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KF #22. Nimble Learning Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

485: Learning like a Superhuman with Jonathan Levi

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Jonathan Levi says: "It's actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it."

Jonathan Levi shares how speedreading and visual mnemonics can enhance your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientifically-proven method for speedreading
  2. How curiosity improves learning
  3. A simple trick to remember names and face

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a serial entrepreneur, author, and lifehacker born and raised in Silicon Valley.

He’s the author of the Become a SuperLearner series, and the host of the award-winning Superhuman Academy podcast. His passions include learning languages, musical instruments, acro yoga, weightlifting, and cooking.

He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel with his superwoman, Limmor.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Levi Interview Transcript

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

Jonathan Levi
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really stoked to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m stoked to have you. And, boy, we’re talking about super learning, speedreading, memory becoming super human-type things. I think it’s going to be a ton of fun. But I’d love it if you could maybe orient us for starters. Like, what’s really possible for a human being with regard to some of this stuff? I know we got memory champions who dazzle us. But can you just sort of paint a picture for what happens in the highest echelons of human super learning?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. You know, no one’s ever asked me that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just giving you a little softball to warm it up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Why has no one ever asked me that? I think the real answer is I don’t know, but I know what I’ve seen. I don’t know what the upper upper echelon is, but I’ve seen incredible learners throughout history, and I’ve made a practice of studying incredible learners throughout history. And the vision that I paint, and the reason my show is called Superhuman Academy, it used to be called Becoming Superhuman, is because I believe in a different model of super human.

And I think probably the prior generation, what I call superhuman, they would call a renaissance man or woman. Someone like Benjamin Franklin or, to go less cliché, someone like Thomas Jefferson who, like, “Oh, you know, I invented 15 different electronic devices. I discovered electricity. I, on the way, happen to dabble in diplomacy a little bit and helped entire countries form their revolutions, made huge advancements in democracy, learned six languages because no one was willing to translate the books, so I did it myself,” that kind of thing.

Built businesses, sold businesses, established entire organizations, and I think you see this throughout history. You see these people who are so multidisciplinary, and I think that, ultimately, if you ask me, “What’s the purpose of all of this? Why learn faster?” is to do that. It’s not really to go deep, deep, deep, deep, deep into one subject, though I suppose you could, but I think apropos, like how do you be awesome at your job? It’s being a multidisciplinarian. It’s being able to be someone who’s maybe in sales and already have learned your entire customer’s product pipeline.

I gave a talk to Shell’s 150 Top Salespeople in the World, and I asked them, “What’s your biggest challenge?” And they’re like, “We need to know more about our customers’ businesses than the customer knows themselves.” I’m like, “That’s a pretty big challenge because the customer focuses on one business. You each are managing five to 10 accounts.” But that’s what it is, and that’s what’s possible if you can learn and, more saliently, if you can retain everything you learn.

You can be a multidisciplinarian and from there things get fun. Then you can learn four to five languages. Then you can learn four to five different musical instruments. You can pick up different sports and habits, like acroyoga, or Olympic weightlifting, or speaking Russian, or piano. These are all things that I’ve just done in the last few years because you make learning a habit, you make learning a super skill, and then you make learning a hobby in a way of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s cool. So, your benefits there in terms of what’s possible is you could, is it fair to say, that most of us could become half as awesome as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin if we knew super learning approaches?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I think we could become just as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what level is awesome?

Jonathan Levi
One hundred percent as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting.

Jonathan Levi
And I’m right now reading a book called A Brief History of Everything, and I’ve read half the biographies out there and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk. I really geek out on the stuff. And sometimes I just think to myself, I’m like, “You know, it was easier back then because there were fewer people doing cool stuff. It’s like 1% of the population was college-educated and the vast majority of people couldn’t read. It was pretty easy to stand out as a brilliant genius.” So, I think we can achieve as much in learning. It might be harder to have an impact. Timing is everything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “You and everybody else knows five languages. Not impressed.”

Jonathan Levi
Bingo. And it’s like I was toldby a teacher, it was like the best thing you can ever do to be successful is to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. Everything else is like minor tweaks. So, being born on the cusp of like a couple different revolutions in a couple different countries in a time where democracies are forming. That’s pretty, like, you’ve got really great opportunities there that I think maybe we don’t have.

But then again, maybe 300 years from now people will go, “Gosh, I wish that I could’ve been born right when the world was transitioning from old industrial agriculture and ineffective means of energy production and pollution to renewables and sustainables. Gosh, they had so much more opportunity back then than we do now.” So, who knows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, indeed. It can go either way. Well, so that’s exciting. So, we painted a big picture in terms of what may be possible. And I’d love to maybe zoom right in. So, what’s really nifty about your courses in helping folks become superhuman and super learning is that you could readily measure results with regard to, I mean, memory performance, speedreading performance, fast learning performance. So, could you share with us just roughly kind of approximate average before/after results that you see for your students in terms of what you do measure?

Jonathan Levi
So, I don’t have exact numbers for you but I can tell you from stuff that people publicly post in our Facebook group. Typically, when people come to us, they can remember exactly the average, right? Your short-term memory is kind of like four or plus or minus two. Sometimes we get someone who can memorize seven.

When people leave our course, the maximum we have them memorizing is like 20 random pieces of information and they all can memorize the 20. I can tell you that I pushed myself a little further because I’m kind of the poster boy and I can memorize 50 digits backwards and forwards without breaking a sweat. And the upper-echelon students that we have that have kind of gone on to take this more seriously, they are memorizing thousands of digits. Or, we had one guy go to a conference and memorized a 150 people’s names at the conference. And the conference was a two-day conference. It’s like, “How did you manage to have 150 conversations?” That’s the super skill there.

Pete Mockaitis
Really. When did you go to the bathroom?

Jonathan Levi
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
When did you go to get snack?

Jonathan Levi
Right. You probably were shaking hands and kissing babies, you know. But it’s insane what you can do. And we know, I guess I should preface by saying like we teach the exact same techniques that are being taught to win World Memory Championships. We scale it down a little bit because some of the things that are being done in competition are just not practical.

For example, in order to win a World Memory Championship today, you need to kind of have all the memorization work and setup done, so all you have to do is rearrange things. So, I’m not going to tell you, “Hey, Pete, go out and memorize 999 different images for all the possible different three-letter or three-digit numbers out there in the world.”

But we teach the exact same techniques in terms of how you actually do it, how you create these memories, how you organize them, how you structure them, how you review them. So, the world record right now for memorizing a deck of cards is under 13 seconds. The record, last I checked, this changes pretty often. Last I checked, the record for the number of decks of cards was 36 decks of cards in an hour. Pi has been memorized in 30,000 plus digits. It’s actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it. And that’s like the really big asterisk because most of us were never taught how to use our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, that’s the memory side of things. How about the speedreading side of things?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so speedreading I always like to preface, not least, because people have been fined many hundreds of thousands of dollars for false advertising in speedreading but also because of those individuals, people have a lot of misconceptions about what speedreading is. So, it’s not reading a page a second, at least not the way we teach it, which is the way that’s based on science.

It’s not reading one page with your left eye and the other page with your right eye. It’s not photo-reading. It’s not any of that. The research is very clear and I encourage people to visit our website SuperHumanAcademy.com/science. We actually hired a PhD in neuroscience who recently was on a Nobel Prize-winning team for some of the work that they did in memory.

The research is very clear that comprehension drops at 600 words a minute. Coincidentally, the speedreading that we teach, we tell people, “You can get up to 600 words a minute with the amount of comprehension that you’re getting or higher because of the memory techniques that we implement, and you can get up to 800 words per minute with around 70% to 80% comprehension.” Again, there are sometimes things that you need to read that you don’t really need 100% comprehension.

But, with all that preface, I do want to say memory techniques are kind of like an operating system overhaul. Or, to choose a different metaphor, it’s like completely changing out the engine and transmission. Whereas, speedreading, I found, in my experience and the experience of over 200,000 students, is more like a specific tool, and you’re not going to use it all the time like you use memory techniques. You’re going to use it when you need information quickly, when the joy of reading is not the most important part, and when you’re not going to be doing it for extended periods of time.

People always ask me, “Okay, you can read 700-800 words a minute. That means that you can read the average book in 90 minutes.” And I say, “Yup.” And they say, “Do you ever do that?” And I say, “Only once or twice because after that I need like a three-hour nap. It’s exhausting. It’s absolutely exhausting.” So, I always like to give people those caveats because it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It got me through business school. It’s the only reason why my email inbox is not completely overflowing, and why I am able to keep up on a lot of the research, I hate to say all the research, that’s being done on neuroscience and learning. But it’s not what a lot of people have marketed it as.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny, Jonathan, I was debating with myself, it’s like, “All right, if this guy comes on the show, it’s like he can do 10,000 words per minute. How much am I going to rip into him? Am I going to do it gently or viciously?” You know, that’s what I was thinking.

Jonathan Levi
Viciously.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Okay, will I just quietly cut that out because I know it’s wrong?” But I love it. You gave me all the right answers. Not that I know all the right answers in advance, but I’ve kind of dabbled and researched a bit in terms of like what’s just impossible. And I love the integrity here in terms of hiring a doctor, getting into the mix, and sharing the constraints and limitations. Like, hey.

Well, first of all, it would still be awesome to double your reading whenever you need to. That’s still a huge benefit. But, note, if you want to really enjoy what you’re reading, and you do want to savor it, and you want to get full energy for everything else you’re doing in the rest of the day, then it ain’t the tool for you to pull out in that moment. So, great visualization.

Jonathan Levi
And I want to say there are gradations, right? Like, I, after being trained in speedreading, before, well, there kind of isn’t a before. I had learning disabilities growing up so my parents bought me speedreading books when I was like 12. So, it’s hard to determine when my “before” was but I never could get it to work. And when I was tested at age 24 for my reading speed, I was reading in like 450 words per minute, whereas the average person reads 200 to 250 words per minute, if they’re college-educated. But my comprehension was 40%, so like what does that achieve?

Today, I can read that same 450 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. So, it’s not an either/or situation but it is…One of my mentors once told me, “The best speedreaders are able to vary their speed, not just based on what they’re reading but in individual sections and sentences.” So, it’s like, “Okay, I know what’s going to happen in the section. Let me ratchet it up and I can read much faster. Whereas, okay, hang on, I’m really confused about this whole chapter on quantum mechanics. I’m going to bring it back down.” And that back down may still be 300, 400, 500 words per minute but with much higher comprehension.

When I created our original course, I came at it from this whole perspective of, first of, I was taught to speedread by two different teachers and it never worked for me because it’s the classic Woody Harrelson, like, “I read War and Peace in an hour and it’s about Russia.” But, also, understanding that the ultimate timewaster is chewing air. It’s even worse to read fast and forget everything you’re reading than it is to just read it slowly. So, we focus on comprehension.

And, truthfully speaking, over the last six years, we’ve made the comprehension and memory and retention parts bigger, and speedreading part smaller, and we’ve moved all of the comprehension and retention pieces up earlier on in the course because it’s just, time and time again, that’s what transforms people’s lives in our courses.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s dig into a bit of the how here. So, how does one boost their comprehension when they’re reading?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, that’s a great question. First thing you can do, and I think your listeners will appreciate this because I haven’t talked about this in 5,000 other interviews that I’ve done over the last six years. Many people don’t realize how important preparation is overall, and I’m going to explain two different aspects of preparation. And both of them are going to seem like, “There’s no way that works, this is fluff. Give me the good stuff.” This is the good stuff. Don’t worry.

One, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. And so, if you just pick up a book and you don’t stop to ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of this book? What level of comprehension? Am I reading it for a specific piece of information, for enjoyment?” That’s going to change the way that you pay attention. It’s kind of like setting goals, right? If you don’t have goals, you kind of just coast, like, “What are you doing, right?”

So, going in with preparation, and preparation also means like having a backup plan. Like, what are you going to do if you don’t understand the text? Are you going to reread it or are you going to ask someone or are you going to look it up somewhere else online and see if it’s explained more clearly? So, having this backup plan and knowing exactly what you want to get out of the text.

In my next book, The Only Skill That Matters I go into much more depth about this conversation of preparation and give people kind of a flight checklist of, “You need to answer these questions before you dive into learning.” Part of the reason that this works so well is we know a lot about the way that the adult brain learns and the requirements for learning. And we know that adults learn best if they know why they’re learning something, how they’re going to use it, and if they’re going to use it immediately, which is a nice segue into the next kind of preparation piece, which is something we call prereading.

Prereading comes from this reading methodology called SQ3R – Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review. When you do prereading, you survey and question. You’re looking at the text very, very quickly and kind of skimming. You’re doing what I like to call reinforced skimming. You are looking for things that jump out at you – titles, words that are capitalized, numbers, headings, things that are italicized, long words, things that stand out, pictures, diagrams. And then you’re generating questions about those things.

For example, “Why are they mentioning San Francisco? What happened in 1949?” You’re generating all kinds of cognitive biases as well to try and get your mind to be curious. A human brain can’t resist a good question. And so, if you are able to generate questions and curiosity and, essentially, get yourself to the point where you actually want to read this text, even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want to read, you’re going to enhance your focus, which is going to enhance your comprehension.

Studies have actually shown that people who pre-read the text not only are able to read faster when they do read it, they’re also able to produce higher quality, more accurate summaries of the text, which is a proxy for how well they understood, retain, and were able to reproduce and recall the text. It’s a very good test for understanding actually how much of it sank in. And all that is from flipping through the pages, spending one or two seconds on each page before you read.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, with one or two seconds, I mean, you’re not really subvocalizing anything. You’re just sort of just getting a visual exposure.

Jonathan Levi
You’re barely comprehending anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, like those are words.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, you’re literally generating curiosity. And the beauty of this technique is that there’s kind no wrong way to do it. We’re in the process right now of building our certified coaching program and training our certified coaches. So, I’ve just gone through this whole thought process, and a lot of what we do, the trick is like, “I don’t know what’s going on in the person’s head and there’s a lot of like false flags that can happen and cognitive biases and stuff like that.”

But with this one, the test is very simple. Is the reader able to produce questions around the test? Like, if I have you skim, Pete, 15 pages, looking at each page for one second, and then I take the book away, and I ask you, “What are some of the things you want to know when you read this when I let you read this?” And you go, “Okay, I saw this thing in there. It was like hyper myalgia or something like that. I didn’t catch what that word is but I’m dying to know what it is and what it means, and why is it in the history textbook. Like, that makes no sense to me.”

Or, you come and you say, “Man, I saw the word vegan and I have a feeling I know what this author is going to say, and I have a feeling this is going to be that kind of text that my friend, Allan, really loves because he’s like a total vegan warrior.” So, you’re already generating questions, curiosity, and you go back to those three requirements that I mentioned. You’ve already done a lot of the work to prime your brain. And this comes from the theory of an early learning expert named Malcolm Knowles.

You’ve already told me how you’re going to use the text. You’ve already told me why it’s applicable and why you’re looking to read it. And, since you’ve already told me that you’re going to be using it immediately to talk to your friend Allan, or send it and rub the article in his face, so you’ve generated so much curiosity and questions, the other test is like, “Are you now eager and excited to read this text because…? Forget the fact that it’s about real estate law in the Netherlands, or something super boring like that. Are you eager to read it because you have all these unanswered questions?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And if you’re not, that might be an indicator right there. It’s like, “Well, do you have to read it?” Maybe you get all that done and move on to something else.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, yeah, that gets me going. I’m thinking now about Bob Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. He sort of talks about how he figured out a formula to get his class like super engaged such that they would not even leave when the bell rang. It’s like, “Oh, it looks live we’ve cracked the code here.” And it was in that very thing, it’s about generating questions, like, “How is it that this occurred when this, this, and this were not working in their favor?” Like, “Well, I don’t know. How did that occur?”

And it’s just like any good story or movie or book, even like a mediocre one, like Lifetime Original Movies. There was a period in my life, I don’t know why, but they kept sucking me in, and they weren’t really good.

Jonathan Levi
This was before Netflix.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Cool. So, SQ3R, you brought it to life way more than I’ve experienced when I first encountered it, that it’s all about generating that curiosity and that eagerness so that your brain is amped, it’s primed, it’s good to go. So, what should we do after the prereading?

Jonathan Levi
Well, then you’ve gotten through the S and the Q, now you get to R. You do your first readthrough and, ideally, you speedread depending on your level of training, I guess, I would say. You speedread the text, and we can go into how all that works, or doesn’t work in the case of a lot of what you see online. And then after that, you pause and you review. You review the text. You close your eyes, or close the book, or look up at the ceiling, and you ask yourself, “What did I take away from that?” And you do this, you can do it at the end of every page, you can do it at the end of chapters, but you stop and you create visualizations, visual mnemonics.

This is huge because most people read once and expect themselves to remember everything that they read in that book forever. And that’s not going to happen even with the best mnemonic techniques. You’re only going to remember it for so long. What you need to do is spaced repetition. So, you close the book, you review, and then later on, ideally, ideally, you would test yourself on this knowledge.

I like to create simple tests for myself by just writing a summary for myself of the book, key takeaways and key points. And then after that, you continue to review. Periodically, you go in, look at your notes, look at your highlights, and just kind of refresh yourself. Look at your book summary. Because anyone who tells you, “I can teach how to memorize something once and remember it forever,” is a liar. Your brain is designed to forget things. It is highly efficient, in fact, at forgetting the things that you don’t use. So, if you want to remember something, you kind of need to review it and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a brief period of time which all of United States history made great sense right when I turned the A.P U.S. history exam in high school. And it was kind of fun and then it all left me. Alas! So, understood. So, if you don’t need it, it goes away. Got to do some reinforcing of it. Cool. So, that’s sort of the speedreading side of things. Any perspective with regard to like, “I stop send.” I saw a video of Tim Ferriss drawing some lines in on a book. Anything you want to comment in that world?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, absolutely. So, first, you have to understand that your eyes are not meant to read, right? And reading is great. I love reading. Me and reading are besties. But we are not really meant to process language visually and, therefore, reading does this kind of weird thing where you take visual information, which is these little squibbles on a page, which we’re super effective at consuming information in that way. We can not only assess someone’s face, and if we recognize them, but also the complex emotions on that person’s face in 150 milliseconds. It’s insane. We’re really good at picking up information visually.

But then what we do is we try to process language through that. That’s where everything kind of falls apart because we don’t process language that fast. And so, we subvocalize, which is an unavoidable thing because we’re meant to process language auditorily. And so, you have this kind of like whole mess of what’s going on and that’s why when you scan people’s larynx, even speedreaders that way.

Pete Mockaitis
As I do.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, as one does. You just put a sophisticated electronic equipment up to one’s larynx in your goings about, and you see that there’s electrical signaling when someone is reading because we’re kind of processing with our larynx. I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t play one on the internet, but that’s kind of what we understood about reading.

So, there’s no way to avoid some subvocalization entirely but you can reduce it in the same way that we’ve all seen those stupid things posted, where it’s like, every word is misspelled but the first and last character is right so you don’t even notice or you can still read it. Or, situations where you see a paragraph of text and the word “the” is repeated every single time twice but you don’t even notice because you’re kind of on autopilot.

So, we can reduce subvocalization. And one of the ways that we can do that is by optimizing the movement of the eyes. When your eyes are in motion, when they’re making what’s called saccades, you’re actually subject to a phenomenon called saccadic blindness or saccadic masking. In other words, your optic nerve kind of shuts off while your eyes are in motion.

If you don’t believe me, you can put two fingers out in front of you, one on your right hand, one on your left, and then look at your left finger, and then look at your right finger. And notice that you kind of don’t pick up any information in between. Your brain stitches the pictures together.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny because we have our recording time are going, it’s actually moving, right? You see those red numbers moving. They totally disappeared. Yeah, okay. I’m with you.

Jonathan Levi
And that’s fine. That’s like really useful if you don’t want to fall over every time you like move your eyes. But what that means is while your eyes are in motion, you’re not taking in additional information. Most people, when they read, they make one saccade and one fixation which is kind of, think of a fixation as like an eye fold or resting of the eye. It’s when you’re fixated on something per word. And, therefore, there’s a lot of motion going on, and a lot of times spent in saccadic blindness.

You can never train your eyes to have a wider fovea, which is the focal area of the eye, but you can train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, the same way that someone who needs glasses can still kind of pay attention to what’s happening even though it’s a little fuzzy. You can do this with various different tools, and once you train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, in the perifovea, the stuff outside the focal optimal area, then you can start making larger saccades, moving your eyes only once or twice per line of text. Then we can optimize those even further so you waste less time and less of the fovea and perifovea looking at white stuff in the margins, and more time looking at the good stuff, the text.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tools, is this like the writing of lines inside a couple words of the margins of a book or what do you mean by tools?

Jonathan Levi
Tools to expand your ability to take in information from the perifovea are called Schultz tables. And you can actually check them out at Games.BecomeASuperLearner.com. We have some free Schultz tables exercises that people can do. It’s quite fun. It’s like a Sudoku but you stare at the middle square and then you try, without moving your eyes, to pick up all the stuff in the periphery. Then you expand it, get bigger, make the number smaller, and you can actually train yourself to pick up stuff in the margins, which is pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And we’re both genuinely enthusiastic about this. This is what makes a podcast great. It does sound like fun for me to do and I definitely plan on doing so. So, now then, you mentioned subvocalization, which is like the inner voice of kind of saying the words. You’re saying, so that still happens even though our eyeballs are taking in more words, we’ve got that tiny voices actually reading silently all the words that we’re picking up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Well, not all. Even people who aren’t trained in speedreading rarely subvocalize every word, like, and, etc. But for a long time, I thought I just need to get better and reduce it to the point where it doesn’t happen. And then I dug deeper into the research and realized a few different things. One, there’s no way to eliminate subvocalization. It’s just part of how we process the text but you can minimize it.

And, also, every once in a while, and by that, I mean like at least once a month. People like to send me a different research paper or article or study “disproving” speedreading, and I love these because almost invariably they prove the kind of speedreading that we’re teaching. They’re disproving the speedreading of 5,000 words per minute by saying, “Reading is limited in the most skilled and trained readers to 600 words per minute with perfect comprehension.”

And one of the things that they talk about is you cannot train your brain to read an entire page or even an entire line, it just can’t be done. You can’t read an entire line without moving your eyes. But they’ve shown in studies that when you block the stuff in the periphery, in the perifovea, so, for example, if you tracked someone’s eye on the line, and you essentially only let them read the word that they’re reading, and you don’t let them have what they call a preview effect, their comprehension and reading speed dramatically suffers even when the preview, even when the blocker is moving pretty much as fast as their eye.

So, it’s super interesting. It’s like this research that disproves speedreading is actually proving exactly this, that the perifovea is a critical part of reading, and you need to be able to see what’s happening. So, therefore, we should be able to optimize and train that piece.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s say we shift gears a bit.

