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580: How to Stop Overthinking and Become More Decisive with Anne Bogel

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Anne Bogel says: "Any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn't deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can't spend on something that really deserves it."

Anne Bogel discusses how to stop second-guessing yourself and make decision-making easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What we lose when we overthink
  2. Telltale signs you’re overthinking
  3. How to stop overthinking in three to eight minutes

About Anne

Anne Bogel is the author of Reading People and I’d Rather Be Reading and creator of the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcasts What Should I Read Next? and One Great Book. Bogel has been featured in O, the Oprah MagazineReal SimpleBustleRefinery 29The Washington Post and more. Bogel’s popular book lists and reading guides have established her as a tastemaker among readers, authors, and publishers. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Anne Bogel Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Well, so tell me, you’ve got another book out. It’s about making decisions, and I thought that was kind of meta in a way because your podcast is called What Should I Read Next? which is a decision that you’re making again and again and again. So, maybe to tee it up, could you tell us, how do you, in fact, decide what to read next?

Anne Bogel
Well, this is true about my podcast but I have to tell you, I did not understand the connection between the podcast and the book until I think, I don’t know, a week or two before my first book tour event for this book. And one of my team members said, “Well, the podcast is tailor-made to help people know everything about their reading life, so just talk about how you put together the show and why it works.” And I was like, “It is? Oh, it is, isn’t it?”

Well, the secrets there are go to a trusted source, get a couple of options but not too many, and know that there is always another book because you don’t get all caught up in perfectionism and second-guessing if you know that there’s always going to be another book after the one you finished. Also, as a podcast host, it’s easy not to be like overcome with regret and second-guessing because I know there’s always going to be another episode.

So, if I remember in the shower the next morning, “Oh, now I know the perfect book for that guest that I talked to yesterday, and that ship has sailed, I can’t change my recommendations now,” because every episode I recommend three books live on the fly that I think will be good for the guest based on our conversation. It’s helpful to know, “Well, I could always put that in the newsletter. I could always put that in the bonus episode, or I can always save that for another guest that it just might be perfect for.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s how you’re helping folks with those decisions. Your book is called Don’t Overthink It. So, maybe you could start by telling us, why not overthink it? What’s the problem with the cost associated with, in fact, overthinking it?

Anne Bogel
Oh, well, okay. At the best, it’s a distraction. But, at the worst, I mean, I used to think that this was more a nuisance than a massive huge deal for many people but I’ve really come to believe that overthinking, it always comes with an opportunity cost that isn’t worth paying. Because when you’re spending your life overthinking things, any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn’t deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can’t spend on something that really deserves it.

And when I talk about overthinking, I’m talking about those thoughts that are repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful. It’s when your brain is working really hard but it’s not taking you anywhere. Nobody wants that. Those thoughts are exhausting. They make you feel miserable. So, just so we know what we’re talking about, and why you really don’t want that in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s handy. So, you’re defining overthinking perhaps a bit more broadly than some might assume. It’s not just you’re spending too much time on a given decision or a plan of action, but just overthinking in places that don’t need those thoughts at all, eh?

Anne Bogel
I am. Some books about overthinking do restrict it to just rumination, where that word comes from the oh-so-flattering image of a cow chewing its cud, returning to the same food again and again for digestive purposes. But if you’re a person who’s overthinking, thinking about whatever that is over and over again, it doesn’t help you reach a decision. It’s a loop that takes conscious intervention to get out of.

And, yeah, I believe that we’re all happier and healthier, and can spend more of our resources, our time, energy, and attention on the things that really matter when we give decisions and other things in our lives the amount of energy they deserve and not more. I mean, it’s not overthinking if you give something the amount of thought you want it to, even if your choice may look hard to believe for some people.

Like, if you know someone who really genuinely enjoys researching. Oh, wow, Pete, I was about to use a travel analogy. Okay, let’s go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m in.

Anne Bogel
Let’s go for it and hope those days will come again. If you have a friend who really enjoys researching, like, 40 different places they may visit to camp on spring break because that is fun for them, that is part of the adventure, that is part of the experience, that’s not overthinking for them. It might be overthinking for you because that’s not fun for you. That’s perfectionism-driven research looking for just, you know, “I’ll just check one more site, one more site, one more site.” But if you’re giving something the amount of attention you want to, that’s just fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that because it really just opens it up a whole lot in that it may indeed be shocking or overwhelming and surprising to some people, when you’re just like, I guess, sort of nerding out and doing what you’re doing. I was thinking recently about, I might do this, I’ve been playing a little bit of Fortnite, the smash hit sensation game which I guess is for 12-year old boys but I play it too.

And I’ve been thinking about, like the trigonometry associated with when you jump out of the Battle Bus and how you might optimize the timing of it so you hit exactly the spot you want to hit as fast as possible. In a way, I mean, it’s just a silly game. I’m never going to go pro and it’s just sort of amusing to be. But I love that definition because it’s like, “Well, no, if I’m having a hoot just figuring that out for the sheer fun of figuring it out, I’m not overthinking it,” versus, if someone who has more fun just playing the game and blasting people away, then they would be overthinking it. It’s very subjective and individual-dependent.

Anne Bogel
Yeah. If you’re enjoying your trig exercising with Fortnite, have at it.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Okay. Cool.

Anne Bogel
Actually, you know what? If you do find yourself caught in an overthinking loop, when your brain is like the hamster on the wheel and you can’t stop talking, it sounds like what you’re describing is a really excellent potential distraction for your mind. It gives it a puzzle to work on that requires a kind of creative mental energy that forces out the things you don’t want to be thinking about. Because all your attention is required to focus on this problem you’ve created for yourself because you enjoy it and because it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that just kind of makes me think it’d be great just to have a list of those at the ready for when you’re caught in a loop, it’s like, “Oh, I need to escape. Oh, here’s my handy list of fun puzzles I can go and solve.” And I find that a little bit even with, I guess there’s research on this, like knitting or crafts. Like, I’ve experienced that when I’m doing that sort of thing, it’s like, “Oh, this is very soothing because my brain is focused on that thing instead of many, many, many thoughts, issues, questions I’m trying to nail down.”

Anne Bogel
Yes. I don’t know if you or someone who turns to stress baking when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but this is a real thing, and it serves the same purpose. If you’re following a recipe for the first time, or one you’re not familiar with, your hands are occupied, your brain is occupied, it’s tactile, and it requires all your concentration, or you’re going to screw it up, so there’s not room for that mental loop to play. Also, it goes, “Did I say the wrong thing? Did I say the wrong thing? Why won’t they call? What’s happening? Why are they running late?” because your brain is completely occupied. You don’t have the bandwidth to entertain those thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m digging this. So, overthinking is giving more thought than something deserves. It’s problematic because there is an opportunity cost that you could be spending your time, energy, attention, thinking on something that’s more fun and joyful. Maybe could you help us identify when we’re overthinking faster, in terms of what are sort of the canaries-in-the-coal-mine, the telltale signs, or maybe even just frequent categories of stuff subject to overthought?

Anne Bogel
That’s a great question, and it’s almost hard to give a list because overthinking, more than I realized when I launched into this personal project, is insidious. Like, it’s the river that’s a mile wide and of varying depths for some people. But it’s a good question because the first step to overcome any kind of overthinking is to realize you’re doing it. Because if you don’t realize your behavior is problematic or impacting your life in negative ways, then you wouldn’t even think about changing it. You wouldn’t feel like you had a reason to.

I would say that noticing when you feel tired, noticing when you feel crabby, noticing when you feel stressed about making certain decisions or uncertain moments. Some people, if you ask them, “Are you an overthinker?” they can immediately say, “Oh, my gosh, yes. Like, I was up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning worrying what might happen if…” fill in the blank. I won’t give you any scenarios. The people who do that can certainly come up with them on their own. I know there have been times when I certainly could.

But, also, it may help to review a list of things that are known triggers for a lot of people, even those who don’t typically characterize themselves as constant overthinkers. Relationship is a big one. Work is a big one for a lot of people. Also, money trips up a lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be chronic overthinkers. And we could be talking about tiny purchases, like, “Why would I buy G2s when the big sticks are so much cheaper?” I mean, some people will find themselves paralyzed by these small questions. Ghirardelli instead of Hershey’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Trying to ride on experiences, luxurious and joyful is my answer, Anne.

Anne Bogel
Exactly. Or it could be justifying a splurge, like a nice dinner out, or a vacation that’s outside the bounds of what you would typically spend for a vacation in the summer. These are things that are big triggers for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And now I’m really feeling what you’re saying with regard to how it can be a thief of joy there in terms of if you’re agonizing, or it’s like, “Oh, that seems like such a cool vacation. Oh, but it cost so much money.” So, I think you can just really go back and forth and put yourself in a tough spot which is unpleasant. As opposed to, I guess, if you just knew, “Well, hey, the vacation budget is this, greater than, less than. Okay, I guess we can move on,” or, “This seems like an exceptional opportunity. Hey, spouse, or travel companions, what do we think about shifting some budget from one place to another?” That’s excellent in terms of just the angst, “I’m feeling it,” that can come when you’re doing that.

Anne Bogel
You know what you just did though was you cut out the inclination to maximize that so many people who struggle with overthinking do on a regular basis. Because, sure, if it’s in budget, that’s great. And if it’s not, that’s a problem. But what if you could get a little more for your money? What if you might be like more meaningfully fulfilled if you went to one place or another? Maybe you just really need to stay home I mean, there are so many options to consider that, without having a clear idea of what you want and where you’re going, it’s easy to succumb to.

Also, another big trigger of overthinking in a lot of people is shopping. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the grocery, or oh, my gosh, if you’re buying jeans, or school supplies for your kids. Any situation where you have to make a lot of decisions really quickly can really take a toll on your mental stamina.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the stamina piece for a bit. So, decision fatigue is a real thing. Can you tell us, what is it and how do we deal with it?

Anne Bogel
Decision fatigue has become quite a buzzword. I find that most people know what this is now but not everybody. We’re talking about that state when your brain is tired from making many decisions, and you simply reached the point where you can’t make any more effectively. And this is because, when it comes to making decisions, we don’t have an endless capacity to do so. We can only handle so many decisions in a day but we make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every day depending on what we do.

And so, how we allocate our energy to make those decisions, and how we can structure our lives to make fewer of them, really matters. And if you want to nerd out about this, there’s all kinds of interesting research on everything from kids in the classroom to judges sitting on a court bench.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right.

Anne Bogel
Officers making parole decisions that show, oh, you want to be in front of whoever is deciding something on your behalf when they are fresh.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Anne Bogel
Because, yeah, if you come at the end of the day, or the last cases before lunch, you are screwed. When people don’t know what to do, they default to the status quo, or they decide nothing at all because it takes less brain power.

Pete Mockaitis
You gotta ring on the stickers when you’re on trial, “Your Honor, would you please…?”

Anne Bogel
If you can’t be on the docket before 8:00, that probably is your next best bet. But, truly, this matters. Like, we don’t want to think we live in a world where the fates of people are determined by where you fall on the docket. But being aware of how these human limitations affect your life, whether you want them to or not, helps you do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, decision fatigue, it happens. We have a finite capacity to make decisions over the course of the day. It becomes depleted and we’re sleepy. So, what should we do about it? Schedule big decisions for when we’re fresh. Or what are sort of the top practices to address this?

Anne Bogel
That’s a good question. Okay, I’m going to zoom out a little bit. So, I found that when it comes to overthinking, so many of us start by thinking, like, “Okay, I’m standing at the kitchen counter, I’m looking for my friend to pull into the driveway because they’re supposed to be here any minute but they’re running late. Are they in a ditch? Is there something wrong? Do they actually hate me and they’re not coming? What is happening now?”

We think like, “Okay, I need to do something in this moment to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again.” But, really, so much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. We lay the foundation by how we treat our bodies. Studies show that we don’t overthink when we’re well-rested. We don’t overthink when we’re peaceful. We overthink when we eat Doritos for dinner, when we’re tired, when we stayed up too late. We overthink when we’re not taking care of our bodies. We overthink when our shoulder hurts because we’ve been sitting hunched over our desk all day.

So, the first thing we can do is really set ourselves up for success by taking care of those really simple boring adult human maintenance things that we know we should do but we don’t always make time for because they don’t seem so productive in the moment. And, Pete, I got to tell you, I was really disappointed to read this research because it’s not fun. Like, it’s not sexy like a good productivity hack is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it doesn’t get you the clicks on social media.

Anne Bogel
No. No, but…

Pete Mockaitis
Not a weird trick.

Anne Bogel
I don’t know who needs to hear this but, truly, like going to bed when you know you should will make it so much easier to make decisions at 2:00 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think when it comes to a lot of this, this boring but helpful and true information, I think what helps get me fired up about it, and I talked to this mindfulness thought leader Rasmus Hougaard, and I loved that he brought a lot of sort of numbers and facts and research to bear in terms of like, “Okay, sure enough, there’s a great ROI associated with sort of sitting and breathing and mindfulness practice.”

So, maybe can you share, did you find anything striking with regard to, “Wow, if you spend just a couple of minutes doing this thing, it yields a whole lot of minutes of not overthinking”? In terms of like, when I see huge ROI or bang for the buck, I get excited. And sleep, I just love sleeping, but sometimes I think, “Well…”

Anne Bogel
I don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like, “Well, okay, sure, six hours versus eight hours is going to make a big difference but that’s two whole freaking hours. Is there anything I can do that’ll take me like four minutes that’s going to yield 12 minutes of benefit on the other side?” That’s how I overthink things, Anne. Welcome to my brain.

Anne Bogel
I love that I said I hate that this is true because you can’t hack your way out of it, and now you’re asking for a hack.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I want.

Anne Bogel
I see what you’re doing. Something that did help me truly was to hear a productivity expert, a friend of mine, Lauran Vanderkam, say, we could point to these studies, but that, “Sleep and exercise truly, they don’t take time, they make time. When you invest the time in getting the sleep you know you need, and stopping to exercise, you think better all day long.”

And she really recommends getting your exercise before 3:00 p.m. for that reason, not that it won’t help you more globally for the long term but on a daily basis your attention is sharper after you exercise. Oh, but after that, that makes me think of a research that shows that if we, this is going to sound like a funny word in this context, if we invest 15 minutes in overthinking, if we’re prone to overthinking, or in worrying, if we’re prone to worrying, and schedule it on our calendars for a certain time each day, and concentrate on getting it all in then, it’s almost like David Allen.

The brain wants a system it can trust. If your brain knows that its overthinking concerns will be heard from 3:45 to 4:00 p.m. every day, your brain is truly more likely to leave you alone the rest of the time because it knows, “3:45, we’re going to hit my issues, the system is in place, we got it handled.” So, it’s possible that consciously, not possible. Studies show that consciously deciding to overthink for those 15 minutes really can ease the burden the rest of the day.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s true and I’ve done that a couple of times. And when I have, I found that it’s almost fun. Like, the worrying or the overthinking is like, “Argh, I’ve been holding it in, and here we go.” It’s just like a frenzy, and it’s sort of enjoyable. Like, for me, sometimes it’s sort of like there’s all these creative thoughts that I really want to go explore and, in some ways, that might not technically qualify for definition because I’m having fun with it. But, nonetheless, they’re distracting from the matter at hand which is more pressing and urgent and important.

And so, when I schedule like sort of creative frenzy thought time, it’s so fun to go there, and it’s so liberating that I don’t feel as much of the thug just knowing I see it visually in color on the calendar. It’s going to land there and it’s fine.

Anne Bogel
Yeah, it’s handled.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. All right then, let’s hear some more takes on changing negative thought patterns. How do we go about making that happen?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, okay. Well, again, the first step is to notice they’re happening, but it’s so true. I don’t know your experiences. In my experience, I talked to so many women, friends, or even just blog readers who say, like, “Ugh, I’m just an overthinker. Like, It’s who I am, I’ve always done it,” and they assume there’s nothing they can do about it. But what happens is that we get really good at anything we practice, and so many of us have put in a lot of almost deliberate practice over the years into developing these patterns of overthinking.

