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735: Cultivating the Mindset of Motivated and Successful People with Jim Cathcart

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Legendary speaker Jim Cathcart shares powerful wisdom for overcoming the self-limiting beliefs that keep us from thriving in work and life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The simple secret to motivating yourself and others
  2. A powerful phrase to motivate you to be your best
  3. The four steps to breaking bad habits

About Jim

Jim Cathcart, CSP, CPAE is a person who has achieved every major milestone in professional speaking: President of the National Speakers Association, Speakers Hall of Fame, 22 published books, 3,300 highly paid speeches worldwide, speeches in China, South America, Europe, and in every one of the 50 US states. He received the Golden Gavel Award from Toastmasters International which was also presented to Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar,, Earl Nightingale and Walter Cronkite. He received The Cavett Award from the National Speakers Association, and more.

Jim is also a guitarist and singer/songwriter who performs often in clubs, at conventions and special events. A fitness enthusiast who has logged over 10,000 miles of running mountain trails after age 60, and a lifetime member of the American Motorcyclist Association. A newscaster once said, “Jim Cathcart is what ‘Fonzie’ from Happy Days would have been if he had gone to business school.” To that end, in September of 2021 Jim received an honorary business degree from High Point University in North Carolina.

Resources Mentioned

Jim Cathcart Interview Transcript

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

Jim Cathcart
Hey, it’s a great place to be. Thank you for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so fun to be chatting with you. I was reading you when I was a teenager, and here we are talking. That’s wild.

Jim Cathcart
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’d love to get your take, having lived through, boy, with some of the greats, a great yourself, when it comes in the speaking biz as well as hobnobbing with other just sort of legends, rock stars, Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. I grew up in the human potential movement. If you look at the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, that was known as the human potential movement because it was the first time that society in the US got really interested in self-development and success, motivation, and that whole general field. And the primary players were Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, and then Earl Nightingale and on and on.

And then Denis Waitley and I came along about the same time, and then Zig Ziglar was just before us, and along with us, for that matter, and Og Mandino and W. Clement Stone. And then Tony Robbins came later and Brian Tracy and Les Brown, so it’s been a heck of a ride. And I know all those folks. I mean, I didn’t know Napoleon Hill, but all the rest that I’d mentioned, I’ve known them all and worked with most of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us, any funny anecdotes or stories or surprise tidbits that you think listeners might get a kick out of if they’re familiar with some of these legends?

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. In 1976, in November of ’76, I was at the Oral Roberts University big arena, and it’s called the Mabee Center. And there were 11,700 attendees at the positive thinking rally, and the speakers were Paul Harvey, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, Earl Nightingale, Art Linkletter, Zig Ziglar, Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association. And the emcee was Don Hutson out of Memphis. And Don and I had met through a training organization and he invited me backstage to meet my hero Earl Nightingale.

So, I went backstage and shook Earl’s hand and had the appropriate goosebumps and loss of breath and everything that would go with being star struck. And then, Don and I walked out, and we were standing behind the big stage, looking out at the sea of bodies up in the stands, and Don said, “Jim,” he called me JC. He said, “JC, we’ve got this.”

I said this, “What do you mean we’ve got this?” He said, “All these speakers on this program, they’re 20 or 30 years older than us. We’re next,” and he was right. And he went on to become president of the National Speakers Association. So did I. We were both inducted into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, Sales and Marketing Hall of Fame. I’ve written 22 books, he’s written a big handful of New York Times bestsellers himself, and I was just collaborating with him yesterday on a new business deal.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool.

Jim Cathcart
And all the others are gone now. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, our respects to them. And thank you and congratulations for your success and contributions to the field. We’ve got a whole boatload of things we could talk about. My producers found you specifically to talk about motivation and The Power Minute: Your Motivation Handbook for Activating Your Dreams & Transforming Your Life. So, that sounds awesome. Tell us, what’s the big idea behind this book?

Jim Cathcart
Well, first up, motivation needs to be understood as motive and action. Motive, action. Motivation. It’s easy to remember. So, if you think, “I’m not motivated to do something,” well, if you haven’t acted on your motive, then you’re right, you’re not motivated to do it. You might have a motive, but until you take action, it’s just a dream, a wish, or an impulse, or a preference.

So, how do you motivate somebody? Well, you do not bring motives to them. You find motives in them. So, if I put a gun to your head and asked you to give me all your money, if you don’t want to continue to live, you probably won’t give me your money, you’ll just say, “Take your best shot,” right? So, you got to have the motive for me to be able to stimulate it and get the results I want.

So, if I put a gun to somebody’s head and they don’t care if they live or die, then that’s not going to work. I got to find another way to appeal to them. If I offer somebody a vacation in Acapulco and they’re not interested in international travel, it may have been a great reward for somebody but not for them so they’re not motivated. So, if I can learn to read people day-to-day and listen more acutely to what people say and what they express interest in, I can identify their motives because people will teach you how to motivate if you’ll just listen. And so, then I know how to appeal to you.

So, it might be it’s like in couple’s therapy, they talk about love languages. Some people feel really loved when you’re listening intently just to them. Some people don’t think that much of that one. They feel really loved when you give them a thoughtful little gift. Some people feel really loved when you mention them to other people and brag about them, and there are a lot of other ways.

 

Same thing is true for motivation. Some people are motivated by things, some people are motivated by experiences, some are motivated by interactions and relationships, and so forth. So, there are lots of ways to motivate someone. That’s why I wrote The Power Minute, which is your self-motivation handbook. And The Power Minute is 336 one-minute ideas for how to motivate yourself or others.

Now, how do I know they’re one minute? Because I originally wrote them as one-minute radio clips, and so they have to be timed exactly to that and the script was that tight. And so, I put them all together, and I said, “This would make a pretty good book but it needs some more work.” So, I worked on it and had 365, and out of 365, about 30 of them were pretty lame and obvious, so I eliminated those and kept 336, and that became the book. And I was writing the book as if I was teaching my grandchildren how to look at life and live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. So, share with us, I like how you could cut 29 and don’t allow yourself to put out inferior content just to hit a sweet 365 number, which should be tempting for many of us. So, tell us, because I’m thinking now about the 80/20 Principle and how 20% of them could have 80% of the juice, and maybe 4% of them, even 64% of the juice, fractal style. So, can I put you on the spot to give me your top, we’ll say, five.

Jim Cathcart
Let me give you one that summarizes the whole book and most of my philosophy in life, “Become a magnet, not merely an arrow.” In other words, cultivate in yourself the qualities of the person who would live the life you want to live, get the rewards you want to get, have the experiences and the relationships you want to have. Be the kind of person the people you admire would love to hang with, and those people will be more attracted to you. Be a magnet for what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s the magnet. And what’s an arrow by contrast?

Jim Cathcart
Well, an arrow goes outward from you toward a target. So, that’s when you work diligently to achieve a goal. That’s fine. You find the goal, you identify the steps, you do the discipline day-to-day until you get there – that’s an arrow. But a magnet develops the qualities that make them the sort of person that others want to do business with, that others want to hang around with, that others would seek out the advice of.

When I joined the National Speakers Association in my 30s in 1976, I was right at 30 years old. That makes me 75 today, by the way, save people the math because some of them are doing it in their heads. So, 30 years old, I joined the National Speaker Association. That’s, at that time, only a few hundred members but they were my heroes, the big names, the big-deal people in the world of human development, and I had none of the credentials that I have today, and I didn’t have much career experience either.

So, I decided to be the most generous, the most grateful, the most helpful, the most flexible, the most willing supporter and encourager that they could find. I went to the convention, offered to move chairs, put out signs, greet people, take tickets, do whatever was necessary, drive someone to the airport, if necessary, although I didn’t have a car at the time, that kind of thing. And I was included into the conversations with the big guns as if I was an equal.

And when they would ask about me, I’d give them a very brief answer, and then I asked about them because I didn’t want them learning about me. I wanted me to learn about them so I could become, someday, one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. That’s cool. And so then, that magnet principle is fantastic when it comes to people in terms of, “Yeah, this Jim guy, I like him. I like the way he works it. I like the way he’s helpful. I like being around him. I like the way I feel in his presence, so fantastic.” I guess I’m also wondering…

Jim Cathcart
Oh, I got a quote for you.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll take it.

Jim Cathcart
This is from the first president of the National Speakers Association, Bill Gove. He, in a speech, one time, said, “The greatest compliment I’ve ever heard in my life is this, ‘I like me better when I’m with you.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is nice.

Jim Cathcart
Ain’t that a great example?

Pete Mockaitis
I had a friend who once told me, “Pete, you make people love themselves,” which was among my all-time faves, and that memory there. So, yeah, that’s cool. And so then, that magnet principle is fantastic for people-y goals in terms of you want…I’m thinking about sort of like a career in leadership and folks want you in the room, and to be present, and to trust you with some responsibilities and things. I’m curious about goals that are less people-y. Let’s talk about maybe fitness or sort of powering through a bunch of stuff you don’t feel like powering through. What are some of your favorite principles there?

Jim Cathcart
I can definitely address those. Well, in 1975, I weighed 200 pounds on a 5’9” frame that should be 150. Fifty-two excess pounds at the time, and I had never been fit, never been an athlete, and I wanted to be, and I had set some big goals for my life and my career, and I’ve looked at my life totally, wholistically – mental, physical, family, social, spiritual, career, financial, emotional – and I knew that I had to grow in each of those areas, and that’s eight areas, and many of those areas needed work, and one of those was fitness and health.

And so, I’d quit smoking a couple of years before and I’d gained a little weight, and I decided it’s time to make a change so I’m going to lose weight. Well, I knew I could diet successfully. I’d done that half a dozen times but I always gained it back in the next year or two. So, I decided I’m going to become a slender person. And people that knew me said, “What’s the difference?” I said, “Slender people never have to go on diets.” They said, “Well, yeah, some people are lucky.” “No, no, no, no, no. Slender is not luck. Slender may have something to do with your metabolism but you can also live a slender life by choice.”

So, I re-thought the way I lived my day-to-day life, the kind of food that I kept in the refrigerator, the kind of drinks that I used for refreshment, the places I went and the way I participated. For example, I had never considered water to be a real drink. I thought it was the default if nothing else was available. And I’d never had coffee or tea without sugar in it. And in coffee’s instance, I had cream as well as sugar, so it was basically a mocha milkshake.

And I decided I’m going to learn to like black coffee and I’m going to stop drinking sugared soda, Cokes and things, and instead of substituting it with diet soda, I’m going to learn to enjoy water. And I did, and that was 1976. By the way, I lost 52 pounds over about a three-month period, became fit – and I’ll tell you about that part of it in a second – and have been slender ever since. So, my waist is 30 inches, and I’m 75 years old, and it’s been pretty close to 30 inches for the last 40 plus years.

And I enjoy water. In fact, sometimes when we go out to dinner, I’ll just have water with the meal – no ice, thank you – and I’m perfectly content with that. And when I drink coffee, it’s always black coffee, but, at first, I didn’t like just water and I didn’t like black coffee. So, I re-trained my own taste buds and my own preferences, and I went on, at first, what I called a FABS diet. I made it up.

No fats, meaning animal fats, no alcohol, no bread, meaning white flour, and no second helpings. F-A-B-S. Second helpings are exactly twice as fattening as first helpings. I’ve noticed that. And I was always saying to my wife, “You’re not going to waste that, are you?” If she didn’t finish something on her plate, I would W-A-I-S-T waist it by putting it in my body.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Zing.

Jim Cathcart
See, all food goes to waste. It either goes into the trash or it goes around your middle.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jim Cathcart
So, you have to choose which one do you prefer, and people say, “Well, it’s just wrong. It’s sinful to throw away food that’s still good.” Well, then put it in the fridge and eat it later or wait till it molds and then throw it away, but don’t store it around your middle. It takes too long to get rid of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. So, with that example then, we’re still applying that magnet principle except it’s not so much the people that are drawn to us but the results, and it still comes from the work of reshaping your core, like identity perspective, you are a slender person, and by being that, “How does a slender person think and operate and behave?” and there you go.

Jim Cathcart
Exactly. And that was the big thing because your mindset leads to your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits are your reputation, because a reputation is simply observed habit patterns. And your reputation determines which relationship doors open to you and which ones close. And the relationships you’re able to form determine the size of a future you’re capable of because nobody does it alone.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s right. And if there are any skeptics in the audience, like, “Oh, that’s the motivation-y stuff,” I’ve been quite impressed with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura talking about self-efficacy, which is that these linkages are, in fact, pretty robustly evidenced in research that it’s not rah-rah.

Jim Cathcart
Oh, yeah, there is a lot of proof. The way a person thinks determines the actions they will choose. If they think they are unworthy and unlikable, then they will build up defenses and look for ways to game a system. If they think they are worthy and able to be valuable to other people, they will look for opportunities, and they will reach out.

If they feel they cannot recover from a failure, then they will do everything to mask themselves and their performance so that no one notices their failures. If they feel they can bounce back from a failure, the failure is not a scar or a permanent stain, it’s simply action that didn’t pay off the way you wanted. If they feel they can bounce back, then they will stay in the game and keep trying other things. They’ll be open to new ideas. So, mindset leads to actions, and actions repeated become patterns, which are habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, then, let’s go right to the core there. So, if you do have a belief or a mindset that isn’t leading you down the actions/habits pathway onto results that you’re looking for, like if you think…

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, leading you downhill instead of uphill because you got the same chain uphill and downhill. It’s what I call a causation chain. And so, it’s mindset, actions, habits, reputation, relationships, future. And if you go down the stairs instead of up the stairs, then it’s mindset, limited actions or wrong actions, bad habits, bad reputation, no relationships, small future or dim and dismal future.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, let’s say, if we do find ourselves, like we notice in ourselves a belief or a mindset that is pointing us in a downhill direction, and maybe we think, “I’m just fat,” or, “I am a loser,” or, “I’m too shy. I’ll never be able to run the big thing.” So, whatever limiting or unpleasant or downward-pointing mindset, belief, we have – and sometimes I think they are very conscious and front of mind for us, and other times are kind of buried, a little bit under the surface…

 

Jim Cathcart
And, also, we’ve been listening to people tell us things about ourselves, and many people just say, “Okay, that’s a fact because so and so said so.” That’s not true. That’s their opinion, their point of view based on the limited experience they’ve had with you. Like, if your parents tell you you’re a loser, that you’re never going to be a competitor, or that you’re not good at math, or you’re whatever, name your category. If you’ve been labeled or blamed as not being worthy in that category, and you accept that, then that’s your life. Sucks to be you. Sorry.

But if you say, “Well, man, that hurts and I don’t like that. How do I get past that?” The way to get past that is a different mindset, a different point of view, a different way of thinking about yourself, your world, your relationships, your potential, and other people, about life in general. I recognized, growing up in a working-class household where dad was a telephone repairman and mom was a homemaker, and we had my invalid grandfather in the front bedroom, who spent seven years in a hospital bed, never spoke or moved from the bed because of a stroke.

We had a loving household. But I wasn’t encouraged to think big. No one said, “Boy, Jim, you’ve really got potential. Man, if you apply yourself, you could do anything you want.” Nobody said that to me.

So, one day, I heard Earl Nightingale on the radio, Earl was a dean of personal motivation in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and he said, “If you will spend one hour extra each day studying your chosen field, in five years or less, you’ll be a national expert in that field. And in seven years, with an hour of focused attention extra on that each day, probably one of the world’s leading authorities in that field.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s 1,250 hours if you figure the minimal approach to five years, 1,250 hours on one subject beyond the job, yeah, even I could do that.”

And then I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living because I was working as a government clerk for the housing authority, and then it hit me a few weeks later, “I want to do what he’s doing but I don’t know what that means.” And so, I started studying human development, applied behavioral science, psychology, things like that, fanatically. I’m talking 12, 15, 20, 30 hours a week listening to recordings, reading books, going to the few seminars that existed back then, just getting around anybody that knew what they were talking about in those fields, and my world transformed.

And I bought a whole series of recordings from Earl Nightingale and listened to them fanatically every day to reprogram my own mind over time to seeing the world in a much more positive and intelligent way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And I completely buy that incidentally in terms of the hours because I think some people would say, “Oh, Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hours, whatever,” and that’s a bit of a different phenomenon, like violin practice versus knowledge in a domain because I’ve heard it said that if you read the top five books in your field, you’re beyond, like 90 plus percent of folks.

Jim Cathcart
You’re in the top 3% already, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s just five books, which might be like 15 of your hours, clock it under a month. So, I totally buy that. So, hey, good on you, How to be Awesome at Your Job listeners. You’re going places. Well, that’s one pathway to answer the question. If you find yourself with a mindset that’s not doing the trick for you, one path is to just dig, dig, dig deep into learning about a thing.

And so, are there other pathways you’d recommend in terms of, let’s say, “I think I’m just shy and I’ll never really be able to have a commanding presence in a room because that’s just not my gifting. I’m kind of behind the scenes, operational person, and that’s fine. We need all sorts.” What do we do with that?

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, let’s drill down. Let’s drill down to the underlying assumption. I found that there are two primary mindsets in the world that tend to easily separate the vast majority of subjects into this school and that school of thought. And the underlying mindset is there is a loving Creator, whether you call it a universal intelligence, or God, or Mother Nature, or whatever it is. There is a loving Creator in our lives. We’re meant to be. That’s one mindset or worldview.

The other one is, “No, there’s not. And once you’re dead, it’s over.” Okay. So, let’s take one of those assumptions and start organizing all the input that comes into a person’s life based on that underlying assumption. The assumption is, “There’s not one. This is it. And when it’s over, it’s over.” Okay. “It’s everyone for themselves. Get what you can while you can. And anything you can get away with, cool. Just do it because…” The other side says, “No, you should be nice to people because that’s what works best.” “Okay, if it works best. If it doesn’t work best, to heck with them. This is your only shot. Go for it.” so, that’s one mindset.

The other mindset is there is a reason for humans to be alive. We are so profoundly different from all other lifeforms that this must be somehow meant to be. And if that’s the case, then we’re not the sheep of an angry god that wants us to submit, because how shallow would that be for something as powerful as a god to just want servants and just wants submission? You follow that through to the thoughtful end of it, and it just doesn’t make sense.

So, if there is a source of creation, a source of life, and that source of life meant for us to exist, then what is sin? Sin would be not living well, fully, in the ways that you’re designed to live. In other words, there are thousands, if not millions, of contributions you could make to the world to make it a better place, a happier place, a more loving place, a safer place, etc. And if you don’t do those things you are capable of doing, or learning how to do, then you deny your creation, you say, “No, I was a mistake. I’m a factory second. Just let me get out of the way. I’ll die soon. Don’t worry about it.”

Or, you can say, “If I’m meant to exist, and I can do a great deal of good, it would be a sin, not in a Biblical sense, but in a cosmic or philosophical sense, for me not to do the good I could do. If somebody needs to be pulled out of quicksand and I’m walking by and I’ve got a rope, and I don’t do it, I can take partial blame for their death because I didn’t do the good I was capable of doing at a time when I could’ve done it.”

So, I think there is a reason for people to exist. I think that the essence of life is living fully, that that’s our job, our assignment, and that that means physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally, etc., and that we should live the most abundant life we’re capable of. They’ll, “Yeah, but I’m not good at math.” Yet. See, that’s the word that all these people leave out.

