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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. 

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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.

636: How to Advance Your Most Important Priorities with Eric Papp

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Eric Papp says: "Preparation begets confidence."

Eric Papp shares foundational perspectives on saving time and prioritizing effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one question that cuts your tasks in half 
  2. The strategy that makes plans stick 
  3. The key to starting off your week right 

About Eric

Eric Papp has a successful history of delivering proven strategies to increase productivity and performance in a complex world. 

Before becoming the success he is today, Eric earned his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame. He founded Agape leadership, LLC, an intellectual capital firm focusing on leadership and sales for business performance, with the sole purpose of driving leaders and their teams to success.

As a successful author and public speaker since 2010, he has worked with thousands of managers to aid teams toward success.

Eric Papp has been evaluated as one of the top management trainers in North America for his expertise in leadership effectiveness. His books Leadership By Choice and 3 Values of Being An Effective Person — published by John Wiley and Sons — are both top sellers and recognized for their unique impact in the business world.

Eric now lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Brieann and their daughter Elliana. In his spare time, Eric frequents his local church, engages the community, and practices the kettlebell.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Eric Papp Interview Transcript

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

Eric Papp
Hey, Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am excited to dig into your wisdom and I know one thing you’re excited about is the Kettlebell. I like your shirt. Could you read it for the audience who’s listening?

Eric Papp
Oh, man. It says, “I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Kettlebell,” which, of course, is a play on the SNL skit with Will Ferrell where he’s talking about more cowbell.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s right. And what do you love about the Kettlebell and what should we know if we’re at home and not going into the gym, thinking about workouts?

Eric Papp
Oh, man. It combines all three: strength, endurance, and flexibility. And it is probably one of the most effective pieces of equipment, bar none. Kettlebell swings to build endurance and flexibility, Turkish get-ups to build overall strength, and it’s incredible in terms of you do a 10, 20 minutes and the return on it on time is phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, now you got my attention. The return in terms of energy, in terms of strength, they’re feeling amazing. What kind of return are we talking about?

Eric Papp
Yeah, all of the above in terms of returning. And they’ve done some studies, like when someone is doing a Kettlebell swing based upon your metabolic rate and all that stuff, it’s like equivalent to running like a six-minute mile.

And then one of the great things, obviously, in the situation that we’re in now is you can do it from the comforts of your own home. And that’s also, by the time it takes you to go in your car and go to the gym and come back, you can already be done with your training.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I like effective, I like returns, and we’re talking about just that productivity, and “Better Thinking vs. More Effort” is a title of one of your keynotes. That sounds right up our alley. So, tell us, what’s the big idea there?

Eric Papp
Yeah, better thinking versus more effort. You know, I think so often than not, as knowledge workers, and especially being here in America, there’s always a pressure to do more, get in there early, stay later, climb the ladder. And that is good in a sense, and even for companies too, “I’ll take on more projects. Let’s do more initiatives. Let’s get more joint ventures going.” And that can be good to some degree but then also, it breathes a lot of complexity, it breathes a lot of, “Okay, we got our hand in a lot of different things. What are we really focused on? Where are we really moving the needle?”

And better thinking is really thinking about taking a step back and identifying the two or three projects that we can really move the mile as opposed to trying to move a hundred things an inch. And that’s really where it comes down to, is to be able to subtract and to simplify and then get to a higher level of performance or productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds great. And so, by doing better thinking, you’re able to exert less effort and get similar or superior results. Could you paint a picture of that for us, maybe the case of a particular person or client or study? Like, just how much is possible if we could go down this route?

Eric Papp
So, on a macro level, on a company personal level that everybody knows, Apple, Steve Jobs, right? Listeners out there, probably 70% or 80% of your listeners have some form of Apple product whether it’s an iPhone or MacBook Pro, whatever it is. Steve Jobs, in a sense, was forced out of his own company that he creates. He comes back right around 1996-1997. In that timeframe, Apple is just on the ropes. And, once again, they were trying to do too much. They had their hand in everything: scanners, printers, you name it.

And he comes back, and a family friend asked him, they said, “Steve, what desktop computer should we buy? You’ve got 17 of them that Apple offers.” And he says, “Shoot, I don’t even know.” So, he cut down all the desktop computers and only did one. He says, “Okay, we’re going to cut everything out, all the desktops, and we’re just going to produce one.”

He really did a great example of better thinking versus more effort, and it requires that ability to take a to step back to really do the hard thinking, and that’s a lot of times what we don’t want to do because we want the quick fix, and then we want to just kind of stay busy, and then that kind of consumes us, consumes our time. And then look what happened to Apple. If you had stock, if you bought Apple stock in the early 2000s or even late 1990s, it’s incredible. My father-in law had Apple stock, he still does, and it’s just mind boggling the return he’s made on that. And then a large part comes from Steve Jobs coming back, applying better thinking versus more effort.

Pete Mockaitis
And that does resonate in terms of whether it’s a business with their products or an individual with the to-do list, just what you can accomplish there.

Eric Papp
Oh, yeah, I was going to say, on a micro level, so a colleague of ours, James Clear, he wrote the book Atomic Habits.

Eric Papp
He started off 2011-2012 just writing a newsletter. Would write one on Monday, I think, would write it on Thursday. From the first year, he had, I want to say, around 100,000 subscribers, and then that’s all he did. And I think he had a day job at the same time and just kept building on that, building on that, then writes a book. And then his newsletter just went over one million subscribers, and it’s absolutely mind boggling, right? So, that’s a great testament to, okay, sticking with the one thing and really getting good at that and staying the course.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I’m into that. And tell us then, with this better thinking, are there some key questions in terms of identifying what is the stuff that makes the impact and what is the stuff that we should cut?

Eric Papp
First thing I look at is subtraction, right? One of the questions we ask ourselves is, “Hey, if I stop doing this, would anything happen? Would anybody notice?” because a lot of times we do things out of obligation or we do things because, “Oh, that’s what the person did before me,” or, “Oh, that’s what I’ve always done.” So, that’s the great question to ask ourselves, “If I stop doing this, or these activities, what’s the impact?”

And a lot of times there’s not an impact. And so, that’s a great way because we want to start to allow ourselves that room, that space. It’s kind of like I think it was Claude Bristol who said, “It’s the space between the notes that creates the music.” And I think we really need more of that, that ability to not fill our day up with everything and anything because we really need…things are going to come up as they naturally do, but also we need that time to just going for a walk, let that thinking time to take a step back.

And by not filling our calendar up with everything, it allows that room for us to really start to process and analyze, “Okay, these projects, are they really important? Are we really making progress or are we just kind of going through the motions?” So, the first part I would say is to subtract. The second part would be really good to look at is to simplify and to see, “Okay, of all the complexity, how can we make this simpler? How can we make this easier? How can we reduce the friction to get the result that we want?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I love that. And that’s intriguing in terms of, “Would anybody notice if I stopped doing this?” I guess, how do you get to the answer to that? One, you could just try it, try to stop doing it and see if anyone reaches out to you. Other ways you’d recommend in terms of, I think if you’re in organizations and collaborating with folks, there can be some resistance in terms of, “Well, that’s just what we do. This is what we’ve always done,” or, “This is how this works. That is the process”? So, any thoughts on how when there’s other stakeholders and people in the mix, you interact with them to get things moving?