Jonathan Levi
I don’t know if that answers your question though.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I dig it in terms of, yup, that voice is going to be going and there’s no way around it. But you may not have to articulate every connect a word in the inner voice, so that’s handy.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. And, again, one of the reasons why that’s so important is, first off, our comprehension is just better visually. We have better visual memory and better, as I said, we’re faster at comprehending things visually, but also, I encourage everyone listening to this podcast, go back a couple minutes, and if your app allows it, it probably doesn’t allow you to go beyond 3x speed. The reason for that is we can really only comprehend the spoken word in around 400 words per minute. And the reason most of these apps are limited to 2x speed is because you can’t really get every single word at more than 300 to 400 words per minute.

Now, I’m speaking about 150 to 160 words per minute so you do the math. 2x speed is 300, and see how comfortable that is. And then imagine another 50% on top of that. So, subvocalizing every word really just slows you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, let’s shift to the memory side of things. I’ve read some of the tricks associated with trying to memorize a list of things, “Create a ridiculous picture in your brain to connect them.” So, if I’m remembering iPhone and screwdriver, I might imagine like 100 screwdrivers dancing on my iPhone, and then I’ve connected that with this list. And then, numerically, turn each number into like a sound, like nine becomes a P or B sound, and then you can create words out of numbers, and then visualize them and link them together.

So, those are some tactics that I found kind of handy when I really hunker down and say, “Okay, I have to remember this list. There’s no means of writing this down. We’re going to go use these approaches.” But what I find tricky is faces, and I think all professionals can be enriched by this if we can put faces to names. So, Jonathan, I’d love to put you on the spot, how can we boost our memory for names and faces?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s actually people often ask me, like, what do I use this stuff for, and where has it made the most impact in my life. And I think they expect me to be like, “Well, I speak four languages and I learned two musical instruments in the last few years and blah, blah, blah, blah.” But that hasn’t impacted my life nearly as much as just always being able to remember names.

And one corollary of that is I can tell you all the waiters that has served me in the last two weeks. Today my waitress at the restaurant was Maya, and whenever I need Maya, like everyone else is shouting, “Excuse me,” or, “Check please,” and I just say, “Maya,” at normal speaking volume, and she whips around and I have my check, and it’s amazing.

But how do you do names and faces? Very simple. Same association and visualization techniques. In order to memorize something, first you need to visualize it, it’s going to be the vast majority of the benefit is going to come from visualizing everything that you want to remember. Creating these novel bizarre pictures that you mentioned, but then also connecting it.

Our brains function a lot like Google’s PageRank algorithm. They ask, “What is this connected to? How many other things is it connected to? And how important are those things?” Because there’s a lot of information hitting us every day and we need some way to figure out what is and is not important.

So, what I might do is, first, connect that person to someone else that I know that has that name, and figure out their commonalities, picture the two of them together, picture the two of them fighting, something absurd and outrageous. That might be easy. If their name has another possible visualization opportunity, for example, Mike, I might picture them doing karaoke and embarrassing themselves with a microphone.

Pete Mockaitis
With a microphone.

Jonathan Levi
Right. If their name is Ross, I might picture them bargain shopping at the store Ross, and on and on and on. If they have a name that maybe you don’t know, like Sangina, or Croshant, I would break it down and figure out a way to make it into some kind of visualization that I am familiar with. So, Croshant might become Croissant, and I might visualize him wearing a hat made out of a croissant, and then probably, hopefully, not going to call him Croissant, but if I do, I can say that I misspoke. And that’s how you do it. It’s visualizations and connections to preexisting knowledge.

Now, I’m probably never going to forget what a croissant looks like or what a croissant is. That’s a memory that’s like pretty deeply-ingrained for me especially because I have many memories when I was living in France of walking down the street and picking up fresh croissants, and maybe I could throw Croshant in with that memory. So, you pick things that are familiar to you, that are important to you, and then you incorporate those into, again, tip number one, your visualizations.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just how long does that mental process take?

Jonathan Levi
Fractions of a second if you’re trying to. Well, so Harry Lorayne once told me, this is going to seem like a tangent, he once told me that first thing to remember names and faces is actually paying attention to them. So, I do have to mention that because Harry Lorayne is kind of the godfather of modern memory improvement and he’s right. About this we agree. Most people don’t pay attention. So, first step is pay attention.

And second step is repeat the name back, because I cannot tell you these techniques are so incredibly powerful. You really don’t want to mis-remember someone’s name. I had someone who I thought I could’ve sworn she said Sharon. It was Shannon. For many weeks after that, I called her Sharon, and I never once forgot, by the way, to call her Sharon. They’re very powerful techniques. Make sure you get the name right.

In that time where you go, “Is that Croshant? Am I saying that right?” you now have given yourself one to two seconds which is more than enough time. Recently, at the same lecture for Shell, someone came up to me after I got off stage, and he said, “Okay, memory man, look at this.” And his last name was C, his nickname was C+13 because his last name had 14 letters, C plus duh, duh, duh. And it was pronounced Horechevsky. It’s like a long Polish name.

Pete Mockaitis
Horechevsky.

Jonathan Levi
And he said, “How do you remember that?” And I was like, in the time it took me to describe it, I already had it, right? So, I imagined people dancing the Hora, like Orthodox Jews with their black and white outfit, they’re dancing the Hora in a Chevy, and they’re like shaking skis above their head – Horachevsky. Like, how quick is that, right? All I did was just, “What do those three things sound like? Hora, Chev, Ski. Visualize that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Jonathan Levi
Now, I always talk about Horachevsky. I don’t remember his first name, he didn’t ask me to memorize his first name, I believe it was Jeff.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s funny is that I can imagine that maybe the first hundred times you do this you got to hunker down and think for a good, I don’t know, 20 seconds, “Horachevksy, okay. Boy, I’m going to go with a prostitute, I don’t know.”

Jonathan Levi
That works. That’s even better than mine. It’s more outrageous. Violent, sexual and kind of like disturbed imagery works even better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so you’ve got a turn of a phrase that I can’t resist, I got to touch on this. What’s the mnemonic nuclear option and how do we use it?

Jonathan Levi
Oh, yeah, this is a good one. So, the mnemonic nuclear option is my kind of fun nickname for the Memory Palace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How does this work out?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I call it the nuclear option because it’s kind of like, for most things, going to a water balloon fight and bringing in ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It’s like it’ll do the job. It’s probably overkill but it’ll do the job. If you’re learning three people’s names at a cocktail party, you probably don’t need a Memory Palace. It’ll work.

And what you do in the Memory Palace Technique, or Method of Loci, people may have heard, is you take a location, such as your house, your office, whatever, you take these visualizations that you’ve created of Mike on the mic, or Horachevsky, and you put them in places. That’s it. You put them on furniture, you put them in windowsills, corners. I like to put them in logical places based on what they are.

So, for example, the word for burn in Russian is stored on the stove. Makes a lot of sense. And just by doing that, because our brains are wired to remember location, it’s kind of part of your survival toolkit. If you don’t know where the winter food supply is, or where you buried something, or how to get to the watering hole, you’re kind of done from an evolutionary perspective. So, our brains remember locations really crazy well automatically. So, this is kind of just hijacking that, and it’s an incredibly powerful technique.

This is how people reach those achievements of Pi to 30,000 digits or a deck of cards in under 13 seconds. It’s insanely powerful. I think, out of all the hacks that I’ve ever learned, and I’ve done 240 something, 50 something episodes with some of the world’s top superhumans, this one is the craziest one, where it’s like, “I can teach you this, and in an hour of practice, I can ten 10x to 20x your memory.” It’s massive ROI.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we’ve almost spent a whole hour on it, but I’ve heard of this. But, so, if I just like stick a person on the couch in my head, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem kind of very noteworthy to me. Like, do I need to make it ridiculous with regard to how they’re being placed on the couch? Or how do I make it?

Jonathan Levi
Let me show you how powerful this is. We’ll play a fun game. Did you move around a lot when you were a kid?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
And everyone in the audience can do this even if they did. Do you remember your childhood home?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
Do you remember your parents’ bedroom?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
That was probably the room that you spent the least time in in the house, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. What side did mom sleep on, left or right?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I know. I know where the little wolf puppet was that belonged to my dad, where was that post.

Jonathan Levi
Okay, where was that?

Pete Mockaitis
That was on the left side as I’m facing him, the left foot side.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. Do you remember, was there a table by the side of the bed?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
What was on that table?

Pete Mockaitis
There was an old-school alarm clock with red digital numbers. There’s usually a book.

Jonathan Levi
So, two things, was it a GE alarm clock, the red digital numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not sure.

Jonathan Levi
So, a funny story, I do this a lot to demonstrate. By the way, when was the last time you were in that house?

Pete Mockaitis
It was more than 13 years ago.

Jonathan Levi
More than 13. Did you ever sit down and go, “I better remember this red alarm clock”?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
Right. So, your brain does this automatically ranging from you can tell me what corner of your shower the soap bottles are in, like, the most mundane stupid things, all the way up to 13 years ago what was on the bedside table, and the room that you spent the least time in. The other funny thing, as I do this a lot as a demonstration, it seems like everyone’s parents had that same freaking alarm clock. My parents had the exact same one, it was like wood grain, red letters, GE. They must’ve made millions on those alarm clocks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. So, I’m with you. Fair enough, I’m remembering these locations real well. And so then, I can just stick new things there and they’ll be there when I revisit the location?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, and you do need to review. You can’t do it once and it’ll be there forever. Though some stuff that I put in there once randomly I can’t get rid of. That’s a whole different skill. But with very minimal review, it will stay in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to make sure we get a chance to talk about a couple of your favorite things. Jonathan, can you give us a favorite quote?

Jonathan Levi
Ooh, I’ve got a few but I’ll go back to an old, old school one that I used to love, which is, “The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we’re loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. And how about a favorite book?

Jonathan Levi
I have to probably say Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so people can check out SuperhumanAcademy.com where we have hundreds and hundreds of hours of podcast episodes with the world’s top performers, online courses, free trials of online courses. We got a ton of stuff up there. And I would encourage people to check out my latest book coming out September 3rd, it’s on Amazon, and we can send a link to put in the show notes for you guys. And that is called The Only Skill That Matters, and it talks about all this stuff in a fun and engaging way, with stories and examples. My mom says it’s a really good read, so what more testimonial do you need?

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

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I want people to go out today, and I want them, in their job, or in their day-to-day interactions, to learn the names, as we’ve discussed today, I want them to learn the names of 10 new people. And then I want them to remember those names, first off, and I want them to see what the impact in their life is of just getting to know 10 new people and learning their names, professionally, personally, or otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Jonathan, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in your learning adventures.

Jonathan Levi
Back at you. Thanks so much for having me.

471: How to Acquire New Skills Faster with Scott H. Young

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Scott Young says: "Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities."

Scott Young shares innovative methods to learn new skills more efficiently and effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Foundational principles for mastering skills more effectively
  2. The importance of “meta-learning”
  3. The Feynman Technique and other approaches to accelerate learning

About Scott:

Scott is a writer, programmer, traveler and an avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years he’s been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. He doesn’t promise he has all the answers, just a place to start.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsor!

  • The Simple Habit meditation app can help you gain greater control over distractions for faster learning. The first 50 listeners to sign up at SimpleHabit.com/Awesome get 30% off premium subscriptions.

Scott Young Interview Transcript

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

Scott Young
Oh, it’s so great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have many questions for you but I want to start with hearing the tale of how you completed MIT’s four-year computer science program in one year. Like, what even led you to think that’s a good idea, and how did you pull it off, and what were the results?

Scott Young
Yes, so this actually brings me back. This was about eight years ago. I just graduated from university and I had studied business, I met a lot of people who you go to school and you study something, and you realized, “Oh, wait a minute. Actually, this wasn’t really what I wanted to get out of it.” I was thinking, “Well, I should go into business.” I kind of have these ideas that one day I might run a business.

I go in and I take a bunch of business classes and find that, well, actually, most of business schools is how can you be a good little middle manager in a large company and not really so much about running your own or starting your own things.

And, at that time, I was thinking back to when I was a freshman and I was contemplating either going into business or studying computer science. And now, sort of in retrospect, have felt like the better choice because in computer science you, actually, learn to make things, you make programs and algorithms and scripts and websites and apps and all sorts of things like that.

And so, I was thinking about maybe going back to school, maybe I should go and do another degree and postpone my life. And around this time, I stumbled upon this class that was taught by MIT and uploaded on their MIT open course sort of platform. So, it was completely free, it was an actual class that MIT really taught, and they just uploaded some of the materials from it, so the lectures, assignments and solutions, exams and solutions.

And as I was going through this, I kind of thought this little lightbulb moment on my head of, “Well, if you could do a class, maybe you could try to do something like this for an entire degree.” And so, this sort of began this kind of research process, I spent several months putting it together of trying to figure out, “Okay, like how can I use the material that they put online? What gaps do I have to fill? What kind of alterations do I need to make?”

But the end result was sort of constructing this curriculum that was pretty close to what an MIT student would actually take. Just a few little minor deviations or substitutions from one class to another but the scope of the content was pretty much the same. And so, I decided to start going through this. And I was going through some of the test classes, I found that, “Well, wait a minute. When you actually take a class online, you do it with this process where it’s self-paced.”

There’s actually some places that you can maybe even do things a little bit faster. So, it sounds a little crazy when I say that. How could it possibly be faster? Isn’t studying in MIT really difficult? And it certainly is. But there are some definite places where the way that you do it in traditional classrooms could be made a little bit more efficient.

So, one of the instances of that is that when you’re taking lectures, for instance, you sit in the classroom and you have to sit through the whole thing, even the parts where the professor is getting some water and getting the slides set up and all that sort of thing. Whereas, when you’re watching a video, you can watch it at, let’s say, 1.5 times the speed. And if you miss anything, or get confused, it’s not a problem because you just hit pause and rewind.

[03:12]

And I found there were a lot of little places that you can make those sorts of adjustments and that, combined with a lot of hard work, made me think of trying something a little bit more ambitious. And so, I did this project I called the MIT Challenge, which was to try to pass the final exams and do the programming projects for MIT’s computer science curriculum, but instead of going to MIT, just take it on my own and try to acquire the knowledge and skills without having to pay tuition and go to Massachusetts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how did it turn out?

Scott Young
So, the project went great. I think it went pretty close to how I expect it. I mean, it was a lot of work. I did work very hard over those 12 months, so I can’t certainly just gloss over that because it is a lot of work to learn those classes. But, in the same sense, I spent 12 months and I finished the classes as I anticipated, and I did the projects the way that I wanted to do them.

And so, I sort of ended, after that year, with having kind of acquired some facsimile or some close approximation of a computer science degree without having to spend the same amount of time and certainly a lot less money to actually get that education.

Pete Mockaitis
And your marks or whatever, in terms of the final exams were kind of on par with a C or better levels to that?

Scott Young
Well, that’s a sort of deep question there. It’s like, “How do you grade yourself and evaluated?” So, for a lot of the exams, there’s no, “This is an A grade, this is a B grade.” As you probably know in a lot of technical classes, they even grade on a curve for some exams. I talked to a friend who’s a professor, and he says, some of the exams where even a 35% is a pass just because the amount of content that you have to do in such a short period of time, you just can’t finish the whole exam.

And so, my goal for the exam was just relatively coarse. It wasn’t a super fine grading that I got, like, this was an A+ or this was only a C+ but rather it was just to see if I could get over a 50% benchmark in most of the classes. So, for some of the classes, I was closer to that benchmark, and for others I got 80%, 90%. It just sort of depended on the specifics of the actual class. But I uploaded all of the exams, I actually did, to the website where I put this page so anyone can look at what I actually did on those exams. You don’t just have to take my word for it.

Pete Mockaitis
And one day someone is just kind of grade you hard. This is like the weird recurring dreams I have. Like, I’m back in high school, you know, it’s going to come for you. That’s pretty cool.

Scott Young
Well, I’m sure, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hear about a couple of those, while we’re in the story, a couple of those tips and tricks. So, one was 1.5x the video speed, another was just a ton of hours of your life invested doing this stuff.
Any other particular things that made that possible?

Scott Young
Well, so there are some other things that you can consider doing when you’re doing a class like this or when you are working on something in a self-paced way. So, one common thing you’ll do in class is that you have graded assignments. And because there are graded assignments, you have to go from start to finish, complete the whole thing, and make sure it’s as good as possible because, of course, you’re getting marks for it. Hand it in, and then maybe a week later someone will grade it and give you some feedback. Whereas, if you’re doing a self-graded assignment, you can do it one question at a time.

Now, this obviously makes it a little hard to actually grade it because doing an assignment from start to finish is, strictly speaking, harder because you’re not learning in between. If you’ve got a question wrong because you have the wrong formula, you don’t get to look at the solution to see what the right formula was, which you can then use on questions two, three, etc.

But from a learning perspective, I don’t see it as a disadvantage. It’s actually an advantage because you can go through and you don’t have to wait as long to get those feedback cycles to make improvements. So, that was one of the things I did.

I know from the show notes, when we’re talking, of some of the questions you want to ask me. Another thing we were talking about was techniques like the Feynman Technique and other tools to help you break down kind of complicated subjects. But these are all sorts of things that regular students can apply as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very nice. Well, let’s just get into maybe the goods. So, Ultralearning is kind of your brand and book title here and we have master hard skills, outsmart competition, accelerate your career. It sounds like the stuff you love to do here. So, can you just sort of lay it out for us, like what’s the key difference between, I guess, ultralearning and normal learning?

Scott Young
Yeah, so in some ways I think the MIT Challenge project that I did is a little bit of an exception because of how closely I was trying to match what you do in school. So, the idea of ultralearning, as I sort of defined in the book, is that it is a strategy for learning, it’s both self-directed and aggressive. So, self-directed is kind of in contrast to how we often typically think of what education, where you sign up for class, you sit in a class, the teacher tells you, “All right. You’re going to learn this, you’re going to do this homework,” and you just follow along the instructions. You often don’t have a lot of initiative or control over the process.

Whereas, self-directed learning is when you are kind of deciding, “Okay, I’d like to get good at this. What’s the right way to do it?” You design the project, you pick which materials you’re going to use, and you go through it, even if some of those materials are, let’s say, a class or held from someone else. And so, this is really putting the learner in the driver’s seat, which I think is very important because that often means you get what you want out of some education program rather than just what someone, at a college or someone I think in a classroom, decided that you should be learning.

Now, the second thing is the aggressiveness which I know I think that probably comes across when I’m talking about the MIT Challenge or other projects. But one of the recurring findings I found when I was taking the research that a lot of things that are somewhat more difficult at first are actually much more effective in terms of your ability to actually acquire skills and retain knowledge.

And so, a lot of students sort of unwittingly kind of adopt these studying tactics or learning methods that end up getting much worse results and that are not as efficient, require a lot more time. But if they did something that is a little bit more intense, they would get better results.

And so, ultralearning was sort of a combination of that, and I documented the book by finding these people who just had accomplished these really incredible self-education projects where they had learned really hard skills that are useful for their career and their life often in ways very different from how you would approach it in school.

Pete Mockaitis
So, why don’t we dig into one of those tales in terms of another transformation with regard to doing some ultralearning?

Scott Young
Yes. So, some of the examples in the book that I cover is Erick Barone who, he basically taught himself all the facets of video game design. That means doing the art, doing the music, doing the programming, doing the story-writing, everything, by himself over a period, this was a project he did for five years, and ended up writing a bestselling game which he ended up selling tens of millions of copies of.

We have people like Tristan de Montebello who is actually someone that I met before he did his ultralearning project, and he did want to get really good at public speaking. And over the course of seven months, he went from having about zero experience, just then having a handful of speeches in his entire life, to being a finalist for the world championship of public speaking through a process of doing lots and lots of speeches, but also getting feedback, videotaping his performance, seeking all sorts of unique ways to improve his skills.

And these are some dramatic examples, but a lot of the ways that I think this practice of ultralearning can impact your life are things that they may not be going to be bestselling novels, but they are things that really matter to the person who did them. So, people like Dinah Feisenfeld was another woman that I met in the process of doing this, who was a librarian. She was reaching near the end of her career, and she was facing the fact that the world doesn’t need as many librarians as they used to, and it’s a struggling field with budget cutbacks and stuff.

And so, she decided she was going to learn statistical programming and data visualization because she recognized that where her field was going was being able to deal with large volumes of information that were coming in about books and resources and these sorts of things. And so, taking on a self-education project, she was able to turn her career around so that instead of something becoming obsolete, she was becoming indispensable. So, I think these are just a few of the stories that I cover a lot more in the book of people who have accomplished interesting things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that librarian story really resonates with me, one, because I love libraries and, two, because, hey, that’s really a beautiful move from a career perspective in terms of, “All right. We’ll take a look around. What’s going on? What is really necessary? What skills are associated with that? And then, bam, I’m going after them.” So, that’s pretty inspiring in terms of what can be possible for all of us in terms of from zero to extraordinary in maybe a year or maybe less.

So, that’s awesome. Well, let’s dig into then a few of these key strategies. So, you had said one theme is that you do some approaches that are aggressive and that they’re more difficult at first, but more effective over the course of time. Are there any other kind of key distinctions you’d make between some of your learning strategies you advocate and typical school learning strategies?

Scott Young
Well, one of the main principles that I talk about in the book is the idea of directness and there’s actually a huge body of research extending back decades that basically shows that we’re very bad at what psychologists call transfer. Meaning, that if you teach someone something in a classroom, and then you try to test them in a way that is somewhat different from how they get it in the class, they often do abysmally on these tests even though you would expect the knowledge was transferred.

So, one example of that is in one study, economics majors did not do better on questions of economic reasoning than non-economics majors, which is something you would expect to have acquired after spending a number of years studying something intensively at universities. And there’s a whole constellation of findings that are all around this problem of transfer. And the problem, it seems to me, is that a lot of the ways that we think about education are quite indirect.

You go to a classroom, it’s removed from the real world, you learn some very abstract ideas, and then they say, “Okay, go off and apply it to the real world.” And what’s missing is that often people struggle to apply it to their real world. They struggle to apply these big abstract ideas, or these ideas that are quite removed from the context of their actual lives.

And so, ultralearning, in many of the cases that I looked at, was really tied to using the skill from a very early point. And by tying it to a very early point, you often avoid these problems where you spend a lot of time studying something that doesn’t turn out to be useful.

So, one of the examples of an ultralearner I talk about in the book is Benny Lewis who’s learned dozens of languages. And his approach for learning languages is to start having little conversations with a phrase book, or Google translate or something like that, from the very first day he starts learning it. And this is in contrast to how we often think about language learning where you get some big book and you work through a bunch of exercises, and maybe you spend months without having a real conversation with someone.

And so, by doing that, he is accelerating his process but he’s also making sure that when he does learn something, it’s going to be used immediately. And, obviously, the examples I already brought up about Eric Barone learning video game development often through working on his own video game, or Tristan de Montebello learning public speaking by doing these speeches, this is sort of in contrast to how we often think about the kind of sit and listen model of lectures and classes, which is so typical to our normal education process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, this reminds me of when I first learned how to podcast. I hunkered down with Pat Flynn’s YouTube videos, which were amazing, and I was like, “All right. Tell me what I’m doing. All right, now, I’m going to do it.” It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and it was pretty fun and rewarding because, to go from, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” to, “Okay, that’s what the guy said I was supposed to do,” to, “Oh, hey, I just did it. All right. What’s next? How do I get this RSS feed business going? All right. Let’s bring that out.” And so, it did really reinforce in such that it became second nature in a hurry.