Sudoku, just play around with friends or go to Mathnasium where my grandson teaches, and learn to be better at math, “Yeah, but I just don’t like people.” No, you don’t like you and you’re afraid of getting around other people because you don’t think they’ll like you either. Well, true. Or, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve got the bandwidth to do smart things.” Do you know how to avoid pain? “Yeah.” Do you know how to eliminate danger, like if a kid is running into traffic, you stop them or you stop the traffic? “Yeah.” It looks to me like you’re a useful being. Go forth and multiply.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s fascinating and deep and profound in terms of like zeroing in on a singular belief and you brought it to a Creator. And I guess, I don’t know, we could debate whether this is one belief.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, the danger here is when you say the word Creator, people say, “Oh, God, church, Bible, strict, rules, judgment, shame.” And you think, “What? Where the heck did that come from? I never brought up any of that stuff,” but they go, [makes noise] right down into that deep dark hole, and that’s not what it’s about at all. Not at all.

There is a life source. Everybody would pretty much have to agree that there’s a source that causes life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess when you bring about the life source, I guess I’m thinking the notion of responsibility is what hits me in that it’s like either you feel, you believe you are responsible to become all you can be, to contribute all you can, or you think it’s more of a hedonistic do-whatever eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die kind of a vibe.

Jim Cathcart
Yeah. Well, one of those goes outward and the other one comes inward. See, the outward is the service and the doing, and the other one is the receiving, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess I’m thinking it’s conceivably possible that you might not have a unique view…you can have a different view of the Creator but also feel the responsibility. But, regardless, I hear what you’re saying in terms of we’ve got…that is a foundational mindset pathway differentiator right there. And so, if we are on the…

Jim Cathcart
And it has a profound domino effect once that shift is made.

Pete Mockaitis
So, if we are on the responsible stewardship contribution pathway, and then we have more of a minor mindset difference, like, “Oh, I’m just shy and I’m not going to be able to do whatever,” it’s like you gave us one master key, which is throwing a yet in there. It’s like, “At the moment, that is the case. However, that is not fixed and we have the opportunity,” Carol Dweck’s growth mindset action, “to grow and flourish.”

Jim Cathcart
Yeah, things are learnable.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s one master key. Any other perspectives there? You find yourself with a troubling mindset and you want to shift gears and directions, what can we do?

Jim Cathcart
If you feel that life is unfair, that, somehow, you’re a factory reject, you were the bad product coming off the assembly line and there’s not much hope for you, then your life is going to be defensive. Your life is going to be sad, of course, and scary but you’re going to take that assumption and reinforce it daily with actions that kind of build on that belief. So, how do you interrupt that belief? It’s not just the other. How do you interrupt that belief? Because any pattern that’s not working needs to be interrupted. And if you don’t interrupt the pattern, you get more of it.

So, if I’ve got a pattern of eating too many sweets, let me look at that pattern. Where do I keep the sweets? “It’s all around the house.” Why? “Because I like to eat them.” Okay, do you like the result of eating them? “No.” Okay, could you restrict them to one place in the house and eat fewer? “Yeah, if I didn’t have them on the coffee table and the kitchen counter and the other places, I probably wouldn’t impulse-eat as often. So, yeah, if I put them on the cabinet, always had to go in there and never put them out on the table, then I would probably eat fewer sweets.” Okay, what if you didn’t even put them in the house? What if they were in the garage, in a cabinet?

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Jim Cathcart
“Well, that’s just silly.” No, it’s not. This is simply a self-management technique. I came up with a little formula I call MADE, and I say it’s your mindset and your lifestyle must be made. And it’s going to be made by someone else or by you, so why not take charge of it? So, M mental picture. What do you focus your attention on? How do you envision your future? How do you talk about your future and so forth?

A, affirmation. That’s the words you use, the actions you take, that reinforce one mental picture or another. So, if I say, “I’m not very coordinated physically. I don’t learn new skills quickly.” Okay, I get that. Every time you say that, you strengthen that belief. Every single time you say it, you strengthen the belief in it. And every time you strengthen that belief, you increase the likelihood of undesirable actions.

So, mental picture, affirmation. The D in MADE is daily successes, and that means doing little tiny things every single day that leads in the direction you want instead of the direction you want to avoid. And the E stands for environmental influences. So, it could be something as simple as having a motivational slogan on your wall, or a photo of your dearest child or grandchild in front of you on your desk, or a reminder, or a saying, or something – environmental influences. Also, the people you hang with are environmental influences. The places you go are environmental influences.

So, I thought I was naturally inclined to be a fat guy. I spoke that way and I acted that way. So, I had to change my mental picture, and say, “I commit here today to become a slender person,” and then I had to notice my language and interrupt the pattern of talking myself down, and say, “I’m becoming slender.” Someone said, “Jim, you’re fat,” “Yeah, but I’m becoming slender.” And so, I adjusted my language and I talked in terms of what I wanted and intended, not what I feared or hated.

And then daily successes, I found that I couldn’t get myself, at first, to exercise on a regular basis, so I made an absurd commitment that turned the trick. I committed, and I don’t mean I decided to do this on a superficial level. I committed to putting on my running shoes and walking to the curb every day, 365 days a year, no matter what the weather, no matter what the agenda. And you’d think, “Well, that’s just stupid. It’s so trivial.” No, that was the first olive out of the bottle. That was the first lick on the ketchup bottle that got it to start flowing.

By walking to the curb with running shoes on, every day I had to make a second decision, “Do I go for a walk or a run, or do I go back in the house and eat ice cream?” And some days, I went back in the house and I ate ice cream, but most days I said, “Well, I’m going to the corner. Well, I can go to the next mailbox. I could make it to that tree before I stop.” And before long, I was running five miles a day easily, and the weight just dripped off of me because I was still on the FABS diet regimen, and I was learning to like water and black coffee. And I dropped 52 pounds, I got in great physical shape, and people started talking about me as an athlete.

I remember the first time a guy said, “He’s skinny like Jim,” and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I am thin. I’m skinny. Wow! Thank you.” And that was 40 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool.

Jim Cathcart
Forty plus, as a matter of fact.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Kudos. Kudos.

Jim Cathcart
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jim, this has been a lot of fun. I want to make sure we get to hear some of your favorite things. Can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Cathcart
A favorite passage from the Bible – I’m Christian – is John 10:10, but you don’t have to take this in a Biblical sense. You can take it in a philosophical sense. John 10:10 is where Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’ve come that they would have life, and have it more abundantly.” Well, I embrace that as my life purpose. I want my life to help others live more abundantly, live more fully, more meaningfully, more satisfying, because they got ideas that I was sharing. So, that’s my purpose.

The greatest quote I can recall right off the top of my head is from Zig Ziglar. Zig said, “You can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” And ain’t that the truth, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And could you also share with us a favorite book?

Jim Cathcart
I’ve got two and they’re very similar in nature. One is The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, which stood for Augustine, and that was his nickname, Og Mandino. And Og was a friend of mine, he sold tens of millions of books. And The Greatest Salesman in the World is not just for salespeople, it’s for anybody, but it’s an inspiring book set in ancient times with people, nomads wandering across the desert and all that sort of thing. And it’s about a young camel boy that ended up becoming fabulously successful. So, The Greatest Salesman in the World.

And then another one that’s similar in nature but much more contemporary, and that’s by Giovanni Livera, and the book is called Live A Thousand Years. And it’s like a Disney movie when you read the book but it’s all about goal-setting and self-awareness and healthy relationships and living a meaningful life. And it’s just so well-written. So there’s two.

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

Jim Cathcart
Well, I’ll point them to my name, Jim Cathcart. If you do a Google search on that, you’ll end up with like 300,000 links. And I’m Jim Cathcart on YouTube, on Instagram, on Facebook, on LinkedIn – Cathcart Institute on LinkedIn also – Vimeo. Man, I’m out there. The only thing you won’t find me on is Twitter. I canceled that account. I got frustrated with Twitter. But Cathcart.com is my website, and I’m pretty much omnipresent.

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

Jim Cathcart
Well, I would just challenge them to take some of the ideas we’ve been talking about and start applying them in writing, keeping a record, dating your written record, right now, for the next 30 days or the next however long you can get yourself to do it. Just start applying some of these ideas and notice the payoffs that you get. And if you need my help, come join me.

In February, I’m going to Nashville. I’m going a program called Going Pro. In June, I’m going to Machu Picchu, Peru and doing a program on knowing yourself and understanding all the things that make you who you are based on my book The Acorn Principle. So, come with me and let’s see how much more successful you could be.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Jim, this has been fun. Thanks so much for taking the time and keep on rocking.

Jim Cathcart
It’s a joy for me. Thank you. And go to GuitarMusicLive.com and listen to and watch some of my videos where I’m playing and singing. I’ve got 19 songs on there, and I don’t know how many videos, but it’s all free. Just go there and enjoy yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Thank you.

734: How to Train Your Mind to Focus and Handle Distractions Better with Dr. Amishi Jha

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Dr. Amishi Jha shares the results of her research to provide a simple solution to improve your focus.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest myth about our attention spans 
  2. The four reasons your attention is getting hijacked
  3. The three systems of attention—and how to train them 

About Amishi

Dr. Amishi Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis and postdoctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, and The Pentagon. She has received coverage in The New York Times, NPR, TIME, Forbes and more. You can find Dr. Jha at http://amishi.com/lab. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Amishi Jha Interview Transcript

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

Amishi Jha
It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat with you about focus and attention. That comes up a lot from listeners. And at first, I was hoping you could settle this for me once and for all. Goldfish attention spans, human attention spans, shrinking, being worse than that of a goldfish? Is this a myth? How is this measured? How do we even know if the status of the American attention spans this day and age?

Amishi Jha
Great question. And the answer is, no, we do not have the attention span of a goldfish. We are stable in our attention. It has not shrunk.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Amishi Jha
In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with our attention, and that’s the sort of paradox at this moment, is that, oftentimes, we feel like our attention is in crisis, but, frankly, our attention systems are working perfectly. And to answer your question about how we know, it’s because we, as cognitive neuroscientists who study attention, have been using the same type of basic attention tasks for decades, about four or five decades now, and we haven’t seen a blip or a change since the advent of the internet and the advent of smartphones and their prevalence. Nothing has really changed. We’re still pretty much the same brain we’ve been for quite some time.

Pete Mockaitis
And what is the attention task that you use?

Amishi Jha
There’s a whole bunch of them but one example would be where we, for example, would have people come into the lab, and their task is to sit in front of a computer screen, and they see a series of digits on the screen, kind of appearing one, let’s say one every second or so, and press a button every time you see a digit, except if that digit is three. And when you see a three, withhold their response. But the threes only appear about 5% of the time. So, that’s one example.

And what happens is people are terrible at this task, and they’ve always been terrible at this task, because it seems pretty simple to just look at a digit on the screen and press a button. But we are very much prone to what’s called mind wandering or internal distract-ability. And that rate of internal distract-ability is pretty stable. It’s a high number. About 50% of our waking moments, we can get hijacked away from the task at hand. But that number has not gone up since, like I said, cellphones, internet, etc.

And then there’s other ways we can do it, too, looking at things called working memory, where we’re just looking at sort of the cache or RAM, if you will, of your mind, your internal capacity to have a scratch space. That also has not changed over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m just a nudge enough of a dork, so if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to know all of these because I went down this rabbit hole of research associated with the Stroop word color test, and even found a game on the iPhone called Stroop, which lets you put red, green, red, because – for listeners not in the know, it might show the word red written in a green font, color, and you have to select the font, color from options which may also be mixed. So, it’s tricky for your brain to attend to the thing and subdue or ignore the other thing you might naturally do. And so, that’s just kind of fun.

I don’t know if I’m actually doing something good for my brain by playing this repeatedly and trying to beat my score. Well, you tell me, is that a helpful activity?

Amishi Jha
I love that you’re interested in the Stroop test, and, yes, just to like refresh people in terms of what this task is because it’s a classic task of attention. And what we’re doing is unnaturally making your brain go to war with itself. So, the task itself is, yes, you’ll see a series of words on a screen, and your job is to press a button indicating the color of the font and do that as fast as possible.

Most of the time, when the font color is presented and it’s some all X’s or all O’s, we have no problem with this. We just press the button to indicate the color. But when we make it go to war with itself, we’re actually causing your brain to have to inhibit a very, very natural and automatic process, which is reading.

So, now we’re going to present those words, like you said, in the letters of a color word, so the word yellow would be in orange font, or something like that, so there’s a conflict there. Your job is to detect the font color, but the word yellow is so prominent that you want to say yellow in that and you’d be wrong. So, it absolutely is engaging, a very specific kind of attention process, executive control, but if you keep doing it over and over again, probably you’ll get better at the task and not much else. Not much else.

Pete Mockaitis
I was hoping to correlate to something.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, that’s the thing about the brain. It’s a smart organ and it will get very specific in its ability to maximize learning, but it’s also very context-specific. So, now if I give you some other tasks where I put your brain at war with itself, you may not benefit because you’re well-practiced at color word inhibition but you may not be very practiced at some other form of inhibition.

And, actually, it’s so funny that you mentioned that because it’s much related to the kind of things that we were doing in my lab. Brain-training games are so prominent and they’re available all over. Like you said, you downloaded an app to do this, but it ends up that there’s not a lot of generalizability. There’s not a lot of evidence that, after doing this game a hundred times, or let’s even say every day of the course of a year, you might see that your score on the game is getting better and better and better, but now if I transferred to some other tasks, it’s going to be back to where it was as if you’d never seen this kind of task before.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, for the research dorks, we got the Stroop word color is one thing, and you described the digit. What’s the name of that test?

Amishi Jha
That’s called the Sustained Attention Response Test, SART, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Sustained Attention Response Test. And there was a third one?

Amishi Jha
Oh, there’s many, many. We could spend our whole time just talking about tasks, but I’ll just give you another one that’s pretty straightforward. And that is something called the operations span task, and this is a classic way that we index what’s called working memory, this ability to maintain and manipulate information over very short intervals. Like I said, the cache or RAM, if you think of a computer analogy for the brain.

So, we don’t need to remember this information forever. We just need to remember it long enough for us to be able to use it. So, in the operations span task, what happens is we present a series of letters that you see, and your job is to remember those letters, but intervening between the presentation of the letters will be a simple math problem. So, it would be like ADZ, and then you’d have to do simple math, and some other set of letters, then simple math again. And at some point, you’ll see a bigger screen that has a whole bunch of letters on it, and you have to click all the ones that were part of those that you were asked to remember.

And people can do this reasonably well but it gives us a very solid notion of what the capacity of working memory is, which is, essentially, the ability to maintain, like I said, the information with this interfering stuff, the simple math, which is requiring work of your brain and potentially causing problems with you being able to remember it so you got to work a little extra hard to remember the information. And on those working memory tasks, like this O-span task, like I said, 50 years, not really any change in terms of how people perform on it. So, we’re not really shrinking in our capacity to pay attention and remember information in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is so fun to hear, well, one, I guess, it gives you more hope for our species and our future. And, two, it’s almost a trope nowadays, like, “Oh, with digital distractions, our minds are being hijacked and so…” You’re saying, “Well, no, according to the measures we’ve had for decades, it looks like our attention spans are actually doing okay.” Is something different? Has something changed? It feels like it has in our experience.

Amishi Jha
Well, both of the things that you said are true. Our attention is more prone to being hijacked and our attention spans are unchanged. So, why is our attention more prone to being hijacked? Because the opportunities for distraction are greater in our day-to-day lives. And the way in which we are prone to distraction is because social media companies, technology developers, are gaming the way the brain is organized.

There’s a reason why when you go on a particular website, let’s say a social media website, your name is prominent, the content is pretty much tied to what is of interest to you, it’s catered to you. There’s also a reason why things that are fear-inducing, threatening, novel, interesting, grab your attention. In fact, your attention is the commodity, is the product that the social media company is selling to make money for its own company.

So, yes, it absolutely is the case that you are going to be sucked in because not of your own failings, but because a team of engineers, not just an engineer or two, but like literally hundreds of people have built very sophisticated algorithms that not only know how your attention work but know precisely how to tune the enticements to your attention so that you will spend as much time as possible on the app.

And so, if you notice the qualities of that information – self-related, threatening, fear-inducing, novel – this is what the brain is tuned for through our evolutionary programming, through our evolutionary development. Of course, it’s the case that you’ll drop everything and pay attention to something novel, interesting, or threatening, or related to you, because that advantaged your survival over the millennia that humans have existed.

So, that’s what’s being sort of gamed and capitalized upon. And that’s why the way we’re going to have to battle the hijacking of our attention is going to require something different. We can’t simply just break up with our phones. We’re going to have to do something in a different manner to be able to manage the kind of pull we’re going to get on our attention. Very different from saying that there’s something wrong with our attention. There’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. So, in a lab-controlled setting, where the smartphone is away is like, “Hey, our mental capabilities are pretty similar to how they’ve been but in the real life, we’ve got distraction machines surrounding us like never before.” Is that kind of how we got both things true at the same time?

Amishi Jha
Yes, both things are true at the same time, but I do think it’s a point of empowering ourselves to know there’s nothing fundamentally broken here.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, amen.

Amishi Jha
In fact, it’s the fact that it’s so healthy and so predictable that allows these algorithms to be built around maximizing that. And so, part of that responsibility, I, frankly, think is on a lot of app developers and social media companies and technology companies to be aware of the costs on that and to build in features that might help us monitor better our own engagement with the technology. It doesn’t advantage their bottom line but advantages our ability to function healthfully. So, that’s one answer.

I think the other part of the answer is really what I wanted to share in my book, which is that we can train our own mind, not through brain-training games, but through other methodologies that might help us advantage ourselves better because we are training ourselves to be more aware moment by moment of where our attention is, to make better choices that favor what we want to accomplish and what we want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask that next. So, this next book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, tells us, what’s the big idea here and what’s the magic of 12 minutes?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, the big idea is, essentially, what we started talking about, that we live in a world now where it feels like a crisis of attention, even if the objective data tells us our brains are actually fine and healthy. And that crisis of attention feeling, by the way, if we locked ourselves in a room, had no technology, and we’re really intending to focus, we would discover that our attention is not going to be unwavering. And it’s not a modern feature.

If we look back hundreds of years to medieval monks, they actually did that. They became monastics, they isolated themselves from their families, and then they complained that while they were supposed to be praying, they were worried about lunch or a conversation they had. So, this is also something really to appreciate about the nature of the mind. It is built for distract-ability so even though our capacity for attention has not changed, we are distractable. It’s just the way it is. And there’s, again, an evolutionary reason for that.

But it ends up that under certain circumstances, very high-stress, high-demand circumstances, unlike the kinds of the professional lives of a lot of the people that we study in my laboratory, that number, that percentage of time that we’re intrinsically distractable goes up, and then we can really suffer a lot of problems, so that our attention is not in the task at hand, we lapse, we make errors, and those can be consequential, life or death in the case of service members or emergency service professionals, medical professionals, surgeons, for example, or even judges and lawyers. If you miss information, it has consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with regard to the training, well, okay, yes, stress. So, with the stress perspective, I guess I was thinking in some ways stress can really galvanize your attention, like, “Okay, it’s do or die. This is the moment. Got to get her done. The clock is ticking.”

And so, in some ways, I thought that would make us less distractable. You say it can make us more distractable? Can you elaborate?

Amishi Jha
Both again are true. I’m not going to say, “You are completely correct, Pete.” And what I said is also correct. So, it ends up stress is a variable that can range from actually being very helpful to harmful. And we can even think of it as having a shape. So, if you think of it, imagine in your mind, a graph, and I’m drawing on the graph, the X and the Y axes, and then the shape of the graph itself as an inverted U.