Eric Papp
I use a couple tools that I created. One the effectiveness process. Another tool called organizing, clarify your thinking to really get the goal, impact and focus down, because a lot of times in organizations, people just launch into projects and they don’t know what’s the desired outcome. They don’t know what success looks like. They don’t know what’s the time involved, “Who else can we collaborate with?” things that you think that are basic. And then the person gets tasked with something, and then they’re not fully doing it, and then the manager gets upset or the director gets upset. That’s where we get back to, like I was saying earlier, moving a hundred things an inch.

So, I think right from the start of it, it’s just for all of us to spend more time in the asking ourselves a question, “Okay, what’s my desired outcome? What does success look like? What’s the impact if I do this? What’s the impact if I don’t do this? And then, do I have the bandwidth right now to carry this out? What level of a priority is this for me? Is this a top three or is this just a good idea?” Because the key thing we always have to remember as human beings is we will always generate more ideas than there is the ability and our capacity to execute them.

And that is where I see kind of the downfall. Even as entrepreneurs, managers, it doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur or it doesn’t matter if you’re inside of a company, but we’ll always have good ideas. But always remember that our capacity to execute all of them, we don’t have that. And so, we really have to be diligent of selecting just a few and then really going deep with what we’ve selected.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, we’ve zeroed in on what to eliminate. And then I’d like to get some indicators then on, let’s just imagine, okay, we had a hundred ideas or there’s a hundred things vying for our attention. And, hey, great job, we successfully eliminated half of them, which is cool. And so, we are twice as clear as we were before. Nonetheless, how do you recommend that we zero in from, I guess, the semi-finalists to those top three?

Eric Papp
Yeah, great question. And it goes with what is our desired future. What’s the future that we’re living into? At any point in our lives, we’re always thinking, we’re either in three different mindsets. We’re in the past, we’re like, “Oh, man, 2019 was such a great year, and we were gathering and we did this, and our company I did this,” or we are in the present, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What’s important right now?” That acronym WIN, “What’s important now?” Or, we’re in the future, we’re thinking about. “Hey, where do I want to be?”

And sometimes we have to be very mindful of how we’re thinking because sometimes we’re dominated by the past, we’re, “Oh, my gosh, this is so bad. I can’t. I wish it was this time. I wish it was…” And so, asking ourselves, “Okay, what’s the desired future that I want?” and then just backtracking it. It’s, “Okay, what’s the desired future? And then now what are the projects that I think will get us there?” And a lot of times we overestimate what we can do in a day but yet we underestimate what we can do in a year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s true. And, well, talking about those timeline horizons with the day and the year, you’ve got something you’ve created called the Weekly Strategy Sheet. Tell us, how do we think about that and use it to plan priorities?

Eric Papp
Yeah. So often than not, where this kind of came from, Pete, is when you ask people, you would say, like, “Hey, what did you do last week?” “Oh,” they’d look at you and it’s kind of like, “Oh,” they really couldn’t give a definitive answer, it’s like, “Oh, I got a lot of emails done. I was in a lot of meetings.” And so, this is really to give people a high-level overview, a high-level strategy of, “Okay, what’s most important this week?”

First of all, there’s three parts. There’s past, present, and future. And the idea is, okay, we celebrate our past, we connect with our present here, and then we commit to the future. And so, the idea is, over time, as we’re planning our week, is to see some synergy between the past, present, and future. And we identify, so in the past, celebrate the past, “Okay, great. What are the top three or five accomplishments I accomplished last week that were very meaningful to me in my business or in my role? Okay, great. I’m going to list them down,” because that’s going to give us confidence.

Our confidence comes from seeing the progress and what matters most to us, and whether that’s personal or professional. So, great, we can see that. When you write it down, it helps us keep moving forward. But a lot of times, in our culture, we don’t. We focus on where we are and where we want to go. And I call that, you got to be careful because that’s kind of frustrationville, right? That’s comparison, that’s, “Oh, man, well, I see this person on social media. Oh, I see this.” So, I get people to take a look back and to see all the progress that they’re making and have this on a weekly basis.

And the middle part then is we’re looking to really kind of connect with the present, “Okay, what are my top three weekly priorities this week? If everything goes to H-E Double Hockey Sticks, what’s the three most important things I want to get done, I want to accomplish?” and then the future. And I need to future-plan it, I use the OKR Method, Objective and Key Results, “What do you want accomplished and how you’re going to get it done?”

And, like I said, the whole idea of using the Weekly Strategy Sheet, it takes under 20 minutes to plan it out but it’s so important because a lot of times, as knowledge workers, we don’t plan our weeks. We just go from one week to the next, and we kind of kid ourselves that, “Oh, something will be different,” or, “Oh, this will turn around.” But if we don’t really get a handle on the planning aspect, then the execution kind of falls short.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious, so we got the Weekly Strategy Sheet, and so then you can reference it at the end of the week. It’s written, it’s there, you see, “Hey, this is what I accomplished. That’s cool.” And you zero in on those top three priorities. How do you think about it in terms of, I guess, scheduling or calendaring or putting time against those things within the week?

Eric Papp
Well, you got to have a day where you actually spend time to plan. Having a planning day, I like to do mine on a Friday. Sometimes I do it on a Thursday late afternoon. But when you have that time to really devote to the planning, and you’re not trying to fill up your week either. You’re not trying to. You’re just saying, “Okay, what are the three most important things?” And, also, too, those three most important things, you might get those done in two days, and that might very well be, and that’s okay. But it’s really to give you a better sense of clarity and organization.

Pete Mockaitis
So, within that planning time, and so it sounds like this isn’t a 10-minute operation but it’s a bit more in-depth. What are you doing with that planning time?

Eric Papp
Yeah, you’re going from left to right: past, present, and future. So, I’ve got my Weekly Strategy Sheet, it’s sitting right here on my desktop, and this is the week of January 4th or the 8th, and, boom, okay, I celebrate the past, I write down my top five accomplishments, and I make some personal or two personals in there as well, and then I check in with the present, “What are my top three weekly priorities? And then, what’s for the future, my objective and key results?” And that can change as well.

But you’ll see when you ask people, “Hey, do you plan your week?” A lot of people don’t and then some people that do kind of quickly plan their week. The more that we spend time planning our week and really being diligent about that, and we’ll get better. A, you’ll get better at it, and, B, you’ll be able to get your priorities done and things done with a lot greater intention. And that’s kind of the cool thing and you’ll actually have more time. You’ll be accomplishing more and you’ll have more time when things come up that you’ll be more able to more flexible.

I think one of the things it gives people is it helps relieve some of this, the pressure of time that a lot of people are faced with nowadays.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you maybe do an hour with the Weekly Strategy Sheet planning process? Or, roughly how long are you doing there?

Eric Papp
Yeah, I’d say it’s about an hour. Sometimes I’ll go…what I’ll do is I’ll take two cracks at it. I’ll look at it Friday, and then I might look at it again on Monday and just make some adjustments just to make sure that, okay, I’m on track for this week. But it really gives me that structure and it really gives me that guidance. Because the other thing too is, as knowledge workers, our confidence, we have to protect that, right?

