw themselves helping people to learn more effectively and learn better because they created an environment where people could bring their best selves to learn.

And they ask themselves, “If I did not clean, if I didn’t do what I did today, what would this place be and how would people respond? And would they be their best selves in their learning?” And so, like that’s a great example of how do we bring what we do. And so, that’s just some of the research that dives into how can you bring that passion, how do you bring that meaning, and it’s not simply just waiting for meaning to fall on your lap.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And I’m thinking now with regard to the task component, so the folks who were cleaning the hospital sort of just did little extra touches with regard to checking with the nurses, like, “When is the best time to do this cleaning?”

So, you’re doing a task that you’re not feeling, and you could just sort of invent whatever it may be. And so, what are some of the little tweaks, kind of like the hospital cleaner asking about what times they could clean that would be best for the patient, might help give a boost to the meaning when we’re doing some task crafting?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, there are so many different opportunities or examples of task crafting that are there. So, one I mentioned before was just in terms of changing or adding a little component of something that’s meaningful for you. So, for some people, like we mentioned, is helping people. So, it could mean getting involved and engaged with community service aspect. For some people, they love creating presentations so they may volunteer to do the presentations or even just create them in PowerPoint, or Keynote, or Prezi if you still use it. But it’s like they ask how they can best engage in the things that are meaningful for them. So, that’s another example.

For some other people, I’ll give you my example. For me, when I was working for a financial service company, I wasn’t happy in my job. So, really, a lot of this movement came from me. I wasn’t being awesome at my job nor was I happy at my job. And I started asking for little different things, and so they allowed me to be a part of the learning management system in what we called My Learning. And I was able to also engage, I was really passionate about diversity equity inclusion, and so they included me as part of their implementing new diversity strategies within the company. So, my manager allowed me to be a part of that team, and it impacted my overall work.

And what’s beautiful about that, and a book called The Progress Principle, one of the things that they found when they interviewed 12,000 workers is that when people felt like they were making progress, even if it was incremental, towards something that was meaningful to them that they felt better, healthier and happier about what they called the IWL, or inner work life.

And so, like all of those components is like we all can find, we just have to stop, press pause, reflect, and ask, “What are some of the tasks that are meaningful for me?” And that’s why I love what Google used to do, they moved away from that according to recent conversations, but they used to have like this 20% rule where they challenged and encouraged people to work on tasks or things 20% of the time that were meaningful to them, that they love.

So, some of the things that we experience and have now came from that 20%, right? And so, people would do that and they would come away with great things, some things failed and worked, but those were ways that I saw companies help to implement aspects of task crafting. So, as individuals, we have to ask and press pause and reflect and ask, “What makes me smile at work? Like, what are some of the things I really just enjoy doing? Is it the interactions I have with people?”

I met a lady at the Charlotte Airport, she would sing all the time, right? She’d sell like the candy and the mints which I eat a lot of, the mints not the candy, and, remember, I’ve been working out. But she would sing all the time, and I loved it, right? So, she created this little way to bring a different component of her tasks and she loved singing, and she applied that.

So, in all the different walks of life, I think there’s opportunities for us to identify the task that make us smile, some things that we really enjoy, and find out, one, “Can we get involved in that that exists already at our job or commuting or doing other things online and/or create it?” So, maybe there’s not a social committee. Hopefully you don’t do it like The Office did, but maybe there’s opportunity for you to coordinate happy hours if you really like bringing people together, or to get people involved and create a bowling night, or whatever that thing may be, I think there’s opportunities to craft that in our tasks.

So, there’s an opposite of that, I want to help people be mindful of, that sometimes, one, people have to get buy-in from their leadership and management. Two, add that to their work, and I’ve seen in some of the research that people have gone to the opposite side, and they’ve spent too much time on the thing that they’re crafting and not enough time on their job, and so it doesn’t allow their management leadership to support some of their task crafting. So, that’s some of the risks of task crafting is that you have to get, one, buy-in but then, two, you have to make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact your job where you’re spending too much time on what you enjoy. But just occasionally implementing some of those components into your everyday work.

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah. So, I think the other component of just the now, is the companion to the why, right? So, yes, it’s great in terms of bringing meaning with you, but how do you bring that meaning, right? What does it mean to be what I call on 10, right? Now, to kind of illustrate the on 10, at least through air, it’s almost like this. Have you ever been to a place where people have been dancing? And, Pete, you know this too well, right? It’s like they’re using two different types of dances, aren’t they, Pete, right?