So, on the X-axis, we have stress. Low stress, low performance. So, the Y-axis is performance, the X-axis is stress. Low stress, low performance. As the stress goes up, you start climbing up the U, kind of like the top of a mountain, and your performance will reach a sweet spot so that the right amount of stress is going to optimize your performance.

But, now, if you push past that sweet spot and stress keeps going up, you’re on the downward slope where you’re actually going to start degrading and depleting your performance relative to having less stress available to you. So, we can parse the way we think about stress as eustress, meaning the letters E and U, meaning beneficial stress, or distress.

And what ends up happening with a lot of the groups that we work with, like I said – service members, first responders, even students for that matter – what might be the optimal amount of stress, that eustress peak point, if you maintain that level of demand over a long period of time, you will start slipping into distress, and most of us will not be aware that that is happening.

So, it’s like, if you think about a student, “Oh, I’m really good if I have to cram for a final three nights before I have to take the final.” Now, if you’ve got seven finals, I guarantee you that cramming approach night after night after night is not going to lead to beneficial results. So, it’s just important to know that the features of stress that I’m talking about that are problematic are really dipping into distress. There’s not a match between what you feel like you can accomplish well and your capacity to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, really? So, we don’t even know.

Amishi Jha
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if we don’t know, how can we know? I mean, is there an alternative gauge by which we have a sense?

Amishi Jha
Well, we do know. It may not be a performance that we necessarily are…we’re not aware going into it, like, “Oh, this, my performance is going to suffer here.” We don’t have that view typically but we know what it feels like to be distressed. We know it feels too much.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like after the fact, we know.

Amishi Jha
No, even as you’re in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
Even as you’re in it, you’re feeling, “Oh, my gosh, this is too much.” And so, what we can know from our objective data, if you take people over a protracted period of high demand – the academic semester, for an athlete, it could be competition season, or even pre-season training; for a service member, it could be pre-deployment training, or deployment itself. These are periods of time where you know it’s going to be demanding, and the demands are not going to let up for some multiple weeks.

If we test people’s attention with the same kind of tasks we were talking about earlier, O-span and SART and Stroop, and then we come back four to six to eight weeks later and then give them the same battery of tasks, if that period intervening between those two time points was very demanding, we will see a significant decline in performance. And, usually, we see people reporting that their mood is worse and their self-reported distress is greater.

So, that’s something to keep in mind. It’s that it’s not just that you feel icky and maybe burnt out from the psychological standpoint, but your actual effectiveness is going to be impacted. And what I was interested in doing, again, from this attention research point of view, is, look, there are populations, professions, for whom they will always have to operate their best when circumstances are likely to drive down attentional functioning. And we know what the features are of circumstances that are likely to drive own attentional functioning. Threatening circumstances, stressful, like we talked about; stress perceived stress that we experience and negative circumstances.

So, if you think about going into a warzone or going into a fire, if it was a firefighter, or having to deal with critical-care situations as a nurse or a physician, those are characterizing contexts where attention is going to be compromised. But we want these people to perform at their best because things could be a lot worse if they don’t. So, I wanted to figure out a way to train people so that they could be almost mentally armored against stress, and that proved to be a really tricky thing to track down mainly because of what you were saying earlier. There are so many solutions offered right now, like play brain-training games, or use this device to zap your brain with a small amount of electrical current.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a Muse EEG in my hands.”

Amishi Jha
Exactly. And I’m not going to say anything about Muse in particular, or any particular technology, but I’ll tell you, that in our hands, in my laboratory, when people were experiencing high-demand circumstances, not a lot was helpful to protecting attention from declining.

Pete Mockaitis
Not a lot. Okay.

Amishi Jha
Not a lot. In fact, I would say probably nothing, it reliably showed, protective effects except for one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you got my attention. What is it? What do we do?

Amishi Jha
It was a little bit of a surprise to me because I would say I was very skeptical of this solution just for a variety of reasons which we can talk about. But the one thing that tended to reliably, and now after about 15 years of research in my own lab and many other labs has been shown over and over again, was mindfulness meditation training.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
So, when people engage in mindfulness meditation training, for as little as 12 to 15 minutes a day, during these high-stress intervals, we see that those tasks don’t decline, people don’t decline their performance on those tasks. They actually stay stable over time. And sometimes, if they do enough practice, even if the circumstances are likely to deplete the average person, they can actually improve. So, not only stabilize but potentially optimize attention when everything about the circumstances suggest they would be compromised to attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, so many follow-ups here. Okay, so 12 to…you say as little as 12 to 15 minutes. I’m curious, in some ways, I hear that’s sort of like the minimum effective dose. Is there like a noticeable point of diminishing returns? Like, if 12 to 15 minutes is good, is 120 to 150 minutes ten times as good? Or, how does it break down?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I think that this is where we’re just at the beginning of the science. And my interest in the research program that I’m engaged in was really to ask that first-level question. These are time-pressured people, we’re trying to get them in the busiest most stressful periods of their lives, what do they absolutely need to try to do to benefit themselves? And it’s not one-shot 12 minutes or 15 minutes. It’s over the course of multiple weeks daily.

So, it’s like from the physical training point of view, would walking around the block in a leisurely pace be enough to actually improve my cardiovascular health? Or, do I need to run or jog or walk briskly at some level for a certain amount of time? And the answer tends to be around maybe 20 to 30 minutes a day of brisk walking or jogging can be more beneficial than a leisurely walk.

So, I want to know that. I want to know what the kind of minimum dose was. And the way we were able to find this out was not by prescribing people various amounts of training to do and then seeing kind of like maybe a pharmacologic study where you give people different-sized pills, and say, “Okay, this pill is the one that works.”

Humans, especially complex human behavior, does work that way. So, what we ended up doing is we went to the literature, and said, “Okay, what is typically done?” Because mindfulness training, even though I was one of the first labs to bring it into context like the military, or at least sports, mindfulness training had been around not only for millennia from the wisdom traditions, but even for several decades prior to our work beginning in the military, in the medical setting.

And it was through a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, which is developed by a wonderful colleague of mine, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offered in medical clinics over 750 or more now around the world, usually offered for people that are suffering from intractable physical conditions that nobody else can help them. So, chronic pain, for example. People come into the clinic, they take a course for about eight weeks, they practice 45 minutes a day, and there are benefits. There are benefits to their body, to their mind, to their relationships, and now even brain imaging studies suggest that those are benefits.

But for the kind of groups that I was working with, 45 minutes a day was a nonstarter. Nobody was going to do that. So, in our initial studies, when, for example, working with pre-deployment Marines, we asked them to do 30 minutes a day, during pre-deployment, like I said. Nobody did 30 minutes a day. I mean, maybe, on occasion, one or two people did it but, on average, people were doing…well, actually, before I even talk about on average, there was just a huge range. Some people did what we said, very rarely but they did it. Other people did zero. And then we had all the combinations in between.

So, we decided to take a data-emergent approach, because just telling them what to do didn’t mean that they would do it. And, instead, we said, “Okay, what is the amount of time that the people that tend to benefit, what is the amount of time that they’re doing?” And it ended up that it was about 12 minutes or more that they were doing. And those that did less than 12 minutes really weren’t benefitting. In fact, they looked no different than the people that didn’t get the training at all.

So, then in the subsequent studies, we said, “Okay, if 12 minutes is some kind of sweet spot, let’s only tell them to do it for 12 minutes. Let’s prescribe them, let’s record guided practices that are 12 minutes long, and, first of all, let’s see if they do it more often.” And they did. “And now let’s see what the benefits are.” And what we found was that it was not just doing the 12-minute practices, which I like said, people were much more willing to do than 30-minute practices, but was doing them about five days a week where we started seeing benefits.

So, this is how study after study where we’re just trying to triangulate around the formula for a minimum effective dose. Now, you’re asking the great question, which is, “What about the other end? I want to optimize. I want to be superhuman. I want to be Olympian-level attention. What do I do then?” Well, you got three years to go on a mindfulness retreat and practice mindfulness practices 12 to 14 hours a day. You could do that.

So, there are people that are in that range. There are people, for example, monastics who devote their lives to intensive retreat practices, and those are very compelling types of data, and that’s a whole field of research. Unfortunately, because the nature of the groups that I work with, they don’t have the option of doing that, and it’s, frankly, just not my interest to look at that. But there is a world of beyond the minimum effective dose where we’re learning, just as you would expect, like an Olympic-level athlete is going to be much more capable than somebody who just starts a couch to 5K. Same thing is true for mindfulness training and the kind of brain changes you see.

In terms of specifically quantifying it, we’re not quite there yet but I think this gives you a sense that there is a minimum effective dose, but the more you do, the more you benefit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. And so, we’ll get into some of the particulars of mindfulness meditation training in terms of how that’s done. I guess I’d love to hear, when you talk about the benefits, like what does that mean in terms of quantitative-ness? So, we talked about attention decrements, it’s like it’s worse. Attention can be worse when you don’t do it. Could you maybe just contextualize or share some numbers? It’s like am I going to be able to focus like a smidgen better, like 3% better if I do my 12 to 15 minutes a day, five days a week? Or, kind of what’s the, roughly speaking, size of the price for the average professional?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, and we’re talking between something like that, between 5 and 10% better.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s the numerator/denominator we’re measuring with better?

Amishi Jha
Well, let’s just take one very specific task, the sustained attention response test. Like I said, you’re going to press a button every time you see a digit. When you see a three, you withhold. People typically press to the three 50% of the time even though they’re not supposed to, and this is usually because they are mentally time-traveling away. They’re hijacked away. They kind of go on autopilot and they just press, press, press. The three appears, they press, and then they might have a, “Oh, shoot,” they realized they’ve made a mistake. Too late, you already pressed. So, that is the baseline.

Under high stress, that number goes up. People press to the three even more often. And with mindfulness training, we see that they can benefit with about 10% improvement from their baseline. And so, what does that mean? You might say, “Well, that’s, okay, great. So, I don’t press the three, why do I care? Like, why does that matter?” Well, what we think it represents is really this ability to be more present-centered because you’re noting what’s happening moment by moment, you’re not defaulting to autopilot.

It also translates into really a correspondence with actual activities. So, for example, in the context of soldiers, if you’re doing a shoot no-shoot drill so that you know that you are to shoot to the bad guys and withhold from the innocent civilians. And if you’re making that level of mistakes, a 10% improvement is giant. That actually means life or death benefits for people. And those are the numbers that really matter and are actionable for people to not make grave errors that could cause them for their entire lives. So, I’ll just tell you that we’re just at the beginning of now trying to translate laboratory-based metrics into what we call operationally relevant metrics. How does it translate into real life?

But we’re starting to be able to ask those questions to see in the kinds of tasks that people do. So, for example, medical errors. What is the actionable benefit from mindfulness training on the rate of medical errors? And, again, this is now data that’s just starting to be gathered so I can’t give you precise numbers. We’re really on the edge of this knowledge right now but we’re asking the right questions to say, “Okay, attention may be protected and benefitted. How does it matter? And how does it show up in people’s lives?”

But even before we go to the objective, what we noticed people saying is that they’re more there, they’re not wandering away. The quality of their own relationships is improved, their leadership capacity is improved, their ability to do their jobs and feel engaged in their jobs is improved. So, that’s just painting the picture of where we are at the science in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interesting. I can’t help but run some numbers in terms of an eight-hour workday, 5% to 10% more attentive minutes. That’s very rough and crude but I mean that is significant to the tune of 24 to 48 extra minutes, which is a lot more than 12 to 15 in terms of a profitable endeavor for us.

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And those are just estimates right now. I think that is probably a lot even more than that if you think about the nature of what kinds of processes improve. So, it’s not just being able to pay attention, which is just so important, but mood improves, work enjoyment and engagement improve, presenteeism is going down. There’s a whole literature on mindfulness in the workplace that is now revealing the benefits for organizations to offer this in the workplace context.

And not just as sort of a salve for like, “Oh, you feel burnt out. Here, just go take some mindfulness,” which is sort of the backlash against offering it. But people going to it on their own, and now finding that just like having a gym in your office building can help you, having courses available through their workplace may motivate them to actually be more likely to give it a try. There’s an ease about being able to incorporate it.

And then, of course, moving forward, it may actually impact work culture so that it’s very normal to begin a meeting with, as my colleagues at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute say, “A moment to arrive.” It’s like every meeting, people are probably wandering away more than 50% of their time. But what if we make it part of the culture that we’re actually here? What if we can cut meeting time down because you don’t have to repeat yourselves, or there’s not conflicting and ambiguous information being thrown around because more people are really there? They’re not on their phone and they’re not off in their own mental time travel.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And they’re not saying semi-relevant things. They’re saying fully relevant things, which kind of prevents all of the side tangents that never needed to occur because that’s not quite relevant to what we’re trying to achieve in this meeting.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s part of most workplaces to take the attentional state of every member of the team seriously and to make it an explicit priority for everybody to show up. But if that could happen, and there are ways to train everybody’s minds to do that for themselves, and then do it collectively, that could be really, really powerful.

So, actually, some of the work we’re doing right now with the military, the kind of edge of our work in active projects is looking at team-based mindfulness. What happens when an entire squad that works together? And this is by the way known in the context of medical teams. When there’s mindfulness practice by the individuals, and even a nod toward what we might call collective mindfulness, team cohesion can improve, the sense of belonging can improve, conflict between team members can go down. And this can all relate to their productivity as well as their fulfillment in the work that they do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. So, mindfulness meditation training, that’s come up a few times on the show. What does that really mean we’re doing in practice?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is one of those interesting things about a term like mindfulness being so common these days. Like, people have heard it probably at some point, and, like you said, you’ve even had it come up on your show. So, let me just take you through why it ended up, I think, being such a powerful solution for our work that was really focused on attention. And if you don’t mind, I’d love to say a little bit about what attention is because we’ve also kind of been using that word in a blanket way.

And I like to break it down as sort of this giant concept of attention, which is really, broadly speaking, the ability to prioritize some information over other information. And we evolved this ability to solve a big problem that the brain had, which is that there’s just way more out there in the world, and even generated within our mind, than we can fully process at any moment.

So, this notion and process of prioritization allows us to have more fine tuned and granular information accessible to us while everything else sort of fades into the background. So, something is prominent and other things are not. And when we think about the topic of attention, the way it’s been studied, we’re learning that there’s probably three main ways that we pay attention. In fact, three main brain systems that support these different ways of paying attention.

So, the first way is really just probably the way we’ve been using it kind of without even talking about it explicitly – focus, the notion that there’s content. And just like right now, I’m looking at your face, I’m not looking at the curtains behind you or whatever, the door behind you, whatever I see, I’m able to focus in on the granular detail, seeing the expression on your face, etc. Everything else kind of fades into the background.

So, the metaphor for this that I like to use is like a flashlight. If I were in a darkened room, wherever I direct that flashlight, I’m going to get crisp clear privileged information relative to everything that’s darkened around it. Attention really does the same thing, in this kind of flashlight metaphor, something called the orienting system of attention.

And, by the way, this is that same system that we talked about that ends up being a problem with social media and the pull on our attention, because, just like a flashlight, we can direct orienting willfully, we can decide where we want to point our attention. We can move it around. We can direct it toward the external environment or the internal environment. Like if I said, “Pete, what is the sensation right now of the bottom to your feet?” Probably before I said that, you had no idea, you weren’t thinking about it, but now you can check in and give me an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m on a standing mat. It’s got a cushiony vibe to it.

Amishi Jha
There you go, see. Squishy and pleasant probably. But that same flashlight can get yanked. And the kinds of things that yank have those features of salience, self-related, threatening, novel, like all these kinds of things that are programmed into us. But that’s still just one system of attention, this kind of flashlight or orienting system.

Another way we can pay attention is not privileging content, but privileging time. So, what’s happening right now? That’s something that we call the alerting system. And if you want to think about when we use this, it’s like driving down the road or walking down the road, you see a flashing yellow traffic light or something near a construction sign, something that’s blinking and alarming.

You’re at the ready. You’re broad, receptive, alert, but you don’t want to be focused in on anything because you have no idea what could be coming. It could be weird equipment joining into the road, or children, or traffic patterns are weird. Something is odd and pay attention to what’s happening right now.

So, we can privilege content, like with the flashlight, or privilege time with the alerting system. And then the third way in which we can privilege information with attention is something called executive control, which we’ve definitely already talked about as it relates to sort of working memory. We’re privileging information processing based on our goals.

So, what is my goal right now? And is my action and what I’m paying attention to and doing, meaning the way I’m directing the other two systems, is it aligned to ensure that the actions and the goals are going to be aligned the whole way? Or, am I off-goal, or am I not even sure what the goal is? Like, these are ways in which we pay attention that can be so powerful but quite different.

Going back to your question regarding mindfulness, one of the reasons I think it ended up being super useful is that mindfulness training, which is essentially, I would describe as paying attention to our present moment experience without elaboration or reactivity, without having a story about it. Attention is central to mindfulness. And when you think about mindfulness practices, they actually engage and exercise all three of these systems of attention over and over again in a generalizable manner.

So, just to give you quickly, like one practice might be mindfulness of paying attention to breath-related sensations. If we talk through that, you’d see every one of these systems is actually engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, that’s an overview of the three things that we’re talking about here. And so, when we do a mindfulness meditation training, you mentioned paying attention to the present what’s up right now, presently without sort of elaborating or creating stories. So, that’s kind of… could incorporate a whole bundle of different activities. So, what are some of your faves?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is where, again, we borrow from the existing literature. We didn’t invent all these things, and the existing traditions, frankly. But one very, very common one is mindfulness of the breath where the intention, and I actually don’t call it mindfulness of breath in the way that I teach it because I know the vulnerabilities when we say that. I call it the find your flashlight practice.

And, really, it’s because that flashlight is such a handy way to think about how we can willfully direct our attention, but what we have to get insight into is oftentimes we don’t know where our attention is because we have no clue. So, I’m just going to give you a very kind of quick view of this. So, it is essentially the same thing as other people might describe as mindfulness of the breath or focused attention. There are so many different terms for it.

But essentially, what you do is sit in a comfortable quiet spot, dedicate a period of time where you’re going to do this practice, and the first step is, essentially, to notice that you’re breathing. And, obviously, we’ve been breathing this entire time but we haven’t probably been paying attention to our breath, but we’re checking in to the fact that we’re breathing, and then we’re going to notice what is most vivid in the breath-scape of our present moment experience.

And that’s actually why, I think, the breath is so handy. You can’t save up your breath. I guess you could hold your breath but you can’t really save it up. It’s happening. It’s transpiring in the moment. And, literally, it is about a respiratory rhythm. So, we notice what is most vivid tied to the breath, and that’s where we devote, we say, “For this period of time, my task, my goal, executive control says my goal is pay attention to breath-related sensation. Take that flashlight, point it toward the prominent breath-related sensation, and hold it there.” That’s the agenda for this. Let’s say you start out by doing just one minute of this practice.

Then the second part of the instruction, the first part is just focus. Focus on breath-related sensation, engage that flashlight. The second part of the instruction is notice if your mind wanders away. So, it’s like you’re checking in and monitoring, “Where is this flashlight? Is it at the breath-related sensation?” All of a sudden, you’re like thinking of the next vacation you’re going to take, or some worry you had, or a troubling conversation, or maybe there’s an itch on your face, or whatever it is, “Ah, look at that. Flashlight is not at the breath-related sensation.”