And so, if we know, as human beings, if I’m making progress, that I’m feeling good about myself, and so that’s so important. And knowing that I’m progressing towards where I want to go. And so, by doing this, it really helps us with that. So, yeah, it’s about an hour or some people have done it under an hour. I’m typically around that dependent upon how detail I get with it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re saying that that hour you spend there ends up saving significantly more than one hour during the course of executing the week.

Eric Papp
Tremendously, yeah. And I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, but it was something like, “For every minute you spend planning, it gives you 10 additional minutes,” or you save 10 additional minutes, or something like that, so, yeah, it’s kind of like that 10-to-1 ratio, yeah. And so, that’s why the planning is so important. And you get better at it too as you go on.

A lot of times we just start our day very reactive, right? When I say reactive, we just start our day, we watch the news, listen to the news, or we start our day reading emails, checking emails. And so, we’re not really proactive. We’re just responding to whatever is in our inbox, whatever is most pressing. And often what’s a priority gets masked with a hundred different other things.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks have a hard time letting go, because I think what could be perhaps a mistake, and you tell me about the biggest mistakes you see when folks are trying to manage their time, is you say, “Okay, these are the really critical priorities, and so we kind of go after those.” But we don’t really subtract, we don’t really let go of the other things, and then we’re just sort of get stressed because it’s like, “Well, no, I really identified and I’m totally clear that these things are critical but I’m still doing everything else.” So, if there’s an emotional hurdle or a hump or resistance, how do you recommend we get through that?

Eric Papp
You’re spot on, Pete. It’s absolutely right because I’ll see people are like, “Oh, I need more time,” or, “Oh, yeah.” Like, I’ll recommend or something, and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t have time to read this now.” It’s like, “You’re not planning, you’re not prioritizing, that’s what it really comes down to because you’re trying to do everything, and you’re regarding everything has the same level of importance when it doesn’t. So, then you can’t multiply your output and you can’t leverage what you’re doing.”

So, one of the things I share with people is come at it with like a spirit of experimentation, experiment of like trial and error. A lot of times we want certainty as human beings, we want to know, “Hey, if I do this, is it going to give me this? Or, if I don’t do this, this will alleviate this problem.” And so, it’s like, “Hey, just test it out.”

And then, also, I share too the idea of when you give yourself less time, we tend to be more productive. A little story, a little sidenote on this, is when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he was President, he had an advisor, Harry Hopkins. And Harry, due to some health issues and such, could only work three to four hours a day. However, he was one of the most effective advisors for FDR. Winston Churchill went so far to call him like Lord Heart of the Matter. And the reason why is, hey, he only had three, four hours, so then, therefore, it really caused him to think deliberately about, “Okay, what am I going to do in the time that I do have?”

Because there’s that whole Parkinson’s Law, right? And work expands to fill the time necessary for its completion. So, if we give ourselves eight hours a day, we’re going to fill it with eight hours. If we give ourselves 10 hours, then we’re going to fill it with 10 hours, and so that’s a very interesting thing. And you’ll see this not only from a time standpoint but you’ll also see this from like a storage standpoint. Like, when somebody has a house, they went from like, let’s say, a thousand square foot house, or 2,000 square foot house. Well, over time, they’re going to fill that house up with stuff. Why? Because they’re just going to fill it up with stuff.

So, it takes a deliberate level of discipline and just mindfulness, too, of, “Okay, hey, we don’t want to be over cluttered. I don’t want to be overwhelmed. Just because I have the capacity doesn’t mean I need to buy more stuff.” So, that’s kind of the idea on that. But yet, somehow, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot by adding more and doing more.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And I know you’ve also zeroed in on some key habits of super achievers. Can you tell us what are they and how do we go about developing them?

Eric Papp
Yeah, I’d say some of the habits of super achievers, number one, is to get a real clear sense, and we’ve talked about this a little bit earlier, of what your future is. Knowing what it is that you want in your future, that’s a key thing. The second thing I would say is knowing what are some of your unique talents. Super achievers are very good at knowing what their unique talents are, and then spending time working on those talents.

And then, after a while, people take a step back and, “Wow, that’s a master at work. Wow, that person, they’re at the top of their field.” So, that’s a big thing. Knowing what you want and then knowing your talents, what you’re good at or what you like to do, and then really spending time learning more every day, and getting better. Just getting 1% better, reading more, talking to people. And then when you take a step back, then you see, then you’re kind of regarded as a super achiever. People are like, “Wow, that person, look at the gains they’ve made.”

And it’s not anything that they’re extraordinary. In some cases, talent is there already but other cases it’s the talent that has been cultivated over and over. It’s kind of like water dropping on a stone. It’s just that over and over and over, that repetitive nature, eventually it changes the stone and it forms the stone into something unique.

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

Eric Papp
No, I think we’re right on track. We’re doing great.

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

Eric Papp
Well, one of them I already mentioned, and it’s a quote that’s just been top of mind. Our capacity to generate ideas will always be greater than our ability to execute.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Eric Papp
A lot of what I’m saying is in alignment with Richard Koch, his idea on The 80/20 Principle. And what I’m talking about is kind of from Pareto and going back and looking at that. So, a lot of that is if somebody wants to explore more or go deeper into being able to identify priorities and such, that’d be good to look at.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great one and I think a lot of people have heard about the 80/20 rule, but he’s just like, “You’re not taking it nearly far enough.” Like, that’s the theme that hits it over and over again at each chapter. It’s like, “All right, man. You got it.” And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Eric Papp
I would say a notebook that I have. I’ve got the Priority Planner that I use. It’s something that I created. It’s in its third edition. And this keeps me focused because it’s the way I’ve created it. It’s three wins from yesterday so it causes me every day to write down what are my accomplishments from the exact day before. So, this helps keep my confidence high, and that’s one of the top things I need to protect as a knowledge worker.

And then it says three priorities for today. So, it’s asking me, “Okay, what are my three priorities?” And sometimes I just only identify one or two, and then in that way I feel great about accomplishing that. And the next part I have, “Stay curious, stay creative.” I ask questions throughout the day. I think that’s important, too, is write down questions.

When questions come up, just write them down if you don’t know the answer to them because a lot of times we get stuck with, “I don’t know how to figure that out.” And it’s very easy to kind of throw up our hands or say, “Oh, that’s somebody else’s responsibility. That’s somebody else’s department.” But just write down the question because there’s a great chance that you just kind of sit with it, you’ll get the idea, it will come to you later on.

Pete Mockaitis
And any other favorite habits for you personally?

Eric Papp
Spending time, taking care of yourself physically, whether it’s going for a walk. I go for occasional morning walks. I also cycle. I’ve got the Peloton here, so cycling. And that’s great because it’s low impact on the knees. And then, obviously, the Kettlebell, so alternating between cardio and strength. So, exercise is such an important part. And not so much just from like a vanity standpoint but so much from it clears your mind.

I can’t tell you, Pete, how many times where I‘ve just gone for a walk or I’ve gone on a bike ride, and then I’ll come back with like three great ideas that I’ll write down just of different things, or an email to ask somebody or a question. And then spending time in scripture with the Bible, just reading some of the New Testament. I do a little thing called Lectio Divina, and I’ll read a little small passage of the New Testament, and then just kind of ask questions, just journal from there.

And then, also, every day in the morning, I usually just start to write. I just kind of start typing or writing just to kind of empty, purge all the stuff in my head, whatever it is. It might be questions, it might be concerns, it might be what I’m excited about, just whatever it is, because I find that to be a wonderful clearing process so I can start my day be in the present moment.