And I just want to say for anyone who needs to hear that if you feel like you’re a champion overthinker, yeah, it’s because you’ve been practicing for a long time. But when you practice more positive thought patterns, it’s hard at first but that’s not because you’re not a natural. You weren’t a natural overthinker either. Although it is true that some people are more inclined to overthink than others, but over time, slowly learning how to interrupt those overthinking moments when they happen, and learning to lay a better foundation the rest of the time really can help you train your brain to go in a healthier direction on a regular basis.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked a bit about the foundations in terms of like sleep and exercise and nutrition. How do you recommend we execute an interruption in the heat of the moment?

Anne Bogel
So, when you find yourself in an overthinking moment, it may be helpful to think of it as riding out a craving. You don’t have to resist that overthinking moment forever. Like, the typical food craving abates in three to eight minutes. So, if you can give yourself a meaningful distraction for three to eight minutes, then you are likely to be A-Okay for a little while. But the meaningful distraction is important.

Scrolling Instagram on your phone doesn’t count. That’s way too passive. You need to do something that uses different areas of your brain, and demands a lot of your attention. So, for some people they like the combination of working jigsaw puzzles and listening to audiobooks or music at the same time, so your brain is working on two different puzzles. Basically, one is you’re decoding the book and you’re decoding the puzzle.

Tetris is actually a remarkably effective game for those who don’t like Fortnite because it does also fire up your brain in all kinds of different regions. We already talked about stress baking. Exercise is a really effective strategy for a lot of people which combines several different ways to overcome overthinking. But it depends, of course, on what you do.

Somebody who was raving to me recently how trying to do their double-unders with their jump rope was really effective because they had to concentrate to not whack themselves in the knees. But I’m a runner, but if I want to not overthink, I can’t just like run on the loop at the park when nobody is there because it’s easy for my brain to wander. But if I’m running trails, I have to pay attention or I’m going to trip on the tree roots, and that is really distracting. That’s a hardcore distraction because I would have to like change my clothes, and we’re talking about a 45-minute run. But even small things like calling your mom, talking to a friend, can be really helpful, which is three to eight minutes. That’s all you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, that’s very helpful to know. You can sort of set a timer and then not let it go too long. I’m reminded now of one time I was at a date at a coffee shop, and then this dude showed up, and he sat down with his cup of coffee, his headphones, and his knitting needles, and just went to town. And I just thought it was kind of funny that he chose this time and place in close proximity to us to do that, but it looks like he was onto something. He was taking a strategic break that makes a world of difference with that combo there.

Anne Bogel
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, you had a great teaser on the back on the back of your book, and I can’t resist. What are the three things we should do for a healthier thought life?

Anne Bogel
Well, we already talked about how you can set yourself up for success. So much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. It starts well before that because of the foundation you laid. You know what we didn’t talk about? So, we haven’t talked about perfectionism yet. Like, identifying and consciously thinking of ways to overcome perfectionism is a huge thing for tons of people.

I did not understand the connection between perfectionism and overthinking until just in the past couple of years, and I’ve been living with both for a long time. And, truly, just seeing how they’re linked has really helped me put more overthinking aside because I know perfectionism is unhealthy and that it doesn’t take me to good places. And I know that when I recognize that thought pattern in myself, I need to put it aside, and I, more or less, know how to do that.

But perfectionism, like overthinking, is sneaky. And when I don’t realize that the issue I’m overthinking is driven by perfectionism, I can be looking at the question on the table like it’s completely reasonable. But when I realize, “Anne, you’re being a perfectionist,” like then it’s easy to put it aside. And, Pete, let me give you an example because I find when it’s abstract, you think, “Oh, that sounds great in theory, but what the heck are you talking about?”

I’m thinking about things like figuring out the best way to drive across town during rush hour because you have to do it, because you need to be at that thing. Like, I could make myself crazy trying to figure out, “What if I left earlier? Could we just move the meeting 15 minutes? But is there a better way? What if someone rode with a friend? Could we work this out in a different way?” But realizing, like, “You’re trying to maximize this situation and make it the most efficient it can possibly be,” and it’s not worth the mental gymnastics you’re doing. Like, you’ve not spent more time solving the problem than it would take you to just get in the car and drive. Like, that’s perfectionism, just put it aside. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to follow up on that. I think that’s excellent in terms of the awareness and the catching of it, and what perfectionism sounds like there. And I think I’ve done that with maybe Amazon.com purchases in terms of, like, “What’s the absolute best plumber’s wrench, or whatever, that I can acquire?” And then you come to realize, “Well, Pete, if you spend half an hour on that, then that far exceeds the cost difference of these wrenches. Like, you can just get them all and see for yourself.”

Anne Bogel
Now, maybe you’re a craftsman who really enjoys looking at all the specs.

Pete Mockaitis
Good point. If that’s fun for you, hey, enjoy it. But if it’s not, yeah, move on.

Anne Bogel
But that wouldn’t be how I would choose to spend my leisure time, which we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you. Thinking about something like an hourly rate has really helped me make some of those decisions because, oh, my gosh, I hear you. Barnes & Noble has these three-for-two sales if you walk into their store. They’ll have these tables full of paperbacks that are three for the price of two.

And I tell you what, those first two come to me immediately. Like, I know exactly what I want. But then I could spend 20 minutes, like staring at all the books, thinking, “Well, I don’t really love any of these, and, oh.” I mean, retailers are not on your side when it comes to overthinking. The longer you spend looking, the more you buy. I guess they’re not considering that you may just throw up your hands in frustration and leave, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess not enough of us do that.

Anne Bogel
Clearly not.

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

Anne Bogel
For a long time, I knew that we overthought things. I mean, I could see myself thinking my way out of happiness because it made me miserable in the moment. But I never really realized until these past few years how often I would actually talk myself out of small joys I feel now like I’m losing twice when I do that. So, I’m spending this time debating something that doesn’t deserve my time and energy, and also I lose out in the process.

And we talked about pens earlier. Like, pens are a good example. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, “Well, I don’t really need the uni-ball VISION because I have a pen from the bank. That’s not great. It’s not a great tool. I’m a writer. But, still, like do I really need to spend an extra $1.80 on a uni-ball VISION?”

Anne Bogel
They cost a little more than the baseline to get a nice pen, and so I’d be like, “Well, is it worth it? Well, is it the most efficient? Well, can I justify it?” Well, Pete, I finally realized, like, “What am I debating here? Like, it’s a tool. I’m a writer. But even if I wasn’t, the pleasure you get for like six months of writing with a pen that cost a little bit more that’s actually decent, like it’s a small joy every time you pick it up, if you’re a total pen dork, which I am.” And so, why would I talk myself out of that?

And by talk myself out of it, I don’t just mean in the moment. I mean, lots of concentrated thought about what kind of pen I want to buy. So, I realized that I was just cutting myself off from these small simple joys. Like, there’s flowers on the front of the book, and the reason there’s flowers on the front of the book is, for years, I would drive myself just bananas at Trader Joe’s, thinking, “Well, can I justify getting the flowers? I don’t really need the flowers.” I really love flowers on my kitchen counter but they’re not like an essential to live a good life. And I finally realized, like, “Anne, you have $4. You can just buy the flowers, you can put them on your kitchen counter, and you can enjoy them all week.”

So, I would just hope that listeners would think about how, not only is overthinking something that you can stop doing because it’s making you miserable, but when you put it aside, you really can open the door to bringing these simple life pleasures into your life in a more abundant way.

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

Anne Bogel
“I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite tool, maybe it’s a pen, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Anne Bogel
I like this thing, it’s called a Lettermate, I think. It calls itself a handy tool to write in a straight line for those who have terrible handwriting, which I do. So, I keep it on my desk and I use it to write in a straight line in my blank journal, and it makes me happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, walking the dog in the morning before it gets hot.

Pete Mockaitis
And a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

Anne Bogel
Reading is not a competition. Quality over quantity. Also, don’t apologize for not reading Jane Austen. It really is okay. People may not say that to you but my blog is named after Jane Austen’s character so I get that all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think that’s funny that that’s your life.

Anne Bogel
Every day.

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

Anne Bogel
My hub on the web is my blog ModernMrsDarcy.com or the podcast What Should I Read Next? is in your favorite podcast app.

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

Anne Bogel
Ooh, yeah. Put your butt in the chair and do the work. I mean, you probably know what to do. Make yourself some coffee, or grab whatever you love instead, and do the thing instead of talking how much you wish you could.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anne, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you might be tempted to overthink it.

Anne Bogel
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And it was great to be back.

579: How to Grow Your Influence and Lead Without Authority with Keith Ferrazzi

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Keith Ferrazzi says: "You do not have to control more. You have to influence more. You have to co-create more."

Keith Ferrazzi discusses how to turn colleagues into teammates by changing how we lead and collaborate.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How leaders (unknowingly) alienate their teams
  2. How silos came to be—and how we can break them down 
  3. An exercise for creating authentic connections with your team 

About Keith

Keith Ferrazzi is the founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a management consulting and team coaching company that works with many of the world’s biggest corporations. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Ferrazzi rose to become the youngest CMO of a Fortune 500 company during his career at Deloitte, and later became CMO of Starwood Hotels. He is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business ReviewForbes, and Fortune and the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone. His mission is to transform teams to help them transform the world. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank You, Sponsors!

  • Miro. Boost your collaborations with the ultimate online whiteboard at miro.com/awesome

Keith Ferrazzi Interview Transcript

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I am looking forward to helping people be awesome and learning something too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, so you are renowned as a connector. And I’d love to hear, do you have a particularly favorite story associated with how a connection came to be?

Keith Ferrazzi
Wow, oddly-enough, in 53 years, I’ve never been asked that question.

Pete Mockaitis
I love you, man.

Keith Ferrazzi
So, look, and I don’t know this is a great story or not, but it’s so important that you get intentionality in your life around what you’re trying to achieve, and then start asking yourself who would you want to get to know in order to try to achieve that and co-create things with them. A number of years ago, I was just out with Never Eat Alone, Oprah was, of course, the best thing since sliced bread in terms of advancing book sales, and I had been wracking my brain about how I could get to Oprah. I was not a well-known dude at that time. I was well-known in the business world but not in the general world.

And I was just passing by at a marketing desk, and I had said something to her about how important it would be to really just think about getting on Oprah. And an intern, who was only with us for about a month, often in the corner, piped up and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know if it helps, but my aunt is Gayle King.” And I go, “That might be helpful.” It’s amazing. It’s like the point is if you don’t get clear and you don’t put it out there with abundance, then you’re going to be missing opportunities because you never can know who knows who.

I’ve also been in situations where I had mentioned on a podcast, “I wanted to get to know so and so.” And a high school kid reached out to me and did the work. He did the work in his network. He found his friends who had parents, and blah, blah, blah, and ultimately I’d gotten introduced to the CEO of Johnson & Johnson which was the thing that I put out there. So, again, you put it out there, it has a chance to manifest.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really cool. That’s really cool. And for those who have not watched Oprah, Gayle King is her best friend that she references frequently, “My best friend Gayle,” and that’s wild. So, thank you. So, now, your latest here is called Leading Without Authority. Can you kick us off by sharing the case for why that’s important for professionals these days?

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, look, the world has really changed a lot in business, and it’s interesting, in the last two to three months, there’s been more solidification of the way we work, and the future of work has happened in the last two to three months than it happened in the last 20 years, no question in my mind. And the ability today for anybody in an organization to be a transformation agent, an agent of transformation, is more available today than ever before.

Now, I’ve always believed that anybody with a vision and audacity and a willingness to serve the people around them could achieve extraordinary things. I tell the story in Never Eat Alone about me in my 20s becoming the chief marketing officer of all of Deloitte, right? And that was ridiculous, and it had to do with, I didn’t know it back then, it had to do with my capacity to lead without authority, to lead through a strong vision and a willingness to share the stage with other people who I co-created with until they named me the chief marketing officer because I had the vision that we wanted and needed to do that.

Today, it’s not only possible, it’s mandatory. Most organizations are in real dire need of innovation, transformation, constant adaptability, and anybody who’s listening to this, you can be the tipping point for transformation. Gandhi, one dude was the tipping point of transformation. Martin Luther King, one dude, the tipping point of transformation. It is absolutely possible to be the tipping point of transformation but you’ve got to lead a movement. And this book Leading Without Authority teaches you exactly how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. Well, so you mentioned a few examples, yourself and some leaders of renowned history.

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I’m not putting myself at par with Harriet Tubman. Not at all. I’m just saying no matter what kind of a movement you want to lead, whether it’s a meager movement inside of your organization to transform the way you do business, or it’s a social movement, it’s all borne on the same principles.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a story of someone who perhaps was frustrated, they were banging their head against the wall, not getting much results in terms of trying to lead because they didn’t have authority and things weren’t going anywhere, and how they turned it around?

Keith Ferrazzi
In chapter one of the book, we meet Sandy. And Sandy is a lovely woman, a well-intentioned HR leader, she’s not the top leader. In fact, she’s kind of pissed off at the top leader because the top leader has said to her, “Sandy, I want you to design a compensation system for the company as a whole. And, by the way, the sales folks over here, they are running their own play and trying to create a compensation system unique to sales. Would you head that off for me please,” and then he disappears like the coward that he was, because he, in reality, knew that he couldn’t stop it.

The head of sales in that company was more powerful than the head of HR, and the head of sales had created, like a lot of sales organizations do, a shadow HR function, and a lot of them do pretty much what they wanted to do. So, Sandy walks into the head of sales operations, a woman named Jane, and says, “Jane, I just want to let you know I’m creating this compensation system. Let’s sit down so we can reconcile what you’re doing with what I’m doing, and I can basically tell you how you should be doing it differently.”

And Jane is like, “Oh, thank you very much,” and never invited her to any of Jane’s meetings. And Sandy was like, “Well, wait a second. I’ve been ordained as the head of compensation. Why aren’t they letting me in these meetings?” Because they didn’t have to, because Sandy didn’t approach it in the right way.

When I ultimately got a chance to talk to Sandy, I met her at a conference that she had hounded me, and said, “I really want to meet you. I really want to have coffee with you.” And I said, “Sure, sure, sure. Let’s do it.” So, we had coffee, and she’s like, “Oh, I’m so exhausted. I think I came to the wrong company. I was very successful in where I was before.” And I said, “What’s going on?” She goes, “Well…” she told me the whole story about Jane and all of her frustrations. And I said, “Well, how’s your team?” And she says, “Well, they’re exhausted too. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to keep them.” “How’s your team?” And she looked at me, she goes, “Well, I thought I just answered that question.”

And I ultimately got to the point, I said, “Sandy, Jane is trying to build a compensation system. She’s responsible for all of sales. Whether you like it or not, she’s on your damn team and you’re being a really crappy leader.” And it was not in Sandy’s framework that this person who she vilified and was obstinate and not compliant was actually a team member that she had to serve and had to work with and she had to co-create with. Once she got herself pivoted around the fact that she was being indulgent and lazy, and she needed to actually work with this person differently, she approached this person, and this person not only came around but they ended up being great partners.

And what we found out, subsequently, was Jane was also embarrassed because the sales organization was not really playing ball with Jane, wasn’t showing up to meetings either, and Jane was embarrassed. She needed a friend, she needed a partner, but the way that Sandy bound in there with policy and compliance at the forefront just alienated her. So, it’s a very important story, and I think it’s one we’ve all faced at some level or another. And her taking a very different mindset toward somebody that she had previously thought of as an adversary, ultimately yielded extraordinary outcomes for both of them and the company.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a great shift in mindset that can make a world of difference. And I guess you don’t need to go into all the particulars of this individual example, but I’m really curious. Like, salespeople, you know, they want their fat commissions and their bonuses, and I don’t even know how that squares with a kind of global compensation system for a company. How did they crack it?