In that moment, the third part of the instruction, redirect attention back to breath-related sensations. So, it’s literally like my military colleagues, I love the way they put it, “It’s like you’re giving me a mental pushup.” Focus. Notice. Redirect. Or, in other words, engage the flashlight, engage alerting and monitoring, and then executive control, to know what the goal is and make sure I’m getting back on track.

So, that’s why I think that it can be so handy to understand how attention works because then we understand why we’re doing it. It’s not sort of some nebulous concept. It’s actually a workout for our mind in this particular way.

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

Amishi Jha
I think the main thing is just I love the topics that you cover on your pod, and I love how like actionable you want to make it for people. So, one of the things I would just encourage people to kind of be left with is this notion to really pay attention to their attention, and to realize that the mind, just like the body, needs some kind of daily exercise to keep it psychologically fit and performing well.

And what we’ve happened upon my own research is learning that this very simple practice, not always easy, but simple practice done for not that long every day, about 12 minutes a day, can actually powerfully benefit the way that we operate and the way that we feel. So, give it a try.

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

Amishi Jha
Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh, then I’m going to be probably picking one of my own because we’ve done so many really cool ones. Favorite study recently is one where we were able to benefit the attention and mood of military spouses by training other military spouses to offer mindfulness training to their peers. So, that was really exciting because now it shows us a path forward to have this all proliferate.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amishi Jha
I would say I’m going to pick something completely uncharacteristic. It’s a book of poems by Rumi.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. What’s it called?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh. The Essential Rumi. I think it’s called The Essential Rumi. Yeah.

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

Amishi Jha
It’s a double-edged sword but I’d say actually my phone to use my timer to practice every day.

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

Amishi Jha
Yes, and maybe that would go to a quote, but it’s not. It’s really kind of more of a concept, “Thoughts are not facts.”

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

Amishi Jha
If they remember my name, they can find me Amishi.com.

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

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I would say invest in yourself and invest in your attention, and do that by starting slow and starting small, and really practice paying attention in this way using the tools of mindfulness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amishi, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in your peak mind activities.

Amishi Jha
Thank you so much.

727: How to Start Something New and See it Through with Michael Bungay Stanier

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Michael Bungay Stanier shares his three-step process for starting and achieving your most ambitious goals.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to crafting more motivating goals 
  2. Why we often falter—and how to strengthen your resolve
  3. The four people you’ll want on your journey 

About Michael

Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of six books which between them have sold more than a million copies. He’s best known for The Coaching Habit, the best-selling coaching book of the century and already recognized as a classic. His new book, How to Begin, helps people be more ambitious for themselves and for the world. Michael was a Rhodes Scholar and plays the ukulele badly. He’s Australian, and lives in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at www.MBS.works. 

Resources Mentioned

 

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Michael Bungay Stanier Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome back to Home to be Awesome at Your Job.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m so happy to be back. Thanks, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your latest upcoming work How to Begin. Tell me, what’s something interesting you’ve began lately?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Oh, that’s aa very fine question. Well, I have begun, not exactly begun, but I’ve began to finally get better at ukulele. So, I have a ukulele and I have spent 10 years being absolutely and consistently mediocre at it. I pick it up every now and then and I play it, and I’m exactly the same as I always am. And then in the last three months or so, my wife got interested in ukulele, and I’ve actually been practicing sort of the next step up, and that’s hard because you suck more before you get better but I feel like I’ve come through the suck stage and I’m actually getting slightly better at ukulele. So, that’s what I’m celebrating now, anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, I wish you much luck and hope to hear some ditties.

Michael Bungay Stanier
No, you don’t want to go there.

Pete Mockaitis
In due time.

Michael Bungay Stanier
In due time, yeah. Call me in 20 years’ time when I’m back on the podcast then we can maybe have a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, looking forward to it. Well, let’s talk about your book here How to Begin. When I think of Michael Bungay Stanier, or MBS, or just simply Michael, I think, “Coaching, coaching, coaching. Like, don’t give advice. Where’s the coaching habit? Be a little bit more coach-like. Be curious a little longer.” And so, “How to Begin,” this feels like there’s an overlap there but it has a whole lot more, I don’t know, as I look through it, a little bit more like kind of juice in terms of inspiration, like a Don Quixote music is playing in my ear. What’s the story here?

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s cool. I like the Don Quixote shoutout. Look, one of the questions that’s at the heart of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, is, “So, what’s the real challenge here for you?” And it just has as an insight that often, if we don’t interrogate the problem, we end up trying to solve the wrong problem. And this book is similar but different because it’s fundamentally asking a question, “What’s the real goal here for you? What’s a worthy goal? What’s something that is worth doing, worth your time, worth your life, worth your focus, worth your resources, worth your energy? Where are you going to spend your time?”

So, 12 years ago or so, I wrote a book called Do More Great Work and it said, “Look, everything you do is forced into one of three different buckets – either bad work, or good work, or great work.” Bad work, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-crushing work. Most people have some idea of what I’m talking about. Good work is like your good job description. Even if you don’t have a job but it’s like being productive, efficient, what your boss wants, what your bosses wants. But great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning, so stuff that lights you up and it’s the stuff that makes the difference.

And this book How to Begin is kind of deeper dive into that idea, to say, look, most of what we hear about goal-setting, particularly in the work context, is actually a bit underwhelming. It’s like, “Okay, this is what’s cascaded down from the bosses. Here’s how you do a smart goal,” and I’m like, “I don’t want a smart goal. I want a worthy goal. I want something that’s thrilling and important and daunting that will grow me, that will make a difference, that will light me up.” And that’s what this book is getting into.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thrilling, important, daunting, we’re going to dig into these components. I’d, maybe, first, love to hear an inspiring story of how this approach really made an impact for somebody.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, there’s been a community of people working at MBS.works using this kind of process to make traction on work. And what’s been great about it is the diversity of the different worthy goals that people have taken on, everything from writing a book, launching a training program in their organization, but one of the ones that I think is most moving is Michelle, who I have known for a number of years.

She lost her son to homelessness and a drug overdose some 20 years ago, and it’s meant that every year, when the anniversary of his…well, twice, birth and his death, have rolled around, it’s been a hard time for her, and she sat with that and sat with just the weight of being a mother who’s had that happen to a child. And coming up with this idea of How to Begin and the worthy goal process, Michelle has actually started a nonprofit to raise money to begin to create a shelter for other people who are struggling with homelessness like her son, Michael, was.

And she wrote to me on the anniversary of his death this year, just going, “This is the first time, in 20 years, that I felt I can be celebratory about this moment rather than carry some sadness and maybe some shame with it.” So, that’s a pretty good story to hear for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That is, yes. That’s beautiful. Well, so tell us then, we’ve got a three-step process: setting a worthy goal, committing, and crossing the threshold. Can you give us just the quick overview of what do you mean by these things and what do we get wrong? You said smart goals are not as exciting.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, smart goals, when you think about it, it’s like it’s not actually about the goal itself. It’s about, “Have you got it right so we can measure it, we can crack it, you can do it?” And you’re like, “Well, what if it’s the wrong goal?” And I just think that we don’t spend enough time kind of testing and interrogating and really making sure, “Is this the thing you want to commit to?” Because no matter what your context is, you’re going to give sweat, blood, tears, money, time to this, make sure it’s a good goal.

So, the first section of the book is three steps to kind of figure out, “How do you draft and re-draft and re-draft a worthy goal so you get to a point where you can be pretty certain that this is worth it?” The second step is where you actually pause for a moment and you actually weigh up, “Look, you got a good goal, but are you really up to committing to this because there’s a price to be paid for commitment?” You’re going to say yes to something and it means you have to say no to some other things, and you’re not always clear what you’re actually committing to and what you’re actually walking away from.

So, this is for all of us who’ve had those moments where we’re like, “I started a goal. I thought it was pretty good but then it all got too complicated and for some reason I just ran out of gas.” This allows you to kind of examine that a little more closely to make sure that you’re really clear about the choice that you’re making.

And then if you’ve made that choice, and you’re like, “You know what, this feels right. I know the prizes and punishments of starting this worthy goal,” the third step is to get you going. And there’s no promise to get you to the end point because a worthy goal is tricky and there’s no guaranteed outcome. But how do you get across the threshold? How do you get moving? Because, certainly, I’ve had moments where I’ve set a worthy goal and then being paralyzed, unable to act around it, I’m like, “Okay.”

Years ago, I read a book by David Allen, who’s kind one of the original productivity guys. He wrote a book called Getting Things Done. And one of his insights that stuck with me still is that you can’t do a project, you can only do the next step. And too often we get paralyzed by the weight and the size of a project, and I’m kind of building on some of his works, to say, “How do you figure out what the small steps are? How do you figure out the support you need? Who do you travel with? How do you figure out how to make progress in a safe way so you don’t blow yourself up along the way?”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, I’m excited to dig into each of these bits. So, let’s talk about identifying if a goal is worthy. So, you say it’s thrilling, it’s important, it’s daunting. How do we arrive at such a thing? And I guess if a goal is not one of these three things, does that make it unworthy? I guess it’s sort of like, “Well, my boss asked me to do this.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, well, exactly. Well, we’ve got reality to contend with, so for all us within work, we’re working within the context of, look, some of our goals are going to come down and be handed to us. And I still want you to be an active participant in actually how you think about this goal. So, once you get that goal, once you have that starting point, the question is to say, “Can I make this thrilling and important and daunting? And how do I make it as thrilling and as important and as daunting as I can because I know if I can do thrilling…?” And thrilling is all about, “Does this light me up? Do I care about it? Do I get some internal motivation around this goal?”

Is it important? Meaning, “Does this actually contribute to the bigger game? Does it serve the bigger play? Does it give more to the world than it takes?” And then daunting is to go, “Well, where’s the learning edge around this? How will I grow? How will I expand as I do this?” And, look, it’s true that some of stuff that we do at work, for sure, isn’t going to tick those boxes, but I want you to see if you can find that goal that will give you the most of that as best you can.

So, once you get a goal, and this might be something that you come up with yourself, or that you’ve done it in collaboration with your boss, or maybe it’s just been handed to you by your boss, you then can go, “Well, how do I turn up the volume against thrilling and important and daunting?” And I think you can start by holding it up against three different tests.

So, test number one is the spouse-ish test. So, imagine this, Pete, you go back to your partner, your spouse, or a person who just knows you, who gets you. It doesn’t have to be your actual spouse because some of us don’t have spouses and some of us don’t want to think of our spouses—our key person. But think of a person who really knows you, who gets you, and you go, “This goal, what do you reckon?” You’re going to get a reaction from them because they know you.

They’re either going to go, “Look, Pete, awesome. Yes, that is perfect for you. That’s going to light you up. Amazing.” Or they’re going to say, “No, that’s a terrible decision. Don’t do that. That’s an awful goal for you. You definitely don’t want to do that.” Or maybe there’s a middleman, and they’ll go, “Look, Pete, you’ve been talking about this for months now, or years, quite frankly. Stop yapping about it and get on with it. Sure, it’s the right thing but I’m a bit tired of hearing it.”

But what you’re getting is some triangulation from somebody who knows you around, “Is this a goal that’s actually thrilling for you?” And the power of thrilling is it’s a counteract against obligation because you’re this on, and “Do I care about this? Does this light me up?”

Then the second test is to hold it up against the FOSO test. So, FOSO stands for “For the sake of,” and this is where you go, “How does this goal, this worthy goal, this project, how does this contribute to the bigger game? For the sake of what am I taking this on?” And this allows you to make a connection to the strategy, or the business outcome, or some other outcome that you care about.

And then the daunting one is, basically, you weighing up and going, “Look…” I call it the Goldilocks zone test. The Goldilocks zone is that place and space where a planet is in the right relationship to the sun so that water is liquid. It’s not too hot, it doesn’t burn off. It’s not too cold and the water freezes. So, now you’re asking, “Does this goal have the right half?” Not too big that it’s just impossible, it’s not too small that it’s just tactical, but it’s actually the right type of goal that we’ll actually go, “You know what, I know how to start this and I totally know how to finish this. This feels like it’s going to be an adventure.”

So, I think that’s one of the ways you can start interrogating your goal, to go, “Does it have these three attributes?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Now, I like what you had to say about turning up the volume. And, I guess, I’m thinking right now about…I’m thinking about how do I make something more thrilling because I’ve definitely encountered some things where it’s like, “Okay, yeah, that could impact a lot of people, make a lot of money, challenge me to learn and grow, but I don’t really care.” What do I do with that? Part of me is like, “Is there something wrong with me? Like, I like impact, I like income, I like learning, and yet I don’t really care. What’s going on?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, you got a couple of choices. One is to go, “Look, if it’s not thrilling, it’s hard to sustain this worthy goal,” as you get going on it because after a while, you’re like, “I’m just running out of puff here. I’m running of things that I’d rather do instead of this because it just doesn’t light me up.” But another way of putting it is to go, “Look, the fact that this worthy goal has impact, it makes money for me, it drives my business forward, it propels me in a way that I want, that’s interesting. The fact that it’s daunting, like, this will be hard, this will stretch me and grow me, well, that’s interesting.”

So, then the question I would ask is, “Well, what needs to be true for this to be thrilling or, at least, more thrilling for you?” And what that does is it takes you to a place where you’re like, “Okay, you mentioned that this would be thrilling, is there anything there? Can you get there?” And it might ask you to kind of rethink and re-draft what this worthy goal is so that you can actually go, “You know what, this would be interesting for me.”

A parallel, Pete, is like I was thinking around, “How do I start a new podcast?” because I’m like, “You know what, I can see how I can frame my podcast to be important, and I can also see how I can frame a podcast to be daunting. I want to set some goals for myself around a podcast that would really challenge me and push me,” because I’ve done podcasts before, so I need a challenge around that. Then there’s, “How do I make it thrilling?” because I’ve done five podcasts where I’ve done basically a straight interview process. And you know what? That is not thrilling for me anymore. Even if I get interesting people on, I’m like, I can feel myself going through the motions.

So, with the podcast that I have at the moment, 2 Pages with MBS, I’m like, “You know what, they’re going to read two pages of a book, and I don’t know what the two pages are, and it means that I’ll have to be really present to hear what they read, and then react in the moment to what’s being read.” And, suddenly, that makes a podcast thrilling for me, I’m like, “Oh, I have to be on my toes, I have to be smart, I have to bring forward what I know so I can be in a good conversation with this person.” And that twist on it was what upped the ante around the thrilling for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I guess what I’m thinking right now about some like procrastination-y things, in terms of, like, “Oh, I should probably call my accountant and get some things figured out associated with taxes.” And, in a way, it could result in a lot of tax savings, which is that’s cool, “Hey, money.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Important, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And I just feel kind of, as a husband, father, provider, that’s sort of like important and responsible thing, and this isn’t really my zone of strength in terms of compliance-y accounting stuff, so there’s some daunting-ness there. But, so, yeah, if I want to get some thrill but I’m having a hard time finding it, what do you recommend? Because just not doing it isn’t much an option here.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, I agree. And I’m not sure I would call that a worthy goal. I would call that a tactic that needs to be done as part of this.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s an obligation, sure.

Michael Bungay Stanier
It’s an obligation, yeah. So, I’d be going, I mean, you can play around with this. And I’m just making stuff up at this stage, Pete, but I’d be going, “All right.” So, part of what your worthy goal might be to go, “How do I build an extraordinary business that keeps me out of the minutiae that sucks my soul?” Because that’s how I feel about it with some of this kind of the operational side of running a business, I’m like, “I know I should send this thing through to my accountant,” but, honestly, I’ll find anything to avoid that for some reason or not. So, I totally empathize with what you’re saying.

Now, if you’re like, “How do I double the size of my business without being sucked into the minutiae?” I don’t know. There’s a possibility that I’ll start opening the door towards thrilling and important and daunting, and then you go, “Well, what needs to be true around that?” Well, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to build some systems or I got to find an online business manager, I’ve got to find a solution to say, ‘You’re now following up with the accountant around this sort of stuff. You’re now doing this work for me.’” I’m just making it up but that’s one thing that comes to mind for me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right, that does start to get more thrilling in terms of it’s like, “Okay, so this year, sure, we’re going to have to make it happen.” But if I approach it in a way in terms of, “What if I sort of like document and make this the prototype or template or pattern for this is the last time I ever have to do this again because it will be systematized and outsourced and automated so that I don’t even need to think about sending a check to the United States Treasury.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, or anybody.

Pete Mockaitis
It just happens.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You’re like, “You know what…” And I get you on this because next year, I’m thinking of trying to write not just one book but maybe two or even three books in a year, and that’s really hard for that thrilling and important and daunting for me. And I’m asking myself the question, “What needs to be true for me to be able to write three books in a year?” which feels impossible at the moment.

And one of them is like I spend zero time talking to an accountant and trying to write checks and trying to figure out chasing down invoices or whatever it might be. I’m like, “Okay. Well, if that’s what needs to be true, how do I solve for that?” and things start happening.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so there we go. So, we’re choosing a goal and it has those three components – it’s thrilling, it’s important, it’s daunting. It’s worthy, and there are some juice to it. Let’s talk about the committing stage.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Right. So, this is where we often get stuck, we’re like, “I don’t know why…” Somebody once gave me a metaphor, it’s like, for some reason, it feels like you’ve got your foot on the accelerator but at the same time, you’ve got your foot on the brake. And I’m like, “Why is it so hard for me to make progress on a goal that actually ticks the boxes for me?”

And here’s the kind of the deepest insight around this. You’re actually more committed to the status quo than you realize. Even though there’s a part of you that’s got a hunger for what’s there in the future, there’s a part of you that goes, “Look, however is the status quo is for me at the moment, I’m getting something from that, and there’s a part of me that is reluctant to leave it.” So, here, you’re doing one thing but you’re doing it twice. And the one thing is you’re weighing up the prizes and punishments of the choice. So, this is how I explain it in the book.

The first thing you want to do is, you’re like, hey, you’ve come up with a worthy goal. You’re super excited about it. You, then – thought experiment – you, then, go, “Imagine I didn’t take this on. I walk up to the edge and then I walk away from the worthy goal. What are the prizes and punishments? What are the pros and cons of that decision?”

Well, the prizes are often pretty obvious. It’s like you’re not putting anything at risk, you’re not trying out something new, you’re not moving into a danger zone, you’re not disrupting relationships, you’re not disrupting the status quo. There’s a way that the short-term prizes are often about the non-disruption and the comfort and the familiarity.

But then you go, “But the punishment of me not taking this on is I don’t get any of that thing that I’ve imagined as my worthy goal.” And then you try to weigh it up, and you go, “Well, what weighs more here? What’s got the greatest weight?” What you hope is punishments outweigh the prizes. The reward of…or rather the cost of you not taking this on is more significant than the prize of embracing the status quo.

Then you’ve got to do it again, this time imagining you are fully committed to the worthy goal, like you just go all in on it, and you’re like, “Okay, imagine I was really going for it.” Step number one, what are the prizes of that?” And here, you get to really kind of taste what are the outcomes you’d get from taking on this worthy goal.

Let’s imagine that you’re doing something, like, “I’m trying to double my business without being sucked into any of the minutiae.” You’re like, “I’m richer, I’m starting to dress better, I’m surrounded by beautiful women, my net worth is 3X or 5X or 10X. I’ve upgraded everything in my life. It’s fantastic.” Okay, so you’ve got all of that.

But then against that, you’ve also got to weigh the risks of taking on a worthy goal. What’s the punishment?