There’s like one type of dancer that’s like cool, comic-like, like boom, boom, boom, hey. “They’re not going to see me sweat, right?” And they have this other type of dancer, like, “Woo, woo, woo, brr,” right? And the first type of dancer there’s so concerned, they’re consumed about people watching them that they either remix it, they make it slower, like, “They’re not going to see me sweat, yeah, right?” But this other type of dancer that they came with like three undershirts because they’re going to sweat on every single one. Like, they came ready to get everything they had on the dancefloor of their lives. And I’ve seen you dance, Pete, that is you.

I mean, they came ready. And that’s the question mark for us in real life, is like, “Which type of dancer are we?” Not in real life because we all need to know that. But are we the dancer number one who they’re so concerned about people watching them, looking at them, that they don’t give their all, they don’t give what their 10 is? Or are they dancer number two where they’re willing even if people put them on IG or people put them on Snap or LinkedIn, Live, or whatever that may be, that they’re willing to give everything that they have.

I often find it’s people have to answer that question for themselves, “Are they on 10? Are they maximizing? Like, what are their on-10 behaviors? What are the things that they do that communicates their excellence, their best, right?” Now, one of the challenges I find with people that engage or don’t engage with fully being on 10 is that they suffer from what I call on-10 comparisons where one of the things that they consistently compare themselves to other people. So, it’s almost like somebody else doing a podcast that would compare themselves to how awesome your podcast is, and they wouldn’t give their best because they’re like, “I’ll never measure up to Pete.”

But you only have two different capacities. What they’re able to and what you’re able to do is different and there may be different parts of their lives, and so like, “How do you look at just your own reflection, do your own reflection, and identify your own self, for what is my best?

And so, while having your why and bringing meaning is super important, also how important your now is is amazing. So, even for the listeners, I simply ask you, if you had to rate yourself on a scale from one to 10, with one being the lowest and 10 being the highest, how passionately are you currently living your why, right, whether that’s professionally and/or personally? What does that look like? What would you rate yourself?

And even a deeper question sometimes is, “How would the people around you rate you?” If we went and did an informal 360 at your office, or even if you’re telecommuting and different things like that, it’s the people that you support or work with or other team members, how would they rate you? And then, on the other side, because all my conversations are not just professional but also personal, like what would family members say?

And so, those are ways that we can ask, “What are our on-10 behaviors? How would I currently rate myself? And what does it look like for me to truly be on 10 to fully engage?” And so, in the book and other places, I talk about just ways to challenge our cruise control, but also what I call the principle of the frog, step, seed, and smile which are ways to be on 10 to have a high now and to engage in the true now.

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
One of my favorite quotes is “Anything can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” It’s unknown. I guess that’s probably intentional, all right, as a quote, like, “Yeah, let me put my credit for the quote.” That’s one of the most powerful quotes that I love as a social entrepreneur. One of the things that matters to me is the impact that we’re having on people. And it’s something that’s super powerful.

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
Woo, I love some of the research around the herd theory. And the herd theory simply, it looked at a group of creatures, and what it notices is that when this group of creatures saw impending danger was coming that they all begin going the exact same way. And I sometimes illustrate that in our presentations where I like have people get up and have them walk around the room. And normally about 80% to 90% of time, people go the same way.

And you see that play out and there’s some studies, I don’t know the official name but I’m going to call them unofficially the elevator studies. You can probably find it on YouTube where they did a study where people would get on elevators and like everybody would be faced the wrong way in the elevator. And they would study what the person who got on the elevator would do, right?

Often you would see this person would turn around and face the back of the elevator like these other people, and that’s just another example of the herd theory and why that’s important to me.

But what I love about the herd theory and what that communicates is often, experientially, we just simply follow the herd, we follow the path of least resistance. We do what everybody else does at our company. We do all the same things and we sometimes don’t ask, “What does this mean to me?”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Justin Jones-Fosu
My favorite book still is Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute. Amazing power book that helps you to better reflect and to see, “Am I projecting negativity on others based upon me not taking responsibility for my own life?” And so, that book, when I did my MBA, that transformed the way I look at life. And so, yeah, that’s one of my favorite books.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Situational Leadership II by Ken Blanchard. A great tool. It focuses on the different components on how do you, one, serve and lead others? But then also, two, where can you ask for help?