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 frequently?

Eric Papp
Well, I would say preparation begets confidence. And that comes from planning your day, right? When you’re prepared, when you’re planning your day, kind of know where you want to go, then when things do come up, then you have the flexibility to adapt. Oh, here’s something that I say, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall never be bent out of shape.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Eric Papp
And I think 2020 was a great reminder that we all had to have flexibility. It teaches us a lesson, flexibility. And, also, a lesson in resiliency. I think resiliency is such a wonderful, wonderful quality to have whether an entrepreneur or manager. The capacity to overcome difficulties quickly because there a lot of challenges that we experience and there’s a lot of challenges that we’re going to continue to experience as well.

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

Eric Papp
My website EricPapp.com. I’ve got some videos on there, the Weekly Strategy Sheet is on there so they can download that for free, and they’ll get the PDF version of that. And that’s just E-R-I-C-P-A-P-P.com.

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

Eric Papp
Hey, we’re starting off the year here in January. Ask yourself, how is this year going to be different for you? Not just from what are you going to do that’s going to be different? How are you going to get to your goals? How is it going to be different? And then, when you’ve got that planned, work it and get your outcome that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eric, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and success in your productivity and adventures and priorities, and keep on rocking.

Eric Papp
Hey, thanks, Pete. It’s been great, man. And thank you for doing what you do. Having this, doing over, what is this, episode 600 and something. Yeah, that’s incredible, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I appreciate it.

Eric Papp
Yeah, that’s a lot. So, that’s great. We need more of this in the world.

583: Dispelling the Motivation Myths of Passion and Willpower with Jeff Haden

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Jeff Haden says: "You can create all the motivation you need."

Jeff Haden discusses what we often get wrong about motivation—and what really works.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one thing that makes any goal feel motivating 
  2. The subtle shift in phrasing that makes goals more motivating 
  3. A surprising way to boost your willpower

About Jeff

Jeff Haden is Inc.com’s most popular columnist and one of LinkedIn’s most widely-followed Influencers. His work has also appeared on TimeThe Huffington PostFast CompanyBusiness InsiderEntrepreneurYahoo! Small BusinessMSNBC, and CNBC.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jeff Haden Interview Transcript

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

Jeff Haden
Thanks, Pete. I am delighted to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m delighted to be here as well. We’re going to be talking about motivation so I thought I might start with asking, Jeff, what motivates you?

Jeff Haden
Oh, great. That is a fun question since I talk about motivation a lot. Probably the biggest motivator for me is seeing some type of improvement no matter what it is that I do. I learned a long time ago that you can have even the silliest or least meaningful goal possible, but if you set it and then you’re making some amount of improvement towards it, it feels good, and you end up liking whatever it is that you were doing. So that whole idea that you have to find your passion first before you can set off to do something, I think it’s kind of…well, I think it’s helpful but I don’t think it’s necessary.

So, if I can tell a really quick story. I decided a few years ago when I was writing my book, I kind of took a page from the Tim Ferriss playbook and decided it would be good to have a couple of cute hooks for me for people to latch onto, so I decided I was going to do 100,000 pushups in a year. So, it works out to 347 a day. I rounded it up to 400 just in case I had a bad day.

The goal was meaningless. I didn’t care. There’s nothing from it. I wasn’t getting paid. It was just something I decided to do, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it at first, but within a month, I liked pushups, I thought of myself as the Pushup Guy. I had fun trying to be able to do more per set or get the whole thing done quicker or all that other kind of stuff. And I actually came to like it and it is because I got fairly good at it.

So, I think if you’re willing to put the effort in, you can find that you will enjoy doing things that you never thought you would as long as you improve and get better at it, and some day get to be good at it. So, I’m convinced that we like the things that we are good at, you just have to give yourself a chance and the time to get good at it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that completely resonates. I remember I was in high school when a speaker, he’s still rocking, Fran Kick is his name, he spoke to our marching band, and he made this little diagram about…he was in the context of practicing a musical instrument and talked about work, fun, good. As you work, you get good. And as you’re good, it’s more fun. And then you’re more likely to want to work. And I was like, “That makes so much sense.” I remember this diagram, wow, nearly 20 years later because it resonates as really true, whether it’s something silly like, I think, games do this on purpose in terms of like, “Ooh, hey, you’re getting better, Jack. Keep playing us. Keep tapping away.”

Jeff Haden
Yup. And I think that’s really important for people because, like, say, in your job. You get a new job, you find that it doesn’t turn out to be what you hoped it would be, which is almost always the case. There are parts of it that you don’t like, and so people automatically think, “Oh, man, I don’t really like this. I need to find something different.” But if you can put the effort into trying to get better at the things that you don’t like, you may find that you really like them and you enjoy them. And it may not be the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done in your life, but it always feels good to be good at something. And then when you are good at that, people ask you for advice, people ask you for help, people look up to you as a mentor. That feels good, too, so you get this really cool circle of fun from just having put in the time to get better at something.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so your book is called The Motivation Myth. What exactly is the myth that we’re busting here?

Jeff Haden
Well, I think I’ve alluded to it already, so since it’s fun to drop names, I’ll drop a name or two. So, I was talking to Venus Williams, and I said, “You’re you so this must’ve been your passion your whole life long.” She said, “No, no.” “Really?” “Dad started us out playing tennis. I thought, ‘Man, it would be fun to get better at this.’ I just kept trying to get better. And as I got better, it felt good and I just kept trying to get better.”

And so, I kind of added that up with I’m lucky enough that I get to talk to lots of really successful people in a variety of fields, and I’ve never found one of them that had that lightning bolt of inspiration somewhere along the way that’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I found my passion and I’m set for life, and I’ve got all the motivation I ever need.” They all just found something they were interested in, decided to try it, and then put in the time and effort to get better and create this little feedback loop, like you described, of effort equals success, equals happiness, equals more effort.

So, I contrasted that with a lot of the people that write to me, saying, “Hey, I’m not achieving my goals. I’m not getting anywhere. Do you have any advice for me?” And every one of them was saying, “I haven’t found my passion.” And so, the myth to me is that you have to find your passion first. When, really, what it is, is you have to just decide, “Hey, I want to try this. I have a goal. I’m going to figure out a process to get me there,” and we can talk about that, “And I will get all the motivation I need from my effort as opposed to receiving this motivation from some external source or this lightning bolt,” that carries you along your way.

So, the big takeaway is that you can create all the motivation you need if you know how.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds exciting, and I want to definitely get into the process and how that’s done. Now, first, let’s talk a little bit more about what not to do. And I noticed a couple of your reviews, I stalk my guests, in your book on Amazon, some of the reviews and some of your sales copy has some jabs at Tony Robbins. So, a fun fact, when I was a teenager, Tony Robbins was my hero and I wanted to be just like him. I’ve since adopted new role models although I still have learned very valuable things from Tony Robbins.

Jeff Haden
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, what’s your hot take here?

Jeff Haden
Well, first of all, I did take a few shots at Tony. Tony is aware of the shots I took at him. Tony doesn’t mind and, in fact, we’ve collaborated on a few things since then, so I would never consider him a friend. I would never be so presumptuous as to say he’s a friend. But I know him and we get along fine, and I like him, and we just had a difference of opinion.