Pete Mockaitis
Paparazzi always dogging me.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Paparazzi, exactly. The divorce, that’s ugly. But, also, it’s the disruption that you cause because you’ve got to say yes to some people and no to some people. You’ve got to change things. People are expecting you to do something and you’re not doing that anymore, so stuff happens. But, again, you’ve got to weigh this up, and go, “Well, are the prizes outweighing the punishments?” And too often, we just don’t really look at, “What would it mean for me to really commit to this? And is the benefit I get from doing this worth the disruption that this will cause?” because stuff is going to change. You can’t add a worthy goal without stuff around you changing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, what’s interesting, and sometimes one of the bits in there that we don’t really surface and acknowledge, as I’m thinking about some bits of my resistance, is just sort of like almost embarrassment, in terms of maybe one of the reasons I don’t call the accountant is because he’s going to ask me some questions, like, “Oh, did you do this?” It’s like, “I don’t remember. I don’t know.” “Yes, what do you think this number is going to look like this year?” It’s like, “I don’t know. I haven’t been tracking.” So, it’s like there’s a lot of embarrassment or humility.

Or talking to a financial planner is like, “So, what are your goals?” It’s like, “I don’t know.” It’s just like, “What’s your deal? Are you a grownup? What’s wrong with you? Give some thought to this. This is irresponsible.” So, now, of course, professionals probably won’t speak to you that way, but sometimes that is what’s in the mix but it’s not surfaced. It’s like this emotional stuff.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I agree. No, I think it’s a really great insight. If we’re playing with this idea, there’s the perhaps embarrassment of the conversation with the accountant but it’s also like, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to describe my process for talking to my accountant. I don’t have a process. I have a sham-bolic, rambling around, collecting random bits of paper off the floor that I then give to the accountant, and go, “Maybe some of the receipts are in here.”

So, it’s like, “Oh, this is embarrassing to explain to the accountant. It’s also embarrassing to explain to my online business manager. You know what, it’s better if I just keep it under the rug and I just kind of manage this in my own barely adequate way rather than hand it over and have that moment of, ‘I’m not very good at this.’”
So, so often, we don’t take on the worthy goal because we want to protect our ego and our status and that kind of façade that we’re putting up, that, and I’ll just speak for myself, the façade that I’ve actually got it together and I know what I’m doing. Whereas, I know with some of this stuff, if I’m trying to delegate it, what it reveals is that I just wasn’t very good at it in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. This is powerful stuff. You know, it’s funny, when it comes to the commit stage, I think most of us underthink about this and either jump in…what comes to mind is I remember I was dating this girl, and someone suggested, it’s like, “Hey, do you want to do this half marathon?” And I was like, “Oh, wow, interesting. That sounds fun.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“How far?”

Pete Mockaitis
“It sounds fun. It might be a good challenge. I like you. It’d be fun to run with you. It’d be a cool victory. And I have gained some pounds. This might be a nice structured goal challenge.” So, I’m really kind of like weighing it, and so I asked my girlfriend at the time, it’s like, “Yeah, so Dave suggested maybe do a half marathon. He’s asking folks to join in. So, what do you think? Would you want to do that?” She’s like, “Sure.” It was so funny, I was appalled. “Sure? Sure? Just like that. Sure? Are you serious? Like, do you know what you’re talking about?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“It’s 13.1 miles.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You know what you’re talking about here? The training schedule, the sacrifice, and the things.” And it’s funny, she ended up dumping me, and we stayed in touch for a while, but it was kind of fun to say, “So, did you ever up doing that half marathon? Oh, no? Oh, yeah, well, we did. So, anyway, no big deal.” Whatever consolation prize you can get, I’ll take. So, yeah, it’s sort of like we can underthink the commit stage and either do it and then whoopsies, then we’re stuck in the middle, or we don’t do it, and it’s like, “Oh, we’re really missing out.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
As we’re kind of talking about this, it’s kind of moving into the New Year’s Resolution season, people are thinking about next year, they’re thinking about what they want to do differently next year, and from lots of people, it’s pretty similar to what they were going to try and do last year, they’re like, “You know what, this year, really, I’m going to run a half marathon and we’re going to get fit,” “I’m going to write a book,” “I’m going to be more present with my family,” “I’m going to watch less TV,” “I’m going to go for a promotion,” “I’m going to get better at whatever it might be.”

And there’s a frustration and a sadness, really, that comes on every year where you’re like, “Why didn’t I make progress on that because this wasn’t a trivial thing? This is actually something that matters to me and that I want to make some progress on. But, for some reason, I just don’t seem to be able to make traction with it, kind of make any kind of real gains on it.” And, often, what happens is we end up beating ourselves up, going, “What’s wrong with me? Am I weak-willed? Do I have no spine? What’s going on here?”

And my take on it is it’s really not that you’re weak-willed, it’s just that you haven’t got clear yet on what you need to say no to in the status quo so that you can say yes to in terms of this new goal. So, if you’re trying to go, “I’m training for a half marathon,” well, what you imagine, of course, is that moment when you cross the finish line, and you get the medal, and the crowd goes wild, and you break the tape, and you’re, like, just ran 20 kilometers, 13 miles. That’s amazing.

But it’s like, “What’s the punishment of taking this on?” Well, it means getting up regularly and getting out there, and running in the rain, and running in the snow, and this, and this, and this. And then you might go, “Well, what’s the prizes and punishments if I didn’t do this? I see this marathon, or half marathon, well, what are the prizes of not doing that?”

Well, prizes are obvious, “I get to eat whatever I want, drink whatever I want, sleep in, wear elasticated trousers, all of that stuff.” But what’s the punishment of not taking this on? “Putting on weight, getting a little soft, getting aerobically compromised, not having an adventure, being dumped by my girlfriend because I’m not training for the marathon like she is.” So, it’s exploring that level of commitment where you actually go, you can answer the question, “Am I really up for this or am I kidding myself?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then, I guess, how do we make that determination? So, you’re looking at the prizes and punishments in both scenarios? And then how do you render that verdict?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I think that’s it. You weigh up the prizes and punishments. You weigh up the prizes and punishments of “If I didn’t do it,” this is a bit of I’ve got a tricky mind thing, but you’re kind of like, you want the punishments of not doing it. It’s like a double negative, the punishments of not doing it to win out. And then you weigh up doing it and you want the prizes of doing it to win. And if the things balance like that, you’re like, “You know what, I think I’m up for this.” And then you can move into that next piece, which is around, “Okay, you’ve got the worthy goal, you’ve figured out that you’re willing to commit to it, how do you now cross the threshold? How do you get now get going on this?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us, how do we?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Crossing the threshold is language that comes from…and more people may have heard of the hero’s journey. And the hero’s journey is like you know the basic story. The hero hears the call, heads down, fights the monster, defeats the monster, takes the prize, and brings the prize back, and the hero is changed and the villain is changed. It’s the basis for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and all these classic fables.

But one of the steps of the hero’s journey that often gets overlooked is that the first time the hero hears the call, a call to adventure, he resists the call. He goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t think so. Yeah, maybe not. I’ll do something else instead.” And then the call persists and the hero crosses the threshold. So, I think, to cross the threshold, you need to think about how you’re going to make progress, because if you take on a worthy goal, something that’s thrilling and important and daunting, it’s not a straightforward journey. It’s not like you type in the address into Google Maps and it says like 60-minute journey, 17 minutes if you detour via the coffee shop.

It’s actually more like you’re standing on a hilltop, there’s a misty valley in front of you, there’s a mountaintop in the distance, which you think maybe the mountaintop that you’re heading for, but you don’t entirely know how you’re going to travel. So, I think you want to be thinking about three things. The first is you want to be traveling in small steps. So, it’s not striding confidently forward in this single direction, it’s feeling your way forward but taking small steps as you go.

So, what I recommend is one of the ways of doing that is you conduct experiments, which is like, “How do you do a little thing that doesn’t risk too much where you can figure it out?” So, if you’re running a half marathon, you’re like, “Rather than me commit to a half marathon, what if I spend, what if I commit to a week of seeing what it’s like going for a run for five minutes every day because that’s going to tell me a lot? It’s going to tell me, like, ‘This is ridiculous. There’s no way I can run a half marathon. I’d skip four of my five-minute runs.’” Or, you may go, “You know what, I did that and I feel okay, and I reckon I’m up for this adventure.” So, testing experiments is one part of crossing the threshold.

The second thing you want to be thinking about is, “Who do you travel with?” because I think if you’re doing a worthy goal, it’s tricky to do it by yourself. So, again, this half marathon is a great example because you’re like, you know what, you could try it by yourself, or you could say, “All right, who do I need by my side to help me run with this?” And in the book, I talk about four key archetypes that you can think about.

A warrior archetype. This is fierceness, willing to put your hand at your back and push you forward, create boundaries, kind of take on the enemy. So, sometimes it’s really helpful for that. You can imagine half marathon, you’re like, that person who’s like, “I’m showing up at your door every day at 5:30 a.m., Pete, and we’re going for a run. I’m that person.”

Then there’s the healer, or sometimes the lover, they’re called. This is like, “How do I get comfort? How do I get familiarity? How do I get a hug? How do I get softness? How do I get healing?” So, maybe there’s something there who’s like maybe this is your massage therapist, like, “I’m going to make you feel better after doing this.”

Then there’s the teacher or the magician. So, this is maybe going, “Okay, how do you actually run a half marathon? How do you train for a half marathon? I need to learn that.” So, you might go online or you might find a running coach to kind of go, “Okay, this is where I’m getting that information from.” And then the final archetypal role is that of the ruler or the visionary. This is where you are kind of like hold your ambition.

So, maybe this is someone who’s going, “Hold up, dude, we’re not just running a half marathon. This is the start of something. This is you getting into endurance racing. In two-years’ time, we’re going to do the hundred-mile Death Valley race together,” and maybe he’s holding that space for you. Now, I’m just making all this stuff up but the key takeaway is you want people around you because if you’re taking a worthy goal by yourself, sometimes it’s just hard. And if you’re all by yourself, it’s too easy to collude with yourself and opt out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. And I’m all about accountability and the power that wields it. And I dig it how, so you talked about the hero’s journey, I think it’s always like, “Oh, Yoda or Gandalf.” It’s like, “Well, there’s more than one shape of that just like the wise mentor.” So, I like those archetypes kind of different roles there.

Michael Bungay Stanier
The wise, the Gandalf, or the Yoda, they’re the teacher or the magician archetype, and they can play their role for sure, but that’s not the only person in the band. It’s like when Harry Potter was taking on Voldemort, he doesn’t just have Dumbledore. He has a band of people around him who helped conquer the baddie. I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler for anybody. Harry Potter kills Voldemort in the end. Spoiler alert.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, when people spoil things for me, I say, “Or was he just messing with me?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“Oh, was he just messing?” There you go. Yeah, maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s a jokester, Michael.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m a trickster. Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, then let’s hear about let’s say we’re in the middle of things and, yeah, motivation just sort of dips along the journey, what do you do?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’m thinking there are three things that you might look to that could help because motivation will dip. It’s not if, it’s when. Motivation will dip. So, if you’re lucky, you’ve got people around where you can go, “Man, this sucks,” and they go, “It does suck. How do we help you get back on the path?” So, that’s part of why you want to have your people with you.

Secondly, you might be going, “You know what, this sucks. Motivation has dipped. But you know what, it was only an experiment. So, now, I’m like, how do I design the next thing that might be get my motivation up and get me running around that?” But the third thing you want to be thinking about is, “How do you get back to the best version of yourself?” And this is a powerful piece of kind of reorientation to the best version of who you are.

And in the book, I talk about this exercise called “This, not that.” And I love writing about this because I’ve frustrated about this 12 years ago in this book Do More Great Work, and I feel like I’m kind of doing a Disney thing. I’m taking it out of the vault and reintroducing this exercise because it’s a powerful one, and it says this. Look, imagine a time, or times, when you are at your best where you were really kind of rocking it, you felt on top of the world, you felt like, “This is one of the best versions of who I can be.” And you want to start thinking about words or phrases that are associated with that so you can remember what that looks like.

But against each one of those words or phrases, you want to have a corresponding word, a pairing word or phrase, that is you when you’re slightly off your game, when you’re 15% down, when you’re kind of lost some of the essential motivation. And this is the “This, not that” pairing. And what I found is that when you go do this work and you develop this tool for yourself, it’s your chance to get back to the very best version of who you are.

Here’s an example. One of my pairs is stepping forward, not stepping back. And what I noticed is that when I lose motivation, or I get a bit disheartened, or I get just battered around a little bit by the process of taking on a worthy goal, I start being on back and forth. I start being less courageous. I start stepping back. And I can notice that in me, I can then go, “Whoa, what’s it like when I’m at my best? Oh, when I’m in my best, I have a fearlessness where I step forward and I’m kind of undaunted by setbacks. How do I get back to that version of myself?”

And just remembering that I can be that person, that I’ve been that person in the past, and I can be that person again, is one of the ways to kind of regenerate motivation for the worthy goal that you’ve set yourself.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
I think at the heart of this book is a couple of things. We talked a lot about the goal process and kind of how do you set it, but what I hope is a deeper resonance, which is I want people to be ambitious for themselves and for the world. And I think sometimes with the grind of the everyday work, we lose some of that sense of ambition.

And what I hope is this is not just about setting better goals but it’s about unlocking the greatness that you have by taking on hard things, and also making your world and all of our world a little bit better by doing a goal that is thrilling and important and daunting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, my favorite quote is one that resonates with me at the moment and it’s part of the driving of the book. It comes from a Rilke poem called “The Man Watching,” and it’s the last two lines of the poem, and it says…look, his goal is not to win. His goal is to be, and this is the quote, “Be defeated by ever greater things.”

And I love that because it says, “Look, stop trying to win because if you’re only playing games that you can win, that’s going to keep you playing small. Play games that give you a chance to be defeated by ever greater things because that’s when you unlock your greatness.”

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, one of the favorite studies that I’ve got is a way of reminding us how malleable we are. It’s a wine-tasting study, so that’s already a good start because it involves wine. And, basically, they had people tasting four glasses of wine, and music playing in the background as they’re tasting this wine, and they moved through these red wines, and asking them what they tasted.

And the first glass of wine, people were like, “Ah, it’s kind of light and playful and summery and joyful.” They moved through them, and then the final glass of wine, it’s like, “This is kind of dark and serious and tempestuous and solid.” And what they found in the study was that, actually, glass one and glass four were the same wine, but they were playing different music in the background. In the first glass of wine, they were playing Vivaldi’s Spring so it’s kind of light playful music. And by the final glass of wine, they were playing some Wagner, so kind of deep operatic serious music.

And why I love that study is it just reminds me that I’m constantly influenced by my context, by the environment around me. So, whilst we think of ourselves as kind of rational contained individual creatures, what I realize is, like, if I want myself to be at my best, and if I want people around me to be at my best, constantly thinking about the context and the setting and the environment can make all the difference.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And these were full-blown master sommeliers, right?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m not sure about that. I think it might’ve been just…my memory is they’re just kind of ordinary wine-tasters but the fact that the tasting was so radically different just because of the music being different behind them, that, to me, was magical.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m amazed at how…I’m thinking about audio files, looking at assessing different microphones, for example, because I’ve been through this podcast mic. And so, it’s like, hmm, so my moderately priced setup sounds just as good as your five times as expensive setup when it’s a blind test. But when it’s not, it’s like, “Oh, boy, you could really hear. This is so much richer, so much richer with that deep, deep preamp.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s right. Well, it comes into that kind of sunk costing which is like, “I need to believe this.” And in some ways, it all connects to this kind of the placebo effect, which is like if you believe it, it likely is. And then I love Seth Godin’s take on the placebo because part of it is like, “How do you get conned by the placebo?” He’s like, “No, no, the placebo is magic because if you can go, ‘Look, I’m going to believe this, even though I know I’m believing that this is a placebo, so even though you’re in on the trick, it can still have exactly the same impact on your body.’” And that, to me, is sheer magic because it just goes to show that there is this truth to it. Like, if you believe it, then you’ll see it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And how about a favorite book?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’ve just read a book, it’s called Virgil Wander. It’s a fiction book. It’s by an American author whose name is…Googling desperately. His name is Leif Enger. Now, I read a lot of nonfiction because I’m a nonfiction writer so I read a lot of business and science and psychology and all of that, but I have a master’s degree in literature, and my wife has a PhD in English studies as well, so we read a lot of fiction as well.

And she introduced me to this book, and it is the most beautifully written book that I have read in ages. He has such a turn of phrase. So, Virgil Wander is the lead character. He’s living in a mid-Western town, by a lake, and he has a car crash in the very first chapter, so there’s no spoiler alert. And it’s a story of him coming back to himself as he figures out who he is, and it’s just beautiful. It is written with such grace and with such style. That would be my recommendation of my favorite book I’ve read in the last month or two.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m writer so often my favorite tools are around, “What do I write with?” And I’ve had phases in my life where I’ve had a thousand pens scattered across the universe.

So, I have two desks in my office, this one where I’m sitting at with you, and then a writing desk just over there. And on each of my desks, I have two pens from Baron Fig. So, Baron Fig create these beautiful ballpoint pens that just feel beautifully weighted and they sit in a beautiful little penholder. So, the one that I’m holding up to the screen showing you, Pete, is made out of copper. I’ve got another one that’s in pale blue over on my other desk.

And you know what? A beautiful pen brings me joy. And that is the tool I would nominate.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, my favorite habit, I’m not sure if it’s not a particularly good habit, or, maybe it is. But it’s like making an espresso for me and a latte for my wife in the morning. Because I grew up in Australia, and one of the things that’s magical about Australia is, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had a lot of Italian and Greek immigrants come to Australia.

And what that means is Australia is a coffee culture. It’s just built on a place where every coffee is espresso-based and delicious. So, when I moved to America, I’ve lived in America for a while, and I came across the light-brown bilge water that Americans drink as coffee, I was like, “What? This is a disgrace. What is this?”

So, we have a not a particularly fancy espresso machine, but we have an espresso machine, we have a place around the corner that roast coffee beans, and that moment of getting up in the morning and making your coffee and seeing crème on the top, and then making a coffee for my wife and bringing that to her in bed, that is a ritual, maybe more than a habit, that feels an important way to start the day for me.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah. In the pre-days when I used to run workshops and training and the like, I get people to practice, coaching skills, in particular, in pairs. At the end of every round of practice, I got people to look the other person in the eye, and say, “You’re awesome and you’re doing great.” And I do these four or five times in a session.

The first time that people did that, it’s really awkward, was embarrassed, and like, “Ah, I don’t know how to do it. But by the end of it, they were, like, there’s this kind of expression of appreciation within this pair of people that was pretty cool. And I added it as my standard signature on my emails. So, every email you get from me, it says, “You’re awesome and you’re doing great.”

And I would say, two or three times a week, I get somebody writing back to me, going, “Thank you for that. I really needed to hear that right now.” So, it’s a very simple phrase. My mom hates it because it’s not grammatically correct, and she’s like, “Michael, you’re a Rhode scholar. What are you doing? Why can’t you even say this properly?” I’m like, “Because it has a resonance with people.” So, I think the phrase “You’re awesome and you’re doing great” seems to have people feel like they are heard and seen.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
I would point them to the website MBS.works. And if you’re kind of particularly keen on learning more about the new book, HowtoBegin.com.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, I would look at the work you’re doing right now and be going…well, the obvious one is to say, “How do I find a worthy goal?” but that feels too glib. So, I think what I’d really ask people to do is say, “What do you need to stop doing so that you might create some space for something like a worthy goal to appear?”