I found people that just go to their leadership without using those terminology and being able to say, “Hey, like on this specific task or this role, I need some help, I need some support. I need to know if I’m going in the right direction. I need to know if I’m failing or falling short of this.” And it’s just been a helpful way for people to, one, communicate where they are on a task or a role, but, two, to get support and direction in that same process.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Ooh, a really good habit is what I call #extravagantappreciation. I’ve been on a mission lately and part of my research in terms of how we can be more productive is how do we show extravagant appreciation on other people. It actually falls into my principle the frog, step, seed and smile. It’s what I call #imoa or an intentional moment of appreciation where we go out of our way to celebrate people around us. And I think in this beautiful world of technology, we got to go back to old school, Pete, like back to handwritten thank you notes.

And so, one of the things that I’ve been really developing a strong habit of is, twofold, I’m writing handwritten thank you notes to people and so people can do that right in their office. I challenge people to do at least two, one professionally, and one personally. And let them know the impact that they’ve had on you at work and/or the person at home.

So, my bigger habit is I encourage everyone who stays at hotels. Often, we don’t appreciate and value as much people who are housekeeping or janitors, custodial staff members. Like, I try my best to go out of my way to show them extravagant appreciation.

And, Pete, you would not imagine the smiles that come out of people’s faces. So, that’s one thing that I do, and I encourage everyone who stays at hotel, please leave a tip for your housekeeper, but not just leave a tip but, you know those little pads of paper and a pen? Write them a handwritten thank you note on your last day of your stay and let them know how grateful you are that they’re doing an amazing work. And just don’t leave the note, please leave a tip as well. But that’s one of the habits I think I’m valuing the most because it’s one that’s inspiring other people.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences and they re-tweet it a lot?

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yeah, one of the things that I talk about in challenging the herd and identifying and embracing our uniqueness that this is a quote I share, it’s, “Don’t be just like anyone. Be better for everyone by being the only you.” Again, it’s, “Don’t be just like anyone. Be better for everyone by being the only you.” And that’s one of the most recorded, re-tweeted, and even in an organization, they made a big banner, I had no idea, somebody showed it to me. They put a big banner and put that in the hallway just to speak to unique-ability.

And the last, I know you just asked for one, but I have to an overachiever, I’m sorry about that, sometimes I underachieve there, is, “There are people who would love to have our bad days.” And so, it’s just a perspective, a challenge of kind of when we engage our day could be super easy to focus on things that are negative and all the things that are going wrong, but sometimes in that process and think through, like, “Man, there’s somebody who would love to switch box with me right now. Oh, I hate this situation. I hate my job. I hate my manager.” Whatever. I have a job that I can hate, right? I have a job that I can not like my manager, and other people would love to be in that position.

I know it seems at times trivial that it doesn’t mean to make people’s challenges small, but it is about, “How do we change and reflect in a unique and different way?” And so, identifying that there are people who would love to have my bad days is one of those things that helps me and in my work and in my personal life to have just a changed of perspective.

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
They can go right to the website JustinInspires.com where they can find information about Your WHY Matters NOW: How Some Achieve More and Others Don’t. Or, if they want to do the old-fashioned way, they can give me a call at 704-750-5574, but JustinInspires.com is plenty. You can see the videos and see my crazy high energy. I don’t use the boxing robe anymore but I still do dance in the presentations, and so, yeah, that’s where they can get in touch with me.

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

Justin Jones-Fosu
Yes. My challenge is stop asking if the glass is half empty or half full and let’s fill the stupid glass back up, right?

And so, like that’s the thing, it’s, “How do we take action? What is one thing that we can do to move forward?” Like, even from this podcast or all the podcasts you listen with Pete, is what one thing can you take away from this that you can apply and to fill the glass back up? Now, this is not a call to go to your nearest bar, if you’re over 21, and tell your bartender, “Fill the glass up. Fill the glass up,” right?
But this is a clarion call to fill our own glasses up with continuous learning, continuous growing, listening to podcasts like this one right now that will help you to grow and develop professionally but also you get some nuggets to grow personally as well.

So, don’t ask if the glass is half empty or half full, take action and fill the glass back up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Justin, this has been a treat. Thank you and keep on inspiring.