Keith Ferrazzi
How did they reconcile it? Well, it was interesting. First of all, one of the things that the relationship made Sandy recognize is, you’re exactly right, it couldn’t be a global compensation system. There had to be a local compensation system, there had to be both global and local at the same time. And what they ended up doing is created a beautiful model that had some basic principles that ended up being utilized by sales and, at the same time, cascaded out throughout the whole company.

So, this ended up being a model for all divisions to be able to use so that people could localize their needs. And, look, all the head of HR wanted was to save money on a centralized HR compensation program system, and he did that. He saved money and everybody sort of got their tweaks that they needed to make the program work.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so let’s talk a little bit about silos. I understand that that is sort of a big obstacle at times to pulling this off effectively, or at least we perceive it as such. I’m thinking about Dan Heath’s book Upstream you quoted repeatedly, “Every system is perfectly engineered to get the result that it gets.” So, can you orient us as to what is the value of silos and how do they come to be and what do they serve?

Keith Ferrazzi
By the way, these are such smart questions. So, silos came to be in the industrial era where everybody gets something, you pass on to the next person who did something, and you pass it on to the next person, sort of the conveyor belt of business, and that worked until the ‘80s. And then in the ‘80s, IT systems came along. I don’t know if you actually wanted this history.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Keith Ferrazzi
The IT systems came along like SAP, and they started to create what’s called the matrix where in the olden days Italy had everything they needed. They had their HR systems, they had their banking, they had their marketing, they had their budgets, everything happened in Italy, and they sold the products in Italy. And then, periodically, all the money would get scraped back from Italy and given to central headquarters which would create the very small central functions.

Well, when you had technology that could scrape the money every day, you had a more powerful CFO and a CFO function, you gained a more powerful chief marketing officer function. Policies, global policies sprung up, and you had HR systems, and supply chain systems, and people in Italy couldn’t even order their damn pencils anymore. Everything was a matrix. There was the vertical P&L and then there was the functional matrix.

The reality was everyone talked about the matrix, but matrix back then was nothing more than silos right on their side so people still clung to who’s got control. At every interface, the question was, “Who’s accountable and who’s got control?” and they fought for it, they scraped for it. This is where I screwed up when I went to Starwood Hotels so I served my way using Leading Without Authority. I served my way into a beautiful chief marketing officer job at Deloitte.

Then I go over to Starwood, and I’m given this amazing global job, and I walk in thinking that I’m the next best thing since sliced bread, and I think that I’m going to design this amazing global brand, and I didn’t give respect to the head of Europe who was running a very solid European marketing plan, but I scraped their dollars back and thought that it would be better to re-allocate. Now, look, I wanted to create a global consistent brand and all these things, but I could’ve co-created with him. Instead, I clung and I leveraged the power and the authority I had in my matrix.

Well, the long and short of it was we were both right and we should’ve been working together. And the head of Europe ended up becoming the CEO and just totally took my budget away as global head of marketing, and I decided this isn’t the place that I wanted to work anymore. So, the important lesson in all of this was that we’ve been fighting for too long, and the reality is you wake up today, and work is done in a very different way. It’s not even done in a matrix. It’s done in a network.

So, everything that your listeners are trying to do in their lives professionally, they have a goal, it’s a fuzzy vision, maybe it’s a distinct goal, and then they have a set of people, a network of people that they have to work with to get it done. That’s a team. That is a team. And that’s chapter one, “Who is your team?” And that was what I was trying to tell Sandy, “Who’s your team?” We need to redefine certain things. There are mindsets that have been guided since the industrial era that even though matrix happened, we’ve been clinging to old mindsets that, “For me, to be transformational, I’ve got to control more.”

You do not have to control more. You have to influence more. You have to co-create more. And I believe very much in diversity inclusion because I believe the diverse opinions inclusively offered will yield higher-performing outcomes. It yields innovation. And so, if you’re leading a network of people, and you’re boldly getting their input, and you’re boldly making big decisions with diverse and challenging insights, you’re going to be transformational, which is a different way of leading. Your team doesn’t exist in the way you thought of it anymore.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it sounds like it all starts with changing a couple of your perspectives in terms of who’s on the team and how you engage and lead. Tell us…

Keith Ferrazzi
Can I challenge that for a second?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Keith Ferrazzi
So at Ferrazzi Greenlight, we study a bunch of stuff. We study how people and leaders should act. And what I’m saying is leaders and people should act to manage in a network not lead without authority. But how to get them to do it is another thing we study. How do you actually change behavior? And you don’t change behavior by changing mindsets. I know that that sounds odd.

There’s a wonderful phrase I learned from AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. “You don’t think your way into a new way of acting. You act your way into a new way of thinking.”

So, if I want somebody to change their mindset, I change their practices. And, one day at a time, we’ll wake up, and like, “That works. That works,” and the mindset changes. So, you start with the practices.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then let’s chat about some of those practices in terms of where would you recommend we start first, then second, then third?

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Chapter one is “Who is your team?” so there’s a very distinct practice where you need to do what’s called a relationship action plan. A relationship action plan literally walks through, “What are we trying to achieve? Who do we need to achieve it with?” And then I even give details about how do you manage that on an ongoing basis with relationship quality scores, etc. So, really, number one is the practice of putting relationship action plans together.

The second practice is earning permission to lead. And I define the metric that I call porosity. Now porosity, it’s a word that exists. It doesn’t exist in the way I use it. Porousness means how porous, how absorptive. A sponge is very porous, right? A glass is less porous.

Leaders have to make people porous. Leaders, in the old day, if you led with authority, you don’t have to worry about porosity. You just said you’re a boss, you told somebody something. They absorb it. That was their job, “My job is to tell you. Your job was to absorb it,” right? So, in the new world where you may or may not be telling somebody something that they have the interest or the desire to absorb, you got to work at getting it absorbed, and that’s leadership. And there’s a whole strategy I called serve, share, and care.

How do you let people know that your job is to serve them? How do you let people know that you are authentically a good human trying to be of service? The vulnerability, the openness, a lot of Brene Brown’s work, a lot of Amy Edmondson’s work, our own research institute has gone into this stuff very deep. And then how do you really land that somebody believes you care about their success?

And there are practices and conversational tips and tactics and tools on moving that forward. There’s also lots of tactics around, “How do you co-create? How do you collaborate?” I think old-school collaboration is broken. Old-school collaboration is like there’s really more buy-in which meant, “I came up with an idea and I’m going to sell you one.” That’s buy-in. Co-creation is, “I have a vision. Let’s, you and I, wrestle this until we make it extraordinary.” Right? That’s the world of innovation that we live in today, and that’s what we need.

So, anyway, there’s tons of chapters and each one has very distinct practices about how do you lead in a network, how do you lead when you don’t have that authority. And, by the way, that doesn’t mean you’re not a leader. You could be the president of a company and still need to lead without authority because there’s always a set of individuals that will resist your idea if you try to foist it upon them with the traditional control and authority mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Well, let’s dig into some of these little tools, tips, tactics associated with how you really get across that you care about someone and you are trying to serve them and their interests.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Empathy is critical. Creating empathy between two people is really critical. And think of empathy as a bridge from where you are now to a productive relationship. But what is the key that opens up empathy in its most accelerated path? Like, what’s the thing that would create empathy between the two of us in the most accelerated fashion? You want to take a stab at it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m listening well.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. By the way, great one. The fastest path to activating empathy is vulnerability because vulnerability creates us. Where you sit and where I sit, how do we create us? I’ll give you a little practice. I’d be curious if you want to do this with me. There is a practice that I use at the beginning of meetings called sweet and sour. Sweet and sour. What’s going on right now in your life that’s sweet? And what’s going on right now in your life that’s sour?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot more than happy and crappy for the record. It sounds a lot more professional and enjoyable.

Keith Ferrazzi
Did you come up with that or did you read that, happy and crappy?

Pete Mockaitis
My buddy Connor shared that with me. I think it’s from camp or something.

Keith Ferrazzi
That’s funny. What’s happy and what’s crappy? I don’t know. I kind of…I might even adopt that one, what’s happy and crappy. By the way, I love that actually. I love happy and crappy. Okay, I totally take it back. I don’t like sweet and sour. It’s happy and crappy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We’re going to switch then. We’ll trade.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah, so happy and crappy. I win. So, what I’m happy about is I’m happy about the book. I’m also happy that we had the book release is over and the exhaustion of 4:00 o’clock a.m. podcast, not that this is exhausting and a 4:00 o’clock a.m. podcast but I was doing those, right? So, that I’m all happy about. Sour is my son. I have two boys, got one at 12, one at 16. They’re very long protracted pregnancies. No, I’m just kidding.

They were foster children. And the 16-year old, you know, he’s turned a corner in many ways but he’s making very bad choices, economic choices. And at a time when he doesn’t have a job, he’s not making good choices. And that would typically lead me to want to hold him accountable and restrict funding from him because of his very bad choices. And, unfortunately, we’re at a time when we’re in a crisis, and he has no sources of income so I’m struggling to set boundaries and still be supportive, and it’s very difficult for me, and I don’t think I’m being a very good father. So, that’s my sour.

What’s yours?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, okay, I’ll tell you. Well, I guess the sweet and sour, alright? So, I think sweet, actually, hey, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for online learning so I’m seeing some actually pretty excellent growth in revenue and such, so that’s pretty sweet. What’s sour is, well, I’ll say what first came to mind and then we’ll discuss this afterwards. Well, at this moment, there is in the U.S. a whole lot of unrest, protests, riots associated with the murder of George Floyd, and conversations about racism and police brutality. And it just makes me sad when I read and I observe and I see the state of where we are and how difficult it can be to heal and transform. It just makes me sad. And I’m feeling hopeless in terms of I don’t quite know for me what I can do.

Now, I think I might know what you’re about to say, Keith, but you tell me. We were talking about vulnerability, what I just shared is sour but it’s not particularly vulnerable to me. That’s just something that I think all of us are kind of dealing with right now. Is that fair to say?

Keith Ferrazzi
It’s cool. First of all, when you asked for this, different people have different natural proclivity of their own openness. So, this is like when we ask somebody, “What are you really struggling with at work?” and your boss asks you that. “Well, I just work too hard.” So, your answer was authentic. It’s something you’re struggling with. How you’re internalizing it could be more vulnerable. You could be talking about a level of depression that you’re having, difficult concentrating, etc. That could be more vulnerable.

But, yeah, I mean, the window of vulnerability is open to how you want to be. The reason I went to personal, and went more deeply personal, is because I wanted to set a tone, and I could’ve gone more, right? If I’m doing this with a group of my friends that know me for years, I would go more vulnerable on things. And sometimes in certain environments you don’t but it’s a start, right? That was a start, and it does breed empathy. It does breed empathy. And then you move from there.

But we help teams create this kind of relational connection as one of the elements. There are eight elements. We coach team through eight elements of transformation. And we believe right now there is a very important opportunity for any member of a team or any leader of a team to re-contract with a team, to reboot how a team’s social contracts exist.

So, for instance, is there a social contract where we care about each other? Is there a social contract where I feel responsible for your success as I do my own? And that’s a contract. Now what’s the practice that follows that contract up? Is there a contract that we’re going to tell the truth in meetings? Or is there a contract we aren’t going to talk on each other’s backs? Many teams have contracts that talk behind each other’s backs. It’s not written on some value statement on the wall but it’s what happens.

I wrote all these up and we’ve done $2 million worth of research on how to apply these methodologies in a remote world. In a remote world, we find that you get a real degradation of trust, and you get a degradation of vulnerability, and you become much more transactional, so a lot of this has to be more intentional.

I put a website when all this happened. I put the $2 million worth of research studies up there. It’s called VirtualTeamsWin.com. And it has been very effective for people, and a part of it is a free contract that you can use to re-contract with your team and do a set of social norms. Now, I do that for a living with teams. I go in and I re-contract teams’ social norms, and I coach them to adopt these behaviors. But I wanted to write a book to help anybody be able to do that. And that was the intention of Leading Without Authority. How do you go into a group of people and help them rewrite their social contracts so you can achieve extraordinary things together?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I’m starting to see the pieces are coming together a little bit here. I see that vulnerability led to empathy powerfully as you demonstrated. I guess I know what you’re dealing with, and I feel a closer connection to you as a result but I don’t yet know that you give a hoot about me and what I’m trying to achieve from that alone. What comes next?

Keith Ferrazzi
So, people are always talking about, “How do we get higher degrees of engagement in the workforce?” Well, have them co-create with you. Most old leaders would just dictate. I love reaching out to people and saying, like I said earlier, “Hey, I got an idea but let’s wrestle this together because I think together we can come up with a solution that’ll really kick butt, right?”

So, you got to get into a co-creation. Through the co-creation together, then you’ll have even more time. You’ll have more time to become deeper connected, right? Continue to lead with that authenticity, lead with that sincerity, that generosity, be of service, but along the way you have an opportunity to celebrate somebody in front of another person, “Hey, I’ve been working with so and so. Gosh, she’s just amazing. She’s so smart.” That is another way to show generosity.

So, I think of it as a DNA strand where being of service and being authentic keep intertwining with each other, because the more vulnerable and authentic you are, the more people will open to you authentically and vulnerably back, the more you can learn about them, the more you can be of service, the more you be of service, the more time they give you. And, together, the relationship creates loyalty. And I think this is true of all relationships, not even just work relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Well I’m curious, if you’re going about doing this sort of thing and you hit some roadblocks and people just don’t seem to be jiving with what you’re trying to do, what are means of diagnosing and correcting what’s going on?

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, lots of advice in the book on this. One of the whole chapters is called, “It’s all on you,” where I come up with six deadly excuses that we use to not work with people collaboratively. And a lot of it is because you bump up against the wall and someone’s difficult or obstinate or distracted. And you’re just like, “Oh they should cooperate with me. They should collaborate with me.” It’s like all on your terms. And so I twist it and I say it’s all on you.

Sometimes, you have to go 99.9% of the way to engage somebody before they start to move halfway toward you. Like with my son, when he first came into my house, I couldn’t say, “When you start acting like my son, I’ll be your father.” He’d be like, “Well screw you. I don’t want you to be my father. anyway” And so I had to work 99.9% harder and on the way, I had to stay there and be vulnerable and try to be the best dad I could be while he was saying, “You will never be my father.” And sometimes we have to do that at the workplace if we want to be high integrity leaders.

Keith Ferrazzi
What I think is most important is that we decide sometimes also when we need to walk away if you can walk away. A lot of energy gets eroded when you are working your butt off to try to convert somebody that is a resistor when you should be working to create outcomes with people who are desirous of getting outcomes with you. Because often the momentum of working with people who are desirous of getting outcomes with you will actually be the thing that you need to convert the naysayer, so don’t spend too much time trying to intellectually convert the naysayer. You should be focusing as well on actually getting results. So, a lot of the methodology of Leading Without Authority is take some small wins and get them over the line as well.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
No. Look, I mean, this was an eight-year passion project. And now I’m creating books, and, just like yourself, I’m creating leadership courses, and I really do want people to be able to be extraordinary in this new world.

I also just started a foundation called Go Forward to Work. And the principle of it is we’ve done a lot of transformation in the last couple of months, I want people to go forward to work, not back to work. I want us to define what the future of work is because I think it’s alive and living right now in this time of crisis, and I want to document it. And I’m working with about 80 CHROs of some of the biggest companies in the world to define what the practices of the future of work are today.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Oh, yeah. I think it was “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think it was Emerson. But the principle is sticking to your guns too long is foolish particularly if you get more data and you get a better argument.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I just started using technology in very different ways. I’m using Slack, I’m using Asana. I think it’s so important. Of course, Zoom has been extraordinary. I think it’s so important for us to begin to be much more rigorous in our use of tools to support our business, and that’s not traditionally been done. Even in big organizations, I don’t see some of these tools being used for communications, for program management, for knowledge management, for process redefinition and management. They’re great tools so I would start using some of them.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect with folks and people quote it back to you frequently?