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and success in pursuing your worthy goals.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Thank you. Pete, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

726: Developing the Mind of a Champion and Leader with Dr. Jim Afremow

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Dr. Jim Afremow reveals the secrets of how top performers prepare themselves mentally to succeed.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five-minute mental training routine used by top athletes 
  2. Two easy ways to turn a bad day around
  3. One powerful question to elevate your leadership 

About Jim

Dr. Jim Afremow is a much sought-after mental skills coach, licensed professional counselor, co-founder of the Champion’s Mind app, and the author of The Champion’s Mind (over 140,000 copies sold), The Champion’s Comeback, and The Young Champion’s Mind. For over 20 years, Dr. Afremow has assisted numerous high-school, collegiate, recreational, and professional athletes. In addition, he has mentally trained several U.S. and international Olympic competitors. Jim also served as a senior staff member with Counseling Services and Sports Medicine at Arizona State University, and as a Mental Skills Coach and the Peak Performance Coordinator with the San Francisco Giants MLB organization. In addition, Jim has helped many business executives elevate their mental game. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

  • FSAstore.com. Use your flex spending account funds with the greatest of ease!
  • University of California Irvine. Chart your course to career success at ce.uci.edu/learnnow 

Dr. Jim Afremow Interview Transcript

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

Jim Afremow
Hey, Pete, thanks so much for having me on today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your wisdom. And you’ve helped a lot of athletes achieve peak performance. I’d love to hear is there a particularly dramatic or exciting story you’d like to share to set the stage or the scene for what could be possible if we become mental champions?

Jim Afremow
Absolutely. So, one of my favorite stories is from Natalie Cook, and she’s a five-time Olympian, and she won the gold medal in Sand Volleyball at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. And the story behind that is her grandfather, when she was really young, encouraged her to dream big, and set a that’s impossible goal, or seems like an impossible goal. And so, she said, “Grandpa, I want to win a gold medal in the Olympics, and I don’t even know what sport yet.” So, he said, “Really go for it, and I believe in you.”

And so, anyway, she ended up really dedicating her life to excellence and she surrounded herself with the color of gold. So, she wore gold-colored sunglasses, and had painted her nails gold, and just surrounded herself with gold as almost a subliminal message that, “That’s what you’re gunning for in life.” And so, she ended up, again, accomplishing all of her goals. But my favorite part of the story that she shared with me is that she was asked after winning the Olympic gold medal what if she had finished second place. What if she got a silver medal?

And her response is perfect. She said, “Well, I would’ve painted my silver medal gold.” And her point was it’s not about the medal, it’s about living a gold-medal life. And so, when she decided to really go for it, she ended up telling everyone, and one of the things that usually when we set a big goal, we don’t want to tell anyone because what if we don’t accomplish it. And her idea was, “I want people to hold me accountable to that goal,” and she calls it teaming, which is surrounding yourself with people that really support your dreams and goals. And it’s just a great story because I think that should be something that we all strive for, is to live a gold-medal life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I dig that. Yes, thank you. Well, I’m excited to hear some of your particular insights and tools from your books The Champion’s Mind, and your latest, The Leader’s Mind: How Great Leaders Prepare, Perform, and Prevail. So, that’ll be fun. But, first, my producers and I, we were prepping for this. We can’t resist. On your website, you have an intriguing teaser that says, “Win the mental battle. Train your mind in just five minutes a day by following the mental training routines used by top athletes.” That’s good copy, Jim. Tell us, what is the five-minute mental training routine used by top athletes? And can you walk us through it? And what is it going to do for us?

Jim Afremow
Well, absolutely. So, I do have an app, Champion’s Mind app, it’s sort of like a powered toolbox. And the powered tools would be things that we should all work on regardless of whether we’re athletes or not. So, examples would be positive self-talk. How can we talk better to ourselves to accomplish what we want more in life?

Gratitude. We’ve often heard about gratitude and how important it is but I don’t think we realize how important it really is and what a game changer it is. So, there’s different tools and techniques for how to be more grateful in life. Goal-setting. Just like what we’re talking about with Natalie Cook, let’s write our goals down, let’s share them with others, and let’s put them somewhere where we could see them each day.

In addition to that, visualization. That’s one of my favorite mental skills. Not only just picturing our success but the steps, the specific steps to achieve our success. And then, of course, mindfulness. There’s a new saying now in sports, which is, “Be where your feet are.” And if we’re in the moment, we’re at full power, but most of us tend to be thinking about what happened earlier today or what might go on later today instead of being right here, right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, that sounds cool. And I can do all that in five minutes?

Jim Afremow
You could definitely do that in five minutes. And the neat thing about mental skills training is that you could do it in tandem or in parallel with other activities. So, for example, gratitude, one of the suggestions that I like to give to athletes is when they’re driving to the arena or the ballpark, is turn the music completely off and think about what you’re grateful for, not only in your sport but also in the rest of your life. And so then, you start your day or your practice with an attitude of gratitude, which really helps us not only to feel our best but to perform our best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. Well, so then I’m curious, over the course of five minutes, what might my ritual or protocol be in terms of if I’m going to do a little bit of all of these things in five minutes?

Jim Afremow
Yup. What you can do is, I think that having a routine is good. One of the things that we hate as human beings is uncertainty, and that adds a lot to our stress. And the world is kind of in an uncertain place right now with the pandemic and just maybe job security and those kinds of things. So, build a routine around thinking like a champion each day. So, whether in the morning, afternoon, or in the evening, set aside some time to review our goals, review what makes us grateful, to give ourselves credit where credit is due.

Most of us are too hard on ourselves than not hard enough, so part of the positive self-talk is thinking about what you did do well today or what you’ve done well recently, and say, “Hey, that’s just like me to do that.” And then mindfulness, again, kind of in parallel with other activities, when you’re eating, really taste your food, or when you’re taking a sip of water, really taste the temperature and feel that water cooling your chest as it goes down when you take your sip.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, well, I do. I like cold water so much more for that very reason. It’s just more entertaining and rejuvenating, in my own personal opinion. And so, who could’ve thought, that, apparently, by adding some mindfulness to that, I can be more champion-like in my mental game. So, that’s cool. Well, so then share with us then, so your latest The Leader’s Mind: How Great Leaders Prepare, Perform, and Prevail, sort of what’s the big idea here?

Jim Afremow
Well, the big idea is that we need good leadership now more than ever, and that all of us are leaders in one way or another. We don’t need a title to be a leader. And so, take the opportunity to show good leadership skills in all areas of one’s life. So, as a parent, as a coworker, whether a teammate, or if you happen to coach a team or be a boss, I think it’s important to be the very best you can be as a leader because, number one, we know that people don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses.

And then the other thing, too, that we know is, from research, that most of us at work are only about 50% engaged with what we’re doing in the moment. We’re either feeling entitled, or unhappy, or negative. We’re not really engaged with what we’re doing so we’re not going to perform well obviously and then no one wins when that happens.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, lay it on us then, what should we do in terms of is there a particular mindset that gets us engaged and rearing to go, and makes us do better leadership-y activities and avoid poor leadership activities? How do we think about the mental game here?

Jim Afremow
Yeah. Well, I think it all starts with the idea that champions make each day count. So, most of us tend to procrastinate, “I’ll just try to get through today, and then maybe tomorrow I’ll bring my A-game.” And that’s one thing that champions don’t do. What they do do is, “How can I get one day better today?” And so, it’s that attitude that, “Whatever I’m going today, I’m going to do it to the fullest. And so, I’m going to have a great attitude and give my best effort.”

And so, part of being a great leader is taking care of yourself and leading by example. So, that’s why some of those mental skills and strategies we’ve talked about at the beginning are so important, “Am I talking good to myself with positive self-talk? Do I have great body language?” As a leader, you got to ask yourself, “Would I want to work for me today?” or if I’m a coach, “Would I want to play for me today?” So, it all starts with setting the right tone with your attitude.

And then looking for ways to help others around you. And when we help others around us, we kind of feel better about ourselves, and then it shows that we’re there for the right reason instead of it just being about us; it’s about the collective good.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, so, Jim if you said that sometimes we have these days, like, “Ugh, I’m kind of tired. I don’t know, bored, unmotivated, disengaged, not into it,” whatever is going on, a little of blah or yuck going on. And so, rather than responding with a, “Uh, let’s see if I could just get through the day and maybe tomorrow will be better, and I can really make it count tomorrow.”

I’m curious, if you’re in the heat of battle there, the “Ugh” feeling not so grand, what do you do? Like, how can you flip the switch or get to a better place? Or, maybe you just don’t, and you suffer through but that somehow feel horrible on the inside but I guess look good on the outside and get some things done. Help us, Jim. When you’re in that yucky place, what do you do?

Jim Afremow
Yeah. Well, you definitely need a go-to strategy, and I have a bunch to share. But the thing is it’s really a fork in the road, in terms of, “Am I just going to go down the path of least resistance, and good is good enough?” And then we know that when our head hits the pillow at night, we usually don’t feel good about our day in terms of, “Yeah, I settled for silver instead of really went for gold today.”

But when we do our best, I don’t think anyone ever regrets that, and then we’re more likely to get into flow state or in the zone, and not only do we perform better, we end up enjoying our day more. So, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by giving that extra effort of excellence. And so, one kind of fun activity that I like to do with athletes is I suggest that they pick an animal, a predator in nature, that they want to emulate on the field or in practice. It could be a fun team-building exercise as well.

But when you think about predators, they love to hunt. They live in the moment. They’re not too worried about what else is going on around them. And when they’re hunting for prey, they’re totally focused and goal-oriented. And if they don’t get that prey, they don’t needlessly beat themselves up. What they tend to do is just, “Okay, where is my next prey?”

And I think that what’s really cool about that, thinking about, “What’s my predator that I want to emulate on the field?” is then we could talk to ourselves that way. So, we could say, if I’m feeling a little bit low energy, I could say, “Hey, wake up. It’s time to hunt. Be the tiger. Be the lion. Let’s get after it today.” And I think one of the things, too, is that, for athletes and other performers, we tend to think, “Well, if I have a bad day, I’m a bad performer,” or a bad worker, or a bad athlete. And what I like to remind my clients is that even tigers have bad days but they’re still tigers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Noted. Thank you. That’s cool. Well, so I’m intrigued, you really sort of go into some detail in terms of the internal conversations. Can you share with us, you mentioned a go-to strategy, are there any key sort of words, or phrases, some do’s and don’ts in terms of particular verbiage inside our heads?

Jim Afremow
Yeah. Well, self-talk is the mind leads the body, so that’s also a good metaphor for leadership. The leader kind of leads the team. But the reason why self-talk is so important is because we have about 60 to 80,000 thoughts per day. There are different estimates, but we have a lot of thoughts per day, and the one thing we do know from research is that most of those thoughts are negative. So, we all have a negativity bias that keeps us safe, and that’s the number one priority of our brain is safety first. That’s the operating principle there.

And so, that’s going to keep us safe but it’s not necessarily going to make us successful. And so, in order to be happy and successful, we need to counteract that negative self-talk with positive self-talk. And so, that’s where I like to say that champions listen to themselves, or rather they talk to themselves, they don’t listen to themselves, because most of the thoughts that we’re going to have are going to be negative throughout the day.

So, when you catch yourself kind of in that negative state of mind, that’s when you really need to kick in the positive self-talk. And it could be as simple as, “I can do this. I am strong,” or, “I am not alone.” One athlete that I worked with was kind of having some challenges with conditioning on her team. She’s a freshman and moved up to college, and, man, the conditioning was a lot harder than in high school. And so, one of the things that she would say to herself is, “I’m not alone. I’m strong. I can do this.” And she would just repeat it over and over again, and that helped her get through those tough workouts. Whereas, before, what she was saying to herself is, “This hurts. This sucks. I can’t do this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. It sounds so simple and, yet, you’re telling us that that makes the difference in terms of whether you quit and don’t get the result versus you persist and do. Is that fair?

Jim Afremow
Yeah. Well, our muscles are always listening to what the mind says. So, if we want our muscles to perform or our body to perform the way we want, we need to really give it the right messages. And self-talk is something that, just like with gratitude or goal-setting or visualization, body language, all these skills and strategies are simple but they’re not easy. We just need to remember to do them.

And, usually, when we need to do them the most, is when we least feel like doing them. So, again, we’re having an off day, we’re low energy, adversity is striking, and that’s when we need to say, “Okay, game on. Put on the champion,” and look at whatever we’re faced with as a challenge to overcome rather than a threat to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued about self-talk in that it’s not that often that I am too harsh myself, like, “Oh, I’m a loser,” or, “I’m an idiot.” That happens here and there. But mostly my own negative self-talk is more just like I’m irritated by something. For example, I was trying to sell something on Facebook Marketplace mostly just because I wanted them to haul it away without paying for it to be hauled away. So, don’t tell them but I would take zero dollars for this item, but anyhow.

So, they send a message, like, “Hey, what time?” or whatever, and then I’m not on Facebook for a while, and then 40 minutes later, they’re like, “Hello?” and that just makes me angry. Jim, I don’t know if that’s just me or what because it’s sort of like, “I am angry that someone has the expectation of being always on and instantly replying. And, like, I feel like I have failed or disappointed them in some expectation. But I think that expectation is bull crap. So, I’m angry.” Usually, I can let that pass but it kind of gets me a little bit of a slant or funk.

I think the mind, with those 60 to 80,000 thoughts, it’s sort of like, once you’re prewired or in one chute of emotional being, it’s easier to see, “Well, what else is irritating and anger-inducing in my environment or world?” So, Jim, I’d love to get your take on that when it comes to self-talk. Sometimes it’s not even verbal inside the mind’s ear, but it’s an emotion. And sometimes it’s not lifted or pointed at the self, like, “I’m so bad,” but rather something else, but it still has unpleasant effects that can decrease performance and productivity over the course of the day. So, yeah, I guess I laid it on you my own situation but some of the nuances of self-talk. How might you address that situation?

Jim Afremow
Well, we definitely, most of the time, our first appraisal is usually negative. And, again, that relates to the negativity bias, so, “I can’t believe this is happening,” or, “Why now?” or, “This is unfair.”

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “What’s this guy’s problem? Chill out, man. Some people don’t live their lives on Facebook. Deal with it.”

Jim Afremow
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, it’s just not helpful.

Jim Afremow
Exactly. And that’s where we need to make a re-appraisal of the situation and either look at it in a humorous way, like, “Okay, this is going to be a funny thing to share with someone later today,” or, we look at it as a challenge to overcome. And one of the little sayings that I like to use for myself is, “Get your expectations in line with reality.”

And most of us expect everything to go perfectly well each day, and, lots of luck, that’s not going to happen. And so, it reminds me of the story of Walter Hagen. He was, about a hundred years ago, one of the best golfers in the world, if not the best golfer of his time, and he reacted really well to the bad shots when he played. And back in the day, most golfers would throw their clubs or break their clubs and let it ruin their whole round when something bad happened. And he just ho-hummed, went onto the next shot, hit a good shot.

And so, he was asked, “How do you do that? How do you keep such a great attitude?” And he said, “Well, I expect four, or five, or six bad shots around, and golf is not a game of perfect, so to speak,” as we say nowadays, “So, when I do hit a bad shot, well, there’s one of the five, six, or seven bad shots that I’m going to hit today, or this tournament, so let it go. Put it behind me.”

And so, that’s kind of a key of champions is they tend to underreact emotionally when things aren’t going well rather than to overreact. And so, I like to joke again with performers that no one after a competition has ever said, “Man, I wish I got more angry out there or more anxious out there, or whatever it is out there. I wish I overreacted more to that bad call by the rep.” It’s usually, “I should’ve kept my cool,” and that’s where I like the saying that, “Cool heads win hot games.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s lovely. So, two good tools there. One is expectations, like, “Hey, if you interact with strangers, it’s probably going to have some unusual characters in some ways, and there’s a scammer in the mix as well. So, to be expected,” as opposed to be, like, “I’m so mad and frustrated and surprised and shocked that this thing happened.” So, one tool, get those expectations aligned with reality.

Secondly, re-appraisal, tell us, how can we do that? What are some examples of re-appraising? You say funny. I guess I’m imagining, I don’t know, like Seinfeld or something. You can make a whole episode out of this nothingness and turn that into humor. Can you give us some examples of re-appraisal in action, how it’s done?

Jim Afremow
Well, let’s say the classic example is you’re stuck in traffic and you need to get somewhere, maybe to work that day, and you’re getting frustrated, “What’s taking so long? Why are the roads so crowded?” And so, we’re going to have that instant negative reaction, and I think that’s where we could catch ourselves, take a deep breath, and kind laugh it off, and maybe think of it as an episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, and just think that, “If I were watching this on TV, what would make this situation kind of humorous or funny?” versus just getting upset, and then kind of reminds me of, what the saying, that it’s kind of like holding a hot coal and expecting it to hurt someone else that you’re mad at.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, like revenge.

Jim Afremow
Yes. So, we tend to be our own worst enemy in those situations where we just stress ourselves out but, yet, we’re the ones holding the stress. So, the problem isn’t the problem is, I guess, what I’m getting at. It’s our reaction to the problem that’s often the problem. So, being stuck in traffic is just, “Okay, it’s going to happen. I’ll probably be a few minutes late. It’s not the end of the world.”

Again, get my expectations in line with reality, and then maybe take a deep breath, find out, listen to something good on the radio versus getting really upset, frustrated, heated, and then, all of a sudden, we have this really…we slip into this black hole and then carry it around with us all day.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Well, so now these are parts of the mental game that apply to everybody. I’d be curious to hear, particularly with your book here The Leader’s Mind, how do we translate this into leadership context? Like, are there any particular applications, use cases, do’s and don’ts, that make all the difference when it comes to leading others?

Jim Afremow
I do think that what’s really, really important is that we get crystal clear about our core values. And one example that I share in the book is when Steve Kerr decided to accept the Golden State Warriors’ head coaching job for the basketball team, he started reaching out to not only his mentors in the basketball world, Phil Jackson, when he was with the Bulls, and then Greg Popovich when he was with the San Antonio Spurs, but he reached outside of his sport.

And one of the people that he reached out to was Pete Carroll, who’s Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl winning coach. And he said, “Pete, what should I do in terms of being a great coach?” And Pete said, “Don’t worry about the X’s and O so much. I want you to start with what is the most important to you.” And he said, “Well, what do you mean?” And he said, “Well, write down ten core values and then narrow that list to four core values that you’re going to implement in your program on your team, and that you’re going to live each day.”

And so, he came up with joy, mindfulness, competition, and then kind of like gratitude. And what’s really powerful about that is they incorporated those things into every day practice, “So, let’s make sure we’re having fun with the purpose of practice.” In terms of the gratitude or the caring for others, “Let’s really care about each other, not just the uniform but the person in the uniform.”

And so, he started really living those core values, and I think that that’s really important because then you can kind of gauge, “Am I living those or are we living those?” And then when the team or the organization kind of hits a wall or goes through a period of struggle, you could go back to those core values.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. All right. So, I’m curious, core values have come up a few times in the show. How does one arrive at them? I could just think of some off the top of my head, sure, and maybe that’s your first 10 or 50 depending on how much the juices are flowing. And then how do you recommend you really zero in on what are the big four?