Justin Jones-Fosu
Thank you so much, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Art

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

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Art Markman Interview Transcript

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

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

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

Art Markman
I-N-I.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Markman
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Markman
Shower is good, yeah.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Markman
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Art Markman
Yeah, that’s fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

428: No Job Can Give You Meaning and Other Intriguing Insights into Work with Ellen Ruppel Shell

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Ellen Ruppel Shell says: "Making meaning from our work is very much a do-it-yourself proposition."

Writer Ellen Ruppel Shell shares thoughtful perspectives on work and its future in a time of radical change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why no employer can give you meaning
  2. What people actually want in a job
  3. How and why to engage in job crafting

About Ellen

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for The Atlantic, and co-directs the graduate program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Smithsonian, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, O, Scientific American, andScience.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ellen Ruppel Shell Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis  
Ellen, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’m really looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, I’m excited to chat with you for numerous reasons, and one of them is you have such an impressive writing career in terms of, well, all of the cool places to write, you’ve written pretty much. But, so I wanted to hear what was one or two or three of your all-time favorite pieces and why?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I’ve always liked writing for the Atlantic, which was my home for some time— which is, for those of you listeners who don’t know what it is, it’s a magazine. It used to come out of Boston, now it comes out of Washington. And my favorite pieces for them usually involved issues of science and technology.

And I recall one in particular I enjoyed writing, which was based in Kosrae, Micronesia, if you can believe that. It’s a remote island, took a very long time, almost two days to get there, going by way of Hawaii and Guam, and then a puddle hopper to the small island. And I was reporting a piece about the fact that the folks on Kosrae, Micronesia show so… such a propensity toward obesity, okay?

That at the entire island— I don’t want to say everyone on the island, but the majority of people on the island are quite overweight. And I went there to write a piece about the biological basis of behavior, and an example I was using was obesity. And so, it was a very interesting place to report and a very interesting piece to write. And I went ahead and did a book on that topic.

So, that was a really fun and interesting story, but I’ve done other interesting pieces. You know, I did the first many years ago… I did the Flight Into the Ozone Hole and went down to put— the name is Chile, the southernmost city on the planet, and reported from there about this historic play to find out what was causing the ozone hole, which was an amazing experience, because the scientists there actually found the smoking gun. So that was a pretty cool project.

I’ve been to Africa to report on malaria there. And I just had such a fortunate, you know… I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to write fascinating things, and people have been very generous in helping me out. So it’s hard to pinpoint what I enjoy doing most.

I have to say, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done is this book that we’re about to talk about, The Job and the Future of Work. That was really challenging.

What I enjoyed, again, about doing it, was being able to talk to people all over the country — and even in various countries around the world — about an issue that, I think presses very hard on most of our minds these days. So that was also a terrific experience.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I’m excited to dig into it. And so, why don’t we just go right for the gold right away? Tell me — you said this is difficult — what was perhaps the most surprising and fascinating thing you discovered when digging in and doing the work to research this book?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, you know, I’ll tell you why it was difficult. And in fact, I’ll tell you, frankly, that for a long time, I tried to avoid writing this book.

But I decided I really couldn’t avoid it, to answer your question about what was most surprising, I’d say in recording the book. Well, I went to Finland, and there I learned about the wife carrying championships, okay? Which by the way, Finland holds the world championship record. And wife carrying up, I’d say that was the most surprising thing. And I actually— if you can go and look on YouTube and watch this, it’s astonishing. It’s a national sport. That is you run— a tall man runs with small wives on their backs up through obstacle courses, and it’s quite an event. So the most surprising thing was that, I’d say, okay?

But if these are the topics at hand that, you know, work and its future in a time of radical change, as the title indicates, I’d say that one of the most interesting things I discovered was that no employer can gift us with meaningful work, okay? I mean, the idea that an employer or a job can gift us with meaning is a myth, and that making meaning from our work is very much a do-it-yourself proposition.

And that gave me a lot of food for thought, you know? What does that mean? How does one make meaning of one’s work? Why is it that an employer cannot make meaning for us? What are the various factors involved? And how do each of us make meaning in our own way? I mean, how does this work?

All that was, to me, kind of a revelation, and gave me food for thought, both as, you know, someone who works and someone who is a college professor and teaches folks who will be working or are working, but will have the whole working life in front of them. And also, as a parent, you know, what do I tell my kids? So that I’d say was the, you know, one of the more important messages is of the book on a personal level.