Scott Young
Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s just one of the ideas but I think it’s a very important one because it’s one that’s often missed by people. If you think about learning in terms of going to a class or reading a book and doing a test, not to say that those things aren’t valuable or they’re not useful tools to get you to your destination. But if that your dominant paradigm is, “Well, I want to learn something, I’d rather sit in this classroom and do it this way,” you will often have these issues potentially, at least, of transfer where you want to have a real skill but you’re not actually able to perform it the way that you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s heady principle. Lay another one on us. I’d say I think you got nine principles and I thought I want to hit them all. But I’d love to get those that are the most transformational with regard to, “Okay, this only takes a smidge of time, but, wow, the results are delicious.”

Scott Young
Right. So, another one, and this is another one that’s, I think, not widely appreciated but is super powerful. It’s what is known as retrieval. And so, there is a really interesting study done by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt where they took students and divided them up into different groups. And one of the groups they got to do what they called repeated reviews. That means that you have a text or you have some material that you’re studying, and you just read it over and over again. And this is very similar to how a lot of students study, they take their notes and just read them over and over again as they’re preparing for a test.

And the other group of students, they got them to do what they called free recall, which means you read the text and then you shut it, and you don’t read it again, and you just try to spend time trying to remember everything that was in the text. And what was interesting about this study is they asked the students right after they had done this, “How well do you think you learned the material?” And what was interesting is that people who did repeated review said, “I got this,” that they rated their own sort of self-assessment of how well they learned the material the highest. Whereas the people who did free recall were like, “Oh, wow, I don’t have this,” and they rated their own performance rather poorly.

Now, the interesting twist of this study is that when you go on to test the actual students, it is the people who did free recall that performed much better than the people who did repeated review. So, this is an example of one of these findings that we already talked about of directness, this idea of learning directly before, but retrieval is another example of this idea of aggressive learning and ultralearning where it’s not so much about putting in 80 hours a week, but rather, “What are you actually doing with that time?”

And, in this case, if you spend your time doing repeated review, which is an easier more comfortable activity, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason why students like to do it is because just flipping over your notes feels pretty good. It doesn’t feel too bad. Whereas doing free recall, which is often uncomfortable, which you often recognize, “Oh, wow, I don’t actually know this really well,” and you have a little bit of fear about this test coming up. That is not always the most pleasant feeling but yet it is much more effective.

And so, this is just another example of where if you want to remember something or if you want to actually have knowledge at your disposal for a test or for real life, that if you practice retrieving it, you will remember it much better than if you just review it over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Some people toss it and leave it but you pull up quick to retrieve it, is what I’m summarizing. See, I’m retrieving it right now, Scott, and connecting to rap music from my youth. Well, that’s intriguing. So, then to do the free retrieval or what do you call it?

Scott Young
Free recall.

Pete Mockaitis
Method of retrieval, you just sort of, I guess, you can do either just sort of speaking it or writing it and sort of saying, “Okay, what did you just pick up there?”

Scott Young
Right. So, there’s lots of different ways that retrieval can happen. So, free recall is the one that’s done at this particular study, and it’s a useful one because you don’t need anything. You just shut the book and you just try to remember it from the top of your head. You can write it down on a piece of paper, you can say it loud, you can even just do it in your head if you really wanted to.

Other forms of doing this kind of approach is one of them is doing practice testing which means if you do practice questions, so if you’re doing a physics exam and you do practice questions, that’s another form of retrieval because you don’t have the answer with you. And that is an example where you have to bring up the knowledge from your head.

Other examples, there’s a common type known as cued recall. So, cued recall is where you give someone a hint or you give someone kind of a small question in order to trigger the knowledge. This is very common in forms of flashcards. So, you have questions with answers on the back. And this is, again, a good way to recall information the long term because you have to practice remembering it.

I think the real lesson of retrieval is to not think of, “Well, I’ve learned something. Now it’s in my head and, therefore, it’s just going to be accessible to me whenever I want it.” But rather to think of retrieving knowledge of actually bringing it up in the right situation is often the very essence of learning, is to not just have the knowledge in your head somewhere but to be able to access it when you need it is what’s very important. And that’s what you’re practicing when you do retrieval. Whereas when you just do review, it’s sort of that kind of an analogical level where you can imagine your brain just sort of saying, “Oh, this is on the paper. I don’t need to remember that because it’s just there when I’m looking at it.

And I think this is also interesting because one of the reasons students get deceived into thinking this kind of reviewing your notes over and over again works really well is because it gets easier and easier the more you do it. And so, our brain substitutes the feeling of, “This is getting easier,” with, “I’m going to remember this in the future. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. As anyone can remember being at a party, and someone says their name, and then two seconds later you don’t remember it. It’s for the same reason that you say to yourself, “Well, Mark, that’s a normal name,” and then you forget about it, right? So, there can be the same sort of effect where ease is substituted for how well you’ll actually remember something later.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, I’m imagining these scenarios and these principles playing out. I can see how it readily applies to learning a language or a subject matter like physics. I guess I’m wondering about maybe communication skills with regard to you said you had an ultralearner who became a finalist in the global champions of public speaking. So, how does that sort of change things a bit in terms of, “I want to have a skill that I am using. Like, I can put up some drywall, or I can play a guitar, or I can give a good speech, or I can listen better”? Are there other principles that play into those more? Or how do we think about practicing in these dimensions?

Scott Young
So, as we mentioned before, there’s nine principles in the book, and some subjects, some particular skills are going to be like one of the principles are going to be particularly relevant for the fact that most people misapply it, and then for others it might not be super relevant. So, retrieval is one that tends to have to do with when you have to remember things.

So, interestingly enough, retrieval is actually super important for public speaking because you want to be able to remember your speech. And how do a lot of people memorize their speech? They write it on cue cards and they read it over and over again when they are reading it out and practicing in front of their coworkers or spouse or someone. Whereas, what you should be doing is putting the cards away and trying to recall it from memory because that’s how you’ll be able to actually repeat it without putting it on the cards.

But, really, being able to memorize a speech is just a really small part of what makes a good public speaker. And, similarly, if you’re playing a guitar, or you’re doing other things, there is going to be some retrieval. You need to actually memorize those patterns in a song or you need to be able to remember things. There’s a lot of other things that go into it as well.

So, another chapter, we discuss the idea of drill. And so, drills are something that have gotten a bit of a bad rap. We all remember drills that we were forced through in our elementary school where we were kind of punished and had to do the same drill over and over and over again until we mastered something.

And the problem is often just that when you are in a formal education environment, someone gives you a drill and you just have to do it a bunch, but you don’t really know why you’re doing it. Whereas, when you are doing a self-directed learning project, drills can actually be quite useful. And the idea behind a drill is that when we are practicing a complicated skill, like listening or putting on drywall as you mentioned, if you’re doing some skill like that, there’s often a lot going on. Particularly, the more complicated a skill is, if you’re playing chess, if you’re painting a picture, if you are juggling on a unicycle, there’s a lot of little components that all have to go into performing the skill well.

And so, ultralearners are people who are really good at this process of self-directed learning sort of instinctively know to break apart components of the skills which they can kind of practice in some sort of isolation and then weave back together with the sort of more complicated skill that they’re actually trying to perform.

So, Tristan de Montebello, who did the public speaking project, he was actually quite interesting in how innovative he was with doing some of these drills. So, on one of his goals, he wanted to work on his humor and some of his jokes, and so he decided to actually perform at middle schools because when he was performing in Toastmasters Clubs, people were very polite, they would certainly applaud and laugh along to what he was saying. But what if he wanted to know what people really thought, he would go to these grade schoolers who would not pull any punches if they thought his speech sucked.

And so, similarly, you can do the same thing when you are working on your own skills. Break it apart and work on components. So, if you’re a writer, you could sort of, let’s say, work on little mini efforts to get better at storytelling, or research, or grammar, or vocabulary, like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, you’re breaking that into components and then drilling one of them repeatedly.

Scott Young
Well, the idea here is, well, repeated drilling can be one way of improving it, but the right way to think about it just that any skill you want to learn, and particularly the ones that we’re talking about that are not the kind that are usually taught in school, like listening, for instance, the right way to think about it is not, “Well, how the heck do you get better at listening?” It’s to think of listening of actually being many, many different skills that all kind of come together in one activity.

So, being able to listen is not only being able to hear but be able to pay attention. It’s about having some knowledge of what the speaker is talking about. It’s about being able to respond in such a way with your body language and your words so that they can tell you’re listening, have constructive comments, do not react emotionally. There’s tons and tons of little things there.

So, if you wanted to get better at listening, a good starting point would be to look at your skill right now, try to see kind of how it breaks down, practice doing some listening with your spouse and sort of see where you’re making mistakes. And then, what I advocate in the book is that you either focus on the thing that your weakest on, so you focus on your weakest point rather than just some random point to improve.

So, if you’re really bad at listening because you get distracted really easily, that could be something to focus on. And, similarly, if there is too many components, so you’re trying to do many things at once, so, again, like you’re juggling with the unicycle, that might be too hard when you start. So, you start by just juggling one bowling pin, and then you add two, and then you add three, and then you add the unicycling like that.

So, there’s lots of different ways you can think of skills, and I outline some of these specific tactics in the book. But this is the right way to think about these sorts of nebulous skills and things we want to be good at in life that really are quite complicated.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so these are a lot of good little tidbits. I’d love to get your take on is there a particular sort of small adjustment that makes a huge difference? Would you put the retrieval toward the top of your list? Or is there another thing that you’re thinking, “Wow, this makes a world of difference for leverage”?

Scott Young
Oh, there’s tons, yeah. Well, the retrieval is an obvious one. So, if you’re doing anything that you have to pass a test for, you should be practicing retrieval and not doing repeated review. And, again, the fact that most students don’t do this is a real tragedy because they waste a lot of time and they really convince themselves they’ve learned something that they haven’t.

I also talked about directness which is another one. One of the questions that I encourage anyone who reads the book, anyone who’s listening right now, to ask themselves before they try to learn anything, to ask themselves, “Where am I going to use this?” And this doesn’t mean that where you’re going to use it has to be super narrow, and that like, “Well, I’m only learning Spanish so that I can go to a restaurant in Mexico and order fajitas.” Like, it doesn’t have to be that narrow for your end goal. But if you can focus on that little concrete starting point, you’re much less likely to get adrift with these transfer issues.

One of the principles that I open the book with is what I call meta learning, so this is the idea of learning how to learn something, and that’s something that is important for all learners, but particularly important if you’re going to take on your own project and try to design it. And this step is just simply before you start learning anything, just Google, “What are the best resources for learning X?” or, “What are the best methods for learning X?”

And if you spend an hour or two on Google just reading some articles, you will quickly find tons of books, tutorials, videos, textbooks, tons and tons of resources that you can choose from. And so, the actual, the literature on adult learning or self-directed learning projects shows that most people, when they are learning something, they just go with whatever is first available. So, they just, “Oh, one of my friends, he knows this, so I’m just going to ask him,” or, “This is the first book I found at the bookstore, so I’m going to read that.”

And I find that spending a little bit more time to do research avoids a lot of pitfalls because you actually know, “Oh, actually, a lot of people don’t recommend this for learning a language, for instance, because they didn’t find that it works.” And you can save yourself six months of playing around with it. And so, that’s, again, another little tip that I suggest for people to undertake.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that in terms of being conscientious and mindful of what are the tools and resources you’re looking to for your learning because it’s really true, there could be—I’m thinking about some of my favorite classes. Like, there’s some textbooks that I just thought were excellent and I still with me today because I thought I enjoyed reading this and learning this.

And like one topic was social psychology. I mean, I’m sure there are lamer social psychology textbooks than the one I had. And if I had them, I probably would have less knowledge as a result of being saddled with it. And I also think about that with regard to sort of Amazon reviews or if you take a gander at a book, you can look inside, you can check out the table of contents, you can read a couple of pages. And it’s wild how two books on the same topic will be substantially different in their resonance with me as I get into them a bit, like, “Wow, this is really kind of lame and boring and no fun,” as opposed to, “Whoa, this is a page-turner and it’s still non-fiction content that is skill developing.”

Scott Young
Well, the sort of analogy that I like to use is that when you are preparing for learning projects, it’s a little bit like packing a suitcase. You don’t want to pack your entire house and bring 15 bags for a weekend vacation. But, at the same time, you don’t want to show up somewhere with nothing, and you have to buy everything on the road because that’s no fun.

So, the right way to think about it is you do a little bit of researching ahead of time. And the amount of research you do, I think, scales with your project. I was mentioning, when I was doing this MIT Challenge project, I spent a few months just sort of researching on and off in my spare time because I knew it would be a pretty serious undertaking. Whereas, if you’re planning on doing something, which is, you know, it’s going to take you maybe a couple of weeks to learn, then maybe just spending an hour or so on Google is probably sufficient.

And so, the right way to think about it is just that there are lots and lots and lots of different ways to learn everything. And so, a lot of people get stuck in whatever was first recommended to them because that’s just what they go with. And if that isn’t working for you, if that book isn’t working for you, the course, what have you, using a different tool, or at least being aware that different tools and methods exist is very important. I think that’s particularly true of practical skills like, let’s say, languages, or programming, or using Excel, or drywall repair, as we were talking about earlier.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you mentioned the Feynman Technique a couple times, so I just can’t resist. Let’s close the loop here. What is that and how is it helpful?

Scott Young
Yeah, so the Feynman Technique was a sort of idea that I kind of pieced together from reading smatterings of Richard Feynman’s autobiography where he talks about some of his processes that he used to learn things. Now, it’s probably not the case that he used exactly this method, but he did seem to use similar cognitive processes in the work he was doing so I called it the Feynman Technique sort of after my inspiration from him.

And the basic idea is that if there’s some idea that you don’t understand, it’s particularly useful with difficult conceptual kinds of classes, if you’re learning physics or math or biology, or you have to study for a tough accounting exam, or there’s some concept in your work that you don’t understand, you start with a piece of paper and you write at the top, “Understanding X,” so whatever you’re trying to learn. So, it could be understanding torque, or understanding macros, or whatever you don’t understand.

And then you try to explain it to yourself as if you were teaching it to someone else. And this does a couple of things. The first thing that it does is just by writing, you are taking advantage of the fact that by writing things down you can get things out of your head so it’s easier to deal with the more complicated topics. So, a lot of ideas in our head are sort of hard to think about all at once especially if they’re confusing. But if you write them down, they start to make more sense. So, very often you can start and you just write from start to finish, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what I thought was so confusing about it. It actually makes sense now.”

On the other hand, if you are genuinely confused, and there is genuinely a sort of puzzle piece missing to assemble the whole picture, then doing this process will help you narrow in on where that piece is missing. So, as you write through this, you say, “Oh, I don’t understand steps four to five in this procedure I’m supposed to follow. Why am I supposed to do it this way?” And then, with that knowledge, you can go back to your book, you can go to an online video, you can ask a colleague, a boss, someone who knows something, you can ask them, “Hey, why is it like this right here?” And then the advantage is that instead of asking a super nebulous question, like, “Oh, I have no idea what this thing is about it all,” you can just ask them a very specific question where you’re more likely to get a useful answer.

And so, I sort of first wrote about this idea about eight years ago, and it’s since been really popular. A lot of people have put their own videos and tutorials online demonstrating the Feynman Techniques, so it’s really been something that’s helped a lot of students, and even a lot of professionals, deal with confusing problems and ideas in their life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, at the top of the page you’re writing, “Understanding the topic,” and then you’re writing down, you say as though you’re explaining it to someone else. And so, I guess I’m imagining maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re writing down sort of extemporaneous bullet points versus full texts, prose.

Scott Young
I tend to do full text prose. It depends a little bit on your style. Like, obviously, this makes it more time-consuming, but I think that’s one of the benefits is that if I were to explain some idea, I would sort of say, “Okay, so the first thing we have to understand about this idea…” Like, pretend you’re giving a lecture, and you don’t have to write it on the page. One advantage you can do is just say it loud. And the main advantage of doing this is that it helps you organize your own thinking so you can identify some of these gaps in your knowledge.

Another advantage is that one of the main limitations we have is we have limited working memory. So, working memory is kind of the workbench of the mind, so to speak, where you take all the little memories and sensory inputs, and you sort of assemble them together to new thoughts and solutions. So one of the challenges is that this workbench is kind of famously small that when researchers measure it, we find that we can only actually have a few ideas in mind simultaneously without having one of them be forgotten.

And so, because of this, if you have a device where you can write it on a piece of paper, or you can even like write it out on a board, or do something like this, you can offload some of those ideas so you can focus on the parts that matter. Whereas, if it’s in your head, you can often feel like a jumble where everything is bouncing around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I love what you had to say with regard to when you zero in on that, it’s great for you because you’re focused, and it’s great for your teacher or your resource because it just brings me back to memories of school in which there’d be a student who would just say, “I don’t get it.” And you can tell the teacher was so frustrated with him, and it’s like, “Could you be more specific?” Because there may be a dozen points of entry that they’ve got to now got to navigate and select one as opposed to going right for the jugular that’s going to make the impact.

So, good stuff there. Now, I want to get your take, so the aggressive part and learning in general can be awkward, frustrating, unfun when you feel like you’re flailing and stupid and on the early stages of learning stuff. How do you think about discipline or mindset so that you can stick with it?

Scott Young
So, one of the things that I like to think about a lot is, “How do you structure your environment? How do you structure your goals and plans so that you don’t have to just have this constant feeling of willpower?” So, one of the mistakes I think a lot of people make is kind of, ironically, they actually are a little bit too easy. What they do is they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I’ll just work on this whenever I have time.”

Well, the problem is whenever you have time is always going to be more fun in the moment to pull out your smartphone and play on some game, or go on Twitter, or watch Netflix, than it will be to do some learning activity, especially in the beginning stages where you maybe haven’t yet entered that zone of positive feedback where you’re feeling constantly reaffirmed that you made the right choice to learn this thing.

And so, what I often find is, “How can you structure your environment and your time to just make sure that, ‘Okay, well, when I’m doing this, this is the only thing around me. I’m not distracted. I can focus. I can actually apply my time’?” And then often there’s little other subtle things that you can do to avoid kind of your little dips or your weak points when you’re doing things.

So, one of the big things you can do is get setup. So, for learning a lot of skills and tasks, the major obstacle is just getting setup. Like, if you’re going to paint a painting, you need to buy paints and an easel and brushes and make sure you have all the materials, and get the newspaper laid down, and all that kind of thing.

If you’re learning a programming language, very often the most frustrating part of learning to program is just getting your computer setup so that you can program. Or, for learning a language, for instance, very often one of the major difficulties is that because everyone around you speaks to you in English all the time, it’s always a little bit of friction, always a little bit of difficulty to push outside of that and start speaking a language you want to learn.

So, in the book, I often talk about ways that you can use little tricks to kind of get yourself to move forward. So, a really minor one, but one that made a big difference for me, as I was learning a new language, in this case it was Chinese, and I had to do a lot of flashcards. I was doing a lot of flashcards as part of the process of acquiring Chinese vocabulary. And one thing I noticed with myself is whenever I would mess up a flashcard, meaning that I got the wrong answer, there was this immediate pang of, “Ugh, I hate this,” or frustration. And that frustration immediately led to the urge of, “Let’s put this away. This is enough studying for now. Let’s go do something else.”

And what I found is that that little pang of frustration was actually really short-lived. So, what I could do was is if I just made a rule to myself that I was only allowed to quit when I’ve gotten one right, or the most recent one right. What that meant was that, yeah, sometimes I would get frustrated, but very often I would persist for much, much longer because as soon as you got one right, then you’re going to get a bit of positive feedback and you want to keep going.

And so, I think by thinking about your own behavior and your own habits and your own projects in this kind of systems level view, rather than just, “Hmm, I’m just going to put in lots of willpower,” I think you’ll get better results because very often it’s these very subtle things that if you can adjust, you can go much further.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great rule there, “I’ll only quit, right after I get one right,” because once you get one right, you’ll feel good and you want to keep going. And, two, you’ll end on it on a high note as opposed to remembering, you know, primacy and recent effects. Like, instead of remembering that session as a huge drag that you painted, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I got it. Cool.” And so, you’ve got that memory with you to reinforce you starting up the next time.

Scott Young
Absolutely.

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

Scott Young
Well, I would say that my main focus with this book and the reason that I sort of obsess myself with learning over the last decade is that I think for a lot of people, learning is something practical, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get from point A to point B.” But I found, from doing these projects, and I found in my own experience mirrored in other people that I met that, really, it’s much more than that. That often what our greatest moments in life, the most we fear, the most happy, fulfilled are when we expand our own sense of what we’re capable of and what our possibilities are.

And so, I remember talking with Tristan de Montebello, he was the guy with the public speaking project, and I remember him telling me, he’s like, “You know what, Scott, it’s not that I just got good at public speaking, that that was I was excited about, but that this totally changed how I will approach any project in my life in the future,” that just all these skills and things that he would like to learn just seem to open up in front of him, that he kind of considered before.

And so, my main motivation for writing this book was not just to give people some practical tips, although we’ve talked about lots of them, but so that they may have that own experience in their life where something that they thought, “You know what, well, there’s no way I can learn this because I’d have to go back to school, and it would be tons of agony for years, and it’ll be painful. I won’t be able to do it.” That they could open themselves up whether that’s to learn something, a new hobby, a new language, a new instrument, a new skill, or maybe even transition to a new career, or really upgrade their skills in their career so that they can do a job that seems kind of terrifying for them right now.

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

Scott Young
So, one of the quotes, and I’m going to modify it a little bit because I really like it, but this is a quote from the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and he says, “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory.” And the thing that I’d like to modify it to is kind of really into what I was saying that I think that “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities.” So, I do think that it is when we achieve things, it is when we expand, when we feel like we’re capable of that, we have our happy moments, not just when we get a reward or something nice happens.

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

Scott Young
Well, I can tell you right now one of my favorite ones is the one that I talked about in this book which is this one by Karpicke and Blunt about the retrieval versus repeated review. And it was so brilliant just because it just fit entirely with the idea of how students think about learning and what actually works.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Scott Young
So, a book I would recommend, which has been my favorite book for last year, is called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, and this book is basically challenging the idea of what we think we are doing when we are thinking and reasoning about things. And I found it to be a very interesting book because it explains so much of why we argue about things, and also how we can think smarter in our lives.

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

Scott Young
Right. So, I’m going to go really basic but I really like reminders, just to-do lists. And I know that sounds a little like a little bit too basic, everyone wants to use advanced tools, but I find making lists very helpful. So, I have a list for my to-do items, but I also have a list of ideas, and books I should read, and restaurants I should go to, and projects I’d like to work on, and things that someone said, and quotes, and I probably got a dozen more lists on my computer.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Scott Young
So, related to that, I think one of the best habits you can do is, before you go to bed, plan your day in the morning. So, plan what you’re going to do in the next day. So, that could be just as simple as writing it out on a to-do list, “I’m going to do these eight things tomorrow,” or it could be as specific as figuring out what you’re going to do with each chunk of time. But I think the more you plan things ahead of time, the more you figure out how you’re actually going to use them, you’re less likely to succumb to doing the easiest thing in the moment.