Keith Ferrazzi
I think it’s the definition of all the work that I’ve done, it’s always ask, “Who?” When you figure out where you want to go, you’re trying to think about what you want to do, how you want to get there, there’s a question that we under-curate, and that question is, “Who?” Right? “Who do I need to do it with?” And then all of our science and research helps you be extraordinary, and it helps you be awesome at your job, relative to that question “Who?” from a relational and collaborative standpoint.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
KeithFerrazzi.com is probably the best. I’m very proud of a leadership course we just created there. You can get the book everywhere, but KeithFerrazzi.com is a great place to start. I check my own Instagram too if anybody wants to say hi.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Have a vision for something that could be transformative in your workplace, and identify the first person to bring into the team to co-create that vision. And the wonderful thing about the first person you bring into your team, you’re actually bringing them into their team, meaning this is a real co-creation. Don’t hold this idea up as yours. It’s yours and theirs. Go kick some butt and go be transformative. The next thing you know, you might end up rising up to be an executive at the company because of your transformation.

Pete Mockaitis
Keith, this has been a treat. Thanks so much and keep on rocking.

Keith Ferrazzi
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. It’s an honor.

578: How to Stay Calm and Productive Amid Uncertainty with David Lebel

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David Lebel says: "Fear can be adaptive."

Professor David Lebel shares tactics for overcoming the fear of the uncertain and building the courage to speak up.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Simple, but powerful ways to ease your anxiety
  2. The surprising cost of leaving things unsaid
  3. A handy script for when you need to disagree

About David

David Lebel is an award-winning teacher and researcher, currently serving as Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Dave has received multiple teaching awards and was the highest rated professor at the Katz school during the 2017-2018 academic year. His research focuses on proactive behaviors at work including voice/speaking up, innovation, and taking initiative.

Dave received a BS in Economics, an MS in Management, and a PhD in Organizational Behavior, all from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. Prior to pursuing a PhD, he was a management consultant with Deloitte, providing strategy and operations expertise to public sector clients, and an analyst for a large $15 billion privately held supply chain organization.

He lives with his family in Pittsburgh, PA.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Lebel Interview Transcript

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

David Lebel
Thanks. I really appreciate being here. Looking forward to talking with you this afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m looking forward to it as well and I think we’ll have a lot of good chats about being proactive, and facing fear, and speaking up, and initiative, and all that. But I understand your initial entrée into the world of work was not quite as illustrious. Can you tell us a bit about that?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, right after graduating from business school, I got my first job with a large wholesale grocer, and it was a relatively typical job in the sense that it was like a business analyst. I was going to be an internal consultant, helping them solve problems. But I remember going on my first day of work, having like an orientation, having a good day. At the end, they said, “We have a present for you.” And I said, “Whoa.” And then we opened it up and there was a box of steel-toed boots, and we were like, “What is this for?” And they said, “You’re going to be working in the warehouse for three weeks.”

And we had some inkling that we were going to be doing some stuff in the warehouse but we didn’t know we’d be working in the warehouse, like on the shop floor. So, we actually worked the night shift for three weeks, and it was 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. because that’s when you do most of the distribution for groceries, and it was a large wholesale grocer. It did most of the distribution for New England, in Pennsylvania, and grocery stores, so most of those trucks go out in the middle of the night, so we were working night shifts and we had to pick cases.

So, you’re in this gigantic warehouse and you had to go up and down the aisles, riding on these scooter things, and picking cases of cereal and snacks, and putting them on a pallet, and then getting them ready to go on the truck. And I remember getting made fun of. The workers, they would say, like computer hands, I would get callouses all over.

And so, it impressed my girlfriend, and now wife, at the time. I guess it was a little bit blue collar, like this tough guy. And it was a very interesting time because I remember me and my roommate and colleague at the time, we’d finish our shift about 6:30-7:00 o’clock in the morning, and we’d get dinner at the all-you-can-eat-buffet at the hotel. We’d watch the opening of the stock market at like 8:00-8:30 and we’d go to bed, and then repeat.

So, I was this hotshot business school graduate ready to solve problems, and here I was, we’re working on the shop floor for three weeks, but it taught me so much about the entire business. And then when I worked in procurement months later, I could talk to the warehouse guys much easier and totally understand what they were, what their perspectives, and like jointly solve problems that way. So, it actually ended up being a great way for me to see the entire organization, and then proactively come up with ideas. Because in procurement, I could say, “Hey, look, we could do this but that’s going to be an issue for the warehouse guys. Maybe we should do it this way where we both can gain.” And so, just seeing the whole organization, it actually ended up being a great first job for many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool and I really dig sort of forward-thinking organizations that go there as well as humble people who are like, “Excuse me, I have a fancy business school degree.” So, that’s cool. Now, you’ve got a number of areas of expertise, and I’m really interested in talking a bit about fear, and speaking up, and having a touch of coronavirus influence when it comes to fear and workers in the mix. So, can you orient us in terms of what are you known for? What are you the expert in?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, I did my dissertation on different types of fear at work, especially in relation to speaking up. And we actually know quite a bit about this and it’s very, very pervasive leading people to remain silent. And you just see it now in the news. You speak up and someone gets fired. You see that at a very high level. And there’s a lot of research on this, and it really almost comes from our parents, from little kids, like you’re taught not to ask too many questions.

And so, there’s some good research on showing that this type of fear gets started when we’re very, very young, a fear of authority, so we don’t want to challenge them even when we’re older. There are other concerns like material concerns, just, “I don’t want to lose my job. Like, if I speak up, maybe my boss might demote me or even fire me.” And so, those are pretty heavy-rooted fears, and those are very difficult to overcome.

I also did some research on external fears. This is in a work setting so fears of economic downturn impacting the organization. That would be very relevant now. Like, let’s say if you’re working in a startup restaurant that might be fighting for survival. You’re just looking out at all these external problems going on, loss of consumers, and you might actually speak up with ideas to help go about that.

Now, that’s what my dissertation was on, and I found that when leaders really were supportive or when employees really identified with the organization, meaning they kind of saw the organization, themselves as one with the organization, they spoke up more even despite those external fears, those fears of losing business. And that was kind of the novel contribution because we know that fear often just really shuts down voice. And so, I was looking for some instances when a certain type of fear, employees might overcome and still be able to speak up.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, then it’s the notion that when you identify with the business, or the organization, the employer workplace, then you’re more likely to experience those butterflies or tingles or manifestations of fear, and say that, “It’s worth it. I’m going to speak up because…” It’s kind of like, I guess I’m speculating, you fill me in. It’s sort of like, “This is a part of me. Like, the performance of this organization, what we’re doing, what we’re up to is something that I genuinely care about. And so, thusly, I am willing to make a bit of a risk or a sacrifice to support it.” Is that kind of the mechanism there? Or how would you articulate it?

David Lebel
Yeah, no, I think that’s a good way of articulating it. And kind of what I thought about in my dissertation was more about protecting the organization, right? And so, fear, when we feel fear, we’re protecting something, mostly ourselves. And what that identity was doing was making it more outward, protecting the organization.

And same thing with supportive supervisors. They were helping the employees, at least I was speculating that those supportive supervision helped the employees take that fear, channel it, move it away from an internal focus, and think about ways to channel the fear towards protecting the larger entity, it could be a team or the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so let’s maybe zoom out and talk about the experience of fear for workers more broadly in terms of kind of what’s behind it, so we’re looking to protect something, often ourselves. And then if we’re feeling fear, and let’s talk about the coronavirus context, like you think, “Uh-oh, I don’t know if I’m  going to be stricken with an illness, or if someone I love and care about will be stricken, or if my job is still going to be there, or if I’m going to get the government support, or I’m not going to get the government support, or I’m going to starve but it’s going to dry up.” So, in a world of high fear and uncertainty, how do we deal?

David Lebel
It’s really tough because a lot of our first reactions with protection are kind of very rigid, kind of the opposite of what you want during these times to be able to adapt. I mean, that’s a natural thing. When we get fearful, we constrict our focus, we narrow our focus of attention. And sometimes it’s very good if you already have an existing habit or routine to deal with a situation, but in this case, it’s not happening because we all have to develop completely new routines, right? We’re working from home, we have kids at home during work, and so your routine is completely disrupted so this makes it really, really difficult.

And I think, for me, even just starting at a basic level, simple things, like even articulating, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of something.” I’m afraid of what is it? Losing my job? Is it coming down with the virus, of being depressed? It could even be, “I’m afraid of not seeing my coworkers, friends, family for a period of time.” And they think it may seem like such a small step, but articulating it, there are different protective measures that you need for each of those different types of fear.

And so, fear can be adaptive when you start to think about what it is and what’s appropriate for the situation, how you might be able to protect yourself. Or, in some ways, if you turn it outwards again, and I think I’ll use that a lot today, if you’re thinking about, “Maybe I don’t have to focus on my work. Maybe I can focus on protecting my kids, just making sure that they’re safe and that they’re happy.” And I think that’s something to do.

And if you’re alone working at home, I think if it’s work-focused, just develop some sense of efficacy. That’s another way to overcome fear. And so, take something that you’re very good at, start off with one goal a day and accomplish it. And, again, it might seem very small, but just that small act of accomplishing something, feeling like I did something today, recognizing that you are good at something, I think that can help, at least temporarily, distract you from those fears. And it’s like small wins, like goal-setting, small wins, do a little bit each day and kind of build the pile.

And I got to admit, and especially for your listeners, and I teach this stuff, in this situation, I thought it very hard, and I’m literally now on my desk, kind of lists of just start small, small wins, one thing a day, and then kind of check that off, and it feels good to check it off. And then I start to work earlier today, and then by 8:30, I was basically done with that task, and I felt really good about that. And so, I think, well, maybe I’ll add to my routine, like start work a little bit earlier, and then go help the kids with their lessons for a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a lot of powerful actionable stuff right off the bat there in terms of so the fear bubbles up when there’s something sort of at risk, like a loss may occur, lost of job, loss of income, loss of health, loss of fun times, seeing friends, family, and sort of that is kind of what’s behind fear. And, thusly, we want to respond via protection, taking a protective action, and so one tool is to just kind of shift the focus on who and what we’re protecting. Another tool is to just identify, articulate it clearly, “I’m afraid of this,” sort of unmasked, and then you can look at it straight on. And another one is efficacy, just get something done and feel good about what you’re capable of and how you work it.

So, those are some great tools right off the bat. And then, in the particular context of speaking up, it’s like are there extra considerations there in terms, or is it all just sort of the same guidelines apply?

David Lebel
So, overcoming fears of speaking up?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, you have an idea, you think, “Hmm, you know, this is going to maybe be upsetting to someone. It’s a different perspective. It can make me seem out there, or dumb, or offensive to the big boss who has the opposite point of view.” How do we manage that?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, I’ll start with what I think is the most intriguing way to overcome your fears of speaking up, and then I’ll kind of back into some of the more, what I figured are the more smaller steps. But the first one I think is another negative emotion, actually anger, one. And so, I’m picking it outside the context of coronavirus here, I’m talking about work settings here.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

David Lebel
A lot of times, in anger, maybe out of injustice or mistreatment is something that can really fuel overcoming fear and put it almost completely aside. But, again, there, it almost ties to something bigger, like almost some sense of injustice or mistreatment, and that is something that could often overcome that, can overcome the fears of speaking up. The caution there, of course, is if the impetus is a negative emotion, you may not communicate your idea very well, especially in a work setting. So, there, “Am I going to blow up about this in a meeting?” And kind of the better way might be to regulate the emotion in the sense of you recognize that you have it, table it completely but think about a better channel or a better time, especially maybe one on one as opposed to a meeting.

And so, it’s not easy to do with anger. It could often provide the fuel, and it’s really effective if the person has some control over that emotion. So, there’s always a caveat there. So, that’s one thing, is when you see things, and I encourage people. When they see things at work that they know aren’t right I mean, use that, recognize that, again, label it, and so that might help you…because you’re probably going to be wearing, “Well, will the boss get mad at me?” But use the anger as an indicator that there’s probably something strong here and worth speaking up about, maybe not right now in the moment, but maybe shortly thereafter, or maybe with the help of someone else, maybe form a coalition or something like that. But use that anger kind of productively as an indicator emotion that there’s something wrong that needs to be addressed.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, hey, there’s one. Keep it coming. Lay it on us.

David Lebel
There are some other ones. I mean, there are some people who can just, again, develop an ability for this. I find myself either, if I know it’s going to be a contentious issue and I’m afraid about it, it’s almost like giving a speech. It’s not the length of the speech but it’s just for two minutes kind of hearing the idea play out even for myself. I mean, I’ll use my wife, trusted coworkers, just to hear it so it’s not all inside your head, because if it’s all inside your head, that’s usually how anxiety gets there.

So, just hearing yourself kind of articulate what you want to say can be really helpful because when you get in the meeting, and it may not be even like a big issue, but when you’re in the meeting and you start to say, “Well, maybe…oh, now is not a good time. I’m too nervous.” If you’ve already practiced it, the likelihood is much greater that you actually follow through on it. So, just hearing yourself speak that morning, the night before, on your commute to work, will greatly increase the likelihood you have the courage to speak up when the time comes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. Boy, we jumped right to the how because I got so excited. Well, maybe I should take a step back and establish the why. You know, being afraid isn’t so pleasant. But could you really paint a picture in terms of what is the cost of this fear in terms of lost productivity, or great ideas that are not shared, or dissenting opinions that could preempt very bad decisions from being made but weren’t made. I mean, I’m sure it’s staggering even though, how you would begin to estimate that. But what’s your sense of what’s at stake here with regard to fear and not speaking up, and what’s it’s costing all of us?

David Lebel
When you go down so many examples in history, like recently coronavirus, the healthcare row a couple of years ago, examples of war where soldiers weren’t listened to about issues, and there’s some really, really important stuff. And then at work, I think this is one of the most important things, lost productivity, things like mistreatment at work go unaddressed, just people aren’t willing to speak up. And I understand, having been an employee for many years myself, having been in academia where I find myself many times saying, “I’m not going to speak up until I get tenure or until I have a protection.”

So, I’m very well aware of all these things but I think the organization really suffers, and a lot of times I end up speaking up because I realize that I’m suffering. Even if somebody else is being affected, I just don’t want to see somebody else treated that way. And I think you find, again, for me, again, just turning it outwards to realize it’s not just about me, it’s about something bigger. And I think people, I plead with people out there to have the courage to speak up, or at least share the idea with others to maybe hear others tell you that, yeah, you really need to speak up about this, or maybe they’re willing to speak up on your behalf, so go through channels.

So, there’s a caution here. Go to your peers for feedback. A lot of times that can lead to just kind of complaining about it, so there’s some good studies that just going to your peers leads to very low-quality voice. So, I think go to your peers for advice and say, “Hey, I really want to get your input on this. You’re a trusted confidante or an expert on this area,” and keep it about the idea because, otherwise, a lot of times going to your peers can lead to just more complaining about the situation, right? And then you’re just kind of bitching about it for 20 minutes and then no one gets anywhere.

But I think if you go to other people and get advice first, they may say, “Yeah, I’m facing the same thing,” and then it becomes more powerful and even more important to speak up, or you realize that there’s strength in numbers, so don’t keep it inside your head again. But I think the anxiety will just get much greater if it just stays inside your head. The rationale calculus of, “Is it worth me speaking up?” versus the benefits for others, if you stay inside your head, I’m going to guess that the fear and anxiety is going to overweigh that calculus most of the time. So, I think just articulating it to other people and asking them about it can go a long way.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. And I would love to hear some success stories in terms of folks who were fearful or not speaking up in the organization and their own careers for being held back, but then they did something and made it happen. Could you regale us with a tale or two of victory?