Pete Mockaitis  
Mm hmm. Well, that is a juicy thesis statement there. And it really is pregnant with implication when it comes to, you know, taking that responsibility. And there may even be a temptation to say, “No, no, no, no, no. Some jobs certainly are intrinsically meaningful, and mine ain’t one of them.!”

So, I love it. If you can have a little devil’s advocate, if you will, for let’s say… I’m just going to just try to imagine a job that seems to have a bunch of intrinsic meaning, okay? “I am responsible for determining how and where malaria, mosquito prevention nets, get placed, thereby, you know, saving many, many, many lives super cost effectively.” Okay, so I’ve tried to put you on the spot here.

So that’s what strikes me as intrinsically meaningful, like, “Whoa, all right, people will live and die based on my decision, and we’re helping a lot of people survive.” So… but I still would need to make my own meaning there?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Pete, that’s actually a pretty easy one.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I must say, remember, I told you I wrote a cover story on malaria for the Atlantic years ago, and I can tell you that putting out those nets does not guarantee that he was going to use them. When I was in Africa, I found that they, in fact, didn’t; they were too hot for many people.

So the question would be that does that mean, if you discovered that people were not using your nets, that you would no longer have meaning in your job?

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s a bummer.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Yeah, so let’s take a step back. You know, you really stepped on it, in that particular case, but I hear what you’re saying. So you’re saying some jobs are intrinsically meaningful, that means no matter who does them, they’re meaningful. Well, you know, I’ll beg to differ on that. And I gave a very brief example on my book, which was my father, right?

My father was a pediatrician. And one cannot imagine someone thinking that a pediatrician wouldn’t, you know, just find his work or her work just, by its nature, meaningful. I would say my father found his work useful and worth doing, because he did save lives, and he did help kids, and he worked in the inner city, where I grew up.

And, you know, he had a job that, you know, I think all of us would think of is worthwhile. But he didn’t. What he took meaning from most was gardening. And, yeah, he found that he didn’t love people that much, he really liked plants. And his hobby was gardening; he had a rock garden. And that was something that he took great meaning from.

His job, which he did well, and he was deciduous about, was important to him. And it was a piece, you know, it was the way he made his living. But the way he expressed himself, and what he took most meaning from, was his hobby. And I think that’s true for many of us, that, you know, we are told we should make meaning of our work, or our work should be meaningful.

You know, I found evidence that companies from Walmart to Apple were telling— were recruiting people with with a message: “We will give you meaning. We will make meaning for you.” And, you know, I agree that some Walmart greeters do find their work meaningful, but then finding work meaningful because they make it so, okay? Not because these are, by nature, meaningful jobs.

And so, that’s— I think that might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s really not. And I think once we all understand that we each make meaning in our own way, and that our employer cannot gift us with this, that we have to do it in our own way, I think it’s a great relief, because some of us will not find meaning in our jobs.

We’ll want to do our jobs well, we’ll take some satisfaction in our jobs, we’ll make a living through our jobs, but we’ll make meaning in other ways. And that’s a great relief.

I think I mentioned in the book that I wrote a little essay for the Atlantic about work, and I asked readers to respond. And I got a huge, huge response to this, probably more a bigger response I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever written. And that actually didn’t surprise me so much, because I knew this, you know, as I said before, I knew this was a topic on everyone’s mind.

But what did surprise me was how many of these people were just starting out in the working world. They were recent, typically recent college graduates, and each of these recent college graduates, almost to a person, was quite dissatisfied with their jobs. And the reason they were was because they didn’t find their jobs, quote, “meaningful.”

And so what they were doing, many of them was to work longer hours because they thought it was their failure, that these jobs should be meaningful, and they didn’t understand, you know, why they weren’t making any from them. So they work longer hours. Of course, that contributed to a vicious cycle: they became even more dissatisfied, and they were really frustrated.

So, you know, one solution to this is to look at your job as important and valid and worthwhile, but not the source, the central source of meaning in your life. And I think years ago, most people did regard their jobs in that way. But in recent years, certainly, since the birth of internet culture, we’ve been told that we should feel passionate about our jobs, and we should make meaning from our jobs. And for many of us, that’s very unrealistic.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I’m intrigued. How does one go about making meaning, either in a job or outside a job? And how do you know— you said for me, it’s unrealistic. How do you know if there’s just no hope for a given job?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
You know, let’s be careful that there is hope, because it’s very hopeful to be able to go to a job each day or to tackle it— so, for those of us who work at home, to tackle a job each day and take satisfaction out of simply solving, you know, a problem. And again, you know, supporting a family, we are supporting oneself, these are very important things. These are critical things.