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

Scott Young
So, if you want to reach out to me, you can go to my website at ScottHYoung.com, and you can find my contact form there. You can also reach me by writing to personal@scotthyoung.com. You can send me an email. I would definitely love to hear if anyone has applied some of these methods or if they go out and get the book, and decide to do their own ultralearning project, what they’ve decided to use it for.

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

Scott Young
So, the point I’d like to leave with this is one that we did mention before, but is something that I think is so important that I’d like to end it again considering we’re talking about the recency effects, is the idea that whenever you want to learn something, you should always start by asking yourself, “What is one concrete situation that I can use this in? And how can I do a little bit of my time practicing or applying it in that situation?” You’ll go a lot further if you can think of your learning in terms of, “How do I do things?” rather than just putting abstract knowledge in your head.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a lot of fun. Enjoy your learning.

Scott Young
Oh, thank you so much.

453: Why Generalists Succeed and How to Learn Like One with David Epstein

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David Epstein says: "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer."

David Epstein explains why and how generalists tend to achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on short-term improvement can undermine long-term development
  2. Pro-tips for breaking through your learning plateaus
  3. The benefits of becoming a jack-of-all-trade

About David

David Epstein is the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His writing has been honored widely.

David has his master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

David Epstein Interview Transcript

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

David Epstein
Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the stuff but, first, I want to hear about your work as an ecology researcher in the Arctic.

David Epstein
So, I studied geology and astronomy in college and, afterward, I worked in a plant physiology lab and that led me living in the Artic in the far north of Alaska, a place called Toolik Lake, where I was basically studying the radiation that plants give off in an effort to sort of help try to understand how the carbon cycle might change as that area warms and the permafrost melts a little because most of the ground is frozen there, so when there’s melt, a lot of nutrients are liberated and they can cause like major changes to the plant life which can cause changes to the carbon cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, how long were you there and what was life like up there?

David Epstein
Yeah, I was basically there for, well, you couldn’t be there a lot of the year because you couldn’t get supplies, so you can only really be there for like half the year basically. I loved it actually. So, it’s technically a desert and I love deserts because even though it’s lush on the ground and the air is cool enough year-round that there’s not much atmosphere and demand for water so you don’t get much rain even though there’s a lot of fog and slush on the ground.

And so, all the plant life is really low to the ground, and so in the middle of summer, when it’s basically light all day and you’re sort of seeing this, the sun go down and just come right back up and all the plant life is low, you can see really far and make for some great hiking. I thought it was beautiful. Some people felt it was desolate who were up there but I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious if that isolation can serve as just amazing, creative, energizing time, or like, “I am going insane.”

David Epstein
Yeah, I’m more on the creative, energizing side, and I think like when I asked, after my first book, people would often ask, “How did you write it?” and I really don’t know how to answer that question because I’m not really sure. Every project is kind of different. And I asked my wife once, I asked her, “How did I write it?” and she said, “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” And so, I’m pretty good at spending time on my own for projects and being quiet out in the expanse of nature. It’s definitely more creative and invigorating for me than a feeling of isolation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And you’ve recently channeled your creative energies into another opus, a grand tome, I’m excited to talk to you about. So, maybe why don’t we start with some of the most fun tidbits in terms of what would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made while you’re putting together your book Range?

David Epstein
For me, it was this idea that there are things that you can do that cause really rapid short-term improvement that can systematically undermine your long-term development. So, to that point about surprising, I’ll mention the single study that was probably it’s certainly one of the most surprising in the book to me was this one that was done at the U.S. Airforce Academy where they had a setup that you would never be able to recreate in a lab because basically they would get in a freshman class of, whatever, a thousand students, or several hundreds of students, and those students all had to take a sequence of three math courses: Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and then a third course.

And they were randomized to Calculus 1 to a professor, and then re-randomized for the second course, and then re-randomized for the third course, and they all take the same tests. So, these researchers recognized that this was an excellent natural setup for studying the impact of teacher quality, or teaching. And so, the finding of this study was that the professors who were the best at promoting contemporaneous achievement, that is whose students overperformed on the Calculus 1 test the most compared to the baseline characteristics they came in with, those students, then, systematically underperformed in all the follow-up courses.

So, the professors whose students did the best in Calculus 1, they rated those professors the highest, then went on to underperform in future classes. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best results on the Calculus 1 test was to teach a more narrow curriculum that involved a lot more what’s called using procedures knowledge where you learn how to execute certain procedures and algorithms and you don’t learn more of what’s called making connections knowledge where the curriculum is broadened and you’re forced to kind of connect types of concepts and learn how to match strategies to types of problems as opposed to just execute procedures.

And so, when they’ve moved on into these other courses, those students who had the more narrow curriculum were systematically undermined. And that’s sort of one of the themes that runs through Range are the things you can do that seem the best in the short term sometimes undermine long-term development, and I thought that was just an amazing display of that and an amazing study.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. It’s sort of like the items that were being covered on the final test is sort of like, “Yeah, he drilled on real good over and over and over again and thoroughly,” but sort of at the expense of getting some broader conceptual understanding of how the math number, calculus, stuff is working I guess more globally.

David Epstein
Right. And that’s what they, then, would need, that’s what then would help them kind of scaffold later knowledge, so they didn’t do as well in those other classes. First of all, that was just deeply counterintuitive finding to me, but also, so I remember, for example, the professor, out of a hundred, whose students I think did fifth best on the Calculus 1 exam, and he got the sixth best student ratings overall, was dead last in what the research called deep learning, that is how his students then did in the follow-on courses.

And so, that’s really kind of worrisome. The fact that a lot of these strategies, and that chapter four of Range is about these learning strategies, and a lot of those strategies cause the learner to be more frustrated, to not do as well in the short term, and to rate the person teaching them worst. So, that’s kind of worrisome because these professor ratings may not be a good indication of what someone is learning. Their own assessment of their own learning in the short term may not be a good indication either. So, that’s, I think, something that’s important to be aware of.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d be intrigued then to correlate that, if you were to sort of draw some parallels into the professional working world, in terms of how might we be shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to master a certain narrow domain of work.

David Epstein
Yes, so let me give another example that came out of the research that I think relates to this. So, in this one study, people who were playing the role of, basically, simulations of naval officers, essentially, and they were being trained to respond to types of threats based on cues. And one group would practice threats where they would see a certain type of threat again and again and again and again, and they would improve and learn how to respond to it. And then they would see the next type of threat again and again and again, and so on.

The other group would get all these different types of situations all mixed up, and that’s called interleaving, and that kind of training is often more frustrating, it slows down initial progress, the learner will say that they didn’t learn as much, and all those things. And then both groups were brought back later and tested on situations they hadn’t seen before. And in that scenario, the interleave group performs much better than the other group because, again, they’re being trained to sort of match strategies to problems as opposed to just how to execute procedures.

And I think that goes for anything we’re trying to learn. I think our inclination is usually to pick up a new skill and do it over and over and over, when, really, we want to vary the challenge a lot early on so that you’re building these broader conceptual skills. And not only do you want to vary the challenge, but I think when we think about, at least in my life, the sort of formal professional development that I’ve been exposed to as opposed to kind of the informal professional development that I do on my own, is always coming away where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the topic, you’re going to learn this topic, and then you move on from it forever.”

And, in fact, the best way, we should actually use what’s called the spacing effect where you learn a topic and then you come back to it later, and that sort of helps you solidify it. So, one of the famous studies here is two groups of Spanish vocabulary learners who one group was given eight hours of intensive study on one day, and the other group was given four hours on one day, and then four hours again a month later. So, they all had the same total study.
Eight years later, when they were brought back, the group that had the space practice remembered 250% more with no practice in the interim. And so, I think we should apply that to anything we want to learn instead of just doing a topic and moving on from it. You don’t have to do it as intensively but you should wait until actually you’ve kind of forgotten it and then come back to it and do it again. And that’s how you like move it into your long-term memory basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. And it seems like this is drawing some connections for me with regard to, we had the Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on and we were talking about their top competency that maps to all sorts of career successes, what they’re calling learning agility which is sort of the notion of sort of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

David Epstein
That’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that would make great sense because as you sort of rise in the ranks and you encounter more and more ambiguous and puzzle-some and, “I have no idea what’s going on” types of issues, the more that you struggle those things the more you’re raring to say, “All right. Well, let’s see how we go about figuring this out.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that gets at sort of a link between the two things we’re both talking about in this classic research finding that can be summarized as breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means taking your skills and knowledge and attempting to apply it into a totally new situation that you haven’t seen before. And breadth of training breeding breadth of transfer basically means the broader your early training was, the diversity of the situations you’re forced to face, the more likely that when you’re in a totally new situation, you’ll be able to will that knowledge and transfer that knowledge to that new situation.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, now, would you say that’s sort of the main idea or thesis behind Range or how would you articulate it?

David Epstein
No, I think that’s just part of this, the theme of Range that is, I mean, the overall theme is sort of that society may overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists. But the theme beneath that, to me, is again that these things that are the most efficient ways to get the quickest improvement, whether that’s telling someone to specialize right away, or practicing in this repetitive specialized way, is often not the way to get the best long-term improvement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, there’s just so much, so many implications to that in terms of if you think about sort of what you’re measuring and if you think about training or learning or development things. It’s sort of like you often don’t have the luxury of checking in sort of months or years later to see how we did. And so, there’s all kinds of systematic forces that would point us to doing just the opposite of that.

David Epstein
Yeah, totally. This project, in some ways, started in the sports world for me and only the introduction of Range is in the sports world but one of the things that got me interested there is that there’s this incredible drive to early specialization in youth sports. And then I went and looked at what the research says about optimal development, and it says that athletes who want to become elite, typically, have what’s called the sampling period where they play a variety of sports to gain these broader physical skills, scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests, they learn about their abilities, and they delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

And I was looking at that, and then you see what was actually going on, and sort of saying, “Gosh, all these forces are pushing the opposite direction of that in the United States.” In Norway, which is like is, for me, probably the best sports country in the world per capita right now. There’s an HBO real sports on that’s showing they have embraced this stuff and changed their sports development pipelines.

But when I was living in New York until recently, there was a U7 travel soccer team that met near me, and I don’t think that anybody thinks that six-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people to travel, right? It’s just that there’s these other forces at work, like those kids are customers for whoever’s running that league. And so, all these other forces militate against what we know about optimal development.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then what do you think is to be done in terms of if you’re a professional in a workplace and you want to develop well and over the long haul such that you have a fruitful career and rise and achieve all of your career dreams? What are some of the key things you recommend folks do?

David Epstein
Yeah, so let’s say you want to be an executive, which I think a lot of people would like to be at some point. LinkedIn recently did some research at looking at what were the best predictors of who would become an executive, and they have these incredible sample silos so they did this in a half a million members. And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual had worked across in an industry.

And so, I think our intuition is to say, “Pick a job function and stick with it and drill into it and carve your niche and get specialized.” But, in fact, these people who sort of probably developed a more holistic view of their industry and how to integrate different types of skills are the ones who go on to become executives. And so, they are getting that breadth of training. And so, when it comes to having to do these more complex problems, they’re probably better equipped.

So, LinkedIn’s chief economist’s main advice was, “If you want to be an executive, work across more job functions.” And I think that’s good advice but I think you can do things short of that in a lot of ways. Like, learn what your colleagues do, learn more functions at your own work, because our natural inclination is to settle into our competencies. And as we settle into a rut and we get competent enough, I was talking to the economist Russ Roberts, he said it’s a hammock because it’s comfortable that’s why we don’t get out of it. And I was thinking, I want to make a weird analogy here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

David Epstein
When I was getting into my last book, I didn’t write about this, but I was reading some scientific literature on speed typing, okay? How fast is speed typing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been looking into speed typing. Continue.

David Epstein
Really?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had a recent guest talk about how that’s one of the top skills you can use to sort of accelerate your performance in all kinds of things because a lot of typing that’s going on. And I’m a fan of the website Keybr I think it is, which sort of helps you get fast at typing fast. So, anyhow, my interest is piqued. Please continue.

David Epstein
Okay. So, yeah, so the idea is we all, like at first when you’re learning typing you make a lot of improvement and you get to whatever you get to, 60, 70, 80 words a minute, whatever you get to. And then you plateau and we pretty much all stay there at very good but not great. And it turns out there’s all these strategies that you can use to get like twice as fast, and they’re not even that complicated. Things as simple as you’d use a metronome, you take it up a little bit, and keep up with it even if you make mistakes, whatever.

There’s a bunch of strategies to get like twice as fast. But what it suggested to me is that our natural inclination that just experience will get us to a certain point but then we stop naturally improving just with experience. We sort of settle into that level of performance. And I think that’s kind of true of everything.

And so, we’re in danger as we get more experience and get more comfortable of not developing new skills anymore. We have to try new things. And I think that’s good both because it can get you off a plateau. When I was on a plateau stuff at writing this book, I decided to take an online fiction-writing course and it worked beautifully to help with the problem I was stuck with.

And so, I think it works because it can help get you off a plateau, but also one of the other main ideas in Range is this idea of match quality, which is the degree of fit between an individual, their abilities, their interests, and the work that they do. And good match quality turns out to be very important for your motivation, your performance, and the only way to improve your match quality, it turns out, is to try some things and then reflect on those experiences and keep sort of pinballing, doing that, and with an eye toward improving that match quality.

So, like the Army, for example, has created a system called talent-based branching where they were kind of hemorrhaging their highest potential officers since basically the start of the knowledge economy where those young officers could learn skills that they could laterally transfer into other types of work. And, at first, they just threw money at those officers to try to keep them, and that didn’t work at all. The people who were going to stay took the money, and the people who were going to go left anyway. That has a half a million dollars.

And then they started this thing called talent-based branching where instead of saying, “Here’s your career track. Go upper out,” they say, “We’re pairing you with this coach-type figure and here’s a bunch of career tracks, and just start dabbling in them, and your coach will help you reflect on how did this fit with your talents and your interests. And we’ll do that so we can get you better match quality.” And that’s actually turned out to work better for retention because when people have high match quality, they want to stay. There’s a saying that I quote a research in the book, saying, “When you get fit it will look like grit because if you get a good fit, people will work harder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad you brought up grit because that’s something I want to talk about. You say that there could be a problem with too much grit. What’s that about?

David Epstein
So, I think for listeners who maybe have probably heard the concept of grit, I’m guessing. But the psychological construct came out of this survey where it started as a 12-question survey where half the questions were points for resilience basically and the other half for consistency of interest. And so, you lose points if you sometimes abandon a project for another one or I think you change interest, and things like that.

And the most famous study, what was actually done on cadets going into West Point, so future Army officers. They were trying to get through what’s called east barracks, that’s the U.S. military Academy’s six-week orientation where it’s physically and emotionally rigorous. And grit, that survey turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through these than more traditional measures that the Army used. And although most people make it through, which is great, but in the study. I feel like Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, I’d give them a ton of credit because some of the critique I write about in the book comes like directly out of their own papers and it’s kind of like lost in translation, I think, where those people in that study were highly pre-selected for a number of qualities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Got to get that Senate recommendation, Congressional letter. That ain’t easy.

David Epstein
That is what statisticians call restriction of rank problem. So, if you’ve truncated a lot of variables by selecting a small group out of humanity, so it makes the other variables exacerbated. But they were also pre-selected for this very short-term six-week goal, right? And life isn’t a six-week goal. So, when we looked at the longer timeline, again, like half of these people basically leave the Army almost the day that they’re allowed.

And so, high-ranking Army officials said, “We should defund West Point because ‘it’s an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.’” And that’s not the case, right? And those people didn’t just lose their grit. It’s that they learned some things about themselves, which tends to happen in that time period, the fastest time a personality change in your life is 18 to your late 20s, but it continues changing faster than people think over your life, and they decided they wanted to go do something else.

That’s why throwing money at them didn’t work where talent-based branching did because it’s giving them some control over their career path and their match quality, and trying things and then changing direction is basically essential to improving your match quality. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just hoping for luck in your match quality. And I think if we thought of our careers the way we thought of dating, right, we would never tell people to settle down so quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Just stick with that gal. She’s great.”

David Epstein
For some people that might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
“You have four dates. Don’t quit.”

David Epstein
I thought I was going to marry my high school girlfriend and at the time that seemed like a good idea. And then I had more experience in the world, in retrospect that wouldn’t have been a good idea. And I felt the same way in my approach to jobs. Some jobs I thought I was going to stick with, I thought I was going to be a scientist. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea for me, but I didn’t know that until I tried that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then when it comes to sampling, I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite kind of tactical tips with regard to, “How can I get a lot of sampling going?” So, you talked about, “Hey, talk to work colleagues who are in a completely different functional area. Maybe check out an online course.” What are some other means of sampling?

David Epstein
Yeah, I kind of take this approach from someone’s work I love that resonated with me because I had career change, or changed directions several times, from a London business school professor named Herminia Ibarra. And she has this quote I love, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” Basically, what she means is this psychological research shows that we’re not like so great at intuiting our own talents and interests before we have a chance to try stuff, we actually have to try the things, and then learn about ourselves. Act and then think, instead of think and then act, as she says.

And so, for me, I kind of started a book of experiments where just like when I was a science grad student, I’ll say, “Here are my skills now. Here’s some things I want to learn. Here are things, some weaknesses. Here’s my hypothesis about how I might be able to work on this.” And then I’ll go try something and see if that works.

So, again, I mentioned this online fiction-writing class I took, right? So, I got stuck in structuring my book, and I needed to do something different. And so, I go take this class, and among the things I was made to do was write with only dialogue, and write with no dialogue at all. And after doing the no dialogue at all, I went back to my manuscript and stripped a ton of quotes and replaced them with my description because I realized I was unconsciously coming from usually doing shorter-form types of things. I was leaning on quotes to convey information in a way that is not really good writing. And that’s not even the improvement I was looking for. But just getting out of my normal mode of doing things gave me this huge advantage.

And so, I try to do that regularly. Like, people might be familiar with this research “The Strength of Weak Ties” like your new job usually comes not from the people core in your network because they’re kind of doing this, you know those options already, and a lot of them are doing things similar to you. It comes from these people that you are several degrees away from but you can get connected to.

And that’s what Herminia Ibarra’s work shows, that when people find better career fits, it always comes from some key whole view, like they take some class, or they go to some event, or they meet someone at a dinner party and sort of ignites an interest, and then they start testing it little by little, getting in a little more and a little more until sometimes they make a full transition.

And so, I’m constantly doing those experiments with my book of experiments. So, I think everybody should constantly be doing this, “What do I want to work on? Here’s my hypothesis for how I could do that. I’m going to go try that thing.” Then reflect on it and put it in your notebook and keep going forward. And I think even keeping that, what I call that book of experiments, prompts me to constantly be doing that in a proactive way, whereas there was a period when I was at Sports Illustrated, for example, where I very much settled into something I felt come to that and just did over and over for a while, and took a while till I realized, “Gosh, I’m actually not adding to my skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I really like that just sort of the fun exercise you mentioned with the writing, with regard to all dialogue and no dialogue, and then how that filters in forever. And that reminds me, boy, back in my AP, I guess, English composition or rhetoric course in high school, our dear teacher Judy Feddermier, that was sort of like each week that was the challenge. It was a different kind of a challenge associated with the writing, like, “Okay, this time you are not to allow to use any to be verbs. No is, no are, no was, no were.” I’m like, “This is crazy.” And I just used one, “This is crazy.”

And so, but sure enough, I was like, “Yeah, this writing is a little awkward,” but it’s what you sort of kind of back to being able to use some. You realize, “Oh, boy, having fewer of them sure sounds better in terms of more active and exciting and lively than a bunch of is’s and are’s.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think it sort of just gets you out of that. Because the interesting thing is and sort of almost like troubling thing to me when I did that with the no dialogue, and went and changed my manuscript, was that until then I didn’t realize that I had been kind of unconsciously doing something I’d gotten used to. And it took doing something different for me to think about that which is annoying. I wish I were just like perceptive enough to realize that without having to get kind of knocked out of my normal mode but, really, I wasn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m wondering then, in the whole universe of essential skills you might choose to start experimenting and dabbling in to add to your repertoire, is there a means by which you think about prioritizing them? Or is there just sort of, “Hey, there’s a glimmer of interest here. Let’s see what happens”?

David Epstein
Yeah, that’s a good question. Usually, I kind of always have some project or other that’s either in some stage of development, and my projects tend to be quite different. And so, there’s usually something related to my project that’s either like an area of knowledge maybe that where the project is kind of driving those in some way, where it’s I know I need to, that this book is going to be the biggest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had, therefore like I need to improve my skills. So, usually it comes out of something that I’m otherwise doing, and realizing what’s the new part of that challenge.

So, I will say, when I’ve taken on these bigger projects, like my first book was the hardest structurally to organize all the information writing challenge I ever had, and this book was much harder than that one. And so, I think the one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is taking on these projects that are kind of in the optimal push zone where they’re not so over my head that I simply can’t do it, but they are definitely stretching me to the point where I have to think about learning new things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m also wondering about sort of things that you hate. So, one approach is there’s a glimmer of interest or sort of what skill is necessary to develop there. And I’m wondering about because when you’re talking about in terms of sort of this inefficiency or doing a wide breadth of things such that it’s more frustrating and less fun sort of the in the early stages, but then you have some cool capabilities later on as a result of doing it.

I guess I’m wondering to what extent would a chasing after skills that I’m just currently very bad at, I’m thinking about sort of home improvement and being handy type skills right now, so kind of the opposite of intellectual, “Hey, we’re having rich conversations and thinking about the themes and summarizing them well, and marketing and reaching audiences,” like all that stuff is like very different than, “Okay, I got to drill and I’m trying to make this thing go there and not make a huge mess.” Is there a particular value in doing stuff you hate?

David Epstein
I don’t think you should necessarily do it over and over if you hate it unless it’s really essential to something you’re doing. So, when I first started doing some lab work en route to what I thought I was being a scientist, my expectation was that I would love it and this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And what I found out was that was not necessarily the case, and that was an important thing to learn.

And, conversely, I’m a fairly new homeowner, and the last thing I would’ve thought I would ever be interested in was plumbing, for goodness’ sake. And, it turns out, it’s kind of interesting actually. Like, we had some stuff we had to fix and I started to find this sort of interesting. So, I don’t think you should do anything with plumbing if you hate it, but I do think you might find things that you a priori would think you wouldn’t really like, then when you actually try them might be more interesting than you thought. And, vice versa, things that you expected to love that maybe not so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, it sounds like it’s worth at least an hour or two to see what happens.