David Lebel
Yeah, so I think a lot of good examples, and I’ll stick to some generic ones, but a lot of people find they start off in their careers and they spoke up a lot, and then they get penalized in some way, and so they kind of go cold turkey and stop the other way. And there’s this great book Tempered Radicals which kind of talks about striking the balance there. It’s an organization, there are norms, and you can’t just always completely challenge things.

And so, what people learn is kind of how to dissent but within the intricacies of the system. And I think the ways to do that are, again, thinking about the organization, thinking about why you’re being affected, why you want to speak out. First, start there but also think about, “Well, is this my boss’ idea? Is it in line with the organization’s values or goals or metrics? How can I sell this issue a little bit better in line with the organization?” And that’s really where the success comes from.

So, I think if you say, even if it’s a really big issue about turnover, about benefits, or mistreatment, if you start off by saying, “Look, you know, I really care about the organization, or I care about this team, and we’re a high-performing team but we’re really suffering lately because of this. And I’m seeing these issues, and here are some suggestions that I have.” I think it’s hard for most reasonable bosses and supervisors to argue with that and argue against that.

And so, one thing, and this is advice for speaking up and being proactive, if you realize that it might be a challenging issue, well, one, always certainly raise problems but come up with suggestions too. Like, you have to do both. Articulate the problem and present a suggestion, but also think about the perspective of the other side, how they may react, and what’s something that might be of interest to them. Your interest might be other-focused but you might lean on their self-interest, right, in pitching the idea by sticking to the bottom line, or talking about the benefit to financial metrics.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think those are some great principles. Can you bring them to life by hearing about someone who used it and saw something happen?

David Lebel
Yeah, I think some good examples where I’ve always done this is where when I was a consultant. I always start off by saying, “This is something that the client is facing.” I almost put it through the eyes of the other person, right? Tell the story about the customer and the client. I almost always had good responses from bosses and supervisors. And even a crazy story about someone who got dragged…it was sort of a disagreement, and somebody said, “Hey, that’s not right,” it was an advisor, a mentor, actually, who got dragged out by the ear into the other office, but in the office they said, “Look, this was about my colleagues. It’s not about me.”

And that ended up having a good resolution because it ended up being a crazy situation where speaking up led to anger on both sides, and someone getting dragged into an office. But in the end, this focus on other people ended up leading to a solution afterwards. And, eventually, after the boss, crazy boss kind of calmed down, led to some success there.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. And so, you mentioned some particular approaches and practices and principles in terms of thinking about their interests and such. I’d love it, are there any particular words, phrases, scripts, fits of verbiage that you found just tend to be very helpful again and gain as you’re playing this game?

David Lebel
Yeah, I mean, I think the catchphrase, and these maybe very stock phrases, you know, things by saying, “This just might be me,” or, “This might come out of left field,” or, “Maybe I’m not the expert here.” I think what you find is that, especially in interdependent contexts where, “We’re all working together, and the actions I take impact the other members of the team,” what you find is that people who hedge just a little bit. By hedging, I mean like disclaimers. Use intonation when you speak for questions at the end as opposed to making declarative statements. Kind of hedge a little bit by taking the edge off at the end.

You can use uhm’s, maybe’s, stuff like that. And people in business tend to think, “I have to be powerful all the time.” But sometimes with these types of issues that could raise conflict, it’s good to use a little bit of hedges and qualifiers in your speech because that can kind of take the edge off and not create as much conflict with others.

Pete Mockaitis
And if we are in more of a leadership-influencer role, how can we encourage folks to have less fears in speaking up and speak up more often so we get the info we need to make great choices?

David Lebel
Yeah, one thing is just asking questions. If leaders sit down, if you’re a manager and you’re a leader, and we’re used to saying things, being assertive, trying to get our way, I mean, if you take a few minutes before a meeting and think about some questions you want to ask, I think most people, especially in the United States where we’ve very assertive and aggressive, it’s actually not that easy to ask good questions. It actually takes a lot more thought. And so, it takes some planning to think about, “What kind of information do I want to draw out? What kind of perspectives? What data do I need?” And just doing that, and I find this with myself even when I’m teaching that I’m often asserting rather than asking questions, and it always is the case that when I ask good questions, the conversation is much, much richer.

And so, I think as leaders, taking the time just to write a few questions rather than, you know, we’re all used to, “What’s the agenda for today? Here’s what I want accomplished in this meeting.” Adding some questions if you do in every meeting, you’re going to naturally get more communication, more feedback from people, so that would naturally spur voice.

Then, number two, I think is, and I see this in parenting all the time, how you react to other’s opinions and minor mistakes, and I see this with kids. But you see with employees because the minute the boss kind of even has a little bit of a blowup with a minor mistake, or someone else’s opinion, even if you built up a norm or a culture or kind of a climate within a team, that’s one of speaking up, one misstep like that from the leader can really create the cascade of fear not just among the person you’re dealing with but with the whole team.

So, you have to be really careful about that and how you respond because that’s really a cue of psychological safety. If the boss just blew up over this minor thing, how is he or she going to handle an even a bigger issue, right? And that will really flatten voice because they might think, “If I spoke about some little thing, and I’m getting a negative reaction, no way am I going to speak up about something that I think might be of more consequence.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I think that How to be Awesome at Your Job listeners are so cool, and kind, and generous, and compassionate. I mean, I genuinely like all of you, which is cool. Some audiences are really weird, no offense, but ours is awesome. Anywho. So, I think that most of us are, you know, got things under control so we’re not going to start screaming or name-calling or swearing. I imagine there’s also a lot of more subtle ways that we can put the kabash on psychological safety and foment some more fear of speaking up. Can you highlight a couple things that maybe we don’t even know that we’re doing that we should cut out?

David Lebel
Yeah, and I think even from my own experience, especially early on, it’s actually not these over-the-top reactions, these extreme cases. It’s really the more everyday mundane examples. And so, I would speak up in that first job as a business analyst, I have a lot of ideas for procedures, better technology, and my boss wasn’t negative about it, but the boss, she was just like, “Okay, go ahead and just do it.” And I was very quizzical, like, “I don’t have a budget. Most of my coworkers are much older than I am. How do I have status with them? How am I going to convince them?”

So, it was that minor reaction that led me to stop speaking up because it wasn’t that they were like yelling at me or getting angry, there was no penalty, but they weren’t really considering it. They were like, “Just go and do it.” And I said, “No, I kind of need your help with this.” So, the issue was responsiveness to it. So, I think in a meeting, the boss may not even realize it, you cut off someone’s opinion. And so, when you might reflect later on about that meeting, if you think like, “Maybe I didn’t respond to that.” The boss or the supervisor should say, “Maybe I should follow up with that person just to make sure,” afterwards and take that extra step to say, “You know, you were talking about this and maybe I didn’t hear you. Let’s hear a little bit more about that idea.”

And I think if it’s a lot more subtle than that, and I think a lot of times even if you’re not going to take action, following up on it. And so, a lot of times you have lots of reasons and good reasons not to pursue an idea because you, as a leader, have a wider perspective. And so, just communicate that because I think employees, a lot of times, don’t hear that, and they think that their idea just got thrown in the waste basket. And I think they just want to hear that it was at least considered, and that goes a very, very long way.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s a great point, and I think that might be counterintuitive to some leaders who think, “Oh, I don’t want to dump on him like, ‘Dave, let me tell you six reasons why that idea is not going to work.’” Yeah, of course, there’s better ways you could do that, like, “Hey, Dave, I really appreciate you bringing that up. I think that really would be effective in driving these particular results. At this time, we’re not going to move forward with it because of these other concerns, A, B, and C. Please keep it coming.”

And then I think that benefits you as well because you now have a greater context or an understanding of the broader situation, and so it’s like, “Huh, okay, I didn’t know that was the thing. Well, now, that I do, that’s going to sharpen my subsequent ideas and considerations moving forward.”

David Lebel
And most employees just want to have good process, so a lot of times employees are much more motivated, they’re much more satisfied just by hearing that you thought about their idea. A lot of times they understand that not everything can be implemented and changed, and so employees often, when they’re asked, actually don’t always care about the end results, sometimes they do, but a lot of times it’s just being heard, that’s enough for them, not the end change. So, bosses can gain, and supervisors, leaders can gain a lot of traction just by really taking extra time to communicate that you’ve listened, that you’ve heard, but also maybe give a reason you’re not able to implement something. And that really helps keep up employee motivation, not just to speak up again but their overall satisfaction at work.

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

David Lebel
No, I think, well, one thing I want to say was for employees to be thinking about in these times. You know, if they want to be proactive, there’s generally three types of performance, adaptive, and core tasks performance. And so, I think in these times where we’re facing so many challenges, focus on, and I‘m just going to assume this, your core tasks. Get those done first. But there are two other types of performance. The proactivity part which is a speaking up part, and the adaptivity part.

And I think people are saying, “Should I still be proactive and doing all these things?” I’m not so sure. It requires a lot of energy to do these things, focus on the core tasks, and also focus on that adaptation part, especially during these times, and then maybe kind of look out into the future about what comes next. And so, I think people nowadays, I’m still hearing when I’m talking to some coworkers and others, even students, like, “Should I be looking out into the future and being proactive?” I’m not so sure in these current times. Normally, I say yes, but under these circumstances, we might not have the energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great point. Like, you may not have the energy, yeah. If one of my colleagues said, “Pete, I got 10 great ideas. We got to optimize this podcast.” I’d say, “That’s cool. Maybe give me your favorite or maybe begin evaluating those on your own,” because it is, it’s kind of hard to just, you know, nail the basics right now.

David Lebel
Yeah, exactly. You might want to refrain some of that more group-oriented proactivity now. Focus on the self. If you’re going to do something proactive, make it skill development, like Zoom training or something else like that, or learning some new technology. There I’d make it for the self. But I think some of these other behaviors that really help organizations and teams function, I think now just getting the baseline setup first, and then making sure you get your core tasks and adaptive, especially for people who may be worried about job insecurity or something like that. I think that’s the best thing they can focus on. Think about those three different compartments of your job and focus on what’s most important on a day-to-day basis.

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

David Lebel
Yes, my favorite quote is “Have a mind that is open to everything but attached to nothing.” And Wayne Dyer use that a lot, and I think it comes from an ancient monk, but I really liked that because I think you see leaders get attached to something or always feel the need to defend. And I see that in myself a lot, and I often reflect on, “How can I be more open-minded about things?” And I think for the challenges that we face in most industries, regardless of the present times, just with changing technology and increased competition, we need more open-minded thinkers.

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

David Lebel
Yeah, my favorite stuff before I even went into grad school was on psychological safety within teams. Amy Edmondson’s work at Harvard, and she did stuff with nurses, and really important stuff that found that when nurses had high levels of psychological safety, they were more likely to report errors within hospital wards and units. And that research also kind of looked at how teams functioned a lot better and could adapt and learn a lot better when they had psychological safety within teams. And so, that kind of spurred my interest into speaking up, and the topics of fear and how we might address those things.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

David Lebel
Probably something that you’ve heard on the podcast but definitely Switch. I mean, there’s always so many good things about how to change, again how to adapt, how to lead change. A book by the Heath brothers, I assign it, and I’m almost re-reading it, and re-highlighting things. And, also, the book Deep Work, which is especially important now I have it on my shelf to re-read to get focus to get a lot of good habits for dealing with distraction, especially with social media, online, internet.

Now, being at home, it seems even harder to get away from some of these, from social media distractions, and also to find like half-hour, an hour of concentrated time. So, Deep Work is another good book for tips on how to do that.

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

David Lebel
One thing that I found over the years, and I’m a big person in terms of data, and I really like to be tracking things. So, I have like a writing goal every day. And, really, what it is, it’s like a goal-setting chart. I remember over the last four to five years, it’s actually not that easy to set a daily goal. You start to realize they’re very broad at first. And five years later, I think I’m finally good at setting very specific smart goals every day that are very actionable and concrete. And I have a bunch of different columns I put in Excel spreadsheet, and track that daily.

And at the end of the year, I always kind of analyze it, and it’s really, really, helpful to both on a daily basis and at the end of the year reflect on some of that data because I can really, really uncover some personal trends about when I’m most productive, when I’m not, what’s working, and what’s not. So, at the end of each year, I’m able to come away with two or three things that have very boosted my productivity but also hindered it. Then that goes on my list of things to focus on for the next year. And it kind of creates a virtuous cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew! Boy, you know, Dave, I could talk to you for an hour plus about goal-setting spreadsheet so I’m going to restrain myself, but got to get just a couple more details. So, all right, so what’s the row, what’s the column, what’s the units? How does it unfold?

David Lebel
So, the rows are just days by months because I’m teaching in certain terms and been doing research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, each row of that.

David Lebel
Yeah. And then the columns are really, you know, I have a setting for what’s the goal for the day. And, for me, it’s how many words. The main metric is how many words I wrote. Going back to grad school, when I was struggling to complete the program and my dissertation, and I realized, “What do I need to be doing more?” And I was like, “Oh, I need to write a dissertation.” And when I started to track it, I realized how little I was writing. So, that’s been a major metric.

And it really helped me to realize it doesn’t have to be good writing. It just needs to be writing. And so, over the years, I’ve seen just a very strong increase in the amount of words I write per day, and it showed over the last four years and how much I wrote in terms of book chapters, and articles published. It’s a really good leading indicator of future performance, at least in my job.

And then other things I’ve started to track, things that might be hindering that, and so I got a Monday. Yeah, Monday is just lower and I’ve always…I’ve tried to institute routines on Sunday night to get better performance on Monday so I start writing better. I found that if I forced myself to focus on two different projects and write about two things, obviously I’m writing more. It seems like a simple thing but now I try to build in…I don’t do that every day because I’ll get burned out but most days, two to three days out of a week, I try to say, “Okay, I need to be writing about two things.”

And then other aspects of my job, I found that when I’m doing certain types of projects that are very particular to academia, but I realized that those are increasing or decreasing my productivity so I’ve tried to shift some of the load so I can do more of those things that boost, and kind of put my hand down and not sign up for those other things that might detract from that productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

David Lebel
Well, that’s one of them. The other thing for me now is actually just mindfulness. I use the Headspace app every day, even at work. I’m not afraid to admit that I take five to 10 minutes to do a mindfulness exercise, clear my head, do some breathing, because I found I’m in knowledge work, and I need the brain to be a little calm, quiet, and so I set a routine for that every day even at work.

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

David Lebel
To my LinkedIn profile or you can just look me at the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, my email is on there. And, really, I’m always happy to talk about these things.

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

David Lebel
Kind of what we talked about today. And I find this when I’m talking to my students, is have the courage to speak about these things. Oftentimes, if you are feeling the fear or some anger, they are very important to bring up whatever that topic might be. And so, find the courage yourself. And it may not be you, it may not have to be you to speak up. It could be finding someone else who can hold the reins for you, somebody within your team, or somebody with more status, or something like that. But I think we need that in these knowledge-intensive industries that most of us work in now, and the challenges that we face. We need to have a wider array of ideas and also dissent. It’s okay to have dissent. We’re not always going to agree about things so I challenge people to speak up more.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Dave, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your adventures in speaking up and courage and more.

David Lebel
Thanks, Pete. I really appreciate this. Thanks for the opportunity.

564: Tapping the Motivational Forces of the World’s Most Successful People with Marco Greenberg

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Marco Greenberg says: "Some of the brightest people... see their professional life as an adventure rather than just a job."