Jim Afremow
Yeah, I think that one thing is having role models can be important. So, in terms of leadership, we don’t have to be kind of lost in the wilderness on our own. We should have leaders that we look up to that we can gain some wisdom from. And so, kind of along those lines would be, “Who do I respect most in terms of leadership?” It could be a family member, a parent. It could be maybe a teacher or a boss that you’ve had or a coach, or it could be someone that you’ve studied in history or maybe a current coach in a major league sport.

And then you think about, “Okay, what are their core values? How do those resonate with kind of my own experience?” And that could be a good starting point. So, just with, for example, with Steve Kerr, I really liked his core value of joy because I’m a big believer that the more fun you have, the better you’re going to do, and the better you do, the more fun you’re going to have. So, let’s start with joy. If we’re not having fun, and again, it’s not silly fun or goofing off fun, it’s fun with a purpose, or it can even be intense fun. If we’re not having fun in any area of our life, we’re probably not going to be doing that well in that area of our life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Okay. So, core values, that’s one huge cornerstone in terms of leading well. What else do you recommend?

Jim Afremow
I love the idea of having an after-action review or a debrief after a performance. And in the work world, it could be maybe a weekly debrief but, basically, “What are we doing well? And what can we do better, moving forward?” That also gives you the opportunity to celebrate what you’re doing well, give yourself credit where credit is due, but then also to really put your finger on, “Okay, here are some…let’s target some areas for growth that we can really take up a notch and that will help us to move forward.” Because that, again, the goal is to get one day better every day or one week better every week. And if you can do that throughout a season or a year, and do it every season and every year, you’re going to like where you end up.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. And, likewise, what are some things we should not do or stop doing? Any key mistakes that leaders tend to make repeatedly that maybe they’re not even aware of?

Jim Afremow
You know what’s really, really fascinating is, in terms of the advice I give coaches and other types of leaders, number one is I’ll ask them, “Have you ever asked your employees or your athletes ‘What do I need to know about you or what do you want me to know about you in order to be the best leader I can possibly be for you?’” And it’s such an interesting and powerful question that we tend not to…it’s almost too simple.

Jim Afremow
But it’s really powerful and so a lot of the coaches that I’ve worked with will ask their athletes, “You know, on an index card, write down some things that you want me to know about you that will help me to be the best coach possible for you.” And it’s amazing what they get back. It might be, “Hey, I like when you coach me really tough,” or, “I respond better to maybe encouragement versus being challenged.” And so, really, it’s a great way to learn what buttons to press, to get the most out of the people you work for, and then so everyone is happy.

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

Jim Afremow
Well, I think that visualization is, again, it’s one of those skills that I think we all use a lot when we’re little just kind of spontaneously, picturing kind of cool and awesome things. Let’s get back to being creative in our own lives. And I encourage people to spend a few minutes a day just with their eyes closed and visualizing kind of who they want to be as a professional and performing the way that you want to perform.

So, it’s not just the end result of holding the trophy or getting the big paycheck, but the steps that will lead to that. But spend a little more time crafting your reality in your mind’s eye, and it’s amazing how often that will manifest itself in real life. I did that with my first book The Champion’s Mind. I visualized holding the finished product while I was writing it, and it gave me kind of that extra motivation to work when it was hard to sit down at the desk and write.

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

Jim Afremow
Well, a quote from Muhammad Ali, I really, really appreciate. So, he was doing, during one of his fight camps, he was doing sit-ups, and one of the reporters was watching and afterward asked Muhammad Ali, “How many sit-ups did you do there?” And Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t know because I only start counting them when they start hurting.” He said, “The reason I do that is because those are the ones that really count, those are the ones that make you a champion.”

And so, I really loved that quote about kind of when things get tough, that’s when you really find out what you’re made of, and that’s where you really, that extra effort of excellence, that’s where really you could go that…accomplish what you really want to accomplish. And so, working hard when things get hard is the great separator.

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

Jim Afremow
I always got a kick out of…so, just majoring in psychology as an undergrad, I went to University of Oregon, undergrad, and they just had a great psychology department, and just fell in love with psychology and then studied sports psychology and counselling in grad school. But I was a big fan of the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jim Afremow
I really enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a great movie, the early one. I know there’s been newer movie of it made. But I just love just the adventure of it and the story of redemption. This guy gets wronged and finds a way to kind of crawl back and reinvent himself and come back out on top again. So, I kind of love those stories about great comebacks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Jim Afremow
Favorite tool for me is having that attitude of gratitude. And along those lines, I like the quote that “Entitled to nothing but grateful for everything.” And, usually, when I find that I’m in that state of gratitude where I appreciate everything I have in life, and I’m thankful for the people in my life, it just makes everything better.

I heard someone once say that if everyone in the world put all their troubles in a big circle, you would gladly take yours back. And so, most of us could probably appreciate what we have, or the bad things that we don’t have, much more and that will make us feel much better about things.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite nugget, something you share that really connects and resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Jim Afremow
So, the mantra, kind of the motto is, for The Champion’s Mind book is, “Think gold and never settle for silver.” And so, it’s just that reminder that every day is an opportunity to be the best or the gold version of ourselves. So, to ask ourselves, “What can I do today, what acts of excellence can I do today to make my life more golden?” I think that’s an important question.

And then my second book, The Champion’s Comeback, it’s we’re going to get knocked down. If we have big goals and dreams in life, we’re going to fall but we need to get back up again. So, I love the saying that “Love the comeback more than you hate the setback.”

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

Jim Afremow
Well, my website is GoldMedalMind.net and I’m on Twitter a lot, and I might already be following you or we might already be following each other because I follow a lot of people and have a lot of followers, but that’s at @goldmedalmind. And then on Instagram, @jimafremow

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

Jim Afremow
Yeah, I would start with, “What’s one thing that I’m going to start doing as a result of listening to the podcast today in my own life?” And it could be a small thing. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a big thing. It might even be just, “I’m going to take a gratitude drive when I go to work each day. So, “One thing I’m going to start doing,” and then, “One thing that I’m going to stop doing.” And it might be related to, “I’m going to stop watching TV or looking at my phone while I’m eating. I’m going to really sit and be mindful and appreciative of the food that I’m eating.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and much champion goodness.

Jim Afremow
Thanks so much, Pete.

719: Liz Wiseman Reveals the Five Practices of Indispensable, High-Impact Players

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Liz Wiseman says: "By working on the agenda, you earn the right to help set the agenda."

Liz Wiseman uncovers the small, but impactful practices of exceptional performers.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why it’s okay to not be working on what’s important to you 
  2. The five things impact players do differently
  3. The trick to leading without an invitation 

About Liz

Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the author of New York Times bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, and Wall Street Journal bestseller Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. 

She is the CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. Some of her recent clients include: Apple, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce, Tesla, and Twitter. Liz has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and in 2019 was recognized as the top leadership thinker in the world. 

She has conducted significant research in the field of leadership and collective intelligence and writes for Harvard Business ReviewFortune, and a variety of other business and leadership journals.  She is a frequent guest lecturer at BYU and StanfordUniversity and is a former executive at Oracle Corporation, where she worked as the Vice President of Oracle University and as the global leader for Human Resource Development. 

Resources Mentioned

Liz Wiseman Interview Transcript

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

Liz Wiseman
Well, thanks, Pete. I hope I walk away feeling like I can be a little bit more awesome at my job. This is your thing. This is what you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think I’ve mentioned, before we pushed record, that numerous people have mentioned you by name as being awesome at your job from your book Multipliers. And you’ve got another one freshly out Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. All things we love doing here, so this is going to be a lot of fun.

Liz Wiseman
This is going to be a fun conversation, I can tell.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so maybe to kick us off, could you share with us your favorite story of someone who made a transformation into an impact player and kind of what happened? What was the impact of that and kind of their before and after, and the results flowing from it?

Liz Wiseman
Well, so many of the people I wrote about were already awesome when I stumbled onto them. And the one I think, like if I could pick someone in the book who made the biggest transformation, it might’ve been me. Like, early on in my career, reorienting myself.

So, I came out of college like a lot of people, kind of fired up, knowing…I mean, some people don’t know what they want to do. I knew what I wanted to do to a fault. And I kind of was like knocking on people’s doors, like, “Hi, I’m Liz. I want to teach leadership and I represent good leadership. And ridding the world of bad bosses, that’s what I want to do.”

And so, I tried to get a job at a management training company and somehow wiggled my way into an interview with the president. He looked at my resume and was like, “You know, if you want to teach leadership, maybe you should go get some leadership experience.” I was like 22 years old and thinking, “That’s sterile-minded of him.” It’s kind of like he doesn’t get me. This is what I’m passionate about. It’s what I want to do.”

So, I went and took my backup job, and that one was at Oracle, which was a great place to go to work but it wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do, which was somehow teach managing and leading. So, I took this kind of consolation job, and about a year into that, I had an opportunity to transfer to another group inside of the company. This was back when Oracle was like a couple thousand people, and today they’re like well over a hundred thousand people.

And it was a group that ran technical bootcamps and I was hoping that their charter would expand, like the company is growing, they’re surely going to be building some management courses, young people are being turned into management, like wreaking havoc on the company. And so, I went into the interview, answered the questions from the VP, so it’s like the final interview for this job, and then it was my turn to kind of take charge of the interview. And so, I made my case for why Oracle should build a management bootcamp, not just a technology bootcamp. And, of course, I offered my services, like, “I would be happy to build this.”

And I thought, for sure, he would say, “Oh, that’s great, Liz. Yeah, I can see you’re passionate about that. Here you go.” And his response, it really, really imprinted me. And he was polite but essentially what I heard him saying was, “Liz, make yourself useful around here,” because his reply was, “That’s great, Liz. We think you’re great and we’re excited to have you join this group but your boss has a different problem. She’s got to figure out how to get 2,000 new college graduates up to speed in Oracle technology over the next year. And what would be great is if you could help her to do that.”

He was saying, “Liz, figure out what needs to be done and do the things that we need.” And I wanted to teach leadership and now he wants me to teach programming to a bunch of nerds, you know, programmers. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s not my thing. That’s not the job I want.” But I could see he was teaching me something. I’m like, “That’s not the job I want,” but what he’s saying was, “That’s the job that needs to be done.” So, like, “Point yourself over there, please.”

And it really shaped me because I said, “Okay, I don’t want to do that but I will do that and I’ll figure out how to be good at this.” And, Pete, I’m woefully underqualified to do this job. I came out of business school and had a teaching background, but I had taken like two and a half programming classes in college, and now they want me to be teaching programming to a bunch of hotshot programmers coming out of MIT and Caltech but I did it and it was amazing what happened after I reoriented myself, and, in some ways, subordinated what was important to me to work on what was important to my boss and my boss’ boss.

First of all, I figured out I love this job. Like, this was fun. I was having the time of my life. And then the second thing I discovered is that by doing that, all these opportunities opened up to me. And they came and tapped me on the shoulders, and said, “Liz, we want you to now manage the training group.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m having fun teaching.” They’re like, “No, we want you to do this.” I’m like, “Yeah, pick someone else who wants that job.” And they said, “No, we want you to do this.”

And I don’t know if it was because I understood the technology or it was because I was willing to serve where I was needed, but, yeah, I finally said yes to that job. And then I just kept getting bigger and bigger opportunities, and I think it was because I learned to channel my energy and passion around what was important to the people I work for rather than focusing on what was important to me.

And it shaped my whole career and just allowed me to do work that was far more impactful. And it wasn’t too many years, if not even months, after that that I was able to argue that, “You know what, we really need to invest in management training and I’d be happy to do that.” And then, I, essentially, got a blank check, like, “Liz, absolutely. Go build that. Build a team to do it.” And that work had so much more impact when I decided to work on the agenda of the organization rather than on my own agenda.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that feels like a golden key to a whole lot of career things right there. And I guess what’s intriguing is, well, one, you were fortunate in that you got to do the thing you really wanted to do anyway afterwards. And, two, I suppose, I’m thinking, that approach, in a way, it feels rather noble and virtuous in terms of, hey, there’s some humility and there’s some service and generosity that you are engaging in when you’re working on the job that needs done as opposed to the thing you want to do.

I guess I just might want to hear to what extent was there drudgery? Or, it sounds like in your story, this path was actually plenty of fun even while you were on it prior to doing the thing that you really wanted to do originally. Is that the case with the other impact players, generally speaking?

Liz Wiseman
Well, I think it is. And you said it was sort of a noble choice, and I think it was a humble choice. I wouldn’t characterize it as a noble choice as much as a savvy choice. And it wasn’t like I was just like, “Okay. Well, what’s good for me in this?” I could see there was a real need there but something happens when you are working on something that’s important.

So, like if I’m off working on my own agenda, I’m pushing a boulder up a hill. I’m trying to get people to meet with me. I’m trying to get someone to pay attention to the thing I care about. Now, some amazing things can happen when you go down that path. But, like, what happens when you’re working on something that’s important? It’s what I call when you’re working on the agenda.

Well, every time I put myself on this path of impact, working on something that was important to the company, the executive, one of my clients, I always find that people have time to meet with me, resources flow. Like, I’ve done a lot of work with executives over the years, and one of the things I’ve noticed is I’ve never noticed like a senior executive at a corporation tell me something was important to him or her, and then not have budget for it.

It’s like funny how that when you’re working on the agenda, people have time for you, resources flow, decisions happen quickly, there’s more pressure but there’s also more visibility for your work. Like, it’s not drudgery. It’s actually fun because you’re making progress. And when you say drudgery, Pete, it makes me think about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is burnout. We’re dealing with this burnout epidemic, the Great Reshuffle, the Great Resignation, whatever you want to call it. And I think we’re quick to assume that burnout is a function of effort and work. Like, we’re working too hard. We’re working too much. We have too heavy of a load and we’re going to burn out as a result.

And I’m not opposed to anyone taking time off. Like, a little R&R is probably good for a lot of people particularly right now, but I think burnout, based on all of my research, it tends to be a function of too little impact, not too much work. That what causes us to burn out is when we’re expending energy but not making a difference, not seeing how our work makes a difference.

So, like the beginning of being high impact and doing awesome work is doing work that is valued and important. And even if some of the work is tedious, like, oh, man, I remember like nights I stayed up till 5:00 in the morning trying to learn how to do correlated subqueries so I could teach them the next day. I couldn’t sustain that all the time, but I was making a difference. I was having an impact. I was doing something important. It was energizing not enervating.

And, yeah, there’s details and drudgery and hard things involved but it’s rewarding. It’s what I’ve seen in my own experience in studying these high-impact contributors. It’s a buildup experience not a burnout experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s beautiful in terms of that’s just a fun mental distinction that does so much. When you’re working on the agenda, what’s important to other folks, so many of the roadblocks that are annoying and frustrating and yield to burnout and exhaustion disappear. People are available, they make time for you, they make money for you, they take your meetings, you’ve got some support and backing as opposed to being ignored, and follow-ups. So, yeah, like that’s pretty fine.

Liz Wiseman
And you build voice. You build voice in the organization, and it’s how we build influence and credibility is by making progress on things that matter to our stakeholders. And so, as we do that and as we serve, people listen to us. And by working on the agenda, you earn the right to help set the agenda.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m loving this and that’s a lot of insight right there. So, tell me, is that pretty much the core idea or thesis of Impact Players? Or, how would you articulate it?

Liz Wiseman
I just think it’s one of the starting points is how people orient themselves. And I think if I were to kind of try to crystallize the thesis of Impact Players, let me start with the research. We looked at the difference between individuals who were considered by their leaders smart, hardworking, and capable people who were doing a good job, like doing well, versus smart, hardworking, capable people who were making an extraordinary impact, doing work of extraordinary or inordinately high value.

And so, this isn’t like top performers versus bottom performers. In a room full of equally smart, capable, hardworking people, why are some people stuck going through the motions of their job while other people are making a big difference? So, that’s what we looked at. And when I looked at those differentials and all the profiles that we built through interviewing 170 managers is we found that the ordinary contributors, typical contributors, people doing well, they’re doing their job.

And this is how managers describe them. They do their job. They do their job well. Often, extremely well. They follow direction. They take ownership. They are focused. They carry their weight on teams, which sounds great in some ways, like ideal team members and contributors but there’s stellar and unordinary times, but they tend to fall short in times of uncertainty and ambiguity. This is where the impact players handle these situations very differently, and there were five.

And it was how they handle messy problems, like, “Your job is not my job. It’s like no one’s job. It’s not really owned by this department. It’s like no one’s job but everyone’s job.” And this is actually where I think the most important problems and opportunities of an organization is in that white space between boxes. Now, in this case, ordinary contributors tend to do their job. Whereas, the impact players go do the job that needs to be done.

The second is how they handle unclear roles, where, “Okay, I know we’re collaborating, but who’s really in charge?” We have a tendency, organizations want to have more collaborative teams, flat in organizations but in these situations, typical contributors tend to wait for role clarification or direction, like wait for someone to tell them who’s in charge or give them formal authority. Whereas, the people who are having a lot of impact tend to just take charge but they’re not like take charge all the time.

They step up and they lead, maybe a particular meeting, maybe a project, but then they’re willing to step back and follow other people when they’re in the lead. So, it’s like they bring kind of big leadership, let’s say, to the 2:00 o’clock meeting, they’re the boss, but they then walk down the hall to the 3:00 o’clock meeting and they serve as a participant with the same kind of energy that they led the team. So, they’re able to step in and out of these leadership roles really fluidly, which really builds our credibility because we trust these kinds of leaders, the ones who don’t always need to hold all the power.

Pete Mockaitis
And the ones who care when it’s not “theirs.” That’s sort of endearing. It’s sort of like, “Okay, you care about this because you care about the team, the leadership, the project, the company and not just you care about your babies.”

Liz Wiseman
Oh, absolutely. It’s like they work with the same kind of level of intensity. They don’t need to be in charge but they’re willing to be in charge. And I think it’s a really powerful form of leadership. And it’s very much like sort of you take like the pyramid shape of an organization, and you turn that on its side. It’s more like the V formation of a flock of geese, where the flock can fly a lot further because they rotate that leadership.

One bird goes out in front, leads, breaks that wind, creates drag, sort of creates an ease for the other birds behind in that formation, but that lead bird doesn’t stay there forever like until it tires and then falls from the sky in the state of exhaustion, which is what happens so often in corporations. The leaders are running around with their hair on fire. They’re like all fired up, they’re working hard, but other people sit underutilized. Like, when the lead bird has done their duty for the team, they fall back and another moves into that role.

And then there’s three other situations where we see this differentiation when unforeseen obstacles drop in the way, things that are really out of your control. Most people tend to escalate those, whereas the impact players just tend to hold onto them and get them across the finish line. Not alone, pulling in help but they tend to just hold ownership all the way through.

When targets are moving fast, typical contributors tend to stay on target, they stay focused, whereas, the impact players adjust. They’re adapting. They’re changing. They’re like kind of waking up assuming, “While I was asleep, the world changed, and I probably need to adjust my aim so I stay on track with what’s important and relevant.”

And the last is what we do when workloads are heavy, like when there’s just mounting workloads, when there’s more work than…when the workload is increasing faster than resources are increasing, and most people, they carry their weight, but when times get really tough, they sort of look upward and outward for help to ease that burden.

Whereas, the impact players, we found they really make work light. Like, they don’t take all the work, they don’t take people’s workload away from them, but they work in a way where hard work just is fun. They bring a levity, a humanity, that just sort of eases the phantom workload so that people can focus on the real workload.

Liz Wiseman
That’s kind of what I found.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I was going to ask exactly that, so thank you for sharing. And so, that’s sort of like the five core distinctions. And I want to zoom in on a couple like super specific practices, habits. But, first, maybe I’d like to get your take on what discovery, in the course of all these interviews, did you find most surprising or counterintuitive?