So, people you know, they don’t find passion through their work and still find satisfaction through their work, especially if they don’t set themselves up and berate themselves because they don’t feel passionate about their jobs, okay?

But another thing to keep in mind is, I think there’s this misimpression that we all require the same things on the job. In fact, I won’t mention any names, but there’s this idea

that we all seek challenge on the job and novelty on the job. This whole idea of moving fast and breaking things, you know, the Silicon Valley idea, actually, that’s not the way most of us make meaning from our job. Some of us do, but most of us don’t. Most of us, some of us really desire craftsmanship and mastery in our job.

So you know, we go to work each day, and we don’t mind doing the same, pretty much the same thing, as long as we can master it. And the example in the book is, you know, for example, a glazier, someone who actually makes windows and feels very strongly that he does an excellent job of glazing windows, making windows. You know, this is his thing; he doesn’t look for novelty or real challenge. He’s mastered this, and he feels on top of it, and he takes great satisfaction in that mastery.

Okay, so that’s one kind of job up— coders. Sometimes, you know, people who do computer coding, this is what they seek. Sometimes they seek challenge, but sometimes they seek mastery, you know, just being able to nail it every single time they do it.

And others of us seek kinship on the job. You know, we want to we think of our work family, whether it’s remote work family, or literally, you know, family we see at the office or in the workplace every day. Police officers, firemen, typically, people who work in hospital emergency rooms, oftentimes, this is a priority for them. They seek kinship, and it’s very, very important to them. That this is what they look for at a job situation.

So I make the point in the book, that there’s this myth that everybody needs to be challenged. Everybody needs novelty. Everybody’s working for rewards, immediate rewards. This is not true. Some people do, and some people don’t.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I love it. If, maybe, you can flesh out that menu, if you will, of job, happiness, drivers, if you will. So we got novelty, challenge, mastery, kinship, immediate rewards, and the other ones that seem to really do the trick for certain segments of workers.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, those are the major ones. And, you know, most of us— this is going to not fit well with many of your listeners, but what most of us really want on our jobs is stability. And that sounds strange.

In an era when everybody is doing the gig job, and we get the impression that people are moving from job to job—

in fact, especially millennials, millennials who now constitute the largest segment of the workforce, really, really value stability in a job, perhaps because it becomes scarcer than it once was.

But getting up in the morning and knowing that you have a job is, for most people, the priority. The number one priority. And again, people don’t think that necessarily, but that is the case. So everything else being equal. That’s the one, more than a better salary. More than other things, stability is the number one priority.

Pete Mockaitis  
Interesting. So you said that that is the number one, even if they don’t think it is. How do you reach that determination?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Again, as I mentioned earlier, I have had a lot of help. I interviewed hundreds people for this book: management scholars, social scientists, psychologists, historians. And this comes thanks to their research, which I cited, of course, and credited in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay, well, so then, let’s say that here I am, I want to make some meaning, I accept that I gotta do it myself. So what does that do and look like?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, again, that varies tremendously with the kind of job you have and the kind of person you are, most essentially the kind of person you are. So I mentioned I interviewed a lot of social scientists and management scholars, and among these was a wonderful scholar at Yale University. Her name is Amy Wrzesniewski, and she’s done some amazing work on work and jobs.

And one of her early pieces of work, one of her early studies, was of hospital cleaners. Now that sounds odd— custodians, in a hospital. And interviewing these custodians, she found that some custodians describe their work as just a job, as you would expect. I mean, they cleaned hospital rooms, right? So this sounds like, you know, just a job.

But there was a subset who described their work as a calling, okay? A call, a calling. That’s it, that’s a very high bar, to describe your work as a calling. We generally associated that with the clergy, or things like that. But these folks described it as calling.

So she she wanted to know why, and so she drilled into that. And what she found is in this subgroup of janitors or custodians, they thought of themselves as healers, okay? They worked in a hospital, and they would kind of keep an eye on the patients, they would notify the medical staff if they saw problems. If they could take a break, they would sit by the bedside and console someone who was missing a relative or who was not feeling well.