Marco Greenberg shares how primal drives can be the key to unlocking your motivation and potential at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the world’s most successful people are “primitive”
  2. How to tap into your primal drive using the ROAMING framework
  3. How to weaponize your insecurities

About Marco:

Marco Greenberg has spearheaded marketing communications and public affairs campaigns for an array of Fortune 500 corporations, healthcare organizations, and notable venture- and angel-backed startups, and has served as a senior advisor to foreign governments, democratic movements, and NGOs. Previously a managing director at global PR giant Burson-Marsteller, he sees his role as a creative catalyst for breakthrough communications. An in-demand speaker and facilitator, he has written opinion pieces for a range of publications, including Business InsiderEntrepreneurNY Daily NewsTablet Magazine, WeWork’s Creator.

He holds a BA from UCLA and an MA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and taught as an adjunct professor of Innovations in Marketing at NYU and entrepreneurship and PR at Fordham University. He splits his time with his wife and three grown children between the upper west side of Manhattan and Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Marco Greenberg Interview Transcript

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

Marco Greenberg
Hey, terrific to be on your podcast, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, before we hit record, I learned that we shared a pretty cool connection, and that’s Mr. Hugh O’Brian with his HOBY, Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Organization, and a client of yours. I know he’s generous and loving and also cantankerous and, well, he will be missed in this world. So, could you tell us a noteworthy Hugh story to kick us off?

Marco Greenberg
I’d be happy to. I was introduced to Hugh O’Brian by, literally, the most legendary figure in the history of public relations, Harold Burson, who, sadly, passed away a couple of months ago just shy of his 99th birthday. And Harold called me into his office, and he said, “Look, I have a really important client to introduce you to who I love, but I want to give you a little bit of warning about Hugh O’Brian. He can be incredibly intense, so much so that we’ve had other people running in the account who ran for the hills or started crying because they couldn’t deal with him. He is absolutely messianic about what he wants to accomplish. He will act as if you have no other clients. But he’s someone that makes a difference. He’s someone that makes an impact. I think you’ll be great to run the account.”

And, sure enough, I was the young 20-something account executive on the Hugh O’Brian Foundation account running the gala, the awards, etc., and I learned a tremendous amount from him. And the fact of the matter is, and I hadn’t thought of this, Pete, until you made the connection between Hugh O’Brian in my own career. But, in my lexicon, Hugh is a classic primitive, meaning he marches to his own drum. He’s an iconoclast. He was non-conventional. He threw out the civilized rulebook. And, for some people, that didn’t jive well with their attitude of what you’re supposed to do in the workplace. But for other people it was actually key to his success. It was key to his ability to move the ball forward like nobody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is good. And, boy, I’ve got a lot of these Hugh memories coming back. I’ve learned a ton from him. And I remember he once shared with us that…so, he was an actor, for those who don’t know. Hugh O’Brian played Wyatt Earp back in the day on a TV series was his big role, and he started this great organization that kind of got me started in this leadership development world. But I remember he said that Gregory Peck left him a voicemail, another famous actor from back in the day who my mom loves, and he didn’t get around to returning the call before Gregory passed away. And I’ve thought about that many, many times in terms of like, don’t be too busy to reach out to your people, and it’s a good reminder. But, anywho.

the human touch doesn’t go out of style. And I think in this world of AI, and big data, and globalization, and outsourcing, and all the trends that we see, I would argue that human factor is more important than anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you and I’m with you. So, let’s dig into the topic du jour there. We had a little Hugh time. Let’s see, we’re talking about, so you got this book here, “Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive that Powers the World’s Most Successful People,” so it sounds helpful. Tell us, what is that primal drive? First of all, what is that thing?

Marco Greenberg
Right. Well, there are a lot of people today that are described as disruptors, mavericks, rebels, non-traditional hires. There are all kinds of different adjectives that are thrown out there. But I think when you get down to it, when you do a reality check, when you do a gut check, it’s really about, “What is that primal drive in our core? What are the instinctive, inborn, natural traits that oftentimes society says, ‘You shouldn’t do that. You must not do that’?” But if we honor what’s primal, and obviously what’s primal can often be childlike, right? And that can be a loaded attribute.

But I found in the people that I’ve worked with who have risen to the top, whether they are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, whether they are the founders of tech unicorns, whether they are the executive directors of NGOs, whether they are actually secretaries of state, and I’d be happy to share a few stories of anecdotes that I had with two secretaries of state that were very instructive for me in my career. I think a lot of the time, you find that they are honoring their primal instincts, that which comes naturally, that which is organic, rather than trying to bury it like most people are taught to do. Most people think, “Well, that’s not appropriate. I’ve got to cross my Ts and dot my I’s. I should follow the more conventional path.” But what I’ve discovered is the most successful people out there are those that, in the words of a famous book, take the road less traveled.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s an interesting theory. So, then what is the primal drive? I mean, so they do things differently, they march to the beat of their own drum, and they aren’t afraid to kind of shuck or disregard certain civilized norms as necessary. And so then, kind of what’s kind of getting them fired up and in motion?

Marco Greenberg
There are a lot of dynamics going on with these primitive characters. Let’s take an uber primitive in my book, someone like Elon Musk. And when you look at Elon Musk, he’s not someone that plays by the conventional rules, right?
And, originally, my book was supposed to be on marketing and how do you get it out there. And, thankfully, I have a more primitive agent, and I’ll explain why, meaning a literary agent, who said, “You know, marketing books are a dime a dozen. Why do you want to do that? Why don’t you do something more unique?” And he asked me, “What separates the most successful people that you worked with, and currently work with, and in the past worked with, and want to work with?” And the first answer that I had is, “They’re friggin’ nuts. They’re crazy.” They are out there. They are eccentric. They throw out the rulebook as we said. Sometimes they’re inappropriate, not in an offensive or illegal way, but just doing things in a bizarre, off-beat, free spirit kind of way.

So, if we go back to Elon Musk, he’s certainly nuts, right? And when I say nuts, I mean crazy in a good way, in a positive way. And that same nut spirit allowed him to launch PayPal, allowed him to get into the space business when people said, “You have no business doing that. What do you know?” And he got into that. And look at Tesla, flying high as of the beginning of the year in a way that no one would’ve thought. So, I would argue that it’s not necessarily the conventional way of following, with all due respect, the Harvard Business School case study of how a CEO should act, but rather someone who writes his own script.

And I think with Elon Musk, he does that. And I’d be happy to explain how, and how listeners can also, in my words, make a couple primitive moves. In other words, even if you’re quite civilized, quite conventional, more in the lane, more in your own world, your own box, sometimes it’s important to get out of that comfort zone and make a primitive move, be a little more nuts, and I can go through different prescriptions on how to do that when it makes sense with you, Pete. But I wanted to throw that out as just a paradigm.

But whether it’s Elon Musk or Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, there are many, many leaders that exhibit these kinds of extraordinary traits that we talk about in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, they’re nuts and they’re unconventional. And so then, what is their primal drive? Like, what is their fuel source that gets them moving? It’s unique.

Marco Greenberg
I think it comes down to how they measure success. And, obviously, you can define success in a myriad of ways. But from the research that we’ve done in the book, from the over 60 interviews, from talking to neuropsychologists and others who, frankly, have expertise that I don’t, most of my expertise, as I’ve mentioned, is in the trenches, is in the weeds, I think the primal drive comes in four areas.

One is certainly they want to be well-compensated, right? That’s not a trivial thing. They want to be appreciated. And, for good or for bad, in our society, often that comes down to the almighty dollars they say, but I think it’s a lot more than that. I think it’s also about making an oversized impact in their own world and on the world at large. I think it’s retaining their sense of independence. These are not women and men who follow orders.

My dad was a classic primitive. He was a modern architect who died way before his time. But he was in the US Air Force Reserve between Korea and Vietnam. And he entered as a third-class private, and six years later, he left as a third-class private. And he said, “Make me a general or leave me a private, but I refuse to pass on silly orders.” So, we actually have that quote in the book and for good reason, because in my view, that kind of captures the spirit of why independence is everything. And you hear the term, and I hope I can use this on your podcast, Pete, “F you, money.” And that is another way of talking about a way to get independence.

But I think, on a primal level, it’s, A, that impact, B, that independence, and it’s also something that I’ve heard you talk about in past podcasts, and it’s something that other people in business, in my view, don’t discuss enough, and that’s the ability to have fun. I have a former client in Boston, his name is Mike Iacobucci, he has a great startup that’s now very mature, called Interactions. They do amazing, amazing work on the voice recognition side. Apple is one of their big clients. And he says to me, “You know, it’s now my, what, third, fourth startup, and I ask myself every day, ‘Am I having fun? Am I still having fun? If I’m having fun, I’m going to do it. If I’m not having fun, I’m not going to do it.’”

So, the primal drive certainly comes from being recognized, and often that’s from my point of view, but it also comes from, “Am I making an impact? Can I retain my sense of independence? And am I having fun?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, so we get there, well-compensated, making an oversized impact, have fun. What’s the other one?

Marco Greenberg
Maintain that sense of independence. It’s certainly about the independence but a lot more. And the good news is that you don’t necessarily have to be an uber primitive like Elon Musk to capture that kind of spirit in your work. You can tap into that. Hence, the subtitle of the book “Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World’s Most Successful People.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I would love it if you could share a story or two, particularly professionals would be ideal, of those who, indeed, they were untapped into their primal drive, and then they did something that tapped it, and then the cool result they saw as a result.

Marco Greenberg
I’d love to. And speaking of love, I’m going to start with a former coworker and friend who actually goes by the name of Love. Love is his first name, and his full name is Love Whelchel, III. And I met Love when he was running talent development at Young and Rubicon, one of the big advertising agencies out there.

And what I realized about Love and his career, both before I met him and after we had stopped working together, was that he was a classic agnostic primitive. What I mean agnostic, not someone who specializes, not someone who is all about focus, but rather someone who jumps from field to field, job to job, a true renaissance man, renaissance figure, who makes that the essence of his DNA. So, Love started out working as a roadie for NWA. Remember the rap group?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Marco Greenberg
He went on to selling books for Deepak Chopra. He then got onto Madison Avenue where I met him. And we feature him in the book at a crucial crossroads in his own career when he got a conversation going with Sean Combs, none other than P. Diddy. And he met with P. Diddy on a Friday afternoon about taking over his head of HR and operations at Bad Boy Entertainment. And he’s going home, and he’s thinking about his conversation with Sean, and whether he should leave Y and R. And Sean calls him on the phone as he’s driving, and he says, “Love, I got to know if you’re taking the job.” And Love says, “Mr. Combs, we just met. I need time to think about it. I need time to process it.” He said, “Love, I’m not going to have a good weekend unless you tell me you’re taking the job.”

And in a heartbeat, his whole life went before him, and rather than being…

Pete Mockaitis
You can’t ruin P. Diddy’s weekend. You can’t have that.

Marco Greenberg
You can’t ruin P. Diddy’s weekend.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s just not acceptable.

Marco Greenberg
Exactly. And, Pete, what do you think Love said?

Pete Mockaitis
“Yes, I’ll do it.”

Marco Greenberg
He said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And he did it for several years and helped take that company to a new level. And, FYI, he’s now at Vera Wang, working for another total primitive in the fashion world. So, here he goes from entertainment, to advertising, to fashion. And we have a great quote from Love in the book, he goes, when he gets a new assignment, he feels like he’s been dropped in the jungle with nothing but his loincloth, a pen knife, and has to fight his way out.

So, for me, that kind of captures the spirit of it. And, no, you do not have to be a guy. I’ve gotten great feedback from a lot of people who say that this book is actually more appropriate for women than men, and I can explain why in a moment if that’s of interest. But that’s an example of a pure primitive. I do think there are people that are really hypercivilized. Again, that’s the kind of other side of the coin in terms of these archetypes.

There’s a woman named Bonnie who I’ve worked with over the years, probably more to the book, a conservative, risk-averse, works her way up the hierarchy, has been in the same industry for years. She worked with me at BBDO, she was there for a quarter of a century, she said that she made a primitive move by going to her boss and saying, “No, I do not want that promotion.” And the reason she said no, which took a lot of courage, it was the kind of offer that you couldn’t refuse, that 99% of her colleagues would’ve said, “Yes, I’m taking that job,” and unlike Love, she said, “No, I’m not taking the job.” And part of it, she traced back to kind of making a primitive move and being oppositional, which is one of the key traits to being a primitive that I think is worth talking about, in having the courage to say no, having the courage to say, “I don’t see it that way,” especially in a world in corporate America that, a lot of times, there’s a lot of group-think going on out there, and we all shake our head, “Yes, yes, yes,” even though in our hearts and our minds we’re thinking something else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then I’m curious, for those who are conservative and then they are…we want to tap into the primal drive, how is that done?

Marco Greenberg
I put a prescription together. And one of the books on PR that I suggested all my students read was “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers. Have you ever read that book?

Pete Mockaitis
I have it on my shelf, and we interviewed Dan Heath recently.

Marco Greenberg
Oh, he’s just amazing. And, for me, that teaches us the value of the unexpected, but it also teaches us the importance of picking the right acronym, something that sticks, no pun intended, that’s memorable. And I was inspired by them, and after I came up with the premise for the book, I sat on my couch one morning, and I wrote “primitives are roaming,” kind of like our ancient ancestors, right? And I’m not talking about roaming on our cellphone. I’m talking about getting out there and exploring unconquered territory.

And I started with that theme, and then I worked backwards, and said, “What does roaming stand for? And how can it help people out there that feel stuck in their career, that feel burnt out, that feel underappreciated?” And you know how many people that describes, right? We’re talking in the millions. So, for me, and I’ll go through it very quickly, and then I’d be happy to dissect it. For me, people who are roaming are, A, relentless, that’s the R, and it doesn’t just mean working hard. It means sometimes stopping and then restarting or jumping lanes, but it means not forgetting what our big goals are, what those big targets are.

O, as we mentioned earlier, is for oppositional, the courage to say, “You’re wrong, and here’s why,” rather than just shaking our head, “Yes, yes, yes,” and engaging in more destructive group-think. The A is for agnostic, being able to roam from field to field rather than just being one occupation your whole life. A lot of people were typewriter repairmen in the day. That job has gone by the wayside along with a lot of other occupations. M is one of my favorites, Pete, and M stands for messianic, not necessarily being religious, but it does come from the word messiah, and it’s seeing that you have a divine calling, that’s it’s more than a job, it’s even more than a career. And I’d love to tell you about some people that represent that messianic fervor. I think Elon Musk certainly is one, but there are tons of others that do.

I is a bit of a counterintuitive one, it’s insecure. Yes, insecure. We’re told to be confident and have that swagger. I would argue some of the most successful people I’ve worked with are actually insecure. I have some anecdotes that Richard Branson as an example of that, and it’s not ignoring your insecurity like some do. It’s embracing it. It’s weaponizing it. N is for nuts. Yes, you’ve got to be a little crazy in the good sense of the word. And G is gallant, being noble, not just thinking of yourself but looking out for the other.

So, together it spells roaming. And I think you can give a prescription for people who want to tap into this primitive drive but, understandably, don’t want to get fired, don’t want to be so out there that they’re an outcast. They want to be team players but, at the same time, they want to maintain their independence and be that contrarian out there that actually can take an organization to new heights.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, yeah, I’d love to hear, I guess, each of these, R-O-A-M-I-N-G, has some things you can do to tap into it. So, why don’t we start with insecure and Richard Branson while we’re there? And then maybe you can share any of the other kind of most accessible and powerful means to tap into that power. So, how do we weaponize insecurity in a helpful way?

Marco Greenberg
Right. Well, it makes me think of my own career when I was working for BBDO, the big advertising giant in their Israeli office, and I met with a wonderful guy who was the former chief rabbi of Ireland, and he was in Israel at the time, Rabbi Rosen. And he looked at me and he said, “Marco, just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to kill us.” So, it was the first time I’ve heard that, and you guys, and viewers out there, probably heard of Andy Grove from Intel, and only the paranoid survives, so it kind of derives from that. But the idea is here we are in a world where I can’t tell you how many millennials have worked for me. And what’s one of their favorite expressions? “It’s all good.”