So, my shot at Tony was one of the things that they at least used to do, I don’t know if they still do, but they had the firewalk.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m a firewalker, Jeff.

Jeff Haden
You did? Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve walked it.

Jeff Haden
All right, then this is perfect. So, you’ve got the hot coals, and somehow, like that scene from The Office.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Jeff Haden
By walking across them, that shows you that you can do anything, and that sends you off on your way ready to conquer the world. There’s a little bit of truth to that, and I’m sure that that works. But the problem is that’s a very momentary thing and it’s not something you really put a lot of effort into. All you had to do was try to say, “Aargh,” you almost had to freeze your brain for a second and just go, which, that’s an important ability to have but that doesn’t help you when you’ve been working at something for six months or nine months or a year, and it’s hard, and you’re struggling, and you’re hitting roadblocks. How do you find the perseverance to work through that stuff? That’s a whole different kind of a play.

So, my shot at Tony was basically that if you want that momentary one-off, “Yes, I finally bungee jumped,” “Yes, I finally jumped out of a plane,” “Yeah, I walked across the hot coals,” not to downplay your experience. I’m sure it was awesome. But that’s not the thing that is going to get you a long-term dose of motivation that you need. It does prove to you that you can do things that you didn’t think you could do, and that is really important. But those are very kind of one-off momentary things. That’s not a long-term solution to a motivation problem.

Pete Mockaitis
I agree.

Jeff Haden
So, that was my shot at Tony.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jeff Haden
So, it’s really not that bad of a shot if you think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. I mean, you could say worse about any of us. You know what’s funny, my firewalking wasn’t that much of a challenge because it was raining the day of, and my feet were actually pretty cold on the asphalt parking lot of the hotel, it’s like, “Dude, my feet are cold. I want to get on those coals just to warm them up a little bit.”

Jeff Haden
How hot was it?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know the precise temperature but…

Jeff Haden
No, I mean, how hot did it feel?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, my experience was it was like, “Ooh, that’s kind of toasty.” And, now, if I were starting from a normal foot temperature, I don’t know. But it was fine, it was fun, and I learned some things, and, yeah, I think. Every thought leader has things that are more or less applicable to everyone, and that’s why we get a lot of voices. So, Let’s hear now. So, how do we get it going? So, we’ve got that sort of virtuous cycle. If I want to have more motivation, what are my first steps?

Jeff Haden
The first thing is the easiest place to start is with something that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t. So, let’s just make something up. Let’s say your bucket list is not just to walk on hot coals from a tepid fire or parking lot, but you want to run a marathon. Let’s use that. So, you’ve always wanted to do so but you’re not even a runner. So, the first thing you do is you pick your goal, and then you say, “Okay, I’m going to forget the fact that…” if you harken back to the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, where the guy says, you know, “We’re all individuals,” and then one guy says, “I’m not.” Think that you’re not an individual and realize that there are perfectly good processes out there waiting for you to follow that are almost guaranteed for you to succeed if you put in the work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m thinking of Hal Higdon’s program right there. Bam!

Jeff Haden
But what ends up happening is that people say, “Okay, I’m unique, I’m special, I need a bespoke process. There are things that I’m willing to do. There are things I’m not willing to do.” And by the time you’re done, you’ve boxed yourself into this thin little slice of effort and program that it’s not going to work for you. So, the first thing you do is say, “I’m willing to do what it takes to get there.” And if you’re not, then don’t even start because you’ve picked a hard goal. And the best way to find that process to work, that will work, is to forget about the idea of finding somebody to “coach” you. And I just used Dr. Evil air quotes. That instead of coaching you, the key is to find a pro. And by a pro, I mean someone who has done what it is you say you want to do.

So, if it’s a marathon, it’s a guy that you know or that you can connect with, and through social media you can connect with anybody you want at this point, and just say, “Hey, I admire you, I respect what you’ve done. I would like to run a marathon. Here’s where I’m starting from. If you were me, what would you do?” And what you’re going to get from someone like that, if they are truly someone who has done what you want to do, you’re going to get a hard process. You’re going to get the clear-eyed, cold, hard truth of, “Here’s what it takes to go and do that.”

And then, instead of whining about it, instead of saying, “Oh, but that’s not going to work for me, and I’m special and I’m unique,” or whatever. You say, “Okay, that is what I’m going to do,” and you give yourself two weeks, and you say, “For two weeks, I will follow this exactly. I’m not going to pop my head up and think about changing. I’m not going to worry about modifying. I’m not going to adapt. I’m going to do this.”

The reason for that is you don’t know enough about what it is you’re trying to do to be able to make smart revisions early on because you have no clue. And why would you? And if you revise, you’re probably going to revise to easier, which means you’re going to be less successful and make less progress. So, if you keep your head down for two weeks, invariably, you will pop up at the end of the two, and you will have gotten a little better, a little stronger, a little faster, a little smarter, whatever it is you’re trying to do. You will have seen improvement and you will realize that, “This works.” And by knowing that your effort paid off, we’re back to your band speech of, “Hey, I put in the effort, I’ve seen some success, that feels good, that makes me happy, that makes me get up tomorrow and do whatever it is I’m supposed to do tomorrow.”

And that’s the real key, is to forget about the distance between here, which is wherever you’re starting, and there, which is this long path that takes you to this goal that you want to achieve, and just focus on what you have to do today. And if you focus on today, and you do what’s on your list for today, you get to feel good about yourself at the end of the day because you’ve done what you set out to do, that’s motivating in itself, and that will keep you making progress. And then you get this endless source of motivation because every day you get to tap into it.

I know that was a long answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I love it.

Jeff Haden
But it’s a simple way to approach it, and you can do almost anything that you want to do if you’re willing to follow that kind of process.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think it’s intriguing, like when you go through those steps of you talk to the pro, and then you follow it to a T for two weeks, and you observe some levels of improvement, you might say, “You know what, I actually am not that charged up about being able to run a little bit more now than I was before, about what’s happening to my body and my energy levels. As it turns out, running a marathon was cool in theory, but I don’t actually care about it and I can let go of it with peace.”

Jeff Haden
Yup. And that’s an awesome side effect because you do find out, “Is this really something I will enjoy doing?” Because the end result, you only get to enjoy that for a little bit. Actually, completing the marathon and getting your medal and having your picture taken, and all that other stuff, that’s a very small slice. If you don’t enjoy the day-to-day, then, to me, you’re kind of wasting your time because that’s a lot of effort to put into this momentary slice of, “Wow, I get to feel really good about myself.”

So, if you find at the end of two weeks that, “Yeah, this really isn’t for me, not because it’s too hard but because it really isn’t that fun and rewarding,” then you’ve done yourself a great service because you haven’t wasted six months kind of trying, kind of running, kind of feeling bad about yourself all the time whenever you don’t. And having that in the back of your mind, “Wow, that’s something I really want to accomplish,” saying no to your goals is as important as choosing the ones that you want to go after. It’s a cliché but it’s true. People have tons of goals but they don’t really know whether they want to do them or not, or they like the process. So, if you find ways to sift through that, then you’ll settle on the stuff that you really do like and you really do find enjoyable, and maybe you become a runner for the rest of your life or maybe you don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take on I think a lot of goals fit very neatly with that, and maybe I’m just a quantifiable kind of a guy. I like quantification and so I’m thinking, “Hey, running. Hey, I’ve ran farther than I did before. I feel great about that accomplishment.” I’m thinking maybe sales, “Hey, I’ve made these sales calls.” Maybe writing, “I’ve cranked out these blogposts or these pages or this word count.” And so, I’m wondering about what if things are a little fuzzy? Like, let’s say I want to learn a skill. I have a goal, let’s say, to be a great presenter. I want to be confident and dynamic and inspiring. I guess that’s a little fuzzier in terms of, “Oh, how do I measure my speaking quality?” I guess I’d get a panel of judges in recurring intervals. What do I do?