They really took a role. They saw themselves as healers. And Wrzesniewski explained to me that when the hospital found out about this, the custodians were often told not to do this, because this was not part of their job description.

Pete Mockaitis
And do what, specifically?

Ellen Ruppel Shell
Not to act as healers.
Yeah, stick to your cleaning. Stick to your cleaning. And because there was no impact on the bottom line, in other words, they saw this as kind of a waste of time. And they didn’t want their custodial staff to do that. And so, what Wrzesniewski explained to me was that, what these janitors were doing — their work was crafting, job crafting, what she calls job crafting.

So they took their job, and they carved out a piece of it, that to them, made it meaningful for them, okay? And they focused on that part that made it meaningful for them. And so it made them much more satisfied with their work — much better workers, by the way; they stayed longer, much less turnover.

So that is something that she did, then expanded to look at other workers and other arenas, and found out that one way to make meaning of your work is to find the part of your work that you find the most meaningful, and find a way to focus on that as much as you can, obviously, without costing your employer in the long run, right?

So you take the part where you feel a certain sense of mastery, or feel a certain sense of purpose, and focus on that and orient your job in that way.

So that’s one way to look at it. And I suppose we could talk about almost any job category, and find out how an individual could make the most of the job that they have.

Pete Mockaitis  
Right? Yeah, that does get the wheels turning. And could you share maybe some other actionable prescriptions in terms of if you’re a professional seeking to flourish at work, and enjoy it all the more, and perform all the better? What are some other things you recommend they do?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, okay, so my book is not a self-help book, okay? And I don’t make recommendations to people, you know, the general. I wrote this book as food for thought, and also to look at some myths about work and what we need as a society, what we should prioritize.

So I am low to good advice. There are so many books on self-help books in this arena that would do a much better job than I would. So I really, I don’t want to get into that too much.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, maybe let’s focus in on some myths in terms of, “Okay, you might believe this, and it is false. And that could lead you to make some suboptimal decisions.” So you’re not quite giving a prescriptive “don’t,” but you are highlighting potential errors that can feed the decision-making process. So what are some key myths that need to be busted?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Oh, my gosh, there’s so many. So on an individual level, early on in the book, I talked about the problem of people having to convey a personal chemistry that aligns with their employers’ expectations.

And I compared Israel, which I have visited, and the United States, and how these two countries differ in their approach to hiring individuals, especially knowledge workers. And again, this is a generalization, and not everyone has had this experience, okay?

But in the United States, there’s a push towards selling yourself as a person, as a total person to employers. You need to be a “cultural fit” with the company, we throw around words like that. And “the chemistry has to be right,” we throw around words like that.

In Israel, your skill set is what they’re looking for. More commonly, they’re looking for, “Can you do the job?” So if you don’t get the job, it means they don’t like your skill set. That’s so personal, right?

In the United States, if you don’t get the job, it means your chemistry was bad, okay?

That you couldn’t sell yourself well enough, that there’s something wrong with you. Psychologically, that’s very damaging, okay?

So I think when people are seeking a job or seeking a promotion, they need to think about this expectation, and find some way to arm themselves against it. Okay, so the the idea of “cultural fit,” and aligning one’s personal chemistry with the interviewer or the employer, is something I really addressed in the book.

And I warned against both for individuals’ sanity, okay? But also because it isn’t good for employers, because too often, employers look for people who look like themselves. And that’s something that — many of your listeners probably know — that you look for someone who’s a lot like you. And in fact, in a study of law firms and investment banks, the most likely reason someone would be hired was because he or she shared the same leisure interests as the person interviewing them.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, the one predictor number one predictor.

Ellen Ruppel Shell
The number one predictor. So if you play squash and the person who interviewed you plays football, that’s not a match. That’s not a match.

Pete Mockaitis  
Yeah. So it’s like, learn their hobbies in advance, and then do it for, like, a weekend. You can talk about it.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Exactly. But you can see the implicit class-ism in this as well, right? And one of the things they found out is if you played football in college, and they played squash, that’s not good, because that implies, “Oh, you’re a football player; what’s that say about you?” Right? And they’re a squash player. What does that say about them? So that’s a problem because you’re hiring yourself. And that doesn’t lead to diversity or heterogeneity in the workplace. And heterogeneity is a good thing in the workplace. We want a lot of different viewpoints.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s great.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Yeah. So you know, that’s just something to think about on a personal level, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy. Could you bust out another myth for us? That was fun.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Like I said, there’s so many myths. So another one that I really tackled in this book — and some of your readers might have seen some of my hotbeds on this, because it really got my goat — is the whole idea of the skills shortage in the United States, as if Americans don’t have the skills to do 21st century jobs, or can’t acquire the skills quickly to do 21st century jobs.