David Epstein
One of the things I write about in Range is a so-called end of history illusion. This is psychology of finding that we all realize that we, based on our experiences and everything, we have changed a lot in the past, but then think we will change very little in the future. And we do this at every time point in life, if we say we change a lot in the past, and then proceed to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. So, it leads to all these kinds of funny findings.

So, one just sort of humorous one is, because people underestimate how much their taste will change, if you ask people how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band, their today favorite band to 10 years from now, the average answer is $129. And if you ask how much they would pay to see today their favorite band from 10 years ago, the average answer is $80, because we underestimate how much our taste will change.

And the thing is personality actually changes over the entire course of your life, and one of the predictable changes is as you become older, your openness to experience, which is one of the big five personality traits, declines. But doing new stuff that you’re not used to can actually stop that. So, there are these studies where older people are in that decline phase, and this is a trait that we know is very much correlated with creativity. And these old people were trained on things like certain types of puzzles, okay? And even if they didn’t get better at the puzzles, they became more open to experience. And so, I think there’s also these personality reasons that are associated with creativity to do stuff that is just outside of anything else you’re doing if you want to stem that decline of openness to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is it might be hard to even dream up or conceive like what is that thing because it’s so not in your current world. Do you have any tips on how to kind of spark that prompt or stimulus in the first place?

David Epstein
For me, and this has been a long-running thing is I go to libraries and bookstores because those are places where I find interests that I didn’t know I had. And that’s why I value those places so much because, nothing against Amazon, but, yet, the algorithm works in a way that it sends me things I’m interested in and that I think I’m interested in, and it doesn’t send me the things that I don’t know I’m interested in basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

David Epstein
And so, when I do this more natural browsing which, by the way, I consider the willingness to go to libraries now like a competitive advantage for me because I think people don’t do it anymore. But those are the places where I find these things that I did not know I was interested in, and that’s why I really value them. That’s why I make sure I go to those places instead of just only ordering my reading material, and I’m a big reader on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of libraries and, boy, now, you’ve got me kind of excited just to see what would happen if you just went kind of blind into a stack, grabbed a book, and say, “I’m going to read six pages and see what happens.”

David Epstein
When I go into like a local bookstore or something like that, I don’t go, like if I really need a book right away and I know what it is, I will order on Amazon, and if I really need it quick, I’ll have it on my Kindle. But when I’m going into like bookstores, I’m not going for a particular thing. I’m going to look around and I always end up with something that I didn’t really expect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, can you tell me, if folks are inspired, they’re thinking, “Yes, David’s Range that’s what’s up, I’m all about it. I want to get some more skills, be more interdisciplinary,” are there any kind of watch-outs or warnings or mistakes that are associated with this endeavor?

David Epstein
Well, I think people are probably pretty aware of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none sort of syndrome. Like, you don’t want to get cast as someone who doesn’t know anything. And I think it’s actually pretty culturally telling that the end of that phrase, that adage, jack of all trades master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one, but we’ve totally dropped that part and I don’t think we even know it. And I think that’s because there’s sort of this bias against breadth. And so, I do think there’s that danger of signaling to other people that you don’t really know anything about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds dangerous.

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that’s actually one reason why. So, I was just at…maybe a lot of people have heard of Motley Fool. You know Motley Fool? I was just at an event of theirs, and there was a survey on a video screen and the audience could vote with their phones. And the survey was, “What do you think is the average age of a founder of a breakout startup on the day of founding, not when it becomes a breakout?” The choices were 25, 35, 45, 55, and the overwhelming favorite was 25.

And the answer is actually based on research from MIT and the Census Bureau is 45 and a half. But we sort of think of this, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, when he was 22 and famous, he said, “Young people are just smarter.” Like we think of Tiger Woods, even though that’s not the normal typical model, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s these very dramatic stories of youthful precocity that we think of as the norm, but actually the people who become these really successful entrepreneurs usually bounce around a fair bit first.

And I think what a lot of them end up doing, I describe people like this in Range, is they get this mix of skills that maybe other people sort of look down upon, but it leaves them with this intersection of skills that creates new ground where they’re not in direct competition with someone. They’re trying to do something new, and they have to create their own ground, and they often become entrepreneurs, sometimes because they have to. And that can be really good but it can also be really challenging because you can kind of end up, and I think especially so, in this year of LinkedIn, which I think is a great tool, but also allows HR people to make a much more narrowly-defined job and still have a ton of candidates.

And so, in Range I talk about the work of Abbie Griffin who studies so-called serial innovators who make these repeated major contributions to their companies. And her advice to HR people is basically, “Don’t define your job too narrowly because you’re going to accidentally screen these people out because their traits are like they’ve often worked across domains, they have a wide range of interests, they read more widely than other colleagues, they have a need to talk to more people in other disciplines, they like to use analogies from other disciplines, they often have hobbies that seem like they might be distracting,” but that those are the traits of those people, and her concern is that HR people will see them as scattered and not as focused on any particular area.

So, I think the real concern is of the signal that might be sent to people who are in a position of making personnel decisions.

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

David Epstein
I think specialization made a ton of sense when we were in more of an industrial economy, when people were facing similar challenges repeatedly and that was when those Army officers did not move outside of the Army with nearly as much frequency because other companies, specialists were facing the same challenge, and they were ahead, and you can’t catch up. But in the knowledge economy, some of the patent research I looked at in Range shows that it’s basically just since like the late ‘80s forward where the contributions of more generalists inventors.

So, in this research, the generalists are defined as people, their work is spread across a larger number of technology classes, as class is a patent office, whereas the specialists drill more into a small number or a single technology class. And both of these types of people make contributions, but the contributions of those people who are broader have been increasing with the knowledge economy.

And so, I don’t think this has always been true that generalists have these special, or broader people have these special contributions to make, but I think it’s sort of a function of the fact that with our communication technology, information is rapidly and thoroughly disseminated. And there are many more opportunities, for combining knowledge in new ways as opposed to just creating some totally new piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Epstein
I love that quote from Herminia Ibarra, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” That’s one that’s like really stuck in my head because I don’t totally know what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking about things. And so, that’s really affected the approach that I’m going to take.

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

David Epstein
Right now, I would say that my favorite book, gosh, I read a lot so this changes from time to time, but right now, I would say my favorite book is probably War and Peace, the Anthony Briggs translation, so I read multiple translations when I got really into it. And I didn’t realize, I was just reading it because like I was going through this website that aggregates all great book list, and I was trying to just like go down some of the greatest books.

And it is a novel, in the form of a novel, it’s actually Tolstoy’s refutation of the great man theory of history, and he uses Napoleon as the main character, and argues, and he does like some journalistic reporting on those events, and argues that, well, Napoleon was really an effect not a cause of these larger forces basically.

And so, he had these historical essays. And the story, his writing is amazing. But I also found that argument really interesting, and that led me to read this essay about a philosopher Isaiah Berlin based on War and Peace where Isaiah Berlin used these two types of characters he analyzes in War and Peace the foxes and the hedgehogs. The hedgehogs know one big thing, and the foxes know many little things.

And those hedgehog and fox constructs were then borrowed by Philip Tetlock, the psychologist, to do the work that’s featured in my chapter 10 of people who develop the best judgment about the world and about political and economic trends, who know many little things instead of one big thing. And so, it was really cool, you know, that research I was already interested in, to see in War and Peace sort of where those ideas of the fox and the hedgehog via Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy as it where it came from. So, not only did I enjoy the book for its own right, but it really made me think about some modern research in an interesting way.

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

David Epstein
Oh, my goodness. I would die if I didn’t have Searchlight on. That’s why I have to be a Mac user because I basically, the organization system I use is writing lots of words in various things that I think I would search if I wanted to find it. And so, I’d probably use Searchlight 500 times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Epstein
Running, if you count that. I’m a very avid runner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And is there a key nugget that you share often that tends to get sort of quoted back to you frequently?

David Epstein
In my first book, The Sports Gene there’s like I did some data analysis of body types, and this one part that mentions that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who’s at least 7 feet tall, then there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. And, yeah, people mention that to me a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think it’s funny that a very specific numerical tidbit is what people are sticking with.

David Epstein
Yeah, I tell you, I’m really bad at predicting at things for my own books that people are going to latch onto versus the things that I latch onto the most. It’s kind of an interesting experience.

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

David Epstein
DavidEpstein.com is my website, and I’m davidepstein on Twitter.

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

David Epstein
Yeah, I think if I can really talk to someone it would be managers, and say, “Do your own form of talent-based branching where you allow people to explore some of their other interest and talents, and help them reflect on those experiences.” I was on the podcast for The Ringer, Bill Simmons. He runs probably the most popular sports podcast in the world, and he used to be ESPN’s most popular writer, then he did something on HBO and that kind of failed. And now he started his own company, and it’s one of the happiest workplaces I have ever been in.

And one of the interesting things was people who were hired to edit like online articles, some of them have become like seriously famous in the sports world podcast personalities with huge followings, and that’s because once they’re in that company, he’ll say like, “Okay, come try on a podcast for a little bit and see how it goes.” And it seems like people have an opportunity to basically try their hand at whatever the company has to offer. And a couple of the people who came in, in these more kind of quotidian jobs have become like famous, and it was a happy workplace. So, I think he’s really onto something with sort of letting people try their hand at things in a way that like doesn’t really damage anything too much if it doesn’t go well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, David, thanks for this. I wish you tons of luck with Range and all your adventures.

David Epstein
Thank you very much.

440: Accomplishing More in Less Time by Building Microskills with Stever Robbins

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Stever Robbins says: "The hammer that seems to work for almost everything is accountability."

Stever Robbins shares how to break down skills into microskills…and shares which ones are worth building.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A productivity power tool to help you accomplish almost everything
  2. Why to break down learning into microskills
  3. Essential microskills that will save you years of time

About Stever

Stever Robbins is a serial entrepreneur, top podcaster, and productivity expert. He co-founded the early internet success story FTP Software, served as COO of Building Blocks Interactive, CEO of JobTacToe.com, and has been an initial team member of ten start-ups, including four IPOs and three acquisitions. He currently runs Get-it-Done Groups™, which help people make extreme progress on important projects and habits.

He was project manager at Intuit. He serves as business plan judge for the Harvard Business School business plan competition, the MIT $100K competition, and several other competitions. His Get-It-Done-Guy podcast has been downloaded more than 36 million times.

He’s been interviewed in numerous publications and is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude…to Build a Stellar Organization and Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

Stever holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Stever Robbins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Stever, welcome to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Stever Robbins
Thank you very much for having me. I’m hoping to learn how to be awesome at my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m thinking that we’re both going to do some great learning. I’ve learned a lot from you with your Get-It-Done Guy podcast. I remember listening to it in Brent’s car. Shout out to Brent.

Stever Robbins
Hey, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think it’s going to be a really fun one. And we were already talking about a lot of cool stuff. If we had to push record before we run out of time, but one fun tidbit about you I got to hear about is you grew up in a New Age commune. What’s this about?

Stever Robbins
I did. My parents were hippies, but they came to the scene late, and they didn’t have the hippie movement to join up to. So, my father got involved in some various New Age philosophies and we sold our worldly possessions, bought a 23-foot trailer, and went bouncing around the country starting psychic growth centers.

Pete Mockaitis
Psychic growth centers.

Stever Robbins
Yeah. Don’t get me started. Let me simply say that it turns out that most of America isn’t really very open to having you start psychic growth centers. Remember the kids on the other side of the tracks that your parents warned you not to play with?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right, it’s Stever and company.

Stever Robbins
That was us. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, just real quick. Psychic growth centers, does that help me grow in my psychic abilities, or what happens in a psychic growth center? Okay.

Stever Robbins
Yup. Also, the children of the people who start the psychic growth center become atheists. So, that’s the other thing that happens in a psychic growth center. It makes a real impression on you when you grow up. Actually, we switch religions every couple of years. My father was into lots of different things. And, as a result, by the time I was 18, I had been through four or five different belief systems, and once you’re through a certain number of belief systems you start to say, “You know, all of these are just belief systems.”

The more interesting part of your question, though, isn’t, “What’s it like growing up in a psychic growth center?” It’s, “What’s it like having grown up in a psychic growth center?” Because what it does when you’re the kid on the other side of the tracks is, you don’t take the same things for granted that everyone else does.

So, for me, the most interesting part about having a non-standard background is that I question things that everyone else simply take for granted. And, on one hand, this is very powerful. It means that there’s a lot of problems that I can solve that other people can’t because I ask different questions than they do, and sometimes the questions I ask are the ones that will lead to the solution. On the other hand, there are some real problems with this because there are plenty of places in life where you really need to understand how the standard people think, and you really need to understand what would be societally acceptable and what will not.

Let me give you a hint. You do not want to discover behaviorally that wearing a loincloth to school is a bad idea. Some people know that instinctively. Others of us had to learn it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s maybe the pulled quote that we’re going to feature from this interview, Stever, is that tidbit right there. Well, yeah, I think we’re two peas in a pod in that way. Not the loincloth specifically, but the asking questions that others don’t seem to ask because I do. And what I find to be the downside is folks are just not prepared or equipped for it, and so it just slows everything down. It’s like, “Wait a minute. What do you want? I don’t even know how to address that for you. Maybe talk to someone else.” Because it’s sort of like customer service systems, or businesses. They’re setup to do a few things well and efficiently and by the millions at scale. So, when you throw these little monkey wrenches in there, it just slows everything down, and it gets inconvenient for everybody it seems.

Stever Robbins
Oh, yeah. And, in fact, one of the things I was thinking about before this call, because I knew you were going to ask me that question, one of the things I was thinking about was, “What are the perspectives that I have despite the fact that I have a fairly mainstream life in many regards?” But I’m always amazed at the fact that we live in the most materially-rich society in all of human history, by wide, wide measure the most productive in terms of labor hours needed to produce a particular result. And, yet, we have such an extraordinarily narrow range of activities and things that we do, and lifestyles that we have.

And it boggles my mind that we have the resources to give ourselves as a race lots of leisure time, lots of ability to pursue meaning, the resources to try out and experiment with different governmental types, with different ways of being, with different work weeks. And, yet, we create very narrow boxes, live inside them, and then forget that we’re the ones who created the boxes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a big question.

Stever Robbins
Yes, they may be bigger than we’re supposed to be talking about today. I think we were talking about getting things done or something similar.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess my first thought in there is, I guess, it has to do with like the fear of the unknown, or risk, or uncertainty, and how maybe relatively few people want to go down that pathway. But, yeah, I’m going to be chewing on that one as well. Thank you, Stever. I want to hear, yes, I do want to hear about getting things done. And maybe, so, you’ve got an interesting sort of start in terms of that New Age commune and travelling. But then you did get some credentials that folks tend to kind of think are more normal and desirable, you know, MIT in Computer Science Bachelors, MBA from Harvard Business School, good stuff. So, how did you become branded and adopt the moniker of the “Get-It-Done Guy”?

Stever Robbins
Oh, that was never supposed to be the case. I started the Get-It-Done Guy in 2007 because I was working doing one-on-one executive coaching and strategy consulting, which is the main thing that I’ve done through most of my career. And I was really yearning for a creative outlet because, frankly, one of the fascinating things about the business world, is the business world is really very anti-creative. It uses the principles of uniformity to grow organizations, and the uniformity exists in terms of people and behavior.

Do you ever notice when someone says that you should dress professionally or act professionally? What they mean is you should restrict your behavior to the narrowest possible window of things, right? Those are not expansive. When someone says, “Act professional,” what they do not mean is “be creative, be wild, be innovative, think outside the box.” What they mean is, “Oh, my gosh, you’re wearing a three-button vest instead of a two-button vest? I can’t be seen in public with you.”

So, I wanted a creative outlet, and I had started a little podcast called Business Explained, and I had produced about 10 episodes for it. And then I experienced Grammar Girl. And Grammar Girl talked grammar, but it was fun and it was interesting to listen to, and she had an attitude. She had character. And, oh, my gosh, Grammar Girl was, and is, awesome.

So, I wrote her a fan letter, and I said, “If you would ever like a business podcaster, I would love to be your business podcaster,” because she had a little network called the Quick and Dirty Tips network. And just out of sheer coincidence, my letter got to her right after she had sold the network to Macmillan Publishing, and they were having a meeting to decide who should the next podcaster be.

And my letter came in at the right time. I auditioned for the part. I got it. And they let me choose the topic. I chose personal productivity mainly because I thought it would be fun. I thought I could do a lot more with that in terms of humor than with corporate strategy. And I was right, as it turns out. Became the Get-It-Done Guy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, actually, not quite. What happened is for years I didn’t do anything with it professionally. And my branding in the marketplace was very much around strategy, and entrepreneurship, and high-growth companies, and how to be a good leader, and all that stuff. And then, about a year ago, I decided I had this podcast and I had a following, and why not start doing things that were more productivity-oriented, and just see if it flies?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, one thing I’m quite intrigued by are the Get-It-Done Groups. I’m a huge fan of accountability, and I’m intrigued as to what exactly is this.

Stever Robbins
Well, so Get-It-Done Groups are they’re accountability groups. And when I looked at the offerings out there, first of all, I’ve been an executive coach for about many, many years by the time I’ve developed this. And one of the things that I had noticed is that at the end of the day, coaches are trained to help people develop their innate capabilities, help people get that strength and motivation, that proactiveness. And, boy, is that a lot of work.

And, one day, I had a CEO client, because I mainly work with executives, I had a CEO client who had had a homework assignment, I don’t even remember what it was at this point. It was something simple, like write a letter firing someone. It was something. It was emotionally difficult but it was technically very easy. And three weeks in a row he hadn’t done it.

And so, this time we started our coaching session, and I said, “How’d the letter go?” And he said, “I haven’t sent it yet.” And instead of trying to get to the root of his blocks, and instead of trying to deeply trigger his motivation by connecting it to his highest values and his purpose and his why, I said, “Dude, I happen to know for a fact that you have one hour currently available on your calendar because that was the hour that we were supposed to be talking. So, guess what? We now have 57 minutes left. We’re going to hang up the phone. I will talk to you in 23 minutes, at half past the hour, and we will review the first draft of the letter. Bye.”

Hung up the phone. When we met at half past, he had the first draft done. And in that moment, I started to realize, “Wait a minute. Human beings are social creatures. We are hardwired to take our commitments to other people more seriously than we take our commitments to ourselves. And, if that’s the case, why are we bothering with all of this deep psychology bull pucky and all of this, “Oh, we must find your deep inner why”? Look, just, you need to get your taxes done. Great. Get them out. I’ll watch. Fabulous. Now, that you have them out, 10 more minutes, you start working and I’ll call back in 10 minutes to check up on how it’s going.

And then, real time, of course, if someone is getting stalled, you can, at that moment, diagnose why they’re getting stalled and work with it as opposed to checking back a week later, and saying, “Oh, why didn’t do your thing?” And having them try to remember what was going through their head at the time and so on.

So, what I recognize is that there are a couple of things. Number one, the hammer that seems to work for almost everything is accountability. Number two, people get lost in different ways. They get lost sometimes in their moment-to-moment ability to focus, which technology is making far, far worse. They get lost in their ability to concentrate on one project out of a portfolio of projects long enough to make progress.

And so, I said, there are three timeframes we can operate on. Let’s operate on the level of a quarter, 12 weeks, the level of the day, and the level of the hour. And what Get-It-Done Groups do is they provide accountability on all three levels. We have a couple days a week where we meet hourly, and every hour we actually commit to doing things. Those are the days when you do that stuff that otherwise would procrastinate the heck out of and that you just don’t want to do, and we all just get together and do it together. And it works really well.

The daily accountabilibuddies is what we call them. The daily accountabilibuddy is a thing where people divide up into groups of two or three and they meet every day. A very short meeting, like five to 10 minutes, and they go through, and make sure that they’re making progress on all of the things that they need to be accountable for, which will add up to where they want to go in the 12-week period. And then, over the course of 12 weeks, if we’ve designed the daily check-ins right, they will get most of the way, or all of the way, or well past their 12-week goal.

And people have used Get-It-Done Groups to write a book. In fact, she finished the last word of it this last Sunday, and several members of the group were on a Zoom call with her as she was writing those last two sentences. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it until about 20 minutes later, but I would’ve been there too.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just imagining, like, one who has a violin, and it’s like a very orchestral celebratory moment.

Stever Robbins
Oh, goodness, yeah. We had been there with her for almost the whole thing. I mean, it was amazing. There was another person who qualified for professional degrees. He had been trying for many, many years, and just hadn’t sat down to do all the work. Sat down and did all the work. We had somebody else who had multiple businesses that she had developed over the years, and she wanted to merge them all, and create unified branding, and put them all under one website. She did that. We have just a whole variety of things.

So, Get-It-Done Groups are groups where you get it done. And one of the people that are especially good for is people who are self-employed because when you’re self-employed you don’t have any external person who can stop and say, “Now wait a minute. You said that doing your marketing was important to you but for the last four days you haven’t done any. What’s up? Do you want to give up on that? Or do you want to do it but now we have to make some tweaks to how you’re doing your day because empirically you need some sort of tweaks in order to be making the progress you want to be making.” And they work amazingly well.

I’ve actually been quite surprised. I wasn’t thinking that they were going to work. I mean, I thought they would be effective but, in fact, the effect that they’ve had, I think, is almost out of proportion with how simple, well, it’s way out of proportion how simple they are. But it’s way out of proportion with what I thought. I thought they’d be useful and they’ve been life-changing for some people. Like, seriously life-changing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. Now, how big is a group?

Stever Robbins
We do it as a cohort introduced every month or every couple of months, and then everyone who is currently an active member all works together.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it could be dozens.

Stever Robbins
It could be. At the moment, we’ve never had more than 15 people involved in any given moment, which is a whole another story, having to do with customer acquisition versus customer retention. Well, what we found is that, really, I’ve already figured out how to scale it to whatever point is needed. But for like the hourly do-it days, we usually have between four and seven or eight people show up for that. That’s when we check in every single hour. We have a community call once a week, and every week we’ll get anywhere from five to 12 people on that. So, it depends.

All of the elements of it are optional except for the daily check-ins because part of the whole idea is we’re all busy people, and any productivity system that takes enough time that it impacts the way that you work is not a productivity system. You need productivity systems that mesh with what you’re doing so you don’t have to feel like you must do every single thing. You do just enough and just the pieces that will give you the results that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Awesome. Well, I’m a huge fan of accountability. It’s come up before. I wrote a book about accountability groups back in the day, and it had a big impact on me, so that’s huge. Well, specifically for we’d be talking today about microskills for sharpening focus and working smarter, that’s one of your key areas of expertise, and something that we dig here. It sounds like, one, a key skill is just trusting others and sharing and having some accountability. Could you maybe define for us the term microskill, first of all?

Stever Robbins
Yes. Just as people think of different timeframes, as I mentioned a moment ago, people think at different levels when they think of skills. I’ll call it a chunk size. Sometimes someone will say things like, “You need to learn to focus,” as if focus is itself a single skill. Well, it’s not. Focus is comprised of a lot of little skills. Focus is the ability to identify what you’re working on. If you don’t identify what you’re working on, you won’t do it because you don’t know what to be focusing on.