Jeff Haden
It’s a good question, but I think you can still quantify that to some degree because the outcome, first of all, your goal is a little fuzzy, which is why that seems to be hard. Maybe your goal is instead of it being, “I want to be a great confident speaker,” maybe your goal is, “I want to do a TEDx,” for instance. All right, that’s a little more quantifiable but it carries with it the same qualities that you’re looking for if you just want to be a better speaker.

So, maybe you shift your goal into something that is more quantifiable. But then the rest of it, you can make it kind of numbers-based. You can say, “Okay, I’m going to create five different presentations. I’m going to rehearse them X number of times.” And you build a process that makes you better, that helps you gain the confidence, or you say, “I’m going to work my way up through the ranks of any local organization that will have me,” to, “Hey, I finally got a paid gig,” or whatever. So, you have to find some kind of quantifiable measures of success.

That’s like people that say, “I want to get in better shape.” What does that mean? That’s an admirable goal but it doesn’t mean anything. How do you figure out when you’ve gotten there and what it means to you? And so, therefore, how do you create a process that gets you there when you don’t even know what it means. Or, “I’d like to lose a little weight.” Well, okay, “I’d like to lose 10 pounds” is a little easier to work at because you have a process that you can create to get there.

So, I’ve gone all the way around the barn with my answer but, first of all, your goal needs to be sharper and a little more quantifiable, and then you can create a process and have milestones that actually tell you whether you’re getting there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy. And so, some of those milestones can just be a matter of output, like, “Hey, I did these things. I said these are the five books, and I read the five books. I did 12 reps of different speeches, videotaping and reviewing of them, and I did the videotape and the review of them.” So, someone is just like, “I did the work and I feel great about that.” Or maybe you could say, “Hey, boss, this is something I’m working on. Can we get some video of before and after? And I’d like for you to tell me this is night and day better for these five reasons,” and that’s success.

Jeff Haden
And here’s another example. Like, say your goal is to be a better leader. All right. Well, that’s a pretty fuzzy one, too, but you can quantify that in different ways. You can say, “Okay, I want to be the leader that gets the most people promoted out of everyone else at my level.” That means you’re a good developer, that you’re putting people in great spots, you’re showing that they succeed, you’re giving them praise and recognition, you’re doing all those things. Or it could be numbers-based in terms of productivity or quality or whatever else it might be. So, you can find anything that seems fuzzy and you could put some quantifiable stuff around it. And then that gives you a structure where you’re actually working at the things that will make you that better leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and I dig that. And I guess I was being a little facetious earlier when I talked about, “Convene a panel of judges.” But I remember back when I was doing more keynotes on college campuses, I would have everyone fill out a little bit of an accountability form, like, “Hey, Pete, hold me accountable to doing this one thing.” So, I’d give them a follow-up email. And it’s like, “Hey, by the way, score me zero to five in how effective this was.” And I could actually see, hey, what percentage gave me the five. And then I’d also use similar language to, I guess I’m a little competitive, to what an organization that had many speakers to college students was using for their program evaluations, it’s like, “Oh, I could see what dozens of speakers got,” and I’m using the same question so I could compare against them, and then over time. And, sure enough, it was motivating.

Jeff Haden
I’ve done the same thing. Like, if I’m speaking at conferences, and I think this is a cute little tip that applies to just about anything. I can’t be the best speaker in the world, I don’t believe. But, going into a conference, I can try to be the best speaker that was there. I can be the one that people remember the most, or they got the most out of my presentation. Whatever it may be, I can try to “win” that event.

And so, if you approach it that way, now you have a goal. You can look at what other people are doing, you can decide how you’re going to stand out, you can make sure that you actually are speaking to what the audience needs and will benefit from. You could do all that kind of stuff. And you can apply that to your job. You can say, “All right. I’m not CEO yet but I can be the best supervisor in my department, and I can stand out there. And then when I get promoted, okay, now I’m going to be the best at this.” And it doesn’t make you competitive in a bad way. It just makes you evaluate yourself against other people and see where you fall short and see where you can do better. And that gives you something to tangibly do in order to improve your performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’re spending a lot of time here but it’s time well-spent because just the feeling…

Jeff Haden
I’m long-winded. I’m sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
No, no, I’m saying I feel the difference as I’m imagining these goals in their fuzzy form versus their precise form, like get in better shape, or run more, is a lot different than, “Complete 26.2 miles.” And, likewise, “I want to give a great speech” is different than, “I want to receive the highest evaluations at this event or the highest ever evaluations I personally received are higher than I did last year at the event,” like kind of whatever. Like, it gets real sharp and clear, it’s like, “Oh, shoot. Well, then if I want to pull that off, well, then I’d better get a really clear understanding of this audience and their needs. Just doing something off the shelf probably ain’t going to cut it.”

Jeff Haden
And it allows you to make the most important comparison of all which is not to other people but to yourself and what you were doing yesterday, and how you can be today and tomorrow, because it brings that focus back to, “What do I need to do in order to get to this place that I want to be?” as opposed to, “Well, I’m doing better than he is so I must be winning.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Well, so I have so many things I wrote down so it might be a little bit jumpy.

Jeff Haden
That’s all right.

Pete Mockaitis
But here we’re going to go. You say there is a question that provides nearly every answer. What is this question, Jeff?

Jeff Haden
There can be one question that you ask yourself that will answer most of your questions, or that will help you make most decisions. It comes from Herb Kelleher, the passed-away CEO of Southwest Airlines. So, he framed every question that employees ask him because he’s thinking about the amount of decisions he had to make in a day. It was probably a zillion. So, he framed it with, “Will this make Southwest Airlines the lowest-cost provider?” If it would, great. It’s something worth exploring. If it wouldn’t, even if it was a seemingly great idea that might be fun, it would take them off in some other direction that didn’t drive towards whatever it is they were trying to achieve, and he could say no.

So, you can make your own one question for whatever it might be. If you want to be a better leader and you see an interpersonal issue between two of your employees, you ask yourself one question, “Would a great leader ignore this? Nah, you would probably step in.” So, you can frame everything you do as a boss through, “Would a great leader allow this? Would a great leader do this?” So, you can do that with anything. If you’re trying to lose weight, “Does a person trying to lose 10 pounds have two pieces of cake after dinner? Yeah, probably not.” “Does a person who wants to be better in band not put in the effort in order to play better?” That’s a dumb example but I was trying to harken back to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Jeff Haden
But you can create your one question and it allows you to make a whole lot of decisions based on, “That’s my goal.” So, if you know your goal then you can allow that to inform the decisions you make, and then you don’t have to have this negotiation with yourself, like, “Oh, but I could have that piece of cake because tomorrow I’ll work out twice as long and I’ll burn the calories off.” Well, you never do. We never win those negotiations. But if you just say, “Hey, that’s not what I do, that’s not my goal, that’s not part of my thing,” it’s an easy decision to make. And in fact, it isn’t a choice at all, because it’s who you are, not what you have decided in that moment. If you can adapt to the identity, then everything is easy.