And sometimes it’s not all good. Sometimes it’s really messed up, so I think the all good kind of mindset comes from a position of chill, let’s just be relaxed, go with the flow, it is what it is. But, oftentimes, in business, we have to be more primal and think like cavemen and cavewomen that, “Yeah, we’re being attacked right now, and this is a time where we might want to tap into that primitive mind as oppose the cerebral mind, and be more instinctive, and be more quick, and be more fast.”

There was a time where neuroscientists thought, “Oh, the primitive mind has no meaning. We should be cerebral. We should be rational. We should be logical.” But recently, including MIT scientists discovered that actually there’s a lot to do with the primitive brain. So, on that insecure front, I think it relates very directly to that, back to Richard Branson, weaponizing your own insecurity.

There is a wonderful podcast on Freakonomics where Stephen Dubner interviews Richard Branson. And Branson admits, in front of his executives, when they’re talking about financials at Virgin, he stopped them and he wasn’t clear, and his top lieutenants didn’t want to embarrassed him, but they realized that, here, a billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, a legend, didn’t know the difference between net and gross. And he admitted it.

And he admitted that he had learning disabilities as a kid and was never very good at math, so they literally drew a figure of a net, like a fisherman, and they said, “Richard, the fish that you keep, that’s the net. The fish that go in the net and then jump back in the water, that’s your gross.” And he said, “Thank you. I got it.” So, in other words, here’s a great executive who doesn’t try to put the wool over people’s eyes and act, “Whoa, I got this,” right? He says, “No, I don’t got this. I’m insecure.” And there are plenty of other examples.

There’s one in the book that I’m very fond of, a former colleague who’s now running all of marketing for YouTube in EMEA, Europe, Middle East, Africa, etc. Her name is Riki Drori. And we have an anecdote with her that she proudly says, “I’m the most insecure person I know.” And she says it with glee. And part of that is it keeps her on her toes, it keeps her always moving forward. It’s not taking things for granted. Instead, it’s always trying to, yes, take it up a notch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I hear you there. So, then with the insecurity, it can be quite powerful for, hey, Brene Brown and others, talking about the power of vulnerability, for letting other people be honest and psychologically safe and contribute great ideas, as well as you have some paranoid hustle that can emerge when you’re thinking, “Okay, this is about to be taken from me.” Okay, that’s helpful. Then let’s talk about oppositional. I can see the others kind of maybe more intuitively. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable about being oppositional, but even though you think there could be quite helpful and powerful, what do you do?

Marco Greenberg
It comes down, I think, and I’m saying this as a PR guy, you don’t necessarily need media training for this but it doesn’t hurt. I think it’s how you say it. If you say it in a disrespectful way…

Pete Mockaitis
“Marco, you’re dumb and that’s never going to work.”

Marco Greenberg
Exactly. If you say it in a demeaning way, you’re not going to get what you want, right? But if you’re able to say, “Look, I hear what you’re saying. In fact, I used to think that way myself, but I got to tell you I disagree. Respectfully, lovingly, I disagree. And here’s why.” So, it’s what you say but it’s also, even more important, how you say it.

I got to say, one of the most influential people, not just in my business life but in my life, who I dedicate this book to, is the late Danny Lewin. Danny was the cofounder and chief technology officer of Akamai Technologies. Without going into all the details, tragically, Danny was the first person killed on 9/11. He was a former commando in the Israel Defense Forces. He stood up against the hijackers, and he was killed before the plane went into the first tower.

Danny was a classic oppositional primitive, and not just because he fought back on 9/11, it’s how he did business.
Pete, I might be the first person that ever says a phrase in Hebrew on Awesome at Your Job, but I’m going to do it with your permission, [Hebrew 31:52], “You’re not correct and I’m going to explain why.” That’s what Danny did in a charming, loving way that people thought was irresistible. And, guess what, it took him to new heights. And we have an anecdote in the book on when he went head to head with Jefferey Skilling. Do you remember that name?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, with Enron.

Marco Greenberg
Totally. So, Danny was brought down by Enron to meet in Houston with the Enron team. This was at the time when Enron, these were the smartest guys in the world. They could do no wrong. No one have heard of Akamai Technologies. And Skilling had a certain idea for him getting involved in the content-delivery business over the World Wide Web, and Danny said, “Jeff, that’s a horrible idea and I’m going to explain to you why.” Needless to say, the meeting didn’t last long. But the point there is that when people at Enron were just saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” to Jeffrey Skilling, who was later indicted and sent to jail, as you well know, that’s not a good thing.

So, I think, like anything, it’s the happy balance between, “Yes, we want to be team players,” but part of our responsibility as a team player is to also indicate when we think things are headed south in the wrong direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of fear associated with being oppositional, and there are some ways that you can be diplomatic and helpful as you do so. But I think what’s fascinating is there are times when, boy, when you’re oppositional, it goes fabulously well. Like, I think there was…I remember I had a friend who was a relationship therapist, and she had some hotshot executive who was unaccustomed to having people disagree with him and kind of show him what was inconsistent or blind spots in his thinking and logic and approach. And so, he was just like amazed by this relationship therapist, like, “You need to come work for me.”

And I had an encounter in college, one of my good friends, Anne, she was dating a guy who I thought was kind of funny but also kind of mean. And so, I remember I think I was a little more wildly out there in my youth, and I said, “Oh, yeah, he’s really funny and smart. Although, sometimes has he ever kind of strike you as maybe just a little bit of a-hole.” I said the real word.

Marco Greenberg
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
And she laughed and said, “Yes, he very much does.” Later they broke up, and we’re still great friends and she really appreciated that candor. I think it’s largely why we hit it off and kick off such a great friendship is that there can be tremendous gains associated with being oppositional when I think a lot of times we only maybe fixate on the downsides.

Marco Greenberg
You’re so right. By the way, the research bears that out. A lot of people think that nodding your head yes is going to get you ahead in your career track when, many times, it’s the exact opposite. And a lot of research has been done with C-level executives that they actually respect people who argue a position persuasively and can convince them to question their own POV. For example, take Eric Schmidt when he was at Google. He said, “We run this company on questions not answers.”

And I think part of being oppositional is being able to ask questions. And the sad truth of it, and this gets back to the advantage of sometimes being more like a kid. Kids ask a lot of questions. But what happens with society? We beat it out of them, right? Like we say, we’re breaking a horse. We’re teaching a horse to be civilized. A lot of the spirit within kids is broken down. And in the book, we talk about research that the average five- or six-year old asks hundreds of questions a day. Do you know what happens, Pete, when they become teenagers?

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us.

Marco Greenberg
It comes down to asking maybe two or three questions a day. So, they don’t want to rock the boat anymore. They’ve been taught to stay in line, to do as they’re told, to be a good little boy and good little girl, to be excellent sheep. By the way, that’s a great book written by a Yale professor talking about how we’re doing a disservice to our young people today of saying, “Hey, we want you to be physicists, we want you to be poets, we all want you to start the next great NGO,” but sometimes we’re giving them the kind of message that, “We’d rather have you be Big Three consultants and just get in line to do what others do.”

Pete Mockaitis
I was a Big Three consultant but I left. I got out of line in a big way. So, I remember people who say, “So, Pete, what are you thinking about doing?” I was like, “Yeah, I want to go write books and speak and coach.” And they’re, “Oh,” and they all said the same thing, “Well, now is the time to do it. When you’re 25 and don’t have kids or a wife,” which was not an endorsement of, “You’re going to be great.”

Marco Greenberg
Totally. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s just, “Let me encourage you without rendering a judgment on your success.” But it worked out.

Marco Greenberg
So, I think giving ourselves permission to be a little more out there, in however we define that phrase, can often be the key to our success. The good news is you don’t have to jump outside your organization. I was on the phone with a client from one of our largest academic institutions that we represent that I’m wearing their T-shirt, they’re based in Columbus, Ohio, and she loves the fact that she has the reputation of being someone who, in a respectful way, asks the right questions rather than just following the pack. And for her, that’s been key to her success within a large organization. So, you don’t just have to be an entrepreneur, you can make some primitive moves within a huge bureaucracy and benefit from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. So, now, I want to get a quick take from you in terms of we’re talking about conventions and how we can break them. Do you have any just real quick do’s and don’ts in terms of, hey, convention you probably want to break, and convention you probably don’t want to break?

Marco Greenberg
Let me give you some ideas on conventions that you can break, and we talk about this in the book.
Another anecdote and rule that I think you can think about is sometimes you got to be the craziest dog in the fight. I learned that from an esteemed venture capitalist Todd Degres who ran Spark Capital. He’s invested in everything from Twitter, to Tumblr, to Square, to 1stdibs, etc. And the idea there is you do, sometimes, have to be nuts. You have to be more out there, more daring, more willing to ride the tiger and live on the edge. And that’s something that oftentimes we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to do the analysis-paralysis thing, but we know where that gets us. Not very far.

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

Marco Greenberg
I think we want to remind listeners that some of the brightest people out there are people that see their professional life as an adventure rather than just a job, rather than just showing up. So, I’ll give one of my favorite examples of an author that I’ve learned a ton from, and the reason I mentioned, he’s more than just an author. He’s also an MIT professor. He’s also a social entrepreneur, and I’m talking about Alan Lightman.

If you look at his Wikipedia, it’s like mind-blowing. The guy writes textbooks on astrophysics, then he became the first professor at MIT to institute a writing requirement that you have to actually learn and understand the English language and literature. He then became a writer himself, and he’s written many bestsellers. And then he went to Southeast Asia and started a nonprofit to take a new generation of women leaders to new heights.

So, the reason I mentioned it is, forget about focus, forget about domain expertise. Alan is an example of someone who lives on the edge and has that childlike curiosity, and it’s been his jet fuel. So, for me, a lot of us are playing it too damn safe, and we need to start roaming and jump from field to field. And we have some great examples, including some rocket scientists out there like Alan Lightman from MIT.

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

Marco Greenberg
one of it comes from Troy Anderson who wrote a book about the Chinese game Go. Did you ever play Go?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Marco Greenberg
With the little pebbles, right? So, one of the things he says about the book, applying it to business, and with Stanford Business School, is “Don’t get too attached to your first moves.” And I think a lot of people, whether they’re starting a business, whether they have a new job, and they look at the job description, and they say, “Well, I’m going to be doing A, B, and C,” and then they might realize they have to shift gears very quickly, and they’re doing W, Y, Z. So, I think being nimble is something that a more primitive mind feels comfortable with as opposed to someone who is more circumscribed, who is following the exact recipe according to the cookbook. The primitives improvise. They’re more spontaneous. They throw a little bit of basil in, a little bit of pepper in, and out comes something great.

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

Marco Greenberg
Yeah, we talked about some of the research that connotes the importance of being childlike and being oppositional. And I want to touch on that oppositional point and really bring it home. When I was in college way back when, the best airline in the world, Swissair. Well, back around 2001, Swissair, like a lot of airlines, had a challenge. They brought in consultants, no offense to your former colleagues at the Big Three, and they said, “Swissair has got to do what we say. Read the best practices. We did the benchmarking. You got to do this,” and all the nice, very polite, diplomatic people in Geneva and in Zurich said, “Yes, yes, yes, we got to do this.”

Well, what happened? They went out of business. Part of why they went out of business, the research said, is there was no one really presenting that alternative point of view. What’s another way that we can do this? So, there was group-think, and that group-think brought down one of the most successful airlines of all time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Marco Greenberg
It’s about the 1940 Cincinnati Reds.

Marco Greenberg
And it’s written by Brian Mulligan, and it’s about the various challenges that the team that had the first ever suicide of a player during a major league season, and how people reacted to that suicide. And part of the reaction was these hardened players, many of which emerged from the Depression, many of which went on to fight World War II, after the suicide of one of their colleagues, a kid named Hershberger from southern California, what they learned is, “Don’t make fun of people. Don’t boo people because that has consequences, and bullying is not cool.” And they learned that back from a 1940 episode. We see plenty of examples of that with cyberbullying.

If I can just get a little plug to one of the books that made a big impact on me over the last year. It’s called “In Praise of Wasting Time.” And guess who wrote it? Professor Alan Lightman of MIT. “In Praise of Wasting Time” came from an amazing TED Talk that Alan gave about two years ago. And here we are in an age where everyone is trying to maximize every minute, be billable, I’m sure a lot of your listeners can relate to that billability phrase.

And what Alan says is, “Let’s do the opposite. Let’s just sometimes zone out, have a great idea in the shower.” Speaking of research, it shows why sometimes great ideas happen in the shower, or on a long walk, or when we’re not forcing ourselves to think of something and come up with a solution. We just let our mind wander. We let our mind roam and great things happen.

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

Marco Greenberg
Let me connect it to another favorite book. “Deep Work” by Cal Newport from Georgetown. Have you had him on?

Pete Mockaitis
Soon.

Marco Greenberg
Yeah. You know, being productive in a distracted age, and I quote him in the book. Everyone is, I like to say, in 911 mode, like the 911 operator. We’re always reacting. We’re always going on someone else’s agenda rather than our own. How fast can we respond to that email? How fast can we spend to that text message? Am I looking at my Slack 24/7? Etcetera, etcetera. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We need to, instead, give us time, as Alan Lightman says, “Step back and actually think.”

So, here’s my tool. I start with the simplest app on my iPhone which is the Memos app. And that’s the first thing I do in the morning after meditating, and a hot bath because I wake up without a need for coffee. I just start with a blank slate and I create. It might be a memo to a client. It might be an idea for an opinion piece. It might be the chapter of a book. It might be an email that I want to write a colleague. But I think if you set the agenda at the start of the day, then that’s your agenda as opposed to following other people’s agenda. So, be more of a goat that climbs the top of the mountain rather than a sheep following the flock. And part of that starts with you write what you want to start the day with rather than consuming what other people want to start the day with.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a key nugget, something that you share that you’re known for, that resonates with folks?

Marco Greenberg
Getting back to insecurity, I’m a shrink-going Upper West Side, middle-aged Jewish guy, and I like to tell a lot of people who work for me, not just “only the paranoid survives” as Andy Grove said, but that a little bit of anxiety is underrated, right? I want people that show a little fear in their eye. I want people that are given an assignment and say, “Wow, how am I going to pull this off?” I want people who don’t think they know it all, right? They don’t think that just because they aced the SAT and went to an Ivy League school that they figured it all out. Quite the contrary. I want people who are hungry.

And, especially, amongst the venture capitalists that I’ve worked with. A lot of them like Todd Degres, they don’t care what school you went to. He went to Trinity, which is a great school in Connecticut, but he didn’t go to Harvard, he didn’t go to Yale, he didn’t go to MIT, he would’ve gotten in in a million years.
He also has a chip on his shoulder, which is another thing that I talk about in the book. Yes, have a chip on your shoulder. We’re told that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a good thing. So, whether it’s having a chip on your shoulder, or whether it’s realizing that anxiety is underrated, I think it’s time that we interject into the business nomenclature some stuff that’s often counterintuitive but can help people leapfrog in their career rather than stand in line and wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder and promote them, or tap them on the shoulder and tell them they got to move on.

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

Marco Greenberg
It’s easy to remember, PrimitiveBook.com. You’ll find information on the book. You’ll find some information on me. I’m also really active on LinkedIn.

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

Marco Greenberg
one of my favorite psychologists is a guy named Albert Ellis who really started the behavioral school of psychology.

Marco Greenberg
So, one of his great books is how to stop making yourself miserable about anything. Yes, anything. And I want to share his wisdom, which is what I said at the beginning of our show, you got to stop should-ing on yourself. Stop should-ing on yourself. A lot of people put themselves in a corner and say, “Well, I should go to business school,” or, “I should be more left-brain and quantitative,” or, “I should do what my parents have been telling me to do, and take the MCAT.” F all of that, and you listen to what that little boy and little girl in you always wanted to do.