It’s the ability to block out or eliminate, in advance, external distractions. It’s the ability to either eliminate or notice when you have an internal distraction and pull yourself back on task. It’s the ability to know when you’re done, etc. So, there are actually tiny chunks of skills that make up this word that we use as a larger level skill.

And, to me, a microskill is one of the component skills that makes up what we would normally call a skill but, which in fact, is really the accumulation of lots and lots of things. And I will give you a slight spoiler, this is going to relate to our conversation about neuro-linguistic programming later in this because this is my NLP in the form of the brain that has resulted in the paying a lot of attention to microskills.

For example, we have two people in the current Get-It-Done Group who really, really, really aren’t doing enough prospecting, and they were like, “Okay, I keep falling down on my prospecting progress so let’s do a day that’s just prospecting.” And I talked to the two of them individually, and I said, “So, tell me about your prospecting process.” Now, what I’m actually listening for here is, “Are they both getting screwed up the same way? Or is there a difference?” Because if I’m going to be designing a day to work with them, I want to make sure that whatever I do during that day actually hits the causes of where they’re getting stalled.

It turns out they were getting stalled in different places. With one person it was identifying where to find prospects. For the other person it was actually picking up the phone and writing an email to reach out to the prospect, and then there’s a bunch of other skills, too, like follow up, etc. We can get into it a different time.

But, essentially, there are microskills that make up the skill of prospecting, and one of them is identifying prospect sources. The next one is identifying prospects from those sources. It’s not enough to identify the source. You actually have to go to the source and get the prospects. Then you have to craft a message, then you have to get that message out to them, which may involve doing research as to how each prospect likes to receive information, or it may involve sending out an email blast, or it may involve doing a bunch of phone calls, but whatever. You actually have to then take the action to get the prospect deal.

And, generally, when people say, “Oh, you need to do more prospecting,” they largely just mean this big chunk thing. And, to me, a microskill is one of the smaller chunk things that people don’t pay as much attention to but which often are where people get really tripped up.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig that because these words, I’m right with you, prospecting, focusing really are huge. Like, I’m just thinking about my wife. We got stuck for a little while because she’s like, “We need to baby-proof this home.” I was like, “Well, I don’t know what all that means. I’m sure there are many steps, and components, and devices, and thingies that are built up when it comes to baby-proofing, and I don’t really quite know where to start.” So, we got stuck for a good while actually until I just Googled and I found a professional baby-proofer who made a lot of things happen for us. So, that was nice because it was a one-time thing as opposed to baby-proofing as a lifestyle.

Stever Robbins
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, installing new stuff every week is a skill I need.

Stever Robbins
And you know there are people who do that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sure, yeah, you could find a new way a kid could hurt himself, a day without trouble. But I dig it because often that sort of, I don’t know, deflates the energy or makes it less actionable when it’s big and vague as opposed to, “Now, what I’m talking about is getting on the phone again and again and again,” or, “What I’m talking about is figuring out where the heck I can get a bunch of names.” Those are different problems that have different actions and solutions.

Stever Robbins
Correct. And so, that’s what a microskill is. A microskill is understanding the skills that make up the thing you’re trying to do and then, to some degree, even more importantly, is to identify which skills are missing, and then figure out how to intervene because it’s not the case that all interventions are created equal or that all problems are the same problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, then, when we’re talking about those goals of sharpening focus and working smarter, what are some of the most potent microskills that give you a good return on your investment, a big bang for the buck in investing to develop them?

Stever Robbins
Well, I’ll tell you my favorites because they’re not super popular – speed reading and touch typing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go. Now, touch typing, I’m right with you. I am sold and, okay, go ahead. You can sell a little bit more but I’m already with you. Now, the speed-reading though, yeah, I’ve heard folks who are like, “Oh, speed-reading, it’s a scam. You really can’t blah, blah, blah.” So, lay it on us with some evidence. What’s real and possible speed-reading versus what’s hype and fluff?

Stever Robbins
Okay, do you want me to address the touch typing or the speed-reading first?

Pete Mockaitis
Do speed-reading first.

Stever Robbins
All right, speed-reading. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. All that I know is that I push myself to read faster and faster but I never could go so fast that I don’t have comprehension. I know that some speed-reading systems say push yourself so fast that you can barely comprehend. And then when you slow down, you’ll be able to go much faster. And I’ve actually done that particular exercise a few times.

I’m not a fan of things like photo-reading where you supposedly can digest an entire book by flipping the pages quickly. Apparently, there are people who can do that. I’m not convinced that that is the level of useful skill because the context for most people do reading these days is on a screen. So, what you need to be able to do is scan a screen and really get the meat of the information. The problem is most people skim, and skimming is not the same as reading. With skimming you get a superficial understanding, maybe, if it’s a well-written article or well-written post. Of course, in this day of pay per clicks, not pay for quality content, there’s an awful lot of stuff out there that’s extremely poorly written.

[24:27]

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, don’t get me started on the sloppy junk out there, and the agencies that enable it, which I’ll leave right there.

Stever Robbins
What happens is, for a well-written piece of writing, for example, you can scan the headlines, the headers, and the subheads, you can scan the topic sentences and things, and you really will get an idea of what the article is about, what the argument is, and then you can go back to the pieces you want more information about and read up more deeply.

That just doesn’t apply to an awful lot of things on the web because most people don’t know how to write, or they don’t take the time, or they can’t afford to take the time because they’re being paid so little that they have to grind out 10 articles in the space you would have to do one.

Pete Mockaitis
I signed up for one of those just for funzies to take a look around, and it’s like, “Holy crap, I’d have to be cranking almost as fast as I can type for like a third of that hour to eke out minimum wage here. And you’re hiring US labor? What?” So, okay, that’s a whole rant we could go on.

Stever Robbins
We have an awful lot of rants that we can go on.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, we got to get our own, you and me, the Stever and Pete podcast we’re going to rant all day long. Okay, so speed-reading, you push yourself to read faster, and then that yield some results. So, how might we go about learning how to read faster? What’s sort of the practices of developing that microskill?

Stever Robbins
You know, the thing that I would do for that, and I literally just took a speed-reading course, but the exercise that I thought was the most useful with the speed-reading course was the one that I mentioned a minute ago. Take a book or something that you want to read, give yourself, first, read a paragraph, not read a paragraph, read a chapter at normal speed, time how long that takes you.

And then read the next chapter giving yourself half that time. And then the chapter after that, half that time, and just push yourself to get successively faster and faster and faster until you’re going so fast that it’s very clear you’re not absorbing very much. But, then, when you downshift, you will downshift to a much faster rate than you started with.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, now, I’ve heard the term, because I’m dabbling reading about speed-reading before, and I’ve heard the term subvocalize which I understand to mean inside my mind, inside my brain, I’m saying each word to myself. So, if I’m looking at your bio, I might say inside my brain, but not out loud with my lips, I’d say, “Stever holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and a BS in Computer Sciences.” So, are you pushing past the subvocalization speed or not?

Stever Robbins
I don’t think that I am personally. What I’ve heard is the maximum speed you could get to, while you still subvocalize, is about, I think, 1500 words a minute or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s still lovely. That’s 55X normal, right?

Stever Robbins
Right. And I can get up to that, I think, when I’m really going. I can get up, assuming that it’s not something that requires lots and lots that I have to stop every sentence to digest it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a ton. That’s reassuring.

Stever Robbins
But I don’t think I ever really quite break the subvocalization barrier. I think that for the most part, well, you know what, now that I’m saying that, that isn’t true. When I took the speed-reading course, I always subvocalized. Now that I think about it, this is a conversation I’ve had with friends before, I’m at the point where I see a sentence and I know what the sentence means. And there’s a sense that somewhere I might be subvocalizing a little bit, but it happens faster than I could possible talk it. So, if it’s subvocalizing, it’s subvocalizing it two or three or four times what my external talking speed is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, that’s reassuring then that I always thought of that as some kind of crazy transcendental, the Matrix, Neo-type experience. It’s like, “Whoa, I’ve entered a new plane of information processing which is unfelt ever before.” So, okay, cool. So, that’s just all you got to do is push yourself to read about twice as fast as before, and then twice as fast as that, and then maybe twice as fast again, and then once you’ve reached the “clearly I’m not absorbing anything” level, you back it off a little bit. And then, holy smokes, you find that you are able to maybe read two, three, four, five times as quickly with just as much retention. Is that accurate?

Stever Robbins
Yeah. I tell you, it works in both directions too. It also works in the direction of output. When you’re doing public speaking. I was just helping a friend of mine prepare for an important presentation he has to give. And I would love to say that invented this exercise, I did not. This was taught to me by my very first business mentor years and years ago, back right after I had graduated, you know, at least six or seven years ago.

And he had me give a presentation at my normal speed. The presentation took about 40 minutes, and said, “Great. Now you can do 20 minutes. Give me the presentation again. You’ll have to decide what to leave out. And then do it in 10 minutes. And then do it in 5 minutes. And then do it in 2 minutes. And then do it in one minute.”

And when you push it down to one minute, and especially when you do it in that order, because each time has to learn how to filter through and decide what’s important and what isn’t. When you get it down to one minute or 30 seconds, the only thing you can say is the main points. You can’t give examples. You can’t give supporting evidence. You can say…

Pete Mockaitis
Prop down. We’re scared.

Stever Robbins
Right. And that’s it. But then what happens is when you then expand that back out to 40 minutes, your brain has gone through the process of compacting everything down and putting into the chunks that makes sense with you. So, on the fly, you can dynamically expand and contract portions of it to be able to adjust to any length.

And if you make it too short then you say, “Now, we have room for Q&A.” And if anyone asks about the pieces that you left out because you misjudged the time, well, they’re in your brain because you’ve already been through this presentation this many times and packaged all the information up nicely for yourself. So, then, all of that preparation simply serves to make you look like a genius and uber-prepared during the Q&A portions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. We had a guest who wrote the book Brief and that was good stuff and he recommended a similar exercise which is so handy. So, okay, that’s how speed-reading can go down, also applies to presentations. His name is Joe McCormack, for the record, the author of “Brief.”

So, now, let’s talk a little bit about the touch typing. I understand that the average typing speed in the United States is 41 words per minute. I just research these dorky things of my own volition. So, you’re saying that we got a lot more room to grow in that front.

Stever Robbins
When I was in 7th grade, I took a touch-typing course, and I took it on a manual typewriter, not an electric, a manual. And at the age of – what’s 7th grade, 12 years old? At the age of 12 years old on a manual typewriter, I could consistently test out at 70 words per minute.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Stever Robbins
If I can do 70 words per minute as a 12-year old on a manual typewriter, anyone can get at least that fast if not faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s huge. How do we get those skills?

Stever Robbins
You take a touch-typing course or you go online and I’m sure there are websites because I learned to type the DVORAK layout I learned from a website and from some apps. And you know what? It’s not sexy. It really isn’t. If what you want is some magical thing that will teach you to, suddenly, boom, get the touch-typing skill overnight, that doesn’t happen.

What you have to do is you have to train all of the common letter combinations. You have to get your fingers used to moving in those combinations. You have to practice it over and over and over, punctuated with appropriate sleep periods so that your brain can consolidate the information. And it may take weeks or months. Actually, I don’t know if I’m as fast on DVORAK even now after I’ve been doing it for about 10 years as I was on QWERTY at the time.

I find the big advantage to DVORAK is far less finger strain and finger movement which is, and I’m still pretty darn fast typing DVORAK. But I practiced DVORAK for months before I got up to a reasonable typing speed but it was completely worth it because, in the 10 years, or actually it was more because I was already typing DVORAK when I started the Get-It-Done Guy. I have written roughly 750,000 words of paid content, which I guess makes me a professional writer now that I think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Bling. Bling.

Stever Robbins
But part of why I was able to do that is I could type fast enough because it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are, it doesn’t matter how great you are at composing sentences, if you can only type 20 words a minute, you’re not going to be able to write 700,000 words of text because you just don’t have the time to move your fingers that much.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s true and I played around with all kinds of speech-to-text and dictation tools and software, and it’s not there yet. Maybe in five years, maybe 10 years, but we’re not there yet. And so, when it comes to keyboarding and typing faster, one of my favorite resources, I’m going to drop this in the show notes, is keybr.com. They’ve got some cool case studies of folks doubling their typing speed in like five hours of practice over the course of a couple weeks. And part of their brilliance, I think, is that it starts you, it kind of drills each key in order based upon its frequency versus difficulty to type so that they’ve really kind of leveraged it for you as much as possible, and it’s free. So, keybr.com is a handy one, and I’m digging it.

So, okay. Well, let’s move. Time is flying here.

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Stever, I want to make sure we get a chance to touch base on, so you are a smart dude and you’ve got impressive credentials from impressive places, and you think clearly about stuff. And I’m so intrigued that you are also a certified master trainer elite of NLP, neuro-linguistic programming. Now, NLP has got an interesting reputation. Maybe, could you give us a feel for, first of all, what is it, for those who are less familiar? And then, can you kind of like with the speed-reading, tell us what’s real, what’s exaggerated, and what benefits can we really expect to glean from NLP?

Stever Robbins
Sure. So, NLP is a set of models for understanding how humans think and how the way they think can be inferred from their language, and ways to change the way you think, or someone else thinks once you know what that is. I learned about it first because I wanted to learn things, and NLP was originally introduced to me as a technology for being able to sit down and talk with someone who had expertise and understand at a cognitive level, which basically means, “How are they thinking about the task involved to be able to produce whatever results they produce that constitutes expertise? And how can that be expressed in such a way that I can learn it or you can learn or someone else can learn it?”

Because, for example, if you’re talking to Mozart, and you say to Mozart, “Gee, how do you compose that passage?” And Mozart says, “Well, the way you compose it is you just play it over and over, and you listen really carefully until it sounds right.” That’s not a useful description. If you don’t happen to be Mozart and have Mozart’s definition of “sounding right” then you’re not going to produce the kind of music that Mozart can produce.

However, if what Mozart says to you is, “Well, what I do is I make colored pictures in my mind, and every color corresponds to a note. And I notice that when the pictures have a particular type of symmetry when played as notes they sound good.” Every step of that is something you could teach someone. Again, maybe not easily. This phenomenon of matching visual things with sounds is called synesthesia. If you want to create a synesthesia such that your colored pictures can be translated into notes, I’m guessing that doing that itself is a skill, and if you don’t happen to develop it as a child, or you’re not born with it, that itself is going to take you a while.

But assuming that that really is the way Mozart creates music, then if you have those skills, and this is where the microskills come in. And, in this case, the microskills are being able to make these colored pictures, being able to judge if they’re symmetric, being able to make them symmetric if they’re not, and being able to translate it back and forth into sound. If you have those skills, then you can produce probably not the identical results to Mozart because he has his own personal history that he’s filtering all of this through, but you’ll be able to produce things that are in the realm of musical expertise.

Now, I made that example up, by the way. But the idea there is NLP helps you listen to how somebody does what they are talking about that they do, and figure out what are the mental steps they’re doing to get there. And, as I mentioned before, that’s really at the heart of so much of what I do, because NLP says, “Given a big chunk skill, like composing musical piece, what are the tiny chunks that make it up?” And the tiny chunks may well be different for different composes, in which case, there are many different ways you can learn to compose music.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now, I like when you said that because I think sometimes as I’ve seen NLP, neuro-linguistic programming presented, it’s talking about, “This is some mind control hypnosis stunt that’s going to make you crazy persuasive if you anchor touching your tie when you say something really compelling.” You know, I was like, “I don’t know about that.” Or, “You can tell if anyone is lying based upon where their eyeballs move.” It’s like, “I don’t know if that is accurate or being validated by any of peer-reviewed research.” What do you think about these kinds of claims?

Stever Robbins
Depends on a specific claim. The NLP will make you an amazingly unbelievably persuasive. NLP does make a set of distinctions which teach you how to understand how someone is thinking and how to package information in such a way that it fits with the way they think about something.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like a persuasive booster.

Stever Robbins
Right, it could be a persuasive boost. But the information, even if you packaged the information so somebody will use it the way that they want to receive it. So, let me give you an example. Let’s say that I’m someone who is a visual thinker, and I understand long-term trends by visualizing a graph and noting if the graph goes up or down. So, if someone says to me, “Oh, unemployment is falling,” I actually picture a graph that has a line that goes from the upper left down to the lower right, and that’s my mental representation of what the sentence means “unemployment is falling.”

If you know that that is how I represent things, and you want to communicate the information that consumer happiness is rising, or maybe that consumer happiness is all over the map, then if you simply show me a picture that has this line going up and down, and left and right, and all over the place, and say, “This is consumer confidence,” I don’t have to do any work to understand that because that matches with the way that I understand things.

However, if you show that exact same map to somebody who understands things by visualizing a column of numbers, not a graph, they’re going to look at that graph, and go, “I don’t know what the heck that is. I can’t make any sense out of it,” because their mental representation is not making graphs with lines in it.

So, what that means is for a given person, if you understand how they take in and process and understand information, you can package whatever case you’re trying to make so that it fits their type of information so they don’t have to work to understand it. However, just because they don’t have to work to understand it, it doesn’t mean they’ll immediately take it in. It just means that they won’t reject it because it doesn’t make sense to them. If they make sense to them, but then they may reject it because it doesn’t make good sense.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Fair enough. And how about these eyeball directions indicating if someone is lying?

Stever Robbins
So, that’s interesting. The actual NLP model does not say that eyeball directions indicate if someone is lying. In fact, if you read the book, they explicitly say that’s not what they do because that’s one of the common ways people misinterpret them.

What the eyeball directions are claimed to do, and this is something that drives me nuts because of the way this is phrased, it’s one of the easiest things to “test.” And I put that in quotes because, so far, I have yet to see any test that actually does a good job of genuinely testing the claim.

The observation is that people systematically move their eyes while they’re talking. Sometimes they move them up, sometimes they move them to the sides, sometimes they move them down. And in the NLP model, we pretend that what goes on inside people’s brains is they make pictures, they talk to themselves, they hear sounds, they basically have an inner sensory life in the five senses that corresponds to the same five senses that you use on the outside.

And, in fact, since NLP was developed in the 1970s, there’s been a lot of research that shows that’s probably even accurate in terms of what’s really going on because they found that if you have somebody visualize moving a muscle, all of the same neurons fire in their brain except for the very final neurons that actually activate your limb moving or whatever.

So, what the eye movement model in NLP says, it says when you’re constructing visual images, your eyes move one direction. When you’re remembering visual images, your eyes move another direction. When you are imagining sounds you’ve never heard before, your eyes move in a third direction. When you are remembering sounds you’ve heard before, your eyes move in a fourth direction. When you are talking to yourself and engaging in internal dialogue, your eyes move in a fifth direction. And when you are experiencing your feelings very strongly, your eyes move in a sixth direction. So, there’s three directions on each side, there’s three to your left, and three to the right.

And they may be different for different people. On some people, especially left-handed people, one or more of them might be swapped left to right. But the NLP model says that when somebody is retrieving information, when they’re really involved in information processing, their eyes will move in a particular direction that corresponds to the type of processing they’re doing.

You can then use that to help choose an intervention to decide what to do with them to help them change their thinking if what you’re doing is trying to help someone change their thinking, because NLP, the first place it was really used extensively, and the fact where it was developed, was in the realm of therapy. So, people would come in and they would say, “I have this horrible phobia.” And by watching their eyes, one of the things that you could find out is every time they talk about the thing that was a phobic trigger, they would always move their eyes to visual memory, or to the direction that corresponded to visual memory.

If that’s what happened, there is a particular technique that was developed in NLP that says, “When somebody is having a phobic reaction, and it is instantaneous, and it involves a remembered visual image, use this technique and it will help get rid of the phobia.” And you then could use that technique and it would help you rid of the phobia.

And, like all things, there’s plenty of margin for errors. Some things don’t work all the time. Some things sometimes you misdiagnose, etc. That’s the NLP eye movement I’m on. The way that people have misinterpreted this is to mean, “Gee, if you ask someone a question, and their eyes move to the creating a visual image area, that means they’re lying.” Well, maybe. It may mean that they’re remembering something and they’re creating an image that they’ve never made before that’s based upon the thing they’re remembering. It may mean they’re not paying any attention to your question. Instead, they’re making an image of…

Pete Mockaitis
Daydreaming. That sounds more interesting.

Stever Robbins
They’re making an image of the delicious casserole they plan on making just as soon as they can get out of the job interview or whatever. And this is the problem with a lot of NLP. Number one, the term is not copyrighted or trademarked so anyone can claim they’re teaching it, and anyone can claim they’re good at it. And, number two, an awful lot of people do, and they have no idea what it really is or how it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, if we want to read a book or two or three to get some useful understanding that is applicable, what would be your top recommendations on that?

Stever Robbins
Oh, that’s so difficult because I don’t think there are very many good NLP books out there. My favorite one is called Using Your Brain for a Change by a man named Richard Bandler who is one of the co-developers of NLP. The impression I get is he was really, really the principle key to the whole thing. And it is a book about how different changes in your mental imagery affect the reactions that you have to those mental images. And the reason this matter is that a lot of our behavior is driven off from mental imagery.

So, let’s say that somebody says, “Hey, we’re going to raise your tax rates,” and you’ll get super upset at that. Well, you’re not actually getting upset at the words, “We will raise your tax rates.” You’re getting upset of what that means to you. And it may be that what happens is you make a mental image of yourself lying in a gutter surrounded by really bad liquor with people stepping over your body because you think that if your tax rates get raised, that’s what’s going to end up happening to you. And what you’re going to reacting to is that image that you’re making.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s helpful.

Stever Robbins
So, Using Your Brain for a Change teaches you to identify the images that are actually driving your behavior and gives some specific techniques for how to manipulate those images and change them so that they drive your behavior differently. Because if you took that exact same image of yourself lying in the gutter with the cheap liquor, and you put circus music behind it, “toot, toot, root, toot, pop, para, pop” it wouldn’t produce the same emotional reaction. It may not make you want to be there, but it’s not going to be this horrible tragedy.

But, on the other hand, if you put these strings and violins, just doing the slow mournful thing, well, that makes it worse, you know, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Stever Robbins
Now, people go, “Ugh, that’s just a funny little mental trick.” And I’m like, “Yes, it’s a funny little mental trick that completely changes the way that you feel about something. Isn’t that useful? Like, if you can just do a funny little mental trick and, suddenly, this thing that has been causing you incredible stress and high blood pressure and anger, suddenly becomes funny, that sounds like a mental trick worth learning and doing more of.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said.

Stever Robbins
So, the thing about NLP, to me, number one, very few people who claim to understand it really understand it very well. Number two, they often misrepresent it as a thing that accomplishes a certain result, like being a lie detector, or persuading people of things. And it’s less about getting a specific result, and it’s more about when you’re dealing with people, how do you understand the way they communicate? How do you understand the way they think? And how can you communicate to them so that you could be most understood by them?