Do you have kids?

Pete Mockaitis
I do.

Jeff Haden
Okay. Do you wake up every day and think, “Hmm, I really need to be a good parent today”? No, you don’t. That’s not a decision. You’re a good parent. You try to be a good parent. That is who you are. You don’t have to make that decision. I know sometimes it’s hard. I’ve got four kids, I understand. But that’s part of your identity.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, that is intriguing is that I put forth plenty of effort towards that end, and I have never asked myself that question. I’ve had self-doubt, like, “Am I really a good dad?”

Jeff Haden
Oh, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“What do I need to do differently?”

Jeff Haden
And that’s a tough one so let’s use that differently. Let’s say that I know there’s a moment. We used the marathon example. For a while, if you’re training for a marathon and you haven’t run before, you see yourself as a person who has to go out and run. But, at some point, if you do it long enough and it becomes part of your daily routine and what you do, you see yourself as a runner. And when that’s part of your identity, no longer is it hard to go out for your run because that’s just what you do. It’s not hard for you to take care of your kids because that’s just what you do. It’s not a decision you have to make every time.

If you’ve worked at doing the right things as a leader, you don’t have to sit there and ask yourself a question about, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” because you’re a leader, and you’re going to do what you need to do because that’s who you are. So, if you stick with something long enough, and it becomes part of your identity, it’s a really easy path to follow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, while we talk about identity, I’m curious about where do you come out in the world of discipline, willpower, habits? What do you think about that stuff?

Jeff Haden
I think you can develop greater willpower. I think you can develop greater discipline. I think habits are easy to lose and really hard to create, and once you’ve fallen off of a habit wagon, it’s really hard to get back on. But I think the better approach is to find ways so that willpower is not required. So, like to start my day, I work from home and always have, or I have for about 20 years, so I get up, I brush my teeth. This is more information than you need. But I get up, I brush my teeth, I go downstairs, I sit down, I’ve already laid all my stuff for whatever the most important thing is I have to do that day. I did that last night. I have a bottle of water and a protein bar sitting there, and I start work. And I start work on whatever is the hardest or the most important thing.

That’s just what I do, and I’ve greased the skids, so to speak, so that it is easy as possible for me to sit down and get started, so I really don’t have to have any willpower because I’m not making any decisions. I’m just walking down, sitting down, opening up, eat while I go, it’s all good. If I eased into my day, checked some email, looked around some news, did a couple of goofy things, at some point I have to make that decision to flip the switch, and then I need some willpower in order to get going.

But if you do some kind of environmental architecture, so to speak, then you don’t need willpower. If you’re trying to drink less soda and more water, if you keep three or four bottles of water on your desk, and the soda is two rooms away, what are you going to drink? You don’t have to make a choice because the water is there and you reach for it. So, I think you can develop more willpower but it’s a lot easier if you find ways to make it so that the willpower isn’t required in the first place. And that is not as hard as it sounds like it should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Those simple environmental shifts will go a long way. Cool. I got you.

Jeff Haden
What’s that cheesy thing about if you eat on smaller plates, you’d think you’ve eaten more food? It does work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I think that some portion control…

Jeff Haden
There’s all kinds of stuff like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. Like, if I’m drinking wine, talk about drinking, if I’m drinking wine directly out of the bottle…

Jeff Haden
Oh, yeah, you’re hammering.

Pete Mockaitis
It goes way faster than if I pour it into a glass first.

Jeff Haden
Yup. And if you do short pours every time, you’ll probably drink less. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly.

Jeff Haden
Yeah. That’s not really on topic, but still.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I think, I mean, you can talk about your portion in any number of ways, whether it’s what’s on your to-do list or your food and drink, that’s either that you’re trying to eat more of or less of, that’s great.

Jeff Haden
But I do have one tip, if you don’t mind, about increasing your willpower. We all have these limits that we’ve created for ourselves, and it’s mostly out of habit where if you’re used to working eight hours, then into that ninth hour feels hard. So, an easy way to kind of reset your limits is not to try to go, “All right. Today, I’m going to do eight and a half.” But do something wildly past whatever your normal limit is, and it will allow you to reset.

So, I like to ride bikes, and so if I’m averaging 30-mile bike rides, if I, one day, just say, “You know what, I’m going to do a double. I’ll go 60,” then when you ride a 30 the next time, it seems really easy because, in your mind, you’ve done the 60 recently. So, a cool way to develop more willpower is to go way over the top of whatever it is you’re doing. You don’t want to do it every time because you’ll burn out pretty quickly. But that will reset what you think your internal limit is and it will take you a little farther. And maybe that’s doing something faster, not necessarily longer. It could be all kinds of shifts.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and that’s actually kind of exciting too when you’re in the midst of it. I remember one, there were a couple of times I did 10, 11 hours of coaching sessions in a day. That’s been a while since I’ve done that.

Jeff Haden
Ooh, that’s a long time.

Pete Mockaitis
And, sure enough, it made it seem easy when there’s a moderate four, five, six, seven hours of coaching in a day. And so, it’s been a while since I’ve done that, such that now it would seem very hard. But I remember, on those days it was exciting because it’s sort of like, “Oh, boy, we’re breaking a record.” It’s like, “Ooh, can I do it? Can I do it? Play the inspiring music. Do a little energizer dance.” It’s sort of like I had to dig deeper to just figure out how the heck to stay sane and focused and present and energized.

Jeff Haden
And the other funny thing about that was probably the first six or seven hours didn’t seem long at all because, in your mind, you knew you had a long way to go so you forgot about the whole, “Ooh, I’m already two-thirds away through my day. I can’t wait for the eight hours to be over,” or whatever it is. You’re just in it. You’ve settled in, you’ve found your Zen place kind of, and you’re just in it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got a term, an extreme productivity day, EPD. Is this sort of what we’re talking about? Is that a different concept for you?

Jeff Haden
No, it’s kind of the same thing where you say, “All right. I’ve got this task and it’s going to take me longer than some block of time I would usually associate with it but I really want to get it done.” So, let’s say you think it will take you 12 hours, and you just say, “You know what, I’m going to give it everything towards that, and that is going to be my day, whatever day it is,” and you prep yourself for it, and you set some things in place, and you let people know you can’t be disturbed, and there’s a lot of tips that I have with that.

But, basically, what you’re doing is you’re saying, “For this one day, I am going to knock this thing out,” and you create little breaks for yourself, and you make sure you’re hydrated, and you make sure you get snacks along the way, and all those other things. But the idea is that every once in a while, you take something that has been kind of nagging at you, you haven’t been able to get done, and you just say, “For this day, that’s what I’m going to finish.” And it feels awesome when you’re done, and that also ratchets up your productivity expectations because you realize that if you put your mind to it, you can, which sound like a little Tony Robbins, yes, it will, but that’s okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it just has all sorts of follow-on effects in terms of you feel great about just your self-confidence and ability to rock and roll. Well, awesome. Jeff, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about motivation before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jeff Haden
No, let’s go. Let’s do some quick ones.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear about your favorite quote.