And, for me, I always wanted to write, and I always wanted to speak, and I wasn’t courageous enough, like you, to do it in my mid-20s. I’m not leaving my day job anytime soon but I’m finally doing it at 55 so it shows that it’s never too late, and you can honor that inner spirit, that primitive spirit, that can often tell you a lot more than your more cerebral mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marco, thanks so much for spending this time. I wish you lots of luck in all of your primitive adventures.

Marco Greenberg
Really appreciate the opportunity, Pete. And continue the great work that you’re doing at Awesome at Your Job, and I will continue to be a loyal listener.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

557: How to Outthink Fear with Dr. Mark McLaughlin

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Mark McLaughlin says: "Fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know... the less fear or stress or anxiety one has."

Neurosurgeon and author Mark McLaughlin shares the science of fear and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How fear affects our decision-making
  2. How to manage your fears effectively
  3. The two techniques to help you outthink your fears

About Mark:

Mark McLaughlin is a practicing board-certified neurosurgeon, a  national media commentator, author of the book Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Outthink Fear, and acclaimed keynote speaker.

He is the founder of Princeton Brain and Spine Care where he practices surgery focusing on trigeminal neuralgia and cervical spine surgery. McLaughlin is also a thought leader in performance enhancement and physician hospital relations.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Mark McLaughlin Interview Transcript

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

Mark McLaughlin
My pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your stuff. And, first, let’s hear, so you currently work as a neurosurgeon, but before that, you wrestled so well, you made the Hall of Fame. Tell us the story here.

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I’m from northern New Jersey and I took up wrestling as a young boy, had some very influential coaches along the way who helped me, gave me the tools to succeed. Wrestling kind of let me wet my whistle in terms of concentration and intensity, and as I got older and wanted to move onto medicine, I went on to become a doctor. And I picked neurosurgery because it’s the closest thing to wrestling that I could get after wrestling.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so intriguing. Please explain, what’s the crossover or similarities?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s intense, it’s grueling, it’s extremely personal, there are high risks, and it just gave me the same pump and the same exhilaration that wrestling did, so I thought I got to go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then in the midst of operating in that, literally, operating in that capacity, you made some discoveries about how to deal with fear. Can you tell us the story of how that came about?

Mark McLaughlin
About 10 years ago, I got invited up to West Point to give some talks to the cadets, and so, I began to compile stories about patients and stressful events during surgeries or during my decision-making processes in taking care of these patients. And so, as I began to compile the stories, I’d start sharing with them things that I used to keep myself out of trouble and to save lives.

And so, those would be different techniques that I had in neurosurgery but I realized that they were real-life skills that you could use in the military or you could use in your personal life or your business life. So, I began sharing some of those things with the cadets, like the rules of neurosurgery, for one. So, rules of neurosurgery are things like never cut what you can’t see, always leave a drain, never worry about a patient alone, measure millimeters in miles. These are things that are drilled into your head during your residency, but you can apply them to anything in life.

Like, never cut what you can’t see is one of those things in neurosurgery that you never want to close your scissors unless you know exactly what’s between those two blades. But, similarly, that’s an allegory for life, isn’t it? You never want to make an important decision or make a move unless you know exactly what’s up in front of you. So, that’s how it all started.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, you say they keep you out of trouble in terms of these are just kind of best practices during the course of conducting a brain surgery. And then I want to know, kind of what the West Pointers wanted to know, what are you saying to yourself during the course of doing these surgeries?

Mark McLaughlin
So, those rules are ingrained in you, so you’re following steps through a surgery, but usually what I try and do is get into a mindset. So, before I start a surgery, I have a very specific routine, I call it my 5Ps. I take a pause, I think about that exact patient I’m operating on, I’ll say to myself, “This is a 42-year old accountant. He’s been suffering from severe sciatica for five weeks. He’s in excruciating pain. This is the most important day of his life. Let’s get him fixed up.”

Then I move onto my plan and that’ll be my exact step-by-step passage through the surgery mentally. Then I’ll put out a positive thought and that’s, “This is why you’re here today. This is what you trained your whole life for. You’re in the right spot. You’re ready to go.” And then, lastly, what I’ll do is I’ll say a prayer. And a prayer for me, one might say it doesn’t affect the outcome of a surgery, but it always affects me. It always calms me and it always helps me perform better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, that’s the process and so you’re working with that and that is getting the job done for you. So, then let’s zoom into the typical professional who’s listening here, they’ve got a different job. It might be less high-stakes in terms of its immediate consequences in the moment. If you screw up, most of our jobs, if I butcher this podcast, no one’s going to die. We’ll have 20,000 people mad that we destroyed that hour or 45 minutes of their life, that’s less than a full lifetime though if you multiply it out. But, anyway, regardless, the stakes are probably, for most of us, lower hour to hour. But what is at stake with regard to us when we are dealing with fear, when the mind is on fear, what to do?

Mark McLaughlin
That’s important. Everything is important in work and in life and in your relationships, and they are life and death in some respect, they’re your life, and so they’re important. And I would just say that fear is a universal experience that we all have. I mean, we’ve all experienced fear every since we started looking under our bed before we went to bed at night, right? And it’s something that we have to manage in our lives. Some people do it better than others, but we could all improve on it.

So, it’s important to understand that fear, it’s just an alarm bell going off in your mind. So, what I see it as, it’s almost Pavlovian. We’re moving along, things are going great, nothing unexpected happens, we’re calm, we’re homeostatic, or we’re even feeling confident or assured or secure. And then something unexpected comes to us and that’s the first inkling that we might have something different or something interfering with our goal in life. And so, that unexpected event can do some type of anticipated anxiety or stress. Or let’s say it’s something real, something dangerous jumps into your way, like an intruder in your house, then it’s real fear. That’s real terror.

But fear is not the solution to the situation, it’s only the alarm bell. Figuring out what to do about the alarm bell is what you need to focus on. And that’s what I talk about in my book, is, “How do we look at fear and unpack it into its structural components and literally map it out in our minds so that we can outthink, so that we can know what the problem is, and attack the problem?” And, immediately when we start doing that, our fear level goes down. It dials itself down a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that sounds cool and appealing. And so, can you maybe let us in on perhaps the why behind that a bit? Is it okay to be afraid and to experience the fear or is it counterproductive or harmful at some level?

Mark McLaughlin
No, having fear is a good thing. You never want to be free of fear. Imagine the stupid things we would do if we didn’t have fear. It’s absolutely essential, and for survival in our earlier stages of development in life on earth, I mean, we wouldn’t have survived without it. But the thing about it, as far as the brain goes, and neurophysiology and neuroanatomy is, is that it’s almost like there’s an operating system that’s been built on an operating system, that’s been built on an operating system, and all the earlier operating systems are still running in your brain.

So, the fight or flight response is still very real in your mind and in your brain and in your neuroanatomy, the circuitry. You have to be careful about that. That’s great when someone is stalking you in a dangerous confrontation. But it’s not helpful when somebody says something that might be insulting to you in a business meeting. So, you need to know where your neocortex is working and how your executive function can override that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are not overriding that and we just sort of allow our earlier lizard operating systems to run wild and do what they want to do, what could be the consequences?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, you’re going to blurt out something that you probably would regret or you’re going to act in a way that’s not becoming of a leader, and you’re not going to have the most optimal outcome. And that’s the goal. The goal is to perform at your very best, so you have to recognize this. So, for instance, like if I’m at a business meeting with my partners, and one of my partners says something that I get very irritated about, and I can see that he’s anxious and irritated, what I try and do, one of the things I try and do is just identify.

I’ll say, “Listen, I know you’re raising your voice, and I am too, and that means that this is important and we care about this and that’s a good thing. But that’s not going to help us solve the problem that we need to solve. So, let’s talk about what the specifics are. Let’s break this down and line up possible solutions. Let’s start thinking about it.” So, identifying that is very helpful in this process.

Pete Mockaitis
So, certainly, there’s some interpersonal consequences there that you might really damage the relationship if you scream or tell them exactly what you think in that moment. And then, I guess I’m curious, even internally, what does the research have to say about how we go about thinking, processing, problem-solving, creativity, decision-making, when we’ve got the fear OS at work?

Mark McLaughlin
There’s a lot of cross-chatter among the higher functions of the brain and the lower functions, and it’s really interesting how we can map out the neurophysiology and thought patterns of fear and see what it looks like on functional MRI scan. And there’s some good studies that show that meditative mindfulness practices can decrease some of that chatter, some of that crosstalk that we have that creates anxiety and stress in our minds. So, it really is an important practice to perform and I’m a big believer in meditation for part of controlling and managing fear.

Pete Mockaitis
And is crosstalk a bad thing? Is that like concerning when you’re seeing that on the FMRIs?

Mark McLaughlin
Yes, I mean, generally it is because it means you don’t have like a focused pathway. So, the brain, when we do things, it creates connections, neural networks. So, you have a neural network for riding bike, that’s why you can jump on a bike 20 years after you’ve jumped on a bike the last time and you can still ride a bike. That neural network is that pattern of firing is all set. But if you have patterns of firing that are disrupted or they’re not clean and clear, you’re going to not think properly, you’re not going to react the way you’d like to react in a situation when you need your best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s get into the particulars of how this is done. So, you say you can deconstruct and look at the patterns and structures of fear and go after them and effectively outthink it. So, how does this work in process and practice?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I talk about a technique of using lateral thinking. So, lateral thinking is a concept where we try to dislocate the normal thought patterns that we have when we solve problems. So, normally, people think linearly and logically about how to solve a problem. A good example of lateral thinking is the King Solomon story. When the two mothers come to King Solomon and say, “Will you please…this is my child,” “This is my child,” and he says, “Okay, we’ll solve the problem. We’ll cut the baby in half, and you’ll each get half of the baby,” because he sort of knew that the real mother would say, “No, no, no, she can have the baby.” That’s how he knew who the real mother was.

It’s like thinking differently about things. So, I’ll give you an example in medicine. So, in medicine, you may have somebody that comes in and they’ve got a pretty straightforward problem, let’s say. Let’s say they have a headache and a stiff neck and a fever, and their roommate had meningitis two days ago, and you immediately jump to the conclusion, “Ah, they’ve got meningitis.” Okay, that’s one, that’s a logical step-wise progression. But a lateral thought process would be, “What are three other things that could be causing this that I haven’t thought of?” And that’s really important to do in medicine, and I think in business too.

So, we usually jump to the first solution but the first solution isn’t always necessarily the right solution or the best solution. So, if you can sort of train your mind to think of other solutions, and even if they don’t seem the best one right away, just get them on paper, talk about it with other people. You can sometimes come up with better solutions than you initially thought of. So, lateral thinking is another technique that I talk about, and it’s very important in medicine, but I think it can also help in business.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that helps you in getting more ideas. Does it also help with the fear?

Mark McLaughlin
I think so because, again, fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know, in general, the less fear or stress or anxiety one has. So, in my opinion, that would be another way of just using your brain to sort of dial down the fear measure in your brain, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then what are your pro tips in terms of staying calm in high-pressure situations? Maybe you’ve got some fear associated with entering them or maybe just the stakes are high, whether or not you’ve got butterflies in your stomach?

Mark McLaughlin
Right. The most important thing is really to be yourself. I always try and say, “Be yourself. Don’t be anybody, try to be anybody else.” I use a technique called narrating the room. So, when I’m flummoxed with something, I’ll start with, “Okay, I need to think this through, everybody.” And I’ll speak aloud, “All right. I was expecting to see this, but I don’t see this right now, so let’s take a step back. I’d made an incision over the frontal area, I’ve got down through the skull,” and I just, literally, will talk myself through exactly where I was and where I went.

And, it’s funny, because I had a chance to interview Sanjay Gupta for this book, and when I was telling him about this, he said, “Oh, yeah, I do that all the time. That’s I narrate the room. I narrate the room.” And so, that’s his process of talking things through. Even, again, acknowledging, “Okay, a little stressful here right now, everybody. I understand we’re missing…”

Let’s say, during a surgery we oftentimes have to count for the sponges. The sponges have to be exactly correct at every moment during the surgery, and sometimes the sponge count is off, and so that needs to be checked very carefully. And people are getting worked up about it, I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to find it. I just looked through the wound, I don’t see it there. Let’s look through all the collection, the papers that we have, the collection bags. We’ll get through it. It’s standard process.” So, just talking about it, I think, is a very important part of it and being one’s self. Those two techniques are helpful.

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

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s been interesting writing a book. It took me about four years to do this, and, gosh, it was such a huge effort, but I’m thrilled that it’s done. I feel like I’ve got a frame around a body of knowledge and I feel like being a neurosurgeon has helped me think about fear and stress in a different way. I have a lens on the world that other people don’t have, but I think the techniques to solve it are really transferable to anyone. In fact, I talk to my young wrestlers about it sometimes. I told them about sometimes when I feel overwhelmed and I feel like I’m in over my head, and I just step back and I say, “No, I’m not. Go to your basics. Just talk about it. Talk about your exact basics.” For wrestlers, that’s like risk control and control the tie-ups and things.

So, I say, “Whenever you feel like you’re out of your league, you’re wrestling somebody too good, go back to your basics. Risk control, control the tie-ups, focus on what you do, get back to your referee’s position.” And I think everybody feels it, and the better we cope with it, the better we’re going to perform.

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

Mark McLaughlin
My favorite quote of all time is Julie Andrews’ “Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it’s an order which sets me free to fly.”

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

Mark McLaughlin
I talk about this in the book, the story of the invisible gorilla. When everybody’s focused on the task of counting basketballs and passing, and how they literally missed a gorilla 50% of the time that walks across the screen. I just think that’s such an interesting concept to understand that we all have blind spots. Everybody has blind spots. And when you know you have a blind spot, you’re less likely to miss something.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?
Mark McLaughlin
I love the “Traveler’s Gift.” That’s a book by Andy Andrews. It’s a story of a person that goes through time and meets a number of famous individuals: King Solomon, Abe Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, Anne Frank. And it’s just literally like getting a summation of their philosophy in a very short time. And it’s a book that I gave my father, and we shared a lot of discussions over that book, so I really love that.

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

Mark McLaughlin
I use an app called Ten Percent Happier which is a great meditation app. Dan Harris wrote a book called “10% Happier,” a guide to meditation for fidgety skeptics. And the only app I’ve ever purchased on my phone is Ten Percent Happier. It’s a beautiful compilation of guided meditations, and it works to help you sleep, to help you think more positively, and have more gratitude. I’m thrilled with it. I’ve been using it for over a year, and I highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit? Sounds that might be it, or maybe you’ve got another one.

Mark McLaughlin
My morning habit is very important to me. I do three things. And that’s I meditate, I file. I have an old-fashioned David Allen filing system with 31 files for the days of the month, and then 12 files for the months, and the one extra fie which I call my someday maybe. So, I file, I look at my file for that day. And then, lastly, I’m a Franklin Planner guy. I use a paper book because I can’t see the month and the week as well as I can on my phone so I work on my Franklin Planner, and I plan my day out. I call it my triple threat. My triple threat is if I do those three things, five to six times a week, I’m going to really do a lot of good work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re sharing your wisdom here?

Mark McLaughlin
One of the moms and friends of mine in our wrestling club, she has a great quote which I love too, and that is, “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.” I’ve always loved that. “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly,” and I think that’s truly how you get better. That’s how I’ve worked on myself and over the years, and that’s what works.

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

Mark McLaughlin
My website MarkMcLaughlinMD.com has a number of videos, talks about the book, and I have a blog that talks about a number of these topics.

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

Mark McLaughlin
I would say just be present, be yourself, and keep getting a little bit better every day. Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mark, this has been fun. Thanks, and good luck in your adventures.

Mark McLaughlin
Thank you. It was a pleasure, Peter.