And if they want to change, and if they want you to tell them how to change their behavior so they get better results in their life, how can you package the communication about how they can change such that, number one, they can hear and understand it; number two, they can then turn that understanding into different behavior; and then, number three, how can you make sure that the behavior you’re telling them to do, like in this case the circus music, is actually the thing that will make a difference for them? Because, for some people, circus music may not make something silly. For some people, circus music may make it ominous because maybe they saw too many clown films as a kid or whatever.

But once you know for a given person how they think, which things are meaningful for them, what their language is, you can help them reach the results that they want by using NLP to understand all of those things. Has this been clear?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Thank you.

Stever Robbins
Sure.

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

Stever Robbins
With me you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Stever Robbins
With me, I’m at SteverRobbins.com, GetItDoneGroups.com, and if you are interested in the podcast, which is the Get-It-Done Guy’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More, which is way too long. It should just be called the Get-It-Done Guy, or it should be called Work Less and Do More, go to itunes.com/getitdoneguy. Or, essentially, Get-It-Done Guy on any place that you listen to podcasts.

430: How to Reach the Unreachable: Lessons Learned from Master Teachers with Jeff Gargas

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Jeff Gargas says: "It's important to understand who you're serving."

Jeff Gargas shares best practices from teaching that every professional can use.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three links between classroom management and organizational management
  2. How to return to caring when you’re not feeling it
  3. How to reach the unreachabl

About Jeff

Jeff Gargas is the COO and co-founder of the Teach Better Team (Creators of www.teachbetter.com, The Grid Method, and Teach Further). He works with educators to increase student engagement and improve student success.

Prior to co-founding Teach Better, Jeff was the owner of ENI Multimedia, an online marketing firm, where he worked with entrepreneurs and small businesses, assisting them with web design, social media, content marketing, and brand awareness.

Prior to all of this, Jeff was an adjunctive professor at Kent State University and spent 10+ years in the music industry. He has spoken at conferences around the country, and has successfully promoted more than 500 events and launched 7 businesses in a variety of industries.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jeff Gargas Interview Transcript

Jeff Gargas  
Truly an honor to be on here and I really appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh yeah, well, I’m excited to dig in. And first, I want to hear you share when signing up for this scheduler, that you can “likely cry,” more so within your wife. What’s the story about it?

Jeff Gargas  
I’m a big sucker for romantic comedies, and I’ve always been a hopeless romantic as I describe it, just the way I am. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I blind my mo, but I’m just a hopeless romantic and my wife’s a tomboy, so I’m more likely to tear up a little bit at a moment. Even if silly, like Adam Sandler romantic comedy, and it shouldn’t be. Too likely, I’ll get there before her for sure. Yeah, like it’s not that uncommon.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, that’s funny. That’s funny. I just recently discovered the TV series This Is Us.

Jeff Gargas  
I wanted to get into it. I wanted to get into it because I know what’s going to happen, like my brother and my sister-in-law are watching, my mom is watching, and I’m like, no, I don’t know how to handle that, like, no.

Pete Mockaitis  
It’s like it’s a good thing I waited until I became apparent to watch this show, otherwise… yeah, this is boring but I’m like, “Oh, my god!”

Jeff Gargas  
It’s crazy after you become a parent what other things affect you and you’re like, “Yeah, that shouldn’t. Wow, okay. Wow.” Yeah, it’s crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you’re also a listener and fan of the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Jeff Gargas
I am. Big fan. Legitimate.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to things that publicist say to try to get…

Jeff Gargas  
No, absolutely legitimate fan. No joke. And not because we were doing this, but I was at the gym a couple hours ago, gonna get my workout in. And I was listening to it, with your episode with Michael Hyatt, which was awesome. He’s a big fan of his as well. So yeah, love it, man. Love what you’re doing, totally.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I love what you’re doing, you are helping the world teach better. So can you orient us a little bit? So you got a few things going on, what’s up with “Teach better,” and the “grid method,” and “Teach for us?”

Jeff Gargas  
So yeah, the Teach Better team is what we are at things over at teachbetter.com, and we basically work, but we do a lot of stuff with like, our general missions is we work with teachers and school districts to implement best practices, implement district-wide initiatives and other bits and pieces of professional development and training for the teachers.

Essentially, all we try to do is just help teachers be better at what they do. Like, teachers are already doing amazing things in the classrooms, we’re not trying to go in and change what they’re doing. We’re just trying to support them in every way, in any way we possibly can to help them do it.

It all got started with something we call the Grid Method, which is a mastery learning framework that my co-founder Chad Ostrowski, he created in his classroom, basically out of necessity, and you’re struggling to reach his very high-needs population of students and got to the point where he considered quitting, and decided that he either need to go get a job somewhere else, or he needed to figure out how to teach better.

And he luckily stayed in and figured that out. He’s a scientist by trade, so we kind of dissected everything and found best practices that seemed to be, the research showed, would answer his struggles, but couldn’t find a way to put them all together. So we created the system.

And that’s sort of what launched us, as he called me asking about doing an ebook, because I was in the online marketing world at the time. And teachers in his district were asking questions, because basically the students were telling them they didn’t know how to teach anymore, which was fun for him in a lot of ways.

It’s a little target on his back, but also a lot of teachers that were like, “Hey, I want to reach these kids, too.” And then our team will tell you my famous words were, “Dude, we’re not just doing an ebook.” I said, “We have to do something different. You’ve got something here.”

And apparently I was right, because now we try it to schools all over the country, and it’s growing. And we do a lot more than just a good method now and teach for— there’s another model that we have that incorporates classrooms working with community members and mock internships and real life, real purpose situations and all their units, and we do a lot of your just regular base, the best practices and stuff.

I’m one of the co-founders, and I work as our chief operating officer. We’re a small business with a small team, so I really operate also as our chief marketing officer, CFO, HR manager, and just about anything else you can think of. We all wear a lot of hats, but really what I try to do is just work to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to first take care of our team. And then a very, very close second is take care of our partner schools and all those teachers that are changing the world. We’re just trying to what we can help them.

Pete Mockaitis  
And in your work, you say that you have seen many commonalities, connections between some of the teaching better classroom management stuff, and then, you know, nonprofit, government, business organizational management stuff. Can you lay out that link for us?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I think the biggest link, to keep it really simple, is relationships, relationships, relationships, and then environment and culture. So I come from a background in the restaurant industry, managing restaurants, and a wide variety of those also in the entertainment industry for a little while. And I’ve been, pretty much most of my life, ever since I got my first job and was able to get promoted to a shift-level management — I’ve been in management my entire life and the supervisor role.

And now with our team, it’s a little bit different, but so many commonalities there. And then we started to chat, and I started seeing all these connections between like how we needed to build things and run things in our business and the connections they had to the management in the classroom.

And one of the biggest things we saw is like this need for strong foundational relationships and building the right environment, the right culture. So like whether you’re in a classroom, a restaurant, entertainment company, market, firm, insurance agency, whatever it is, you need to build a culture of trust, of positivity, and to build that synergy.

And you need that environment that promotes growth, that promotes passion, that promotes excitement around what you’re trying to do. And in order to do all that, you’ve got to build the relationships first, whether that’s building relationships with your students to understand where they’re at, what they need, and how to reach them, or if it’s working with that new, that new employee, or a struggling employee, and building that.

And from an employee standpoint, if I’m on a team, understanding that I’m also a massive part of building that culture and building that environment, and how I interact with my colleagues, how I interact with my supervisors, and how do I build those relationships that I can understand, how do I do my job the best I can to make my supervisor’s job easier, because that’s going to make my life easier, and so on, so forth. So in my mind, all that comes in on those relationships is the foundation of everything.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, so intriguing. Relationships, relationships, relationships. Can you maybe paint a picture for us? So what does it look like for the world class teachers? I guess we’re gonna say relationships, but what does that look like in practice, in terms of what are they doing? What are the key differentiators that these rock stars who are getting huge student learning attainment gains, test scores, improvements rocking out versus the rest of the teachers who are kinda getting by, you know, doing okay. What are the things that they’re doing differently? How are they working their relationships or classroom behaviors in a different way?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, man, the relationships are a huge piece of that, because any kind of management system you put in place in your classroom, any kind of new technology, or awesome new innovative type of experience or anything like that, even the lesson plan that you bring in, it’s going to fall apart, if you don’t have the relationships to build on that.

The same thing is, I know the best business plan in the world, but if my team just can’t operate, because there’s no relationship, there’s no culture, there is no environment, it’s not going to work. But I think on top of that, these teachers that we see that are just amazing like that, they just have a refusal to quit, they refuse to quit. We call it the Teach Better Mindset.

It’s this relentless pursuit of better. It’s not perfect, it’s never going to be perfect, it’s just better — better today than you were yesterday, better tomorrow than you were today. That’s what we preach on. And it’s never this, “Hey, we want to change everything you do,” or, “Hey, you got to fix everything,” or, “You’re not good.” It’s, “You can always be better.”

And the champions that we see, these teachers that are doing amazing things, as they always look every day that reflect in their software, and they’re always thinking, “What can I do to be better? How can I reach more kids? It’s never enough until I’m reaching 110% of them.” Right?

So I think the teachers that refuse to accept anything but the best for the students, and who go above and beyond every single day to do whatever it is that they need to do to support those kids. And basically, I mean, if you think about, they’re spending their days just pouring love into other people’s kids.

I mean those are world changers, that they dedicate so much to it. And I think it’s really just that refusal to accept anything, and they’re willing to take risks and put themselves on the line and challenge themselves every single day, every single second of every day to do better and be better for the kids. Those are the ones that are really making those differences.

Pete Mockaitis  
All right, that’s awesome. Maybe could you could share a story in terms of a teacher who’s really just doing that great? So I just sort of get a sense for, build relationships and never quit. What does that look like in practice?

Jeff Gargas  
I can think of a lot of stories, but it’s all slightly general, more general. But like, it’s a teacher that you mentioned that’s already doing pretty well, right? So, you know, I’ll talk about Ray here, she’s on our team, but she’s also a phenomenal teacher, which is why we checked her into working with us.

So Ray, you know, was a good teacher, she was doing well. You know, she did well on her observations, she was reaching most students, they did well, the bell curve looked like it should as the average kid was doing well. And she could have easily skated by and been okay, and just probably had a good career, probably worked her way up to maybe being a principal one day. That was, you know, she was gonna go back and get her license, probably could have, you know, she’s got the personality and charisma to where she could have easily got into an admin position and probably, you know, had a nice career.

But early on, she decided she was not okay with being okay. And she… look, she said, “My kids are engaged, but are they as engaged as they possibly can be? My kids are doing well, but are they doing as well as they absolutely can be. I’m reaching most of my kids, but am I really okay with most of my kids?” And then she wakes up and says, “Man, I hope I hit some of my kids today. Like, that’d be great.”

No, I wake up and I say, “I want to have every single one of my kids grow today.” And I think it was that passion and her and then like, again, that’s where piece of equipment the way she did it. She said, “This isn’t working. I’ve got a lot of great pieces, but I need other pieces.”

Actually developed our Teach Further model. She’s the one who, like that was one of the things that caught our eyes. And she said, “How can I take what I’m doing, these fun activities, and really make sure that I’m not just putting in fluff?” Ray’s biggest thing is “Fluff is not enough.” And by fluff, I mean, it’s really, you know, it’s easier to create a classroom that looks really cool on Instagram, that looks really fun and engaging. But if there’s no purpose underneath it, there’s no connection to what they actually need to learn in the real world application of what they’re learning in your classroom. It’s just fluff. It’s not actually doing much other than just, you know, being fun for Instagram.

And so she said, “How can I do that? How can I make these connections?” And then she started reaching out and calling companies, businesses, saying, “I have this idea. I’m wondering if you’d take this crazy journey with me, and allow my students to operate in a mock internship with your company, and here’s how I’m going to connect it to my math standard, here’s how I’m going to connect it to my ELA standard,” and the way that she started connecting pieces to real world applications, to these seemingly boring math standards and things like that, is phenomenal.

And now, we’ve sent them to build, help teachers all over, connect with major companies and businesses and do some amazing things. But, you know, she’s a great example of that teacher that you were talking about, that rock star teacher that just said, “I could be okay, I can be comfortable, I can get by, but I refuse to do that.”

You flip that, you see it in the corporate world — I saw it when I was managing people in the restaurant industry of kids who came in and out a lot of time. I was in fact in the quick service industry, kids come in a lot of times, the first job, first opportunity, they’ve taken a management position or have a little bit of responsibility.

And you have some that said, “I’ll just do what I need to do, because I’m just here while I’m figuring out what I’m doing my life, because I’m going to college, it’s a part time thing,” and others that looked at and said, “If I’m here, I’m going to be the ‘best here’ I possibly can be. I’m going to learn everything I can, I’m going to pick the brains of the people that are here, and maybe I’ll end up in this place forever and I’ll retire here, or at the very least, I’m going to take it and make sure I get the most out of this experience. So that when I go on to the next part of my journey, my life, I can be the best I can be there.”

I think that’s the same thing when it comes to any industry or in any job you’re in. And it’s this refusal to just settle for being okay. I mean, we spend more than 60% of our lives at our jobs. So if you’re just being okay, that means you’re just being okay, for the majority of your life. I’m not okay with that. But…

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, so it starts with having a higher standard, a higher bar in terms of, “Okay, we’re going to be the best we possibly can, we refuse to quit.” So once you get that commitment, that fire in play, let’s talk about this relationship stuff. So how does one go about forging great relationships?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s a couple of things. So the biggest thing with me is, I think it’s caring. It’s actually caring, though I have this thing that I talked about a lot, where some people do things because the book tells them to. And by the book, I mean the manual, or the best practice, or the person who says, “This is how you should do your job,” or whatever. And there’s some people that do it because they actually care.

A really simplified answer is in a restaurant, where an elderly couple is at a table, when you go to have a conversation with them. The difference between going there because, well, that’s good customer service, “And our manual says we should focus on customer service,” versus, “I’m going there because just possibly, those are grandparents who haven’t seen their grandson who’s about my age in a long time, and I can give them a little glimpse or reminder of that grandson they haven’t seen for a while. I can have a conversation with them and brighten their day.” Those are very big differences.

In same thing when it comes to building relationships with your employees, with your colleagues, with your with your students. It’s actually caring, and it’s not, “I’m doing this because it’s going to better me and make my life better, even though it will. But it’s focused on how can I help make your day better? How can I actually learn because I actually want to help you?”

And I think in the more and more tactical piece, it’s actually fairly simple. No, we chatter fast, because all the time, we have a thousand conversations about nothing. But truly get to understand that person. Dig down and figure out what they’re actually about, and build that.

You talked about authentic relationships. Authentic relationships isn’t, “Pete likes to be rewarded at work.” It’s, “No, why is Pete like that? What is the actual reason behind that? What what’s going on in Pete’s real life that connects them? Why is recognition at work so valuable to him?”

So that can truly understand what truly drives you. And I think the teachers that truly understand what their students need, and what drives them and each individual student, they’re the ones that reach them, they build those relationships nested and wants to work for them. And I think that’s the biggest piece of that, it’s truly actually caring and then having those conversations to dig down and actually understand those people.

Pete Mockaitis  
Now that’s tricky. When it comes to the “actually caring” part, I’d love to get your take on that: If you if you don’t actually care on a given day, because you’re tired, you’re stressed, you’re overworked, you got so many distractions, whatever your reasons, you know? I’m going to assume you’re not just like an evil, hateful person. But to give a day, you don’t actually care. What do you recommend to get back into that zone?

Jeff Gargas  
So there’s, I guess two parts. One is, my day will be spent figuring out why you don’t care that day, and see if there’s something you can do to fix that. But sometimes, there’re just as a new thing you can do: Would you try to leave it in your car? You can’t, and you just don’t have it in you.

So then, you may still want to practice that, because that’s still important to your and your role, but also to that person. It’s important for them, too, because you still need to understand them. So you still need to dig them. So you may have to practice the fact that, “Today, I got to put on a face and I got to make sure that I’m still digging, I’m still building these relationships, I’m still letting them know that I care.” But you can’t be fake about it.

So if you’re going to come off fake, and they’re going to see through it, that’s going to ruin a lot of the progress you made. So you may have to kind of take a day off, or maybe take not quite as many conversations. It’s not digging up in as deep. But I think the key to that is for now, “Why don’t I care today? How do I fix that?”

It’s one thing to just be down and be like, “Hey, I’m not in the mood for conversations,” that’s understandable. But like, actually not caring? You’re like, “I just don’t care about anybody today.” Like, there’s something else going on there in my mind that needs to be addressed first, and figure out like why am I not feeling this way today.

“And if I’m feeling that way, is it actually going to be harmful if I try to engage with my colleague or with my student or this way, because I’m putting off some negativity?” And so having that self-awareness and reflection on that, I think, is coordinated and figuring out, “Okay, how do I get back onto it tomorrow and I can be authentic again, and get back into doing what I need to do?”

Pete Mockaitis  
And I like the example you brought about with the waiter or waitress in terms of, “Hey, these grandparents may not have seen a really young person in a while. And so this could mean that for them.” So that seems to be a little bit of the formula with regard to “I am putting myself in their shoes and recognizing how the thing I’m doing here can make a world of a difference.”

And for teachers, that’s huge, like, “Hey, what happens here can set the stage for whether learning and growth and development are headed to college or career or interesting fulfillment jobs or, you know, much less pleasant for folks.” So that’s as well as medicine. But I think that some of the other fields I think can require a little bit of thought at times to zero in on who is it that we’re serving, and how is what I’m doing today potentially going to be transformationally amazing for them.

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important to understand who you’re serving, regardless of what industry you’re in, and what kind of engagement can help whatever it is that they’re coming to you for. And I mean, obviously in the hospitality industry, it’s a lot of that communication and being friendly, because you never know what kind of day they’re having. And if you can put a smile on their face, that might be the first time all day.

Same thing in the classroom. It’s like it takes so long to figure out what are those kids coming to school with? What else do they have? You know, what are the other things that they care about emotionally? And you might be the only person in the world that that’s showing them love for the day. That shows you care for them; that’s massive.

The same can be said for your employee or your boss or your colleague, like everyone’s got something going on, right? And you don’t know if the guy in the cubicle next to you or the girl down the hall and in the other office is struggling with something, that just the simple, quick smile, a “Hello, how are you?” an actually authentic “I care, I actually am asking you. I want to know, how are you doing today? What’s going on?”

That can that can make a world of a difference to somebody. And if you have a culture in your small business, big, large business, whatever, that has that, and everyone’s feeling that way, the opportunity for negativity to seep in is far less, which is better beneficial for everybody.

Pete Mockaitis  
You know, I like what you said about the difference a smile can make. It reminds me one time, just a few months ago, I was in church and there was someone who’s just smiling, like completely and thoroughly. It was like, “Wow, that feels really good.” I realized that she was looking at my baby.

Jeff Gargas  
Oh, there you go. That’ll do it, right?

Pete Mockaitis  
I guess that puts you in a good mood. She’s looking adorable, but I was like, “Wow, you know, it’s pretty rare that you actually get to feel a genuine, authentic, full-on smile. Like, I have enjoyed seen you!” I mean babies get it, but we don’t as much.

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah. And you know, the crazy thing is the smile. It’s crazy what a smile does for you. So there’s an author and amazing educator named Adam Welcome. He wrote a book called Kids Deserve It, which is a massive hit and educational, but then he also wrote a book called Run Like a Pirate. In this amazing book, he just picked up with a short, easy read, but it’s phenomenal.

It’s like his story of 2017, he ran a marathon every single month — because Adam’s just intense. But in the book, he talks about, like, one of his tactics for sort of getting through that mental game of running — and I’m a runner, this is why it’s big for me — but it’s to just smile.

And it’s funny, like when I run now, like if I feel like I’m having a hard time getting rid of a mental hurdle, I will smile. But then what’s funny is then I remember the fact that I’m smiling because I had this book said it, which makes me kind of chuckle, and I smile.

I’m telling you, man, it’s like a whole other level, like it just does something to you. Like it’s crazy. So if you can give someone a smile, maybe they give you a smile back. And now you get your authentic smile to yourself. Like it’s going to warm your soul. And I’m a huge fan of that.

We so often as humans just do anything we can to avoid contact, or avoid eye contact, right? Like we look down, we just don’t do anything. I try really hard. And I don’t do it every day, but I try really hard to just smile at people and say hi to as many people as I can, because again, you don’t know what they’re going through. That’s just such an important thing, in my mind.

Pete Mockaitis  
And to point about having a thousand conversations about nothing, in a way, I like the feeling that sentence creates, because it’s sort of like, you could just chill out. It’s like, I’m not intentionally trying to tease out 14 precise takeaways from this discussion.

But yeah, we’re talking about, “Oh, you like pizza? That’s cool. What are your favorite toppings? Oh, yes, sausage is the best,” you know, whatever. And in so doing, you build up a picture. But that being said, could you share what are some of the conversations about nothing that are often quite telling, and they deliver something?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I mean, simple conversations about like, “What did you do this weekend? What are you up to tonight?” and then playing off that at all, like, “Do you do you watch this? Do you watch This Is Us, right? Do you cry during movies? Do you get up? You said you like pizza.” It’s a million different ways.

And you know, with students, a lot of times, it’s, “What did you do this weekend?” And that that opens up another question, noticing something that, maybe they have a graphic T-shirt on, like, “Oh, do you like The Incredible Hulk?” or whatever. Given that, your co-workers can simply just be like, “Maybe they have a shirt on,” you know, depending on the dress code and stuff, but it could be asking them what they do this week, and what are they up to this week, and what do they think about this or that, did they cast a game last night, have they got in that new movie, whatever it might be they have.

You know, just those conversations that just start a conversation about nothing, you give you a chance to just sort of learn a little bit about them, because the way someone tells you about their weekend, or explains what they liked or disliked about a movie, or the team they cheer for, something like that tells you little bits and pieces about that person, you know? You get someone talking.

I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. So you connect with the Cleveland Browns fan, and you connect with another Cleveland Browns fan, that’s a bond that can’t be shook. So those little areas — and a lot of sports teams are like that, like that’s such a connection that you may not know that you have with a colleague or with your boss or whatever — and that simple little connection can change the way you guys communicate forever. Because now there’s that little, like, “Oh, that’s typical Browns, right?” There’s these little inside jokes that automatically form, or you love that show, or, “I’m a huge fan of Friends, the TV show Friends from way back.”

And I had an employee of mind for that for I think five years, he was with us. And he had autism. But he was a credible worker; worked really hard. And he would have moments where he had some struggles, and he got frustrated with what would usually begin, you know, directive, because he’s pretty good at his job. But if we need to direct them, sometimes he took them wrong, he had a lot of stuff in his life that he was dealing with, and people would have to struggle with him.

And when he got into that mode, he was kind of like… you weren’t going to break him. And I would literally just rattle off lines to the episode of Friends, and we would just get going. And it was just this ridiculous, back and forth that no one else understood, because unless they happen to know that one weird episode, but it was just to crack him out of this thing.

And it was a little piece that took me a while to figure out, through just random conversations, where one day… I don’t even remember the actual conversation, but we were talking. I don’t remember the situation with the conversation, we were just talking about… I said something, I came up with a line, that reminded him on an episode, he goes, “Oh, that’s like the time Joey  said blah blah blah,” and we repeated it. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s the connection.” And now I now have my bond with you.