And I looked into this quite closely, and did a ton of research on it, and found out that, in fact, there really is not a skills shortage in the United States.

Certainly, there are times when it’s hard to find a particular employee for a particular position in a particular place, okay? That certainly happens, no question about that. But an overall skills shortage does not exist.

And so, what I warn against is the idea of society. And by that, I mean taxpayers paying for training, jobs training for individuals so they’re just in time ready for a particular employer that is not an effective way to produce workers of the future, okay?

If an employer has a particular skill and can’t find that they need it, and can’t find someone to fill that position, it’s most likely that they can hire someone close enough and train that person fairly quickly. It’s what we used to do not so long ago.

So the idea that we have to seek in our employees from other nations, or we have to train up a workforce in a particular way, I did not find evidence of that. What I did find evidence of is that there are, unfortunately, too many kids in the U.S. We’re not getting basic education, right? So they’re not learning what we call basic analytic skills, that is, being able to solve basic logical problems, make a logical argument, do basic communications, arithmetic, that kind of thing.

There’s no question, there’s a problem. But in terms of advanced skills, and a shortage of advanced skills, that I did not see.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, interesting. So it sounds like you found that we have a bit of a shortage of some foundational, fundamental critical skills, but not so much a skills gap on the advanced technical skills like Python, or, in particular, language or technology.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Right, right. I mean, anyone can learn Python, who has basic training in understanding computer languages and has the basic mathematical background and has had that exposure.

We can train, we can be trained in these things, and we should be, because, as you know, computer languages change fairly quickly. So that’s not a problem. You know, the idea that you demand that someone’s a Python expert versus another kind of individual who’s also worked in the computer industry is a little questionable, right?

Now, obviously, there’s always a shortage of the best and the brightest, right?

The top, top talent. But that’s sort of like saying there’s a shortage of the best NBA basketball players. So, to get that magical basketball player, you may, in fact, have to search the globe; they’re at least at the country.

But that doesn’t mean we need to train up a whole lot more basketball players, right? It just means that the best can call their own shots, and they will be rewarded for what they have to offer. But that does not mean that we need to be training— and taxpayers need to pay for the training of these basketball players, right?

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

Pete Mockaitis  
So could you share a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I love Oscar Wilde, as do many people. And he has this great quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Yeah. You heard that one, yeah? I love that one. So if that’s a quote, yes, for quote. So I do try to be myself, and then I encourage everyone else to be. So, what other questions do you have?

Pete Mockaitis  
And how about a favorite book?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton, and I love— I love, love, love Age of Innocence, which is her masterpiece, I think. So it’s kind of an indictment of society at the time for being estranged from its from its culture, right? And, you know, I think we have a lot to learn today from that, you know, being estranged from culture and being focused on on sort of material world can be quite, quite problematic. So, I think Age of Innocence, I would have to say.

Pete Mockaitis  
Thank you, and how about a favorite tool? Something that helps you be awesome at your job.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Gosh, I’d have to say my bicycle pump. I love riding bikes, and I make very good use of— I ride on really rough roads, and so, I mean, I find myself inflating my bicycle tires quite a bit.

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

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Where would I point them? Well, I do have a website, and I probably should do a better job of maintaining it. It’s EllenShell.com, EllenShell.com. So if they want to, they can do that. I also teach at Boston University, and so naturally, I have one of those EDU emails. So, it’s EShell@bu.edu. So they have anything they want to share, I’m happy to hear it.

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

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs? Don’t forget the power of contemplation, okay? Getting away from the team and thinking quietly on your own. Because that’s often when people accomplish the most. And I think there’s an overemphasis on teamwork. Working on your own, often in a quiet place, can often be the most productive experience.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, Ellen, this has been a real treat. Thanks so much. And good luck with your teaching and your writing and your travels and adventures.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks. And I think we’ve mentioned the book, right?

Pete Mockaitis  
Absolutely. The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks a lot, Pete. It was really fun.