Liz Wiseman
I should probably tell you I’ve got a little bit of a pessimist in me which maybe makes me a better researcher. But when we went in to study, like, “What is it that the top, real top contributors are doing?” I expected there to be a fair number of hotshots and superstars and people around whom the team revolved, and what I found was exactly the opposite. There were 170 of these impact players that we studied, analyzed. Not a single one of them was a prima donna, a bully, a bull in a China shop. Not one of them worked at the expense of the team, like, “Hey, I’m so good at what I do that you all need to kind of like be backup for me, or sort of accommodate me, humor me.”

They were superstars and everyone knew it. Like, that’s one of the things about impact players is everyone knows who these people are but they work and I think they’re comfortable with their stellar-ness, their awesomeness, like they get it.

Pete Mockaitis
They don’t have to prove themselves or flex or show off.

Liz Wiseman
Yeah. In some ways, and I’m just realizing this, Pete, is one of the things I found in the multiplier leader, so the other research I’ve done, like, “What is it that leaders do that allow people to be impactful and contribute at their fullest?” And the ones, the leaders I want to work for are the ones that are really, really comfortable with their own intelligence and capability. Like, I want to work for someone who’s an absolute genius who knows it, which you think, “Ooh, well, isn’t that like a know-it-all, a bully?” Like, no, I want to work with someone who’s so comfortable with their own intelligence and capability that they’re over it.

It’s not like, “I have to show up to work every day proving how amazing I am.” It’s like, “Yeah, I get it. I’m smart. I’m talented. I’m over it so now I can spend my time as a leader seeing and using the intelligence of others.” And I think these impact players are similar in that they know that they’re really valuable contributors, they know they do important and valuable work, but they don’t need to be proving it all day long. In some ways, it’s so obvious. They were comfortable with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool.

Liz Wiseman
I thought there’d be some brilliant jerks in the lot but there weren’t, at least not in my sample.

Pete Mockaitis
And then these 170, they were identified by their managers, they’re saying, “Boy, this guy is really an impact player”?

Liz Wiseman
Yeah, they were. And so, we didn’t go in and decide who was. We asked managers to consider the people that they have led over their career and identify someone from each of these two categories – impact players, ordinary contributors – and we also had managers identify someone who I later called an under-contributor – smart, capable, talented, should be amazing, like someone you hire, like, “This person is going to be awesome,” but yet they’re not. Like, they’re under-contributing relative to their potential and capability. And that was interesting. There’s like a whole set of things to learn there.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s different than the five key distinctions that we already covered? Like, they don’t do the things that the impact players do or is there more?

Liz Wiseman
Well, I think kind of in that ordinary contributor station, like you would see people who are well-meaning, working hard, and they’re doing their job. When you see people in that under-contributor kind of position, sort of on the stratification, you see a lot of people who are really pushing their own agenda, you often see people who are trying so hard to be valuable, trying so hard to like get ahead, maybe that they’re honestly annoying.

Like, “Hey, hey, how am I doing? How am I doing? Am I doing great? Was it good work? Hey, hey, coach, what? Can I sit next to you on the airplane? You know what, hey, let’s go hang out.” They’re needy, maybe needing too much attention, needing too much feedback, and they end up becoming more of a burden than a contributor on teams, but, yet, they’re people who are trying really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Cool. Well, so then I love how we’ve laid out the five distinctions. And now I’d like to get really specific in terms of what are the particular mindsets, or habits, or particular practices, words, phrases, just like the super in-the-moment tactical, practical stuff that we’re seeing in terms of an impact player? I sort of got the conceptual. Could you give us a couple examples of, “Hey, these are the specific actions that we’re seeing over and over again”?

Liz Wiseman
We talked about the first distinction kind of through my own experience, is this willingness to do the job that needs to be done. It’s about extending ourselves like beyond our job boundaries. One of the favorite impact players I got to write about in the book is someone named Jojo Mirador, and he is a scrub tech. He works at Valley Medical, which is part of an academic hospital chain.

So, there are a lot of residents there, doctors who have graduated from medical school. They’re now in their training. They’re in residency. And he’s a surgical scrub tech. Now, Jojo’s job is to prepare the surgical tools for an operation, to make sure they’re sterilized and available, and to hand them to the surgeons when the surgeons ask for them. That’s his job.

But Jojo approaches his job differently than other scrub techs. First of all, he looks on the calendar, and he’s like, “What surgeries do we have coming up? Are there any that I’m not familiar with? Let me look. Let me just like Google that and figure out what’s going on in the surgery.” And during surgery, he’s not just listening for the requested instrument.

Pete Mockaitis
“Scalpel.”

Liz Wiseman
Yeah, scalpel. Exactly. It’s like such a moment. He’s watching the surgeons’ hands, he’s like, “I want to know what the surgeon is doing because I want to know what their next move is going to be because I want to be thinking about the tool they need, so I’m ready.” And one of the surgeons told me, “Jojo doesn’t just lay out the instruments. He lays them out in the order they’re going to be used so he’s got them ready.”

And when the surgeons ask for an instrument, he doesn’t just hand them the one they asked for. He hands them the one they actually need. So, let’s say they’ve asked for like a scalpel, and he provides a gentle suggestion, he’s like, “Why don’t you try this one instead that might work better?” Of course, these residents, they’re young, they’re new, and you can imagine the pressure on them to look like they know what they’re doing when they’re holding someone’s life in their hands. And you can imagine how grateful they are that he doesn’t just do his job. He extends himself and does the job that needs to be done.

And you would think that the senior surgeons wouldn’t want these suggestions, but they do, in fact. He said, “It kind of feels good. They come seek me out before a surgery.” They say, “Jojo, here’s what we’re going to be doing. What kinds of tools do you think are going to work best here?” And they line up outside of the scheduler’s office, they kind of fight a little bit over who gets to have Jojo in the OR with them.

And they found this nice gentleman’s way of sorting this out. It’s whoever has the most complicated procedure is the one who gets Jojo. And I love the imagery of this, which is just extending ourselves out of our job scope, but not doing it in an aggressive way of taking over. It’s done with this kind of sense of finesse of, “I think I can be helpful here.”

Another one of the behaviors we see is that these impact players, they don’t tend to wait for an invitation. I think a lot of people want to be amazing at their job, who have a lot of passion, who have a lot of talent, or maybe holding back a little bit, too much waiting for someone to come along and discover them.

And maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my career teaching leaders, coaching executives, part of my message to people is like, “Ooh, your leaders probably aren’t thinking about you nearly as much as you think they’re thinking about you. They’ve got their own set of things and they probably don’t have time to figure out, ‘Okay, wait a minute. I’ve got this meeting coming up. Who are all the possible people who might be valuable contributors?’” Like, sometimes, we need to invite ourselves in and go where we’re uninvited but do it in a way that people are glad we showed up to contribute.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really interesting because I think this has come up a number of times, like, “Oh, so many things you attend, it’s unnecessary, it’s a waste of time, and you should figure out polite ways to excuse yourself from them.” And this might be the first time I’ve heard someone say, “There may be times where you want to try to get into a meeting that you weren’t invited to.” And the way that could be super appreciated, like, maybe can you give us some verbiage or an example there, because I can imagine ways you might say it that could come across as appreciated as opposed to like, “Whoa, stay in your lane, buddy”? Could you give us an example there?

Liz Wiseman
Yeah, let me share two. One is about just initiating meetings that no one’s asking you to do. Eli Van Der Kamp at Target, she’s a project manager there, and her job is to get all the technology in a Target store up to speed and ready to go before a store opens. Well, this isn’t her area of responsibility but she can see that, “You know what, we’ve been dropping phonelines in here.” And her job was to get them up and running, but she’s like, “I don’t think we actually need those phonelines because, now that we have fiber optic cables, the phonelines that were needed for the alarm systems in the store, like fire alarms, we don’t need those.”

But it wasn’t that they didn’t need them, they sometimes needed them, and it was sort of complicated, and no one’s asking her to do this, but she realizes the company is wasting money on this. It’s a $92 billion a year company, it’s not a significant amount of waste in a company that size. But it’s significant enough, she decides she wants to do something about, so she just kind of invites herself to lead this meeting, calls people together, explains the problem with no sense of judgment whatsoever, “But we have this problem, and we’re like buying phonelines that we don’t need and it’s wasting money.”

And she just lays it out and invites people to step up and solve it. It was a complex decision tree. They worked it all out, owners stepped up, emerged, the problem is solved and she steps back. It’s sort of like inviting yourself in to lead and volunteering to lead where nobody has asked you. Now, it could be inviting yourself to a meeting nobody is inviting. So, I had experience with this, it was probably midway through my career. It preceded the most valuable piece of work I ever did for Oracle.

And I think, at this point, like I’m the vice president of Oracle University. I ran training for the company in human resource development, and I’ve particularly been focusing on some executive development, and had been working with three top executives to build this what was our flagship leadership development program. We called it The Leaders Forum. And it really consisted of two parts, which is teach our executives around the world like our strategy so they really understood that, and then build some leadership skills.

And in the process of doing this, it became clear that the strategy was not clear. So, we were bringing executives in, like 30 people at a time, presenting the strategy to them, building some skills, setting them on their way, and they’re like, “You know, the strategy is not clear.” So, the three executives I was building this program with, we heard the feedback, and we tried to make some adjustments, and it’s still not clear.

Finally, it comes to a head and we realized we have to stop these training programs until the strategy for the company is clear. I’m in that meeting. We decide this needs to happen. One of the three executives says, “Okay, you know what, I’ll get together a meeting of all of our product heads, all of the senior executives, and we will clarify the strategy.” Okay. So, I know that meeting is happening but I’m not included in this meeting because it’s a product strategy meeting and I’m responsible for training. But the meeting was happening the next week, and I decided that I probably should go to that meeting, not just to listen in, but I felt like I could really help.

And so, this is, I don’t know, this was a meeting of, let’s say, nine of the top 12 executives in the company, and I just decided to show up. And so, I show up, I knew the president would be thrilled that I was there, maybe not some of the others, but I get there early, I sit down, and one by one, like the various executives are coming in, they’re kind of like, “Hi, Liz,” and they know this is a product strategy meeting and they’ve got the head of training there. And they’re like, “Hi, Hi.” And then one particular executive came in, his name was Jerry, and he looked at me, and he’s like, “What are you doing here? Like, you’re the training manager. This is a product strategy meeting.”

And this was an important moment for me because I kind of squared my shoulders, looked at him, and said, “Jerry, we’ve got a really convoluted strategy right now that leaders around the world aren’t able to understand. Like, this group has got to take a lot of complex information about our products and distill it down to something that’s simple and clear, and that’s actually something that I’m pretty good at and I thought I could be of help.”

And he still wasn’t entirely convinced but I think the president said something like, “Yeah, Jerry, Liz is really good at this. And trust me, we could use her help.” And then I just paid attention, and I listened, and I listened to this conversation. Now, the fact that I had taken that job teaching programming helped me to really understand what they were talking about and be trusted to even be in the room, but I’m like taking notes.

I’m like, “Okay, what about this? And I like this pattern.” So, I’m now starting to reflect back to them, “Well, here’s this issue that I see coming up and I hear this, and it seems like these seem to be the three biggest drivers.” And they’re like, “Could you say more of that?” And it’s a longer story but, cutting it short, after two or three more of these meetings, they finally decided that they’re going to kind of obliterate the whole strategy, rebuild it from scratch, and they’re like, “Liz, we want you to be the author of the strategy. Like, we’ll all give you input but we want you to be the one that puts shape to this.”

And it was something I was able to do and it made a pretty big impact in the company, and I just think it’s so funny that maybe the most valuable work I did for the company was work I kind of forced myself into just a little bit. And I wasn’t forceful and I wasn’t rude but nobody asked me to do it. I just knew it was something I could be helpful with.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Okay. Well, so then any other examples leaping to mind in terms of a particular practice that makes a load of difference, sort of a small difference but huge leverage?

Liz Wiseman
Well, one of the ones I found was so interesting was this how people handle moving targets. And do you kind stick to what you’ve agreed to? Like, someone gave you a target, “We’re trying to increase market share by 12% year-over-year.” That’s like your goal, maybe your business development meter. What we find is that ordinary contributors tend to stick to those targets and they stay focused, whereas the impact players are constantly adjusting. In some ways, they’re reactive.

I wouldn’t say they’re reactionary but they react differently. Like, they’re assuming that they’re off target. So, it’s kind of like the metaphor I would use here would be like a violinist. So, if you play the violin, you know that you have to constantly tune that instrument. And, honestly, it was kind of mysterious to me when I was younger, like maybe younger up until like just a couple of years ago when I was like, “Why can’t they tune their instrument before they get up onto that stage? Like, why do they play poorly before they play well?”

And it’s like because even that movement from their backstage to centerstage, they’ve got to tune it before they perform. And it’s this tuning mentality, like lots of little small adjustments. And what we found the impact players do is they respond well to feedback but they don’t wait for feedback. They’re asking for feedback before it’s offered.

Shawn Vanderhoven, is someone who works on my team, and when Shawn started working for me, he would ask questions when he’d start a project, “Okay, what’s the target here? What does a win look like? What are we trying to accomplish?” And once he understood that, he would then start submitting work as part of that, and then he would ask a different set of questions, like, “Are you getting what you need? What can I do differently? What do I need to change so that it better fits the need?”

And he does this with such frequency that he then goes and corrects his works, comes back, submits it. But in the five years I’ve worked with Shawn, I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever had to sit down and have a tough conversation with him. I’ve never had to sit down, and say, “You know, Shawn, this is off and I need you to get it back on.” And it’s not that he doesn’t need that correction, we all do, but he always beats me to it. He’s fixing and changing and adjusting before I ever ask. Like, he’s doing the asking. And it’s so easy to give him feedback.

And one of the other like little distinctions that makes a really big difference is that people aren’t…these impact players aren’t focusing the feedback on themselves, like, “How am I doing? What do I need to do differently?” The focus is on the work, “How can I make this work better?” So, where others are maybe reacting to feedback people give them about themselves and their performance, the impact player is getting information to help them constantly adjust and tune their work so that their work is relevant and on tune.

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

Liz Wiseman
Well, maybe if there was an overarching theme that separated the impact players from everyone else, and I should say it’s not really about people. It’s more about mindsets that we tend to operate in. It’s like what separates an impact player mindset, that I and others tend to go in and out of from sort of a contributor mindset, is how we deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the difference we found is that the impact players, when they encounter situations that are out of their control, they tend to dive head in to these situations, kind of like the way an ocean swimmer, or a surfer, like seizes massive oncoming wave that’s kind of scary, like I would turn and run, panic, and get tumbled in the surf, but they dive head into and through this wave.

And they tend to move into uncertainty and they tend to look at that uncertainty and ambiguity through an opportunity lens rather than a threat lens. Like, where other people see, “Ooh, that’s uncomfortable. Roles are unclear. That’s messy. That’s out of my control. Let me back away from it.” The impact players kind of wear opportunity goggles and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s messy, uncertain, uncomfortable, but there’s…let me find an opportunity to add value.” So, they tend to bring clarity to situations that other people tend to steer clear of.

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

Liz Wiseman
Criss Jami, “Find a purpose to serve, not a lifestyle to live.” And when I saw that, and I just saw this today, I thought, “That really captures a lot of what I’ve learned studying these people who were having a lot of impact is that they are not like pushing an agenda, they’re not necessarily pursuing a lifestyle. It’s they’re finding a situation that needs them and contributing wholeheartedly in that.”

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

Liz Wiseman
I think maybe the one that is most useful to the work I do is just this idea that we tend to overestimate our capability, that I think it’s the Kruger-Dunning effect, that we tend to think we’re better at things than we actually are. And this is the dynamic that I’ve seen play out in my work, kind of studying the best leaders, is that when we get put into a leadership role, we tend to focus on our intent, and we tend to not see our impact on others. Like, most of my work is about looking into this space between our intent and our impact, like learning not to operate based on our best intentions but to actually operate based on the effect that we’re having on others.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Liz Wiseman
I’ll give you one that this is a book I like because it made me so mad. I was really jealous when I read it, like kind of green with jealousy because the book is Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. And the reason why I love it is because, A, it’s an amazing book, and Ed Catmull is an amazing storyteller.

And it’s a story of Pixar, if you’re not familiar with the book, so it’s really like looking into “Why does Pixar consistently produce amazing films. Like, is that an accident or is there actually a system behind that?” And the answer is there’s a system behind it, there’s a reason why, and it’s not coincidence, and it’s how they lead and it’s the culture they built. And the reason why this book made me so mad is I got that reading and it was not too long after I had written Rookie Smarts and I’m like, “Wow, this is an amazing illustration of Rookie Smarts. It’s like what happens when you’re new to something and the innovation that comes out of it.”

And it’s an amazing example of what I call multiplier leadership. Leaders like Ed Catmull who use their talent and intelligence to bring out the best in others. And I’m like, “Wow, how did he do in one book what took me two books to do? And he did it better than that.” But I really loved that book and it’s full of fun, interesting, very practical ways of leading.

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

Liz Wiseman
Index cards. Succinct is not my strength and so I have to work at succinct in writing and in speaking. And so, I use index cards, and when I’m pulling together final thoughts before giving a talk, a presentation, if it can’t get on the index card, it’s not part of it. So, I use it to really boil down my thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Liz Wiseman
I think a favorite habit would be, I guess, I call it check in before diving in. And I’ve been there, like some people would say that I’m a workhorse, like I’m definitely not a racehorse. I’m a workhorse. I’m one of those people who just like grind through stuff. And I usually like to get right to work and I’m excited about it, I jump in. And one of the things I’ve learned to do with my own team is before we start working on something, to just take sometimes up to half of our allotted time and just check in, like, “How are you? How are you doing?”

And it’s gone well beyond pleasantries, and it’s typically like a chance for people to say, “You know, I’m not doing well. I’m struggling.” And sometimes we’ve spent hours, like we had a day blocked to work on something, and we spent hours just on, “How are you?” Sometimes it’s like, “Well, I’m disappointed that I thought by now I would have this done, and I don’t.” So, there’s been these moments where you could really check in and connect with like how people really are before we work on stuff. And it’s made all the difference for our team who’s gotten us through really some tough times.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And is there a key nugget you share that tends to be quoted back to you frequently?

Liz Wiseman
It would probably be something…it would be better said than this because I think other people would probably say it better than this. It’s just like, “Be the genius-maker not the genius.” It would be some version of that.

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

Liz Wiseman
Well, I’m pretty easy to find. TheWisemanGroup.com is a little bit of information about the work that my team and I do. ImpactPlayersBook.com, MultipliersBook.com, I think RookieSmarts.com, RookieSmartsBook.com, I’m honestly sure about that one, or, like I’m @LizWiseman on Twitter.

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

Liz Wiseman
Maybe a challenge and a suggestion. The challenge would be to ask yourself, “What might I be doing with the very best of intentions that is a barrier to impact? Like, what is preventing me from doing the most valuable meaningful work?” And it’s often things that we’re doing with our best intentions.

And if someone wants to get on the path of impact, maybe a challenge to start here, which is to find out what’s important to the people that you work for, whether it’s a client, a boss, internal customers or stakeholders. Find out what’s important to them and make it important to you. And all the right things tend to flow from that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and impact in your future endeavors.

Liz Wiseman
Thank you. It’s nice talking to you.