We now have a million inside jokes that we can laugh about. And I now have something that I can pull off to help you get out of a funk if you get into it. And that just, like for me, that made my life managing shifts that he was on so much easier.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, and I’m curious, as you’re having these conversations about nothing, you’re forming some relationships, you’re learning all kinds of little things. I mean, especially in the context of a teacher with a classroom of I don’t know, 15, 20, 25+ students, how do you keep all that straight direct community particular systems, or tracking, or note keeping?

Jeff Gargas  
Well, you know, we’ve seen teachers do a million other things, and some teachers are just amazing at it. Just really, really good at it. There’s a lot of different types of things of, you know, at the beginning of the year, working with… some teachers do picture things with it, the kids get to share their stories along with pictures, and then the teacher sort of has that on the walls around, in a document or something like that, where they have that sort of resource. But you know, they’re spending every single day with those students

So you’re getting to know what they become, just like your colleagues at work. I mean, if you’re with the same 10, 15 people every day at work for 60% of your life, whether you like it or not, they’re in your life as much as a best friend would be, so you’re able to build that. So, I think, you know, big pieces.

It is much easier if you’re truly caring, I’ll go back to that. Because I don’t have any trouble remembering which one of my friends likes this, or likes that, because they’re my friends. I know though that information because I care about them. And I built it in an authentic way, not because I was supposed to because my job said so.

So it’s tough to remember, “Okay, what’s employee A1’s favorite food?” It’s easier to remember what’s Max’s favorite food, because I’ve built a relationship now, versus “I learned it because I’m supposed to because my job will be easier.” And I think it’s the same thing with teachers, teachers who truly care about their students, like they remember, “That’s Johnny, he has the brothers that do this and the mom that struggles with that,” or the, “He lives with his aunt,” or the “He has this,” and “Now, that’s Sarah, and she has these things.” I think it comes with the actual caring that comes in that situation.

So I think teachers are naturally inclined to be really, really good at that, because their hearts’ there in the first place. They’re trying to do something amazing and reach those kids, but I really think it comes down to actually caring about the people that you’re working with, and people you’re serving, and truly wanting to learn about them.

Pete Mockaitis  
You know, it’s funny, you keep coming back to this caring. And we had an interview with Alden Mills, who was a NAVY seal, and his whole thing was caring. He had a framework: CARE — C-A-R-E, each of the letters has multiple subcomponents that start with a C and A and R and E. So it’s kind of fun little connections here.

Well, so let’s talk about, what are your great phrases that you have for your businesses that help teachers to reach the unreachable? So we’ve talked about some principles that are applicable across students. But if you got a particular employee or student who is noteworthily, seemingly unreachable, what do you do?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s gonna feel like I’m coming back again and again, but it’s the way you understand them, like truly understand the person, to figure out who they are, what drives them, and why they’ve been deemed unreachable. So when it comes to employees, it’s figuring out what are their strengths, what are their struggles, and then working with them to play on those strengths, and focus on those strengths while still trying to build those struggle points, and focus really on what drives them.

You know, one of your colleagues, one of your employees might be driven just by financial gain, like they’re driven by money, and that’s okay. But understand what drives them, versus someone who’s driven by admiration and wants to be looked at as an incredible employee or the best colleague around, whatever it might be.

When it comes to the classroom, it’s finding out what’s driving your students. Are they struggling, or they’re quote unquote, “unreachable” because they come from a really rough home? And their entire life, they’ve been told that they’re there dumb and they fail, and they’re stupid, a knock at school, and no one’s given them a shot because they struggle when they were younger? And now they’re in seventh or eighth grade, and it’s just been the cycle of failure where, you know…

Chad talks a lot about the cycle failures. If you think about a student who goes to school in first grade, like every student goes to the first grade as, “I got my backpack on, and my new shoes, I’m ready to go!” right? “I’m gonna be awesome!” And they go on to try really hard and they get an F, “You failed.” “That’s all right; I’m gonna try again next year.”

Second grade, they go and they’re pumped up. “I’m gonna try really hard to do awesome.” “You failed, you get an F.” “Okay. All right, I’m gonna try really hard next year.”

And again, by the time they hit that fifth, sixth grade, they start doing some quick math in their head, and they’re like, “Huh, you know, if I try really, really hard, I get an F. But if I don’t do anything at all, I also get an F. That’s a lot easier.” Boom, stamped with unreachable. And what happens is, unfortunately, they get kind of written off. And so then, you get this little, like, “Oh, watch out for so and so; he’s unreachable. You’re not going to like him. He’s a trouble. He’s gonna…” whatever.

And the difference is when a teacher chooses to say, “Yeah, I don’t accept that. I’m going to figure out what’s really happened. Why are they struggling?” And in Chad, this is actually, like, I love the asset, because actually, you know the story Chad tells a lot about one of his students, Jesse, who was that kid. He was a kid who was on all those lists that teachers don’t have on the top 10. And it actually ended up where Chad had him at the end of the day, and for a couple weeks, Chad never saw him.

So he thought maybe he moved, because transferring was pretty common in those types of community and stuff. But he asked his colleagues, like, “Where’s Jesse? I haven’t seen him today.” “He was just getting kicked out of class before he gets to yours. He’s getting sent down to school suspension.” Then Chad asked if he could go get him, worked out a deal with his principal and stuff, and actually started going to get him, because he had delta relationship with Jesse.

And you know, “Look, this kid’s just been struggling his whole life. He’s never had anyone tell him that it was worth it,” and he was able to. Long story short is that Chad was able to connect with him, because Chad started to understand that if Jesse had some time to work through things a little bit, and had an opportunity to fail a few times and try again and try again without being told, “I’m dumb,” because a lot of times when students get to a certain point — they get that after that D — their mind goes up, “I’m stupid. I’m not good. I don’t do well at school, I’m not good at school.”

And Chad goes, “Well, if I can give us some time to work on that, and if I’m working my class and management class right way, and I have some time to maybe read aloud to Jesse to help work through these things, I bet he can do better.” And he did he started doing really well, obviously still had some issues here and there and stuff, but end up doing real good.

“I actually am good to be in the class.” And it’s an awesome story that Chad tells that I won’t go into because he’s much better.

But I think it’s the same thing. You know, I think about the employee I was just talking about, it’s a similar thing. Like, when he got on those modes, it was just like, “Well, here he goes again. I can’t, he’s just written off, like you can’t get to him.” And this isn’t to say that I’m anything special or anything, but I was able to find a way to connect with him. To get him out of that. He went from being unreachable to reachable now, and boom, he was doing his job well.

And so, I think that goes for whether it’s an employee, whether it’s your colleague, whatever it is, like, everyone’s got something going on, and it all comes back to this: getting to know that person and truly understanding them and figuring out, “Okay, what drives them?” And then also, what takes them to the spot where they’re quote unquote unreachable? And then what can I do to get them out of that?

You don’t need to be a boss to be the person that gets an employee out of a funk. Sometimes, the best person to do that is a colleague, right? And it’s just like, sometimes it takes another student to do it. But, you know, I think it’s really focusing on understanding that person, and what drives them, and what they need at that time.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, well, I’d love to get your take when it comes to to teaching, the actual delivery of learning content, what are some of the key principles that make communication engaging versus kind of lame and boring and not so engaging?

Jeff Gargas  
I think this goes the same as caring over some of the things we say that carries over, both in the classroom and in the world, and all other industries, when it comes to training, teaching, and redirecting all the stuff.

The thing is focusing on the why. So, “Why am I teaching you this content? Why do you need to know that?” And it’s the same “why” as like, “Why do we do this or that in this particular way, in this company?” You can choose to just say, “Because I’m boss, and I said so. Because I’m a teacher, and I said you have to do this, and this is how we’ve always done it.” Or, you can go beyond just barking orders and show them why it needs to be done.

So I talked about Ray earlier, and the Teach Further model. And that’s one of the big things; we’re going beyond just the, “Hey, let’s just do this because the state says we have to hit these standards.” But let’s actually focus on “Why do you need to know this?” Like, why do you need to understand math for the real world? Like, why do you have to understand this concept? Why is understanding history important? Why? Why should you learn coding? Like, what are you going to do with your life? And let’s connect this. “Let me show you how this is connected to real world applications.”

One of the awesome things about the Teach Further model is that a piece of that, at the end of every lesson where wherever unit, where teachers are sending home what we call a “Plan for the Future page,” which is to the parents or stakeholders, whether it is the guardians, it says, “This is what we’ve learned, this is the state-standard hit. This is how we did it. Here’s some of the things that your students showed; that means that maybe they’d be interested in a couple of these fields. And by the way, if they weren’t interested in these fields, here’s the type of education they may need to do after high school.”

We’re doing this at sixth grade levels and fifth grade levels or eighth grade levels. way before they even get to high school, because they need to be understanding that early on, so they can apply all the stuff that they’re learning through the rest of the school into real life things.

And it’s the same thing when you’re in the business world and you’re trying to employees and stuff. It’s like, “I can tell you to just do that, because that’s how you’re supposed to do it, because the rulebook says it,” whereas “I can tell you why the rulebook says why have we determined this, the way of doing this thing or that thing is the best, how does that affect everything else that happens?” Because what I’m essentially doing is saying, “Hey, this is why your job’s important, why your role in this company is important, because if you do this, this is what happens. And it ends up doing this for our customers. If you don’t, here’s how it bottlenecks, it falls down and we don’t get there.”

And so that’s the way that I think takes it from… even the person who goes, “Man, my job says I just do these numbers and whatever.” But it’s like, “If you don’t do those numbers, then x, y, z doesn’t happen. And somewhere down the lot, this ends up happening, that we don’t serve our clients.”

There’s an old story, and I can’t remember who told it originally when I heard it, but they’re interviewing a bunch of people in NASA before, like when we’re getting ready to launch to the moon, way back when. And they were talking do a janitor, and they asked, like, “What do you do?” And he said, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.” And he’s understanding that if those halls weren’t clean, if the garbage wasn’t taken care of, if the lounge wasn’t clean, that affects the progress of everyone else, and could potentially interrupt someone who shot to make a breakthrough to figure out how do we get to the moon.

You can break that down. Like every little piece of the organization is so important that if you focus on explaining to your team and everyone and to students the same way, like why is it important that you’re doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it, we’re learning these things. How does that affect the outcome? How does it positively impact what we’re trying to do? I think that’s how you get there.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I really dig that, because you unpacked the explanation of why, on a few dimensions, I think it’s great as one is, you know, historically, this is what we’ve discovered, and how we ended up here. And the formulation of it is the way it is for this reason. And then this is what happens if you do it, and this is what happens if you don’t. So that paints a picture, like “Well, shoot. This is pretty important. Like, I matter.”

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, and that’s the key, right? I matter, because who’s going to work hard?” Or someone who just thinks they push papers, or think someone who thinks these papers matter. Like that person who thinks the papers matter. If you’re a manager, listener, supervisor, whatever, one of the other little side effects that this does, and you may not like it, but you should, like, it is that if you’re explaining to people why you do things a certain way, it opens up the door for them to recommend other ways.

And sometimes as managers and owners, whatever, we don’t want to hear it. But it’s really important to close your mouth in that and listen, because they may have something you never thought of, because they’re at the ground level. And that’s crucial. And we see it in classrooms, too, where if you’re explaining to the students why do they need to understand that, they’ll come up with other reasons and be like, “Oh, or because x, y, z?” And you’re like, “I didn’t even think of that call. Like, yeah, I’m gonna throw that in mind next time I talk about it.”

But the same thing in a company is like,

“Hey, this is why we do it.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s great. Why don’t we do it like this?” And you’re like, “Oh, we probably should; let’s change that.” Like, it’s just powerful in so many different levels.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. That’s real nice. Well, so we hit the Grid Method a couple times in terms of little references. But you know, I just can’t help myself. But I hear Grid Method, I’m already visualizing a grid, and I got to know, what does it consist of? And how might it be applied to folks learning and growing and developing in a grownup work context?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, so what the Grid Method is, is a framework for utilizing a mastery learning in classrooms. So when I say mastery learning, there’s a lot that can go into that. But in general, it’s a shift from standing in the front of classroom delivering content to all the students all at the same time and expect them to move all at the same time, to shift into mastery learning, which is where students are moving at their own pace, and only moving on as they master the content and master certain pieces of it.

And a lot of organizations already do a similar version of mastery learning, where you’re in a training program, you have to master a certain level of skill or understanding before you can move on to the next. I think the difference is, and the focus is the speed at which.

In education and a lot of businesses, we set a certain time table. We say, “Well, let’s take it two weeks to learn this. And if you don’t learn in two weeks, I guess you’re just not good enough for it.” Or in classrooms, it’s “If you don’t learn these in two weeks, too bad. You fail, we’re moving on,” right? “If you don’t understand two plus two, we’re moving on to two times two, and you’re just never going to get it at all, ever.”

I think the biggest thing is that individuality, because we need to understand that we all, one, learn differently, and two, learn at different speeds. So if you think about— a real great way to break it down is, think about that. You have a couple kids at home, correct?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jeff Gargas
Okay, so when you were teaching them to walk, maybe you’re doing it right now, you probably did it like most people: you stood him up and then they fell a lot, they called, and they fell, and they started using whatever they can to grab onto your leg or the furniture or whatever. And then eventually, they figured out. Now they run around like crazy, if they’re like my kids.

But what if I told you that the way I do with my kids is, I took my son Jonathan, I said, “All right, man, we’re going to do this. We’re going to practice for two weeks, and then I’m gonna work with you. You’re going to fall and everything like this.” Then in two weeks, I said, “All right, Jonathan, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna stand there, I’m gonna stand the prescribed 10 feet away from you, and now you need to walk to me.”

And he takes a couple of steps, stumbles, boom, falls. And I said, “Well, sorry, son. You failed in the walking test. I guess we’re going to just not learn how to walk. We’re gonna move on the potty training.” It’s ridiculous, right?

But then when we get into school, and in the business, we say, “Hey, you got two weeks to learn this, or you got a week to learn this. And if you don’t, I guess you’re just not going to get it.” And I always wonder how many potentially amazing employees are we not giving a shot to, because we wrote them off? Because they didn’t get it quick enough?

Same in education, too many students get written off as unreachable, or not smart, not good test takers, not good at math, because we gave them a short amount of time. And we expected them to move at the same speed as everyone else. Well, we all learn differently, how to walk in different speeds — some kids walk a year, some take some three years. I mean, same with talk and same with learning how to ride a bike, learn, and everything like that.

So the framework, and just the mastery learning shift in general is focusing on the individual and actually focus on what they actually need, and when they need it, versus when we think they should have it. And I think that’s the biggest piece we drive that helps drive mastery of the content, whether in a school, business, whatever.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. And so where does the grid come into play?

Jeff Gargas  
So the grid, essentially, so when we work with teachers, one of the first things we do is we help them look at their state standards and what they have to meet, what the state says that they’re supposed to be teaching, and we help them break them down and align them to the essential questions that they need to ask their students, that they need to have their students understand. And then that breaks down into learning opportunities and activity, the actual activities that students are doing in order to master the content, in order to master that.

So then, they take all those learning opportunities, which you can think of like a lesson plan, right? We call them learning opportunities, because a lesson is something you give someone; a learning opportunity is something they have to take. So we purposely use those words, but the grid becomes a learning path for their students to move. It’s the guide, it’s their map, if you will.

And it’s this form, these little squares that have activities in them. And it explains what they need to do, what it needs to get to whatever it is that they’re doing, whether that’s vocabulary words, whether that’s science experiments, whatever it might be, and then what they need to do in order to be checked off for mastery.

So students move through these. And so I go and I do what I need to do in square one, and when I’m ready to be checked, and I feel I’ve mastered that, I check in with the teacher, or there might be a self-assessment or automatic assessment through technology, and I cannot move on to the next square until I’ve mastered that content and I’ve shown my mastery at least an 85% or higher level of mastery. And then I move on.

So the grid, if you can visualize, is just a piece of paper with levels, five different levels of those squares. And as students start from the bottom, they build that foundational level knowledge. As they move up the depth of knowledge that’s required, the level of mastery that’s required grows. So there’s fewer boxes, few activities, because they’re a little more in depth as they move on. And as they move up, and they level up in that grid, they’re getting deeper and deeper into that content and into that concept and into that.

So a grid itself would encompass basically sort of like what you would consider like a unit of study. Some units might require multiple grids, some are just one grid. So it could vary from teacher to teacher how much they want to pack in there.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, we talked about, is there something in particular that’s on the x axis and the y axis?

Jeff Gargas  
So yeah, so going up on the side, there’s your levels of depth of knowledge. So your x depends on the lead, those are your learning opportunities, right? Those individual boxes that say “This is what you’re going to do to help practice,” and then show your mastery along the moving upwards is that level. So the knowledge we’re referring to, we built it off of what’s called Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. And there’s levels, and it’s moving up, it’s the level of understanding. So as they move up, those levels are showing the level of understanding they had.

There’s actually four levels and depth in Webb’s; we do five levels, because we put like an independent exploration up top for the students that just excel and blow through it, so that once they master content, they can go have fun with it and learn more about it.

Most standards are written in that 2, 3, sometimes four-range, typically two to three range. So most students are going to end up around that level, but you have students that are moving all at the same or at different paces, based on what they need. And so what this does, then, is allows those students that have just get it and they’re just like — we call them rabbits, that are just really quick — and they just get it, they can move and they can keep learning. They can grow, they don’t have to wait for the student that maybe struggles.

But that student that needs a little more time, that needs a few attempts to try to get it because they just don’t get it, now they have the time to do that. You can spend time with them, either one on one or small groups to assess where they’re at, where they’re struggling, to find other ways to explain it to them. Also, side note, build those relationships really nicely there and stuff, and move on. Because what you’ll find is, most students struggle, because of one or two reasons: either one, they already get it, and they’re bored. And so they just checked out of your class. And a lot of times that leaves the problems.

Do you have, like these extremely gifted students that are really intelligent, but they cause problems? They’re just bored. They’re like, “Why am I learning this? I already know it, I don’t need to do this, this is a waste of my time.” Or you have a student that’s just struggling because, maybe they’ve struggled, they have trouble with reading? So like, just basic, simple vocabulary work is really tough for them. And they’re struggling because they’re getting yanked along, and it’s like, “Oh, you don’t know two plus two? So we’re moving on right now.”

“I’m frustrated because I don’t get it. So now I’m lost forever.” And it’s just been a cycle. So, by folks giving everyone the time they need, you’re hitting that top level, and all the way down to the bottom level of students getting what they need. And they’re allowed to move on when they need to move on, but they can take a little more time, with a little more time. So and then, there’s a lot of pieces that go along with that, on how to manage that and stuff.

And that’s where a lot of our training comes into. It’s like, alright, and how we create a grid. But then also, how does this work in my classroom? Because it can be a little scary to think of 20, 30 students all moving, doing different things at different times. And that’s a big mindset shift for a lot of teachers.

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

Jeff Gargas  
Let’s go.

Pete Mockaitis  
Alright, sure how about a favorite quote? Something you find inspiring?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s “Some people dream of success. Others wake up and work hard at it.” I think that’s true, no matter where you’re at in your life.

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

Jeff Gargas  
So I don’t do a lot of studies up, but there’s one that I have found a while back. I don’t know what, it’s from the University of California, Berkeley. And there’s just a study on happiness, like what is happiness? And the biggest thing that I’ll refer back to every now and then, but really just sort of the summary of it, and the fact that like, happiness isn’t about money or things; it’s about fulfillment. It’s not about what others think, it’s not about Keeping Up With the Joneses, and stuff like that. It’s about what you need, what’s important to you.

And you know, for a long time, I felt like I needed to be like a certain person, at a certain level of success, make a certain amount of money, do certain things, whatever. But all I really needed was to find something that I love doing and that I’m good at, and that I find a purpose. And I think that’s… I just love that about happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jeff Gargas
The Go Giver, Bob Burg. Is one of my all-time favorite, I love it. I have quotes, you’ve had them on that episode — I gotta dig through that episode. Actually, I have massive final prints of the laws, all over my walls. So…

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

Jeff Gargas  
I live and die in basecamp, we leave that as our project management, use of self reminders, project management. Our team, we’re all virtual. So that’s massive for us. And then I also use an app on my phone called the Five-Minute Journal. That’s really just a like a morning, sort of gratitude and self awareness. And then an evening reflection, it just sets me up for the day and allows me to reflect everyday. Love it.

Pete Mockaitis  
And a favorite habit?

Jeff Gargas  
Favorite habit, I started running about this past August and just getting back into it, focusing on waking up early and getting a workout, and it’s changed everything.

Pete Mockaitis  
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with those that you’re teaching?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I think so with them and more with the team and stuff I love, is… I don’t know if you know Gary Vaynerhuck, he says… I won’t say it in the way he says it, but if you live for the weekends, your stuff is broken. That’s massive for me, because I just think we live in such a world where there’s so many opportunities to do so many different things that if you’re doing something you hate, like it’s just not worth it. You gotta get out, find something that you love.

And I say the same thing to teachers all the time. I said “If you’re dreading Monday, you should probably not be a teacher anymore.” And I love when I talked to teachers and they’re like, “I am so pumped to be back from spring break, because I get to see my kids again. I get to make an impact.” And I’m like that, too. I am pumped for Mondays, every Monday, like even when it’s stressful.

And it’s crazy. Like we’re a small business, we’re growing, it’s stressful pretty much every day. But I love it and I just think if you’re just dying on Monday already for it to be Friday night, man, like something’s broken, you gotta fix it.

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

Jeff Gargas  
Twitter, I love big on Twitter. I love Twitter. I’m on there all the time. I’m @JeffGargas. I’m on Instagram, too. @_JeffGargas. Or just reach out to us at TeachBetter.com, and you can literally email me at Jeff@teachbetter.com. I love building connections and chat with people and just figuring out if there’s any way that I can help

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

Jeff Gargas  
I think take some time to get really, really self-aware. Get rid of all the nonsense and like the BS and what other people say. Take time and figure out what you love, what you don’t love, what you’re good at. And once you start with really thinking about it, clearing out all that other junk, everybody else’s voices… forget the expectation that people have for you. That criticism, the negativity, all that stuff.

Just focus on like the real you. Be you. When you do that, you have no reason, like, make it up and try and put on a show. It’s just for you, like, what are you awesome at? What do I love doing? Go do that. Figure out how do I play on my strengths? How do I surround myself with people who are awesome at what I’m not, so that I can be awesome at what I need to be?

And just like, what that means going to work for someone joining the team, development team. “Let’s fill your gaps,” whatever it is, like no one can be as awesome at the things you do as you are. So go find out what that is, do it, and just love your life. It’s just not worth not doing that.

Pete Mockaitis  
Awesome. Well, Jeff, this has been a treat. Good luck and all you’re doing and helping folks teach better.

Jeff Gargas  
I appreciate it, Pete. This has been awesome. Thank you.