Jeff Haden
So, my favorite is from Jimmy Spithill. He was America’s Cup-winning skipper some years ago, Team Oracle, I believe it was. And his quote is, “Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy.” And I like that because I’m not as smart as most people, I’m not as talented as most people, I’m not as connected, all those other things, but if I want a competitive advantage, I can always try to outwork you.

Pete Mockaitis
What I also like is that it’s rarely, it’s like occasionally in workaholic burnout situations that is the better move. But rarely.

Jeff Haden
Yup, exactly. So, that’s the quote I like.

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

Jeff Haden
One of my favorites is, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if I was going to sum it up, it’s that if you talk about your intention, let’s say you’ve decided you’re going to do something, and you talk about it to other people, you are significantly less likely to actually accomplish what it is you say that you are going to do. And I have a quote that I wrote down, it’s from this researcher, “When other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention,” it sounds like a researcher wrote it, “this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.” So, if I say that I’m going to run a marathon, and you and I are talking about it…

Pete Mockaitis
Good for you, Jeff. You’re amazing. Wow.

Jeff Haden
I know.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so great, Jeff.

Jeff Haden
Inside, I feel like I have already done it. And so, therefore, I’ve gotten some of the mental kick out of it, and I’m much less likely to do it. So, if you feel like you need some people to hold you accountable, like you need an accountability buddy, or you want the peer pressure to keep you on your task, don’t talk about the goal other than just very briefly. Talk about the process you’re going to follow and have them hold you to that. So, instead of, “Hey, how’s it going towards your marathon?” It should be, “Hey, you said you were going to run three times this week. Did you?” And hold me accountable to my process because process is going to get you there. Goal isn’t going to get you there.

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

Jeff Haden
I’m going to go with two. One is So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It’s about probably six or eight years old but I really like it, and if, for no other reason, then it kind of helped inform some of the stuff that I wrote about where it’s all about process and identity and you can learn to find passions through doing things as opposed to having to discover them. And the other one is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Do you watch Billions, the Showtime show?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, not yet. It keeps coming up more and more. I’m going to have to take a peek.

Jeff Haden
You should. I don’t love this season as much but the first three especially are really good. But, anyway, one of the characters on there actually was reading that book last night, and I emailed Daniel, and said, “Hey, did you know that was coming?” And he said, “No, but it’s really cool.”

Pete Mockaitis
It reminds me, we had Kim Scott who wrote Radical Candor on the show, and then I was watching Silicon Valley, and they kept referencing it, it’s like, “Ah, what’s Kim have to say?” And so, I went on Twitter, so that’s a fun moment.

Jeff Haden
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
When us semi-famous people have moments of TV-style fame.

Jeff Haden
Yup, it is always fun to see. It is always fun to see people you know, or have talked to, or somehow have some sort of small relationship with, out there somewhere, and you go, “Oh, that’s really cool.” I don’t know. It’s like you lived through them a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Jeff Haden
I already talked about that. That’s to start my day with the most important thing that I need to do and prep for it the night before because all the decisions are gone. And the cool thing about that is when you get it done, instead of saying, “Wow, I’m finished,” and you’ve lost motivation. You’ve actually gained it because you knocked off that tough thing and it creates momentum that takes you into the rest of your stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, people quote it back to you frequently?

Jeff Haden
Quoted back to me? No, but I have something that I just read recently that I really like. It’s called The Ben Franklin Effect. And so, the idea is that if you think someone doesn’t like you particularly well, and you’d like to kind of bridge that relationship or make it better, ask them to do you a favor. And, typically, they will find that they like you better, which sounds totally counterintuitive. Psychologists say it’s because there’s cognitive dissonance involved which means that you couldn’t have done me a favor if you didn’t like me, so somehow you reconciled that in your mind.

I think it’s because when you help someone, and they appreciate it, you feel better, and you like that. We always like to help people and be appreciated, and that makes us like people more. But either way, if you have somebody you don’t think you’re getting along with very well, oddly enough, ask them to do you a favor, then thank them profusely and they will probably end up liking you better.
So, that means if you ask me for a favor, then I’ll know that there’s a problem with our relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
No. Well, I feel like it’s a favor that you’re on the show, and maybe you feel like I’m doing you a favor because exposure and platform…

Jeff Haden
Maybe it’s mutually beneficial.

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

Jeff Haden
Oh, I write for Inc. Magazine, so if you go to Inc.com I’ve got several thousand articles there. Probably I’m a LinkedIn influencer, which is the only time I’ll ever be on a list with Richard Branson and Bill Gates and those folks. And so, I do accept connection requests. I wouldn’t appreciate it if you say you want to connect, and then the very next thing you say to me is, “Would you buy this from me?” then that’s not really my favorite thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I agree.

Jeff Haden
That’s not my favorite thing but, nonetheless, I do connect with people, and I will certainly talk to them there.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, tell me, any final challenges or calls to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jeff Haden
I guess I would go back to what I said earlier where whatever you are doing, try to find some slice of that that you can be the best at. Say you’re going to a meeting, you don’t necessarily have to “win the meeting,” but maybe you can be the most prepared, or maybe you can be the one with the most research to your disposal, or maybe you can be the one that helps kind of keep the conversation on track or whatever it is. Find some way to be the best person at something at whatever it is you are doing and that habit will lead you to a lot of success.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. And sometimes you can just be the person who seems the most engaged and listening in a meeting, like that gives a great energy in terms of you’re not checked out on your phone

Jeff Haden
It also makes you feel better about yourself. I ride bikes a lot and I have people that I’ll ride with sometimes that are professional cyclists, which means that I’m in a world of hurt for the whole time and sometimes can’t keep up, and so I know that I can’t do the most pulls from the front. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do, but I can be the guy who always has a couple of spare tubes, a couple of CO2 cartridges in case somebody has a flat. I’ve got a couple extra bottles of water, so I can be the little Sherpa of sorts on the group ride, and I can do that. And that makes me feel better about the fact I’m there. It gives me a little sense of belonging in that way and actually makes it a little bit more fun, so I get to be that guy. So, I’m winning that one small thing, but when you do that, you feel a little better about yourself. And ain’t that what we’re all looking for?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, absolutely, and it’s great for your own confidence. Once again, I’m going back to the college keynoting stuff. It’s like, maybe this event has a lot of topnotch speakers or super famous heads of state, whatever, speak at that school, and I think, “I might not be the greatest speaker that you see this year, the most famous or inspiring. But, by golly, I am the most equipped to resolve tech headaches. I got every adapter you could conceive of, and some cables, and some transmit…”

Jeff Haden
I’m going to be the AV guy’s best friend.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, the AV guys are like, “Do you have the adapter?” “I got every adapter.”

Jeff Haden
Yeah, and I look at that, sometimes I’ll be invited to things or…and I just say, “You know what, I’m going to be the lowest maintenance person they have ever worked with. I’m going to be the least needy, the least babysat, the least whatever, the most accommodating, that’s going to be me. And even if I’m not perfect at everything else, that I can do.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. So, it’s affirmative somewhere, gets you the confidence and the feel good and momentum. Love it.

Jeff Haden
Awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jeff, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and motivation in all your adventures.

Jeff Haden
Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for doing it. Thanks for your prep. It was really fun.